January 31st 2014
Ulla Yadav mulled over potential headlines. Are Faux Pirates Costing You More than the Real Thing? Commandeered by Bandits … Think Again. Privateers or Private Companies, Who is Really Cashing In?
The seasoned reporter hunkered down in her Freelancer’s pilot seat, watching her breath crystallize with each exhalation. Haddix had switched the systems to all-dark, which included turning the heat down to near-freezing. If someone picked up a heat trace from their craft it would look residual, like sunlight reflecting off of space debris.
They needed to be nearly invisible. This wasn’t a story she wanted to lose over simple mistakes.
“Which title do you like better, Pseudo-Raiders, Ahoy or Hijackings With a Side of High Jinks?” she asked.
Stars yawed past the forward Plexi, and Yadav permitted herself a small course correction, to keep the jump point straight ahead. The gateway hung off the bow, visible only to their NavDrive. A set of blinking buoys surrounded the point, marking off a safety zone.
“What?” Haddix leaned toward Yadav. He was a bulky man, and appeared uncomfortable in the cramped space. “Oh, the second one.” He’d been fidgeting the whole time, anxious, unaccustomed to so much waiting. New United had assigned him to be her bodyguard on three previous missions, all during violent conflicts. This sitting around thing was new.
“What makes you think the reports of pirates in this system aren’t real?” he asked.
“Thirty years of reporting experience,” she replied, cheeky. “Seriously? Because of their supposed targets: common stuff with low trade values. Pirates go after electronics, weapons, medicine, food — either things they can get a lot for, or items they need desperately. Why would they hijack carriers packing steel beams, excavation equipment or pipeline? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s not worth the risk.”
She straightened in her seat. A bright-orange transport slid into view, its company name standing out in black, block lettering across the side. It stopped short of the jump point, most likely loading the NavData.
“Get ready to fire everything up,” she said. “This could be it.” Using her MobiGlas, she double-checked the manifest for this particular ship.
“If pirates aren’t attacking the ships, where’s the cargo going?” Haddix asked, hand poised over the control panel.
“Watch. That’s what we’re going to find out. I suspect there’s an insurance fraud conspiracy, across several companies. Four, at least. If this transport gets hit or disappears, I think it’s five. Why buy the materials to manufacture something over and over when you can build one batch, steal it, get an insurance payout, and still have the product at hand? I shudder to think how many times a single piece of pipeline has been claimed as brand-new stolen goods.”
From her field kit, Yadav retrieved a camera drone and let it float freely next to her head. “All the insurance reports I’ve looked at say the transports were commandeered near jump points. How much you wanna bet we just follow these guys to a lazy little vacation spot?”
“I’ll bet you a million,” said Haddix. “Unless those pirate ships there are just for effect.”
A pack of six Cutlasses barreled out of the jump point. One craft smacked into the front of the transport and skidded along its side, leaving a long, dark scar in the orange hide.
Yadav tapped the camera drone and it sprang to life, automatically locking onto her eye movement. It mirrored her gaze, recording whatever she looked at. The recorder in her ear worked continuously, never missing a moment.
Haddix pulled a scrap of something from his pocket and kissed it. Yadav had seen him do that on a number of occasions, but had never asked about it. Just his ritual, she thought, tightening her harness. Some people need their little security blankets.
But not her. This was what she lived for. She welcomed the rush of adrenaline, the fresh sweat on her brow, her increased pulse rate — it all meant she was where she needed to be, in the thick of a story-worthy conflict. There was something about exposing a criminal’s dirty laundry, about revealing a secret and letting the public judge who was right and who was wrong, that filled her with elation.
Shots of electric-white blasted out of the pirates’ weapons, creating strategic wounds in the transport’s sides. Loose items flew from the holes as the pressure equalized. Yadav held her breath. Magnifying a portion of the shield’s display, she scanned the debris for familiar, flailing forms. Thankfully, everything appeared inanimate. No people.
“The pirates knew where to fire — they must have ship schematics,” she said. But that wasn’t proof of a set-up. With a short burst of power, they drifted closer to the action.
Once the holes quit spewing, the pirate ships landed on the transport like wasps on a watermelon. After they anchored themselves to the hull, individuals clad in stained, yellow pressure suits climbed out and entered the transport through the blast points.
Haddix shifted uncomfortably. Yadav knew he was itching to call the authorities. She used to get that itch — until she realized that the more info she could gather, the better off the authorities would be. If they tried to alert someone now, the seizure would most likely be over before anyone arrived. Plus, she didn’t want anyone interrupting. She’d spent far too many weeks staking out possible hijacking points for some Advocacy agent to swoop in just when a hunch had paid off.
Was that reckless of her? Cynical? Maybe. Spending a good portion of one’s life following career criminals could callus anyone’s sense of civic duty.
Signs of life returned to the outside of the ship after fifteen minutes, when several escape pods tumbled free of the transport. Moments later, the hulking orange ship pushed forward, into the jump point.
Yadav and Haddix’s hands flew over their respective control panels, restoring full functionality to all portions of the ship. “If we lose the transport we lose the story,” she said.
As she swung around to tail the escaping bandits, Haddix scanned the escape pods. “Beacons are working. Five pods for five individuals — can’t read if there are any injuries, but everyone is alive, at least.”
“For a transport this size that’s got to be the entire crew. The pirates didn’t kill anyone?” Suspicious, but consistent with her conspiracy theory. Only one death had been recorded out of the seven attacks she’d flagged as unusual.
“Maybe with the influx of assaults on this kind of cargo, the crew was given bargaining money,” Haddix suggested.
She shook her head. “I checked — the companies haven’t sprung for defensive weapons or personnel from private security companies. Which means they aren’t likely to foot the bill for ransom, either. Now, is that because no one company has been hit enough times for them to think they need to resort to these measures, or because they know the crew will be spared?”
Sparks shed off of the orange hull here and there as it slipped into the jump point — a slight static discharge. Yadav was counting on the energy differentials between normal space and interspace to confuse the transport’s sensors and help shield the newscraft from sight. She rode up on the transport’s stern, keeping out of the way of the thrusters.
“Ready?” she asked.
“Ready,” Haddix confirmed. He primed the WillsOp targeting software, in case they met a pirate welcoming party on the other side.
The trip through the jump point was nearly instantaneous, but the mind couldn’t tell. Had it taken them a day or a second? Jump points were hell on the memory, made Yadav feel like she’d been drugged. The backward-forward, now-then swampy sensation took her minutes to shake. Some people said they couldn’t feel anything when going through a jump point. Yadav wished she could say the same.
When they popped out the other side, Yadav kept firmly to her prey. They swung wide through the system, keeping away from the inner orbits where the rocky, inhabited planets lay. “My records say this shipment was intended for the fourth planet here,” Yadav said for the benefit of her recorder.
The pirates’ course took them afar, to yet another jump point. Before following them through, Yadav dropped a press beacon. Breadcrumbs were important. She had no way of knowing where they were headed, so it was best to make sure they had a trail of their own devising for New United to find if necessary.
After three more jumps, Yadav began wondering if they were being taken for a ride. “We’re heading off into the middle of nowhere,” she said, glancing at her charts. “Very few terraformed planets out this way.” Long way to travel for fraud. Even longer way for pirates, who liked to offload sooner rather than later.
“Remind me to check back with those systems,” she said. “I want to know what ID codes the guys are using.”
The last jump brought them into a small system with only three planets — at least, according to the surveys they could pull up, which seemed spotty. “Can’t even tell if the terraforming’s complete on the third one out,” Haddix noted. “Damn shoddy recordkeeping.”
Regardless, the transport didn’t head for any of the planets. It made for the asteroid belt, which sat within the orbit of the outermost planet.
“I’m picking up on a lot of ships,” Haddix warned. “Thirty or so, mostly Drake models, stationed on several of the mid-sized asteroids. I think the transport is headed for that planetoid.”
“Me too,” she agreed. The object was just massive enough to be rounded under its own weight. “Disengaging from target. We need to find a rock to hide behind.”
She looked for a prime position: an asteroid she could cling to without being noticed, close enough to the planetoid that she could zoom in on the activity.
“I think we should pull back,” said Haddix. “I don’t like this. All those ships are reading hot. They’re definitely packing.”
“We’ve been chasing them for hours. I’m not pulling back now.”
“As your security advisor and bodyguard —”
“As a tagalong assigned by the agency without my consent, be quiet and let me do my job.”
“You’re not the only one on this ship, Ulla.”
“We’ve been up against worse.”
“Not without backup.”
There! An ideal spot. Slow end-to-end rotation, deep craters, with wide orbit around the planetoid. She swooped in, careful upon landing not to cause a massive ejection that could be spotted. Only a smattering of dust and loose rock rose from the surface. Most of the debris stayed within the light gravity field, hanging above the rough surface for a long while before settling back down again.Below, on the planetoid, was a massive chop-shop. As soon as the transport touched down, suited workers began dismantling it like ants dismantling a dead beetle.
This was not at all what she’d expected to find. “There’s no way this could be cost-effective for insurance frau —”
Red lights blinked in the cabin. A warning siren wailed. “We’re being targeted,” Haddix said. “Someone’s seen us. Confirming, shots fired.”
Yadav craned her neck to look high and low through the Plexi. Nothing within view, but that didn’t matter. She thrust off, sacrificing subtlety for speed. Dust and ice particles rocketed out of the asteroid’s gravitational field at well past escape velocity. A moment later the rock beneath them fractured. Chunks of shattered asteroid banged off their hull.
The blast had just missed them. The next might not.
Haddix was too much of a gentleman to say, I told you so.