The ship rocked under the impact of energy bolts and missiles against its shields. Klaxons sounded and alarm lights started up as the freighter’s shields failed. Feet pounded along the corridors to position crew at possible airlocks.
Hidden behind an access panel, in a head near the center of the ship, a rat rode out the excitement.
This unusual rodent wore a collar with a red flashing light, a beacon.
More importantly, for some, the rat could picture everything that was going on around the ship. It had experienced enough piracy actions to recognize the pattern. In fact, it had been involved in more of them than any other being on the ship.
Right there was the thud of the pirates’ airlock tunnel meeting the freighter’s. And the pounding of crew moving to cover the access point. Since breaking the combination on the airlock would be too slow, Robbyn would be placing charges. The others would line up behind her. Probably Stenn right behind her with a couple grenades and his heavy autolaser. The Orc was one reason the rat hid deep in the ship. Besides, Veng would find him anywhere on the ship thanks to the homing beacon. The merchants were too busy to look for that now, so the rat left it active.
By now, the door was blown and Stenn had tossed his grenades. Probably half the defenders were dead or wounded. That’s how it usually worked. Boarding actions in space were extremely dangerous for both sides. Stenn was probably hosing one end of the corridor with laser fire while Robbyn did the other end with EM slugs. Two more heavily armed crew, probably the Orcs, Ogres, or Humans, then the Captain and Veng. A few more crew behind them. The fighting would be short and fast. The rat estimated that more than half the merchants would surrender. They had no marines, military, or other guards. And they were taking on seasoned pirates.
Three days exploring the ship and sending out occasional homing bursts had given the rat a good working knowledge of the ship’s layout.
It sounded like Robbyn blew the dorsal airlock. That meant they had two decks to descend before Veng could recover him. Five minutes if they were careful and took a direct route. Ten if they helped the other boarding party a little.
In fact, it was nearly eight minutes before the door to the head opened and the rodent heard familiar voices.
He slipped from his hiding place. The others turned their backs and a few seconds later the rat was replaced by a naked man. With a muttered, “What took so long?” he began dressing in the clothes and gear his crewmates had carried. The homing collar deactivated and disappeared into a pocket of his secondhand flight suit.
While Stenn and Robbyn covered the corridor, and the ex-rat strapped on a hard cuirass, the Captain shrugged, “Ran into a couple heroes on b-deck.” Veng nodded, adding, “Stenn got ‘em both.” The Goblin techie was grinning.
Stenn grunted, “Shouldn’t’ve had reflecting stuff behind their barricade.”
The Captain took Robbyn’s position while she gave the ex-rat a quick kiss as he holstered his sidearms. “How was it, Warn?”
“Not bad, good mess this time, love,” he returned the kiss just as quickly, given the situation. “I take it major fighting’s done?”
“Just a few hold outs in crew quarters,” the Captain said. “We can stand down. Engine room, bridge, and cargo hold are secure.”
“Should be a good haul, lots of stasis boxes and freeze units.”
“Lernen’s getting an inventory now. Comms are jammed, so we’ve got forty minutes to transfer.” The Captain glanced at the countdown on his HUD glasses, reflexively the others checked their own countdown clocks. “You three to the hold. Veng, toys away, you’re with me to the bridge.”
The rest of the boarding party, those not guarding prisoners, were just starting to transfer the ship’s most lucrative cargo when the three arrived. Lernen took a quick glance before saying, “Everything we’re taking’s in blue.” She’d apparently been setting packing lights, as usual. During the first couple loads of luxury goods, Warn managed to discover that half the merchanter’s crew had surrendered and a couple were still cut off and holed up in the crew quarters. Since the Nistar wasn’t a slaver, they’d probably be left alone, if they behaved.
A few minutes later, the entire boarding party rushed the airlock. Someone had sent the recall signal.
As they were heading into the Nistar, the trio caught the Captain’s voice on shipwide PA, “. . . CFL signal. Repeat, the merchant crew managed to punch through the jamming and is sending a CFL signal.”
Sheis, was all that ran through Warn’s mind. The Commonwealth Foreign Legion were bad. Only worse than the Republic’s Patrol because they had greater numbers.
With the probability of a CFL response, the wererat dropped his load in the hold and rushed to his damage control station. They could handle a corvette or a destroyer, not that the latter would be pretty, but if there was a cruiser or better in range, they’d be fighting a retreat to jump. If they didn’t get moving, at least.
A few seconds later, Stenn showed up at the station, across the corridor from an airlock. He silently handed over a spare blast carbine to augment Warn’s collection of blasters, laser pistols, and electromags. If the CFL boarded, they were a possible first line of defense. And compared to his Orc friend, he figured he looked like a picnicker for arms and armor. A brief glance guessed the Orc could arm the whole ship and still have some spare gear.
Warn shook his head. Everyone was heavily armed, they were pirates after all, but Stenn went overboard even by those standards.
He felt the Nistar’s drives kick in, his body automatically adjusting to the split second of inertia before the art-grav caught up. The wererat just hoped and prayed that the old bucket was up for it and that the nearest CFL ship was far enough away. Warn didn’t know much about physics or space travel from a scientific perspective, but he did know they were starting from a relative stand still while any CFL ship would be coming in hot, right out of FTL.
“Heard anything, Stenn?”
The Orc shook his head. “Scan’s got nuthin’, but I hear Sifle’s got ships scan can’t see. Guy on Alest said. Said Sifle came up on ‘im outta nowheres, tree weeks back.”
Warn gave a bit of a nervous laugh. “Well, can’t believe everything you hear, eh, Stenn? ‘Specially not on Alest.”
“Naw, guess not, Warn . . . Guy was purty sure, though. Knew ‘is ships, like I knows guns.”
Which did nothing to help Warn’s nerves. The Orc could strip, clean, and reassemble any weapon faster than anyone else on the ship. And he could fix any personal weapon too. But, Warn tried to console himself, Stenn had a reputation for being gullible, especially when it came to ghost stories and reading people.
He couldn’t quite convince himself that was true in this case.
The first sign of a problem came when the ship bucked.
Warn winced. He’d played stowaway enough to know the feel of a ship being hit by weapons fire. The shields dissipated energy, but it had to go somewhere, and often the jolt was too sudden for the art-grav to compensate fast enough. One of the mechanics had explained how that was flawed and simplistic as an explanation once, but he’d zoned out a few seconds into the lecture.
He nodded to Stenn and did another recheck of the half dozen or so weapons he carried for boarding. It was, the wererat had discovered, often faster to switch weapons in a firefight than it was to reload. Since he lacked the Captain’s durability and Stenn’s strength, Warn relied on speed and agility.
“Probably lasers, high power, long range,” he explained to the Orc. “Near the edge of their range, I’d guess, like our first volley.” Except for being on target, he thought, but didn’t tell his partner. “If that’s so, the boys on the bridge’ll get us safe, no worries.”
Several more blasts rocked the ship as they fled. Warn tried guessing the type of weapon that caused each, to calm himself. He also reminded himself that the Nistar was fast, faster than anything else in its class or its age. The Captain had convinced the crew to upgrade the ex-destroyer’s engines, STL and FTL, and add a backup reactor just a year ago. The latter popped into his head as the second reactor kicked in and started pumping extra power into the thrusters. They only did that in emergencies for extra speed. One of the pilots told him they usually operated at about two thirds speed, to deceive other ships.
Warn glanced at Stenn to see that the Orc was nearly asleep.
He had an urge to comm Robbyn, but reminded himself that she was probably returning fire to distract the CFL ship. It wouldn’t be a good time to break her concentration.
The Captain’s voice came on the internal comms.
“We have been challenged by the CFL cruiser Interceptor. Gunners are successfully keeping it at bay, shields are green. Prepare for jump in . . . one minute, unless the Sifles have more ships in the area.”
Which would mean a trap and ambush, Warn thought. Gods don’t let that be the case. Smart CFL leaders or bad luck could easily be the death of the ship and crew, even if he could hide and survive without prison. There was no way Robbyn, Stenn, or Veng could avoid death or prison, which were basically the same since most pirates were sent to the worst prisons in the Commonwealth. The mortality rate was pretty high at those places.
Moments later, the familiar sensation of the ship achieving FTL speed came.
Warn relaxed with an exhalation of relief. Stenn, he thought, looked almost disappointed. But, then, the Orc enjoyed boarding resisting freighters. The wererat wasn’t sure if his friend had ever been on the receiving end of a boarding, though. Probably enjoy that too.
It wasn’t until a few hours later, in the galley, that he discovered just how close the CFL had come.
A couple mechanics were sitting half a table away with one of the pilots as he and Stenn sat down with Robbyn and Veng.
“. . . just sayin’, if you’d flown better; ship wouldn’t’ve been needing so much fixin’,” one of the repair crew was saying.
The pilot threw up his hands. “I’m telling you, they came out of jump right on top of us. If we hadn’t already been running warm and the Captain hadn’t changed out the thrusters last month, we’d all be in chains right now.”
“Damn near holed the rear section,” another chipped in. “Even through the shields . . . I heard they’ve got some new secret weapons . . .”
“Nah, PDLs just let a projectile or two through, high yield, the gunners said, but not like that,” the pilot replied, hastily looking to see if any gunners were near.
Warn tuned out the rest and sent a question to Robbyn with his eyes. She shook her head slightly.
No way to tell. Both storytellers were probably exaggerating, by how much was impossible for mere grunts to know, even one close to the Captain. But, if the Sifles had come close to putting a hole in the aft section, things had been a lot closer than he’d thought.
“So what’s next,” he asked her.
That brought a mischievous glint to her eyes. “I’m dragging my husband off to our cabin for a couple hours . . . to make up for his weeks of shore leave,” she replied, “The ship’s probably heading to Alest.” Which was probably a day away.
“Shore leave? You call being stuck as a rat and cooped up in a strange ship’s head shore leave?” Warn grinned through his mock indignation. “I’d like to see you try it, woman.”
Robbyn playfully punched his arm, “C’mon and quit whining . . . you didn’t spend all that time on the ship, so pay your debt like a man.”
“Ah,” he grunted, with hands crossed over his heart, “I’m wounded by the very suggestion that I’d dishonor my good pirate’s name by welching on a debt.”
“What honor?” she laughed, mock dragging him from the rowdy mess hall that never missed their presence.
A couple hours later, the pair emerged from their shared room to find Veng on the verge of knocking on the bulkhead. Neither looked in any way embarrassed, despite the Goblin’s obvious flush and mild discomfort. A bonus side effect of the vacuum hardening of the ship was sound proofed rooms, the doors and bulkheads being designed to be airtight in case of a hull breach.
“The cap’n wants you two with me,” Veng explained, changing the unspoken subject. “Lernen’s in the hold, ready to check out our haul. Cap’n figures we should be useful and help . . . not that I don’t have enough to do fixing the damn cheap wiring the re-fitters used. Should all be taken outta the . . .”
The couple interrupted with shared smiles, Robbyn saying, “Let’s get it done, then. Should be quick, right Warn?”
“Everything I saw said food and medicines, luxuries on the first,” he said with a shrug. “Nothing too serious to search for safety, unless the other crew got into a bit of side action.”
Veng rolled his eyes, “All the more pointless to drag me out then. Better to get it over with, I guess.”
“I didn’t spot any lifters, but I wasn’t watching the cargo the whole time,” Warn admitted as they walked the corridor. In fact, much of his time had been spent in sabotaging the target ship—messing with their sensors, subtly diverting power from key systems, setting up the shields to overload—sometimes he wondered if the rest of the crew really appreciated how much work he saved them.
Musing over the crew’s respect and knowledge was put on hold as the trio entered Lernen’s domain. They immediately spotted the squat, bald Human near a couple plasteel crates that Warn recognized from the ship. Others were stacked nearby, a few already open, separated from the ship’s stores and replacement gear.
Veng, being the most impatient and the one with the orders, took lead.
“Lernen! Cap’n sent us down to help out,” the techie called as they approached.
The cargomaster shook her head. “No, I told him to send you three down here. He said he’d get you here an hour ago.”
Warn shrugged, “Semantics. Anyway, we’re here, you gonna tell us why?”
“We got nearly three score crates off the target. Half of them are fine, the rest I can’t open without help on the locks.”
“What?” Veng yelled. “You can’t get some boxes of food open so you call me?”
Lernen glared, “No . . . the crates of food and medicine were easy. These have high end locks. I know I can’t handle ‘em. One of the boys scanned ‘em and got nothing. Not empty, no reading at all. The freckin’ things are shielded.”
“So who puts delicacies and basic meds in shielded boxes,” Robbyn asked.
“Exactly. I want Veng and Warn to take a look at the locks and you to check for tricks of the esplodin’ kind.”
The wererat looked at his spouse and both shrugged. Warn raised an eyebrow, “We can do that, but why? It was a civvie freighter, the registry checked out, no corp or military connections, completely clean, right Veng?”
“That’s what the comp boys say.”
Lernen grunted. “Right. I worked docks for years before getting’ on this liner. Ain’t no ship’s completely clean unless it’s a corper or gov’ment plant. I figure the corp’s running something or she was a freelance smuggler. Either way, I likes the cargo hold but don’t wanna be plastered all over it.”
“Got it. Well, Robbyn, wanna check for explosives? Veng can start checking the locks with me?” He’d done some petty theft and boosting in his youth, kept his skills in practice getting on cargo ships. They could be helpful getting into sabotage areas on a ship or getting out of trouble. Actually . . . “Sorry, love, any chance of detecting bombs before the crate’s unlocked?”
“If they’re scan shielded, forget it. But it takes a special kind of lock and trigger to trap it so just fiddling will start a countdown. That I might be able to find,” Robbyn explained. She turned to the cargomaster. “Did you check the energy consumption or heat output on any of these? Forget it, why would you? Get me those meters. Touch based instead of leads, if we’ve got ‘em. Less chance of tripping a secondary explosive or sealant if we don’t have to breech lock integrity.”
The Goblin and wererat took a closer look at the crates and fasteners while they waited for Lernen’s assistant to get the requested devices. Neither felt the risk of setting off a security device likely by simply touching the crates, otherwise they’d risk going off accidentally during transit. As they poked around, Veng called his attention to two of the boxes. One came up to his shoulder, the other to his knee. Both were tagged with Commonwealth foodstuffs stickers. It took a few seconds to see what the techie considered notable. Once he caught it, Warn signaled his spouse.
“Check these two first,” he said, “and have Lernen get the comm jammer up, if it isn’t already.” These two pieces of information told her everything she needed to know on short notice. They’d worked together long enough and gotten used to CFL and Patrol tricks, as well as those of the corporations. He had used and seen enough tracking devices over the last couple years to recognize the signs. The suspicion alone didn’t mean anything, Warn admitted to himself. There could just be another layer of security, but he didn’t think so. Better safe than sorry with the whole crew’s fate in his hands . . . there were a lot who were boorish and uncouth, ones he hated, even, but they were still his crew. Besides, the Captain had always done right by them. And he had friends and drinking buddies on board too, even leaving Robbyn out of the calculations.
He glanced at Veng for confirmation.
The Goblin looked up from one of his devices and shook his head. “I’ve got nothing on transmissions. But it could be set for bursts or pulses at set times.”
Warn shrugged and moved on. They’d find out soon enough. If it was a tracker and on bursts, maybe the jammer would be up first.
He wrapped up the rest of the crates and came back to the others before the assistant was back. A few seconds later, the kid panted in, carrying a bulky case that probably weighed as much as he did. It hit the deck hard before Lernen knelt and opened a display cover.
“Never seen the locks before,” the wererat reported. “They look like a variation on the Burc Corp R50 series, though. At least that’s the closest equivalent I can think of. If there’s no hurry, I can do some searching on the Republic’s net at the next jump point. If it is secret corp or milspec, they could be custom jobs, though.”
Lernen looked up from where she was pushing buttons and fine tuning knobs.
“No dice, Warn. Captain wants them opened ASAP so he has time before Alest,” she said. “On the upside, the jammer is up and working perfectly, for once.”
Not really wanting to be in charge or responsible, Warn looked at Veng and Robbyn. Those two glanced at each other before Robbyn nodded. That left the Goblin techie in charge, Warn decided. Pretty much as expected. A brief, uncomfortable silence descended while Veng gathered his thoughts.
“We assume the jammer is working,” he said, “but disabling any possible transmitters is our first priority. Assuming they are locators, which I think we have to. After that, or at the same time, we check for explosives. I’ll take the transmitters with Warn’s aid. Robbyn gets bomb detail. Once we’re clear there, Warn can work the locks with me. Lernen, you and your assistant will be runners, if the rest of us need anything, like equipment or rations. During the first two phases at least, no questions asked or trouble.”
He looked around slowly, getting nods from everyone, the wererat’s crisp one being last.
The next hour passed with the three pirates bent over a pair of crates. They shifted around to give each other space as needed, heads together from time to time conferring about their tasks and discoveries. Occasionally, the cargo assistant was sent out to get a tool, or a lead, or some other necessity. Finally, after running every test they could think of and had the equipment for, the trio determined that the people who had set up the tracers wouldn’t want to blow up said tracking device and that the results implied a lack of traps of that sort on the crates.
With that conclusion reached, Robbyn broke off for the greater mass of crates.
The Goblin remained at the pair, checking his pad and various devices. Occasionally, he consulted Warn for the Human’s knowledge of transponders and tracking devices. Most of the latter’s experience being oriented toward their use, repair, and jamming since they were helpful in his part of the ship’s activities. Warn guessed, based on size, that the devices would be short range, probably only a couple lightyears’, which would also explain pulse bursts or an activation code. That guess, he was painfully aware, was based on the assumption that the whole crate wasn’t a tracking device. The more he thought, the more he decided it could be. A lightyear or two was pretty pitiful range unless the planter figured the theft would occur through short range ships. But no pirates he knew of attacked ships near their favorite holdovers or bases. Corporate raiders, maybe, but even that was a shot in the dark. Or the people who planted it were plain cheap and short sighted. That sounded like company accountants or CFL admins. It was cheaper now to install short range trackers, even if it might cost more in the long run because more time and ships would be necessary to track it if it was stolen.
He watched Robbyn work for a bit, feeling considerably safer by betting on corporate ignorance and greed or CFL incompetence. The latter had numbers, bigger guns, and were scary in a fair fight, but when had people in his line of work ever fought fair? Besides, as had been true throughout history, those who broke the laws were always a couple steps ahead of those who enforced the laws, when it came to innovative technology.
A while later, Veng tapped his shoulder.
“I think we’re ready,” the techie explained, “If you’d care to give cracking these two a try. Start with the smaller . . . less chance of a big boom with that one.”
Warn stifled a grimace and knelt beside the crate in question.
“A moment,” he said at a thought, “let’s move it over there, away from the rest and the outer hull. Just in case. Lernen . . .” He stopped when he saw the cargomaster and her assistant already had fire gear out. He noticed, absently, that Robbyn had paused in her work to watch too. Four pairs of eyes wasn’t the sort of pressure he was used to while operating on a lock, avoiding being seen was more normal, but since that wasn’t an option . . .