The Pirates of Ersatz-Fifty-Four
Another half hour. The course changed. The yacht was around behind Walden. The whole planet lay between it and its intended prey. The course of the small ship curved, now. It would pass almost close enough to clip the topmost tips of Walden’s atmosphere. There was nothing for Hoddan to do but think morbid thoughts. He thought them.
The Lawlor drive began to burble. He cut it off. He sat gloomily in the control room, occasionally glancing at the nearing expanse of rushing mottled surface presented by the now-nearby planet. Its attraction bent the path of the yacht. It was now a parabolic curve.
Presently the surface diminished a little. The yacht was increasing its distance from it. Hoddan used the telescope. He searched the space ahead with full-width field. He found the liner. It rose steadily. The grid still thrust it upward with an even, continuous acceleration. It had to be not less than forty thousand miles out before it could take to overdrive. But at that distance it would have an outward velocity which would take it on out indefinitely. At ten thousand miles, certainly, the grid-fields would let go.They did. Hoddan could tell because the liner had been pointed base down toward the planet when the force fields picked it up. Now it wabbled slightly. It was free. It was no longer held solidly. From now on it floated up on momentum.
Hoddan nibbled at his fingernails. There was nothing to be done for forty minutes more. Presently there was nothing to be done for thirty. For twenty. Ten. Five. Three. Two–
The liner was barely twenty miles away when Hoddan fired his rockets. They made a colossal cloud of vapor in emptiness. The yacht stirred faintly, shifted deftly, lost just a suitable amount of velocity–which now was nearly straight up from the planet–and moved with precision and directness toward the liner. Hoddan stirred his controls and swung the whole small ship. Here, obviously, he could not use the space-drive for its proper purpose. But a switch cut out certain elements of the Lawlor unit and cut in those others which made the modified drive-unit into a ball lightning projector.
A flaming speck of pure incandescence sped from the yacht through emptiness. It would miss– No. Hoddan swerved it. It struck the liner’s hull. It would momentarily paralyze every bit of electric equipment in the ship. It would definitely not go unnoticed.
“Calling liner,” said Hoddan painfully into a microphone. “Calling liner! We are pirates, attacking your ship. You have ten seconds to get into your lifeboats or we will hull you!”
He settled back, again nibbling at his fingernails. He was acutely disturbed. At the end of ten seconds the distance between the two ships was perceptibly less.He flung a second ball lightning bolt across the diminished space. He sent it whirling round and round the liner in a tight spiral. He ended by having it touch the liner’s bow. Liquid light ran over the entire hull.
“Your ten seconds are up,” he said worriedly. “If you don’t get out–“
But then he relaxed. A boat-blister on the liner opened. The boat did not release itself. It could not possibly take on its complement of passengers and crew in so short a time. The opening of the blister was a sign of surrender.
The two first ball lightning bolts were miniatures. Hoddan now projected a full-sized ball. It glittered viciously in emptiness, the plasma-gas necessary for its existence furnishing a medium for radiation. It sped toward the liner and hung off its side, menacingly. The yacht from Darth moved steadily closer. Five miles. Two.
“All out,” said Hoddan regretfully. “We can’t wait any longer!”
A boat darted away from the liner. A second. A third and fourth and fifth. The last boat lingered desperately. The yacht was less than a mile away when it broke free and plunged frantically toward the planet it had left a little while before. The other boats were already streaking downward, trails of rocket-fumes expanding behind them. The crew of the landing grid would pick them up for safe and gentle landing.
Hoddan sighed in relief. He played delicately upon the yacht’s rocket-controls. He carefully maneuvered the very last of the novelties he had built into an originally simple Lawlor drive-unit. The two ships came together with a distinct clanking sound. It seemed horribly loud.Thal jerked open the door, ashen-white.
“W-we hit something! Wh-when do we fight?”
Hoddan said ruefully:
“I forgot. The fighting’s over. But bring your stun-pistols. Nobody’d stay behind, but somebody might have gotten left.”
He rose, to take over the captured ship.