Jovian Uprising - 2315 by Michel Poulin - HTML preview

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‘’That is certainly the right of your club, considering the charges these two will face. Son of a governor or not, that young idiot put himself in deep shit. Did you have by chance a security camera pointed towards this table?’’

‘’I do have one covering this sector, yes.’’

‘’Then, let’s go review its recent footage. Ahmed, you better call two more men to carry these two birds.’’

‘’Yes,

boss!’’

Letting his two guards take care of the black men, Morrison took with him the three customers that had witnessed the incident and followed Mark to his access counter to view the footage from the security cameras. It took only one minute of viewing to make Morrison nod his head.

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‘’Your security camera confirms your accusations, Mister Cisco. I will download this footage for my evidence files and then take depositions from you and from those three gentlemen, plus one from your waitress.’’

‘’What will happen to these two men, Mister Morrison?’’

‘’They will be charged with physical assault, sexual assault, attacking a peace officer and resisting arrest. At a minimum, they will have to pay a stiff fine, on top of staying a night or two in my cells, but they could get up to a year in jail.’’

‘’Don’t forget that one of them may have a lot of political pull, if we can believe that he is indeed the son of the Governor of Africa.’’

That brought a mean grin to the face of the head of security.

‘’I’m not going to wait until we are on Earth before dumping that young idiot, mister. I will recommend to the Captain that we drop these two on Vesta, along with copies of your statements and of this camera footage, so that the Vesta Police Department can deal legally with them. I doubt that the father of this Nelson Zembelo has much political clout on Vesta.’’

Mark nodded in understanding then: the Vesta Consortium, which owned Vesta and thousands of other asteroids around it, was fiercely independent and its CEO, Karl Langemann, had little regard for Terran authorities. Zembelo had anyway violated laws that applied in the whole Solar System, and not only in the Jovian System.

‘’Well, I can’t say that I will be sorry for that young idiot.’’

‘’Amen to that!’’

The next twenty minutes were spent giving statements, with Morrison finally leaving Mark and the others to return to their business or, in the case of the three customers, to their ogling and drinking. Those three even got a round of free drinks and a free table dance by Joan Ferguson as a thank you from Madam Lee. Mark had to give it to the gray-haired owner of the club: she may be in a so-called dirty business but she took good care of her employees.

10:12 (Universal Time)

Saturday, February 20, 2315

Detention section, MSS KOSTROMA

Void between Jupiter and the main Asteroid Belt 38

Nelson Zembelo’s ribs on his right side were still sore, with a spectacular blue and red bruise at the spot where the stun slug had hit him, when the door of his cell was unlocked and opened. He looked up angrily from his bed at the door, ready to protest again his treatment. This time, his visitor was a young woman in red coveralls, rather than one of his guards. One guard however stood outside the cell, ready to enter, as the woman, a pretty brunette with grey eyes, stopped just inside the door to stare at him with a cold look. Zembelo sat up on his bed and swung his legs out but didn’t stand up.

‘’Who are you? When am I going to be released from this cell?’’

‘’My name is Tina Forster and I am both the captain and owner of this ship. As for your release, it will happen in two weeks, when we will stop on Vesta. There, you will be handed over to the Vesta Police Department, which will process your case and prosecution.’’

‘’On Vesta? But I paid a full fare to Earth, not to Vesta!’’

‘’Don’t worry about your ticket fare, mister: it has already been credited back to your bank account by the Jovian Shipping Lines. You however assaulted sexually a worker employed on my ship, then attacked my head of security and resisted arrest.

You will thus have to face the justice for those charges. The Vesta Police Department has already received electronic copies of the statements and security camera footage concerning yesterday’s incident at the JUPITER CLUB and has accepted to take over your case. You will be able to secure the services of a lawyer on Vesta, as is your right.

You can in fact contact a lawyer in advance of our arrival if you wish so, but the time lag between transmission and reception will make any real conversation difficult.’’

‘’I still want to talk to a lawyer!’’

Tina nodded her head but kept her cold expression.

‘’Then you will get access to a communications link before lunch, Mister Zembelo. Whatever happens, however, you will never board this ship again. As Captain of this ship, and in accordance with the laws and regulations of Space, I declare you Persona Non Grata on the MSS KOSTROMA. Even if you manage to work up a legal deal before our arrival on Vesta, you will still disembark there. Next time you travel in space, remember to treat others on your ship with the same respect you would like to get.’’

Nelson Zembelo snickered at those words.

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‘’You must be joking! You want me, the son of a continental governor, to treat a sex club whore like an equal? As for your damn ship, wait until my father learns about all this: you will then be able to kiss your sailing license goodbye.’’

What he then saw in Tina’s eyes were not the fear he had expected on hearing his words. Rather, she now stared at him with intense anger mixed with contempt. Her voice was frigid when she replied to him.

‘’Don’t rate too highly your father’s influence, mister: he may be fond of plundering the riches of Africa, or rather what is left of them, but he has no say here in the Outer System. I would suspect as well that the executives of some big corporations on Earth would not appreciate it if he made it more difficult for them to receive the hydrocarbons and metal ores that this ship regularly brings to Earth, so don’t fool yourself.’’

Tina then turned around and left the cell. She waited until Ahmed Jibril had locked the cell door before speaking to him.

‘’I allowed him to call a lawyer before lunch. Apart of that and further legal calls, he stays in his cell until our arrival on Vesta. The same goes for his bodyguard.’’

‘’Understood, Captain.’’

Still fuming from Zembelo’s threat, Tina left the detention section at a quick step and went to the central axis and its battery of elevator shafts, calling a cabin and going up three levels to the Crew Facilities Deck, where her suite was. The short trip gave her time to reassess the danger level of that threat. She still didn’t think that this governor would have enough political influence to cause her real trouble, but one never knew when the corrupt politics on Earth were concerned. She had better learn more about that Governor Zembelo and then, if need be, she could take some preventive measures.

Once inside her private study, she sat at her work desk and booted up her computer.

Unfortunately, being in space made it impossible to access instantly a universal database comparable to the old Internet of the 21st Century. The ship’s databanks were however regularly and frequently updated every time the KOSTROMA docked in orbit of Earth or of an inhabited moon or planet connected to the Solar System’s data network.

Tina thus had the equivalent of highly detailed and recently updated encyclopedias at her fingertip. She also could consult the news bulletins relayed with lags of at most a few hours around the system. Her first search was about the political leadership of Africa. That brought up immediately numerous entries about Governor Horace Zembelo.

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The man had been elected governor of Africa three times in a row and had now held office for nine years. However, Tina knew better than be impressed by that: African politics, even by Terran standards, were notorious for their widespread corruption, nepotism and outright graft. The reading of a dozen media articles going back up to the first mandate of Horace Zembelo only confirmed Tina’s suspicions about him. While officially as clean as a whistle, Zembelo and many of his friends and acolytes had been repeatedly accused in the medias of practicing corruption and nepotism on a large scale.

Many of the reporters that had written articles against Zembelo had however been put in jail on a variety of alleged charges on orders from Zembelo, or had been assassinated by killers unknown. As for being elected three times, allegations of vote rigging and vote buying had been leveled repeatedly by many, including by Terran government level agencies. Each time, an ‘official inquiry’ had cleared Zembelo of wrongdoing.

Searching next in a less direct route, Tina read economic and financial statistics concerning Africa and other continents and covering the last twenty or so years. What she saw made her shake her head with disbelief and disgust. Those statistics made it too evident that Zembelo’s reign over Africa had been far from being a godsend for the impoverished, overpopulated continent. While a few, high prestige projects had been conducted, often at appalling costs for the continent’s limited financial resources, the human services infrastructure and transportation networks had been grossly neglected.

Housing and sanitation for the poor, which represented a majority of the population, was rated as being the worst overall compared to all the other continents. In contrast, Horace Zembelo was said to be one of the five richest men in Africa.

Nearly sick with disgust and wondering how things could have fallen to such depths on Earth, Tina ended her database search after two hours of reading. Governor Zembelo was now certified bad news for her if he had strong contacts with Terran government agencies, particularly with the Terran Customs Services and its navy. Tina was however far from ready to let herself be intimidated by such a man and started reviewing mentally the people and contacts she could use to shield herself and the KOSTROMA from any possible abusive procedure. A couple of names readily came to her mind. She then noticed the time and nearly jumped in her chair: she was about to miss the last service for lunch at the crew’s cafeteria! Leaving her study at a quick pace, she walked quickly to the crew cafeteria, which was close to her quarters, while still thinking about her potential problem with Zembelo. She however cleared her mind and 41

pasted a smile on her face before entering the cafeteria: a visibly worried captain made for a worried crew.

08:01 (Universal Time)

Sunday, February 21, 2315

Business class cafeteria, Deck 10

MSS KOSTROMA

Zara Varanian was having breakfast with Leon Steinberg, discussing schedules to practice a performance in the ship’s auditorium, when a message was heard on the public address system.

‘’Attention to all! This is the Captain speaking! The ship will hold today a ‘First deep space walk event’ for all the children, either passengers or relatives of crewmembers, who have a personal spacesuit with them, are eligible for such a walk and have the permission of their parents. Those who are interested are to register for the walk at the ship’s customer services counter on Deck 16 before noon today. For those who do not have their spacesuit, a limited number of spare suits will be available from the ship’s stores. A refresher course on space walk procedures will follow at two o’clock, with technical checks of spacesuits at three o’clock. The space walk itself will be held at four thirty and will be reserved in priority to the children who never did a deep space walk before. If necessary, a second space walk will be scheduled as well for tomorrow, at the same hours. Thank you for your attention.’’

Before Zara could say to Leon that the notion of sending young children out on a space walk was crazy and irresponsible, at least four children sitting at nearby tables, three of them preteens, screamed with joy and started pestering their parents for permission to go on the said walk. To Zara’s disbelief, most of those parents agreed readily, making her look wide-eyed at her agent.

‘’My god, Leon, this is nuts!’’

Leon didn’t answer right away, his eyes following a small girl of maybe seven years of age in the process of physically dragging her mother out of the cafeteria, probably to go enroll for the space walk.

‘’Uh, I was about to say the same, Zara. Maybe we should ask the Captain about this so-called first deep space walk.’’

A man in his thirties eating at the next table smiled to them on hearing that.

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‘’Uh, excuse me if I may appear to be rude, but I think that I can explain this event to you. I am an executive from one of the mining companies on Titan and did my first space walk at the age of eight. It is actually a cherished event in the life of all Spacer children and one can participate as young as the age of six. There are actually three types of space walks a Spacer kid can strive to complete. One, the most common and frequent, is the surface walk event, when a child goes for his first outing in a spacesuit on the surface of an airless moon or planet. The second type of event is the space walk event, where a child goes out of a fixed space installation for a tour in the vacuum. Finally, there is the deep space walk event, when a child goes out of a ship in transit, like today.’’

‘’But, our ship is presently moving at many kilometers per second.’’ Objected Zara. ‘’A child, or even an adult, would be swept away if going out at such speeds.’’

The man smiled with comprehension at her misunderstanding.

‘’Our ship is moving very fast right now, yes, but it is not accelerating or decelerating, miss. It is just free-falling towards the orbit of Vesta. Thus, anyone exiting the ship now would simply float alongside it.’’

‘’Oh, I didn’t think about that. But still, why make children face such risks?’’

The mining executive adopted a serious expression as he carefully worded his answer.

‘’Because, for all of us Spacers, learning how to live and work in space is not only a question of practicability: it is actually a question of survival. Someone who doesn’t know how to put on and use properly a spacesuit and who lives on a ship or a space installation not only puts his or her life at risk unnecessarily, but also puts other lives at risk as well. Let’s say that you are a teenage girl living on a space station and that you never learned to use a spacesuit in a vacuum and in zero gravity. Let’s also say that one day a stray meteorite hits your space station and causes a catastrophic decompression in your section of the station. If you can’t put on a spacesuit properly by yourself, then you will force other people to help you. That will prevent them in turn from helping others or from helping to repair the breach in the station, just when time is most critical.’’

‘’Uh, I see.’’ Said Zara, contrite. ‘’I have to say that, on Earth, many people would simply care about themselves and their families and forget the others around them.’’

‘’And that is where the biggest difference between Terrans and Spacers lies, miss. Without wanting to brag, us Spacers have learned the hard way that we must all 43

work as a team and must help each other if we are to survive and prosper outside of Earth. Individuality is not discouraged, on the contrary, but selfishness is. Contrast that to what we see in the medias about the various social troubles on Earth. Don’t get me wrong, miss: we have our share of sociopaths and criminals, but the great majority of Spacer population believe in mutual assistance. That is why we encourage our children to learn very young how to work in a spacesuit. Another difference with Terrans is that we won’t tolerate unproductive people that are still in their physical prime, for the simple reason that we don’t have the resources or housing capacity to support such free-loaders. On Earth, you could at the worst pitch a tent or build a shack somewhere and survive, but in space you can’t do that. Building space housing and living facilities and sustaining them is both expensive and time-consuming, apart from needing to be carefully planned in advance if you don’t want to end up with a major disaster in the near to medium future. Before you could think that we look down on our old people because they aren’t productive anymore, let me assure you that they are well treated and respected for their experience. Many of them choose any way to continue working well into their sixties and seventies, as long as they are physically and mentally capable of doing their work. On Titan, I know of an employee of my mining company that still operates an ammonia separation processor at the age of 81, and I can certify that he is damn good at it, miss. He swore that he would die at his post and I believe him.’’

‘’Wow! You sure are making me reassess a few things, mister.’’

‘’Glad to be of help, miss.’’ Said the executive with a smile before continuing his meal. That left Zara free to think about many things from new angles. After eating in silence for a few minutes, and with the mining executive having left the cafeteria, she looked at Leon Steinberg and spoke softly to him.

‘’You know, Leon, I think that I will go watch that first deep space walk event this afternoon.’’

Zara made good on her declaration, being part of the crowd that first encouraged the 37 young children, ranging in age from six to twelve, that went for a carefully supervised space walk along the huge bulk of the KOSTROMA, then cheered wildly the children once they had successfully completed their adventure. The happiness on the face of the children, along with the pride and joy evident in their parents, made a profound impression on Zara then. She watched on as well when Tina Forster, as Captain of the ship, gave to each child during the end ceremony a ball cap hat with the 44

embroidered badge for first deep space walk and the badge of the MSS KOSTROMA.

One of the most cheerful parties she had ever attended followed in the evening, with the new deep space walkers treated like heroes. That day changed forever the view Zara had of Spacers as a community.

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CHAPTER 3 – PIRATES ON THE PROWL

09:55 (Universal Time)

Monday, March 8, 2315

Docking Station 5, Kirkland Spaceport

Vesta asteroid, Main Asteroid Belt

Tina was on attendance in the Hangar Deck as the last of the heavy crates full of iridium powder and platinum ingots were stored away in the warehouses on Level 7B.

Just those 5,150 metric tons of metals, a puny portion of the cargo mass still carried by the KOSTROMA, were worth a staggering 138 billion credits. Piotr Romanski and Denise Lonsdale stood at her sides, watching as well as Javier Domingo drove his heavy forklift and deposited the heavy crate atop a pile of two other crates. Cargo handling robots then swiftly secured the pile of crates with metallic straps.

‘’I don’t think that I ever eyed a more valuable cargo in my whole life.’’ Said Denise Lonsdale, Cargomaster of the KOSTROMA. Piotr nodded his head slowly.

‘’It sure represents a very nice shipping fee for us all.’’

‘’And a complete ship overhaul in a year or two.’’ Added Tina. ‘’Then, the KOSTROMA will stay commercially competitive for at least another forty years, maybe more. I sure have some ideas already about what to include in that overhaul.’’

‘’More passenger cabins and facilities?’’ Ventured Piotr, making Tina shake her head.

‘’No! Our real business is cargo hauling. Our passenger facilities are already excellent by any standards for a cargo ship. What I am looking at are more powerful gravity sails, along with a higher efficiency fusion drive, to cut our fuel consumption and make us even more competitive. I am also looking at adding a true direct landing capacity for our ship, so that we do not depend anymore on orbital docking stations around moons or asteroids without an atmosphere, like right now.’’

‘’Such a landing capacity would be nice indeed.’’ Said Denise Lonsdale, thoughtful. ‘’It would make our ship that much more versatile and may in fact make it unique in terms of cargo delivery abilities. Imagine if we could be able to drop directly on the surface of a deserted moon or asteroid complete habitat modules. Contracts would then come to us like iron to a magnet.’’

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‘’A most interesting thought indeed.’’ Said Piotr approvingly, seeing the commercial potential of such a ship capability. ‘’However, let’s not spend already money we have not earned yet.’’

‘’Well said, Piotr!’’ Replied Tina. ‘’Well, now that our loading and unloading is now completed, I better return on the bridge, so that we could get on our way.’’

Letting the two others go their own way, Tina took an elevator cabin up to the bridge complex and sat in her command chair. As she was giving a string of orders to undock her ship from the spaceport, Ingrid Holtz turned her head towards Tina, seated a few paces away from her communications and sensors station.

‘’Tina, I have an incoming call for you from Mister Langemann, the CEO of the Vesta Consortium.’’

‘’Transfer it on my chair’s screen number two, Ingrid.’’ Said at once Tina, wondering why such a rich and powerful man would contact her directly. The head and torso of a Caucasian man in his fifties then appeared on one of her three visual screens.

Langemann appeared somber.

‘’Captain Forster, I am glad I could contact you before your departure. I wanted to convey to you my best wishes for a safe trip for you and your crew and passengers.’’

‘’I thank you for that, Mister Langemann. We will take good care of your metal and should be able to deliver it to Earth in fifteen days.’’

‘’That would indeed be a speedy delivery, Captain Forster.’’ Said the multi-billionaire before becoming most serious. ‘’The other thing I wanted to tell you was that I had discreetly asked the Terran Customs Navy’s regional commander for an escort ship for your trip to Earth. Unfortunately, he turned down my request, citing as a pretext a lack of available ships. I have my doubts about that pretext but didn’t insist, in order not to attract undue attention to your ship and cargo. The only thing that I can tell you now is to be careful during your trip, Captain Forster. Tens of thousands of space miners have worked hard to mine and refine that metal ore.’’

‘’I will exercise the utmost caution during my trip, Mister Langemann. Thank you for your warning.’’

‘’Then, I will not take more of your time and wish you a good trip, Captain.’’

‘’Thank you again, Mister Langemann. KOSTROMA out!’’

Closing the video link, Tina then sat back in her command chair and thought hard for a moment. Langemann, while appearing to be only mildly concerned, had in fact seemed 47

to her like he had wanted to convey some very serious misgivings. Her mind went at once to what she knew of the regional commander of the Terran Customs Navy in the Vesta Sector. Rear Admiral Sanjit Parwan was widely said among Spacer merchant captains to have attained his present position through political favors rather than merit.

There were even rumors that he was susceptible to bribes, a charge that could in fact be laid against many officers of the Terran Customs Navy. The TCN, while not exactly despised by Spacers, did not attract much respect, and that for many reasons. Its officers and crews were too often arrogant towards the merchant ship crews they stopped for inspection and were seen to be more interested in levying as much customs fees and taxes as they could instead of doing an honest job of regulating and protecting space traffic. The level and quality of training of the TCN crews was also often spotty, varying widely according to the competence and energy of individual TCN ship captains.

The fact that the TCN recruited its junior ratings and officers strictly from Earth instead of from the Spacers population, in order to ensure their loyalty towards the Terran government, had a lot to do with that. With this in her mind, Tina understood why Langemann was worried: he had to ask for an armed escort ship for such a valuable cargo, but obviously didn’t put much trust in Rear Admiral Parwan’s competence or even honesty. If Parwan decided to sell to criminals the information about the cargo on the KOSTROMA, then her trip to Earth could indeed become quite hazardous.

Tina put those thoughts in the back of her mind for the next hour, time for her ship to maneuver away from Vesta and fire its main drive at low power to start a cautious path to Earth through the Main Asteroid Belt. Once the KOSTROMA was underway on its pre-calculated trajectory, Tina told Frida Skarsgard, Dana Durning and Ingrid Holtz to come with her to the small conference room adjacent to the bridge, then called by intercom Rose Tillman, Denise Lonsdale and Bill Morrison to ask them to join her in the bridge conference room. Last but not least, she spoke with the ship’s main computer, nicknamed ‘Spirit’, a machine with a high level of artificial intelligence and with access to all the ship’s databanks.

‘’Spirit, this is the Captain. I am about to start a command staff meeting in the bridge conference room. I want you to listen in on that meeting and be ready to provide data as needed, as well as any suggestions from you.’’

‘’With pleasure, Captain.’’ Replied simply the female voice that personified the main computer.

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With that done, Tina rose from her command chair and went to join the others in the conference room.

23:47 (Universal Time)

Thursday, March 11, 2315

Bridge of the MSS KOSTROMA

Main Asteroid Belt

Renée Dargenteuil had taken only minutes ago her post as the night watch duty pilot and bridge officer, along with four other duty crewmembers, when Anwar Duharto, the duty sensors specialist, frowned while staring at one of his display screens.

‘’Renée, we have just been swept by a long range radar pulse. The problem is that there are no known registered space installations or ships in this sector within normal maximum range of a D-band radar.’’

‘’Oh? From where did it come from?’’

‘’From our port bow area, bearing 310, elevation 064. Unfortunately, this type of D-band radar is very common as a long range sensor on many merchant and TCN ship classes.’’

‘’What do our optical and infra-red sensors see on that bearing?’’

‘’Nothing, except for a small asteroid we were due to pass by at a separation distance of approximately 28,000 kilometers.’’

Renée thought over that information for a moment. The KOSTROMA was presently in the space coasting mode, with its main fusion drive lit but on idle. They were moving at a relatively slow pace, in order to safely navigate through the dispersed asteroids in this part of the Main Belt. Any space installation in this sector would have by law to have registered with the TCN, so that its position could be added to the navigation charts published by the Navy and used by all the ships in the Solar System. As well, any ship flying through would have had, like the KOSTROMA, to file a flight plan with the TCN

local space traffic control center. Whatever had generated that radar pulse was thus technically in violation of space navigation regulations. With the directives received from Tina Forster following the staff meeting of three days ago still in her mind, Renée decided to call the Captain in her cabin. Tina answered on the third buzz in a sleepy voice, having been apparently already asleep in bed.

‘’Yes,

Renée?’’

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‘’Captain, we have just been swept by a radar from an unregistered ship or space installation. The problem is that there should be nothing but us in this sector right now.’’

Tina took a deep breath to wake up fully, then nodded her head.

‘’I’m on my way to the bridge. Keep a close eye on that radar source in the meantime.’’

‘’Understood,

Captain!’’

Three minutes after closing the intercom link, Renée got another report from Anwar, this time in an alarmed tone of voice.

‘’I now have a fusion drive flare signature from the direction of that asteroid.’’

A mere second later, the duty communications specialist, Minh Wa Hien, reported as well to Renée.

‘’I have an incoming call on the short range inter-ship frequency.’’

‘’Switch it to my station, Hien.’’

What Renée got was an audio link with no video picture.

‘’MSS KOSTROMA, this is the Terran Customs Navy frigate TIBERIUS. We intend to rendezvous and board you for a customs inspection. Acknowledge, over.’’

Renée didn’t answer at once, nor did she activate her own video link, instead analyzing the information she had to date. Why would the TCN first pretend that it had no ships available to escort the KOSTROMA, then position a frigate to intercept it in the middle of nowhere for a customs inspection? It didn’t make sense. Tina Forster then walked in briskly on the bridge, her hair still disheveled but her eyes alert.

‘’Report! What do we have here?’’

Renée resumed quickly what had happened up to now, finishing just as a second call came in.

‘’MSS KOSTROMA, this is the Terran Customs Navy frigate TIBERIUS. I say again, heave to and be ready to be boarded for a customs inspection, over.’’

Tina’s face showed immediate skepticism on hearing the call.

‘’A customs inspection, now and here, after they refused us an escort ship? No way! Mister Duharto, point our main forward optical telescope on that ship: let’s recognize it the old-fashioned way.’’

‘’Yes

Captain!’’

Pointing and focusing the powerful optical telescope of the KOSTROMA, an instrument that would have made an astronomical observatory proud, took a few seconds. The ship 50

that then showed on the main viewing screen still appeared small but its silhouette was clearly defined, making Tina swear angrily.

‘’That’s no TCN frigate! It looks more like a medium cargo ship. Spirit, search your databanks and try to identify this ship!’’

Being an advanced machine using massive parallel data processing, Spirit gave an answer within a fraction of a second.

‘’Approaching ship identified as an ORION-class merchant cargo ship. Further detailed identification pending more detailed view of the ship as it will get closer.’’

‘’Thank you, Spirit.’’ Replied Tina. ‘’An ORION-class cargo ship…’’

Thinking furiously for a moment, she then gave a quick series of orders.

‘’Renée, take back the pilot seat and give me the command chair! Hien, sound the ship’s general alarm! Call the crew to emergency stations: Situation Papa! Then tell all the passengers to stay in their cabins or, if out of them, to return to them at once and don their emergency life suits. However, they are not, I say again, not to go to the life pods. Spirit, lock all the life pod access hatches until further order: nobody boards a life pod until I say so.’’

‘’Understood, Captain.’’ Replied the main computer’s voice. ‘’All life pod access hatches now locked and under central control.’’

Tina did not have time to give more orders before the intense blue ray of a high-power laser cut across the KOSTROMA’s path and a third call was heard.

‘’MSS KOSTROMA, heave to and be ready to be boarded, now! If you do not answer or try to flee, we will fire again.’’

‘’Let me answer that, Hien.’’ Said urgently Tina, now sitting in her command chair. Thinking quickly about her answer, she then adopted a near-panicked tone of voice to reply to the call.

‘’Damn it, TIBERIUS, give us a chance to respond: we were in the middle of a night watch rotation!’’

‘’Well, next time be more on the ball, KOSTROMA.’’ Was the harsh response.

‘’You will keep coasting as you are now doing and will prepare to receive an inspection team via your port passenger boarding airlock.’’

‘’Understood, TIBERIUS. We will be ready.’’

Tina, knowing that she was now playing a very risky game, disconnected the ambient microphone of her command chair and put on quickly an ear microphone while giving orders.

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‘’Be sharp, people: we are more than probably facing now an armed pirate ship.

We will proceed according to our Plan Alpha. Spirit, start from now on to carefully compute the approach trajectory of this ORION-class ship. Advise me when it will be inside the target zone.’’

‘’Understood,

Captain.’’

‘’Excellent!’’ Said Tina before looking at the other crewmembers present on the bridge. ‘’PUT ON YOUR SPACESUITS, HALF OF US AT A TIME!’’

Tina stayed in her command chair while Renée Dargenteuil quickly put on her spacesuit, kept like those of the others in a small locker room adjacent to the bridge. Once Renée was suited up and back at her station, Tina ran herself to the locker room and hurried into her spacesuit. That took her a good four minutes despite her beating her past record time for that task. When she returned to her command chair, she saw that the approaching ship was now much closer. The voice of Spirit came to her earpiece as she was sitting down.

‘’Captain, further identification now possible. There is a 93 percent probability that the ship approaching us is the MSS RISING STAR, slightly modified from its original registry standard.’’

Tina’s face hardened at those words.

‘’The ship of Uncle Peter…’’

She threw a hateful look at the image of the approaching ship: those aboard had most probably murdered her uncle and his whole crew after capturing the RISING STAR. Her resolve to not surrender her ship and its occupants only grew harder. Using the internal communications system, she called her head of security.

‘’Bill, this is Tina. The ship approaching us now is, or rather was, the RISING

STAR, the ship of my uncle Peter. It is armed with at least high-power lasers and is trying to pass off as a TCN frigate, the TIBERIUS. Whatever happens, we will not let them take the ship without a fight. If we surrender or let them aboard freely, then we can expect to be all slaughtered without mercy. Be ready to use deadly force against any boarder when they try coming by the Promenade Deck port passenger airlock.’’

‘’We will be ready for them, Tina.’’ Replied Bill Morrison after a short delay. Tina nodded to herself and continued to observe the approach of the other ship.

On the ex-RISING STAR, the man occupying the command chair made a mean smile as the KOSTROMA grew on the display screens, still coasting in space.

52

‘’They seem to have bought our lies. Mind you, the crew of that big mother didn’t sound too hot. This should be quite easy.’’

‘’But it is one big mother, boss.’’ Replied another man sitting at a converted station nearby that controlled the ship’s armament. ‘’I am not even sure that our lasers could do much damage against the thick skin of that ship.’’

‘’Bah! We still have our electro-magnetic rail guns and our missiles. Besides, they don’t have any weapons. The most we can fear is some small arms fire when we board it, but we have ample firepower on our side to deal with that. They, on the other hand, have to worry about the safety of a couple thousands passengers. Unless their captain is totally nuts, we will not encounter any resistance…until it is too late for all of them.’’

Another pirate manning the navigator’s station looked at his leader with a fake worried look.

‘’Hey, you’re not planning to kill the pretty ones as well, boss?’’

The pirate leader laughed.

‘’Do I look that stupid, Carver?’’

The man at the communications station seemed to concentrate for a moment as he listened to an incoming call, then smiled at his leader.

‘’Boss, someone aboard that big whale finally woke up: they are at last questioning our identity.’’

‘’It took them that long? Man, they are even thicker than I hoped for! Tell them to shut up, lay still and let us board, or we will start carving them out with lasers and missiles. Be ready to jam the long range ship radio frequency, in case they try to call for help.’’

As the communicator obeyed him, the pirate leader eyed the KOSTROMA’s huge bulk, as seen through a viewing screen.

‘’Easy billions… I can already taste a nice, comfortable retirement.’’

On the KOSTROMA, Tina Forster was watching intensely the approach of the pirate ship, now only a few kilometers away and maneuvering with the help of its gravity sails. The voice of the ship’s main computer came on as the ex-RISING STAR got within 400 meters and was level with the KOSTROMA’s bow section.

‘’Approaching ship now in the target zone, Captain.’’

53

‘’Very well! Renée, be ready with our main fusion drive, as discussed before.

Spirit, you now have ship attitude control for the next few seconds. Fire at will!’’

The KOSTROMA’s huge mass then started rotating around its longitudinal and pitch axis in small but carefully calculated moves. The first life pod launch tube cover flew open and the eight-ton life pod inside it blew out, accelerating at a rate of 35 meters per second square under the power of its solid rocket booster motor.

On the pirate ship, the launch in rapid succession of at least five life pods drew at first an incredulous look from the man at the weapons control station.

‘’What the… These idiots are abandoning ship!’’

The pirate captain thought the same thing at first but changed his mind when he realized with a pang of panic that all the life pods launched from the KOSTROMA were in fact coming straight at his ship.

‘’SHIT! THEY ARE FIRING THEIR PODS AT US! EVASIVE ACT…’’

The first life pod, an ovoid-shaped armored steel shell with a mass of eight metric tons and built to withstand the tremendous pressures and temperatures of even Venus’

hellish atmosphere, then slammed at a velocity of over a hundred meters per second in the aluminum alloy hull plating of the pirate ship while still under rocket motor boost.

The collision, equivalent to the impact of a medium truck slamming at a speed of over 400 kilometers per hour, breached the hull plating, with the mass of the life pod continuing through to buckle and rip open the internal bulkhead, causing a massive explosive decompression. The impact also jarred and shook severely the ship, throwing it out of its previous axis and ruining the aim of the pirates’ weapons. Before any pirate could react, four more life pods slammed at point-blank range in their ship, ripping open to space a number of compartments and causing extensive damage. A second volley of five life pods followed a mere two seconds later, further adding to the damage and mayhem. One of the life pod impacts even took out the pirates’ missile launch box, retrofitted two years ago in an improvised space yard, while another impact wiped out the forty man-strong pirate boarding party, waiting inside the main airlock.

Inside the pirate ship’s bridge, the first impacts threw the pirate leader, who had not buckled his seat harness out of overconfidence, out of his command chair. With a bleeding forehead from banging his head against a nearby control station and with his left ribs hurting like hell, he got laboriously back on his feet while grimacing with pain, 54

then threw an angry look at the KOSTROMA’s image. His angry look changed to one of utter terror when he saw that the big cargo ship’s four forward fusion drive exhaust nozzles, each one with a diameter of twenty meters, were now pointed straight at his ship. The image from his external cameras then filled for a fraction of a second with blinding light before going dark, the cameras having being melted by the million plus degrees centigrade of the fusion plasma jets.