2951-03-29 – Tales from the Inbox: A Profiteer’s Escape

Sacha T. shrugged on a vacsuit so old that it probably belonged in a Core Worlds museum and not the equipment locker of a spaceport, wondering how long it had been since it had been inspected, let alone used. Luckily, the suit’s pressure-safety wasn’t entirely necessary; the pressure-sealing failsafes and atmo-reserve present in even the most basic set of shipboard fatigues would be enough, and Sacha’s clothes were several grades above the most basic. Mainly, he needed the suit for its built in maneuvering thrusters; jumping out of the airlock and aiming for the side of his ship carried an unacceptable risk of tumbling out into the darkness, never to be seen again.

Carrying the suit helmet under his arm, Sacha returned to the console and his scrambler and transferred the security feed from his now-concealed cuff to one of its displays. He was just in time to see the two men retreating out of the range of the security cameras, but there was no sign of the girl.

It might have been reasonable to expect that she had departed first and the men had waited until she was gone to leave, but Sacha hadn’t made his name in the trade by making reasonable assumptions. He switched to the ship’s internal security feeds and cycled through several, until he found her sitting cross-legged on the catwalk on the upper level of the cargo bay, eyes closed and two cases full of valuable cargo stacked neatly in her lap.

Sacha gritted his teeth. This was not how to conduct business smoothly. If the Malones didn’t trust him alone with their cargo, they shouldn’t expect him to move it aboard his ship. He jabbed a few buttons and started a warning klaxon in the cargo bay, hoping to scare the girl off, but she barely flinched at the sound or the accompanying flashing lights.

Briefly, he debated stripping off the suit, going down to the cargo loading dock, and dragging the unfortunate syndicate lackey out by her hair, but that would make a scene bound to draw unwanted attention, and keep him in dock far too long. If the Malones really were dodging BCI, he couldn’t take that chance. Neither was he willing to incur the costs and risks of coming all the way back to drop her back off.

In the end, Sacha decided to just put up with it, do the job, and drop her wherever the cargo was going.  With a sigh, he closed and sealed the cargo bay doors. He could pass her meal-packs through the accessway and never let him into the main part of the ship. If the Malones had expected him to provide a more comfortable voyage, they should have paid the extra fee for passengers Sacha normally levied. If she made trouble – and he almost hoped she would – he’d be able to evacuate the cargo bay and deliver the cargo in peace.

Jamming the old suit’s helmet into place and locking its seals down, Sacha glanced down the narrow accessway toward the airlock, estimating that it would take him about four seconds to get there without tripping, and another three to blow-cycle the airlock. The docking clamps holding his ship in place would take about fifteen seconds to release, and the autopilot would wait perhaps ten seconds after that to kick in the maneuvering thrusters and push away from the station. Those would take a few more seconds to accelerate the ship to a point where he couldn’t hope to catch up to it with suit thrusters. He had less than thirty seconds to be holding onto the outer hull of his ship, or this was going to be a very short and painfully embarrassing journey.

Fortunately, Sacha had done this a few times before, and had practiced it dozens of times more at a friendly dark harbor. Half-turning toward the airlock, he picked up his scrambler and pressed the override for the clamps.

As klaxons began to blare and red lights began to flash in the maintenance passage, Sacha saw a figure appear in an intersection past the airlock, then turn and shout something unintelligible over the alarms. This was a surprise; he hadn’t figured the station crew at a place like Anonga would discover his breach for at least ten more minutes.

There was no time to second-guess, however, and the figure had already caused him one precious second. Sacha started moving casually forward, waving one hand and tapping the side of his helmet as if telling the figure to switch to a different comms channel.

The figure reached for a sidearm, then paused, confused by Sacha’s casual demeanor. The pause lasted only a second or two, but by the time he overcame it, Sacha was within range to dive the last meter into the airlock and slam the control to seal it and initiate an emergency blow-cycle.

As air roared out into space around him, Sacha saw the man through the airlock door’s tiny, triangular window. He snapped a quick salute, then turned around as the outer doors irised open. It would only take the man a few seconds to override and shut them, so Sacha jumped out headfirst, his stomach lurching as he passed over the boundary of the station’s gravitic system and into microgravity.

Correcting his tumble, Sacha could tell from the chronometer in his helmet that he was precious seconds later than he’d intended, but that he still had time to reach his ship. The clamps had almost finished their travel, and his ship was already drifting lazily away from the rotating docking ring. The boarding umbilical had already parted, and now the only way aboard was his way.

Putting the suit’s thrusters at maximum, Sacha sped across the open space toward the lower aft hull of his ship, which happened to be closest. It would be an annoying climb up to one of the hatches on the dorsal crew space, but he could do that after the station was far behind.

A few seconds before impact, Sacha flipped the thrusters around to the front and put them on maximum, slowing himself down. This was the most stomach-turning part of the whole process for him – if he’d timed something wrong, or decelerated too hard, he’d lose too mant seconds and be forced to watch the ship shove off without its skipper.

Fortunately, this time, Sacha didn’t mistime or misjudge the braking burn. He hit the ship hard enough to set off warning lights in the suit, but not hard enough to bounce off out of A-grav range. As he slid down the hull under simulated gravity, he grabbed two of the handholds that studded the hull of almost any starship to slow his movement, then clipped a safety line to a third.

Almost as soon as he’d clipped in his line, the maneuvering program started, and the stars and station spun around Sacha’s head. Inside the ship’s A-grav, he felt none of the acceleration, but the visual effect was enough to disturb the equilibrium of his stomach all the same.

Only when the station began to shrink into the distance did Sacha breathe a sigh of relief. Opening a channel to the helm, he set in an outward course to the jump limit, dismissing automated warnings about departure and flight plan clearance sent by the station’s traffic control. Anonga had no system defense force worth mentioning, so he was clear, as long as the alert they sent out didn’t match his ship the next time he came into dock.

Interestingly, Sacha avoided mentioning in his account who the girl was, or why she had been put aboard his ship by the criminal syndicate he was working for. He ended it with a perfunctory note about the rest of the run being fairly standard, probably to conceal a few more tricks which he doesn’t want to put out there.

It seems he sent this in to us because this sort of unauthorized departure has been widely copied; I found more than thirty reports of ships (none of which are likely to be Sacha’s) blowing their way out of a spaceport in roughly this manner in the last sixty days, and I was just searching the Coreward Frontier and Farthing’s Chain. Perhaps he is hoping to see the practice leave common use by bringing it to the attention of the community, or perhaps he is claiming to have invented this trick and thus this being published solidifies his credibility with the underground.

[N.T.B. – I think our friend Sacha may be having this published as a way of covertly calling out his employers. I asked around; the Malones are really a syndicate really believed to be working in salvaged and stolen war materiel from both sides. By naming them in the public eye and detailing some of their methods, he’s taking the money out of their hands that they took out of his by not paying him for passenger freight for their cargo-minder, and establishing a convention that those who don’t deal fairly with him can’t expect the usual secrecy he treats their cargoes.]