Friday flash fiction – The Antlion’s Nest and the Magpie Stratagem

The official cartographic record of the SPF Destroyer Queen Ranavalona referred to the thick band of icy, dusty rocks as Asteroid Belt KFPK-9, but when someone dubbed it “The Antlion’s Nest”, the name stuck.

It was, decided Captain Herrea Talakhamani, an excellent place from which to watch and wait for prey.

“Summary reports, please,” she said as her senior officers sat for morning briefing. She hoped her bright tone concealed how rattled she felt by both the blazing conflicts outside the hull and the Captain’s-eyes-only dispatch from Fleet Admiralty.

“A quick overview, Captain.” First Officer Gaia Renshaw stood, waving her hands through a holographic map of the Kettery system. She highlighted the pocket of space around the Queen Ranavalona. “The Cha’sorva pursuit squadron knows we’re here, obviously, but their scanner technology can’t break our Bittik-Kintti chaff field. They dispersed into a search-and-destroy configuration shortly after arriving in-system. Big mistake. It left them completely exposed when the Sanxescene warp cruiser opened a gravity slide near the fourth planet.”

Strategic Operations Commander Nelson Quay added, “The Sanxescenes have vaporised half the Cha’sorva ships with quantum tunnelling missiles.” Giving the appearance he too had not slept for days, he mopped his forehead with agitated swipes. “All this activity has attracted attention. We’ve detected Fidimisi surveillance drones in the system fringes, the Gulthano Centerium sent a warteam of Sybil-class corvettes, and in the last hour we’ve spotted a Praeternaturalist Godship lurking in Kettery’s solar corona.”

Captain Talakhamani smiled at the new Chief Engineer. “Impressive, Commander Salk. Praeternaturalist cloaking technology is supposedly unbreakable.”

A ragged crack opened in the Jomokoro engineer’s granite-like face; Talakhamani had learned to read the apparent seismic catastrophe as a modest smile. “Only Inheritors of Wiosse knows how. We incorporates Inheritor subsensors. Now you knows also, Queen.”

“Excellent work, Commander. We are lucky to have you with us. Though I remind you again that I’m the captain. The name Queen Ranavalona refers to this ship.”

Stone flakes tumbled from Salk’s gritty shrug. Jomokoros considered a ship and its crew as indistinguishable components of a whole. Interchangeable and replaceable, but equally critical.

Talakhamani consulted her briefing notes. “Lieutenant Ephram, kindly outline our prospecting options.”

The bright-eyed specialist in applied theoretical physics bounced excitedly to her feet. “Captain, the Admiralty has standing orders to secure any and all Praeternaturalist technology, so -”

“For the last time, Lieutenant,” interrupted Commander Renshaw, “that directive only applies to fleets classified Herculean and above. We have one ship, not sixty.”

“Oh, right.” Lieutenant Ephram continued with breathless enthusiasm. “In that case, our sub-light propulsion systems haven’t been upgraded since our skirmish with the Unkaran Brigands eighteen months ago. I recommend we disable a Gulthano corvette and scavenge its tri-phase thindrive. With one of those babies bolted on, we could outrun just about anyone from here to Andromeda.”

The nods around the table outnumbered the frowns. “Very well, Lieutenant. Commander Renshaw, assemble a team for tactical analysis. I want a salvage plan in two hours. And see if you can include options for provoking one of the alien fleets to pick a fight with the Praeternaturalist vessel. Fleet Admiralty would kill for some combat data and we have ringside seats.”

“Yes, Captain.”

As the officers filed out, Talakhamani said, “Commander Quay, please remain for a moment.” She pretended not to notice her departing senior officers’ furtive exchange of worried looks.

When they were alone, she examined the sweat beading his brow for a long moment. “Nelson, please sit down. There’s something important we need to discuss.”

Commander Quay leaned forward confidently. “You’ve considered my suggestion of a deep-range infiltration into Grivenari territory?”

“I have. Hold that thought.” Talakhamani steepled her fingers. “Commander, please state Queen Ranavalona’s mission.”

Sweat now gathering in a damp ring around his face, Quay recited, “To engage hostile alien cultures, to acquire and evaluate alien technology and protect humanity at all costs.”

“Very good Commander.” Talakhamani waved up a political map of the galaxy. The small region of human-dominated space was surrounded on all sides by the red-shaded areas belonging to the genocidally hostile Cha’sorva, Bittik-Kintti, Sanxescene and dozens of others. “Humanity is under constant threat of extinction. As you know our only hope is the Magpie Stratagem: to obtain whatever we can to use against those who would destroy us. Are you aware I received a personally-coded transmission from Fleet Admiralty, for my sole attention?”

“Yes. All executive-level orders are routed through the senior StratOps officer-”

“Did you manage to crack it?”

Quay went quite still. “Captain, unauthorised access to closed orders is a breach of security protocols. Are you insinuating-?”

“I’ll take it you were unsuccessful then.” She flashed a hologram of the decoded message between them. Quay’s eyes remained fixed on Talakhamani.

“Twenty-four hours ago, Grivenari shapeshifters posing as senior Strategic Operations staff – from your command unit – attempted to open a wormhole between Fleet Admiralty headquarters in Boston and the centre of the sun. The attempt failed. StratOps rerouted the wormhole tail to Grivenari Prime and launched a Bittik-Kintti vortex annihilator through it.”

“They what?” Quay’s face fell and kept falling. His skin and hair drained off like melting butter, leaving a waxy orange head stricken with horror. “Grivenari Prime?”

“Is gone,” confirmed Talakhamani. “I’m grievously sorry for your loss. I wish it had not been necessary.”

“You knew I was Grivenari?”

“For months now. When we installed Doxomian genetic recognition systems to ship security, we left it out of the official record. You were marked when you came aboard.”

“Why accept the deception? You should have shot me as a spy.”

Captain Talakhamani grimaced. “What a waste that would be. You’re a highly trained infiltration specialist. As one of the last surviving Grivenari, your skills and knowledge are all but unique.”

“What are you saying, Captain?”

“I think we share a driving interest in survival.”

“The Magpie Stratagem?”

“Exactly,” said Captain Talakhamani, holding out a hand. “I’d like you to come and work for us.”

As I wrote this, it occurred to me the high concept is basically “What if the Enterprise was crewed by the Borrowers?” It feels strange to have an answer to a question like that.

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