Following the development of the Flettner Ion Drive in the late 22nd Century, United Mankind's interstellar explorations began. Initially, exploration vessels crewed by pilots, scientists, soldiers, technicians and medical personnel were sent to star systems that were determined to have planets capable of human colonization. Many were never heard from again.
Such was the case of the exploration vessel 'Copernicus' which discovered an Earth style planet the size of Jupiter in the Beta Capricorni system and finding it habitable established a colony there. They later discovered the planets threatening characteristics, but a malfunction in the ships ion drive stranded them for three generations and when it was finally repaired, there was no interest in returning 'home' to Old Earth. The planet of New Berne was home.
So it was on a warm spring day in the season of planting...
Provost Lieutenant Jared Burkhalter lifted from the roof of Sky Police Precinct 17 until his Aero Cruiser reached desired altitude, switched from duct fans to props and circled above the towers of Magritte City before heading out on routine patrol. Below him stretched fields of grain, vegetables, spices and other comestibles. In other fields farm machinery moved busily sewing the spring crops.
Jared had spent his youth and adolescence on farms such as these, enlisting as a private in the Sky Police when he turned eighteen, and then making it a career. He felt a twinge of nostalgia each time he flew over the Farming Continent where his father and brothers still worked the soil in the rhythm of the seasons.
He placed the cruiser on autopilot and drew a cup of coffee from the bulkhead dispenser. The warmth of the twin suns through the armorglass barbette felt good on his skin as he sipped from his thermocup and watched the clouds scud across the azure sky. Lulled by the warmth and familiar chitter of the cruisers instruments; he was jolted into wakefulness when the alert signal buzzed harshly.
"Mayday, Mayday, Stratoliner Gainsborough requesting assistance, we are being attacked by an unknown..." The signal was cut off, but Jared had a locator beam fix on the craft, engaged the duct fans and props and sent the cruiser at full speed in the liners direction.
As he approached the Gainsborough she did not seem damaged, but he was unable to establish radio contact. The massive liner was shaped as his own craft as the design had proven most efficient and aerodynamic in New Berne's atmosphere; an oblong pancake shape, tapered at the edges, rising in the center, control cabin forward, engines on nacelles aft, ducted lift fans set on the fuselage edges and retractable landing gear.
Settling onto the forward landing pad, Jared could see groups of passengers standing about in the observation blisters, some pointing at his cruiser. Entering a hatch, going down a ladder and striding through an access tunnel, he opened a door and entered the control cabin. A man in a white uniform with captain's stripes on the epaulets came to meet him.
"The pirates are gone, Lieutenant. Robbed the safe and the passengers, shot up the communicator console and took off. There were ten of them armed with Snapfire rifles and repeater pistols. Their ship fired across our bow and told us to hover while they came aboard on duct fan jump packs. No one resisted. They got what they wanted and left.
"We were carrying the payroll for the Miners Cooperative in Kandinsky City, 1,390,000 rands, plus who knows how much taken from the passengers. They wore gloves, boots, coveralls and opaque masks. They seemed to know exactly..."
He paused as the cabin door opened and a person clad in a dark green uniform entered. She was tall, with close cropped blonde hair, blue eyes, generous figure and her lips set in grim determination. She came to a stop, stood at attention and announced "Lieutenant Sondergarrd, Planetary Marines."
"Thanks for coming, Lieutenant," Jared replied, "The captain's been filling me in on what happened."
His brown eyes met her blue and a flicker of recognition passed between them. The captain and crew on the bridge could never have guessed the two officers were lovers of long standing, refraining from marriage for the sake of their careers, but passionately devoted to each other.
The captain repeated what he'd told Jared, and then continued "They appeared to know the ship inside and out, and moved with well drilled precision. The whole operation took less than twenty minutes."
"What sort of craft did they arrive in?" Jared asked.
The captain shook his head in bewilderment, "A pirate ship."
"A pirate ship," Lieutenant Sondergarrd repeated, "What do you mean when you say a pirate ship?"
"I mean a pirate ship," the captain replied emphatically, "Sails, hull, mizzenmast, poop deck, cannon ports, cannons; the works, even pirate flags fluttering from the stern and topmast. Don't look at me like that, we all saw it. It was something out of a history book, or 'Treasure Island'."
"Impossible," Jared exclaimed. "Ships can't fly and a craft such as the one you described couldn't last ten minutes on the Emerald Ocean or the Sea of Storms. Could you see any ducted fans or props? How did it fly?"
"There were no visible means of propulsion," the captain replied, "It just hung there. We have security cameras throughout the ship and on the hull. We'll cut copies of the discs for both of you. It was eerie, after the pirates returned to their ship, it sailed away neat as you please and disappeared." He mopped his blue-black face with a handkerchief and his brown eyes had a puzzled look to them, "I've been with the Trans-Polar Line for seventeen years and I've never seen anything like this."
"Nor has anyone else, I wager," Lieutenant Sondergarrd replied. "We're going to need copies of those discs ASAP, Captain... ?"
"Mideska, Negasso Mideska, Senior Ships Captain, Trans-Polar lines, Bosun Schmidt!"
"I'll need two copies of the security cam recording disks for the Lieutenants ASAP."
"ASAP, aye aye," He hurried off to another compartment.
"Stay the course and increase speed three quarters, helmsman," Negasso barked, "We've a schedule to keep."
"On course and increasing speed three quarters, aye aye," was the response. The deck vibrated under their feet as the props bit more deeply into the thick air and the Gainsborough surged smoothly forward.
"Would you care to have a cup of tea or coffee in the ships' mess?" Negasso said. "I'd join you, but I better see to the passengers. The pursers already handing out forms to record losses and any statements the passengers wish to make. I'll make those available as well."
The ships' mess was occupied, so Jared and Freya held hands under the table after a steward had brought them their tea.
"Has it been a week already?" she said, caressing his hand.
"Seems a lot longer," he replied, returning the caress. "Are the spring maneuvers over yet?"
"Another four days. We're working the bugs out of a new model robotank. One went wild and crushed the Generals personal flyabout two days ago." She chuckled, "I thought old Spit and Polish was going to burst a blood vessel."
"I have our usual cabin reserved on the Forest Continent whenever you can get away."
"Mmmm, a whole week alone with you in a remote cabin, whatever shall we do for fun?"
"For starters, we could..." Two crewmen sat at the table next to them and Jared changed the subject, "What do you make of this pirate ship business?"
"Mass hallucination, possibly a holographic image superimposed on a conventional airship, we'll know more when we see those discs."
"I want to see the passengers' comments on those forms. Someone may have noticed something that would be useful. How did you become involved in this?"
"They carried weapons, remember? That's a violation of the Covenants so we're automatically notified. I saw you were here and pulled rank in the investigation. I've missed you."
"I've missed you too." They caressed hands, sipped their tea and looked longingly at each other until a crewman brought them copies of the discs. They kissed and hugged in the access tunnel, then boarded their craft and were away.
"There's no doubt about it," Patrol Colonel Flaherty O'Hanrahan said, tossing a sheaf of glossy solidos on his desk, "It's a pirate ship alright. How in Buddha's name can it float in the air like that?"
"I remembered something from the academy when we were studying propulsion systems," Jared began. "When Samsonov perfected her Magnetic Motor, she mentioned that her research into Unified Field Theory and Electromagnetism indicated that it would be theoretically possible to nullify gravity using the motor's induction coils, but never pursued it further. The rush was on to get the cities airborne before the next planet quake."
"It seems someone has taken the time to complete her research," O' Hanrahan replied. "But why not market an antigravity device instead of building a pirate ship and robbing people. You'd be famous and neck deep in rands in nothing flat."
"Sometimes people do things just because they can," Jared said. "Once we catch whoever's doing this then we can determine their motivation."
The visiphone on Flaherty's desk buzzed and the visage of a bearded young man appeared.
"They've struck again, Colonel. The stratoliner Modigliani was robbed over the southern pole on the Degas to New Antarctica run. The pirates were on them in an instant. They cleaned out the safe and robbed the passengers. Several of the crew members attempted to resist the boarding and were injured, some severely, but no deaths.
Witnesses said the pirate ship left at a high rate of speed. Patrol units from Precinct Eleven attempted an intercept, but were outdistanced in seconds. That thing is fast."
"Issue an all points to intensify patrols planet wide. I want every available unit in the air. Summarize visual accounts and send them to all precincts and notify Planetary Marines headquarters. They're in on this too."
"Speaking of the Marines, we're developing a joint strike force with them to combat this threat utilizing all jurisdictions. A Marine Lieutenant Sondergarrd has requested you as a member so you're on assignment there until further notice. Three squads of NCO's and troopers are being assigned as well and you're the joint OIC's. Good luck, Jared."
They shook hands. "Thank you sir, I'll do the service proud."
Why that clever little devil, she didn't mention anything about it.
The officers and personnel of the Joint Task Force sat in a briefing room at Planetary Marine Headquarters in Rauschenberg City being briefed by a fussy, officious Major on the latest developments in the Air Pirates investigation.
" ... then yesterday evening, the pirate ship landed on the Livestock Continent, killed and butchered various penned animals and escaped before they were discovered; provisioning, no doubt."
"No doubt," Jared muttered and Freya snickered behind her hand.
"The ship's method of flight and motive power are as yet undetermined; however there is speculation that some form of magnetic repulsion enables the ship to stay aloft and the sails act as solar collectors that somehow power it's forward motion. Research indicates it is a replica of a 16th Century galleon that once sailed the oceans on Old Earth. It is armed with some form of artillery and it's crew possess a variety of rifles and pistols; all in violation of the Covenant. Are there any questions?"
A Marine Tech Sergeant stood up, "Word is it can outrun anything in the air, if that's so, how are we supposed to engage it?"
"Good question, the Weapons and Propulsion labs are on the problem, but as yet, no answer. For the present we'll have one fully armed police cruiser and one Marine Aerotank escorting each stratoliner as it makes it's run. We may not be able to catch this ship, but we can protect the liners."
Jared wondered he and Freya as joint OIC's would be stuck behind a desk instead of being a part of the action aloft, but his concern dissipated when he was assigned escort duty to the stratoliner Klee making the equatorial run from the Mining to the Lumber continent. It came as no surprise when Freya was assigned as the Marine escort with him.
The next two weeks proved to be uneventful. The ship had not been seen anywhere and escort duty became routine. Then a distress call from Pollock City above the Rainforest Continent galvanized the Task Force into action. The ship had swooped in, blasted two of the city's fifteen lift fans, settled into the town square and demanded it's surrender. The city officials had no choice but comply since the Sky Patrol precinct was vastly outgunned and they had no other defense. The pirates systematically looted several stores and the branch of the Cirrus Bank, and then departed. Pollock was required to land on the Repair Continent until the damaged fans could be rebuilt or replaced. The city could remain aloft on as few as ten fans at full power, but the city officials chose not to risk it.
"Thor's hammer," Freya swore, slamming down the wavephone. "Do they think we're playing childrens' games out here? Old Spit and Polish just chewed my butt because we haven't got a fix on the pirates' whereabouts. It's a big planet for Odin's sake, and they could be hiding anywhere."
Jared looked up from his laptop's screen, "I think I know where they may be hiding, look here." Freya left the desk and looked over his shoulder at the laptops' screen.