Captain Jacob Tremblay raced down the passageway, grasped the metal stair rails and slid to the bottom of the short stairway. Pausing a moment to catch his breath, he headed off again at a run. He reached his destination, a door on the right-hand side of the corridor, a moment later. He pounded the button next to the door and shoved his way past the opening door. He entered the hangar, took a quick look around to find the craft he was looking for, and raced over.
The sound of a cold-started engine filled the nearly empty hangar moments later as the captain broke the regs by launching without an adequate safety check. “What the hell,” he told himself, “there’s no one here to see, and if I don’t, no one will ever be able to call me on it.” He knew he’d catch hell from his chief mechanic when the crew returned, if there was anything to return to.
He fired the boosters at levels that he would have tossed anyone else in brig for using in the ship’s atmosphere. Slewing the fighter around to line it up with the magnetic containment field at the hangar’s entrance to space, he blasted out of the hangar and rolled the ship on it’s axis as he shot into space.
He spotted the raiders as he made a low sweep over the curve of the hull. Six beat-up looking vessels had come upon them at the worst possible time. There weren’t enough people on the Ghost to even qualify as a skeleton crew, and he was the only one with any flight experience. Good thing he practiced in the simulators every couple of days to keep his skills up.
He rotated his fighter to minimize the cross-section he presented the raiders and punched the acceleration. Hopefully with the way those raiders looked, he’d just show up as backscatter on their scanners until he was on them. Flipping the safety off his railgun triggers, he sighted the newest-looking raider and waited. Closer, closer. When there was no hope of the raider scooting out of the way, Jacob took his shot. The electro-magnetically accelerated charges slammed into the raider and exploded, shattering the poor bastard’s canopy. The other raiders scattered and Jacob pursued. Rolling away from the wreckage he’d just created, he searched his instruments and the vast darkness around him for another target. His scanner immediately locked onto another one of the raider ships, this one a design twenty years out of date. Jacob flipped up another switch to arm a ship-to-ship missile and launched. His fighter kicked briefly as the rocket detached and started its burn. The fighter automatically adjusted for the launch, putting him back on the course he’d had previously, and he scanned the area around him for another raider.
One of the raiders, having apparently decided it wasn’t going well out there, attempted a strafing run on the Ghost, and had the big ship’s defense grid been operational, that would have been the end of it. Ghost’s guns would normally have peppered the void with coherent light and explosive railgun shots. The raider wouldn’t have stood a chance. Unfortunately, with the crew mostly away, there weren’t enough people on board to man the defenses and fly the vessel. The few aboard were trying to make it as hard as possible for the raiders to get a bead on the ship by flying evasive patterns. This raider, however, was not fooled by the ship’s juking. Staying mere meters above the surface of the ship, the raider fired round after round. Seeing this, Jacob spun his fighter end to end and dove back in the direction of Ghost. Flying close between cooling fins, communication masts and other protrusions from the hull, he closed in on the raider.
He rose over the curve of the hull and positioned the raider squarely inside his targeting reticule. This close to Ghost, a bad shot could be disastrous. When the targeting computer indicated a solid shot, he squeezed his railgun trigger and shot off the wing of the raider. It spun away in the darkness and Jacob once again looked around for another target.
In just a few short minutes, he’d cut the raiders’ numbers in half. The rest took this as a sign that it was time to leave and, as a group, the rocketed out of sight.
“Captain?” a hesitant voice came over the communicator.
“The raiders have rendezvoused with what looks like a cargo freighter outside the next planet’s orbit.”
“And?” Jacob asked impatiently.
“Well, it looks like they’re heading away. Yes – they’ve just spun up their QT drive and are jumping out-system.”
Jacob smiled grimly. This was good news, but he was not fooled – he had gotten lucky. A more competent group of raiders would have had him dead to rights, and then the Ghost and what was left of her crew would have been gone for good.
With a sigh, he turned his fighter around and headed back to his home for the last eleven years. As he cruised back to Ghost, he toggled the comm to his bridge crew, “Did they hit anything vital?”
The response was a little while coming, “Uh… not that we can see.” Jacob sighed again – had his full crew been aboard, he could have gotten a complete report on the ship’s status, what repairs needed to be made before they reached dock again, and how long those repairs would take. Since he only had a handful of officers aboard, and they were already all doing more than their fair share of duties, that was about all he could expect for now. He’d have to look over the ship himself before going back inside.
He rolled his fighter back over the hull to the spot where the raider had been hammering at Ghost. When he arrived, he was distressed to see how much damage had been caused by the solitary raider. Chunks of molten metal and twisted bits of who knew what floated alongside the ship. The hull itself was mangled to the point of bare recognition. It was a wonder that the raider hadn’t hit anything vital, if indeed the report from his stretched-too-thin crew could be believed. Jacob peered closer at the chewed-up area of the hull. Something down there wasn’t right. When he spotted it, his blood ran cold.
Swearing under his breath, he toggled the comm again. “I need someone out here now,” he barked into the mic, more harshly than he’d wanted. “There’s something on the hull and I don’t know whether it’s a transmitter or a bomb.” And I don’t know which would be worse, he left unsaid.
Within a couple of minutes, one of the handful of crew aboard popped out a nearby hatch. Securing himself to the handhold nearest the opening, he slowly made his way over to the suspicious lump that Jacob had spotted. He knelt down beside the bulky cylinder and ran his gloved hands gently over it from end to end. He looked up at Jacob’s fighter, still hovering over the spot and shook his head.
“What is it?” Jacob asked over the comm.
“It’s a bomb,” the officer replied, a quaver in his voice.
“Can you remove it?”
“No, it has mass proximity sensors. If we move it too far away from the hull, it will blow.”
Jacob swore loudly. “Any chance at all of getting it off?”
“Well sure, but once it’s about five meters away from the mass of the ship, it’ll blow. And given what sensors say is inside it, five meters away is plenty close to blow a nice big hole in the hull.”
Jacob pondered this for a minute. “Well, if we can’t remove it, can we at least disarm it?”
“Well, it might be possible, but I can’t do it.”
“Okay, thanks – you can head back in now.”
Jacob let him mind wander as he brought the fighter back to the bay. Sometimes this was a good way for him to come up with a solution to a particularly vexing problem, but today it wasn’t working. He was no closer to a resolution when he shut down the fighter’s engines than when he’d first spotted the device. Reinforce the hull under the device? Given the nature of the explosive, that didn’t seem to be a particularly viable option. Tow the explosive away using a small, fast ship? You risked destroying the small ship and still having a big hole in the main vessel.
His mind continued to swarm the problem as he walked back to his stateroom to take a quick shower before heading up to the bridge. He ran his fingers through his damp hair one last time before stepping off the lift onto the bridge. “Status report,” he called out.
“We took a little damage from a couple of the raiders, but nothing that should concern us too much… except the bomb.”
“Yes, except that,” Jacob shot back sarcastically. “Any thoughts?”
He looked around the bridge at the few crew stationed, and saw them all shaking their heads.
“Well, we won’t make the pickup with the rest of the crew at this rate.”
At that, one of the officers seated at the engineering station cleared his throat. Jacob rounded on him. “Actually,” he began timidly, “it’s worse than that. We can’t maneuver at all with the explosive attached.”
“Because as soon as we engage the intra-system drive, our mass profile will change and set off the bomb.”
“Well, as you know,” the junior engineer started in, warming up to his subject, “on a ship this size, we use a gravimetric drive for travel within a planetary system. Basically, we lock the drive on any nearby mass and pull or push ourselves around using artificial gravity. The problem here is, if we try to use the drive while the bomb’s attached, our mass will change as we push or pull ourselves along a graviton beam. And because the bomb is set to our present mass, any change will set it off.”
Jacob sat back in his seat grimly. So that was why the raiders hadn’t come back – they didn’t need to. Suddenly, he sat up straighter as a thought occurred to him. “Can we use the gravity drive to simulate mass?”
“What do you mean?” asked one of the other officers.
“I mean, can we point the gravity drive at the bomb and make it seem like we’re still attached to it?”
“Yeah, yeah we can!” Excitement began to show on the faces of the bridge crew as they realized they might escape from the raiders’ trap unscathed. “We’ll need a fairly precise mass profile of the ship and definitely someone with a deft hand at the targeting scanner – the bomb’s pretty small, and we’re used to aiming at planets and stars.”
Jacob pondered this, “Do we have any gunners aboard?”
“No, sir. They’re all with the rest of the crew.”
“Anyone with gunnery experience, even if they’re posted to another station?”
“I’ll check on that.”
A tension-filled minute passed while the officer checked with the computer personnel files. His eyes widened momentarily and he turned to face Jacob. “Warrant Officer Dupont has the background you’re looking for.”
“Seriously? Well, call down to the chapel and get her up here.”
**Author’s Note: Honestly, I don’t recall where I was going with this one. I think I was aiming for space-opera, but I’ve misplaced all my notes and it’s so short, there’s not a lot of clues there.