Rudy moved all three bodies into the exec's room, sealed the hatch, and placed both weapons in his pockets before calling Janeane again. He tried to ignore the throbbing in his shoulder and arm. "Janeane. Tell me what you've got, no matter how bad it is."
Her breathing was still fast and laboured in her suit, and he thought he heard her swallow a sob. "Arne and Jukka are both here and hurt. I don't know how they survived in here, rattling around like that. Arne's really hurt bad. Jukka's still conscious, but only just. They're in the suits now, so at least they're getting some warmth and fresher air, but I'm going to need to make a couple of trips to move them one at a time. Rudy, I don't know who to take first. This suit's heater isn't working right. I'm freezing. I can barely feel my fingers. I just…I don't know what to do."
"The MedBed on that tug has got to be in better shape than ours, no matter how old. The pressure readings on four are iffy anyway, so we can't be sure of the atmosphere down there. If you think Arne's even got a chance of making it to the tug, then get him out first. It sounds like Jukka can wait a few more minutes. Get Arne out first, but don't waste a second. Get back as fast as you can. Once you get them both there and stabilized, take a minute to get warm before you come back again. But we do need you back here to bring those suits, and get us off the MYLENE. Now move it."
"Aye, sir" she replied, an automatic response that gave a little more of her past away. He could hear her moving with purpose as he returned to the bridge again.
Thirty minutes passed while Rudy and Marney continued to repair as many systems as possible from their deck. They'd managed to halt the ship's tumble and restore power to a number of intact areas. Janeane had successfully transferred Jukka and Arne to the tug and was monitoring Arne's status on the tug's MedBed. Jukka was going to make it, but Arne's condition was still grave. They were both unconscious now from their painkillers. Janeane only warmed enough to begin to feel the pain in her extremities before she was on her way back to the freighter. Marney was back at a work station console, with a look of concentration on her brow. Dried blood caked her forehead and hairline, making one of her thinly-braided locks cling to her left temple.
Without even looking up, she reported. "I managed to get some of the atmospheric leakage stopped. We should be OK. Smoke's cleared, too, you'll notice." She gestured toward the screen in front of her. "Here's a schematic of all the damage, and in blue, all the parts of the ship in vacuum. It isn't actually as bad as it could have been."
"They built these things to take a beating." Rudy replied. "I just wish LDS drives weren't so damn fragile. I hate being stuck. From the looks of it, I'm not even sure we can fix LDS out here, even if we had a full team of engineers."
Marney zoomed the schematic in to focus on the bow of the freighter. "Everything up front is in good shape. Capsule drive is intact. Long range scanning, and accumulators seem fine. Once the reactor is back up, we could hole up in the cargo mast section for weeks if we had to. Or use the tug as a base of operations while we repair."
Rudy was staring at his screen and frowning. "I don't think we're going to get that kind of time." He said, glumly. "Take a look at this." He was pointing to a long-distance scan display on the adjacent screen. "I was just going to check scans after you said they were intact, and saw this: Two unknown contacts on approach. They just dropped out of LDS way out at 160 Km and they're just sitting there, probably waiting for word, or assessing the situation. Remember, there were five of them when they met us at Square Rock. These ships are probably the other two from the ASC group. They are NOT going to be pleased when they see all this wreckage. DAMN."
Marney's face grew grim as well. "I can't believe we got through all this just to…..can't we play dead or something?"
Rudy was still shaking his head when he answered. "Not for long. They'd read the energy and heat output, and decide to either deliver a killing blow, or tow us back for salvage. Either way we'd be dead. No, we have to either fight them or run. Both options mean getting off this ship and onto that tug." After a moment, his expression changed from one of grim defeat, to one of heated determination. He called up another command function screen, and began entering a series commands awkwardly with one hand.
Marney watched the activity with interest, and finally asked her question. "What are we doing, Rudy?"
"I'm not letting them get away with it, Marney. I'm sick of this; of being so vulnerable, of working my arse off for years only to let them take whatever they want by force. I'm putting a stop to it."
"Just so you know, I'm not into that self-sacrificing heroic stuff. I don't plan on 'going down with the ship', or anything that dramatic, OK?" Marney said.
Without answering he keyed the portable comm open. "Janeane. We've got more trouble coming. Two more vessels inbound. They're still a ways off, but it looks like those are ASC tugs. They're probably the ones we met back a Square Rock L-point. Right now our only advantage is surprise, and the fact that they're not expecting trouble. Maitland must have called them in for a pickup when they thought we were a done deal."
"I'm almost at the command deck hatch, now. What next?" Janeane's voice sounded equally determined on audio.
"We're getting out of here, fast. We've only got a few minutes. When I say 'go', you open that hatch, step aside and brace for the explosive blast from decompression. That'll be the corridor we're spacing, only. Get into the corridor as fast as possible, and close the hatch again after you. We can re-pressurize it once and once only with what we've got. Sort of. It will be lower pressure, like high altitude on a planet. Marney and I will be OK on the bridge until we open it up to the corridor. Then we're going to be in some pain, probably gasping, until you get those suits on us. We may even pass out, so speed is important. Ignore any dis-orientation, babbling or anything else we say or do until we're in those suits and on our way to the tug. Got it?"
"I understand. It's just that I'm so cold"
"You can do this, Janeane. None of us are in great shape. Just focus for a few minutes more. This is it. This is all that matters. Just make sure that you get Marney suited first, and you work quickly. Ready?"
Rudy looked at Marney, who nodded back to him confidently. They both sat down in their respective seats and seemed to inhale and hold their breath, as Rudy said "Go!"
The sound of the explosive decompression from the bridge was more muffled and short-lived than either Rudy or Marney thought it would be. They heard Janeane's breathing over the comm as she entered the corridor and sealed the hatch behind her. As soon as she signaled 'clear', Rudy remotely opened all other sealed rooms, offices and compartments to expose them to the corridor. This was a much noisier, and messier process. He then opened as much other atmospheric reserves as possible before giving her the second 'go' signal to open the bridge hatch. A new rush of wind swept debris and loose objects on the bridge toward the corridor access as it opened. He felt that he'd gone deaf, and the drop in pressure made his entire head scream with pounding pressure. He almost hoped his head would explode to relieve the pressure as he squeezed his eyes shut. The sensation of pressure in his chest as he held his breath didn't help. His abdomen was filled with a punishing, stabbing pain. Seconds passed like an eternity. The burning in his chest became too much and he finally exhaled and tried to gulp more air in. He couldn't get his breath, and started to feel the terror of asphyxiation. There was air, but just not enough. He gasped. He felt hands grab him roughly, and he tried to help, but could do little more than try to stand up. Getting his arms and legs into the suit seemed to be an impossibly long process. He felt small hands working on him, and his left shoulder sent another shock of pain as it was moved. Something was pulled over his face. He started to thrash his good arm in panic. Janeane's voice yelled something that sounded like "Stop it", but it seemed very far away, like it didn't apply to him. Then a rush of warm fresh air washed over him with a hiss, as the suit began to pressurize. He simply sat there gulping sweet, delicious air in greedy breaths for a few more moments.
"Breathe normally, Rudy. You're going to hyperventilate." Janeane told him over the comm. "Give me a hand with Marney, she passed out."
Together they got Marney moved off the bridge. Within a few more moments the three of them were in the corridor. Rudy closed all the doors to prevent an even larger debris storm, and braced for the second venting of the corridor. He opened the command deck hatch to vacuum once again. Another brief gale sent everything in the corridor out the hatch into the next section. They held Marney between them as they scrambled out and down the access shaft. They exited the gash in the ship's side without incident, and Janeane deftly sent them gliding toward the tug's airlock with a gentle kick. Rudy tried hard not to think of the image from his nightmare as he glided across empty space toward the tug's hatch. Less than a minute later, they were emerging onto the bridge of the tug BABEL-17.
Rudy unsuited clumsily and immediately moved to the command workstation on the wide bridge of their newly acquired tug. The effects of the decompression were still with him, as was his damaged shoulder, but he pushed the pain aside to focus on survival. The bridge console setup was similar to that on the MYLENE B., due to the ample width of the hammerhead-shaped command section they occupied. He worked quickly to call up scans, piloting, and comms. The ASC tugs were on approach, and had been frantically hailing them for several minutes. From the contact list, they were being approached by the MEAN STREAK, and the SANG FROID, both spider-class, and both part of the ASC escort group from their previous encounter. Rudy activated the audio for a reply, but then simply flicked the switch off and on rapidly as he shouted "Attack", "Backup", "Escape", and "Assistance" into the pickup. It wasn't fancy, but it produced a sufficiently garbled answer. He only needed a few moments of confusion.
Rudy called up weapons commands, and a faint grin of satisfaction crept across his face as he reviewed the arsenal the tug offered: a light PBC and a cutting beam. The only problem was that she was underpowered, and the weapons were only good for a few shots before they had to recharge. He aimed the light PBC crosshairs at the damaged hull of his own ship. Right on cue, the thrusters of the MYLENE B. fired and quickly built to full thrust. The freighter was badly damaged, and anything but nimble. Even still, empty of cargo, she began accelerating away from the tug at a respectable speed. Rudy glanced at the scans again, to make sure the approaching ASC tugs were close enough to see his next move. He then whispered "Sorry, old girl", and began firing on the MYLENE B. Particle beam energy tore at the bent and distorted hullplates at the site of the collision, sending more debris sailing into space. He continued to fire on his own ship, rending more plating from the superstructure. A brief puff of ignited gas expanded from the upper deck, as one of the pressurized rooms on the command deck gave way. Three bodies tumbled out into space, as this new cloud of flotsam expanded slowly.
"Thanks, Terry. That's another one I owe you." Rudy said to no one in particular, as he fired another brief burst off target for effect. The two approaching tugs slowed to a halt nearby, and in turn began firing on the freighter.
Janeane slid into the pilot's station and watched as Rudy gently backed the tug away from his previous position. Sweat formed on his forehead and upper lip as he winced in obvious pain. "That was some pretty impressive targeting, Captain. Did you mean to open up the exec's office like that? If so, I'm impressed."
"I wasn't always a freighter captain, Janeane. But to be honest, that deck was ready to go no matter what. Those bodies will help convince these guys that we're with them." Rudy replied as he concentrated on switching systems and functions one-handed. The three tugs continued to fire on the freighter, although most of the shots fired by the BABEL-17 went wide. He continued his slow reverse thrust until they were fifty meters behind the nearest tug. He watched as the damage to his freighter increase to near critical levels.
Rudy then spoke in a soft whisper. "OK, Janeane, watch this. Here we go." He targeted the SANG FROID and called up the ordnance list for the missile launcher. He had a choice of standard pirate missiles, mostly LDSi missiles, which didn't help much here, a hammer missile, and three guided missiles. He selected the seekers, and launched one, waited through the interminable reload delay, then launched a second directly at the engines of the SANG FROID. The instant the second missile was away, the first was already at its target. He switched targets to the MEAN STREAK and selected the cutting beam. He was running out of time. The first missile detonated on the SANG FROID, but the damage wasn't enough to take her out of action.
The pirates were now aware that they'd been duped. They released countermeasures and started turning to bring weapons to bear. Missile lock alarms sounded on the bridge of BABEL-17 as guided missiles left their launch tubes on both of the pirate vessels. Ignoring the alarms, Rudy activated the cutting beam, and held it mercilessly on the MEAN STREAK's aft hull as she slowly turned. Before she'd even completed a quarter turn, the pirate tug's rear plates melted and shattered, throwing gobbets of molten duranium and fragments of ferrous ceraminate insulation outward. An instant later, the cutting beam reached deeper into the MEAN STREAK, igniting gases and coolant in a blossom of fiery destruction. The MEAN STREAK spun lazily out of control, as she died in a series of brilliant explosions.
The SANG FROID successfully spoofed their second missile, and was firing her PBC. Shields flared just beyond the forward view port and the bridge rocked as the BABEL-17 started taking hits. Alarms beeped more and more rapidly as the approaching missiles closed on them. To make matters worse, the PBC hits were making it impossible for Rudy to hold the cutting beam anywhere near his target.
The BABEL-17 and the SANG FROID were both blinded momentarily by a white flash as the MEAN STREAK's main reactor detonated in an immense explosion. The shockwave jolted both combatants sideways, the concussion nearly crippling both ships. Not only had the blast destroyed the incoming missiles before they found their mark, but the BABEL-17 was now serendipitously facing the starboard engines of the SANG FROID, which drifted only ninety meters away as if stunned. Rudy pressed the fire button twice but nothing happened. Weapons depleted, recharging. He realized that the cutting beam was useless for another four or five critical seconds. The light PBC wouldn't have the punch to do the trick, and it was also probably still recharging, too. He gambled on the single hammer missile, currently loaded and ready in the launch tube. With one touch command, it exited the launcher flawlessly, and seemed to coast lazily in a straight line. The SANG FROID had recovered from the blast and was re-orienting to bear on the BABEL-17 when the hammer finally reached it. The detonation overloaded her already-weakened forward LDA, and crushed her command section in the blink of an eye. Rudy saw another reactor detonation building, and applied maximum reverse thrust in an effort to distance them from the dying vessel. Janeane and Rudy were both holding their breath, eyes fixed on the receding ship as they witnessed the multiple explosions that tore the SANG FROID apart. When the final blast came, they were just far enough away for their tug's shields to protect them. Nevertheless they felt the shockwave buffet them violently as it passed.
They heard Marney stir behind them. "What in the hell was THAT?" She said.
With that, the skirmish was over. The final flashes of minor explosions, and flickering debris waned and the larger pieces of wreckage of their former foes drifted away. Rudy verified that all scans and comms were clear. They were alone again. They sat silently on the bridge of their captured tug, and stared at their crippled freighter. The stillness and silence lasted for almost a minute, before Janeane broke the silence.
"So what DID you do before you were a freighter captain?" She asked candidly.
"I was a gunner on a navy ship a long time ago. Or rather I was going to be one. I did some training, a lot of simulator stuff. That's pretty much it. I never saw any action, I was young and had an attitude. So I left. I started working my way on freighters. I grew up some, and got to like that life so stayed with it. I still like to keep my gunnery skills sharp with simulations, but haven't had a real ship's gun to point and shoot since those days."
He turned in his seat to face her, and said, "Speaking of former lives, I'd really like to hear how you managed to suddenly find yourself on the bridge of an enemy ship with only a cold and smelly old spacesuit for help."
"I wasn't always an engineer's assistant on freighters." She tried to counter his query, but the witticism fell flat under his unwavering gaze. "And I had more than the suit. I always have this multi-tool with me. It's an old habit." She looked back at Marney who was on her feet, leaning on the back of Rudy's chair, watching her.
"Well? Go on. This ought to be good." Marney said.
Janeane realized that she wasn't going to get out of it, so she turned to face Rudy and began her story. "I was with the military for a spell, too. Marines, actually. We were trained for ship actions, boarding parties, station raids, deck-by-deck fighting, stuff like that. You know." Rudy and Marney continued to listen, but with blank faces. They didn't seem to grasp the implications of her last statement, so she continued. "Most ships don't just sit there and cooperatively wait for you to dock, and then open their hatches so you can enter with a bunch of soldiers. We trained in zero gravity and vacuum fighting, and all the various techniques you could use to get into a ship that doesn't want you to get into it. It's easier than you think. I was good at that part, so I became our team B and E specialist."
"What's B and E?" Marney asked.
"Breaking and Entering." Janeane replied. "It's why I always carry the multi-tool…it can be very handy." She took a deep breath and seemed to grow less comfortable as she continued. "Unlike you, Rudy, I saw quite a bit of action by the time I'd hit twenty one. I saw a LOT of bad stuff. I guess I also have a bit of an attitude problem. So I left. I doubt they miss me one bit. The problem is that I wasn't free to leave. I'm kind of AWOL."
"KIND of AWOL?! That explains your wish to stay off the books I suppose." Rudy said.
"Well, partly." Janeane continued, "I left my unit, so I had to use my B and E skills to keep me fed and warm. That got me into more trouble. So now here I am."
"Whoa, wait a minute." Rudy held up his unbound hand. "You skipped the bit about the pirate tugs, the ramming of ships, and I'm sure a few other details. I want to hear the whole thing."
Marney added. "Let's go right back to how the MYLENE B. mysteriously dropped out of LDS autopilot just moments after Terry was shot."
Rudy was about to answer Marney's question, but after seeing the proud look on Janeane's face as she started to respond, he decided to let her tell the story. "That was the easy part." Janeane said. "I was just about to get to work on those four damaged secondary cargo clamps, right? I'd already exposed the clamp release override control panels when you called me on the comm. I had been talking with Arne and the captain about that problem before we left Mohawk. The clamps won't release from the locked down position for more than a couple of seconds. This means that we can't open them up long enough to get any pods attached. They'll respond to the pod dock command, but then they slam shut again right away."
She continued with obvious contentment. "I remembered hearing that the moment the ship detects any problem with cargo, while in LDS, it will automatically come to a stop until the problem is fixed. I guess it's a safety feature so no cargo pods will accidentally detach and start flying through space at near 'c'. So I figured since I was right there, I'd just try to get them to open. I knew they'd slam shut again, and get the MYLENE to register a problem and bring us to a stop."
Marney was clearly impressed with Janeane's actions, and said as much. "Sounds like you've been getting to know freighters."
Rudy continued to examine the command systems of the tug, familiarizing himself as he listened. He fidgeted with the sling binding his left arm before he nudged them back on topic. "I still want to know your trick for getting on board a hostile tug. The thought of you making a free jump to the tug with only the suit and a pocket tool makes me break into a cold sweat."
Janeane began to look less proud at this point in her exposition. "Like I said, it's something you train to do when you're a marine. Only we had powered armor suits, thrusters, comms, lots of weaponry, and all the tools of the trade." Armored Space Marines wore suits that were roughly Human-shaped, but functionally they more closely resembled spaceships than soldiers. "As I said, I always carry my multi-tool. All I had to do was calculate my jump right. I was trained to do that, too. So getting there was no big deal." She said. "Anyway, I screwed it up, and nearly killed you all."
"You didn't." Rudy reassured her. "You did exactly what was needed. As far as I'm concerned it all went pretty well."
Janeane continued. "I saw the tugs arrive and go through their transfer maneuvers. I've seen that trick used before. I knew what they were up to. Maitland or whatever his name was didn't lie about them being short of people. They must have figured we were an easy take, so they put almost everyone into their assault team for boarding. That was a tactical error."
Janeane looked off, focusing on nothing as she explained her actions. "As soon as I saw the tugs move away while the Puffin came in to dock, I figured they'd left only one pilot to mind their ships, running the other by remote. I knew we didn't have a chance if they got on board, so I had to act fast. Trouble is, I didn't now which was the master and which was the slave. I waited until they were stationary, I guessed which one to try, and I went for it. It took time to get there, and more time to get inside only to find I was on the wrong one. I made for this tug as fast as I could." She held up the small electronic multi-tool she had referred to. "I was on board before the pilot could do anything to stop me."
She paused again before continuing. "Like I said, I was a marine. I dealt with him, and did my best to figure out the remote link that was still running the other tug. Once I knew what to do, they were already at the docking hatch of the MYLENE B. I knew that beam weapons and missiles would only get me into a fight I couldn't win, and I would probably miss anyway. I didn't really think, I just aimed the remotely piloted ship and hit the thrusters. I didn't know what it would do, but I figured that the freighter could take it better than the tugs."
Janeane paused and looked at both Marney and Rudy, blinking as if returning to consciousness after being in a trance. Rudy broke the silence first. "The rest we know about. Janeane, you did the right thing. Even Arne would agree to that."
Janeane was mildly relieved. Rudy turned to Marney with new instructions. "Marney, we've got a few things to attend to. For starters, we need to get a beacon marker on our freighter, and a course set to the nearest station. Janeane, I want you to check on Jukka and Arne, and make sure they're OK." They moved quickly to comply. They all knew the hazards of remaining where they were, as vulnerable as they were. Marney was helping Janeane out of the old excursion suit. He thought he heard one of them say, "…not kidding. This thing really stinks."
Rudy was still too unfamiliar with the BABEL-17 to try ship-to-ship combat again. The pain in his shoulder made it difficult to think. He knew that more ASC ships would be coming soon, and that they would not survive another fight. They had been lucky to get this far. He was trying to calculate a way to escape when six new contacts appeared on the long-range contacts screen. It looked like more trouble than they could handle. The incoming ships were approaching from the same vector as the other ASC vessels had. He hoped they wouldn't have to fight. Running was still an option, as much as he hated the thought of leaving his freighter.