The amber and vermillion mottled world of Kalamor receded in the rear view monitors of the two slowly intersecting rocket ships. Ahead of them the striped and ringed gas giant Ognom loomed ever larger. Kalamor was the closest of the major moon of Ognom. It was almost liquefied by the constant torture of travailing gravitational tides exerted on it by its sister moons. The ever shifting volcanic landscape was rich in metals wrenched from the moon’s core. Kalamor was the major source of raw metals, including radioactives, for the entire planetary system.
Thirty minutes before his planned perigee Brock was startled when the Connalf Minimule’s proximity alarm went off.
He got a Doppler reading off the approaching object. Its relative velocity showed it was slowly closing in. Plotting a preliminarily orbit for it showed that was going to get close, within only a couple of kilometers. He checked the catalog of minor moons, asteroids and other assorted junk whirling about Ognom, but this object wasn’t listed. He activated a monitor. It was too bright to be a rock. It could be a bit of ice, but he didn’t think so. He wasn’t getting a transponder signal. This could be bad. He increased magnification and zoomed in. Yep. Definitely a rocket. Space was vast. Having two spacecraft within a 1000 km of each other outside of locally controlled planetary space was unusual. That suggested its appearance here was deliberate. Brock tried to think of why someone would want to intercept him but none of the reason he could think of boded well for him.
Then the message came in.
“Attention Connalf Minimule. This is Commander Yojen Krocs of the EFAR Palisor. I have been ordered to perform a search of your ship. I request your cooperation so we can complete the search as quickly and pleasantly as possible. Please stand by to initiate docking procedures. We await your acknowledgement.”
For a moment Brock was shocked into silence. Those moments never lasted.
“What in the seven hells of eternal torment are you talking about?” he yelled.
Commander Krocs answered calmly. “I am ordered to perform an inspection of your rocket. Prepare for docking.”
“Inpection?” Questioned Brock. “An inspection in mid orbit? Why? When did that become Federation policy?”
Commander Krocks had the Comms Officer transmit the portion of his orders authorizing the inspection while he read them to Brock.
Brock protested. “Ain’t nobody authorized to do nothin’ to me. I won’t allow it. What am I supposed to have done?”
“It is suspected that you are carrying illegal radioactive materials.“ answered the Commander.
Brock snorted. “Ridiculous. Here’s my manifest. You can scan for radioactives from where you are but I not going to allow anyone to board my ship.” Look at it from my point of view Commander. You just appeared from out of nowhere. Your transponder’s turned off claiming you are going to board me. For all I know you’re a bunch of reprobate pirates intending to hijack me.”
“Now who’s being ridiculous.” Said the Commander. “There hasn’t been any space pirates active for over 20 years. This is a Federation Atomic Rocket Cruiser and you know it. I’ve already been scanning your rocket but the readings I’m getting are inconclusive so I need to do a physical inspection your ship.”
Brock decieded to call the commander’s bluff. “What are you going to do? Force your way on board?”
“Per interplanetary law and the Xalamor Act of Interdiction, Yes, If necessary I will use force to search your rocket.”
Brock was lousey at bluffing.
“Whoa there! Hang on a tick. This is a neutral registered ship out of Gramethame. Gramethame’s not a signatory to the Act of Interdiction. Besides, I’m not bloody going to Xalamor. My destination is Lair Duc Lep. If you’re looking for a rocket going to Xalamor, you’re in the wrong orbit.”
“Whether yours is the right ship or the wrong one, my orders are to inspect you and I will.”
Brock watched the Palisor on his screens as it passed ten kilometers away from the Connalf Minimule. The nose of the Palisor yawed as it passed so that it was constantly pointed at his rocket. He could see the gun turrets on the war rocket swiveled as they keep locked on target. In a few minutes it would be directly ahead. Then it would close in to seize the Brock’s rocket and dock to the bow of the Minimule.
Brock decided to try another tack. “Let’s be reasonable Commander. It obvious we’ve got off on the wrong path so let’s start over again. I’m sure we can come to an amicable arrangement. I know I haven’t done anything wrong. How about this. We can dock together at Lair Duc Lep then your crew can do the inspection in comfort while you spot me a drink at the Hive of Mucs and Anilvily Pub. Or if you and your crew are short of legal tender, I sure I can see clear to order a few rounds for you.”
Commander Krocks was getting annoyed. If this character was really smuggling radioactives, he could have at least tried to offer some real money to bribe him and his crew.
“I have noted your objections in the log and they will be reported to my superiors as well as the governments of Gramethame and Lair Duc Lep. The diplomats can work that out. I’m sorry for the inconvenience but my orders are clear. An inspection will be carried out.”
The Palisor briefly applied a small amount of thrust to match orbit with the Minimule. When the acceleration stopped, the Caelumarines jumped.
Brock noted their change of course. He saw that something was happening. He also saw through his monitors two lines spread out from the approaching ship. At the end of each line were several dots.
“Palisor, I am contacting my rocket’s principles for instructions. Until I get a reply, hold your position and maintain your distance.”
“Acknowledged Connalf Minimule. Let us know when you get a response.” Replied Commander Krocs
But the Palisor didn’t stop. The war rocket continued to approach. The lines spreading out from the Palisor reminded Brock of the grasping pincers of a chelicer coming toward him. Brock had been stung as a child.
Brock zoomed in on the end of one of the lines. Grouped at the end of each line were several men in suits. A boarding party. The men were using their suit thrusters to deploy grappling lines to secure his ship.
At a squad of suited Caelumarines had evacuated from the ship and form up into two elements. The lead of each element connected themselves to the end of capture cables. The remaining members of the element would then take up their positions on the cable behind the leads. The squad leaped through the intervening void using their maneuvering thrusters to reach their target. Once contact was made they would secure the capture cables onto the other ship’s hull using grapples or if necessary spot welding them to the ship. Once it was secured by the cables, two members of the squad would enter the airlock to search the habitable portions of the ship while the remainder would climb around the outside with radiation detectors looking for contraband among the cargo containers. If need the cargo ship could be hauled in and forcibly docked with the bow of the Palisor.
The commander would have preferred just seizing the ship without giving it any warning. That would have been simpler. Warning their quarry gave it the opportunity to do something stupid.
And Brock Regus was about to do something stupid.
Brock was getting mad. This was a violation of his rights as well as interplanetary law. At least it was a violation of those laws that benefited him. The motherless Federation had no jurisdiction over him or his rocket. This was nothing more than a high handed act of unilateralism by the Federation. Their overbearing efforts kept the Xans a weak second rate power among the worlds and had played havoc with interplanetary trade and diplomacy for decades. Brock wasn’t a Xan but he sympathized with underdogs of any stripe. If the Federation started do this to small shippers like himself, who knew where it would end. Brock didn’t like it. He wasn’t going to take it. No, hew wasn’t going to take it at all. He reached for the reaction control system and started his rocket to yaw about.
“Commander, have your ship maintain your distance or be accountable for the results!”
The time for a polite discussion had ended.
“Connalf Minimule!” yelled Commander Krocs. “You are ordered to secure all ships system and stand by to accept boarders. Per Caelumtime Law and the Xalamor Act of Interdiction an inspection will be made of your ship and cargo. We are prepared to use force if necessary and will fire upon you. Acknowledge this order and prepare for docking!”
Brock’s reply before he cut the connection was quite rude.
The Connalf Minimule was about 50 meters long and massed almost 100000 kilograms. As a result it turned like a sauropod wallowing in a mud flat. It would take ten minutes to spin the ship about.
“Stop forward motion and hold position at five kilometers from the target.” ordered Commander Krocs.
The Palisor fired its forward thrusters to halt it approach. Their trajectory had been aimed directly at the docking port in the nose of the Minimule but that was moving out of alignment. Attempting to approach the Minimule in a spiral trajectory while matching their target’s rate of spin was a losing game the Commander didn’t care to play.
Adrenaline levels spiked for most of the crew.
Stuck out in the middle of the deep and black with the seven other men the missile officer queried “Orders commander?”
“Continue your approach. Attempt to make contact at their center of mass where the spin is less.”
“Comms, continue to broadcast our demands. Let me know when they respond.”
The commander paused for a few moments in thought.
“Gunner. Load starburst shells. Blind their eyes and let them know we are serious. Also I’m sure our Caelumarines would appreciate if you could avoid shooting them.”
“Acknowledged. All hands activate flash shields. Firing in 10 seconds.”
All over the hull of the Palisor cameras either powered off or darkened as flash shields covered their lenses while the men in spacesuits reached up and lowered visors to protect their eyes.
“Three, two, one, Fire!”
The turrets of the Palisor fired a rapid volley of shells that streaked across the intervening void. All around the Minimule brilliant eye searing flashes of light exploded. Brock’s monitors were filled with white static as every external camera on the freighter was over loaded. He also heard a sound like hail rattling on a metal roof as minute fragments of the exploded shells impacted on the cargo rocket’s hull.
The gunnery officer called out “Clear.” as the starburst’s glare faded from sight.
A minute passed.
The Connalf Minimule still keep turning.
“Any reply to our commands?”
“Negative.” answered the comms officer.
“Caelumarines, get to that ship as soon as you can. You have about three minutes before you’re out of their shadow shield and exposed to the radiation from their reactor.”
The Caelumarines used their suit thrusters and almost half of their available propellant to accelerate toward the Connalf Minimule. The two lines of men angled in sharply toward the ship. They were coming in fast. Soon they would have to decelerate to avoid slamming into the ship hard enough to rupture their spacesuits. Approaching from the bow of the freighter had allowed them to avoided the deadly cone of radiation that pourred out from the end of the unshielded fission core in the rocket’s stern. As the cargo rocket turned they lost that protection given by its sheltering bulk. That cone of radiation was creeping up on them like an invisible yet deadly spotlight. Fortunately the effects of the radiation wouldn’t be immediately fatal. They could still successfully accomplish their mission even after exposure. They would also receive posthumous commendations for their valor.
They were at five hundred meters and closing.
There was movement on the Minimule. Four cargo handling arms unfolded from the sides of the ship. Each arm was about 20 meters in length. Looking like the long thin striking arms of a hunting mantid they moved into threatening positions while the manipulators at the end of the arms made disconcertingly eager grasping motions.
“You’re almost there.” encouraged Commander Krocs. “Avoid the arms and continue your approach.”
The lead of each line waited until the last possible second before hitting their thrusters.
The Missile Officer was leading the starboard line. As he started to slow one of the arms lunged toward him. With the deceptive slowness of objects moving in free fall he watched in growing terror as it closed on him. Relief flooded through him as the open manipulator sailed past only a meter away. He look behind but the arm also missed the other men following him. He readied himself to grab onto something. Instead he felt a sudden jerk that smashed his nose against the faceplate of his helmet. The arm had not been reaching for the men, but for the cable they were attached to. It had grabbed a hold the line and made a swinging motion that whirled the men around like stones in a sling. After being flung about in a couple of nauseating circuits, a scissor like cutter at the end of the arm snipped through the line hurling them out into space.
Watching from a distance Commander Krocs cursed.
The Caelumarine’s top non-com leading the port line had seen cargo arms approaching both groups. When the arm approaching the starboard group missed all of the men on the line he knew something was wrong. Acting on instinct he released himself from his line. He was about to order the men following him to do the same when another cargo arm grabbed the line they were still attached to and promptly threw them back into the void. With a grunt he slammed into the freighter and bounced. Swinging the space axe he wielded, he jammed it into an open structural truss. The axe came out of his hand but the automatic take up reel of its safety line pulled him back. Relying on the axe to keep him connected to the freighter he brought his carbine to the ready. The arm that had so contemptuously thrown off his men was turning now toward him. Taking careful aim he fired at the camera at the end of the arm. He figured that if whoever was directing the arms couldn’t see him, it would be a lot harder to grab him.
He felt more then heard the reassuring chatter of the carbine firing as pieces of camera and manipulators broke off the arm. Behind him pieces from the frangible reaction part of the cartridge slammed into a cargo container. The carbine when using free fall cartridges had almost no recoil. The cartridges worked fine as long as no one you cared about was in front or behind you.
The damaged arm halted and froze in position.
He looked around for other threats.
Two other arms were backing away. The one he had shot wasn’t moving. The base of the fourth arm was on the other side of the freighter and he couldn’t see it from here. He didn’t think it could reach all the way around to where he was.
He keyed his comms.
“Commander, I’m on board. I’m going to make my way to the bridge and force my way in.”
“Acknowledged Top. The rest of the boarding party is nominal and we will recover them once the ship is secured.”
The rest of the boarding party didn’t like it, but they could wait. They they had plenty of air
“Yes sir. Moving out now. “
The structural trusses making up the framework of the cargo rocket provided places to secure cargo as well as convenient hand holds to cling to.
The Top set hooks that extended in front the soles of his boots. Slinging his carbine, he slipped the hooks under the cross pieces of the truss. He gathered up his axe and adjusted the length of its handle. He reached out ahead and hooked on with the curved beak on the butt of the space axe. Unhooking one foot he took a step and hooked it to the truss again. He did the same to the other foot. Reaching out with his axe he then set it again. He always had at least one firmly secured point of contact to the ship as he slowly worked his way toward the bow of the cargo rocket. He could have moved to the bow much quicker by going hand over hand, however, if he needed to use his hands for anything other than hanging on he would be in a very vulnerable position and risk drifting away from the hull. The propellant tanks for his suit thrusters were almost empty. If that happened, he might not be able to get back.
After moving along for a few meters the Comms Officer called out “Cargo Arm moving. Behind you to your right.”
The Top spun around drawing his carbine. He took aim on the moving arm. It stopped and then moved back in a weaving motion. He considered trying to take out the remaining arms. To do that he would have to hit the cameras or actuators and that was an iffy proposition at this distance and in this light. Most of the new batch of Caelumarines he was getting these days would have just gone ahead and use the spray and pray method of marksmanship to try and disable the cargo arm. But he was old school. He had been trained that a Caelumarines was first, last and always a rifle man. One shot one kill was what you aspired to. Besides, emptying the magazine now could leave him without any ammunition when he needed it later.
“Thanks for the warning. Keep watching my back.”
He turned and continued on his way. That old itch between his shoulder blades was back. He knew there were active threats back there. The suit’s helmet and pack restricted his ability to look behind. It made him jumpy.
Suddenly the freighter’s thrusters fired. It had almost finished yawing about it y-axis. The Top was thrown to the side but he maintained his footing.
While it was stopping its yaw the freighter also fired a rapid series of bursts from it roll thrusters. They were trying to shake him off he thought. It wasn’t going to work. He hung on tight. The thrusters eventually stopped firing with the stern pointed toward the Palisor.
The Top resumed his march. After moving a few meters the Comms Officer shouted out again “Movement directly behind you!”
He twisted about as best he could in his suit. The cargo arm that he thought he had disabled was moving again. It had straightened itself out and this time it wasn’t trying to grab him. It was moving vertically downward trying to swat him like a bug. He fired at the arm hitting it. But it wasn’t flesh and bone but a blind, unfeeling column of metal. He might as well been shooting the main support beam of a rocket gantry with a sling shot for all the good it did him. The actuating motor was hidden back behind some angular cargo containers. It was coming down right on top of him.
In a single motion he swung up his axe and threw it down and to the left. Its head went through the thin metal side of a cargo container. He freed his boot hooks and jumped to the side just before the cargo arm smashed into the spot where he had been standing. Again the space axe’s take up reel automatically drew in the safety line, pulling him to the end of the axe’s handle. Getting his feet back on the hull he pulled out a length of the safety line then locked the take up reel so it wouldn’t start pulling until he released it. He then jumped. Sailing up several meters he fired his carbine at the cargo arm’s shoulder motor until it was riddled like a sieve. He used the remaining propellant in his jet pack to stabilize his attitude then took aim at the two remaining cargo arms that he could see. He shot out the elbow motors in each arm freezing them in their currently bent position. His was now clear of threats from behind.
Releasing the lock on the take up reel he floated back down. He spent the next minute catching his breath and waiting for his heart to stop pounding. He circled around to make sure there was nothing else sneaking up on him. Reaching down he grabbed the edge of the rent his axe had made in the container then began to work loose the axe head.
That’s when what felt like an angry three legged burro kicked him in the back.
Commander Krocs watched as the Top left the hull of the Connalf Minimule and flew off into the void.
Somehow they’d gotten to him.
“Demiurge take your soul.” he cursed!
Both rocket ships were caught in a political crisis not of their own making. Commander Krocs and officers like him still remembered the vicious interplanetary war with the Xans that caused the death of millions. Cities were vaporized. Orbital habitats and ships destroyed. He believed in the Federation’s continuing efforts to prevent that from happening again was worth the price. Over the years the Tepid War had waxed and waned. Both sides employed economic sanctions, espionage, political assassination, subversion and everything just short of open warfare.
In the back of Commander Krocs mind the realization that the current situation was slipping away from him started to form. This would probably cost him his career. Despite his orders authorizing him to destroy the cargo rocket if necessary, the political firestorm and subsequent official investigations would forever tarnish his record. Even if his Lords and Masters supported his decisions, and there was no guarantee that they would, he had seen other good men destroyed by circumstances beyond their control. Obey your orders and be vilified. Disobey and be cashiered.