Being in command of an army of escaped prisoners isn’t half as glorious as I’d pictured — not that I’d pictured it. But when you’re assigned to guard said prisoners, your imagination can get a little carried away. Now, thanks to a pirate attack that had killed every senior officer on the station, the computer had put the prison shrink in charge, and as her ranking patient I had found myself in a position of pseudo-authority.
My blue officer’s uniform stood in stark contrast to the prison orange worn by everyone else in our group, except Cayla Wyrick, the therapist in question. I was already attracting the occasional curious glare and I knew that as soon as these guys got bored of the new weapons she’d procured for them out of the armory, things were going to get rough. The trick to staying alive was to keep them occupied, and Wes Morgan, the mercenary we’d rescued from Maximum Security, was attempting to do just that.
Morgan, Wyrick, and Cronock were huddled around Wyrick’s notepad, just outside the cargo elevator. The mercenary had proven to be something of an expert hacker and used what was really an office toy to access the prison broadband. Images of the flight deck, newly patched, flashed across its screen.
“It was vented in the initial attack,” I said. “Looks like the pirates who attacked the station patched it up, restored the gravity.”
We could see a few pirates milling around in clumps, while landing lights had lit up a section of the flight deck and a large freighter was maneuvering through the bluish airshield. It looked like it had been cobbled together from parts of other ships. A large fixed-mount particle cannon extended above the bow, painted to look like the horn of some savage beast. Unfortunately, the illusion of ferocity was shattered by two disproportionately small wings, which made the ship look less like a predator and more like a turkey with a horn.
“It’s the Dogs,” Morgan said grimly. His finger highlighted some graffiti on the side of the freighter.
“The Dogs?” I asked.
“The Nova Dogs. They’re bad news. Heavy on weapons and light on morals. Got deep pockets too, for pirates.”
“Cannibals,” grunted Cronock. “Ain’t gonna let us join them.”
When he saw the look Wyrick and I gave him, he shrugged. “If you expected loyalty, you’re bigger idiots than I thought.”
“We can try a flanking maneuver,” said Morgan, ignoring the remark. He’d probably taken it for granted that Cronock would turn on us at his first opportunity. He shifted the camera angle on the notepad’s screen. “Sneak in behind these fighters and hit them before they know we’re there.”
Cronock burped loudly. “ ‘Flanking maneuver’? These boys ain’t soldiers. You gotta use short words and speak slowly with this lot.”
“Can we reason with the pirates?” suggested Wyrick.
Morgan continued on as if Wyrick hadn’t spoken. “Your men won’t last five minutes against the Nova Dogs in a direct attack.”
“Only one way to find out.” Cronock ham-fisted the elevator button and barked for his men to get in. I stood with Wyrick in the back, trying to figure out how I’d gotten into this situation. If I’d wanted to fight pirates I could have flown a fighter for the UEE. I’d had my choice of assignments when I’d graduated. Of course, David’s death had convinced me to work anywhere but in a cockpit.
Security on OSP-4 was tight, and the flight deck was designed to be confining and claustrophobic. The elevator opened into an airlock that was effectively a killing field. Guards on the flight deck could fire into it through a vertical slot on the wall, and I knew that there was a subsonic device near the ceiling that could be used to stun anyone inside. Fortunately though, we had Wyrick, and her codes allowed us to disable both the airlock defenses and the elevator alarm.
It was a simple matter for Cronock’s men to overwhelm the few pirates stationed at the elevator doors. This small success was taken to be a sign that his plan was the best one and he strode across the flight deck like the crest of an orange wave that fired lead in every direction. Those few pirates who were scattered around the flight deck quickly took cover behind stacks of crates and returned fire.
“Stay here,” said Morgan quietly, putting a hand on my chest. He glanced around quickly, taking in the positions of the pirates. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
The small file of pirates that had just begun to disembark from the armored freighter were more heavily armed and better trained than the rest. They quickly shielded a huge man in a black suit from the gunfire and urged him back up the gangplank. He was having none of it, and shoved his lieutenants aside.
“Throw down your weapons!” he roared at his subordinates, and I could see a flash of chrome where his jaw had been. The rest of him was hugely muscular, so much so that his head looked comically small atop his massive shoulders. He had long black hair that matched the black flight suit that he wore. The decal on his chest displayed a skull in the jaws of a larger skull, which made a grim kind of sense for the leader of a cannibal pack.
He strode right into the thick of the gunfire, batting down the weapons of his pirates.
Cronock, surprised and confused by the sudden surrender, must have felt that he had no choice but to stop firing himself, and ordered his men to stand down.
“Who is that?” asked Wyrick quietly.
Morgan’s jaw had tightened. “Martin Kilkenny. You’d probably diagnose him with a god complex. He became infamous for an attack he led on a slave ship, except instead of freeing the slaves, he and his crew ate them, and then sold the ship. We’re in trouble.”
Cronock did not appear to recognize Kilkenny, or if he did, he was unintimidated. “We’re here for your ships. Give over the codes if you want to live.”
“I can’t hear you. Come closer!” yelled Kilkenny, cupping a hand behind his ear.
“Did you see that?” said Morgan quietly to Wyrick and I while Kilkenny was speaking. He nodded at the fighters.
I followed his gaze. The two vehicles were the OSP-4’s advanced Hornet fighters. After a few moments I saw a change in light. Someone was inside the fighter! My eyes shifted to the second Hornet. The angle was too oblique for me to see inside the cockpit, but I was sure that it too was occupied. Worse, Cronock’s group had moved right into the arc of the ship’s weapons.
“We have to warn them,” said Wyrick in alarm.
Morgan looked at the psychiatrist like she’d sprouted another head. “What do you think those prisoners were going to do to us once they no longer needed your codes to escape the station? We wait here. No matter which group loses, we win.”
“We can’t just let them be slaughtered,” said Wyrick desperately. I almost pitied her. I had forgotten that she knew each of these men with the intimacy only a psychologist possessed. She knew their backstories, their hopes, their dreams … it was her job to bring out the best in them in the hopes of helping them to be rehabilitated. Morgan and I had the luxury of seeing a crowd of heavily armed lunatics in orange jumpers. We could watch them get slaughtered without a second thought. She couldn’t.
“It doesn’t help us if Kilkenny kills Cronock without a fight,” I pointed out.
“Fine,” he shook his head. “Fine. Keep quiet and follow me.”
We kept low to the ground and sprinted behind the nearest fighter. Morgan ducked beneath the fuselage and beckoned us to follow. On the other side was a stack of crates that had been scored by blaster fire. Two dead pirates lay sprawled out on the deck nearby.
“Pay attention,” said Morgan, pressing a knife into my hand. He pointed at a thin rubber hose that dangled from the fighter’s front landing gear. “This carries hydraulic fluid for the landing gear. When I say so, you cut it. Don’t get any on your hands. It’s poisonous as hell.”
He ducked his head around the fighter’s nose and checked out Cronock’s group. They were completely oblivious to the fighters’ front-mounted weaponry. With a sigh, he lifted his rifle to his shoulder and sighted down the barrel at the other fighter’s landing gear.
“Stop there,” said Kilkenny to Cronock. I could barely see either of them around the fighter’s landing gear.
Wyrick knelt beside me. She was unarmed, having refused the weapon Morgan had offered her back at the armory. Philosophical grounds, I guessed. I respected her decision but that didn’t mean I couldn’t wish we had a third gun. Even crouched underneath the fighter, I felt exposed. She didn’t seem to notice my discomfort. “What’s wrong with his jaw?”
“Shut up,” hissed Morgan. He pointed with the rifle at a spot above my head. “The cockpit is right there.”
Wyrick and I looked up and then back at him. We nodded in unison.
“I said,” said Cronock repeated, louder than he had before. “We’re here for your —,”
“I heard you,” said Kilkenny. “I just needed you to be exactly where you are now.” Cronock’s crew had walked right into his trap.
“Now!” said Morgan sharply. He opened fire on the other fighter’s landing gear, the rifle chugging in his hands. I slashed with the knife, but to my horror the rubber hose flexed with my cut. Bright flashes seared my vision as the Hornet’s guns began firing into the crowd of prisoners.
“Nylund!” shouted Wyrick. Her nails dug into my arm.
“I’m trying,” I shouted back. I grabbed the hose in my other hand and began to saw at it. Morgan had turned to fire at Kilkenny’s men, who’d retreated into the freighter. All at once I cut through the hose and hydraulic fluid sprayed everywhere. The nose of the Hornet dropped abruptly, and it would have hit me in the head had I not fallen backwards to avoid the spraying fluid. Laser fire hit the deck nearby and hot air washed over us.
“This way,” shouted Morgan to what remained of Cronock’s men. We heard a hiss above us and he swivelled and fired. The body of a pirate fell out of the cockpit to the deck beside us, a bloody hole where his eye had been. Morgan grabbed Wyrick’s arm, yanked her out from under the fighter, and then practically threw her at the loading platform. I followed, sliding to a stop in front of the platform’s control panel. One of the coaxial guns on the armored freighter had powered up and was spitting lasers at us. I slammed my hand on what I guessed was the down button and a fighter-sized square of floor shuddered into motion beneath our feet.
I heard Wyrick shout for Morgan, who was firing at the freighter to little effect as a half-dozen prisoners made a break for us. The platform moved depressingly slowly, but thankfully we sank out of the coaxial gun’s arc in a few seconds. Just before the platform’s doors shut above us, Morgan slid over the edge and dropped down beside us.
“Well,” he said, looking back the way we’d come. “We need to find another way off the station.”
to be continued …
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