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

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 21: A Hopeless Errand

    “Are you going to decelerate any?” Joseph was keeping an eye on the distance between them and the pirates, among the other things occupying his attention. “We’re still drifting toward them pretty fast.”
    “I’ll change our trajectory to start orbiting them once we close about two thirds of our current distance,” Tyrone answered. “I think we’ll still be fairly safe there. We’ll be close enough to lend a hand when the Devastator gets here, and I don’t really want to be standing still relative to the pirates.”
    That was fair, they still didn’t know all that much about the pirate vessels. He would have liked to identify the models, but at least they were close enough for accurate images. Joseph was inspecting them, trying to learn anything he could about the ships. 
    The corvette was shaped like a short, squat tube. It tapered to a rounded point on the end that held the bridge and the main door to the cargo bay. The bottom half of the taper ended at a sixty foot wide clamshell door just like those down the sides of Garden Variety Animal. The top section containing the bridge overhung it, stretching out another thirty or forty feet. The rear of the ship bulged out slightly by the engines.
    Joseph noted with curiosity that the corvette was only slightly longer than Garden Variety Animal’s three hundred feet. It’s total size was much bigger, about twice as wide and twice as tall. That accounted for the squat look of the thing. Perhaps it wasn’t really a squat ship at all and he was just used to the long, thin look of his own.
    The fighters were blocky-looking things, less than thirty feet long and must have been carried in by the corvette. Their two sub-light engines accounted for more than half the total mass of each ship. The rest was taken up by guns and cockpit.
    “How dangerous do you think those little suckers are?” Tyrone was examining the same images.
    “Not as much as the two Temorran Kindred fighters.” At least, not individually. Together, they were as much or more of a threat. They also wouldn’t be pulling punches; the Temorran Kindred needed to disable and board their ship, not blow it apart. The pirates had the same limitations with the Bolinscar Red Comet, but it wouldn’t be an issue with Garden Variety Animal.
    As they were working, the alert for an incoming hail sounded. Joseph craned his neck to see who it was, but it wasn’t a known contact. He’d been expecting the Comet with their messages to retransmit.
    Tyrone looked back at him and shrugged. “It’s from inside the system. Must be the pirates.”
    “Might as well talk to them.” Tyrone spun his chair around. “I doubt it will be productive, but we might learn something. Keep the camera zoomed on you. They don’t need to know I’m studying their ships back here.” Tyrone nodded and fingered the “accept” icon.
    A window appeared on the windshield. The pirates were being as careful as Joseph about showing the rest of their bridge. The only thing visible on the video feed was a pale, male face. It wore a neutral expression, but it quickly shifted to a sneer when they answered.
    “Another coward hiding behind a faceplate,” the man spat. “Why don’t you take off your helmet and look me in the eye.”
    Tyrone made no reply, but the pirate only glowered at him through the link. When it became clear he was going to wait for an answer, Tyrone spoke. “You called us. If you don’t like what you see, you’re welcome to hang up.”
    The pirate made a disgusted noise. “I’ve seen many Tetonites these past months. They all looked the same in those helmets, and maybe they thought that piece of armor made them invincible. But I saw all their faces in the end, when I removed the helmets from their corpses.
    “I came to the Teton Sector for a challenge. You have a reputation for being tenacious foes, and many told me I’d bitten off more than I could chew. So far I see no evidence. The only difference I see is that you don’t just surrender. You’d rather fight and die pointlessly, only to achieve the same outcome. I have a reputation too. A few extra dead gunmen doesn’t matter all that much to me. That’s what they’re here for.”
    It seemed the man had only called them to gloat. Tyrone didn’t cut him off, and Joseph knew why. The longer he talked, the more likely he’d say something useful. So far he was only rubbing his strength in their faces, but even that could provide valuable information.
    “I suppose that’s true,” Tyrone said. “You’d know better than we would.”
    “As in many other things.” The pirate leader lifted his chin. “After all, you thought relaying their distress signal would scare me off, didn’t you?”
    “The thought had crossed my mind.”
    “Wrong, weren’t you?” The pirate smiled triumphantly. “As I said, I have a reputation too. Once I get my teeth into a prize I don’t let it go. Not that I’m thrilled about it, I prefer to take my time. You can take some satisfaction in knowing you inconvenienced me. But I know very well that there isn’t a warship close enough to get here before I’m finished.”
    “I’m glad to know you aren’t happy we’re here,” Tyrone replied sourly. Joseph grinned inside his helmet. He could tell when Tyrone was faking it. The pirate leader didn’t know the Devastator was coming. 
    This time the pirate grinned. “Oh, on the contrary. I’m rather glad you’re here, despite the nuisance. With your distress beacon active I’m sure a warship is on the way from somewhere, so I can’t take the time to capture your ship too. However, it will be a nice change of pace to have an audience in the area. Usually I have to settle for bragging about the haul later.”
    “I have your current course information here.” The pirate turned to look at something out of the frame. “You’ll pass within ten miles of us in...oh, about thirty minutes. That should be right around the time we’re forcing an airlock seal. I guarantee we won’t shoot at you so long as you don’t change that course. Other than to decelerate, obviously. If you do change course I can’t promise my gunners won’t take a few potshots at you for the fun of it. They’re bored.”
    The connection went dead, and Tyrone turned his chair to face Joseph. “That was interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to observe a criminal act before.”
    “There are exhibitionists in every field, I suppose. It’s not very good for his operational security. At bare minimum, he’s giving the Teton Sector military and paramilitary forces a close-up look at his ships and methods. It’s not like we’re going to keep what we observe to ourselves here.”
    “Nope. Nice of him to promise not to shoot at us, in any event. Do you think we ought to take him up on that offer?”
    “I’m torn. They probably won’t be able to hit us much if we do what you said earlier, start orbiting them at fifty thousand miles. If we come in that close we’ll be a much easier target. On the other hand, if we do it we’ll be right there to capitalize on any opportunity to help the Comet.”
    “Well, we’ve got about fifteen minutes to think about it before we make a decision.”
    Joseph checked the timer for the Devastator’s arrival. It was down to two hours, fourteen minutes. At least time had been passing. The last few times he’d checked, the clock had only moved by a minute or two. The pirates didn’t have as much time as they thought, but they still had easily enough time to board.
    They had barely settled back to working when Joseph heard the alert for an incoming call sound behind him again. Tyrone answered within a few seconds, and he turned his chair to check who was contacting them this time; it was White Onyx Devastator. The video replaced a large, black, star-strewn patch of nothing on the starboard side of the windshield.
    The armored figure on the screen was different from their last call. The male armor layout and different devices gave that much away even before Joseph noticed that he was sitting in the captain’s chair. Much of the bridge was visible behind him, and it was a flurry of activity. The data Garden Variety Animal was feeding them was up on several screens and the main tactical display showed a three-dimensional map of the combat zone. The positions of all ships were marked, as well as the dwarf planet.
    “Garden Variety Animal, this is Captain Meyer of the White Onyx Devastator.” The captain had a rough voice, and the urgency with which he spoke put the two pilots on alert immediately. “I hope this isn’t an inconvenient time. We have some information to share with you. Have there been any changes?”
    “Hello Captain,” Tyrone replied. “This is Tyrone Barret, co-owner. Your timing is fine, so far no changes on our end. What did you find out?”
    “Once we took a closer look at the data you were sending over, we were able to identify that corvette.” The captain tightened his grip on the arms of his chair. “It matches a ship that’s attacked seven Waterwood Mining freighters over the last six months. It captured four, and left no survivors.”
    “That matches fairly well with what the leader said,” Tyrone growled. “We just got off the horn with him. He gave us a ring to gloat, tell us he was oh-so-mercifully going to let us live, and welcoming us to fly closer and witness their victory. I got the impression they’ve been lurking around parts of Teton Sector space for a while.
    “They definitely have, and those are only the incidents we know about, there could be more. We’re searching the Pirate, Smuggler and Aggressive Vessels database to see if their ships have been involved in any others, but no matches so far.”
    “Let us know if you find any. Have you found any useful information in your company’s records?”
    “We’ve got enough to know their patterns. They use missile-mounted transponders to fool the target ships’ computers into thinking they’re about to collide with another ship. The computer brings them out of FTL right in easy firing range and the pirates let loose on the communications array to take it out. In the successful attacks, by the time the target realizes they’re under attack it’s too late to call for help.
    “I asked if there had been any changes because in the encounters with our three surviving ships, they bugged out immediately when that plan failed. As soon as there was a distress call out on FTL comms, they lost interest. I wasn’t sure how they would react when interrupted in the middle.”
    Tyrone turned his head to look at the tactical display again. “So far they are sticking this one out. According to the leader, he never lets go of a ship once he has it disabled. I guess he forgot to add the bit about disabling their communication before they have time to call for help.”
    “So they aren’t maneuvering to jump out of the system? They aren’t recovering the fighters?”
    “Neither. They must not know you’re on your way yet either. The leader told us directly they aren’t worried about the distress signal we put out. He said he knew there were no ships close enough to respond before he was finished. We didn’t correct him.”
    “Good. We were able to line up so that the star is between your position and us for most of our approach. The radiation and the mass should mask us from their sensors until we’re less than a minute out. It should keep us off your scopes as well, so don’t panic when the timer is running down and you still can’t spot us.”
    “Good to know.” Tyrone nodded. That was one less mystery for Joseph to solve. He had been wondering about that, but hadn’t looked into it yet. He’d been too focused on studying the pirate ships. They were the more immediate concern.
    Captain Meyer sighed, then leaned forward in his chair. “Look, we want these guys badly. They’ve caused a lot of pain and loss for our company. Some of my crew members had relatives on the destroyed freighters.
    “I can’t tell you to risk getting yourselves killed here, but if they get away there’s good odds we’ll loose more ships to them.” His hands balled into angry fists, and he reflexively raised one to pound on his chair. “Anything you can do to keep them in the system until we arrive would be appreciated. We don’t want to let this opportunity slip away.”
    “If we come up with any plan that has a reasonable chance of success, we’ll give it a shot,” Tyrone promised solemnly.
    “Thank you. Godspeed gentlemen.”
    “To you as well.” The connection ended.
    Their helmets obscured their facial expressions, but Joseph didn’t need to see Tyrone’s face to know what was on it. The same hopelessness and defeat was on his own. The pirate captain was overconfident, but that mattered little if they were helpless to harm him, and that was the state of things.
    “How are we going to do that?” Tyrone asked, spreading his arms. “If we had the firepower to take on the pirates, we’d be doing it, not waiting around for the Devastator to get here.”
    “I don’t know.”
    “It was a rhetorical question.” Tyrone tipped his head back. “If we find something, I’m willing to try. I just can’t think of any way we could hurt them badly enough that they couldn’t run away.”
    “Nor can I.” Joseph’s eyes looked automatically toward his screen, but he hadn’t seen anything about the pirates’ spacecraft they could turn toward that end. More examination might show something, but his hopes weren’t high. “We can look for some weakness to exploit. At the end of the day, there might not be anything we can do.”
    “That’s the most likely outcome. We can take him up on the offer to drift by and watch, at least. If we come up with something, we’ll be in striking distance.”
    “Yeah.” Joseph slumped back in his chair. He wished he had some hope for the Comet, but as far as he could tell they were doomed. The Devastator would arrive before the pirates could transfer the cargo, but they wouldn’t get there nearly soon enough to prevent the boarding. He resumed his inspection of their ships. It seemed like a vain hope, but he couldn’t just give up. He had to keep looking, even if there was nothing to find.

Published: May 27 2018

In A Starship's Wake

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© 2019 by Stephen Schamber