by Walt Staples -
A ping sounded as the red dot appeared at the edge of the plotting board. Meg Nakamura, captain of the tanker Tau Ceti Maru, waited for the A.I. to report the results of the interrogative signal beamed at the target. When “George,” the A.I., continued mute, she tapped the override.
She noticed Uncle Onslow, the ship’s chief engineer, had stopped whistling “Bound for the Reo Granite” under his breath. On the whole, she would have preferred the irritation at the moment. It was not a good thing when Onslow, a normally noisy sort, suddenly became quiet. She turned to see him watching the plot from the supercargo’s seat, his puzzle forgotten. “What do you make of it, Unc?”
He continued to watch the slow progress of the red dot thoughtfully. “He be burnin’ reaction mass like it t’weren’t his. At the rate his delta-vee be changin’ positive, he be either military or someone in a big hurry. Up to nay good if he be not answerin’ the interrogative. An honest ship’ll squawk who she be.”
Meg thought. “Comm malfunction?”
Uncle Onslow looked hurt. “Not this end. I tuned the main laser and the auxiliary during the dog watch.”
She looked at him. “What were you doing up then?”
“Dwellin’ on me wicked past.” He waved a hand dismissively and changed the subject, “Methinks maybe ye should pipe that first officer ye like to call “husband” out of his rack.”
As she reached for the general alarm, he leaned over and stopped her hand with a massive paw. “If ye be forgivin’ the impertinence, ma’am, I think there might be time to allow the man to gain his feet like a Christian.”
She grinned at him and reached for the call button.
Chris Nakamura, Meg’s husband and first officer, rubbed the sleep from his eyes and sipped his Wide-Awake tea. “Why is it, just as the dream is getting good, someone always hits the call button?”
“Because you’re indispensible to the Cosmos and spacefarers everywhere.” She asked with a leer, “I trust the dream was about me.”
He yawned. “Oh, yes, everything according to ship’s regs.” He glanced around. “Where’s Onslow?”
“He said something about needing to attend to something or other to do with his cargo.”
“More likely he’s in the hanger bay securing his doll-house furniture tools. It amazes me the things he can make with those sausages he calls fingers.” He thought a moment, then asked, “Honestly, hon, why’d you let him load a cargo we’re hauling for free?”
“Two reasons. Number six bunker was empty this trip and we needed ballast, and it’s Uncle Onslow. Besides, there’s a good market for it.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Sand?”
“Silicon—pulverized quartz for making fine glass or, as you say, ‘sand.’ Anyway, I want the old man to be able to put something aside for his retirement.”
“He’s not our uncle,” Chris pointed out.
“Well, he’s somebody’s—” She cut herself short as the bridge hatch dilated.
The bulky engineer strolled to the supercargo’s seat and flopped down with a grunt. “Mick and Sugo have the watch below, so I figures I be seeing how things be up heres in the high-rent district. What be our friend doing?”
Chris answered, “Still gaining and still the strong, silent type. Think we should change orbit, Unc?”
The tall man fingered his beard thoughtfully. “Nay, t’would do nay good. Methinks he gots enough reaction mass to waste, he be catchin’ us nay matter the course change.” The red dot began to pulsate. “Ah, methinks he wants to be neighborly.”
Meg glanced at Chris. “See what he wants.”
Chris tapped the plate on his seat arm. “Unidentified vessel, unidentified vessel, this is Tau Ceti Maru out of Eclectia, identify, please.”
“This is Dog Star Revenge, Calico Jack Bonney commanding.” The voice was booming and scratchy. “Heave to and match orbits. Prepare to be boarded.”
Meg reached over and broke contact. “Calico Jack Bonney? What the heck?”
A moment later, a smaller red dot originated from the Dog Star Revenge and passed close aboard to the tanker. It disappeared as an incandescence flared against the starfield on the forward screen.
“Ah, the requisite shot across our bow. Good to see they be sticking to the script,” Onslow observed in an offhand manner.
Chris asked of no one in particular, “What are we dealing with?”
“Pirates, lad, pirates.” Onslow’s face was grim. “Methinks this might be what happened to the Commerce Antares and the Universe Sheba.”
Meg looked at him in disbelief. “Pirates? In this time and place?”
“Oh, aye, lass.” He nodded. “It be yer cargo they be after, distilled water. It be very hard to check the serial numbers on it. The Commerce be carrying it in carboys and the Universe be a tanker like ourselves.
“Chris, lad, what be the velocity of that shot?”
The blond man jerked, then tapped on his plate. “It’s on your screen.”
The fat man tapped on his own plate. “Well, lad, if ye be subtractin’ the velocity of the ship from the velocity of the shot, ye can make a guess at what sort of a weapon ye face.” He considered the numbers. “Aye, as I thought—railgun.”
Meg spoke from the command seat, “A what?”
“A railgun. A projectile is accelerated down a barrel by a series of magnets. Lets ye get high velocities without the worries of propellants. Alls ye be needin’ is electricity.”
Chris nodded. “Elegant. What kind of projectile do you think?”
Onslow pinched his lower lip in thought. “Methinks they’d not be takin’ the chance of scatterin’ the cargo with an explosion. Nay, solid shot, then.”
Meg looked from one to the other. “Any bright ideas, gentlemen?”
Silence filled the bridge. After a long moment, Onslow broke the loud emptiness. “Methinks I has an idea.”
The other two looked at the chief engineer. “What?” the tanker’s skipper asked.
Uncle Onslow, his face serious, asked a question in reply, “Do ye trust me?”
Meg looked at him for a moment and answered, “Yes. Yes, I do.” Chris nodded.
The old man nodded once. “All right then. The first thing, everybody into environment suits. Second we evacuates the atmosphere. It’ll be less distractin’ without things flappin’ about if we be holed.”
Chris protested, “But there’s nothing loose.”
Onslow grinned at him. “Ye’d be surprised what can come adrift in an explosive decompression.”
Meg asked, “What else?”
He hooked a thumb toward her husband. “This be for Chris to be doin’. Lad, whens I says, ‘now,’ ye revolve the ship 90 degrees around her short axis to starboard.”
“That will put us broadside to them and make us a bigger target,” the younger man pointed out.
“Oh, aye, that it t’will. I’d rather they be hittin’ one of the bunkers than the drive unit. Most people aims at the center of mass. This way, the bridge and engineerin’ spaces be out on the far ends of the target.”
He grinned mischievously. “If ye be excusin’ me, I has some engineerin’ to be doin’.” He took a small tool kit from a pocket and popped open an access panel on the arm of supercargo’s seat.
Meg wrinkled her nose. She looked over at her husband’s environment-suited form. “Husband, dear? Do you know what’s the very first thing you’re going to do after this is settled?
Chris answered in a hopeful voice, “Lay below to our cabin together?”
“Maybe that’s second.” A quiet chuckle reminded them that Uncle Onslow was also on the net. “No, dear, the very first thing you’re doing is changing out the filter on this suit. The stench in here is worse than a Mongolian slit trench.”
Chris’ voice was innocent, “Uh, dear, how would you know to make that comparison?”
“Just do it, Mister,” she said in her command voice.
“Aye, aye, ma’am.”
Onslow’s voice cut across, “Chris, stand by.”
Meg began to count to herself. She reached 23 when Onslow said, “Now!”
The Tau Ceti Maru spun on her short axis, putting herself broadside to her pursuer. The chief engineer tapped the plate on his seat arm once.
Chris, startled, cried, “We’re beginning to revolve to starboard more.”
Uncle Onslow’s voice was reassuring. “It be okay, lad. Just put us back into position.”
Meg spoke up, “What now?”
“Wait for it, and watch the plot.”
As they watched, a blue glob appeared next to the blue dot at the center of the plotting board representing the tanker. It seemed to slowly move back towards the pirate’s red dot. The red dot moved into the glob and out the other side.
“What’s that?” Meg’s voice was strained.
“Five thousand tons of glass-grade silicon. I purged bunker six. That be why we started to revolve again. Reaction to the sand squirtin’ out the purge valve.” He gave a gusty sigh. “Okay, try to raise the Revenge , if ye please.”
Chris called, “Dog Star Revenge, Dog Star Revenge, do you copy?” His only answer was the whispers of interstellar space. He began again, “Dog Star Revenge, Dog Star—“
“Leave it, lad,” Uncle Onslow interrupted him. “They’ll nay answer.”
Meg asked, “Why?”
“Turn the optical telescope aft.” Onslow’s voice was tired.
Husband and wife gasped. A wreck pursued them. The forward section, probably the bridge, was slagged. There was no sign of either sensor or communication arrays. Fiberglass shreds showed where reaction mass tanks once encircled the hull. No blue-white plume of reaction showed from the drives.
After a moment of stunned silence, Chris asked, “What happened to them?”
Onslow rubbed his face and slumped in the supercargo’s seat. “Are ye familiar with a sandblaster, Lad?”
“Yeah, sure.” Chris looked at the old man curiously.
The chief engineer’s voice was musing as he continued. “Well, if ye was to increase the velocity of the sand hittin’ a piece of something it would stands to reason it’d take off more material, right?”
The other looked down at his unconsciously clenched hands. “Think about the effect of a cloud of sand hittin’ at the speed the Revenge was doin’—what, about one-tenth light?” He shook his head and whispered almost to himself, “Nay a pretty picture.”
“Should we attempt rescue?” someone asked in a hushed voice.
There was a long pause, then Onslow answered, “Nay. We’ve not enough reaction mass to catch her and match orbits—beggin’ yer pardon, captain.”
Meg broke the silence. “Where are they headed?”
Chris referred to his navigation array. “Alnitak. In Orion’s belt. They’ll reach there in—“
Uncle Onslow cut him off. “There be nay need, lad.”