“Get in here!” Crimson only spared a darted glare for the MiPie as he clambered into the cockpit.
Andross’ nose was still red, and his cheeks frosty white from Qwent’s brutal climate. He sniffed violently, as he dropped into the pilot’s seat, and began flipping switches for liftoff protocols.
“Air/Space Traffic Control hasn’t granted AEP,” Crimson growled. Entering orbit without authorization was illegal on most worlds, and inadvisable on the rest. Most fully equipped space shuttles had the instrumentation to detect anomalies in atmospheric conditions, and calculate a safe course while avoiding the average space traffic. But a rogue shuttle or High Altitude Aircraft could enter a shuttle’s flight path faster than anyone wanted to admit. Local landing authorities had granted liftoff, but without Atmospheric Escape Permission, they could end up circling for hours. Not fuel efficient.
Andross continued his system checks. “Wouldn’t be the A/ST if they were fast.”
Crimson was watching the cargo hold hatch screen. Shaak-Rom was closing the door. The warning light went out. “We’re closed.”
“Firing up,” Andross said, bringing the bulbous wing engines online.
She didn’t stop him. Three of her crew were being ferried off-world to have their arms replaced with industrial mining drills. She was going to be airborne before they were.
The intercom crackled with Shaak-Rom’s voice. “Micron’s onboard. Clear for departure.”
A Linkburst came through their communication channel. Crimson connected to the live feed. “Boatman,” she announced.
Clidjitt answered, “The homing beacon has rendezvoused with a Skedcom transport coordinate congruent with a scheduled departure for a deep orbit space station; called the Irglikerrg… It appears to be a work station hub for the Umdatsia cluster.”
“Big enough for a mad surgeon?”
“Affirmative,” chirped the Brev.
“Can Rival dock there?”
There was a pause.
“Nav-comm confirms the transport has departure clearance.”
“Snake-spit!” Crimson pounded the console with her human fist.
Clidjitt continued his updates. “I had vertical movement on the homing beacon.”
Crimson felt her throat constrict. She demanded, “Can the Rival dock the work station?”
“Affirmative,” replied the Brev’s happy voice, “But there’s a problem. Given our position and takeoff trajectory from your locations, the transport and Boatman will arrive 36 minutes before the Rival can.”
Crimson pounded the console again; she was running out of things to hit.
“Shall I liftoff?” growled Andross.
For an average human, the MiPie was fast. They both knew: an hour to rendezvous with the Rival and pick up the rest of the crew could leave them an arm and leg behind the slave traffickers. If Air/Space Traffic Control didn’t play ball, even worse. Crimson heard Shaak-Rom in the passenger compartment behind the cockpit. They were strapping in. The A/ST didn’t tend to look kindly on preemptive liftoffs, but they didn’t have time.
Andross fired the engines. The Boatman lurched as they bucked gravity and lifted into the snowy sky.
Ten minutes and 33 seconds of climbing and Atmospheric Escape Permission flickered across her screen. Crimson was already calculating a sharp escape velocity. She flicked the nav-ball—tossing the flight path to Andross’ screen—and snapped, “We have AEP; gun it!”
The former missile pilot barely glanced at the equations. He sniffed, “With pleasure. Full thrust. Inertia shields up.”
The Boatman banked and hurtled upwards. The familiar crush of climbing g-forces, and the roaring vibration of escape velocity mounted. Snow clouds disappeared from their view screen and the sky turned dark. Then fire radiated around them as thermosphere added its blazing resistance to their path.
Suddenly it was over. The trembling, violent inferno disappeared. Black space perforated with a million stars, and opened like an endless, four-dimensional hole of possibilities.
Follow the white rabbit, alluded her Mindframe. Crimson keyed in a Linkburst request.
Clidjitt answered. “Rival Bay here.”
“Where are they?”
“On course to Irglikerrg. I will send you the Nav-comm itinerary, and slave the homing beacon to the Boatman’s onboard computer.”
It was four hours and change to the Umdatsia/Qwent work station Irglikerrg. The Skedcom transport carrying routine parts and labor for the cluster’s allegedly legal mining industry would arrive quarter-of-an-hour before them. The Rival Bay would be 38 minutes behind.
Gator had also uploaded the additional data from the wavelength monitor of Tager’s homing beacon. The garbled noises from the container pod were mostly useless, background noise. Apparently doomed slaves didn’t chat loudly, or often. Still, Crimson routed it to her voicechip. If screaming started, she intended to ram Irglikerrg Station, and sift through the slaver’s bodies in an EVA suit.
But barring that, they needed a plan. With the Boatman on autopilot, Crimson called them together in the passenger compartment.
They were four. Herself, Andross, and Micron were still in possession of the Boatman’s emergency mini masers. Plus she had her small-gauge sidearm hidden in her cybernetic leg’s spacious thigh compartment. Andross had his (probably illegal) sidearm she’d known nothing about. Shaak-Rom would don his full suit of Gripstone, and take his heavy baton; the Duka master would have to cope at close range. Knowing space stations, though, most distances would likely be close range….
“Okay. We don’t know how this is going down.” Crimson ran a hand through her purple Mohawk, knowing it would immediately fall limp. “I’m having Gator and Clidjitt send us any station maps they can get. Micron, you’re our map; download whatever they send, and lead us once we’re in.”
The android nodded. Contrasting his disturbingly humanoid “muscle” structures and eyes, the two old police antennae behind his ears—was the one reminder of the android’s synthetic nature—that and being the only thing onboard the Rival beside the insectoid that didn’t wear clothes.
“How are we getting in?” Andross quipped, slouched causally on a passenger’s chair. He held his mini maser end-to-end, and spun it with his index fingers.
“We fly the Skedcom flag. Gator’s working on fake docking privileges for us as we speak. Once on board we locate where they’re holding our crew, and the surgical facilities. Hopefully they aren’t processing slaves immediately. But if they are, we need a plan and we need it fast.”
“What about booby traps?” Shaak-Rom asked, his red eyes keen.
Crimson wasn’t feeling constructive. “That’s the trick, isn’t it.”
Micron, seated comically, his short legs sticking out like a child’s, piped up, “I can also try to access station schematics, and see if there are alternative access ways into the medical facilities.”
Shaak-Rom replied, “We should also cover any back entrances.”
“… If we can locate any record of Lomblurrg—before they take the slaves to surgery—we take him first.” Crimson looked at each one seriously, “We pose as Skedcom to get in. After that, we push as hard as we have to.”
“Fly the pirate colors,” Andross nodded smugly.
“We’re working for the Qualvanan authority. It’s undeclared war; Sir Francis Drake. They’re criminals; we’re busting them.”
She doubted even Andross would understand her Mindframe’s reference. Then again, one man’s privateer was another man’s pirate.