Chapter 02 Pirates Hunt Pirate Hunter
2. Legend Meets Legend
Athos saw that he had startled her. Her image blurred like an out-of-focus holo. He realized that her real body was elsewhere, perhaps on this ship, perhaps on the planet below, and that she had to concentrate to maintain this phantasmal body here.
She slowly came to her feet. Her back was to him. The longbow hovered by her side when she released it, untouched by gravity. The shrine maiden caught her cloud of hair behind her head with both her hands, taking a brief moment to tie it with a white ribbon at the base of her neck.
This simple act seemed to restore her concentration: Athos could see all the details of her image clearly. The ponytail floated and swayed behind her, a loose cone of many curves.
On the back of her garb was the sign of the eight-rayed golden starburst. This was the emblem of the Arcadian Order of the Followers of the Golden Will of the Stars.
He heard her voice in his mind, not through his ears. She said, "I can hear you, yes. I am not what I seem. You are a pirate hunter? How wonderful!" She smiled in delight, clapping her hands in girlish joy.
Athos glanced down at the holographic coat of lace-cuffed gold-trimmed scarlet his mask projected around his form. Technically, he had no right to the uniform. No one in his family had been in the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Pirate-Hunting Privateers and Gentlemen of Adventure for a generation, ever since his father had been forced to resign in disgrace from the position of Grandmaster.
"Uh, I may not exactly be what I seem either."
"Only to be expected of a masked man!" she said cheerfully, "But I thought Pirate-Hunters were a legend!"
He said, "Legend? Some say that about Shrine Maidens. You must be a follower of Jaywind Starquest. From his new school, I mean."
"I must follow him, but I do not." Her face fell, and she turned her eyes down. "He is lost among the stars, for he never returned from the Quest for the Lost Temple. Who can follow a master not to be found? Yes, I come from the school, but I am not from the school."
"That's clear as space-mud."
She frowned and rolled her eyes at the pressure door. "You are outnumbered. A dozen corsairs, one cabin boy, and two dire wolves as big as ponies are eager to break in here. Their spirits are bright with blood lust."
He said, "Shrine Maidens have special powers, right?"
She spread her glowing, insubstantial hands in a shrug. "Oh, nothing so very special, thank you," she said with a modest smile.
Was she mocking him, or was she giddy? Athos felt the metal lips of his fang-faced mask curl. "Sister, no jokes, please! I am asking if you can save me! Your arrows are tipped with ghost metal. Can you break open the hull for me to escape?"
"Not unless you can fit through a hole the size of an arrow point."
"Can you kill the men through the door?"
Now her countenance became solemn. "The Evil-Destroying Bow of Ainalrami is not meant to slay the living, but the dead."
"Templars use their mystic powers to smite the wicked! Why not Girl-type Templars?"
"Pirate-hunters are more suited for smiting pirates," she said. "Battles are ugly when women fight. Shrine Maidens are not Templars. Ours is a contemplative order. We do not slay save in gravest need."
"What can you do?"
"Hm. Mostly sacred prayers and sacred dances. Seeing visions. A lot of sweeping and cleaning shrines…"
"I can hear the door giving way. Can you get a final message to my superiors?"
"No need! I have other arts that can save you!"
"Other arts? What other arts?"
"I learned clairvoyance from the Foxes. So I know how they think. Every burrow must have an extra exit." She took the longbow in hand and pointed it at the Captain's chair. "And I can see the escape chute beneath the floor."
This chair was in a spherical framework, able to turn in any direction during maneuvers. The rear hemisphere of the frame was solid. Athos leaped into the chair, cramming his tall, broad-shouldered form into a space meant for a captain slenderer than a hominid and sporting a tail. His view of the scene behind was blocked.
"There is a ripcord switch hidden here." She pointed her bow tip at a spot on the left chair arm. "I will do what I may to cover your retreat."
The Shrine Maiden drew back her bowstring and let fly a shaft into the junction box powering the bridge lights. They flashed and went black. Then, one after another, in rapid succession, she shot out the emergency lights as they came on.
With a crash, the pressure door came loose from its metal threshold, swayed and fell, but the pirates were holding blasters, not lamps, and could see nothing in darkness but the stars in the hull plates. The glowing silver woman was invisible to them.
With a sizzling, ringing clatter, the cutthroats began firing randomly into the bridge. Controls panels and power boxes that were struck exploded in sprays of sparks. Plasma left streak and pits across the vision panels, but did not pierce the hull. More than one ricochet whined off the rear part of the seat, which was coated with ray-proof armor.
Athos at the same time had discovered the hidden D-ring, and yanked it.
With a clatter of explosive bolts, the whole round frame of the chair came free, and was yanked below deck by a tractor beam. Armored panels snapped shut behind him, cutting off any pursuit. The beam reversed, and now a presser ray sped the chair and its rider along a dark circular shaft running along the ship's axis.
He realized two things: First, he had not asked the girl her name. Too late to ask now.
Second, he realized that did not know where he was heading. Too late to fret.
The chair came to rest in a dark place. His artificially-sharpened senses revealed the silhouette and heat signature of a large spaceboat in a launch cradle. He could smell the ozone tang of energy fields, machine oil and thruster fuel. He was inside a metal shipping container, eight feet high and forty feet long, or, rather, inside a launch station disguised as a container, parked somewhere on the flight deck.
He dialed his spacecloak light to its lowest setting. The smart-fabric began silently to glow. It was hidden beneath the holo-image of plumed hat and red coat, but this image was not perfectly opaque, so a red light now seeped from his body in each direction. The light was very dim, but his eyes were very sharp at the moment.
The spaceboat was under a tarp. He cut a line or two lashing it down, and drew aside a corner of the tarp. Here was the airlock, but it was sealed shut with a biometric combination lock just as the vault disguised as a bed had been. He could cut into it, no doubt, but then the boat would have no hull integrity.
He saw cables running from the spaceboat to a blocky shape filling the rear of the container. As he stepped closer, meters in his spacecloak began to click warnings. He stopped and looked at the read outs. Radioactivity.
Athos peered. The blocky shape was an atomic mining charge, used for blowing big asteroids into smaller chunks. It was bolted into the launch cradle with a deadman switch. The ignition timer would go off once the spaceboat was launched, leaving behind a thermonuclear blast on the flight deck. There was no obvious way to disarm it. If the pirate captain, Liska, had left himself a way of sneaking off a mutinous ship without killing all aboard, it was not plain to see.
Athos could not use Liska's planned route to escape. He had to find another.
He extended an energy claw and drove it threw the metal wall of the container. He put his eye to the small hole thus made.
Beyond was the flight deck, which doubled as a cargo bay. Small crates and large containers were piled on racks to one side, chained down. To the other side, in the aft half of the bay, were several spaceboats, motor launches, and maneuvering pods.
Beyond them was the fuel station and repair works. Midmost was a cage on a track holding the tractor-presser crane. These beams were used for lifting boats and cargo into and out of the airlock.
The airlock was fifty feet wide. At the moment, both the inner and outer valves were open. A double-wall semi-permeable force field was spread over both thresholds, of the kind that kept air in but let solid objects pass.
The container holding Athos was chained in place adjacent to the airlock, with the container's mouth almost touching the airlock threshold. The lid hinges had been replaced with explosive bolts, so that the massive metal lid could be blown aside as the spaceboat launched. There was no obstruction between the crate mouth and the airlock.
Athos rolled his eye left and right. He could see the corners and edges of other containers beside the one holding him. They were painted red, as if they held emergency gear meant for airlock repair. It was clever. Such containers were rarely used and never moved.
Athos wondered at the cold-heartedness of the captain. Aboard a naval vessel, it was a capital crime to remove or meddle with such life-saving repair and rescue gear, since it meant losing crew, or even losing the whole ship, during a disaster. Captain Liska must have calculated the odds, and thought no one discovering the imposture would be alive to retaliate later.
Athos could also see a spaceboat, returning from the planet, was close-hauled alongside. It was towing three shipping containers, each forty feet long. The dozens of burly crewmen had clamped antigravity pallets to the sides of the last container in line, decoupled it, and were easing it into and through the airlock. They hauled it across the landing bay to the storehouse area, to chain it down.
With so many men in the bay, and the chance that Athos might be able to exit this container without sound and escape through the airlock without being spotted was nil.
He stiffened when an alarm started whooping. But then he saw no one was coming toward his current location. Then he heard was the voice of the captain over the annunciator, barking in the sharp accents of the Vulpino language, telling the men to report to the arsenal, arm themselves and form search parties.
The spaceboat being unloaded merely extended its magnetic anchor, and clamped itself to the hull. The crew disembarked from the boat and came aboard to form the search parties. They departed, heading first for the weapons locker. In a few moments, not one of the crew was in sight. The airlock was left open, and the unmanned spaceboat was right beyond it, as if waiting to be stolen.
Athos could not believe his good luck.
He waited a moment, said a prayer, and shot his lance pistol into the explosive bolts holding this shipping container shut.
The bolts ignited with a deafening noise. The huge lid toppled and banged to the deck with a resounding clang. Athos was already across the lid surface as it fell, and sprinting toward the airlock. His only hope lay in reaching the outside of the pirate ship undetected.
A hoarse call made him turn his head. Here were half a dozen pirates who had been standing behind the emergency station, smoking joss sticks near the FIRE HAZARD signs next to stacks of half rusted fuel cans. They were already armed, and so had not left to go get weapons.
He also saw, on an open square of deck behind them, his one-man ultralight stealth-boat.
It was little more than a wing of solar absorption foil on a survival pod with an ion emitter for an engine. The ultralight was odd in shape, looking like a jet-black pineapple impaled on a parasol. It could only be used for flights requiring low acceleration, but it low-gee thrusters were low-energy, and the corrugated alloy of the hull was designed to be undetectable by sensor beams.
Yet it had been detected somehow, because here it was. He had left it anchored near the rear drive tubes. Athos stopped running toward the airlock. There was no point now in trying to climb outside onto the hull. There was no place to go.