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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 23: Last Modification

    As they got closer to the ship, Joseph tried to think of anything that might increase the chance of damaging the corvette’s Faster Than Light propulsion. They didn’t know exactly where that drive was, but it would almost certainly be near the back in the bulged-out section that housed the standard propulsion and other drives. They would have to be firing head-on to hit the area at all. Their angle of approach gave a good view of the corvette’s cargo bay, but would allow precious few such shots. That was when Joseph remembered the small stash of solid metal ammunition they had for Garden Variety Animal’s guns. 
    “You know, it might be good to mix a few of our solid rounds in with the explosives for this,” Joseph blurted as soon as he thought of it. “They’ll ricochet around the inside, if the armor is any good. A few of them might bounce into the back. It would give us a little more chance of knocking out the FTL drive.”
    “That’s a good idea, if we have any that are soft metal. We don’t really have much call to use them, so I didn’t think we had any on board.”
    “I know we have a few soft metal rounds. I don’t remember when we got them, but I’ve seen them in the munitions box recently. I’m sure we haven’t used them up since.” 
    Most ammunition used in personal weapons was some kind of solid metal, but at the starship level solid rounds were useless for most applications. The exceptions were piercing armor or target shooting, depending on the metal used to make them. Both high-explosive and plasma rounds were far more popular. They were better for wearing down shields and did more damage per round, making them more economical. You could also maintain a higher degree of control over what you were damaging on a ship, ideal for when you didn’t want to destroy your opponent. 
    The disadvantage here was that both were designed to break on contact in some way. Explosive rounds did exactly what their name implied. Impact triggered a fuse that would cause the round to detonate a fraction of a second later. Plasma rounds shattered, covering whatever they struck in the intensely hot substance. The energy was transferred to the impacted surface, hopefully softening and melting it.
    Solid rounds, especially if made from metals softer than ship hulls, tended to bounce off if they struck at an angle. In most cases that made them ineffective against the armored hull of a starship, but this was a rare instance where it would be helpful. It would keep them inside the ship, breaking things. It was certainly no guarantee of getting a hit on the FTL drive, but it did increase the odds.
    “Are there any of them in the magazines already?” Tyrone asked
    “No, I’ll have to go load them.” Joseph pressed the release on his straps. “How long do I have?”
    “A little more than ten minutes.”
    “That should be plenty of time.” Joseph maneuvered himself out of the harness and headed for the door. “Back in a moment.” 
    He ran down the corridors to the cargo bay and threaded his way aft through the mining equipment there. The turrets were mounted at the rear of the cargo bay, just fore of the engineering section. The gun wells containing them were right in the middle of the ship, with a metal ladder reaching between the two. The positioning of the gun wells, and especially that ladder, were among their few complaints about the design of the ship. 
    The narrower engineering bay wasn’t divided from the cargo hold by any walls or bulkheads. The goal was to make it easier to store permanent “cargo” items without reducing the ship’s load capacity. The main examples they had were the truck and cart they used in port, which were secured in the engineering bay. They’d had several near misses with the truck and the ladder.
    The munitions box was a large locker set into the port wall of the engineering bay, specifically for storing ammunition. It was as close to the ladder as possible, which was still about twelve feet away. That had never been a problem before since they were rarely in a hurry when loading the magazines, but at this precise moment it seemed like a poor design choice to Joseph.
    He slid to a halt in front of the munitions box and wrenched the door open, scanning for the boxes of lead slugs he knew he’d seen. Finally he located the battered and neglected containers on the top shelf of the compartment. They were cheap, and thus ideal to use for practice and calibrating the targeting system. The amount of damage done to the target was a minor concern for those tasks.
    They had about one hundred rounds of the lead ammunition. Joseph did some quick math based on the maximum rate of fire of their guns and decided to load all of it, alternating it with the high explosive rounds. In sustained fire they would use it up before they were past the corvette, and that was the plan.
    Box by box, he slid the ammunition across the floor to the gun wells. It was the fastest way to get them there; each slug was around three pounds. Tyrone might have been able to carry all of them at once, but he couldn’t.
    He darted over to the gun wells, leaving the doors of the munitions box open. They kept the magazines fully loaded, so he was going to have to put the same amount back in it. Different crews had different preferences about what ammunition they kept loaded. Each of their turrets had three magazines that each held a thousand rounds. He and Tyrone kept explosive shells in one, plasma in another, and alternated the two in a third. 
    He pressed the button to open the upper well and shoved half the lead rounds onto the rim, climbing up the ladder with the last box. The gun wells were cramped, and you couldn’t actually fit more than head and shoulders into them. At the top of the ladder he leaned back against the manhole-like lip of the well and opened the magazine that was explosive rounds only.
    At least the magazines themselves had been well-designed. Changing the load was an easy process. He plucked out every other of the first hundred or so rounds in the magazine and replaced them with solid lead rounds, putting the shells he removed in the empty boxes. To repeat the process in the lower gun well, he had to lie on his stomach.
    The task completed, he closed the gun wells and slid the rounds he’d removed back over to the munitions box, where he lifted them back onto the shelves. He secured the doors again and ran back toward the bow, checking the time. It had only been five minutes. If he’d ever loaded them that fast before he couldn’t remember it. Then again, he’d never been in such a hurry before.
    “The messages from the Comet’s crew arrived while you were gone,” Tyrone said as Joseph hurtled back into the cockpit.
    “Good. I was a little worried they weren’t going to get here in time.” Joseph dropped back into the gunner’s chair and slapped his straps back into place.
    “Yeah. I’m already forwarding them. I don’t want them stuck here if our comm equipment gets taken out.”
    Or if they died. Joseph winced as the morbid thought Tyrone had left unsaid flashed through his mind. It was hard to predict exactly how the pirates would respond to this attack. They would certainly decide that overlooking Garden Variety Animal was a mistake; whether that would lead to a full-scale attack on them was uncertain.
    Perhaps he should have recorded the same kind of message to send to his parents, or Allison. It was too late now, they were almost to their firing window. The opportunity was past. He hoped Tyrone had taken time to send something to Justine while he’d been monkeying with the turrets.
    Most of his regret was for not saying anything to Allison. If they did get killed his parents would understand, but she was very alone in the universe right now. There just hadn’t been much time to spare for that sort of thing by the time they’d come up with their plan. It had to be put into action immediately. That urgency had driven pretty much everything else out of Joseph’s mind.
    Joseph ended the gloomy reflection, turning his attention to the magnified image of their target on one of his monitors. If there was no time to send a message, there wasn’t time to dwell on it either. There were more urgent matters at hand.
    Just as it had almost fifteen minutes ago, the cargo bay door was hanging open. The sixty foot long opening was now adorned with pirates in space suits preparing to board the freighter. Many were gathered near the edge of the door, waving weapons and occasional rude gestures in the direction of Bolinscar Red Comet. If space transmitted sound, they surely would have been hearing jeers and insults to accompany these.
    Joseph cocked one eyebrow as he watched this display. An attempt to intimidate the crew of the Comet?. He had no idea if the pirates could even see the members of the freighter’s crew. From his angle he couldn’t see the door the corvette was approaching, but Joseph doubted very much that it was open, and the large doors usually didn’t have many windows. It was entirely possible they were hopping around and waving their guns at a blank door, just assuming the crew would be watching on external cameras.
    The demonstration was also serving to pump the pirates up for their attack. Like those in any fighting force, Tetonite commanders tried to energize their troops before going into battle, but the methods Joseph had experienced were far more orderly. Chants and songs, short speeches and battle cries were the norm. The pirates’ process was just a bunch of rowdies egging each other on into more aggressive displays. It was a crude way of doing things, and wasted a lot of energy.
    With no atmosphere in the cargo bay the pirates were dressed in a motley assortment of space suits. Joseph took a closer look at them and saw they were definitely space suits, not sealed body armor like his and Tyrone’s. There were a few lightly-armored variants here and there, but most were the thin, airtight fabric suits ubiquitous among spacefarers. 
    Most were sized appropriately for the person wearing them, marking the owners as those who lived in space long-term. The most common space suits were more amorphous. They were designed as ubiquitous safety equipment, and you wanted anyone who happened to pick it up to fit in it since they might not have time to go look for another. There were at least fifty of that type on board Garden Variety Animal
    Neither of those types would protect against weapon fire of any kind. The few armored suits present would offer some protection from the small arms fire of the Comet’s crew, but not against the two inch auto-cannons of Garden Variety Animal. Their attack wouldn’t only take away their ability to make a stable link with the freighter, but put a significant dent in their boarding force.
    Once he’d watched his fill of their antics, he looked for other useful information in the footage. The most important thing he picked out was the equipment around the edges of the door used to secure the ship to another for docking. Like any ship, there were a wide variety of arms, clamps, and suction devices for attaching to the hull of another vessel. Airlock designs were not standardized, so ships carried enough different options that if they had to dock to another ship, they’d have something to serve.
    Objective one was to destroy as much of that equipment as possible. The extendible fabric tunnel used to make airtight seals was the least important piece in this case, since the pirates were already in suits. More vital to the plan was to destroy the magnets and mechanical arms that would let them attach to the freighter. If they couldn’t make a stable link boarding the freighter would become difficult and dangerous.
    Joseph checked their distance, and saw they were less than a minute from firing position. Time seemed to slow as adrenaline flooded his system and he focused on the task at hand. Their firing window would be only ten or twelve seconds, but that time translated to a lot of rounds into the corvette. 
    He switched his attention to the targeting screen. The targeting system had computed the angles of fire needed to hit on, around and in the open bay door. Joseph had restricted the turrets to fire only in that window to avoid hitting the Comet by accident. The screen showed only the cargo bay area of the corvette, with a cross-hair indicating where the guns would hit if fired at any given moment. The angle was gradually shifting as they approached, getting closer to the shot straight down the corvette’s cargo bay.
    The screen above that Joseph had been looking at already showed a broader picture, in which most of the corvette and most of the freighter were visible. The corvette inched toward the freighter as the pirates capered on the edge of their ship. There was no tactical reason for them to be moving that slowly right now, they were more than a hundred feet away. It was for show, a little theater to intimidate their enemies.
    Whether the display was aimed at the freighter or Animal, Joseph wasn’t sure. No matter; whomever the intended target, it would work to their advantage. The gap was wide enough to eliminate any concern that the Comet might block their shot. There were also twenty-five or thirty pirates so close to the equipment they were targeting that they couldn’t avoid being hit by shrapnel or ricochets. Hubris, he thought again. Joseph loved hubris in his enemies.
    “Ten seconds,” Tyrone announced in the distance. “”
    The targeting display turned green. Joseph snarled and pulled the trigger.

Published: June 10 2018

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