The transport set down with a hard thud in a hurried landing. The ramp was still lowering when Whitmore exited the cockpit, grabbed the merc by the collar of his flight suit, spun him around, and kicked him in the back so hard he rolled down to the flight deck.
“Commander Whitmore to the bridge.” It was Lt.Cmdr. Sam McColgan, the ship’s second officer and acting CO while McArthur and Weir were off ship. He served as first officer on a front line destroyer during the war, meaning he had more warship command experience than both the captain and commander above him. It seemed apt he was the one in charge for what was coming next.
“Consider this a reprieve,” Jaime said as she jogged off the flight deck. She waved over a groundcrew and told them to handcuff and lock up the merc pilot somewhere. Jaime ran up the stairs to the flight control deck and jumped into the zero-g tube and bounced from one side to the other, gaining speed toward the front of the ship. She flipped and landed on the end-cap plate, and pushed out to the deck and landed with a roll. She was well practiced with what some instructors called Carrier Parkour.
McColgan was fat and old with silver buzz-cut hair, completely unconcerned with the vanity of appearance. To him, looking good was a properly pressed uniform with no flags. He looked around with a wide-eyed glare and a heavy breathing that communicated an intense disappointment in the current goings-on. He seemed like the type that would order the boarding of an enemy ship just to give the opposing captain a severe dressing down and public flogging.
“Do you feel comfortable taking the helm of a Yutomaky-class auxiliary?” he asked Jaime as she stepped onto the bridge.
“More comfortable than doing damage control duty,” she answered.
He waved a finger to the helm console all the way at the front of the bridge. She relieved the acting helmsman and began setting the pedals and sticks more to her liking. She was impressed with the clear view she was given by the arrangement. It was better than most fighters, including the one she just had to ditch. She wasn’t sure about flying a bus though.
“Three contacts, line abreast, 1 AU,” Wang called out from the sensors station. “System patrol ships, inbound at full burn, weapons are hot, shields are up, sensors are active.”
“They’re ahead of schedule,” Sam commented. “Ping them actively so they know who the big kid on the playground is. Whitmore, intercept at your leisure. Finn, try to get them on comms and order them to stand down and clear the AO. Volkov, I want a firing solution ready.”
“Do you want to disable them?” Max Volkov asked from the weapons station.
“We have cargo bays full of anti-matter and the Barrow is almost half its hull integrity.” Sam tapped away on an overhead monitor to prepare his next orders. “Captain says mission critical. If those syspats don’t stand down I want total annihilation.”
“Yes, sir,” Max said.
A klaxon sounded and Sam keyed the all ship intercom. “All hands battlestations. SAR launch and join the flight wing, then secure the flight deck. Brace for combat maneuvers.” Sam switched to the secure line with the ship’s fighter wing. “Iceman, Yutomaky is leaving to intercept inbound warships. Stay with the Barrow. SAR will join you for heavy support.”
“Roger,” Iceman replied simply.
Whitmore had finished saving her presets for the controls when all the orders were given. The ship was limited to 40% maximum acceleration by default, as that was the maximum that the intertial dampers could compensate for without any felt g-forces. Whitmore toggled the limiter off so she could feel it. On the fighters, she had a throttle. On the Yutomaky she had twin joysticks. Main engine thrust was increased by holding down the triggers – left for the left engine cluster, right for the right engine cluster. She held down both.
It wasn’t nearly as much force as an emergency turn in her fighter but she certainly felt it, and more than that she heard a few items slide off the captain’s console onto the deck. She tested the sticks with little pushes to get a feel for the maneuverability. “About as good as a bomber,” Jaime commented aloud to herself.
“Don’t hold back,” Sam said. “You’re only one hundred percent. You still have another twenty-five in the red.”
“Aye aye,” Jaime said as she pushed the output into emergency power. “I hope everyone had their quarters squared away.”
“Oh they’ll learn,” Sam said. “Everyone becomes a neat freak after their room gets blended by combat maneuvers.”
Shannon didn’t find the mining equipment. It was long gone. The station database was full of lies. Deep in the mine was a quickly made warehouse full of illegal and stolen goods. There was enough grade A compressed opium in that cavern to overdose a small city, and that was just a single aisle. Drugs, weapons, and even some cryogenically frozen slaves were among the haul. That was a problem above her paygrade. Thankfully the pirates and smugglers weren’t that keen on security and left a data tablet out on a console with a copy of the full inventory downloaded. She skimmed the database hoping for maybe a stolen acetylene torch. No such luck.
However, there was a marine issue plasma thrower, complete with battery backpack. Assuming the battery pack was fully charged, it would be able to cut the barrow free, and much faster than a torch. After all, a weapon system designed to incinerate tanks and bunkers at close range most likely wouldn’t have issues melting the docking ring. Shannon pocketed the data pad and went for the crate with the plasma thrower.
“Commander whatever is going on in the mine, I need you to double-time it,” McArthur said. “I am waiting at the mine entrance. It’s time to leave.”
“Just getting our docking clearance, sir,” she said as she opened the sealed box and put on the heavy battery pack.
She moved as quickly as she could, having wasted enough time searching before now all she had to do was sprint back the way she came. She was met by McArthur and two other marines in combat EVA, with the rescued crew members carrying found weapons.
“Rear guard,” Weston said curtly to Shannon. She set the plasma thrower to a high stun setting. The shots would carry more electric charge than heat and would knock out a person for a minute. Good enough to get out, and good enough to satisfy her don’t kill rule. At this point though most the combatants were dead, and the bystanders were fleeing to their ships or hiding in their shops. It was feeling very much like one of those ancient ‘western’ films Shannon watched with an obsessed human way back.
“Hanks, you frag me you’re in a world of shit,” Weston said as he approached the inner airlock.
“Pff, I heard you leadfoots coming with enough time to check your IDs five times,” Jen scoffed.
“Marine,” Weston said. “We are leaving. Get the crew onboard. Shannon we will cover you while you cut.”
“Are you for fucking real?” Jen yelled. “She gets to play with the plasma thrower?”
“Finder’s keepers,” Shannon said while she set the plasma thrower to a mode good for cutting.
The last of the crew entered the ship, and Jen secured the Barrow’s airlock. Weston, Gordon and Eric stood braced to the deck ready for the explosive decompression that would happen when Shannon started cutting. The plasma cutter sliced easily through the docking arm. The inner doors of the docking bay slammed shut and in seconds the bay was decompressed. It took about two minutes for Shannon to cut off the entire docking arm, and the Barrow started to drift away slowly.
Weston grabbed Shannon and they floated on RCS thrusters to the dorsal cargo bay of the Barrow.
She pressed her head to his helmet so he would hear her. “A woman might get the wrong idea.”
“That would be a first,” Weston said.
Shannon laughed. She dropped down through the forcefield into the cargo bay. Weston and the marines stayed outside for a moment, held to the ship by their boots.
“Weir, what’s our status?” Weston asked.
“Drones are making the last run now, we’re ready to go.”
“Good, get us the fuck out of this shithole, I’m tired of the local scene.”
They could see the cargo drones coming out of the station and moving along the rocky exterior with the last packets of antimatter. They could also see an armed shuttle closing rapidly on the drones and the Barrow. The shuttle lined up for a strafing run that was cut short by a missile and long gun burst from Kyle’s fighter. The flaming wreckage of the transport bounced across the aft section of the Barrow, leaving a long scorch mark on the paint.
“We have really exceeded the service warranty for this ship,” Eric said.
“Fuck if I care,” Weston said as he watched the drones load the last of the antimatter and zip off back to the Jackhammer. They dropped down into the cargo bay and closed the loading hatch on their way into the ship.
“Good kill,” Iceman commented. “That makes ace.”
The statement meant that Kyle had 5 confirmed kills in a single sortie. Somehow it seemed like higher praise than it should coming from the quiet old pilot.
“Turret active,” Elton called out over comms.
They turned for an attack run on the station’s anti-ship turret that just started pinging space for a target. They were beaten to it by a barrage from the autocannons on the Jackhammer. The ship lived up to its name. Each synchronized salvo jerked the ship back visibly. The hail of old-school armor-piercing high-explosive shells chewed apart the turret, the mounting, and a couple hundred yards of the asteroid around it. Space around the Jackhammer sparkled with ejected brass powder casings.
“Why the hell would anyone use old ass cannons when we have PPCs, lasers, and railguns?” Kyle asked as he moved to a covering pattern by the Barrow.
“Tanker has more structural integrity than power output,” Iceman said. “Can also run on hand cranks and portable batteries. Makes for a mean ambush.”
The Jackhammer didn’t wait for any other turrets to power up. It started blasting away at every defensive emplacement in line-of-sight. It was certainly a spectacular grand finale of fireworks for their departure from Zhirnny Point.
“Barrow is clear of the station and on departure vector with the Jackhammer,” Finn said.
The Yutomaky was about to enter weapons range with the system patrol ships. Calling them system patrol ships wasn’t diminutive of their combat capability. It only meant they didn’t have FTL and had smaller fuel reserves than deep space transports and fleet ships. The weight and power saved by omitting those things could be used for engines, armor, shields, or weapons. More over they often had cramped cubicle-style bunk quarters with no amenities, allowing them to have very small profiles.
The three patrol ships operated by Zhirnny Point were not soft hitters. They were armed with focused heavy lasers – the kind with barrels mounted in turrets – and extensive missile batteries. Each ship had as much offensive output as the Yutomaky, and had a much smaller target profile. The Yutomaky’s advantage was it had more shields and raw powerplant output. It would have to be seen if that was enough to win.
The patrol ships refused to stand down and countered by demanding that the Yutomaky yield to boarding and seizure. The firing solution had already been set. Jaime would engage the center ship with the hull-mounted railguns. Max would engage the other two ships with the PPCs on auto. The railguns could burst-fire 10 shots in 10 seconds, after that Jaime was looking at a 5 second reload delay. She would get one good pass and then it would be a 3-on-1 brawl where she would be evading too much to get another good shot. The lasers were deadly but the shields could probably keep up. It was the missile batteries that were a problem. Depending on the warhead loadouts, they could overwhelm and short the shield generator or just fill space with so much heavy debris it would be like taking a bath in razor blades. That was the scenario playing out in her mind, and she was mentally preparing for turns and rolls to keep any incoming missiles within the firing arcs of the PPCs. The electro-static booms of each particle bolt discharge reverberated through the hull.
The patrol ships were the first to fire, the lasers striking the shields and causing an incredibly bright light show in Jaime’s face. She glanced at the ship’s status indicator. There was the same thick red glowing outline that indicated shield strength as the one they started with. The shields and powerplant were keeping up with the laser fire just fine as she expected. She kept the Yutomaky on a flanking vector with the trio of ships above her angle of attack. She was holding on the railguns until she was closer. One pass, one chance to make 10 out of 10 hits. She wasn’t going to waste it at a range where it could be evaded.
She pulled up on the stick. It was painfully slow compared to her fighter. The ship whined and creaked under the forces applied. She could feel a slight vibration in her seat as the dampers, automatic vector-correction, and pulsing of the engines all operated slightly out of synch, beyond their normal operating limits. She held the gunsight on the lead indicator for the center ship.
10km. 9km. 8km. Even with the screen compensating for the flood of light from lasers colliding with shield, she was forced to rely on her instrument panel. She smiled. Instrument Fight Rules. She could let the computer auto-maneuver for the shot, but what would be the fun?
5km. 4km. 3km.
She pushed her thumb down on the fire button. The ship jerked with the recoil of the twin railguns propelling solid metal slugs to a velocity that turned them molten even in space. Though the railguns were relatively quiet the recoil caused such a noise through the hull of the ship that it reminded her of the time she was watching army artillerymen drill with blockbuster guns. She counted out the shots. The 10th shot fired right at the half kilometer mark, as the Yutomaky blew past the formation. The center ship was critically damaged, but not enough to keep it from dumping its entire missile compliment.
It would have been nice if the missiles came straight at them, but they didn’t. They moved in an arcing pattern that would force Jaime to roll away from the patrol ships to keep the PPCs on the missiles until they were eliminated. The slowness of large ship combat let her mind play it out like predicting a chess game. She would roll to counter the inbound missiles, which would give the bottom of the ship to the remaining two patrol ships – the PPCs blind spot. They would get a respite to charge their shields and maneuver and fire additional missiles that would close. And then…
“We’re going to be overwhelmed,” she called back to acting captain Sam McColgan.
“Don’t worry about it, keep doing what you’re doing.”
She wanted some of whatever he was smoking. She held the ship in the evasive sweep. Even the computer fire control was having difficulty popping the missiles quickly. The Russian mobsters running Zhirnny certainly didn’t skimp on buying or stealing the best weapons for their defenses.
“Clear,” Max called out.
“Launch,” Wang added. “Launch.”
Jaime looked to the contact display. It certainly wasn’t clear anymore. While the Yutomaky was busy evading the one set of missiles, the other two ships fired their full batteries as well, and they had fanned out into a hemisphere that was about to envelop them. As strong as their shields were, they wouldn’t hold against impacts that strong from so many vectors.
“Fuck,” Jaime said as she started another hull-creaking turn. There was no position she could take that would keep all those missiles in the PPC’s firing arcs. They were about to eat at least a quarter of it, and that was being optimistic of the computer fire control’s ability to shoot them down. Jaime’s ass was puckered and ready for the worst.
“Release controls,” Sam ordered.
Jaime knew better in her gut than to listen, but she also knew to ignore her gut and do what she was told. She took her hands and feet off the controls. The missiles were plainly visible at this point, seconds from impact. And then it sounded like God hit the Yutomaky with a hammer. Just the loudest, solidest, metallic thud ever heard. There was no cascade of explosions, or jerking force of impact. Nothing. She wondered for a second if she was just in a simulation drill and failed. All of the contacts were still on the display.
They were all in a cluster 50km away.
She remembered that thudding sound from drills in Sol. They had used their jump drive seconds before impact. The missiles that weren’t destroyed in a mass collision at the spot where the Yutomaky was a moment ago didn’t have enough fuel remaining to intercept and repeat the same attack pattern.
“Resume control,” Sam said from the captain’s seat. “Finish the job. No survivors.”
“Sir?” Max asked.
“Do you want a bunch of pirates to know we have a jump drive? Dead men tell no tales. Follow your orders.”
Jaime smirked. She turned the Yutomaky around at cruise speed. The railguns were loaded and ready for another ten shot burst. It was 2 to 1 and the patrol ships were out of missiles.
Captain Weston McArthur was sitting on one of the anti-matter containers while Sergeant Eric Morley performed basic care on him. Lieutenant Wayne Mitchel had landed the SAR transport in the tiny free space that remained in the cargo bay, and both he and Lieutenant Commander Jaime Whitmore were traiging the rescued crew to be taken back on the transport and the shuttle that Andrea had used to bring the fake printer and explosives to the Barrow. Some of the crew were beaten during arrest, and a couple had been interrogated with torture. Lieutenant Commander Shannon and Master Chief Sean Reece were doing a quick inspection of the containers to make sure they were intact and secure for the journey.
Weir bobbed into the cargo bay with an overly energetic smile. “I think that went really well!” Weir said.
Corporal Gordon Loud gave Weir a rude look.
Weir took notice of the red and black bruising on Weston’s right shoulder and chest. “How’re you?”
“Fractured clavicle,” Eric started, “Two fractured ribs, torn muscle with mild internal bleeding.” Eric jammed a needle with a fingernail sized bottle of painkillers and healing serum into McArthur’s shoulder. “Nothing Doctor Riley can’t fix in an hour or two.”
“Worth it,” Weston said coldly.
“Yes, the look on his face was priceless,” Eric said. He patted Weston on the shoulder, causing the captain to wince.
“What look?” Weir asked.
“In my mind’s eye,” Eric said, looking off wistfully, “it could be best likened to pink jello with strawberry chunks.”
“Oh, that look,” Weir said.
Eric left to check on the other crew. Weir sat on a container across from Weston.
“The merc captain wants to have dinner with us tonight,” Weir said.
“Is this a Shakespearean play now?” Weston said before letting out a heavy sigh. “They can’t come aboard the Yutomaky, and I will not step foot on a mercenary ship.”
“I’m sure there’s a room on here somewhere that still looks half decent,” Weir said.
Weston gave a look that said ‘If I have to socialize with anyone someone’s going to die.’
Weir kept smiling. “I can handle it if you want.”
“Like you handled Zhirnny?” Weston said. “Riley will tell you when I’ll be good to play with the other kids.” Weston stood up slowly, and pulled up his EVA suit up over his shoulders and walked slowly around the cargo bay away from everyone else. “We’ll go FTL after this get together. I’m going to have Wang interrogate their pilot. Sounds like stupidity but I want to be sure those two aren’t plants. Keep that between us. This whole op has been too much of a mess. It’s either all coincidence or all a plan and I want to know which before we’re in another furball.”
“Makes sense,” Weir said. “What about the Barrow and the crew left behind? It was their commander that let the pirates on the ship.”
“You’re acting captain, your call. I’m leaving Shannon, Reece, and Hanks with you. If you want to lock up the crew and run your own four man show that’s your business. All I know…” Weston rounded a row of containers and was by the transport shuttle. “My shoulder really fucking hurts and I’m going to take a nap in medical. See you at dinner.”
“Alright,” Weir said.
The rest of the crew was loaded onto the SAR transport and the shuttle, and the two ships lifted out of the cargo bay and out of sight to return to the Yutomaky. Weir had never hosted a dinner, much less a captain’s gathering, and was wondering how he was going to pull that off. He tapped his wrist communicator.
“Hey Tony,” Weir called out. There was a slight delay as they were no longer chaining on the shuttle’s SAAD array.
“Mister Bryan. What can I do for you?”
“Do you do catering?”
Tony made a jovial laugh over the comms.