Strange Cargo Edit
Five hundred thousand kilometers from Earth, a remodeled Vulcan IV freighter orbited slowly, waiting. Amado Reyes carefully focused the directional receivers on the outside of the ship, grinning as he found radio chatter. It didn’t take long to translate and decode the stream from the Earth-bound ship; they obviously thought their mission was secret enough not to need strong encryption. He looked up from the console to his captain.
“Thirty minutes, Jude. Then we can move to intercept and they’ll have nowhere to run. We better tell Xiang and Max to ready their hybrid. I can’t see this thing being unprotected, if it’s as good as you say it is.”
Judit turned to Amado with a slight smile. “Well, the internal communications are down again and it’s your turn to get to the hangar and stop Xiang and Max wasting their time playing poker. And wake up Mona on your way back. I want our ace in the hole to be ready.”
Amado had joined with Judit Fang’s group of belt pirates as the ultimate way to avoid a lethal overdose of FSA firepower. He had gone up the gravity well after his father died and ended up drifting the asteroid belt as a miner. A bar fight with a group of Federated States ex-pats would have ended differently had it not been for Jude’s intervention, and he saw a future with her crew that was more than he had. He had been with her when she first got word of this job. The was an encryption key waiting in her mailbox on Fuyoushi, and when her computer agent went looking it found information on this unscheduled flight from Venus back to Earth. Amado had read over her shoulder and though Jude was convinced he was still sure it was too good to be true. If Offworld Enterprises were slipping black market tech down the well to Earth, if someone holding an impromptu auction would make more profit than the crew would see in two years. She had decided that the crew had to try.
Outside of the bridge and crew quarters the Vulcan was a mess of gantries, hanging wires and unpredictable grav-crystals. The hangar for the single E-15 fighter was a converted section of the cargo hold right behind the quarters, so at least the Mexican didn’t have to crawl through the crawlspace which was the only way to cross the hold. The hangar was in no better repair than the rest of the ship, but the bright lights the pair used to check the hybrid out after every flight dispelled the more worrying shadows. Max, a short, wiry Australian, sat at a table playing patience, a game he had never been able to master. Xiang, the big Nipponese engineer who doubled as the hybrid’s gunner was busy uncoupling the fuel and data lines from the fighter.
[Art: A shot of the hangar in disarray, with the fighter in a pool of light. Gantries, trailing wires, and a guy playing cards nearby would be good]
“Amado, just the guy we were hoping to see!” Max threw the cards down on the table. “How much longer have we got to wait before we call this whole thing off?” His accent had been carefully selected from movies and sims, and had just the right madcap tone to cause many people to discount him as insane.
“Twenty-five minutes, so get outside in ten. If this thing is coming, I can’t see it being unaccompanied, especially with their assumptions of normalcy. They may be brave, but they sure aren’t stupid.”
Xiang nodded and stowed the last of the data lines, the cover closing with a heavy bang as Amado left.
Mona’s quarters took him down two levels. As Amado opened the door she was facing away from him, watching a recording of some show about belt pirates.
“It’s funny,” Mona’s voice was distant, as if she didn’t care if he listened, “they always romanticize what they don’t know. Take this, their view of pirate life. Dashing adventure in the wilds of space, returning to opulent surroundings and hosts of partners, a far cry from ambushing ore carriers amongst the asteroids. They don’t have to hope to make enough profit on the cargo to see a meal or two, they don’t see that this life is desperation. In their fictions the characters choose to do it, rather than being pushed so far there’s no other option but to drift and starve to death.”
“Yes. It’s a laugh a minute. Once you’re done with your impromptu social commentary, could we possibly have your presence on the bridge to cheer us all up? Just over twenty minutes until contact and Jude asked me to come wake you.”
She remained placid. “If Judit needs me, I will be there, with or without your attitude.”
Amado turned and made his way back to the bridge, not caring if she followed. He saw the screens in front of Poul, their pilot, flicker to displays of the transport’s flight path and present location along with the gravitational topography of local space. Amado settled in and started looking through the communications from the transport. “From the sound of things, there’s a single support fighter, with just one guy aboard. That sounds too easy, I don’t trust it.”
“You should.” Mona’s tone was certain as she settled into the gunner’s chair. “They have a single fighter in support. The girl piloting it is too young to have any real experience.”
Judit was rubbing her eyes as Amado looked up. The wait must have been getting to her as well. “Either they’re sending her out because it’s a milk run and they really don’t think anyone’s going to come, or she’s some kind of decoy. My money’s on the latter. We’re supposed to think that the one fighter isn’t going to do anything, then a radio signal goes out and we have five fighters up our backsides from out of nowhere.”
Amado nodded. “They’re not talking like it’s a milk run. Xiang and Max are away, and the external communications are online. Oh, and ten minutes until they hit us.”
“Poul, get ready to announce our presence.” The captain donned a bulky headset, yet another relic of the old ship. “Max, there’s one support that we are reading. Draw it off and disable it quickly so we can be ready for anything coming at us from Luna. Only aim to cripple, though. I don’t want us to become murderers all of a sudden.”
The Australian’s voice sounded almost disappointed. “If you insist.”
“We are honorable, remember? Or should I cut off a finger so you don’t forget?”
“My memory is just fine, Jude.”
She cut the channel without another word. Poul and Amado were making last second course corrections for their entrance, Amado moving down to the co-pilot’s berth after finally convincing the third-rate Agent to transfer the navigation and communication functions there as well. Mona was serene in her chair, a faint smile playing across her face which Judit couldn’t help but return. A good thing the gunner was behind the pilots, she reasoned. That smile was almost too calm.
Amado signaled as the ship moved forwards, and he couldn’t help but see Jude turn into Judit Fang, daughter of the ruling dynasty of FangTech. Never mind that she was half-European or estranged from the dynasty, sometimes he could see her as the perfect officious Chinese pirate. Even though she was just speaking into a headset microphone her back straightened and shoulders squared.
“Ladies and gentleman of the unannounced transport vessel, I would like to offer you a bargain. You do not attempt to communicate with whichever associates you had hoped to offload your cargo to and instead surrender it to us, and we shall let you carry on your way. Though we are pirates, we do not wish to kill you, and thus we make this most generous offer.”
The transport’s support fighter responded by firing lasers. Fortunately, the reason for the freighter’s constant state of disrepair was its heavily upgraded armor and weapons, and the lasers only scorched the paint.
“Xiang, go!” The E-15 screeched past the view afforded by the screen as Poul changed their vector swiftly. The glow of lasers, tinted red so the ships on both sides could see them, flashed past but none scored hits. Amado used a hologram of the local area to better follow what was happening and point Poul in the right direction.
“330 by fifteen! Now!” Mona’s order shocked everyone. Poul made the turn just in time. A secondary camera showed a barrage of lasers from the main transport slice through the space they had just occupied.
Jude saw the indicators for both fighters spiraling in impossible maneuvers and wondered at how accurate Mona’s vision of the pilot had been. A burst of missiles sliced within a hair of their own fighter which was on the defensive. “Mona, we need more like that. Ignore the transport for now, focus on their fighter. Whoever that girl is, she’s better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
[Art: If we can get two larger ships and two fighters going hell-for-leather I’ll be a very happy guy – E-15 fighter is p 284 in Trinity, Vulcan Mark IV is p 124 in Tech Manual, if my Æon-fu is correct. Can’t recall if there are any visual resources. There could be a shot in the colour section of the Tech Manual, but there’s nothing in the writeup of the ship itself. It is mentioned as being very customizable so make it look almost patchwork. These ain’t your glam TV pirates, after all. The transport should look plain, and very mundane, a cargo bay and crew section strapped to a big engine.]
The freighter creaked alarmingly as it executed another turn. “You want us to ignore the big lasers and hunt down a fighter? That’s bullshit.” One look at his captain’s face told Amado to shut up while he still could. He shuddered with the ship, punching up a status display on one of his screens. “More lasers, this time the dorsal cargo bay. No breach but it’s a matter of time.”
“We just have to scare the fighter away. Max should see us coming and regroup. We have gone from being the cat to a very scared mouse and I want to know why.”
“If we’re the mouse…”
“Mona, train our claws on their fighter. Fire warning shots at will. Half power. Give her a chance to bail.”
The Vulcan wasn’t graceful as it forced its way towards the dueling fighters. Instead, Judith was relying on their heavy armament and a show of overwhelming force to scare the girl. She was good, but a pirate’s hoard of weapons was enough to make the bravest escort think twice.
“Max, swap. We’ll scare the fighter, try to draw some fire from the transport and stop it getting closer to Luna.” The E-15 curled into an elegant loop past the freighter, unleashing sparkling laser bursts which missed by millimeters and stung the sides of the transport. Flakes of paint boiled silently into the night, but no damage to anything major on the ship.
The Vulcan was having better luck against the fighter. Poul and Amado were playing bloodhound, giving Mona a full range to work with. The pilot could have been the most skilled in the world, but when your attacker can see where you will be five seconds into the future, Jake Danger himself would have had a very limited lifespan. The laser banks stabbed again and again, scorching the ship. Jude broadcast towards the fighter.
“Our gunner can keep this up all day. We are deliberately trying to keep you alive but when she gets bored I cannot stop her from accidentally focusing the beams upon your craft. Leave now and you will not be pursued.”
Her words were given more impact by the dorsal turret spinning elegantly to shoot three incoming missiles without missing a single pulse. A moment of indecision, and the fighter headed for Luna.
“She’s gone. Now it’s two against one. Am I the only one glad to have those odds back?” Amado reviewed the latest damage. More flaking paint and some heavy dents in the engine cowlings. Were it not for their own escort they’d have been in more trouble.
“Definitely not. Poul, don’t give them anything to hit. Mona, if you can’t stop them shooting back, I am going to be very displeased.”
The freighter spun, accelerating back towards the transport. The two pilots muttered vectors and approach ranges between each other. Jude took time to note that the strange fighter was nowhere to be seen.
“Missiles away.” The Vulcan lurched down as soon as the missiles were released and rolled about its central axis to bring the ventral coilgun to bear. Three shots streaked away to punch holes in the transport. One of the rounds was rewarded with a shower of sparks and the incoming laser fire seemed much lighter.
“Take their power system. Leave them dead in the water.” Xiang appeared to know what his captain wanted without needing to hear as his remaining missile streaked into the weakened armor over what looked to be a control conduit. The engine died as safety protocols activated. Vacuum-sealant foam blossomed out into space, indicating a pressurized area underneath. The lasers fired one last time and the returned fire ceased.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the unannounced transport vessel, I feel I must extend our most generous bargain once more. If you are good enough to allow us to dock and remove whatever of your cargo we require we shall leave you to make repairs and continue upon your way. If you would rather be left floating in an escape pod whilst we tow this strange vessel of yours for our own profit I suggest you take it upon yourselves to resist. We are willing to show mercy, if you are intelligent enough to recognize this.”
There was no audible answer. The main airlock hatch cycled, inviting visitors.
“Amado, you and I will go. We only have two suits, after all. Mona, get in touch with Max. If either of you note anything incoming, try to fight it off and warn us.”
The Vulcan rotated around as Amado struggled into the bulky pressure suit. It was made for a normal person, not a bulky Mexican, and he had to fight the buckles every step of the way. The seals tightened as the grav-plating finally failed. He flexed his neck, trying to get used to the restricted movement.
“When we get our profits from this job, I’m going to see if anyone can get their hands on one of those biotech suits. Or at least get another suit which fits.”
“Don’t jinx the job.” Judit tossed him a sonic carbine and maneuvered herself through the inner airlock door. As soon as he followed, the lock cycled and they dropped into the emptiness of space. The transport didn’t try to move, didn’t even close the airlock. Amado had to force the door closed then work the manual override.
Inside, the transport was dark, the lights killed to save energy. Amado was the first to lose his helmet, and he tried the internal communications panel.
“This whole place seems too still. Note the low temperature: this is basic life support. There’s maybe one person here. We need to find the cargo hold.” An uncooperative computer yielded to Jude’s ministrations and she led the way deeper inside. “Helmets again. We don’t know what’s pressurized and what isn’t.
The transport remained quiet. Amado was forced to wonder who had fired upon them, if only to take his mind off the dark corridors. The only answer he could think of was a network of SIs, all controlled by the one person still on the ship. That worried him. A ship needed people to work, to have Agents running everything seemed unnatural. He stopped short when Jude pointed to a door.
“Emergency airlock into the cargo chamber. We should find everything we want through there.”
“Did the computers say anything about opening the hatches?”
“No. But there should be a release inside for emergencies. Surely they can’t trust the computers for anything.” “I hope you’re right.”
Through the airlock, most of the containers were marked with model numbers. Black tech, ship parts that hadn’t gone through a full safety examination, Judit pondered. She would have to take whatever she could get the most of in the Vulcan, and hope that the price would be good enough. Amado was over by a crate which looked to have power.
“You might want to see this.”
As she got closer, Judit was able to see what had caught his attention. It looked like a cryogenic stasis chamber, but nobody had seen those since the sleeper ships had been launched a long time ago. This one was too big for a human, and it looked… off. Certainly additional regulators had been added, and yet more equipment looked to have been jury-rigged at a later date.
There was only one identifying mark on the device, a nameplate. Amado peered closer, trying to make out what it said. Enkidu, it looked like. Whatever that meant.
[Art: A shot of this cryostasis chamber, large and clunky. Big enough for someone seven foot tall, five foot wide. Inspired (i.e. Adventure-Era) science modifying Trinity hardtech, a small digital readout perhaps. One figure in a vac-suit for scale]
Judit looked to him. “We should take this. And those three containers of engine parts. Poul may need to scam us a landing point somewhere on Luna, but I’m sure we can get a lot of profit from this haul in the Pit. What do you know? For the first time in our career we may be able to afford upgrades along with our repairs when we get back to the Belt. There’s a lot of yuan here.”
She could hear Amado’s grin. “Let’s get loaded up and get out of here. I want to be rich as soon as I can.”