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The Last Haul

by Ian Smith about a month ago in science fiction
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The Ambush

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.

Of course, if you’ve tuned into the unencrypted CTAF and Emergency channels, you know the truth.

It’s true, screams are rare, but if someone has a death grip on the control column and inadvertently mashes the transmit switch while they die, you might get a last howl of fear and anguish. These death throes are often cut short by the transmitting devices' presumed destruction.

Merryl listened to a lot of chatter on all the local CTAF and E frequencies. It was precisely these “terminal” transmissions that she was interested in catching.

Merryl was what represented the communications officer, first officer, quartermaster, drone master, fire marshall, and sometimes cook on the salvage rig Meander. With the help of Computer, she waded through thousands of radio and drone signals, analyzed movement patterns of commercial ships, tuned into broadcasts and recorded everything.

During third shift, Merryl was alone on the darkened bridge. She worked the comm array as she always did during these hours. Her straps were loose and she hovered just above the threadbare comm officer's seat in the microgravity. With practiced movements she analyzed the incoming electromagnetic waves as they poured into her antennae from across the system.

Some of the transmissions were over ten hours old, from the other side of the system. She recorded these for later review. Some messages were inaudible and garbled. Some of these dirty waves could be cleaned up with a bit of finesse. As she worked her magic algorithms, she sipped a stimbulb, enjoying the routine of the work, and the solitude of the dimly lit bridge.

Merryl was intrigued to find particular frequencies and particles traveling the void during her shift. These patterns indicated the use of tightbeam communications; military or corporation ships talking privately with one another via coherent beams. The volume of chatter was interesting in that it was greater than usual, but since she couldn’t intercept, and the calls were likely encrypted, she moved on to things that might prove more useful.

She uploaded a corporate decrypt key she’d been working on in her spare time to the comm array and ran it against Mobius Corporation mining hub chatter. She smiled as she gained access to nearly all of the drone channels from Cartib station, a nearby mining base.

With a few more clicks and a moment's pause she had all of the mining drone transponder codes from the base as well as months worth of drone data. She quickly logged off, hoping she hadn’t set off any alarms with her brief interlude into their system.

With the transponder codes in hand, she began monitoring all of the drones. Cartib base was a routine, but apparently profitable operation. The assay drones scouted for ore, the extractors did the “digging.” The human miners mostly stayed at the base and repaired and controlled the drones and processed the ore for shipment.

Based on the fuel used for the outgoing versus return trip of the extractors, they were making an excellent haul. The assay drones reported heavy metals, radioactives, plenty of ice and volatiles as well. The miners of Cartib base were probably looking forward to a hefty year end bonus.

Merryl knew that Mobius Corporation, the mining conglomerate that owned Cartib base, had some of the newest and best drones on the market. A few drones missing here and there wouldn’t make a huge impact on their operations. After all, drone losses are to be expected in the harsh environment of the belt.

In truth, Merryl didn’t really approve of this kind of theft, but the drones would fetch a good price, and she had a few in the hold she’d reprogrammed that would increase their haul on a salvage run by orders of magnitude. On a salvage vessel, you had to earn your keep. When there wasn’t salvage to be had, a little theft from the mega corporations kept the reactor running, the pantry full, and the water tanks topped up.

Nearing the end of her shift she intercepted a non-routine transmission from an assay drone. This ore scout reported anomalous readings, well outside the realm of possibility and initiated a “return for calibration and cleaning” sequence.

Merryl stretched in the low gravity, and began investigating. She noted that the drone reported numerous high density, high mass inclusions, consistent with modern processed metals. As a salvager, this piqued her interest.

Merryl scanned the metadata from the drone. This data contained images snapped by the drone on its foray. In a short time she had the images on screen. The quality was poor, the camera lens had a light coating of asteroid dust, and glare from the sun obscured half of the image. The portion of the image she could see however, was quite clearly the bow of a small military spacecraft.

She pulled up the specifications of known craft and had Computer play a matching game. It didn’t take long to identify the ship as a Venom class short range heavy bomber. She noted the flanges on the thrusters. This was one of the newer Venom II’s with upgraded engines, the additional bulbous weapon pods denoted it as a ‘delta’ variant with anti capital ship missiles.

She keyed the private comm channel to the captains quarters. “Hey Captain, Merryl here, I’ve got something you’ll want to have a look at.”

There was a long wait. Merryl was about to try a general call to the mess, the other likely place to find the captain, when he replied.

“On my way.”

He sounded surly, he’d probably been asleep.

Captain Maka arrived on the bridge, swinging through the microgravity with the ease of an experienced sailor. She could tell by the grunting sigh he let out as he pivoted into the bridge from the accessway that he was not pleased to have been summoned. She hoped she hadn’t woken him up for nothing.

He pushed off the padded central hub and stopped himself by gripping the back of Merryl's seat with his fingertips. He looked over her shoulder.

“Well, whatchu got?”

“An Aerocorp Venom two-delta, short range bomber,” she replied.

“Used by Transcorp, the UNE military, the Star-Band mercenaries and a dozen other outfits,” he replied, clearly unimpressed.

She zoomed in on the engine thruster flanges and the weapon pods.

“It’s a second generation, and those are some very nasty missiles.”

He grunted. “Okaaay, whats this got to do with us?”

She brought up a map and directed his attention to the location of the bomber. He pulled himself closer and hovered above her. The bomber was not very far away. In fact, the bomber could almost reach their position from where it was.

“Are you sure? That’s… What’s the range on a Venom?”

“The Venom II has about a .2 AU attack and return range on economy burn.” She pulled up the specifications of the Bomber.

“So that Venom... It's either very lost.. Or..” He paused, his eyes narrowed. “Well, I don’t know... But that bomber should not be in this asteroid belt, not without at least a destroyer nearby. And they would only deploy it if they were expecting trouble.” Now he was warming up.

“And look at this...” She brought up the data from the assay drone.

“Uh, just what am I looking at here?” He floated closer to the screen, still holding onto the grips on the back of her chair. She could smell the soap and spicy aftershave he favored.

“These are the density and spectroscopy readings from an assay drone, this drone was on RTB thinking that it needed calibration or had dirty lenses. But it didn’t need calibration, it found that bomber and was confused; because obviously, it shouldn’t be there. But check this out, that wasn't the only anomalous reading.... It found seven other signatures similar to the first.”

“There’s a damn fleet hiding in that sector! I’d bet my stimbulb ration on it!” He pushed the back of her seat and flew to his own console.

“Can you send me that location?” he asked as he tethered in.

Her fingers danced across the console and the light from the captain's holo display gently illuminated the darkened bridge as it booted up.

“That’s pretty close to us. Have we, uh, “borrowed” any Mobius corp drones?” he asked.

“Uh, no.. not any from Cartib base, and not, well, recently sir.”

“Those are some seriously heavy hitting missiles…” he mused. “They probably aren’t hunting for drone thieves.”

“That's good.... Though, it does beg the question…”

“Yeah, what is a short range heavy hitter like that doing way out here?”

“Hunting pirates?”

“With those missiles? It would be like swatting a fly with a plasma grenade," he laughed.

“I’ve picked up increased tightbeam comms as well sir, probably scattering off of the dust.”

“Anything useful?”

“No, they’re being pretty careful, but there is a fair amount of it.”

Suddenly, a dozen lights illuminated on Merryl's console. She went to work immediately.

“Multiple channels, encrypted, frequency hopping… This… This is battle chatter sir.”

The incongruously pleasant chime of general muster rang throughout the Meander. The captain's gravelly voice followed the chime. “Bridge crew, report, all others to your stations, this is not a drill.”

“We’ve been on passive listening only, correct Merryl?” asked the captain.

“Yes sir, well, except for hacking Cartib base, but that was short range only.”

“Any fix on those comms?”

“Working it sir.”

Merryl heard Stapp, the pilot, and Gellman, the engineer, arrive and make directly for their stations.

The captain briefed them quickly on the situation as their terminals booted up. They rattled off systems reports and the captain acknowledged. They sounded professional, it reminded Merryl of her stint in the UNE military.

Merryl had a fix on the chatter and turned to report.

She could see Stapp from her station as she turned. He was half dressed, his coveralls tied around his waist, barefoot and shirtless, his thin arms and pale chest glowing in the illumination from his pilot's console. He had lipstick smeared on his face and neck which looked like garish bruises in the glow.

“Point one AU above the plane, point four five out spinwise sir. I'm running decrypt scripts and I’ve blasted all known passcodes without success. There is a lot of chatter, we’re going to be saturated soon. Nothing is coming our way, no active pings in our direction,” Merryl reported.

“Let's warm up the drive, but keep it at idle, and full shielding, silent running, whatever is going on out there, we don’t want any part of it till it's over,” said the Captain.

The general comms ping rang throughout the ship and the captain's voice filled the ship. “Prep for movement. I’ll brief you when we have something, this might be a genuine salvage run folks.”

Stapp laughed quietly as he worked his station. “Genuine haul baby, battle salvaaaage, gonna be a fatty paydaaaaay!”

“Shush, you’ll jinx it, Stapp,” snapped Gellman. “And wipe off your face, you’re obscene.” She tossed a rag to him from across the bridge. It bounced off of his console and he caught it as it began to float away.

“I’m ready to burn whenever you want and we’re rigged for silent running cap. Am I good here?” asked Stapp.

“Yeah, just be on standby.” replied the captain.

“Roger that cap!”

Stapp untethered and positioned himself so that his seat blocked the captain's view. He grinned lasciviously and shoved the rag down the front of his coveralls, making sure Gellman could see him.

Stapp then blew a kiss to Gellman and made his exit down the bridge accessway, the rag hanging out of the front of his coveralls.

“Really? You are truly revolting Stapp!” she shouted as he floated down.

“Jealous Gellman?” He could just be heard chuckling as his bare feet disappeared below.

“We have to put up with this?” Gellman muttered.

“It was his off-shift Gellman, he can do what he wants, with whomever consents,” replied the captain.

Gellman shook her head, left her station idling and floated over to Merryl. She paused, watching Merryl work for a few moments and then followed Stapp off of the bridge.

“We’ve reached saturation sir, prioritizing the best signals. This could take a while, captain.”

“All right Merryl. Let me know when you’ve got something solid, you ok on rest?”

“Yessir, this is my first shift, and wilco.”

“I'll be in the hold checking the rigs if you need me.” With that, Captain Maka left the bridge, leaving his station idling.

Merryl stayed long past her shift's end, watching the communications grow in number and frequency. She was trying to tease out exactly what was happening. Gellman was officially on the next shift, she returned and worked at her own station helping Merryl with analysis, occasionally asking questions.

As far as Merryl could tell, a UNE fleet had been ambushed, and the ambush was going well. The ambushers were professionals, she could tell by their comm discipline and the fact that they were tearing the UNE fleet to pieces. She paid close attention, but could not identify the attackers. She wondered which corporation or political bloc would be so brazen.

Merryl had listened to thousands of hours of communications, and even she was surprised at the volume of chatter. There was a ferocious battle raging fairly close by.

The beginning of the battle was mostly low level encrypted stuff. Probably battle groups and wings of small craft coordinating and positioning. There was a lot of tight beam scatter as well.

This didn’t last long, as the battle intensified, comm discipline broke down. The need to coordinate, to give orders, to beg for help, superseded training and indoctrination. She was glad to be hidden away on a salvage vessel, attached to an asteroid, and not on one of the ships in the middle of what was turning into a brutal dogfight.

Finally, emergency channels opened up, unencrypted. The pilot of a fighter reported his entire wing destroyed, his engines failing, life support soon to follow. Merryl shuddered.

The captain of the destroyer Blink reported abandoning ship. Meryll heard Gellman gasp in surprise as the Captain of the UNE Light Cruiser Aventi called to abandon ship.

“They took down a cruiser! This is a major battle, like, really major stuff! When was the last time the UNE lost a cruiser?” asked Gellman. Merryl was too busy to respond.

There were frequent EMP blasts from the explosions that cut through all transmissions with the crackle of static.

Merryl had Computer cross reference the Blink, Aventi, and other call signs and frequencies. She was piecing together a picture of the battle as it unfolded. Now, Merryl and Gellman heard the screams of the dead and dying.

She picked up a strong signal on the UNE general emergency frequency. “This is Captain Viktor Omes of the hospital ship Gallans' Mercy. We are abandoning ship, we’ve lost control, the helm is cut off. Be advised they are attacking escape pods, disable your transponders till you’re far enough away that they can't pick you up. I repeat, they are targeting escape pods. Gods of the infinite void, help us now, Captain Omes, out...”

Gellman looked sick. “Who would target escape pods? That’s…” she trailed off.

This was turning out to be one of the biggest, as well as the nastiest battles Merryl had ever listened to. No one targeted escape pods. At worst, a vindictive captain might ignore the pleas for help from a pod caught in a gravity well, leaving the wretched souls to expire in the void or burn up on re-entry. However, actively targeting unarmed and helpless pods wasn’t just illegal in every corporation rulebook and codified law, it broke the spacers code; the unwritten laws of the void.

Merryl keyed up the captains private comm. “Sir, are you still in the hold? There are some really bad things happening out there. Reports of escape pods being targeted. I’ve also got a bead on some potential salvage, a hospital ship, a light cruiser, and probably two, maybe three destroyers still intact.”

“Wow, a cruiser?!” He seemed nonplussed by the report of war crimes. “The hospital ship, how intact are we talking? Those med bays are worth an absolute fortune.”

“Not sure sir, but it looks to be in one piece still. I’ll push what I’ve got to your HUD.”

“Thanks Merryl. Listen, good job today, your shift ended hours ago, get some rest, you’ve earned it.”

Merryl let Gellman take over and headed to the mess. There she encountered Stapp, his face now cleaned of lipstick, his coveralls were on, but halfway unzipped. He was chatting with Konig and Nakamura while sipping a stimbulb. The twins Indah and Nurul were eating, sitting by themselves as was their custom.

She couldn’t help herself from taking a quick look at everyone's lips for any sign of residual lipstick. She felt guilty for looking, it really was none of her business who Stapp was shacking up with. But Merryl loved a good mystery and couldn’t help herself from wondering. Lipstick was pretty rare in space, and salvagers weren't exactly known for their panache.

A few minutes later, the general comms chime rang again throughout the Meander. “All right, crew, listen up. A massive battle, and I mean massive, is taking place about point four niner AU from us. It looks like we may have an opportunity for salvage of military and medical gear and we will likely be first on scene. I don’t want to speak too soon, but this could be a big haul.”

Stapp let out a whoop and everyone's faces brightened up. The captain continued.

“We are going to proceed carefully, this is a hot shootout and they are weapons free out there. I don’t need to remind you about the crew of the Indigo Bandit. Stapp and Yevik to the bridge, we need to start working on burn solutions and discuss options. All stations report readiness and continue to prep for movement.”

Stapp zipped up the front of his coveralls and wagged his eyebrows at Meryll. “Nice one Mer, we gonna retire yooouuuung baby!” He let out another whoop and pushed towards the exit.

The captain continued. “I don’t have to remind you, when we hit bingo time, you better be back on board, salvage secured, ready to head home. If you are not onboard, you will be finding your own way home. We calculate fuel for us, and our salvage to return, when it’s time to leave, we leave. I don’t care if you’ve found a chest full of UNE million yen black market, unlocked cred-sticks. No amount of salvage is worth dying for, and I will not sacrifice other crew members because you got greedy.”

“I don’t have to remind you, this is not a rescue mission, we are there to fill our holds with the most valuable salvage we can find, not a bunch of hungry, thirsty bellies.”

Merryl knew the holds of the Meander could fit a lot of escape pods. Life in the void was cruel, she reflected. Life as a wrecker was even worse, harsh and often very short.

Every wrecker hoped for a haul like the one they had within their reach. The so-called “big one” the haul that meant your days of stealing drones and scraping by on nutri bars and cold stim bulbs were over. This appeared to be the biggest haul she’d ever heard of. Still, she couldn’t help thinking of all those people, in all those escape pods, afraid, alone or crammed together in the thin walled vessel with limited air and fuel.

“I don’t have to remind you, this is the best crew of the best wrecker in the system. We are going to get in, get out, and get rich!”

From every occupied space on the ship: the cargo holds, the mess hall, the engine rooms and the bridge, a boisterous cheer echoed through the passages of the Meander. Though the ship was indeed hiding, there was no need to be quiet, after all, screams don’t carry through the vacuum of space.

science fiction

About the author

Ian Smith

Former soldier, molecular biologist, current pilot and flight instructor, forever a student.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  3. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

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Comments (2)

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  • Polly C Drossabout a month ago

    I agree with Ann, we need MORE! Scary stuff but intriguing.

  • Ann Smithabout a month ago

    Exciting to read! Interesting ideas of outer space. Fun characters..I would love this to be longer! Another chapter?

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