Hijacked!

Ginger

Image: Christina Hendricks, Flare Magazine

From the Flight Log of Freighter Pilot Camdon Rod

They say it’s impossible to hijack a jump freighter, but there’s always an exception to a rule. I mean, jump ships are monitored by ground control when they lift off, then satellite monitoring until the ship reaches the jump point and enters hyperspace.

Forget about intercepting a ship in hyperspace. That’s really impossible.

Same on the other side of the jump. The ship exits hyperspace at the system’s jump point and is monitored all the way to the ground or orbital rendezvous or whatever. Any vessel attempting to intercept a jump ship in normal space would be spotted thousands of kilometers away.

Normally, I’m a pretty lucky guy, but this time my luck was going to run out.

By the way, my name is Camdon Rod and I’m the owner and pilot of the most unusual jump freighter in known-space, the Ginger’s Regret. What makes the Regret so unusual? She’s alive.

Well, not exactly. It’s more like she’s haunted…kind of.

Let me explain.

Fifty years ago or so, there were two owners of the Regret, Oberlin Phie and his wife Ginger. The Regret was designed to be a single operator craft, but they modified the ship to accommodate two. Oberlin was the pilot and business manager and Ginger was co-pilot and engineer. I’m regularly impressed with the innovative upgrades she added to the freighter.

Unfortunately, things happen in space. The guidance system for their jump drive shorted just as they entered hyperspace and they came out at an unanticipated location. They couldn’t jump again until the nav system was fixed, but that could only be done inside the jump drive section toward the rear of the Regret.

Normally, you can’t do maintenance on a jump drive in space, but that was one of Ginger’s handy innovations. She fixed the nav and was on her way back to the airlock at the front of the ship when a power surge sent the Regret prematurely into hyperspace.

Ginger couldn’t possibly survive a jump into hyperspace while outside the ship, but somehow she did…sort of.

No one knows what happened to Ginger’s flesh and blood body, but everything else, her spirit, her personality, her memories, her emotions somehow became intertwined with the ship. She can never leave the Ginger’s Regret, but she sometimes is able to manifest herself as the way she once looked, the human form of Ginger Phie.

It’s kind of handy, actually. In effect, the freighter is Ginger’s “body” and she can sense things about herself before it shows up on diagnostics. She’s also able to pilot herself, at least those systems that are automated, which is most of the Regret. Sometimes I believe she just lets me think I’m still flying the ship, but I need to have some fun.

So far, we’re a pretty good working team, though except for this log, I can never tell another soul that Ginger is a ghost on her own namesake.

We’d just left the second planet orbiting Brunella B heading for the jump point. We were hauling a cargo Styxian Spice, top quality stuff that’s officially used for any number of legit medical applications, and unofficially sold on the black market because it can also get you higher than the summit of Mount Zass on Qureden (highest recorded peak on any humanoid-habitable world).

Our destination was a nascent colony world called New Gnyket orbiting Gnut Signet Zee. They’d pushed the limits of what we call known-space back by twenty parsecs to officially become the most distant colony of the Consortium.

What we didn’t know at the time was that the colonists weren’t the only inhabitants of the Gnut system.

“Approaching jump point.” Anyone watching me would have thought I was talking to the air. I can’t always see Ginger, but I know she’s there. In fact there’s no part of the ship I can go to where she isn’t, which makes going to the can and showering a little unnerving (though she’s promised not to peek).

“Jump coordinates calculated and laid into the jump nav system.”

Sometimes Ginger speaks through the comm system and sometimes she just speaks like she’s right there, even when I can’t see her.

I watched the read out on the nav console confirming what Ginger said, as if the ship was running itself, which I suppose it was.

“Jump drive powered. Jumping in three, two, one…”

Standard jump drives create a point-to-point virtual tunnel through hyperspace from origin to destination, so the trip is instantaneous. Since Ginger had her accident, she says she experiences the jump as something else, but she can’t explain what the difference is.

I blink and we’re at Gnut’s jump point. Even though we are far outside any civilized system or Outer Region territory, the Consortium has provided the colony with a sweeper, a device used to clear a 1,500 kilometer area of space of any matter, making it suitable for a jump point. If there were even a handful of gravel at the coordinates where a jump ship is set to materialize, it would cause a catastrophic explosion, vaporizing the ship.

Colonies are initially established using ships with an advanced jump drive, one with a sweeper field built-in. The ship jumps but is preceded by a high-intensity energy field that materializes and expands hundreds of milliseconds before the ship arrives. It creates a bubble of clean space for the ship to enter.

I wish we could all use that type of drive, but they’re difficult to manufacture, heinously expensive to maintain, and use like ten times the amount of energy per jump that a standard drive consumes.

So you can imagine they’re kind of rare and used sparingly. And every single one of them is owned by the Consortium.

The Regret exited hyperspace into the clear and Ginger calculated the course for the New Gnyket colony while I fired up the Norm Space engines.

“Something’s wrong, Cam. I’m only getting sporadic readings of New Gynket, like there’s some sort of interference.

The chair to my right seemed to swivel on its own, and when I looked again, Ginger, the way she looks in the photo to the left of the nav console, the way she looks in the life-size painting on the hull just below the control cabin, was sitting there next to me.

I’ve mentioned all too often in the past how absolutely gorgeous she is. She doesn’t go out of her way to be beautiful, it’s a natural effect. She doesn’t dress in anything fancy, just standard freighter crew overalls, pretty much the same as I dress when working.

But there’s something about those piercing blue eyes, the red-orange tint to her long, luxurious hair, her pale skin punctuated by those cute little freckles just on the verge of fading out of sight, and her red pouting lips…yeah, she could get to just about any man as long as he has a pulse.

But there’s no time for that.

“Something else is wrong, Ginger. I didn’t get an arrival acknowledgement message from the colony when we came out of hyperspace, and I can’t get a response out of them now.”

This stinks but I figure it’s more the colony’s problem than mine. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I try to get a visual on the colony world and instead it’s like I’m trying to see through a dust cloud. I use thrusters to move the ship out of the jump point and the second I do, the dust cloud moves towards us.

“It’s in contact with the hull. I can feel it, like insects on my skin.” The apparition of Ginger involuntarily starts scratching her forearms. Fortunately, she can adjust her sensitivity to occurrences on different parts of the ship, so she “turns down” her senses and the itching stops, or at least she can tolerate it now.

“Oh crap. Power levels dropping.”

“I feel it too, almost like I’m losing feeling in my legs.”

“It’s the Norm Space drive. We’re in some sort of energy dampening field. Maybe the dust is natural source.”

“Doubt it. Our forward velocity is dropping to zero. We’re being controlled.” Ginger winces, like she’s been hit. “High pitched signal coming over the comm.”

“Prepare to be boarded. If you resist, we’ll cut power to life support.”

It’s a man’s voice but that’s all I can tell. However what he said means whatever they’re doing to our power systems, it’s selective.

“I can see a ship approaching from beneath and to starboard. It’s just a shape. I’m having trouble with the external monitors. They must be jamming them to mask their presence.”

Ginger’s looking really uncomfortable now. Whatever these assholes are doing to the ship, they’re doing to her and she can’t block it out.

Even if the Regret had weapons, I’d never be able to use them without power to their systems. I’ve got hand weapons on board, but I have the feeling that trying to shoot boarders would just get me killed, not that I expect they’ll let me live anyway.

“Release your main cargo bay airlock.”

In the event of a power loss, the cargo airlocks shut down and can only be opened manually, which is why these pirates (did I just use the word “pirates?”) can’t open it themselves by disabling more of our power grid.

Ginger’s swatting around her eyes and ears as it whatever these bastards are doing to the ship is affecting her sight and hearing. I can just barely see the ship docking with us on one of the monitors and when the maneuver is complete, I open the airlock .

“Stay in the control cabin. We will offload your cargo and inform you when we depart.”

Like hell. I’m betting their ship is armed and they’ll just blow us out of space, or even if it’s not, they’ll shut down all the Regret’s power systems including life support killing me and maybe Ginger too since she’s part of the ship.

Ginger’s image wavers and vanishes which I take as a bad sign.

The monitors for the cargo bays have shut down so I can’t even see how many of these jerks it takes to rob me blind.

Yeah, insurance will probably cover the loss. You don’t travel ten centimeters with such valuable cargo without insuring it, but I can’t take too many hits like this. On the last voyage of my former freighter the Breen, through no fault of my own, I lost a very expensive shipment of custom-bred biomatter that was to be delivered to the Bio Research Center for Evolutionary Design on Delta Epsiloni Four. Now I’m being robbed of millions of credits of Styxian Spice. If I get a reputation for losing high-priced cargo, I can kiss my career as a freighter pilot bye-bye…that is if I’m alive an hour from now.

I can’t just sit here. I’ve got to see what’s going on.

As I stand up with the idea of sneaking back to the cargo bays to try to glimpse what’s happening, the internal monitors click on again. Eight or ten people, all in black skinsuits, just starting to move the Spice toward the airlock.

Wait. Something’s wrong. The seal between our lock and the other ship’s just breached, not explosively, but air pressure’s dropping fast along with the temperature.

“What are you doing?” The voice over the comm is definitely not happy.

“Nothing. What are you doing?” They must have fudged the docking somehow and created an imbalanced seal. I can see most of them running back to their ship, but two of the figures are closer to the hatch leading to the inside of the Regret’s crew section. Too bad the hatches lock upon detecting a drop in atmospheric pressure. I couldn’t let them inside the ship if I wanted to.

Our cargo bay airlock closes, but I didn’t do it. The other ship disengages the dock between us, probably to make another attempt. Suddenly I’m thrown forward as the ship’s maneuvering thrusters, which apparently work again, move the Regret abruptly backward, bumping into the other ship. Good thing I never took off my seat restraints.

Then our thrusters reverse and we put some distance between us and the intruder ship. The dust cloud or whatever it was, is almost completely dissipated now. The Regret’s turning, facing the exhaust ports of our Space Norm engines at the pirate ship. I brace myself for the forward thrust as our engines suddenly go to full throttle enveloping most of the hull of the other ship in superheated plasma.

The Regret puts considerable distance between us and the other ship which is now disabled and helpless. I start getting radio signals from the colony asking why we haven’t been replying to their calls or what caused a dust cloud that hid our ship from their monitors.

I feel a now familiar hand on my shoulder. “Miss me?” She can shamelessly flirt when in the mood, and I’m guessing she’s feeling better now that the Regret’s systems have returned to normal.

“I was worried about you.”

She’s standing over me and her facial expression softens. She bends over me and plants a brief kiss on my cheek. “That’s sweet.”

I actually felt it, the kiss. A dozen thoughts shoot through my brain, none of them fit for general consumption. “I assume that was you playing hanky-panky with the cargo bay airlock and then the propulsion systems.”

“They’re my systems to play hanky-panky with, Cam.”

The way she says that brings more naughty thoughts up and I wonder if she’s feeling the same way.

“I’ve got us headed toward New Gnyket. We should land at around 1400 hours local time.”

“Do you even need me to pilot the ship?”

“Yes, there are somethings that can only be done manually my dear Cam.” She’s sitting now and as she’s speaking, she reaches out and gently caresses my face. Am I getting the signals I think I’m getting? I mean, is that even possible?

“We’d better concentrate on the job.”

“I know. A distracted pilot is a dead pilot.”

“And so it goes.” We both laugh and I’m relieved to have something else to concentrate on besides Ginger.

******

The colony sends a hyperspace message to the nearest law enforcement office letting them know what happened to us and where they can locate the disabled pirate ship which is sending out distress messages with annoying regularity.

As it turns out, they really are pirates in the legal sense. Rozz Knett’n and his merry band of miscreants were using stolen tech developed on Synthe Canarius C, a rather unusual spore cloud with bizarre and unexpected properties. Bioresearch was abandoned because the stuff tended to suck up all energy fields in their general vicinity, but Knett’n found a way to upgrade and weaponize its abilities so he could control which power systems the spores affected.

Then, he started victimizing out-of-the-way systems like new colonies, exploration missions, and research facilities in the Outer Regions and at the edge of known-space by ripping off vessels just the way he’d nearly nailed us.

Too bad this time he attacked a ship that can think for herself. Each time they used them, they had to retrieve most of the spores once they docked with a hapless freighter so their systems wouldn’t be adversely affected too, but on this occasion, Ginger “felt” her power coming back online in time to stop them.

Two pirates died of suffocation on the Regret, and three more cashed in on the pirate ship due to the damage it sustained when Ginger tried to incinerate them.

The Consortium put up an outstandingly large reward for their capture and guess who gets to collect? Now I get to call myself Camdon Rod, Space Bounty Hunter. I can’t tell them the thanks and the reward really should go to Ginger, but the only way she can spend that reward is by me upgrading the Regret’s systems. She’s got some interesting engineering ideas, and technology has advanced considerably since she last laid human hands on the ship.

After I finished supervising the offloading the Spice at New Gnyket, we jumped to Marconii which is getting to be my home port away from home. We collected the Consortium reward and I let some local news agency interview me about the courageous and innovative maneuvers I used to disable the pirate ship.

Watching the broadcast aboard the Regret later that evening, Ginger laughed her metaphorical or spectral ass off at what a “hero” I was when we both knew I didn’t do one damn thing.

I wouldn’t tell her this but it’s kind of ego-bruising. If she hadn’t been there, if the Regret was just some ordinary jump freighter, I’d have lost my cargo and probably my life. Except for paying the bills and maintaining the ship, what does she need me around for?

I was about to find out…well, almost.

She probably knew how I felt about me being useless, even though I didn’t tell her outright. Like I said, she’s always one step ahead of me.

Even though I probably don’t have to anymore, I still did one last check on the ship’s status before turning in for the evening. Everything was nominal and I hadn’t received a reply to my “jump freighter available” query yet, so I headed for my cabin.

I got inside and pulled my overalls off. Then I saw a light in the head and silhouetted by that light was Ginger. The sheer, brief nightgown she was wearing and being backlit like she was, showed off all the wonderful curves nature had gifted her with. Looks like those signals I was receiving weren’t mixed up and we weren’t in space so it was okay to get “distracted”. I tried not to think about the physics of what we were about to do.

“Hello, handsome.”

I just stood there slack-jawed. I’ve always said I was a lucky man.

My luck ran out again when the comm signaled an incoming message. I’d have ignored it if it hadn’t been marked urgent. Damn! Screw! Bunch of other really bad words! I can’t believe my really rotten luck.

I hit the receive button on the console by my bed just as I heard Ginger start sobbing behind me. She can read messages the instant they hit the ship’s communications grid so she knew what it said seconds before I did.

The old man was dead. Oberlin Phie breathed his last approximately four hours ago in his bed in the back of that crummy trading post on Gamma Outpost Cecil. He must have programmed his comm to send an automated message to the Regret in the event of his death.

He’d been diagnosed with DeSalle’s disease a year ago. That’s when he put the Regret up for sale. Ginger told me he turned down dozens of buyers before I came along. Said I was the only one to measure up, the only one he felt he could trust with Ginger’s secret, the only one who he knew would treat her right.

I turned toward her. She was dressed in standard overalls again. I moved toward her but not for the reasons I had just a few minutes ago.

“It’s okay, Cam. I just need some time.”

“Sure, Ginger. No worries.”

I pulled on my overalls and left the cabin. It had been her’s and Phie’s long before it had been mine and I could only imagine how long they’d shared that bed together.

It was late but the local bars were still open, so I headed for one I’d never visited before (I’ll never walk into the Obscene Oscar again…just thinking about that place gives me an instant hangover).

I wasn’t planning on getting drunk. I’d just nurse a few beers for three or four hours so I could give Ginger some space. Better yet, I’ll rent a room for the night and see how Ginger is doing in the morning.

She’d just lost her husband. Only one of them got to cheat death.

There are three previous adventures of Camdon Rod. If you haven’t read them, start with The Last Flight of the Cynnabar Breen. There’s a link at the bottom of the story that will take you to the next one, and so on.

The next story in the series is Your Love is Driving Me Crazy.

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