Within thirty minutes, three new contacts appeared on the NAV board, and resolved into the FISCAL JEER, and two of her tug escorts from before, the BABEL-17, and the CHUNG KUO. They slowed as they approached, stopping within a few dozen meters of the MYLENE B. Rudy watched it all in silence on the second screen at his work station, as he pretended to work at the console. In an unexpected series of maneuvers, both tugs docked with the FISCAL JEER first, then returned to their adjacent parking positions before the JEER approached to dock with the freighter. Rudy figured they were transferring as many personnel as possible to the FISCAL JEER for their boarding party. He watched their approach to the docking collar with helpless frustration. The other two ships hovered nearby, facing the freighter with their weapons menacingly clear.

   On the bridge of the BABEL-17, a single member of the pirate crew oversaw the protection of the FISCAL JEER as she approached the freighter with a boarding party. He positioned his vessel and the CHUNG KUO via the remote link to offer the maximum firepower cover during the vulnerable docking procedure. As the pilot looked up briefly from his console to glance out the forward view port, he caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a small body drifting away from the freighter, only to disappear out of view of the limited vantage offered by his forward-looking window.

   He opened comms to the FISCAL JEER immediately. "Hey, you guys better hurry up or you'll miss all the action. Marty and Roly have already started spacing crew members one-at-a-time. You take any longer, there won't be anyone left for you to shoot."

   Nguyen replied from the FISCAL JEER in a joking tone. "Yeah, well they sure as hell better leave us something to play with…we're getting bored here. Hey, I heard there's a female pilot on that freighter. I hope Roly doesn't get too trigger-happy."

   As Rudy watched from his console on the bridge, he noticed the Spider-class tug CHUNG KUO shift position to face the approaching FISCAL JEER, which was in the process of sealing the docking port with the MYLENE B. It seemed that they were taking no chances at all. Rudy then saw the main engines of CHUNG KUO flare to a full thrust burn. His view from the console screen was poor, and he was sorely tempted to rush forward to the windows on the bridge to get a better view out the side, but he thought better of it. He tried to contain his racing heart as his mind skidded through possible scenarios of what he may have just witnessed. He reached with his hands to grip the sides of the console tightly, while sliding his feet against the inner sides of the console's base brackets. His gazed danced between Marney, and their captor who seemed more interested in intimidating the pilot. Marney caught Rudy's eye for a moment, and a flicker of understanding appeared an instant before it happened.

   The impact was incredibly strong. Despite shields and inertial dampeners, they were all thrown sideways in a jarring crash that momentarily made the port wall of the bridge feel like the floor. Rudy managed to maintain his grip through the upheaval, and saw the emergency bulkhead seals slam closed as panels sparked and flared around him. In the brief flashes of light, he could see the bodies of Marney, Knopf, and Terry hurling to the far wall of the bridge like dolls. Bridge lights flickered and died in the grinding aftermath of a minor secondary explosion from somewhere. Emergency lights winked on then off again as alarm klaxons sounded and a smoky red haze illuminated the bridge as almost every warning system the ship had came on. They were drifting and spinning slowly in a new direction now. He thought he caught a glimpse of a twisted piece of ship wreckage that may have been a hull section from a tug drift dangerously close to the bridge windows, as he left his seat. More wreckage appeared in the forward view as the freighter continued its slow spin. In his shock, he took a long moment to try and identify the type of ship component that comprised the wreckage before he was jolted back into reality. His left shoulder sent him a bolt of searing pain that almost blinded him, as he tried to move across the bridge. The pain subsided somewhat, permitting him to move again, as he tried to cross the bridge to where the others fell.

   More sparks flared up from a control panel as circuitry overloaded. An acrid smoke filled the air of the bridge as components melted and burned. He reached the pile of bodies against the wall, and reached down to grasp Marney's hand. There was a pulse but she was clearly unconscious. He pulled Terry's corpse off of Knopf, who also appeared unconscious, and laid it gently on the floor beside them. Only after touching his late friend's cold skin did it sink in that Terry was gone. None of this could hurt him anymore.

   Rudy knelt over Knopf and balled his right hand into a fist and held it high as he watched for breathing or movement. The flashes and flares on the bridge, combined with the smoke and red glow of warning systems made it difficult to see, but he could not see the weapon anywhere. Knopf remained still as Rudy prodded him with his knee. The emergency lights flickered on again, and light returned to the bridge. Rudy studied Knopf, who lay unmoving with a very peaceful look on his face. It was then that Rudy noticed the horrific angle made by Knopf's neck. There were no signs of breathing, either. The impact with the wall, and most likely the impact of Terry's body right after that must have snapped Knopf's neck. Terry had managed to avenge himself, after all. Rudy almost laughed out loud at the irony, except that another shot of shoulder pain seized him. He heard a moaning sound, and looked to see Marney slowly returning to consciousness. Rudy scrambled to his feet to look for the gun, and start to look for a working console. He knew that they were still in grave danger.

   "Marney, wake up. Wake up, please." He tried to operate first one, then another console one-handed but they were too damaged to respond. He moved on to a third as he continued to try to rouse his pilot. "Marney, can you hear me? We have to get moving. I need you to get up if you can." He heard her moan again, as the console in front of him began to respond. Ship damage was beginning to tally itself as a growing list appeared onscreen. The reactor was intact, and most of the more seriously damaged systems were repairable. The biggest problem was the hull damage at the point of impact. It seemed that the accelerating tug CHUNG KUO struck the FISCAL JEER at a shearing angle as it docked, ripping it from the MYLENE B., along with the entire docking collar, the airlock, and several hull plates, exposing two decks to vacuum. None of the exterior cameras from the superstructure on that side were operational, but the view from the capsule drive section at the bow told the story plainly enough. The FISCAL JEER and the CHUNG KUO were completely destroyed. He knew that any members of the boarding party in or around that airlock were dead. Debris floated about them like a shaken snow globe. The largest pieces of the dead ships could still be seen in the distance, but they were moving away and soon would be gone.

   Just then, the BABEL-17 came into the view of the bridge windows, and appeared to be moving in to get closer. He heard the static of a comm speaker, and was searching for the controls to boost the signal from the console, when he realized the sound was coming from his own pocket. It was Janeane.

   "…alive? Come in. Rudy? Captain? Flick the lights, squawk the button a couple of times or something. Shit…just ….let me know if anyone's still alive."

   Rudy activated the pocket comm and replied. "Janeane. Where are you? Are you OK? We were just rammed, but I think we'll be all right. I think I tore something serious in my left shoulder. Marney's injured, too. I'm not sure how bad, but she's starting to regain consciousness. One of the bad guys, the one on the bridge is dead. So is Terry. I have no idea what happened to Maitland, or Arne or Jukka, but from what I can see of the damage, they're probably gone, too. I think everything on the other side of the command deck hatch right down to deck three is vacuum. That's about as much as I can tell you right now."

   Relief was evident in her voice. "Thank the goddess you're alive! I know about the collision, Rudy. I did it. I'm sorry, but it was all I could think of. I heard them kill Terry and I knew what we were in for. So I went outside and waited for their ships to show up. I just did the only thing I knew how to do…I'm sorry. I took too long….went to the wrong damned ship first, and it took too long."

   Rudy jumped in during her pause. "Janeane. You were brilliant. I'm not exactly sure how you did it, but you have my thanks. You can explain later. Right now, I need your help in assessing damage, and getting us going again. Where are you?"

   "I'm on the BABEL-17. I stole it."

   "You what? Never mind…you're just full of surprises today aren't you?!" Rudy was still trying to get systems back, and reroute problems to restore as much functioning as possible. "Janeane, is there any way you can get that tug to dock with us?"

   "The main docking hatch was ripped to pieces, Rudy. Will the secondary hatch mate with a spider-class tug?" She asked.

   "It should. Just hook up to one of the cargo slots, if you can. Or even get a mag clamp on us. We don't need an airtight seal, for now, just some temporary power connections." Rudy was frantically trying to call up subsystems at the console, and to think of contingencies as he spoke. "And see if you can find any more vac suits on that tug. Once we're attached, I'm going to need you to get back here with them."

   "I'll see what I can do, but I'm not a pilot, you know." She answered.

   "Maybe not, but you are turning out to be a miracle-worker. Just do it quickly, please. We don't know how long we have." He then turned to Marney, who was moving herself to a propped up position on her elbows. "Nice to have you back with us. How are you feeling?"

   "I'm….I'm not quite sure." Marney managed. She was improving, but was still quite dazed. "I'm bleeding from somewhere on my scalp, and my hip is killing me, but I think everything else is still working." She tried sitting up further, winced with pain and decided against it. "What's going on?"

   "Bad news first: Top of the list is the fact that Terry is dead. We just suffered a fairly serious collision, and have lost atmosphere on a good-sized part of the ship around the docking collar. At least two, probably three decks below us are hard vacuum. I think Arne and Jukka might have been killed by the collision, too, but I just don't know yet. We're badly damaged, but I don't think we're going to blow. Not yet anyway. The reactor seems OK, and we're not losing anything vital just now. Most of the damage is on the hull. Oh, and I think your cabin was among those that got spaced."

   Marney swallowed hard and tried not to think of Terry and how she watched him die. "So what's the good news?"

   "Well, Janeane appears to have captured one of the pirate tugs, and somehow rammed it into the FISCAL JEER, just after it docked with us. They were coming in with an armed boarding party. The impact spaced them all, even killed that sack of Shit lying there that had a gun on you. She now seems to be in charge of the remaining tug, the one called BABEL-17. She pretty much solved all our problems with one blow and eliminated all the bad guys. Unfortunately, we have a few new problems now, but I'd rather have this than the options offered by Maitland."

   "What about Maitland? Where is he?" Marney seemed to be returning to herself quickly. She tried to right herself again with more success, but kept herself well clear of the two bodies still on the floor near her.

   "Unknown. Too many damned unknowns right now, so let's deal with them in order of importance." He focused on the console in front on him again for a moment. "Among other things, ship communications are junked, so we can't even call….wait a minute." He reached for the handheld comm unit again. "Janeane."

   "What? I'm just bringing this thing in now!"

   "Can you send a distress signal? We're going to need help, and fast."

   "Already done. But Rudy, you do know that half the time, an SOS is just an invitation for other low-lifes to come along, finish you off, and pick you clean, don't you?"

   "Yes, but we have to take that chance. And this time we have an armed tug for protection"

   "Do I have to remind you that I'm the only person on board and I have zero piloting experience?" Janeane, seemed to be her normal vexed self again.

   "They won't necessarily know that. Anyway, keep sending, and pray we won't need to intimidate anyone. Then get docked and get yourself to the command deck hatch and let me know when you're there."

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