by Stephen G Parks
The Sylvester was a beautiful yacht, luxurious, easily able to cruise the inner planets. She could even fling up a solar spinnaker for show, a bulbous sail that reflected glorious light onto the ship, making it look like a show piece, a trophy, almost new.
Not that seventy-five years had aged the yacht substantially. The Creena family had money, and even their antique yachts were continually kept up to code, luckily too, because when you needed something like the escape pod, it simply had to work.
It had, mostly.
“This is Sylvester,” Charlan’s desperate voice called over channel 17, the one the Orbital Patrol were supposed to monitor. “We are under attack. Mayday, Mayday.”
She scanned the screens. There wasn’t a patrol ship this side of the Moon. The attacker was tucked in so close that scans from Earth wouldn’t even see it.
Pripong hit the thrusters, belatedly shouting an acceleration warning. Charlan couldn’t brace in time, and cracked her shoulder against the life support console.
“More warning next time!” She shouted.
“Sorry hun, looking for a solution to a problem. Burning full thrust straight for Earth. Let’s see what their top speed is.”
The ‘problem’ was keeping pace with them quite easily. It was smaller, more manoeuvrable, and apparently had electro-static weapons. Charlan couldn’t tell if her message was getting out through their attempts at jamming.
Charlan turned to Pripong. “Can we vector our thrust into their face?”
“Not our thrust, no, they’re too fleet for that.” Charlan knew that tone. Pripong had a solution, a crazy one.
“What are you thinking?”
“Our black water tanks are pretty full…”
“What good does that do us?” Drian asked from the engineering console.
“We can’t fight. These pirates are better armed. But we can hope to slow them down, get far enough away that comms works.”
“And spraying them with our frozen shit is going to slow them down how?”
“It won’t but the next part will.” Pripong smiled. Charlan hated that smile. That smile had wrecked a Lamborghini in the Alps. That smile had put massive dents in the hull of the Sylvester, more than once. That smile would get someone killed, some day.
Any landing you walk away from is a good one, Charlan thought as she rubbed her sore shoulder, even if that landing is in an escape pod.
She popped the hatch. A quick look around confirmed what she’d seen out the portal.
“We landed near the equator.” She smiled, trying to find a way through her captain’s rising sadness. “No, better, we landed on the beach of a small island near the equator. Damn fine flying if you ask me.”
Still Pripong didn’t nod or smile. He just looked at the controls, deep in thought, near tears.
“Cap’n?” Drian added, “You did good. You got us down in one piece, alive.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Pripong’s response sounded automatic, disconnected.
“I’m sure Matthew’s OK.” Charlan lied, adding, “We called the cops. They’ll find him.”
“Yeah, OK.” He wasn’t convinced. He wasn’t sobbing, but she could hear the tears in his voice.
“In the mean time,” She continued as Drian and Sebu pushed past her and tumbled out the portal, “we’re at a beach. It’s high noon on a sunny day, and Rescue won’t be here for a few hours at least, so how about we have some fun?”
Pripong never said ‘no’ to fun, until today.
Charlang shook her head, jumped carefully out of the hatch, landing on the moist sand of a receding tide. A path of small shells littered the beach along the high tide mark. The occasional wave splashed her feet, cool against the heat of the sun.
Charlan tried coaxing Pripong out of the capsule. She suggested that they go swimming. She stripped down to her underpants, then realized her mistake. Pripong may not be interested in her bare breasts right then, but Drian and Sebu were staring. A quick reversal and a t-shirt covered that up.
“Hey cuz, you really don’t know what you just missed.” Sebu shouted into the capsule.
“Pthh,” Drian grinned hugely, “He’s seen ‘em before.”
“Oh, grow up,” she chided Drian. At least Sebu, Pripong’s young cousin, had the excuse of being a teenager. Drian was in his thirties at least, and married. He should know better than to leer.
Deep in the sky overhead, where they’d lived until just recently, the Orbital Patrol were scanning near space for pieces of wreckage, navigational hazards, salvageable pieces, clues to a crime, and perhaps a missing person.
“We found another piece of wreckage from the Sylvester. Permission to push it into atmo?” Patrol K4 asked.
“Negative.” The radio crackled. “They’re reporting one crew member not accounted for. This is a rescue mission until we’ve exhausted all hope.”
“Shit. Look at that piece of wreck, tumbling. It’s gonna take twenty percent of our RCS just to bring it under control. Then we have to board?”
“Affirmative. This is designated as an R&R.”
“Acknowledged,” The patrol officer wondered which R it would be, a rescue or a recovery. Rescues could be fun, especially from these rich super yachts: grateful survivors often tipped well. Recoveries, well recoveries were never fun in zero G. They often involved vacuum cleaners.
“Ready?” Pripong asked Drian as they slowly changed the lateral rotation of the ship.
“Ready!” Drian shouted.
Charlon could see Pripong’s problem; Earth was quickly approaching. It was getting bigger on the view screen by the second. To carry out their plan, they had to turn the ship away from a landing approach.
Worse, they couldn’t decelerate.
“Ready.” She said even if she wasn’t convinced.
Drian flipped a switch and watched with pride as the Sylvester’s blackwater nozzle flooded the attacker’s flight path with liquified human feces. Aimed close enough to their own exhaust, it should still be liquid when it impacted the pirates. He called out the levels, “Tank will be depleted in three … Two…”
“Go, two!” Pripong commanded.
Charlan released the solar spinnaker. It wouldn’t get to its full deployment, but the bunched up cloth would definitely hit the pirate ship and spread around it. Charlan watched carefully. As soon as she saw impact she cut the shrouds. Immediately their radio was flooded with a jumble of urgent communications. The mylar of the spinnaker apparently defeated the electro-jamming.
“Mayday, Mayday. This is Sylvester being chased to atmo by a pirate! Mayday!” Even as she spoke, the Sylvester slammed down to port. Pripong’s wide-eyed expression confirmed to her what she needed to say next. “They’re firing on us! Mayday! Mayday!”
Charlan could see Drian’s terrified expression. He might be gruff and tough but being the recipient of outright violence was outside his experience.
“Port RCS are all gone, starboard down to ten percent and we’re venting. We’re going in, no way around it.” Pripong looked around desperately. “We have to abandon ship. Where’s Matthew? Where’s Sebu?”
Both Charlan and Drian shook their heads. They hadn’t had time to worry about those two.
The ship started to shake, gaining intensity with each bump. Upper atmosphere was approaching far too quickly. “Abandon ship! Sebu? Find Matthew and meet us at the escape pod.”
Lacking leadership from Pripong, Drian started making decisions on his own, decisions that Charlan wouldn’t have agreed to. But he was officially paid crew, even though she had more experience, she was officially just the captain’s girlfriend. He wouldn’t listen to her.
He’d taken a bucket and started scooping sea water into the escape pod.
“It’s too hot out here. I want a cool bath!” He laughed as he tossed a second bucket to Sebu, who quickly joined in.
“Don’t let the water level get as high as the food stock,” Charlan warned, but Drian dismissed her with a “yeah, yeah,” and kept going.
Pripong, sitting in the shade of the capsule, was finally talking, shock finding expression, grief looking for solace.
“For seventeen years that ship’s been my life, my home.” Charlan pulled him away from the others. His tears started to flow freely. “And we didn’t all make it. Matthew didn’t make it.”
“They’ll find him.”
“Hey Charlan,” Drian shouted as he reached down and scooped another bucket of sea water, “why don’t you take your shirt off again, see if that helps.”
She shot Drian the finger as a reply.
“This is Orbital Patrol K4.” The radio crackled, drawing Pripong and Charlan back into the cockpit even as Drian sprinted for the escape pod. “We’re vectoring in. ETA three minutes. What’s your status?”
“K4, This is Sylvester. We’re abandoning ship. Now.”
“Understood. We will track and recover. Can you identify your attacker?”
“We can’t but you can. We sprayed the ship with black water. When it hits atmo, the shit will all burn off, giving you a really nice smoke trail to follow. And no matter what port they try to hide in, their’s will be the ship with extensive scorching on their forward hull.”
“Uh… OK? Understood Sylvester.” Charlan could almost hear the pilot thinking, you’re a weird one. “Good luck. K4 out.”
They arrived at the escape pod as Sebu did. Alone.
“Where’s Matthew?” Pripong’s voice was almost shrill. Charlan grabbed his arm to stop him from running off to look for Matthew. A nod to Drian, and they pulled Pripong into the escape pod.
“Matthew will be OK,” Charlan tried to comfort Pripong.
“That’s bullshit and you know it.”
“Fine, but right now, you need to pilot this damned thing down there. Save us.”
With the hatch closed, Drian pulled the lever, sending the pod out into the atmosphere. Automatic stabilizers controlled the descent for the first ten seconds. Pripong seized the moment to grab the shortwave. “K4, this is Sylvester escape pod.”
“We are tracking you.”
“Four souls onboard, one soul unaccounted for.”
“We couldn’t find Matthew!”
Charlan heard the deeply frustrated breath from the patrolman. “Understood. Disengaging the pirates, commencing search and rescue.”
Charlan wasn’t used to Pripong caring about others. This level of emotional display was unique in her five years with him. The only time she’d ever seen him cry had been on the eve of his thirtieth birthday. That’d been self-pity.
Where was this coming from?
“Are you worried what your father will say?”
“My father? I’m a grown man. I’m not afraid of my father.” Charlan liked Pripong, she really did, but he wasn’t a grown man. He was a trust-fund baby, and that always stunted emotional growth.
Pripong sighed heavily, “I lost the Sylvester! What will Grandpa say?”
“Command, this is K4. We’ve secured a section with life support.” Even with a crew of only three, the patrol craft was spacious for a reason. Prisoners, rescued people, medical emergencies. Cubic space on a patrol craft was available for any contingency.
“Follow full procedures. Bring him back safely.”
“Affirmative.” K4 extended a large, fragile tube of mylar surrounding a thin scissoring framework. Once it made a seal, the tube pressurized. Two patrolmen went down and checked before starting the cutters. “We have a seal. We’re still not getting any comms chatter from inside.”
It didn’t take long to breach the hull. It took even less time to find Matthew.
“Oh, you’re fucking kidding me!”
Charlan noticed it as soon as she and Pripong started walking back: the blinking lights on the escape pod weren’t blinking anymore.
“What happened?” she ran up, Drian’s face was a mix of anger and dejection. “You put in too much salt water, didn’t you? You fried the electronics! The locator beacon?!”
Her accusation was met with an apologetic shrug. Sebu was biting back laughter.
“Well, we’re going to be here for the night now.” Charlan pointed to the clouds brewing on the horizon. “And I’m willing to bet that that’s a thunderstorm heading our way. But hey, at least we have shelter. Oh, wait, it’s full of water. You fucking idiots!”
It would have been a nice, refreshing breeze that accompanied the dawn’s sun, if they weren’t all soaking wet, shivering, and hungry. No fire had been possible in the storm, no food had been salvageable. The escape pod was unusable. Between the strong winds, rain, and the high tide assisted by the storm surge, the capsule was on its side, partially submerged and rocking gently in the surf.
Above them, they heard a sound. A ship was approaching. Sebu was the first to cheer. Orbital Patrol had found them. It slowly buzzed the beach, as they waved ecstatically.
Patrol ship K4 landed a ways down the beach, the ship’s ramp lowered to disperse two tired officers.
“Are you the crew of Sylvester? We’ve been looking for you all night.”
“Yes, thank you!” Charlan led the ragged group toward safety, warmth, and end of their little adventure. “Thank you for finding us.”
“Is this your cat?”
“Matthew! You’re alive!” Pripong ran past Charlan, grabbing the dishevelled cat. Matthew didn’t seem happy, but he definitely knew his daddy, and started purring.
“Sorry about all this,” Charlan tried to sound conciliatory between her chattering teeth. One of the officers handed her an emergency blanket.
“Are you the captain?” He asked as she unfolded the thin, warm blanket. She helpfully directed the officer’s attention away from her wet t-shirt, towards Pripong and his purring cat.
“Filing a false report with OP is a criminal offence.” The patrolman started reading to Pripong from a pad, as they walked aboard K4. “Abuse of OP resources usually equates to forfeiture of your ship, but that’s gone. The owner will be billed for our expenses and a hefty fine will be added.”
The patrolman flipped to a new screen, “However, we did find your attackers. They were identified in the port of Shanghai with scorch marks all over the hull and even pieces of your spinnaker still draped on the ship’s antennae. There is a substantial reward for their arrest. It will… mitigate… part of… Is he even listening?”
“Hey guys, Matthew’s purring!” Tears streamed down Pripong’s face. Charlan had a moment of doubt - would he have been this concerned if it had been her missing? “Purr, Matthew, Puuurrrr!”
Charlan sighed, giving the patrolman’s shoulder a conciliatory pat, “For what it’s worth, there’ll be a substantial tip.”