Authors: M. C. Planck
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction
THE KASSA GAMBIT
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
THE KASSA GAMBIT
Copyright © 2012 by M. C. Planck
All rights reserved
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
CIP DATA TK
First Edition: January 2013
Printed in the United States of America
0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
THE KASSA GAMBIT
Dropping out of node-space, Prudence instinctively knew there was trouble. Seconds later the computer complained there were no navigation beacons, and after a moment, that there was no radio chatter at all. But she already knew.
She flipped the switch and shut off her own radio signature. Should have done it when the feeling struck, but she hadn’t wanted to believe. Hadn’t wanted it to be real.
“Pru, the link is down.” Jorgun took off his headphones. They always looked amusingly delicate on his huge frame. “I was trying to call Jelly but the link is down.”
He had made friends here. They all had, and Jorgun didn’t make friends easily. Not true ones who wouldn’t take advantage of his simpleness.
Prudence did not make friends easily, either. It would just hurt more when she had to leave. And she always had to leave.
She flicked on the intercom and broadcast throughout the ship. “Battle stations.” Jorgun’s eyes went wide at her clipped tone, but she had no comfort for him yet. The inexplicable silence of the planet below promised worse to come.
Jorgun drew in his trembling lip and began strapping himself down. Melvin stuck his head in the bridge hatchway.
“Did you say—”
“I did. Don’t power up until I tell you to.”
“Fucking uncool. Uncool.” Melvin was constitutionally unable to perform his job —or for that matter, his life—without a running commentary. It was just one of the many quirks Prudence had learned to live with. She couldn’t recruit her crew from Fleet academies.
At least he would do his job. She could hear him cussing all the way to the top deck. The
was a commercial trading vessel, of the smallest economical class, and thus unrated for combat of any kind. But Prudence was a woman of extreme caution and deep paranoia, and thus had made a few modifications. The “mining laser” bolted to the top of the ship was wired in a most unorthodox fashion. It was only good for thirty seconds of operation before something burned out, but two seconds from the amped beam would cut an unarmored ship in half. The left cargo pod carried a rack of missiles. And she had six chaffers bolted to the hull, disguised as auxiliary fuel pods. Hopefully, it would be enough.
She had to trust to hope, because she had no experience. Despite the hardware, constant drills, and obsessive planning, she had never been in combat. Such vigilance had made her the butt of many jokes and the object of her crew’s displeasure, but it had always kept her out of even the hint of a fire fight.
She didn’t intend to break that record now. Running quiet, the
presented almost no signature. Too small to impinge on any grav fields, at least until she turned her own gravitics on, and with only life support operational, there wouldn’t be enough emissions to pick her out of the void.
Aside from Jorgun broadcasting their presence the minute they’d dropped in, that is.
“What’s going on?”
The voice of Garcia, the super-cargo, rattled through the intercom with his peculiar and sometimes unintelligible drawl. He claimed it was an ancient heritage, like his fiery cooking, but Prudence was sure simple orneriness was an adequate explanation.
“There’s no radio signal from Kassa.”
As usual, he didn’t bother to figure out the meaning of the last answer before asking the next question.
“Some kind of malfunction?”
“Right, Garcia. A whole planet, fifty thousand people, with a full satellite crown and a C-class spaceport. And they’ve all gone on the blink.”
Perhaps this was not the best time for sarcasm. Still, it made Garcia stop and think.
“What the hell are we gonna do?”
“We’re going to run.” What she always did when things got bad. Perversely, it was also what she did when things got good. When she’d made enough margins long enough, and had a hold full of high-value trade goods, she would set her crew down in the biggest spaceport she could find and offer them a choice.
Get off, or go Out.
Sometimes they stayed. Sometimes they took their bonus pay and left. Sometimes she found other adventurers, stragglers, wanderers to replace them. And then she would run, hard and fast, hopping from node to node, until either they ran out of fuel or ran into a planet that had the local nodes locked down tight. Then they bartered, bribed, and begged their way into whatever passed for a commercial license in those parts, and started all over again.
The rumblings of Altair imperial politics had hinted it was time to run. The quiet of the planet below screamed it. Idly she wondered which of her crew would go and which would stay. Idly, because she couldn’t afford a long dry run yet. Idly, because she couldn’t face losing any of them. For all their faults, they were part of her life. Trapped on the tiny ship, constrained by the necessities of space travel, they had learned to get along despite their differences, to support one another and even enjoy each other’s company. Together, they were no more dysfunctional than the average family. Or so she assumed; her experience with family had been cut short.
Garcia interrupted her musing. “There might still be people down there. We gotta find out what happened.” Since when did he care about anything but a profit margin?
“That’s not our job. We’ll report the situation to Altair Fleet, and they can investigate. After they call it clean, we’ll come back for the delivery.” They had to. The colony below was an anomaly, growing its food outdoors instead of in hydrotanks. No other planet that she knew of would want a hundred mechanical threshers. She’d bought the machines as surplus from a factory that used to do something else with them, but had changed production methods. So she couldn’t even take them back for a refund.
Without this deal, the ship would be perilously close to bankrupt. That might explain Garcia’s solicitousness.
“And for a visit.” She flashed a smile for Jorgun’s benefit.
If there was anything left to come back to. What kind of disaster could silence an entire world? Prudence didn’t know, and she didn’t particularly want to find out.
“So what are we waiting for?” Melvin asked over the intercom, from his station in the laser pod.
“Grav.” She shouldn’t have had to explain it to an engineer, but then, he already knew the answer. He just couldn’t stand to be left out of a conversation.
A gravitics engine manipulated gravity; but that meant there had to be gravity to manipulate. Something the size of a planet was an ideal source of gravity. But right now Kassa was a million kilometers away. At that range, the influence it exerted on the
had come out of the node exit with a high nominal velocity, expecting to cut the long trip to the planet down to a few hours. Now that energy hurtled them toward the distant planet, and it was still too far away to push against. Only when they were within a few hundred thousand kilometers would the
be able to change its course, undo all the velocity they had brought with them from the node. They would have to get closer to get away.
She started programming a course into the computer, a slingshot around the planet. One quick pass and they would be back out again. If they were silent, if they were lucky, they would be gone before anyone knew they had come.
A light on her console blinked, and Prudence lapsed into a rare swear word.
“What? What is it?” Garcia was audibly nervous. Prudence had threatened his life once without resorting to swearing.
She thought about hiding it from them. They didn’t need to know. It would be her decision, whatever happened; her responsibility, whatever they did. She had to balance the interests of her crew against the duties of basic humanity. That was why she was captain.
Jorgun made the decision for her, glancing with curiosity over at her console and puzzling out what the insistent, dire little light meant.
“A distress beacon,” he announced.
“Just one?” Garcia, practiced at the art of deception, was instantly suspicious.
Her console told her Melvin was panicking, trying to do a radar sweep despite her direct orders. But she’d already disabled his console, so he would get no further than another complaint.
Counting breaths, she waited for it.
“Pru, I’m gunning blind up here. Turn on the targeting system.”
“For what, Melvin? What are you going to target?”
“I don’t know.” He did exasperation very well. “If you turned on the system, I’d know what there is to target.”
“Not yet,” she said. “They might not—”
Nobody thought to ask who “they” might be. Whoever did this. Whoever was still out there, and was now coming for them.
“Powering up, Melvin. We have company.” She routed her detector into his targeting display. Someone out there had turned on their gravitics. Something was moving. And they weren’t coming from the planet. Whoever or whatever it was had been lying in wait, in deep space.
She was still too far out to do anything meaningful. Right now the
was little more than a comet, falling inward.
“I don’t see anything on the targeter.” For once, she found Melvin’s commentary deeply interesting.
“Then it’s not a ship.”
“Maybe it’s Fleet. I heard they have a cut-out signal that disables standard targeting systems.” Garcia believed every trick and cheat he heard about.
“We don’t have a standard targeting system,” she reminded them. Her ship had not been built on Altair. It had been built on a planet so many hops away that no one on Altair had ever heard its name.
It was a testament to the laziness of man that her Altair-trained engineer could maintain the ship despite its foreign origin. The basic designs, refined into perfection over untold centuries, no longer evolved. Only the electronic protocols changed, like dialects of the mother tongue. The computer could learn to translate those quickly enough, so that was rarely a problem. And sometimes, like now, it was a benefit.
“If it’s not a ship…” Garcia was still waiting for her to fill in the blanks for him.
“Then it’s a mine,” she said. Let him stew on that.
Melvin started swearing again.
Her gravitics detector wasn’t accurate enough to tell her if the mine had locked on to them. She might still be able to slip away, but without knowing what signal it was using to track her, she didn’t know if it was safe to turn on her own gravitics.
Garcia’s gossiping might be helpful here.
“What’s the standard signal for Altair defensive mines?”
“Grav,” he answered immediately. “For Earth’s sake, don’t turn on the engine.”
“I haven’t. And it’s still coming. What are their secondary triggers?”
“Uh. Maybe thermal…”
Altair was a technologically sophisticated system. They would use the best. But she had passed through worlds with plenty of tech, and a lot more interest in combat than Altair had. The chaffers were supposed to be proof against all known targeting systems. Hopefully targeting technology was as stagnant and unchanging as the rest of the space-faring designs.
She launched one of the expensive pods. It floated off of the ship, out into space, pretending to be the ship itself. It used gravitics to drive itself, and to fake a mass signature. It put out the same amount of heat. It generated internal static to appear as typical radio-signal leakage from electronic circuits, including canned intercom communications with Prudence’s voice announcing bogus course changes. If the black-market dealer who had sold it to her was to be believed, it even faked cosmic ray scattering. She had believed him. She’d paid enough for competence and honesty.