The banquet hall had gone completely silent. When a huge screen projected on the wall, three merchant barges raced from the gate deeper into the system, squeezing every drop of speed out of their protesting engines. Behind them, a pirate flotilla swelled like a swarm of angry hornets. A single barge could’ve fit all of its attackers in its bloated hull, but the pirate ships made up for their lack of tonnage in maneuverability and weapons. No two vessels were alike, but, limited only by the imagination of their crew and the laws of physics, all of them bristled with every possible weapon they could rig onto their hulls, from kinetic cannons to missile batteries. They chased after the lumbering merchants like school of barracudas ready to tear into an injured whale.
Arland watched the chase, his face impassive, as if unaware that every person in the hall was waiting for him to make his move.
“We’re receiving distress calls from the barges,” the officer from the bridge reported. “They are begging for our assistance, my lord.”
“Put it through,” Arland said.
A scratchy, static-filled distress call played from hidden speakers, screams of beings in pain, spearheaded by an urgent, desperate female voice, “…rear thrusters lost… hull integrity compromised… requesting immediate aid. We’re at your mercy…”
The call cut out.
“Will House Krahr stand idly by and permit this piracy?” the father of the groom demanded. His voice boomed through the hall.
Maud glanced at Ilemina. Arland’s mother sipped her wine, appearing fully unconcerned.
“Lord Marshal!” the bride called. Tears stained her cheeks. “Please. Don’t let this travesty stain my wedding.”
Arland turned to the bride, concern obvious on his face. “Do not worry, my lady. You have my word that I will allow nothing to ruin this day.”
Arland turned to the screen. “Give me the feed from the Eradicator.”
The screen flashed with white, and a new image snapped into view, a swarm of sparks silhouetted against dark cosmos, and then, as if by magic, huge elegant vessels appeared on both sides and above, framing the screen – the House Krahr armada waiting in formation between the Battle Station and the incoming invaders. If the barges could reach the firing envelope of the leading Krahr vessel, they would be safe.
“Lord Harrendar,” Arland said.
The image of a middle-aged vampire with a blue-black mane appeared in the lower left corner. “Lord Marshal.” Lord Harrendar sounded like a lion who somehow became a vampire.
“How close are the leading pirate vessels to the barges?”
“We expect them to reach firing range in forty seconds.”
The division in the banquet hall was obvious now. The members of House Krahr waited in tense silence, while the wedding guests appeared almost frantic, as if they were barely able to contain themselves. From her spot, Maud had a clear view of the groom’s mother and the woman looked ready to explode. Next to her the bride’s mother tapped her fingers on the table, looking as if her armor was on too tight.
Seconds ticked by.
“Do something,” the bride’s father growled.
Arland ignored him. Maud’s heart hammered. She forced herself to reach for her drink and take slow measured sips. The tension in the hall was so thick, you could cut it and serve it in slabs on a plate.
“They’ve launched the opening volley,” Lord Harrendar reported.
“No, my lord. Long range kinetic bombardment.”
Maud had little experience with space battles, but her personal unit assured her that kinetic bombardment amounted to lobbing chunks of matter, such as stone or metal, in the direction of the target. Kinetic bombardment was deployed primarily against stationary targets, because they couldn’t dodge.
“Damage?” Arland asked.
“Slight,” Harrendar reported, his tone sharp.
“Well, of course, they’re not using missiles,” the mother of the groom snapped. “They clearly want the cargo, desperately enough to chase it into your territory. If you do not do something, we will.”
“Is this what House Krahr stands for?” the father of the bride asked.
“Do not trouble yourself, my lord and lady,” Arland said. “We have the situation well in hand.”
“You’re going to let those merchants get slaughtered by pirates,” the groom growled.
“Second volley,” Harrendar reported. “Damage slight. The barges have passed the outer beacon. Still mostly undamaged.”
“Show me the relative position,” Arland said.
A projection appeared on the screen. The pirates were clustered around the barges now, forming a loose cloud about to engulf the three larger ships.
“.4 lightspeed,” Harrendar reported.
“Initiate firing solution Revelation.”
“Finally,” the groom muttered.
“Yes, my lord.” Harrendar bared his fangs in a joyous grin that would give some people nightmares.
The screen flashed back to the view from the Eradicator. For a torturous moment nothing happened. Then, the entire armada simultaneously belched a missile salvo. The missiles sparked with bright green and vanished.
“Impact in three,” Harendar started. “Two. One.”
The screen exploded with white. Maud shut her eyes against the blinding flash. When she opened them, the explosion had faded, and the long-range projection glowed on the left half of the screen.
The barges were no more. The leading third of the pirate fleet had vanished. Chunks of debris hurtled through space in their stead, turning it into a localized asteroid field. The vessels in the center of the swarm reeled,initiating evasive maneuvers.
Stunned silence claimed the hall.
“Direct hit,” Harrendar crowed into the quiet.
“Excellent work, admiral,” Arland said. “The field is yours.”
Harrendar grinned. The House Krahr armada accelerated toward the remaining pirates.
Arland turned and addressed the crowd.
“A few days ago, I happened to come across a pirate. He is a knave and a brigand, exiled by his own House and burning with rage. As I contemplated killing him, my lovely betrothed-” Arland turned to Maud and offered her a shallow bow “-reminded me that even a knave can be useful under certain circumstances. So, I asked myself, if I were this pirate, who once was a Knight Captain and who now hated all things Holy Anocracy, and I became aware of a plot to bring down a major vampire house, would I be able to stay away?”
Arland paused, letting his words sink in.
“I decided I couldn’t. I might not want to put my own life in danger, but my prior military experience would prove invaluable to the plot. So,instead of ending this pirate, I chose to watch him. Once I confirmed that he was in contact with the plotters, it was a simple matter of obtaining the information. I knew he would tell me nothing. His hate burns too bright for that. But his crew doesn’t share his hate.”
Arland smiled. “The thing about pirates: they have very little use for the concepts of honor and loyalty. But they have an excellent grasp on the concepts of greed and corruption. I bribed his communications engineer. And for a paltry sum, he told me the entire scheme, all about three barges loaded with explosives set to go off as soon as they reached our fleet, and the pirates, who were meant to mop up what was left after, and the plot to take over the Battle Station. This Battle Station. Of course, that one we had already figured out by ourselves. And here we are.”
That was her cue. Maud stood up, turned to Seveline and Onda, and said in the Ancestor Vampiric, “Did you get all that or do you need me to translate it for you into your backwater gibberish?”
For a moment nothing moved. Then Seveline jumped onto the table, her fangs bared and her sword screaming, and charged Maud.