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

In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 6: Parting Shots

    Once they were satisfied there was nobody else on the ship who shouldn’t be, Tyrone began to think about dinner. To be honest, Tyrone had already been thinking about dinner, and had started the oven preheating while he was checking the kitchen. He and Joseph had been planning to throw in a frozen lasagna, a staple food on their ship. 
    Allison’s addition to their crew hadn’t changed that; it would just mean less leftovers. They had a habit of making enough food to feed a family despite there being only two of them. It was partly to be in the habit when they had families, and partly to have leftovers so that they didn’t have to cook as much. Which was actually rather silly, since they had lots of down time traveling in FTL anyway.
    Just as the three gathered in the kitchen, an alert sounded through the ship. Joseph sighed, Allison looked around for the source of the noise with a confused look, and Tyrone rolled his eyes. He set down the tray he’d just unwrapped and let go of the oven door he’d been about to open.
    “What’s that?” Allison asked.
    “Someone’s hailing us.” Joseph started toward the cockpit.
    “Probably another ship.” Tyrone turned off the oven and followed Joseph. “Based on how annoyingly persistent they’ve been so far, it’s probably one connected to the Temoran Kindred.”
    Allison trailed them to the front of the ship, where Joseph was already checking sensor equipment. Tyrone eased himself into the pilot’s chair and strapped in, waiting for Joseph’s report and letting the hail keep ringing. They’d waited five minutes already, and they could keep waiting until Tyrone had a better idea what was going on.
    “Two fighters followed us from Temoran.” Joseph studied the screen before him intently for several minutes. “Our recognition software found a match, but the model is something local I’ve never heard of. They’re in range of our cameras, I’ll put them up for you.”
    One of Tyrone’s screens displayed a picture of two ovoid-shaped fighters, about a mile apart, flying toward them. They were only just in range of the cameras, so the images were fuzzy and he couldn’t make out much. Because of their angle of travel relative to the system’s sun, the left side of each was in shadow.
    Tyrone did some quick math, judging their position in their flight path against how much more thrust the engines could produce. “We’re about twenty minutes from our jump point if I max out our acceleration. Could we outrun them?”
    “Probably not. Based on the technical data we have for the fighters, they aren’t using everything they have either. There’s no point in wasting the fuel if we have to fight them anyway. They’ll be in firing range in less than ten minutes.”
    “Maybe sooner if they modified their weaponry.” Tyrone unlocked the autopilot, but didn’t make any course corrections yet. “How long until we can hit them? I still don’t want to do any crazy flying. If we send those trees rocketing around this trip could go from very profitable to very expensive in a hurry.”
    “We wouldn’t want that.” Joseph was silent for a moment while he consulted their targeting computer. “We’ll be able to hit them accurately about fifteen seconds before they get inside their listed range.”
    “That should be a nice little surprise for them. Answering the hail.” Tyrone tapped the ‘accept’ button on the communications screen.
    The man the screen displayed at the other end of the line was wearing a flight suit that obscured much of his face, but Tyrone could still see he was angry. His mouth was partway open as he snarled at the camera. The answer to the hail had caught him in mid-rant. Their new adversaries were not, it seemed, the most balanced people. Tyrone smiled blandly as the man composed himself.
    “I am Patrick Sennick, commander of the Temoran Kindred fighter wing.” Patrick paused after his introduction, but Tyrone gave no reaction. “I have been notified that you are attempting to leave the system with our property aboard. You are ordered to turn around and accompany us to a rendezvous point where you will hand over Allison Wilkins. If you do not, we will cripple your ship and board by force.”
    “We will not turn her over to you.” Tyrone kept his voice even as he replied and managed to look bored, although his adrenaline was rising. “We already had this conversation with one of your superiors on the surface. He was hauled out of our docking bay by port security, if memory serves.”
    Annoyance flashed across Patrick’s face. “Terrence Reed is not my superior. He was working on...a deal important to men far above him, of which Allison was a part. They, not he, have directed me to stop your ship.”
    “Yes, the deal with the Ventalian Mafia, he mentioned that.” Patrick wasn’t able to cover his surprise that they knew that detail. Terrence probably wasn’t supposed to be bragging about it to outsiders. “It is good to know the details of your organization’s internal hierarchy, but it changes nothing. We will not turn our ship around. We will not allow you to board us. We will not allow you to remove anything or anyone from our vessel.”
    “Then we will do it by force,” Patrick said confidently.
    “You will try,” Tyrone replied, equally confident.
    “You will regret this choice in a few minutes. I do want to know one thing, just in case some of us are dead by the end of this.”
    “What’s that?”
    “How did your ship get the name Garden Variety Animal?”
    Tyrone laughed. “On our first trip to an unaffiliated planet. My business partner and I hadn’t agreed on a name yet. An older man was hanging around the docks, watching the ships, and admired it. He said something like “strange animal, that ship,” and asked where we were from. We told him, and my partner said “over there it’s just a garden variety animal,” and all three of us cracked up. I filed the paperwork as soon as we got back.”
    Patrick chuckled. “Interesting story. I’ll recommend that we keep the name when we take your ship.” He cut the connection, and Joseph snorted.
    “He’ll be taking something. They’ll be in range in two minutes.” One of the screens brought up a three-dimensional tactical display showing the positions of the ships, though it wasn’t to scale. When Joseph started firing, the fighters would still be much too far behind to be seen with the naked eye.
    An alert light flashed on Tyrone’s console as Joseph brought the ship’s two turrets online. They were in a fairly standard configuration for freighters, one on top of the ship and one underneath. Tyrone kept one hand on the controls for the lateral thrusters, as he was sure the fighter pilots were also doing. He didn’t want to make the shields do all the work, but he also didn’t want to make violent turns. Hopefully he could make them miss often enough by bouncing around a bit in their field of fire.
    Allison wasn’t the only one to start in surprise when Joseph fired. Tyrone’s focus had still been elsewhere. The two guns fired in unison four times, the thumping echoing through the ship. The feed from the rear cameras was still up on one of the screens, and Tyrone could see several of the rounds impact on the starboard fighter. The screen colored in infrared flares as the shields absorbed the hits.
    “Shields on that one look pretty much exhausted.” 
    Joseph’s report came just as the fighters began firing, and Tyrone barely caught it. He pushed Garden Variety Animal to starboard and avoided most of the fire. A few rounds skimmed off their own shields. “That’s great, but try to finish it off before ours go.”
    “Relax. Our shields can take a lot more punishment than theirs.” The guns rumbled a few more rounds out.
    “I know they can, but we aren’t wearing armor, and I don’t want to have to scramble into a vacuum suit if they manage to get a round through the secondary hull, so hurry up.” The fighters were closing faster now, and Joseph’s second salvo hadn’t corrected for that. It missed completely. Unable to actually see the incoming fire, Tyrone dodged again when he thought the time was right, and avoided most of another burst.
    “Is that likely?” Allison’s voice was a little shaky as she asked.
    “Not especially.” Tyrone checked the hull integrity readout just to be sure, but it showed no problems. “Ship hulls are made of some of the toughest materials there are. They can be breached, but it doesn’t often happen from glancing hits. Direct ones could make us start leaking air, but the ship will close pressure doors to seal off those sections. The main danger is to sensitive systems outside the hull, like the engines or the weapons. 
    “That’s what he meant when he said they would cripple our ship.” Tyrone scampered out of the way of a few more salvos. “Take those out and we’re just drifting, and there isn’t much we can do to stop them from boarding us. If they’re actively trying not to destroy us, the chances are fairly low that they’ll do so much damage we need to put on suits.”
    “I, on the other hand, am hampered by no such restrictions.” Joseph kept firing at the starboard fighter in short bursts while Tyrone answered, and a look at the camera feed (which was now much clearer) showed that it had just split in half entirely. The tactical display marked it with a red box reading ‘destroyed,’ then it vanished from the display as the remaining two ships accelerated away from it.
    “Good work. Now get rid of the other.”
    The distance between the ships had closed, and Tyrone was having a difficult time avoiding incoming fire. Fortunately, the remaining fighter had the same problem. Even as the Garden Variety Animal was losing shield power, Joseph was landing more hits. 
    The fighter’s shields were worn away, and finally a shot smashed through its engine. Robbed of its acceleration, the ship dropped back as Garden Variety Animal sped onward. The pilot fired a few more shots at them in a last ditch attempt to fulfil his mission, but they didn’t get through.
    Joseph stopped firing at the fighter as it fell away. “No point using up the ammunition.” He leaned back in his chair, let go of the controls, and closed his eyes. That wasn’t the only reason, Tyrone knew. Both of them had killed one or two people in the past, defending from pirate raids in space and marauders on some unaffiliated planets. Neither liked the feeling much, and there was a good chance the pilot of that first fighter was dead.
    The communication screen lit up with another incoming hail, from the same source as the first. “Check for any other ships nearby,” Tyrone directed his partner. “They’re calling again.”
    He touched the ‘accept’ button again. Patrick’s expression was bitter. “Still alive then I see Mr. Sennick.”
    “Yes. It looks like you get to leave after all. Your ship was more powerful than we’d expected. Your gunner is skilled.” He nodded to Joseph, who had swung his chair around. Joseph gave a sloppy salute in acknowledgment, looked at Tyrone and shook his head. No more ships nearby.
    “Tetonite ships tend to be that way.”
    “I’ll bear that in mind for the future.”
    “I hope you weren’t the one responsible for determining how many fighters to send. Mistakes of that kind carry drastic consequences in an organization like yours.”
    “I was not, so that axe will fall on someone else. I have to admit, I’m not a fan of what Terrence has set up here. Trading in people is a step too far for my taste. But my personal feelings aside, the heads will not give up this easily. The Temoran Kindred has too much at stake here, and the Ventalian Mafia has a habit of hunting down anyone who interferes in their business. Watch your backs.”
    “We always do. We’re almost to our jump point. When they pick you up let them know it would be best not to chase us. The Teton Sector is hard on gang activity, especially when it’s spilling over from outside our nation.”
    “I’ll tell them. I can guarantee they’ll ignore it, but I’ll tell them.”
    “One more thing,” Joseph cut in, remembering something. “Tell Terrence he owes me five dollars Temoran for Allison’s breakfast.”
    The fighter pilot gave a grunting laugh. “I’ll pass it along.” He cut the connection.
    “How long until we jump?” Joseph asked, leaning forward in his chair.
    Tyrone glanced at the clock. “Three minutes.”
    “Good. Enough of this monkey business. I’m now officially looking forward to a straight week of watering plants in FTL.”
    Tyrone and Allison both laughed. Moments later Tyrone activated the faster-than-light engines. He felt a press of acceleration that likely would have knocked him over as the drive shifted on and propelled them rapidly forward along the designated trajectory. Then the inertial drive caught up and they were able to move normally again.
    “Alright, we’re well overdue for dinner.” Tyrone unstrapped and rose. “Let’s get back to the food. We should have enough time for that at least before someone else decides to pick a fight.”

Published: February 11 2018

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© 2019 by Stephen Schamber