A loud ding echoed through the ship’s intercoms, indicating an announcement from the onboard computer. “Imminent collision detected. Dropping out of lightspeed.”
Ashe flung herself from her bunk. She grabbed her jumpsuit from the back of her chair as she rushed towards the cockpit. “Why’d we drop out?”
“Imminent collision detected.”
“Yeah, I heard you. Tell me why. Run a scan.” The cockpit door slid open. Ashe tugged on the suit and jumped into the control seat.
Ashe checked the route. She was nearly halfway through her trip. With the hauler being thrown off-course, she’d need to plot a new route with at least one stop to realign.
“Scan complete. Three targets approaching.”
For a moment she thought they were asteroids, but knew better when the movement indicators started swirling on the viewscreen. They wove around each other in tight circles, a favored approach tactic for a squadron of light craft to avoid taking fire in formation. Her hauler had light cannons, but she wouldn’t be able to scrap three zippy ships before being torn apart herself.
“Where’s the nearest Guild location?”
“Outpost 372 on Fascillum. Two hours and seven minutes away at lightspeed.”
“Plot it.” She watched the course generate. She’d be intercepted before the engines were ready to engage lightspeed again. “Damn. Anything else nearby?”
“Pariah Corporation Fueling Depot. Sixteen minutes away at lightspeed.”
Ashe grunted. There was no time for a distress call, either. She couldn’t outrun fast little fighters for long in a cargo hauler. Even if she managed to run, there was no guarantee anyone nearby would respond to her distress call, and her pursuers would surely hear it first. “Okay. Plot a course for the fuel station. Get the lightspeed engines primed for a jump when we’re aligned. Keep a full scan running, I need details on those ships.”
“Course ready. Engines priming. Scan–“
“Silent mode. Put the details on the viewer when you’ve got them.” Ashe took a deep breath. They had to be pirates, or at least something unfriendly. The hauler was equipped with a sensor package to identify security, police, and military vessels. These were none of the above, and they were closing in with the haste of a squadron out for blood.
Another ding in the cockpit indicated that she was being hailed. Ashe sighed with relief. At least they weren’t the type to shoot first and loot the wreckage. She flipped the comm switch. “Courier’s Guild hauler 262966 responding to your hail.”
“Stay where you are and keep the comm open. If you run, you die. Got it?”
The voice was male with an ordinary core-world accent. “In accordance with Guild policy–”
“No legal jargon. Say you got it or you’re dead.”
“Okay, got it.”
“Anyone else in there? Looks like a one-crew, but I don’t like surprises.”
“It’s just me.” The ships had come close enough for the scan to get more information. Readouts popped up on the viewscreen. Two of the craft were light fighters flying below their top speed to keep pace with the third ship. The fighters were outdated, probably acquired after some small-time planetary dispute had blown over. The other ship was something else entirely. It was a doofer, short for a do-it-yourselfer, a ship that was built from the parts of other ships. Like most doofers, it was a mess. It was the soaring remnants of at least seven other ships. The doofer was bigger than the fighters but still a fairly small craft.
“Hey, you catch the fight?”
“The fight? From the Savage Coalition? Typhoon Hansen and Liza Maccuddoch are going at it. Supposed to be the biggest duel of the year now that they both got their buffs. Typhoon got these crazy burning knives and Mac’s new shieldsuit is ridiculous. The datastream hasn’t reached us yet, we’re too far out. Savage streams from Hareldon, so I thought it might’ve reached you back before you hit the jump.”
They know where I went into lightspeed. If they know the starting point, they know the whole course. They came after me specifically, so they want something specific. Ashe struggled to keep up with her thoughts. “Uh… no.” She stumbled through the words. “Sorry. I’m not into bloodsports.” There must be something valuable in the hold. She pulled up the cargo manifest and started scrolling through, searching for anything odd.
“Shit. I was hoping you could tell me how it went. We’ve got a betting pool going. My money’s on Hansen. Okay, listen, here’s how it’s gonna go. We’re gonna board you. We watch you and look through the stuff you’re hauling. If you’ve got what we want, we take it, we leave. All nice and friendly. We’ll keep our helmets on so you don’t see our faces and our voices will be scrambled. Including this one. Not my real voice. Sounds good, though, right?”
Ashe paused awkwardly as he stopped talking, distracted by the manifest. “Sure?”
“Be honest. Always be honest with me, lady.”
“You sound fine.”
“Good. It was a total pain in the ass to configure. Last few calls, I sounded all robotic. Kind-of laggy, too. Anyway, you don’t know who we are, so we can let you go when we’re done.” Not likely, she thought. If she was carrying something valuable they wouldn’t take the chance. They’d probably kill her and chop up the hauler to expand their doofer. “You won’t get any heat from the Guild for letting us take something, it’s not like you could fight us off. Matter of fact, they’ll probably be thrilled with you for being so coolheaded under pressure and getting away alive. Or… hell, you know what? I’ll even let you fire off a few blasts with those peashooters you’ve got as we approach so you can be a real hero. Did your best to fight off the pirate menace, didn’t even tremble when we came aboard, and lived to tell the tale. I need to test the new armor on this thing anyway. Just the doofer, though. Leave the wingmen alone.”
“No thanks. I’d rather comply peacefully.”
“Really? Shit, you might’ve gotten promoted. Okay, well, fine. That’s the deal. Go ahead and prep your airlock.”
There! Everything looked normal, but she was carrying three packages with unlisted destinations. Unlisted boxes are always tagged lost upon arrival. Lost packages just sit in the nearest sorting facility until someone shows up to claim their item. Whatever the pirates were after was almost certainly something in one of those.
“Lady? You’re not paying attention.”
“Oh, sorry. I’m a little shaken up.”
“Calm down. I just told you, it’s all gonna be fine. Real friendly, no violence. You stay peaceful, we stay peaceful. Grade-A kumbaya shit. You’ve got nothing to worry about. It’s not our first rodeo.”
The voice laughed. “Hopefully your last, too.” He paused. “Oh, fuck, that came out wrong. Sorry. Didn’t mean to sound threatening. I just meant, you know, we part ways as friendly acquaintances who never want to meet again.”
“I know what you meant.”
“I’m sorry. Really sorry. Part of my job here is talking you through this. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“It’s fine. I’m not worried.”
“Okay. Thanks. Open up your attachment ports and get your airlock ready, we’ll lock the hoopty up and come on in. Got it?”
“See you in a few.”
The comm ended. “Silent mode off.” Ashe leapt out of her chair and ran back towards the hold. “Pull all boxes with unlisted destinations right now. Stack them at the front of the hold. Open attachment ports, prepare airlock pressurization.”
“Retrieving packages.” The cargo hold was equipped with a number of actuated arms which zipped around the walls and shelves to sort the ship’s cargo. By the time she entered the bay the boxes were neatly placed near the door. “Mutual docking prodecure engaged. Airlock pressurizing.”
Ashe grabbed the stack and ran back to the cockpit. The airlock opened as she got back into the control seat. “Lock down the cockpit. Lock down everything except the path from the airlock to the cargo bay. Open global intercom.”
“Partial lockdown engaged. Global intercom open.”
“Welcome aboard,” Ashe said. “The intercom’s active. I can hear you if you talk.”
“Nice ship you’ve got here, lady.” It was the same man. “But I think you’d better come greet us in person.”
“I feel safer in the cockpit. No offense intended.” She grabbed a knife from her toolbox and started opening the boxes.
“We’d feel safer watching you.”
Ashe cut through the tape of a box as quietly as she could manage. “The cargo bay’s open. You can look through it. I just don’t want a gun to my head after that ‘last rodeo’ thing.”
“Fuck. I really am sorry about that.” It was a red leather jacket, vacuum sealed in a bag. She tossed it aside. “Listen, I promise, you’re gonna walk away from this just fine. We just need to make sure you’re not trying to kill us.”
“I’m not. Feel free to do what you have to do in there.” She opened the next box.
“Okay. The hard way, then. Get out here or we’ll cut our way into your cockpit.” It was a wafflemaker in a box of its own. “Won’t take long. We brought plasmacutters.” Ashe tore through its box to be sure. It really was just a wafflemaker. It got tossed into the corner with the jacket. “Come out right now and there’s no harm done. Stay in there and you’re gonna end up getting hurt.” She heard the cutters in the background. They were already on their way.
“Okay. I’ll stop the lockdown. Intercom off.”
“Global intercom closed.”
Ashe ripped through the last box. Bingo. A datacard. She heard the cutters making progress and grabbed a small cutter of her own. “Unlock everything except the cockpit door.”
“Partial lockdown disengaged.”
It was less than a minute before she heard a knock against the metal. “Hey, now. You still have to come out. Last chance.”
Ashe lit her cutter and pressed a button on the control board to open the door. There were three of them, clad in jet black suits which covered their whole bodies. Each of the suits had a little J5 symbol over the heart. Their helmets were black, too; angular and polished to a sheen. They all had pistols at their sides. Ashe held the cutter to the datacard. “You all get off my ship right now or I burn this thing to ashes.”
The pirate in front cocked his head to the side. “The fuck are you talking about?” The other two glanced at each other.
“I’ll burn it.”
“Lady, we don’t want… whatever that is.”
“Don’t play games. I’ll burn it.”
The pirate shrugged. “Okay. Burn it.”
Ashe hesitated. “I will.”
“Burn the damn thing so we can get on with this.”
“You really aren’t here for this? Then… what are you here for?”
“Lady, the less you know–”
“Boss,” another of the suits chimed in, “it’s right there.”
He pointed. Ashe looked. The corner.
“Ho-ly shit.” The leader slowly crouched and stared at the discarded items. “Yeah, that’s it.”
“You want… that junk?”
“Yeah. Get in the other corner nice and easy, lady.”
Ashe dove to the floor, holding her handheld cutter to the pile. “Get off my ship.”
“Whoa! Fuck, hey, whoa, okay, stop. Don’t damage it!”
“Get off my ship. I’m taking this stuff to the sorting facility, whatever it is.”
“Okay. Hang on. Relax. We need that. It’s why we’re here. You really don’t know what it is?”
“A wafflemaker and a jacket?”
“Just the jacket. You can keep the other thing. You figured out it was sent without an address on purpose, huh? Pretty smart, lady. We got a tip-off about it. We need it.”
“What is it?”
“Seriously, the less you know–”
Ashe turned the cutter on.
“Fuck! Stop, damn it. It’s an old Earth antique, okay? Really ancient. Pressure-sealed to keep it as near-mint as possible. It’s valuable. Very valuable. Look, let’s make a deal. I’ll give you fifty thousand credits for it right now.”
“What stops you from killing me the second you pay me?”
“I promise, I won’t. I just want the jacket.”
“No deal. Your word’s worth nothing. That money would make me complicit in your crime, anyway.”
“Shit.” The leader rubbed at his face, as if he forgot he was wearing a helmet. “Okay. New deal. I’ll take off my helmet, my gun, my gear. These guys take my stuff, get back in the doofer, and our little fleet escorts you to that little fuel stop you charted towards. I stay on board. You give me the jacket and I’ll go into the depot’s little convenience store to wait for my gang when we land. If we blew up your ship there all of their security cameras would see it. We’d be screwed. Look, you want to live, I want that jacket. This is the only way we both get what we want.”
Ashe thought about it. “You give them everything you’ve got. They fly away and don’t follow me for at least an hour. They can trail us afterwards. You get locked up in a closet until we land. Then you leave with the jacket. If anyone at the Guild ever finds out about this, I’ll say you hijacked the ship, took my information, and threatened to kill me and everyone I know if I told anyone. And you have to tell me what this thing really is.”
“Done.” He took off his helmet and started removing his gear. He was younger than Ashe had expected. “Ever heard of Michael Jackson?” His voice had changed. It was more tinny and anxious than before.
“Some famous singer from Old Earth, right?”
“Yeah. That jacket was his. It’s iconic. Have you heard Thriller?”
“I’m not really into classical music.”
“Too bad. It’s great, way better than that nu-synthojam shit everyone likes now.” He tossed his stuff to the other pirates. “Get back to the ship and get out of here. You heard the lady, at least an hour behind. Got it?”
“Boss, you gonna be okay?”
“Of course I am. Get out of here.” He watched his underlings leave. “So, can I see it?”
“No. It’s not yours until we land.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, new orders. Run a systemized lockdown while our guests are on their way out. Close every door behind them. As soon as they’re detached, jump to lightspeed. Get us to that fuel depot. Confirm commands the short way, please.”
Ashe sighed. “How much are you gonna sell it for, anyway?”
“Sell it? Are you crazy? That was Michael’s jacket. I’m going to wear it.”
It didn’t take long to lock the kid up once his friends had left. Ashe plopped back into the control seat. I nearly died over a fucking jacket.
“Hey,” she said, “do we have any Michael Jackson in the onboard library?”
“Michael Jackson not detected.”
“Download some when you get a chance, next time we’re out of lightspeed.”
“Michael Jackson discography added to download queue.”
“How long until we hit that fuel stop?”
“Pariah Corporation Fueling Depot. Eight minutes away.”
“Refuel when we get there. Use the Guild account. Oh, and do me a favor. See if they sell waffle mix.”
Out of Lightspeed by Ethan Hedman