The press and the media at large would characterize pirates as either irredeemable evil slaving scum who murder each other with impunity and have loyalties that change with the solar winds, or as rogue robinhood archetypes who have a bit of mystery and suspense as the antiheroes that thumb their noses at authority.
Artistic, but ultimately wrong.
The civilian shipping companies would tell you to carry insurance, double-check every contract and lane, make sure you only travel in well-policed sectors and that if you ever are caught that you should surrender without a fight, collect everyone in either the bridge or the engine room, and once they’re done looting make a straight line to the nearest system to report damage.
Pragmatic, but also wrong.
The military would officially admit that piracy has been on the decline for the past few millenia and that most of known space is as safe as your backyard. Privately, they would hold some begrudging admiration at a group of people who were able to pull off anything more complicated than a drone heist with a less-than-shoestring budget. To underestimate your enemy is to give them an advantage, and successful crews’ tactics were studied and re-studied in order to come up with appropriate countermeasures, if possible – and the military would never admit it wasn’t possible.
The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.
The current pirate group that is relevant to our story has no real name – because names give the police something to hunt. They’ve called themselves a “Group”, a “Cooperative” – hell, even a “coalition of concerned citizens”, but never anything that would strike fear into the hearts of their prey; fear makes people do stupid things, and the last thing you wanted in an impromptu forced transaction of goods and services was stupid people playing stupid games and winning stupid prizes.
Interstellar piracy was a game of precision, predation, professionalism and a little bit of pure luck: You had to manage dozens, if not hundreds of moving pieces on the board – from black-market fences and “understanding” station-masters to freight, logistics – hell, impromptu appraisers even needed specialty gear. You also had to manage the little things, such as food, rest areas, fuel, comfort, medical attention… for all intents and purposes, a pirate gang was a loose government with the single goal of robbing other people blind.
… so in that light, not really that different from any other government.
Said ‘government’ was in full parliament today; people occupying spots on the ceiling, walls and floor of the hollowed-out asteroid. It was a useful trick that had been passed down through generations of less-than-legal entrepreneurs; find you a large rock with no one on it and no name, hollow it out and build it to spec, move it where you wanted, use it for as long as you needed and then just walk away. The current need for this part of a 3-km wide rock was as a staging area, and so it was basically totally hollowed out save for what needed to be maintained for structural integrity and privacy.
“[Since I’m in charge of this operation today, we’re going to do this again. Once more, from the top.]” The Karnakian said, tapping a loose pipe against what could be generously called a table. He looked over the assembled crew, noting that save for the current away teams he had everyone’s attention.
“[Brick, you start. And remember, this is to help the newbies, so speak to us like the idiots they are.]”
A gruff Dorarizin female shrugged. “[Our teams are spread out from our target’s origin to their destination. We get the call from the first interdiction net nearest to their away point. The first net does nothing – we’re running such a weak current through the droids that it only tells us that something passed through and where it roughly is. This is why we pick rarely-traveled lanes; we need to make sure it’s our actual target and not something else. That’s Gold team, out 20LY from us. Then Red’s got a little while to fuck with their droids to strengthen the net some more and see if they pass through that. If that works, Black team-]” Brick pointed to a group of what could be charitably called antisocial nerds in the corner of the room, “[-will suicide-run a few bots into their path. It’s dirty, but it stops their ship dead.]”
“[Alright, that’s enough. LED?]” The Karnakian said, curtly cutting off his colleague. One of the antisocial nerd Jornissians cleared her throat and picked up the narration.
“[So… Black Team, that’s us, no we won’t fix the food fabricator fuck you, will suicide those drones. This buys us a few real-time hours for their engines to clear a charge and build up for their warp drive again; I see by some of your expressions that I have to tell you the suicide drones are not meant to kinetically kill; they just create a super-strong localized interdiction field… and I realized I probably have to explain to you why with smaller words.]” The jet-black Jornissian started to patronizingly pantomime with her hands as she continued. “[If we shoot you with a drone or with a metal slug while you are traveling in a wrapped bubble of space-time and going really fast you wind up really dead. This means less shit to take, more scrutiny on us. So the drones will stop the ship, and with the sudden fuckery to their engines they’ve got to do maintenance before they can safely jump again. This is why you have to be within a few light-seconds of them to launch our limpet mines – They’re timed on repeat to fuck with their systems, stopping them from going through the necessary maintenance protocols. Since traveling to their destination on in-system speeds is a multi-generational death-sentence, they’ll give up. Orange team will move in to negotiate and Green team will board during negotiations.]”
She yawned, body shaking with the exhaustion of pulling a couple dozen all-nighters in the past month. “[Then you connect their systems to ours, we clean them out of their GRC, wipe their log files, scramble their cameras and mop things up tidy. Green gives the go-ahead to Yellow to pull alongside-]”
“[Sure, Boots. You finish.]” The pipe-Karnakian said, tapping said pipe against the nickel-iron slab.
“[Why me?]” The Karnakian frowned. “[I hate explaining shit.]”
There was another ring of metal-on-metal. “[And that’s why I picked you, now do it or else your assistants will be useless to you.]”
“[Fuck you old man, fine.]” Boots stood up straighter – and since he was currently hanging on a wall, the effect was… well. Probably not as intended. “[Yellow’s our cargo team, they run our scrambled ship. We pull alongside, Green and Orange coordinate to haul whatever shit’s inside our target into our ship with Yellow. If we get resistance, then we rough up enough of them to calm ‘em down. If we still get resistance, then we shove ‘em into shuttles, pop an emergency beacon and just take their ship for scrap. The current shitbox Yellow team is using is disposable; the one you came in on is the one you’re leaving in as it’s legally registered in a few systems – unless you get shot for standing in my way while we’re boarding. Then I take your boots and dump your corpse out an airlock.]”
“[Eloquent as always, Boots.]” The old karnakian said, smiling wryly. “[For our new recruits – and you know who you are – you’re not getting any weapons, and you most likely won’t be doing anything of importance. Most transactions like this are clean and quick, and you’re dumb and slow. Shut up, watch how we work, and next time you’ll be more useful. Savvy?]”
There were a few scattered nods, and the pipe rang out on the metal slab once more.
“[Alright! I’m going to stress this to our new hands – we’ve been a proud and noble instituti-]”
“[Fuck’s sake, Bones.]” Boots grumbled, ducking under a thrown pipe. The new hire behind him wasn’t so lucky, and it ringed off of his suddenly-unconscious skull.
“[I won’t miss again!]” Bones said, slapping the table for effect. “[Now save for … I guess that looked to be Tow, so, get him to medical – So save for him, listen up! I shouldn’t have to repeat this, but I’m going to, and I want the new class to say it with me: We do not kill civilians. We do not trade slaves.]”
A couple-dozen people droned out a monotone response, and Bones sighed. “[And why don’t we kill people or trade in slaves?]”
“[Because fuck the police.]” The entire crew responded as one, and Bones slapped his hands against the table in joy.
“[Exactly! The last thing I need is for you stupid, motherless bastards to try to sell a diplomat’s daughter to an undercover agent and give me a forced early retirement. Now, places everyone! We should get a hit in the next few hours, and I want us to get ready to be ready. Hurry up and wait!]”
= = = = = =
The two of them sat in the observation seats on the Bridge, watching the stars lens and dance oddly through the camera viewscreen.
“But I said the line.”
The Dorarizin hummed as an errant computer beeped. “[And for the umpteenth time: No.]”
“That’s not fair you know it’s a cultural uh, need of my people!” Nate whined, smushing Drongo’s cheeks together. “I’ve even been extra-helpful to Tiki!”
“[Yes, you have, and I appreciate that nurse-]” Drongo said, gently batting Nate’s hands away from his face. “[-But I will not play into stereotypes.]”
“But you can make the sound I know you can-”
“[Nate.]” Cpt. Sassafras said, looking sideways from her command post. “[Just because he can make the [Wookie] sound doesn’t mean he has to.]”
Nate stood up, hand on his chest. “By my honor as a human-”
“[Hah!]” Sassafras guffawed, almost spilling her drink as a full-body laugh rose unbidden within her and was quickly tamped down.
“-when you say ‘Punch it, Chewy’ and you go into warp speed you gotta make the noise!”
“[I am not a walking carpet, Nate.]” Drongo said, politely but firmly. “[I condition my fur very seriously, you know.]”
Nate waved his arm about as he leaned back against the banister railing. “I know! I help you with it sometimes, trust me, I know. You’re a beautiful throw rug~”
“[What’s this now?]” Sassafras said coyly, turning in her chair as the stars danced behind her. “[Two of my male crew mates, fraternizing in the shower?]”
“[Jealous?]” Drongo smiled, pulling his collar a bit to the side to let some of his mane poke through.
“[I’d at least like video.]” Sassafras retorted, smiling into her drink.
“Not until you tell me the name of the ship.” Nate responded, arms crossed over his chest. “I’m tired of playing the game, and I just want to know already.”
“[Nate, although I have to give you credit for your … plan,]” Sassafras said, taking a sip of her tea, “[I’m not going to give you the name of our ship. It’s the one hazing ritual that binds everyone together, and you have to suffer through it just like everyone else who’s come aboard has.]”
“I don’t like it though.”
“[Nate, come on.]” Drongo said, leaning back in his chair as he waved his hand a bit. “[It’s part hazing, but also one way to see what you’re made of – and to be fair, you’re made of excellent stuff. No one else on the ship has gone to such lengths to answer the riddle, and your plans are getting subsequently better and better as you rise to the challenge. Honestly, I would tell you the ship’s name, but I want to see what you’re going to do next – and I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling.]”
Nate thought for a moment, lowering his head as he stared at the floor. In the silence, there was another pip from an errant computer, followed by a “[Huh.]”
That was not a good thing to hear – especially from your navigator.
“[Licorice?]” Sassafras said, completing her revolution in her seat, facing forward once again. “[Something the matter?]”
“[No, I don’t think so.]” Licorice said, the Jornissian pressing indicator keys invisible to Nate’s eyes. “[Just, we … I think passed through the remnant of a pulsar or something. Little spike of EM readings, some ion mess. Has to be strong to get through our bubble, but there’s nothing out here – probably natural, and probably very old.]”
“Is that common?” Nate asked, turning to lean over the railing to talk to the Navigator in the pit below, his earlier complaint forgotten for the moment.
Licorice hummed. “[Yes and no. Due to the volume of interstellar travel, yes – I’ve heard stories of pulsar beams from billions of years ago wiping camera lenses from ships today – but I’ve never had it personally happen to me. Of course, for a majority of my… career I’ve been in more robust vessels. Hard to tell if I’ve experienced it before or not.]”
Sassafras pulled up a few screens, looking over status indicators. “[Damage to report?]”
“[No, Captain.]” Licorice answered, continuing to look at his incomprehensible screens. “[We didn’t even drop speed – purely instrument reading, nothing more. No course correction needed.]”
“That sounds kinda neat!”
“[Yeah.]” Licorice smiled, shrugging lightly. “[You’ll get used to more of this stuff happening, especially if you end up accidentally going through a stellar cloud.]” Licorice looked up, and noting Nate’s curious expression continued. “[You’ll want to steer clear of those because they’re almost always charted incorrectly, the gravity waves from stars forming always mess with the clouds, and there’s ionization issues as well. Think static charge, but for billions and billions of volt-]”
Licorice never got to finish that sentence as the ship lurched down and left, Nate toppling over into the arms of his Dorarizin friend as the two rolled on the deck, Nate being sheltered in his larger colleague’s body before coming to a stop. Almost immediately calls from various parts of the ship began flooding in, the warm orange glow of the lighting turning into a fierce blue.
“[Harsak Damn you – that didn’t seem like nothing, Licorice!]” The captain roared, connecting her console to the general PA system, and Nate felt woozy as her voice echoed from his comm bead, the speakers above, and her body before him.
“[All hands, all hands, report to your stations. All shifts, all hands. This is not a drill. Get to your posts in full atmo kit. All bulkheads will be sealing shut in 5 minutes. I repeat, all hands, all stations, full atmo, bulkheads sealing in 5 minutes.]” There was an audible click as the announcement shut off, the captain turning to look at her human crewmate.
“[Nate, I want you in your suit with Drongo in medical. Drongo – keep Tiki in your care unless she’s good to return to full duty.]”
“[Yes’m.]” Drongo said, picking up a muffled Nate and bolting out the bulkhead door.
“[Status report – Actual status report, Licorice.]” Sassafras said, managing multiple inquiries through her terminal as data began to flood in.
“[Aye Ma’am.]” Licorice responded, neutrally. “[It seems we’re no longer in FTL travel due to an interdiction force. I’m scanning all frequencies and channels, and so far it’s nothing but dust and echoes.]”
Sassafras frowned. “[Let me know if the situati-]”
“[I’m getting three… no, four jump signals.]” Licorice stated, his hands a blur along his console. “[Nothing standard, no IFF. We’re-]”
“[-Immediately blast a mayday-]”
“[-Being jammed on all long-range communications. Local comms are still open, but I’m not getting any broadcasts. Activating passive radar, sonar, lidar. Qintessence-]”
The bridge doors opened, the assembled and suited crew wordlessly taking their stations and beginning to work them with a professionalism that comes from years of service, and serving together.
“[-engineering has discharged capacitors and unspooled the engines-]”
“[-I.M. signals are still wonky; going to degauss our lines before-]”
“[-overlays on-screen now. It looks like one large cargo ship and three shuttles; boarding parties most likely-]”
“[-ulkheads are sealed. Depressurizing all non-inhabited sectors-]”
“[-medical reports everyone’s fine. Locked and sealed up tight.]”
There was a slight pause in the communication, before the beat picked up again.
“[Everyone.]” Captain Sassafras said, commanding the PA system once more as she watched the unidentified objects being ejected from the craft on a collision course with her ship.
“[All hands, brace for impact. All hands, prepare for boarders.]”