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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 30: Grateful Assembly

    Tyrone was groggy all through dinner aboard White Onyx Devastator. Luckily nobody really noticed, because everyone there was too preoccupied with eating. The fact that any or all of them might not have been here to eat this meal still weighed heavily on everyone. Even for the crew of the warship, death had been a strong possibility.
    Lucid though had mostly returned by the time the crews started talking, and there was plenty to discuss. Not one of the three groups really had the complete story, and all were eager to hear what had happened aboard the other ships.
    Half the crew of Bolinscar Red Comet were in the mess hall, including Captain Freidrich. The rest were in the warship’s infirmary, waiting for the border guard prison transport to arrive. It would ferry them to better medical facilities on its way to deliver the pirates.
    The captain told the story of being forced out of Faster Than Light travel. At first they thought it was some kind of malfunction, and by the time they recognized they were under attack the long range communication system had been destroyed. Learning the details of their short battle with the corvette was disquieting. Tyrone knew that under similar conditions Garden Variety Animal would fare no better.
    Taking it in turns, Joseph and Tyrone related their parts of the story. Fragments of the Comet’s short-range distress signal somehow reached their ship and triggered a split-second alarm. They stopped to investigate more carefully, which led them into the Kupier belt of the deserted system and the discovery of the stricken freighter. How close a thing it had been that they picked up the signal at all was lost on nobody.
    “Thank God you stopped and came back to listen harder,” Captain Freidrich said. Her crew murmured agreement.
    “And that we weren’t already too late,” Tyrone added. “When we first arrived we thought we were. None of what we did would have changed the outcome if the Devastator hadn’t been so close by either.”
    Captain Fredrich grimaced. “Well they were, so let’s not dwell on that too long. I’ve spent enough time thinking about it today to last the rest of my life.”
    The Devastator’s radio officer, whose name they now knew was Anna, told them what happened aboard the warship while it was in transit. She didn’t go that deeply into most of what they did, dismissing it as “details critical in preparation, but very boring after the fact.” Still, she had plenty of interesting things to tell them about.
    “We did get a report back about other encounters they had with ships in the Teton Sector. They’ve carried out twenty-four known attacks, ten of those successful.”
    “Wow.” Joseph’s dismayed shock was echoed on every face. “That’s a lot of attacks.”
    “A high success rate too,” Captain Freidrich added. “Twenty-four attacks...over how long?”
    “The first was more than a year ago,” Anna answered.
    “That’s a long time. Why hasn’t anyone managed to catch them before now?” Freidrich asked. “We were able to hear their conversations with Garden Variety Animal. I know pirates with some skill and good understanding of the territory they fly in can evade capture for decades, but it didn’t seem like their leader understood the Teton Sector well enough to be one of them.”
    “He made up for it elswhere,” Anna said. “Most of it involved fairly careful planning.”
    “Deserted systems and a sophisticated way to get targets out of FTL?” Tyrone guessed. “The fake transponder trick isn’t difficult to figure out, but it’s expensive. Putting up the money for that and using remote systems like this one might be enough.”
    Anna nodded confirmation as she took a drink. “Those were both factors. He also was more careful about the targets he picked. It’s fairly common for pirates to target a freighter larger than the ships they’re using because there’s a reasonable expectation they can still overpower it.”
    “Of course,” Captain Freidrich said. “Freighters just don’t go as heavily armed as a warship of the same size. A lot of us would if we could, but it hampers our actual function.”
    “Yeah, Garden Variety Animal is more heavily armed than any other freighter I’ve seen in her class, and we still only have the armament of a long range fighter,” Joseph added.
    “Well, these prates never attacked anythng that outweighed them.” Anna shrugged in response to their surprised expressions. “A lot of pirates get tagged when they try to jump a ship they can’t actually handle and take too much damage to escape warships that come after them. It never happened to this group because they never risked something like that. There are a compule other factors, like not relying on jamming to prevent distress signals from getting out, but the three we mentioned are the big ones in my opinion.”
    “Those strategies are more than enough to cause problems already.” Tyrone shook his head. There were plenty of uninhabited systems like this one spread out along the trade routes in the Teton Sector. Pirates using the same model could be very dangerous to freighters, and that captain had all but stated he was talking to others regularly. How many would imitate him?
    “I guess his poor decision-making was reserved for after the fact,” Joseph said. “None of the calls he made regarding us would make me think he gave careful thought to anything ahead of time.”
    “That’s true, they didn’t.” Anna was quiet for a moment, mulling that over. “One possible explanation comes to mind: maybe he was trying to build up his reputation. Most of the men on that ship were from the Ural Cluster. People there have a strong dislike for the Teton Sector, so being feared by us would be a mark of status.”
    Tyrone groaned. “Just what the galaxy needs, Ural Cluster pirates using methods that work.” That brought a little uncomfortable laughter from the rest. The Ural Cluster was a region of unaffiliated space that he and Joseph avoided. It was politically volatile, with revolutions, wars and uprisings going on constantly. In the rare periods that it was unified, the place was actually worse, aggressive and hostile to all their neighbors. The Teton Sector had largely been responsible for suppressing that aggression in the past, which led directly to the inhabitants’ animosity toward the nation.
    “Well, hopefully today will undermine it before anybody started imitating this group.” Anna looked reasonably optimistic as she said it. “I think our timing was about right for that. If not, we do have other ways to fight it. How bad is the damage to the Comet? I was just being relieved when you were talking to Captain Meyer about it.”
    “I think it’s a tossup between repairing and scrapping right now.” Captain Freidrich’s shoulders slumped. “She’s not a new ship, and a lot of important systems will need complete replacement. There’s a couple of expert mechanics aboard the salvage ship that will assess her and make the final call. If they decide to scrap, she’ll probably be sharing the salvage ship’s hold with what’s left of the corvette. What about your ship?” Captain Freidrich turned to Joseph and Tyrone. “We couldn’t see what was going on behind the planet at all, and the pirates fired a lot of missiles at you.”
    “We took a few shots from the fighters, but nothing serious. A few thrusters were destroyed. Other than that it’s all nuisance damage.” Joseph glanced at Tyrone and grinned. “He wanted to shoot me as much as the pirates for a few minutes, because I wasn’t paying enough attention to our shield strength. We managed to shoot down all the missiles, there was no damage from them. It could have gone a lot worse.”
    “Well, it’s good that one of us is getting out of here mostly intact. I hope it’s not too long before we’re back to regular work.” Captain Freidrich twisted her mouth in a half-smile. “If they do repair the Comet, they’ll have to find new crew members too. Finch and Grunwald aren’t going to be fit for duty for months, if ever.”
    “Still alive, at least,” one of the Comet’s other crew members put in.
    “Oh, that’s for sure. Finch broke a lot of ribs though, and even one can have complications. Grunwald might not get to keep that leg. Either or both of them might have to find a new line of work when they’ve recovered.”
    “You had four going on the border guard transport for medical evac, didn’t you?” Anna frowned as though doubting her memory.
    “Yes. Teshore and Eisner were on it too. Their injuries just aren’t as permanent. The both took quite a few bullets, but their armor stopped the bulk of the damage. Mostly they just lost a lot of blood.”
    “She turned out to be quite a marksman, didn’t she?” another crewman commented.
    “Eisner? Yes she did, probably the best on the crew. That was quite a surprise.” Noting the polite confusion on the faces of the others, Captain Freidrich explained. “Eisner is the newest member of our crew, only with us for a couple of months. None of us know her that well yet, but she tends to be shy. I didn’t think she was going to handle it well once we knew we were under attack.”
    “She did though.” One of the older crewmen picked up the story. “She opened an airlock just enough to fire through and picked off boarders as they jumped from the corvette. That was the airlock they eventually forced open, and they were shooting at her a lot to keep her from killing them through the door.”
    “Rough time, but she’ll be alright.” Captain Freidrich examined the bottom of her cup. “We should have told her to pull back sooner though.”
    “She also should have realized we didn’t expect her to hold the door by herself,” another crewman said. “I’d say ‘lessons for next time,’ but I’d prefer that there’s never a next time.”  The rest of the table gave tired chuckles. They were at the stage where they could crack a few jokes about the experience, and that was good. All of them had to put this behind them eventually.
    “When will the salvage ship arrive?” Joseph asked to break the silence that fell.
    “From what the company told me, a little less than three days,” Captain Freidrich answered.
    Anna nodded from the end of the table. “That matches the timetable we have. Recovering the corvette’s hulk is supposed to be a three or four day project, and we’re staying on site to provide security. We’ll be here for at least the next week. Longer if they decide to scrap the Comet on site as well, since that’ll be its own project.”
    “I hope you have something to do, or it’s going to be a tedious week for you,” Captain Freidrich commented.
    “Honestly I think a tedious week would be a nice change for us. We’re on the move pretty constantly. Captain Meyer wants to review every piece of data we have about the system and the battle though, so we’ll have plenty to keep us occupied. We want to make sure we didn’t miss anything.”
    “Is it really all that likely that there will be more pirates around?”
    “Not especially, but as long as we’re already here there’s no point in not checking. If more do happen to be lurking in the system, we’ll get rid of them now and nobody has to make a second trip out here. You never know where you’ll find pirates hiding a resupply base either, and deserted systems like this are good candidates.”
    “Well, it’ll be something to do anyway. Management wants us taking inventory on the Comet until the replacement ship arrives. The accountants are eager to find out exactly what we lost and how much is still good.”
    One of her crew rolled his eyes. “The bean counters need to sort out their priorities.”
    “Actually, I think he just really wants numbers to concentrate on that aren’t attached to injured people. I’m not sure what we’ll be doing once the cargo is transferred. The salvage crew can probably put us to work on something. What about the two of you?” Captain Freidrich looked at Tyrone. “Moving on to make your delivery?”
    “We are.” Tyrone nodded and sighed. “Not reason for us to stick around now, although I’m sure there will be plenty of questions for us to answer.”
    “Yeah, our insurance carrier will probably want to know your part of the story. Whoever your customer is, they’re bound to give you an earful about the late delivery too.”
    “We’ll definitely be late, but on this load I don’t think it’ll be a huge issue.”
    “No? That’s interesting. What kind of job is it?”
    “Mining supplies and equipment to a remote system. We’re taking their products back with us on the return trip. Since they’re the only settlers in the system, they were having trouble finding a ship to do the job. I don’t think they’ll quibble much about us being a day late, especially after we explain why.”
    After a while the conversation started to die off. Fatigue reasserted itself, and droopy eyelids became the standard in the entire mess hall. Tyrone found himself longing for sleep again, and they still had to put the ship back in FTL before they went to bed.
    “Alright, I guess we should head out.” Joseph rose from his seat just before Tyrone was going to do the same. “We need to get back under way, and I’m tired. Stay safe, and God’s blessings to you all.”
    “To you as well, and we’ll do our best. Thanks to you two we have the chance.”

Published: August 5 2018

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