The cockpit of the fringers’ freighter rocked violently, as a portion of cargo in its hold shook loose and slammed against the bulkhead. Warning beacons and alarms blinked and panicked across the ship’s dashboard and heads-up displays like the desert lights of old Las Vegas. A shrill klaxon sounded as the vessel’s commander tried to hold her ship on course, but suddenly the bulky transport was outside the Q-space shipping lane and tumbling wildly through the void. If the pilot and co-pilot were not strapped in they would’ve found themselves being slammed between the cockpit’s floor, walls, and ceiling like the two Space Marshals sent along for “protection.” By the time the pilot was able to steady her ship’s careening spin, the deputy was unconscious and the sheriff was bleeding profusely from a gash on his forehead; he was missing his fur cap that had a silver, five-pointed Space Marshal’s star on its front flap.
“What the hell was that?” the rattled, boyish co-pilot asked to nobody in particular. His clean-shaven face was flushed, almost matching the color of his red-orange crewcut.
“We’ve been yanked out of quickspace! But how?” the seasoned female pilot answered with a question of her own. Her light-blue uniform fit snuggly, leaving little to the imagination.
The sheriff wiped the blood from his eyes on his jacket sleeve and pointed out the bullseye window to the right of the co-pilot. “That, my boy, is an interdictor corsair…” he paused, as a half dozen one-man ships launched from the larger mothership, before adding, “…and those are rogue fighters! Let’s clear out!”
“Outlaws? But we can’t possibly outrun them in normal space!” the pilot protested.
The sheriff secured his long black hair beneath his equally black, fur, Ushanka hat, strapped himself into one of the two gunner seats, and shook his head at his hapless sidekick curled up on the floor. “I’m in charge of this cargo, and I say haul ass, Commander! Get this thing back into quickspace, post haste!”
The woman frowned as she reluctantly ignited the ship’s standard engines to propel them back into the shipping lane where she could engage her Q-drive. However, as the pilot had astutely warned, the ship didn’t make it far before plasma energy blasts from the six rogue fighters had completely disabled their shields, and all of their propulsion systems. The sheriff had gotten off only a handful of poorly aimed shots, hitting nothing.
The commander reasserted her authority, “Damn you, Sheriff! Stand down, and quit firing…you’re going to get us all killed!”
The reckless lawman silently obliged without comment.
“Why the hell would we run anyway?” the co-pilot whined. “We’re hauling nothing too terribly expensive; we should’ve just let them have it and we wouldn’t be adrift and venting precious oxygen!” He turned to his controls to lockdown the compromised sections.
The sheriff smiled with intent as he unhooked his restraints and stood up to watch the approaching corsair through the front viewport, “Exactly. If we didn’t try to run, they might’ve believed we were hauling common freight…but, by trying to flee, they’re probably convinced we’re hauling something extremely valuable from the fringe to the core worlds.”
The pilot unstrapped her seatbelts and stood up to confront the sheriff face-to-face. She was slightly taller than he was, so when she placed her hands on her hips and pushed out her ample chest, she looked down on him like an angry schoolmarm to an unruly student. “What treachery is this? You intentionally put us in this situation? If so, I’ll have to report your actions to the Crown.”
The sheriff pressed uncomfortably closer to her. “The Crown? Why, my dear, I’m working directly for Czar Ivan.”
The commander took a step back. “Czar Ivan? Don’t you mean Prince Ivan?”
The sheriff twirled his oily, black moustache as he explained, “No, I mean Czar Ivan. His older brother Rickard the First is dead.”
“Dead?” she doubted.
“Dead and buried. I’m afraid you’ve been stuck out on the fringe for far too long,” he chuckled.
The pilot blushed, and she crossed her arms defensively, “That still doesn’t answer why you would tell us to flee if we’re not carrying anything valuable.”
“Aren’t we?” the sheriff asked rhetorically, while once again pointing out the starboard bullseye window. “Apparently they seem to believe that we are…thanks to the false rumors the Space Marshals strategically leaked over the past few weeks.” He then turned away from the flustered commander to observe the pirate corsair pulling alongside to board and plunder their crippled freighter. In short order, security displays showed camouflage-uniformed pirates laughing and grinning at their bounty as they transferred all the parasteel containers from one ship to the other.
From his seat, the co-pilot squinted at the display screen. “Aren’t those…?”
The sheriff interrupted, “Yes. That, my boy, is not just any group of outlaws. You see, this gang of hoodlums has perfected a way of tracking and dragging freighters from the faster-than-light shipping lanes. These privateers collect their spoils intended for delivery to the core worlds and donate them to poor struggling settlements in the marches between the core and the fringe. The commander of that corsair fashions himself a futuristic Robin Hood. So much so, that he changed his name to Captain Fitzooth…and his band of Merry Spacemen.”
Confused, the co-pilot probed, “But what’s inside those containers?”
Ignoring the query, the sheriff sat back down in the gunner’s seat and pulled at his pointed Van Dyke beard as he slipped a tiny transmitter-receiver from the inner pocket of his black leather overcoat.
The co-pilot did not relent, and asked another, “What’s that?”
“This? Well, my boy, when Fitzooth and his Merry Spacemen are all packed up and enter the quantum interstellar crossing lane to make their getaway…” The sheriff grinned and snickered before continuing, “…and once they’ve travelled far enough away from this little beauty, all the atomic cargo in those containers will go…” He chuckled again before completing his sentence, “…boom.”
Realization hit the boy as he inferred, “If that’s Robin Hood…and you’re the sheriff...then…”
The pilot slumped remorsefully into her chair and finished her subordinate’s thought, “My God, Yuri…are we the baddies?”
Her last question was answered as a distant flash like a super-nova illuminated the blackness of outer space.