Sun Ra - Column for 6/28

Tortoise pt. 2 (fiction)

Captain Wallis leaned back from her visualizer, and frowned.

Morgan and Ingbo noticed the motion, and frowned themselves. Trix Wallis rarely showed emotion - it wasn't that she thought impassivity the trait of a good captain, she simply didn't get upset about much. When the owner of a refit bay at Vosges Station had fitted the Charles Napier with titanium struts carefully cored and filled with an equal mass of pig iron, and the struts snapped like so many glass rods a month later during a gravsling around some planetless sun, the captain didn't say a thing as she dumped a few million credits' worth of asteroid gleanings - along with ten million more in mining robots and spare parts. Nor did she spend two weeks jumping right back to Vosges with a loaded agonizer and a bad attitude.

It was only two years later, when Morgan had almost forgotten the event, that an expedition took them through a system Z-near to Vosges; and a week of plotting and a very careful kidnapping wasn't too much delay for revenge served cold.

Morgan wondered if anyone ever found the guy, and what they made of the pig iron he was filled with if they had.

"Is it a ship, Captain?" Ingbo asked. Ingbo always referred to the captain by her title.

"It surely is," she replied. She tapped a console button. "Mary, I need you on the bridge. Now."

"Aye aye," Mary's voice replied. "On my way."

Wallis' finger moved to one side. "Seth, wake up. I need you on the bridge."

"Hrm?" Seth's sleepy voice replied. He yawned. "On my way, Trix."

Captain Wallis slid into her seat, and leaned back over her visualizer. She turned a dial with her left hand. "Yeah, that's a ship all right. They aren't under power, but the trajectory is all wrong for something natural. Morgan, do you have that plotted back?"

"Sure do," Morgan replied. "Whoever it is, they were in orbit around TH2 on the same plane we were. Must have swung in closer to the planet, engines on, swung themselves around, and now... well, I don't see how we can get away from 'em."

"Nor do I. We're already low on supplies."

Since the other ship wouldn't intercept them for a while, the Charles Napier had the option of simply Z-jumping blindly from where it was now. The odds of winding up somewhere dangerous were miniscule - perhaps one in a hundred thousand that they'd snap out of Z-space even vaguely near a solar system - and the ship's computer would probably be able to locally fix their exit point well enough to be able to return to it and jump back.

But the energy required for a Z-jump put enough of a strain on the engine that a second jump wouldn't be possible for at least an hour, and they only had enough fuel for perhaps two dozen jumps anyway. And although jumping from one of a pair of realspace coordinates always led to the corresponding realspace coordinate, there was no way at all to tell where a blind Z-space jump would lead. No way to get somewhere you wanted to go except by returning to it exactly the way you had come. And thus, even if Charles Napier jumped out now, they would have to come back through this system if they ever wanted to see human space again.

So the other ship could simply wait for them to come back when they got hungry.

Mary stepped through the bridge door. "What's going on?"

"Pirates," Wallis replied.

It could only be. If they were another IMS, they would have remained hidden, not wanting the Charles Napier to know that they'd been scooped. If they were a Federacy Navy vessel, they would have made radio contact. And there was no reason for anyone else to be out here.

Mary sighed and walked over to her seat.

Pirates were a rare breed. Given that Z-jumping required ships to follow precisely the same route to reach the same destination, any system that saw any sort of regular traffic had a Federacy naval presence, either in-system or one jump away. And even if a pirate managed to take a commercial carrier, there were very few systems without iron-clad import screening. There was simply no way to fence anything you stole.

Unless, of course, it was raw ore, and had never left a civilized system so there wouldn't be any records of where it came from.

IMSes were a pirate's natural prey.

Seth swung in and noticed the somber air immediately. "Something bad happen?" he asked.

"Take a look," the Captain said, gesturing at her visualizer.

Seth bent over the eyepiece. "Oh, shit," he said. "Pirate?"

"Has to be."

"Damn. And it's a good one, too."

Morgan looked into his visualizer, and punched up the captain's display. The pirate ship was becoming visible now, and to his dismay it wasn't the armored half-pear shape of the Charles Napier and most private vessels, but the full-pear shape of a pure spacer. Most ships were flat on the bottom on account of the grav plating. It simulated gravity in one direction - areas not above the grav plating were weightless. So most ships had, at their very bottom, the flat three meter-thick plate running the length of the vessel.

The pirate must have two such plates back-to-back at its core, a design far too expensive for most vessels. Built in orbit, it would be faster, more maneuverable, have more powerful engines, and where the Charles Napier had a single front-mounted railgun, the pirate would have a least a half dozen assorted ways to poke holes in them.

The fact that they wouldn't use missiles, as those would destroy their prey, was not much comfort.

Morgan looked at the captain, who was sitting back in her chair, her eyes staring out the front window at the brightening speck that was their adversary.

There was a beep, and Seth turned at his console. "Captain," he said, "it's the pirate. They want to talk to us."

- t.b.c.

- Sun Ra

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