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, making us rely completely on 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 her 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.
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.
I pointed at the sensor screen. “If I were the pirates,” I said, “I would hole up in the rings. As soon as the Helena passed I would come out of hiding behind her and pounce. They could disable her engines in one or two salvos and then take their time with her.”
Michelle nodded thoughtfully. “That makes sense,” she said. “Another approach would be to hover above the northern or southern magnetic poles. The interference from the local magnetic field would prevent the Helena from detecting the presence of the pirates until it was too late.”
We knew the pirates were here. We also knew several locations where they could hide and make their ambush. So, where the hell were they?
Michelle and I frowned into the sensor displays for a long time, looking for that one data point that would advertise the presence of the pirates. After about an hour and a half of this Michelle made a Eureka kind of sound and tapped commands into the control panel. A moment later she was smiling. “Look at this,” she commanded as she piped the display through to one of my monitors. The display showed all of the individual masses orbiting the outermost planet. “The thing about sensor stealth suites is that they can mask almost every aspect of your ship to prevent detection, but there’s one thing that no one has ever been able to figure out how to mask.”
I smiled back at her, she was onto something. “You can’t hide mass,” I said.
“Exactly.” Michelle changed the resolution of the sensor display to show a portion of the planetary rings. The computer highlighted a cluster of what appeared to be rocks, but when you looked at the individual masses tagged to each object it was readily apparent that those weren’t rocks. They were starships.
I called up the astrophysical data on the outermost planet. High resolution sensors focused into the rings showed the asteroids had a very high metal content. I pointed that out to Michelle. “With that much metal in the asteroids,” I told her, “ships’ sensors would just assume that those ships were more asteroids and wouldn’t even tag them as a contact. It’s a good hiding place. They don’t even have to work that hard to conceal themselves.”
Michelle tapped in a series of commands and the monitor display changed. The projected course of the Helena appeared on the display, along with the current position of the pirates. Key points were marked along the course plot and a column of numbers was displayed on the right hand side of the monitor. I frowned at the display for a moment before I saw what Michelle was trying to show me. “Oh, hell! When the Helena makes her run to the jump point she’s going to pass right alongside their position.”
Michelle nodded agreement. “That transport doesn’t stand a chance.”
I looked at the time display. The Helena was due to cast off in an hour, and it would take them at least eight hours to make the journey to the jump point. The ambush would take place when they were still thirty minutes from the jump point. That gave us eight and a half hours to work with. Not a problem.
I weaved the Moonshadow through the orbits of the moons and drew closer to the planet. I didn’t want to be detected by the pirates and mistaken for a target, so I approached the planet from the side opposite where the pirates were lying in wait. I slipped us into the rings as gently as could be and wound a path through the asteroids to a position some twenty thousand kilometers behind the pirates. We went to ground on one of the larger rocks at the edge of the field.
When the landing skids hit the surface of the asteroid we still had three and a half hours to kill before it was show time.
So, how do you go about killing three and a half hours? I suppose everyone has their own ideas. Michelle and I did a variety of things. We played elaborate word games, told jokes, read to each other. I tried a couple of times to get her to giggle hard enough to make her snort, but both of us were kind of keyed up, so my attempts failed pretty miserably. I don’t think she held it against me.
Of course there were things that I wanted her to hold against me, but now was not the time to think of such things. Besides, it had been pretty firmly established that we were friends, and I didn’t want to take any chances with that. I wasn’t about to potentially muck up a perfectly good friendship by coming on to a woman who probably had no romantic or sexual interest in me whatsoever.
Time passed, as time is wont to do, and eventually it was show time. We had programmed the computer to warn us when the Helena entered passive sensor range. The computer pinged to us at the appropriate time, causing both of us to jog forward to the cockpit and take our places. I buried my face in the sensor scope while my fingers flew over my controls, increasing power allocations to engines, defenses, and weapons. Michelle powered up the flinger and divided her attention between the sensor scope and the targeting computer as she started keying in data for our firing solution.
The Helena glided amongst the moons at a stately pace and passed within a few million kilometers of the rings. As soon as she passed their position the pirates drifted out of concealment and used their maneuvering thrusters to bring them into position directly behind the Helena. As soon as they were in position I did the same thing, used the maneuvering thrusters and a short, controlled burn of the main engines to bring the Moonshadow behind the pirate cruiser.
Michelle keyed a last equation into the computer and smiled when it made an affirmative beep. “We have a shooting solution,” she told me.
I looked down at my ships status repeater. The flinger was powered up and ready to fire. Our makeshift missile was securely loaded into the firing chamber. Our defensive systems were on standby power, as were our weapons and active sensors. We were as ready as we were ever going to be. “Let her rip,” I said.
Michelle stabbed her finger down on the firing control and the ship lurched as the flinger sent our makeshift missile sailing toward the after end of the pirate cruiser.
I watched the course projection for our projectile on my sensor repeater. It sailed out away from the Moonshadow and followed a straight line path that terminated inside the giant fusion engine at the after end of the cruiser. Elapsed travel time from the moment Michelle fired the thing until the moment it made contact was several very tense minutes. As soon as the package made it into the engine several things happened. First the pirate cruiser lurched as if it had been swatted in the ass by a giant fist. Then the torpedo warhead detonated. According to my sensor logs the torpedo explosion tore the inner workings of the engine to shreds; the force of the explosion was carried forward all the way to the ships primary reactor and breached the containment vessel. The resulting nuclear explosion engulfed the entire cruiser in a ball of crimson flame and reduced it to its component materials in a matter of less than a second.
Hot damn, we’re good! I thought to myself.
A flight of four fighters had been escorting the cruiser when she went up. They had been knocked aside by the force of the explosion but were otherwise undamaged. They gathered their wits about them and decided to look for whatever had destroyed their mother ship, probably with the intention of eradicating it from existence. And that’s when they noticed that we had been following them.
“Oh, hell,” I cursed.
The fighters turned on us in perfect unison, their targeting sensors reaching out to lock onto us. Our threat detection gear started crying out for attention. Michelle slapped at the override switches as I pulled the throttles back all the way past the safety detents. The Moonshadow lurched forward with a sudden burst of speed and soared through the space between the four fighters. I brought our two after cannons to bear and fired, took down two of the fighters before they had a chance to come back about. His comrades decided that this just wasn’t particularly fair of me and came around into attack position.
From that point on I was rather too busy to fire weapons. I concentrated on my piloting while Michelle took control of the guns. I rolled the Moonshadow onto her belly and pulled back on the stick. The fighters saw us roll onto our backs and then drop out of their line of sight. They rolled to match our maneuver but I was already turning in another direction. Michelle was able to fire off a torpedo that caught one of the fighters on the port side just behind the cockpit and disintegrated it.
I brought Moonshadow around into attack position. The fighter turned on us and prepared itself for a head-to-head pass. Back when I was studying to be a pilot at the Federation Naval Academy they told us during air combat maneuvering training that the proper etiquette for a head-to-head pass contest is for both parties to make the first pass without firing their weapons. I always thought that was kind of foolish myself, but the military has its own logic. Michelle seemed to agree with me. She brought our forward guns to bear and blew that sucker out of the stars before he even completed his turn.
I breathed a sigh of relief and brought the Moonshadow in closer to the Helena. Taking out the pirate threat had been both difficult and dangerous, but it was by no means the most difficult or dangerous part of our little operation.
I opened a comm channel to the Helena and took a deep breath. “Transport Helena, this is Captain Martin Horvath, master of the independent freighter Moonshadow. Please respond.”
There was a short pause. “Moonshadow, this is the Helena. We monitored a series of explosions immediately aft of our position. Did you play a part in all that?”
I admitted that we did. “The ships that we destroyed belonged to a pirate group that wished to take possession of certain contraband items you are carrying. We didn’t want them to have those items, so we destroyed them.”
“What contraband items would those be, Moonshadow,” the transport wanted to know.
I shook my head even though they couldn’t see me. “If it’s all the same to you, Helena, I’d rather not discuss that over an open channel.”
“Then what do you want?”
“We request permission to come alongside for docking,” I answered. “I’d like to talk to your captain in person.”
There was a much longer pause this time. I looked to Michelle and she smiled encouragingly. Then the speaker said, “Permission granted to come alongside and dock, Moonshadow. An escort will meet you at the docking port to bring you to the captain.”
* * *
Michelle and I were both armed when we stepped off the Moonshadow and into the Helena’s corridor. I was sporting a pistol on each hip and had a variety of throwing and combat knives strapped around my thighs. Michelle was wearing the same flight suit she had been wearing when we lifted off of Xanadu. To this she had added armor to her chest, arms, and upper thighs. She was also wearing the same weapons she had been wearing on Xanadu.
I wasn’t the least bit surprised when we found Eric waiting for us on the Helena side of the airlock. Michelle squealed a happy greeting and rushed forward to enfold him in a hug. When she let go of him I reached forward so the two of us could shake hands. “What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded.
I shrugged. “The head on the Moonshadow is broken and we had to go to the bathroom,” I explained. “This looked like a nice ship so we thought we would come aboard.”
“It’s a long story,” Michelle cut in, “and we don’t have a lot of time, but I promise that everything will be explained to you later.”
Eric seemed to believe her. At least I think he did. He looked at Michelle for a long moment and then pointed at me. “He’s not here to do anything stupid, is he?”
Michelle chuckled at that. “No,” she said truthfully, “he’s not here to do anything stupid.”
Eric seemed perfectly happy with that explanation. He shrugged, turned on his heel, and led us through the ship.
The captain was on the bridge, leaning back in his center seat, which was turned to face the bridge access way. He had a particularly arrogant expression on his face. A Master-At-Arms and two of his men stood at strategic points around the bridge. Each one had a sidearm strapped to his thigh, but their weapons weren’t drawn. They just stood there with their arms folded across their chests, staring daggers at us.
“I believe you had something that you wanted to say to me?” the captain drawled.
I had reluctantly agreed to let Michelle take the lead in the proceedings. She stepped forward and said, “You have a shipment of illegal weapons in your cargo hold. You also have a load of involuntary migrants quartered in steerage class. Now, the way we see it, you owe us one.”
I looked over at Eric, who was seated at his station. He didn’t even pretend to watch his board, for he was more interested in the proceedings. His eyes went wide at the mention of contraband and involuntary migrants.
The captain was very amused by Michelle’s opening position. “Oh, really?” he said. “And why would that be?”
Michelle just smiled. “Well, we could easily have let those pirates take a round out of you, but we didn’t. We destroyed them, as much to do you a favor as because we could. You see, that’s what we do. We go around beating the tar out of pirate groups preying on law-abiding transport ships going about their business. That description doesn’t exactly apply to you, though, does it? We both know that transporting illegal weapons is frowned upon by the Federation Navy.”
She paced a circle around the captain’s chair. “Now it’s time for us to be paid back for our efforts. We want the illegal weapons turned over to us. We also want those involuntary migrants you have in steerage released to us. Those two items are non-negotiable.”
The captain straightened in his chair. “That’s a very high price,” he answered, “even for the service you claim to have already provided. As near as I can tell there’s nothing in this deal for me. Surely you can’t expect me to go along with any of this unless there’s some way that I can derive some personal benefit. Besides which, I have people and agencies to which I must answer. I can’t just tell them that I released valuable cargo to a crew of mercenaries for services which there is no proof that you rendered. At the very least I would lose my job.”
“Of course there’s a benefit for you,” Michelle told the captain. “For starters, if you give us the items we want, and I do mean all the items we want, then my partner and I will refrain from reporting the contents of your cargo hold to the Federation Navy. I’m sure you can appreciate what would happen to you if the Federation were to discover just what it is you are carrying. Your ship would be impounded, and you and your crew would all be locked up on some prison planet somewhere. Perhaps the Federation might even send you to Felicity.” She turned on the captain with a savage smile on her face. “You are taking those migrants in steerage to Felicity, yes?”
The captain matched her stare and her smile. “Felicity?” he repeated. “Funny, the name doesn’t sound terribly familiar. Of course you’re perfectly free to tell the Federation whatever it is that you want to tell them,” he added. “We both know that there isn’t a lot that I can do to stop you. After all, the Federation is a free society. However you are aboard my ship and on this vessel my word is law. And I can tell you that you will be killed before you can get back to your ship, which will be destroyed before we reach our next destination.”
“Threatening me is a mistake,” Michelle told the captain. “People have been known to come to very unpleasant ends for threatening me, and I would hate to see that happen to you, especially when you and I are getting along so famously. Besides which, you don’t have anywhere near enough manpower to harm us, and we know it. This ship has a crew of fifty people, of which ten are tasked with internal security. In fact, I’m betting that the three you have here on the bridge with us constitutes your entire complement for this watch. Now the price has gone up. Not only are you going to turn over the weapons and your migrants, but you and your crew are going to surrender this vessel to us.”
“Impossible,” the captain scoffed. “Two people by themselves are incapable of taking control of this ship. I may only have three people present to challenge you, but this ship has a variety of internal defenses which would cut you to ribbons before you made it halfway down that corridor.”
Michelle shrugged. “That’s as may be, but we still have the upper hand.” She reached into one of her thigh pockets and pulled out a data pad, rested her thumb against one of the buttons. “This pad has just sent a signal to the computer on our ship. A countdown has begun, and when that countdown has concluded she will destroy herself. The force of the explosion will breach your hull on that side of the Helena in at least a hundred places, which is at least thirty more than your internal damage control systems can handle. This will effectively disable the Helena. The cost of repairing that kind of damage on a ship this size and in this state of repair is significantly more than the ship is worth, so in the end you will lose your ship, you will lose your cargo, you will lose whatever kickback you’re being paid to transport those migrants, and my partner and I will get the last laugh.”
Eric was staring open mouthed at Michelle. So were the three guards. So was I.
The captain leaned forward and stared up into Michelle’s unforgiving eyes. “You’re bluffing,” he gambled.
Michelle just grinned. “Do you think so?” she asked conversationally. “Are you really willing to take that chance? Is it worth your life and the lives of your crew?” She leaned down, her face less than five centimetres away from the Captain’s face. “See, what you really need to understand is that I don’t care who you are or what your commitments are. I don’t care how much money you stand to make by delivering those weapons to Coventry. I don’t care how much money you stand to make by delivering those migrants to Felicity. I don’t even care if my partner and I die in this little escapade, as long as we can keep those deliveries from happening. I guess you could say that we’re kind of motivated that way.”
Michelle straightened back up and folded her arms across her chest, cocked her head at the captain. “Now, what was it you were saying about me bluffing?”
* * *
I will give the captain of the Helena credit for this: in the end he did one very intelligent thing and surrendered both his vessel and his crew to Michelle and me. As soon as he did that we gathered his senior staff together and imprisoned them in their own brig under the watchful eye of their own guards. I know several attempts were made to bribe the guards into mutinying against Michelle, but the guards weren’t having any. They had just seen their boss outmaneuvered by a woman whom they feared and had decided that to act against her was the rough equivalent of committing suicide.
Percy’s reaction when we brought the Helena back to Xanadu was mixed. On the one hand he was happy to see that we made it through our adventure okay, but on the other hand he now had some several thousand involuntary migrants to deal with, along with a boatload of contraband weapons and a transport crew that had been well and truly outgunned by two people and weren’t all that happy about it.
The Helena was moved into one of Percy’s dry docks. The migrants were all shuttled groundside, where they were taken to the hospital for complete medical evaluations before being turned over to the local equivalent of Social Services. The Social Services people took Percy’s suggestion and gave the migrants landed immigrant status and some startup money. The weapons were shuttled groundside and moved into one of Percy’s warehouses. I have no knowledge of what happened to them after that. The crew of the Helena was turned over to local law enforcement, which bundled them up and shipped them off to the Federation.
As promised we explained everything to Eric once we got back to Xanadu. Eric hadn’t known anything about what the Helena had been carrying, and he hadn’t exactly gone to any great lengths to find out. She had been outward bound and was willing to take him on, and that had been all that mattered at the time. I can’t rightly say that I blame him for wanting to leave. The whole Treasury fiasco had left a bitter taste in both of our mouths and I think that we both really needed some time away from each other, lest our tempers get the better of us and we do something we would regret.
Michelle’s regulars at The Flight Line all knew where she had gone and why, and they were ecstatic when I brought her back in one piece. They were so happy that a rather raucous party developed and continued over a period of several days. The regulars started to see me as one of the gang, a fact proven by the fact that their best friend had gone out on a run with me and come back alive. Not only had she come back alive, but she had also come back with plunder to show for the whole escapade. I don’t know about anything else, but I think that coming back from a run with an entire bulk transport filled to the bulkheads with cargo and migrants is a pretty good showing.
Percy started to get over his ambivalence as the party developed, and within a few hours he was just as happy as the rest of us were. He even did something that he had never done in all the time that he had owned The Flight Line; he bought a round of drinks for the house. Of course, being Percy, he cursed the cost of all those drinks he was handing out, but he handed them out anyway. That earned him even more of my respect and, more importantly, an affectionate hug from Michelle.
The first day of the party had come and gone. The Flight Line was empty except for me, Percy, Michelle, and Eric. Each of us had a flagon of Ale and we were drinking slowly and enjoying each others company. Finally, after hours of pussyfooting around the topic, Percy came out and asked the three of us what we were going to do next.
Eric just shrugged. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I mean, when this whole Treasury thing blew up in our faces all I wanted to do was get the hell away. I guess I thought that running away would help me deal with my part in what happened, so I left. Look at how well that turned out. I can’t think of what would have happened if the two of you hadn’t taken on those pirates and come after me. And now, I just don’t know what I want to do.”
“You’re welcome to come back aboard the Moonshadow,” I told Eric. “I was thinking of trying to score some honest charters for a while, get back into the Federation’s good graces. After that, who knows? Maybe something will come up.”
Michelle just smiled at me. “That sounds like a good plan,” she said.
I clinked glasses with her. “What about you?” I asked. “What do you want to do?”
Michelle took a long pull of her ale, turned the glass in her hand and watched the bubbles that made up the foam head. “Well, I can always stay here at the Flight Line and keep tending bar, and I know that Percy and a lot of other people would love it if I did, but I’ve been getting kind of restless lately. I think that maybe it’s time I went back out there for a while. I mean, I can always come back, right?”
Percy smiled. “You could always open up the old business,” he suggested.
“What old business would that be?” Eric wanted to know.
Percy grinned and gestured at Michelle. “Back in the day Michelle and her husband used to make their living harassing pirates and slavers. When they weren’t doing that then they were running relief shipments to quarantined worlds. Sometimes they even did the occasional straight cargo run, but the anti-piracy and anti-slavery operations were their mainstay. With the two of them in command old Dragonheart gained herself quite a reputation throughout the fringe.”
Michelle smiled wistfully and stared into her glass. “Maybe it’s time to take the old girl out of mothballs,” she said.
Percy looked Michelle up and down carefully. “She doesn’t look all that old to me.”
Michelle swatted Percy’s shoulder. “I was talking about the Dragonheart, smartass.”
Eric and I shared a look and then nodded to each other. I turned to Michelle. “Maybe I have a better idea,” I said.
Michelle looked up at me, smiled. “Tell me.”
I shrugged. “Well, it seems to me that the Dragonheart has been sitting idle and unused for a few years now. It’ll take time to get her spaceworthy again, and it’ll take money. Wouldn’t it make more sense to use a ship that’s already spaceworthy, and one that you already have some experience aboard?”
Michelle’s eyes went wide and she grinned, and suddenly she looked less like a grown woman and more like an excited little girl. “You’re offering to take me on the Moonshadow?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Why not? It makes more sense than fixing up the Dragonheart, doesn’t it?”
Percy was grinning. “The man does have a point,” he said.
Eric leaned forward, rested his elbows on the bar. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I kind of like the idea of having a woman aboard the Moonshadow. Besides which, I like the idea of going after pirates and slavers. Maybe it’s about time Martin and I did something positive for a change.”
“You don’t mind taking me aboard?” Michelle wanted to know.
I smiled and brushed a stray lock of blonde hair behind her ear. “No, I don’t mind taking you aboard at all.”
Michelle squealed and enfolded me in the kind of hug that makes time stop. Then she gave Eric the same treatment.
Percy poured a fresh round. “That care package I sent you before you went to Corbantis was kind of off the cuff,” he said as he poured. “I’ll make sure that your ship gets provisioned and equipped properly this time around. And I’ll put her through an overhaul while we’re at it, make sure she’s in the best possible shape when you lot lift off.”
“When do you want to leave?” Eric asked me.
Michelle and I shared a long, silent look, before we answered in unison, “Not tonight.”
“Hell no,” Percy agreed as he passed out fresh flagons. “Not tonight. You guys have all the time in the world.”
It’s an interesting feeling. Being able to take your time and enjoy life while you wait to pick your targets is a kind of freedom that I had never experienced before. But I was experiencing it now, and I had friends around me to enjoy it with, and that’s really all that mattered.
It’s amazing how much a person can change in such a short time. Less than two weeks before I would have scoffed at the idea of going after pirates and slavers. That kind of work is dangerous and there wasn’t exactly a lot of money to be made that way. No tiny slices of retirement down that path. But after everything I had gone through since the Treasury fiasco I found that I was actually looking forward to it. It felt good to know that I was actually going to do something that was going to benefit someone besides myself, and benefit them in a good way.
I couldn’t recall any time in my life when I had felt that good about anything, but I was bound determined that I was going to remember that day at the Flight Line for the rest of my life. You see, that was the day that my whole life changed.
Copyright © 2004 by Michael J A Tyzuk