The not-so-stalwart crew of the Space Lady find themselves fighting pirates for their precious cargo - of water!

We were ready to take off from Base D-17 and glad to be gone. Bases on tiny asteroids like this have less living space than a hauler like Space Lady, no entertainment facilities, and they're infested with roaches. I know - roaches in deep space on an airless, waterless hunk of rock. They're not space roaches,we bring 'em with us in crates, foodstuffs and even in electronics.

Crews on the small bases rotate weekly, but I get bored after seven hours on one. So after a three-day layover I was hopping to leave. So was my crew: Guthrie, hard-drinking engineer, fun-loving records man Saad ibn Nidh'aal, Samson, navigator with no room to work out and Parasol, social butterfly with only two new people to meet.

Then there's me: Dara Flane. I'm only happy in space.

What we do is, we haul water from the frozen ice deposits on the Jovian, Saturnian and Uranian moons to Mars, where they're still pretty parched even with the terraforming. It's mind-numbingly boring work, but it pays a pretty penny and I'm saving up for a private ship of my own. Space Lady, of course, belongs to the Company.

A normal stay at a rock base like D-17 is one day - it says so in the book. Usually, though, the ferries with the water run late, which was the case now.

It had been a long three days. But now that the water was aboard the LADY and we were all but back in space, the ranking man at the base called me back to his office.

"Captain Flane. I have some special instructions for you with this shipment."

"Special instructions? It's water!" I blurted.

"Yes, Captain, special instructions," he said impatiently. "And if you are going to make me repeat everything I say, you will not make your lift window. Now listen. You will have an extra passenger. He is a biologist from Ceres Station. He will be running a few routine tests on the H20 you're hauling."

"Tests? It's water!"

"Ceres requires the testing," the station keeper told me. "And you are making me repeat again."

"Right," I admitted. "Is that all?"

"No. I am supposed to warn you about pirates."

"Pirates? Damn it, we're hauling water!" I scowled. "I know, I'm missing my window, but why in hell would pirates want water?"

"I'm just supposed to warn you, Captain. Maybe they're thirsty."

"Pirates drink rum," I sniped. "But I'll tell Samson to keep a scope peeled."

We lifted within our window so we'd make optimum time for fast transit to Mars - fast meaning about three weeks. The tester from Ceres turned out to be a Martian himself: green-skinned, spindly, with the usual fanned ears and nubbed nose.

His name was Nool. His people don't really need the Ceres-water, they're adapted to their dried-out planet. It was Earth's colonists on Mars who craved what we hauled. Nool pretty much kept to himself, alone with his water tanks and his test equipment.

Probably a good thing. Samson's a Jovian, and Jovians and Martians don't like each other. There was some kind of dispute so far back in their histories that neither side remembered what it was.

I spent some hours thinking about pirates. I supposed they might be interested in us. I'd never heard of it before, but water was expensive on Mars so they might be able to turn a profit. Stealing water, though, still seemed ridiculous to a gal like me. I grew up on Earth's California coastline.

And I was right for a while. We didn't meet any pirates - not for the first two days.

The crew retreated to their own individual cures for boredom. Samson flew a simulator that let him practice skirting and dodging the kind of huge space rocks we'd encounter in our passage through the Belt. Parasol was reading the 11th or 12th installment of her favorite book-tape thriller series, Space Spooks. You couldn't talk to her without hearing the latest developments: "Commander Fairchild is still missing, but Lt Dennison was assigned to pose as a defector to find out if the Spawn has him, and Captain Hec is leading the probe into the Nexus of Galaxies ? " and on until you cut her off. Sometimes you had to be rude, but she didn't care, if it let her crawl back into her book.

We were just reaching the Marsward fringe of the asteroid belt when Samson started picking up some anomalous motions in a few of the leeward rocks. I asked him what he meant and his answer was, "A couple a' those asteroids are followin' us."

I flipped the com-toggle and said, "Come again?"

"Their surfaces are a mite too reflective too. I don't think they're rocks."

At that moment lightning flared a couple of miles from our bow. Since there's no lightning in space, I deduced that we were being fired upon.

Ship-to-ship comm lit up and crackled. "Jetison your cargo or prepare for boarding!"

I sighed. "I know, you guys are pirates, right? Well, I'm shivering in my timbers! Parasol, will you get some missiles ready, please?"

Water haulers aren't armed, but Space Lady did have a rack of missiles for blasting rocks that strayed into her path. Parasol's merry tones called back, "Armed and ready to fire, Skipper!"

Good. Pirates weren't known for niceness. If they wanted us to dump our cargo, it was so they could blow us out of space when they had what they wanted.

"Pirate ship on screen," Samson reported dourly. He was usually dour. I glanced and saw it - a big black sphere sliding ominously out from a clump of big rocks.

"Say the word, Skip, I'll I'll blow 'em to pieces!" Parasol kind-of growled.

No you won't, I thought. I'd recognized the type of weapon that made lightning flashes like that. I'm not going up against a Hammond Raybeamer battery with a handful of missiles. I told her, "Target a couple of those drifting mountains they were lurking behind. Blast off enough debris to distract them while we turn tail and take cover back in the belt. Samson?"

"Aye, Captain?"

"Turn tail and take cover back in the belt."

"Aye, aye, Captain!"

A dozen of our missiles roared silently through space and half of them ploughed into the huge asteroids - the Hammond vaporized the other six at one swipe. That was why I didn't intend to get into a fight. A cloud of pulverized rocks and not a few house-sized hunks drifted over the dark sphere.

In space you don't really have to turn tail to retreat. Samson simply fired our rockets in reverse and we flew back-asswards into the thickest patch of belt nearby. We didn't have an outside view except for screens, and with the inertia-dampers on full it didn't feel any different. Samson flew a zigzag course, taking a few collision-chances with the rocks, but we managed not to scrape any. If we could maintain enough concealment till we could emerge somewhere else we might get away alive.

The control room hatch flew open and a spindly green form stumbled in. He grasped the hatch-frame, then a couple of chairbacks for support. That ultra-brain the Martians have makes them sensitive to motion even in space. Nool stared at me coldly and rasped, "Is what happening?"

"I'm sorry if we interupted your tests," I told him dryly, "but your results won't get published if these pirates steal the water and scuttle us."

"Pirates?" he echoed. Martians speak in that rasping lilt that can set some people's nerves on edge - maybe that's why the Jovians hate them. I can deal with it; it's their accent that riles me. "Are saying you that we attacked by pirates are being?"

"That is right!" I barked. "Yes, but we're doing our best to elude them in the rocks. Samson! Where are they?"

The deep, rumbling bass answered, "They've shaken off the debris cloud and disintigrated the chunks. Comin' after us now!"

"Hide!" I yelled.

"I'm tryin'! They're faster 'n' us and they've got some damn sensitive tracers. Captain, I don't think we can lose 'em for long!"

"Flee you the pirates!" Nool yelled demandingly and ungrammatically.

"I'm fleeing!" I shouted back. Space Lady turned and twisted like a Fourth of July skyrocket, sweeping past the looming rocks with what seemed like inches to spare. We were about to dodge a paticularly mountainous one when suddenly it wasn't there anymore. As we sheared through the dust cloud that remained of it I realized that our pursuers had removed it with their Hammond. They had our number, and as if to prove the point two boulders on our port and starboard sides billowed out of existence. The pirates could remove us from reality just as easily.

But they wouldn't. They wanted, Sol knew why, our water and they wouldn't get it by wiping us out. I mused, and had Samson cut the rockets. Our silver-nosed space truck came to a halt relative to the black sphere and the surrounding asteroids. Our problem, I'd decided, was how to keep them from blasting us if we gave them the water - it wasn't worth our lives. I gave Saad, Guthrie and Parasol orders to remain at their posts.

I flipped to the inter-ship comm. "Hey, Jolly Roger! Got a deal for you. You let us accelerate beltward and we'll dump the cargo once we're at speed. While you're picking it up we hide in the rocks and you don't look for us. We can't identify you - all we saw was a big black ball."

Silence ensued. Lady drifted, her aft section, the cylinders that held the cargo tanks, slowly rotating. I hoped the pirates might be considering my offer. Turned out they weren't.

"Captain!" Samson roared. "Four objects leaving the pirate sphere - human-sized!"

What was that phrase the seagoing shippers used? "Stand by to repel boarders!" I yelled.

"They've magnetically attached to our hull!" Parasol cried.

"Secure the airlocks!"

After a pause, Parasol's voice came back tinier than ever. "No can do, Skipper - they've overidden the locks."

We could only stand helplessly and watch as the airlock rolled heavily open. I could see the ribbed tubing of the tunnel that led from the pirate ship to Lady. Spacesuit lights moved in its darkness like lost stars and then the intruders moved into our ship. There were three of them, and they all held blasters.

They covered us while a fourth figure sauntered aboard. It paused, then began to undress. Divested herself of her spacesuit, that is.

She shook long, space-black hair till it fell in waves over her slim shoulders. Beneath her spacesuit she had dressed the part of a pirate queen to the hilt. A black leather tunic-vest with a plunging neckline that revealed enough cleavage to drop a Jovian's jaw - which it did when Samson saw her, tight red leather pants slit up the left leg, and cuffed pirate boots. No eyepatch, pegleg or parrot, though she actually wore a sheath with a sabre on her right hip.

She picked me out as the ranking person and stalked up to me.

"I want the water loaded to my ship immediately," she said flatly. "I am opening a cargo hold starboard." And to her men, "Keep them covered."

I don't know what came over me - maybe it was her attitude, or maybe I just get ornery when I'm frustrated.

I gave her my best half-scowl, half-smirk and told her, "You've got us dead in space, outmanned and outgunned - but I'm damned if I give you my cargo." It wasn't out of loyalty to the owners or anything; just pure spite. I turned to the control board, located the eject button for the water containers.

Then I spilled their contents into space.

I imagined a gurgle and a whoosh, but you couldn't really hear it being catapulted out of the ship. If you could, you'd also hear the tremendous crackling as tons of water froze and fissured. We'd given birth to an iceberg.

It wasn't obvious at first what I had done. Pirate Queen's comm band blinked and she received the message from her people back on her ship. Her eyes narrowed and went bleak as the ice on Pluto. She seemed ready to spit venom at me, but I was busy doing something else with the controls.

Queenie thought better of attacking me and reopened her comm band.

"You're wasting my time, Captain," she said in irritation. "Mr Pfellowes? Get those chunks of ice aboard, then prepare - "

A tinny voice from the other ship cut in loudly enough for me to hear. "What chunks, Ma'am? The water hauler has rotated to bring its engines in line with the ejected water. It's evaporating and dispersing."

Queenie's eyes scowled while the rest of her face went stiff, her lips a thin red line. You could almost hear her ordering her body to be calm. She didn't spare me a glance, but turned to her men.

"Let's go back," she ordered without emotion. "Help me on with my suit, Mr Fee. Once we're back aboard, I want this vessel blasted to smithereens. Small smithereens!"

She turned on her heel to the airlock. At the same instant a hatch opposite the lock slammed open and a small, pert, panting figure stumbled into the room.

"Wait!" she wheezed, out of breath. She approached the Queen's retreating back, stopped and placed her hands on her knees for a moment and caught her breath. "Ran all the way here from the arms deck," she explained.

"Who in the Sun's orbit are you?" the pirate leader snarled.

"Lt Parasol Dennison, Ma'am, tech officer of the Space Lady, and I want to go with you!"

Wide-eyed, Queenie could only echo her. "You want to what?"

"Ma'am, I want to join your crew."

The pirate folded her arms over her chest. "And why would I want you?"

Parasol held up three fingers and counted. "One, I don't want to be a smithereen. Two, I've always wanted to be a pirate. Three, I'm trained in tech and weaponry, but all I do here in man the rock deflectors. I would kill to get my hands on a modern Hammond raybeamer! Four," she put up another finger, "I'll prove myself if you'll let me. I'll blast this scow out of space for you!"

"I like you," the Queen smiled. She seemed to mull the thought, then shrugged. "Very well. We can always use another hand. Especially one bloodthirsty enough to blast her own crew. Suit up, kid!"

I could only stare unbelievingly at Parasol. Nothing she was saying made sense to me.

The pirates retreated, the airlock closed and their boarding tube unlocked and withdrew. All was silence after that. I stood there wondering how long it would take to bring their guns about, and whether we'd know it before we were dead. From the look on Samson's dour face he must have been thinking along the same lines.

Then the silence was splintered by a hysterical Martian voice.

"What you have done? What you have done to the water?"

"Dumped it - and burned it away. Why do you care, Nool? It's not like there aren't tons of frozen ice in the belt to replace it. I'd be more concerned that we're all about to die - "

"Oo-oo-oo!" the Martian wailed. His green complextion went a shade greener. "The loss! The tragedy! Murder!"

"The colonists will live," I told him. "It's us who're being murdered. Samson, is there anything we can do?"

The Jovian looked even more dour than usual. "We can try to outrun them...maybe lose 'em if we can find a dense enough heap of rocks, possibly even lure them into a collision - "

I leaned over the contols and scanned them suspiciously. "No go," I pronounced. "They're backing off, but they're keeping their magnetic grapples on us. They can keep us locked even at a distance where they can hit us and be out of range of the explosion themselves. They won't even enter our debris field."

The little Martin had fallen to the deck and flopped there, still shrilling about mass murder. "Oo-ooo-oo! The loss! The tragedy! Madness! Genocide!"

His howls were interrupted by a small voice that came over the comm. It was Parasol. "Okay, Skipper! Clear to go! I'm ejecting from the same lock they used to board us - main staboard. Gotta jet!"

"Parasol! What the - ?"

"Can't talk! Queenie's banging at the hatch and she's mad enough to cut through it with her glare - if her langauge doesn't melt it first! Meet me!"

"What!" I shouted. "Parasol, what are you - ?"

"I disabled their guns!" she replied happily. "Let's move!"

I looked around the room blankly. Our Martian had fainted into a control chair and half-slid to the deck. Samson was in the other seat, staring at me expectantly.

"Is she out yet?" I rapped at him, mostly in a spacefog about what was going on - but I managed to remember that Parasol had said that she was ejecting and needed a lift. "She just shot out of their lock," he affirmed. "Heading toward us at azimuth 90 degrees - "

"Bring our lock in line with her!" I told him. "Set inertia-nets and stand by for pickup!"Minutes later, Parasol was safely in our airlock and peeling off her spacesuit. She came running into the control room, nearly breathless.

"Let's get out of here! Queenie's mad enough to ram us!"

"Get in here and strap down," I yelled. "Then you can explain to me what you're pulling here. Siding with the pirates then jetting back here when they get mad at you? I ought to bring you up on mutiny!"

She just looked at me blankly, as if in disbelief.

"But I told you what I was doing! Then I sabotaged their guns and ran for their airlock - but they may have missiles or something so we should get moving - "

I nodded to Samson. Parasol was right. We needed to make ourselves scarce, which shouldn't be hard. Pirate Queen might be mad, but they weren't likely to spend precious fuel pursuing us with our cargo lost, and missiles were easier to dodge than blast cannons.

So Lady lit out, and the pirates didn't even follow. Samson resumed his attempts to raise the Patrol, which he'd been unable to do in the thick of the belt.

"Well." I glanced at Parasol. "I don't know whether to toss you in the brig, or - "

"You can't toss me in the brig!"

"Why not?"

"We don't have a brig. And besides, I saved the ship!"

"Defected to the pirates," I corrected. "Then changed your mind."

Parasol's mouth hung open, then closed and drooped. "But I told you what I was doing."

"You did - when?"

She looked disappointed. "I identified myself to the pirate woman as Lt Parsol Dennison."

I'd wondered about that. We're a civilian vessel; I'm formally the captain, but it's my job, not a title. We don't hold ranks aboard the Lady - and Parasol's last name isn't Dennison. She doesn't have a last name.

"Lt Dennison?" She narrowed her eyes and her nose crinkled. "Like in my thriller I was telling you about? Lt Dennison was pretending to be a traitor so he could - "

I scowled, held up a palm to cut her off. I didn't want her to get into the whole plot. This was vaugely familiar, though. Nobody really paid attention when Parasol was reeling off the details in her dramas, so, no, I hadn't got it.

"You pretended to be a traitor so that you could get to their cannons and sabotage them?"

"Yes! Like Lt Dennison destroyed the Spawn's Star-Smasher. And I kept my spacesuit on and ran for the hatch once they'd realized what I'd done."

"Okay," I sighed. "No brig. You saved our hides, lass, and all we lost was some water - "

"Some water!" shrilled a voice, followed by a string of profanity in strident Martian - unfortneately, I knew enough Martian to grasp most of it - as did Parasol, judging by her beetish blushing.

I turned on Nool, tired of his squalling. "For heaven's sake, Nool, it was only water!"

"Only? You say only water? Murder, I tell you - genocide!"

Before I could ask him what in the Galaxy he was gibbering about, Samson interrupted.

"Cap'n, I've got a Patrol cruiser on the line, 150000 kilometers and closing."

"Sic 'em on the pirates," I said.

"They want to talk to us. They've sent another cruiser after the gang."

"Put 'em on the horn," I told him. "Let's find out what's going on here."

The Patrol officer's controlled voice came on for all of us to hear - except Nool, whose own moaning and sobbing might have drowned it out. He sounded like a square-jawed hero type from one of Parasol's thrillers.

"We have a ship rounding up the pirates. It should be easy - Mr Samson tells me you've disabled their blasters?"

"We did do that." I grinned at Parasol.

"What of your cargo?"

Nool jumped up from his seat, howling at thin air. "Cargo? Cargo? They murdered them! That is what of our cargo!"

"Calm yourself, please, Professor. We have a Solar Survey Office representative on board who will be able to sort things out for you, Captain."

A few minutes later, we were gathered in the control cabin around a tall, balding man with a seamed, serious look on his face. The heroic Patrol commander waited to one side, with Parasol slipping quick, surreptitious looks at him.

"Captain, you and your crew are about to receive a highly classified debriefing. You will be made aware of certain facts that are not to be repeated - to anyone. Before I may impart these facts, I need your sworn promise of silence."

"I so swear," I stated, as had Parasol and Samson, knowing that we were being recorded.

"Very well," the official said. He sounded reluctant. "Several weeks ago, an SSO mineralology team found microscopic life in the water ice on a certain large asteroid. The rock's orbit kept one face turned toward the Sun so that it received enough warmth to keep a few pools of water liquid. This is a tremendously valuable find - the first life discovered on a body that is not a planet. You scuttled - "

"I dumped them into space and then disintigrated them in our jets," I muttered as comprehension of Nool's panicked reaction sank in. Then I thought about it a moment and remembered his actual words. "Wait a minute - he said 'murder' and 'genocide.' You mean - "

Silence fell over the room rather suddenly.

Finally the SSO man replied grudgingly, "That is more information than you were supposed to know, Captain. But yes - the microbes are sentient."

I scowled at myself. "You mean they were sentient. I evaporated them."

A pause. Then, "No, Captain. As I was saying, you scuttled a dummy shipment of plain water that was used as a decoy for pirates in the employ of certain rival interests. The real microbes are safely on their way to Mars on a Patrol ship disguised as a freighter. You may want to calm Professor Nool and inform him of the ruse. He doesn't appear to be paying attention."

But Nool suddenly ceasing shaking and sobbing. His Martian ears perked up as the SSO's words sunk in. Then he started squalling again. "You used me as a decoy? Scandal! Unforgiveness! Cheating!"

"He has a point," I told the SSO man. "You risked my ship and our lives without our knowledge."

"We did," he admitted. "You will all receive hefty bonuses funded by SSO, and certificates of heroism."

Parasol, Samson and I exchanged glances.

"Bonuses?" Sam and I echoed.

Parasol smiled. "Certificates of heroism!"

"That'll do," I grinned.

Nool was still yelling. "Formal apologies! To me! To my institute! To Mars!"

"And," the SSO man continued, "Professor Nool will receive full credit as a member of the team which discovered, contacted and negotiated with the asteroidal microbes - "

That shut him up. The SSO man gave us a few more details, including what would become of our careers and possibly our freedom should we break our silence, and followed the Patrol captain through the airlock.

I laid my hands on Parasol's slim shoulders.

"Well, Lt Dennison, I guess I'll drop mutiny charges."

"Should be a slow trip to Mars now," Samson shrugged.

"Not Mars," I corrected. "We have no cargo to deliver. It's back to the base for a new load of water - hopefully one with no passengers. We'll drop Nool off there."

Samson sat down and leaned into his control panel. "I'll lay in a course."

Nool planted his diminutive green form in front of me, his mouth just below my chin. "Demand I you go to Mars!" I sighed. He was screeching again.

I stared him down. "I'm sorry, Professor, but it's a waste of fuel to go all the way to Mars - no cargo, no profit."

"What am I to do?" Nool complained, a little less stridently. "No water, no microbes - am I my posterior to sit on the entire trip with naught to do save stare at bulkheads?"

"We'll find you something to do," I told him. I smiled at Parasol. "My 'lieutenant' here has a large collection of literature I'm sure she'll let you read."

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