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[ Read more about author David Collins-Rivera
A remote corner of a bleak system...
A broken-down gunboat, stuck in space...
An incompetent captain and a misfit crew...
A pirate ship, a silent target, and a whole bunch
So how's YOUR day going?
by David Collins-Rivera
Normally, the sitting and the waiting were bad. This time, they were
There are always things to do on an old Bechel if you want the boat to
keep running, but that's usually just maintenance stuff. It all falls
into a routine pretty fast, and no matter how anal or conscientious you
are, pretty soon you end up with time on your hands.
It was for exactly this reason that Sally caught a flux in the
reactor's mag bottle that first month out. It was a little thing;
diagnostics didn't even flag it. She was already so bored, she decided
to run a sim based on the fluctuation's wave frequency and fractal
quality. She was surprised at the result, and ran it again since she
still didn't have anything to do. When it came back the same way, she
called a crew meeting, and all four of us sat down in the common room
for the bad news.
"Eighty, maybe a hundred hours, tops, at fifty percent throttle. Less
at more, more at less."
"What'll happen, exactly? Will we explode?" Bayern asked. Captain
Bayern when he was pissed-off or just wanted attention.
Sally stared at him for a moment like he smelled. "No, we're not going
to explode. That doesn't happen when the magnetics go. The reactor'll
shut down cold. We'll be on batteries then, but they'll drain out
before we're even half-way back to Deegman. We'll either cruise through
its orbital plane at a dead coast if our aim is good, or we'll impact
it hard, at a dead coast, if our aim is too good. Either way,
we'd never know, because our life support will have given out, oh, say,
fifteen days before either of those scenarios."
"So you're saying we should turn around now, and head back?"
Sally looked at Genness and me for help -- but what could we do?
"We can't turn back now, is what I'm saying! We did a two
hundred and twenty six hour burn on our way out before we even made the
first major course correction, and then we ran it eleven days straight
Bayern frowned at her tone, but was much too conscious of the fact that
we could see he didn't quite grasp the situation to immediately comment.
"Can you repair it?" Genness asked, stepping in, his soft voice putting
the tension a little further off. He was forever calming things down
between Sally and Bayern, who clashed like orange on blue. She didn't
suffer fools gladly, while Bayern had no choice, being one himself. The
fact that he was, at least nominally, the boss, only made it worse for
her, and Gen seemed to understand this.
"Yeah, I can fix it. But I have to shut the power plant down while I'm
working. That means batteries for a couple of days, if the problem is
what I think it is. If not, we'll have to play it by ear."
"But you'll be able to start it up again? The reactor I mean." Bayern
had a forced grimness to his tone, trying hard to seem like he was on
top of this now.
"Why would I shut the flaming thing down if I didn't think I could
bring it online again?!"
"Hey, watch the attitude! We have a serious situation, and as captain,
I need everyone at his or her best. Now, what we need is for you,
Sally, to get right on those repairs. Do you want help? Who has tech
"You know I'm Secondary Engineer," I said, with a look not far behind
any of Sally's. This was getting on my nerves too: there were only four
of us on the dang boat, including him, and he was supposed to be in
charge. He'd had weeks to go over our backgrounds and should've known
our secondary assignments before he even stepped aboard. For crying out
loud, we might have only been a slapped-together crew, but he could at
least have read the mission package the company had put together for
our run: an itemized breakdown of all our anticipated shipboard duties
for four months time, out past the gravity shadow of the system's
orange star -- out where inbound ships would arrive from starjump;
backgrounds and basic info on the hired crew; an overview of Dame
Minnie, and highlights from her forty-eight year career; an
explicit overview of our primary responsibility: namely, to screen any
and all inbounds, and meet and repel suspected corsairs; and finally,
tips on how to make nice-nice with each other until our run was over. I
wished Bayern had read this last part most of all.
"Good. You help out in Engineering, Ejoq, and I'll cover gunnery duties
until the crisis is over. Any questions?"
There were several, but they didn't amount to much, really: was Sally
sure we had enough life support to get us through the situation? (Yes,
batteries should last for weeks on standard power rations.) Were there
any expected escorts out, or challenges coming in, during our
anticipated down-time? (A small trader named Pocky or Ponte
or something was outbound from Deegman right now, but we would most
likely be up and running again before it reached the system starjump
point.) Would our bosses back on Deegman give us crap over all this?
I was hungry, so I heated up a frozen meal after the meeting broke up
and followed Sally down to Engineering with it. Her domain was a
cramped space of pipes, cables and creepy shadows; not to mention a
nagging bang-BANG-zap-hiss from the small atmosphere exchange unit,
underscored by a discordant two-toned hum that set my teeth on edge
from both the drive system (on idle right now) and the power plant in
question. I bumped my head painfully on a projecting bolt while
climbing over a large duct to get to Sally's desk, and swore blue
I hated this job, truth be told. Oh, not the temporary reassignment to
Engineering so much: I had minored in Ship Systems in higher-ed, and
had maintained a partial interest in civilian-class defense boats -- of
which our tiny Dame Minnie was one. And not because I'd be
helping Sally out: true, I preferred working alone on my Primary
assignment, but then we all did -- Sally with her engines and systems;
Genness monitoring and maintaining comm and computers; Bayern with
whatever it was he did all shift (no one was quite sure, even him); and
me, with my defensive systems and combat sims. Besides, even though
Sally had fifteen years on me, she was in really great shape, had a
sexy potty-mouth when she was pissed-off, and a good brain at all
times. I didn't expect anything to come from my personal observations,
because she and Genness had been together since about a week after we
left Deegman, and he was younger than me, danged handsome, quiet, and
in great shape himself; while I was short, kind of fat, and prone to
complaining and getting the horns when I was bored -- which can happen
a lot on extended picket duty.
And this was exactly what irked me the most about this job: it was
Three months before, the big corporate freighter I'd been signed to was
hauling Fleet supplies, and it had just arrived on Deegman when the
news caught up that its parent company had been bought out. They have
SOPs for these sorts of things, one of which is to immediately downsize
the crew. I got a good reference, a crappy severance, and the ax. My
luck running to type, the piracy problem in Rilltule started getting
bad right about then, and the big outfits just stopped coming. Traffic
from privately-owned ships was up for a while, but even that started
tapering off. I was left sitting on my ever-widening posterior watching
vids, running scenarios on my tiny wrist comp, and filling my face with
the spicy fried food the locals seemed to love. Deegman imports almost
everything it needs, which means almost everything it has to offer is
at robbery prices. Six weeks and my savings started getting tight. By
ten weeks I was facing homelessness -- which is one harsh prospect on a
vacuum-wrapped planet, believe you me.
An acquaintance of an acquaintance tipped me to the fact that the
mining interests on Deegman had gotten together in secret and bought a
used Bechel, which they wanted to crew and launch in the next couple of
months. As a privately-owned vessel, it fell outside the boundaries and
direct control of the Deegman Security Corps, which was more police
force than military body, anyway. SecCorps had Deegman and the other
inner-system settlements covered nicely with a moderate collection of
mismatched orbiters and transports, and they did a respectable job of
keeping the peace. They had nothing for command and control of
Rilltule's jump point on the outer edge of the small system, though --
exactly where pirates had been hitting. One old Bechel wasn't much of
an improvement on that situation, but they had to start somewhere, I
I wasted no time and applied, and while I might not be much to look at,
my resume is a killer. I was hired on the spot. Sally said later that
she had quit her previous position on a medium-size freighter a couple
weeks before this, over advancement issues, and had already been signed
to Dame Minnie's first run by the time I showed up. Genness
told me he'd been knocking around town for some time, and had been on
starcouriers before that. Bayern flew a transport for one of the mining
outfits, and was the company man on board. He was a last-minute
replacement, but, to be fair, he was a great pilot and never dumped a
lot of rah-rah go-company crap on us -- which is not to say he was easy
to work for. He seemed as bored and miserable as we were in his own
way, and he even told me once, about three weeks out, that he missed
his little shuttle job dreadfully.
Ostensibly, we were pacing Deegman in a solar orbit of our own around
Rilltule -- out beyond where that small queasy orange star's gravity
shadow extended into extra-dimensional space -- and thus where ships
traveling to or from Deegman via starjump had to show up before
continuing on. The fact that there was nothing else of any interest
here besides the mining town on Deegman that had hired us and a few
settlements on space stations further in, made our present general
locale the only area worth guarding. Of course, we'd had to weave in
and out of many orbital trajectories in the weeks we'd been out here so
as to (sort of) keep pace with Deegman, half-a-billion kilometers
closer in-system, but all outbound vessels were told to rendezvous with
us first before making starjump. That meant any "unconfirmed contacts"
(read that: pirates) would have to go through us in order to pick off
one of the little freighters with their small but extremely valuable
cargoes. Since free-traders
had to buy their loads outright instead of getting anything on spec,
and Bechels like Dame Minnie had no starjump capabilities
whatsoever, everyone was kept fairly honest.
Actually, in my free time that month, I'd developed a scenario wherein
a gunboat like ours, doing our job, could waylay the cargo ship it was
intended to protect, board her, coldwalk the crew, and then take off
with it to parts unknown. This was just professional speculation, of
course: you'd need conspiring crew mates without any morals; some
rather specific training in shipboard combat techniques; and all the
command codes needed to override the target ship's computer. This last
was the hardest of all to manage, which was why my little scenario, or
any variation thereof, virtually never occurred. Oh, people had tried
it before, but only a legendary few had ever succeeded. Studying this
sort of thing was my bag, and, lustful fantasies of my shipmates aside,
I knew the difference between speculation and reality. Besides, I liked
wargames and simulations, but I had admitted to myself long before that
I just wasn't cold like that.
"He's a bleeding pile." Sally didn't elaborate because she knew I
understood. Instead, she motioned with her hand to wait for something,
so I waited.
"There...that's what I'm talking about. See what I mean?"
"Not a clue."
"You didn't feel that? The mags were spiking. It's like a wave passing
I shook my head. "Sorry. It must be one of those educated palate
things. You said that even the computer didn't pick it up."
"No, it does register, it's just that diagnostics doesn't rate it
highly enough to consider it a problem. Even a well-balanced mag bottle
has a range of variance that includes occasional peaks and valleys --
small ones, anyway. If we were involved in combat, or training
maneuvers, or really anything at all that could have been a
distraction, I doubt I'd have pursued it myself. Most variances are due
to outside causes, like power draws elsewhere in the vessel, or even
solar flair activity, if you're close enough -- which we're not. This
flux is from the magnetic field propagation array, which is in the
early stages of failure. Now, with the big boys, like those solid state
Kategils or Magnars they use in the Fleet, this would never be a
problem. Even their small gunboats use Vlassingweil magnetics -- which
do have arrays, but the entire works are external from the power plant
itself. You still have to shut everything down, but it's just
swaptronics, so you're up and running again in an hour or two."
My eyes must have been glazing over, because she frowned and then waved
at the fusion plant.
"Anyway, these cheap Value Power jobs aren't really made to be fixed by
the user. You're supposed to sign a service contract with the dealer,
and then pay through the colon whenever something goes wrong, because,
of course, nothing that's likely to go wrong is ever covered. That's
not an option for us. Dame Minnie's gone through a lot of
hands, but this power plant is the original unit. It doesn't owe
anybody anything, I guess, but that still leaves us with a big
stripdown and reassembly."
"Where do we start?" I asked, finishing up my dinner.
"I want to do a full service test on the entire battery bank, so we
don't have any nasty surprises when we shut down the plant," she
answered, leading the way.
"Each battery? Can't you just run diagnostics? It'd be a lot faster."
"Oh, I already did that, and they look fine. But the battery monitor
sub-routine is some homegrown thing one of the previous owners wrote,
and I just don't want to trust some yo-yo's tollhouse cookie program on
something this vital. Don't know what they did with the factory-issued
routine, anyway -- it comes with the package."
I didn't have any answer to that, of course.
"Those god-fisting, mother-mating shysters!! What the flyin'
fornication are we supposed to do now...?!"
I didn't have any answer to that either.
One battery at 57%, another at 31%, a third at 18%, and the remaining
seven all flatlined. Meanwhile, the diagnostics said there wasn't one
battery in the entire bank under 94%. At least now we knew why they'd
installed their own routine: to sell an old Bechel to a bunch of rubes
without having to replace the emergency standby batteries. Replacing an
entire bank would've taken a deep bite out of any profits, while a fake
diag program might not have cost anything.
Sally seemed madder at herself than anyone else. "I should've done this
check before we left Deegman, but I was going crazy getting the main
drive ready." She cursed steadily for several minutes, before
tapering-off to a mutter.
"Can we still do the repairs if we work fast?" I asked her. "How long
will the power from those three last?"
"Not long enough. If we shut down now, we'd normally have a week or
more with this much juice. But these batteries'll drain out a lot
faster than normal -- they've been undercharged for so long they won't
be able to hold what little they've got. Hell, I'll be needing to use
heavy tools too: the bench drill and the laze on the emitters that we
take out of the power plant -- that'll eat a lot of juice right there.
Then we have to reinstall, run a diag of the whole magnetics system
with the installed package for the power plant -- which I hope to
crawling saviour we can trust -- and then take them out again and
fine-tune the work. And we'll probably have to do all this several
times over to get it right."
"Then we'll just have to be extra careful the first time, right?"
She shook her head as if I were vexing her on purpose. "No, Ejoq. We
don't have precision tools onboard. IF this works at all, it'll be a
process of elimination. Nip and tuck here, check it; nip and tuck
there, check it; until we get it exactly, precisely right. This old tub
isn't much, but it's still a far cry from some broken-down aircar you
could tinker with in your back yard. The fusion reactor won't work at
all if the mag bottle isn't right, and the bottle won't form until the
emitters are right."
"In other words, it'll take as long as it takes, no matter what our
battery problems are," I translated for myself. She just grunted, and
turned back to the bank.
After a moment, she said, "If we cut the dead units out of the system,
we'll probably gain a few kilowatt hours from the resistance we'll
save. That's better than nothing."
"That doesn't solve the problem, Sal."
"I know what the fornicating problem is, Ejoq! Don't ride me like some
low-rent Bayern, all right? I need your help in this, and right now you
can help me most of all by shutting up. I have to think..."
She went to her desk and began to check some numbers, adding and
subtracting on a calculator program to one side of the screen, while
she studied a schematic of the power plant. She mumbled, swore to
herself, and even punched the flat screen at one point and spat, "Oh,
you son-of-a-mutt!" I went and got coffee for us both, but she let hers
get cold by her elbow as she worked. Finally, after nearly an hour of
concentration she turned back, a little calmer than before.
"Okay, here's what we do...we shut everything off -- and I mean
everything -- except heat, air, and the main computer's core functions.
We rewire a few of the backup power packs for specific systems into the
main trunk line, to help feed that crappy battery bank. We work without
break until the job is done, you and I, and we just might do it."
"Now, don't yell Sally, but, wouldn't just shutting off the AG be
enough? That's a big draw right there."
She sighed, but kept her temper. "Artificial Gravity uses a lot of
power, yes, which is why we'll shut it down too; but we're probably
going to eat up most of anything we save there by running the power
tools -- they weren't designed to conserve energy, keep in mind. If we
have to use them three or four times before we get it right, then we
sure-as-defecation better have the power we need."
"What about the restart?" I asked her. "We'll need a couple of
megawatts to bring the system back up to critical."
"Only as a surge at the beginning, to stabilize the waveform. We'll run
a jumper outside to one of your neupacs. Weapons-grade accelerators use
capacitors for instant power for the first round, so we'll just wire
out that part of it from the aft gun. Then, when we're ready to start,
you fire the thing off, and the surge goes directly to the power plant
down here, instead of running through the weapon's system. I'll just
have to monkey-up a regulator of some kind to rectify the gun surge
with the power plant's needs."
"Should we tell the others?"
"Probably, but I can't deal with Bayern right now. You run and give
them the basics, while I disconnect the dead batteries. And tell them
not to bother me for a while. This will be hard enough without an
idiot's questions." And she gave me a hard look.
It was actually easier dealing with the captain than I expected,
because I kept the conversation on the technical side and he just
nodded sagely and acted like he understood and approved. Genness, on
the other hand, who was usually so nonplussed, seemed genuinely
"We have to at least keep emergency comm open," he protested, "in case
we can't fix this problem."
"Who are we going to call, Gen?" I responded with a shake of my head.
"We're too far out for anybody to come get us in time. The only shot we
have here is for this to work, and it can only work if we have all
available power. Besides, we can always scrape together some juice for
comm, if it comes down to that. We'll want to tell Deegman what's
happened before we shut down, and what we're gonna to do about it. Once
the power plant is back up, we'll have to return to port ASAP --
without a decent set of emergency backup batteries, we don't want to
meet up with any bad guys out here."
"Can't we keep passives online then? They hardly pull any juice at all
on their own. I realize we'll be keeping computers down to minimum
levels, which means no sensor analyses, but I can handle those myself
if I have a little time. I mean, if we do get visitors, we ought to
know about it."
That seemed reasonable to me, but Sally had to think it over once I
relayed the request. Sensors on a Bechel are bundled together in two
preinstalled packages, with passives and actives sprinkled rather
equally along the port and starboard sides. Cut power, and they both
go. She ruminated for a bit, then said she could run a shunt to
passives through comp, since we'd be keeping low levels there active
anyway. This way we could still tap the tiny backup power cells in the
sensor suite (actually located in a bulkhead amidship), while still
keeping one eye open. This was a good idea, but I couldn't help but be
a little irritated: if anyone but Genness had asked her for this, she'd
have dismissed it out of hand and spat rivets.
Disconnecting dead batteries is just a matter of rerouting a few cable
connections, so she was ready with the shutdown at this stage. We set
everything up for manual deactivations, and made sure everybody onboard
had a flashlight or headlamp, had some water and ration bars handy, and
had gone to the fresher recently (we would have to use emergency
biowaste bags until this was done). Then we started pulling plugs.
It really takes longer than you'd think to shut down systems that were
never meant to be shut down while in flight. There were virtual and
physical failsafes to bypass; checks and double-checks to make of each
system's own backup power supplies (if applicable); and, in two
particular cases, replacement of failing small, though vital,
components that had yet to show up on diagnostics. In a few hours, we
were floating in zero-g, draped in darkness, and swallowed in silence.
Actually the other two guys aboard were swallowed in silence --
engineering was still subject to the bang/hiss of the atmosphere
The inner core of the power plant had an emergency vent to the
exterior, so as to blow plasma or super hot vapors out to vacuum should
it ever be necessary. Sally used it this time, however, to simply cool
off the core -- now shut off, but still lethally hot. When that looked
good, she took a cordless vibrosaw and began cutting through the
reactor housing. She wasn't kidding about Value Powers not being meant
to be fixed! As she worked, periodically having me hold or fetch
something, she explained how the small reactor would normally have been
serviced and rebuilt in the factory: giant automated prying tools would
pop off the housing case; other tools would extract each integrated
component and test it; the faulty emitters would be replaced; and the
whole thing would have been reassembled in a matter of minutes. An easy
process, apparently, for a robotic factory. Not so easy for people
using hand tools, and who were weightless, in the dark, and had a
really final deadline hanging over their heads.
Despite our best intentions, we did end up taking a ration bar break
after a few hours. We'd made coffee before the shut-down, and had
insulated cups of hot joe to wash the dry, tasteless things down. A
little-enough reward, maybe, but it picked up my spirits some.
Bayern had popped in periodically over the previous few hours, always
saying something inane meant to bolster our morale, and then withering
fast under Sally's sarcastic responses. He chose this moment to float
in again for an update.
"We've opened the array," I told him. "Now we have to start working on
the emitters themselves."
"Well, that's pretty good," he replied, pleased. "Sounds like we'll be
up and running soon."
"This was the easy part," Sally corrected, burning her tongue as she
checked her coffee. "Ouch! Dang it! We have days of hand-machining and
testing ahead of us yet, so just hold your water! We'll be done when
we're done, and not 'til we're done, savvy?"
"You know, Sally," he said, trying to sound like a concerned manager,
"we would all get along better if we could just be a little more polite
to each other."
"What's this 'we', Bayern -- you have multiple personalities? If so, do
you have one that's not an idiot?"
"See, now that's what I'm talking about..."
"If everybody in this tub just did their fornicating jobs, and let
everybody else do THEIR fornicating jobs, we'd all get along just fine!
Keep bothering us down here, and none of us -- not one person -- will
have to worry about getting along with anybody ever again! Is that
polite enough for you Captain Bligh?"
Bayern looked at me, but I just held up my hands. As he turned to go,
he motioned me to follow him out to the companionway.
"I'm concerned about Sally," he stated grimly, once we were alone,
still in manager mode. "Do you think she's up to this?"
"Look, don't take it personally," I replied, steading myself in the
weightlessness, "you just get under her skin."
"It's not her engineering skills that are in question here," he went
on, as if I hadn't spoken, "it's her ability to work under pressure.
Can she handle the stress of our current situation, or should I be
thinking of change?"
"Think whatever you want. Our lives are riding on Sally right now,
because nobody else aboard -- myself included -- can hand-machine those
spheres without ruining them. Just give her some space, Bayern, and
she'll get us home."
He chewed it over like he had a choice and then shook his head with a
"Okay, Ejoq. But I want you to watch her closely. If she starts to
crack, we have to be ready to take action."
He shoved off and floated down the companionway until he had to take a
corner, then smacked right into the bulkhead with a painful oomph.
After that he floundered off out of sight. I'd known bigger fools in my
time -- even ones who were ostensibly in charge -- but this was an
emergency. If he kept bugging Sally, we'd have to tie him up and gag
She was still fuming when I returned to Engineering.
"Is Bayern talking fecals about me, Ejoq?! I'll space him, I swear it!"
"Sally, please don't sweat a moron. I mean, why does he bug you so
She grumbled inarticulately, and turned away to the exposed magnetics.
I thought that would be her only reply, but after nearly a minute of
silence, she spoke again without turning around. Her voice was quiet
and sounded fatigued, as if she'd been running a marathon.
"Every time I look at Bayern, I see my first husband. He was shorter,
maybe, and with dark hair instead of fair, but I'm telling you, they
could be brothers. I come from a gravity well named Waverley. I met
Binn when I was fresh out of school and still a kid. I had stars in my
eyes and vacuum in my head. Binn was born in jumpspace, and had never
lived on a planet in his life. He was everything I wanted to be -- if
you could overlook a few flaws. Seems he had a taste for Slicker -- you
know, that nasty rotgut from Barlow they distill from used cooking oil
-- and he was a mean drunk. It might surprise you to hear it, but I
wasn't always the kind of person I am now. He bounced me off the
bulkheads for three solid years. His family owned the ship we were on
--the Haster -- and he was being groomed to take the center
chair someday. Naturally, then, it had to be his lazy groundpounder of
a wife's fault every night, right? Even I believed it. I wanted to be a
spacer so bad, Ejoq, you can't imagine. I wised-up eventually, but it
took cultured bone grafts in my jaw and right cheek to do it. Each time
Bayern says something stupid, I just want to lay Binn's head open with
a tube bender."
"Sounds like unfinished business," I said quietly.
She turned back to me at that, now with a sad grin. "I jumped ship at
Sandlewood, over in Manas Sector, and showed my purple face to a local
magistrate. She annulled the marriage on the spot. She tried to have
him arrested too, but under the Alliance treaty, a free-trader is considered a
sovereign nation, and no reason short of direct military or commercial
threat from said can justify violating sovereign territory...etc., etc.
They couldn't go in after him. She was so pissed-off she pulled some
strings and had Haster's contract with the local trade
commission pulled. A minor thing, on the surface of it, but Sandlewood
was part of their annual route back then. I figure the loss adds up to
a couple of million by now, so maybe there's some justice in space
"If there was," I replied, "you wouldn't still want to beat the guy to
the floor, via Bayern. Looks aside, don't let our current boss get to
you, Sally -- he's pretty close to useless and he knows it, so he asks
a lot of questions and gets under our feet so he can pretend he's
contributing something. If you just tell him to shut-up and leave it at
that, we won't have to mutiny. I don't want to lose my bonus."
She laughed and gave me a quick hug. "I'll do my best, Ejoq. Just do
your best, and keep him out of here. And pass me that microspec over
there. I need a close look at this crap."
She spent the next hour or two examining the surface of the fist-sized
emitter spheres, cursing twice on the third one, which she put aside
before continuing on. None of the other fifteen seemed to offend her,
though, so she put them back inside the housing carefully. She then
held up the flawed sphere as if I could see what was wrong from two
"They sure don't make 'em like they used to...especially at Value
Power! What a piece of copulating diarrhea! Look at this thing: instead
of a composite shell of iron-carbide and titanium-tungsteel crystal --
which is the very minimum that Alliance construction regs allow for, by
the way -- we have what looks like a hollow aluminum shell coated with
a thin layer of iron in a polymer base. There are two scratches in this
paint job: here, and here. I figure a couple of specks of this cheap
paint must have come off under the magnetic field, and they, in turn,
gouged away more of it. Doesn't seem like much damage, does it? If the
paint kept eroding, which'd be inevitable in my view, the mag field
would have deformed and been unable to maintain the fusion reaction. No
reaction, no power. And worse yet, in the milliseconds between the drop
of the mag field and the end of the controlled reaction, the hot plasma
would have flashed out to the inner edge of the frame holding the
"Well, in a quality power plant, nothing: the magnetics fail, there's a
flash inside the casing that nobody sees, and the system switches to
standby batteries with maybe, at most, a flicker of the lights to show
that it happened. Nothing inside a good unit could be hurt, and whoever
services it after that finds everything fine and dandy -- except for
the original problem, of course, whatever it was. In this piece of
bowel business, though, we'd have a flash, and the distinct smell of
burning plastic, and maybe even some visible smoke. Open it up, and you
find sixteen blackened and stinking spheres, good for absolutely
nothing now that their polymer coatings have been charred off by the
"In other words," I commented, "there'd be no way to fix them at that
stage. I suppose I can take it as a given that there isn't a bucket of
this paint just lying around in stowage somewhere?"
She chuckled mirthlessly. "No, and it wouldn't work that way anyway.
That polymer would have to be applied by a computer that could spread a
uniform depth with a uniform distribution of iron atoms over the entire
surface. We couldn't hope to match that here, even if we could whip up
a batch of the stuff -- which we can't."
"Can't? We can't fix those scratches?"
"I don't know yet... lemme think..."
That was Sally-speak for "Don't bug me for a while", so I took the
opportunity to update the others. I found them both to the fore, in the
little cockpit that stood in for a bridge, and I hung out in the
hatchway while I talked. Bayern clucked and fretted, wondering aloud if
he should step in and handle things personally. Both Genness and I
ignored him, and I think he ignored himself too. I was about to leave
when I noticed a flashing light on Genness's board. It was a proximity
He looked over and hurumphed, then jumped screens a few times.
"Hello..." he muttered, "...and where's my audible tone...gone with the
power-down? How long was this flashing, Ejoq?"
"I just noticed it now. I take it it's new?"
"Maybe," he replied, while focusing the boat's full suite of passives
on the coordinates.
"What's wrong?" Bayern asked, confused.
"What was the trigger?" I wanted to know. "What's prox-sen 5 set to?
His brow furrowed uncharacteristically as he pulled up the sensor
datalog on one side of his screen. "Graviton," he replied.
We had company from outside the star system.
Bayern appeared grim and focused, which meant he couldn't follow this
"A ship," I told him, by way of explanation.
"A pirate...?" He suddenly looked anything but mean and determined. "Do
we have missiles active yet?"
"We can't open the hatches on the any of the bays without power. It's
way too early to fret over, anyway -- we don't have any idea who this
is. What's their transponder say, Genness?"
He had a deep frown on his face that I didn't like while he checked his
"I'm not getting a transponder. A quick diag says...no, we're good.
They just don't want anybody to know they're here. No active sensors
from them either." He swore, and turned to Bayern at last, saying, "I
don't like this. These guys are acting shady. This might be the real
thing after all."
I swore too. Bayern looked like someone told him nine months after a
really bad bender that he was a father; and I, anyway, felt like I'd
been punched in the stomach.
"We're in a bad way right now," I said, knowing even then just how
inane that was. "Genness, what's our EM output?"
"...uh, I don't know. How...?"
"Set your general passives all the way up and key a full-spectrum run,
but zero-out the bogey."
He played with the keyboard for a while.
"Um...I read 7.85% of normal. I assume that's us, but...?"
"Okay, no output...or dang little output, anyway. Bechels have an
average of seventeen centimeters of polynium alloy for the hull and
another twenty in composite armor -- all the wrong stuff for a stealth
vessel, but maybe it's enough to scatter our signature right
now...especially if that ship out there is only using passives like we
But then I thought of something scary, and turned to kick off down the
companionway, back to Engineering. Bayern grabbed my calf, and stopped
"What's going on, Ejoq?" He looked genuinely scared and perplexed.
"They don't want anyone to know they're here, right? Well, neither do
I was gone from there before he could reply with something insipid,
hoping against hope that I'd be on time.
Sally was just switching on the laze when I came in, the errant emitter
sitting under it like a diseased grapefruit. The cramped space hampered
my movement, so all I could do immediately was scream at her to shut it
down, which she did with a startled jump.
"Ejoq, what the flux...?!"
"Pirate! Inbound. I don't think he's made us yet because of our
power-down, but any big draw might flag us."
Her eyes were big and very serious then, as she looked around at the
gutted mess that Engineering had become.
"How far off?"
"Not far enough. Maybe two light seconds it looked like --
spinward/thirty degrees off-plane. Tell me you can work magic, Sally..."
"In my cabin, maybe! If they catch wind of us now, we're
stool-out-of-luck, Ejoq, and no mistake!"
A graceless bump and an umph at the open hatch behind me announced
Bayern, who'd followed me down.
"We need power, Sally!"
"I know, Bayern..."
"No, I'm not kidding around! We've got a hostile out there, and we need
power right now!"
"Get him out of here, Ejoq."
"Didn't you hear what I said?! It's a pirate!"
"Now, Ejoq, or I'll kill him!"
"We need weapons! We need engines! We're sitting ducks here!"
Sally snatched up a chem torch and began to go around the ducts and
draping cables with a scary sort of blankness on her face. I was closer
though, so I brachiated my way through the intervening space, and
hustled Bayern back out into the companionway.
"If you ruin Sally's concentration now," I told him with a hard grip on
his earlobe, "I'll glue your hands and feet together and dump you in
your cabin. Get out and stay out...or better yet, do something useful,
like running vector sims: use the realtime data from Genness' passives,
and you'll be ready for trouble."
He slapped away my hands, and canted backwards out of my immediate
reach, anchoring himself to one of the handholds -- a look of stark
terror and fury written plainly on his broad face.
"Who...who do you think you are?! I'm the captain of this
"Then you better bleeding act like it from now on, or there's a field
demotion by popular demand in your future."
"That's mutiny, Ejoq -- don't you dare threaten me!"
I grabbed his shirt and drew him close again, eye to eye. He must have
seen something there he didn't like, because his own eyes bulged in
"I'm not going to die out here because of your stupid crap, Captain
Bayern, sir. Stay calm. Sally knows what needs to be done; and
if it can be done, she'll do it. But, if you continue to be a
liability on this cruise, I'll throw you at the pirate...savvy?"
"You...you're crazy, Ejoq," he whispered in horror, "you're absolutely
He turned too quickly to escape my insane clutches, and did an
impressive pirouette until he got himself under control. He flailed his
way forward, muttering that we (presumably Sally and I) were going to
get everyone killed. I remember hanging there, musing that if he kept
on thinking like that, and especially, if he'd finally developed a
strong opinion as to who we were going to start with, then he might
just give us the space we needed to work.
Not that I had any idea what work there was to do at this point, with
no engines, no weapons, no communications, restricted sensor systems,
and what would probably have been an impossible repair job even if we
didn't have a raider on our doorstep.
"I better not see him again," was all Sally had to say when I came back
in. She was already back at the work bench, hovering over the sphere. I
came up beside her and said nothing for a long time, but my thoughts
must have been loud, because she looked over at me at length, and said,
"We can't fix it. Am I right?"
"Yup. It's plain impossible here -- especially without the laze. Maybe
even with it. I was gonna to try electroplating it with superconductive
nanotubes: did that by hand once, back in school -- works decently for
magnetic propagation, too. I just don't know what to do now..."
"What about rearranging the order of the emitters, leaving the bad one
out? We could overlap the field influences so that the entire reaction
area is covered. Then we run it underpowered, maybe, and..."
She shook her head, and pointed to the casing that held all the other
emitter spheres in place. "That was computer designed, computer
constructed, and computer installed. If we're off by so much as a
millimeter -- which would be an impossibly good error factor -- the
magnetic bottle will fail. Besides, firing up the reactor, whether to
bring it online, or just to test the work, will light us up like a
spotlight to the sensors of any nearby ships."
She looked up with a bleak stare that convinced me at last, and that's
when I really got scared.
"Well, can't we just put this one back in, then, and run the power
plant until it fails?"
She had a sour face as she replied. "The flaws in the magnetic coating
are direction-specific -- we'd never be able to put this sphere back
into the unit in exactly, precisely the way it was installed. The
scratches would be off from where they were before, which would deform
the field immediately. It would fail simply because of the unbalance
there. I mean, it should have failed some time ago."
"Okay, um...what about shielding the laze for EM leakage? I mean, we
could use it if gave off no detectable energy signature, right? There's
all that trash EM wrapping that the dock crew left aboard, back at
Deegman -- remember, I had to find a place to stow it all, and I was
honked-off? We could wrap the laze with that stuff and..."
"The laze isn't the only problem, Ejoq. Even if you shield it all over,
the batteries emit an EM field when they're used. The wiring in the
bulkheads do too when electricity runs through them. There's a voltage
regulator, and a small junction redirect, and..."
"Okay, okay, I get it." I hesitated to keep brainstorming, partly out
of fear of exasperating Sally, and partly out of fear of where my
thoughts were headed. She kept staring at me, though, knowing somehow
that I wasn't done talking. "That leaves us with only one option...we
"We fight? How? You'd get one burst from the neupacs and then the
capacitors would be drained, and you'd need more than that just to get
a bead on their ship. Am I right?"
"Yep. We'll use missiles only," I told her. "There must be some way to
get the tubes open; if we take that bogey completely by surprise, we
might not need more than a single well-placed shot. And it would only
need a tiny bit of juice to autoprep and launch."
"A sneak attack?" She shook her head. "That's iffy, at best. If we
don't take them out with the first salvo, we're dead, since we can't do
much to get out of the way of any return fire. And what if they're just
having tech problems, like we are? How can you justify firing
unprovoked? I'm not comfortable with that, Ejoq."
I held up my hand to ward off her disapproval. "You shouldn't be,
Sally. I'm only listing options. The other idea is to send a team over
and surveil the ship for evidence of illegal activity or intent. If
it's legit, we ask for help. If it's a raider, we board and take
She stared blankly for a moment, as if waiting for the punchline. But
there wasn't one. I was serious.
"Are you serious?"
"Careful, now, you're sounding like Bayern."
"Ejoq, there are only four of us. We could all be Fleetmarines, with
powered armor and weapons, and we'd still be ess-o-ell. Four people
can't take a pirate vessel by force."
She shook her head, rummaged through a stowbox, and came up with a
"I presume you have a plan of some kind?" She then floated off towards
"Actually, yes. Want to hear it?"
"Want to give me a procreating minute here?!"
During that minute, Genness floated to the door. He looked around
carefully, then asked me, "Is it safe to come in? I hear tell you're a
bunch of loonies."
"You hear right. What's the latest?"
"They're using reaction thrusters to take a new heading...slowly,
though: they plan to do some work in this neighborhood, for sure. I
calculated their course and projected it. At present speed, they'll
intercept that free-trader, Ponte,
that's outbound from Deegman right now, in about, oh, seventy-seven
hours. This raider has a stealth suite of some kind -- but not a good
one; I can still track it since I know where to look. If Ponte
goes off on an oblique angle now -- or really soon, anyway -- it'll
make starjump safely. They'll need a heads-up, though, because they
won't see these guys coming until it's way too late."
"Can we use a tight beam? We can't let the bogey know we're sitting
here behind him."
"Truth. Lasercom it has to be. Um, I'll need some power for that, of
That wasn't much of a problem, I didn't think, and, when she came out,
Sally agreed that a short message wouldn't draw too badly. We did a few
reconnects, in Engineering and up on the Bridge, and started to leave
Genness to it, but Bayern wanted him to be sure to make the point that Ponte
couldn't rely on us for any more help than this; and, most especially,
that none of this was our fault. Then he started to dictate the message
itself, but I could see a growing flash in Genness' eyes of what Sally
and I had already displayed, so in the end we had to bar the captain
from his own Bridge. When he was finally left on his own, Genness
finished up quickly, then called us to say we could pull the plug
again. He hadn't waited for a reply from Ponte, though he had
received a general acknowledgment of the message, he said. We had done
what we could, anyway.
We were all pretty punchy by this point, and we'd been up for nearly
three shifts straight. I, for one, tethered myself to the corner of my
bunk in my cabin and was dead to the galaxy for several hours. Sally
hadn't acted like she was going to go to sleep at all, and maybe she
didn't, because she and Genness where floating at a suggestive angle
and giggling like school kids when I finally drifted back down to the
engine room. The dark rings were gone from under her eyes, anyway, as
was the pressed look of strain. I ducked out again and went to the
galleyette for a couple of cups of coffee, hoping they'd take the hint.
They did, and Genness passed me in the companionway with a friendly
"Anything new out there?" I asked.
"Nothing. The bogey hasn't made any changes. Neither has Ponte.
Either they didn't understand the message, or they didn't believe us. I
even had Sally power us up about an hour ago, so I could send it again.
This time I waited for a reply, but all I got was the same
auto-acknowledgment. Honestly, I just don't get it."
I refrained from remarking that he was the only guy on this tub who was
getting it, and, instead, floated back to engineering.
Sally took one of the coffees gratefully, then checked systems. That
took all of two minutes with nothing running, and then she turned to me.
"So...what's the plan? After reflection, I still think you're crazy,
but let's have it."
"Well...I have a few items I didn't put on the personal manifest when I
came aboard. Shape charges, two assault rifles, and a fair amount of
ship-rated ammo." I held up both hands to deflect her commentary,
though her face spoke volumes. "I just didn't want the SecCorps
johnnies finding it all in a random locker check while I was out
here...I never declared any of it when I first landed -- they'd have
impounded the stuff, and maybe fined me to boot."
"Where in purgatory did you get those things? Don't tell me they're
from your previous job...?"
"Actually, yeah. I...all right, I was really pissed about being
laid-off, so I helped myself to a few items from the cargo bay on my
last berth. I was about to sell it all for emergency cash, when this
job came through."
"Ejoq...! Why you little thief!"
"I won't deny it, but my severance was only half what my
contract stipulated, Sal! Company procedure, they said. So, yes...I
pilfered a few things. But they'll come in handy now if we pursue this
idea. And we have to pursue it if we can't do the repairs. You
see that, don't you?"
"We have life support for another couple of weeks if we stay powered
down," she countered. "Other ships might come by in that time. We could
even put out a distress call to Deegman, and have them send out a
tetherboat. Might take some time, true, but..."
"And what about Ponte?" I asked. "For some reason, she doesn't
believe us. I don't know why: our codes are valid, and she knows enough
to expect us out here. But either way, she doesn't deserve to get
picked off. Some really rough characters have been playing out this way
lately. You've read the reports, Sal: cargoes waylayed; crews tortured
and spaced; ships blown when it's all over. We might not be much --
especially now -- but we're all Ponte's got."
She shook her head with a sour smile, but let me go on.
"Okay, here it is...we strip off the armor and insulation around the
feed lines to the main drive output -- that'll precool the waste
exhaust enough that it probably won't be detectable if we're careful to
face ourselves perpendicular to the bogey. We keep it below, say,
forty-percent power and do a short burn up to 10 kps; we'll get to
within a hundred kilometers of them in ten hours, undetected, if they
stay on course..."
"And if they continue to lay off their active sensors," she
injected. "This'll kill the battery bank, too."
"Which means we just have to win fast. We can cut away one or two
missile tube hatches while we're outside working on the main drive --
that'll give us our big stick if we need it."
"And then what?"
"When we're close enough, we go over quietly and set the shape charges
on the bogey's drives, and outside the engine room on the hull -- if we
can find it. Then we talk to them."
Once again, she floated there waiting for a funny line I didn't have.
At length she just shook her head.
"I'll tell you what, Ejoq. You go explain it to the others, and if they
agree -- if Genness agrees to that lunatic plan -- well...ahhh..." And
she waved me away.
It was an incredibly tense couple of shifts. Sally and I did a hasty
EVA to rip off the housing around the feed lines to the plasma exhaust.
We used hydraulic grippers and vibrosaws that the others said had made
a heck of a racket inside. The job, once done, was really messy. It
would be a costly repair for the consortium that owned Dame Minnie,
but I figured we weren't going to be hired again anyway, so whatever.
The missile tube hatches proved much easier to deal with, since they
were designed to be removed for maintenance. The dorsal and ventral bow
tubes seemed to be the most useful and convenient to work on under the
circumstances, and we were even able to save the hatches themselves and
stow them aboard. All of that took six hours, and Sally and I were
exhausted when we were done. I wanted to rest, but time was racing. We
killed the coffee instead of grabbing some sleep, because we still had
to reconnect the drives to the battery bank and restore juice to some
higher function comp systems. We powered nothing else up, least of all
artificial grav or inertials, so we had to strap down carefully when we
gave Bayern the go-ahead to fire it up.
He had actually been a much easier sell on the whole idea than Genness,
who proved to be strangely adamant. Bayern seemed relieved to be taking
any kind of action at all, and even inflated a bit when we let him give
us some minor orders; but Genness called it a fool's errand, and
wouldn't endorse it on any level. Sally had come along for the meeting,
and didn't comment at first; she grumbled heartily when Genness finally
asked for her opinion point-blank, but it was plain she deeply loathed
the idea of standing off and doing nothing while a pirate took a ship
we were supposed to be protecting. Since our command structure had, by
now, deteriorated into a democracy, Genness was out-voted. At length,
he agreed to help, but made it well-known we were doomed -- an opinion
I think we all shared.
The run towards the bogey's track was edgy to say the least. I dug out
my goody bag from deep stowage. Bayern had almost as much EVA time as
Sally and I, but I didn't trust him with either firearms or explosives;
and anyway, he was Secondary Gunner on this cruise, and someone had to
be in a position to fire on these guys at all times. I did tie the
arming controls for the defense suite into my suitcomp, though, just to
keep ol' Sureshot on a leash; and while I could theoretically do some
rough targeting remotely as well, there was actually an interface
problem with Dame Minnie's sensor software, so I'd be shooting
almost blind. I figured I'd let Bayern get first crack at it anyway.
Sally and I went over a few offensive procedures, but any hardcore
plans still had to wait. I only had three charges. Placement was vital,
and I just couldn't figure that part until we got a visual. I guess
that was the scariest aspect of the whole thing for me: there actually
weren't many big raiders out there, since Fleet would hunt down anybody
who had the firepower and lawlessness to be a potential military
threat. Still, even a small ship could drop an entire world-full of
hurt on us if it got the chance; and the mere fact that this one was
running with a stealth suite of some kind opened us up to the
possibility of more surprises.
At an odd moment when I should have been resting, I went over Genness'
data from the passive sensors. There wasn't much to it, but with some
old formulas I still had in my handcomp from gunnery class, I was able
to roughly calculate the bogey's size based on the reaction mass they'd
used to adjust course -- just a few quick puffs from their attitude
thrusters here and there, but it was enough to get an impression of a
ship that was roughly half-again as massive as Dame Minnie.
That was do-able. Maybe.
We had to perform a one-eighty before we crossed their trail, then we
held our breaths and braked hard, hoping for all we were worth that the
drive exhaust, now facing away from the bogey in the other direction,
was precooled enough to go unnoticed as it spread. I had them on a
missile lock the entire way, based on the nearly ghostlike data from
our passives, and finally picked them up on light amplified opticals as
we crossed by. I didn't know the type, but it vaguely matched the
profile in Dame Minnie's database of an old Corporate trader
called a Maccarri. It was listed as having a moderately large cargo bay
for vessels of its mass, but this had to have been a different model,
because the Maccarri wasn't supposed to have a dorsal docking platform
-- a dock currently hosting a tiny vessel I couldn't resolve well
enough to really see, but which was more diminutive than any useful
cargo shuttle I'd ever heard of. There were other differences, too, but
they seemed more like upgrades: the stealth suite, of course; port and
starboard external pods, which suspiciously resembled fighter-style
weapon bays; a bigger starjump array than I would have expected --
implying an extended FTL range; and a ramped-up sensor suite, including
what could only have been a military-class tracking dish in the bow,
near an armored blister I took to be the bridge. If they popped on
their active sensors, we'd never be able to shake them.
As pirates went, she was small -- but she looked mean as a hornet.
To give him his due, Bayern handled our Bechel like he was born to it.
The man really had some talent after all. We were approximately
eighty-five kilometers ahead, and twenty or so below the Maccarri, and
we were matched in velocity. Our two bow tubes were facing them, and I
took the liberty to return power to my targeting comps, which were tied
into the sensor feed. If those pods held energy weapons, we'd never
know about it until we died; but missiles would give us a heads-up of
about twenty seconds.
I had a pretty good auto-firing program on a datacube I owned --
something a real chiphead I worked under, several jobs before, had
written. I'd never had any need to use it, but it simmed well. I
plugged it in now, debugged the interface, and put in a short list of
behaviors that would seem threatening under the circumstances to give
us a little attack redundancy. If both Bayern and I crapped-out, or if
something happened too quickly for us to react to, Dame Minnie
would still get her two shots in. What can I say? I'm a sore loser.
After an hour it seemed likely that we hadn't been noticed. We held
another meeting just to make sure we all understood our jobs. We let
Bayern give us a pep talk, which boosted his morale anyway, and
then got started. Sally and I suited up again and clipped on a couple
of scoots. We both took extra cases of reaction mass (dry ice, which
the scoots would melt and jettison as needed), while I carried the
shape charges, and Sally brought along a bag with a variety of tools.
We both had our rifles secured carefully to the tops of our
We had nearly a hundred kilometers of open space to cross in those tiny
scoots, which were only meant for tooling around the outside hull. They
would be up for it, certainly, since we weren't going to be running
under constant acceleration, but they weren't the height of luxury or
safety: just a foldable tube frame with a little control pad on the
front, and a main thruster and "fuel tank" (that was to say, an icebox)
on the back. There were tiny thruster nozzles all over the frame, too,
for maneuvering. Scoots weren't fast, but they were fairly agile.
We'd reconnected comm for Genness, who would be monitoring us all the
way, and then shifted to a channel he said wasn't likely to be
monitored. Communications would be going over on one rotating
modulation, while piping real-time data to us from the boat's sensors
on another. Then we waved to our shipmates, stepped into the port
airlock, and cycled. In three minutes we were in open space.
"What are the odds, Ejoq, that they'll have proximity sensors or
external cameras running?" Sally asked almost immediately, sounding
like she'd only thought of it now and was suddenly terrified.
"If they're really intent on ambushing Ponte," I replied, "they
won't have any actives running at all, even prox. We're not hot enough
to show up on passives until we're really close, and we'll be coming up
on their aft, directly through their thruster exhaust trail, so we
might not register at all. As for cameras...well, they're usually just
used for docking purposes: pretty-much only the pilot on-duty during
berthing ever looks at them, and then only to make sure the ship is
coming in straight. No one would be watching now."
She was silent for a moment.
"You have no idea, in other words."
"Not a one."
"You're an unwashed sphincter, Ejoq!"
"I guess so, but I'm also right."
"How do you know that?! How many times have you done this, before?
Wait, I'll tell you...zero! Nobody's ever done this before! You
know why? BECAUSE IT CAN'T BE DONE!!!"
"If you want my opinion..." Genness chimed in.
"I already know your opinion," I shot, maybe a little harsher than I
should have. "Let us work this out, okay?"
I could hear Sally breathing hard for long moments, then I finally
ventured, "Feel better?"
"I...don't know. This is beyond crazy Ejoq."
"We can always turn around Sally. You call it."
"Oh, now it's my decision?! It's your maternal-mating plan! Are
you saying it won't work now?"
"No, it'll work, but only if you're committed to it. I need you, Sal. I
need everyone. And Ponte needs us. Okay! Okay! We're in a
remote corner of a bleak system, in a broken-down boat, and not one of
us is getting paid what we're worth. But Ponte's going to get
hit if we don't do something. Maybe we're losers, but we have a job to
do; whether or not Dame Minnie is up to the challenge, we
have to be. This might not work -- okay, it probably won't work -- but
I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror if I sat on the
sidelines now. We signed up to fight off pirates. If we're not gonna to
do our jobs, then why do we even have them? Why did we even apply?"
"You really believe that, don't you?" Her voice was strained, harsh.
"You have a soldier complex, Ejoq: you want to be a fragging hero, and
you want us to go along for the ride!"
This was getting on my nerves. What I wanted was to concentrate
on the situation ahead, and this was not helping.
"Why are we having this conversation now,
"Because I'm traveling through deep space on a scoot! Because I'm not a
Fleetmarine, but I'm part of an attack team! Because that attack team
consists of just two people! Because I very much believe I'm
going to die a very violent death very soon!"
"The fact that no one would ever try this," I countered, starting to
lose my cool, "is exactly why it can work! If you're really not
up to it Sally, tell me now, before we get someplace where I'll need to
rely on you."
"Now that's not fair, Ejoq! None of us signed on for this -- including
you. Everything we're doing here is purely optional. Considering the
circumstances, nobody would ever ask us why we didn't try to take that
"I would ask!" I shouted at last. "Every day of my life, I would
ask why! Why I turned and ran. Why I didn't want to do my job. Why Ponte
was dead! You're wrong, Sally: I don't want to be a hero...I
just want to sleep at night."
We were both silent for a while after this.
"Sooo...what's it going to be, folks?" Genness eventually asked, more
to fill the radio void, I thought, than anything else.
"I guess we're turning around," I replied curtly, and started to brake
"No," Sally cut in, "we're going on."
Genness sounded upset when he replied. "Are you sure, Sal? You know
this is crazy, there's no way the two of you can possibly..."
"I'm well aware of what we're doing here, Genness," she said, a real
tone of finality in her voice. "We're taking this thing down."
"Sally...you...why...?" he responded faintly, with exasperation.
"Just keep this channel open, and the chatter down, okay?"
"Yeah...yeah, okay." I could hear sadness in his smooth tone, and I was
sure she did as well.
"You too, Ejoq. Let's just do this."
In ten minutes, we picked it up on suit lightamps: a bulky shape, seen
from behind, with three main engine nozzles and a spidery jump array
spanning out like gossamer. The pods stretched out angrily, and the
mysterious little vehicle mounted on top was just as mysterious from
even this proximity.
We both keyed our suitcams, now that there was something to see, and I
zoomed in on the piggy-backer.
"You getting this Genness?"
"Yeah. That auxiliary boat there. Any ideas?"
"I was hoping you'd seen one before."
"No, sorry, I...what? Um, hold on a second...Bayern...uh, Bayern says
-- okay! -- Bayern says that's an automated probe...a mining probe,
maybe, or general science. He says he's hauled them out to the asteroid
belt for the company prospectors before, but that this one looks
"Modified how? Put him on." There was a pause, and some inarticulate
conversation as the channel went live on the pilot station.
"Captain Bayern, here."
"No stool, you muttonhead!"
"Sally, please. How is this thing different, Bayern? What do
you think these guys use it for?"
"Well...uh...hmmm...the RM tank is missing, for one. No reaction mass,
no mobility. It's a waste of hardware."
"Not that I can see...wait! Can you beef up your contrast, both of you?
More. Yes, good. Now, Ejoq, zoom into that box on the back of the
probe...no, the small one. A little closer...okay, yes. Ah-hah."
"What is it? What's it for?"
"Oh, I don't know."
Sally cursed, and shouted at him to get the unpleasant afterlife off
the Higher Power spiritually condemned channel, and added some funny,
though improbable things about his sexual proclivities.
"Could it be an explosive of some kind, Bayern?" I asked when she took
"A bomb...? I doubt it. No one would buy a probe like this, just to
blow it up: they're too expensive. Even the cheapest mining probes go
for as much as a decent boat -- you could buy a brand new Bechel for
what one of these cost."
"What if they stole it from somewhere? Would it be worth blowing up
then? What do probes go for, used?"
"Well...probes can really take a beating out here. I've never seen a
used one for sale, now that you mention it."
"In other words, there's no market for them used. Let's err on the side
of caution then, and assume they stole it and couldn't find a buyer, so
they turned it into some kind of weapon. These things have AI's
"The ones I've seen do, yes. Specialized AI's, dedicated only to one
job. You can't have real conversations with them, but they know an
awful lot about their prime functions. But what difference does it
make? Missiles cost a fraction of the price of one of these -- and
they're much faster than any probe. And I don't think this one can move
at all, anyway."
"Would the AI be active right now?" I asked.
"Um...well, when they ship out from the factory, they're not activated.
They don't even have prime-function software installed -- it's a
separate purchase, and it's up to the buyer to program the thing
however it's needed. "
"Hmm...that's not this situation...Sally, what do you think?"
She was quiet for so long I thought at first she hadn't heard. She
puffed her way slowly closer to the probe, and I followed warily. At
length she said, "You can't just turn an AI on and off whenever you
want. They break down fast like that. By the same token...once they're
on, they're dangerous to leave sitting idle -- they can get it into
their brains to implement their programming at really inconvenient
times. If I were these guys...I'd put it into some kind of
non-repeating simulation mode. That way it would keep busy doing what
it wants to do without causing any trouble; you could store it like so
much baggage; and yet you could use it at a moment's notice."
"It wouldn't be running its own sensors then, or be getting a live feed
from the ship?" I tried to clarify.
"In the scenario I just described, no. But I might be wrong, Ejoq. I'm
probably wrong. There's too many variables here, too much we don't
"Let's assume you're right, for now. Genness, any changes...any sign
they've noticed us?"
"Nope. It's like they're dead. I really hate this whole predator/prey
"You and me both," I muttered, helping Sally maneuver back around the
probe with an extra hand, that, in turn, set me to wobbling. I had to
drift out a bit to get the room to stabilize, and then I scooted over
to the starboard weapon pod. It was an irregular mass of metal and
plastic points and cables, two or three meters across and extending out
a few meters on a thin, tapering triangular spar. A forward-facing
missile five-pack and a stubby particle beam stood out sharply in the
lightamp of the suit's optics. The missiles were an unknown quantity
until they were used, but the p-beam was of a pretty common civilian
type I'd studied and simmed before. It was strictly a close-range item;
Dame Minnie could be hurt by it where she was parked -- maybe --
but Ponte would be safe until it got much closer.
I took out one of the dinner plate sized shape charges from the box I
was carrying, peeled off the plastic sheet from its adhesive backing,
and stuck it to the spar. That was one down.
Sally came floating up into my view. "Want me to set one on the other
"Have you ever set a charge before?" I asked.
"It's not so easy."
"Really? Looks like you just peeled it off and stuck it on...or am I
missing some highly technical procedure here?"
I handed her a charge. "Yeah, smartbutt, don't bang it into anything."
She scooted over the dorsal ridge of the ship, while I scooted under
and towards the back. I found a sealed hood that looked like a main
drive access panel. Trying to open that would kick on their automated
anti-intruder systems for sure. I figured though, that it was a
reasonable assumption that a maintenance hatch would be located in a
spot where maintenance was needed; and, that nothing that needed a lot
of maintenance would be built into a ship to begin with unless it was
really important. This close to the main drives, I further assumed that
the hatch opened up on a juncture of some sort in the piping for the
fuel. As good a spot as any. Another charge went there, right over the
seam of the hatch and the hull, where the extra armor would be weakest.
"I'm done," Sally announced. "What's next, oh mighty Caesar?"
"Think that armored bump-thing up front is the bridge?"
"That or a fueling dock."
"Yeah...they use 'em in the Papal Territories. They have a union or
guild or something that does nothing but refuel ships. Most boats and
ships built over there have a dock installed just for that -- makes the
mass transfer go smoothly, or so I've heard. This looks kind of like
one of those, but these guys are a long way from home, if that's the
"Aren't we all," Genness added, quietly.
"No change, Ejoq. I'll let you know."
"Yeah. Sally, if that is a fueling dock, then there has to be a valve
or something over there?"
"Yeah, that and manual controls for the onboard fuel transfer pump."
"Manual? As in on/off switches? That's idiotic. Are you sure?"
"Who am I -- Bayern? Yes, I'm sure."
"Sorry, didn't mean to be insulting."
"Come on, people, I'm right here," Bayern said in a hurt voice.
"Er...sorry. Sally, you mean to say that there's a way to physically
access the fuel line from out here?"
"Maybe. The guildies over there don't let anything become automated
that might take control away from their little monopolies. Leastways,
I've seen manual valve controls on their ships before. Let's take a
Sure enough, we found a small access panel on the bump in the armor,
which Sally stated for sure was a fueling station. Would high
temperatures right there do anything for us?
"No," she replied, "there are safeguards against fires and explosions
during refueling. You wouldn't ignite the fuel tank aboard, anyway, if
that's what you're after. There's no oxygen, for one thing."
"I'm thinking more along the lines of simulating a fire so as
to trigger a fire suppressant sequence in their systems. That'd lock
'em up for a bit if they don't have weapons running hot already. It
could be a good distraction for getting inside. I mean, we're in
agreement here, right? These guys aren't legit?"
"No they're crooked, all right. I just don't see how you think we can
get inside fast enough to surprise them. We could cut through a hatch
pretty quickly and gain access to an airlock, but we couldn't use it to
enter without depressurizing the ship -- which'll cause an emergency
lockdown inside and...ah, okay, I get it now."
"Get what?" Bayern and Genness asked simultaneously.
"You open a ship up to hard vacuum," I explained, "and it closes off
all emergency iris valves and pressure hatches inside, effectively
cutting off the crew from us and each other. That can be over-ridden
easily by the captain, though. Not so with fire-suppressant sequences.
Layer the two, and they'll be wasting a lot of time just figuring out
what's going on. Meanwhile, you guys call them and tell them to stand
down or else. If they're surprised -- which we're counting on --
they'll lose even more time trying to confirm everything. While they do
all this, we cut through to the next section -- hopefully a central
corridor, which will prevent overrides of the lockdown, since the comp
won't allow anybody to open a hatch onto vac without inputting a suit's
clearance code first."
"They might be in suits already," Genness observed, "or have them
"If we were trying this closer to Ponte's interception time,
I'd agree with you, since an experienced crew going into a potential
battle might take those kinds of precautions..."
"Hey, that's a good idea!" Bayern injected.
"But these guys won't have them handy yet, I'm thinking. The suits will
be in stowage somewhere, as isolated from the crew as the crew will be
from each other."
"But how do we take the ship then? They won't be able to open the doors
to the bridge or engineering even if they want to."
"We can do temporary patches on all the holes we make, if it looks like
we're getting somewhere with them, but we won't re-pressurize right
away. Their internal sensors will register that they still have an air
loss that way, but we can negotiate a surrender. If they think a bunch
of us have gotten inside, and that we're willing to open them up to
space, they'll have to give it up."
"And what happens when they learn it's only the two of us?"
"We'll have them disarmed and locked up by then, hopefully. It's mostly
bluff. Just act mean, Sally."
"That won't be hard," Bayern muttered.
"Their internal sensors -- cameras or whatever -- will show that it's
just the two of us. It's hard to bluff somebody who knows what cards
"We say that the rest of our people are still outside -- doesn't make
any sense, I know, but they'll be upset, and maybe not thinking
logically. They'll be checking sensors and looking to confirm what we
are saying. It's a timing thing: we work fast, act tough, and we lie
through our teeth; by the time they realize that we're full of crap,
we'll have them. Think it'll work?"
"Not a prayer. Let's get started."
Sally brought her oxytorch out and got ready to go at the fuel intake.
I scooted over to the side hatch -- a standard looking airlock -- and
got my big plasma saw out too. We 1-2-3'd it, then started cutting. I
really wasn't sure what Sally had in mind for the fuel duct, but she at
least acted like she knew what she was doing, which more-or-less made
me believe that she did -- and in that sense I was in the same boat as,
hopefully, the pirates would be.
I cut through the locking mechanism for the external hatch, knowing
sensors were probably tripping like crazy inside there. I imagined a
crew of unwashed desperadoes scrambling now for vacsuits, weapons,
sensors, etc., and I worked faster than ever.
"Pop on actives, Genness. Tell me what's happening."
"I'm on it..."
"And call them on standard channels and order a stand-down. We're going
Cutting through a polynium door mechanism doesn't take long if you know
where to put the hole. I was done in less than a minute, and had the
lock itself exposed. A twist here and spin there with a z-g ratchet,
and the heavy airlock door popped open, easy as you please.
"Sally, I'm in! You ready?"
"Yeah, yeah...their heat sensors'll be registering a fireball at the
intake valve -- they're closing up in there right now -- feel those
vibrations? Emergency lockdown's in progress, hatches and valves
shutting, everything. It's working!"
Not surprisingly, I couldn't feel anything, so I took her word for it.
As I waited for her to scoot over, I asked Genness, "What's the word?
They panicky yet?"
"There's no time, Gen! What are they saying?"
"I'm not sure...I'm getting something weird here..."
"Patch us in," I told him, and, after a moment, there was a soft,
ponderously calm voice speaking in completely unimpressive tones.
"...emergency attack sequence challenge...negative...full sensors
engaged...one contact registered..."
"They just hit actives, people!" said Genness. "We're in the spotlight
"...no further vessels detected within standard weapons
range...conclusion: vessel previously detected 115.22 coreward
subjective, 17.35% of ecliptic potential, has initiated
attack...weapons coming online...target lock confirmed..."
"Sally! Stay clear! I'm blowing the weapon pods!"
"Hold it -- I'm exposed...!
"...final missile diagnostic 100%...firing in five standard seconds..."
"Okay, I'm clear!" She cruised down from dorsal, and grabbed at a
handhold near me.
"Blow 'em! Blow 'em!" Bayern shouted, and for once I obeyed him.
There was a yellow flash on our side of the ship, and then nothing
more. The one pod we could see from our P.O.V cartwheeled off into the
blackness, and was invisible almost immediately. The calm, strangely
resonant voice continued without pause, no hint of surprise evident
"...all weapons offline...running diagnostics...particle beam loss port
and starboard confirmed...missile loss port and starboard
confirmed...calculating tactical information...87.5% chance of
successful undetected strike upon this vessel..."
"That's a machine, Ejoq!" Sally said. "They have an AI in charge of
"...all systems on standby...external opticals confirm two personnel
contacts at starboard airlock...loading anti-hijack
programming...programming loaded and implemented...lockdown redundancy
due to fire-suppressant protocols...standing by..."
I'll admit, I was at a complete loss for a minute there.
"Where the hell are the people?!" I yelled. "This thing didn't jump in
on its own, did it?"
"Maybe they've let the AI take over while they're getting ready?"
"That doesn't make any sense, Sal -- they're pirates, aren't they?
Nobody who boards and takes ships and cargoes would let a machine call
the shots. And which AI is it? That probe's up top? Do they have the
ship slaved in to it, or is there another one inside too?"
"There's no reaction mass on the probe," Bayern reminded, surprising me
by his relevance.
"Yeah, and that big box on its back...not a bomb, but a bypass or
circuit shunt or something? Let's search this ship."
Getting into the airlock took some doing, since we couldn't fit the
scoots in, even after they were folded, and, exasperatingly, we had no
easy way to tether them -- I mean, I couldn't think of everything,
right? In the end, we actually glued them to the bogy's hull with
vacgap filler from our tool pouches. We had the kind of grip/scrape
tools required to break the hold when it was time to go, so we just
left them near the airlock, and proceeded inside.
We opened the main door in the same manner in which we had opened the
outer airlock hatch, and a fast, almost explosive rush of crystallizing
atmosphere buzzed out for a few seconds as soon as a hole had been
made. To the unfamiliar, cutting through locked polynium doors on space
vehicles might seem like it should be hard to do -- and such a
supposition would normally be warranted. But they weren't complex, and
other than a few after-market lockout doohickeys, there wasn't anything
unusual here to slow us down. Under normal docking or spaceport
circumstances, a klaxon and computer alert to the yokel badges would
eat up all the time it would reasonably take to do the work -- long,
dirty cutting work without the right tools. We were in space, though,
and were using plasma vac-saws for this (which you can't fire up in an
atmosphere without also plasmizing the air immediately around -- and
thereby cooking -- yourself while you work). In fact, this ship
had easier doors to open than even our crummy Bechel did, and that
wasn't uncommon. My "plan" had counted on this -- though it was now
beginning to look like a lot of planning for nothing. We unslung our
rifles anyway, and had them ready.
"Hatch open," I announced as we swung the rounded rectangular door
inward. "No lights on...hmm...amplification isn't worth much in here.
Switching on suit floods -- how much of this are you guys getting?"
"Looks good," Genness replied, "Is this a central companionway? Are
those hatches on the sides?"
"No we're in a connecting corridor," Sally answered. "Looks like it
right-angles with the ship's core. Got another door to go through on
the far end. Artificial gravity is off...typical antihijack protocol.
These narrow hatches on the sides look like stowage
lockers...and...yeah, they're locked, but not pressure-capable. Not big
enough for somebody in a suit to hide in, either. Moving on."
The internal door proved to be even easier to open, taking thirty
seconds to crack. Another sparkling hiss of escaping atmosphere
preceded our swinging it open, this time lasting a minute or so, after
which we were greeted by more blackness. A few tiny unit lights of
varying colors peeped and blinked here and there along the walls on
various switches and controls, but nothing more. Floods revealed a wide
central corridor that looked like it had been either designed for, or
converted to, rec room use. Things were packed neatly away, game sticks
and touchballs in convenient racks on one bulkhead, a dark, mute
entertainment center mounted along the other. Cushioned seats that
locked in place on floor tracks sat off to the sides, leaving the
central way clear.
"Compulsive neat freaks?" I muttered.
"Yeah," Sally agreed, "it's awfully clean in here for a sudden
emergency lockdown. But why would they send this thing into jump empty?
What good's a pirate ship without any pirates?"
The ship's logo was on the wall, near what looked like a beverage
"Gen, look this up in the ship registry database -- it's not in
Ingliss. What is that...Latin?"
"Lowspeak," Bayern injected. "It says, Daaf'Qa. It means,
'Preparedness' or 'State of Readiness'."
"You can speak another language?!" Sally was flabbergasted
"Some. You guys aren't from around here. Deegman gets a lot of traffic
from over the border. We have to deal with guildies all the time."
I caught a glimpse of Sally's expression through her helmet, and she
seemed amazed and maybe (just a little) impressed.
"I've got a Daaf'Qa listed here as...ship-type just says it's a
far-trader," Genness said. "It looks like...ah...okay, it says it was
built by the 'Most Honorable Spacial Mercantile Collective of the
Beneficent Hyrondua State of Rhykertov Within Far Reach And...' it goes
on and on -- just a shipyard in Churchspace....it was built for a noble
shipping family...in service for ten years...ah, looks like it changed
hands two more times. Pretty typical, over all. It's currently owned by
an investment consortium in the Corporate Territories."
"When was that listing updated?" I asked. "Legit corporations don't go
in for piracy -- too much liability. This thing must be stolen."
"No, it's current -- last update was, ah, 74 hours ago. Just before our
little problems started."
"Ejoq," Sally said, "the mods on this ship would've taken weeks at a
shipyard, or even longer if they did it on the sly. And they're
expensive, too. If that listing's up to date, then this thing -- as is
-- belongs to that company."
"Oh, man...then it's Corporate trouble...that's all we need! Let's do a
fast sweep through the ship, Sal, then check Engineering for something
we can use on Dame Minnie. I don't want be here now even more
than I didn't want to be here before."
A quick look around revealed a ship perfectly packed up, as if awaiting
its first crew. Not a soul to be found. We didn't have time to try to
crack the computer, which would've been futile anyway (military-grade
decryption was usually required for that sort of thing, as opposed to
outmoded, second-hand civilian-class gunboat decryption).
"Bring her over, Bayern. Park as close as you can."
"That'll be it for the engines, then," he replied. "There won't be
enough power to fire up again after that."
"Doesn't matter. We have nowhere else to go. I'm counting on a miracle
on this end, so just get her close."
Engineering was significantly cleaner and more spacious than on Dame
Minnie, and Sally located their battery bank easily.
"Wow...oh, wow!" she said, after opening the bank casing. "Skartcher
Nova Cerampacks! Fully-charged, yet! See? They each have their own diag
panel! Oh, man, this is sweet!"
"Are these standard on a ship like this?" I asked.
"These aren't standard anywhere! These are the latest thing! I read
about 'em only a month ago. We could run Dame Minnie all the
way back to Deegman on only two of these -- with normal gravity for the
whole trip, and juice left over for a party!"
"They're a lot bigger than our power cells," I pointed out. "Heavier
too, I'll bet."
"Not in Z-G, they aren't. Just gotta watch the mass when we're moving
them around. They can be programmed for just about any power and
waveform output up to their max, so I wouldn't even need to jury-rig a
converter. We just have to get them over there, strap 'em down
somewhere, and we're back in the saddle again."
"They're expensive, I take it?"
"Oh, mama, yes! They're marketed to elite Corporate security, ritzy
private yacht owners, intelligence organizations -- you know, customers
with deep pockets."
"How are they going to fit out the side airlock?" Bayern asked.
"What are you talking ab...?!" Sally started to bite off his head, but
then looked at the square, bulky things again with a critical eye.
"Hmmm...yeah, all right. We'll have to use the cargo doors."
"Aren't those on the bottom?" Genness now pursued.
"Yeah. So? What of it?"
"How do you get them down there? I didn't see anything like a floor
hatch or big elevator in your video feed, just that little lift."
"Well, they got the copulating things in here somehow!"
"Might have removed the whole airlock frame from the side of the ship
during the big refit," I commented. "That's S.O.P. in shipyards, isn't
it?" This seemed to curb her enthusiasm a bit.
"You mean, we found the perfect power solution, but we can't get them
out of here? I'm not ready to give up yet, Ejoq."
"Neither am I, Sally. We have to get these things. The question
"Okay, we're outside now," Bayern announced. "Ten meters off starboard
and holding. And I had a thought: can't you just cut a hole in the side
of the ship and bring them out that way?"
Sally was getting stressed, so her tolerance level was low.
"With what, you ash hole?! You think we brought a whole
shipyard of equipment with us out here? Cutting a couple locks off an
airlock isn't like chopping a two-meter-wide hole through armored hull
"Wait, wait, wait," I said, because their bickering was a distraction.
"We're set up for it already."
"What are you talking...? Ah, don't tell me. Ejoq, they'll be wrecked!"
"No, look, Sally -- see? The jump engines are in the way. They'll act
as cover...I think."
"Doesn't look that way to me. Where's the ejecta point on this side?"
"Probably right there, along that bulkhead."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Well, that's the main fuel conduit, right? And there's the branch
point for it...and that's the primary fuel pump for the line. So that's
got to be the spot."
"What're you two plotting?" Genness asked in his smooth tone. "Clue in
your loyal crew mates, pray."
"We're gonna blow a hole through the bulkhead, right here in
"Fabulous!" Bayern shouted, and then, "Um, I mean, good idea people."
"Oh...Ejoq," Genness muttered, but that was it.
"We could reset it in here," Sally observed. "Then the blast would be
mostly carried outside."
"That'd be true if we didn't have those feed lines right there: they're
real high pressure, and could actually turn enough of the blast away
that it might not cut through the hull. Blow it from the other side,
and we're gold."
"Then what about a hole somewhere else, where the feeds won't be an
issue? If the batteries get damaged, then all this would be a waste,
and we're out of luck."
"Hmm...okay, yeah. Good point. Let's look for a spot out in the main
"Uh, guys," Genness interrupted then, "you might want to hear
this...it's the AI."
And then the carefully measured voice of the computer came through
"...approaching at 0.472 gravities, mark, constant acceleration;
spectral analysis of heat trail complete: cross-referencing with
Industrial Specification Database For Commercial Propellants and Thrust
Materials; comparison complete; match found: Klein-Pretorious
Manufacturing product number 1107.975b/e55r Darkheart Compact Missile
System; OM installed warhead Motherload Mark VII Tactical Nuclear
Defensive Device; Yield Rating: .35 Megatons; Approximate Constant
Acceleration Range: 250,000 kilometers; Standing by..."
Needless to say, we'd been in motion from the words: "heat trail".
"Where's it coming from, Gen?!"
"I don't know! Nothing on scans yet...wait! Oh, no! It's Ponte!"
"WHAT?! Get them on the horn! Tell 'em to abort!"
"It's off-line, remember?!"
"Hook it back up!"
"For cryin' out loud!" Sally shouted as we made it back through the
connecting companionway to the airlock, "Tertiary Power Channel 14,
'Standby-Off-On-Main Comm: Go-"Zero Delay"' -- hold it down two
seconds, then 'Commit'!"
"What? Wait! Where's that?" Gen was starting to sound worried, and it
was almost scaring yesterday's ration bars out of me.
"Oh, I know where that is," Bayern put in, with a confident
tone, which actually did make me lose 'em. Thank the Powers for in-suit
"NO!!" Sally and I both shouted.
"Forget about calling Ponte! How much time, Genness?"
"Looks like...oh, man, just over thirteen minutes! Get out of there you
"On our way...no, wait...we still need the batteries!"
Sally looked at me through her face plate with wide eyes.
"There's no time, Ejoq! We have to go!"
I didn't answer, but instead tripped the shape charge with my suit
comp. There was a hard shudder in the bulkhead under my gloved hand,
but that was all.
"We go with the batteries. C'mon!"
"But, the missile...!" she spluttered, as she followed.
Engineering looked really different now: large and small particles of
hull material, gaseous fuel, fire-suppressant foam (instantly freeze
dried in the vac conditions), and various machine parts floated in the
wide compartment like murky water. A wickedly jagged, but prettily
saw-edged hole, just about three meters across, gaped menacingly
inward. Stars and Dame Minnie's bow were plainly visible beyond
in the light of our suitfloods.
"Sally! Ejoq! Can you hear me?! Are you all right?!"
"Shaddap, Bayern!" Sally barked. Then to me, "One...two...ah, six of
these batteries are toast. That one's leaking something yellow that's
probably super-toxic, so watch the vapor -- we can't do a decent decon
She said all this as we unhooked the two that were best sheltered from
the blast by the (now totally wrecked) jump engine.
"Do I turn the clamps this way, Sal? Okay, good, I can do both
batteries. Get back to the boat, and run us a power jump to the supply
bay, and get it open! Make sure those inertials are ready, too! Move
it...I can push these over there myself! And watch out for the loose
"You watch out!" and then she was gone.
"Ten minutes, people!" said, Genness. "This is crazy, Ejoq! We can
still clear off in time on docking thrusters..."
"And die slowly when the power finally fades?"
"Ponte's coming," he argued. "She can help us out."
"Ponte's trying to kill us! Or she doesn't care if we die.
Either way, she's poison. Now shut up, and let me do this!"
It wasn't hard to disconnect them; they were as sweet and sensibly
designed as Sally had observed, and every bit as massive as they
looked. I heaved hard, with a grunting weightlifter's shout that had
everybody screaming my name, and set the first of them into slow
motion. It bumped into a few pieces of floating junk, but didn't change
direction or slow any further. I jumped up so as to pace it, and pushed
again off a spar to do a course correction. It was a sublime moment,
and the battery snailed out through the new hole like it was made to do
"I see it on monitors," Bayern said. "Sally, get that hatch open, okay?"
"It's opening now! I, uh, I'll try to snag it with a spanner!"
"Negative!" Bayern commanded with more authority than anything else I'd
ever heard him say. "Open the hatch and clear out of the way! I can
"Oh, Bayern," I said, because the thought of him doing something
important without screwing it up seemed like a wild fantasy, but I went
back for the other one.
"Slower, you sphincter!" Sally yelled.
"Bring it up, Bayern! Up, up!" Gen was plainly scared.
"C'mon, Captain Crunch! Axial spin...now yaw, YAW!"
Sally and Genness suddenly screamed in a pitch of fear, followed by a
second of silence that made my heart stop.
"Well I'll be a...you did it! Bayern, you really did it! Not a
scratch on the thing! Never seen anything like it...hold on, it's
bounding up a little, but...GRUNT...okay, snagged it...and...I got a
line on it."
I was pushing the second battery up at this point, but it started
cartwheeling immediately. I swore loudly, and tried to steady it, but I
had no leverage, and I started spinning myself.
I took a precious moment to fume, looking at the huge battery spinning
slowly as it knocked small bits of flotsam around like a clumsy whale.
"I can't get the other one over in time," I announced as I maneuvered
myself around it. "I'm coming out the hole myself and jumping over.
DON'T move, Bayern."
"Take the scoot, Ejoq!" Sally warned, but she well knew there was no
"Use your spanner if my aim is off," I replied, as I pulled myself
carefully through the maw of the hole. I tapped OFF the floods, and ON
the helmet lightamp, and spied Sally holding onto the battery inside
the supply bay -- only about ten meters away. She had it secured with
cargo straps, and held the spanner in one hand. I jumped, and started
to spin like the battery I'd just left behind.
"Oh, for the love of...! Hold on, Ejoq! Hold on! Stop flailing!"
I didn't realize I was flailing because I was too busy panicking.
"Get me! Sally, catch me!"
"Already done..." she said with a heave, and I felt something pull at
my tool belt. In a moment, I was holding on to a grip, my head at
Sally's floating feet.
I was hyperventilating, but I moved carefully to orient myself to her.
"Take this," she ordered, looking me decisively in the eye, and handing
me the jumper connect. It was the right thing to say, because it gave
me something simple but vital to do while she turned to the input panel
on the battery.
"Close the bay, Bayern. Oh, man, this thing is sweet! Hand me that
connect now, Ejoq. Good, good...okay, here goes...1...2...3..."
"Two minutes!" Genness was as panicked now as me.
"And...main breaker is...on!"
We saw no difference down in the bay, because we'd pulled so many
system controls -- but we'd put a Main Drive shunt in place before we'd
left, which was all that mattered now.
"Punch it, Bayern!" she screamed, but we were moving even before the
bay doors were closed.
There was a big bleed-over from inertials; a couple of G's, and we both
went flying. If I hadn't had a helmet on, I'd have fractured my skull
against the bulkhead -- and as it was, I was seeing so many stars I
thought I was still outside. Sally hit off a corner of the battery,
then slammed into a storage rack so hard she yelped like a puppy.
Waiting for a nuke to blow has a weird way of simultaneously slowing
time to a crawl and accelerating it to light speed; a hideous
subjective/objective relativistic melding, with abject terror as an
There was a sudden shudder that I recognized immediately.
"What the ..." Bayern said, then, "...oh, no! It wasn't me, I didn't
fire, I swear it!"
"I know, I know," I assured him. "The incoming has crossed a threshold
I listed as one of my autofiring criteria. Our missiles will be
tracking back along the incoming heat trails. They're heading out to Ponte.
What's the ETA on those?"
"Looks like...eleven...no, twelve minutes," Genness replied. "Our toys
are a little faster. Just forty seconds until theirs arrives, still on
target for Daaf'Qa."
"Oh, man. Bayern?"
"Drive's at full acceleration...it'll be close. I just want to say that
it has been a pleasure and a privilege to be your commanding officer,
and that if we don't make it out of here ..."
"Bayern," I warned, "better shut up with this annoying crap, 'cause we
might just live, and then I'd have to beat you with a power cable."
"Uh, um, right ..."
"Fifteen seconds," Genness whispered.
There was a stiff jarring, and the acceleration dropped off immediately.
I waited for something nastier to happen. We all did, because in an
atmosphere, we'd have been blown apart like a porcelain jar in a gale;
the efficacy of nuclear weapons in vacuum is of a magnitude smaller,
though -- and therefore much more dependent upon accuracy.
"Engines are off," Bayern said at last. "I'm getting an EMP warning."
"Oh, yeah...no engine casings," I replied, after a low groan. "The rest
of the boat is shielded, though. Computer will run a hard reset
automatically. Should just be a few minutes."
"Sensors should do the same, but right now we're blind up here,"
Genness put in. "If Ponte's still moving along the same
trajectory, at the same speed, I think we have an ETA of about eight
minutes with our missiles."
"Oh, Ponte will be on the move, all right. Get sensors up and running
as soon as you can. Sally and I'll get the weapons back online."
Sally's lack of comment made me turn and look. She floated at a weird
angle in front of the rack she'd hit, and was unmoving except for a
slow drift. I swore and turned her over. Her eyes were rolled back, and
she looked gray. I keyed the air cycle for the supply bay, but that was
going to take long minutes.
"Sally's hurt! I'll need help down here as soon as we're pressurized!"
"How is she?" Genness asked with tense urgency.
"I can't tell yet...unconscious...maybe a seizure. She hit hard at
take-off. Have the shock kit handy, okay?"
"Taking proper hold during movement is a basic responsibility of each
crew member," Bayern stated. "Um...who's the Primary Medic?"
"Sally!" Genness and I both shouted, and I added a few expletives about
his management skills that I thought she would appreciate. "I'm Secondary
Med, and Genness is Tertiary. Genness, we still have four minutes 'til
you can get in here. Reset what you can with the sensors, and get those
actives up too. Bayern, cover sensors and comm when he leaves, and keep
your weather eye open for heat trails."
A few long moments crawled by in silence.
"I...I have actives," Genness finally announced. "You're right, Ponte's
accelerating, and...NO! Those dirty backstabbers! I count two...check
that, three inbound heat trails...and they have a lock on us already."
"What?! Already?! That's impossible! Get down here, Gen! Thirty seconds
until the pressure cycle is done. Sally needs help, but I have to
reconnect the weapon power nodules as soon as I can get inside!"
Half a minute, and it crawled. Sally's breathing seemed labored; mine certainly
was. Gen, headset on and wired for sound, was at the window in the
airlock door, looking almost as pained as Sally did, while Bayern was
acting way too take-charge for comfort up there in the cockpit. The
moment the pressure indicator showed green, I tore open the door and
pushed passed Genness. I popped my face plate as I swam through the
main companionway to the correct maintenance hatch, then popped that
too and sent the plastic covering sailing down the main companionway
like a discus. I heard Bayern yelp and swear through the open hatchway
to the bridge, so my aim was good, anyway. I only hoped that it would
"How's Sally?" I asked as I worked.
"Doesn't look good, Ejoq. I've given her something for the shock, but I
think she has a concussion. There might be other problems, but I can't
tell while she's in the suit. I need help here."
"We all need help here. Do what you can. Where're those incomings right
"Uh, ETA...looks like six minutes. They're moving really fast, and
still gaining. Can you intercept them?"
"I'm gonna try, but our ordinance isn't rated for anti-missile defense.
These incomings may be nukes too, in which case they'll blow when
they're within 100 meters of us; but if their onboard nav gear is any
good at all, they might hit spot on, and at these speeds they wouldn't
even need warheads to splatter us. What's Ponte doing?"
"Looks like they've changed course a little, and are outward bound
under full drive power. Their flight path...er ..."
"What is it? Don't waste time!"
"Well, if I didn't know better, I'd say Ponte was getting ready
for starjump. That doesn't make sense, though: they're still inside the
gravity shadow. There's a good chance of a misjump if they go now."
"They want out of here in a big way. Real pirates would be more willing
to fight. This whole thing's a setup!"
"What do you mean?"
"Never mind. How are engines?"
"Looks like...yes! Online! Do we run for it?"
"Negative! The missiles are too fast. Just watch the sensors, and
power-up engines. Be ready for evasives on my call!"
I'd been talking as I brought up my tactical boards and fire control
interface, and began running them through a quickie diag. Everything
looked good enough to offer hope, which, therefore, made me
hope I still had room in the biowaste bag. The gloves were in the way,
so I spent a full minute disconnecting them and sending them off; by
this point we had so much unsecured stuff floating around, I didn't
care about it. I was acting and reacting, but I had no illusions.
I tweaked one of our two outgoings towards a point I thought Ponte
might want to reach before risking her jump. The other one, I throttled
back for ten seconds, then brought up its propellant burn again, along
with a tiny course correction. That put the first missile in front of Ponte's
projected path, and the other one right on target but delayed just
enough to give them time to make a rash decision: if the risk of a
misjump was higher for them further in, then that's exactly where I
wanted them to try it.
"Ejoq...I'm reading a graviton discharge from Ponte," Bayern
said. "They're jumping. I just don't get it...it's way too early."
"They don't have a choice. What are the odds of a misjump from there?"
"I have no idea but...okay, here's the spike. Good jump or bad, they're
So that was that. I spared the vindictive space of a heartbeat hoping Ponte
and her crew had been torn apart at the molecular level and scattered
across years of time and parsecs of space, as was theorized to happen
in catastrophic misjumps. Then I had the incomings on a hard lock, and
was gratified to see a close formation, even after all that distance. I
rotated Dame Minnie's forward missile packs in both tubes, and
fired simultaneously. I held my breath for a count of eleven, then hit
the autodestruct for them. They disappeared as tight contact points
from my screens, and became widening clouds.
"Oh, Ejoq! I'm gunning it!" Bayern had seen our only defensive weapons
just blow up on sensors, and had a terrified echo in his voice, like a
scared bird singing.
"Wait for it!"
"I said wait!"
And then two of the three incomings on the tacboard winked out when
they hit my impromptu debris field. The third one, though, slipped
through it like a ghostly thing, and I shouted hard.
"Now, now, now!"
I was slammed against my harness hard, inertials bleeding shamelessly,
then mostly felt my stomach get tossed to the side, up, down, and over.
Then my spleen and eyeballs alike tried to jump out of my body, and I
could only hope that Genness had secured Sally well. A serene,
agonizing silence followed for several seconds, wherein I fully
expected to become part of a rapidly expanding ball of plasma, but I
finally let out a sigh when it stretched on. The tacboard showed a
small mass of debris on the final missile's former track, moving out
obliquely in a messy wave of scrap.
"What happened to it? Bayern...?"
"I'm not sure...I was dodging, but it kept compensating, so I pulled a
tighter angle. It altered course again on a wide arc, and then just
"Ha! Gee strain! Fantastic job, Bayern!"
He coughed in shock, and I think, appreciation, and then immediately
launched into a sermon about teamwork. Genness cut him off before I
"All clear? If so, get down here, Ejoq. Sally's not looking good, and
med isn't my bailiwick."
It wasn't mine either, but I'd had some training. I couldn't do much
for her while I was still in the suit, so I took the time to get out of
it, telling Genness to do the same for her before I got back down to
the big stowage bay. She was in her skivvies by the time I did arrive,
and pale, though her breathing was more regular. She moaned, but wasn't
"Watch the right arm," Gen said. "She cried out when I took the suit
off. I think it might be broken."
The funny angle she held it at spoke of volumes of pain.
"It's dislocated," I said, but I checked for breaks anyway. Finding
none, I told Genness to hold her tight. I grabbed her arm and pulled,
and she screamed and seemed almost to come to, spitting my name and
cursing soundly. She was out cold for sure after that, though, and Gen
and I moved her back to her cabin. I gave her a shot for pain, mixed
with a sedative, and we left her bungeed to her bunk, fully asleep at
There was a lot of work to do before any of us could take the time to
stand vigil. I drafted Genness because I needed an extra pair of hands
in a couple of places. We worked in silence for the most part, except
when I gave him instructions on what to hold, or press, or lift. My
intention was that with just one of these batteries aboard, I'd focus
on getting the basics up and running again before pressing for
convenience. Plumbing and general power access would be next. Gen was
"Are you mad at me?" I asked at last.
He replied quickly, and with conviction, though he didn't look at me at
"I said that we shouldn't do this from the start, and now Sally's been
seriously injured. Don't be silly, Ejoq, of course I'm mad at you."
"You ought to know...I'd never intentionally hurt her," I countered
with embarrassment, because I found myself choaking up suddenly. "We
needed that battery, Gen. What choice did we have? Besides, you
of all people have no right to complain about putting others at risk!"
I hadn't meant to say it just then...I'd wanted to wait until we were
back, and say it to the proper authorities.
He stopped holding and stared at me for a long moment.
"Do you want to qualify that?" he asked, very low and very
evenly -- almost flat.
I didn't, but now I had to.
"Ponte knew Daaf'Qa's location well enough to target it.
Their missile had a lock from the start. At their distance, with Daaf'Qa's
stealth suite, and as powered down as we were, they'd have needed
military grade scanning equipment to detect either of us. But a quality
analysis of their sensor wash showed that those guys were just using
off-the-shelf stuff -- and no matter what kind of enhancement
algorithms they might have had running, it wouldn't have been enough
for combat purposes on the fly like that. Not unless they knew exactly
where to look."
"They could have been tracking our personnel comm signals, despite what
I thought," he replied in the same dead voice. "And we'd contacted them
directly several times as it was."
"Tight beams only, which are easy enough to draw a bead on, but we
changed directions after that. Ponte didn't have a basis for
triangulating our signal. Or did they...?"
"There are a dozen ways to figure out a spacecraft's location that I
can think of just off the top of my head. You're talking nonsense."
"Probably, in which case you have my apologies. But if I'm not,
Genness, then I only have one question...why did your partners on Ponte
Easy-going Genness suddenly wasn't easy or going; he stood there like a
storm cloud: dark, patient, quiet but for a distant rumble.
"I don't know what you're talking about Ejoq."
"I think you do. Ponte may not have had a great sensor suite
aboard, but Daaf'Qa sure did, along with a bona fide AI to
analyze the readings. Even powered down like we were it should have picked us up on its
passive systems immediately. I'm guessing that it did, but that it had
been told not to bother us unless we bothered it. We bothered it, so it
tried to fire on us. But you run the sensors. You run
comp systems. If I hadn't spotted that proximity alert by accident, Daaf'Qa
would have slipped in completely unnoticed, and could have met up with Ponte
without the rest of us ever knowing about it until we got back to
Deegman. I did notice it though, and you knew I would have
followed it up if you'd tried to play it off as a ghost contact or a
glitch, so you had no choice but to treat it as seriously as we did."
I took a breath to gauge his reaction, but he still had none. I went on.
"If it all went well for you, it would have been a big knock against
the fledgling Deegman defense program, and we would have been
at the center of the storm. Well, some of us, anyway: I'm thinking
you have another identity to step into back there, or maybe a ticket
off-planet. The point is, there was a fake pirate attack planned. Daaf'Qa
jumps in on its own, and Ponte purposely meets up with it. They
send out bogus distress calls to Deegman. Then they shift their cargo
load to the other ship, and the crew messes up the interior to look
like a struggle occurred. Maybe they concoct some internal data records
to make it look like the pirates got inside; or perhaps the crew
donates a couple of cc's of blood each, and splatter it around for good
effect; stuff like that. However it gets rigged, Ponte is
abandoned, and the crew transfers to Daaf'Qa and jumps away,
easy as you please. I'm willing to bet that most, if not all, the
attacks have been scams since the beginning. A campaign like this must
have been planned a long time in advance, so you guys probably had to
think of something fast once it was made public knowledge that a Bechel
was being outfitted for anti-piracy. Maybe Daaf'Qa couldn't be
reprogrammed in time, or maybe you were worried about it getting
damaged in a real engagement with Dame Minnie. Why bother with
violence at all, though, if you could pull your scam again and
discredit the defense program at the same time? I figure that that's
where you came in: your job was to make sure this all went off
without any interference from us."
"Why would anyone go to the expense and trouble of staging a fake
"Business, of course. A campaign like this just might be part of some
company's long-term strategy. I haven't had time to research the
consortium that owns -- or, rather, owned -- Daaf'Qa, but I'll
bet they're in a sweet position to profit from the fear produced by all
the so-called pirate attacks here. Maybe they sell private security
services; maybe they sell insurance; who knows? Any way you cut it,
scared, desperate people are willing to spend freely for peace of mind,
and Deegman's economy is starting to dive because of this climate of
"That's all wild conjecture, Ejoq," he responded, no more life in him
than before, and I've got to admit, his deadpan was starting to get
creepy. "You can't prove a word of it."
That was true enough, but I do stupid things when I'm pissed off --
like tell the truth.
"No? Well, weapons weren't the only toys I had in my duffel, Gen. I
jacked a bunch of inline microcorders into the comm and comp systems
all over the boat back when we were still doing the outbound
shake-down. See, I thought they'd be a good insurance policy for us
poor working slobs in case the owners tried to withhold our bonuses by
claiming that we hadn't been doing our jobs out here; it's happened to
me before. When Deegman admin downloads Dame Minnie's records,
the recorders will dump their data too as backup files. Any
discrepancies between the logs entered by the crew and that backup data
will get flagged and displayed first thing. And since portside S.O.P.
is to download a vessel's mission data during its final approach,
Deegman Security Corps could easily have an unfriendly welcome party
waiting for us when we dock."
He seemed to be thinking about it very, very carefully. Then, slowly
and deliberately, as he floated silently in the companionway, he took
out a short serrated knife from a sleeve pocket of his jumper. It might
have been small, but it looked sharp and cruel to me, as did Genness
"And where are all those microcorders?" His soft tone held a
sector of menace in it, even though he hadn't changed or modulated it
in any way.
Even so, I smiled. Not because I was felt cocky or thought the
situation was especially funny, but because I was relieved: until that
moment, I really had no idea if I was right. I'd felt guilty for
thinking ill of him, half-believing that it was jealousy over his
relationship with Sally. But now I felt vindicated.
"Put the knife down, Genness. Dame Minnie needs a crew, and
we're still a long way from home."
"I'm rated for more skills than my curriculum vitae would have
you believe," he replied. "Running this boat by myself would not be
impossible -- merely difficult. And, truthfully, killing you wouldn't
even be that. But if we can come to an agreement, we can avoid
unpleasantries. You're very resourceful, Ejoq...I have to say I'm quite
impressed. Your skills and ingenuity, to say nothing of your leadership
capabilities, could fetch an impressive pay rate in the right circles,
and I can make those kinds of introductions."
"If I keep my mouth shut, you mean. I'm not a pirate, Genness. Is
it Genness, by the way?"
"No, of course not. This isn't piracy -- that's rarely profitable, and
certainly inelegant. For now, let's just say we're contractors who
specialize in...situations requiring finesse."
"And you think of nuclear weapons as the tools of finesse?!"
He gave a sigh and a slight shake of his handsome head.
"For the record, Ponte was piloted by its original crew, not
colleagues of mine. They were in trouble with their finance company,
and amenable to a deal. Recruiting them like we did was a service to
Deegman, really: Ponte had done its share of real piracy in the
past to make ends meet, and I believe they came to Rilltule for that
purpose from the onset. But civilians -- corrupt ones, especially --
are unreliable. I signaled them to sit tight and wait for my all clear,
but they must have panicked. My employers don't care for loose ends, so
if Ponte somehow survived that jump, it will be tracked down
and confronted in due course."
I laughed, and actually started working on the water pipe again. "And
you really think I'm strack enough to be a merc?"
"Part of the rank and file? No. But that would be a horrid waste of
your talents, anyway. You positively excel at the unexpected, and
that's a rare gift. Now, I won't lie to you...about this anyway...my
mission is a flop precisely because of you. But there's still a
little hope for some personal profit: we get a recruitment bonus for
bringing good people into the company. It's a really progressive
outfit. We have above-standard pay rates, full life and medical
coverage, profit sharing, and a lot of little incentives like this
recruitment thing. People like you and me, we'd be on our own most of
the time. Good teams even form their own tactical approaches to the
company's strategies. It can be a nice life, Ejoq."
The knife he still held at the ready had a another thing to add about
"You'll be wanting the microcorders, of course," I responded, at last.
"Yes, that's certainly a condition. But I can even get you a quick ride
off Deegman, once we get back...a company transport is in dock now --
not that anyone knows it as such -- and it'll be leaving soon after Dame
Minnie docks, whenever that turns out to be. Top accomodations,
with a cabin of your own; 'Associate' status, which entitles you to a
pay differential for the trip out, regardless of whether or not you get
hired; and, believe it or not, some half-way decent ship food."
I have to say, that sounded sweet. A good gig that tapped my skills and
respected my abilities? One that maybe payed well? One that would get
me out of Rilltule system for good, and with some pocket change yet?
"What about the others? Even assuming we actually get our bonuses from
this cruise, money on Deegman doesn't last long."
"Well, Bayern's a fine pilot," he replied with a shake of his head,
"but I mean, really! The man could exasperate a corpse without trying
-- or even knowing it. This is a company of people, and he's just about
the worst people person I've ever met. Anyway, he has ties here...an
active career and such."
"Okay then, what about Sally? She's really good, and she'll need the
He didn't respond right away, and then sighed again quietly.
"I was going to approach her about it when we were on our way back to
Deegman. Honestly! I've grown quite fond of her these last couple of
weeks...and I have nothing but respect for her skills and courage. But
now that she's been hurt...well, I don't know. The company won't hire
somebody who's wounded. It's a policy. I mean, as employees, we're
always on the go. No company can afford to bring someone in who can't
pull a profit right away. I mean, they just wouldn't go for it."
"It's only a dislocation, I think. Well, maybe a slight concussion too.
She can be up and running in no time."
"Ejoq, if it were my call, there'd be no question. But I don't do the
hiring, and, ah...there's this secrecy policy in place. If I bring
someone in who can't possibly be hired, well..."
He let that hang, and I let it go.
"That's not the only reason, is it?"
"What do you mean?"
"C'mon! You're a good-looking guy, half her age. You don't bunk alone
when you're back with the company fleet, am I right?"
At least he had the decency to blush a little.
"Ejoq...this job isn't always easy. I mean, you have to see that. Yes,
there is...someone. But a domestic partnership among professionals is
always a challenge."
"So Sally gets left behind on an airless rock simply because she'd make
you feel uncomfortable? Are you really that much of a heel?"
"Please, I intend to put some money into her account so she can book
passage elsewhere...it's not like she'd be a vagrant or something."
"That's not what I'm talking about, and you know it."
"I know you're in love with her yourself, Ejoq. But you can't let that
cloud your objectivity. You could have a stellar career with us, but
the plain fact is that everything has a cost. Honestly, I don't
understand the implied point, and this shouldn't be a hard decision for
you. A professional does what needs to be done. But it takes more than
skill and ingenuity to be one. You have to think like one."
I kept working for a long time, running through the plumbing resets,
and doing diags, and I didn't even stop working when I finally answered.
"No I don't. In fact, I won't. Kill me, and you'll never find
all the recorders, no matter how hard you try. That's a guarantee. And
you'll have to kill Sally and Bayern too, because there's no way to
hide my death. You say you can fly the boat alone? Well, super for you.
But you can't stop an inquiry without me. Maybe you're thinking
that you'll figure out a way to get at the boat's core records. But you
won't. Better minds -- an army of them, over the course of generations
-- have dedicated themselves to the security of core records on space
vessels. You can destroy the data block, maybe, but you'll never breach
it. And destroying it in such a way as to convince everyone back on
Deegman that Dame Minnie got hit in the fight would be a long
shot at best. Either way, you'd miss your flight out...and I'm guessing
there wouldn't be another."
He pursed his lips, in a sour face, and thought for a bit.
"What do you want, then?"
"Sally and Bayern get ten times their Dame Minnie sign-on pays
deposited into their accounts before we dock."
"Be serious! I don't have that kind of money..."
"Then make it happen! You steal it, get an advance from these
great employers of yours, or sell your soul -- whatever it takes. They
deserve it, and you're going to give it to them. Bayern's a numskull,
but he came through for us when the heat was on. And Sally is good
people -- the best, in fact...even if she has rotten taste in men."
"And what do you want? Blackmail is a bad way to apply for a
"You make it sound like an exclusive club," I replied tightly, "but if
they'd hire you, they're just a bunch of pirates after all. Do
this for Sally and Bayern, and you get the recorders. Nothing more out
of you, nothing less out of me."
His frown held for long moments, but at last he pursed his lips and
slid his little knife back into his sleeve. "This will nearly wipe me
out, Ejoq. No mission bonus, no recruitment bonus, and most of my
savings. Plus, we're sure to lose the contract with the investment
consortium who hired us. It puts me in a tight corner. You're not being
That did it.
"Don't you dare try to play the morality card here! I don't
offend easily, but that would really push it! You've been playing
everybody for a patsy from the very beginning: from those mining
jamokes on Deegman, all the way up to the woman you've been sleeping
with -- and whose life your actions imperiled. You have no high
ground here to argue from; just drop it so we can get some bleeding
work done, alright?! That water line needs adjusting -- hold your end
up. Higher. Higher, I said! And use both hands..."
He was looking very unhappy, even sulky, but he'd put away his weapon,
held the line like I told him to, and, overall, seemed a lot less
I picked up a medium spanner and tested its size on the water line. It
was too big for that job, but not the one I really needed it for.
I smacked "Genness" in the left temple as hard as I could manage, but
he had the kind of reflexes I could only dream about, and was able to
pull back from most of the blow. He rebounded off the bulkhead, and I
hit him again across the back, though I started spinning. I steadied
myself with my free hand, and he struggled to do the same. He was
groggy, but he sure had experience, because his knife was out again
He lunged wildly, and I was able to push him away with the spanner. He
was getting his full senses back fast, though, which was bad news for
"That was stupid, Ejoq, but cunning. My...compliments. I take it you
actually don't like the idea of a deal." He jumped for me, but
"Oh, I could live with one, if you'd let me. You can't afford to do
that, though. You'd show me some bank statements that would "prove"
you'd coughed up all the money. I'd give you the recorders. We'd file
our carefully written reports and go through our debriefings. Then, a
week or two after we got back, I'd get a knife in the back, and Sally
would still be poor and stranded. Go ahead and tell me I'm wrong."
I had kept moving slowly, but I was at the main corridor now, with a
lot more room for him to move. Blood streamed off his head, and clung
to his thick, tangled hair for a bit before detaching itself and
floating away in heavy red globules, like misshapen berries. His face
was pale, and deader than deadpan.
"No sense in that. We have trust issues, you and I."
Then he slid at me through the air like weightless oil, and I batted at
him like a dying willow in a stiff breeze. He didn't go for the kill
immediately, so I thought he was wary of the spanner. But I was
watching the knife as he moved, and I didn't see his free hand until it
sort-of blurred in front of me, flipping the spanner out of my
white-knuckled grip as if we'd rehearsed it. It clattered against a
bulkhead, and cartwheeled away -- and as I watched it go, I felt a cold
thing at my throat.
"Ah...yes! Well, you got me! Ha-ha! Sorry about that, but I had to try,
"No, you didn't, though I'll admit your reasoning was sound. So...it's
sooner rather than later for you? Just as well."
No twitch or change in his expression. No sneer or angry smile. The
small cold thing he held under my left ear became a point of absolute
and total concentration, and it went from being simply cold, to being
hot and edged in a millisecond.
And then there was a loud, crackly snap from behind us, and the man
before me just dropped back with clenched eyes, like a stressed rag
doll. He drifted at an angle, but didn't otherwise move a muscle.
Further down the companionway, Bayern sidled out from around a corner.
He held a small stunner in a classic one-arm-out-supported-by-the-other
pose, made famous by an age of adventure vids. His face was set, and he
didn't waver a centimeter in his aim at the man who called himself
Genness. He moved closer, coming up behind and touching his target
gently with one foot, stunner still set to fire. There was no reaction.
The knife drifted freely nearby, and he caught it deftly and pocketed
it. He then took out some tapecuffs from a leg pocket, and cinched the
stunned man's hands and feet together. He glanced at me a few times
while he worked, but didn't say anything. The silence was deafening,
and I was exhausted.
"So, you really do have multiple personalities. You're,
what...a secret agent?"
"Deegman Security Corps. We had intelligence that indicated there was a
piratical agent aboard this cruise, but we didn't know who. His
background checked out, just the same as yours and Sally's, so the only
thing to do was to put someone in undercover."
"How long did you suspect him?"
"I didn't. I suspected you. I heard raised voices, and came to
look...and listen. When did you figure him out?"
"When Ponte opened fire, I knew he must have been talking to
"That could have been me, perhaps."
"Yeah, well, no offense, but the dumb guy act was pretty convincing."
He smiled wryly, but declined to comment. We stowed Genness, or
whatever his name was, in a small maintenance closet amidships until we
could do a thorough search of his cabin for any hidden weapons or comm
devices (and we found several of each). I was dead on my feet, and
figured Dame Minnie could wait a sleep shift or two before
throwing any more surprises at me.
I looked in on Sally before racking out. She lay strapped to her bunk,
sleeping almost serenely, unmoved from the last time I'd seen her
except for a glob of spittle that hovered near her slack jaw. I left in
a hurry when I realized that the bad guy had been right.
I expected to hear a lot of flack over all the damage to the boat, once
we started making reports back to Deegman, but we got just the opposite
reaction. We began tight-beaming as soon as we had all the basic
systems online. I didn't want to risk draining the battery out by
putting AG back on, but Sally did some number crunching, and decided
that we could run at 1/2 G and still have a healthy safety margin.
She was up and at 'em again within two shifts, despite her injuries --
which is good, because I slept for three straight. I let Bayern fill
her in on what happened when she got up, at least the broad strokes. I
wondered what her reaction to a competent and intelligent Bayern would
be. I wondered what mine would be, since we still had weeks
ahead of us together.
It turned out that he was a pilot in the SecCorps' investigative
branch, and had seen his share of bad guys closer in. This was his
first assignment so far out, but not his first undercover operation. He
had a dry sense of humor, and an appreciation for the delicacy of the
relationships involved. In other words, he was a completely different
guy, and I liked him.
Bayern had shifted "Genness" back to his own cabin while I was asleep,
and he used a Captain's Code I never knew about to lock him in. The two
of us delivered the prisoner's meals and took his dirty linens for the
rest of the cruise. He was well-behaved, but sang his job offer tune a
couple more times, to no effect. Sally never saw or spoke with him
again, that I know of.
She did think of him, though, I'm sure. We all had lots of time to
think. That is, until we got closer in to Deegman, and the time lag in
communications shortened to a reasonable level. Then we had more and
more live reports to file. We were actually debriefed a half-dozen
times before docking, and it was just the beginning.
But it wasn't the only one.
Bayern made a point of apologizing to Sally for his asinine behavior on
the way out. She didn't believe him at first, and continued to treat
him like an annoying bug for a while, but eventually she saw a
different guy in place of her ex-husband's foolish lookalike. By the
time we docked, they were inseparable.
We got paid our contract fees, plus a triple bonus for cracking the
so-called pirate ring. We were minor celebrities for a while; you know,
the avengers of Deegman, saviors of the spacelanes, blah-blah-blah.
They put the guy who'd called himself Genness in an isolation cell so
fast that I'm not sure he ever got a trial -- nobody asked me
to testify, anyway.
They wanted to send the rest of us back out as soon as Dame Minnie
got all her repairs completed (along with some much-needed upgrades),
but our contracts were for one cruise only, and I'd had enough. So did
the others, it seemed, because the owners ended up recruiting a whole
bevy of eager beavers from which they could crew Dame Minnie
indefinitely -- local talent all, and, I guess, bona fide patriots.
Rumor at the time had it that the companies that owned Dame Minnie
intended to buy a couple more old junks and build themselves up a
defense fleet. They were certainly overdue for a more serious view on
the issue of self-protection; and a victory, even a little shabby one
like this, seemed to be just what they needed to fan the limp spark of
Whatever. It was still a backwater to me, and I wanted a ticket to
civilization. It wasn't long at all before shipping got up to speed
again, and I got myself a position on a corporate superliner (helped
considerably by a frothing reference from Deegman).
I called Sally before I left. I figured she might want a job, and I
thought I could probably get her something on the same ship. Bayern was
there with her when she picked up, though, and he'd had her laughing
about something, so I just turned it into a goodbye call. As it turned
out, he had already gotten her a really good spot with SecCorps
maintenance -- a steady, permanent position watching over the
contracted civvie schnooks who did all the upkeep on their vessels. The
two of them wished me the very best, and begged me to come back for a
visit someday. I promised that I would, and we all smiled at the lie.
The superliner didn't seem to really need me, truth be told. I was
given the title of 'Third Assistant Defensive Officer', or some
nonsense like that, and I did little more each work shift than show up
and run simulations. I used the gym regularly, and lost some weight. I
sat and let the days, and then the weeks, and then the months pass.
I don't know why, but this time, the waiting wasn't so bad.
Copyright © by David Collins-Rivera
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