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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 22: Chance Of Success

    “Do you think we should keep sailing closer?” Tyrone eyed the distance-from readout next to the enhanced image of the distant cluster of ships on the windshield Heads Up Display. They were a little more than five minutes from the point where he’d intended to start circling the cluster. Tyrone didn’t really trust the pirate leader’s promise not to attack them, but they’d have to be closer to act on any idea for delaying the corvette’s departure.
    “I think so, for now.” Joseph appeared to be thinking along the same lines. “He never said we had to slow down. If we maintain course like he wanted, we’ll be past the whole group of them pretty quickly.”
    “I suppose so. Have you found anything we can do to hurt them yet?”
    “Not really.” Joseph shook his head. “Not anything with a chance of working, anyway. Our weapons would certainly be able to wear through their shields, and their armor doesn’t look that strong. The problem is the time it will take. They’ll be shooting back, and with a lot more guns than our defenses can stand up to long-term.”
    “Well, that was more or less what we expected.” Tyrone had never had a lot of hope that they could do what White Onyx Devastator had asked. He doubted whether Captain Meyer really did either. His request was just the plea of a man who wanted desperately to catch the people responsible for attacks against his company and coworkers. Garden Variety Animal just wasn’t capable of that kind of assault; that was why they had called for the frigate.
    “Yeah. Like you said earlier, if we had the firepower to take them on we would have done it from the start.”
    They continued their drift toward the corvette in silence for a few more minutes. Tyrone decided it made the most sense to keep heading toward the cluster of ships. The pirates claimed they wouldn’t shoot if they maintained course, and the fighters could reach them quickly if they didn’t. It was a tossup which option was more likely to get them shot anyway. They might as well be close enough to act.
    “I wonder if we’re coming at this from the wrong direction,” Joseph said. 
    Tyrone looked behind to find Joseph had spun his chair to face forward again. “How do you mean?”
    “Well, we’ve been trying to find a way to punch through their defenses and disable their FTL drive. That isn’t the only thing we could do to keep them in the system. We might have other options we aren’t looking at. Taking out the FTL drive would be great, but it doesn’t seem like we’re going to be able to do that.”
    “Oh.” Tyrone tipped his head to one side and tried to scratch his chin before remembering he couldn’t get to it through the helmet. “Hmm...what else is there we could exploit?” Tyrone mused. He looked back at the ships on the HUD.
    “The fighters are almost certainly carried craft.” Joseph pulled up a new window on the HUD showing the information they’d been able to determine about the small, boxy ships. “If we baited them away from the corvette, and especially if we could scatter them, they would have to waste time recovering them before jumping out of the system.”
    “I’m not so sure about that one. The pirate didn’t seem to care that much about his subordinates. He might just decide to leave them here.”
    “Ships are a little more expensive to replace than pirate gunmen,” Joseph pointed out. “If he knew he was working on a time limit, I’m sure you’re right. He doesn’t realize that right now, and once the Devastator is in the system I’m sure they’ll have their own ways of keeping him here.”
    “Fair. I’d still like to think of something a little more certain, but if it comes down to it baiting away the fighters would hold them up for a while.” Tyrone thought a moment longer. What else had they noticed that they might be able to turn to their advantage? “What about ways to delay them from connecting to the Comet?”
    “Well, they’re taking their time about it anyway.” Joseph gestured to the screen; the corvette hadn’t moved much at all since their arrival. “They must still be getting ready. It’s got some possibilities. Captain Friedrich promised a fight when they get around to boarding. It won’t be an easy ship to take, and the later they start the more time it gives for the Devastator to show up.” Joseph gave a strained chuckle. “If we can just run out that clock, the whole game changes.”
    “Got that right, it does.” Tyrone nodded fervently. “Do you remember the comment the pirate made about not letting go of a captured ship?”
    “Yeah, but  after what Captain Meyer told us about their company’s previous encounters, I figured it was just a lot of big talk.”
    “Well, it is, but it might still be truthful. In the instances where they ran, their plan had gone bad from the start. Captain Meyer had expected the pirates to leave immediately once the distress signal was out, because that was their pattern, but the pirate leader claims he never abandons a captured ship. I think his criteria for a captured ship is one that’s been disabled, not one they’ve intercepted from FTL.”
    “So you think he’ll stick it out now no matter what happens?”
    “I don’t think he’s quite that committed to it.” Tyrone was certain that if the pirate leader realized the White Onyx Devastator was bearing down on him he would rapidly, if begrudgingly, turn tail. “I do think he’ll keep trying after some serious setbacks. Now that he’s gone to this much trouble, he’ll be reluctant to walk away.”
    Joseph grunted agreement. “That still leaves us with the problem of something we can do to cause that delay.”
    “Yeah. I was thinking of trying to bluff them somehow...” Tyrone trailed off. He still wasn’t sure how they could do that. The pirate leader would suspect a trick instantly if they called to warn him about some unseen danger in boarding the Comet. He’d boarded several Teton Sector vessels already, he knew what to expect.
    Nothing else Tyrone could think of to say seemed likely to slow the pirates down, either. Any threat that there were warships en route would either make them hurry more or make them flee, if they believed it. If they didn’t, it would change nothing at all.
    “Tyrone, look at this.”
    Joseph transferred a file to one of his screens. It was a five second video clip. He opened it, and watched the corvette’s large clamshell door start to open. What was Joseph trying to get at with this? 
    “I’m not seeing the significance. They have the exact same cargo bay door as us, except that we have six. Bolinscar Red Comet probably has them too.”
    “Probably, because it means that’s the door they’re going to use to force a connection for boarding. I can think of a few limitations that make them vulnerable while they’re doing that.”
    “Such as?”
    “Well first, you can’t keep shields up while you’re connecting to another ship like that. You’ll bounce right off the ship you’re trying to link with. So their shields will be down at the front for the duration of the maneuver.”
    “Okay, good point.” Tyrone had dismissed any possibility of attacking the corvette directly. He’d been trying to come up with something they could say that would make the leader hesitate. Now that he was on the same page, he thought he saw where Joseph was going.
    “Second, clamshell doors usually aren’t doubled to make an airlock. They’re too big, it takes too much material. You make an airlock by connecting two from different ships. On the rare occasion they are doubled, the inner door isn’t armored like the outer.”
     “And they’re opening the outer door now, at the start of the maneuver,” Tyrone finished. “They are the most vulnerable they’re going to be, and they’ll stay that way for as long as it takes them to make the link.”
    “Right. To attack them right now, we don’t have to worry about wearing down their shields or cracking their armor. They barely even qualify as a moving target, and what little movement they’re making is completely predictable. All we have to do is aim right.”
    “It’s a combination of the two approaches,” Tyrone said. “We attack them directly, just long enough to put a wrench in their boarding operation.”
    “Exactly.” Joseph thumped the console with a fist again. “If we do enough damage to that door and the hull around it, they won’t be able to connect to the freighter. I don’t think it will be hard to do that much damage, either. They only have one sixty-foot door, so at minimum they’ll have to go through all the maneuvering again to line up with a different access point. I’m sure the Comet has a few others, probably with full air locks.”
    “Those will be a lot smaller, easier for the crew to defend.”
    “Yeah. If they can’t find one of those, they’ll have to do EVA boarding, which takes an eternity.”
    They had done an EVA boarding operation once in the simulated combat teams when they were in school. The simulation had taken almost twenty hours, and nobody had wanted to do that scenario again afterward. It was a far more complex task than boarding by forcing an airlock or cargo bay door. Boarders had to cross from the troopship to the target craft by jumping between the two. Artificial gravity didn’t generally extend to the outer hull of a ship, so you were reliant on your own equipment to keep you attached once there. 
    Once on the ship’s hull you still had to force open a door, or cut through the hull somehow. The ship’s crew would be trying any trick they could think of to knock you off the entire time, and you had to do everything slowly. It was commonplace for attackers to slip off the hull, and the attacking side had to keep ships on standby to retrieve them if they weren’t willing to just let them drift off into space.
    “I’m not sure this plan is really going to have the effect Captain Meyer has in mind,” Tyrone mused. “Just thinking about EVA boarding would make me want to give up. They might decide to run after all.”
    “Yeah, I know. He was so sure that nobody could get here in time to stop them, maybe he’ll try it anyway.” Joseph shrugged. “I wouldn’t, and you wouldn’t, but we’re not greedy, desperate or stupid enough to turn to piracy at all, let alone in the Teton Sector.”
    “Even if he won’t do an EVA board, he’ll probably at least try a few other options before running away.”
    “Hopefully. As long as their nameless leader doesn’t get killed in our attack, that’s a safe bet. He’s the most likely to burn up valuable time trying to think of a way to still make off with the goods.”
    “I think it’s also a safe bet he’ll live through it. I don’t think he participates in the boarding operations.” Tyrone recalled the pirate leader’s flippant comment about losing more men boarding Tetonite ships than elsewhere. If he wasn’t concerned about those deaths, it was hard to image he put himself at any risk of being one of them.
    “I think the most important facet of this is one we still haven’t mentioned,” Joseph said. 
“Even if we chase them off instead of just delaying them until the Devastator’s arrival, this could save the lives of everyone on the Comet.”
    “Yeah, it could.” Tyrone looked at the countdown. One hour, fifty minutes. “Well, it’s the best plan we’ve got, and it has at least a reasonable chance of succeeding without getting us killed. I don’t think we’re going to come up with anything better in time for it to matter. I say we go with it.”
    “Agreed. If the pirates don’t kill us, our families are going to. You have to do the good you can, when you can. I’ll get a firing trajectory ready.”
    “Alright. We have about fifteen minutes until we pass by.” It felt good to have a plan again. Both starmen hated the helpless feeling of watching an attack unfold. Somehow they were less afraid when they could act, even though they were more likely to get hurt.
    Tyrone calculated how long it would be until the corvette connected to the freighter to see if he should try to speed up. When he saw the number, he gave a predatory laugh. “Looks like our pirates are going to accommodate our plan. They’re timing their approach so we’ll be watching them connect as we make our flyby.”
    “Hubris.” The wry, single word was Joseph’s only response. Tyrone hoped it didn’t apply to them as well.

Published: June 3 2018

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