“I count fifteen pirates,” Shaak-Rom relayed, “They’re investigating the Boatman.”
“Did Clidjitt get aboard?” Crimson’s voice asked. Her breathing also sounded labored; she was moving thought the ship.
“I saw him,” Cort’s voice interjected.
Shaak-Rom grit his pointed teeth. It was still a gamble that the pirates would not think to check if the Rival’s crew had used such a simple way of keeping in touch. He watched them carefully. But the pirates did not seem to respond to Crimson’s comment. A few poked at the Boatman’s airlock and ramps, while others stood guard, waiting for orders to proceed. The hanger door was still closing like Tulperion tree sap.
The pirates abruptly called off their investigation of the Boatman, evidently not determining it a threat. They began to move towards the doors.
Shaak-Rom fell back and sucked in another dissatisfying breath of thin air. They would force the door easily. More air would rush into the vacuum of the shuttle bay. He reckoned another minute before the bay doors would seal. That gave him 60 seconds of advantage. The wind would be at his back. He would strike the first pirates within reach, and dive back into Shuttle Bay 2. If his ancestors gave him luck, he would not be shot.
He raised his Gripon baton with his right hand and tightened his grip of the maser with his left.
There was an electronic grinding noise, then a buzz. The door opened.
A critical moment passed. Wind rushed through the open portal. Shaak-Rom winced, but held his ground. His head tendrils inadvertently lifted to reach for additional air, as though grasping to keep it from rushing away. He hardened his face, and opened his teeth, to drop his white facial markings into the ceremonial war mask of his people.
A fast repeating projectile rifle dashed forward into the hall, followed by a pirate.
Shaak-Rom’s baton fell, crippling the intruder’s shooting arm!
But the professional killers made a life of seizing ships, it seemed. He’d moved into the unscouted hallway with skill. Instead of simply knocking his opponent’s weapon down and blasting the first hapless thug backwards with his maser, Shaak-Rom was instantly surrounded by three pirates who were fast at the heels of their comrade.
Instinct became reason. Shaak-Rom shouldered the surprised point-man, and fired into the closest second with the maser. He pushed the first aside with his weight and dropped to the floor whirling, cracking the knees of the third pirate. Gun! screamed his instincts. Shaak-Rom was still spinning on his knees and brought his maser round to squeeze an energy blast at the fourth pirate even as a crack of noise erupted from the pirate’s weapon. Shaak-Rom felt fiery heat stab through his shoulder. But whether it was the escaping oxygen at his back, or the spirit of his father, Shaak-Rom rose in the same movement and cracked his baton across the stumbling third pirate’s armored neck joint, even as the fourth fell back, struck in the chest by the maser blast. The fifth pirate jumped forward from the door. Left arm unresponsive, Shaak-Rom strained to rake his baton across the intruder’s weapon with his right. Its deadly discharged went into the bulkhead. The back-stroke badly stumbled the pirate.
It was all Shaak-Rom could hope to do. Scrambling backwards he fell through the open doorway of Shuttle Bay 2. Levering off the wall with his good arm the Duka-Master ran for the cover of Olper and Jumondo’s position. He cradled his dead arm as though it was someone else’s severed limb. Projectile weapons fire struck the wall behind him.
He slid behind the first barrier of their maze-like training course and crashed into the make-shift wall.
“You hurt?” Jumondo grunted, crouching so close his hairy chin nearly tickled Shaak-Rom’s horns.
Shaak-Rom gasped, and grit his pointed teeth. “I’ll be all right.”
Crimson was panting for air as she finally left the hard catwalks of the Rival’s interior and strode into the confusing gravity shift that was the centrifugal Green House. Light and the chaotic barrage of pollenated air and flora fragrance struck her optical sensors and face. The air was thinner here than usual, despite the growing things, telling of the massive O2 drop. Thin air and unusally bright light across the sloped field… Hastings 1066, Gravett. Crimson’s Mindframe helpfully supplied. Let’s hope we’re not Harold.
Finally the echoing step-clunk of her metallic foot was swallowed by the quiet turf and rubber traction mats of Keffler’s perpetual landscaping project. She marched down the slope of Garden Pane 3 trying to peer across the 500 meter arboretum to see where her crewmen were set up to repulse the pirate hit-squad. Shaak-Rom had counted 15 in the initial boarding party before his chip-chat signal descended into the sounds of exertion and weapons fire, followed by the heavy panting, and reassuring exchange with Jumondo he had made it to Shuttle Bay 2. Subsequent weapons’ fire followed, along with useless grunts and short exclamations by Cort and Jumondo.
“Give me eyes, someone!” Crimson snarled, still stalking across the peaceful lawn. One of Keffler’s toolsheds reared up before her, among plot of bean poles and gourd mounds.
“… Phew! Got one!” Cort chirped, “Fall back! Take them at the Pillar!”
The Pillar. Crimson didn’t join the boys on their training maneuvers, and the little playscape they’d made in Shuttle Bay 2 for their own amusement. The way she’d heard it they squared off in teams, and Shaak-Rom even gave them special assignments and missions: complete with low-charge maser exchanges that left members of the crew humorously numb and inarticulate when they came back to the mess hall. The features of their mock-city had even garnered nick-names. She refused to know what they were talking about.
After a scramble Cort replied in a quieter voice, between labored breaths, “I think we got two or three of them down, Crims… Don’t know where Olper went. Shaak is pretty bad. He crawled off to get out of the way: try and get up the Ramp and snipe—don’t know how he held onto his maser!”
“Should we help them?” P’Xak’s voice interrupted. The hammer-headed pilot from Ghrithos seemed to like a bit of a fight, almost as bad as Andross.
“Do you have eyes on the pirates?” Crimson responed.
“Nah, we’ve got barricades on Garden Pane 2!”
“I’m down in Engineering!” Gator reminded.
Keffler’s mobility chair appeared around the corner of his toolshed, nearly riding on two wheels in his haste. “There you are!” he ejaculated, “Thought the whole ship was goin’ crazy!”
“Just about,” Crimson replied. She stopped in her tracks. “What the diablos is that?”
Across the gardener’s lap lay what looked like an old fashioned Earth II hunting rifle.
“It’s a Model 70 Alaskan Winchester, vintage antique, possibly Earth I! I got this from a man named Borealis J. Compton on Earth II; likely dead in his tracks, the old bugger!”
“How did you get it on board?”
Crimson glared. How did her crew get so many unregistered weapons on board?
Seeing her unasked question from beneath his floppy hat brim, Keffler drew a hand across his grizzly chin. “How do you deal with an infestation varmints?”
Ironic. Crimson also realized she wasn’t hearing a feedback echo of Keffler’s voice in real life and in her head. “You’re not on the chip-chat.”
“The chip—what?!?” snorted the exobotinist, as if she’d asked him to put on a second head. “Listen, you don’t let these space-crackers in my Green House with their guns! They’ll compromise a sky pane, and we’ll all get sucked through a hole the size of a tuna can!”
Her voice was flat, “I don’t think I let any guns in my Green House.”
Keffler glared back at her briefly before wheeling his mobility chair around and heading aft-wards.
“Look at it this way,” Crimson growled, thumping along after him, “There’s a 50/50 chance their bullets will only kill some of your plants.”
Suddenly a wild cry in her ear snapped her back to the real danger.