Chapter 15: High-Jacking a Pirate
“Lady Anak, do the Sisters paint?” Windridge, Ari and I studied the Image of the courier and the ground around it.
Anak raised a curious eyebrow at my question. Do you mean for work or amusement? She crouched on the ground near us, her eight legs folded under her.
“Either, though I think we’ll need a lot of paint for what I’m thinking.”
“And what are you thinking?” Ari asked.
“Can the Sisters recreate the color of the Free Worlders armor? Can they do it quickly?”
Ari frowned. “Can’t your armor do that for itself, sergeant? The chameleon feature I mean. ”
“I’m afraid not, milady, it’s programed to imitate background colors and textures only. Though I can see requesting such a feature for future marks.”
The answers to your questions, Rhodri Morgan, are ‘yes and yes’. We are starting work on it now, but I’m not certain we can make a sufficient quantity quickly enough.
“Thank you. However much, it’ll be gratefully received,” I said.
“So it’s a false-flag operation then?” said Ari.
“Unless we can think of a better plan on short notice,” I took Anak’s tablet and sketched it out. “One of the Sisters’ tunnels opens onto this ridge here.” I tapped the screen. “We can travel unobserved to this outcropping of rocks, here. Windridge will march us as his ‘prisoners’ from there to the courier; about five hundred meters. Every second we can fool them will be precious.”
“Five hundred meters,” Ari sighed. “Across flat, open ground.”
“Could be worse,” said Windridge. “They could have regular patrols and sentries. They seem to be relying on the sensor arrays of the landed ships instead. Half-assed measures; just right for our half-assed operation,” he chuckled.
“Speaking of ships, what’s in those five shuttles setting there? They’re awful close,” observed Ari. “We’ll be walking right past at no more than a hundred meters from the nearest one.”
We don’t know. Since we’ve been watching there’ve been a lot of people coming and going, but no large groups.
“We can see that each has a 25mm chain-gun in a nose turret for ground support,” I switched to an image of the shuttles. “Only two out of the five are a threat.”
“They don’t need more than two,” grumbled the sergeant.
“Well,” said Ari. “It’s a good thing we don’t have more time. We’d worry ourselves out of doing it. Let us know when the paint is ready, Anak.”
The yellow paint was brought to us within an hour and quickly slopped onto the marine’s power armor as they stood. There was no effort to be neat. It was only necessary to fool at ranges over a hundred meters. While they were still wet, we headed for the exit. There we said our good-byes to Anak. But for the absolute need for secrecy, she would have given us more support.
Eventually we made our way to the rock outcropping, where we organized for the crossing. The sergeant, Yuri and Shiro would lead. Ari, with me carrying her, Justin and Jen were next, guarded by Galt, Abe, Elezar and Wan. Ulric and Enik brought up the rear.
Ari shifted and tightened her tail’s grip on my middle and wrapped her arms around my neck. “Don’t trip love,” she whispered into my ear.
“Just keep your head down,” I replied.
“Sergeant!” She turned to Windridge. “Remember Quintus Fabius and ‘hurry slowly’. We can’t appear rushed, it’ll raise suspicion.”
The Sergeant saluted. “Yes, Ma’am!”
Then to Justin, “Are you and Jen alright?”
“I’ll carry her if needs be, milady.”
Jen smiled and nodded.
“I guess we’re ready Dri.” Ari patted my shoulder.
“Let’s go, Sergeant!”
With that, we emerged from the shade of the rocks out onto the hot, dusty plain. The courier-packet shone, an all too distant golden triangle in the harsh sunlight.
I tried to observe as much as I could while keeping my head down, like a sullen prisoner. Ari wilted over me like a too-dry mermaid. I couldn’t be sure if she were acting, given the heat and sun.
After we’d gone about a hundred meters, I noticed that the turret on the nearest shuttle had started tracking us. Shiro was carrying his rocket launcher loose and casual. “Think you can take that turret out if they open on us?” I said softly.
“Sure,” he replied. “Unless they hit me first.”
There was no sound except for our trudging and a breeze too soft to raise more than a spoonful of dust. I wondered what the enemy was thinking, trying to get into his head. Who are these people? Is this a patrol? Are they transporting prisoners or did they just now capture them? Whoever’s keeping watch from the shuttles ought to be asking for instructions now. How far up is that going to go before someone makes a decision? What’s their chain-of-command like? Do they even have one?
We were more than halfway there now. My heart was pounding so hard, I was certain Ari could feel it. What the hell are they thinking? Don’t they have any concept of security? Damned pirates! Don’t they have any discipline? Both turrets were tracking us now. I was beginning to think that the uncertainty would kill me.
BOOM-BOOM-BOOM! The first turret to track us fired a burst. All three shells impacted the ground about five meters in front of the Sergeant. They’re telling us to halt. That was the gunner’s last mistake. Shiro snapped the launcher to his eye and fired. The missile whooshed from its tube, penetrated the glassteel of the turret and filled it with fire and shrapnel.
That kicks the scorpion nest! Thought Ari.
BOOM-BOOM! The second turret opened up then stopped. One shell snapped through the gap between me and Yuri. I have no idea where the other went. They must have jammed! I got a brief mental image of the gunner pounding the breach of his weapon as his turret fell victim to Shiro’s second rocket.
“Run!” Shouted Windridge.
“Run!” I repeated. We had less than two hundred meters to go.
Soon, the air buzzed and cracked with bullets. Windridge turned and loosed a burst in the direction of one of the shuttles. Now all of the squad was firing. Next, my left foot was knocked out from under me, Ari screamed and we went sprawling. I expected a bloody mess when I checked my foot, instead I found the boot-heel missing. They shot part of my boot off, the bastards! I leapt up, grabbed Ari by the waist and tucked her under my arm like a parcel. Running without the boot heel was awkward. Justin, now carrying Jen over his shoulder, passed us.
We were almost to the courier ship’s ramp. Windridge motioned for the marines to form a firing line to cover our boarding. Justin with Jen ran up the ramp.
“Wait, dammit! It may not be safe!” I shouted, then ran up it a few seconds behind them.
When we reached the top, my fears were confirmed. The ship’s ramp led into a small passenger lounge. There stood Teo Parthans, the Keeper’s traitorous cup-bearer, holding a knife to Jen’s throat. At his feet was Justin, lying in a spreading pool of blood.
I froze. “What the hell are you doing here!?” I spat.
“Waiting for the king! We’re going to New Aragon!”
“I’d say you were going to New Aragon.” Ari spoke calmly from her awkward position.
“That’s enough!” Parthans growled. “Now close the ramp.”
I didn’t move.
He tightened his hold on Jen. “Do it or I kill her! NOW!” He was near panic. She stood panting, her eyes half-closed.
I moved my hand toward the control, as slowly as I could, without being obvious about it. We could hear the firefight outside. At any moment Windridge was going to attempt to break-off and board. I racked my brain, hoping to come up with any course of action that didn’t leave Jen’s throat slit.
Throw me at him! He won’t expect that!
What! You’re crazy!
Can you think of anything bet…
As quickly as a snake, Jen raised her left hand and grasped the blade at her neck. With her right she drew forth a knife and sliced Parthans from ear to ear, severing his trachea and every blood vessel that mattered. A crimson spray filled the air between us. Despite the pain, Jen’s fingers tightened on her attacker’s blade. The man’s eyes briefly registered surprise then glazed as his brain emptied of blood. He fell backwards with the young woman on top of him.
I dropped Ari. “Take care of her!” Ran for the bridge and burst in. It was empty. I jumped into the pilot’s seat and powered up the repulsor-lifts; at the same time running the more likely flight checklists through my head. Fortunately, everything around me looked familiar. I’d never flown a courier before but had piloted ships of similar size many times.
I slapped the intercom button. “Sergeant! Get aboard! Now!” Hopefully, the sound of the lifts revving had already warned him.
“Everyone’s on!” Ari’s voice came over the speaker. “Closing the ramp now!”
“Hang on to something!” I put the lifts on full and shoved the throttles for the main engines all the way forward. Even with the inertial dampers, the acceleration pushed me back into the seat.
As it clawed its way upward, the small ship shuddered from the impact of chain gun shells exploding against her hull. Would they be enough to cause serious damage? Probably not. I put my head back against the rest and exhaled. “We’re on our way.”
Over the next few minutes, the sky beyond the view screen turned from steel blue to purple to black. I activated the navigation computer. The door behind me opened and I heard Ari’s scales slide across the deck. I looked to see her pull herself into the co-pilot’s seat. She was a rather frightful sight, caked with dust and drying blood.
She smiled. “Nice take-off.”
She reached for the controls.
“What are you doing?”
“What do you mean, ‘What am I doing?’” She frowned.
“Don’t tell me you can pilot a ship.”
“I can pilot a ship. I used to fly my father’s personal shuttle. Don’t act surprised! You know as well as I that nothing larger than a pennace uses foot-pedals. I don’t need legs to fly this ship!”
“Alright,” I grinned mischievously. “Don’t get testy. Take the controls while I lay in a course. Where would you like to go, Milady?”
I wrinkled my brow trying to remember what was there. “Why New Samarkand?”
“That’s where the fleet is gathering.”
“There was always a high probability that my mission on Rii would fail. Hence plan B. The entire Rimward fleet plus the Home fleet are rendezvousing at New Samarkand, where they wouldn’t attract attention.”
“That’s two fifths of the entire Imperial Navy! That’s a good bit of over-kill for the likes of Edgar. Not that I wouldn’t like to see him squashed flat, mind you.”
“If we do the job properly the first time, we won’t have to do it again,” said Ari. “Besides, how do we know Edgar’s fleet is the only one we’ll be facing? There are other pirates who might have a finger in this pie you know.”
A warning buzzer went off and a red light lit up on the instrument panel.
“What’s that?” She leaned forward, looking concerned.
I checked the tactical display. “Fighters from the second planet. At that vector they’ll never catch us.”
“Good.” Ari nodded. “But what’s that?” Another, larger set of blips had just appeared.
“Uh-oh.” I switched back to visual. A squadron of warships popped over the horizon, headed by a hulking beast. It had to be a battlecruiser at the very least. “I was wondering where those guys were. Dammit!” It was the worst possible vector for us. Even at maximum thrust there was no way we could avoid crossing within lethal range of their weapons.
“How bad is it?”
Another alarm went off. It was the torpedo lock-on warning. “We’re screwed.”
Ari looked incredulous. “Are you sure? Can’t we jump?”
“Not for another eighty minutes. If they launch, those torps will be on us in less than five.” I reset the navigation computer and started it calculating a new course. “We’re gonna have to make a micro-jump.”
“What’s that?” Her eyes widened.
I grinned at her. “Don’t tell me there’s classified information out there that I’m aware of and you’re not?”
“Well, tell me about it! I’m sure my security clearance is high enough!”
Generally, making a hyper-space jump in a gravity well, such as a planet, is a bad idea. It makes unpredictable distortions in its course that could leave a ship stranded deep in interstellar space, years away from a system, with insufficient fuel to make another jump.
Lately, the Imperial Navy had been experimenting with using hyper-space jumps in tactical battle maneuvers. A micro-jump of just a few million kilometers uses very little fuel and a distortion of a few degrees is much less of a problem at such short distances. The down side is that such maneuvers are very hard on both equipment and people. A five-percent casualty rate is not uncommon. Even the jump-drive itself can become disabled. I quickly explained all this to Ari.
“I’d always heard it was certain death. How bad is it really?” she asked.
“The Navy quietly encourages the belief that it’s deadly. I’ve been on a couple of micro-jumps myself during Fleet war-games. It’s rather like having an ogre reach down your throat and yank you inside out.”
“I guess that’s better than being vaporized by a torpedo or a particle cannon. We’d better warn the passengers.”
I let Ari do that while I kept an eye on the tactical display. I wanted to delay as long as possible, not only for our sake but also because we could end up revealing a classified maneuver to an enemy, if they can figure out what we did that is. I set the emergence point at a hundred million kilometers solar north, perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic. The nav computer repeatedly reminded me that I was crazy but eventually let me lay the course in.
“Everyone’s ready back there,”
I sighed. “I’ve been afraid to ask. Who do we have left?”
“Justin’s hanging on. If this jump doesn’t kill him, he should be all right. Ulric had an armor penetration, but not too bad. I’m afraid Jen has ruined her hand. A surgeon may be able to fix it, I’m not sure…”
The torpedo warning light went from amber to red. “They’ve launched. Prepare for jump.”
Ari nodded and took my hand. I threw the switch. Everything went black.