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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 20: Flying Into the Storm

    “The Faster-Than-Light jump will only be a few minutes,” Tyrone told Joseph as the computer finished calculating and displayed the information. He drummed his fingers on his helmet, which sat on the console next to him. What kind of situation would they find at the end of that trip? Just a breakdown or the standard pirate attack they were expecting? Maybe something even more sinister?
    “Okay. Just put your helmet on already,” Joseph snapped from the gunner’s station. The slightly filtered quality of his voice indicated his was already in place. “You’re making me nervous with that. Well, more nervous.”
    Tyrone sheepishly stopped tapping and pulled it on. The Heads-Up-Display flashed to life, but he switched it off again. Once they were into the system they would activate Garden Variety Animal’s tactical system, which would display a ship HUD on the windshield. He didn’t need the information on his helmet faceplate distracting him.
    “We’re ready to jump,” Tyrone said. “I’m brining us around.”
    “Rodger. I’m set, go ahead whenever you’re ready.”
    The ship spun on thrusters as Tyrone oriented it to face the direction they were jumping. He activated the FTL drive and felt the ship surge forward. The acceleration pushed him back in his chair, but the force exerted on him wasn’t nearly the amount that acceleration produced. The inertial drive was compensating for most of it.
    “We’re on our way.”
    “Good. Where in the system will we be dropping out?”
    “Around the middle of the Kuiper Belt.” Tyrone checked the countdown; they had a couple minutes before the jump ended. “We’ll be well beyond the system’s charted planets, but I think we’ll be within two or three AU of the distress signal. Certainly close enough to pin down where it’s coming from.”
    “And hopefully what’s going on. Good thing we picked the ship we did. I’d hate to be running from station to station trying to man the guns and do sensor sweeps.”
    The rest of the short trip passed in tense silence. Then the ship-wide alert triggered again, the bright light in the windshield faded and they were at their destination. The windshield tint adjusted, but now there wasn’t much light for it to filter out anyway. They were surrounded by empty space as far as human eyes could see, a good forty AU from the system’s star and not pointed directly at it. At this distance it might not matter if they were.
    Tyrone and Joseph both fell to their respective tasks without conversation. Tyrone silenced the klaxon, but the red lights continued to flash. He flipped on the tactical display and saw the HUD come up on the windshield, empty since there wasn’t any information for it to display yet, but ready.
    Tyrone turned his chair to look at his comms screen. Now that they were in range of the distress signal, it was doing its job. The signal was computer data only, no recorded video or audio message. Had they been too busy fighting to record anything or was it an automated call?
    Pushing that thought aside, Tyrone began transferring the information to the tactical system as he read it off to Joseph. “The distress signal is from the Bolinscar Red Comet. We picked up their transponder as well.” Tyrone’s stomach lurched again. “The message says they’re under attack, piracy the most likely source. Or they were, the timestamp is a half hour old.”
    “No large objects near enough for us to worry about,” Joseph reported. “If they’re still broadcasting the ship can’t have been taken yet. Boarders would have shut it down. Where are they?”
    “About one AU away from us.” Tyron checked the exact position again, then added it to the windshield HUD. “One hundred and ten degrees to port and seven degrees elevation from our position. We’re drifting away from them a bit. They’re further from the star than we are, it’s about seventy degrees to starboard.” 
    Both of the starmen had dropped into cool, matter-of-fact tones associated with the bridges of Tetonite warships. It was remarkable how quickly adrenaline and training set in. Now that they were close to the stranded ship, the situation felt like each of the incidents they’d had leaving Temorran with Allison. Nervous and fearful they still were, but there was no time to dwell on it, only time for action.
    “That figures,” Joseph said. “I found them now. There’s a dwarf planet in the same direction. It’s a bit beyond them.” Joseph paused and Tyrone could hear him typing furiously. “They’re drifting toward it, but slowly. At their current pace it will take them a year to reach it.” A few more keystrokes from his partner added that information to the tactical display.
    “Rodger. I’m not detecting any sign of jamming, their Faster-Than-Light communication must be down. Any sign of the ship that attacked them?”
    “Yes.” Joseph’s voice cracked slightly. “There are several objects near them, one’s about the size of a corvette. I’d guess that’s our pirate, the others are probably fighters. None of them is putting out a transponder signal, but even for an Oort Cloud that’s a lot of objects in close proximity.” 
    Even as Joseph spoke, the objects’ locations were appearing on the windshield. They were much too far away to see or even get a clear image of any of the ships, but the computer showed the locations anyway. One of Tyrone’s screens displayed the system’s attempt to generate an image of the objects, a series of odd blobs that became more defined as the system picked out more details.
    “I’m rebroadcasting their distress call through our beacon. Hopefully we can get some help in here in time to matter.”
    “Hopefully there’s someone nearby with a little more clout than us. I don’t know how near they’ll be, this system isn’t near any major commercial routes. Add our telemetry to the transmission, they’ll need all the details they can get.”
    Tyrone did, and said a silent prayer that there was a warship within fifteen minutes of them. The closest would probably turn out to be more like several hours away. As Joseph had pointed out, they weren’t in a heavily-traveled area.
    “I’m going to bring us around and calculate a microjump to get us closer to them.” Tyrone reached for the controls again.
    “How close are you thinking?”
    “Oh, about a hundred thousand miles. Close enough to make radio communication with the Comet almost instantaneous, but not close enough for the pirates to fire on us effectively without missiles.”
    “Sounds good to me,” Joseph nodded. “Also close enough for us to get better images of the ships. Keep in mind, they may have missiles.”
    “They probably do, but I’d wager our countermeasures are better than their missiles.”
    “You’re glad I talked you into paying for that stuff now, aren’t you?” Joseph’s smirk was so wide it was somehow audible.
    “Yes I am.” Even sailing unaffiliated space, Tyrone thought they would never use their rather pricy missile defense system. They still might not, but right this moment he was very glad they had it.
    As he prepared the jump, an incoming video call appeared on the comms screen. Tyrone eyed the screen warily, but the call was originating outside the system; it couldn’t be the pirates. He looked over his shoulder at Joseph, who had also turned in his seat. He only shrugged. Tyrone tapped the icon to accept the call, and a helmet with an opaque faceplate much like his own appeared on the screen.
    “Garden Variety Animal, this is the White Onyx Devastator.” The female voice had the same matter-of-fact quality Tyrone and Joseph’s had taken on. “We are under way to the coordinates reported as the position of the Bolinscar Red Comet. Our estimated time to arrival is two hours, fifty-six minutes. We are the closest vessel able to respond.”
    Tyrone fought down the urge to curse. “Understood White Onyx Devastator. We’re computing a micro-jump closer to the Comet to allow better sensor readings and attempt radio contact. We believe their FTL communication has been disabled. We’ll transmit the sensor data to you and contact you if we have anything new to report.”
    “Rodger Animal. We’ve entered FTL. Hang tight, and Godspeed.”
    “To you as well. Out.” The channel closed.
    Joseph let his breath out explosively, and a muffled thud indicated he’d pounded the immovable terminal in front of him. “Three hours until they get here. Usually I like traveling out in the boonies, but that’s a long time to wait for help to arrive.”
    “Two hours, fifty-five minutes.” Tyrone added a timer to the HUD to indicate the approximate time left before the Devastator’s arrival. The large size of the number was unsettling, Joseph was right about that much.
    The call with the Devastator had been characteristically short. Extended calls with a ship in a dangerous situation was considered bad manners in Teton Sector etiquette unless they prolonged it. The Devastator’s radio officer had good manners. Data transmissions could occur much more quickly, and they sent their identity file at the same time. Tyrone added the relevant information to the tactical display next to the timer.
    “Well, at least it’s a powerful ship,” Tyrone commented as he worked. The Devastator was a private defensive frigate, owned by a mining company Tyrone had never heard of. They had mining operations in several nearby systems, and the ship patrolled among them.
    “Yeah, that’s one piece of good news.” Joseph was browsing the information as Tyrone added it. “They’ve got a lot of guns. What kind of shape do you think the Comet will be in? Will they even make it three hours?”
    “I can’t imagine it will be good. We should find out soon, we’re ready to jump.” Tyrone shifted in his chair and unlocked the flight controls.
    The list of damaged systems on the Bolinscar Red Comet was probably long. They already assumed the FTL comm unit was one. Sublight and FTL propulsion were probably also gone, otherwise the ship would be maneuvering, not just drifting alongside it’s attackers. Weapons and shields were also likely candidates for serious damage at this point, and there were probably at least a few hull sections breached.
    Garden Variety Animal surged forward again, but almost before the feeling of acceleration ended, the ship reverted from FTL travel. He looked at the Devastator countdown, which was now at two hours fifty minutes, and saw that it had taken only a few seconds. He hadn’t made a jump that short since flight school.
    As soon as he was certain they weren’t drifting toward the cluster of ships too quickly, Tyrone turned back to the comm system. The lag on short-range communication with the damaged ship was now negligible. 
    “I’m going to try and raise them,” Tyrone warned. Joseph made a noise of acknowledgment, so he initiated a transmission. “Bolinscar Red Comet, this is Garden Variety Animal, do you read?”
    “We read you Garden Variety Animal,” a dispirited female voice replied. The connection was voice only, and a bit grainy. “We picked up your transponder when you arrived in the system. This is captain Grace Friedrich. I don’t recommend getting too close. That corvette has about a dozen guns, and you don’t want to wind up where we are. We’re preparing to repel boarders.”
    “We’ll be mindful of that,” Tyrone said. He checked to make sure the signal was encoded; it was. “We’re rebroadcasting your distress signal, and there’s a frigate en-route. They were not close to start with. We’re expecting them in two hours, forty-five minutes.”
    Captain Friedrich made a noise much like the one Joseph had. “Well, that’s a lot better than no help at all. Thank you. If we aren’t alive by then, maybe they can stop this from happening to anyone else.”
    “If nothing else,” Tyrone agreed. “We’re monitoring what’s going on and transmitting our data to the inbound ship. If you think of anything we can do for you let us know. What systems do you have still functioning?”
    “We still have most of our sensor equipment. Life support and the reactor are all fine so we still have plenty of air to breath and power to use. My mechanic managed to get the dorsal gun functional again, but he doesn’t think we have many shots with it so we’re waiting on a good time to use it. We have a crew of eight and no casualties so far, so it won’t be an easy boarding operation. They’ll have a fight on their hands.
    “Since your FTL communication is still up, I can think of one thing you can do for us. I’ll give my crew the chance to record short messages to friends and family. If you’ll get those out, I’d be grateful.”
    “Absolutely,” Tyrone promised. The request made his blood run cold. He dreaded having to record that message for Justine one day. “We’ll send them on as soon as we get them.”
    “Thank you. I’ll call back if I can think of anything else. Contact us if you get any updates.” Captain Friedrich closed the connection.
    “Grim.” Joseph’s one-word comment summed up the situation. “We’re getting a lot better picture of those ships. I’m sending the data on to the Devastator.” He’d been busy updating the tactical display with the new information while Tyrone was talking to the Comet. It now included the size, type, and estimated strength of each ship.
    The Comet was actually shorter than Garden Variety Animal, but it was wider and taller. The pirate corvette was larger than both, and Joseph had confirmed Captain Friedrich’s estimate of a dozen gun emplacements. The three fighters were too small to be anything but short range, probably carried by the corvette for FTL travel. It was hard to say for certain, because neither matched any known model in their database. 
    Tyrone realized after a few minutes that he was out of new information to read. He turned helplessly to Joseph, who’s mouth twitched.
    “Nothing to do now but wait,” his partner said. His expression was solemn.
    Tyrone sighed bitterly. “And watch.”

Published: May 20 2018

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