Umar was quickly realizing just how difficult it was to focus on doing repairs when you have a gun aimed at your head. Of course, it should have been obvious from the start that being held hostage would be stressful, but it was one of those truths that doesn’t completely sink in until you experience it first hand. Sort of like how those ‘Slippery When Wet’ caution signs seemed redundant until you were skidding around in a rainstorm.
“Easy on the comms,” instructed Umar’s captor in a steady, even clip. “This is just a normal emergency repair, right?” The man might as well have been casually asking Umar to pass nuoc cham, for all the current situation seemed to be stressing him.
“Right.” Just your normal, everyday emergency repair where someone has hijacked your ship and is looming right behind your terminal in case they need to put a plasma bolt through your brain. Totally normal.
Umar took a deep breath and pushed all that aside. He needed to focus. His life wasn’t the only one hanging in the balance. With a practiced few presses on the console, Umar launched the repair drone Shake towards the source of the emergency beacon — a Terrapin, adrift and giving off a worryingly high IR signature.
With the drone en route, Umar hailed the Terrapin with his most professional, calming voice. “Dr. Hostan? This is Umar from In-A-Fix.”
The response came immediately. “Power plant’s experiencing a critical cascade and my coolers are about to give,” reported Dr. Hostan, breathing heavily. The temperature must have been unbearable inside the craft. Even wearing a protective suit and helmet, her hair was plastered with sweat to her head. “Geiger’s ticking fast and loud. I don’t think there’s much time.”
Umar appreciated the doc’s information efficiency. He didn’t blame people when they panicked in an emergency, but it sure did help when they kept their heads. It gave him an extra tool to work with rather than an extra problem to solve.
“Drone’s almost there. As soon as the full diagnostic scan is done, we’ll know what’s causing the cascade. In the meanwhile, I’m gonna have you do a full flush on your coolers. It won’t do much, but it’ll buy us some time.”
“Just tell me what to do.”
Umar began walking her through the process to circumvent the coolers’ safety protocols. The doc was an apt pupil and it wasn’t long before she had managed the tricky manual override. The maneuver was one that his boss, Jess, had taught him when he was first starting out. A fine example of the philosophy, “sometimes you got to break a ship even more if you want to fix it.” If they got the Terrapin up and running again, the coolers would have severely limited functionality compared to their normal operating parameters. But that was a problem for later. The first priority was not exploding.
“The temp’s dropping a bit,” said Dr. Hostan, clearly relieved. “You’re a miracle worker.”
“Naw, Doc. You did all the heavy lifting,” replied Umar. A pop-up on the terminal indicated a new data-packet had arrived. “Looks like the diag scan just came in, so I’m gonna have you drink a hydro-gel real quick while I go over the data. Don’t want you passing out on me.”
As Dr. Hostan turned to find a gel pack to feed into her suit, Umar silenced his audio and video while still listening in on the channel.
“That was a neat little trick,” said the shipjacker once the comm had been muted.
“Yeah,” said Umar, distracted as he pored over the report that Shake’s scanners had sent back.
“I mean you probably just saved her life and what? You’re getting your standard repair rate for this?”
“You mind not talking? I’m trying to figure out how —” Umar let the sentence hang there as he frantically cross-checked the numbers he had gotten from Shake.
“What is it?” Asked the shipjacker, leaning over the terminal to look.
“Grab that datapad,” said Umar, gesturing to where a clunky three-gen-old model was strapped to the wall. “Open up the DayBreak power plant manual. Should be right there in the folder.”
If Umar had been watching instead of directing Shake to do a deeper scan on the Terrapin’s axial power conduit, he would have seen the jacker hesitate. Using the datapad would mean having to holster his weapon. Keeping a wary eye on Umar to make sure this wasn’t a ploy, the man stowed his pistol and pulled the datapad free. After it booted, he found and opened the manual. “Okay, now what?”
“Here,” said Umar as he grabbed the pad. Scrolling, he found the section he was looking for and quickly read it. Then, cursing under his breath, he read it again.
“Enough,” said the jacker. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Umar tossed the datapad down onto the console. “You know anything about reactors?”
“Just enough not to touch one.”
“Then the short version is, thanks to the geniuses at Sakura Sun, the good doctor is pretty well and properly screwed. See …,” said Umar as he rotated the scans of the Terrapin displayed on the terminal. “The DayBreak was designed with these so-called performance improvements that will most likely make the power plant overload faster if I try to fix the problem. And not doing anything isn’t an option since the whole thing’s gonna blow in a few minutes anyway. So, yeah. Screwed.”
“Damn,” replied the jacker, leaning in to look closer. He pointed to the axial conduit. “And if you try to bypass it, these backups will just kick in.”
Umar raised an eyebrow, a bit surprised at his captor’s quick grasp of the issue. “Yeah, that’s right. Ninety-nine out of a hundred times the setup would be ideal, but damn if that one exception isn’t a doozy.”
The man straightened to his full height, resting a hand on his hip near the gun. “So, what are you going to do?”
“It’s what you’re gonna do,” said Umar, eyes flicking towards the jacker’s holster. “You’re the one threatening to shoot people.”
The response came with a heavy sigh, “You want to her to EVA over here before you start the repair.”
“It’s too dangerous to do it with her still on the ship, but with her onboard the Vulcan, we can pilot to the edge of the blast radius and still be able to control the drones. Maybe I can repair it in time. Maybe I won’t be fast enough and the thing will blow. But either way, the doc gets to live.”
“Fine. Do it.”
“You serious?” asked Umar, halfway through preparing the mental argument he thought he’d have to make.
“Yeah. Don’t know how much safer she’s going to be with me around, but it’s stupid to let her die now just ’cause I might get her killed later.” And leaving it at that, the jacker went to the pilot’s chair to bring the Vulcan’s hatch around so the doctor would have a straight-shot EVA.
Umar opened the comm. “Doc, you hear me?”
“Yes,” Dr. Hostan replied. “What did the scans say?”
“I’m gonna need you to EVA over to the Vulcan.”
“Am I losing the ship?”
“Can’t say for sure at this point, but I don’t want to take any chances.”
“Do I at least have enough time to pull my research drives?” asked the doctor. It was the most concerned Umar had seen her so far.
“Yeah, but fast, doc,” said Umar against his better judgement. “Take a minute to grab what you can, but you got to leave after that.”
Not even bothering to reply, the doctor rushed to grab the data she had gathered with the Terrapin’s sensors.
“Tell her to forget it,” said the jacker as he swung the Vulcan wildly away from the Terrapin.
Before Umar could ask what the hell was going on, the entire ship shook and the shields flared from a direct laser hit.
Umar frantically paged the doctor, “Plans changed, doc. Need you to stay put. We’ve got company.”
“How’d these bastards find me?” said the jacker as he evaded the next volley.
Umar checked the radar and saw there were two ships rapidly approaching their position. “Who are they?”
“A couple low-rent hitters.”
“And you thought you could lose them in my ship?”
“That was the plan.”
“Would have worked a lot better if you hadn’t left my drone behind.”
“You’re kidding me. The damn thing was tagged?”
“Six ways to Sunday … wait, where are you going?” demanded Umar when an out-of-range warning popped up for Shake.
“I’m getting us the hell out of here.” Another laser barrage just barely missed the prow of the Vulcan.
“No. We’re staying and fixing that ship.”
“I’m not dying for her.”
“Neither am I, so be sure to keep the ships off her and away from us.”
After a letting fly a string of curses, the jacker pulled the stick back and steered once again towards the Terrapin. “You’re damn lucky I’m a fantastic pilot.”
Umar keyed the comms. “Doc, since EVAing isn’t really an option any more, I’m starting the emergency repairs.”
The doctor took the news in stride. “Good luck.”
“Same to you, doc. If you got any messages to pass along, feel free to send them over.”
“I’ll do that. Thank you.” And with that, Dr. Hostan ended the comm.
Quickly, he opened the bay so that he could launch his last drone, Spear. It wasn’t really set up for this kind of delicate work, but Umar could use all the extra hands he could get. “Drone’s heading out. Can you give it cover?”
“On it,” replied the jacker, rolling the ship hard to one side. He positioned the Vulcan between the two attackers and the doctor. Switching his controls over, the jacker used the remote turrets to lay down a wide field of suppressive fire, forcing the ships to alter course. One of the would-be assassins saw this as an opportunity and attempted to sweep up on the underside, but the jacker was ready for them and let loose with the main guns, clipping the attacker’s port wing. The damage wasn’t enough to take them out of the fight, but it’d give the pilot something to think about.
Meanwhile, Umar had managed to cut open the access panel in the Terrapin’s thick armor and reach the inner workings. Controlling both drones in conjunction, he began the tricky process of halting the cascade and siphoning off the excess energy. Right on cue, the axial conduit kicked in, and as predicted, the power plant responded by increasing its load production. Now it was his turn to cuss up a storm.
Focusing his energy on the injured ship, the jacker switched to the offensive. This would have worked well if the two pilots had been a team, since harassing one would hopefully cause the other to react, but no such luck. The more distant attacker completely ignored the plight of the other and took advantage of the Vulcan’s push, scoring a direct hit. Smoke began to fill the ship’s main chamber. Fantastic pilot or not, the numbers were against them. “How’s it looking back there?”
“Almost done, one way or another.” Umar had about half as much time as he needed before the whole thing was going to blow, taking the Terrapin and the doc with it. What he needed was a way to quickly disrupt the power output all together, without triggering the explosion itself. He ran through the few options he had remaining, dismissing them as fast as he thought of them. Maybe if he had a full complement of drones he could have done something, but with Liam back with the jacker’s Reliant and his own stubbornness to blame for holding off on replacing Wil after the accident — his mind suddenly flashed on something. Wil.
A few years back, the drone had been lost along with a crew of four when what should have been a simple repair had gone catastrophically wrong. While patching the piping to one of the maneuvering thrusters, an unexpected static discharge had caused a feedback surge along the plasma conduits. In that case the surge had been deadly, but with the doc’s power plant already suffering a critical failure, there was a small chance that if he could trigger it and use one of his drones to act as an auxiliary breaker, he could interrupt the cascade before it went critical. Well, Spear, let’s see just how lucky you are.
The jacker had just launched the last of the Vulcan’s chaff, narrowly diverting a missile that detonated nearby. An inadvertent grin spread across his face. After the life he had led, it was a little hard to believe there was a good chance he was going to die doing something this stupidly heroic. Suddenly, there was a second explosion nearby. Something had blown on the hull of the Terrapin. He squinted his eyes in preparation for the blinding light that would follow the whole ship going boom, but nothing else happened.
“It worked! I can’t believe it worked!” Umar had lost his drone, but had saved the ship.
“Not to cut your celebration short, but I really could use a hand right about now.”
Umar’s attention was drawn back to the ongoing dogfight. When did the ship fill with so much smoke? “Pass the turrets to me.”
“You any good?” asked the jacker.
“Line me up a shot and find out.”
With a dedicated gun operator, the true combat capabilities of the Vulcan emerged. The jacker would chase a ship with the main guns getting them into position for Umar to let loose with cannons mounted on the remote turret. Working together, they manage to remove the wing on the ship that had been crippled earlier. Down a weapon, and barely able to maneuver, the ship fled. The remaining assassin, its advantage lost, made the sensible choice and followed.
Umar placed two cans of flavored sparkling water on the table. It had taken about an hour more of work before the doctor’s ship was ready to fly again and the effort had left him parched.
The jacker, sitting on the far side, cracked his open and drank deeply. When he finally came up for air, he smiled. “Guess I do like etrog flavor.”
“All right, spill it. Why do you got a price on your head?”
The smile left the jacker’s face. “Might be better if you don’t know.”
“Yeah, well, it seems a little late for that.”
The two sat in silence for a bit as Umar patiently drank his water.
Toying with the tab on the can, the jacker finally began, “I was working for the Dranton Family, smuggling off of Carteyna, when I got tagged by the Cano authorities. Wasn’t going to get out clean, so I dumped the cargo and ran. Turned out there was enough evidence in there to get most of the Drantons locked up for good. Guess that didn’t sit well because Luke Dranton put the hit out on me himself. Spent almost every last credit to his name making sure I get dead. That was about a month ago, been running ever since.”
“So, we should be expecting more company?”
“Greedy bastards will probably keep the news to themselves till they can come after us again, but yeah, they’ll be back.”
“Right.” Umar tilted back and finished the last of his drink. “We better get going then.”
“Thanks. If you drop me off at Pox, I can make my way from there.”
“I was actually thinking we could make a stop first. See, I came across a recent wreck a little bit before I grabbed you. Told Jess about it, but since In-A-Fix runs salvage there’s a good chance no one knows it’s there except me and her. We get there in time, should be able to make it so the registry shows you sadly passed away in a tragic accident.”
“Seriously? You’d do that for me?”
Umar shrugged, “What can I say, I like fixing stuff.”