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Author Topic: The Freighter Artemis  (Read 229 times)

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The Freighter Artemis
« on: February 17, 2018, 01:02:22 PM »
“Victoria’s Amusement, Nebula Central,” the voice finally came through the speaker. “You’re cleared into slip nine,” there was a pause and a chuckle. “Good luck!”

“The hell he mean by that?” Lui Ziyi, Viki’s first mate growled.

“Seen what we look like lately?” Captain Harley Martin asked. There was no denying that the 5,000 ton freighter had seen better days. Long streaks of carbon scorching scored her sides, there were a few scab-patched holes and one engine was a melted mass of metal that had cooled and looked like old lava. But, they were intact, even after saying no to the Kuznetsov cartel.

“Shiiiiiiiiit!” Ziyi winced. “There’s already a ship in that slip.”

“I know,” Harley smiled faintly. “This was our hundredth run.”

“It is?” the first mate was surprised.

“It is,” Harley confirmed. “And Dad said that if I could nurse this poor tub through a hundred runs, he’d set me up with something better.” She blew up the magnification on the viewer to the side of her console. “Big thing,” she thought aloud, “could be thirty thousand tons.”

“Am I seeing things?” Ziyi asked, “or are there no engines in her?”

“Nope,” Harley smiled. “”Dad always says, you don’t know a ship until you’ve built it, I’ll bet the hold is full, and so is the slip.”

“Station tractor has us,” Ziyi reported and killed all thrust.

“Chief,” Harley spoke into her comms, “done with engines. All hands, stand by for mooring.”

She left the crew to see to powering down the ships systems as umbilicals joined the station to the ship, eliminating their need for shipboard power and life support. She exited the gangway and chuckled when there was no one to meet her, but, there was a tablet under a half-kilo of coffee beans. She slid the coffee off of it and scanned through the invoices and smiled warmly before she keyed her comms. “Ziyi, could you gather up the herd and bring them out?”

“Where’s Miles and Sandrine?” Harley asked as they gathered.

“Dammit!” Katie Keogh sighed in exasperation, the chief engineer looked around for her father and the ships cook and surgeon, they scurried down the gangway a moment later. “Seriously?” Katie growled at Sandrine Bejo.

Mischievous pink eyes set in a dark face peeked out from behind pink bangs. “Seriously!” She giggled.

“Dad,” Katie turned and looked up at her towering father, her mouth moved and no sounds came out.

“Nice to see you too,” her father hugged her cheerily.

“Eww, gross, not until you’ve showered twice!” she pushed him away.

“If we’re all ready?” Harley interrupted Sandrine’s protest over the shower comment and pointed out the window. “That is the Artemis,” she smiled. “It’s going to be our new home. Thirty thousand tons, five thousand tons of that cargo capacity,” her smile grew. “A hundred to one thrust-to-weight in atmosphere, six hundred to one in space and we can take it to the top of the hyper bands. And all we have to do is build her. So, let’s clear our gear off of Vickie, we’ll move into builders quarters here and clear her out of the slip, and get busy.”

“A lot of work for the seven of us,” Katie observed.

“I know,” Harley sighed. “Almost four thousand tons for the engines and reactors alone, we’ll start with power and end with engines in engineering. We’ll actually start in the cargo bay; we’ll put in the handling system to help move everything inside, and then start at the ends, from the bridge aft and from engineering forward.” She looked over at Miles Keogh, I’m putting you on weapons, I think our load-out will surprise you, but we’ll go over that and the workflow after we move over to the station.”

“Any chance of workbots?” Katie asked.

Harley glanced at the manifests. “A dozen of them, so laying all of the power and control runs just got easier.”

“I’ll start laying out a work grid for the bots as soon as I’m moved,” Katie nodded.

“We going to add any crew?” Keiko Kikuchi asked. “We’re getting six times the ship, that’ll be tight.”

“We could use a few more men,” Sandrine added.

“Perish the thought,” Miles grimaced.

“Can’t you neuter him?” Katie asked Sandrine.

“Hell no,” the surgeon protested. “He’s the only man we have; a girl needs at least once choice beyond tongues and plastic.”

“You’re as bad as he is,” Katie sighed.

“And with that settled, it’s time to empty out Vicki,” Harley held up her hand for attention. “When I clear my berth I’ll see what’s available at the guild hall, may not be much here, Nebula grabs the best, but they might have missed someone, or there may be a few dockies looking to get back out into space.” It took two days to clear everything out, there were their own belongings, then everyone had accumulated tools and other things that they couldn’t part with, Sandrine had plants all over the place that she wouldn’t give up.

Finally, the poor battered freighter was moved to another slip to be refurbished, perhaps another of Harvey’s relatives would get their chance to prove up. Harley smiled at that thought before turning her thoughts to her crew. She’d worked hard to earn her captain’s certifications, and at 28 she’d had them for six years already, and she’d done it outside of her father, a point of pride to them both. She was still an excellent engineer, having learned from her father as a little girl. Liu Ziyi could be a captain in her own fight, and had the certificates, but she showed no inclination to leave. She was an outstanding navigator and could run every bridge station like the pro that she was. But they both realized that they were a bit raw when it came time to fight off pirates or any of the other nuisances that plagues the shipping routes.

That is where Miles Keogh came in handy.  He served twenty years as a heavy weapons troop in the confederation armed forces, never quite making the rank that should have come with that. He was an expert at getting in trouble when off duty and occasionally while on, which is how he came to be with them. Father and daughter had a reunion of sorts at a shipping station, and she dragged him aboard a few steps ahead of several angry husbands and fathers. Put him at a weapons console though, and the man was just about worth all the trouble that seemed to come his way.

Elizaveta Korikova was rated as a bosun, but in truth she was their entire deck division, and she was good at it. A larger ship meant that she’d need a few more sets of hands to keep everything tightened down and running smooth. She was a damned hard worker that liked a good off-duty bar crawl and the occasional brawl. She was really handy when trouble came up in the rough-and-tumble world of freight-hauling. Pilar Vega, her purser, was a department unto herself, and she ran her department with ruthless efficiency. In truth, she wouldn’t need any help, and Harley doubted that anyone would survive their internship with her.

Katie Keogh, Miles’ long-suffering daughter, looked as Irish as her father, but from there it seemed that they ran out of things in common. Katie was serious and focused on her job without much patience for frivolity. She was damned good, but she would also need more hands. Her assistant, the tiny tattooed Keiko Kikuchi, with her red- and purple-streaked hair was a master hacker that spoke to computers better than she did people, but with an engineering department so much larger than before, Katie and Keiko would need more hands to keep all of the gizmos spinning. Sandrine Bejo might need somebody to help in the kitchen, but it would be hard to find somebody to match her as a surgeon, and it probably wasn’t worth trying.

So, the next day she started rifling through the roustabout list to see who was available. They wouldn’t run a large crew; more mouths meant smaller bites for the rest, so she needed good people. She worked through the list and made meticulous notes; she decided they’d need two more for the deck division and the same for engineering. She smiled wickedly and commed a few people she knew at the station to get the inside track on anyone tired of being a yard dog and came up with a totally separate list. She took Katie and made a few visits.

They found their two engineers, Heather Dominica was tallish with blonde and blue hair that seemed to live life with music playing in her left earbug, and moved as if she were dancing. Her work performance was rated top notch, but she didn’t like to be hassled by supervisors, just tell her what needed done, and don’t bitch about her tunes or hair. Luthair Mackirdy was also tallish, but looked rather plain with brown hair and eyes. He’d served for several years as a battle damage repair specialist that cross-qualified on engines. He’d seen a lot of action and decided he wanted a quieter life, but then discovered that yard dog was too quiet.

Pleased with this progress, Harley took Elizaveta, the bosun and they narrowed down the short list to two people. Cara Hardwickewas very short, with orange and black tiger striped hair and a broad, muscular frame. She’d served as a dropship loadmaster and gunner in the special forces. Her reports all said that she was good at her job, good in a fight, and had battle damage repair experience. David Okeke was tall with a shaved head and brown eyes, and a complexion like dark coffee. They found him to be very shy, but his references promised him to be a hard worker.

The barely had time to drop off their gear before they were put to work. Among the many things that her father had ordered for her, were the latest Battlemaster spacesuits. Armored, handy for engineers, and allowing good mobility, they made working a lot more comfortable as they began the process of uncrating and moving equipment to various racks throughout the ship. Harley started in the bridge, they assembled the racks and wrapped them in the armored plating and completed the power runs, then she enclosed the bridge itself in more plating, leaving a large gap between the inner and outer hulls.  She mentally thanked her father for remembering the workbots as they made her life much easier, and in a few days she was able to turn over the last work on the bridge to Ziyi, who began the work of self-testing and calibrating the bridge stations.

She kept a close eye on Miles, who was working with Cara to install the various weapon racks and turrets. Most of their work was aligning modules and fitting them to their locations. Making sure that they left the proper room for the small bays for the dropship in one side, and a small tug/runabout on the other. Miles had raved about the quality of the weaponry, there counter-missile launchers, effective against not only missiles, but small craft as well. Then there were missile interceptor laser turrets, a heavy laser cannon and four 30mm gatling cannons on each side for close work in atmosphere. Toward the end of the job they found her and brought her out to look at the work. She was surprised when he plugged hardwire connections into their three suits, he obviously didn’t want this conversation overheard.

“I understand the ECM missiles,” he pointed out twenty four missiles in their racks before he closed them up. “But here we have eight recon drones,” he pointed and closed that up as well.

“Those things are new enough that the military is still receiving their loadout,” Cara sounded curious and impressed. “Sensitive as hell, ten million click range, stealthy and scrambled directional comms. We doing some spying?”

“If your Dad was setting up a fast cargo ship, would he make sure you had the toys to stay out of trouble?” the shoulders of Harley’s suit hunched. “If he has any other ideas, he hasn’t told me.”

“Not saying they won’t be handy,” Cara nodded with a grin. “But is sure as hell caught my attention.”

“The counter missiles are really new too,” Miles added. “Damned long legs.”

“Small warheads though to get that range, good for missiles and small stuff, but not against bigger or well-shielded ships,” Cara followed up Miles’ work securing the panels and tapped out her countersignature on the work forms.

“I don’t want to piss off anybody of any size,” Harley chuckled. “But, I don’t want to counter lasers and missiles with angry words and salty vocabulary.”

“I hear that,” Cara nodded. “We load in the runabouts and these are ready to close up the armor.”

“Excellent!” Harley smiled. “The bridge is ready for armor as well. Tomorrow we star on reactor tests.”

“I hate those,” Miles sighed. “Radiation leaks can cause impotence.”

“You could use some impotence,” Cara and Harley deadpanned together, they smiled and high-fived.

“Mean, mean, cold-hearted women,” Miles sighed. “But, Artemis has teeth.” He paused in thought. “I downloaded the logs and everything from Vickie, first chance I get I’m going to upload it all into that fancy library computer.”

“Good plan,” she replied. “We moved over all of the business and navigation stuff, the rest could be handy.”

“A question,” Miles’ mind was clearly whirring again. “I see that we have a full planetary and a full astrographic cartography suits and science station to help tie them all together. Add in those drones and the size of our sensors and the ECM and the stealth systems, we’d make a damned good spy ship.”

“I have no plans in that direction,” Harley assured him. “But if being able to hide from sensors and targeting keeps even one pissed off husband or father from finding you, it might be worth it.”

“Does that happen often?” Cara asked.

“Nothing quite so dramatic,” Miles assured her.

“You had to join the ship because seven of them were hunting you, with intent to castrate you before they skinned you alive,” Harley sighed.

“They were being very dramatic,” he sighed.

“Two might be a misunderstanding,” Cara growled. “Seven, dude, your dick is talking you into places that smart men know to run from.”

“Once you take a wrench out of his hands, the dick does all of the thinking,” Harley sighed. “Sometimes not even then.”

“That reminds me,” Miles straightened and looked around. “I need to help Keiko assemble the backup control consoles in engineering.” He smiled and unplugged.

“So, Keiko and Sandrine?” Cara asked. “How many others?”

“I suspect Ziyi and Elizaveta,” Harley sighed. “I don’t think any of you new girls have succumbed yet, Katie is obviously out of bounds, Pilar has no patience for him, and I have no interest and too much sense.”

“No interest?” Cara asked.

“None at all,” Harley smiled and unplugged the hardline and climbed up into the runabout bay to access the ship through the airlock.

There is a good deal of empty space inside of most ships, smart captains use all of it that they can, as claustrophobic confinement is bad news for people. She made a final pass through the space around the bridge, insuring that the barrier material left all equipment racks and control and power runs accessible, and then gave the command to the maintenance bots to fill the last bit of dead space with foam. It was interesting stuff, air tight, didn’t burn, and insulated from the heat and cold of space, which was normally at extremes. Its main purpose was protection from radiation, another of space’s many ways to kill the unwise and unwary. She reentered the bridge proper and racked her helmet, the bridge was one of the few spaces fully air tight so far.

“The bridge is calibrated,” Ziyi reported. “We’re running the downloads for the cartography stations, canned sensor libraries and Miles dropped off the data dump from Vicki, it’s going in as well,” she nodded to a module hardwired to the library computer. All of the rest of the software is already loaded, looks like we have a lot of security software,” she observed.

“Hell of a lot of music and vids too,” Harley grinned. “No more Russian soap operas, no matter how much ‘Veta likes them.”

Ziyi shuddered at that thought. “”Viewers in all of our berths?”

“Of course,” Harley chuckled. “Where else is Miles going to watch porn?”

Ziyi blushed scarlet. “I’m sure he’d find a way,” she mumbled. “I’m going to run all of Vickie’s backups through the tactical system and have the whole system chew them over, see if we missed anything, especially from that last ambush.”

“Good idea, that got too friggin’ hairy for my taste,” she sighed. “Fortunately, Miles’ boasts about his Tac prowess apparently proved up as his mattress prowess,” she got in one last dig with a grin before she gathered her helmet. “I’m going to check on the crew section, the bots say it’s ready for air, I need to sign off on that.”


She looked over the life support modules and saw they had 6,000 man-days of canned atmosphere, this stretched out nearly indefinitely as the atmosphere was pumped back through the module’s bio-bank, a rich soup of photosynthetic matter that reclaimed oxygen from the CO2, the rest was dealt with by air scrubbers. They also had 3,000 man-days of provisions in a pair of provision modules, they could eat and drink for 250 days off of that, and they had backup rations in storage stashed throughout the ship. She checked everything over and reviewed the maintenance logs and finally allowed the area to be slowly pressurized, they repaired a few leaks and finally pumped up the pressure for a two day pressure test.

It was a happy day, a few days later, when the crew was finally able to move into their own berths. They had two, four-cabin crew modules for the crew, and two more for passengers, not that they carried PAX often. They were considered luxury modules, allowing each person a space 3x3 meters, with a deckhead (ceiling) 2.5 meters high. Each had a nice wide bed over a desk and dresser. Each also had their own Sanifac, shower and a private head, and storage cabinets. It may not seem like much but 22.5 cubic meter that one could call their own meant a lot to them all. Each of the LQ modules was stacked two high with what would normally be a family quarters module between them. It was heavily modified to serve as a common area for crew and passengers, 3 full sanitary facilities with large baths, a weight/exercise room, an entertainment room for vids and music), a reading/quiet room, kitchen, dining room, and sick bay rounded out the two story facility. Harley, Elizaveta, Cara, and Pilar shared starboard upper, Ziyi, Katie, Keiko and Sandrine shared upper port and David, heather, Luthair and Miles lower starboard, lower port was set aside for PAX.

With the bridge, habitation and the defense sections all closed up, the cargo handling system in place and the ships office squared away, that left engineering. The bay wasn’t pressurized, that would be too much of a demand on resources. She passed through the large bay, large enough to hold her old ship and into engineering. Normally the tube she passed through would be pressurized, but they would wait until engineering held air before they finished that step as well. The last of the seven massive engines was being secured in its mountings, three space only drives and four capable of operating in space or atmosphere filled the engine section, almost 1,500 tons of engines capable of 18 million tons of thrust. Around her were battery banks, thermal generator to turn waste heat into energy, four reactors, shield generators, hyperspace generators and the workshop and spare parts that made keeping all of this running possible.

Then with all compartments holding atmosphere, the ship covered in its sheathing of seamless armor, and all hands at their stations, Artemis slipped from her berth for trials. Three solid weeks of tests and activity, shaking down systems, tightening up what was lose, identifying parts that didn’t meet warranty specs, and finally the shiny new ship slid into its berth in the freight dock, ready to take on its first cargo, supplies, spare parts and a new boring rig for an asteroid mining company. In an effort to encourage them to get it there quickly, the company wrote in a seemingly impossible incentive date for a bonus. Pilar, knowing the speed potential of Artemis, signed off on that with a secret little smile. Many shippers advertised as fast-freighters, but Artie’s crew said fast and meant fast.

“Balls to the wall, Skipper?” Ziyi asked, eager to open the engines up.

“Nah,” Harley replied. “If we do that then they’ll start expecting that and we’ll lose speed bonuses once they’re wise to us. We have six days to deliver, we’ll deliver at five days, sixteen hours.”

“Great!” Pilar said from her station, her face was in a corner of one of Harley’s screens. “I like negotiating those bonuses!”

“You like spending those bonuses,” Harley teased.

“Same things,” the purser shrugged.

Pay was on the share system. The captain received 8% of the contract value, the first mate 7%, the engineer, bosun and purser 6% each, the cook/surgeon 5% and the rest of the crew 3% each, leaving 43% of the contract value for the ship’s fund. Bonuses worked differently, half to the ship’s fund and the other half split evenly among the whole crew. There was some risk, if the contract didn’t cover expenses and repair costs, then the payout to each was lower, and in rare cases the crew made nothing at all. This didn’t happen among scrupulous captains, that insured proper maintenance and insurance, and unscrupulous captains rarely kept crew. After they made the jump into hyper and climbed the bands to reach their target speed, most of the crew returned to other things, many to nap, others to goof off. Engineering and the bridge were always manned. Including herself, Harley had four qualified for bridge duty, the first mate, bosun and Miles, who listed himself as ‘general nuisance,’ as his duty title. As a watch-standing crewman he was entitled to a larger crew share, but he signed on as a regular share, grinning and winking that the rest of his pay came in trade, and wasn’t taxable.

Harley didn’t want to know.

“That’s how they did it!” Miles said at last, he’d taken this watch and let Ziyi and Elizaveta relax a bit, Harley was busy with warranty paperwork and other ships paperwork, and she didn’t stand a normal watch as she was always considered on duty.

“Pardon?” she looked up.

“The tripwire for the ambush,” he replied. “I found it.”

She leaned back and made a ‘keep going’ gesture. He flicked a readout over to one of her screens. “They did it with what looked like regular comm traffic, in this case, tight beamed entertainment vids between booster relay buoys. It forms a net of signals, break one of those links for a second and they know something is out there, then they wait until you come in range of either ships or drones with passive sensors and they coordinate the strike. Some potential to miss targets, space is big enough that you can accidently miss the comm stream, but people tend to stick to established routes, so that makes for easier hunting. Most people try and fly the center of the pipelines, but if we work the edges more, we’re less likely to trip them.”

“Did you flag this for the combat computer to watch for?”

“You bet your cute little bippy,” he smiled at her.

She started to open her mouth, but shook her head. “Not going to ask.” She saved her work and rose. “I’m going to make a walkthrough.” She said as she left the bridge. She passed through the security lock into the commons and saw Cara lying prone with a simulator running, she was practicing with a training rifle that seemed as large as she was, it was a heavy 15mm sniper rifle, and she was plinking targets with disturbing regularity, she glanced at the range on the screen and saw that she was scoring kill-shots at 2,400 meters. Impressive.

She passed through the cargo bay tube to engineering, stepping aside to let Pilar jog past, the layer of sweat she’d accumulated showed she’d been running for a while now. She reached the chief engineer’s station, or ChEng’s console and scanned the telltales. Everything was in the high green. Radiation shields up, shields and deflectors at standby, all four reactors in operation and ready to ramp up when needed. “It’s nice to have a shiny new ship,” she said to Katie.

“We’re not straining her at all,” Katie agreed. “We landing this cargo?”

“Transfer in orbit,” Harley replied. “They want it dirtside, they’ll have to pay up for that.”

“Sounds good,” Katie nodded. “A lot of shippers hope we’ll do it just to set down and top off atmosphere and water. We’re still stocked and fresh.”

“Exactly,” Harley agreed. “How are the newbies working out?”

“Heather danced off when you dismissed the watches, Luthair is hitting the weight room, and Keiko is having Sandrine brighten her ink, trade for helping with the first day feast.”

“Any idea what we’re having?”

“Baron of Beef, the biggest, prettiest joint you ever saw. It’s been slow baking for hours now.”

“Oh shit!” Harley sighed. “Salad for lunch then, I want plenty of room for that.”

“Same here,” Katie smiled and waved as Harley returned forward. She smiled and nodded at David as he cycled in from the airlock, he’d apparently been checking on the cargo. “Any shifting?” She asked.

“None at all, Skipper,” David replied. “Weird thing though, the boring machine still had batteries connected. Got a power reading, I manually disconnected the batteries, including one not on the specs.”

Harley stopped in her tracks. “Very good,” she complimented him. “Any idea what they were powering?”

“Everything seemed to be shutdown,” he replied. “But its beacon was in standby.”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Harley nodded. “Nothing else powered?”
“Nothing,” he replied. “The batteries weren’t even supposed to be in the boring machine. Nuclear types, I locked down their charging units and depleted them, drained them off into a couple of our portables.”

“Davy,” she smiled at him. “You are a suspicious man. I approve of that. Report this to the Bosun?”

“On my way now,” he replied. “She’ll probably have us shake it all down.”

“I’ll head back to the bridge and set up the jammers, just in case.”

I don’t like the thought that somebody could have been trying to tag us,” she said to the crew as they leaned back, all just barely comfortable as they’d filled up at supper. “Miles, you know those sneaky recon drones that you were worried about? I think we’ll follow one of those in to make the delivery. I want a fast delivery and then we’re out of there.” She looked at Ziyi. “Find the most common route out of there, and we’re not taking it.”

She laid in her bunk during her sleep time, pondering the implications of Davy’s find. The deck division had scoured the bay and nothing came up on their scanners, and none of the containers were shielded, so it didn’t appear there would be a Trojan horse. She tapped out a note to purge the computer’s memory, just in case the huge machine was being used to collect data on them, then on a flash of inspiration, she sent off a brief message to her father about the situation.

Miles had one more trick up his sleeve, suggesting that they bump up their speed and then reenter normal space farther out and slowly kill velocity, they’d still make her delivery time, but it gave them a longer look at their destination as they approached, on a harder to detect approach on their part. All hands were at their stations as they made the approach. “Lookie lookie,” Miles smiled wickedly. “Tight beam comm signals,” he reported. “On the direct route for our arrival,“ he punched in a suggested correction to skirt the web. Harley studied it and tapped her approval. She grumbled at the thought that she’d have to spend more time on tactical simulations. Space wasn’t as safe as it should be these days.”

They retrieved the drone just before they activated their transponder and announced their arrival and readiness to deliver, making final braking and brought themselves to a full stop in a delivery slip. No sooner than they were moored, the cargo doors opened and the cargo handler was passing off containers to the stations handlers. The process was fully automated, ore processors generally were, but the deck division was in place and watching the transfer carefully as the company rep met with Pilar in the ships office to finalize the transaction.

“Looks like somebody killed the batteries on the borer,” the man observed. “Makes it harder to shift it.”

“If you’re telling me that you loaded up something that can bore through asteroids in my cargo bay with live batteries, then moving that dirt drill is about to be the least of your problems,” Pilar’s voice was low and dangerous.

“Oh no,” he replied hastily. “I mean that it seems like the batteries aren’t building a charge at this end, not going to break safety regs on you.”

“Very good,” she nodded, then indicated the transfers that he needed to unlock so they’d transfer into Artemis’ accounts. He did so quickly. “And the bonus,” she pointed to the time remaining on the next screen. He grimaced and approved that as well. “Looks like we’re sealing up,” Pilar informed the agent. “Hate to collect and run, but we are fast freight,” she grinned. “And it won’t be long before the skipper wants to clear moorings.”

“Damn,” the agent looked shocked. “I was hoping to get some of our money back from the chandler and casinos,” he grinned.

“Skipper schedules us tight,” Pilar shrugged. “Got some impatient people waiting,” she looked at the screen that announced last call to depart the ship message. The agent took the hint and scurried off.

“I hate deadheading,” Pilar complained that evening over supper. “At least the contracts are starting to line up now, even if that means having to do all of these additional checks. Thank your father, he’s done a good job on the database, I weeded out a few cartel businesses from the request list.”

“Daddies do worry about their little girls,” Harley giggled.

“Isn’t it nice not to have a daddy that isn’t trying to make you old before your time?” Katie asked, glaring at her father, who laughed loudly.
“You can’t shame the shameless,” Keiko teased Katie. “And he has no shame.”

There were several smiles at the table that made Katie realize just how far her attempt to needle her father had backfired.

“Not crazy about this, Skipper,” Ziyi murmured as they cruised into the system a few weeks later.

“Me neither,” Harley mumbled as she signaled the receiver that the cargo was inbound, then tapped the screen to speak to the engineer. “Lets switch to dual drive,” she said to Katie, “but let’s keep the mains warm.” She turned to Ziyi. “Keep our speed down, about a quarter, I want a lot of reserve if we need it. Deflectors up for reentry.”

Deflectors were a type of shield that put a hard layer of energy plasma against the hull. It was perfect for protection against radiation and heat, and good against most weapons, but not nearly as effective as main shields, which took a real beating on reentry. They made a gentle approach, scarcely stirring up a thermal bloom as they coasted to the delivery field. Harley and Miles studied their scans carefully as they made their approach, and then flared to land, gear extending quickly and then flexing as they settled and leveled. Elizaveta had the hatch open and the ramp out quickly as the handler started maneuvering the grav sleds holding the cargo. The shipper was reluctant to use the sleds, they were expensive after all, but when they saw the additional handling fees for gravity-bound cargo, they quickly became more agreeable. Cara was towing them off with the ground tug as fast as the rest could position linked pallets at the head of the ramp. Pilar was quick to conclude the transfer with the receiving agent.

“This is the one,” Harley said as the studied the take from the drone they’d left in orbit to watch over them. “Looks like either atmo fighters or dualies circling, looks like they’re waiting for the transfer to conclude.”

“Engines hot and ready,” Katie assured her. “Deflectors and MAGIS in ready-standby for your word.”

“ECM and jammers ready-standby,” Miles reported. “Targeting is in continuous update.”

“I’m ready to kick this bitch all the way up,” Ziyi added.

“Excellent,” she replied as she saw that they were sealed up. “Zi, drift us about two clicks west and then one quarter power on the standard departure bearing. Deflectors as soon as we’re gear up, MAGIS when you power up to climb. We’ll circle west and climb out in a corkscrew.”

Ziyi tapped the accept on the command and double-checked that they were going to make the climb requested. “Contact above,” Miles said as he studied the drone’s input. “Looks like we’re looking at dual class missile corvettes down low, 240 ton range. Not much threat, I think they plan to distract us from that pair in the 10k range above. He could be carrying some firepower.”

“Seeing ground-based targeting,” Ziyi reported. “Looks like a ring to clicks out.”

“Ambitious,” Harley nodded. “New orders, stand her up and punch it.”

“Deflectors up,” Miles reported. “ECM and jammers active, counter-missile systems live.”

As he spoke Artemis’s nose rose and the dual-classed engines roared to full power, and the freighter started to climb like a homesick angel. “The corvettes are trying to match our climb.” Miles reported. “We’re being lit up, they are trying for missile lock. All shields up, 100%. They are firing, missiles, fast, small aerospace models.”

“All weapons free,” Harley ordered.

“Looks like at least eighty missles in the air, CIWS lasers engaging.”

“Level us out, let’s go for speed,” Harley ordered and watched the speed climb even faster as their angle of attack decreased. They were soon a streak across the sky as the missiles that survived the anti-missile lasers dropped as their fuel expended. “One dead ahead,” Miles reported. “Engaging with laser cannons,” as he spoke brilliant beams of light hammered the smaller vessel, blasting it into raining fragments.

“Get us in the black,” Harley ordered and Ziyi put them into a much faster climb, and within seconds they were free from the atmosphere. Katie brought up the deep space drives and worked quickly to stabilize the shields, which took a hard buffeting from the blazing pass through the atmosphere. Their speed climbed even higher as all seven engines ran flat out. Artemis wasn’t a warship, she had teeth, but they weren’t quite that long. Warship, left quarter, no ID from it, they are targeting.”

“Evasive, full jamming,” Harley ordered. “Strobe and vary.” At her order the ECM and jammers switched between several targeting frequency and spiked power several times to spoil the target lock.

“They’re firing,” Miles reported. “Shields at 85%, range to enemy 5k clicks, firing laser cannons. Hard hit to their shields, return fire shields at 70%, they have something big, but I think it’s a big gun in a smaller ship.”

“Glass cannon?” Harley asked.

“Hitting them again,” Miles replied. “We took their forward shields, hard hit, looks like we took the first quarter of the ship, nose back, they are going out of control.”

“Get us in hyper,” Harley ordered and sat back in relief as the universe shifted around them. “Get us up into the upper bands. Damage report.”

“Shields at 75% and building, no structural damage,” Katie replied. “Keep us a full alert for an hour after we hit the upper bands, then stand down.” She sat back and studied the readouts.

“I don’t think they have anything that we’ve seen that can climb with us,” Ziyi reported. “We left three corvettes and two of those bigger tubs behind us.”

“Well, they’re off of our favorite client list,” Harley growled as she started compiling a report, sending it off to the Guild and another to her father, because he’d kill her if he heard about it second hand. “Looks like we’re not going to have a return cargo, Pilar, see what you can scare up for work.”

“These fuckers are pissing me off,” the purser snapped. “I hate losing my schedule!”

“I’m more annoyed to be shot at,” Harley replied. “But I take your point.”

“If they keep this up, they’re going to find bigger things to shoot at us,” Ziyi turned to look at her skipper.

“Mercs,” Miles replied. “Kuznetsov lost a shipment that humiliated him, after we turned it down. He’s got big shooters, and he’s not going to build to a slow boil, he’ll want our asses.”

“Miles,” Harley sat back. “How hard would it be to rig external launchers?”

“What do you want to shoot out of those launchers?” Miles asked curiously.

“Something capitol class,” she replied. “Kuznetsov has a big-assed station out in the fringe. A few really big missiles would probably ruin its day.”

“We could do it,” he replied. “But remember what you said about glass cannons? We’d be a dandy example of that.”

“I know,” she replied. “But if I send an angry enough note to my favorite dad, he’s doing to freak when I ask to borrow a half dozen nukes. He likes to make me fight my own fights, but I know when a fight is too big, and he’s got much better toys than we do.”

“There’s other alternatives,” Ziyi replied. “We can go to the Terran sector and start working contracts out there. Lot of money for fast shippers.”

“Oh yes, I’m thinking about that too, we need a few fat payouts after all, but I’d like to know that Kuznetsov’s hash is settled so I don’t have that hanging over me when we come home. I won’t live my life afraid of every job that comes our way.”

======================================================

“She wants fucking what?” Harvey shouted as he read the latest letter from his youngest child. “The fuck does she think she’s going to do with fucking capitol class nukes?”
The rest of the denizens of the Goat Locker perked up at that and drifted over. “Kuznetsov?” He growled. “The fuck is she doing pissing off that prick?”

“Something wrong, Harvey?” Ken Sanders, chief of weapons development asked.

“My dear, sweet, idiot daughter has pissed off Kuznetsov, and they’re staking out her jobs and trying to take her out.”

“Roy?” Sanders called over to the security chief. “Kuznetsov, know about him?”

“He avoids us,” SecChief replied. “Nasty bastard, makes a hobby out of plinking cops that even look at him. Real nasty reputation, sadist, especially with women. Big in smuggling, murder and a generally unpleasant sort.”

“He’s been trying to kill Harvey’s girl,” Sanders replied.

“Little Harley?” Roy looked shocked and offended.

“She wants him to stop, asked her dad for a rack of capitol class nukes to tell him no,” Sanders grinned.

“That would do it,” Roy replied. “But if that prick was after my baby girl, I’d shit a streak and go hunting him.”

“He that bad?” Harvey asked, now feeling mad turn into something else.

“If he was after my kid, I’d be firing up one of our nastier creations and go hunting the prick,” Roy replied. “She’s got the right idea with nukes.”

“Fuuuuuuuuck!” Harvey rose and stormed out of the lounge.

“Lets gather up some shooters,” Ken said to Roy. “Kind of sounds like fun. Besides, nobody fucks with family, Kuznetsov would be a good reminder of that.”

“Harvey!” Roy shouted.

“What?”

“Tell her to go work the Terran sector for a while, I’ll talk to the bosses and we’ll go sort this little Russian prick out.”

“Fuck!” Harvey shouted again and was still grumbling when they couldn’t hear him anymore.

 

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