Archives Where am I?

Shipping Hazards

By Patrick 'Jake' Jakubowski, Copyright© 2000

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion

 

"Damn!" Maxim Punask, otherwise known as Max, exclaimed as minigun rounds smacked the left side of his ship, The Private Tear.

"She’s still holding!" The cry came from his ‘partner’, Maggie, over the intercom. "The engines are still holding, screens are operative, and targeting is still active. If we get out of this, don’t forget to remind me to tell you ‘I told you so’." Max didn’t know if ‘this’ referred to the immediate threat or the mission in general.

He decided not to ask.

The mission sounded too good to be true, at least from an independent trader’s point of view. A short trip to an active mining center, pick up a few crates, transport them to one of outlying posts then return to home. It was simple. The pay was good. He was told the cargo was just supplies for the base and nothing important. However, it was important to someone judging from the pair of Dart fighters and Sorenson III that wanted it, even if it meant taking it by force.

Maggie didn’t want to take the job. She didn’t like the channels it came from or the fake bill of landing. She could sense these things. Now, it was a life or death situation.

"How far?" she asked.

"23.5 Ticks," Max responded. "Get those Darts off us! We can outrun the Sorenson."

Maggie was getting frustrated. "I’m trying! Do you realize how hard it is to hit a Dart?"

Max ignored the question and turned his attention to the defensive maneuvers and the ship’s computer, known affectionately as Tear. "Tear, run defensive mode armadillo," Max requested.

"Affirmative, defensive mode armadillo initiated," Tear responded in its usual calm unisex voice.

The change in defensive maneuvers wasn’t intended to be an improvement, but at least it might throw their pursuers off for a few seconds. Max was watching the Distance to Destination Display decrease- which was moving way to slow for his liking- as they were approaching the outlying post, known as Delta 435.

A pulse laser bolt found purchase on the side of his ship, causing sparks to fly throughout the interior. "You Son of Loki!" Maggie screamed. Max knew she was getting angry. When she got angry, she got religious. Generally, Max liked Maggie when she wasn’t angry. But now, since the anger wasn’t centered on him, he didn’t mind. Besides, she was a better shot when she was angry, as he knew from personal experience.

Max was pushing The Private Tear as hard as he could, but there was no way they could out run those Darts. He saw two possible outcomes: their engines get hit, in which case the Sorenson overtakes them, or they can make it within range of the outpost and their defensive batteries. Right now, unless at least one of those Darts was taken out, the first scenario seemed the most likely.

The ship bucked again as several minigun rounds tore into the cargo hold. "Cargo Hold depressurization. Engaging auto sealant," Tear said over the com.

Maggie had enough! They just got this ship recently and she was watching it get damaged. Her temper was swelling. Instead of targeting the closest Dart, which changed, she targeted a single Dart, following it even when it was out of range. The computer could extrapolate its movements and better predict where it would be. Maggie let loose with the dual impulse guns in the upper turret. Ranging was accurate, but the shot was off angle.

Another minigun burst raked the side of The Private Tear, rattling the occupants, but not penetrating the armor.

Maggie released the dual impulse guns again and this time, for the first time, actually hitting. The dart was hit just aft of the cockpit and hit hard enough to change its facing. Undeterred, it turned and continued its assault.

"I hate DARTS!" she screamed into the com link.

A thud of pulse laser fire sounded through the ship. Tear reported, "Engine damaged. Engine efficiency decreased eleven percent."

"Aw, come on," Max moaned. "Tear, get all damage control working on the engines."

Maggie returned fire with her weapons, finding her mark again. This time the Dart was hit dead on. The impulse fire seemed to disappear into the nose of the Dart and then, a moment later, expanding the aft of the ship into a hail of debris, peeling the aft hull of the ship like a banana.

"Fry, you pirating slag!" Maggie cried. "One down, one more to kill!" she said with arrogance and confidence in her voice, a telltale sign that she reached her boiling point.

Max smirked. She was primed and pissed. Only Odin himself could stop her now, and then ONLY if he was lucky.

The second Dart hesitated, then accelerated into another attack run. Maggie was waiting for him. The computer was cycling target information in Maggie’s control helmet visor, but she was ignoring it. In her current state, she was better than the computer.

The Dart and Maggie’s guns fired simultaneously. Minigun rounds raced by the ionized streams of impulse fire. The Dart took an impact on the left side raking its armor. The Private Tear took the minigun rounds in the aft but they all failed to penetrate.

The dart passed underneath The Private Tear only to get shafted by another fire of impulse ions from the 360-degree turret before it could get out of range. The shot smacked the rear of the Dart, causing pieces to detach from the small fighter. That was all it would take. Its engines damaged, it had no more fight left in it. The Dart turned and sputtered away toward the trailing Sorenson.

"10.4 ticks," Max said, even though he knew they would make it. The Sorenson was just too far away to catch up to them in time.

After Maggie saw the remaining Dart leave her target area and her temper cooled down enough to allow her a deep breath, she made her way forward to the cockpit. On the way she stopped to watch the auto-sealant ooze into the holes in the cargo bay. The automated damage control (DC) bots would be here as soon as their work was completed on the engine. She wanted to enter the bay and inspect the cargo for damage, but the thought of suiting up in a pressure suit and entering through the airlock quickly discouraged her from doing so. Besides, she could wait a few minutes and inspect it at the landing bay of Delta 435.

The cockpit was open but only had seats for three, one in the center front and two just behind and above that one. The lights were subdued to allow better vision into the void beyond. The pilot sat in the front seat and the others were passenger seats with limited control and monitoring displays. The interior was lined with backup controls and manual override systems. It looked more like a combat vessel than a cargo ship.

They had gotten ownership of The Private Tear just a few months ago. Their original Shyrak Shuttle was prohibiting them from taking larger freights, and to continue to be competitive they needed a larger ship. They found what they needed at a shipyard frequented by pirates and scavengers. A Lakshmi fit their bill nicely. It had been modified slightly due to lack of parts but all things considered, it was a good ship. It also cost a small fortune. A portion of that debt was to be paid by this job.

Maggie entered cockpit and braced herself buy holding onto a support beam overhead. The ship was slowing and the inertia threatened to dump her over Max’s head. At that very moment an overhead emergency storage bin swung open, the lid smacking Maggie on the side of the head, and spilled the emergency scrubber canisters all over the deck. More annoyed than hurt, she slammed the bin closed and started retrieving the canisters from the deck plates, all the while mumbling something about how Max was supposed to get that fixed and if it happens again she going to weld the bin shut.

After the canisters were put away in the offending bin, Maggie looked out the front plexisteel viewport and saw the mining outpost closing at a slow rate. "Have you contacted them yet?" she asked.

"No, but they know we are here after that light show," Max replied.

"Well, now that we are here, how in the name of Odin are we going to get out? You know those pirates will be waiting for us."

Max replied sarcastically, "How about an extended vacation in the not so glamorous Delta 435 mining resort? It comes complete with loud machinery and smelly workers." After seeing Maggie’s annoyed face reflected in a monitor he got more serious. "We’ll get out. I just don’t know how yet."

The Private Tear slowed to a stop relative to the base just a tick out. The base was an underground structure built into a large asteroid, which was common for a mining base. The only telltale sign that a base existed was a landing platform and some storage containers anchored to the rocky surface. A communication array and four pulse laser batteries were barely visible at this distance, appearing as dots on the surface.

Max was the first to break the radio silence. "Station Control, this is PT eight four three one zulu one, request auto dock sequence, code LK four eight four."

The Station responded, "Good to see you made it through the rough weather, one zulu one. Landing clearance approved. Sending landing sequence LK four eight four, cleared to dock in Bay 5."

A moment later the automated docking control monitor came to life as course and speed vectors appeared on the screen. The ship moved forward slowly under the command of the docking control system.

Max responded, "Thank you Station Control, sequence confirmed and locked. I need a cargo handler in Bay 5 upon arrival. I want a quick turn and burn before the weather gets rough again."

"Arrangements have been made, one zulu one."

"Thanks again, Control. PT eight four three one zulu one preparing for dock." Max shut the link off.

"What exactly did he mean by ‘arrangements have been made’?" Maggie asked.

"Probably that they were waiting for us. We’ll find out in about five minutes. Could you stay by the ship while I get us unloaded? The DC bots may need your guidance while we are on the ground," Max asked.

"Yeah, sure. You know I don’t like dealing with miners. They always seem so pushy. Besides, I want to check out the ship for any unnoticed damage," Maggie said.

"While you’re at it, run through the preflight after they get us unloaded. We can get going quickly and hopefully avoid any problems," Max requested.

Maggie smiled and said sarcastically, "What, you want me to do all of your work, too?" She turned and made her way out of the cockpit.

"You actually do WORK?" Max yelled after her.

The Private Tear made its way closer to the landing pad. As it approached, it turned to land vertically and set down with a light thump. Max heard the familiar hum of the grappling magnets energize, and went through the checklist for shut down. The platform lowered into the interior of the mine like a large elevator. About a hundred meters down the platform stopped. They faced a bay with a Shyrak Shuttle visible through the opaque bay doors. The platform and The Private Tear rotated so the nose of the ship faced an empty bay with a large ‘5‘ above it. Beyond the opening lie multiple units for handling spacecraft, cargo loaders, power units, automated repair structures, and even weapon reloaders.

Just beyond the airlock, Max noticed a line of armored troops, much like that of the Hibernian marines. Max hit the com, "Maggie, get up here."

As The Private Tear inched forward into the bay, Maggie entered the cockpit and looked at where Max was pointing.

"What the hell are armed shocktroops doing in a mining outpost?" Maggie asked.

"We are about to find out," Max replied.

The Private Tear came to a stop and the opaque bay doors closed behind it. Max saw the pressurization indicators turn green indicating that the bay was clear to enter and work without pressure suits. Max liked the Lakshmi more and more. For being such a large ship it could still just fit in a standard bay.

Max and Maggie made their way to the cargo bay with the crates. Maggie entered the overrides and the cargo door cracked open with a low hiss and was continuing to open as eight fully armed Hiberian troops circled around their ship and circled the door. Their weapons were drawn. Their backs were to the cargo bay. They obviously were not there to enter the ship but guard the loading process. Another person, a well-built female in a heavily pressed utility uniform, took the controls of a loader and started it up. The loader looked like a squat vehicle with four wheels and two grappler arms out of the front. The female rode on the back of the unit like a rider on the back of a wheeled crab.

One of the armored solders yelled out, "Commander On Deck!" In response to the call, all personnel straightened up and came to attention, or as straight as one can be in power armor.

A thin man in a modest utility uniform came into view as the cargo doors opened completely. Without hesitating he approached the ramp and walked right in to meet Max and Maggie face to face. "I presume you are Maxim Punask and Margaritte Thomas. I am Commander Jameson of the Hiberinian 107th Development and Testing Detachment. I want to get these crates unloaded and I want you for another mission. We need you to deliver something for us. Lets go talk over breakfast." The Commander turned and exited the ship and headed toward the bay access hatch. Max and Maggie followed. Max leaned over to Maggie and said, "I know, I know. You told me so."

 

* * * * *

 

The Sorenson docked to a hatch on the side of what appeared to be a ragged asteroid. A Dart fighter entered a hanger bay that opened on the side through the camouflage. This was no ordinary asteroid.

This was the hidden base of the Vindicators; a seasoned pirate organization that started with little more than a broken-down fighter and evolved into a well oiled raiding party that had ten well-maintained ships. This was due to the organizational efforts of the leader, Eli Rokenun. To his crew he is known only as "Rock".

Rock exited the Sorenson quickly as the cargo loaders were entering its bay after removing the life-pod of the destroyed fighter from the small cargo hold. Its front and undercarriage had been badly burned and partially fused. The life support systems inside didn’t appear to be functional. He ran to the pod and assisted one of the mechanics in releasing the latches to open it.

"Get the medics!" Rock screamed at the deck chief.

The hatch opened with none of the usual hiss, a sign that the life-pod’s atmosphere was compromised to the void.

"NO!" Rock bellowed with almost a panic in his voice and in his expression. He stopped and stared. He then slowly turned away, leaned his back against the pod, and slid down until he was sitting on the floor. "Damn…." He said softly.

The inside of the life pod was also charred. The pilot that was in the pod was obviously dead as his suit was burned through from the thighs to his boots. His face, as seen through his plexisteel faceplate, was bloated and contorted from the effects of the void.

"Rock…uh…Rock," a tech was attempting to get his attention, "What…"

In a low monotone voice Rock said, "Shut the hell up." He slowly stood up and walked over to the deck chief. He had lost one of his best pilots to a two-bit freighter gunner and was looking for someone to blame.

"Where were the medics? I told you to have medics ready when we land as standard procedure. Where were my medics?" Rock asked. He knew it wouldn’t have mattered even if the medics were right there when they landed. The pilot died during the explosion of his ship, not here.

"Uh, they were responding to an injury in the engine room at the time, Rock," the deck chief replied.

"We have four medics, Mac. I want two medics in the docking and staging area for every recovery, understand?" Rock was clearly agitated.

The second dart pilot appeared on deck and started to ask how his wingman was when he saw for himself. "Oh shit! I knew I should have formed with him."

"What, and FOLLOW the mission parameters?" Rock said sarcastically, visibly angry now. "What a great idea. Let’s do what you are told for a change! Maybe this time ALL of us can come back ALIVE! Get the hell out of my sight!" With that Rock grabbed the pilots helmet and threw it across the bay. It impacted noisily on a rack of metal pipe, which in turn collapsed, sending the small sections of pipe sailing across the floor.

"Get that Dart fixed, NOW!" Rock told Mac, the deck chief, then stormed out of the bay.

 

* * * * *

 

The Commander, followed by Max and Maggie, walked through several hallways and ended up outside a mess hall or cafeteria. From what Max and Maggie saw of the place, this was no mining facility. Max and Maggie were the only two civilians on the station. Various rooms were littered with scientific equipment and one room was nothing but control consoles and monitors.

They entered the cafeteria and walked up to the counter. The Commander placed his order and allowed Max and Maggie to do the same. They gathered their trays and headed toward an open table.

In between bites of food the Commander started in his explanations, "Although I wasn’t directly involved, I feel I must apologize for the deception and the damage you took during your inbound flight. The powers-that-be felt it was necessary. This base acts and maintains the appearance of an active mining station. We mine the area asteroids with a state of the art control system that requires minimum labor to operate, thereby allowing us to concentrate on our mission."

Max interrupted, "What exactly is your mission, Commander?"

The Commander continued, "I’m afraid I can not comment on that. What I can say is that this ruse is necessary for completion of our task. Unfortunately, we have encountered a snag in our plan. A pirate colony took residence nearby and has been harassing our shipments of supplies. Our shipments of ore have not been touched. We attempted to sneak in supplies on the ore carriers but the pirates scan all the ships and know which ones have it and which ones don’t. I could call in our forces to take the pirates out, but why would Hybernian forces be interested in a remote mining outpost? So, for now, maintaining the façade of a lowly outpost means dealing with the pirates. Since they are not harassing the ore, the mining companies would not hire outside assistance due to the cost involved. The only way of bringing in supplies is by private carrier, like you. But I need you to do more."

Maggie broke in, "We haven’t been compensated for the attack yet and you want us to do more? I’m afraid I don’t have the same allegiances as you do, Commander. I don’t work for duty and honor. We work for cash or anything that can be negotiated."

The Commander answered, "For delivering the supplies, your rate will be doubled. That should be sufficient combat pay. I have arranged that your ship be repaired and rearmed. On the topic of the next delivery, it is very important to this base and myself that it be successful. I have arranged that you be paid two and a half times the standard rate with all compensations for ship damage in effect. This is a no-lose scenario. If your ship gets severely damaged, we will repair or replace it. No questions asked."

"What if our ship gets destroyed?" Maggie asked.

"It will get replaced."

"It won’t do us any good if we’re dead," Maggie responded.

"I won’t lie to you," the Commander continued. "It is dangerous. Shipping freight in space always has some form of danger. But you will be suitably compensated for that danger."

Max asked a question. "What is the cargo?"

"Me," the Commander responded.

"Let me get this straight," Maggie started. "We are going to get paid more than twice our standard rate to ferry you to the mining center?"

"I’m not going to the mining center. Two armed guards and myself will be travelling to the Hybernian Capitol. I am not the actual cargo, but rather, what I will be carrying on my person…The fruit of this base, if you will," the commander explained.

Max stated, "I’m afraid I can take only you and one guard. The other one won’t have a seat. " He continued, "I am, however, more interested in what you know about the pirates: strengths, numbers, who they are and what they fly. Maybe we can use that information to predict the safest blockade run."

The Commander said, "The other guard will be a suited ZGV, or Zero Gravity Void Marine and will be stationed in the cargo bay in a pod. His mission is to attack an enemy vessel attempting to board our ship. The other is a personal guard and will take the remaining seat." He pulled a data tablet from his pocket, touched the screen a few times, and read out loud the contents of the screen. "The pirates call themselves the Vindicators. Their known forces include but are not limited to: Five- well, four now thanks to Miss Thomas- Dart fighters, one Sorenson III, two Crescents and at least one Lance Electra II. They have, according to our intelligence sources, purchased parts for a Shyrak Shuttle recently, although we haven’t seen evidence of its existence. They've harassed other mining facilities in the area and pulled off two successful raids against remote scientific outposts earlier this year. We have no reason to believe they know the true nature of our station."

Max was confused, "Why would they blockade the outpost but not take the ore or harass the production? "

The Commander replied, "They don’t want major opposition either. If they interfere directly with the mining operation, the mining center would get involved and mercs would be hired. Besides, spare parts, food stuffs, and the usual support items would go for a better price per mass than ore."

For the remainder of their meal, they discussed the terms and conditions for the contract. Reluctant, Maggie and Max agreed to the terms and a deal was struck.

 

* * * * *

 

Rock sat in the Sorenson suited and ready. He thought the Lakshmi they attacked might try and make a quick run of it. Freighters usually do, hoping to escape while the pirates are licking their wounds. He had five ships at his disposal on this mission: three Darts, one Sorenson, and one Lance Electra. The Lance Electra was to strike quickly and run, followed by the Darts. That should slow the freighter down to a crawl. The Sorenson was to come in, shut the ship down, and board it. Rock wanted it intact for what it carried, the ship would just be a bonus.

Rock caught wind of a mining operation that refused applications from miners. That meant one of two things: Either the mining facility was fully automated or it was a front for something else. In both cases it meant money. It took massive capital to set up an automated system. It also took lots of capital to create a false front and still appear to be operational. At first appearance Rock thought he may have made a mistake, but raids on the first few ships confirmed this rumor. This was a gold mine. Judging from the captured supply ship cargo, this was a research base with an automated mining system as the front. He had no idea of who they were and little of what they were doing, but he was going to find out. If it was research, he had a few customers that might be interested. The last couple of jobs he had done had proven to be very profitable.

The ships were still docked and preflight lists completed. It was now a waiting game. The sensor package on the hidden station was powerful enough to detect any ships coming or going. They hopped they could detect them in time and intercept. Just in case, they had a Shyrak Shuttle ready to attack from the opposite direction to ‘push’ the target into the main fleet.

If that Lakshmi came out again, he would have it and what it carried. As a bonus, he would personally shoot that gunner.

 

* * * * *

 

Over an hour later the two-person crew of The Private Tear along with one lightly armored shock trooper and Commander Jameson entered Bay five and boarded the ship through the main hatch. Beside the cargo bay stood what appeared to be an open casket with thrusters mounted on the base and sides. A marine was suiting up in a heavy EVA suit that the Commander referred to as the ZGV suit. A loader was standing by to bring the pod into the cargo bay after the marine was suited and sealed in.

Max immediately sat in the cockpit and warmed up the systems by going through the preflight checklist. Maggie headed to the rear of the ship and sat in the dual-impulse turret control chair. Jameson sat in one of the other chairs behind Max and beside him sat a lightly armored marine with a short high-power assault spatter rifle in his grip.

Max opened the com link. "Station Control, this is PT eight four three one zulu one, request to clear dock and prepare for launch."

"Permission granted, one zulu one. Good luck and best wishes from the staff to the Commander. Station Control out," came the reply.

The Private Tear backed out of the hanger bay onto the lift up to the surface. Above them, they could see the stars and other nearby asteroids.

"Maggie, are you ready?" asked Max.

"Systems are up and powered, engines stable, targeting good, and shields ready to engage," Maggie replied.

"No, are YOU ready?" Max asked again.

"We are going to face big nasty slag sucking vermin who call themselves pirates, in battle. Odds are against us, you know. No, I’m not ready…not ready at all," Maggie said.

"Well, you better be because we…are…leaving!" Max exclaimed. Max immediately released the clamps at the same moment the lift reached the surface. The Private Tear lurched away from the pad and floated free for just a moment. Max shoved the throttle to full speed. The ship's engines roared to life and accelerated it away from the base.

 

* * * * *

 

"Ship sighted, Rock. Pulling away from the base bearing 242 mark 87," said a voice over the com.

"Throttle up, Vindicks, Its payday," Rock said and shoved the throttle on the Sorenson to full thrust. The Sorenson released its couplings and thundered into acceleration as the Lance Electra followed by three Darts exited the landing bay.

 

* * * * *

 

Just 10 ticks away from the base, the sensors picked up five incoming pirate ships. They could avoid the Sorenson but not the Darts.

"We are in a target rich environment!" Max exclaimed. "The lead is a Lance Electra II…watch for the missiles. He can only make one run. We’re faster than he is. Take the long range shot before he gets close."

Maggie replied, "I think I know how to fire this thing, so if you don’t mind…SHUT UP!"

Good, Max thought, she is already agitated and the first shot hasn’t been fired.

The Lance Electra closed within range. Maggie released the stored energy in the impulse guns. The shot struck the attacker in the left pylon and sparks flew indicating a good hit. The Lance closed further and released five missiles followed shortly by two protobolts. The missiles streaked toward The Private Tear. A couple of missiles were taken out by the point defense batteries. The remainder impacted just aft of the cargo bay causing the ship to lurch to one side. The remaining two protobolts then followed the pathfinder and impacted the side of The Private Tear sending plates of armor sailing through space.

"Engine efficiency down 22 percent," Tear reported.

Max looked over his shoulder at the marine holding the splatter rifle. "I hope you know how to use that thing."

"Don’t worry," said the marine "I hope they’re up to date on their life insurance."

"Prepare for boarding actions," the Commander ordered.

"Ready, Sir." The reply came from the ZGV marine in cargo bay one.

"Darts! Coming in zero three five," Maggie exclaimed.

Maggie, her teeth clenched and her face flushed with anger, fired her impulse guns at the incoming fighters. The shot was right on target. The Dart erupted into a hail of debris with the largest being the engine section that cruised past The Private Tear shedding parts along the way.

The two remaining darts unloaded. Pulse laser fire riddled the side of The Private Tear and set off more secondary explosions in the aft section of the ship.

"Engine efficiency down 55 percent," Tear reported again.

"Maggie, the Sorenson is gaining on us!" Max shouted.

"I see him but he is still out of range!" Came the reply.

Maggie targeted the next Dart and fired, finding only minimal purchase on the side of the Dart.

Then their ship shook again. This time from the Lance that circled around and fired his remaining protobolts at the now slower ship. One of them hit on the belly section in between the cargo bays. The damage warning sirens blared. Warning lights came on. The scrubber canister bin opened sending canisters raining down on the Commander. In response, he slammed the bin shut again.

"Engine efficiency down 85 percent," Tear reported a third time. "Impulse turret system malfunction. Impulse guns are offline. Shield systems offline. Landing clamps…." Tear continued to report on the subsystems.

"We have to stop them from taking the ship, marines. Positions!" The commander ordered all the while pulling out a mini-laser pistol.

"Opening cargo hatch for EVA," Said the ZGV marine in the cargo bay.

Maggie arrived in the cockpit with her laser pistol drawn. "I didn’t feel like sitting on my ass back there so I decided to join the party."

Max had an idea. "We should all suit up just in case. Tear, continue to run evasive maneuvers until the engines go down." He turned to look at the Commander. "The emergency suits are in cargo bay two." Max turned to exit the cockpit.

Outside, the Sorenson closed the range and opened fire with its blat guns on the already crippled Lakshmi. It hit, right on target, in the engine compartment. The Private Tear lurched and engines shut down.

Inside, the interior lights went out. Dim emergency lights turned on illuminating only portions of the interior of the ship. The occupants of The Private Tear, having been battered around by the force of the impact, were sprawled over the floor.

"That hurt," Maggie complained.

"Engines offline. Power plant containment holding." Tear continued to report.

"No shit, Tear. If the containment wasn’t holding, we’d be dead! Set all Damage control to work on the impulse guns," Max replied. He looked across the floor at the Commander. "Let’s get those suits." Max got to his feet and headed toward cargo bay two.

 

* * * * *

 

"YES!" Rock exclaimed over the com. "It is shut down. Be ready to board."

"Ready when you are, Rock," came the reply.

Rock arranged his remaining ships. The Sorenson was to move in and board the Lakshmi while two Darts stood guard. The Lance Electra was to return to the hidden base as his ammo was spent, and he had taken considerable damage.

Rock maneuvered the Sorenson into position and engaged the docking clamps. The two ships mated together and the airlocks hissed as air rushed into the mated compartment. Three pirate attackers armed with wide beam stun weapons were ready to board. Rock filed in behind them, although he carried a more potent laser pistol.

"Lets go!" Rock commanded.

 

* * * * *

 

The Private Tear’s upper airlock control pad went from red to green and the airlock entry slid open. A single pirate in a ragged pressure suit dropped down and looked around the cockpit area. No one was there. Two more pirates followed him after he gave a signal. They pressed further into the ship by going down the main isle.

One more pirate, slightly larger in stature, dropped into the ship through the airlock and followed first three who were crouching in the isle.

They stopped by the entryways into the two cargo bays. Bay 1 was on the left and bay 2 was on the right. The portals allowed visual inspection of the bays and the larger pirate stepped up and peered through the port. Bay 1 was empty and the exterior bay door was damaged by weapons fire. The larger pirate turned, stepped across the isle, and peered into the other bay.

Max, Maggie, Jameson and the marine had put the emergency suits on, and Max had just finished the connection of left glove when the door of the cargo bay slid open.

Three men ran in and aimed their weapons at them.

"Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!" Max said, holding his hands out in front of him. "We surrender."

Maggie, Jameson, and the marine placed their weapons on a crate along the wall and stepped away.

A fourth Pirate entered the bay. "Hold your fire," he said to his men, then turned his attention to his new prisoners, and stepped forward. "I am Rock. You are now my prisoners. Attempt to escape…you will be killed. Fail to do what I say," he looked directly at Maggie, "and I will kill you. My plan is to ransom you off to ANYONE who will pay for you. If I cannot find someone to pay for you, I will sell you to the slave traders…well, most of you. I need to know which of you was responsible for the destruction of my ships. Tell me now or I kill…um, lets see…" Rock surveyed the four.

"You." Rock pointed at Max.

"So sorry," Max said. "Wrong guy, but thanks for playing."

"I’m not playing." Rock started to raise his weapon, but stopped when he heard a hissing sound. He turned and looked to the exterior bay door as it opened slowly at first, then burst open with a violent rush of air.

The cargo bay and the rest of the ship went through an explosive decompression. Everything that wasn’t tied down was ejected into space. Debris of all kinds flew out of the bay. All of their weapons and remaining emergency equipment, including mini thrusters flew away from the ship. Rock was thrown from where he was standing out into the asteroid belt. The other pirates followed closely behind. Max and the others were blown from where they were standing out to the exterior bay door where the micro cables attached to the back of their suits went taut and stopped them with a back-cracking jerk. Then, as the artificial gravity of the ship was still intact, they dropped onto the deck of the bay, hard.

Max looked out into the void of the asteroid belt and watched as the four pirates drifted out further and further. He pressed the close button on his small handheld remote. Tear responded by slowly closing the bay door.

The bay door was only a quarter closed when the vision of a Dart rounded from underneath The Private Tear. It was facing the partially closed bay and was so close Max could see the angry eyes of the pilot through the canopy glass and the visor of the pilot’s helmet.

"GET OUT OF THE BAY!" Max screamed and started to work on detaching his cable.

The bay door closed. The crew and passengers of The Private Tear were running for the open door to the interior of the ship when minigun slugs pounded their way through the bay door and embedded themselves into the bulkhead beyond. Shrapnel and rounds poured into the bay and sent the four skidding across the floor as they dove for cover.

Maggie was the first to scramble out; she turned to run down to the impulse gun control station. The Commander was next and filed into the cockpit area. Max followed the Commander. The marine got to his feet and attempted to sprint the remaining distance. He didn’t make it.

The minigun round clipped the back of the marine’s head, spraying blood over the wall next to the open door and sent the body into a spinning motion that sent him, back first and feet up, into the interior of the ship. The body slammed upside down against the opposite wall in the isle and crashed to the floor headfirst. The suit went limp as it decompressed.

Maggie jumped into the control seat and, without putting the control helmet on, grabbed the controls and pulled the trigger. The damage control bots did their work well. A twin blast of ionized particles erupted from the barrels of the turret and slammed down into the nose of the Dart. The impact shattered plates and armor, sending the dart into a nose down, end over end, spin. It had completed two revolutions when its power plant containment was breached.

The resulting explosion sent a shock wave out that slammed the side of the Lakshmi and crushed the bullet-ridden bay door. The Sorenson took similar damage and the impact stressed the docking clamps to their maximum, but they held.

Max and the Commander slammed against the control console and fell to the floor. After the chaos quieted, Max looked at the Commander. "We got to stop meeting like this," he said. They both got to their feet and the commander once again slammed the scrubber canister bin shut.

Max jumped into the pilot seat and surveyed the damage. Most systems were down. That last explosion disabled the impulse guns again and the engines were fried. He doubted the hull would pressurize.

"We are sitting ducks," Max said.

A figure in a heavy environmental suit dropped into the cockpit from the above airlock. The commander spun around and Max dove for cover under the control console.

"Enemy ship cleared, Sir," said the ZGV marine. "Two enemy casualties."

Max emerged from under the console.

"Good work," the visibly relieved Commander said.

Maggie entered the cockpit from the rear. "We are still in trouble. There’s another Dart out there and the impulse guns are fried."

The cockpit when silent.

The ZGV marine looked puzzled. "Why don’t you use the Sorenson’s weapons?"

Everyone’s eyes widened at once.

"Yes!" said Max.

"Sit down, little man. This is a job for a gunner," Maggie said to Max as she reached and pulled herself up through the airlock.

Max followed Maggie into the Sorenson. "You gunners are all the same. You fire your load, and you’re done for the night. Its us pilots that have to ferry your sorry…"

The impact of minigun rounds that continued to rattle The Private Tear and which shook both ships cut him off.

Maggie reached the gunners control station and pulled the dead pirate from its controls, letting him fall to the deck below. She pulled the control helmet off of the body and placed it on her head over her pressure suit. She climbed into the chair and started the targeting system.

Max reached the cockpit and jumped in. He fired the thrusters in an attempt to use the Sorenson as a shield from further attacks from the Dart.

Maggie pulled the trigger and fired the massive blat guns. The shot went wide and she missed the nimble Dart who veered away. She slammed her fist into the console. "Sit still, Mr. Pirate, sir. So I can SEND YOU TO HELL!" she exclaimed.

Max reviewed the Sorenson’s weapons load and system status while keeping it between the Dart and the Private Tear. He found what he wanted. The Sorenson was capable of carrying seven torpedoes. It had five that checked out and could be launched. He selected the Dart as the target and released the torps to their goal.

Five streaks thundered out from under the Sorenson and raced to the Dart. The Dart turned to run but could not react in time. The first torp hit in the wing of the little craft and sent it spiraling. The second and third thundered into the midsection of the fighter and it immediately grew into a fireball. The remaining torps followed in and just served to finish off the larger pieces of debris as the ship was disintegrating.

Max and Maggie reentered The Private Tear after the Dart vaporized. Max jumped into the pilot’s chair again and reviewed the damage. Tear calmly reiterated the major components that failed and list those systems that couldn’t be repaired; among them were the engines and the impulse guns. Tear then gave estimated times of repair for those systems that could be repaired.

Maggie sat down in one of the other chairs and reviewed the sensors. "The Dart is gone," she said. "Nothing but debris and…wait…I got a Shyrak shuttle coming in two seven nine!"

"Not again!" Max exclaimed.

"Wait!" said the Commander. "It might be one of ours."

Max turned to the Commander with a surprised look on his face. "You had a Shyrak and didn’t use it to help us before?"

The Shuttle did not even slow down. It passed below The Private Tear and headed toward deep space. The com came alive, "Thanks, one zulu one, hope you're ok. Recovery team on the way." The shuttle was heading out of the belt.

"We are all expendable. The cargo was not," The Commander answered Max’s question.

"We were a DECOY?" Maggie yelled. She was very angry.

The Commander explained. "Not a decoy. We knew you would be able to wound them enough to allow us to send the Shyrak though untouched. You proved this by getting through the blockade the first time. If we sent both, only one might get through and we could not predict with certainty that it would be the shuttle. We would sit back, wait for the dust to settle and if it was clear, sent the shuttle through. You successfully fulfilled your mission."

"That just makes me feel so good," Maggie retorted sarcastically. "You better fulfill your end of the bargain and repair our ship."

"Don’t worry," the Commander said. "You will leave here in a completely refurbished ship and you, my dear, will be firing those impulse guns in no time."

"So it was you!" said a voice from behind them. Rock was standing in the isle way to the cargo bays. He released the mini thruster he had used to propel himself back to The Private Tear and it dropped to the deck. He clasped his laser pistol with both hands and aimed it at Maggie.

The marine was the first to react and jumped at the attacker, blocking the shot that was intended for Maggie. The laser struck the marine across the chest and armor vaporized from the beam. Maggie dove behind a seat back to gain cover.

Rock stepped aside and forward as the marine crashed to the floor and rolled over. Rock was now within reach of the Commander and grabbed him, shoving the barrel of the weapon into the faceplate of the Commanders suit.

A small hissing was heard. The marine was lying on his back. He felt his ears pop. He realized what was happening. The laser had cut a swath across his chest and air was escaping into the interior of The Private Tear through a tiny hole.

"Shit, shit, shit! Somebody help me!" he exclaimed while holding his hand over his chest.

Max jumped over the seat, grabbed a repair kit on the wall, and threw it to the floor. He kneeled down and opened the kit taking out a patch. He bent the patch in half, massaged it slightly to mix the contents, ripped it open, and placed it on the chest of the marine. This took him exactly four seconds to accomplish.

Rock shoved the Commander aside, stepped between two seats, and spun around where he had sight on all of them. He again pointed the pistol down at Maggie. She kicked him in the knee so hard he lost his balance momentarily. He reached up and grabbed the support beam to steady himself. The scrubber canister bin flew open and smacked Rock on the side of his pressure suit helmet. Startled, Rock turned to face this new attacker.

The Commander jumped this time. He grabbed Rock by the wrist, pushing the barrel away from the others, and grappled the larger man. They both fell over backward. Rock landed hard on his back between the two seats with the Commander on top of him. They both struggled for control of the laser. Rock twisted his wrist attempting to aim the weapon at the Commander’s head. At just the right time the Commander pushed with his arm, slamming Rock’s hand against the floor. The laser fired.

The beam traced across the ceiling of the cockpit, across control cables and pipes. One pipe in particular was a cooling conduit for the sensor package. The laser severed the pipe, sending liquid nitrogen raining down upon the struggling pair, covering both the Commander’s back and Rock’s faceplate. The Commander's suit froze into a rigid state. One move and the suit would shatter like glass.

Rock’s expression turned from grimacing anger to an evil smile. Using his free arm, he swung his hand around to the Commanders back and squeezed. Under the stress from Rock’s grip the back of the Commander’s suit splintered, sending frozen shards of the suit, propelled by the air pressure within, raining everywhere in the cabin.

The Commander’s eyes went unnaturally wide. He gasped for air that wasn’t there. He violently shook for a few seconds, then went limp as conscience left him and death embraced him.

Rock wedged his knees under the limp body of the Commander and shoved it away. It rolled off behind the seats like a rag doll being tossed aside. Rock grabbed the seats to lift himself away. He looked up and was caught off guard by the sight of the angel of death.

Maggie had both hands clutched around a scrubber canister and raised it high in the air above her head. "Now you DIE!" Maggie screamed as she brought the canister down upon the frozen faceplate that separated Rock’s face from the void beyond.

"NOOO…" Rock's scream as the faceplate shattered into splinters was cut off. All of the life-giving air emptied from his suit, as well as his lungs, and spilled into the void beyond. He stared into Maggie’s eyes in disbelief. His eyes rolled into the back of his head and he grabbed the seats tighter as if it would yield the precious air he needed. His body wrenched back upon the floor as every muscle tensed. His blood boiled causing him to scream in agony, but without sound as there was no air to carry it. His face contorted with pain until it was no longer recognizable. Rock collapsed, limp on the floor, yet another victim to the void.

Maggie dropped to her knees and let the canister roll from her fingertips onto the floor. She collapsed from all the anger and the pain. For the first time in years she wept. She wept for the waste of life. She wept for the pain. Most of all, she wept to release her anger. Max and the marine stood above her.

Outside, a remote cargo handler ship arrived, grabbed the connected ships, and started towing them back to the base.

The Private Tear would fly again and maybe, just maybe, they would also fix that canister bin latch.

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