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Down Jump Blues

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller.

A pounding headache woke me. I felt just as bad as I did the morning after my first night’s liberty in boot camp. Only I hadn’t had a drop this time. I’d fallen asleep on my bunk reading a book on my handcomp. Just like I do most nights. A quick look around the stateroom showed me everything in the same place as last night. Glancing at my wrist chrono I saw we were due to exit jump space in about an hour. I’d slept in. Normally I rose with the sun, when there was a sun. But today I’d slept in late, much later than I ever remember doing. I crossed over to the fresher and splashed some cold water on my face. That cleared some of the cob webs. I just needed coffee to get set for show time.

My stateroom opened onto the passenger lounge on the main deck of the Silver Dollar, a 500-dton exploration ship. It was a sweet ride, the kind of opulent toy only a megacorp could afford. Smith General Transport spared no expense in outfitting this girl. Though registered as an exploration vessel, her real role was as an armed escort for SGT merchants. A 4G M-drive meant she could get to the scene of a fight in a hurry. The heavy armor and fusion cannons loaded into four double turrets meant she could hold her own once she got there. The luxurious interior outstripped all those naval scows I spent too much time on during my Marine stint. The empty lounge struck me as odd. An hour before down jump, most of the crew would be at their stations, but I expected Rayburn to be here chowing down on the gourmet grub from stores. Carlisle, that damned fop, should have been here too, looking down his nose at us and complaining about the small size of his deluxe double stateroom. If I wasn’t being paid to protect his ass, I would’ve kicked it to the next parsec soon after we entered J-space.

I programmed the dispenser for a hot cup of Joe. No instant on this boat. While it brewed I thumbed the intercom, “Bridge, this is O’Quinn. What’s our status? Everything green for down jump? Over.” No reply. “Bridge, this is O’Quinn. Please acknowledge. Over.” My hackles were up. Crewing the command station on the bridge was SOP, even in J-Space. I hit the alarm button on the chrono to warn my team and raced to Carlisle’s cabin, drawing my mini SMG from the shoulder holster as I went.

I used my security override to open the cabin door. Carlisle looked at peace laying in his silk sheets. I swept the room and crossed to the pompous executive’s bed. He was at peace, alright. Two small caliber entrance wounds and powder burns at his temple told me all I needed to know. I heard a sound behind me and spun bringing the SMG to bear. The wrong end of a gauss rifle pointed right at my chest. I relaxed a bit seeing the Professor—John Lee, my second-in-command—behind the sights. We called him “the Professor” because before signing up with me, he quit his post as a full professor at the prestigious Regina Technical Institute. I never thought it was a smart move on his part considering he was the smartest guy I ever met. But he proved himself indispensable on more than one occasion. The best move a commander can make is name a more intelligent guy than himself as 2IC. “Carlisle’s down,” I said, “Autodoc won’t help.”

“The case?” he asked scanning the room.

“Unknown,” I replied. “The team?”

“All accounted for and backing me up. What’s the call?”

“There’s no reply from the bridge. Priority one is getting up there. Second, ascertain the status of the rest of the crew. I exited the cabin and saw my team had taken up positions around the lounge covering the room in a defensive circle. They were all there. All three of them. The job only called for a small team and paid cherry for a milk run. I should have known. “Sandy, you’re with me. Professor, take Emmett and search the boat. See who’s left. I'm going to the bridge.”

Just the four of us were left alive. Grim. The entire crew of the Silver Dollar had been killed just like Carlisle, double tapped up close with a small caliber weapon. Probably a silenced body pistol. The only one missing was Bakku, the gunnery chief. According to the posted roster, Bakku had bridge duty. And the bridge was buttoned up tight. We couldn’t get in. Sandy found the case under the sheets with Carlisle. No surprise his Nibs would keep it close to him. We sat around the dinning table in the lounge with the case resting square in the center. “Analysis?” I asked to no one in particular, but the Professor knew I was talking to him.

“Not good, Sully”, he said. “We’re still alive.”

“I don’t see being alive as a major drawback, Professor,” growled Emmett Rayburn. He was a thug, but he was my thug. Rayburn was the first associate in Dark Lightning Security, the firm I started after mustering out of the Corps. Angry was his normal state, but right now he was the kind of angry that would only be abated by strangling the life out of Bakku once we got on the bridge.

“The Professor’s right, Rayburn,” piped in Sandy. “Whoever killed the crew could have—should have—killed us too.” Sandy Parkinson, my systems expert, knew her way around electronics and computers better than anyone I’d ever met. I hired her on the night I caught her breaking into my supposedly secure offices to steal a copy of a proposal I planned to submit for a large security job. The lady was a gifted industrial spy. Dark Lightning didn’t land the job, too big for my firm anyway, but we landed a much better asset in her.

“No, Parkinson, they need us to be alive. We’ve been set up. We couldn’t be the patsy if we’re dead.” the Professor said. “We all woke with headaches. It’s clear we’ve been dosed. Maybe an aerosol in the ventilation. They waited ’til the last night before down jump, when we’d be least on guard.”

“Who set us up? Bakku?” Rayburn said. “I got some TDX in my kit. We’ll set a breaching charge and take care of that bastard.”

“My guess is that Bakku is already dead and whoever set us up wants us to blow the bridge.”

“We’re in J-Space, Professor,” said Rayburn incredulously, “Even I know there’s no getting off in J-Space. We don’t down jump for half an hour. We just searched the boat. He killed ’em and wants to make a deal with the pirates himself. He’s a double crosser. It has to be Bakku. There ain’t nobody else on the ship.”

“That’s the mystery now, isn’t it?”

“If Bakku is dead then it has to be one of us,” said Rayburn quickly glancing around at the team.

“Infighting is another thing they’re counting on. Whoever did this made a big mistake and left us alive. This job was sketchy from the get go, but the money was too good,” I said. “Sorry I got you stuck in this mess.”

“But the old lady hired you herself, didn’t she?” asked Sandy. “I thought this was on the up and up. Are you sure it was the Marquesa?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. We’ve kept in touch ever since I helped her out with that situation with her great grand nephew. It’s always a smart play to keep on the good side of the richest person in the sector.” Smith General Transport was getting hit hard by a band of pirates operating throughout the subsector, costing them big. Even for a company worth multi-trillions, losses had to be minimized. Dealing directly with the pirates was strictly illegal. Going through back channels, a deal was struck and a meeting arranged. On paper nothing led back to SGT. Although he was a distant cousin to the Marquesa, Carlisle had retired from the family business long ago. The Dollar was registered as an independent, and all of her crew had no official ties to Smith. All we had to do was accompany Carlisle to his meeting with the pirate commander and act as body guards. Simple. Piracy was just like any other business, only maybe more honest. And if they could get a score and not face any risk they would jump at it. SGT and the pirate faction would sign an accord and for a 50 Megacredit payout Smith could ply the subsector trade routes in peace. Dark Lighting Security would get paid 50K for what amounted to a 2 jump cruise on a luxury yacht. The only downside was putting up with Carlisle.

“OK we’ve got half an hour till we exit J-Space. That means we have half an hour to catch the killer, get back the 50 mil and make the deal with the pirates. If they show up and don’t find a payday they won’t like it. It would be long odds indeed if they don’t just kill us and take the ship.”

“But how do you know the money’s not in the case? It’s still intact. This is a premium security sealed hard case. Any tampering and the contents get fried.”

“The money’s gone, but if we’re lucky the accord they were supposed to sign is still in there. Sandy, get your tools. You and the Professor open this case. Emmett get down to engineering and bring back a cutter. We’re going to the bridge.

The Silver Dollar was a custom ship from landing gear on up. Based on a 500-dton streamlined, flattened sphere hull, most of the ship was laid out on a single deck. A much smaller command deck housing the bridge, computer, sensors and avionics bays rested above the main deck along the center line. Rayburn and I took almost a full half hour to cut through the hatch leading to the bridge. Bakku was there, and sure enough, dead as the rest of the crew. Same way, too. At his feet lay a small silenced pistol, presumably the one used to execute the crew. Both the ship’s nav computer and fire control systems were riddled with bullet holes. Things were looking up.

I slid down the ladder from the command deck to the lounge, “Any luck with the case?”

“Almost done, Sully,” said Sandy. Deep in concentration, she manipulated the controls on the case. The latches popped and Sandy opened it, pausing for a second to be sure nothing exploded. “Ta da!” she said.

“You just earned your pay for the week. Now let’s get a look at the contents.” I lifted out a folder from the top of the case and what I saw beneath it stunned me. I expected to see bearer bonds, but the stack was ten times larger than I thought it would be. A full five hundred bonds each with a face value of one million credits. I’d never seen a bigger stack of money. I handed the contract to the Professor, “John, give this a read and see what it says. Sandy, check the bonds out. They’re probably fake.” She picked a sheet at random from the middle of the stack and got to work. My chrono beeped—two minute warning for down jump. “Emmett, quit staring at the money. It ain’t yours. Man the comms in the bridge, and if the pirates hail us stall them.”

“Sure. I’ll just tell ’em that the crew is taking a nap and to call back later.”

“I don’t care what you tell them. If they think the deal’s gone spinward they’ll ventilate the hull and keep her for scrap. The four of us won’t put up much of a fight, and with the main comp down we don’t have any fire control. And watch your back up there, there’s still a killer on board.” Rayburn drew his sidearm and made his way up to the bridge.

“Well after a quick check these look good.” Sandy said, putting her hand scanner back in her tool satchel. “The stock is high grade laminated polymer embedded with security fibers and radioisotopes. There’s fully animated holographic printing on both sides. These look good. Best fakes I’ve ever seen.”

“How can you tell?”

“The mix of isotopes is wrong. Each bond series is embedded with a specific set of radioactive molecules. Based on the date of issue and the rate of decay it is easy to tell if they are genuine. The mix is way off. It’s like they didn’t try. These may be pretty, but they won’t fool any bank. And I doubt our pirate friends will fall for them either.”

“The contract looks good. It’s like you said. SGT is contracting with the pirates to provide security services for their transports. In essence it is protection money but the amount is a full five hundred million payable biannually. Smith is buying protection for their fleet for the whole sector. These pirates must be better organized than we ever thought possible. Half a billion, that’s some flash.”

The ship shuddered as it made the transition from J-Space to normal space. “Whoever planned this humped us good and hard. It had to be someone high up at Smith. Somewhere on this boat is a killer with 500 million in untraceable bearer bonds and we’re set up to take the fall. The crew is dead and we, the hired gun security, are still drawing breath. It’s obvious we cut our way on to the bridge. And even if the pirate skipper buys our outlandish tale and doesn’t vent us, we don’t have his coin, not real coin anyway. We sure as hell can’t pay them with this crap. His only play would be to take the Dollar. Our only play is to find the thief, get the bonds back and pay off the pirates according to this contract.”

“O’Quinn,” Rayburn shouted down from the hatch leading to the command deck. “The pirates are not far out. They were sitting here waiting. They got a fleet, alright. Transponders indicate three 800-dton Broadswords. I told them the J-capacitor blew on jump and fried the M-Drives. It should take them about an hour to thrust on over. Unless you got a plan I’m gonna break into the bar and down some of that aged hooch Carlisle sipped on every night.”

“Break in. That’s it!” I said. “We had to cut our way into the command deck because the hatches were both dogged from the inside. Not just locked electronically, but physically barred. Whoever locked them had to do it from the command deck. Everybody up.” I raced over to the ladder followed by my team.

Compared to the main deck, the command deck was tiny. A small corridor ran fore to the bridge and aft to the computer and sensor bays. There were two hatches in the ceiling, each leading to one of the dorsal turrets. I thought someone might be hiding in the turrets. I motioned the team to check them. Sandy and the Professor, both with gauss rifles, covered Rayburn as he opened each hatch. Both compartments were empty. “Search everything. The killer got on the bridge, dogged the hatches and left somehow. We’ve got to get that money back before those happy fun balls get here.” We started pulling panels and equipment and didn’t take long ’til we found a small passage behind some of the avionics gear. Retrofitted into the ship after construction, it was good. “Pros did this, and it must have taken time,” I said. Sandy handed off the gauss rifle to Rayburn, shed her armor, drew her pistol and crawled into the passage. She never would have fit, armored up. “If you see anyone shoot first and then shoot him again.”

She wasn’t in there more than a minute when she called out. “It’s empty. There’s a nest in here. Whoever it was has been here since we lifted. There’s a second exit. Looks like it leads to the cargo bay.”

The three of us were down the ladder and double-timed it to the cargo bay. The hold was empty, but the opened locker next to the aft air lock was missing a vacc suit . I ran to the locker and began pulling on a suit of my own. “Emmett, get to my cabin; in my locker you’ll find an accelerator rifle. Get it, and bring the HUD goggles.” He ran off.

“Just what do you think you’ll accomplish, Sully” the Professor asked.

“I’m getting the money back and killing that bastard,” I said, sealing the suit and grabbing the helmet.

“Are you nuts? Do you know how big space is? We’re in empty interstellar space. There isn’t any sun nearby to illuminate anything. That guy could be 10 kilometers away, or just 10 meters and you’ll never see him.”

“I’m the only one with any zero-G combat experience. I’ve got to try something. We’re dead if I don’t.” Rayburn returned and I donned the goggles before sealing the helmet. The heads-up display in the goggles was connected to the sights on the accelerator rifle and would help with aiming the weapon by projecting a computer enhanced sighting image on to the lenses. It was the best way to aim the zero-G rated weapon while wearing the bulky vacc suit.

“Anything I can do to help?” Rayburn asked.

“Just get to the bridge. Maybe Sandy can get the sensors working and we can get a bead on our guy.”

“Even if we could, unless he’s running electronics, or broadcasting a beacon we’re not likely to pick up anything. He’ll be dark, and radar won’t bounce back from a vacc suit.”

“Just do it.” I told them the frequency I’d be on, slipped on the thruster pack, and began to cycle through the airlock.

I always loved going EVA. There is nothing quite as peaceful as floating free in open space, only I wasn’t in a peaceful mood. The stars were bright pinholes in contrast to the black of space. The Silver Dollar blotted out the stars behind me. I switched the visor to IR in the hopes I could see a heat signature. No luck in any direction I looked. I checked the timer on the HUD and it had been about 40 minutes since we were first contacted by the pirates. Twenty minutes and all I had to do was find one man hiding in all of infinity.

“Sully,” said the Professor’s voice over the comm. I think we have something.”

“You got the sensors working?” I asked. Finally a spark of hope.

“Not really, but we got something. It’s weak, about 20 klicks out and moving away at a steady pace. It’s got to be our guy.” He gave me a bearing and I headed off at full thrust. It was the only shot we had.

A few minutes later I drew near the point the Professor had given me. I started to see a faint form in the IR. “I think it’s our guy. I see him. There is a human form and he’s got a duffel tethered floating along side, about 10 meters to his right.” This guy was taking a risk. In a best case scenario a man could last 96 hours or so in a vacc suit, maybe longer with additional O2 tanks, scrubbers and power cells. He must have planned to wait it out while the pirates took care of us and have a ship of his own jump in to pick him up later. Risky plan, but what a payday.

At 500 meters out I cut thrust and drifted in, closing at 10 meters a second. I raised the accelerator rifle and placed the electronic reticle over the form and waited as I got nearer. Specifically designed to be used in zero-G, the accelerator rifle fired projectiles in a two stage process. First the bullet is fired at very low velocity producing negligible recoil easily compensated by a thruster pack. Then a small rocket would kick in accelerating the round to a much higher velocity reaching maximum speed about 50 meters from the muzzle. The small shaped charge in the bullet nose would blow a large hole in any vacc suit, venting the air and killing the wearer.

I waited till I was close before firing. Oblivious to me he faced away and drifted peacefully, content his murderous theft had been successful. As I closed distance I could see he had an accelerator rifle of his own. I had to make sure my shot counted. I kept the sight square on his torso and watched as the range finder in the HUD counted down to 50 meters.

I pulled the trigger expecting a three round burst, but nothing happened. “The damned gun misfired!” I yelled into the comm as I slid closer. He would be aware of me soon enough. I raked back the charging handle to put a fresh round in the chamber. At about twenty meters from him I fired again. Still nothing. “The gun’s not working,” I cursed into the comm, “He must have sabotaged it. Our guy’s good,” I said, pivoting so I could face the assassin when I passed and hit full thrust. If I could get close enough I could still try to beat him to death with the rifle. That was all it was good for at this point.

The killer jerked in surprise as I slid past him. He hit his own thrusters and started towards me. For a few seconds the distance between us grew until we started getting nearer to each other. We were about 100 meters apart and I could see his accelerator rifle pointed right at me. I expected to see a puff of rocket exhaust in the IR before I cashed out, but he waited wanting the optimal 50 meter range. I consoled myself that at least I would be killed by a professional. I raked another fresh round in the chamber but still nothing.

I watched the range finder count down again. 70 meters. 60 meters. A brilliant flash filled the IR visor then it went black for a second, overloaded. When my vision returned I saw an expanding cloud of heated gas where the killer used to be. “What the hell!” I yelled into the comm.

“Glad to see you’re still with us, Sully.” the Professor replied. “Do you see an object floating about 50 meters to your upper right.”

“Affirmative,” I said. It was the duffel. “Can you explain what just happened?”

“Collect that. It’s the bonds,” he said. “We used the Dollar’s fusion cannon.”

“But the ship’s computer and fire control were shot. How did you manage all this?” I asked grabbing the duffel clipping my own tether to it.

“Well, the computer is useless and it would take hours to repair. So I had Sandy bypass the computer and patch her currency scanner directly to the sensors. We scanned for the isotopes embedded in the bonds. That’s how we found him. I wrote a quick fire control app on my handcomp and patched it in to run the cannons. We couldn’t zero in on him till he activated his own HUD, then we caught the electronic signature. You can thank Rayburn for taking the shot. He insisted, and I don’t think I could have talked him out of it even if I tried.”

Yep, putting the smarter guy as second-in-command paid off again.