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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 24: The Consequences Of Hubris

    Tyrone could watch everything in the windshield display as the corvette’s cargo bay disintegrated into chaos. Joseph’s initial point of fire was the starboard end of the cargo bay door. Explosive shells silently shattered pieces of the corvette’s hull into shrapnel. Lethal wounds sprang into being on the bodies of the pirates standing nearby. One was blasted out of the cargo bay and drifted toward the Comet, flailing.
    Joseph walked his fire along the upper and lower edges of the bay’s mouth, cracking apart the docking equipment housed there or twisting it beyond recognition. The debris either tumbled into space or whirled into the cargo bay, collecting the occasional pirate in its path. Their artificial gravity was still on, and man after man fell to the deck. 
    The two starmen had never determined the design of the corvette, but whatever its origins Tyrone could see they didn’t build their hulls as well as the Tetonites. Long cracks running deeper into the ship began to form only a couple of seconds into their attack. Joseph destroyed enough of the mounting points for the upper half of the clamshell door that the starboard end of it was starting to sag.
    Their angle of approach meant that they would only be able to fire straight into the cargo bay for a short time, but they could fire on both ends of the door for most of the distance. Joseph turned his attention to the port side and blasted apart the remaining docking equipment. In the process he destroyed the remaining mounts for the upper door. It crashed to the deck, crushing a pirate who had taken refuge by the port end of the door. It surely would have made a terrific noise if there was anything to carry the sound to where Tyrone could hear it.
    The magnitude of damage they were doing to the corvette seemed to increase the longer they fired. More twisted space junk and shredded remnants of the flexbible tube that extended to make airtight passages to other ships floated out of the cargo bay. Some of the cracks that started around the mouth of the bay ran together, causing several large sections of hull to split off. They floated gently away from the corvette, some drifting toward the freighter.
    Finally they were positioned to see head on down the cargo bay. Joseph’s idea to use the lead rounds had been a good one. As the back of the ship came into view, Tyrone could spot large dents and more than a few large holes torn in things by the simple solid slugs. He watched carefully as his partner fired at the opposing ship’s engineering section and tried to make out what they were hitting. 
    He was standing by to highlight the location of the FTL drive if he could spot it, but he never did. They could see straight through to the engineering section, and there was plenty of equipment there to damage, along with pirates who’d fled into the bay to escape the attack. The designs of those systems were far different from their equivalents on Garden Variety Animal as well, and Tyrone couldn’t identify most of it. Hopefully they were destroying important things.
    Once they passed through the narrow window they had to shoot into the engineering section, Joseph turned his fire back on the clamshell door. There wasn’t a lot left of the area, but it was their intended target. The explosive rounds blasted off another large splinter of the hull, and the lower half of the door began twisting off its mounts as the upper portion had.
    Finally the shock wore off for someone on the corvette, and one of the ship’s guns began firing at them. They had just reached the end of their intended firing window, and the guns stopped hammering for a moment. Joseph must have noticed the attack as well, because as soon as Tyrone highlighted the turret’s location on the tactical display, Joseph opened fire again. The corvette’s shields were still down, and the turret was instantly destroyed.
    “We need to change course before more of them start.” Tyrone recalled Captain Friedrich’s report that there were a dozen turrets on the corvette. Only Joseph’s quick response had saved them a hit from that one. The gunner would have adjusted his aim with another second or two.
    “Do it,” Joseph replied. “We’re past the firing window we set so I don’t need you to keep the same course anymore. We did a lot more damage than I was expecting.”
    “Yeah, their hull was far weaker than I was expecting. You blew big sections of it clean off. Like you pointed out from the beginning, they were leaving themselves vulnerable. They had no shields up and the interior of their ship was exposed. Then they invited us closer.” 
    “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a starship hull crack like that,” Joseph commented. “ Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if we were hitting them from the outside, that seems like a serious design flaw.”
    “It does. Nice reflexes with that turret, by the way. One less for White Onyx Devastator to contend with.” Tyrone looked at the screen to try and pick out something to fly toward and noticed the indicator for the dwarf planet. “I’m going to head for the planet. That’s probably the only decent cover for a long way anyhow, it would suck in any other objects nearby.”
    “Fine with me, it saves me the trouble of looking for anything else to hide behind.”
    Tyrone set a course for the planet and fired the sublight engines. He ran them up to maximum thrust, even though the course wasn’t precisely calculated. He’d refine it along the way; for now he just wanted to put distance between them and the corvette as fast as possible.
    The wisdom of that approach became clear almost as soon as he’d set the course. An alert flashed onto the HUD. The sensors had detected a missile launch from the corvette.
    For a brief, heart-stopping moment Tyrone thought the pirates had decided to destroy the Comet. It would not be out of character for angry, thwarted pirates to destroy a freighter they couldn’t capture. The realization that the weapons were pursuing Garden Variety Animal brought a momentary, irrational relief, quickly replaced by far more rational fear.
    “I think we have their attention now,” Joseph grumbled. A flash on the tactical display advised that he’d activated the missile defense systems.
    There was no question that the missiles would catch up to them. A slow missile had at least twice the acceleration of their ship. Fortunately, at Joseph’s insistence they’d purchased a selection of defense options that usually only appeared on private combat ships like the Devastator. Only a true military ship would have more.
    They were already passing out of effective range for the corvette’s guns, but the missiles were closing fast. Joseph added another tactical display to the HUD next to the one still focused on the cluster of starships to display the missiles. The corvette had fired two, with enough lag between launches that if the lead missile was destroyed, its debris wouldn’t trigger the second.
    Tyrone turned his attention back to refining their course toward the planet, leaving the missiles to Joseph and the missile defense computer. All the pilot could do to help was change the ship’s angle, and that wouldn’t be needed. The angles each system could cover varied but they could all point backward, and that was the direction the missiles were approaching from.
    A few seconds with the navigation console was all it took to decide how to adjust their course. He set them up for a high-altitude orbit of the dwarf planet. They could orbit it once and accelerate back toward the cluster of ships. The Devastator should emerge from FTL during their approach, letting them arrive a few minutes behind for support.
    Distracted by a sudden flash, Tyrone looked up from the navigation console. The lead missile had vanished from the tactical display, destroyed by a flak mine. His stomach lurched as he noticed the impact timer for the second missile: forty-five seconds! His dismay was cut off as a point-defense laser cut into the projectile and it too exploded. The window that had displayed them closed of its own accord, briefly displaying the message “Target Lost.”
    “Nice shooting,” he commended Joseph.
    “Thanks.” Joseph soon replaced the tactical window with a new one. “Don’t celebrate too much yet. The fighters are coming after us.”
    Sure enough, the new display showed the three pirate fighters following behind the missiles, flying in close formation. They were faster than Garden Variety Animal, but they weren’t nearly as fast as the missiles.
    “Well, we knew they wouldn’t be happy with us.” Tyrone realized he hadn’t put their course information on the HUD, and added a window showing the dwarf planet and their intended orbit. “It looks like they won’t be in effective range until we’re almost to the planet.” He briefly explained what he’d decided while Joseph had dealt with the missiles.
    “That’s a good plan,” Joseph said. “It’ll complicate the firing solutions, but that stands to benefit us if we have a better computer.”
    “That seems likely.” Tyrone was mostly judging that by the fracturing of the corvette’s hull, but it seemed like a reasonable guess.
    “Hopefully it will increase the ratio of kill shots as well. I know it’s only a dwarf planet, but If we damage one of the ships’s engines enough its gravity might finish them off for us. We’re running the same risk, but I think our engines are better-protected”
    Joseph’s point was an important one, and Tyrone hadn’t actually considered it when laying out his orbit. He frowned brought up the calculations to check them over again. To orbit a planet a ship had to balance its own thrust with the planet’s gravitational pull. If they were in too close an orbit and suddenly lost a significant portion of their engine power, they wouldn’t be able to push hard enough to keep from falling to the surface.
    “Actually we aren’t running the same risk,” Tyrone said. “I checked again, because I wasn’t thinking about that. In our planned orbit we can maintain escape velocity with just our maneuvering thrusters if we have to. The risk of falling into it is pretty tiny for us, but it might work on the fighters.”
    “Even better then,” Joseph replied. “One less thing for us to worry about, one more for them.”
    “How’s the Comet doing back there?” Tyrone hadn’t been looking at the rear displays much, more focused on what was in front of them.
    “So far, so good. There hasn’t been a whole lot of movement back there yet, I think the pirates were more focused on destroying us. We didn’t kill all the boarders, because a few of them made the jump to the freighter. The Comet used some kind of gas emission to start themselves spinning right after they jumped, and it made a few of the pirates miss. The ones that landed are trying to space walk over to the cargo bay door they were going to breach right now.”
    Tyrone looked at the image on the windshield as Joseph related the events. He could see the small figures playing out the little drama on the hull. The crew weren’t making it easy on the boarders. Even as he watched, one of them was struck by debris flushed out of a trash disposal lock he hadn’t noticed.
    The pirate lost contact with the hull and started to float away from the ship. He wasn’t done yet though; there were no signs of panic. Like an experienced spacefarer, he slowly reached for something on his suit, which turned out to be a magnetic grapple. He tossed the device gently toward the hull where it connected, and the line went taught. The pirate had only drifted a few yards from the ship.
    Magnet or no, the crew was determined to have the final say. The garbage port was still open, and a head and shoulders suddenly emerged from it. Both hands reached out to point at the pirate drawing himself back to the hull, and he jerked several times. Noticeable dark patches appeared on his suit. Before any of the pirates nearby could react, the crewman withdrew, closing the garbage port.
    “I’ll have to remember that trick,” Joseph commented. Tyrone hadn’t realized he was still watching.
    “It’s a good one. I don’t think that ever happened in our simulation.”
    “That’s EVA boarding, a regular nightmare. The more inventive the crew is, the worse it goes for the boarders. They have to do everything so slowly. It leaves lots of time for the crew to figure out where they’re going and lay traps for them. I’m glad the pirates are trying it.”
    “What do you think the chances are they left a motion- or heat-sensing grenade in that garbage port in case the boarders try to cut into it now?”
    “If they have any, one hundred percent. That’s what I would do. As much as I’d hate to do more damage to my own ship, it’s worth it if it stops a pirate from taking it. And killing me.”
    Their distance was growing, so the images were slowly getting poorer and more time-delayed. The duo returned to their preparations. It wouldn’t be long before they reached the dwarf planet’s orbit, and they needed to prepare a reception for their own guests.

Published: June 17 2018

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