“All In a Week’s Work”, story 3
By Hannah Christensen
The alarm’s shrilling cut off.
Captain Philip’s dark brows pulled low, casting his normally sparkling blue eyes into shadow.
“Maybe some bored boy’s prank,” suggested Ervin Wist’hle.
“That, or sudden destruction.”
The Captain adjusted their path to a less direct course and opened additional gamma scans.
Ervin continued to scan for a bandwidth sending messages in the area. “I’m not even hearing anything on the PIN levels—ooh, that looks bad.”
The main screen showed the wreckage of a ship. Pieces were still falling out, letting out a shimmering wave of oxygen.
“I wonder what did that?” said Ervin. “Looks like a suit-up rescue.”
“Pirates,” growled Captain Philip, swerving.
Ervin braced himself with one hand against the ceiling while opening a line up to Dunstan in the engine room. “No wonder we didn’t get any PIN signal. Should I send an official hands-off warning?”
“They seem to have gotten the message.”
Several small cutters pulled away from the drifting wreckage and scattered life pods. A larger craft shifted from where it lay side to side against its prey and swiveled guns toward the Bonny.
“Drudgeon, be prepared to board in a O-leak rescue maneuver, magnitude 3. It will be tight, as we are engaging space sharks.”
“Scum,” muttered Ervin.
“Aye, aye, sir,” said Dunstan.
Captain Philip slid down a coordinate and rolled to the port. “Send out a universal for unconditional surrender.” He tuned the guns to maximum shielding.
With a quick sweep of slender fingers Ervin started the pre-programmed message with its accompanying light patterns. “What if they have hostages?”
“I’m more worried about the rest of the ship getting blown before Drudgeon can get to survivors.”
The Bonny thrummed as twin shots poured toward the predator ship. The enemy wobbled at the force, but its shields held. Captain Philip recharged and amped up the force, this time adding bursts of laser cannon. It shuddered, but compensation rockets kept it steady and the shields held strong.
“What model are you dealing with?” Dunstan’s voice asked over a speaker.
“A souped up MineXstar,” Ervin said. “She has gorgeous lines, almost Ferrald, and those are some big guns wired in.”
“Check above the aft thruster links. Those are usually the weakest points in the Xstar line.”
Captain Philip dove the Bonny starboard.
The pirate ship spun, following with laser bursts.
“Wist’hle, man the sharpshooters.”
Ervin flipped over a panel and put his right hand over both sets of controls. His left hand continued to play through communication bandwidths.
“The oxygen can’t be far from gone, Captain. We’re going to need to attempt the rescue soon.”
“It may take time to approach her belly. We’ll try to drop Drudgeon first.”
When they tried to approach the disintegrating ship, however, several cutters blocked the way. The little spaceboats zipped to and fro, spitting gunfire.
“Got one!” cried Ervin. “No, there’s another—these things are moving in concert. How are they communicating?”
“Private communication lines. Fourth quadrant.”
Ervin blasted at another cutter. “No, we’re close enough I should be able to pick up on anything they’re sending. But I’ve found nothing.”
Captain Philip tried barreling toward the distressed ship, but had to pull up to keep from colliding with a shield of cutters. “I could use some more firepower.”
Throwing some syncopated shots, Ervin began to slide through bandwidths again. “At this distance, even with cloaking I should be able to pick up something on their own band…” He snapped the fingers of his right hand. “That’s it! They’ve discovered a new wavelength. And if I had to guess, I’d say it was close to the orange spectrum. We have more static there than usual.”
He opened five of the orange spectrum bands and tipped his head in concentration.
“In fact…there seems to be a pattern in this static. I wonder if I could crack it.”
“Wist’hle, start a recording of all the orange bandwidths to evaluate later if you must, but get both hands on the guns now!”
With three swift hand movements, Ervin turned fully to his guns.
The pirate ship was now crowding them on the other side.
“Estimate on debarking time?” Dunstan asked.
“Not yet,” said Ervin. The cutters dodged and slid just out of his firing. He picked one to follow, gyrating his wrist to the brink of a sprain to keep up with its acrobatics, then swung the other gun into it from the other side. The lights went out and the spaceboat continued its tumble uncontrolled.
“How much of a window does the victim have?”
Ervin glanced at the upper board and winced. “Captain, we’re running out of time.”
“We’re going to have to wait until we take care of the big momma cat. If we force our way in close enough for a drop, we will cut off our retreat.”
He rose a little. The enemy ship edged in to block the Bonny and crowd her further.
“Wist’hle, keep their attention on 42-19-80R.” Captain Philip filled the engines with power and aimed the Bonny for a clear horizon between the dead ship’s hull and the approaching pirate hulk. He skimmed, dimming the shields to avoid surface interference and to add power to the thrumming engine. Ervin peppered the closest cutter scrambling to a better position. The pirate ship pushed forward to squash out escape before the Bonny’s engine’s engaged their full power.
Captain Philip pulled back from his feint in a full-engined backward thrust. Flipping over, he nestled up to the enemy’s belly. Ervin kept his fire steady on the cutter throughout.
The pirate ship reared back and began to buck and twist in an attempt to lose them. One of her guns opened, and the Bonny shook.
“Wist’hle, you’re going to have to take the cannons. I’ll see if I can give you a clear shot at the thrusters.” He whipped the Bonny along, shadowing the pirate’s maneuvers The corners of his eyes squinched. “She is fast.”
“Typical space scum.” Ervin sprayed one more arc with the laser rifles and switched controls.
Captain Philip redirected some of the energy to the guns. He didn’t dare lower the shields any further. His shadowing was just imprecise enough to keep the enemy ship from getting a good shot at him yet. In the meantime, the cutters kept their distance but spared no fire. Many shots missed, but the pirate’s shields reflected them without a quiver, and many of the reflected shots did graze the Bonny.
“Open target in three…two…one…”
Ervin swung both cannon mouths at the hull just aft of the thruster links and leaned on the power. The shield glowed purple and light scattered from the spot, but nothing got through. Ervin shifted his aim, feeling for a weak spot. He found none.
“Blast! It’s not even turning red.”
Captain Philip’s eyebrows slanted down.
“I mean…could I try with more power?”
“It’s going to take a while recharge, and I can’t give you anymore without compromising somewhere. We’ve been lucky so far, but I don’t want to shortchange the life support.”
Ervin sighed. “Yeah, addicted to breathing and all.” He flopped back in his seat. “Where is she getting all her power? Is she carrying a plant? Unless she took a cut in gun power.”
“The gaping holes in her prey would suggest otherwise. Suggest, mind you. I can’t completely rule out wandering meteors that disintegrate into nothing after leaving gaping holes in the sides of carrier ships.”
Ervin sighed noisily and spun the gun controls in lazy circles. “It’s a good thing all pirates haven’t picked it up. It’s bad enough with their over gunned speed without adding over the top shields to the mix.”
“That’s because they would have to cut back on life support to have the energy, and a pirate’s ship is his only life,” Dunstan’s voice crackled.
“Yes,” said the captain, a gleam in his voice. “Wist’hle, put out a beacon call and send a full-band message calling for help for possible pirate-attack survivors. Make sure to include the Gypsy King line. Then see if you can shoot down the rest of those cutters while you’re sitting there.”
“We’re not going in?” Dunstan asked.
“We’ve run out of time. Either they’re dead, or holed up someplace they managed to get a seal on. If we don’t deal with the attacker now, not even the life pods will hold someone to save.”
The Captain dropped back from their quarry. “Drudgeon, I want you to go fire up the emergency energy coil. Feed it all into the artillery.”
“Wist’hle, activate the nose drill.”
“Yes, Captain. Though I feel the urge to point out that those shields are charged enough it would be suicide to try to drill through them.”
“Space Rovers have been known to give up their lives in order to bring pirates to justice before.”
Ervin opened his mouth, swallowed, and turned his attention on the board in front of him. He did not speak again until another cutter, wounded, dropped from the fight. Captain Philip had positioned the Bonny behind the pirate ship’s reactor coil and right between its biggest guns—megamouths, they were called, and they were the largest one could get without seriously hampering a ship’s maneuvering power.
“You aren’t really planning a suicide run, are you?”
“Not on purpose.” Captain Philip yawed out of the way of a burst of gun fire. “But she doesn’t need to know that. Your job is to make every shot count.”
The chase began in earnest. The pirate ship picked up speed, but stayed in the sector. The Captain did not try to match every twist, only made certain to keep coming. He used his maneuvers to cut his way closer.
The Bonny’s engines strained to keep up. She was designed for speedy travel both in far stretches and in close maneuvers, but this was pushing her limit. Captain Philip eased the shields down to a minimum. As each attacking blast came at her, the Bonny twisted to evade it.
“Leave the peashooters,” said Captain Philip. “It’s time to open up the big guns.”
Ervin started with power shots, timing them carefully with the Bonny’s cavortings. Then he switched to one steady beam raking the sides of the pirate vessel and one large projectile shooter.
The third time the Captain had to dodge reflected projectiles, a blast of enemy fire clipped the Bonny. The power dimmed and crackled for a moment.
“Sorry,” said Ervin. “Guess I’d better stick with the rays for now.”
Captain Philip did not allow the pirate ship to slow down. He kept pushing closer, threatening with the nose drill. The pirate ship began to activate her deep space drive.
“She’s leaving the sector,” said Ervin.
“And we are following her.”
“That’s dangerous, if you want to believe the Space Flight Basics.”
“Yes, you are quite right. When I give the signal, hit her with all you’ve got.”
Ervin flipped open another gun and splayed his hands to cover the controls to all four non-rifles at once.
Captain Philip opened his own deep space drive, but left it disengaged to pull in closer. The pirate ship blasted its megamouths and followed with triple shots from higher swiveling guns. “Now!” The Captain careened the Bonny out of the way of enemy fire.
Ervin poured out all the firepower the ship would give him.
For a moment it looked like the pirate ship would get clear. Then a blast from its guns clipped the Bonny.
Lights dimmed, and emergency backups kicked on. Half the displays died, and the pirate ship was no longer on screen.
“Looks like a damaged connection. I’m working on it.”
Power stuttered, and most of the cockpit came back to life.
“Look! She’s still there!” cried Ervin.
The pirate craft listed. Her deep space drive blinked.
“We didn’t short out her life support energy well enough,” said Captain Philip. “She’s still trying to jump sector.”
Ervin gave an experimental laser blast. “I think the shield is working under lower power now.”
Dunstan hollered. “I said, I’m working down here!”
“We’re going to need a little more firepower,” said Captain Philip. “And maybe a wee bit of drilling power, too.”
“But start with the lower powered guns, Wist’hle.”
Edging nearer, they bombasted the enemy ship. It struggled to balance powering its deep space drive and its shield. Ervin’s hits were beginning to show red. Suddenly, it dropped its shield completely and filled its drive with power. Captain Philip jumped forward, engaging the nose drill.
The pirate ship threw back one more blast and jumped forward, but not before the Bonny ripped into her starboard quarters. The Captain and Ervin caught a glimpse of her speeding off at a precarious angle, gaping dangerously, before darkness clamped down on the cockpit again.
“Well, there go the shields,” Dunstan’s voice scraped out over the communications line. “I hope you weren’t planning on using them anytime soon.”
Ervin sighed and leaned back. “I’m glad to still be breathing.” One set of panel lights twinkled back on. “How much further do you think that sprint opened her up?”
“I don’t know,” said Captain Philip. “But if it doesn’t leak as much air as her victim, it should at least take a long time to fix up. A very long time.” He smiled and leaned back as well.
“Shields aren’t the only damage, either,” Dunstan grouched. One by one, panels and lights came back to life. “We have more than one problem.”
Ervin started forward to stare at what loomed in space before them. “We certainly do.”
A new spaceship slid through space. It was a size larger than the just departed pirates, but with even sleeker lines and possibly even more weaponry.
“Or maybe it just heard our call for help and stopped by.” Ervin hadn’t twitched from his leaned forward position.
“Feel free to try radio contact,” said Captain Philip. “Drudgeon, will the deep space drive work?”
“It should. Aren’t we going on a rescue attempt?”
“It looks like Mama Cat called in a Tom. The most helpful thing we can do right now is lead him away from any helpless survivors.”
The new ship was as silent as the just defeated ship had been. It ignored the torn carrier and came straight at the Bonny, guns ready.
Captain Philip circled away, aiming away from where the other ship had disappeared. The drive whined down into a deep thrum.
“Hold your breaths!” said Captain Philip, and opened up, adding a burst of ether-power, a specialized Space Rover ship feature.
For a moment everything dimmed. Even breathing became difficult. Then the world slid into its normal hues.
“That should give us a head start,” Captain Philip said as soon as he was certain of his voice.
“After a stunt like that you’d better have a plan on how to keep the head start.” Dunstan’s voice sounded wheezey. “Ether-power is meant for high efficiency boosts on power, not to supplement depleted sources!”
“Feel free to disengage the emergency energy coil from the artillery. We are going to need speed for this phase.” The Captain retracted the mining nose. “Wist’hle, see what you can find in the way of places to lose them in the area.”
“You mean, permanently lose them, or just long enough to disengage?”
“I am open to suggestions.”
The pirate was visible behind them again, but not so near as before.
“Let’s see…no stations, no planets, here’s a port—no, that’s been abandoned for a while now. Where’s a good meteor shower when you need it?”
“How do our shields look, Drudgeon?”
“Not good. I’ll see what I can do, but don’t expect anything for a while.”
A flash from behind announced the pirates were using their weapons. Captain Philip dipped and swiveled, checking to see how the Bonny’s navigation was off after the last hit. She had a slight list and one of the port thrusters was slow to respond, but felt ready for the challenge at hand.
“Well, Captain, a couple of clicks away there’s a black hole—fairly small; a wormhole, Bimisi would say.” Ervin licked a finger. “And as almost as far away is a comet’s path of orbit. No, wait, that won’t do much good. It passed that point a month back. But let me follow the path…It would be tricky, but if we could keep from crashing into the ravening hound on our heels, we might startle them enough to lose them even before—”
“Co-ordinates for the black hole.”
“Hole proper or vector edge?”
“What do you mean, hole proper?” Dunstan’s voice buzzed over the communications line. “No one’s been able to test their theories because of the gravity.”
“Vector edge with safety ranges.”
Ervin transferred the matching information to the Captain. “It’s a small one, so it should be easier to fight the gravity while aiming for the center.”
Dunstan snorted. “That’s like comparing how much easier it would be for a bird to fly to its moon than to another planet.”
“I’ll bet no one has tried jumping from out of sector directly into the eye before.”
“It’s a good thing the Captain has more sense than you do! Even if we were in desperate enough straights to try such an idiotic maneuver, the eye of a small black hole wouldn’t be large enough to fit the entire Bonny in. We would get pulled to pieces.”
The Bonny leaped forward. Keeping his course at a bit of zig-zag, Captain Philip skipped through vectors toward the black hole. All the ship instruments surged when it came into range.
“This next bit will be a smidge risky,” said Captain Philip. “Wist’hle, instead of distracting our engineer, find out what we can power down. I need you to set up a transient energy reservoir I have a hunch we’re going to need any boost we can get.”
The pirate ship thrust into view. It was slightly off center both in position and orientation, and seemed to grabble for a moment. Captain Philip used the opportunity to increase their lead.
“So what is this, a game of chicken?” Ervin braced a foot partway up the control board. “Because they do have an advantage. All they have to do is wait until we’re unretractable, then drop away. We’ll get stuck in the gravity pull before they are.”
“Not necessarily. We will get closer sooner than they do, but consider our mass.”
“Let’s see…” Ervin started opening files and running calculations.
“You should know this,” Dunstan said.
“It would be…” Ervin’s foot hit the floor and his entire body bent over the figures. “…more than it was a moment ago? How’s that?” He brushed displays back on and started panning through controls.
“You are supposed to be shutting systems down, not fragmenting our energy.” Captain Philip leaned the Bonny out of a range shot, changing her course to off center of the black hole. “I’ve a mind to send you to switch with Dunstan if you can promise me you can keep your attention on repairing the shields”
Captain Philip’s brows twitched.
“We’ve just picked up an incredible amount of mass hard to the lee of our laser cannons.”
“You are quite right, I find no credibility to that statement. Radio technician, I just ordered you to see what you could power down.”
“I just wanted to see what is there. It’s big enough that hauling it around is going to give us a lot more trouble than a quick video probe will, especially if it’s an explosive from the pirates. Here, I’ll send you the stats.”
Captain Philip slapped the Bonny into a spiral away from enemy fire. “Drudgeon, as soon as your way is clear to join me in the cockpit, Wist’hle is banished to the engine room. For life. And you are officially on restricted duty, Wist’hle, the moment this crisis passes.”
“Captain…” Ervin reached out for Captain Philip’s arm, his eyes anchored on his video feed.
Captain Philip glanced away from his piloting long enough to glare at the radio technician. He caught a glimpse of a black form drop away. “What…”
“This is not good,” said Ervin. He didn’t twitch from his outstretched position.
An odd shape flashed across a corner of the main display: a glass globe empty except for a swirl of murky green, encased in an otherwise streamlined spaceship. A flash of reflected light slid along a small panel, and then the whole craft merged into the black of space.
“I’ve seen that before,” said Captain Philip. Then he frowned at the hand resting against his arm. “Wist’hle, do you want to die in a black hole? Because you are now distracting the pilot.”
“He left a bomb!”
The video probe did indeed reveal a flashing globe attached to the Bonny’s hull.
“You have ninety-three seconds to try and remove it, and then you will turn off all these energy leeching functions and focus on conservation!”
Flares spangled the pirate ship as it showered shrapnel at the Bonny. Captain Philip angled more into the orbit plane of the black hole, avoiding most of the damage. The power held steady, but the Captain could feel one of the port thrusters falter.
“Captain, I’m at a breading point, if you want me to take his seat,” said Dunstan.
“No.” Reluctance thickly laced the word. “You had better stay on the shield. If he does not follow orders, I shall space his entire cord end collection and court marshall him, if I have to do it over his dead body.”
He was angling more and more into a line of orbit, though with the thruster damage he did not dare get as close to the black hole as he had wished. Captain Philip watched the pirates, hoping they would try to cut closer to the black hole in an attempt to intercept their quarry, but they fell into orbit behind the Space Rovers.
The Bonny accelerated as gravity whipped them around the gaping center. Captain Philip had to lean on his port thrusters to keep from spiraling closer.
A blast came from behind, but arced away toward the black hole, missing the Bonny. Soon, though, the gravitational pull would increase the bigger ship’s speed enough to close the distance between them.
“Dudgeon, how are the shields?”
“Almost there, Captain.”
“Working on it, sir. Your reservoir is growing even as I speak.”
Captain Philip noticed that though Ervin was indeed powering down systems with one hand, the other was still at the cleanerbot and camera controls, trying to dislodge the flashing knob from the Bonny’s underside.
“Sir, I am earnestly following your orders and will soon have a reservoir capable of one-point-five coach power for you.” His pinched face had lost its color.
“You’ve been using that much on the cleanerbot?”
“No, but we won’t be able to use the sleeping quarters for a while. There we go!” Ervin snapped off the camera as the flashing knob floated out of view. He used a quick blast from the cleanerbot to push it away before powering down and redirecting the last of the power.
“Insubordination,” Captain Philip grumbled, but Dunstan came on just then to announce the shields ready. The captain engaged them, and slowly fed them strength. “You know the black hole is just going to pull it back toward us.”
“We should have moved forward more by then.”
Captain Philip let the Bonny spiral in a hair closer.
“Look, I think it’s heading toward the pirates,” said Ervin. He leaned back in his seat, his head tipped against the headrest.
Behind, the pirates did seem distracted. They lurched, and guns flared at something. Captain Philip engaged thrusters full force to push back away from the black hole’s draw. The gravity dragged on them, making the damaged thrusters shudder. The Bonny shivered on the edge of release.
The pirates were almost even now. They were farther in, but close enough to the Space Rovers for a shot. A megamouth gun glowed with charge.
Captain Philip tapped into the energy reservoir for a burst of ether-power.
The Bonny tore away, slung out on a tangent. As soon as the lights and oxygen level returned to normal, he boosted up the deep space drive and jumped to another sector.
Captain Philip sat back, satisfied.
“I do believe we’ve lost them. I didn’t even follow our trajectory route in that release; I doubt they could.” He stretched his hands back behind his head. “Ervin, make yourself useful for once and find out where we are.”
Ervin raised two fingers in a weak salute.
“This might sound strange, but I kind of hope we meet up with them again.” Ervin laid a hand over the board in front of him. “It’s just that they were getting awfully far in, and if they made it, maybe it was because they found the secret to wormhole travel. I’d love to hear about that.”
Ervin lurched forward, ducked his head under the control panel and retched.
Captain Philip snapped up and leaned away.
Lifting his head, Ervin gave a wobbly smile. “Though I can’t say I have the stomach to try it myself.”