“Exiting jump in five.”
Captain Kels spared a glance up from the cargo manifest that she was reading, checking the readouts from the jump drive. Seeing everything reading nominal, she returned her gaze back to the cargo. They’d made a good haul on the last job, some minor damage to the Chopping Block’s hull aside. They’d have to check out the forward-most starboard engine, it’d been acting up after their last run. The Chopping Block was a reliable Cutlass, though, and—
The transition back to normal space was smooth, as was typical for Xing’s expert piloting, until the collision alarms began wailing, filling the cockpit with flashing red lights and warnings. Captain Kels had just enough time look back up as Xing screamed, “Brace,” before the sudden impact sent her slamming face-first into the console ahead of her. Sparks seared her face as the cabin exploded around her, the crunch of metal and the hiss of escaping atmosphere deafening. Kels managed to get her head up just in time to look at what they’d impacted. A massive, smiling face stared back at her. She blinked, her vision clearing slightly, and she recognized the face after a moment. A popular billboard advertisement… specially made for the MISC Hull E.
Consolidated Outland – Dare To Dream!
Kels realised she didn’t have time to spend wondering what a Hull E was doing so near to a little-known transition point, but the spidering cracks across the cockpit’s forward view ports forced her to act. She grabbed her suit’s helmet from beneath her seat, pulled her long brown hair into a ponytail, and slipped it on, securing the seals and checking the integrity of her suit. Green lights registered as the HUD booted rapidly, but she didn’t allow herself a moment of relief. She was taken care of… but now her crew needed to be seen to. “Xing? You alive?”
There was some movement from the pilot’s seat ahead of her, and a grumbling curse registered in her coms, before Xing sat up clutching one hand to the side of his face. Blood dripped down his cheek and fell off his chin, staining his off-white flightsuit. He turned to face her fully. “Fuck. Did you get the number of that freighter that hit us?”
She pointed out the front window, face deadpan, and Xing turned around in his seat. “Oh,” he muttered, reaching for his helmet stowed beneath his own seat.
“Get airtight and get the seats moved, we need to seal the cabin off from the rear. The viewport doesn’t look like it’ll hold much longer,” Kels said, frowning at the slight quaver in her voice. She’d survived far worse, this was nothing.
Xing reached forward, tapping a command into his console, which sparked and refused to respond. He spat a curse, reaching down to a manual release toggle, and hit it. With a shuddering shift, the seats lurched left, clearing a tiny space to pass by. Simultaneously, the cabin groaned and the cracks in the forward section began to expand rapidly. Kels leapt out of her seat, wincing at the sudden sharp pain that cascaded down her right side, and moved for the rear of the cabin, spinning to check on Xing.
Xing slid his helmet over his shaved head and slapped the seals in place just in time to note the crack running vertically across the face shield. He cursed, leaping out of his seat and running past Kels as she opened the door between the cargo area and the cabin. Condensation fogged her visor as a vent pipe buckled to her left, and she quickly followed Xing into the cargo hold and closed the door behind her. The door barely registered a solid atmospheric seal before, with a whoosh of air, the front viewports shattered and the cabin succumbed to the pull of the vacuum.
Kels allowed herself a small moment of relief, before she turned to survey the cargo area. Xing leaned against the bulkhead to her immediate right. In front of her, their cargo hung securely in the crash webbing, the UEE logos a stark contrast against the black crates. Her two other crewmen, Mar and Fex, clung to either side of the crash webbing, unsteadily rising to their feet. “What the fuck, Kels? Did we hit something?” Fex spat, leaning down to rub at his bloodied knees.
“Yeah. A Hull E. Big bastard was sitting across our jump exit,” Kels replied coolly, stepping to the left side of the cargo area and pulling up a console readout. What she saw didn’t look promising. “We’re dead in the water. Power readings are all over the place. If our drive doesn’t overload and blow us into the black, the hull fractures will.”
“Damn it. Why the hell was a Hull E sitting there?” Mar said, pulling away from the combat webbing to seal his suit and pull on his helmet, the heavier black-plated armor and menacing helmet giving a sinister air to his visage.
Kels shrugged, biting back a pained hiss as pain shot along her right side. “Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we’ve got,” she checked the chronometer on her HUD, “about thirty minutes before the UEE figures out our jump exit and shows up to get back what’s theirs. We need to be gone before then.”
Xing walked her right, peering over her shoulder at the console. “Impossible. Drive’s shot, engines are shot. We’re not going anywhere.”
Kels turned away from the console, going to one of the newly-installed lockers on the right wall of the cargo area. “Correction. The Chopping Block isn’t going anywhere.”
Reaching into the locker, she pulled out the arc torch and breaching kit from inside, strapping it onto the magnetic seals on the back of her suit. “We, on the other hand, are going to have words with the idiot that parked his hauler on our jump exit.”
With practiced movements, the crew went to work preparing for a ship-to-ship action. The rapid decompression of the cargo area was over in moments, and Kels finished disabling the artificial gravity seconds later. Her crew gathered around the rear hatch—the only exit on the ship not too severely damaged to function properly—floating around the cargo compartment to the handrails located at the hatch.
Kels keyed her suit-to-suit coms on their secured channel. “We’re going to have to move fast. Xing’s helmet sprung a slow leak, so he’s only got about twelve minutes of oxygen before he’s sucking vacuum. Fex, take point, Mar will take drag, and we’ll EVA to the rear engine area and cut through one of the access points. Once we’re in, we’ll re-seal and secure the engine room, sweep the crew, and then push up the spindle to the cabin.”
Kels allowed a moment for her crew to process and solidify the information, before she punched the button to open the hatch. With a silent spray of gasses and a shifting of debris, the rear cargo hatch opened to the black. Kels allowed herself one moment of sentimentality as she ran her hand along the roof of the cargo bay, a quiet farewell, before she set the self-destruct on the ship’s console to a twenty minute timer and kicked off the bulkhead into space.
The heat of the arc torch and the brightness as it began burning through the access panel was almost startling after the seven minutes of silence that had encompassed the crew of the Chopping Block. Kels focused, tapping her helmet’s visor and bringing down the blast screen to shield her eyes from the sun-bright flare of the torch. The access panel melted away under her practiced work, and within moments the hatch was open. She tapped Fex on the shoulder and then moved out of his way, allowing him to resume his place on point. Fex moved to the hatch, hefting his anti-material rifle, and pushed inside with a quick burst of his thruster pack. After a moment, his voice floated over the com. “Clear.”
The crew moved into the small airlock quickly, crowding together as they stacked up on the inner door. Fex peered through the viewport into the interior of the engine compartment. “Movement. They know we’re coming in. I can’t see any weapons, though.”
“Rule four, Fex,” intoned Kels.
“Always assume they’re armed,” Fex said with a nod. “All right, let’s do this.”
Fex keyed the airlock release and shifted back immediately as atmosphere and bits of debris poured out of the engine compartment and the vacuum rushed to replace it. After three seconds, it was over, and Fex pushed into the room first, rifle shouldered and ready. There was a moment of silence, followed by a deep, bass-like thud that was ‘felt’ more than heard, and a flash of blue light as Fex’s anti-material rifle fired off. Kels counted to three, and then pushed in next.
The transition from a no-gravity to full-gravity environment would have been jarring if Kels hadn’t experienced it a few dozen times already, and she tucked into a roll that brought her to one knee. Her high-powered pistol snapped quickly left-to-right across the engine compartment, tracking for targets. Fex stood in the center of the engine compartment, a few smoking splashes of carbon tracking across his upper body armor, but whatever he’d been shot with hadn’t stood a chance against his expensive high-velocity-resistant plating. The engine room was plain, a spartan affair with a few consoles and a half-dozen access panels and readouts, along with the primary drive core berth recessed into grey walls with sleek, white trim. Across the engine room stood two men in white flight suits, hands in the air. There was a crimson wash of blood staining the bulkhead opposite Fex, and the remains of what was once a third white-suited spacer slumped below the gory sight.
The anti-material rifle wasn’t great for ranges like this, but the true effectiveness was the shock-and-awe factor. Kels couldn’t count the number of times a ship’s crew had given up after Fex had fragged one of their mates into mincemeat with a single, well-placed shot. It saved more lives in the long run. At least, Kels liked to tell herself that sometimes. Guilt was easy to forget, though, when you could afford the high lifestyle of a successful pirate.
“Clear,” Kels called, ushering the rest of her crew inside the engine compartment. Xing and Mar entered quickly, sealing the airlock behind them and starting up the repressurization sequence for the room. Xing breathed a sigh of relief, pulling off his helmet, and moved to the control console for the engines, reading over them quickly.
Kels keyed the speaker on her helmet as the room repressurized, speaking to the two captives. “Turn around, walk into the corner, and stay there. We’re commandeering this vessel.”
“You have no idea what kind of mistake you’re making,” said one of the spacers, his voice surprisingly calm.
“I know that I just had my man splatter one of your friends all over the bulkhead, and if you don’t shut up I’ll let him get some more target practice,” Kels stated evenly, gesturing with her pistol to the far corner of the room, “Now move.”
The two spacers shuffled into the corner, their backs to the pirate crew. Mar moved to cover the two prisoners, using adhesive tape to bind their hands behind their back while Kels gestured Fex forward to the door sealing the engine room off from the long cargo spindle that spanned the space between the engines and the cabin. Fex peered down the spindle, raising his eye to the scope on his rifle, and shook his head. “No movement. We should push down fast and hit the cabin hard before they have a chance to react.”
Kels nodded, tapping the door and opening it. Fex jogged down the spindle, Kels hot on his heels, leaving Xing and Mar to deal with the prisoners and get the engines prepped.
After a long run down the cargo spindle, Fex and Kels arrived at the door to the cabin. Fex hammered his fist into the door release and gripped his rifle as the door slid open. There was a staccato burst of gunfire, and several rounds ricocheted of Fex’s heavy armor. Fex pulled the trigger on his rifle, the report of his weapon deafening in the close quarters. Fex paused for a moment, before shouting over his open com, “Surrender, or I’ll splash you across your console.”
“Fuck you!” somebody shouted.
“Get in line!” snarled Fex, and he snapped off another shot of his rifle. There was a scream, and then silence.
“Anybody else feel like being a hero?” called Kels.
When there was no reply, she gave a nod to Fex. He stepped forward into the room, covering the left, while she moved behind him and looked right. The cabin of the Hull E was well-appointed, if utilitarian, with wide chairs for the pilot and other crew and sleek consoles and controls placed ergonomically. Two men, stripped of their flight suits, lay on the floor of the cabin, bound and gagged. One was young, maybe a few years younger than Kels, and the other was older, with a similar stocky build to Mar and a crew cut that screamed ex-military. They stared up at Kels with worry evident on their faces. Kels lowered her gun, eyebrow raising in surprise. “Uh, what the hell?”
Fex glanced over his shoulder at the sight. “That’s new,” he muttered, before turning his attention back to his side of the room, aiming his rifle at two white-suited crewmen. “What’s up with the two spacers on the floor? You boys doing a little pimping on the side?”
The crewmen glanced at each other with unreadable expressions. Fex scowled, “Oh, it’s like that, is it? Turn around and face the wall!”
Ignoring Fex, Kels knelt down, removing the gag from the older man’s mouth. “So, what have I had the misfortune of stumbling upon?”
“Listen, I don’t know who you are, or why you just boarded and captured this ship, but you’ve stumbled on a big opportunity,” the man said quickly.
Kels gestured for him to continue. He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and spoke. “I’ll cut to the chase. I’m Major Saoldian, a special operative with the UEE, head of a task force on human trafficking in the outer planets. We captured this ship two days ago as part of a major sting operation on one of the larger trafficking rings, and were en-route to a rendezvous point when the traffickers hit us. They fragged our escort and killed most of my men. Only myself and my Lieutenant survived. They were heading for some pirate jump point when we collided with something.”
Kels stared at him for a moment before slowly shoving the gag back into his mouth and standing up. She turned to glance at Fex, who simply shrugged. “That’s some shit luck, Major.”
The major growled unintelligibly around the gag, and Kels moved to the nearest console, tapping a few quick commands in and bringing up a cargo manifest. Her eyes widened in surprise as the contents of the hundred and twenty stasis-containers were revealed to her.
People. Thousands of people, if the manifest was to be believed. Kels scrolled through the lists, feeling her jaw slacken. One of the crewmen, a older man with a slick-back hairstyle and a few piercings in one ear, spoke up, suddenly. “You’re not on the level, eh?”
“Shut up, spacer,” snarled Fex.
The crewman ignored Fex. “We’re with The Nightside Consortium. If you’re any kind of half-rate pirate, you know that name. You know what kind of business we run, and how much money you’re looking at.”
Kels stood up from the console slowly, turning to look at the man. The crewman glanced over his shoulder, noting Kels’ interest, and spoke with increasing confidence. “Listen, you can profit from this whole misunderstanding. You’re obviously capable and well-equipped. You run with us and give us some muscle, and we can get this whole shipment to a Consortium den and sold off quick. We’ll split the profit, cut you in.”
“How much are we talking?” Kels asked, curiosity piqued.
“Seventy five thousand credits for you, easy,” he replied quickly—too quickly for the number to be a fabrication. He’d obviously done this before.
Kels raised her pistol and shot him between the eyes, splattering his smarmy smile across the bulkhead. “No deal.”
Fex glanced at her. “Rule one.”
“I don’t sell people,” Kels stated evenly with a terse nod, “and I don’t work for people that do.”
Stepping forward to the console, she tapped in a quick command. The whole ship shuddered. Kels activated the rear-facing cameras, watching as the cargo containers separated from the spindle, drifting gently away from the body of the ship. She tapped in another command and retracted the spindle, bringing the ship’s cabin and engine compartment together slowly.
As the Hull E slowly rejoined, Kels knelt down to look Major Saoldian. “Listen up, Major. We’re not good people, my boys and me, but we’re not slavers. We’ve got a half-dozen UEE patrol ships on our tail, and they’re gonna come through that jump in about twenty minutes. When they get here, they’re gonna find you in a suit, drifting in the black, along with an emergency beacon, a few tied-up traffickers, and a few thousand people who don’t deserve to be slaves. I’m sure you’ll be able to organize a good rescue operation, get those patrol ships busy picking up drifting containers. Might be that you’ll even buy us a bit of time to get a running start.”
Kels reached out and gave the Major a condescending pat on his head before standing up, and gesturing to the ship at large. “Us? Well, we’ll be long gone by the time they arrive, off to who-knows where. And, really, we all walk away with what we want.”
Out the side viewport, there was a rippling explosion. Kels watched impassively as the Chopping Block self-destructed, erasing the stolen cargo and any traces of information that the ship may have held about their whereabouts or future dealings. She managed a small, bitter smirk. “We all walk away with what we want.”