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Published: July 8 2018

    Joseph kept a close watch on the corvette and the clock. The first he was watching for any sign of aggression. The second he watched to know how long they had left. Twenty minutes remained until the Devastator would arrive.
    Considering the way they had provoked the pirates, it was only a matter of time before something was fired their way. They knew for certain the corvette carried guns and missiles. Those were bad enough, but they were not the only weapons available, and the ship might have more.
    After that call, Tyrone had adjusted the pace of their approach slightly. The original plan to arrive at almost the same time as the Devastator had called for the maximum acceleration their ship could produce. Now they had slowed, trying not to get quite that close until the warship arrived. The goal was to hold the corvette’s attention without coming close enough that the commander decided to address the threat. They didn’t want the pirate vessel changing position, and especially not coming towards them. For all their tough talk, getting into a firefight with that ship was a very bad idea.
    Joseph glanced again at the HUD timer, but it had only been a few seconds since his last look. Still, it was reassuring to finally see a small number there. When they had started that count, Joseph had expected the Comet to be breached and the corvette ready to leave by now, with Tyrone and himself potentially dead.
    “Anything happening yet?” Tyrone asked.
    “Not yet.” Joseph scanned the monitors as he had a second before, alert for any change. “I expected them to do something by now. I’m sure they have more missiles.
    “Well, no news is good news on that front. Whatever number of missiles they’re carrying is a number I can live without seeing. How long do you think they’ll wait to start shooting at us? The fighters were firing at us from way too far, just to see what we’d do.”
    “Hard to say. I’d be willing to bet they have a better understanding of the corvette’s weaponry. The fighters probably aren’t quite as disposable to him as the gunmen, but turnover might still be high.”
    The comm link with the Devastator was still open, but there wasn’t much conversation flowing between them for the moment. The radio officer was the only one paying attention to the link. The warship’s bridge was a flurry of activity as they made preparations of their own.
    “Devastator, what’s your plan of attack once you’re in system?” Observing the bustle on the bridge, Joseph realized he didn’t actually know yet. “I saw you were coming out of FTL very close to the corvette, but that’s all I really know.”
    “We’ll give them an ultimatum as we’re arriving so that they have an opportunity to surrender,” the radio officer replied. “They won’t have long to take us up on it. If the ship starts maneuvering or they don’t give an affirmative response in about thirty seconds, we’ll open fire. Our engineers are fairly certain they’ve isolated the FTL drive, so we’ll target that. Captain Meyer doesn’t want any chance of them escaping.”
    “That’s not a surprise, given what they’ve already done.”
    The computer started beeping a warning at him, and he jerked his head around to check it. His mouth went dry as he spotted the cause, and he turned sharply back toward the gunnery console.
    “What’s the noise about?” the radio officer asked.
    “The corvette is firing missiles at us.” Joseph mentally listed the options they had for countering the attack. “This could get a little bumpy.”
    “If you need something from me let me know,” Tyrone said. Joseph hoped he wouldn’t, most of what the pilot could do to avoid missiles was dodging. He’d much rather shoot them down before they were that close.
    Freighters usually spent more time escaping attacks than executing them. In keeping with that, Garden Variety Animal was equipped with a much larger selection of defensive options than offensive. Guidance jamming, flares, lasers and mines were all available, as well as a small number of potent interceptor missiles.
    Following the same pattern as their last such attack, the corvette had launched two missiles with a brief pause between them. The targeting computer zeroed in on the lead missile. Joseph pointed a wide enough jamming beam to affect both at them. Hopefully it would scramble their guidance systems enough to make them easier targets. It had worked on their first two.
    The missile defense lasers were mounted on the gun turrets alongside the cannons, so Joseph took hold of those controls again. It didn’t take much to provoke the first missile into exploding, still much too far from the Animal to do any damage. The second soon followed.
    “Nice work,” Tyrone said. “That’s four they’ve fired at us now. I wonder how many they have.”
    “More than four, no doubt. No telling how many they used up fighting before we got here.” Joseph primed the first two interceptors in case they were needed. He and Tyrone treated them as a last resort, and had never actually fired one. They were as expensive as they were effective. 
    “We carry twenty offensive missiles,” the radio officer put in. “I can’t imagine they carry much more than that. With that many men on board with nothing to do until they attack a ship, they aren’t likely to have a lot of empty space. It just isn’t that big a ship.”
    “Good point. I’m hoping they’ll have less than that, but it’s a reasonable guess.”
    The pirates didn’t seem inclined to fire again immediately, so Joseph took a moment to check on the Comet. It was alright for now, but there was a cluster of pirates forming around an airlock door. The freighter was slowly but surely running out of ways to knock them off into space.
    The brief calm passed, and the computer beeped its warning at him again. Another pair of missiles were headed toward them. 
    “I hope this two at a time pattern keeps up,” Joseph commented as he aligned their defenses again. “If they start firing four at a time, we’re going to have a lot more trouble destroying them all before they get to us.”
    Jamming didn’t work as effectively against this set, they were more resilient. It took a while to shoot them down, as they kept nudging themselves out of line with the lasers. Once they were destroyed, another pair were already on the way. Fortunately they were less troublesome, and were soon destroyed.
    “I have some good news about their firing pattern,” the radio officer informed him when nearby space was temporarily safe again. “I took a look at the footage from your attack, and was able to locate their missile tubes. There are only two, so they’ll never be able to fire more than two at a time.”
    “Oh good. That’s a relief, I can stop worrying about what happens if there are suddenly four on the screen instead of two. Thanks for finding that.”
    “You’re welcome. The best they can do is reload the tubes quickly, and no matter how good they are that’s a lot more delay. Unfortunately they’re pointed forward, mounted in front of the cargo bay, so you won’t be able to hit them.”
    “We shouldn’t be close enough for that before you get here anyway, as much as I’d like them to stop.”
    Another pair of missiles appeared on the tactical screen, ending further discussion. Once again they were not a challenge to shoot down, but every set was getting closer. It would get worse as the timer ticked down. Joseph could only take them out so fast.
    “Tyrone, I’m going to arm all eight interceptors,” Joseph announced. The pirates had some higher quality missiles as well. If he needed to use an interceptor, he wanted it ready to go immediately.
    “Alright. I was going to suggest that myself, they’re starting to get too close before you can snuff them.” Missiles closed fast enough from behind. Facing these head on left precious little time to deal with them, but it would be plenty for the interceptors. Once fired they needed no further direction. If the pirates started launching missiles faster than he could cope with, the interceptors could take care of it.
    “You only carry eight interceptor missiles?” the radio officer asked. “I guess most freighters would carry none, but most that have them keep a bunch in case some miss.”
    “Ours are fairly high-end.” Joseph watched the systems screen as all the interceptors’ status lights went green. “I’d really only be worried about them missing if we were taking on another Teton Sector ship. We carry eight because that’s how many tubes we have. Our ship wasn’t really designed for extended combat. The interceptor missile tubes available are very basic. They’re mounted on the bottom of the nose and they can’t be accessed from inside to reload.”
    “Ah, I see. Not much point in carrying extra if you can’t load them without landing anyway.”
    A flash on another monitor distracted Joseph. A brief jolt of despair gripped him when he identified it as a cutting torch on the surface of the Comet. The cluster of pirates he’d noticed a little while ago had finally gotten organized enough to try breaching the ship.
    “It’s a good thing you’re getting close, because we’re running out of time.” Joseph pointed out the scene on the feed going to the Devastator.
    The radio officer gave a muted agreement. “At the rate their cutting now it’ll be a few minutes before they get through. We should arrive a few minutes after that.”
    “Hopefully the crew can deal with that group.” Captain Meyer’s voice caught Joseph by surprise. He hadn’t realized he was watching the feed as well. “Or at least hold them back long enough that we jump in and they decide surrender is a better plan.”
    “Assuming that’s the call they make,” Tyrone commented. Based on what they’ve done so far, I don’t have a lot of confidence in that.”
    They might have continued discussing, but Joseph tuned it out at that point. The computer was complaining about incoming missiles again. He destroyed them quickly enough, but it was an unnerving reminder of the diminishing distance between them and the enemy.
    “They left a longer gap between those two salvos,” Tyrone noted. “They’re trying to wait until we’re too close to get both missiles.”
    “Good thing we have a few more tricks to show them then. Hopefully that means they don’t have too many left. They haven’t been great about conserving their resources so far.”
    “Just don’t get hit,” Captain Meyer said. “We’re almost there. If they can’t take you out in the next five minutes, they won’t be able to at all.”
    Joseph glanced at the HUD timer for confirmation. The Devastator was four minutes and thirty-one seconds away. They still didn’t show up on any of the long range sensor equipment, so their trick of coming in from behind the system’s star was working. As long as he and Tyrone survived the next few minutes, they were home free.
    More hopeful than before, he checked on the Comet. The airlock door had been breached, but it was being defended. One flaw in breaching a small door was that it made an easy choke point for the defenders to cover. The fighting was predictably intense. In the few minutes since the door was forced, at least four pirates had been killed trying to enter. Joseph could tell because he could count the bodies floating away from the airlock.
    Garden Variety Animal had drawn still closer to the pirates, and they decided it was enough to fire on them again. This time they were trying to overwhelm the freighter’s defenses. Two more salvos followed on the heels as the first, as fast as the pirates could fire them.
    Joseph managed the first two the same way as before, but there definitely wouldn’t be enough time for the other four. He only hesitated for a split second. Four interceptors shot out to meet the attack. Joseph tracked them with the lasers just in case any did miss their targets, but his earlier confidence in them was borne out. Each destroyed its target.
    “That has to be the last of their missiles, right?” Tyrone pleaded. “I know it’s speculative but that seemed last-ditch, dumping them at us one after another.”
    “I hope so,” Captain Meyer agreed. “If not, it’s past the point of mattering. We’re reverting in forty seconds. Then they’ll find out who really controls this part of space.”

Chapter 27: A Few More Minutes

By Stephen Schamber

In A Starship's Wake

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