Starquest — Space Pirates of Andromeda, Episode Four

Chapter 01  Aboard the Devil's Delight
Galactic Year 12820, Planet Zavijava, Geostationary Orbit

A Terrible Place to Die

No one was near Captain Athos Lone of Star Patrol while he waited in the airless silence to learn if he would live.

 If he died here, none would see.

As he waited, he wondered how a famous hero like his father had found a way to stay alive long enough to woo and wed his notorious mother, and found a family.

His parents had taught him that, with the proper preparation, (and the blessings of a lucky star) to sneak aboard even a pirate ship filled with bloodthirsty cutthroats was not impossible. Making out alive again, however, just might be.

When the pirate raider made orbit about the blood-red globe of the primitive jungle-planet Zavijava, and shut down her drives, no sensor ray, no lookout, was peering along the line of radioactive exhaust trailing behind her. Nor did any ship design call for closing the drive tubes and engine works away from the vacuum of space. Nothing would detect or prevent a man crawling his way into a still-hot rocket tube, because no one was crazy enough to try it.

The Devil’s Delight was a six-hundred-foot long, dark-hulled, shark-finned, sleek and needle-nosed raider, built for speed and streamlined for maneuverability in atmosphere. The skull-and-crossbones, a symbol older than history, would glimmer and grin from the concentric spheres of her powerful force shields when they were raised in battle.

No shields were raised now, not here. Why bother? In this remote system?  Zavijava was beyond the volume of space claimed by civilization. It wasted energy to raise and lower shields each time another spaceboat towing an empty shipping container was launched toward the blood-red planet, or came laboring above the atmosphere fully laden, to the rendezvous.

The main drive tube of a pirate ship was a terrible place to be. It was utterly dark, an absolute vacuum, and even his sophisticated spacecloak could not long withstand the residual radiation from the superatomic engines.  

Why was he here? As an undercover officer of Star Patrol, Captain Athos Lone had known the suicidal risks involved when he volunteered.

Piracy had been on the rise ever since the Empire fell. The newly-formed Republic wrestled with factions and riots and with all the birth-pangs of galaxy that had forgotten what freedom was. Quelling piracy on the sparsely settled frontier was a low priority.

But, in recent months, the colonies of the Odobenine, a stubborn and quarrelsome Walrus-like starfaring race dominant in this distant sector, had suffered not just raids and harassment, but larger, full-scale attacks. Armed patrol vessels and orbital fortresses had been smashed, and settlements bombed. The pirates were equipped with military grade equipment. Who was the supplier? 

This had been the case his older brother had been working on. Athos would see it through. So here he was, crawling up the blast tube of a pirate raider.

This was a terrible place to die. If the Devil's Delight ignited her torch for any reason, even a short, mild burst to put her into a higher orbit, there would be no warning. There would be nothing of Athos left to bury, not even ashes.

It was also a terrible place to try to break through. That was why no one would guard against it. Which made it, oddly, the best place to try.

The reinforced pseudo-neutronium alloy of the drive tube wall was designed to withstand the continuous blast of power fierce enough to propel a forty-thousand-ton warship through multiple gees of acceleration. An acetylene torch or cutting ray would have been a joke. A limpet mine or explosive charge would have been a suicidal joke.

But there was a weakness. The continual assault of high energy particles would slowly but surely crystalize the alloy in any place where the drive tube was not periodically degaussed, creating a laminate build-up wherever such patches of rot were not laboriously scraped free.

Aboard a properly run warship, such build-up was not allowed to happen. Stuffing midshipmen down into radiation-hot drive tubes to watch them scrape and degauss was one of the joys of being an officer.

But if his mother had ever taught him anything, she had taught Athos that space pirates preferred hard liquor to hard work.

He ran his gloved fingers across the pitted and radiation-scarred surface. Near the valve of the ignition chamber, Athos found a smooth patch of crystallization large enough for his purposes.

This patch of alloy was just as heat-resistant and hard as any other: but it was brittle. A hollow spike could be pounded through it, and a liquid coolant forced through the spike into the layers formed when the metal crystalized. These layers, when cooled, would contract and separate, and then could be peeled away with a hammer, chisel and crowbar.

He went to work. Noise there was none in the vacuum of space. Beneath the alloy was a layer of insulation material, which Athos cut through with a pickax, anchoring his boots in place magnetically so that he could make strokes he needed without spinning wildly in the zero gravity.

With every passing minute, with every huge, silent, two-handed stroke of his pickax, Athos expected the drive to ignite, and obliterate him. But, no, apparently the captain was satisfied with this orbit.

The layer beneath the insulator was ordinary steel. An ordinary cutting ray did the trick.

He made a small opening and wormed his way in, careful not to touch the hot edges of he the hole. But when his head and shoulders came into the range of artificial gravity beyond, it surprised him. Suddenly one direction became "down", and the weight of his upper body yanked him that way, pulling his floating legs after. Down he fell.

Athos tumbled through a nest of cables and plumbing, but landed gracefully on his feet in a crouch on a metal surface. He felt the jar in his ankles, but heard no clang.

He was inside the engine housing. Here was the machinery surrounding the drives and cyclotron and main reactor, pipes and tanks for fuel and coolant, but still no air, no crew.

"Step one," he muttered to himself silently. "Bravo Zulu and done."  

Now all he had to do make his way to the bridge, and find and copy or steal whatever brain pin held the ship's navigation logs, and depart.

Step two was to enter the pressurized inner decks. "Easy as popping grapes," he muttered.

He found the master valve which let fuel into the explosion chamber for the drive tube he had just punctured. After pulling out the leads to the motorized control, he twisted the wheel to shut the valve, and thrust the haft of his pickax through the wheel spokes to jam it in place. If the pirate captain did ignite the main engine now, the other drive tubes would light up, but not the one he had breached — otherwise the whole ship would go up like a firecracker.

Now that he was inside the ship, the important thing to avoid (so his mother had taught him) was any energy use. Blasters, miniature spy-bots, or drones, and all suchlike gewgaws were more risk than they were worth.

Every deck on a starship was rigged to detect radiation, and internal sensor sweeps could pick up even small power use, much less the bolt from a blaster or ray from a needle-beam. In a skilled hand, at close quarters, a dirk was as swift as a pistol, and more silent.

Staying out of sight was not as hard as one might think, not aboard these older, Pre-Constitution Era warships. The double-redundancy, brute-force approach to engineering of the Imperial Era ships made it typical to have three or more separate, self-contained pressurized compartments like little hulls within the hull, connected by internal airlocks, and these had insulation gaps or maintenance-bot crawlspaces between them.

Athos made his way from engineering, in the stern of the ship, nearly to the prow, by wiggling through the cramped between-deck gap between two of these internal pressure hulls. Had he been wearing standard issue space armor, of course, he could not have fit.

The multivariable shape-changing energy-fabric of his spacecloak was a technological secret that younger races could not by bribe or barter gain. Indeed, the fabric was programmed to self-destruct when probed. The cloaks were woven by an elder race, one nearly driven to extinction under the Empire, and donated to the newborn Star Patrol. The gift was one mere coin could not repay. Such marvels demanded marvelous deeds, even if done in the dark, and alone, unsung.

And so Athos continued to worm and squirm his way around cramped joints and down narrow channels, ever deeper into the Devil's Delight.

The access crawlway ended in an internal closet holding a stubby maintenance box. Older ships favored airtight, solid doors and manually-dogged hatches instead of see-through force fields. This meant the closet was not only airtight, it was dogged shut with a solid, oval door, quite opaque.

So there was none to see when the little bot stirred and flashed a sensor beam at him curiously. With a savage, sudden motion, Athos thrust his dirk into a seam in the robot's skull, just between the brainbox and the power cell, and pried it out of place, so the robot's body, including its voicebox, was cut off before it could raise any alarm.

With the tip of his blade Athos severed the control leads, so that the robot was motionless and voiceless, but the damage was hidden from casual view. 

Robots were manmade, but they were intelligent beings. The evil days when anyone could simply destroy one or erase its brain were long gone. As a patrolman, Athos' calling was to see those days never returned.

Athos saw a hand-held reader hanging on a magnetic clamp, amid other tools heaped haphazardly here in the maintenance closet. A hopeful thought occurred to him. Hurriedly, Athos pried open the brainbox housing, and used the reader to check the bot's memory index.

Negative. Athos fought back a sense of frustration. Of course the pirate captain had not told a simple maintenance bot where the ship was going! Still, some criminals forgot the hard lessons of the Machine Wars, and tied all their robots together into one interconnected system, including navigation. It had been worth checking.

The power cables for half of this deck ran through a node box conveniently placed in this same maintenance closet. Athos pried opened the box and severed the cable feeding power to the lights throughout this section of the ship.

The maintenance closet doubled as an airlock. To exit, he had to risk re-pressurization, even though the use of power and air would surely be noted by some automatic log somewhere. The deafness of vacuum was replaced with a roar as sound returned to his ears. His spacecloak changed texture and stiffness as one atmosphere of pressure cocooned him.

He had a moment to wait while his spacecloak returned to the shape and texture of ordinary fabric. Now he could feel the locket he kept on a fine chain at his neck, hanging over his heart. Now he could open his cloak.

Athos could not resist. It might be his last time to see her.

Inside was a holo of the head, neck, and shoulders, of the one girl he was forbidden to woo. She smiled demurely. The image could be viewed from any angle. When Athos turned the locket in his fingers to admire her elegant coiffeur from behind, he saw the little, pale hairs tickling her swanlike neck. The image turned and look coyly over one bare shoulder at him.

This one girl he had been strictly forbidden to see, or to desire.  Her name was Niobe.

Athos snapped the lid shut. He pressed the locket briefly to his lips, and tucked it away beneath his tunic.

Niobe was of the ancient house of Linn, the oldest known noble clan among the hominids, which ages ago had intermarried with the Nemean dynasty of Lyonesse. Because the imperials had slaughtered her family, she was the last heiress of her line.

Even her name was music to him. Niobe Lady Linn of Lyonesse

And if he died, would she even know he had ever lived?

Was she the real reason why he had volunteered for this lunacy, this suicide mission?

No. It was because he knew he had advantages no other patrolman had. Being the son of a galactic hero, even a disgraced one, gave him opportunities other men could not enjoy. That meant he had extra obligations other men need not shoulder.

The lance pistol was the remaining one of a matched pair his father had once carried into combat during the war, blazing death in either fist. It was a family heirloom: an ancestor had carried the pair during the Unholy Wars, centuries ago, in the days before the Empire. Modern blasters could not match its craftsmanship. 

His family in particular, with its strange destiny, entrusted with stranger secrets, had opportunities not even the sons of the kings could imagine. And there was one secret not even his father knew, nor his brother. Athos put his hand to the hidden pocket in his spacecloak, and felt the metallic surface, warm to the touch, of the ancient mask. The artifact stirred slightly beneath his fingers. Startled, he yanked his hand out. Athos was not sure what that meant.

But, at that point, pressure on both sides of the door was equalized. It was time to go.

The unkempt lower decks of a corsair ship filled with murderous rogues and roughnecks, the scum of the spaceways, was surely a terrible place to die. But duty had brought him here and the need to live up to a glorious name.

There were many places safer to be. It was not a safe life he desired.

Next installment: Myth Tech