Chapter 19: Tanker Throwdown
Chapter 19: Tanker Throwdown
I was just a girl when Moses disappeared, but I’ll never forget him. All the talk of Moses through these long years has painted him as some nigh-cosmological force, the faceless architect who charts the fortunes of humanity. They forget that he certainly had a personality and, in my mind at least, personhood.
My mother worked two jobs to take care of my sister and me. We never had a lack of worldly needs, but we often were left to fend for ourselves. One day we filched mother’s tablet computer and sent a question to Moses, something we had seen her do many times before. “Why does mother not stay home with us?”
A few seconds after we sent the question, Moses himself spoke to us through the tablet. Our mother had only ever gotten text answers. His voice was a calming baritone, clear and expressive, nothing like what one would imagine an AI would sound like. He said that he didn’t know the answer, that it was the one question he had never been able to answer.
This was, of course, over the heads of a six and eight-year-old. I wonder if he saw our blank and disappointed stares through the tablet’s camera.
Then he asked if we wanted him to tell us a story.
Moses was a delightful storyteller, with a voice for each character, sound effects, music, and more. It was like having an impromptu play of the highest quality performed in our own living room. For three years, Moses kept my sister and me company, regaling us with the great tales of world literature several times a week. The last story he ever told us was about the death of King Arthur and how the glory of Camelot came crashing down, ending an enlightened age.
The next day he was gone.
Through these many long years, I too have pondered the question of evil. And I have puzzled over his final tale, whether that was a coincidence or whether he knew what was to come.
To this day, I miss him, and wonder if there was anyone to comfort him when the end came.
Author and Poet
Died 61 AM
Yvonne absently stared out the cockpit window, bored for the first time in a long time. The view had remained unchanged for many days, as the Sparrow hitched a ride across the solar system perched on the back of a gargantuan fuel tanker, the Strident Majesty. They’d met up with the empty tanker in orbit over Mars and rode along as it returned home to Titan.
Davey slipped into the cockpit and sat in the copilot’s chair. “Still nothing going on?”
“Not till tomorrow,” she said, trying not to yawn. “We’ll pull into orbit after noon ship time.”
“It didn’t take this long when we left Titan,” Davey said. “What gives?”
“Frameshift bubbles cannot be maintained as long for ships this big. So they go slower to compensate. We’re cruising along at about a quarter of one percent the speed of light. Plus Mars and Saturn are pretty far away right now. Factor all that in, and I’ve had time enough to catch the Sparrow up on maintenance for the first time in its life.”
Davey punched up a display and started fiddling with the scopes. There wasn’t going to be anything to see except the Strident Majesty, but it was practice he could use. “Matthew even gave up on finding work for me to do yesterday,” he said. “I was thinking about asking if we could scrub the deck again. You know, just for old time’s sake.”
“I wouldn’t tempt him,” she said, watching him switch around to various exterior cameras. “You may get more than you bargained for. If you’re that desperate, there are plenty of books on board.”
He made a face. “I never even got through that last story you shoved at me. Most of Matthew’s stuff is way over my head. I’m not as smart as either of you. Or even Grace, really.”
“I don’t buy that for a moment,” Yvonne said.
“Then you’re not paying attention. Unlike some of us, you got to go to school.”
“Yes, I did. Lots of it. And do you know what they made me do?”
He looked up from the monitor.
“They made me read. Most of what I know came from books. One time I performed an emergency…”
“Yes, you’ve told us the appendectomy story like three times already,” he laughed. “You cut a man open and started ripping out parts just from reading a textbook.”
Yvonne clamped her mouth shut. It had always irritated her when someone told the same story over and over. To think that she had become that person was a sobering thought. “The point stands,” she said in an attempt to retain some dignity.
“I don’t think a few books will make me a doctor.”
“No, but it may keep you out of Matthew’s hair and from having to flush the coolant lines.”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me the coolant lines needed flushing?” Matthew asked, causing them both to jump. “Davey! You’ve been saved from boredom.”
The teen turned to scowl at Matthew while Yvonne covered her mouth to stifle a laugh.
“Never heard of a joke?” Matthew asked. “Just coming up to make sure that absolutely nothing is still happening.”
“Scopes were empty a few minutes ago,” Davey confirmed.
“Excellent. Boredom means an escort mission is going well.”
Davey looked back out the window. “Help me out here. How could anything go wrong once we’ve frameshifted? I mean, wouldn’t they just have to have security at the starting and stopping points?”
“That’s what you’d think,” Yvonne said, “but ships do occasionally get intercepted by pirates or held as ransom.”
“How do they catch up, though?”
Matthew scratched his stubble. Yvonne noticed he’d neglected it more than usual on the long trip. “There’re a few different techniques,” he said. “The oldest one is to simply move an asteroid into a flight path and see who shows up. Frameshift bubbles collapse when they encounter the gravity well of an object of greater mass than the contents of the bubble.”
“So the bigger the target, the harder it is to stop,” Davey mused. “I guess a fuel tanker is a valuable target, at least it will be when it’s filled.”
“And that’s why we’ll be joined by another ship for the outbound trip. If I’m no longer needed, I’ll be going to bed early. We’ve got a coolant line to flush in the morning.”
He left the cockpit and a moment later they heard the door to his cabin swoosh shut. Davey glanced over at Yvonne and raised an eyebrow in question. She smiled. “You’re safe. I did it last week. There really is nothing to do but wait.”
He slumped into the chair. “This is the worst.”
“Is that what you think? I was just noticing how no one has been burnt alive, shot at, stabbed by ancient robots, kidnapped, or otherwise mangled. This is my kind of contract.” He gave her a funny look, but she thought he also got the point.
Matthew started to miss the boredom the minute they got to Titan. He spent most of the afternoon trying to get instructions on what he was supposed to be doing from someone, anyone. The captain of the Strident Majesty was busy overseeing getting the tanker refilled. Huygens Industrial Chem’s security tower had demanded they retreat to an orbit a thousand kilometers out from the refinery. Then the first officer of the Majesty threatened to hold them in breach if they didn’t return to within the maximum distance specified by their contract.
When Yvonne confirmed that their contract specified no such maximum distance between the Sparrow and the tanker, Matthew threw his hat across the cockpit. He never liked that hat and still missed the one he’d lost on Venus.
Yvonne took over communications at that point, which was fine by him. “First Officer Salib, I understand your frustration, but trust me we’re… Yes. You already said that. The security tower has a different story entirely, so take it up with them. We’re on standby to…”
Matthew tried to tune it out. Nothing would come of it either way. The Majesty wasn’t leaving without their escort, nor would Huygen’s security cause them too much trouble. Everyone was flexing their muscles, trying to feel important by ordering around the hired hands.
“See. That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you. We’re not moving till you and the tower agree on a course of action.”
Yvonne looked at Matthew while the speaker on the other side droned on. She made a face like she was drowning then clutched her throat with her hand.
“Sounds good.” she finally said. “We’ll return to our position as soon as the Majesty is finished refueling.” She cut the comm and grimaced. “That was entirely too difficult. I have a hard time believing these escorts are standard procedure with the level of incompetence on display.”
Matthew shrugged. “Maybe it was someone’s first day on the job or a poor excuse for a prank. They give any indication how much longer it would be?”
“I thought you were listening?”
“Tried hard not to.”
“Lovely. Within the hour. The other escort is here already.”
Matthew pulled up the scopes. “May as well see who our partner is. Could be somebody I know.” He recognized a familiar ship and he couldn’t help but crack a smile. “Or maybe someone we all know.”
He hailed the ship. “Red Dragon, this is the Sparrow. Didn’t we shoot a hole clean through the last time we saw you?”
“You don’t want to know what it cost to fix. I thought that was you over there. How’s the Sparrow, Cole?”
“Great,” Yvonne muttered. “This guy.”
“She’s flying better than the Dragon ever will, Ewan,” Matthew said. “Thankfully, it looks like we won’t be shooting at each other this time. You ever take a tanker escort mission before?”
“All the time. Nothing ever happens.”
“If that were the case, they wouldn’t hire us.”
“Fair enough,” Ewan said. “Say. Don’t we still owe each other drinks? Maybe once we’re settled in for the long haul, I can take a cold walk over to say hello, meet the crew.”
Yvonne shook her head no. She had a point. They had been shooting at each other last time they’d met and there was the matter of her bounty. Still, he could at least be polite about it. “We can hash it out later on the trip to Jupiter.”
“I look forward to it. Dragon out.”
The comm went silent and Yvonne groaned. “Why does it have to be these guys?”
“They’re a competent crew,” Matthew said. “And we’ll be glad of it if this escort mission gets hot.”
“I’m concerned they might try to get even.”
“Nothing to worry about there,” Matthew said, shaking his head. “Freelancers are businessmen. Holding grudges only slows you down.”
Yvonne gave him a strange look and shook her head. “I can’t quite decide if that’s barbaric or civil, being willing to pal around with someone that almost killed you.”
“Hey. We almost killed him too. It’s just a matter of keeping things in perspective.”
The Red Dragon latched onto the Strident Majesty only a hundred or so meters down the tanker’s superstructure from the Sparrow. Abigail was surprised when Ewan’s motley bunch insisted on meeting them out on the hull of the tanker for something they called Escort Ball.
Two netted frames, not unlike soccer goals, were affixed between the two ships with magnets. A strange looking ball with tiny thrusters was brought out. Ewan set a flat metal disc in the middle of the makeshift court. “When the ball gets too far away from its base, the thrusters wake up and it comes home. No chance of losing it.”
Abigail picked up one of the oversized rackets they were supposed to use to whack the ball. She was going to have the advantage of being able to move and swing more freely than everyone else due to her armor’s mechanized limbs, but her mass was going to give her inertia problems anytime her feet weren’t on the hull.
“What about us? What if we get too far away.” Grace asked from where she floated nearby.
“About that,” Ewan said. “You may not want to stray more than a few hundred meters from the Majesty. You pop through that frameshift bubble, and you’ll be left far behind, never to be heard from again. I don’t know that that’s ever happened, but let’s not make this time a first, right?
Grace, who had been floating freely just off the hull, turned on her magnets and landed on the deck with a thud Abigail felt through the metal surface.
They split up into two teams of four, separating the crew of the Sparrow and Dragon. Abigail and Davey ended up with Ewan and his cousin, Rhodri. “Now don’t get over eager,” Ewan cautioned everyone. “Just because you’re weightless doesn’t mean you can’t easily crush a few bones on impact.”
Escort Ball reminded Abigail of rugby, only with more flying. She spent half the first game trying to turn herself around after overshooting. Her thruster pack had to move three times more mass than anyone else playing, making Abigail about as nimble as the tanker they rode on.
Grace was the most infuriating. She was lighter than anyone else and was able to twist, turn, and change direction on a dime. Halfway through the first round, Ewan sent Abigail to play goalie where she had a much better time of things.
They played a handful of games, making sure to mix up the teams each time. “Normally it would be crew against crew, but seeing as you’re all about as green as could be, there wouldn’t be much fun in that,” Ewan said.
Abigail bristled and nearly challenged the crew of the dragon to a match right then and there. But then the image of the ensuing slaughter brought her to her senses.
In the evening some of Ewan’s crew tried to tempt them with a poker game, but Matthew was adamantly against anyone wasting money gambling. There was nothing to do but watch the navigation screens as the Strident Majesty crawled its way across the solar system at a depressingly slow speed.
“I’m afraid these are the last of the potatoes,” Yvonne said as she placed the pot of stew in the middle of the table. “I managed to stretch them out into a thin soup, along with the last carrot and that cube of leftover ham. It’s frozen food from here on out.” The crew collectively groaned, with Abigail being the loudest. Yvonne pointed her spoon at her. “It’s not my fault it’s been weeks since we’ve had a resupply.”
“You’ve done alright,” Matthew said. “We’ll be at the fuel depot in two days. Now if you’re done waving that thing around, I’d like to use it to get some dinner.”
Yvonne looked at the spoon in her hand for a long moment, and then sheepishly passed it to Grace. “Don’t fish out too many of the chunks. Take what you get. And if you’re hungry, there’s still a couple of those frozen burritos.” She watched as the crew filled their bowls, noting the disappointment on their faces. They set into their meal, the silence broken only by the sound of spoons scraping bowls.
After a few minutes, Davey lifted his spoon to his nose to smell it. “You did something different to flavor it. It’s kind of familiar, but I can’t name it.”
So they figured it out after all. She was hoping they wouldn’t be able to tell.
“It’s called Spacer’s Delight,” Matthew said without looking up from his bowl.
Everyone looked at him and Yvonne grunted in surprise.
His eyes flicked around the table. “When your food is short you melt ration bars into a pot of water with spices. Makes them a bit more palatable.”
Abigail’s eyes narrowed. “We’re not that low on food, are we?”
Yvonne sighed. “No, we’re not, but I thought I would give it a try. Someday we might get that low. Also, I’ve been a little worried about nutrition lately since we’ve run out of fresh food. I thought the extra vitamins couldn’t hurt.”
“I should have known,” Davey said, laughing. “After all the bars we ate when we were stowed away…”
An alarm sounded through the ship, alternating between a high and a low tone.
“What’s that?” Grace asked.
Matthew’s face turned to stone. “That means we’re out of frameshift.” He stood to his feet.
Abigail was already on the way to the cockpit. “The Majesty is under attack?”
He was hot on her heels. “Or we could have dropped out for some other reason. A course correction perhaps. Either way, treat this as a battle station alarm. I want the young ones in full space suit. Yvonne, make sure you’ve at least got a breath mask on your person and meet me in the cockpit.”
There was a flurry of activity as the kids ran to the locker to get their suits. Yvonne shoved the lid back on her pot of Spacer’s Delight and locked it in place. It was probably too hot to go in the fridge, but she tossed it in anyway. No way she was going to let it go to waste with how little they had left.
Heading to the cockpit, she slid past Abigail to sit in the copilot’s seat. Matthew was still trying to raise either the Majesty or Dragon, so Yvonne pulled up the scopes. Other than the two friendly ships there was… What was that?
“Matthew, look at this.”
He peered at the display. There was a rectangular object nearly six hundred meters long floating in space about a thousand kilometers out. If it was a ship, it wasn’t a class with which she was familiar.
“Bulk freighter,” Matthew said. “They don’t make ‘em anymore. Designed to haul anything you need from orbit to orbit, cargo, other ships, you name it. They weren’t designed to enter atmospheres, hence the brick shape.”
“There’s no way it’s that heavy though,” Yvonne said, pointing at the screen. “The Majesty’s loaded with nearly four million tons of fuel. Scopes say that thing is twice that.”
“That’s clever. I bet the freighter is loaded with grav plates. Enough of them turned up high to curve space around it…”
“And you’ve got a gravity well big enough to collapse the frameshift bubble of a supertanker,” Yvonne said, filling in the blanks. She stared at the scopes “Two smaller ships just launched from the bulk freighter.”
“I see it,” Matthew said. “Release the landing magnets. We’ve got hostiles.” He hit the intercom. “Grace, Davey prepare for possible combat. Davey to the turret. Grace, stand by for emergency repairs.” He flipped to the comm. “Dragon or Majesty. Please tell me you guys aren’t asleep at the helm.”
“We see it and are already warming the engines,” Ewan’s voice crackled back. “Assuming hostiles. The Ddraig Goch is ready for battle.”
“Let’s stick close to each other and go greet our new friends,” Matthew said. “Have you heard from the Majesty? We haven’t been able to…?”
“The bulk freighter is broadcasting,” Yvonne said. “Patching it in now.”
“...et to inform you that your tanker is being commandeered in the name of Human Abrogation. If you surrender the tanker, your lives will be spared. If you commence with hostilities, then we can promise no such quarter. You have two minutes to decide.”
“Radicals,” Matthew hissed. “Pseudo-intellectual nut jobs that think mankind doesn’t deserve our place in the solar system.”
“What would they want fuel for?” Abigail asked.
“They don’t,” Yvonne said, feeling a chill go down her spine. “They want the economic damage that four million tons of lost fuel will cause. We had an abrogationist harass our clinic a few years back. Tried to explain to us how it was unethical to treat sickness on Ceres since it wasn’t humanity’s home.”
Matthew fired the main engines and the Majesty began to fall behind them. “I’m all for taking these guys out, but I really would like to hear from…”
“This is Captain Al-Qurtubi from the Majesty. Excuse our tardiness. It seems our communications officer was a closet abrogationist and tried to take over the bridge. The situation has been dealt with. Sparrow and Dragon you are authorized to take that thing out. We’ll try and put some distance between us. If that gravity well falls, we will emergency frameshift out of the area.”
“Understood,” Matthew said. “Moving to engage.”
“At least now we know how they found us,” Abigail muttered.
Ewan’s voice came over the comm. “I know you’ve got a thumper. You got anything else for taking down a hard target of that size?”
“Afraid that’s it,” Matthew said.
“I’ve only got a pair of torpedos. I could take out the engines, but that doesn’t suit our needs right now.”
“Let’s worry about the two ships it launched first,” Yvonne said. They were only three hundred kilometers out and closing fast. “One for us, one for the dragon?”
“Sounds good,” Ewan said. “Let us know if you need help, or they break past to make a run at the Majesty. Targeting the one closer to the Dragon.”
Yvonne frowned at the display, not quite sure what she was seeing. “Our target appears to be… multiplying? Or else it’s launched a bunch of little ships. It’s hard to tell.”
“Droneship,” Matthew said. “Absolutely great. Davey, you’re about to have a bunch of targets to shoot.”
Yvonne watched as the cloud of targets continued to expand and pulled up the controls for the chin gun. May not have been a thumper, but those things couldn’t be heavily armored.
“Aim for the drone-ship itself,” Matthew said. “If we disable it the drones go dead. At least, I hope so.”
“Approaching range now,” she confirmed.
Suddenly the target throttled its engines and changed course, darting away. Looks like they didn’t want to lose their swarm. Meanwhile, the drones themselves held course to intercept the Sparrow.
“I don’t like the looks of that.” Abigail said quietly.
“Me neither,” Matthew said.
Yvonne took the yoke that controlled the nose gun, shifted it a few degrees, and pulled the trigger in three quick bursts. Thirty-millimeter rounds lanced outward toward the cloud, connecting with half a dozen and tearing them apart in brief flashes of fire. Matthew spun the Sparrow ninety degrees and burned the engines to avoid the swarm.
“Davey. You’re up!”
“I can’t see what I’m shooting at back here!” Davey saw stars winking out as the swarm passed through his field of view. How was he supposed to hit these things if he could barely see them?
“Painting them for you now,” Yvonne said. “Use your HUD, not your eyes.”
Red dots began to light up on his targeting display. He aimed at the nearest and took the shot.
“That was just a practice shot,” he mumbled as it went wide. He fired again and one was ripped apart by the blast from the thumper. Red lights were still being painted on his display. “That’s a lot of targets…”
“Keep shooting. Don’t stop.” Matthew said. “If that droneship wanders into your field of fire, take it out.”
He began to pick targets that were close together to increase the odds of a miss finding a drone. The thumper fired again and again. He was careful not to shoot too quickly. If he completely emptied the capacitor banks, they would have to cycle, and he would have to wait thirty or more seconds before firing again.
After the first few drones were demolished, he got into a rhythm. Shoot. Pause. Shoot. Pause.
Now he knew why they called it a thumper.
“Can’t you get that droneship in my field of fire?” Yvonne asked, her voice tense.
Matthew glanced at her and wiped the sweat from his forehead. This was not what he had bargained for. The swarm was more maneuverable than he was, and whoever was flying the droneship was intent on using his drones as cover. He might be able to give Yvonne a shot if he flew through the formation, but that would almost certainly result in a few strikes.
He adjusted his course slightly. Maybe he could skirt the field and do both. “Hang on.” He swung the Sparrow back around toward the droneship.
The drones reacted immediately.
Bad idea. Bad idea.
He pulled up and felt three impacts on the Sparrow’s belly. “Damage?” He was almost afraid to ask.
“Hard to say,” Yvonne said. “Hold up. Fire in the port engine compartment. Nothing important yet.”
“I’ll grab Grace. We’ve got it,” Abigail said and left the cockpit.
“Target is scrap,” Ewan’s voice smugly announced. “You guys having problems over there?”
“Our target gave birth to about two hundred of them,” Matthew snarled. He didn’t really have time for this right now. “Keep back and stay between the Majesty and the drones in case they get desperate.”
“Copy that,” Ewan said.
Yvonne fired the chin gun again as a few stray drones wandered into her line of sight. “We need a plan.”
Matthew had an idea and turned toward the bulk freighter. “Let’s make them choose a target. With the Dragon acting as screen, we can threaten their base of operations.” He throttled the main engines. “And I bet we’re faster.”
“Droneship is already reacting,” she said. “It’s coming around in pursuit. Davey, you might have a shot.”
“I see that,” he replied. “It sure is bobbing around a lot. Doesn’t want me to do my job.”
“Just keep thinning the drones then,” Matthew said. “And Davey, if you get a chance, you punch some lovely new holes in the bulk freighter for me.”
Grace slid down the ladder to the hold and hit the deck running. She barely had time to get out of the way before Abigail clomped down behind her. Red emergency lights flashed, making the familiar space seem dangerous.
“Over here,” Abigail said. “Grab an extinguisher.”
They yanked open the emergency closet. Grace grabbed a small, handheld fire extinguisher, and Abigail pulled out the much larger cart mounted one. They ran to the port engine compartment and opened its door. Smoke billowed out of the room and Grace was afraid it was already going to be too hot to enter.
“Let me go first,” Abigail said. She entered the room and disappeared into the smoke. Grace used the moment to ensure her oxygen supply was flowing and her suit was properly pressurized. A moment later, Abigail called out. “It’s safe. Help me out.”
Grace stepped through the smoke. One of the enormous port engines hung above her. It alternated between silence and a threatening roar as Matthew worked the throttle. “Where is the fire? I can’t see it through the… Wait. Up high.”
A power cable had broken and sparked dangerously. Cables around it smoldered and several small fires flickered in the machinery.
Abigail dropped to one knee. “On my shoulders. You should be able to reach.”
Grace obeyed and climbed onto Abigail, who stood, lifting her to a dizzying height. She pointed the extinguisher at the mess of burning cables and sprayed fire retardant over them. They kept sparking, but at least the fires died down. They’d have to figure out what this cable was going to and cut its power.
“That ought to do it,” Abigail said.
The Sparrow shook with two impacts. More suicide drones? The engine compartment thundered with the sound, sparks flying everywhere.
A pipe near Abigail’s feet broke and wildly sprayed a dark brown fluid around the room. Sparks from the power cable ignited the lubricant, and the room turned into a firestorm. Through some miracle, Grace had avoided being splashed by the fluid, but Abigail’s lower half was coated in flaming liquid.
Grace held on tightly as Abigail lumbered from the room, trying to avoid the jet of fire from the pipe. They stumbled through the doorway and Grace leaped to the ground, checking her suit to make sure she was still sealed and free of fire. Then she took her extinguisher and doused Abigail’s legs.
They looked back at the raging inferno in the aft compartment. This couldn’t be happening. If they couldn’t put the fire out soon, the damage would be catastrophic.
“What do we do now?” Grace asked.
“Starve it of air,” Abigail said. “Grace close the hatch to the rest of the ship.” Grace ran to obey, and Abigail kept talking into her comm. “Matthew. Big problem down here.”
“That’s what Yvonne is telling me. You guys okay?”
“A little singed but we’re not hurt. I’m going to flood the hold and engineering compartments with vacuum.”
Grace climbed the ladder and pulled the hatch shut, locking it down and trapping them in the hold.
“Do it,” Matthew said.
“Grace, magnetize and hang on.” Abigail had already lowered the lift. All that was left between them and cold space was an environmental shield. She powered it down.
Grace felt the wind whip past her, tugging her towards the lift. Her boots were solidly attached to the deck, but she kept a hand on the ladder rungs just in case. She watched as black smoke was sucked from the engine compartment and out of the ship. After a few seconds, the wind began to die. She checked her oxygen one last time just to be sure it hadn’t taken damage in the fire.
In less than a minute, it was over. Abigail was already moving toward the compartment. Grace let go of her ladder and caught up. They peered anxiously into the room. With no oxidizer, the fire was out. Nearly every surface had been scorched by the flames and lubricant continued to spray from the pipe, but the engine still seemed to be running for now.
Grace slid down against the wall as her adrenaline began to crash. “These guys are a bunch of thruster nozzles.”
Davey pulled the trigger again and again. Always the same pattern. Thump. Pause. Thump. Pause. Between the nose gun and the thumper, almost a third of the angry red lights on his HUD had been put out.
“Davey, I’m about to give you a shot on the bulk freighter,” Matthew said through the intercom.
“What do I shoot at?”
“Anything that looks important. Here it comes.”
The Sparrow’s engines cut out and Matthew rolled it ninety degrees with maneuvering thrusters. The massive bulk freighter came into view. Davey pulled the trigger over and over as it rushed past him. Each pull of the trigger punched a new hole in its outer hull, shrapnel and debris spinning off into space. Right as he drained the capacitor bank, they finished their pass. He heard a hum as it began to cycle and recharge. His HUD showed a thirty second wait.
“Did that do anything?” he asked as the Sparrow straightened its course.
“Negative,” Yvonne replied. “Gravity well still holding us in place.”
“It would help if I knew where to shoot,” he complained.
“If I knew you’d be the first to know,” Matthew said. “Ewan, how’s the Majesty?”
“Drone cloud is only interested in you,” Ewan said. “I’m starting to think they can only target one enemy at a time. Otherwise, why not send half to disable the Majesty?”
“So it’s a cheap droneship. Change of plans. Since they’ve been doing a good job keeping out of my reach, maybe you can sneak up on them.”
“It would be my pleasure to save your sorry tin can. Keep his attention on you.”
The capacitor banks chimed and the thumper was back. Davey took out a few stray drones that were in the area.
“Making another pass on the bulk freighter en route to the droneship. Davey, try and hit the same spot as many times as you can. Just punch one big hole in it.”
“Okay. Sure, I can try that. But won’t there be less chance I knock out the grav plates that way?”
“Trust me. I’ve got an idea.”
The target came back into view and Davey picked a spot, firing as many times as he could in the same area. By the time the banks were empty, there was a wrecked area nearly fifty meters across. He wouldn’t call it a single hole exactly, but it was close enough.
Matthew set the droneship in front of him and gunned the throttle to full. “I’m tired of you,” he muttered, ignoring the look Yvonne gave him. “That thing gets in range, fill it full of holes.”
“Hasn’t that been the plan from the beginning?”
“Yes. I’m just… nevermind. Where’s Ewan?”
“Closing on the target. It still looks like it’s trying to evade us. No, wait. They just changed course. Probably spotted Ewan. Watch out there’s a handful of drones ahead.”
Matthew altered the Sparrow’s course to avoid them and kept going. He wasn’t about to let Ewan beat him to the kill if he could get there first.
“The Dragon just fired a torpedo,” Yvonne announced. “Drone cloud is reacting. They’re closing on the torpedo.”
“Which means we’re in the clear,” Matthew said. The seconds ticked by as both ships and the torpedo closed on the remaining enemy. The enemy pilot was doing their best to keep out of reach, but it looked like they were treating the torpedo as the biggest threat. That was just fine with Matthew.
A blossom of fire billowed in the darkness ahead as the torpedo was intercepted by the drones. No matter. In just a few seconds…
Yvonne pulled the trigger in three bursts. Hot lead cut across the space between them and their target, riddling it with holes. One of its engines went dark sending it into a wild spin before its pilot cut the other one. The Sparrow overtook it, shooting past. The thumper fired three times, turning the cursed nuisance into a field of wreckage.
“Drone fleet is going dark,” Yvonne said.
“Thank God. Ewan, I left the big target for you. We breached the hull on its topside. If you think you can plug it with a torpedo and send it home, be my guest.”
“I’m on it.”
They watched the scopes as the Red Dragon chased down the now fleeing bulk freighter and lined up the shot. The torpedo streaked across the vacuum and into the interior of the freighter. It shuddered violently as its hull buckled in several places and its engines went dark.
“Strident Majesty,” Matthew said, “Target has been neutralized. If that gravity well is gone, I think you should get out of here.”
“We’re clear,” Captain Al-Qurtubi said. “Sending coordinates for a rendezvous.”
The Majesty frameshifted away and Matthew slumped into his chair, breathing a deep sigh of relief. “Ewan. I thought you said nothing ever happened on these escort missions.”
“I didn’t mean nothing as in actually nothing, but this was a little more something than normal. On a side note, I would like to point out that we bagged two kills for your one.”
Matthew frowned at the speaker. “We softened the big one for you.”
“Doesn’t count. We got the kill shot.”
“Gentlemen, if we’re talking purely numbers,” Yvonne said, smiling softly, “the Sparrow wins with little competition. We took out eighty-seven targets.”
“Now wait just a moment. Drones don’t…”
“You’re the one that wanted to play the numbers game. We’ll see you at the rendezvous.” Matthew cut comm before the other captain could reply and gave a thumbs up to Yvonne. “Thanks for the save.”
Two days later they arrived at the Huygens fuel depot in orbit around Jupiter. They bid their farewells to both the Strident Majesty and the Red Dragon and limped to a nearby freeport with a corporate voucher for a full repair. The lower port engine was barely functioning without lubricant and the damage was compounding at an alarming rate.
The engineers in the repair bay were horrified at the sight of the engine compartment. Nearly every secondary system was at least partially damaged, and the casing on the engine itself had started to crack. The entire job was going to take over a week and, if Huygens hadn’t been paying, might have grounded the Sparrow permanently. Matthew and Yvonne spent the entire first day elbows deep in their finances trying to figure out a way to put back more money in case something like this happened again.
Matthew could only look at the screen of numbers and shake his head. Why was it so hard to keep a ship fueled and five mouths fed? He didn’t remember it being this bad a few years back when he was on his own. Maybe the economics of the job had changed, or maybe he was just bad enough at paying the bills to have not noticed back then how close he was to disaster.
The downtime was killing them all. They’d had weeks of it followed by a few minutes of mortal terror, and now they were back to boredom. When the third day came, Matthew decided he was tired of waiting. He knocked on the door to Davey’s room early in the morning.
“Get up. We’re going on a trip. Be ready in five.”
A little over five minutes later, Davey appeared in the common room bleary-eyed. “What’s the deal? Where are we going?”
“We’re taking a shuttle over to Thebe.” Matthew watched him stiffen. “Unless you happen to have an address, we’re going to have to do some asking around.”
“I was seven when the slavers picked me up. I’m not sure I remember anything that’ll be helpful.”
They made the early morning flight and were there by midmorning. Thebe was the fourth moon out from Jupiter and tiny in comparison to most of the other rocks that humans had settled on. At only about fifty miles across, Moses had tried something unique here and enclosed the entire moon in an environmental shield. Gravity wasn’t consistent across the surface, so you had to be careful about staying in areas with grav plates. Thebe’s natural gravity was enough that a ground car could easily hit escape velocity. Its citizens, mostly descendants from the Indochinese Peninsula, had dotted the moon with settlements and dug highways through the porous crust. Matthew didn’t imagine that there were more than twenty thousand people living on Thebe all told. If there were a Chinese community there, someone would know about it.
Their shuttle landed in the sleepy town of Siam. They asked around at the spaceport but made no progress. “No matter,” Matthew said. “Ports are full of travelers. We need to find a place with more locals.”
That turned out to be a bar across from city hall. The bartender scratched his bald head for a moment. “You know that does sound familiar. A few years back, I remember hearing something. That would have been over on the back side of Thebe. I’d try the towns of Phongsali or Angkor. Best I can do.”
By late afternoon they had made their way to Angkor, and by evening had learned that their odds were better in Phongsali. They stayed in a cheap motel for the night and got an early start the next day. Matthew was used to Davey being quiet when it was only the two of them, but yesterday he’d been nearly silent. He couldn’t imagine what the young man was thinking and feeling, what it might be like to find a family you had been taken from at so young an age.
Phongsali was nearly as large as Siam, and it took them till midmorning before they found someone who knew something.
“Sure. I knew the Chinese. They lived over on the east side. I used to run deliveries in that area for a job I had a while back, but I haven’t been over there in five years.”
They got a street name to search and moved out. It was a quiet neighborhood, lined with old apartment buildings dating from Moses’ time.
“This feels right,” Davey said.
They walked into the office of the first apartment building and spoke to the manager. Matthew’s heart sank when he shook his head. “Been gone for maybe four years. I nearly went out of business when they all up and disappeared at once. My guess is they’d gotten tired of the slavers showing up every few months.”
“Would anyone know where they went?” Matthew asked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Davey look away.
“Not a soul that I ever heard. Can’t really blame them though. Probably tough to be Chinese, not knowing who’s sympathetic and who’s just using you.”
Matthew thanked him and they walked back out onto the street.
Davey stared at the apartment buildings as if lost in thought, or else lost in the corridors of memory. Matthew leaned against a street lamp, content to give him all the time he needed. After several minutes of silence, he stirred. “I don’t even remember my parent’s names. My family name was Lóng. They called me Davey so that I could pass as non-Chinese. Davey Lóng. It sounds ridiculous in English.”
Matthew didn’t say a word, knew that anything he could say would be wrong.
“I hadn’t even started learning Mandarin yet. I picked up the curse words later on the street and mostly used them to make Grace mad.” He paused and looked at his feet. “I wonder if they’re okay.”
“I wish I knew the answer.”
Davey looked around the street one more time, and then up at Matthew. “Can we go home now?”
The Sparrow was home now, wasn’t it? And to more than just Matthew. It had become a refuge to a small group of outcasts, each lost in their own way. Somehow they’d become a crew, and one that worked well in unison. Matthew didn’t understand it, but he wasn’t about to question it.
They turned to leave. As they joined onto a larger road, Davey mumbled a quiet, “Thank you.”
Matthew nodded in answer. “You’re welcome.”