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Raising Caine: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Friday, July 24, 2015 20:48 EDT



In close orbit; V 1581 Four

    Kozakowski had rolled back the blast covers on the Arbitrage’s portside bridge windows to watch the intruder approach. It was no longer obscured by the wispy edges of V 1581 IV’s cream-and-ochre atmosphere. “My god, they must mean to ram us.”

    Ayana shook her head and glanced over Kozakowski’s round shoulders at the brilliant blue exhaust flares of the intruder. “No, Mr. Kozakowski, but they do not mean to give us much time to prepare or fire at them.”

    “As if we had anything left to fire,” Jorge Velho amended. He finished activating the automated anti-intruder systems, then turned to the intercom, collecting himself to give an order that he never wanted, and never thought he’d need, to give: “All hands, this is the captain. The intruder is confirmed to be on an intercept course, with the evident intent of boarding us. They do not respond to hails. All security teams: confirm your readiness with the XO and secure for vacuum operations.”

    “Vacuum operations?” echoed Kozakowski.

    “Yes,” confirmed Ayana. “Although contested boardings are extremely rare, one of the most common tactics by a boarder is to create conditions of explosive or at least dislocating decompression. That is why we have sealed the bulkheads communicating with the hull-proximal sections and reduced them to zero point two atmospheres. Fortunately, even though we’ve cut rotation, we still have some gravity, due to the proximity of the gas giant beneath us. Combat in true zero-gee is extremely unforgiving to the untrained.”

    Kozakowski nodded. “Some of my crew is trained for both low- and zero-gee operations. Let them help.”

    Velho did not turn to look at Kozakowski. Yes, your crew was trained by the same megacorporation which sold us out to invaders just half a year ago. And with you in charge of that crew, we might have the same mysterious “difficulties” that kept us from getting the drones released from the auto-deployable module in time. What should have been a twenty-second operation took over a minute—which was too long. But instead, Velho said: “Mr. Kozakowski, we have taken heavy damage to a number of key systems, systems with which your personnel have far greater expertise. We are going to need that expertise if, after this action, we hope to effect repairs. By holding back those experts, that reduces your available crew complement to twenty. Those remaining twenty are currently manning the essential systems in engineering and staffing damage control parties.

    “Conversely, most of my prize crew are reasonably proficient with weapons and anti-boarding tactics, and more than a hundred are defending the EVA ingress points in the engineering and cargo oversight modules. In short, we have the right assets in the right places.” Which also means I don’t have to worry about any megacorporate turncoats shooting my people in their backs.

    “And if you really want to help,” Piet muttered, “you could just decant a few dozen of those clone-soldiers riding in the freezer section.”

    Kozakowski did not deign to face the pilot as he rebutted. “CoDevCo’s Optigene clones are not superhuman. Just like anyone else, they cannot be roused straight from cold sleep into operations. The biochemical reanimation requirements take forty-eight hours alone. It would require another thirty-six to forty-eight hours for full restoration of autonomic and voluntary muscular function, and perhaps yet another day for full mental function. I hope it is enough that I have granted you full access to their equipment lockers. And I am still willing to take my place among the defenders, even if you do not permit any of my crew to accompany me.”

    Jorge considered the offer: it was too measured to be fully convincing. So, Kozakowski, the first time you’re eager to help us is when you could be killed doing so? Or rather, so you can sabotage our defensive preparations and curry favor with your true masters? Or am I just being overly suspicious? “No, Mr. Kozakowski, as the original master of the ship, I think it important that you remain here on the bridge.” Velho picked up one of the autoshotguns that had been liberated from the Optigene clones’ combat stores. “I will oversee the defenses personally.” As if I really know what the hell I’m doing. This was not part of the job description when the government came looking for civilian prize crews. “Now, before I go, let’s see if we can give our attackers at least one nasty surprise. Is Mr. Vindar off Deal Two?”

    “Yes, sir. Remote piloting protocols are engaged.”

    “Are the thrusters still hot?”

    “Enough for one good burst, sir.”

    Kozakowski looked from one face to the other among the three bridge crew.

    Jorge suppressed a smile at the CoDevCo factotum’s perplexity. “Piet, do you have the controls routed through to your board?”

    “Aye, sir.”

    Jorge eyeballed the trajectory of the intruder in relation to where Deal Two was dangling, only half in its docking cradle. “She might not come out of the clamps cleanly,” he warned.

    Piet shrugged. “We knew that from the moment we came up with this hare-brained scheme. But it’s the only shot we have, Jorge.”

    “It is as you say, my friend. And we will let your instruments and eyes determine when to—”

    “Engaging now!” Piet interrupted.

    He triggered Deal Two’s emergency umbilical release, slammed the thrust relays on his remote operations board to maximum, yanked the tanker’s flight controls up and then savagely over.

    In the screens, Deal Two’s thrusters blasted out a glowing wave of plasma. They propelled her up out of the docking cradles and then, gimballing, began to swing her in a scalded-cat hop toward the oncoming intruder—

    But something unexpected was trailing behind Deal Two as Piet tried to effect his own, unorthodox ramming attempt: the tanker-tender’s umbilical was still attached to the Arbitrage, probably due to the prior damage—

    Although the resistance only caused a mild jerk and delay in Deal Two’s half-Immelman attempt at smashing itself into the oncoming ship, that was time enough for the attackers to react. Two of the low, black, lusterless mini-domes near the prow of the enemy ship spun in the direction of the tanker—

    —which was abruptly ripped end to end by invisible, criss-crossing beams which left glowing slices along Deal Two’s fuselage. One of those beams triggered an explosion which converted the whole boat into a tumbling storm of debris. The intruder jinked slightly to avoid a spinning, savaged bay door, and kept coming on.

    No one said anything. Jorge Velho hefted the autoshotgun, reflected that he hoped his experience with semiautomatic sporting versions on his uncle’s sugar and silviculture plantation near Belém would stand him in good stead. “Ms. Tagawa has the con. And she will assume command in the event that I am—incapacitated.”

    Ayana started. “Captain Velho, as the XO, I am expendable and should be—”

    “Ms. Tagawa, the matter is not open to discussion. Ignoring my command prerogative for a moment, it is quite obvious that you are more familiar with the best protocols to employ in this scenario.” You seem to be much more familiar with them. Indeed, suspiciously so…Arbitrage needs that expertise, whether in escaping, or negotiating a settlement with the intruders.” He told himself that only a tiny part of his motivation stemmed from male protective instincts that had been drilled into his genome through uncounted millennia. “Piet, keep a firm hand on the tiller.”

    “Aye, sir,” said the South African ruefully.

    Velho exited the bridge, pointedly resisting the urge to glance back.

    At Ayana.



    Nezdeh watched the external monitors as Ulpreln counted off the last ten meters to the Arbitrage. “Ten, nine…”

    “Slow us.”

    “Obeyed. Eight, seven.” The pause lengthened. “Six. And…”

    “Now: final retroboost.”

    “Boosting—and we are at relative-velocity all-stop, Nezdeh.”

    “Still no countermeasures deployed by the target?”

    Sehtrek glanced up. “None observable, Srina Perekmeres.”

    She nodded. Action: at last. “Primary EVA team?”

    “We are ready.”

    “Commence assault.”


    In the external monitors, Nezdeh watched the main EVA hatch, just aft of midship, open. A line of spacesuited figures emerged. Organized as three separate teams, they traversed the four remaining meters to a double-sized EVA portal in the Arbitrage’s hull: a small access bay for loading ship’s stores. Each team’s lead figure used active maneuver jets to reach the Aboriginal ship, towing three more figures behind. As two of the team leaders produced tools consistent with forced ingress procedures, the third team leader floated to the side, weapon ready.

    “Secondary EVA team?”

    Brenlor’s impatience was audible. “Here. And still waiting.”

    Nezdeh almost rolled her eyes. And you shall continue to do so. For one more minute.



    On the bridge of the Arbitrage, Emil Kozakowski was tempted to shove Tagawa out of the way to get a better look at the small external monitor that showed the would-be boarders who had gathered forward of Deal Two’s empty docking cradle.

    “Yes,” Tagawa was telling Velho over the intercom, “a dozen boarders at bay Foxtrot-Twelve. I do not recognize their weapons or suits.”

    Velho’s voice, Lilliputian as it escaped Tagawa’s earbud, began shouting for more personnel to deploy to the bay, drawing them from the teams watching other access points and from the reserves being held further in-hull. Kozakowski estimated that the defenders would outnumber their dozen attackers by better than six to one, once the repositioning was completed. He leaned toward the screen and Ayana. “What are the raiders doing at the bay, do you think?”

    Tagawa did not even move her eyes toward him. “They seem to be attempting some kind of external electronic bypass.”

    “Odd. How could they hope to understand the electronics of our ships?”

    Now she did turn toward him. “I was wondering if you might be the very person to answer such a question, Mr. Kozakowski.” Her gaze was level. It was no more emotional than usual, but somehow, it conveyed a startling degree of animus.

    Kozakowski felt his face grow hot. “I do not appreciate your insinuation, Ms. Tagawa.”

    “And I do not appreciate your presence, Mr. Kozakowski. But, as to the matter of their boarding attempts: you will notice the large cases carried by two of the waiting team-members on each of the boarding strings. I suspect that if they cannot bypass our electronics, they shall use explosives. I expect, given the technology we have witnessed so far, they would breach the hull easily.”

    “Wonder why they didn’t just use charges in the first place, then,” commented Piet sourly.

    “The mere fact that they are boarding us suggests that they value either the ship, or something on it,” Ayana replied, without glancing at Piet.

    She was studying the actions of the breaching team so closely that she did not notice new motion in another screen, half-obscured by Kozakowski’s pear shaped body. It offered a wide-angle view that, while reprising the boarding attempt in miniature, showed the entirety of the raider—

    —From behind which, four more space-suited figures emerged. Unlike the first twelve, these boarders were wearing large maneuver packs, carrying sizeable weapons, and seemed, if anything, overburdened. As soon as they had regrouped just beyond the far aft quarter of their own hull, they fired their maneuver jets and moved rapidly forward, angling toward the keel of the Arbitrage.

    Kozakowski glanced at Ayana, who was not allowing her gaze to drift in his direction—or, therefore, toward the monitor containing the wide-angle view of the intruder.

    Kozakowski watched the four new figures jet out of the side of the frame: they would soon be between the stilled rotational armatures of the Arbitrage’s twin toruses, heading toward the bow.

    He said nothing.



    Nezdeh watched the four members of Brenlor’s Team Two, all wearing heavily-armored EVA suits, cut a straight line through the radial arms of the Arbitrage’s two rotational habitats. “Is there any sign they’ve been detected?”

    “None, Srina Perekmeres,” Sehtrek replied.

    Nezdeh shook her head. “Still, they will spot Team Two any moment.” But every additional moment that Brenlor’s men remained undetected meant less warning for the defenders. And given the diversion that Team One was staging near the more logical entry point—the bay door—the Aboriginals might, even now, be concentrating their forces away from Brenlor’s actual point of entry.

    Nezdeh activated her beltcom. “Brenlor, ETA?”

    “Thirty seconds. Radiation dose-rate from this gas giant is tolerable.”

    “Is it interfering with your electronics?”

    “No. They are sufficiently hardened. Heads-up display and deck schematics are reading clearly. How kind of the Aboriginals to provide us with deck plans of their ship.”

    “That is the point of suborning an opponent, rather than attacking or conquering them outright.” A distinction which the other Perekmeres males would have been wise to appreciate before they hatched the ridiculous plots that ultimately led to our House’s Extirpation. In the monitor, she saw the four figures of Team Two arrive near a small, personnel-sized airlock door, just forward of the leading rotational habitat. “Activate your helmet cameras.”

    Brenlor’s reply was sardonic. “Activating—and enjoy the spectacle. Idrem, enter the ship’s secure code into the manual access keypad.”



    Ayana frowned. For a military boarding party, the dozen figures at the threshold of bay door F-12 seemed to be taking their time, most of them hanging patiently on their lead-strings.

    Too patiently, she suddenly realized.

    Ayana Tagawa leaned forward to inspect the nine non-team-leaders closely. What she saw was not consistent with techniques for conserving life support: rather, it was a complete lack of motion.

    Which instantly changed her perception of what she was seeing. This was no longer an oddly casual boarding attempt by twelve personnel, nine of whom were remaining admirably motionless. Iit was a ruse, in which only three persons were showing any signs of activity, urgent or otherwise. Which meant—

    Ayana leaned forward to peer around Kozakowski, who was still staring out the windows like an utter idiot—and, in the portside bow monitor, she saw four figures gliding to a halt near the outer hatch of airlock C-2. Each wore a heavier, bulkier spacesuit, the torso covered by armored plates. And their weapons—“Captain Velho, the primary boarding attempt is taking place now at airlock Charlie-Two. I repeat, primary boarding attempt is under way at Charlie-Two, not Foxtrot-Twelve.” She stared into Kozakowski’s almost-surprised eyes. “You weren’t watching the monitors?”

    “The monitors?” He sounded puzzled. “I wanted to make sure they didn’t come near us here on the bridge.”

    “You—?” Can Kozakowski really be that stupid, that—? Ayana leaned away from the man before she was conscious of doing so: no, he can’t be that stupid. No one can. I should shoot him now—but I have no proof.

    In her earbud, Ayana heard Jorge shouting for several fire-teams to double back to Charlie Two. But Ayana knew those reinforcements were already too late: one of the four boarders was entering a code into the external control panel. And there wasn’t enough time to crash the computer or override the systems.

    Not anymore.



    Brenlor’s voice was harsh. “Idrem, what is delaying you?”

    If you had a genuine interest in anything other than weaponcraft, you might know. “Brenlor, simultaneously opening both the outer and inner hatches of an airlock is a difficult override to achieve, even if one has the codes. There are built-in safety constraints that preclude—”

    “Just be swift in your task, Idrem.”

    “I shall.” And I shall not title you Srin or any of the other obeisances you especially want from me, since you know I am your superior in every way but one: I lack the Blood of the First Line of the First Family. Although, given the failures of that Line’s Extirpated Hegemons, I suspect their geneline had already been corrupted

    The airlock’s external panel began flashing red, along with all the lights ringing the outer hatch. “Brenlor, we are ready.”

    “Assault positions,” Brenlor ordered over the tactical channel. “Vranut, you enter. I shall cover, then follow. Idrem, you and Jesel secure the inner hatch behind us.”

    Vranut was already in position when Idrem warned, “The hatch will open very quickly. I am invoking an emergency protocol for rapidly expelling contaminants or extinguishing a fire.”

    “I am ready,” Vranut replied, setting his needler to low power and maximum rate of fire.

    “On three. One, two—”

    On “three,” Idrem hit the entry tab; the outer hatch flung itself aside. Vranut was halfway in the doorway, started, and with catlike speed and grace, rolled himself back out—just in time to avoid a flailing human as he tumbled out into space. The Aboriginal was wearing a light duty suit, trailing a snapped lanyard. The garment was already beginning to balloon. Unrated for full vacuum, the occupant would not live long enough to deplete the small life support unit strapped across his shoulders.

    Vranut peeked back into the airlock cautiously, then entered low and fast against the diminishing outrush of atmosphere and detritus. Sparks and chips marked where defensive fire began seeking him.

    Brenlor extended his weapon around the rim of the outer airlock hatch. “I see them,” he muttered, playing his coil gun about slightly so that it transfered the whole interior picture to his HUD. “Transmitting.”

    The view from his weapon’s scope was now on each of the four boarders’ HUDs. Idrem studied the tactical situation: three defenders just recovering from the outdraft of the explosive decompression, half concealed in doorways on the entry corridor. Further on, at a tee intersection, there was what appeared to be a barricade behind which several indistinct figures lurked.

    “We’ve surprised them,” Brenlor shouted. “Vranut, prepare to advance. We will fire high-power bursts to clear the near doorways. You are to take cover in the furthest one you can reach.”

    “And Vranut,” added Idrem, “I will follow up with a grenade down the hall.” He stare-selected a spot just behind and beneath the barricade, letting his eye remain fixed until a crosshair appeared at the desired point. “Wait until it discharges. It should interrupt their fire for several seconds.” Or perhaps permanently.

    Brenlor grunted something that sounded like consent, then yelled. “All fire!”

    Without exposing any part of themselves other than their weapons, Brenlor and the ’sul named Jesel set their needlers on maximum propulsive power and began firing four round bursts. In the HUD, Idrem could see the four point two millimeter projectiles go through defenders and the doorjambs behind which they hid.

    Idrem did not wait for the bodies to begin their slow slump to the deck. He leaned his grenade launcher around the corner, depressed the trigger that showed the thiry-eight millimeter self-seeking rocket grenade the aim point he had stare-selected, and then squeezed the firing trigger. The grenade sped towards its target, self-correcting for any post-firing motion of the launch tube with micro thrusters while the grenade launcher itself selectively counter-vented the propulsive gases to eliminate muzzle jump and recoil.

    The grenade exploded—noiselessly in the air-evacuated corridor—sending obstacles and bodies spinning away from its point of detonation.

    Vranut did not wait for Brenlor’s “Advance!” Consistent with training and reflexes ingrained since he first sprouted facial hair, the Evolved maintained a low posture as he glide-sprinted forward, making it to the furthest doorway along the corridor. He turned to wave the other three boarders inside with one hand, keeping his weapon pointed back toward the ruined barricade with the other. His weapon’s scope evidently showed him a defender rising up from the blast, wielding an archaic assault rifle. Without turning, Vranut used the HUD to aim at the figure behind him, squeezed off a low-power five-round burst. Three of the rounds hit and were stopped by the tangled remains of the barricade; the other two made pin-hole puncture marks in the defender’s chest. The four point two millimeter flechettes’ biosensitive nanytes immediately registered contact with living tissue. The stabilizing fins snapped backward and perpendicular to the axis of the penetrator core, inducing wild cavitation before they emerged, corkscrewing, from just beneath the Aboriginal’s scapula. In contrast to the modest entry trauma, the exit wounds were marked by broad gouts of blood.

    “Corridor cleared,” Vranut reported as the others took shelter in the doorways.

    Except Idrem, who remained at the control panel alongside the interior airlock hatch. He entered the codes for full override authority, triggered both doors to close—and then the illuminated keypad grew dark. The roaring cyclone of the automated repressurization system died down to an anemic wheeze, and amber hazard lights began glowing along the junctures of the deck and the bulkheads.

    “What is it? What’s happened?” Brenlor demanded.

    “I believe the Aboriginals have performed an abrupt termination of their computer’s function. They have ‘crashed’ it, in their parlance.”

    “So they no longer have control of the ship?” Brenlor’s voice was not merely eager, but malicious.

    “No, but nor do we.” Although I was about to secure it.

    “Then they are helpless.”

    “They have fewer options. But now, so do we. I can no longer terminate their life support, nor can I secure tactical advantages by controlling bulkheads, lighting, and other on-board systems.”

    “They are not needed.” Brenlor rolled out of from behind the cover of a doorway and into the corridor. “And I suspect they won’t have many defenders left.” He slid a thick tube off his back and began undoing one tightly sealed end. “Jesel, check for thermal blooms at the intersection.”

    Jesel complied, moving forward and turning up the sensitivity of his faceplate’s built-in thermal imaging sensor. He stopped about three meters away from the corner. “Faint signatures to the left; none to the right.”

    “We might miss some of the defenders, particularly if their duty suits are sealed and fitted with cold cans,” Vranut pointed out.

    “It is unlikely that they are taking precautions to conceal their body heat,” Brenlor countered. “Look at these.” He toed a dead Aboriginal. “They’ve left their helmets unsealed. Probably to conserve the pittance of air they have in their tanks. But today, that conservation of resources will prove their undoing.”

    “How?” Jesel asked.

    “Because today they are going to meet these.” Brenlor smiled as the lid of the canister came off with a depressurizing hiss. The open mouth was a honeycomb of twenty-two hexes in two concentric rings around one central hex. A hideous head, somewhat larger than that of the animal that the Aboriginals called a weasel, popped out of one of the cells of the honeycomb.

    Three similar heads followed shortly. In the thin air, the creatures emitted coarse, clattering whines, akin to sand being tossed into a desk fan. “These are upt’theel,” Brenlor explained with a smile. “They are old friends of our Family, used for boarding or other assaults where a well-prepared defender has taken refuge in tunnels and similar, close structures.”

    More upt’theel heads emerged from the canister. Idrem had only seen the diminutive monsters twice before, had only used them once, and did not relish the memory. The upt’theel was a long-bodied octoped with chitinous legs that were even sharper than they looked. Its almost neckless head was liberally and evenly speckled with light sensors, with two genuine eyes directly above the mouth. Its wide-hinged jaw hung open to pull in as much of the thin air as possible, revealing a serrated ridge in place of teeth. The ridge was the color of obsidian and, by repute, harder than basalt.

    “Should we not be moving?” Vranut asked from the corner of the intersection.

    Brenlor watched the other creatures emerge, with the same rapt fascination of the Evolved who patronized helot death-arenas. “We do not need to rush. Their slow movements tell us that no enemies are near.”

    “They are…Awakened?” Jesel asked.

    Brenlor laughed aloud. “Idiot. No, of course not. But their sense of smell is acute. They will detect a carbon-based animal, or its decaying flesh, quite readily.”

    “So the other defenders of this ingress point have fled?” Jesel sounded dubious.

    Idrem looked at Vranut, who ran a thermal imaging sweep down either branch of the tee intersection.

    Vranut shook his head. “No; they are edging closer again.”

    Brenlor actually smiled. “Then let us welcome them back.” Taking an opaque vial off his light cuirass’s left load-strap, he walked to Vranut’s position, the canister of upt’theel in his other hand. “They are unique creatures.” He spoke with the didactic detachment of an aficionado. “Their world was at the inner edge of the habitable zone—such as it is—of a blue-white giant. Not many species can evolve, much less thrive, under the gaze of such a punishing furnace of heat and radioactivity. Yet this species did.” Brenlor laid the canister down. “It is always gratifying to watch them do their work.” He slung the opaque vial around the left-hand corner, ending the toss with a sharp twist of his wrist. The glass container smacked into a wall: its shattering elicited one or two cries of caution from the Aboriginals who had apparently been trying to sneak up on the boarders.

    The sand-and-fan whine of several of the upt’theel suddenly rose to a full chorus of pebbles-into-a-turboprop screeching. Like a horde of perverse lemmings mutated into pangolin-centipede-gila monster hybrids, the strange beasts flowed out of the honeycomb cells of the container with serpentine fluidity, snuffling as they sped around the corner. Not one bothered to look down the other, right-hand extension of the corridor.

    Idrem nodded in that direction. “Apparently, the right hand turn is clear.” Meaning that the most direct path to the bridge was open.

    Brenlor was unconcered. “By the time the upt’theel reach the rotting bait I’ve thrown down the hall, they will smell the Aboriginals who are approaching.”

    “And this is why we remain with suits sealed?” Jesel asked.

    “Yes. As long as the upt’theel cannot smell us, we are of no more interest to them than the bulkheads.”

    Stony, screeching disputes—probably over Brenlor’s morsel of bait—rose, and then were suddenly still.

    “Ah,” said Brenlor, “they have the new scent.”

    Jesel made toward the corner aggressively, his needler coming up.

    Brenlor put a restraining hand upon his arm. “Give them a moment to get started. It’s easier for us. And more gratifying for them.”

    Around the corner, a fusillade of panicked gunfire erupted, followed closely by high-pitched human screams.



    Ayana could not breathe as she watched the monitors displaying the approaches to airlock C-2. A swarm of small creatures akin to crustacean weasels had emerged from one of the attackers’ containers and were now flowing like a low, rolling tide toward a half dozen defenders preparing an ambush in the corridor beyond the ruined barricade.

    The creatures’ sinuous serpentine advance ensured that only a few were hit by the crew’s gunfire, mostly by their one autoshotgun. Then, as the strange animals neared the defenders, they launched into what appeared to be a somersault.

    But the somersault did not end. With their eight liberally jointed legs rolling them forward, their exoskeletal back plates worked like the rim of a wheel. The defenders, apparently perplexed as much as unnerved, fired wildly. The duty-suited humans splattered a few more of the attacking beasts into chunks just before discovering that they had emptied their magazines. The rolling creatures bore in among them like a herd of animate hoops.

    The small predators used the speed they had accumulated by uncoiling straight out of their final revolution into a mouth-first leap at their prey. Even before the creatures’ claws and legs started slicing at and embedding in the flesh of the defenders, their sawlike jaws were at work, burrowing into viscera. Ayana felt bile jet up into her mouth as the killer weasel-crustaceans became more akin to into gut-burrowing worms, their progress marked by intermittent spurts of blood and ruined intestines. Their screaming victims tried yanking them out, only to slice their hands open on the knife-like edges of the beasts’ bodies and legs.

    “Jorge—Captain!” Ayana cried, knowing she could not regain full vocal composure. “The boarders have eliminated both layers of defense for airlock Charlie-Two. Repeat: the—”

    As if being progressively drowned by an advancing wave of darkness, the screens in the bridge went blank, one after the other. The carrier signal in her earbud died as well.

    Piet spread his hands upon the bridge controls. “What just happened? How did—?”

    Ayana interrupted, looking at the sensor logs. “We were just swept, from the docking cradles to the bridge, with some kind of focused EMP wave. Our less robust electronics have been disabled. The rest seem compromised.”

    Piet leaned aggressively over his console. “That’s not possible.”

    “Apparently, it is,” Kozakowski muttered.

    Ayana turned on him, her sidearm out of its holster with considerable speed. “Tell us what you know about this weapon. Now.”

    “Kn-know?” Kozakowski stammered, his hands rising in a mix of haplessness and tentative surrender. “I don’t know anything. There are rumors that the Ktor might be capable of such things, but I have had no contact with them or their technology.” He blinked rapidly. “Now, put up that pistol, Ms. Tagawa. I am not the enemy.”

    “That,” she said, “remains to be seen.” She turned away from Kozakowski, but did not reholster the gun. “Mr. Brackman?”

    “Yeh, Ms. Tagawa?”

    “Since you no longer have a bridge station to run, concentrate on trying to raise the captain through one of the hardwired emergency intercom sets.”

    Piet frowned. “This megacorporate econobucket doesn’t have an extensive intercom system, sir.”

    “Do your best. We must inform the captain that the boarders are not attacking toward the bridge, as we anticipated. They are heading straight toward him.”

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