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Price had technically been all over the solar system, from near Mercury to Venus and Mars, through the asteroid belt (where there really wasn’t much to see unless you looked really hard) to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. He’d never been to the dwarf planet Pluto or its distant cousin, Eris, but he suspected his job might take him near them someday. That’s why his colleagues found it odd that on his one-month leave from the Commonwealth Space Navy he would choose to take a pleasure cruise on the Grandiosa through the Saturnian system. What they didn’t realize was that flying by a planet the size of seven hundred Earths was not the same thing as visiting it and its moons up close and personal, and he had never had the chance to disembark to walk anywhere but the Moon, Mars, Phobos, and the asteroid Vesta—all locations where the Commonwealth Space Navy had bases. Now he would. He and about fifty other passengers were just beginning their second week of their month-long tour of the Saturnian system, and they would soon have their first shore leave on Titan. Granted, they would only be going to the research outpost and tiny visitor’s center that the cruise ship company had built there, but they would nonetheless be walking on its surface and hopefully see one of the moon’s famous methane lakes up close and personal. Price’s excitement grew at the thought, but that visit was not for another few days.
Tonight was the weekly captain’s dinner, and for the last hour beforehand, Price worked out in the Grandiosa’s variable-gravity exercise facility. There were people on board who lived on or in places other than Earth and were therefore accustomed to something less than the standard one Earth gravity. For this reason, most cruise ships, including the Grandiosa, tuned their artificial gravity systems to roughly fifty percent of Earth normal, a fairly reasonable compromise. Forcing those from Mars, whose bodies were accustomed to one-third gee, to live under a full Earth gravity would almost be cruel. As it was, the Martians onboard were suffering even under the compromise. But for people who had to return to a one-gee environment after a month aboard ship, that meant incorporating at least an hour each day of rigorous exercise under one or more Earth gravities to maintain muscle tone and bone strength. True, there were those who would probably spend the month at half the pull of gravity to which there were accustomed to feeling like superheroes, leaping high and relishing in sensing body strength reminiscent of their younger years, but they would pay the price when they returned home until they reacclimated. Price would have to return to his ship, where one Earth gravity was standard, and he could afford no such downtime. His workout was focused and intense; not something he enjoyed, but something he knew he had to do. It also made him hungry for whatever food would be served at the captain’s dinner.
Being military, Price felt odd calling the casually dressed man with a flippant attitude “Captain,” but that was the protocol and Price knew all about following protocol even if it seemed stupid or nonsensical. Captain Lomax claimed to have been in the US Space Navy, but Price doubted it. He had been around other civilians with similar backgrounds as himself, and none were as nonchalant and complacent about their job responsibilities, no matter what they were, as this man. If the ship did not have an AI to keep the systems running, Price doubted the man had the competence to do anything aboard ship, let alone be its skipper. But, of course, he kept those thoughts to himself.
The captain’s dinner was being held in the dining hall, as was every meal, but for this occasion, the alcohol was a cut above the usual, meaning it was actually pretty good and not just acceptable, and the food was excellent. The one thing Price could not say anything negative about was the food. Being used to navy fare, the excesses of a cruise ship’s buffet were almost obscene—and he loved every minute and every bite of it. Tonight was no exception.
Overhead, visible through the fully retracted shutters, was Saturn. Oh. My. God. It’s beautiful, thought Price for the umpteenth time as he stood on the deck, wine in hand, mouth slightly agape, as he beheld the giant planet with its majestic rings. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen it, but it was the first time he had seen it this close. And tomorrow they would pass through the Cassini Division, a nearly three-thousand-mile-wide gap in the rings, allowing them to see the rings from below and above before they boosted for Titan.
“It never gets old, does it?” asked his dinner companion, who had arrived unnoticed, by Price anyway, about which he felt somewhat embarrassed. She had asked him to join her for dinner, and he did not want to be rude. Her name was Miranda Runyon, and Price knew that just about every other unattached man on the ship had noticed her, and probably some of the attached men as well. She was stunning, and they’d developed the beginnings of what might be a budding relationship since they met over lunch three days before. He had, of course, noticed her before, but it was she who had approached him—he was flattered.
“No, it doesn’t. I don’t believe I would ever get inured to it,” replied Price, taking his gaze from the majestic rings of the planet to the spectacular figure that was his date. She was wearing a black dress that was quite modest in what it concealed, revealing more about her personality in the process. He motioned for her to take a seat, which she did, and he followed suit. There were four other people at their table, already engaged in chatting with ever increasing volume as more people crowded into the room.
They exchanged some casual banter—catching up on the events of the day, introducing themselves to the others at the table, some of whom they had already met but whose names were long forgotten—and ate their way through the first few courses of what was promising to be a very satisfying evening meal. As with previous conversations, Miranda gently probed about Price’s job, and in response he gently deflected. He did not want to talk about his military service, because he found that people’s attitudes toward him changed when they found out he was the captain of a warship. The men inevitably wanted to know more about his ship’s speed and weapons, and the women started treating him less as “Winslow Price” and more as the desirable “Captain Price.” Granted, there was a time that Price had wanted to attract the immediate affection of the fairer sex, regardless of why, but that time was in the past. What he wanted now was for more meaningful relationships based on who he was, not what job he happened to have. He knew Miranda was independently wealthy and part of a small group of investors who were taking the cruise to celebrate some big deal they had recently closed that had something to do with diamond mining on an undisclosed asteroid somewhere in the main belt.
The dessert, coffee crème brûlée, was being delivered by the attendants when Captain Lomax, in his ridiculous looking dress “uniform” got up to speak. He began with his usual attempt at humor, to which some in the room politely guffawed, and then began speaking about the upcoming visit to Titan. He was not saying much of anything new, and Price had already tuned him out. Unfortunately, his date was listening in rapt attention. When Price simply could not bear it any longer, he leaned toward Miranda and whispered into her ear, “I need to use the loo.” It was all he could do to not call it the head, but for some reason, civilian women did not seem to like the term. “If you don’t mind, please request a refill on the tea. I’ll be right back.”
“Sure thing. Don’t be long,” she replied, smiling, as she turned her head back toward the captain, waiting expectantly for him to say something interesting. He knew she might have a long wait and hoped that by the time he returned, they would be back to having their dinner conversation. He quite enjoyed her company.
As he departed, he noted that none of the other guests gave him a second glance. They, too, were listening to Lomax and his showman-like self-aggrandizing.
The head was not far from the banquet hall and was thankfully deserted.
After completing his business, he began the short walk back to the banquet hall and stopped about ten feet outside. Just inside the door, one of the stewards, who had just been bringing tea and dessert to his table, was pulling a Mark IV laser pistol from under the serving table and using his other hand to pull the door closed behind him. Price knew he had only seconds before the steward glanced over his shoulder and saw him. Not seeing many options and knowing that people are capable of discerning motion in their peripheral vision, Price opted to instead just stand still next to the hallway wall and hope that the steward wouldn’t see him. Plan B was to make a dash for the hallway to the right, which he might be able to do if he were noticed. He figured the odds were about fifty-fifty for him making it to the hallway without getting lasered.
Thankfully, the steward only gave a cursory glance down the hallway before closing the door, not noticing that Price was there. Only after he heard the thunk of the door closing and being sealed did Price dare to move. He doubted his movements could be heard through the wall and door that separated the hallway from the banquet room since it, and all doors and walls onboard the ship, were rated against vacuum and extremely substantial.
As he moved down the corridor and toward his stateroom, Price began going through the various plausible reasons that a steward would be armed with a military-grade laser pistol and sealing off the banquet room and found none that made any sense whatsoever except for the obvious. This was either a robbery, blatant piracy, or terrorism. And since he had heard no commotion, no alarms or people fleeing the banquet room, Price had to assume that the steward was not acting alone. Not good.
The hallways had been eerily empty, which was not unexpected since just about everyone went to the nightly gala dinners. But somehow the stillness now seemed ominous. He entered his room without being seen, or so he surmised, since no one had come for him yet. But he might not have much time. There were cameras everywhere on the ship, and if anyone were looking, he could not be missed. The first thing he would need to do after calling for help would be to do something about the cameras. He would not be able to do anything if he were tracked and caught.
In his stateroom, Price had no weapons or much of anything else that would help him do anything about whatever was happening, but he did have his emergency transceiver. Vacation or not, he was an active-duty officer in the Commonwealth Space Navy and that meant he could be recalled at a moment’s notice and had to be reachable anywhere in the solar system. He had granted himself some discretionary time without the bulky interplanetary transceiver, which, though it fit in the palm of his hand, was too cumbersome to carry around all the time. He was looking forward to the day when there were enough relay stations in the solar system to allow his ear implant to assume this function as well. As was his routine, he had planned to return to his room after dinner, alone or not, to check for messages. Whatever was happening, he had to get word to the navy or civil authorities.
He activated the transceiver in military-only SOS mode, which would send whatever message he recorded to the existing network of relay spacecraft which would, in turn, identify the active Commonwealth and allied military ships nearest to his location for receipt of the message. Given that he was at Saturn, he knew that there was a relay station on Titan that would get the signal boosted and on the network. After he sent his message, telling them all he knew at the moment, which was not much, he pocketed the device and quickly grabbed a few items that might come in handy. He found himself wishing for his sidearm, but of course, he had not brought it with him. He was on vacation. Military or not, law-abiding citizens were not allowed to bring lethal weapons on cruise ships. That, of course, did not stop the pirates. Fortunately, he did bring his old-fashioned utility knife, which now provided a comforting bulge in his right pocket. As weapons went, a utility knife would be no match for a laser. But that was all he had, and he would have to make the most of it.
The problem with the message he sent, and the anticipated reply, was time. Given the speed-of-light delay, unless there was a navy ship serendipitously in the neighborhood, it would take minutes to tens of minutes for his message to go out and to receive a reply from whatever ship responded. He simply could not risk that he had not been seen coming to his stateroom to wait for their answer. He had to move. Now.
His next stop would be propulsion engineering. If this was even a halfway organized takeover, then the bridge would be compromised for sure. The pirates might not have enough people to also control the propulsion and engineering section. Price also knew that cruise ships like this one were not designed with the functional redundancy of a navy vessel that had to have an auxiliary control room ready to run the ship in the event the bridge were destroyed. No, the best he could do from propulsion engineering was get the team there to shut down the fusion power system, effectively stranding the ship on whatever course it was currently taking. Since he had not felt any of the telltale vibrations of the fusion drive kicking in, he had to assume they were still in Saturnian orbit. Orbital mechanics would allow them to remain there for months to years without any additional boosting. Disabling the drive should be a safe thing to do.
He quickly moved away from his stateroom and toward his target, taking as much of a circuitous route as he could manage to get there in case he was being tracked. He did not want to give away his target destination too easily.
The sound of a hatch opening just ahead of him was unmistakable. Price looked quickly at his options and retreated a few steps to the corridor intersection through which he had just passed. He pulled out his utility knife and made himself as inconspicuous as possible against the wall in the adjacent corridor.
He heard the clank of the hatch being closed and the footfalls of a single person coming down the corridor he had just vacated. Knife at the ready, he waited.
As the approaching man walked past, Price saw that he was armed with a laser sidearm, fortunately still in its holster. Not wanting to kill him without being able to interrogate him about whatever was going on, Price opted against using his knife. He instead threw himself forward and tackled the man. Having the benefit of surprise, Price quickly pinned the interloper on the ground, prone, and kept him there using his body weight. Price had one arm around the man’s neck with his hands clasped together in an oxygen-depriving choke hold. His captive began to struggle, but Price held firm and not-so-gently increased the pressure on his neck, momentarily restricting his airflow. The pirate gasped and quickly stopped struggling. Price relaxed his grip, but only slightly.
“Do exactly as I say, and you might live to see tomorrow,” Price said, increasing slightly the pressure on the man’s neck, allowing him to again experience a lack of air. He grunted in what Price took to be acquiescence.
“Good man,” said Price as he relaxed his choke hold only enough to allow the pirate to get enough air to talk.
“How many of you are there?” Price asked.
“Enough,” he said.
Price again increased the pressure on the man’s neck. “Now, now. There may be enough of you to do whatever it is you have planned, but there aren’t enough of you here right now, are there?”
“Go to hell.”
Price increased the pressure on the man’s neck to the point where his reflexes took over and he again began to struggle. Price did not relent until he felt his body go completely limp. He did not want to kill the man, but he did need him out of action. Price knew from his training that he hadn’t killed his captive, just momentarily incapacitated him. He let the man’s body slump to the ground and quickly removed the sidearm from his limp form.
What do I do with you? Price thought as he looked around the corridor for an answer, finding it only a few steps away at the door to another passenger’s stateroom. Grasping the man under his arms, Price dragged him into the stateroom and quickly cut the room’s bed sheets into thin strips, tying his captive where his legs, arms (which were behind his back), and neck were all connected in what Price knew from personal experience (but that was another story) was an extremely uncomfortable and completely incapacitating position. If he tried to loosen his arms, the strips of sheet would increase the pressure on his neck, reducing his air supply—something the man would probably be loath to do after nearly being strangled moments before. Price also gagged him, for obvious reasons.
“Thanks for the sidearm,” Price said as he opened the stateroom door and exited, continuing his journey to the propulsion section. The ship was fairly large, as private ships go, and followed a fairly standard layout common to just about every ship flown to date. Finding the propulsion section aft was fairly straightforward. As Price made his way there, he received a reply message to his SOS:
“Message received. The HMSS Belfast and the CSN Jinggang Shan are en route to Saturn and should be there by twelve hundred hours. There has been no contact from the Grandiosa. We’ve asked the staff at the Titan visitor’s center to send a routine query to the ship and will let you know what they hear back. You are advised to use caution and not intervene unless ordered to do so by the captain of the Belfast upon its arrival.”
Not intervene? Price thought as he noted that the message said he was “advised to use caution and not intervene,” not ordered to not intervene—a huge difference that gave him a great deal of leeway and gave his superiors a convenient “out” should he do something that ended poorly. Price’s concern was that whoever had taken over the ship would decide to leave orbit for someplace else before help arrived. Once they did that, the ship would be extremely difficult to track, placing everyone’s lives in even more jeopardy. No, he needed to disable the ship’s propulsion system as soon as possible.
Being a clean, well-kept, and state-of-the-art ship, everything was labeled, and there were direction markers everywhere showing what was where with convenient “You Are Here” displays. Following these helpful guides, Price arrived at the sealed door to “Main Propulsion.” It was closed and had the appropriate markings, warding off lost tourists from all the potential dangers that lay within, including “fusion by-products, gamma-rays, and high-strength magnetic fields.” He knew that if the fusion reactor was functioning according to spec, none of these were a real danger.
Not seeing any alternatives, Price drew his newly acquired laser sidearm, made sure his utility knife was readily accessible from his belt, and opened the hatch.
He was immediately greeted with the familiar loud hum of high-power electronics and high-strength magnetic fields with a hint of ozone in the air. Where there should have been two crewmen tending the local workstations, there was instead one immobile man lying on the floor, face down, his head cocked at an unnatural angle. He was not dressed like a member of the crew. Price looked quickly around the room, trying to figure out what was going on, when he noticed a familiar red dot centered on his chest.
“Put down your weapon, raise your hands, and step forward two feet,” said a woman’s voice from somewhere nearby—above? Knowing that whoever had placed the laser sight on his chest could probably pull the trigger faster than he could react and find her, he complied. His captured laser pistol clanked on the floor, its sound muted by the humming and the acoustics of the room. As he raised his hands, Price glanced upward and saw the source of the command, standing on the catwalk one level up. She held a laser pistol similar to the one he had just dropped, still pointed directly at the center of his chest, and was flanked by what looked like ship’s engineers slightly behind her, one on each side. She was clearly protecting them.
Price looked at the body in front of him and then back toward the woman with the pistol. He decided to take a chance. “I’m on your side. My name is Winslow Price, Commonwealth Space Navy, here on leave. I took this gun from one of the pirates and came here to disable the propulsion system.”
“Would that be Captain Winslow Price of the HMSS Indefatigable?” she said, not wavering in her aim. She spoke the King’s English with an Indian accent, which her dark complexion and coal-black hair complemented.
“Yes. And you have me at a disadvantage,” said Price, looking down at the target spot on his chest and then back toward her. “Actually, two,” he added.
She lowered the pistol, the red target disappearing as she engaged the weapon’s safety. “Anika Ahuja, first officer of the INS Mumbai,” she said. As she did so, she asked the two engineers, one man and one woman, to get back to their posts.
“Captain Price, it would seem that we think alike,” Ahuja said as she followed the two engineers down the ladder from the catwalk to the ground floor.
Now that he could see her in the light and not be too distracted by the laser she had previously held pointed at his chest, he was struck by how beautiful she was, and he did recall seeing her at some events earlier in the cruise, but none lately.
“Right, you can tell me how you know who I am later, but I am curious how you pulled this off,” Price asked, looking at the pirate’s body sprawled on the floor.
“I suspect my plan was similar to yours. Get here to disable the ship before they can take us somewhere difficult to find, but I beat you to it. I didn’t feel like going to dinner tonight; I’ve been sick these last few days and hardly away from the facilities in my stateroom, if you know what I mean. Today was the first day I actually felt better and probably could have come to dinner. I was dozing when my comm sounded. It was my roommate, who had switched on her transmitter from the banquet hall just after the pirates made their move. At first, I didn’t know what was going on, but it became clear after a while that the background noise I was hearing was the whole point. She was letting me know what was happening without saying anything. Once I heard them threaten to kill the captain, I knew I had to do something. That’s when I decided to come here,” she said.
“And him? How did you manage that?” asked Price, pointing to the man on the floor who Price now assumed was dead.
“Despite centuries of progress, men are still distracted by their hormones. I came through the hatch acting lost, making sure that my shirt had one too many buttons undone, which distracted Mr. Pirate over there into thinking I was both hapless and harmless. From there it was easy. He allowed me to get too close. Bang, boom. Too bad for him,” she said.
“Remind me to not let you get too close,” said Price.
She smiled. “You won’t. Not unless I want you to. Now, while they are shutting down the propulsion system, do you have any ideas of what we might do next?”
“I think one of us, maybe both, should make sure they finish the job and then get our engineer friends hidden away somewhere so the pirates can’t find them. Once they realize they are stranded, they may not be too happy. From there, I don’t know. I contacted the fleet and two ships are on the way. They should be here in about nine hours,” Price said.
“Nine hours can be a long time if some pissed-off pirates are running around loose. From listening to Kathryn’s audio feed, they seem to be after a digital file carried by some group of business people who are onboard. Something about an asteroid and diamond mining,” she said.
“Miranda,” said Price.
“Miranda? Who is that?”
“My dinner date. She and her colleagues are on this cruise to celebrate some sort of big diamond-mining deal they just closed,” Price replied.
A flicker of—regret?—Price was not sure . . . crossed Ahuja’s face, quickly replaced by one of determination.
“How did you get out of the dining room? It sounded like they had it locked down pretty tight,” she said.
“I had to go to the head—but for very different reasons than yours. I was on my way back into the room when I saw one of the stewards pull a weapon out and close the door. Five seconds sooner, he would have nailed me. I was completely unarmed and unprepared. But that’s history. The cavalry is on the way, and we need to do something to make sure no one gets hurt.”
“What about the gun?” she asked.
“One of the pirates gave it to me. He can tell you the whole story later,” replied Price.
Looking toward the engineers, Ahuja asked, “How much longer? We need to get you two out of here and to a safe place.”
“Ten minutes, twelve tops,” said the woman as she rapidly manipulated the touchscreen interface in front of her. As she spoke, the pitch of the electronic whine filling the room began to shift from high to low, indicating that the power in the system was dropping.
“Wait a minute, stop. Keep the power up. We don’t want the pirates to know we’re here yet, and I have an idea,” said Price.
“They are going to find out when he doesn’t check in,” said Ahuja, pointing to the dead man lying on the floor.
“Him and the goon I left tied up in one of the staterooms,” said Price as he turned to face one of the engineers. “You can control the life-support systems from here, correct?”
“Yeah, sure. You want me to shut it down?” asked the other engineer, turning to face Price and Ahuja.
“No. But I do want you to reduce the oxygen levels in the air enough to cause everyone to pass out.”
“Uh, yeah, we can do that. But it will affect us here too,” said the woman.
“You have emergency space suits here, right? Put them on,” said Price.
“There are suits on all levels of the ship,” said Ahuja. “Once the pirates figure out what’s going on, putting them on will be the first thing they do.”
“But it won’t do them any good,” said Price.
“Why not?” Ahuja asked.
Price raised his laser pistol and looked at it. “Because you and I are going to all the suit lockers and lasing each and every one of them while we seal our new friends up nice and safe in here,” he said, again nodding toward his pistol.
She smiled. It was a wicked smile.
“I’ll take that as an affirmative,” Price said to Ahuja before turning his gaze back to the engineers. “Once they figure out what is happening, the pirates may try to contact you to make a deal, threaten to kill hostages or something. Don’t answer. If you don’t answer, they won’t know if you heard them or not. It would be best if you didn’t hear them.”
“Ah, okay,” said the woman, looking at her colleague who nodded in affirmation.
“Can you lock down the escape pods?” asked Ahuja.
“Uh, yes. We are not supposed to. It’s illegal to lock them down while we are out of space dock,” the male engineer replied.
Ahuja’s look of incredulity would have made the most dissident of teenagers proud.
“Ah, yes. I guess they won’t cite us under these circumstances, eh?” he said.
“If they do, then tell them that we ordered you to do it,” said Ahuja.
“Yes, ma’am,” the engineer said as he turned away, presumably to initiate the lockdown procedure.
“Once you change the oxygen levels, go ahead and power down the reactor to below the minimum needed to drive the engine. No matter what happens, they cannot be allowed to navigate away from here,” said Price.
“We understand,” the female engineer said.
“First Officer Ahuja, are you ready?” asked Price.
She again gave him the most-wicked smile and said, “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
Three hours later, everyone on the ship except for Price, Ahuja, and the two engineers were sound asleep. Six hours after that, the Belfast arrived, followed thirty minutes later by the Jinggang Shan. There were no additional injuries or deaths by the time the seven pirates were taken into military custody and removed from the ship. Captain Lomax, still full of himself, said that if the passengers were willing, the cruise would go on, citing an immediate return to Mars as the only alternative—which, itself, would take five days. The passengers decided to continue, with many offering to fill in for the now missing “stewards” who had been taken into custody. The owner of the cruise line sent a message promising to refund everyone’s money, improving spirits. The only thing Price didn’t like was how the stories of what happened during the whole ordeal were now subtly shifting, giving an ever-more prominent role in the events that unfolded to Captain Lomax. Price was not necessarily looking for glory, nor was Anika, but their self-deprecation left the door open for Lomax to take the spotlight.
Price cordially parted ways with Miranda—not feeling at all guilty since there were many other suitable, and quite eager, companions she might have the company of for the rest of the trip—and instead he began spending as much time as possible with Anika. They got to know each other quite well. Quite well indeed.
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