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Deception Is Our Stock in Trade

by Richard Pearson

part 1

The signal was weak and buried in the buzz and click of white noise. Still, John could make it out clearly enough on his radio. “We’re under attack by pirates!”

John smiled quietly to himself. In the late twenty-first century that phrase sounded ridiculous. Still, the warning was accurate. John was a pirate. He was about to attack. Life is full of ironies.

The white noise in John’s helmet grew louder as his ship increased the strength of the jamming signal blocking the freighter’s frantic distress call. Through a hole in the noise spectrum, he heard his captain’s voice: “Brace yourselves boys; she’s trying to run.”

The freighter started to move ahead. The convoy of cargo drones it controlled followed obediently behind. The freighter carried no cargo itself; its job was to correct small changes in the drone’s trajectories. The convoy’s payload of nuclear fuel rods from Mercury was distributed among its fifty robotic cargo pods.

John looked over at the man locked in the acceleration webbing next to him.

Martin looked back and stuck a small rubber cutlass in his mouth. Smiling around the toy sword, he said, “Arg!”

Casually, John flipped the visor on Martin’s helmet closed, jamming on the toy blade in his mouth.

Reaching up with his gloved hands, Martin clumsily struggled to untangle his visor from the rubber sword without losing any teeth. “Ah... That hurt! Not funny!”

The laughter from the other members of the boarding party indicated otherwise. “You’re too into this, Marty!” John said.

“Dude, we’re pirates!” Martin said with a grin. “We may as well act the part!”

During the wait in the airlock, John’s nerves were on edge. His stomach was in a knot. As Boatswain’s Mate, he was the leader of the EVA — extra-vehicular activity — personnel. Martin Mallon, Christine Ivanov and Rin Yamazaki made up his EVA crew. His people would be the ones to cross through the vacuum to the enemy vessel. He couldn’t let them see his fear. Once the actual EVA began, John knew he’d be fine, but now, the waiting was agony.

A laser beam flashed out from John’s ship, the Adventure Galleon. The laser played on the main liquid-hydrogen duct of the freighter’s nuclear drive. The duct finally burst, leaving the drive without coolant and reaction mass. The freighter’s engines automatically shut down.

The boarding party was pushed against their acceleration straps twice as Capt. Kidd maneuvered the Galleon to catch up with the freighter. A light flashed, and an automated voice commanded, “Boarding party away!”

The wait was over. With a profound sense of relief, John flipped his helmet visor closed. He cycled the airlock open and began struggling out of his acceleration webbing. Over his suit radio, he ordered, “Man the side.”

John was halfway out of his harness when a warning light began flashing and another automated alert warned, “Collision course. Impact three seconds. Collision course. Impact, two seconds.”

Capt. Kidd’s voice came over the radio. “Rig for acceleration! Rig for acceleration!”

Out in the void, one of the cargo drones in the freighter convoy had lit its thrusters. The drone was aimed straight at the Adventure Galleon and coming fast. John just had time to grab hold of his webbing when the Galleon’s engine’s fired. The acceleration hit hard. Rin lost her grip. Impact on the airlock’s rear bulkhead left her floating weightless like a broken doll. The med alarm in her suit screamed. Acceleration hit again. The Galleon’s laser finally hit the drone’s thruster, and it tumbled off into the dark, out of control.

John and the rest of the boarding party moved to help Rin. Kidd’s voice came over the radio. “Leave her. Help’s on the way. Get over to that fracking ship and take out their drone control antennas!”

John flung himself through the open airlock hatch. “Everyone out! Man the side! Out!” John ordered.

Crawling over the outer hull of the Galleon, John made his way to his firing bench. He held up his arm to tell his boarders to pause at the fixtures welded to the hull. A light flashed on the freighter as its airlock opened.

“Hold your fire. Looks like they’re going to open the airlock and surrender,” John told his EVA crew.

Two figures drifted out carrying rifles. They floated near the airlock, looking around. They stopped scanning when they saw the Galleon and John’s crew.

John toggled the radio frequency that freighter crews normally use. “Release your weapons; push them away and keep your hands where we can see them.”

“Back off, you fracking pirates!” came the response.

John’s heart sank. This standoff wasn’t going to end well. “Stand down. Your situation is hopeless!” John said.

“FRACK YOU!” came the reply.

The freighter crewmen started moving towards the Galleon, firing as they came. Their propulsion units tried to compensate for the rifle recoil, but they weren’t designed for the job. Bullets sparked along the Galleon’s hull but missed John’s people.

Christine looked at John. “Fracking weapons free, John?”

“Yes! Weapons free. Return fire,” John said reluctantly.

John and his crew braced their rifles against the firing benches to absorb recoil and began firing. The freighter’s crewmen jerked spasmodically as several rounds hit each of them. Over his suit radio, John heard the enemy crewmen curse, then whimper as their lives ebbed away. John toggled off the freighter’s frequency. Within minutes, the spacesuits of the enemy crew members stopped flailing and drifted lifelessly away into the void.

Kidd called over the Galleon’s frequency. “Get those antennas before they try to ram us with another cargo drone!”

“Chris, you’re with me. Marty, cover us from here,” John said as he pushed off towards the freighter.

“Wit cha, hon,” Christine said.

“Aye aye,” said Martin.

John and Christine used the maneuvering units in their suits to reach the freighter. As they approached the outer door, the freighter’s airlock slammed shut. They attached shaped charges to the ship’s remaining antennas and blew them off the hull. Without the antennas, the freighter no longer controlled its fleet of cargo drones.

John clamped a speaker to the ship’s hull with a magnet. He toggled the freighter’s frequency back on. He attached the speaker to his suit’s radio and said, “Ahoy the freighter. Your EVA crew is dead and you are defenseless. Open you airlock and surrender. If you comply now, the rest of your crew won’t be harmed.”

Through the hull John heard, “You goddamned murdering bastards! No one is coming through that airlock alive! We are on a trajectory to lunar orbit. Even without our engines, we’ll make Earth’s traffic control zone within a week. We got a distress call off. You can’t stay much longer. The government will be sending help to us soon.”

“Our stealth drone took out your high gain antenna days ago, before you ever detected us. Your distress call went nowhere and you know it. Don’t try to bluff us. Lies and deception are a pirate’s stock in trade. Now open the airlock and surrender,” John said.

John pointed to Christine. He indicated a point on the freighter’s hull and made a circular motion. Christine pull out several shaped charges. She arranged the charges in a ring shaped pattern and wired them together. When she finished, she gave John a thumbs up.

John said into his radio: “You have five minutes to surrender or we’re coming in.”

“We have guns. We’ll defend our ship and our cargo. We’ll kill anyone that tries to come through that airlock,” John heard from inside the ship.

“Your EVA crew had guns. How much good did that do them? How long did they last? Seconds?” John asked.

Martin’s voice came over the radio: “Watch out! He’s firing maneuvering rockets!”

John grabbed onto a magnetic speaker fixed to the hull. The freighter rotated violently under him. The wire connecting him to the speaker came loose. He struggled to hang on. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Christine fly off the hull. As she floated away from the freighter, she flailed around looking for something on her suit. When she stopped searching, she pointed something at the enemy ship.

Over the radio he heard Christine yell, “FIRE IN THE HOLE, MOTHERFRACKER!”

NO! Don’t!” John yelled.

Too late! There was a bright flash and a circular section of the hull flew off the freighter. A mass of flying debris missed John by inches. A figure in a spacesuit followed the debris, flying out through the hole in the hull. A panicky cry came over the freighter’s frequency. The body thrashed and tumbled as it headed towards Christine. Christine performed a perfect pirouette with her maneuvering unit and put three rounds in the helpless enemy. John heard a grunt over the radio as the rounds struck home. The cry turned to a whimper and then stopped.

The freighter crew member passed close enough for John to see her face through her helmet visor. He knew immediately that the look of surprise and horror on the young woman’s face would haunt his sleep for a long time. For John, at least, nightmares were part of the price of piracy.

“What the hell just happened?” Capt. Kidd called over the radio.

John told Kidd, “The freighter’s captain spun his ship. We’d placed the cutting charges before he fired his maneuvering rockets. When she was thrown off the freighter, Christine detonated the charges.”

“Any survivors?” Kidder demanded.

“Don’t know. There were likely five in the crew. The two that went EVA are dead,” John said.

“Killed the asshole that came out through the hole in the hull,” Christine interjected.

“There may be two or more still in the wreck. Can you see anyone through the hole in the hull?” Kidd asked

“I can crawl over to the hole,” John replied, “but I don’t want to look in. If there is anyone alive in there, they’ll justifiably want to below my head off.”

“I’ll send over a mini-drone. See if you can grab it as you rotate by. If you catch it, stick it through the hole and we’ll use its camera to look around.”

When it got to him, John grabbed the mini-drone. He stuck the robot through the hole in the freighter’s hull. Looking through the drone’s camera using the display in his suit, John saw two more crew members in spacesuit. They’d both had been killed when the shaped-charge jets sliced through the hull and into their bodies. The rest of the interior was a wreck.

“Crew’s all dead.”

“Yeah, I can see. Get inside and check if the freighter’s drone control computer survived,” Kidd said.

“Marty, come over and stand by outside,” John said. “Chris, you’re with me.”

John held on to the edge of the hole in the freighter’s hull with one hand. He extended his other hand outward. Christine was floating just above the hull. As he rotated by, Christine grabbed his hand. John grunted and strained, but was able pull Christine down against centrifugal force. Soon, she also had a hold of the edge of the hole.

John flipped through the hole into the freighter. He put his feet against the inner surface of the hull and stood up. Christine followed. John looked for the cargo drone control rack. When he spotted it, he pointed it out to Christine. “See if we can use their equipment to divert the cargo drones.”

“On it,” Christine responded.

“Radio and computer took a lot of damage, but I might be able to get them going with the spare components we have. There’s a socket for a thumb drive, probably contains the encryption key. We need it to use their equipment.”

“The thumb drive is probably red,” Christine said.

John noticed that Christine’s backwoods accent had disappeared. It usually did when she was dealing with technical stuff. John thought of this Christine as “Posh Christine.” The woman was truly schizo.

John noticed something red on one of the corpses lying against the hull. Above the visor on the body’s spacesuit, was lettered, CAPT. ILYAI CHUIKOV. Attached to a lanyard on the captain’s suit was a red thumb drive. John retrieved it and brought it to Christine. “Is this what you’re looking for? Found it on the body of the freighter’s captain.”

Christine took the thumb drive and plugged it into the cargo drone control module. It fit.

Christine held up the thumb drive near her helmet visor. “I think that’s it. Most of the computers and communications are damaged, so I can’t test it yet. Makes sense, though, that the captain would have the drive with the encryptions key on him.”

“Of course the electronics are damaged. That’s what happens when you blow a big fracking hole in a spaceship.”

Christine turned on John and yelled in the radio, ”What the hell did yuh want me to do? They were trying to spin us off the ship so they could pop out and fracking shoot us?”

Backwoods Christine is back, John thought. He glared at Christine. “Whatever! We are where we are. Let’s go back to the Galleon and see if Captain Kidd wants to repair their control system. Or substitute our own electronics in each cargo drone. Marty, we’re coming out. Don’t shoot us.”

“Arg,” Marty replied.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2017 by Richard Pearson

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