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Kris's vacation ended abruptly next morning.
She had paused outside the bridge coaming to let a tiny bit of nausea pass. This spell was the shortest she remembered, and in a moment she expected to march across the bridge to her station, swinging her cane with a jaunty air.
All she needed was a few seconds' rest.
The speaker on the bridge crackled to life. "Freighter Mary Ellen Carter, vent your reactor to space and prepare to be boarded. Do this our way, and no one gets hurt. If you don't, we'll kill you all."
Captain Drago's response was not at all appropriate for pirate ears…; or princess's either. The captain vented a long string of four-letter words ending in "Where is that bloody Princess Longknife when I need her?"
"Here," Kris announced, as she entered the bridge, cane and legs moving with purpose, aiming for her battle station at Weapons with all speed and only a touch of light-headedness she tried to ignore.
The petty officer second class at Kris's station kept the targeting crosshairs on the now self-proclaimed pirate ketch…; and her finger well away from the firing button.
That was Kris's business.
"Do something about that," Captain Drago said, waving a hand at the forward screen that the pirate now filled. "And don't let them make a mess on my ship."
"Will do, Skipper," Kris told the contract ship captain, slipping into the seat just vacated by the petty officer. Kris had gotten just enough of a glance at the pirate to answer the question she'd had about the ropes and cordage crisscrossing the balloot.
At the moment, three or four dozen space-suited cutthroats used the ropes as handholds, tie-downs, or wraparounds for their legs. The space suits had been painted up with frightening sights. Tiger mouths roared, skulls gaped, and heads dripped blood and gore from their cut throats.
Kris knew this was deadly serious, but she had a barely controlled urge to offer the pirates candy and tell them their Halloween costumes were worth all the work they'd put into them.
She shook off that whimsy as she surveyed the rifles, pistols, machetes, and poles with gleaming hooks at the end of them that the freebooters were waving with bloody intent.
This was no time for a joke.
I could have told you that, Nelly put in.
Not now, Nelly. "Chief, talk to me about those boarders."
From his station at Sensors, Chief Beni shook his head. "Their suits are not armored. Hardly any two of them are the same, except for a couple of dozen emergency suits. You know, the kind you find under your seat on a civilian shuttle. No telling how old they are. The paint jobs look nasty, but if you ask me, I think most of the paint's there to patch up the holes."
"But if they get aboard my ship…;" the captain began.
"They won't," Kris cut him off. "Captain Montoya, are you watching all this?"
"From the drop bay, Commander. I've got four of my best sharpshooters in each of the four LACs. We'll be ready to launch as soon as the sailors get the canopies off them."
The LACs weren't going planetside this trip; the canopies would only block the aim of the Marines. And keep the pirates from seeing just how much of the wrong stuff they'd bit into.
"I've also got Marines in armored space suits at every entry hatch on the Wasp ready to either defend or step outside and sweep up our overly optimistic revenue collectors."
"At the moment, they aren't using the scam that they're government officials," Kris said, though they could quickly fall back on it the instant Kris and Jack's Marines blew their pirate business to shreds. What Kris would do if their leader started waving the credentials of a customs officer or drug-enforcement-inspection warrant was something she'd think about when it happened.
"Jack, let me know when you're ready to launch," Kris said.
"Mary Ellen Carter, you are not venting your reactor," the pirate pointed out. "That's not smart."
"LACs away on my mark," Jack announced. "LAC-1…; mark. LAC-2…; mark. LAC-3…; mark. LAC-4…; mark. All LACs away."
"Running won't do you no good. The planet below is our country," the pirate growled, as the LACs came in view and were mistaken for evacuation pods.
"We're not running," Kris said, mashing her commlink. "Pirate off our starboard beam, this is the Wardhaven Armed Corvette Wasp, and this is Commander Kris Longknife. Cut your engines and throw your weapons over the side. Surrender peacefully, and you can plead your case to a court. Keep this noise up, and we'll reduce you to ash. Guns, run out the lasers."
There was a slight motion on the ship as the four 24-inch pulse lasers were run out of where they hid under the Wasp's merchant paint job.
The sight must have been appalling to those hanging on to the balloot. Machetes quit waving, pistols and rifles just kind of hung there in midspace.
"Good God, what's a Longknife doing out here?" came over a live mike among the pirates.
"I don't know. Let's get out of here."
"We can't outrun them."
Suddenly, the pirate ketch took off at full power.
Unfortunately, it was still aimed right at the Wasp.
"Get us out of here," Captain Drago demanded.
"I'll try, Skipper," Sulwan replied from the navigation station. "But they're awful close."
"Shoot 'em, Longknife!" he demanded.
"They're too close," Kris answered. "I can't bring the lasers to bear."
The Wasp's lasers all were pretty much limited to targets straight ahead of her. Kris could swing the ship…;
This close, whatever she did would be a mess.
"Collision," she shouted into her commlink. "Prepare for collision."
And Kris remembered she hadn't yet put on her own seat belt.
The petty officer second class grabbed at Kris's waist as the two ships came together.
The collision point was well off both ships' centers of gravity. The balloot filled with reaction mass did a passable job as a bumper, absorbing some of the force, spreading it out.
And sending both ships reeling away from each other in drunken twists and spins.
For someone with a working inner ear, it was bad. For Kris, not yet recovered from her last session as the duck in a shooting gallery, it was worse.
Kris's vision went gray, with the weirdest pink and purple polka dots. Her recently enjoyed breakfast, fortunately light, got an eviction notice and left hastily.
The petty officer must have seen it coming; she had a burp bag over Kris's mouth before Kris knew she needed one.
On the forward screen, cameras still tracked the pirates and their perils. Several were knocked loose from the balloot. A few collided with the Wasp and grabbed handholds. Several did not and began what would be short-lived careers as independent satellites.
And, of course, there was one guy in every crowd who couldn't get with the program.
One pirate had a rifle and intended to use it. He brought his weapon up to take aimsomething not easily done with his standard-suit gloves and helmet.
You had to respect his commitment. Three Marine sharpshooters in the LACs showed him all the respect his folly deserved. They put him under fire even as he struggled to make his senseless move.
The pirate's shot went wild. The rounds from three different Marines cut through the bull's-eye that was his heart. Six streams of pulsing blood jetted him away from the pirate craft, twisting and spinning his quickly freezing body.
The other pirates followed this display of Marine accuracy and gently shoved any weapons they still had off into their own orbits.
"Jack, can you and your Marines police up this mess?" Kris asked, wishing for some water to clean out her mouth. The petty officer must have qualified at mind reading because she had a water bottle at hand.
"Don't expect we'll have any trouble, Commander," came back from Jack, as Kris added a mouthful of filthy water to the burp bag and handed it to the second-class with a grateful smile.
Kris strapped herself into her station chair as she considered her next problem. For some reason, Kris's ears were happiest when her fanny was firmly strapped to something. Especially now that the Wasp was in zero gee.
A zero gee that Sulwan announced was acting on a ship now steady in orbit.
It was nice of other people to solve Kris's problems. Now it was time for her to solve a few herself. "Penny, can you and the chief raise me someone dirtside with even a tiny bit of authority?"
"We can try," the Navy lieutenant said.
Five minutes later, they had someone on the radio.
"I'm freeholder Annam son Jendon," the deeply tanned face on the main screen said for identification. "Only reason I have my own radio station is because I have got this pond we occasionally use for a backup lander drop."
"What's wrong with the main airport?" Kris asked. The largest town on Kaskatos did have a port with a ten-thousand-meter runway, but it had yet to say a word or show a beacon or light.
"Ma'am, you have to understand, Lander's Rest has had a lot of folks dropped on its runway lately. I can't really say whether or not the place is just busted up or unwilling to take another empty belly. It could be both."
"What's the situation on Kaskatos?" Kris asked.
"Ma'am, I really don't feel comfortable talking on an open radio. The powers that be spread the word real fast when you showed up at the jump point that it wouldn't be smart to make any signals to you. Now that you done for the pirates, I'm willing to talk to you, but there's no telling who's listening and what offense they might take. I'm just a farmer trying to keep flesh and spirit together in times gone bad."
"Would you mind if I dropped down and talked with you?" Kris asked. "I've got a couple of containers aboard of famine biscuits. Taste can be monotonous, but they do keep body and soul alive."
"Thank you, ma'am, I don't mind if you do," he said, then added in a soft whisper. "I just wish you hadn't mentioned the food on the radio. I expect I'll be getting visitors besides you."