Shipmind Chapter 20

I had been sweeping my one working high-gain radio antenna across our path, and it had found something. It was faint, but the pattern was unmistakeable.

“Crow,” I asked my comms ferret on the bridge, “does that look like a lifepod beacon to you?”

They grinned, the first outward display of emotion I had seen them make since waking up in the infirmary. “It does.”

“All hands,” I announced, “we are diverting to pick up what appears to be a working lifepod. Prepare to receive casualties.”

The gravitic field twisted and the King’s Ransom began to fall in a very slightly different direction. Close enough to take us past where I calculated that radio source to be, but not so close that I’d clip it with my drive field. That would certainly fatal for anyone still alive on that pod.

If there was anyone still alive on that pod. It had been flung well clear of the bomb’s epicenter, but it also didn’t have the sheer mass of shielding metal a ship would have. One reason why their use was so rare.

“Sam,” I sent to the speaker nearest my old chief engineer, the one I still couldn’t remember from before the disaster. “Need your help with something.”

They looked up from what they were doing. Tinkering with a maintenance drone, looked like. “You got it, skipper. What’s up? Something with the lifepod?”

“I want to get a drone out there as quick as possible. I’m thinking a gravitic tug.”

Sam nodded. “Good choice. It’ll be able to snag the pod and bring it to us, and we won’t even need to slow down.”

“Right. But I’ll need to build it, and I want your help incorporating a medical subsystem into the design.”

“Can do, but loop Pepper in on this.”

That seemed like a good idea.

All the while, I was sending signals back to the pod, trying to get it to talk to me. It was painful. Even leaving the lightspeed lag aside, I was having trouble getting a strong enough signal out of the high-gain antenna for the pod to understand it.

Multitasking was getting easier, though. Between following Sam and Pepper’s design instructions, telling Woozy we’d have to continue this some other time, and trying to talk to the pod, I still wasn’t getting even close to tripping the interface’s safety cutout. I wasn’t even sure I truly needed it any more, but I left it in place, just in case. You don’t mess with safety systems just because you don’t think you’ll need them.

Finally, I got a response back from the pod. It cheerfully announced that it was carrying six passengers, three still alive but in rough shape. Those three were being held in medically induced comas to reduce their life support needs. It also politely requested that they be returned to the nearest Imperial fleet base as soon as possible after recovery.

Well, crap.

Sorry, little pod, I didn’t tell it, but I think your passengers may have just become prisoners of war.

I passed the news to my crew, and they weren’t any happier about it than I was. None of us were about to leave anyone to die out here, though, not even an Imperial. Not even the commander who’d ordered the bomb set off, though there was nothing to suggest they might be on this pod, or still exist as anything more than high-energy particles dispersing at close to the speed of light.

The tug drone popped out of one of my two working drone launchers, drifted clear to the side and behind as I accelerated away from it, then lit up its own gravitics.

As a rule, bigger ships were faster. That’s one of the rules of working in space. The bigger the ship, the greater proportion of its mass you could afford to devote to propulsion, since some things like control systems and life support didn’t scale. By that rule of thumb, the little tug drone should never have been able to catch back up once it was let loose.

Tug drones didn’t play by that particular rule. They were almost all engine. As it lit up its drive, it shot ahead so fast that a human eye would simply have registered it as there one instant and as a tiny point of light far, far ahead the next. I was struck by the irony that, days before, hundreds of such drones would have been launched at the ship this lifepod came from, with the intention of ramming it into oblivion.

That’s another rule of working in space. There’s no such thing as “unarmed”.

I interrogated the pod a little further. It identified itself as being pod number 03 from the Imperial Navy Starship Hammerhead. That had been the ship that set off the bomb. They must have really overstressed the launcher to get clear in time, even with the brief jaunt through hyperspace a pod normally took. 03 was a low number, too. There might be some senior officers on this one.

Woozy and Sam were working with a few maintenance drones to clear the aft receiving bay to take in the pod. Clearing out the few pods that had already been collected before the bomb went off. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the lack of sentimental attachment Sam showed towards the pod that had saved their life. I suspected I’d have wanted to keep the one that saved me, if I’d known which of the wrecks it was.

But we’d need the space very soon. The tug drone was coming up on the Imperial lifepod, cutting its gravitics and using simple ion thrusters to move in close. It clamped over the hatch, sealing the pod with its own hull as it opened the hatch and sent in the two sub-drones Sam had attached. Those would check on the medical status of the passengers, and administer any care that Pepper directed.

I directed the tug to bring its gravitics back up and get moving as soon as it was sure it was secure. The passengers wouldn’t feel anything under gravitic drive after the initial startup turbulence, since the whole assembly would be in very literal freefall the whole way back to the King’s Ransom.

“Looks like all three are going to make it,” Pepper announced. “Luckier than they deserve. The Navy’s going to want to talk to them when we get home.”

“I’d better get some drones on fixing up the brig,” I said. “Honestly didn’t think we’d need it.”

Pepper shook their head. “No, we’ll use the isolation room here in the medical bay. There’s only three of them, so it’ll do.”

Now we only had to get them here. Following Sam’s suggestion and Pepper’s assurances, the tug took longer to catch up than it had to reach the pod. We had, at best estimate, another week at full power to go in order to get out of the hyperbomb’s dead zone to where we could access hyperspace.

I only cut power briefly to bring tug and pod into the receiving bay, where a voidsuited crew waited to take possession of our new prisoners.

Recognition flashed as the first unconscious passenger was pulled from the pod. The Navy must have files on them that were stored in one of my surviving databases. That was Sublieutenant Tann Rober, the INS Hammerhead’s communications officer. Human, of course. Made sense that we’d know who that was.

Second out was Subcommander Thiovelian, single name only, weapons officer. May have been the one to actually fire the hyperbomb. The Navy was definitely going to want to talk to them.

And the last one was… oh, crap.

The last one out was Commander Marcus Marks, executive officer, INS Hammerhead. My old second in command.

I wasn’t Carter Rathens at all.

Tags: shipmind, writing