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Pop And The Pirates

Floris M. Kleijne is the science fiction and fantasy pen name of Dutch thriller writer Floris Kleijne, who is as much of a fan of the late, lamented Iain (M.) Banks as his pen name suggests. He wrote his first short science fiction story (and called it a "novel" in his mind) in his native Dutch, way back when his parents still made his lunch. His first accepted story followed when he was sixteen, and was in turn swiftly followed by the demise of the anthology it was accepted for. Having thus decimated the Dutch short speculative story market, it took seventeen more years, and a switch from the Dutch language to English, before he saw his first story published. Since then, he's sold about forty more stories, a quarter of which appeared in Daily Science Fiction. He's also witnessed the collapse of five more publications that had accepted one of his tales, but remains firm in his belief that correlation does not equal causation. Kleijne lives with his wonderful wife and two cheerful sons in a monumental centuries-old farm house in the Dutch river district, but does most of his writing on trains. Read more about his writing, including numerous free stories, on floriskleijne.com.

'Stroid security was supposed to be easy work. A prelude to retirement. Slow and safe. A balm for my old bones. I duck a double-blast that shatters the rock above me, grabbing a fist-sized outcropping to counter the spin my sudden movement threw me in.
"Fuck!" Below Micha's voice on our private channel, I hear a hiss that can't bode well. "Rock fragment nicked my suit."
I take a quick peek around the bend in the tunnel. Half a dozen of the pirates, in their motley suits, have spread around the circumference of the opening, outlined against the starfield. I duck back half a second before another barrage lights up the bend, and look further down the tunnel, where Micha is spinning, propelled by a plume of air and ice crystals jetting from her shoulder. I shoot two blasts around the corner to keep the pirates on their toes (so to speak), and shove off to catch-and-patch. We tumble together like some weird threedee dance as I fumble with my pack of instapatch.
A hand closes on my ankle. I whip my blaster around, but of course, it's only Iwan and Lee, back from their reconnaissance of the tunnel. Just in time to help us get control back. The three of us stabilize Micha's movement, and a moment later her suit is patched. Micha and Lee drift back to the bend to keep the pirates busy.
"How's it look?"
Iwan shakes his head.
"Bad luck, Pop. We picked a dead end."
Cursing, I follow him deeper into the tunnel. After two sharp bends, it narrows sphincter-like to an opening the size of my head. Without helmet.
The pirates had dropped in on us mere hours after Digbot discovered the lithium. It had probably been luck that they were that close--the good kind for them, the bad kind for us. But that they had bothered to spend the reaction mass, and came at us guns blazing, told me they expected a good profit. I'd reported the find to Corp on a quantum-encrypted needlebeam; no way they had intercepted that.
I had a rat on my team.
"There's too many, Pop." Lee sounds freaked. He's a 'stroider like the rest of us, no combat training, negligible blaster experience. Lee and Micha are holding them off for now, but we don't stand a chance against a determined team of pirates.
"Hold on a bit longer. I have a plan."
I say it just to give them something to hold on to, but after another look at the small opening behind us, an actual plan begins to form. We're a crew of four, but I often joke that Digbot is our fifth member.
I hand Iwan my blaster.
"Widen it. Just enough for us to get through."
"But if it's wide enough for us..."
"I know." It'll be wide enough for them.
"And it'll drain both blasters. We'll have two left against twelve of them."
Twelve. I make a mental note.
"It will. We will. Do it."
As Iwan opens up both blasters and the rock around the sphincter begins to glow, I work my wrist console to wake Digbot from its slumber, and to activate my dig safety beacon.
When first Lee, then Micha pass us and squirm through the enlarged opening, I reach surreptitiously for their packs and switch on their beacons as well. I gesture for Iwan to follow them. Before retreating after my team, I send Digbot a homing command.
Once on the other side of the widened sphincter, Micha asks me,
"So what's the plan, Pop?"
"Such a small hole is easy to defend. Iwan, you're the best shot. Lee, Micha, your blasters." I click the two guns on my magnetic belt, next to the two drained ones. A quick check of the timer on my control panel, and Digbot's trajectory, tells me that it won't be long now. "Iwan, here." I hand him two blasters from my belt. "Make every shot count."
Iwan takes a blaster in each gloved hand, and kicks off towards the hole. Halfway there, he spins around and points the guns at us.
"Oh, I will," he says, with an evil grin behind his faceplate.
Iwan pulls the triggers to twin ineffectual fizzles, as a deep rumbling becomes noticeable. He has just enough time to curse before Digbot bursts from the tunnel wall and drags him into its annihilating maw. The machine turns up the tunnel and heads for the pirates.
"How did you know?"
I shrug as best I can in zero G in a space suit, holding on to the 'stroid's surface with one hand, and answer Lee.
"I've never really trusted him. And he confirmed it when he let slip that he knew how many pirates there were. Once I heard that, I activated our beacons so we were safe, but not his."
Lee nods.
"And you couldn't just tell us to activate, or you'd give away the game."
"But how did he end up with the two empties?" Micha looks at the remaining two blasters on my belt.
"Sleight of hand. He thought I'd handed him yours, but he got the ones he'd just emptied himself."
"Poetic justice," Lee says. But I shake my head.
"You know what the real poetry'll be? Collecting our bonuses, and splitting Iwan's three ways."
We clink faceplates together in a 'stroider toast. Then a glint lights up their helmets, and as one, we look up to watch the Corp relief ship brake.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, March 17th, 2021

Author Comments

While it may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, this story was inspired by Goldratt's Theory of Constraints. But since that is an utterly boring bit of management theory, I'll muse on something else that also fed into this tale: how it's often a mistake to believe you can finally relax. Parents, especially those with young children (like myself), can relate. Just like Pop was hoping to sit out the remainder of his career on a quiet asteroid (or should that be planetoid?), parents go into relaxation mode with a sigh of relief after the kids have been put to bed. The Parental Alertness Button can finally be switched to the Off position. Me-time! Until someone trip-traps down the stairs, because they need a glass of water, or had a nightmare, or were bothered by their brother's snoring, or want to talk about what was bothering them, that they utterly refused to talk about four hours ago. Children aren't space pirates, and parents don't grab blasters when they appear. But other than that, I can relate to Pop's feelings. Every single evening.

- Floris M. Kleijne
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