Desdemona and Shenmue streaked away from Santo, engines straining as they fought to escape the planet’s gravity well. They were followed by three attack bug fighter craft, engines flaring blue-white as they attempted to catch up.
Worth continued to extract Desdemona’s pulse beacon from its recessed housing deep in the guts of the luxury yacht, surrounded by shiny Newtech control systems that weren’t just top of the line, they were above the line.
Doc Tulsa remained in the corridor, cleaning up the spilled narcotics from the wine cask.
Jonah rode the wave of numbness pulsating from his midsection and fought to keep his head clear as his hands played across Desdemona’s slick control surfaces. He could tell from the power levels and throttle settings that Desdemona was a fast ship – certainly the fastest he’d ever flown. He was reasonably confident that she would be able to outrun the attack bugs if need be. He fed more power to the ship’s thrusters and easily pulled ahead of the approaching craft.
YJ gritted his teeth as he watched the streamlined space yacht slip ahead of his decidedly lower-performance vessel. He played with the idea of going for hard burn, but he hadn’t even decided on a course heading.
Wild Sky kept an eye on Shenmue’s radar as the sprites representing the three attack bugs closed in. They would be in visual range in seconds. A feeling was beginning to fester in the pit of her stomach, the notion of not being in control of a situation that was threatening to grow dire. She wasn’t sure what her nerves were telling her – was this a feeling of anxiety or adrenaline? She shook her head and started thinking. What could she do to throw the pursuers off their trail? Jamming was a possibility, given that they were outside visual range, but it would only provide temporary relief once the pursuing craft got a fix on the source of the static. But how reliable were the sensors on homebuilt spacecraft like the attack bugs?
“Should we call them and find out why they’re chasing us? If they’re after the drugs, we can use that.” Jonah asked over the comm channel.
“I reckon I’m not too inclined to make queries of those who are shooting at my back,” Wild Sky said.
“Let’s keep going!” YJ said.
Jonah went for hard burn, redlining Desdemona’s thrusters. “There’s no way they’re carrying enough fuel for a long chase,” he reasoned.
YJ opened up the throttle and Shenmue shuddered as it leapt into a hard burn.
One of the attack bugs stubbornly closed the range.
With a final twist of the crescent wrench, Worth pulled Desdemona’s pulse beacon free and swapped it for the pre-programmed beacon in his overalls pocket. Desdemona ceased broadcasting its identity, and began pumping out a new signal.
He looked around the engine room and tried to think of what to do next. “Can’t shoot at ‘em, don’t need to fix anything…hungry…” he said to himself. As he admired Desdemona’s inner workings, his mechanic’s eye was pulled to the ship’s power plant configuration. Desdemona was a topline model, full of Newtech amenities and efficient systems. But its avionics modules seemed off, somehow, as if they weren’t drawing enough power from the fusion reactor to necessitate the fancy power plant. He moved to the nearest diagnostic terminal and pulled up a schematic, transferring it to a handheld. He nodded to himself as he confirmed his suspicion – the wiring system was laid out in a counterintuitive way. Where was the rest of the juice going?
Back on Shenmue, Wild Sky chose to ignore the maelstrom of emotions flowing through her and focused on the matter at hand. “They’re outside visual range,” she murmured, almost to herself. “They’re tracking us with systems, so there must be a way to black us out or white them out.”
“Electronics is all they have,” YJ agreed. “If we had a signal blocker or a crybaby, that would be something.
Wild Sky ignored him as she took stock of Shenmue’s sensor system. Which would be easier – sending something out to scatter their sensors, or something that could hide Shenmue against the void of space? Or take a quick scan of the surrounding areas and make the output match the environment?
“We have any weapons on board?” Wild Sky asked YJ.
“Transport ship ain’t got no guns,” YJ replied.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “I might as well put on a spacesuit and throw knives.”
Jonah took note of a flare of energy on his radar screen. One of the attack bugs boosted its engines and closed to medium range.
Worth examined the ship’s schematic and noticed power lines that appeared to go nowhere, terminating in black voids on the ship’s schematic. He matched the schematic to the colored cabling tucked into plastic tubes that ran from the power plant, and followed it deeper into Desdemona’s inner works.
YJ applied every ounce of his piloting ability to the task at hand, squeezing every last drop of performance out of his ship. One of the attack bugs dropped off Shenmue’s radar as the transport pulled ahead. However, another made it into visual range. A line of tracer fire streaked across Shenmue’s bow as it took a long shot at the fleeing transport.
The service corridor that Worth followed ended in a hatchway that led to maintenance tubes as the wiring disappeared through a bulkhead. According to the schematics, he was near the air intakes for Desdemona’s atmospheric thrusters – not exactly the sort of thing requiring massive amounts of power. He wedged himself into the access crawlway and continued the search.
Jonah jumped as Desdemona’s sensor system let out a panicked squeal. It was the unmistakable sound of a missile lock. On the radar and on his head-up display, a pinpoint of light streaked from the nearest bug.
“He’s got a missile lock, what do I do?” Jonah asked YJ.
“Evade!” YJ advised. “Can’t you check whether your ship has countermeasures on board?”
“It would help if there was more than one person on the bridge,” Jonah said, exasperated.
He jinked sideways and spun Desdemona in an approximation of an evasion maneuver. The ship’s keen reflexes masked Jonah’s limited piloting abilities.
The missile stayed on lock, inexorably closing the distance between it and the luxury yacht.
Wild Sky fiddled with the sensor system, hoping to run silent. “Adjust your heading and see if they follow,” she told YJ.
Jonah willed Desdemona to accelerate, widening the gap between him and the approaching attack bugs. Rivulets of sweat coursed down his face as the missile drew closer. A quick check of the sensor HUD showed the missile still on course, and to make matters worse, the attack bugs were closing the range easily. Desdemona swerved as the missile streaked closer.
Tulsa was examining the bodies laying sprawled in the corridor, careful not to get blood on his clothes, but Jonah’s frantic shouts and the incessant blaring of the missile lock persuaded him to go to the bridge.
Desdemona’s thrusters glowed white hot as it streaked into the Black, edging ahead of the pursuing ship.
YJ breathed a silent prayer of thanks as he noticed that the attack bug had not altered course to following his new heading, and decided to push his luck, putting more distance between him and the clueless attack bug.
Worth could feel the temperature dropping as he crawled through the maintenance tube, following the mystery power cable. It diverted down an even more cramped compartment that according to the schematic readout was very near the ship’s atmospheric intakes. The cable terminated at an oblong cylinder made up of modular units trussed up with capacitors and connectors, about three feet in diameter, with an avionics patchbay attached to it.
The burly mechanic sucked in his breath as he realized what he was looking at – the magazine of a missile launcher.
Worth keyed open his communicator. “So, I was kind of bored and decided to take a walk around. It’s the darnedest thing, I tripped, and when I looked back at what I tripped over, it was a missile launcher.”
“You see a trigger somewhere?” Jonah asked.
“Yeah, right here,” Worth said, and then made the sound of a missile launching into his communicator. “Did I get you?” He grinned.
“Why don’t you come up to the bridge and we’ll see if we can’t fire some missiles off, what do you say, buddy?” Jonah asked.
“Why don’t you tell me if you see anything up there, because this shouldn’t be here and I’m not sure if it can’t be fired from where I am right now,” Worth said. “Can you find any controls?”
“A little busy here,” Jonah said. “Why don’t you come on up, I’ll keep them from shooting us down, and you can fire some missiles!”
“What’s the Doc doing?” Worth asked.
“Having a nap, I don’t know,” Jonah said.
Doc ambled onto the bridge.
“So Doc, you have any experience in locating missile launcher software? All right? Grab a seat!” Jonah asked.
Doc took the communications officer/sensors position and examined the console. “What am I looking for?”
“Just look for anything on your terminal that shouldn’t be there, like an obscure icon, or something.” YJ said.
Worth grunted and began extricating himself from the maintenance crawlway.
The attack bugs on Desdemona’s tail started closing in, having lost track of, or interest in, Shenmue.
“So you guys take care, and we’re going to go,” Wild Sky said.
Doc examined the arms of his chair, noticing that the right arm had an inlaid glass surface instead of the matte black finish covering the left side. He played with it for a few seconds, checking for secret catches or a hidden on button. He deftly tapped a tattoo on the glass. Suddenly the glass flickered and brightened, and a digitized female voice said, “Weapons systems initialized.” Doc’s arm was suddenly encircled in glowing holographic haptic feedback rings from his elbow down to his wrist and finger joints. A head-up display popped into his field of vision giving him status updates on not one but three separate weapon systems – an anti-personnel gun, a 20-pound cannon, and a missile array.
Jonah dutifully applauded as best he could. “All right, yes!”
As far as Doc could figure out it was a simple point and shoot interface. The machinegun was mounted on a rotating blister mount, but the cannon was fixed forward. A glowing outline of the ship showed the location of the two missile launchers, mounted port and starboard.
With one final desperate maneuver, Jonah wrenched the controls and spun Desdemona out of the way of the approaching missile, which detonated almost out of spite, close enough to rattle the ship, but far enough away to not do any damage.
“So what I did worked?” Wild Sky asked YJ as Shenmue streaked away. The pilot nodded. “So it seems.”
“Okay, now that I know it worked, I’m going to tell you how to do the same thing,” Wild Sky said.
“Worth, get up to the bridge, and Wild Sky can walk you through it,” Jonah said. “And while we’re waiting for him, why don’t you give them something to be distracted by, if you can figure out how to fire a few missiles, that’ll keep their eyes off the sensors for a minute. Hippocratic Oath be damned.”
“Oh boy,” Doc said.
Worth bolted back towards the bridge.
“Worth,” Wild Sky was saying, “I think I’ve found a way to hide the ship.”
A line of cannon fire streaked out from the nearest attack bug, missing Desdemona only by a hair.
Doc Tulsa pored over the controls for the ship’s weapon systems. With every move of his fingers, the controls cycled through each weapon’s fire control configuration, including the load-out of the missile launcher array. He noted the ammunition counter for each cannon, and the HUD told him that the launchers were loaded with four 100-pound missiles in each bay, three kinetic warheads and one decoy in each magazine.
“Fire missile!” Tulsa said, clenching his fist.
“Warning,” the synthesized female voice interrupted. “Be advised that discharging this weapon system is a violation of local fire control ordinances and federal Alliance law. Corporate legal department may be notified of this action.” It repeated the message in Chinese.
Jonah rolled his eyes.
“We’re going to fire this bad boy,” Tulsa said. He formed his hand into the shape of a gun and pulled the trigger at the targets on his VR display.
The launcher obediently spat out a missile, which rotated on its axis and kicked in its thrusters, hurling itself at the attack bugs. They scattered as the missile failed to achieve a lock.
“Warning, Legal has been identified of this unauthorized weapons discharge,” the weapon system’s fire control computer said, almost apologetically.
Worth stumbled onto the bridge.
“You grab the weapons, and I’ll spoof the ship,” Jonah ordered. “Fire the decoy as soon as we go quiet!”
Worth shoved Tulsa from the chair and allowed the VR hologram to encase his beefy arm.
Wild Sky quickly explained to Jonah how to bounce ambient environmental data off the ship’s sensor beacon, masking it from outside scans. He patched in to the ship’s sensor controls and fiddled with the settings while Worth prepared to fire the decoy, selecting it from the missile system loadout.
“Fire the decoy!” Jonah shouted as his scrambled Desdemona’s sensor output.
Worth programmed the decoy to fly in a straight line away from Santo and launched it as Desdemona banked and flew in a completely different direction. The attack bugs did not alter course.
Jonah breathed a sigh of relief.
Then Desdemona’s commo board lit up. A signal-boosted video file was incoming – first class post, in other words.
Jonah nodded at Worth to open a channel. A window opened up in his pilot’s HUD.
None other than Declan Jenner was seated in his office, his jaw set, but otherwise looking as cool as a cucumber.
“Inspector Stevenson, I must say I’m very disappointed in you.”
“Disappointed?” Jonah countered. “We just reclaimed one of the most well-protected ships, even more protected than you’d find on your average star base. What is there to be disappointed about, Mr. Jenner?”
“Yes, well, you did leave quite a mess behind in your hasty departure with the Baron’s property, I’m afraid. And it is my understanding that four members of Desdemona’s hospitality crew are unaccounted for? Can you vouch for their safety?”
Jonah did the math. “The hospitality crew’s fine. Ship’s security dressed up as hospitality crew, on the other hand…” he cleared his throat.
Jenner’s eyes widened. “Well, I’m very sorry to hear that,” he said. “This was supposed to be an inspection, an interview. Instead, you shot up a town, and stole the Baron’s ship. What could have possessed you to do something so recklessly foolish?”
Jonah held up the reclamation notice. “This was actually perfectly legal, as it seems the Baron has defaulted on his payments.”
“So what you’re saying is, you impersonated federal Alliance officials in order to repossess a legally-owned starship?” A smile crept across his aged face. “I’m sure you understand that breaking the law, even if it is in the course of repossessing property, is itself a crime?”
“You’re absolutely right,” Jonah said. “I wonder if me and the Baron will be on the same cell block, because of what we found on the ship.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jenner said.
“Maybe you do, maybe you don’t,” Jonah said dismissively. “Needless to say, whatever trouble we have, the Baron will have it much worse. Even if he can weasel his way out of lockdown, the damage to his reputation, dealing in this sort of stuff, it’s not worth a couple of lowlifes like us, and a ship he wasn’t paying for.”
Worth cut in. “What’s that phrase they use in the corporate world? ‘Cut your losses’?”
Jenner ignored the comment.
“So here’s the deal,” Jonah said. “You tell the Baron know that if he forgets about this whole thing, we’ll make sure it all goes away.”
“Or, he can follow up with the actual owner of the ship that he’s defaulted, and go on the straight and narrow,” Worth added.
Jenner shifted in his seat and swallowed. “I’m going to give you one chance, and one chance only.”
“To do what?” Jonah asked.
“To return the ship to its point of departure and its rightful owners. And you’ll be free to go, no questions asked.”
“That’s exactly what we intend to do.” Worth said.
“Except with your assurance you will never return to Osiris and or contact Baron or any of his operations ever again.” Jenner added.
“Well, we have no plans to contact the Baron, but we can’t guarantee that we’ll never be in your neck of the woods again,” Worth said.
“I can’t imagine why you think that if the Baron’s not going to pay for it, that the owner wouldn’t take it back,” Jonah said.
“That’s hardly the point,” Jenner said.
“That’s exactly the point,” Jonah said.
“You haven’t given me a compelling reason for not turning you, and everything I’ve learned about you, over to the Feds.” Jenner snarled.
“Because the moment this ship gets seized by the Feds, they are going to wonder who it was that brought wine casks full of highly illegal narcotics onto the ship. Because it certainly wasn’t us. Port Authority video will show it wasn’t us that brought it on board," Jonah said. "So do you want us to turn around and have a meeting with the Feds then?”
“We can call ‘em,” Worth added.
Jenner’s expression was carved in granite. “Again, very disappointed.”
“Mr. Jenner, go ahead.” Jonah said.
“It all comes down to a question of leverage,” Jenner said. “You’re banking on the idea that questionable cargo on board Desdemona will outstrip the severity of the crimes you’ve committed?”
“At the end of the day, we just work here,” Worth said. “You can take it up with the parties with which you have a disagreement about the ship in question. We’re not in a position to make those kind of executive decisions.”
“Then I suppose I’ll be in touch,” Jenner said, and cut off the signal.
The attack bugs broke off the pursuit and dropped off the ships’ radar.