Snippet One brought everyone up to speed on what’s going on, snippet two leads right into the action:
“Captain,” Simon said, “They’ve brought their weapons online and they’ve gone active on their radar.”
Mike grimaced. The piddling sensors on that ancient pirate vessel would probably be painfully inadequate under normal circumstances. The Gebnar mounted some kind of gravitational sensor, emissions sensors, and a host of secondary passive sensors as well as an extremely advanced phased radar system. They could probably map the other ship’s hull from fifty thousand kilometers or more…
“Wish we had something to hit them with from here,” Eric said from the weapons console.
“Yeah,” Mike grunted, “That would be nice.” Their pulse turrets had a maximum effective range of five thousand kilometers. Anything outside that and they might as well be throwing soft-boiled eggs. Mike wasn’t entirely clear on just how the exotic particles lost their effectiveness, but Pixel had assured him that they deteriorated after generation.
Which meant that no matter how blind the pirate was, in order to shoot at it, they would be well within targeting range of the ship’s outdated sensors.
On the positive side, the pirate didn’t know that, “Pixel, put some energy into the main weapon system, not enough to damage anything, but enough to make them wary if they can see it,” Mike said.
“Yeah,” Pixel said, “that might fool them a bit…. But what happens when we don’t fire it?”
“Leave that to me,” Mike said. As much as he would like to take down a pirate, he’d be happy enough to chase him off. He brought up the route Ariadne had plotted and gingerly brought their engines online. Not that he had any genuine concerns that the engines would work… he just wasn’t entirely certain that he trusted the makee-learnee maintenance that Pixel had to follow on the alien ship’s systems.
“Ariadne,” Mike said, “adjust course. I want to swing in on their right flank. Give them just enough room to keep out of our front arc.” The female psychic frowned at him, but she gave a nod and went to work. “Eric, as we come in, I want you to pour fire in on them from our turrets. We won’t be able to do serious damage, but anyone gets nervous when they’re being shot at.”
Eric gave him a grin, “You bet,” he said, “get them to make a mistake and we finish this, right?”
Mike gave him a tight-lipped smile in return, though his own hope was that the pirate would break it off and run for it. As it was, he didn’t know for certain that they could get close enough to help. The single, marginally-inhabitable planet had a debris ring from where its moon had died sometime in the past million years. The pirate had come out of the debris ring on the sunward side of the planet, boosted to take it out of orbit, and now it had begun a turn to put it inside the course of the freighter.
The freighter captain, either brave or stupid, Mike couldn’t guess which, had chosen to dive towards the planet, using his velocity to angle for cover within the ring. Depending on what kind of missiles the pirate mounted, he might already be in range, but it was unlikely that the pirate would want to waste such munitions, especially when a solid hit might just destroy the ship he was here to capture.
If he gets lucky, Mike thought, he’ll get down in the debris ring, shut down power, and hide before the pirate gets close enough to use his guns. Of course, it would be harder for a ship to hide on the dark side of the planet, there would be so much thermal heat that it would stand out, but it was still a better chance than letting the pirate board, Mike knew. He had enough experience out here on the edge of human space to know that taking chances was the only way to survive.
Pirates like this one, he thought, they’ll probably take the ship, then space the crew, or else just sell them as slaves. There was little profit to be had out here as a pirate and someone who preyed off of something as pitiful as a Ghornath refugee colony was unlikely to be a kind enough soul to expend fuel to land and discharge the crew.
“I fail to see the importance of this maneuver,” a high pitched voice said from beside him.
Mike started a bit, then looked over to see Run. The little alien had quietly moved up beside him. Mike hadn’t even heard him come on the bridge. Damned spooky how quietly he moves, Mike thought. “They’re pirates, we are going to chase them off so that they don’t attack that merchant ship.”
“Why?” Run asked. “The merchant vessel is not of your tribal-societal group. What the pirate does to them doesn’t matter.”
“It’s the right thing to do, man,” Rastar said.
“I am not a ‘man,’ which due to the limited Ghornath species intelligence I understand the need to explain,” Run stated, “Moreover, moral equivalencies such as right and wrong are social constructs crafted by primitive species.”
Mike restrained a sigh as Rastar’s reddish hide turned a shade darker. “Run,” Mike interrupted, “The pirate is unlikely to be satisfied from just the freighter. If we don’t put on a position of strength, it is likely that he will attack us, thinking we are weak.”
“Ah,” Run nodded, “this makes some sense. Do we not have the ability to leave, however?”
Mike gritted his teeth, “We do, however we still don’t have star charts for anything past this bit of space, so if we can get those from a grateful merchant ship who we just saved…”
“I follow your logic,” Run said. “Your explanation is adequate, however you could have summarized it more succinctly. This is an understandable failure in a primitive species such as humans.”
Mike restrained any further reply and returned his attention to the pirate. The older ship had far lower acceleration than his own. Unfortunately, so did the freighter. To make matters worse, the pirate had the inside curve to cut the civilian captain off. Mike saw that the course of the pirate angled sharper than he would have expected, clearly at the very margins of their acceleration. It was a maneuver that would angle the engines towards the freighter at their closest point of approach as the pirate’s plasma drive counter-thrust to lower their orbit and slow their vessel.
It was risky if the freighter had any weapons, but that was unlikely on a refugee supply hauler like this one. After that maneuver, the pirate would be well within weapons range and both ships would be several thousand kilometers short of the debris ring. Mike glanced at Ariadne’s updated course and pursed his lips. They wouldn’t be able to get there in time to stop a boarding. If they wanted to fly past with one chance to fire, they would arrive two minutes after the pirate could intercept the freighter. If the pirate crew could convince the freighter captain to allow them to board, the pirates would have hostages towards Mike’s good behavior.
If they wanted to slow to intercept velocity themselves, they would give the pirates almost five minutes, which might be long enough for them to take over the freighter and get it moving. Faced with the pirate vessel ready to fight them and the freighter under way, Mike didn’t see a good option.
On the other hand… He looked over at Rastar and the inky black shadow of Anubus in the corner. “You two up for some boarding operations?”
Rastar gave him a thumbs up while Anubus’s lips drew back in a hungry snarl.
Mike took that as a yes. “Ariadne, we’ll go for the intercept maneuver.” He looked at Simon, “Patch me through to the freighter captain. I’ll see if I can talk some spine into him.” It wasn’t likely. Most civilian crews knew that if they resisted, the pirates would be more likely to torture, murder, and rape. Since small freighters like that one were family-crewed, they would be even more leery of any risk to them.
All the same, this was probably their best chance at survival, in Mike’s opinion.
“Attention Tagon’s Venture,” Mike said, “This is Captain Mike Smith of the Gebnar.”
“You’re… human?” a surprised voice asked as a man’s face appeared on the main screen, cropped so that it didn’t show anything below his neck. “I expected a Ghornath crew, I mean, that is a Ghornath privateer, right?” There was something off about the merchant captain’s expression. There wasn’t enough panic or despair. It was almost as if he thought he could pull off his escape. Great, Mike thought, probably some kind of crazy or idiot. What else could he expect of someone who ran refugee supply runs, though?
“It was,” Mike said. “That’s a long story. Look, we’re going to try to help you, but you can probably see that we’re going to arrive a few minutes late.” On his sensor display, Mike could see that the pirate was about to pull off the braking maneuver. “Look, Captain…”
“Captain Raimus,” the merchant captain said, he looked a little distracted as he glanced at something off screen.
“Captain Raimus, then,” Mike said. “We should be able to arrive about five minutes after they’ve come alongside. If your people could disable your ships power until then, we should be able to put some crew aboard to help you fight off their boarders while we chase their vessel away.”
The merchant captain looked back at the camera, “I’m sorry, you’re offering to help?”
Mike stared at him, “Well… yes.” Seriously, had the man no situational awareness? On the screen, Mike could see that the pirate had flipped over, tail towards the merchant ship and begun hard deceleration to match the merchant vessel’s course.
Captain Raimus blinked at Mike for a long moment before he gave a slight snort. “I’m sorry, out here beyond civilization it is a rare thing to have someone offer to help.”
“Captain,” Simon said, “I’m picking up–”
Mike’s jaw dropped as the “freighter” suddenly cut loose with targeting sensors. A moment later, it fired and the pirate vanished as a single missile, fired from close range, detonated almost on top of it. As the thermonuclear fireball cleared, Mike could hear the warning warble from the sensor console. He recognized the tone: the “freighter” had them locked as well.
“I do appreciate your offer of assistance,” Captain Raimus said cheerfully, “However, Captain, uh, ‘Smith’, as you can see, we didn’t really need the help.”
Mike bit back a curse as the screen panned out to show that Captain Raimus wore a space black uniform. “I’m Captain Ajax Raimus of the Nova Roma Imperal Fleet. While I’m certain that your ship has the speed to escape a similar fate to the pirate I just disposed of, I do appreciate your offer to help… and I’ll take that into consideration if you are courteous enough to power down your weapons and match course so that we can have a civil discussion.”
Mike gave a sickly smile, “One moment, Captain.”
He cut off the transmission and looked around the bridge. “Well, people, we wanted contact, this is it.” He couldn’t help the note of wry resignation in his voice. Of course their first encounter with civilization would come like this. Captain Raimus must be laughing at us, he thought.
“I do not trust him,” Rastar said, his hide flushed. “The Nova Roma Empire betrayed my people…”
“He could have fired and clearly did not,” Simon said, his voice calm, “that is a sign of trust.” Of course the former cop likes the authorities, Mike thought to himself.
“We’re at long range, idiot,” Eric said. “He has to think we’re at full strength, our guns could intercept anything short of a massive salvo.”
“We need him,” Ariadne said, her voice calm. “We gained goodwill from trying to help, even if he didn’t need it. On top of that, we’ve got the Nova Roma ambassador. That should earn us good enough relations that, with his help, we can get back to civilized space, resupply, rearm, and go help people!”
Mike nodded along, right up until the ‘help people’ part. It wasn’t that he disagreed with helping people, he just thought that they should provide adequate compensation for that help. “She’s right,” Mike said, ignoring Eric’s gagging gesture. “This is our opportunity to get in good with the strongest nation around. They may not like that we’re on a stolen vessel, one that used to privateer against their ships… but they’ll like that we hurt the Chxor and that we’ve escaped from a Chxor labor camp.”
“More or less,” Eric said with a grimace. He looked over at Run, “We might get in better with them if we offered them Run to dissect, they may learn something.”
“Humans have already had numerous Chxor corpses to dissect and prisoners to vivisect,” Run said. “I doubt that they would learn anything of value when I have done such far more often and with greater intelligence and expertise.”
“You never know,” Eric said, “Maybe they’ll think you are a Chxor spy and it would be better to torture you for information.”
Run stared at Eric for a long moment, “The invalidity of your statement would require too much time to fully explain. Obviously, if I were a spy I would offer up any information in order to avoid such a fate. Logically I am not a spy.”
Eric sneered, “You’d say that if you were–”
“Enough,” Mike said tiredly. “We face them as a crew. None of us,” he leveled his gaze on Eric and then swept it around the bridge, “are perfect.” He let his gaze linger a bit on Simon, who had led a witch hunt for Crowe’s murderer and accused all of them of wrongdoings. “So,” he said finally, “we stick together, we tell the truth. We do that, and we have nothing to fear.”
No one responded, so Mike brought up the transmission again, “Captain Raimus, we’ll be pulling alongside soon and we can talk in person.”
“Excellent, I look forward to that meeting.”
Renegades: Out of the Cold will be available April 2nd on Amazon.