2949-07-13 – Tales from the Inbox: Hugh's Gambit 

If you are seeing this feed item on schedule, it means regular Hypercomm contact has been restored between Maribel and Planet at Centauri. As I understand, the problem lies in an overload of some of the backbone relay nodes in unpopulated systems in the Farthing’s Chain region. This communications breakdown has nothing to do with enemy action that I can determine. 

Also worth noting, I have been told by experts who wish to remain anonymous that military traffic alone did not cause the fault. Evidently, civilian Hypercomm traffic to and from the Frontier is up almost three-fold from where it was before the war, outstripping even the most extreme estimates of Frontier growth made just a few years ago. As of about 18 hours before this item is scheduled for distribution, I am being told that Hypercomm connectivity will be restored “in a few hours.” 

Unfortunately, I have not been able to verify this story any further in the two weeks since it last appeared in this feed. There are circumstantial indications that it is plausible, but someone has gone through a lot of trouble to erase any digital trail of this close-run expedition. 

Hugh Apperlo hooked his safety cable to one of the many grab-points on the exterior of Diane Dragović and scrutinized the rattletrap pirate vessel mated to his borrowed ship’s docking collar. As far as he could guess from the random comms chatter Varinia had picked up and forwarded to his earpiece, three men had crossed over to Dragović to ransack the light-duty hauler, and one had stayed behind at their ship’s controls. 

Of course, since Hugh was outside the A-grav influence of Dragović, “down” was an arbitrary decision on his part. The pirate ship was actually docked several decks above him from the perspective of someone inside, but in microgravity, Hugh preferred to think of every destination as “down.” He hadn’t been a spacer for very long in the grand scheme of things, and it took quite a bit of mental gymnastics to avoid letting catatonic terror overtake him during extravehicular excursions. 

At some point in the distant past, the pirate ship had probably been one of the many near-copies of the popular PCS Albatross surveyor, but it clearly had endured much at the hands of its brigand owners since then. The hull had been crudely relieved in several places to make room for additional hardware which bulged outward, protected from an encounter with debris or micrometeors by thin, hand-shaped cowlings facing the bow. Five small liquid-fuel rockets with bulbous fuel canisters had been attached to the stern with sponsons, and Hugh had at first laughed at the ridiculous way none of them had pointed directly sternwards until he realized that they were also not the same model of rocket – the odd angles at which they’d been installed probably cancelled out the slightly different thrust impulses, allowing the whole set-up to move in a straight line. The original gravitic drive was there too, but its bulged cowling was tangled in a haphazard skein of wiring whose purpose he could only guess at. 

Fortunately, one thing the slapdash ship didn’t seem to have was a preponderance of exterior hull cameras. Hugh had been counting on that. Hugging his bag of high-tech destruction to his chest with one arm, he started clambering down toward the pirate rig. Since the pirates’ pilot had oriented his ship toward the gravitic axis of Dragović, its ventral hull faced Hugh, and its cockpit viewpanels were out of sight on the opposite side. 

Hugh heard a cry of triumph emerge from the babble of unsecured comms traffic the pirates were putting out.  

Before he could ask Varinia what was going on, she filled him in. “They just broke into your cabin, Hugh.” 

Hugh winced. He hadn’t brought most of his personal belonging on this expedition, but he hated to have grubby pirates digging through his effects. “Get on the intercom and tell them to leave my cabin alone.” 

“That won’t stop-” 

“It will convince them there’s something there worth stealing.” If they spent a few more minutes tossing his quarters, they would take longer to work their way up to the command deck, where a door not much stronger protected Varinia, or down to the engine room, where nothing stopped them from tearing critical components out of the gravitic drive. 

Varinia didn’t reply, but Hugh heard a faint echo of her voice on the pirates’ comms band as one of their headsets captured her intercom broadcast. Just as Hugh had hoped, the response was only guttural laughter and a redoubled search within the cabin. 

Gently, Hugh pressed his weightless boots against the pirate ship’s hull and then activated the magnetic soles to anchor himself. It took him only a moment to find three rail-like munitions hardpoints on the underside of the bow. Unfortunately for his desperate scheme, two of them were already occupied by weapons as ramshackle as the ship itself. Hugh groaned; he couldn’t pry one free without setting off alarms in the cockpit. He would have to make do with one. 

Moving slowly to avoid making any noise that might be audible inside the hull, Hugh approached the lone empty hardpoint, hooked his safety line into a projecting loop of material which was probably not designed to be a grab-point, and pulled one of the sleek ovoids from his mesh bag. Slapping a piece of polymer tape over the missile’s computer link pins, he lined it up and slowly pressed it onto the rail.  

The Incarnation weapon slid onto the pitted pirate hardpoint as if designed for it all along, and Hugh thanked God and the saints of universal starship design conventions for this mercy. He had one shot, and would need to make it count. 

Thanks to the tape, the missile failed to connect to the starship’s computer systems, so it reached out wirelessly. When it did, Hugh was waiting for it. He snagged its outstretched link with his suit’s onboard computer. It was possible the wireless ping caused an alert in the outlaw ship’s cockpit, but that couldn’t be helped. As soon as the link was established, Hugh set the missile to scanning for targets. 

“They made it up here.” Varinia’s voice had grown dull and listless; she was, Hugh knew, already mentally preparing herself for the worst to happen. 

“Tell them about what’s in the cargo hold.” 

“But that’s-” 

“Vari, do it.” Hugh winced; the wrecked Jericho bomber might be her only ticket to a return to a normal life, but he wouldn’t let her protect it at the expense of her own person. 

A moment later, the missile achieved a lock on one of the other pirate ships, circling Dragović while their fellows ransacked it. Since it was top of the line Incarnation military tech, even a light anti-strike weapon had enough power to destroy a pirate ship. At least, that was what Hugh hoped.  

“I’m finished here. Retract the docking collar.” He gave the weapon instructions to launch in twenty seconds, then unhooked his safety line and kicked away from the pirate ship, suddenly aware that he would be tortured to death if his little scheme failed. 

“Retracting.” Sure enough, within moments, Dragović’s airlock extension folded back on itself and set the pirate ship gently free. “They didn’t like that. What should I tell them?” 

Before Hugh could come up with something, a bright flash below him heralded the departure of the missile, riding the white-hot fire of its small solid-fuel booster off into the void. He started reeling in his safety line as the pirates’ comms chatter devolved into unintelligible shouting, and was satisfied to hear it grow deathly silent in time with a sudden flash in the void. 

Evidently, Varinia had seen the pirate ship’s death on her sensor readouts as well. “Are you secured? I’m bringing the drive online.” 

“I can take two or three gees.” Hugh, outside the A-grav axis’s influence, would feel every bit of the ship’s acceleration. Fortunately, his suit and safety line were rated for far greater punishment. 

“What are we going to do about our passengers?” 

Hugh felt the safety line go taut as Dragović began accelerating away from the two pirate ships, now circling each other warily. “I don’t know yet, Vari. But I’m sure I’ll think of something.”