Harrington-Wing ‘verse backstory 2: Three characters reach a crossroads in their life.
Mike Howard leaned back in his station chair, propped his feet on the one spot on his console where he wouldn’t kick any controls, adjusted his sunglasses and closed his eyes in blissful relaxation. The New Broom had just dropped out of hyper; in a few hours, they’d be in a parking orbit around Telmach, at which point his first officer would be taking over and he, Howard, had an appointment with that little family restaurant tucked away in a corner of the customs station’s commercial sector. Fresh food, fresh, real vegetables that had been grown in real dirt and never come within a mile of a freeze-dryer, cooks to whom the word ‘reconstituted’ was an insult… his mouth was watering already.
He was considering the all-important question of dessert when his happy reverie was interrupted by a raucous alarm from the communications board. “Well, shit,” he said conversationally, not moving. “What fuckery has the universe decided to inflict on us this time?”
“Distress signal,” his communications officer said grimly. “It’s a delayed Dutchman squawk.”
Behind his glasses, Howard’s eyes snapped open, staring blankly at the bulkhead. One of ours, he thought, going cold.
The first order a pursuing pirate would give a cargo ship was always to shut off any distress signal their transponder might be sending. Once the pirate had taken what they came for and were safely out of missile range, of course, the cargo ship could turn their transponder back on and signal for help… if the pirates had left anyone capable of doing so. If they hadn’t, a ship that had been attacked on the edge of an out-of-the-way system could drift unfound forever.
Sweeper ships had an extra feature built in to their transponders. If they were used to send a distress call, and then turned off without a security code being input, they would wait eight hours and then automatically switch back on to send a ‘Dutchman’ signal -- ship is drifting, requires immediate assistance -- giving any survivors at least a slim chance of being rescued before their air and power ran out.
“It’s the Whisk,” the officer went on miserably, and Howard swore, kicking back from his console and slamming his chair upright.
“What the fuck-- what the hell kind of cargo did they think they were carrying?! The Whisk takes mail ferGodsake, not valuables, not spare parts, nothing a fucking pirate can use! Are those fuckers potting couriers for fun now? Is this the braindead set’s new-fangled replacement for tin cans and a pellet rifle? Fuckers should shoot themselves in the foot, ha, no, torpedo to the pricks, that’d teach those inbred cretins not to play with big boys’ toys--”
His mouth was on autopilot, hands moving over the controls to send the New Broom onto a new heading at maximum acceleration as he continued to swear, stream of consciousness invective against an uncaring universe.
“--dickless bastards probably don’t have anything there to shoot off anyway. And somebody get on to Telmach local control, ask them what the flying fuck they’ve been doing! The Whisk had to have been putting out their initial distress call at least eight hours ago, why the fuck haven’t Telmach gotten there yet?!”
Time crawled. The drifting hulk of the Whisk was only barely inside the Telmach system’s hyper limit, almost 120 degrees around the ecliptic from where the New Broom had hypered in; it took just over four hours to reach her, even with Howard cursing his engineers into taking most of the safety interlocks off the engines. (They held firm against removing all of them once the inertial compensators started to flutter.) The local government--
“Fucking excuse for a government you mean, bunch of retired pirates themselves, assholes can’t be buggered doing a damn thing so long as their own precious persons aren’t touched, and you know they tip the pirates off to good targets to buy their own immunity!”
--sent an answer back to Howard’s question -- which had been diplomatically rephrased by his communications officer -- nearly an hour into the trip, causing a new spate of cursing.
“No point?! No fucking point going after a Dutchman? Like hell there’s no point, you damn well go after them because somebody might be alive and even if they aren’t they’ve got family wanting to know for sure! Put those fuckers on a shuttle and shoot out the engine, drop them somewhere all alone signalling a Dutchman and see if they think there’s a point to answering one then! --And why the fuck didn’t they answer the first distress signal, huh? Ask them that! Ask them why the fuck they sat on their hands with their thumbs up their asses for eight hours before the fucking Dutchman signal, hey? In those words, Ricardo, no prettying it up this time! In those exact words, you ask those fuckers why the fuck they sat on their fucking hands with their fucking thumbs--”
“Oh man,” the navigator said sadly, looking up at the main screen. Howard grunted.
The Whisk was tumbling slowly against the starry background, scorchmarks and ruptured plating showing where drive nodes had overloaded. Gaping holes in the hull exposed a mangled cross-section of cargo spaces and passageways, dimly illuminated by the distant sun; they snapped into bright contrast as someone brought up the New Broom’s close-work spotlights and trained them on the wreck.
Ricardo was hunched over his console, running every scan he had sensors for and searching all the communications bands for even the faintest signal. “No lifeboat beacons,” he sighed eventually, sitting back in defeat. “No suit beacons. No suit radios, either, and I’m not getting any power or temperature readings off the ship, Howard. I’m sorry.”
“Call Myron and tell him to suit up,” Howard growled, levering himself up out of his chair. “Lexie too. I’m heading over.”
“Who was on the Whisk?” the navigator asked quietly as the door snapped shut behind Howard, glancing over at Ricardo. “I haven’t been keeping track.”
“The twins, Carlos and Christian,” Ricardo said glumly. “Along with Aelfrida and Manon, and most of the usual bunch who ship out with them… and their kids.”
“…Oh, man.” He turned back to the main screen, looking at the wreck of what had once been a bright and happy ship, remembering faces. The Sweepers were a fairly large and growing organisation, but you still got to meet everybody sooner or later, and the kids had been memorable; bright eyes and impish grins, blond and brown heads always together as they plotted something. Then he remembered something more and stiffened, eyes going wide. “Oi, wait, wait-- those kids-- isn’t Howard their godfather?!”
< < What are we looking for? > > Lexie asked, voice sounding a little tinny over the suit radio. < < Given that you seem to have a destination in mind, I’d like to know if I should be keeping an eye out for anything in particular-- beyond the obvious. > >
Howard grunted acknowledgement, pulling himself along the darkened corridor. Jagged-edged bits of wreckage were complicating their passage, and it took care and attention to avoid getting snagged and stuck -- or worse, puncturing a suit, tough though they were. “That’s right, you’ve never shipped on the Whisk, have you? We bought her second-hand, but Carlos and Aelfrida added a few things that aren’t on the plans when we refitted her.”
< < Huh. > > She paused for a moment, giving Myron a hand past a half-shut emergency airseal door, jammed when the main power went out, then retransmitted. < < So we’re looking for what, again? > >
“We ain’t looking for shit,” Howard growled. “We’re heading for the bridge.”
< < Gotcha. > >
The next airseal door was closed, but the (self-contained, battery powered) readouts were blinking yellow, showing vacuum on both sides; it opened fairly easily when Howard braced his feet against the bulkhead and heaved, sliding back on its rails.
There were bodies on the other side, three drifting corpses in shipknits, caught without suits when the atmosphere blew out.
< < Sneaky undocumented refits sound better all the time, you know? > > Lexie said tightly, reaching out to gently stop one of the bodies from spinning. < < Maybe we could add sidewall generators next time, provide some extra protection. Or how about something that goes ‘bang’? > >
“We thought about it,” Howard said almost absent-mindedly, feeling his eyes burn with unshed tears. Myron was silent, catching another corpse and carefully nudging it to the side of the passageway for Lexie to tape it to the wall, awaiting retrieval. “You got any idea how much that stuff costs? And not just for installation either, or cash cost. I mean energy budget to run ‘em, how much mass they add that you’ve got to pay to move.”
< < …Too much, huh? > >
“Yeah. Aelfrida ran the sums a few different ways. If you add on enough stuff to actually be useful in a fight, it ups your running costs and drops your cargo capacity far enough that the ship’s not economical to run any more. If you keep it down to what you can support and still run at a profit, you’ve got a sidewall that might as well be wet cardboard and one or two popgun-sized lasers that’ll just piss a pirate off. Nice idea, though,” he conceded, staring grimly down the ruined corridor. “Damn nice idea.”
When they reached the bridge, Howard headed straight for the communications console, letting Lexie and Myron deal with the few crew corpses not strapped into their seats as he twisted himself around until he was hanging upside-down, head and half his torso vanishing underneath the blank displays. “Where’d they hide that damn thing again… fucker better not be stuck,” he muttered, poking at the smooth metal until a tiny hatch opened and he could reach in to push a recessed button. “Ha!”
< < Now what? Myron, d’you know what he’s doing? > >
< < Nope. > >
“This ship,” Howard finally explained, puffing a little as he hauled himself back out and rotated back to normal orientation to use the keyboard, “has a panic room. We don’t advertise it, ‘cause it’s useless if everyone knows about it, and it only holds a couple of people, ‘cause if half the crew is missing when pirates get on board, the bastards’ll look for them -- but the girls figured…” He sniffed, scowling. “Aelfrida and Manon reckoned that if worse came to worst, a chance at saving two was better than a certainty of losing everyone.”
The button had brought up the emergency power, and one lonely window appeared on the main display; nothing but a blinking cursor waiting for input. Holding himself in place with one hand, Howard carefully typed in a string of numbers and letters and pushed ‘enter’, and was rewarded by the wall panel behind the captain’s chair popping open to reveal a half-sized personnel airlock. The status lights were glowing a clear green.
“Oh, thank fuck,” Howard breathed, and only realised he’d spoken aloud when he heard the echo in his helmet. “Somebody’s in there. --Myron, Lexie, I’m going in, see if we need to bring a rescue bag or what. You… you take care of the bridge crew, could ya? Move them into the ready room,” he went on, finally letting himself look at the bodies. “If it’s the kids in there… these are their parents.”
The airlock was cramped, barely big enough for one adult, and he tried not to fidget as it pressurised. The display finally cleared, warning lights all flicking from yellow to green, and the inner door opened to reveal a tiny room--
--and a flechette gun pointed straight at his head, held rock-steady in the hands of a nine-year-old blond boy, gray-blue eyes hard. The seven-year-old behind him was clutching a taser, darker blue eyes wide but determined.
“Whoa!” Howard put his hands up, then slowly reached over to his helmet and depolarised his faceplate, switching on the external speaker at the same time. “Hey, Solo, Duo. Do me a favour and don’t shoot me, okay?”
The blond blinked, gun wavering off aim. “…Uncle Howard?”
“Yeah. You two okay?”
Solo sniffed, lowering the gun and rubbing at one bruised cheek. “Banged up a bit. We didn’t manage to get into the restraints before the gravity went.” Almost as an afterthought, he clicked the safety on the pistol and tucked it inside his jacket; Howard breathed a silent sigh of relief.
“It was really fast,” Duo agreed, waving the taser for emphasis and automatically correcting the slight spin the movement started. “Mom grabbed us and shoved us in here and like a minute later bang, the lights went off and the gravity went out and everything was rattling and… nobody came to get us,” he finished, voice going small and frightened. “She said somebody would come and get us as soon as it was safe, but nobody came and nobody came and--”
“Hey, I came, didn’t I?” Howard interrupted hastily, reaching to pat the younger boy clumsily on one shoulder. “Sorry it took me a while, but I came as fast as I could and I’m here now, right? Now, d’you two have your suits?”
“No.” Solo sniffed again, wiping his nose on one sleeve. “Aunt Manon said we didn’t have time to get them even though they were right there. Dad was yelling when we came through the bridge, too, he said the pirate had already launched…”
Which explains why nobody had time to get into their suits, Howard thought grimly. “Well, we’ll have to fetch them then, or bring a couple of rescue bags over from the New Broom to get you out of here. We’ll sort it out, okay? You’ll be out of here soon.”
They nodded, and watched him solemnly as he switched his suit radio back on to call Lexie, and didn’t ask what had happened to their parents. They knew.
Back on his own bridge, with Solo and Duo down in the messroom being fussed over by Lexie, Howard settled into his chair and stared at the Whisk, still centred in the main display.
“What now, boss?” Ricardo asked quietly.
“Recovery first,” Howard told him. “Get a working party together and bring all the bodies back; we’re taking them home. While that’s happening, I want you to strip the computers. Squeeze every byte of information out of them, anything that could identify or track that pirate. We’ll pass it to every Sweepers ship and all the anti-piracy patrols in Silesian space. I don’t care who, Manticoran, Andermani, Havenite, everybody gets the full download. Then call in the salvage squad. I don’t think there’s much left salvageable on the Whisk, but we’re taking it all out of this system anyway. I’m not leaving a single damn hull plate behind for Telmach to salvage.”
“Got it,” Ricardo nodded, turning towards his boards.
“One more thing.”
Howard’s voice was as cold as space. “When this is done, no Sweeper’s ever coming back here. I’m putting the Telmach system under embargo. We don’t ship for them. We don’t ship to them. And private ships are a separate matter, but if there’s a Telmach government-registered ship putting out a distress call… we don’t hear them.
“See how they like it.”