Harrington-Wing ’verse backstory 3:
Visit exotic locales, meet interesting people, sell them pirates.
< < I think we bit off more than we can chew, Bro, > > Solo’s voice said dryly over the intercom.
“Nah, we can do this,” Duo said, grinning maniacally. “There’s only three of ’em!”
Shinigami bleeked derisively from the back of Duo’s chair, braced with all six sets of claws clutching the upholstery and restraining straps hooked into rings on his home-made atmosphere suit. Duo rolled his eyes and dropped his voice, speaking for the treecat’s ears only. “Yeah, I know he’s right. And he knows I know he’s right. I’m just not gonna say it, okay?”
The Deathscythe shuddered as another missile exploded nearby, not quite all of the released energy blocked by the wedge, and the helmsman swore as he rolled the ship to take the rest of the salvo at a better angle.
“We have got to get those backup sidewall generators online,” Duo grumbled, slapping at his console to shut off a damage alert. “Solo, any estimate on when you can get them up? I can’t manoeuvre for shit like this!”
“Solo, speak to me buddy, you are not allowed to freak me out like this,” he sing-songed, trying to ignore the sudden cold lump in his stomach.
“We’ve lost internal comms,” Hilde told him, hammering keys. “The engineering spaces are fine, the damage control systems are still up and we haven’t lost any people, but the main communication network is down. You can radio to yell at the pirates all you like, but nobody on board is going to hear you unless they’re in this room.”
“How the fuck did that happen?!”
“Civilian design,” she snapped, rolling her eyes. “The fiber-optics all run right under the ship’s skin to make accessing them during maintenance easier. I told you this wasn’t going to be a proper Q-ship until we tear it down and rebuild it from the keel up!”
“I know, I know, but we can’t afford to until we’ve got a few bounties to finance it with. Can you reroute somehow? I can’t even tell anyone to shoot!”
“Give me ten minutes and I can probably rejig the damage control system to send text,” she told him, and yanked the side panel off her station.
“…We don’t have ten minutes,” the helmsman said in a sick tone. “I just lost control, and we’re still rolling. The open sidewall is going to be pointed back at them in four.”
“Well. We’re kinda screwed, then,” Hilde said calmly, still shoulders-deep in the side of her console.
“We aren’t screwed until it happens,” Duo said bluntly. “I for one don’t wanna strike the wedge and surrender. Anyone disagree?”
“Hell no.” “Nope.” “Bugger that,” assorted crew members snorted.
“Good, ’cause I can’t even do that,” the helmsman sighed, sitting back with his hands dangling helplessly. “If I was in Engineering, I could control everything directly from there, but since the comms link is down I wouldn’t be able to see what I was doing.”
“We lost all the door controls, anyway,” somebody informed him cheerfully. “Nobody’s going anywhere.”
“Okay. So,” Duo started, folding his arms. “We can see everything that’s going on, and we know what needs to be done, but we can’t do shit. Solo can operate all the important systems from the engineering spaces, but he doesn’t know what needs to be done, because he can’t see shit. We have four minutes to fix this situation. We need ten. That about it?”
“Got any more good news for me?”
“I’m gonna have to cannibalise the standalone World of Warcraft server for parts, and we haven’t backed it up for a month,” Hilde said grimly.
“So everybody’s okay, but we’re stuck in here,” Solo said calmly, scratching Loki between the ears.
“Pretty much.” The elderly Sweeper who’d made the Deathscythe’s engines his own personal responsibility shrugged. “We can control everything -- in fact, we are controlling everything, because command passed over to you automatically when the links to the bridge were cut. They’re okay, we just can’t talk to them or see what the hell we’re doing. No, wait, that’s not quite correct,” he amended pedantically. “We can tell what we’re doing, as in, what angle we turn at, which way we are pointed, and so on. We just can’t see what we need to be doing, or what anyone else is doing.”
“Well… what’s our situation?”
“That sidewall is still down, but we’ll have the backup generators going in a minute. We’re currently doing a slow roll to port.”
“Well, let’s start by counteracting the roll,” Solo told him, sitting down again and pulling up a system display showing the last known positions of their three opponents. The red dots were slowly expanding into fuzzy red cones, showing the pirates’ possible positions based on their estimated capabilities. “We don’t want to point that sidewall at them again before it’s up…”
“We just stopped rolling,” the helmsman announced, sounding a bit more cheerful. “Engineering’s taken over the helm.”
“Awright! Solo for the win!” Duo cheered. “That gives us a few more minutes to get internal comms up, right?”
“Six,” he confirmed. “They’re heading around to cross our T.”
“Still need ten,” Hilde grunted from the depths of her console.
“You said ten three minutes ago!”
“The server wasn’t being a stubborn bitch three minutes ago.”
“If I were them, I’d be heading across to either cross our T or get an up-the-kilt shot,” Solo mused, chin in hand. “They could be doing either, and if I turn to deny them a T shot that’ll make a kilt shot easier. And vice versa.”
“There’s three of them,” the engineer pointed out. “They could be doing both.”
“Mmm.” The young man scowled, still absent-mindedly petting his treecat. “We’re royally fucked if we can’t get some sort of comms back up.”
“Howard’s going to wash your mouth out with soap when we get back to base.”
“You’re assuming we’re going to get back to base,” Solo pointed out, smirking.
“Not much point planning for what we’re going to do if we don’t, now is there?”
“True.” Solo scowled again, brief smile gone without a trace. “If I just knew where they were, we could still shoot at the bastards. Duo must be going nuts up there,” he added, sighing.
Settled comfortably in his lap, Loki looked up with narrowed eyes. “Bleek?”
“Yeah, furball, I know. It sucks.”
The pale green eyes narrowed further, and then Loki reached out one true-hand and stabbed one clawtip into the back of Solo’s hand.
“Yeouch! What the hell--?!”
Green eyes stared into blue, and Solo froze, barely breathing for a few long seconds as he looked at his partner. Then:
“…Right. Right! Jake!”
“Right here, no need to yell,” the engineer grumbled, eyeing him warily.
“Switch missile control over to my station, but leave attitude control here as well. I’ll have a firing solution in a minute.”
“Ain’t gonna fit on your screen with everything you’ve already got on there,” the older man shrugged, moving to do what he’d been asked anyway.
“Take off the system display. I won’t need it.”
“…If you say so.”
Up in the cramped little bridge, Duo was tapping both feet and drumming one set of fingers on his armrest in frustration.
“That is damn annoying.”
“Can’t help it.”
“I’m gonna come over there as soon as I’m done and hit you, you know,” Hilde grunted, voice strained as she stretched to reach one particular connection.
“Get me some sort of communication with Solo and you can tapdance on my nuts,” Duo muttered, not quite quietly enough.
“I’ll hold you to that!”
“One sentence,” Duo said to nobody in particular. “I just need to get one sentence to him. Hell, not even a whole sentence, I could leave out the verb and I wouldn’t need adjectives or any of that shit, conjunctions or whatever--”
“Somebody hit him for me?” Hilde pleaded.
“I’d arrest you for mutiny if I didn’t need you to pull all our asses out of the-- hey!”
Shinigami had thwacked him across the side of the head with his tail. Since that three-foot-long prehensile appendage was encased in a modified atmosphere suit sleeve, complete with armoured joint in the middle, it was a rather more solid blow than it would normally have been.
“Damnit, Shini, you’re supposed to be on my side!”
“Go ’cat!” Hilde cheered in a muffled voice, kicking one foot in lieu of waving a fist.
“Nyowwwwwr!” Shinigami yowled, an angry noise that usually meant “I found an air leak” or “Send backup, the vermin in the air shaft are bigger than me”, not “I’m playing.” Frowning, Duo twisted in his seat to stare at his friend, rubbing the side of his head.
“Dude, seriously, now is not the t--”
Yellow eyes stared into blue. The helmsman looked around as Duo cut off in mid-word, and saw his young co-captain staring open-mouthed at the treecat, barely breathing.
“Did Shini strangle him?” Hilde asked, still muffled ribs-deep inside her console. “Because he’s not that bad, really, he might be useful to keep around--”
“--Right,” Duo said abruptly, starting to grin as he spun back to face his console. “Right! Angus, get me a firing solution. Hilde, get back in your chair, we’re gonna be manoeuvring in a sec. Cheng-yi, plot me a spin-and-skew that lets us get both our broadsides off at those jerks, thank God the idiots are in one clump, without exposing our throat or our kilt.”
“Our port sidewall’s still down--” the helmsman started.
“Not for long,” Duo assured him, grinning broadly.
“--and we oh hey there’s our sidewall,” he finished weakly. “Um. We’ve only got eighty-something percent strength but that’s a lot better than… okay. Plotting.”
“I’ve been running missile plots on them the whole time,” Angus said flatly, hitting one key. “On your console.”
“Thaaaaank you!” Duo chirped merrily, almost bouncing in his seat.
“Uh, not to burst your bubble, Duo, but we still can’t do jack without comms,” Hilde pointed out. Despite her apparent scepticism, she still climbed back into her station chair and strapped in, wiping dust off her cheek and sneezing.
“Not a problem,” he assured her breezily, eyes bright. Behind him, Shinigami huffed and rolled his eyes, then curled around the back of Duo’s neck as far as his safety straps would allow, pointed chin pressed against his partner’s temple.
“Where d’you want your manoeuvring data?” Cheng-yi asked, fingers tapping staccato on his console.
“Stick it on the main screen,” the younger man said, almost absent-mindedly, as he studied Angus’s targeting data. “Hmmm… yeah, that’s a good spread… Angus, keep plotting so we can fire again if the first salvo doesn’t get ’em.”
“Whaddaya think I’m doing already?”
“Solution’s on screen,” the helmsman said, hitting one last key. Everyone looked at Duo.
Down in the engineering spaces, Solo entered the last few digits of the missile targeting data with his right hand as his left started to type in a course and attitude change. Finished, he hovered one finger over the ‘Execute’ key and looked upwards, towards the bridge.
Duo’s hands were on his armrests, nowhere near the console controls, as he leaned forward and watched a counter tick down towards zero on the screen. On a side display, the icons representing three pirate ships slid towards the tags indicating missile targeting spots.
The counter hit zero.
Solo slammed his hand down on his console, and the Deathscythe twisted to port and ‘down’, yanking the wide-open throat of its gravity wedge away from the oncoming pirate ships and starting to spin. Ten missiles spat out of its starboard broadside and streaked towards its opponents, followed by another eight from the port broadside as the ship continued its spin. The ninth missile was ejected from the missile tube but misfired, tumbling away until the continued spin brought the edge of the grav wedge around and shattered it.
The door to the tenth missile tube jammed, bent out of true by the earlier damage, and the Deathscythe’s side erupted in flame and molten metal as the nuclear-tipped missile hit the closed door and detonated its entire propellant load in one blast.
* * * * *
“Herr Kapitän! Hyper emergence, three ships.” The reporting crewman rattled off position information, giving a location reasonably close to her own ship but further out-system and slightly above the plane of the ecliptic, then paused. “Ah… ship classes are indeterminate,” she said eventually, frowning at her screen. “One ship appears to approximate a light cruiser in mass. I am designating this ship as Unknown 1. The other two are… much bigger… but seem to have civilian-grade nodes, judging by the spectrum.”
The captain raised one finely-etched black eyebrow, looking away from his low-voiced conversation with his XO. “I take it the smaller ship has military-grade nodes, then?”
“Yes, Herr Kapitän, otherwise I would have characterised her as an Astra-class freighter. Unknowns 2 and 3 have reconfigured for impeller drive… one moment. Judging by the strength of their grav wedges and observed acceleration, both are close to a megaton in mass. Unknown 1 is confirmed as slightly heavier than a standard light cruiser. She has a flutter in her wedge consistent with a damaged alpha node. All three ships are on course for the inner system, in close formation.”
“Helmsman, change course to intercept. Open channel.”
“Ready, Herr Kapitän.”
“Unknown vessels, this is the IANS heavy cruiser Shenlong, Kapitän der Sterne Chang commanding. You have entered the Sachsen system and are in territory claimed by the Andermani Empire,” the captain said crisply. “Identify yourselves.” He gestured to his communications officer to close the channel. “Estimated delay?”
“Slightly over eight minutes at this point, Herr Kapitän. We now have transponder IDs for all three ships; Silesian registries. Redesignating Unknown 1 as Todsense, Unknown 2 as Bucket and Unknown 3 as Mop.”
The captain looked blank. “Todsense, Bucket, and… Mop,” he repeated slowly.
“Yes, Herr Kapitän,” the communications officer replied, straight-faced.
“I cannot wait to talk to these people.”
Nine minutes later, an audio-only reply arrived, slightly distorted by static.
< < Yeah, hi there Shenlong! > > a young voice said cheerfully. < < Glad to see you; we’re heading in to make a delivery to your base in the system. Got some pirates for you, hope you’ve got the cash on hand for the bounties. > >
At this point the transmission was interrupted by a yowling sound, presumably some form of interference.
< < Oh, yeah. My bad. This is Duo Ramirez y Maxwell, co-captain of the Sweeper Q-ship Deathscythe, yes I know that’s not what our transponder says today but duh, Q-ship. We have letters of marque signed by half a dozen star nations including you guys, and an electronic copy should be arriving in your systems right about now. The other two ships with us are pure civilian, the Sweeper salvage and repair ships Mop and Bucket, and they’re hauling the two pirate ships we managed to capture. Third one got blown outta space when its fusion bottle let go, which is a shame, not that I care about the crew but we got repair bills and the extra cash woulda been nice. Also, I am totally putting a new fibre-optic network at the top of our list of necessary mods. Lemme see, what else… oh yeah! We don’t know the pirate ships’ names, we’ve just temporarily nicknamed them Turd and Prick, and I’d appreciate it a whole bunch if you’d help us get the pirates out of ’em. You’ve got Marines and shit, and we’re giving the crew to you anyway, but we claim the hulls under both conquest and salvage rights, ’kay? > >
< < Duo, you idiot, gimme that, > > a female voice interrupted. There was dead air for a few seconds, and then she returned.
< < I apologise for my captain’s manners, > > she said dryly. < < We took casualties in the fight, and this is how he copes with stress. He seems to have given you all the pertinent information, so if you’ll be kind enough to overlook the presentation it looks like we’ll be able to talk in realtime in about twenty minutes. Thank you for your time. > >
“Message ends there, Herr Kapitän.”
The Andermani captain was sitting with his chin supported on one hand, fingers over his mouth, and paused for a moment before responding. “…I see,” he said eventually, voice slightly strained. “Do we have any more information on their ships? What are these ‘Sweepers’? And are their letters of marque in order?”
“Yes, Herr Kapitän, everything seems to be in order. They have the correct codes and… are signed by His Imperial Majesty himself,” the communications officer said, a little startled. “Querying the codes in our database brings up a notation that the Deathscythe is known to operate under several aliases, of which Todsense is one. The Sweepers are apparently a transport, salvage, and repair company incorporated in Silesia, operating out of the private stations Toolbox, Wheelbarrow, and Dumptruck. In practice they operate much like a small independent nation.”
“I’m beginning to see a certain pattern in their ship names,” the captain observed.
“Indeed, Herr Kapitän. The Mop and Bucket are also listed in our database; their specifications are… impressive.” A few quick keystrokes put a diagram on screen.
“Mein Gott,” somebody muttered under their breath.
Both the captain’s eyebrows shot up, and he leaned forward, scanning the specifications. “That is… a brilliant idea,” he breathed, eyes lighting up. “Why has no-one thought of it before? Why have we not thought of it before? Imagine this design used as a fleet repair vessel! We could retrieve warships that now have to be scuttled because they have lost Warshawski capability and cannot reach a system with appropriate facilities under their own power!”
Most of the mass of the ship on-screen was concentrated in the nose and tail, forming the familiar ‘hammerhead’ shapes seen on most warp-capable ships. The main body, however, was only a flattened spine; four long, curving struts studded with numerous tractor and pressor mounts enclosed empty space where the rest of the ship’s hull would normally be.
“How large a ship can they carry, though?” the helmsman objected. “If they can only carry lighter units--”
“I believe you may be misjudging their size,” the communications officer interrupted. “If you will bear with me for a moment… there.” Another ship appeared in the display, seeming like a toy next to the bold lines of the Sweeper design.
“That,” the communications officer continued dryly, “is the Shenlong. To scale.” A few more clicks, and she moved the tiny ship into the centre of the other ship’s struts, wordlessly demonstrating how tractor and pressor beams could be used to hold it in place for transport. “We could fit inside one of those ships nearly three times over.”
“And they seem to be maintaining quite a respectable acceleration,” the captain pointed out. “Even with civilian drive nodes.”
As they rendezvoused in space with the Sweeper ships, still moving towards the inner system and its one inhabited planet, members of the Shenlong’s crew started finding reasons to visit the few sections that had a large-screen display. All of those displays were now showing a live video feed from the pinnace that had gone out to inspect the newcomers close-up, and the Mop and Bucket were even more impressive than their specs. The battered pirate ships held in their open cargo spaces were dwarfed by the two immense salvage ships, lit up by powerful searchlights that revealed every burn mark and ruptured plate. Several of the pirates’ missile tubes and drive nodes were marked with suspiciously precise melted areas -- they were clearly out of commission, but no missile or ship-mounted laser in existence was that accurate. Shenlong’s captain made a mental note to ask about those marks, and turned his attention back to the third vessel.
The Deathscythe was limping along at a pace that most merchant spacers would have sniffed at, far below a military ship’s normal acceleration. She bore the scars of her victorious battle, in some ways worse off than the losers; several of her drive nodes had long soot-marks stretching out from their mounts. There was a great melted rent in her port side, armour plates missing or twisted outwards, and no sidewall covering that half of her broadside armament. The hole in the ship’s side was centred on one of her missile tubes -- more precisely, where one of her missile tubes had been -- and was wide enough to engulf the tubes on either side. Shenlong’s captain winced as he saw how deep the damage went.
“Shenlong to Deathscythe,” the communications officer sent, not taking her eyes off the main screen. “Kapitän Chang wishes me to extend his compliments; he would be honoured if your co-captains would come aboard for whatever meal is next in your ship’s daycycle, and would also like to know if you require any assistance.”
< < Deathscythe here, > > the same clear female voice as before responded. < < Please pass our compliments to your captain, and let him know that our co-captains would be happy to attend; we’re coming up to our lunch hour. As for the offer of assistance… > > She paused for a moment, then resumed with a firmer tone. < < No thank you. We’re fine. > >
“Acknowledged, Deathscythe. Would it be convenient if our pinnace picked up your co-captains in, say, ninety minutes?”
< < Yes, that would-- hold that thought, Shenlong. > > The transmission cut off.
“Now what?” someone muttered. The communications officer frowned and opened the channel again.
“Deathscythe, are you--”
< < Shenlong, call your pinnace back! Our fusion bottle is losing integrity and it looks like we’re going to have to dump it! > >
Deathscythe’s impeller wedge flickered and died, leaving it coasting as the communications officer slapped another control, changing channels. “Clear the area! Longying, clear the area! Imminent fusion explosion!” On screen, the camera view of the three ships spun wildly for a moment, then steadied, rapidly shrinking as the pinnace raced away at emergency power; the giant repair ships stayed in formation with their crippled companion, but rolled to interpose their wedges between themselves and the threatened explosion.
“That’s not good,” Solo muttered, running through diagnostic menus as the screen flashed red warnings at him. “That’s really not good.”
“Understatement,” Jake grunted, not taking his eyes off his own screen. “Think you can pull it back before the safeties dump it automatically?”
“Maybe, if I can just find out what’s wrong!”
Internal communications were still down, but Hilde had come through with her promised tweak of the damage control systems once the battle was over and they were waiting for the Mop and Bucket to hyper in from their out-system staging point. Still concentrating on the diagnostics, Solo was peripherally aware of messages scrolling across the top of his screen, half-buried in the warning popups.
[SOLO FFS I AM SITTING HERE LIKE A WART ON A LOG UNABLE TO DO SHIT, THIS SUCKS]
“It’s either a software problem or turbulence in the plasma causing hot spots,” Solo said, closing one set of diagnostic options and opening another. “If it’s turbulence, there’s no way we’re going to get it back in time. If it’s software, we might be able to get it back in time, but with all the network failures there’s no guarantee the faulty module is still linked in.”
[I SWEAR IF I HAVE TO DRILL HOLES IN THE DECKPLATES BY HAND TO RUN STRING AND TIE TIN CANS ON THE ENDS WE ARE GOING TO HAVE COMMS REDUNDANCY]
“Which means there’s no guarantees the safeties are still linked in,” Jake pointed out calmly.
Solo and Jake glanced up, met each other’s eyes, and nodded in unison. “Dump it.”
On larger ships with more formality (and more redundancy), a manual bottle dump was almost unheard of. If such a ship even had a manual release, it was likely to be locked down and require multiple keys and passwords to access, rendering it moot in all but the most unlikely circumstances.
Deathscythe’s manual release was a large red button underneath a latched -- but not locked -- safety shield. Without ceremony, Solo flicked the shield up and punched the recessed button hard enough to crack its plastic.
Up on the bridge, the first sign of what had happened was a shock through the ship’s frame as explosive bolts detonated, kicking a large segment of the hull away from the ship. A moment later there was another shock and the main lights blinked out as the massive fusion bottle followed. Dim red emergency lights came up slowly, revealing the bridge crew frozen in place as they waited to see what happened next.
Duo’s hands were poised over his keyboard, halfway through typing his next sentence. As the seconds stretched out and nothing changed, he blew out his held breath in a loud sigh and grinned.
“Man, that was--”
All the lights went out again as the internal gravity fluctuated, going from 1G to zero to what felt like about five, and the entire hull rang like a bell as the fusion bottle finally lost containment and detonated.
Solo picked himself slowly up off the floor as the lights came up again, rubbing his forehead. “Ow. Note to self: sit down before dumping the bottle,” he muttered, wincing as his fingers found a small cut. “Everybody okay?”
“Better off than you, looks like,” Jake snorted, levering himself up. “You’re bleeding like a stuck pig. Siddown.”
“Is the backup online?”
“Why d’ya think we have lights again? It’s not because I’m scuffing my feet to make static sparks.”
Solo grinned, mopping ineffectually at the blood running down his face. “Okay. Rephrased question: is the backup stable?”
“The system’s already running diagnostics,” Jake told him, checking his screen. “Guess the safeties are still linked in after all.”
“Oh yay, some good news,” Solo sighed, finally sitting down. Loki slinked out from underneath the chair and hopped onto the armrest, chirping in worried tones. “I’m okay, Fuzzball, nothing serious.”
“Hold still.” Jake pulled a first-aid kit and some clean rags out of a storage compartment and advanced with a determined expression. “Loki, get out of his face, will ya? He is okay, but he’s gonna bleed all over the deckplates if I don’t get some sealant on that cut.”
Solo’s console beeped as the damage control system started bringing up reports from other areas of the ship, and he glanced over, one eye squinted shut as Jake mopped roughly at the blood on his forehead.
“Hold still or I’ll glue your braid to your nose!”
“You get that shit in my hair and I will wreak awesome but unspecified revenge-- huh?”
“Look, just stick a patch on it and check the diagnostics from the backup bottle, okay? Duo wants something.”
[SO.] The brief message blinked on the screen for a few more seconds before Solo responded, similarly brief.
At least Duo’s next text was an actual sentence, Solo noted. [ARE WE DEAD YET?]
[ARE WE GONNA BE?]
[WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN, ‘PROBABLY’?!]
[I DON’T THINK ANYTHING ELSE IS GONNA GO FOOM, BUT I DIDN’T THINK THE FUSION BOTTLE WAS GOING TO EITHER. NO, I DO NOT HAVE ANY INDICATIONS THAT ANYTHING IS GOING TO GO FOOM *RIGHT NOW*.]
[GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME! MAN THAT WAS ONE HELL OF A RIDE! DID YOU SEE THE FLASH?]
[HA HA. LOOK, THE PICKET CAPTAIN INVITED US TO LUNCH AND WE SHOULD HAVE ALL THE DOORS WORKING IN HALF AN HOUR. WANNA GO?]
[SURE. SOMEBODY HAS TO COUNTERACT THE IMPRESSION YOU’LL MAKE.]
Solo sat back, eyeing the screen, and scratched absent-mindedly at a drying spot of blood on his cheek. “Duo’s wired.”
“Ain’t he always?”
“I mean, wired by his standards. He’s gonna crash bad later.” Frowning, he started skimming the older damage report summaries.
“Huh. He doesn’t usually get frazzled after we get a pirate-- well, not that I can tell.” Jake shrugged.
“No, he doesn’t, but-- oh.” Some of the light went out of Solo’s eyes as he read. “We don’t normally take this much damage. We lost three missile crews and decompressed half the ship’s waist when portside number six tube went up.”
“Damn.” Jake was silent for a moment. “Guess we were too busy to notice.”
“No kidding. He wasn’t, though, and he’s going to be kicking himself with second thoughts for a month.”
* * * * *
Chang waited patiently as the Longying finally returned to Shenlong’s boat bay, hands behind his back. Beside him, his executive officer cleared his throat.
The short, barrel-shaped man looked up at his (only slightly) taller captain. “With the amount of damage their ship has sustained, I am amazed they are still coming for lunch.”
One corner of the captain’s mouth twitched up in a faint smile. “Well, they apparently feel that the damage is not severe enough to require assistance, so…”
Hahn nearly choked. “Not severe enough--?!”
“You were off the bridge when they lost their main fusion bottle. I repeated my offer of assistance, and the response was -- ah -- I believe the exact words were, ‘No worries, we’ve got a spare’.” Black eyes sparkled with grave humour as the captain looked sideways at his XO. “They didn’t even revise their ETA; the Mop and Bucket rolled back into formation and towed the Deathscythe between them with tractors until they got their wedge back up and were able to match acceleration.”
“They-- between them?!” Hahn sputtered for a moment, going pale. “Both? At once? With tractor beams? And the ship is still in one piece?!”
“Oh, yes. They were very casual about it, too. Apparently it is standard procedure in their company.”
The glint in Chang’s eye was a little steelier now, but still amused. Despite its high standards and justified pride in its officers’ skills and precision, the Imperial Andermani Navy had some very stern regulations forbidding its ship captains from trying the exact manoeuvre that a couple of civilian ships had just performed perfectly… because if it wasn’t performed perfectly, with both towing ships holding perfect formation and matching tractor beam strengths to within a few fractions of a percent, the ship being towed had a nasty tendency to rip in half.
“…I would very much like to meet the helmsmen who did that,” Hahn breathed eventually, still wide-eyed.
“You may get the chance. And we are still not trying it.”
“Of course not, Herr Kapitän!”
There was a slight pause. Chang seemed to be waiting for something.
“…Not even with a drone?” Hahn eventually asked in a wistful voice. “Or a cargo container? Perhaps an asteroid?”
“*sigh* Understood, Herr Kapitän.”
A whistle shrilled as the personnel tube from the Longying opened, and the side party snapped to attention. Three slender figures in neat ‘formal’ shipknits swam down the tube, reaching the grab bar at the end and flipping neatly through the transition to Shenlong’s artificial gravity.
The lead figure looked around, long chestnut braid swinging, and focussed on Chang. “You must be the captain,” he said cheerfully, bouncing forward and sticking out his hand. “Is that right? I don’t know German, sorry, so if your rank means something else, I apologise, but it sounds awfully close.”
Chang shook his hand and bowed slightly, heels clicking together. “Yes, ‘Captain’ is appropriate,” he said politely. “Wufei Chang. My XO, Konrad Hahn.”
“Duo Ramirez y Maxwell. This is my brother and co-captain, Solo Ramirez y Maxwell; our third in command, communications officer and all-round awesome person, Hilde Schbeiker; and these two furballs are Shinigami and Loki.”
A dark bulk on his shoulder revealed itself as a treecat, not the bag it had seemed to be, as a pair of bright yellow eyes opened and the ’cat sat up straight, midlimbs and true feet keeping it steady; it blinked at Chang, made a quiet chittering noise, and offered one true-hand. Gravely, Chang shook hands again, then repeated the process with the blond co-captain, paler treecat, and dark-haired young woman.
“Man, somebody’s on his best behaviour,” Duo commented, twisting his head sideways to eye his companion. “He normally wallops me when I call him that.”
Shinigami huffed and looked away, nose in the air, and the communications officer rolled her eyes. “He’s saving it up for after we leave,” she said dryly, and the paler ’cat -- Loki -- made a sound that was very obviously a snicker.
“Is there a reason why your treecats are named after deities?” Chang asked, leading the way towards the door.
“Loki already had his name when we met,” Solo explained, “and it fits; he likes practical jokes. Shinigami got his name because we have a few Japanese-speaking crew members, and he’s death on vermin.”
“That sounds useful,” Hahn said fervently. “Some rats got on board in a shipment of electronics once, and it took weeks-- um.”
“Dude, I’m not going to think you’re slack for having rats on board,” Duo said bluntly, grinning. “If I did, I’d have to think we were slack for having snakes in the ventilation system a while back.”
“Well, not snakes exactly, but they looked like a cross between snakes and caterpillars, you know, little stubby legs all down the body. We caught a few small ones and thought we’d fixed the problem, and then Shini started going nuts every time he went near one particular section of the station. Turns out there was this nest--”
Gesturing broadly to illustrate his points, Duo walked into the formal dining room beside a fascinated Hahn.
“--so the next thing we knew, Shini’s yelling for backup because the adult snake-things are about five times his mass. Loki went in after him, there’s a hell of a racket with two ’cats yowling and snarling and the snake-things make this weird hooting noise when they’re injured, the emergency switchboard starts lighting up with people calling in panicking because they’ve got horrible noises and blood coming out the air vents, and when it was all over it took about a week for us to clean all the ducts out and fix everything. And you know what the best part was?”
“No,” Hahn said obligingly. “What was the best part?”
“There we are, wondering how the hell we had giant snake-things with legs breeding in the ventilation ducts without anyone noticing something was wrong, and this guy speaks up and says Oh, he’s been resetting his airflow sensor for weeks and finally pulled out some wires to shut it up because it kept beeping, and there was a funny smell, was he supposed to report it?”
Hahn’s jaw dropped. “What was someone like that doing living on a station?”
“I know! The idiot was propping his airseal door open to get fresh air! He grew up dirtside and was used to smells being nothing to worry about, but it’s not like he never got a safety lecture,” Duo snorted.
“Ms. Schbeiker?” Chang murmured, pulling out her chair and bowing politely as she sat down.
“Thank you, Captain,” she said demurely, folding her hands in her lap and watching her own captains with a faint smile.
“Ah! My apologies,” Hahn said, belatedly noticing that they had arrived. “Sir, if you would sit here?”
“Dude, don’t call me ‘sir’, it’s weird. ‘Duo’ is fine.”
“And you might as well call me ‘Solo’,” the blond said in resigned tones, sitting down. His treecat hopped off his shoulder as an orderly pulled out the next chair for him and chirped a thank-you. “With us having the same surname it’s just easier to use first names.”
“And like I said, it’s weird,” Duo grinned, dropping into his own seat. “We’re not military or anything.”
“Despite serving on an acknowledged and licensed Q-ship?” Chang asked, raising one eyebrow as he took his own place at the head of the table. “Even purely civilian ships still require a command structure, and Q-ships surely qualify as at least quasi-military.”
The two co-captains glanced at each other and shrugged in unison. “We’re a bit of an unusual case,” Duo started. “Um…”
“Many of the smaller Sweepers ships are run by a family, or a small group of friends,” Solo said, picking up the thread of the conversation. “Others, yes, there’s a single captain and a proper hierarchy of officers, people say ‘sir’ and maybe even salute. Us, though…” He shrugged again, looking a little uncomfortable. “We’re not in this for the money, though we’re doing our best to operate at a profit. Running expenses, repairs, upgrades and so on, we need to make money to take care of those, sure. We may be operating with a Sweepers registry, but financially we’re a separate concern.”
“I can see that there might be legal problems if you weren’t,” Chang agreed.
“Oh, hell yeah,” Duo muttered, starting to reach for his wineglass and pulling his hand back as he realised nobody else was.
“Duo and I financed the Deathscythe’s purchase and conversion with income from our personal shares,” Solo went on. “We’re legally separate from but affiliated with the main company, and we paid a lot of money to a bunch of lawyers to make sure that would stick. We’re even paying to hire the Mop and Bucket. Sorry, that was a bit of a digression, but it’s related to why we have the command structure we do.”
“You mean, why we don’t have a command structure,” Hilde smirked, unfolding her napkin.
“Why we have an informal command structure,” Solo amended. “Everybody knows who gives the orders, and we don’t have problems with insubordination or disobedience, because everyone who serves on board the Deathscythe is there for one reason. We hate pirates.”
He’d spoken calmly, but there was a depth of feeling in the words, and silence fell for a moment as stewards moved around the table. Duo continued the explanation, eyes dark.
“Our parents were killed by pirates when we were kids. It was one of the little ships Solo mentioned, run by a bunch of friends. We were the only survivors. And when we started up a couple of years ago, we got volunteers from all across the Sweepers. Everyone’s lost someone.”
“My sister,” Hilde confirmed, gaze steady.
“We bullshit a lot, and I know we sound like a bunch of jackasses--”
“Speak for yourself,” she muttered, and Duo stuck his tongue out at her before going on.
“--but we’re serious,” he finished. “Sure, we’re gonna have fun while we do this, but we’re deadly serious.”
Somehow, even with the faint smile still on his face, even after the childish-sounding banter and flippant style of his first communication with the Shenlong, Wufei Chang believed him.
“I see,” he said, steepling his hands in front of him. “You would need to be, to take the risks that you run in every combat. You took damage, in this latest fight…” He trailed off, not finishing the sentence, and Duo nodded. He was still smiling, but his eyes showed the pain.
“And casualties,” he confirmed. “Twenty-one dead and another five injured. Eighteen dead from our missile crews, three more who couldn’t seal their suits in time when we lost atmosphere in the underlying sections.”
Chang blinked, surprised, and knew it was showing on his face. “That’s an astonishingly light casualty list for the amount of damage you took.”
“Not to us. That’s a sixth of our crew.”
“One sixth?” Hahn asked incredulously. “You run the equivalent of a light cruiser with only a hundred and twenty personnel?!”
Duo shrugged. “We don’t run three full watches, we don’t have a cruiser’s full set of weaponry -- fewer missiles in our broadside, no grasers or lasers at all -- and we use a heck of a lot of automation and computer control. It’s not always the best option when you’re being shot at, but we’re redesigning as we go. So yeah, we have a small crew, and we know every single person on board, so we don’t need uniforms and titles and saluting to keep everyone in line.”
And you know every single person you lost today, Chang thought, watching him. By name, and face, and I would wager you also know their next of kin and who their death will affect… “Well,” he said, glancing around the table to check that everyone in attendance had a full wineglass in front of them, “your methods are demonstrably successful. I would like to propose a toast.” He raised his glass and paused, waiting until they had picked theirs up. “To the honoured dead!”
“To the honoured dead!” they chorused, and drank.
Halfway through the first course, Chang thought of something. “I wonder if you could explain something to me,” he said, turning to speak to Solo.
“Your brother said your ship has no lasers in its armament, but some of the visible damage to your opponents appears to be the result of laser fire. Very precise, fairly small-calibre laser fire.”
“Ah!” Solo grinned. “That wasn’t us, that was the Mop and Bucket’s work.”
“Not exactly.” Solo took a sip of wine to clear his mouth and elaborated, gesturing with his fork. “They carry enough spares to equip a repair station and can install them all, so they’ve got a full complement of EVA worksuits. Big, armoured, high-powered worksuits, with laser cutters strong enough to cut and weld full-thickness warship armour plate. And if you detune the cutters slightly, so that they’re firing a wider beam than usual, what you have is a weapons-grade laser. About the same strength as the ones usually mounted on pinnaces, if I remember right,” he mused, taking another mouthful.
“I’m beginning to see where this is going,” Chang said dryly.
“I’m sure you do,” Solo grinned back after he swallowed. “Okay, we had these two pirate ships, and we’d shot them up enough so they couldn’t run, had to surrender. They still had a bunch of functioning weapons, though, and they might not be able to bring up a full-strength wedge, but they had enough nodes left to suicide and take the Mop or Bucket with them if they were crazy enough to start up their drives after they’d been taken in-board. So they sent out a couple of workgroups in suits to burn out everything the pirates had left that might cause trouble, first.”
“They could still destabilise their own fusion bottles, if they are truly determined,” Chang pointed out.
“Oh, sure they could, but do you know how hard that is to do on purpose? You hafta basically lobotomise your own computer systems to shut the safeties down, and you’ve got maybe a fifty-fifty chance of managing it without losing your own control systems at the same time. Besides, it takes too long. It’s one thing to hit three controls and bring your wedge up inside another ship’s,” he pointed out. “That’s fast. Not much time for second thoughts. Sitting there for five or ten or fifteen minutes actively working to blow yourself up, though, that takes real dedication -- and believe me, the repair ship crews are watching their sensors very carefully,” he added. “They’ll see something like that happening way in advance, and all they’ve got to do is dump the pirates before they can crash their bottle.”
“At which point it kinda sucks to be them,” Duo agreed. “By the way, all that fuss with our fusion bottle nearly made me forget. Do you mind sending in some Marines or something to dig the pirate pricks outta their shells? A few of them abandoned ship during the fight, the Mop picked those ones up and has them in a locked cargo compartment, but we don’t really have the facilities to make the others play nice. The only armour we’ve got is the heavy EVA worksuits Solo was telling you about, and they won’t fit in the corridors, so our only practical options are to ask for a favour or blow them up ships and all.”
“Which would not be good for your operating budget?” Chang asked sympathetically, and hid a smile as Shinigami chirped out something emphatic-sounding.
“Yeah,” Duo said, rolling his eyes. “The furry accountant gets ticked if we don’t maximise our potential bounty, and frankly if we don’t realise enough profit from this to get a multiply-redundant comms system built into the ’Scythe I’ll get ticked.”
“I don’t see a problem,” Chang assured them. “You were planning to deliver them to our in-system base, I believe?” At Duo’s nod, he sat back in his chair and spread his hands, smiling. “Well, as an official representative of His Imperial Majesty’s government, I am empowered to take delivery of your prisoners and approve all relevant bounties. Since you’ve been kind enough to bring them to me in a way that will give my on-board Army battalion some exercise -- they’ve been rather bored lately, I understand -- we will be happy to take them off your hands and leave the ships with you. I do want copies of any information that can be stripped out of their computers, of course, and if you have records of the battle I can also authorise a bounty payment for the ship you destroyed.” His smile widened. “His Imperial Majesty does not wish anyone to be financially disadvantaged merely because they stopped a pirate ship permanently.”
Four heads turned towards him in unison, showing four answering feral smiles, nearly identical except for the length and pointiness of the bared teeth. “That sounds just fine, Captain,” Duo assured him. Beside him, Shinigami purred.
* * * * *
To Großadmiral Chien-lu Anderman, Herzog von Rabenstrange:
I have attached my personal observations and report regarding the non-aligned civilian Q-ship Deathscythe, and strongly recommend flagging their entry in the standard database download for our naval ships ‘render assistance and cooperation as necessary’. While at first glance they may appear undisciplined, their accomplishments speak for themselves. (See attached file ‘Bounties’.) I believe them to be honourable allies and intend to watch their future career with interest.
Please also note the technical files relating to the Sweepers repair and transport ships Mop and Bucket. Do not let the rather prosaic names detract from the amazing technological developments evident in the design of these ships! A small private company operating in Silesia has come up with something that may trigger wide-ranging changes in specialist ship design and even military tactics. I am sure you will be able to see the potential even more clearly than I. The separate file detailing what data my staff were able to obtain regarding their ‘heavy worksuits’ is also of particular interest, I think.
I could go on in this vein for some time, but I prefer to let the data speak for itself.
With affectionate respect, your cousin,
Kapitän der Sterne Wufei Anderman Chang, Freiherr von Bayreuth.
* * * * *
To Kapitän der Sterne Meiran Reinke Chang, Freifrau von Bayreuth:
My beloved wife,
If we are ever in the same system as the ship I met today, I must introduce you to her captains and their treecats. (The treecats would most certainly be offended if they were left out!) They appear rude, juvenile, and undisciplined, but in reality I believe them to be some of the most honourable and brave people I have ever met, truly worthy of respect. You will either love or hate them, and I look forward to finding out which…
For those who haven't read the Honor Harrington series, here are some handy notes on a few things! If you want to read them first, click here and then scroll back up for the ficcage. Be warned, here be slight spoilers!
- The first Andermani Emperor thought he was the reincarnation of Frederick the Great, and designed the imperial structure around his delusions. The population of the first planet in his Imperial domain were ethnic Chinese, and embraced all his ideas with enthusiasm since he'd saved them from a famine, including renaming their own planet from Kuan Yin to Potsdam. So yes, Wufei Chang looks Chinese and speaks Chinese... but speaks German as his other native language, and serves in a very Prussian star navy.
- A Q-ship is an armed ship disguised to look like an unarmed passenger liner or freighter.
- Letters of Marque (and Reprisal) are authorisations given by a government to a private citizen or craft, essentially licensing them to act like a pirate without being charged as one, so long as they restrict themselves to only attacking 'legitimate' targets - i.e. real pirates, or ships from a nation that is at war with the issuing country. This does not always work; a lot of people hanged as pirates in the past were operating under letters of marque. Luckily for Duo and Solo, they have no interest whatsoever in attacking innocents, and not even the Republic of Haven would execute them for capturing pirates. (...Probably.)
Todsense = Deathscythe (yes, Solo and Duo just ran the name of their ship through a bunch of translators when they were setting up their fake transponder IDs. We make no guarantees of grammatical accuracy.)
Großadmiral = Grand Admiral
Herzog = Duke
Kapitän der Sterne = Captain of the Stars, usually shortened to just Kapitän
Freiherr / Freifrau = Baron / Baroness
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