It’s Tuesday! It’s chapter time! We’re getting down toward the end now, and the action’s heating up. :) Remember, if you enjoy this chapter you can pick up the full book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.
Jo keyed the 1MC. “The ship has cleared the Station. All hands report status.”
Almost immediately, Grant’s voice came over the circuit. “I about knocked myself silly on that last maneuver, but I’m ok.”
“Any sign of mischief?”
“No, looks like we’re clear.”
“Ok. Sit tight. Malcolm will be along in a couple minutes.”
Jo turned Agrippa away from Gagarin Station and applied forward thrust, putting the ship on a vector away from the inner solar system in the general direction of Leo, where the aliens’ homeworld lay. Then she called up the navigation system and began entering their course data.
A moment later, Malcolm called up. “Reactor’s hot, Jo. You should have main propulsion in three minutes.”
Tension left her in a rush. That was the final obstacle. With the mains online, the only thing standing between her and success was two hundred sixty-three light years, and a long long nap. Unless they really sent a warship. Jo keyed the aft radar system and trained the aft upper camera toward Gagarin’s upper moorings, where the Navy kept their ships. No signs of movement up there. Maybe it was just a bluff.
Yeah right. They were not that lucky.
“Ok,” Jo said into the comms circuit. “Go back to Control and help Grant up to the acceleration quarters. Report as soon as you’re there and I’ll secure ring rotation. We may have to burn the mains early.”
The second’s pause before Malcolm replied spoke volumes. “This close to the planet?”
He was right to question. The main engines put out one hell of a lot of thrust, and left quite a wake of highly energetic particles behind them. Burning too close to a planetary body could wreak havoc with the planet’s ionosphere. On a highly populated planet like Earth, that could translate to all sorts of problems: power losses on orbiting ships and platforms, and maybe on the ground as well, outright destruction of smaller electronics systems, fires, that sort of thing. On the plus side, it would also make for one hell of an aurora for those on the ground.
“I’d rather not, but Chandini just called and threatened to send a warship if we don’t heave to, so…” She left the rest unsaid.
“Roger. We’ll be up in a few minutes.”
* * * * *
“Starliner Agrippa, this is the United Earth Ship Bunker Hill. You are ordered to heave to and prepare to be boarded, over.”
The hail came in loud and clear over the primary intrasystem hailing frequency. Jo had expected to hear it, and dreaded it. But part of her had held out hope that maybe, just maybe it would not happen.
But when, an hour earlier, she gained radar contact on a vessel closing from astern, she knew that hope was false. The ship’s velocity exceeded hers, and would continue to for quite some time unless she burned the mains, as small as the acceleration from the maneuvering thrusters was.
She trained the aft lower camera toward the approaching vessel, and cringed. It was a warship, all right. To the uninitiated, it would be difficult to tell the difference between it and Agrippa, but to Jo’s experienced eye it was obvious. The boxy bow, containing the ship’s missile battery. The plasma turrets on swivel mounts in three clusters along the length of the hub. The boxy section just aft of the ship’s rings – the ship’s hangar bay, where it kept its compliment of fighter craft. All pointed to that ship being a one hell of a destructive platform.
On the bright side, interstellar travel being as long and arduous as it was, the typical warship was not equipped for journeys outside the solar system; its fuel and consumables capacity was limited, though it could accelerate a hell of a lot faster than Jo could onboard Agrippa, that was for sure. Its limited range was a small comfort. If it caught her before she could get to an appreciable velocity – and it would – she was screwed.
“Well, crap,” Jo muttered.
She keyed the comms circuit down to the crew’s acceleration quarters, where Malcolm and Grant were waiting in the mess. “We’ve got company,” she said.
“Warship?” It was Grant. He sounded more energetic than before, more focused. Malcolm had been able to use the hours since their departure from Gagarin to better treat his wounds and get some food – and coffee – into all of them. Jo felt a lot better, as well. Or at least she had.
“Yep. The Bunker Hill.”
“Fuck.” Silence followed for a few seconds. “We’ll be up in a minute.”
True to his word, Grant hobbled up the ladder from the bridge access corridor a few minutes later. Malcolm helped him along, but he did surprisingly well, considering his injuries. Well, maybe not that surprising. They were only accelerating at 0.3 g’s.
“So, you gonna do some of that pilot shit, or what?” Grant gave her a snarky little grin that did not carry to his eyes. He might look better, and be acting better, but he was still hurt. Badly. And not just physically.
“Hope so,” Jo replied, trying a confident smile in return. “The timing is going to be tricky, though.” She looked at Malcolm. “Are we all stowed belowdecks?”
He nodded. “The incubator’s mounted in one of the cargo bins, just like we did before, and the loader’s strapped down. I rigged up a power feed to the incubator, so it should be fine for as long as it needs to be.” Which would be quite a long time, hopefully.
Jo nodded, satisfied. That had been Malcolm’s other project since their getaway from the Station. It would not do to have the incubator flung around willy nilly as they accelerated and decelerated during their transit to the aliens’ star system. The cargo bins were mounted on pivots that shifted with the acceleration forces on the ship, so the cargo was always facing “downward”. It made for a better passage that way, and a much better offload and unpacking.
“Ok then. Let’s surrender.”
Their plan was risky. Damn risky. But it was the only one any of them could come up with. Jo secured the maneuvering thrusters and then turned to the comms panel and responded, “Bunker Hill, this is Agrippa. Roger. I have secured my thrusters, over.”
The warship’s only reply was a terse acknowledgment.
* * * * *
Bunker Hill took station five kilometers off Agrippa’s port quarter.
She looked tiny, especially at that distance. And compared with Agrippa, she was. Warships did not need the cargo and consumables capacity of starliners, so while Agrippa measured two and a half kilometers long, Bunker Hill probably measured a half kilometer, total. Consequently, her rings were smaller and rotated quite a bit faster than Agrippa’s. But just because she was smaller did not mean she was not tough.
Jo frowned. Five kilometers was a bit further out than she hoped they would get, but it should not matter. Anything inside ten would work. Theoretically.
“Agrippa, this is Bunker Hill, over.”
Jo keyed the comms circuit. “Agrippa.”
“Standby to receive our boarding party, Agrippa. We intend to come along your port side to your hangar bay and mate up there, over.”
Like hell. But she was not going to tell them that. “Roger, Bunker Hill. We look forward to seeing you.”
“I’m surprised they don’t have any fighters out,” Malcolm mused, from where he floated to her left.
Jo found herself in agreement, but Grant smirked and shook his head. “No need for fighters to take a pig like us. Standard procedure is to hold them in reserve for dealing with smaller, more maneuverable targets. Besides, no ship captain worth his salt is going to turn over capturing a prize like us to a couple of flyboys. He would never live it down.”
Jo looked at him askance; Malcolm did the same.
“What? I had friends in the Navy, once upon a time.”
Jo rolled her eyes. Whatever the reason, she was glad for the lack of fighter cover. Had Bunker Hill put fighters out, their plan stood exactly zero chance of working. As it was, Jo figured they had a fifty-fifty shot.
She looked back at the camera display, which was zoomed in tight on Bunker Hill. The ship had one of her plasma turrets trained in their direction, but aside from that, it could have been just sitting there, for all Jo could tell.
“How long to launch the shuttle, do you think?”
Malcolm shrugged. “Five minutes, probably.”
“Ok. Go strap yourselves in. We’ll be doing some wild maneuvers here.”
Malcolm and Grant grinned nervous but excited smiles. The three of them shook hands, and then the two men left the bridge.
Jo pulled the straps tight around her shoulders and adjusted herself in the pilot’s seat. It seemed to take forever, but just a minute later, Malcolm called up on the intercom.
“Roger. Standby for g’s.”
She looked back at the camera display. A moment later, a small craft launched from the belly of Bunker Hill – their shuttle, no doubt. It pivoted and fired thrusters, making a beeline for Agrippa. Jo watched the turret closely, hoping and praying that it would…
There. The turret was training away as the shuttle came into its line of fire. Blue on blue makes for a bad day, and all that.
It was time.
Jo grabbed the control stick and initiated maximum thruster burn, pivoting Agrippa’s stern until it pointed directly at Bunker Hill. Then she hit the main engine controls. Full Thrust.
A deep rumbling sound filled the ship and sudden acceleration, well past Earth-normal, pressed Jo back into her seat.
She looked at the camera, still trained on Bunker Hill, and smiled thinly as the ship was obscured by Agrippa’s brilliant white wake.
It was not a plasma gun, but it was almost as good. Agrippa’s main engines worked by accelerating a large number of charged particles to high relativistic velocities and then channeling them through narrow nozzles in the main engine nacelles. Even if Bunker Hill had a warning, she would not have been able to avoid the wake, as fast as it was traveling, not at that range. Best case, and Jo fervently hoped they got the best case, the stream of particles would knock them for a loop, taking out their primary systems and causing havoc with their electronics. Worst case… Well, Jo did not really want to think about it, but worst case, the ship might get torn apart. But that was only likely if she was close. Real close.
Jo grabbed the stick and pulled back, and the maneuvering thrusters pitched Agrippa up ninety degrees, back toward their desired heading and accelerating all the way. As they gained distance and bearing from the encounter site, Jo slewed the aft upper camera back toward Bunker Hill.
She was just emerging from the glowing wake, turning end over end, out of control. The missile battery forward was twisted, like some great fist had punch it from the side, knocking it askew. One of the rings was venting – Jo could see a stream of gasses leaking out. Quite a large stream, actually. Jo cringed. She hoped the ship’s interior bulkheads had held, otherwise they were in trouble. Regardless, that crew had enough to deal with that they were not going to bother Jo and crew anytime soon.
There was no sign of the shuttle.
Guilt crashed on to Jo’s shoulders. She had very likely just killed a bunch of people. Dozens, maybe more. The fact that it was necessary, that she had no choice in the matter, did not help. It was one thing to know that people under her command, Grant and Thomas, had killed some people during their mission – they had taken pains to avoid it if they could, using flash-bangs and the like, but she had no doubt some of the troops on Gagarin had been killed. It was something else when she did it herself. She was unprepared for it. Completely unprepared.
She was crying. She hated it, but she was. There was no time for this. But she kept right on crying, nonetheless, and did not stop for a long time.
* * * * *
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