“I’m waiting…” growled Galhaan.
“Emergency depressurization is five minutes,” Crimson whined, “Please, even so we’ll lose a third of the ship’s atmosphere!”
“You have two minutes!”
The line blinked dead.
“Gator!” Crimson yelled.
“Yeah, Crims?” Gator’s baritone rumble came down the corridor from containment.
The Megladyte grunted something affirmative, but Crimson was already slapping Shaak-Rom’s stomach—tight abs like a tortoise’s shell—“Get everybody to the shuttle bays. We have to keep the pirates away from the civilians. Go!”
Shaak-Rom nodded his rack of striped horns and dashed back towards the others.
“And voicechips on!” Crimson snapped.
The Trivven and the Megladyte squeezed past one another as quickly as possible.
Gator pulled himself up the bridge and stuck his massive yellow snout of teeth through the door. “Any brilliant ideas?”
“I need you to set up a localized chip-chat.”
Gator was grunting and trying to pull the rest of himself onto the bridge. He paused. “Uhhhhh…”
“Can you do it?”
“It would be open for anyone to hear. If the pirates tuned in…”
“Let’s hope they’re not listening!”
Gator looked like a yellow, scaly sausage role, wondering if it could escape its pastry. “Okay. Tell the guys to tune in to ‘Background Static.’”
Crimson was punching the intercom, “Good name.”
The command over the ship wide intercom came well before the communications hub was established.
Shaak Rom and the others sustained a forced-march run across Garden Pane 2, through the blazing, vivid life of the Arboretum. “Keffler!” Shaak-Rom called, but there was no answer from the gravelly gardener.
He followed the crew back into the barren corridors of the cargo holds and finally to the shuttle bays. They were already breathing hard from their half-kilometer run. Sweat dampened their foreheads. But as they came to the observation windows to Shuttle Bay 1 they could see that hanger doors were opening, and every loose crate and fleck of trash was rolling and rushing out with the thousands of pounds of oxygen. Shaak-Rom suddenly wondered if he would regain his breath.
Beyond the hanger doors, the looming shape of the Hunting Knife lurked like an eel waiting for a fish in a hole.
Shaak-Rom activated his voicechip again, and saw the chip-chat hub Gator had named Background Static. It was a good ruse. With a little luck the pirates would overlook a silly name like that. With a little more luck, they would have a sophisticated Linkburst connection, and not using the adolescent chip-chat’s at all.
“The hub is up!” Shaak-Rom informed the others.
“Get everybody on and listen up!” Crimson’s gritty voice rattled in Shaak-Rom’s ear. The crew obeyed. Once connected Crimson talked fast: “We cannot allow Galhaan and the others into the habitorial sections. Galhaan has demanded that we meet him outside the shuttle bay, unarmed and ready to submit. That’s not gonna’ happen.
“Shaak-Rom, take half of the crew into Shuttle Bay 2 and see if you can’t lure Galhaan and his men into your little obstacle-training course. You know the set up, and you’ll have the advantage. See if you can’t keep them all there. Cort, you’ll have to wire the door so they can’t just shut you all in and depressurize it.”
“Got it!” Cort hopped to the control panel and wrenched off the bulkhead, exposing wires to cut.
“The rest of you, with Micron. I want you to secure the back entrance of the Green House and catch them at the mouth of the Arboretum where the gravity’s thin. Everyone, stay quiet unless you have to speak. If everyone goes for one group, the other group sneaks out and takes them from behind. If they spilt up—we divided, we conquer.
“Pirates do not take the Habitorial Section. Pirates do not take the Green House. Do you understand?”
Gator’s rumbly voice interrupted, “Pirates do not take my engine room!”
There was a general murmur of amusement, which Crimson silenced. Cort asked if they couldn’t seal Engineering, and Gator replied he had. Tager chipped he was still waiting in the airlock for Andross, and they would join the Green House team when they could.
“Shaak-Rom, split them up.”
It was like choosing sparring teams. Shaak-Rom had done it hundreds of times on Zeramis, the Legacy capitol world. Make the teams even; match them to the tasks. “Cort, Krevvenar, Olper, Jumondo, with me.” His striped arms cut decisively between the men. He would miss his Grip-stone armor in the coming skirmish, but he had his baton and a maser. “Mog Mog, P’Xak, Braevel, with Micron. Everybody move. Set up barricades and make yourselves ready. We’ll try to lure them to us. I’ll provide an initial headcount, and try to reckon the odds.”
In Shuttle Bay 2 he would have Cort, the small and fast Cargo Bay Administrator, at home at the back end of the Rival. Krevvenar was solid and balanced; he would follow orders. Olper had his staff, and was fierce and dangerous in close quarters. Jumondo—large but agile—added muscle to their group. If Shaak-Rom could get an accurate head count, survive, and lure the pirates into Shuttle Bay 2 they would have an excellent chance at out maneuvering them and taking them down one by one.
With the half-sized, Andromedan police android Micron, Shaak-Rom had sent Mog Mog, the bipedal pile of living rock: impervious to most small-arms projectiles, and some energy weapons. His bulk would be a liability in the shuttle bays, but the light gravity at the edge of the Green House would make him faster, and more dangerous. P’Xak had not been around long and seemed hot headed, but there would be plenty of shooting to do at the pinch-point entrance to the Arboretum. Braevel was an excellent shot at long range, and the open spaces would suit him, and his sloshing water-suit. This group would soon be reinforced by Gator and Crimson, and perhaps Keffler—wherever the gardener had gotten to.
A flash of sparks burst from the exposed wiring of the shuttle bay doors. Satisfied, Cort blew a hurried sign and stood up: “Door’s jammed.”
“Go, go, go…!”
The groups split up. Shaak-Rom hovered in the jammed door and pointed to his men, “Jumondo and Olper over there—the maze if tighter. Lure them close and take them down. Cort and Krevvenar there. Try to keep them busy at the door—let a few through and hit them in the open space!” A glance over his shoulder told him the others were gone, and the Hunting Knife was already settling its predator frame on Shuttle Bay 1’s deck, the slick vessel able to enter before the hanger doors were even fully open.
Shaak-Rom tried to ignore the chatter from the second group of defenders, as they established themselves in the Arboretum.
The Hunting Knife had significant damage to its bow airlock, but the inner seal was still intact. A dangerous selection of grappling and hull-punching modifications were mounted under the boarding vessel’s chin. Sleek purple wings and thrusters made it look frighteningly fast and maneuverable.
A stab of fear rammed through the Duka-master stomach. If they were equipped to board even in the vacuum of space, they wouldn’t care if the shuttle bay was opened with the hanger bays wide to space. He slammed the close sequence on the surviving control panel. Slowly the massive doors reversed their path.
Shaak-Rom was still breathing hard, and sweating from his jog. Already the effect of the lost oxygen was felt. He envied the crew assigned to the Green House, and its galactic photosynthesis. It would be an agonizing four minutes before the hanger doors were closed again. As for the pirates? Shaak-Rom waited with one shoulder against the window edge, and a sly eye towards the attacker’s craft. The Knife had completed touch down. Not 30 seconds passed before a starboard airlock must have opened: five sets of boots dropped to the deck, one after another. They pirates looked well trained; they moved quickly, wielding their firearms with precise sweeps, confirming the safety of the bay. A port airlock dropped five more.
“I count ten pirates in the first boarding party. I don’t think they are all deployed. They are securing Shuttle Bay 1.”
Andross’ cocky voice broke into the chip-chat: “That’s hardly a boarding party!”
“Andross is back,” Tager’s voice quipped.
Then, more boots dropped to the shuttle bay deck, visible on the far side of the boarding vessel.
“An aft airlock has deployed five more!” Shaak-Rom announced.
“Now it’s a party!” Andross laughed.