Bewildering Stories

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by Michael J A Tyzuk

What do you do when you’ve just pulled off the heist of the century and filled your hold with several million Elven crowns taken from the Elves’ own treasury? Leg it for the nearest jump point, that’s what, and hope that the Elves don’t catch you. And God help you if they do catch you, because he’s the only one who can.

You see, the Elves have a tendency to take things like treasury theft kind of personally. In fact they regard it as an act of treason against the Kingdom of Elves and treason is punishable by death. The Elves’ idea of execution is long, slow, painful, and public, and is intended to be an object lesson to those certain elements of society which perform such actions.

So, given the nature of the penalties involved in the event that we were caught, why did we bother to try the heist in the first place? Why does a mountain climber climb a mountain? Because it’s there, and because it’s a challenge.

Of course, my copilot and sometime partner in crime, Eric Niven, was perfectly content to go along with me all during the planning stages for the heist, but he was a nervous wreck all through the actual execution. It was as if he was expecting the whole thing to come crashing down around our ears. Were I inclined to be the least bit superstitious I would almost start to wonder if his thinking had not jinxed us.

It would even be a logical question, were I the least bit inclined to ask it, for when we raised ship and broke out of the atmosphere and into orbit around Elva we discovered that a Federation corvette had just pulled in. Of course the Elves had radioed ahead to the corvette to let them know that we were coming. And, of course, the corvette had divined our intentions to make for the nearest jump point and had placed herself right in front of us. I didn’t have to look at the sensor scope on my console to know that the corvette’s weapons were powered up and that her gunports were open.

Almost as soon as we were clear of the atmosphere, the corvette signaled for us to heave to, surrender our ship, and prepare to receive boarders. I declined to answer their hail. Instead I yanked back on the throttles and brought the Moonshadow up to her maximum rated speed of seventy percent sublight and went right past the corvette before she even had a chance to fire.

As we soared past I stole a look down at my scope and smiled at the image of the corvette bringing herself around to follow us. I knew that the corvette was faster and far more heavily armed than we were. If it came down to a fight, we would lose. I was still hoping to avoid a fight, but I knew that the only way to avoid it was to out-fly them.

“Of course, you know that this is all your fault,” Eric told me as he worked to bring our ship’s defensive systems on line.

“What do you mean this is all my fault?” I demanded as I glanced down at my navigational sensors. The string of numbers representing our course to the jump point kept changing as we pulled away from Elva and edged closer and closer to the jump. “I don’t recall you arguing against the idea of robbing the Elven treasury,” I pointed out.

“I was in a state of shock,” Eric complained, “brought about by the fact that you were actually able to conceive a plan that appeared to be workable, at least on the surface. I figure it must be the one and only time in your entire life when your one and only remaining synapse actually managed to fire properly,” he added.

“Oh, and you could have done better?” I challenged Eric. The navigational sensors showed the corvette swinging around onto her pursuit course and accelerating. Despite her larger size, the corvette could accelerate a lot faster than the poor old Moonshadow, which meant that we didn’t stand a chance in a stern chase. But there was an asteroid belt between us and the jump point.

Eric, for his part, was calculating firing solutions for our gun turrets. “A deranged monkey could have done better,” he asserted, “which is really no surprise when you consider that a deranged monkey is actually several steps higher on the evolutionary ladder than you are.”

“You’re such an optimist,” I returned. At our maximum speed it would be a couple of minutes before we made it to the edge of the belt. By the time we got there the corvette would be within firing range for her forward guns, but those guns would be the least of our worries. What concerned me was the fact that as soon as the captain of that corvette realized my intentions he might decide to take out our engines with a torpedo strike. If the torpedo succeeded, then there was every possibility that the hit would rupture the containment vessel for the ships fusion reactor, which would destroy both the ship and the crowns in a thermonuclear explosion that an observant Elf would be able to see from Elva.

“Whatever optimism may have been present in my emotional makeup,” Eric stated, “was systematically destroyed through my participation in every other operation you’ve botched over the years.” He looked up from his controls and frowned out the viewport. “Why are we getting closer to those asteroids?” he asked.

Eric has an above-average vocabulary which I believe he uses to disguise a below-average intelligence. “Surely a man who is on an evolutionary par with a deranged monkey should be able to figure that one out,” I jabbed.

Now, before you start waving the flags and calling a personal foul for my comment about the deranged monkey, just remember that all I was doing was turning Eric’s own insult around and using it against him. In the military, when a General is describing such a maneuver to his peers he invariably shrugs and says that turnabout is fair play.

Actually, what they usually say is a lot more profane, but I would someday like to be able to tell this story to some future young ones.

Now, where was I? Oh, yes.

Eric’s eyes widened and he paled as he considered the possible implications of our approach to the asteroid belt. Finally he whirled on me. “Tell me you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking,” he demanded.

With one hand on the stick and the other hand on the throttles I feathered the ship around onto a course that would take us between two of the larger rocks at the field’s periphery. I flexed my grip on the controls and steeled myself for what was to come. “Have you got a better idea?” I demanded of Eric.

Eric never got a chance to answer, for it was at that point that the corvette figured out what I was up to and decided to try to convince me of the error of my ways. A single torpedo sliced through the sky in front of us, its passage heralded by a flash of white light so bright that the filters built into the transparisteel viewport were forced to engage, lest we be blinded. According to our sensor logs that torpedo cleared the dorsal hull of the Moonshadow by a margin of much less than a meter, which is a little too close for my comfort but did serve to demonstrate the professional accuracy of the gunners on the corvette.

A torpedo was the last thing that Eric expected, especially at that point in the encounter. He had been having trouble with the notion of going into the asteroid field as it was; the idea of having torpedoes flashing past us at the same time was just a little too much for him to bear, I think. He flung his hands up from his controls to cover his face and started screaming in Gaelic.

I am prepared to admit that my own reaction was less than professional. My eyes widened, I felt myself pale, and an involuntary scream made its way past my own lips, but I did manage to keep my hands on the controls.

At that point there wasn’t any time to reconsider my actions, which I wasn’t really inclined to do anyway, for the field was upon us. I pitched the ship up onto her starboard side and slipped between the first two rocks, finished the roll to bring her onto her back and yanked back on the stick, pitching the nose upward to skim the surface of the next big rock. I performed the last half of the roll and soared through a hail of smaller rocks, some of which were the size of medicine balls. I couldn’t avoid them all, and the ship bucked and heaved under me as more rocks than I would like to count peppered our outer hull. I almost lost control of her a couple of times.

Meanwhile, the corvette appeared to have decided that retreating into the relative safety of the belt was a show of the worst possible manners. The navigational sensor repeater flashed and four more signals appeared, lancing out from the corvette and into the belt. I turned on Eric to demand a profile on the new signals but he was already a step ahead of me. “They’re fighters,” he reported, flinching every time something hit us. “Looks like our friend thinks he’s a carrier.”

“Just what I needed,” I muttered as we passed through the other side of the hail. Those fighters were having an easier time of it than we had, which was no real surprise considering we were three times their size, dammit. We could stand and fight them, but even if we won that battle we would still have to face that corvette. We couldn’t run, because the instant we left the belt the corvette would be right on top of us, and they were a lot faster than we were.

When you can’t run and you can’t fight, then your only choice is to hide, and what better place is there to hide in an asteroid belt than on an asteroid?

“I’m taking us in closer to one of the big ones,” I said.

“Closer?” Eric repeated with just a hint of panic evident in his voice.

“Closer,” I confirmed. Was that a little panic in my own voice too? Right then I couldn’t be sure.

I selected my target through visual acquisition, which is a fancy way of saying that I eyeballed it through the viewport. I pitched and yawed around a clump of small fast moving pebbles and dove for the deck of my selected target. I pushed the throttle forward, reducing our speed to something more manageable for the terrain following flying I knew that I would be doing. I hauled back on the stick and brought the ships nose up, leveled off barely ten meters above the craggy surface of what I hoped would be our ideal hiding place.

By this time the fighters were right behind us, and they opened up with their own guns as I ducked and weaved and turned my way through stalagmites and craters and assorted outcroppings. After a moment or two of this the fighters decided that they couldn’t outmaneuver me down there, or rather that it was dangerous to try, and two of them arced up and dived back down to rain fire on us from above.

Fortunately for us they weren’t trying all that hard to actually hit us, and it was easy for us to understand way. The sheer amount of currency stored in our hold represented a significant portion of the financial wealth of the Elven Empire, at least on the homeworld. If the Navy caused the Moonshadow and her cargo to be destroyed the result would be an almost complete meltdown of the Elven economy and, Federation or no, the Elves would make sure to exact their revenge.

The Elves had long memories and infinite patience.

The Elves also had a short fuse, and I was beginning to think that I was going to encounter their wrath a lot sooner that I would normally prefer. I had about run out of tricks and those fighters were sticking to us like glue. The corvette didn’t appear on my sensor repeater anymore, but I knew that she was out there, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before something happened that drove us up out of the belt and right into the corvette’s sights.

And that’s when a miracle happened.

I don’t know that it really qualifies as a miracle, but at the time I was too shocked to think about it, and when I think about it now I can’t really come up with an answer that satisfies me. I’m not even really certain that I know what happened. All I really know is what it looked like, or rather what it seemed to look like.

One minute we’re terrain-following over a flat level plain with four Federation starfighters right behind us and getting closer, and the next minute there was something in front of us that hadn’t been there before. It seemed to appear out of nowhere, as if such a thing were possible. The space around it seemed to ripple and phase for a moment before it finished materializing. Then there was a flash of light which made the filters come on again, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from seeing spots. When my vision cleared I looked down at the sensor repeater and discovered that the fighters were gone, and in their place were four rapidly expanding clouds of fire and debris.

That’s about when I noticed that I no longer had any control over the Moonshadow. I remember I had hauled back on the stick and tried to pull up and into open space, but for some reason the ship just wouldn’t obey the helm. We were stuck there like a fly in amber, and that’s when I noticed something else too: we had come to a complete stop.

Of course, I found this even more perplexing than the idea that my beloved ship was no longer answering her helm. I looked down at the status repeater and noted that the engines were still on line, then looked over at the throttle and noted that when I had hauled back on the stick I had also hauled back on the throttle, all the way to the detents.

I looked over at Eric and saw him staring dumbstruck at his own displays. “What’s wrong?” I demanded.

Eric turned to me and gestured wordlessly to his controls for a moment, then stopped, took a deep breath, and tried again. “Whatever that thing out there is,” he said, “it’s got us locked into some kind of tractor beam. It’s reeling us in.”

That would go towards explaining why I had no helm control.

I turned and looked out the viewport. Sure enough, that monstrosity out there was getting larger, signifying that we were getting closer. I took my hands off the stick and throttle and punched for course heading and speed. The sensor repeater showed a large port opening on the flank of that ship, and our heading was taking us right toward it. “Interesting,” I murmured. I turned back to Eric. “Do we have enough power to break their hold?”

Eric made a frustrated gesture towards my controls, and the status repeater. “You tried that already, remember?” he snapped.

“Oh yeah, that’s right,” I whispered. “I did.”

Eric spitted me with his glare. “All right, hotshot,” he said. “You’re the one who got us into this. How the hell are you planning to get us out of it?”

* * *

To be continued...

Copyright © 2003 by Michael J A Tyzuk

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