Authors: Jamie McFarlane
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication / use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
Copyright © 2014 Jamie McFarlane
All rights reserved.
Don't miss the other exciting adventures in
Fool Me Once
Diane Greenwood Muir for excellence in editing and fine word-smithery. My wife, Janet, for carefully and kindly pointing out my poor grammatical habits.
My beta readers: Nancy Higgins Quist, Dave Muir, Jeff Rothermel, Carol Greenwood, and Robert Long.
Finally, Sviatoslav Gerasymchuk, an artist of exceptional skill.
Red lights pulsed around the perimeter of the ceiling and a warning klaxon started whoop-whooping. I’d been staring aimlessly out into the star field in front of me, lightly dozing. That was certainly over now.
, I commanded my artificial intelligence (AI) and quickly scanned the vid screens in front of me. All critical systems were green.
Mayday distress signal received. Merchant ship under attack. Two hours to intercept. Combat data stream available.
The ship’s voice was that of a soft-spoken, middle-aged man. I'd experimented with different female voices, but found they caused my mind to wander at inopportune times.
Adjust course, wake the crew, render combat at engineering station, and turn off that damned siren.
We weren’t necessarily going to get involved, but changing course now might save critical time. It was law that we respond to a mayday, but hostilities meant we could make a judgment call.
“Permission to enter the bridge,” Marny Bertrand’s alto voice requested from the door.
“Granted.” When I looked over my shoulder, Nick’s smaller form was right on Marny’s heels. It made sense, as they had taken to bunking together in the original captain’s quarters.
“What’s all the fuss, Cap?” Marny asked. I was impressed with how put together she appeared. I knew for a fact she’d been sound asleep less than a minute ago. Nick, not-so-much. His straight black hair was slung unevenly to one side.
“Not sure, Marny.”
I took a few steps back to the bridge’s engineering station
and they joined me in front of the holographic display. A ship, obviously a freighter given its tug and barge design, floated just above the empty engineer’s chair. Two thin attack craft were orbiting it, concentrating fire on the crucial ligaments between the tug and its three serially linked barges. A third ship, cutter-class, hung back several kilometers.
, I instructed.
A translucent blue halo appeared around the freighter and the AI provided the details.
Freighter Baux-201, Mars Protectorate Registration, General Astral model A20-402
After pausing on the freighter, the blue halo jumped to illuminate the two circling attack craft.
Unregistered Fujitsu Darts, model FZ024
. The glow moved to the cutter.
Unregistered General Astral Cutter, CA-08
Are there any other ships within range that can provide assistance?
Mars Protectorate estimates ten hours for intercept
There it was.
was two hours away, which by itself was several lifetimes in space combat. Mars Protectorate Navy, at ten hours, wasn’t even a consideration. If we balked at this,
was doomed. The freighter could hold off the darts for a while with their armor, but its fate was just a matter of time.
“Marny, how soon before those darts break through the linkage?”
Nick and Marny were studying the holographic display.
“Not really sure. I’m surprised the tug isn’t firing back. Those tugs usually have at least a heavy blaster on ‘em.”
It was as if her words woke the captain of
. Two yellow charges erupted from a gun port on the back of the tug and streamed toward the darts. Each nimbly spun away, causing the charges to miss. The battle rendering lit up again as two more shots followed after the ships.
“Rotten luck,” Marny said. “That’ll never work. He’ll never hit those darts with that heavy blaster. That’s why the cutter is hanging back, it’d be a lot easier to hit.”
“Will they stop the attack once they break the linkage?” I asked. I hoped Marny had practical experience with pirate behavior from her days as a gunnery officer in the Mars Protectorate Navy.
“Not likely. That cutter can’t get any closer while the tug is still active. Are you thinking about getting into this? It will be over
long before we get there,” she said.
“Not if we do a flyby,” I said. “They’d have no reason to keep attacking if we take out that cutter.”
The AI had done a calculation based on us matching velocity with the attacking ships. That scenario, common in space travel, involved accelerating toward a destination, then flipping around at the halfway point and decelerating until you matched velocity and direction with your target. It was an efficient maneuver. If we could accelerate over the entire distance, however, we'd arrive significantly faster.
“Nick, can you get a calculation on that?”
“Yup,” Nick said. He moved to sit at the station opposite engineering.
The forward vid projectors showed a dark-skinned, middle aged woman. Her black hair was neatly braided into narrow rows that closely followed her scalp and colorful beads hung
from the ends. I knew from the moment I saw her kindly face that I wouldn’t be able to abandon her.
Adela Chen,” she introduced herself. "Are you able to render assistance?”
“Liam Hoffen. We’re two hours out on standard approach. How long can you hold out?”
“Not that long, Captain. Maybe thirty minutes.”
considering a high speed flyby. Missiles are loaded and we could knock out the cutter. You’d be left with the darts.”
“No good, Captain,” she said. “Those darts would just eat me up after that.”
“Understood. Call me Liam, Captain. We’re going to emergency burn. Please keep the data-stream active. We’ll get there as quickly as we can.”
“Thank you, Li
am. Godspeed.” She cut the comm link.
“Nick, what’s our minimum time?”
“Forty-eight minutes, give or take. We’ll break the deceleration at five minutes out so we can upload
data stream.” It was faster than I had hoped for.
“Marny, you in? Could get dicey.”
“You shouldn’t have put her on the holo. Once they're real, there’s no turning back. But yeah, I’m in. I’ll warm up the turret.”
“Nick, you in?”
“Execute your burn plan.”
On Nick’s command,
lurched forward. The inertial systems could normally absorb and redirect the effects of the engine’s acceleration into simple downward force. Gravity would increase to 150% of Earth normal gravity, but a person standing in the ship wouldn't feel the forward acceleration. That was hard burn. In an emergency burn like we were now experiencing, the inertial system was unable to keep up with the demands.
I stumbled forward. My body felt like it weighed a couple of hundred kilos. When my hands found the back of the port side pilot’s chair, I pulled myself into it, drawing the combat straps over my shoulders and snapping them into place. We still had plenty of time before arrival, but I wanted to be ready.
Project combat on forward holo
The always listening AI moved the unfolding combat scene from the engineering station to just in front of the twin pilot chairs and beneath the armor
ed glass that swept up from the nose of the ship to the back of the bridge.
For the next twenty-four minutes a constant data stream would show the battle as it took place. At mid-point,
would flip over and start decelerating and we'd lose the stream due to engine interference.
“Marny, once the linkage is broken, what then? That cutter can’t haul those barges, can it?”
“No. It’s about half our size. Even if we had a decent way to hook up, we’d have quite a bit of trouble with those barges.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Won’t they ruin the linkage?”
Nick chimed in. “Those barges can be linked on both ends. That’s how they decelerate. The tug lets go and reattaches to the other side. In a pinch, they rotate the entire line of barges, but it’s a lot easier to detach and reattach. They probably have a tug off somewhere waiting for combat to be over.”
“She doesn’t stand a chance, why hasn’t she just ejected?”
Marny responded, “She’s buying time by creating a standoff with the cutter. It can’t approach while she’s manning her blasters. She’s also slowing down the darts.”
A possible explanation hit me. “How much crew on a tug?”
Nick answered. “Minimum two, four if you squeeze.”
“Just one. Checking to see if it’s been deployed …” Nick paused. "It's gone, Liam."
“She’s protecting her crew,” I said. My stomach tightened at the realization.
Hail Captain Chen
“Tell me you found a way to get here faster, Captain Hoffen.” Adela’s face was tight but she managed a small smile. We were closing in on the halfway point and it wasn’t looking good for her. It didn’t escape me that we
would miss this fight by less than twenty minutes. It was a lifetime.
“Send me the trajectory of the lifepod. I promise you we’ll do everything we can to protect it.”
Her holographic image held my eyes for what seemed like minutes. “That’s my daughter on there. She means everything.”
“On my honor, Captain,” I replied.
Rotation in thirty seconds
, the AI reminded me.
“Trajectory transmitted. Stay safe, Captain. Chen out.” She cut communications.
engines slowed and the constant, nearly crushing acceleration diminished and finally stopped. A slow rotation, end over end, and the engines spooled up again. The crushing force of acceleration returned. We now had to sail blindly toward the combat zone.
“We got the lifepod,” Nick said.
“Good. When we drop out of burn, I want to unload two missiles on the cutter. Can you make that work, Nick?”
“Marny, how’s that turret looking?”
“Ready to rock! Give me something to shoot.”
We sailed in silence for the first twenty minutes of deceleration.
dropped out of burn just long enough for us to get an updated data stream.
Show current status.
Status not available
, the AI replied.
Show stream at ten times speed
The holographic rendering of the attack started right where we’d left off. After forty seconds, the darts finally finished their job, severing the linkage between the tug and the chain of barges. I watched with resignation as the darts turned their attention to Chen’s tug. I slowed the recording to watch in real time. I felt I owed that to her. We’d been less than ten minutes too late.
It was more than I could take. “Why wouldn’t they simply blow the tug before separation?”
“They couldn’t risk the explosion.” Marny replied. I hadn’t realized I'd asked the question out loud.
It took the darts less than a minute to tear the tug to shreds as it drifted away from the string of barges. It was horrific to think of Adela Chen, still on that ship, being murdered.
“Turn it off, Cap.” Marny’s voice sounded distant.
“You have to. Get your ass in the moment, Cap. This ship won’t fly itself.”
She was right, I was wallowing. I turned off the recording. “Roger that. Thanks, Marny.”
“Dropping out of burn in thirty seconds,” Nick warned. It was unnecessary, since I could see the countdown on my vid-screen.
I pulled the flight stick back from its cradle and rested my left hand on the throttle control.
“I’m bringing us in hot, Nick. We’ll concentrate on the cutter first. The darts can’t get home without it.”
I aborted the deceleration a few seconds earlier than planned. This would cause us to do a very high speed flyby of the cutter as well as make it harder for the ship to take evasive maneuvers.
Too late, the smaller cutter became aware of our approach. They’d fired up their engines and were burning hard on an escape vector perpendicular to our path. I arced toward their escape route. The darts, in turn, adjusted to chase us.
“Missiles away,” Nick said.
Track missiles on holo projector
Both missiles had to make minor adjustments in their less-than-two-second flight, but that was expected. The cutter had detected the launch and
attempted to dodge.
Only one missile hit, but that was sufficient. Kinetic damage is king in space combat. The energy is amplified geometrically by speed. By not fully decelerating when we fired, the missiles hit the cutter with much greater velocity than if we'd simply been chasing the cutter in matched combat. Missiles have explosive charges, but if we’d hit the cutter with a missile-sized rock, it would have done just about the same amount of damage.
A quick survey showed the top third of the now slowly tumbling cutter had been vaporized. The contents of the ship were exposed to vacuum and the shock of impact would surely have killed everyone on board.