The Pirates of Ersatz-Fifty-One

The Pirates of Ersatz-Fifty-One

Hoddan did not worry about his followers–captives–noting the obsolescence of the space fleet into which they presently drifted. Ancient hulks and impractical oddities did not seem antique or freakish to them. They had no standards in such matters. The planet Darth seemed slightly off to one side in space, at some times, and at others it seemed underfoot while at others it looked directly overhead. At all times it moved visibly, while the spaceboat and the ships in orbit seemed merely to float in nearly fixed positions. When the dark part of Darth appeared to roll toward the spaceboat again all the bright specks which were ships about them winked out of sight and there were only faraway stars and a vast blackness off to one side like nothingness made visible.

The spearmen were wholly subdued when there was light once more and eccentric shapes around them. There was a ring-ship–the hull like a metal wheel with a huge tire, with pipe passages from the tire part to the hub where the control room was located. It seemed unbelievable that such a relic could still exist, dating as it did from the period before gravity-fields could be put into spacecraft. It would have provided a crazy sort of gravity by spinning as it limped from one place to another. Whoever had collected this fleet for the emigrants from Colin must have required only one thing–that there be a hull. Given something that would hold air, a Lawlor drive, a gravity-unit, and air apparatus would turn it into a ship that could go into overdrive and hence cross the galaxy at need. Those who bargained with the emigrants had been content to furnish nothing more than that.But this could not be appreciated by Hoddan’s involuntary crew. The spaceboat drew up alongside the gigantic hulk which was the leader’s. The seven Darthians were still numbed by their kidnaping and the situation in which they found themselves. They looked with dull eyes at the mountainous object they approached. It had actually been designed as a fighter-carrier of space, intended to carry smaller craft to fight nonexistent warships under conditions which never came about. It must have been sold for scrap a couple of hundred years since, and patched up for this emigration.

Hoddan waited for the huge door to open. It did. He headed into the opening, noticing as he did so that an object two or three times the size of the spaceboat was already there. It cut down the room for maneuvering, but a thing once done is easier thereafter. Hoddan got the boat inside, and there was a very small scraping and the great door closed before the boat could drift out again.

Hoddan turned to his companions–followers–victims, once the spaceboat was still.

“This,” he said in a manner which could only be described as one of smiling ferocity, “is a pirate ship, belonging to the pirate fleet we passed through on the way here. It’s manned by characters so murderous that their leaders don’t dare land anywhere away from their home star-cluster, or all the galaxy would combine against them, to exterminate them or be exterminated. You’ve joined that fleet. You’re going to get out of this boat and march over that ship yonder. Then you’re going to be space pirates under me.”They quivered, but did not protest.

“I’ll try you for one voyage,” he told them. “There will be plunder. There will be pirate revels. If you serve faithfully and fight well, I’ll return you to Don Loris’ stronghold with your loot after the one voyage. If you don’t–” He grinned mirthlessly at them–“out the air lock with you, to float forever between the stars. Understand?”

The last was pure savagery. They cringed. The outside-pressure meter went up to normal. Hoddan turned off the visionscreens, so ending any view of the interior of the hold. He opened the port and went out. Sitting in something like continued paralysis in their seats, the seven spearmen of Darth heard his voice in conversation outside the boat. They could catch no words, but Hoddan’s tone was strictly businesslike. He came back.

“All right,” he said shortly. “Thal, march ’em over.”

Thal gulped. He loosened his seat belt. The enlistment of the seven in the pirate fleet was tacitly acknowledged. They were unarmed save for the conventional large knives at their belts.

“Frrrd, _harch!_” rasped Thal with a lump in his throat. “Two, three, four. _Hup_ two, three, four. _Hup_–“

Seven men marched dismally out of the spaceboat and down to the floor of the huge hold. Eyes front, chests out, throats dry, they marched to the larger but still small vessel that shared this hold compartment. They marched into that ship. Thal barked, “_Halt!_” and they stopped. They waited.

Hoddan came in very matter-of-factly only moments later. He closed the entrance port, so sealing the ship. He nodded approvingly.”You can break ranks now,” he said. “There’s food and such stuff around. The ship’s yours. But don’t turn knobs or push buttons until you’ve asked me what for!”

He went forward, and a door closed behind him.

He looked at the control board, and could have done with a little information himself. When the ship was built, generations ago, there’d been controls installed which would be quite useless now. When the present working instruments were installed, it had been done so hastily that the wires and relays behind them were not concealed, and it was these that gave him the clues to understand them.

The space ark’s door opened. Hoddan backed his ship out. Its rockets had surprising power. He reflected that the Lawlor drive wouldn’t have been designed for this present ship, either. There’d probably been a quantity order for so many Lawlor drives, and they’d been installed on whatever needed a modern drive-system, which was every ship in the fleet. But since this was one of the smallest craft in the lot, with its low mass it should be fast.

“We’ll see,” he said to nobody in particular.
Out in emptiness, but naturally sharing the orbit of the ship from which it had just come, Hoddan tried it out tentatively. He got the feel of it. Then as a matter of simple, rule-of-thumb astrogation, he got from a low orbit to a five-diameter height where the Lawlor drive would take hold by mere touches of rocket power. It was simply a matter of stretching the orbit to extreme eccentricity as all the ships went round the planet. After the fourth go round he was fully five diameters out at aphelion. He touched the Lawlor drive button and everybody had that very peculiar disturbance of all their senses which accompanies going into overdrive. The small craft sped through emptiness at a high multiple of the speed of light.Hoddan’s knowledge of astrogation was strictly practical. He went over his ship. From a look at it outside he’d guessed that it once had been a yacht. Various touches inside verified that idea. There were two staterooms. All the hull-space was for living and supplies. None was for cargo. He nodded. There was a faint mustiness about it. But there’d been a time when it was some rich man’s pride.

He went back to the control room to make an estimate. From the pilot’s seat one could see a speck of brightness directly ahead. Infinitesimal dots of brightness appeared, grew swiftly brighter and then darted outward. As they darted they disappeared because their motion became too swift to follow. There were, of course, methods of measuring this phenomenon so that one could get an accurate measure of one’s speed in overdrive. Hoddan had no instrument for the purpose. But he had the feel of things. This was a very fast ship indeed, at full Lawlor thrust.

Presently he went out to the central cabin. His followers had found provisions. There were novelties–hydroponic fruit, for instance–and they’d gloomily stuffed themselves. They were almost resigned, now. Memory of the loot he’d led other men to at Ghek’s castle inclined them to be hopeful. But they looked uneasy when he stopped where they were gathered.

“Well?” he said sharply.

Thal swallowed.

“We have been companions, Bron Hoddan,” he said unhappily. “We fought together in great battles, two against fifty, and we plundered the slain.””True enough,” agreed Hoddan. If Thal wanted to edit his memories of the fighting at the spaceport, that was all right with him. “Now we’re headed for something much better.”

“But what?” asked Thal miserably. “Here we are high above our native world–“

“Oh, no!” said Hoddan. “You couldn’t even pick out its sun, from where we are now!”

Thal gulped.

“I … do not understand what you want with us,” he protested. “We are not experienced in space! We are simple men–“

“You’re pirates now,” Hoddan told him with a sort of genial bloodthirstiness. “You’ll do what I tell you until we fight. Then you’ll fight well or die. That’s all you need to know!”

He left them. When men are to be led it is rarely wise to discuss policy or tactics with them. Most men work best when they know only what is expected of them. Then they can’t get confused and they do not get ideas of how to do things better.

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