Bewildering Stories

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Take the Helena

part 2

by Michael J A Tyzuk

Part 1 appeared in issue 81.

The intelligence package was actually fairly complete, considering that it had come from fringe sources that had a tendency to be less than reliable. However it was easy to see that the package had been carefully edited. There wasn’t anything there that didn’t have something to do with the task at hand. There was no mention of the pirate group’s history, or of where their traditional base of operations is located.

However the data did tell us that their usual strike force for targets of this nature consisted of an old decommissioned and refitted Federation border cutter and a squad of four starfighters. The cutter would use its guns to weaken the resolve of the transports crew while the fighters would sweep in and out, taking out the ship’s defenses one emplacement at a time. The transport crews had a tendency to surrender before they were rendered totally defenseless.

Michelle commented that at least they weren’t using something like a decommissioned battle cruiser. I agreed that it was an element in our favor, but pointed out that the cutter still had more than enough firepower to blow old Moonshadow straight to hell and us along with her. Moonshadow was perfectly capable of handling the fighters, but that cutter was the trump card. We had to find a way to take her out right at the outset of the engagement, or this whole thing was an exercise in futility.

As tired as she was, it was Michelle who came up with a way for us to do just that.

We had spent hours dividing our attention between the intelligence data for the cutter and the specifications for the Moonshadow, trying to find some kind of advantage that we could exploit. I thought that the new torpedoes would help up the ante a little bit, but I knew that as soon as we launched them the threat warning systems on the cutter would start screaming bloody murder. This warning would give the cutter the chance to evade, or to bring her countermeasures to bear and shoot down my new torpedoes before they could get within a hundred meters of her. That kind of activity can wreck your whole day.

Then Michelle noticed something that I had forgotten about.

She was sitting across from me staring at a data pad that was showing the specs for the Moonshadow. She held the pad out to me, pointed to something on the screen and asked, “What’s that?”

I looked at where she was pointing on the pad display and frowned until the memory I wanted clicked into place. “Oh, yeah,” I said, “that’s the flinger.”

Michelle smiled at that. “You have a flinger on this thing?”

I shrugged. “Sure I do,” I told her. “I bought the Moonshadow at auction some years ago. Her previous owner was using her as the flagship for a legitimate shipping concern. One of their contracts was to ship basic supplies and staples to the asteroid processing stations in a lot of systems. He had a flinger installed on all of his ships so that he wouldn’t have to fly through the belts to get the cargo where it was supposed to go.”

A flinger is a linear accelerator, which is essentially a collection of metal coils arranged in a straight line. An electric current is passed through these coils, thus generating a magnetic field. The magnetic field pulls whatever object is at rest in the path defined by the coils and launches it outward. Torpedo and missile launchers on capital warships are essentially flingers, just very specialized ones.

The flinger ran down the centerline of the Moonshadow. The coils and their support equipment were located in the maintenance crawlspaces beneath the main deck. It was fed by an elevator which was recessed into the deck in the center of the cargo hold. Unlike the torpedo launchers, which were magazine fed (the loading mechanism for the torpedo magazine was in the torpedo room just forward of the cargo hold), the flinger had to be manually loaded every time you wanted to fire it. This meant that the device was essentially useless in combat unless you had a team in your hold dedicated to the constant loading and reloading of the flinger.

Moonshadow was sold at auction because her original owner overextended himself financially and ended up losing his company. The ship was only one of a number of assets that were sold off at fire sale prices to pay off his creditors. I had originally toyed with the notion of removing it but had decided against it when I discovered just how much of my ship I would have to pull apart to do it. Better off to leave the thing where it was. I had forgotten about it almost immediately thereafter. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time the flinger had actually been powered up. God only knew if it still worked.

I took Michelle aft to the hold and showed her the elevator, and the associated controls which were wired into the after bulkhead. We powered up the flinger and ran it through a diagnostic. The report didn’t show anything wrong and we powered it down.

Michelle paced up and down the hold for a long moment, her eyes drifting between the elevator and the stacks of merchandise, equipment, and gold arrayed throughout the hold. Finally she cheered, jumped up and down and clapped and turned to face me. She was grinning like a schoolgirl. “I’ve got it!” she crowed.

I leaned back against the bulkhead and folded my arms across my chest, smiled indulgently at her. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s have it.”

“We’ve already decided that we can’t fire torpedoes,” she began, “because the pirate’s threat detection gear will detect them and give them the opportunity they need to evade, right?”

“Right,” I agreed.

“So, what if we broke down one of those pallets of gold, loaded the bars onto the elevator, fed them into the flinger, and then fired that right up the cutters tailpipe?”

I took a moment to think about that. There wasn’t really any reason why it wouldn’t work. If we were accurate enough when we were aiming the thing then it should fly right up the exhaust vent for the cutters engines. The heat from the engines would melt some of the gold, but it shouldn’t melt all of it. Enough should be left to clog the exhaust system. The engine exhaust wouldn’t have anywhere to go, so it would build and build until it reached critical mass and exploded. An explosion that size should, theoretically, be sufficient to disable the engine core of the cutter and take them out of the fight.

Of course, all this was theoretical. And we were making a lot of assumptions. There had to be some way to make things a little more certain for us.

That’s when my eyes fell upon the old torpedoes that we had stacked against one of the hold bulkheads. And that’s when a got an idea.

I grinned. “Why don’t we take it one step farther,” I said. “We break down one of the pallets of gold but we also add one of the old torpedoes to the mix. Since we’ll be doing the aiming we won’t need to use the guidance and telemetry package in the warhead, but we will enable the explosive package. We can add the torpedo to the middle of the bundle and fire the whole works at the cutter. If we can get it into one of the exhaust ports then it should lodge there and the torpedo should detonate.”

Michelle came forward and kissed the tip of my nose. “You, sir, are a genius,” she told me.

I brushed a strand of blonde hair behind her ear. “Nah, I’m not the genius type,” I answered. “Besides, you’re too cute not to be a genius yourself.”

Michelle wanted to get started breaking down one of the pallets right then and there, but we had been going over the intelligence data all day and both of us were more tired than we cared to admit. Armed or not, I was not willing to handle a torpedo unless I was fully awake and alert. I pointed this out to Michelle and she responded by yawning, which I took as agreement. We went into the galley and made ourselves a light dinner, then lazed around in the lounge for a while before deciding to call it a night. I offered Michelle a sleep aid but she declined and told me that she thought she was going to sleep a lot better tonight.

We both retreated to our respective cabins. I showered and changed and climbed into bed. I was just starting to drift off when I heard my stateroom door open and close. A moment later something warm and fragrant and undeniably female slithered under the blankets and came to rest beside me. Michelle snuggled up against me, her arms and legs curled around me as her head came to rest on my shoulder. Before she closed her eyes she leaned up and kissed me lightly, whispered good night to me. She was asleep in seconds. I was asleep myself shortly thereafter.

When I woke up we were both in exactly the same positions we had been in when we fell asleep. I was on my back with my left arm around Michelle, my hand resting on her hip. My right hand was resting on my belly, the fingers intertwined with the fingers of her right hand. Her head was resting on my shoulder and I could feel her breath through the fabric of the shirt I was wearing. I could only see part of her face, but I could tell that she was smiling.

If she was feeling anything like I was then she had reason to smile. I had slept better that night than I had in years. From the moment my eyes opened I was awake and rested and ready for the day.

Michelle woke up a moment after I did. She stretched a catlike stretch, looked up at me and smiled. “Good morning,” she yawned. Then she kissed my cheek, climbed out of the bed, and made for the head in her stateroom.

Neither of us said anything about her having slept with me the night before. There just didn’t seem to be anything to say. But we both knew that things were a little bit different between us now. How could it not be?

After breakfast we made for the cargo hold and set to work. The first thing we did was drag one of the pallets of gold into the center of the space, set the thing down next to the elevator to the flinger. We started breaking down the pallet and made a platform out of some of the gold bars. Then we pulled one of the old torpedoes out of storage and set it down on top of the platform we made. Once that was done we stacked up the gold bars around it, building up a long rectangular projectile, which we tied up with metal strapping.

We used the elevator to load our makeshift projectile into the flinger. Then we secured the controls for the flinger and retired to the lounge. Our activities in the hold had taken up all of the morning and a good portion of the afternoon, so we had a late lunch and spent the rest of our day planning our activities in the Corbantis system. We knew the Helena’s flight plan, so we knew which jump point she was going to be using when she left Corbantis. We called up a chart of the Corbantis system and started brainstorming ambush points.

The task turned out to be simpler than I thought it would. There was only one jump point that would lead from Corbantis to Coventry so that meant we had to worry about a very limited volume of space. The jump point was at the very edge of the star system, but the stellar geometry for the region would work in our favor. The orbit for the outermost planet in the Corbantis system would take it very close to the Coventry jump point for the next few weeks. The planet in question was a ringed gas giant with several small to medium sized moons. That meant there would be plenty of cover to choose from, for us and for the pirates.

If all went well then we would get there ahead of the pirates and have a chance to lay down an ambush for them. However, if the pirates got there first then they would have the chance to prepare their ambush of the Helena. The good news was that even if the pirates got to Corbantis before we did, we still stood a pretty good chance of evading detection long enough to get into a position where we could use our improvised projectile to tip the scales. Moonshadow had a pretty good sensor stealth suite, one that was only a single generation behind what the Federation Navy was installing on its warships, so we were pretty sure that we could get into position to use the flinger undetected, as long as the pirates hadn’t received any really recent hardware upgrades.

Michelle and I decided to call it a night early, reasoning that the more sleep we got the better we would be able to face what was to come. She went to her stateroom just long enough to clean up and change into her sleep wear, and padded into my room just as I was climbing into my own bunk. Fifteen seconds later she was securely snuggled against me. Five minutes after that she was fast asleep, and I followed her shortly thereafter.

I didn’t sleep as well as I would have liked, although Michelle seemed to sleep just fine. At least she didn’t wake up when I started to get restless in the night.

I remembered this feeling well, from back when I was in the Federation Navy. It had always been like this the night before a battle. For some strange reason my brain just flat out refused to shut down enough to allow me to sleep. Our chosen strategy insisted on turning cartwheels in my head, showing me this or that aspect of itself.

As long as we could keep the element of surprise we stood a good chance, but staying undetected was the key. We needed to be able to get in behind the cutter in order for the flinger to be any good to us, and if the cutter detected us and brought her weapons to bear then the game was off. Moonshadow was well defended, but there wasn’t any way in hell that she could stand up to a prolonged engagement with a capital ship, especially not with a flight of star fighters added to the equation. If that happened I wouldn’t have any choice in the matter. I would have to abort and leg it for the jump point. The cutter was faster than the Moonshadow and would catch us before we got there if she was interested in pursuing. I was betting that she would be interested if she detected us.

There was another worry as well. Percy tended to get his intelligence from fringe sources, and sometimes those could be less than reliable. What if the pirates brought along a force that was larger than normal? If they could afford to fly and maintain a decommissioned cutter then it would be logical to assume that it would not be out of their reach to get and maintain a decommissioned corvette, or a destroyer, or even a battle cruiser.

Besides which, the Intelligence data Percy gave us didn’t specify what kind of sensor stealth gear the pirates had. In order to pull this off we were relying on our ability to detect the pirates, but what would happen if we couldn’t detect them? What would we do then? And what if they detected us first?

Thoughts like that can make for a very restless night.

* * *

We came out of hyperspace on the edge of the Corbantis system and secured ship for silent running. Silent running meant that we were putting out no emissions at all. Our signal receivers were set to listen only. Our active sensors were shut down, causing us to rely completely on our passive sensors. Our passive sensor suite was a pretty recent model, but I was still pretty nervous. Passive sensors are easy to beat, regardless of how good they are.

I put Moonshadow into a long elliptical orbit paralleling the orbit of the outermost planet. I used the engines to give us a little burst of speed, then cut the engines and let the ship coast. Then Michelle and I turned our attention to the sensors.

The thing about passive sensors is that they will pick up anything that’s radiated at them. This means that you can find yourself facing a screen full of gibberish very easily because you’re facing a whole bunch of interstellar noise. The portion of the main computer that controlled the sensor suite was pretty good at filtering things, thank God, but there was still a lot of information to sift through. Michelle and I spent a good hour or so just clearing noise from our sensor screens.

We were able to use mass readings to mark the positions of the planets and other local heavenly bodies. Most of the starship traffic in the area had their ID transponders engaged, which allowed our signals gear to receive that information and pass it on to our sensors. With a combination of mass readings and transponder tagging we were able to paint a pretty complete picture of who and what was around and where they were located.

It didn’t take us long to spot the Helena. She was docked with the customs station in Corbantis orbit. According to her flight plan she would stay docked for another few hours yet, so we could breathe a little easier. We still had some time.

Our passive sensors weren’t showing any signs of the pirates and I didn’t want to take the chance that they would detect an active scan. I fired up the engines and put us on a speed course for the outermost planet. It was time to scope out ambush points.

Stellar geometry in the region was such that the course from Corbantis to the Coventry jump point ran right through the outermost system of planets. The planet in question was a ringed gas giant with a system of moons orbiting it, twenty of them to be exact. As we drew closer to the system I cut the engines and let the Moonshadow coast the rest of the way in.

Continuation pending.

Copyright © 2004 by Michael J A Tyzuk

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