WARNING:
CONTENT IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. POSTED SECTIONS MAY UNDERGO EDITING. YE BE WARNED.

In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 26: Turning Back

    Shield power gradually returned as they circled the dwarf planet. Tyrone eyed the indicator a couple times a minute as they recharged. He would probably be looking at it regularly for the rest of their trip. Close encounters with death made him edgy for days afterward. Taking on the pirate fighters had been their second such encounter in two weeks, and there was still time for another today.
    Thankfully, they would have some support in the next fight. White Onyx Devastator would arrive before they could circle back to the corvette, and that was fine with him. The corvette wasn’t going to run out of ammunition.
    Victory would still have been achievable if that hadn’t happened. There was a reason Joseph took the gunner’s station every time the two got into trouble; he excelled in the job. The fact remained however that even the most skilled gunner couldn’t stop the enemy from shooting back. Tyrone didn’t care to think what state Garden Variety Animal would be in with a few more minutes of exchanging fire.
    “How much time do we have before we finish our orbit?” Joseph asked.
    “About ten minutes.”
    “I’m going to head to the back and refill our magazines then.”
    “Are they low?” Tyrone looked back at his partner with some alarm. Had they really used up that much against the fighters? The fight hadn’t seemed quite that long, but Tyrone had been focused on flying.
    “We’re not in danger of running out, but I fired a lot of the mixed plasma and explosive magazine.” Joseph shrugged as he stood from the gunner’s chair. “We prefer that one pretty heavily, so I’d rather have it full. Also, since we just watched someone else run out of ammo, I’d really like full magazines when we get close to the corvette again.”
    At least Tyrone wasn’t the only one developing nervous tics about the status of ship systems. Joseph’s sudden obsession with having full magazines wasn’t entirely reasonable, but neither was his own preoccupation with the shield monitor. “Alright then. I’ll get in touch with the Devastator while you’re gone.” Joseph nodded and left the cockpit.
    Tyrone turned to the comms panel and sent a hail to the warship. The White Onyx Devastator opened the connection instantly, and the radio officer’s helmet appeared on the windshield again. “Garden Variety Animal, are you alright?” Her question came with no preamble whatsoever. They must have been worried.
    “We’re fine. We have a few thrusters damaged or destroyed, but not enough to significantly impair our maneuvering. Beyond that, it’s just nuisance damage. Any change in your ETA?”
    “No, we haven’t made any course changes. We could see from your tactical feeds that you’d been hit, but couldn’t tell how bad the damage was. The captain was concerned you might have lost too much power to break orbit and need us to fish you out of the well.”
    “We didn’t take anything like that kind of damage, thankfully.” Tyrone shook his head. “We plan to leave orbit once we’re facing the Comet again and head back their way. We’ll time our arrival for a minute or two after you revert from FTL so we can support you. I’ll send you our intended course.”
    The Devastator returned theirs as well, and he added the information to the ship’s heads up display. The warship was planning to come out of FTL with barely enough space to come to a stop before hitting the corvette. They would be too close for either ship to fire missiles without hitting themselves, and too close to miss with guns. It was aggressive, designed to force the corvette to back down. If they didn’t, the Devastator was the more powerful vessel by far.
    “Speaking of support, thank you for what you’ve already provided,” a new voice said. The window on the windshield containing the video call split to show Captain Meyer’s position on the Devastator’s bridge as well. “You gave their fighters a good thumping, and I have to say watching you tear up their bay door and engineering department was satisfying.”
    “Good to hear. We had no idea whether that would accomplish anything beyond slowing down the boarding process.”
    “Well, it did that and more.” The captain leaned forward in his chair. “I have a question about that, incidentally. How were you able to predict that they would still try to board the Comet instead of just running away?”
    “We spent some time talking to their leader beforehand. He boasted about never letting go of a ship once it was disabled. It seemed likely he’d try to finish the job, if only to avoid immediately contradicting himself.”
    Tyrone hesitated for a moment, glad they couldn’t see the guilty look on his face. He and Joseph had been pushing the odds with that decision. “We couldn’t really be certain what they would do, but we were certain it would help the Comet. The pirates were, and still are, so sure that no warships were close enough to help that we figured they would stick it out. At least until the Comet shot up whatever boarders they had left.”
    “It’s been a reliable prediction so far,” Meyer nodded. “If they did leave, they can’t have gone far. Am I correct in thinking you haven’t looked over the footage from your attack on the corvette?”
    “You are, we had more pressing things on our minds.”
    “Well, our engineering crew has been looking at it trying to assess the damage. You broke a lot of things in there. They haven’t been able to determine the functions of everything, but they are fairly certain you knocked out a cooling unit for their FTL drive.” Captain Meyer sounded positively gleeful. “They might still be able to jump, but they won’t make it far before they have to drop out and make repairs.”
    “Good. It sounds like we have a strong chance of finishing them off then.”
    “That’s what we’re hoping. How long before you’re able to get line of sight back?”
    Tyrone checked their position. “A little more than five minutes, as long as they’re still there. Keep your fingers crossed and pray the Comet hasn’t been breached yet.”
    “We’ll do that,” the radio officer said, and the captain nodded agreement.
    “I’m hopeful they wouldn’t leave without recovering the two surviving fighters,” the captain added. “That would delay them, but if they don’t realize they’re on a timer there’s no reason not to do it. Even for pirates, just leaving them behind would be pretty cold.”
    “Fairly expensive, too,” Tyrone added.
    “It’ll be nice not to have to fight all of them while we’re dealing with the corvette. The one with the damaged engine probably won’t even make it back by then. Do you know why that last one turned back? They were too far around the planet to hear a recall order from the corvette.”
    “We’re fairly sure he ran out of ammo. My partner Joseph went to the back to refill our magazines, just to be certain we don’t have the same problem.”
    Captain Meyer chuckled. “Trigger discipline is important. It’s a good thing he has it, and even better that they didn’t.”
    “You’ll get no argument from me.” Tyrone’s eyes flicked down to check the shield power again.
    Time passed silently for a few minutes as they waited. Nobody really had anything more to say until they could see the two ships, but there was no point in ending the connection. Joseph returned just seconds before they orbited far enough for visual contact again and slid into the gunner’s seat.
    “I’ve got them,” Joseph said a moment later. “Give me a moment and I’ll get us a good visual.”
    A new window appeared on the windshield and was soon filled with an image of the two ships. Other than a slight widening of the gap between the two ships, they had moved very little since Garden Variety Animal’s disappearance behind the planet. The pirates were staying more or less on top of the freighter, which was now spinning slowly. The crew had probably done that to make it more difficult for boarders to jump onto the hull.
    Space near the two ships was littered with debris. The Comet had taken a pounding from the corvette, and the corvette had taken one from the Animal, so bits and pieces of starship were scattered far and wide. The freighter had ejected every piece of trash or other waste aboard that might impair their attackers.
    Human figures also abounded in the area. Many pirates missed their jumps or were knocked off the freighter’s hull, and they could do nothing but drift in space. For now no effort was being made to collect those who were floating away. New pirate boarders were still jumping regularly from the corvette’s shattered cargo bay.
    “I didn’t expect them to have so many men,” Captain Meyer said. “You killed at least twenty in your attack, and that ship doesn’t look like a troop carrier. They must have them packed in there.”
    “They must,” Joseph agreed. “Give me a second, I’ll get another telescope aligned and have the computer take a count of them.”
    “Their captain seemed confident they would have the numbers when we talked,” Tyrone added. “He said it didn’t matter much that Tetonite crews fight harder than others, he could always pick up more boarders in port.” Tyrone turned back to the navigation computer to check their course. “Not to be rude, but I won’t be paying attention for a moment. It’s almost time for us to break orbit.” Joseph made an affirmative noise, and Tyrone set up a thruster sequence to break them out of the dwarf planet’s gravity.
    By the time he’d finished the maneuvers and could looked up again, Joseph had the search pattern going. The telescope could locate many human figures the crews couldn’t have spotted in the image on the screen. They had drifted too far beyond the Comet. The computer was displaying the count above the widow showing the struggling ships, and flashed an image of each person alongside as it picked them out. 
    Some of the images were more gory than others, showing pirates who had been shot off the hull rather than falling. Tyrone spotted at least one whose faceplate was shattered, probably by a bullet. The computer couldn’t really detect for certain which of the drifters were alive or dead, but the crews could make fair guesses based on the state of the space suits.
    Captain Meyer whistled in astonishment as the count climbed past fifty. It didn’t stop. “That’s a lot of pirates. The Comet’s crew has been busy.”
    “Very,” Joseph agreed. “A few of the dead ones might be from our attack, but most of those fell back into the cargo bay.”
    By the time it was finished, the computer had counted sixty-four pirates drifting beyond the ships and another seventeen on the Comet’s hull. There were probably a few more hidden behind one of the two ships that the computer couldn’t spot, and the corvette wasn’t out of men.
    “There’s no sign of a breach yet.” Captain Meyer tapped the arm of his chair. “The Comet’s crew would be dead by now if they had boarded normally. Even for Tetonites, that’s just too many to fight off. Good thing you two broke the teeth off of that plan. I hope they can keep them out long enough for us to get there.”
    Tyrone reflexively looked to the timer, but his eyes were distracted by the comm board before he registered the numbers. There was an incoming transmission from the pirates. “Devastator, I’m going to mute you,” Tyrone said. “The pirates are calling again, and I don’t want them to realize we’re talking to you. I’ll leave the audio feed to you open.” 
    Captain Meyer nodded agreement. “Let’s hear what he has to say.”
    Tyrone accepted the transmission from the pirates, and the angry face of their leader appeared on the windshield once more. “You should turn back around and keep running. We’ll see to it you don’t survive a second attack. You may have shot down my fighters, but this ship can crush you the way you did them.”
    Knowing nothing of the Devastator’s approach, the pirate was assuming Tyrone and Joseph were making another attack alone. Tyrone cast around for a response that wouldn’t contradict that notion. The only one that came to mind was talking tough. Since the pirate had already fallen into the trap of overconfidence, hopefully he would find it easy to believe his enemy was doing the same.
    “I don’t believe you.” If Tyrone kept his responses to a minimum, he was less likely to give away the trick.
    “Good.” The pirate spread his arms. “I welcome the second chance to kill you. I should have done it the first time around. I offered you the chance to keep on living, and you threw it in my face. Now you offer me the chance to redeem my honor by killing you like the ungrateful cowards you are.”
    “You invited us to come closer. You can hardly complain about the outcome.”
    “Of course I can! I didn’t expect you to betray me! You’re as dishonorable as you are cowardly.”
    “Your perceptions are warped. Striking an enemy is not a betrayal. Helping your countrymen isn’t dishonorable. Attacking a ship twice the size of your own isn’t cowardly.”
    “It is when what we expected was appropriate gratitude for not attacking you! If we had expected attack your ship would have been incapable of hurting us at all.”
    “I doubt it.” Tyrone put as much contempt behind the lie as he could. “Your ship isn’t nearly as formidable as our first look at it suggested. We are coming, and we will kill you.”
    “Believe what you like,” the pirate sneered. “One of us is about to be wrong, and it’s not me.” He cut the connection.
    “Well, technically he’s not wrong.” Tyrone unmuted the audio from the Devastator. “He just doesn’t have the whole picture.”
    “Well, he’ll have it soon enough,” Captain Meyer said. “As long as it’s not soon enough for him to do anything about it, I’m happy.”

Published: July 1 2018

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© 2019 by Stephen Schamber