A Rats Tales

No Particular Place To Go – A Rats Tales

No Particular Place To Go​

“I ain't no hero!”

I found it hard to disagree with him but I did know of over 160 fortunate souls that might disagree with his statement. I kept that thought to myself. Paul Kavinsky was, well, as close to a friend as anyone else I knew out here.

“I didn't call you a hero. What I said was that you are going from hero to villain a little fast.” I replied.

“Same thing.” He snapped back at me.

Hang on. I'll back up a little here so you get the background to this.

I'd left Fuelum and had started to head out to the edge of the bubble when I received an incoming call, yes you guessed it. Paul Kavinsky.

“Hey Aitken I need to talk to you about something.” The dark haired Fuel Rat had said. “Can you meet in Liaedin.”

“If you want to talk you got me now, go ahead.” While I had no problems about helping him I was nearly at my destination and really did not wish to travel back into habited space, yet.

“No. No, not over comms. others could be listening and I want to keep this between you and me.” His voice dropping in volume with each word until he was whispering the last few to me. “I really need you to come here.”

By the end of his request I had already powered down the Bennachies engines to idle. So much for staying out of sight.

“Okay mate, I'll be there before the end of the day.”

“Good, good. Meet me in the Kohl Bunker.” He smiled back at me and before I could answer the screen went blank.

“Sure Paul, you're welcome Paul.” I started to plot the route as I muttered to myself and pulled the joystick to head back deeper into the bubble. “Why don't I stick a big banner on the back of the ship with my name, so people can find me easier Paul.”

With the new destination laid in, I hit the FSD and started the multiple jumps to Liaedin. I'd been to Liaedin before, before I had crossed paths with Paul and since. I hadn't liked it much and no it wasn't because it was an Imperial system. Rather it was because where it was. It lay right in the middle of the Federation and had been the site of a conflict earlier in the year. Even now months later, you could still get a good punch up happening in the local bars, like the Kohl Bunker, between Feds and Imps, Alliance and Imps or any combination really. Imps v Imps was not unheard of due to the amount of differing factions that had sprung up. Not my major worry, all I had to do was meet Paul, see what he wanted and then head back out to the fringe.

Just before the last jump I changed my mind and jumped to LP 390-16. A nice little Independent system of just under 11 million. I had been to it often and liked it a whole lot more that Liaedin. I preferred doing business in Independent systems, oh and this one had a couple of black markets. Once in system I locked onto Readdy Orbital and started the 3,720ly run in. I upgraded the thrusters and shields to A grade just in case I had to make a quick get away, better safe than sorry. I also fitted a planetary hangar and bought a new SRV to go inside it. With that done and the jump to Liaedin plotted in, I left.

For those that have never been been to Liaedin it has two stars and three planets that orbit a F class star, Liaedin A. The first two after the F class star have no atmosphere, Ulrich's Rock and Moore's World. Both have Starports in fact Moore's has two, the third planet Schneider Colony is similar to Earth but I have not been there so I have no other information on it. Schneider also has a moon called Camp Ashfield I'm told it has structures on it but again I've never been there. Liaedin B is a K Class star and has no orbiting bodies. Each planet has an orbiting space station around it and it was to the first I was heading, Kohl Terminal and then the wittily bar named Kohl Bunker, I hope you heard the sarcasm there.

After docking, shutting down the Asp and setting the security system, I checked it, twice, I made my way slowly through the station. There was no hurry to get to the bar, the end of the day was still hours away and so I stopped into a coffee shop. It also gave me the chance to people watch and gauge the mood of them. I didn't find it to be good, not toward me anyway. Those with Imperial insignia and other decoration of the type got a friendlier attitude extended. I would have given a shrug but feared that such an action would be seen as hostile and be met with a bullet or knife aimed my way, I joke but not by much. Thankful the coffee was good and so I spent a good thirty minutes just watching. Once finished I returned the cup to the serving area, the sideways glances and whispered, barely audible exchanges between other patrons only reinforced what I already had made up my mind to do. This was a place I was going to have to be on my best behaviour to avoid any unpleasantness.

Entering the Kohl Bunker was another reminder to not aggravate the locals. I swear even the holographic band playing at the rear of the bar stopped and looked me over. I saw Paul sitting at a table close to the bar, a half glass of some drink before him. I nodded to indicate if he wanted another, he shook his head and I continued toward the bar. Once I had ordered something non-alcoholic and received it I slid over to the table and sat down. Once the locals saw me sitting with Paul the hush that had fallen picked up to the usual bar noise again.

“Nice bunch.” I quipped across the table. I received a grunt back. Paul was wearing his usual near permanent scowl, the only time it lifted was when he laughed, so not often. When standing he was around 5'7”, a lean frame that didn't hide the agility he possessed. Meeting him for the first time people got the impression that this was one mean, tough, bad man. They were not far wrong either. Just the kind of person you would expect to meet in this type of bar. It may not have been much but it was busy as I could only see one free table and it was close to the band.

Paul raised his glass to his lips and took a sip of the amber coloured liquid it held. His usual was whisky and this one was still well stocked. Putting the glass back on the table he looked over at me for the first time and started talking.

“I need you to do something for me and it will be worth your time.” He got my attention with the “worth your time” part of the statement. I nodded but stayed quiet. “I need you to scoop some cargo for me.”

Simple sounding request, but this was Paul Kavinsky so there had to be something I was missing.

“You broke your cargo hatch?” I asked. Sure there was something else behind his request.

“Not broken, just powered down.” I did not reply but instead cocked my head to one side with a quizzical expression on my face. “It's like that so I can keep the weapons online at all times.”

“Ok, just turn it back on, scoop to your hearts content, problem solved.”

Paul took another pull on his drink before coming all the way clean.

“Not a good idea. I would expect the ship that drops them will start firing as soon as my weapons go offline.” I nodded as the penny finally dropped.

“Sorry but no. Piracy is not my style. You're going from hero to villain a little fast aren't you.” I said bluntly.

“I ain't no hero!” He spat back at me.

“I didn't call you a hero. What I said was that you are going from hero to villain a little fast.”

“Same thing.” He snapped back at me a slight pause and then he continued on. “I'm not asking you to be a pirate, I just need you to scoop the cargo while I keep the target under control.” Another sip of whisky.

“And it's still no. Stand and deliver style operations are not my thing. Sorry mate not going to happen. You're going to have to find someone else.”

“What's wrong with scooping some cargo? Heck you do it all the time with those black box, trade data missions.” He still sounded calm and I was hoping it would remain that way.

“Completely different and you know it. No one is getting guns pointed at them there. Even the ones set up as a trap, it isn't their stuff I am scooping. You and I know that the pirates that set up those just came across the wreck and seize the opportunity in the hope that some sucker comes along.”

“Too good to help uh? A little beneath you or so you think. You've done worse and you know it.” The calm exterior was starting to slip.

A waitress placed another glass of whisky in front of Paul before he really got going. I silently thanked her as she walked toward another table. One more interruption stood up from the table to my right.

“Glory to the Emperor, Bask in her Greatness.” A pilot stood up, swaying a little and raised his glass. A male and a female Imperial sat with him, it was the female that answered.

“Sit down Alberto. You know I grudgingly support the emperor, at least till the Princess has earned her rights to it.” She responded, tugging at the first man's flight suit. The third member of the party decided it was time to join in.

“What do you have against Arissa, our glorious Emperor? What has she done to bring your scepticism to bear, Xanthe? “

“I would not speak against our chosen emperor, Caleb. Only I feel, that the Princess of the Prismatic Imperium was the rightful heir. I believe forces in the senate had ensured she and her father were cut off from the line of succession.” Xanthe laid out her conspiracy theory for her companions.

“The late Emperor himself wished for Arrisa to succeed him. That is all I need to know.” Alberto chimed in as he sat down. “May he rest in peace, it was one of his final requests.”

“My general feeling is that something is afoot in the Empire, and I don’t trust the senators. The only way Arissa Duval became emperor was through the late Emperor’s death. That is enough for me to stay clear.” Xanthe proclaimed setting her drink on the table.

“Stinking Imperials.” Paul said quietly, but not quietly enough for my liking. “ I fly for me, I don't trust any slimy Imps.”

“I fought on the side of the Federation in Kausalya against the Emperor's Dawn.” Xanthe chimed up, probably trying to silence Paul. Some hope he was looking for an argument and I wasn't inclined to try and stop him at this point.

“Good for you Boyscout.” Paul calmly replied, picking up his glass he took a swig of his new whisky. “Did ya get a medal?”

“You see,” looking at her two Imperial wing mates, “this is the thanks we get when we fly alongside Federal pilots. Show some respect Federati!”

Paul's hand started to slowly move off the table, now I did feel inclined to butt in. Quietly so as not to be over heard by the Imp pilots I said the word “No” and gave my head a shake. The last thing I needed was a bar fight with stabbed Imp pilots to bring notice to it. Looking at me from under the scowl Paul stayed his hand and the knife would stay where it was, for the moment at least.

“I'm no Federal young lady, I fly for no one. Your young Princess is a good looking wench I'll give her that.” It was the closest Xanthe would get to an apology, I was hoping that she would let the whole thing go.

“Show some respect mercenary. You are talking about a Imperial Princess not some common harlot of the street.” Looking to her friends she said. “I would expect nothing less from hired thugs.” Well that was my hopes dashed.

Paul shot out of his chair, knife in hand. Xanthe stood up just as quickly with her two wing mates right behind her. I was half way out of my chair before I became aware of the loud tapping sound coming from the bar. All of us looked in the direction of the, thud, thud, thud noise.

“That will be the end of the political talk for this evening gentle pilot folk.” The barman said raising and letting fall what looked like shotgun onto the bar top. “Or do I have to start asking people to leave?”

Everyone sat down again, the knife in Paul's hand had disappeared as quickly as it had shown it's presence. With an uneasy calm returned to the bar I decided it was my cue to leave.

“Paul, we're friends so I'll hold my tongue about your business proposal. And before one or both of us say something we'll regret I'm going to go. I hope there are no hard feelings but I can't help you with it.” I stood up leaving my untouched drink on the table. “Try not to kill them once I've gone, ok.”

The alcohol fuelled eyes glowered at me from under the scowl but he did manage a “Sure” before I walked away. Once outside I took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. I hadn't been lying to Charity when I had called him unstable, this was just another example of it to me. I shook my head as I walked away and stopped into the same coffee shop I had on my way to the bar. The coffee was good just as it had been earlier, unfortunately the attitude of the locals was also the same, a shade below hostile.

I left the shop and once back in the Bennachie, the station too. I had plotted the course to Maia before leaving for a couple of reasons. The first was that it was about as far as I could get from Liaedin and still dock at a station. The other reason was that for the past few weeks I had been hearing rumours of minerals and wreaks being found on planets. I wanted to look into these hints a little further out to see if they were true. I was just lining up for my fifth jump when the cockpit went red and a high pitched sound pierced it.


I jabbed a finger at the comms unit,listened and had a quick glance to see who was on dispatch.

“Aitken, we have you three jumps out from a stranded commander, are you able to respond?” The steady, smooth lilt of Derry asked as he patched the location to me. No sign of worry or panic on his face. Just another day at the office.

“Yeah Derry I got this one. On my way.”

“I'll advise client to send the request direct to you. I know you like to work alone so I'll leave it to you to direct the client on what you need them to do. Report in if you have any problems or at the end of refuelling. Dispatch out.” He nodded and with a click the comms unit went blank again. Three jumps out not a problem, the second jump was scoopable so I filled up the tank and jumped into the clients system. I had been able to text him so everything was set up.

As soon as the blurring of hyperspace cleared I started to turn the Asp and check my scanner. There was no need to as almost immediately the blur of a beacon drop kicked in. BOOM I was in normal space and scanning for that open blue rectangle. It took a couple of seconds longer than I had been hoping for but we were close to the star but appear it did.

“You should know better than this commander.” I typed as I spotted the word Elite in the scan report of the Federal Assault Ship.

“Sorry, damn Brown Dwarf caught me out. I must have misread my Galmap.” Came back at me as I moved the Bennachie into position and fired the first two limpets.

“No worries mate, happens to the best of us.” I typed back. I shot the remaining six limpets at him. With a “Thanks” and a reminder from me to think about fitting a fuel scoop if he wanted to travel distances with a FAS, he was gone. I reported to Derry to clear the rescue off the board and that the client had been debriefed, such as it was. I filed the necessary paperwork, replotted my course to Maia and started jumping again.

Obsidian Orbital wasn't far out and in no time I was docked inside the squat shaped Orbis station. I got the engineers to restock the limpets and check out all the systems on the Asp Bennachie. I did not plan on being out a long time but old habits die hard and I wasn't sure exactly what I would find.

I undocked and blasted back into space, narrowly avoiding an incoming T6. I was a little surprised to see the amount of traffic and slowed to 99 km/s until I exited the no fire zone. Once clear I took my time laying in a course to, well no where in particular. I was hoping for a slightly slower pace but whatever happened, happened.

It was just the beginning of another adventure.

Special thanks to Olivia Vespera for additional dialog
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With a Little Help – A Rats Tale

With a Little Help

“Come in Aitken. Where are you dammit. Just when I need you I can't get you to answer.”

That was the opening line of the message from Charity. The rest similarly had no information about WHY she needed me. The only specifics stated that I should not try to get in touch with her and she would try again in 24 hours.

After leaving Maia I had done just as I what I said I would. I had taken the Bennachie out to about 800ly from Sol and started landing on planets with no atmosphere. After a while I began to find the odd wrecked ship or downed satellite. The former with cargo cannisters containing a wide range of commodities. Tea, coffee, animal meat and even a few with gold amongst other things. I also picked up 10 occupied escape pods, these I left sealed up and would turn them in when I returned to the bubble. The satellites I scanned for any data and hoped they would be worth something to somebody. It hadn't taken me long to fill the Bennachies cargo hold up and so I had returned to the bubble. There I had sold all I had found and switched ships as I wanted to stay out a little bit longer this time. The Anaconda FRS December had eight times the carrying capacity even with a larger hangar for two SRVs. I felt it was a no brainer to use it for salvage operations and questioned my decision not to take it out the first time.

I had headed back to the Wregoe systems I had been flitting around in earlier and continued my barely profitable endeavour. Profit was not really my aim just staying out of sight was, but if I made a little money I was not going to complain.

I'd been out about a week or so, picked up some interesting and some valuable stuff. That type of stuff was usually guarded by drone ships. Skimmers was the common name I had heard them called by but there were different types, from the small Stinger, a medium size Sentry and the larger Guardians. Those, once I'd worked out the best way for me to take them out, were not too much of a worry. So the first time I came across I Goliath I nearly wiped my self out. I had thought it was just another Guardian, right up until it let loose with its missiles. To say that was a surprise to me would be an understatement. The only way I had survived was by throwing the SRV into reverse, fixing the hull and rearming through synthesis when I needed to. It had been a close run thing but the pay out at the end of it made it worth while. Next time I would be a little more careful, I told myself.

I had just left the mass lock of my Goliath planet where I had found tons of gold and a couple of occupied escape pods, bring the total of those to 43. I would try to return the them to their systems of origin or sell them as legal salvage when I returned to the bubble but at present I left them sealed up so as not to get in the way. Especially as when I cleared mass lock and entered super cruise a ratsignal lit up the Condas cabin.

A Commander had ran out of fuel 2,000ly on the rimward side of the bubble. Knowing I was out in that general direction I got myself assigned to the rescue, along with a fellow Rat, Cmdr Bolgan. Even though I was 800lys out of the bubble it didn't take me long to realise I was further out than Bolgan. The stranded Cmdr was on the same horizontal plane as the bubble and I was high above it. I informed Dispatch that I would be continuing as back up in case anything went wrong when Bolgan reached rescue system. Just to add to my frustration the hyperdrive was having problems and my jump times were taking longer than usual. Ah well such is the life of a Rat.

I was 500ly above the system when Bolgan announced he was in system and waiting for the wing beacon. Next I heard Bolgan was reporting instancing problems and so I resumed jumping. I had covered about 100ly when Bolgan transmitted that he was refuelling the client. I congratulated Bolgan on the rescue and praised his persistence. We chatted for a few more minutes and he assured me he would be fine returning to the bubble. With a “Fly safe Cmdrs” I started to retrace my jumps to explore some of the systems I had jumped through on my way.

I was in an interesting system with lots of land-able planets and moons, well interesting to me when I received the message from Charity. What ever she needed me for I had a feeling it meant returning to the bubble and so I started preparing the December for departure.

Once I was happy that everything was in order I grabbed a few hours sleep. A cup of coffee was the order of the day after I woke up. As I wondered through the Anaconda I took sips from the cup and had drank half of it before I made it back to the bridge. I brought all the necessary systems back on line and blasted off. I had laid in a course back to the bubble. When I say I was heading for the bubble, I was and I wasn't. I was heading for a system I had used before and still had an Asp Explorer stored there. Bunch Dock was in the Uracenufon system and run by the Purple Pirates. Since I had some questionable cargo on board I knew I could off load it with no questions asked. Uracenufon was on the very edge and I hoped not to go deeper.

The normal stuff I could have taken deeper into habited space and sell for a slightly better profit but to tell the truth that would be more hassle than it was worth. The narcotics, battle weapons and other not so legal material would be welcomed at Bunch Dock and help me turn a little profit from my trip. I had worked out I should make a million credits for my week or so's work. Not great money but not bad for someone who was basically hiding out.

“There you are Aitken, where are you? I need to see you.” Charity looked a little harnessed and somewhat dishevelled.

“I'm about 1000lys out of the bubble and heading in. Where's the fire Charity?” I was trying to lighten the mood but I did not hold out hopes for succeeding.

“Everywhere. I can't talk about this over an unsecured channel but I need you to meet me. “ Too reinforce her seemingly dangerous situation she kept glancing over her shoulder.

“Where? I'll get there as soon as I can.”

“Good, I had hoped I could trust you. Do you remember the system we first met in?” She continued after she saw me nodding. “Great, well meet me in the first station in that system. If you are not here in 24 hours, forget it, I'll be gone before that. See you soon Aitken, I hope.”

With that the connection went dark. I had no idea what kind of trouble she had got herself into but she was a good kid and I as determined to help, if I could.

I skirted the edge of inhabited space as I made my way to Uracenufon. I met my contact and sold nearly everything I had picked up on my travels, I had been correct about the amount I should make and left a little happier. The 43 Occupied Escape Pods I kept on board a little longer. With those I took a note of the names on the outside of the pod and headed a couple of hundred light-years down into Empire space. With time permitting I may have spent it returning the occupants to their port of origin but I did not have the days or even weeks that might take. I did manage to return a few as I kept an eye on the “Lost Pilot” notices on the ports bulletin boards I stopped at. Those I didn't manage to return I sold at the last Empire space station I called at. If those occupants could still access their bank accounts they could buy their way to freedom, if not, well better the life of an Imperial Slave than the life of a pure slave. That is the fate that would have befallen them if I had sold them at Uracenufon or another Independent system. With the corruption and the amount of pirate gangs roaming Federation space I knew that if I sold them in a Fed system it would be just the same. I had done the best I could for them with the time I had available to me, life was cruel and hard in the bubble, this was just a another example of that fact.

I had first met Charity on Lounge Port in the 69 G. Carinae system but that's not where I was heading. The December was just a little to obvious and I wanted something a little more inconspicuous before I arrived at the rendezvous.

Before the Anaconda December and I began descending into the hangar area of Wright City, Elli, I had already pulled up the Station Services and started browsing the Shipyard section. Getting in and out of Lounge Port with as little notice was the aim. The Silver Boys were the controlling faction there and Crom was only a system over from 69 G. Carinae, I was flying into the heart of the operation I had been trying to hide from. I saw what I was looking for in the shipyard and departed the December, making sure that the security system was active as I departed.

It was a pretty ship, red with black and white stripes along its sides and the price was normal for its type. Talking to the dealer I arranged for it to have a few modifications that were normal for a trader and then I headed for coffee.

Sitting in a local coffee shop I looked over the mods I had ordered on the Hauler. Everything D specced, except the FSD, that was A rated. The addition of a Advanced Discovery Scanner may have taken away some cargo room but my idea was to look like a starting out long range trader. With the way I had the little Hauler set up she was capable of jumping 30ly in a single leap. Few ships with armament could match it.

To continue the ruse of being a new long range trader I took a mission from the bulletin board to the Umbrigua system. It was a good feeling I got as I eased the Hauler out of Wright City, I often used the little ship as a taxi to get between ships quickly but had not done so for awhile. After piloting a Conda for the past month it felt good to have a ship beneath me the could turn in less that what felt like half a day.

Run out to Tokubei Station went well, all 99,000ls of it. I dropped off the synthetic fabrics and browsed the board for a delivery to 69 G. Carinae with no luck. With a shrug I obtained clearance for departure and plotted in my course.

The bright Class F star 69 G. Carinae greeted me as I jumped in system but I barely noticed it as I scanned the space a round me and glanced at the scanner. Nothing. My paranoia dropped half a notch and I throttled up and set out for Lounge Port. It wasn't far just 550ls but it was long enough for my paranoia to return to it's previous level as ships appeared and disappeared from super cruise. I let out a small sign of relief as the blue Safe Disengage Ready popped up on my HUD, as the sigh faded I pressed the correct button and the FSD disengaged. To my surprise I had gauged it perfectly and the mail slot was right in front of me and lined up. I continued to watch the other traffic as I cruised in at a leisurely 90m/s, hey I did not want to bring any undue attention to myself. I had been assigned a pad close to the back of the station, normally I like that but not today. At each one of the two ships that rose as I travelled past them my heart gave a little extra bump. A “suicide” attack by firing weapons inside a station was not unheard of and I knew it was still a possibility if I had a hit out on me.

I sat in the cockpit for a few minutes after the elevator had taken us to the hanger section to allow me to regain my composure. I could still feel the adrenaline flowing through me as I stood up and made my way to disembark from the Hauler. I pulled my datapad out from the breast pocket of my flight suit and pulled up the text message I had received from Charity after she had cut the comm-link. I had transferred it over to the datapad to make it easier as I walked the station. I ran through the list of times and places she would be in and grunted with little satisfaction of her choice of meeting place. Don't get me wrong, I quite like tea but only if there is no coffee around. As I knew from previous times in Lounge Port there were coffee shops here, so meeting in a tearoom didn't excite me. I made sure the Hauler was secure and made my way cautiously to the meeting point.

The sign on the door said “Time For A Cuppa!” so I knew I was entering the right place. It was brightly lit and decorated and I spotted Charity facing me at the furthest away from the door table. A small smile blossomed on her face and I could almost hear her sigh of relief from where I stood.

“Nice welcome.” I quipped as I stood before her. “Shall me go?”

“I'm not sure if I am happy to see you or happy it wasn't some else looking for me and yes, let's get out of here.” She replied picking up her hand bag and a small attache case. Not a word was spoken between us as I took her back to the hanger area by a different route. She did say something once we reached the Hauler.

“I thought you said you were in an Anaconda?” She asked.

“I was and we will be when we get back to it.” I answered.

“So you left one of the biggest and toughest ships in the galaxy to come get me in a tin can?”

I wasn't sure if it was a question or a statement of disgust but she continued before I could answer if it had been a question.

“Good grief man, if we're caught in that we're dead.”

“Dear lady the December is unarmed at the moment so you would more than likely be dead whatever I came to get you in.” I did manage to stifle the chuckle I felt rising before I answered. “And a big lumbering advertisement of my arrival and departure is not what I am going for.”

I heard the grumbled “Ok” as we made our way up the stairway into the ship. I settled down into the pilots chair as Charity took up the copilots position.

“You might want to rest in the cabin, at least until we are clear of another ships out there.” I suggested.

“Oh yeah, good idea.” She stood up to head back to the cabin.”Wait, you didn't jump straight here from the Conda?”

I didn't answer I just sat back with folded arms. With the non tucked arm I started drumming my fingers.

“Sorry, I'm a little nervous, I'll be in the cabin till we clear the slot.” She gave me an apologetic smile and vanished into the cabin.

We needn't have worried as the cruise to the slot and beyond to the jump point went without incident. I'd planned the route to go through Belenos, the Galmap told me it had no population, it's star type but nothing else useful as I had never been there, but uninhabited sounded good to me.

The sound of the ADS honk had just faded as Charity returned to the cockpit.

“Where are we?” She asked looking around the windows as she sat down in the copilots chair once again.

“The Belenos system, nothing much to see. Couple of stars and a bunch of icy planets. Don't think I'll even come back, a lot of other snowballs to land on.” I replied looking at the results from the scan. “Nothing on the scanner so we are safe for the time being.”

“Yeah for the time being but not beyond.” The weary sound in her voice led me to think she hadn't slept well or at all for sometime. “Sorry I dragged you into this but crossing the Silver Boys has us both in trouble now.”

I gave a “Hrmmph.” Gathered my thoughts and continued. “What makes you think this is the first time I could have crossed “The Boys”?”

“Cos if you had, in the position I was in I would have known.” She smartly retorted.

“Yes, well, maybe they don't know it either, yet. To tell you the truth I'm still not sure if I have but whatever, helping you out isn't a problem.”

“Thanks. Just what exactly do you think you have done?” The weariness lifting a little from her voice.

“It could be nothing but on the other hand. I took a mission from a bulletin board that now I think about it was basically to spy on The Boys.” I gave a small chuckle at how naïve it sounded. “Hold on.”

A blue rectangle had shown up on the scanner. I watched in case it turned toward us, I was just about to select it to see its type when it blipped out.

“Someone using that star to refuel at, probably a trader passing through.” I indicated the M class that was the entry point of the system.

“You think it saw us?” Charity asked a hint of fear creeping into her voice.

“Perhaps, but at this distance all they would know is that there is a Hauler in this system.”

“Ok, I guess.” She didn't sound 100% convinced by my reasoning but she continued talking. “Unless whoever gave you the mission talks, I would imagine you were safe. Of course that also means that no double agent working for?”

“I have no idea who gave me the mission and before you say anything. Yes it was a little stupid of me.” I gave out a small dry laugh.

“A little? By the stars Aitken, you're spying but you don't know who the spymaster is.” She slowly shook her head. “You might know how to smuggle but you really don't understand the world of organised crime too well.”

I had no answer for her because she was correct. I had expected it just to finish like any other mission. I had guessed a month or so ago that this was one mission that might never end.

“On the bright side.” She looked at me as if to say 'there's a bright side to this'. “I might not have upset them before but I have now.”

“Nutters, all you smugglers, crooks.....” She stopped to give out a small giggle as I sat there rolling my hand as if asking her to continue with the compliments.

“Good to hear you can still laugh.” I gave a her a smile. “Another thing I would like to hear is where I am taking you once we get back to the December?”

“I'm not sure.” Her brow creased as she gave the question some thought. “I'm open to suggestions if you have any.”

“Well we'll talk about it later, let's get to the December and get away from this area.”

I plotted in the jump to Elli and started moving the Hauler round to line it up.

“Well if we're jumping into a high population system I'm going back to the cabin, let me know when we land.”

“Yeah sorry about that but I had to be sure I could get a ship and out fit it with enough range to reach you.” I replied

“If I could have gotten further out without any help I would have but it cost me most of what I had to get away from Chorel and secretly transported to Lounge Port. No need to be sorry Aitken I appreciate you coming to help.” She gave me a wane smile and headed to the little cabin at the rear of the cockpit.

Appearing in Elli I checked the fuel gauge and was happy to see over half a tank left, I loved how the Hauler seemed to sip fuel. I selected Wright City as the target destination and turned on to that heading.

“Cadmium and Niobium are rare elements.” The direct message told me. I checked it a second time to be sure it matched the silly wanna be spy messages I had been given. Even though it did indeed match one I still felt my finger hover over the hyperdrive engage button. No way this was just a coincidence, no way they just happened to stumble across me, not here, not at this moment. The next message stopped my finger. “Drop from supercruise Aitken so we can talk.”

Damn, I so much wanted to run but that would do me no good, in fact it might do more harm. So I slowed down and dropped from supercruise.

A Cobra Mk.III dropped in front of me, as far as I could tell it was the same ship as before but a different twist was the Cobra Mk.IV that dropped in behind and to the left of me. Trap? Ambush? I would have to wait to see if those questions were answered. The Mk.III came to about 50 meters looking directly into the Haulers cockpit. The hard points remained retracted, for the moment.

“Hello Aitken, got anything to report.” The familiar voice asked. I watched the scanner to see what the Mk.IV was up to and it was about 200 meters off my aft.

“Nope got nothing. If you guys are watching me this tight you would know I haven't been near Crom since the last time.” I replied, telling the truth.

“Oh we know. We also know you dropped out of sight about two weeks back. A week or so after that your contact, Charity Nascimento vanished from Chorel Survey and then you reappear in a system controlled by the Silver Boys. You see what I'm getting at here Aitken?”

My heart rate slowed a little as it dawned on me they had as much clue about Charity as I did, ok a little less as I at least knew where she was.

“Sure I do, you're adding two and two together and getting the answer five.” I replied

“Do you want to explain yourself or should my friend and I deploy hard points.” My stranger employer growled at me.

“Sure I'm here because I haven't heard from Charity in a while, that's one of the reasons I went to Lounge Port to see if I could contact her, fraid I got no reply so I'm in the dark too. Oh and I was out scavenging and ratting in the black for a week or so. No hiding just doing my own thing.” Ok that was an out and out lie, a whopper I know but I saw a glimmer of hope and jumped toward it.

“So why the Hauler? Why go through Belenos? Looks like you are trying to throw someone off your trail.” Damn it had been one of them that had spotted us sitting there. Where they had picked up the trial I wasn't sure but by the sound of it they still had no idea Charity was aboard, I hoped she would stay in the cabin or this could get nasty, quick.

“Taking an Anaconda to deliver 8 tons of fabric seemed a little over the top. I went through Belenos cos I wanted the chance to scan it, it's got some snowballs in it I might land on later.” Now I had to wait and see if my horse manure story was good enough for them to have believed. I guessed by the silence they were chatting to each other. While I waited I made sure I had a near by system targeted, one as close to the maximum range of the little Hauler. Believe me I was under no illusion my, sorry, our chances of escape if this went bad were close to nil.

“Where you deliver the fabric to Aitken?” The voice asked, I could almost feel him wanting me to answer incorrectly.

“Tokubei, Umbrigua.” I answered, deadpan. Silence.

“That checks out.” Was that disappointment I heard. “If your contact shows up be sure to let us know next time we chat. Till next time Aitken.” The voice comms clicked off before I could answer. I sat there and watched as both Cobras manoeuvred around me and jumped out.

A low nervous laugh sprang from my throat not that I had gotten away with it but that my planning had worked, but not in the intended way. I shook my head and powered up the engines, jumped into supercruise and continued on to Wright City.

Charity was fast asleep when I looked into the cabin. With the jump, interrogation stop, dropping, requesting docking and then docking she had at least a whole 30 mins of sleep. I felt bad but I had to wake her. I woke her as gently as I could but the I was still not gentle enough. The shock and disorientation were very evident as she sprang up from the bunk. I calmed her down and explained we were docked and that there was a cabin for her on the December. I also told her that we should make this switch quickly so that anyone monitoring the station security cameras couldn't follow us easily. Once aboard the December I showed Charity to her cabin, it's first ever occupant as far as I could remember, then I returned to the Hauler. I arranged for it to be de-specced back to near the way I had bought it. Then I sold it back to the dealer taking a 10% hit on the original price. I put up a token effort to get my the full price back but was told bluntly that he didn't care if I had bought the day, the hour or the week before that was as much as he was going to give me. Happy that I had made myself seem like just another trader trying to get his money back I left and returned to the Anaconda.

Once aboard I started preping for departure and looking over the Bulletin Board. Nothing, maybe nothing. The more I looked at it the more convincing I became sure using a ship of the Decembers size to deliver a message was over the top and sure I had no real wish to re-enter Imperial space at this time but it was random enough that no one would guess that's what I would do. With clearance granted I started to lift off from the landing pad before I could change my mind, four jumps to BPM 590 and a docking at Foster Vision sounded simple enough. They would have been but as I was scooping in Apam Napat something I had not taken into account happened, RATSIGNAL.

“I'm two jumps out Dispatch.”

“Aitken go.” The calm voice of Capt. Shinobi answered. “You're on your own with this one, report in at each stage if you can. Dispatch out.”

Basically he was going to talk to the client and the rest was up to me. Perfect, as an old time Rat Shinobi knew me too well.

“Friend Request is positive.” I transmitted as I clicked on the accept icon. “In system and in contact with client.”

Now I was on my own, well except for the client that was. Cmdr. Brannon texted me he was about to send me a wing request and after that he would deploy his beacon. I responded affirmative and was quietly happy to find a client that knew these things. Probably a bounty hunter, remembering what had brought me to my present predicament I made sure that I had a near by system ready to jump to, just in case you understand.

“Acquired beacon and I am heading toward client.” I informed Shinobi, I received a “Roger” and didn't expect any more as he was dealing with other cases.

Brannon was around 30k out from the star, so it didn't take long to reach him. As the edges of my vision started to blur I thought about letting dispatch know but decided against it as he was busy with other cases. Damn, I could see his wake from where he had dropped in but no ship appeared on the scanner. A quick text conversation ensued and I jumped back into supercruise. A short time later a hollow rectangle appeared and I clicked on it to target it, then it was gone. I checked the nav lock and I started to drop, success the hollow rectangle was in my instance.

“Hey there good to see you. Just so you know I have a Oxygen Depletion Timer showing.” Cmdr. Brannon informed me. How I had a choice, should I call this in as a Case Red or...Programming Limpet...Schwoosh. Fuel transfer complete. I fired off the remaining seven limpets I carried and reported a successful refuelling to Capt. Shinobi in dispatch. I chatted a little with the rescued Commander and then watched as he and his Vulture jumped out of the system.

“Impressive.” A female voice said behind me. I turned in my chair and saw a just a wake Charity. Except from a couple of hiccups the rescue had went well and basically by the book. To someone who had never witnessed one I would imagine it was impressive. I tried not to be or sound blasé about the situation or Fuel Rats operations in general but this one had not been too difficult. The pilot had been saved and that was the important part.

“Happy you think so but this one wasn't that difficult.”

“You didn't panic when you didn't see the ship you were looking for. You didn't bat an eye when he informed you was on life support. With all that you still saved him, I call that impressive.” Charity informed me.

“Uh. I've never looked at it that way. Panic would have done him no good, the procedures we have used are sound and following them leads to a rescue. Most of the time. The supercruise hop worked this time, remind me when we get to BPM 590 to see if Foster Vision stocks Interdictors, I didn't need one this rescue but they sure come in handy for more stubborn ones.”

“I've never watched a Fuel Rats rescue before and had no idea just how difficult and complicated they can be.” She remarked. “Why are we going to BPM 590?”

“Believe me there are much more complicated rescues than the one you just saw and Cmdrs. far more capable than I.” I swivelled my chair so I was looking at the instruments again.”Oh and as for BPM 590, I took a mission to deliver time-sensitive data there.”

“What? Why would you do that? Have you forgotten we're on the run from one of the biggest crime syndicates in the galaxy?” I didn't answer right away so she carried on with her little tirade. “Even with that you still can't stop from trying to make credits.”

“Hold up. I have not forgotten anything. An Anaconda jumping out empty might be normal for me and others would know that if they have been tracking me. To jump out with a real mission might give us an edge and right now we need whatever edge we can get. If The Boys know you are with me.”

“Alright, it does make sense in a strange kind of way and being here in Empire space is a good move. Of the three major factions the Empire is the one they have least influence in.”

“Good to know.” I quipped, just before the FSD took us to the next jump on the route to BPM 590.

“So are there Boys spies here?” I asked Charity as we sat in a hangar in the depths of Foster Vision.

“Not sure, but it's a good bet they do. Although as it's not aligned with any of the more powerful senators I can't be sure.”

“Interesting. So you are saying that The Boys have a tenuous grip on non aligned Empire systems? If that's so, would the further out from Achenar a system is make any difference?”

Charity's brow furrowed as she pondered the questions I had posed. She stood up from the copilots chair and turned to look at me.

“What another cup?” She asked, nodding at the empty coffee cup sitting on the panel before me. Seeing my nod she picked it up and made her to the galley at the rear of the bridge. I heard her stirring, the spoon making a grinding sound as it spun round inside the cup. Good she was doctoring the coffee to my taste. The cup plonked down in front of me before Charity answered my questions.

“I would have to say, yes to both. I've known you for a little while and this is leading somewhere. Where Aitken?”

“Fehu.” I replied. “It's a system 400lys out, it's unaligned, has four places to hide if the worst happens.”

“I'm aware of the system yes, used to be a smugglers haven. Might work.” The brow creased once more. “There is one other option. I could stay aboard the December.”

“Nope. Not an option. I work alone. I am not responsible for your life, staying aboard means I am and I'm sorry but I'm barely responsible for mine.”

“That's what I thought you would say but I had to throw it out there. Fehu it is then but how will I get from one station to another?”

“I have a Cobra sitting in Frigschneck's Resort. Due to the modules they sell it is incapable of jumping to another system but it's the perfect ship for running around in system.” I had already requested clearance to return to the flight area and waited as the elevator moved us there. Permission to leave came almost instantly. The large bulk of the Conda lifted slowly and I aligned it to the slot and moved out at a sedate speed.

The double figure jumps to Fehu worried me a little but once we were clear of the bubble I started to relax, a little. I still watched the scanner like a hawk at every jump point. Very little appeared and since I was only carrying limpets we were left alone all the way to Fehu.
Docking at Frigschneck's was routine and once all systems were shut down I took Charity to the stored Cobra.

The Luna Grey Mk.III sat in the hangar as we looked it over. It bore no decals but the hard points were deployed and the weapons drew Charity's attention.

“Multi-Cannons, why? Any special reason?” She inquired.

“Nothing more than they were available. I fitted it the best I could with the limited outfitting here. It's yours for as long as you're here. It has a 40 ton capacity so if you want to make some cash go ahead. Running missions from here to the two stations on Doolhof or to Thompson-Keen Asylum, they might not pay much but if you find yourself a little low on funds.”

“I'm happy to hear you think this is a temporary fix to the current situation.” Her voice a little muffled as she ducked below to examine the underside of the Cobra. “Chaff and Heat Sink Launchers, done a little smuggling in it I see.”

“If the missions show up, sure. You don't have to smuggle in it, it's a good little courier ship and will pay it's own way.”

“I'm not that good a pilot but I may take her out for a spin or two. The other good thing is I can use it as accommodation, no trace of room rental. Yeah this might work out till we come up with another idea.” A smile that had been long absent from her face grew as she gave it further thought. “Oh and a vehicle bay with an SRV. Well out running anyone that comes looking for should at least be fun.”

“If that happens you shout for me. I'll stay close by in Empire space. Not that I particularly want to run around there but if needs must.” I replied with a small shake of my head. “ I'm heading for Aditi and I'll make sure I'm always within 30 minutes from here.”

“Aitken.” She called after as I reached the exit from the hangar. “No smuggling, you don't need to tell everyone where you are.”

“You assume I'll get caught.” I gave a chuckle and left.

On returning to the December I laid in Aditi as the destination and requested clearance to leave. As the December pushed the mail slot mist to each side of it's needle like shape I had to admit to myself that Charity had a point. Having an authority fine me for smuggling would be a big flag for anyone with access to that information. Dang it, that was fun, not to mention the whole idea of smuggling, not getting caught. Oh and the money came in handy too. Ok, I'd wait and see what Aditi had on the Board before I made up my mind.

As I continued jumping I also kept ruminating on the problem I may have just dropped myself into. I say, may because I still wasn't sure I had put myself on The Boys radar, so to speak. Just on time, as if by plan, RATSIGNAL.

Now I was suspicious but someone really could be in trouble.

“Three jumps from me Dispatch.” I could not help myself but I could help someone in trouble.

“You're the only one close Aitken, go, go ,go.”

I wasn't sure who was on dispatch but I kind of liked their enthusiasm.

“Got Friend Request.” I broadcast to dispatch.

“Roger Aitken, handle over comms and report any problems.”

I answered with a “Roger” and started to scoop before I made the last jump. It didn't take long with the A7 Scoop. The little time I did have allowed me to give a mental thanks to dispatch for leaving it to me over comms. I had to text but no great problem, after giving the instructions on how to wing up and deploy the beacon I made the last jump.

Checking the scanner was always the first thing I did when jumping in to a system, more so when it came to being a Fuel Rat. Adding in the extra layer of a possible ambush from suspected enemies made it an important task. I saw the lone blue rectangle of the wing beacon and headed that way, I also saw the warning of my temperature rising and the exclusion zone rapidly approaching. As I dropped a heat sink I became aware that I was doing a tactical facepalm as the dropping due to being to close warning flashed across my HUD. I waited for the spinning to stop and the audible warning about hull damage faded. Once all that ended my attention went straight to the scanner again. There it was a light blue open rectangle 20.6km away. I lined up and started to head his way, telling dispatch and the client that I had him in sight.

As it turned out apart from being a little too close to the star and not having a fuel scoop it was good, a straight forward rescue. Alright I had to jump to Fehu and buy more limpets as the eight I fired only allowed the Asp to do two jumps. I made sure I bought more than enough to fill his tank the second time around. As it was I didn't think I was ever going to make it to Aditi, I returned to Fehu again, just to make sure the client made it. I also had a long chat about the clever idea about jumping to Fehu with no fuel scoop. He promised to buy one at Frigschneck's and had done so before I dropped from supercruise. I didn't dock but replotted my course to Aditi hoping this time that I made it.

I'm going to take a time out here and explain the term “tactical facepalm.” Its a Rats manoeuvrer that I believe Cmdr. Radlock helped to introduce. When a client has dropped inside the stars exclusion zone and doesn't have the fuel to leave, usually the nav lock will not engage. Lining up the Rat ship as close as possible and slowly entering the zone until the Rat ship auto drops usually gets the rescue ship near the stranded client. There are a few more problems, the client is usually a Case Red, that means the client is on emergency oxygen. Doing a facepalm can and usually does cause a lot of heat damage, which I avoided in this case by dumping a heat sink on the way in and one on the way out. I had been about to warn the rescued Cmdr. about heat damage as he jump out but he had already jumped. I never found out if he knew or if I had just come in at strange angle. Also as can be seen from my retelling the Rat lands close. 20.6km may not seem far but to a Cmdr. watching an oxygen timer count down it could just be far enough away for it to hit zero. Mine was accidental, I became aware of just as it happened, the stranded client had no timer so no real harm was done. It was a good example to me of how to do it if I did it again.

I was half way through the 124ly trip to Aditi when I received a message on the computer. I had been invited to Cubeo to attend a grand ball. I have no idea what a grand ball is but since the invite was from my just rescued client, I decided I could give it some thought. What was the harm, a little free food, absolutely no dancing but a chance to relax for an evening. The Anaconda was perhaps a little over the top for the event but I could always make a quick trip and fetch an Asp. Yeah, sounded good. RSVP, invitation accepted.
One Good Turn – A Rats Tale

One Good Turn​

“He's going to live.”

I was sitting in an office next to the infirmary in Wollheim Vision

“Thanks Doc. If he needs anything let me know and I'll arrange for it to be delivered.”

“Sure Aitken. I take it you're not sticking around then?” He asked as he continued to write down some notes.

“Nope. I trust that he's in good hands so time for me to leave.” With that I stood up and started to make my way back to the Asp “Oxen Craig.”

I wasn't shocked or surprised that Paul had picked a fight at the Ball. What did shock and surprise me was that he had allowed himself to take so much punishment before finishing it. I slowly wandered back to the hangar, stopping to chat with a few Rats I knew. I made it back to the Asp before I got the first question about Paul. Not that the Rats weren't a caring bunch but you can't ask about something if you don't know about it. Nadzieja did know as she had helped me get him on to the gurney the medical staff had met me with. I assured her he was going to live, chatted about the ships condition and then boarded. She explained to me that after everyone had left she took a look through the Oxen Craig. Then her and her crew had set to work cleaning up the mess that had been left behind.

“We took out most of the secondary cabin and replaced those parts. You know a human body contains around 5 ½ liters of blood. I think 5 liters of Paul's was on those ship parts.” She said with a noticeable shudder. I thanked her and as she left I prepared the Oxen Craig for departure.

My eventual destination was to be Uracenufon to swap over to the Anaconda and then on to Aditi. One jump out of Fuelum I had a change of heart and headed for Shinrarta. Once there I put the Oxen Craig into it's hangar and bought another Hauler, stripped and refitted right it would do a smidge over 30ly's a jump. Not the greatest way to travel but very useful for times like these.

With that done it was off to Bunch Dock and the swap over. I had no problems getting back, sure a couple of surprises when ships had jumped in close to me but nothing that overly worried me. After docking I had the parts I could put back to the original specs and sold the Hauler. I didn't even bother haggling this time as I knew I was going to take a loss. I wasn't happy about it but I guess that's the price of doing business with second hand dealers.

Back in the Anaconda December the first thing I did was check the security logs. As happy as I was to use the base of the Purple Pirates, that didn't mean I trusted anyone in it. Everything checked out and it was time to move on to Aditi.

As soon as I had cleared the mail slot and started to turn the Conda toward the departure vector, I missed the manoeuvrability of the smaller ships I had been using recently. The Asp was a very capable ship but lacked the versatility of the larger Conda. Sure the Conda could not land at outposts but it made up for that in the amount of slots it had for equipment and cargo. I truly would have liked the Python to rat in but for me it lacked the range. Ah well such is life.

I was making good time as I descended toward Aditi when a call came in from Charity.

“Hey Aitken. We need to talk.”

“We do?” I asked a little perplexed.

“Well, I think we do. I just landed at Aikin's Inheritance on Doolhof.” A small smile creased her face as she said this.

“Ok Charity, I'll be there as soon as I can.” With that reply the screen darkened once more.

A check of Galmap let me see it would not be that big of a detour. With a shrug I replotted my destination and continued jumping.

As I entered the Fehu system I looked closely at the scanner and studied the traffic. Once I was satisfied that there wasn't a threat to my ship, I headed toward Doolhof.

Doolhof was your typical space rock. The only redeeming feature it had in my eyes was that it had a low gravity and was a breeze to land on. Dropping into orbital cruise and then glide took no time at all and soon I found myself 5km above Aikin's Inheritance. Landing clearance was quick in coming and I set the December down on Pad 11. Dropping into the hangar the mostly two and three story buildings vanished from sight, to be replaced with the metal sheets and girders of the hangar interior. I punched up the connection to Charity and informed her of the pad number I had landed at and waited. I didn't waste the time I had to wait, I got busy in the galley and had coffee made just as she appeared.

“Alright what's with the goofy smile.” Her expression was similar to the one I had noticed in our last conversation.

“Nothing really I just find the similarities in this settlements name and yours amusing.” Again with the silly grin. “Thanks.” She replied as I handed her a cup of freshly brewed coffee. “It's missing the T and of course you would have to replace an I with an E but it's close.”

“Sure.” It was the only response I could think of, the similarities did not bother me one bit. Just one of those things. “You wanted to talk to me?”

“Yeah. A question I suppose.” She sat down in the copilots seat as I sat down in the pilots. “In all the time since you picked me up at Lounge, why haven't you asked me why I'm running from the Silver Boys?”

“Simple. It's none of my business.” I gave a shrug as I answered.

“But it is. When you agreed to rescue me it became your business and I feel you should know.”

“Nope. I don't need to know and to tell the truth I really don't want to know. The less I know about the dealings of the Boys the better.” I sat back holding my cup before me and waited for her come back.

“Ok. I doubt I'll change your mind at the moment but we'll see later.” Again the only thing I could think of in the way of a reply was “Sure.”

“The other thing was I think I've been in this system long enough, not exactly a holiday resort is it?”

“Agreed. Time we moved you on. I have a couple of places I have looked over since I left you here but we'll talk about that once we return the Cobra to Frigschneck's.” I said.

“Right. I'll finish up here and meet you up there then.” Charity said as she rose out of the seat.

“Bulletin Board mission?” I asked as she made her way to the galley with the two empty cups. She turned before she answered.

“No, I did a little scavenging on the other side of Doolhof and since this place was missing a T I thought I'd sell them a few tons of it.” The goofy grin reappeared. I shook my head and hid my own silly grin.

“I'll see you on Frigschneck's. Enable your Nav-Lock and I'll leave the beacon on once I reach Frigschneck's.”

“Aye aye sir.” Drifted back to me.

Once Charity had departed for the Cobra I warmed up the December and asked for clearance back to the surface. With a barely noticeable thump the pad stopped and I was staring at the bare landscape that was Doolhof. I sat a few seconds and watched the skimmers, SRVs and the usual aerial traffic, then I asked for departure permission. There I sat for a moment or two as an Orca lifted off for the pad next to me. Clearance received, the dock clamps released and I was free to apply power to the lower thrusters. Landing gear up I applied full power to the engines and pulled back on the joystick until the HUD display read 90 degrees from the horizontal. All I had to do now was wait until the mass lock light blinked out until I could engage the FSD. When it did I hit the button and watched as the alignment was correct and I heard “4, 3, 2, 1, engage.”.

I was half way through my small trek when I heard. “You're a lucky jumper when you find Yttrium.” A look at my contacts panel and sure enough a Cobra Mk. III was out there. “Drop from SC Aitken and let's talk.”

I did consider jumping out of system but that would just delay this meeting until they found me again and pulling him out of SC would leave the path open for Charity.

“Where is she?” The familiar growl came at me through the comms as I sat staring at the Cobra. The hard points were still retracted but I had no idea if they would stay that way.

“No idea.” I lied.

“Come on Aitken. Don't leave me with only the one choice.” He sounded not the least disappointed if I did. “I know you know where Nascimento is.” With that the hard points on the Cobra started to deploy.

I'm happy to say that in my time as a Fuel Rat I have learnt quite a few things. Most of them would probably not help in every day life but one of them sure would here. When refuelling a client I always offset myself a little below and to one side, my former employer was about to see why.

I hit the boost button and the December ploughed through the ship before it. I hit the cycle ship control and the Cobra came up as a target.

“Target shields offline.” Betty informed me. As I pushed the throttle to max. I noted that I had done some hull damage too. I was hoping that I had rattled him up enough to get the time to jump back into SC but no such joy. Watching the scanner and the graphical target display I saw him start to manoeuvre almost instantaneously. Not a rookie I thought as I hit the chaff dispenser. Sure it seemed a little underwhelming but dropping a heat sink seemed pointless, getting a Conda cold was easy, hiding the dang thing was another story. Medium Pulse Lasers started hitting my shields as soon as the chaff dispersed and made me wish I still had the A5 shield generator on board. I had down graded to a C5 Bi-weave as I did not expect to be in combat with this ship. The C5 BW was for landing on higher than normal gravity planets and even then I thought they were over powered for that task. Some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed. The only advantage left to me was the fact that I mass locked him, if I high waked out there was nothing he could do. If he had a wake scanner he could see where I went but that would do him no good as I have yet to meet a Cobra that could out jump a Conda.

I was just about to select a destination when the sound of a ship dropping from SC made me look at the scanner. Alarmed as I was and expecting to see the Mk. IV of my former employers back up, it took me awhile to realise what was happening. The black Mk. III was lit up like a Zippo as multi-cannon shells rained down on it. It twisted to one side and the lunar coloured Mk. III stuck with it, firing as it went. I was undecided as what I could do, should do to help as the two Cobras danced round me like a pair of angry fire flies when Betty suddenly announced.

“Target destroyed.” All that was on the scanner was the blue triangle of a wing mate with the hard points deployed.

“Are you alright Aitken.” Charity's distorted voice asked over the comm.

“Yeah, all good thanks.” If there was relief in my voice it was all too real.

“Ok. See you at the station then.” With a click the comm link fell silent.

Once we had both landed and the Cobra had been stowed away in a hangar, Charity rejoined the December. After placing her belongings in the second cabin she joined me on the bridge.

“What was that all about?” She asked, referring to the hostile encounter.

“Just a pirate.” I once again lied.

“After what?”

“What do you think? Loot. When he found out I only had limpets he had a hissy.” Again I lied, it was becoming a habit.

“Good job you had the wing beacon on or I would have sailed right past you.”

“Yeah, I thought you said you weren't much of a pilot, you looked like you knew what you were doing earlier.” I complimented and this time I told no lie.

“Compared to others I'm not and thanks.” A small hint of satisfaction laced her reply.

“You are more than welcome. Right let's get out of here.”

Charity agreed with that and excused herself before retiring to her cabin.

Once all the necessary permissions and clearances had been received the December pushed her way lazily back into open space once more. Cruising at 95 m/s getting beyond the no fire zone took a little time but I was not about to draw unwanted attention not this close to leaving the system.

The left the no fire zone indicator popped up and as I increased the power to the engines I swung the nose of the large ship toward the exit vector. Almost at once Betty announced some new problems. “Shields offline” was the first. “Under attack” followed it quickly and the third was just as alarming as the previous two had been, “Taking damage”.

I looked at the scanner just in time to see a red triangle simmer into nothing. My eyes went straight to the canopy windows in the vain hope of seeing want was shooting at us. Of course I saw nothing.

“What the heck was that?” Charity shouted from the cabin.

“I have no idea and stay where you are.” I replied. I actually did have an idea and I didn't like it. Something with Rails or a PA, neither appealed to me.

If we could make it past the mass lock area of the station we would be fine. A Conda was more sluggish than other ships but I had little doubt that it could cover the distance in time.

Two more slugs of something hit the December and a streak of red flew in front of the canopy window. I instinctively pulled back on the joystick as the module damage warning flashed across the HUD. Pulling up of course meant I was looping, making the time to exit the station mass lock longer. Not what I was looking for. Two more teeth jarring hits to the December and it started to drift. What ever it was firing at us, it had just taken out the power plant.

“Hey Aitken, how's that feel?” A voice I did not know asked. I would love to have answered with “Not too good.”or something similar, but I didn't have the power to switch on the comms.

I looked out over the long tapered nose of the Anaconda to see a red Cobra Mk. IV raise up before it.

'I have no clue as to what you did or how you managed it but my partner was coming here to see you. Well considering I can't raise him on comms or see him in system, I have to conclude that you have something to do with it.”

He paused, I have no idea why as he knew my power plant was shot and I couldn't answer, which I must admit was rather upsetting.

“I have enjoyed our little chat but I must leave however. I do hate to think of you having a slow, lingering death once your life support kicks in and then runs out, so let me speed that up a little for you.”

I saw the flames from the barrels as the multi-cannon started to fire. I watched as the shells walked a long the nose of the Conda. I heard the air rush past me as the canopy glass shattered. I felt the heat from the console I sat before as those same shells torn into it.

And then black.
Deserves Another – A Rats Tale

Deserves Another​

“Doc, his eyelids moved I think he's coming round.”

White. It's all I could see. Oh great I'm blind. Alright let's see what other damage has been done. I tried to move my arms and failed, same went for my legs. Oh I'm paralysed too.

Greys. Well that's at least a little variety. Maybe I'd been a little early deciding I was blind. Still no movement from my limps but seeing greys was a step in the right direction.

Green. That was definitely green. Oh colours are coming back, please let colours come back. I never really thought about them when I could see but man I missed them when I thought I had lost them. Limps are still proving to be a problem but hey I got my eyelids to budge a little.

“Yes Charity, give him a little more time and I think he'll come out of it. Brainwaves are starting to return to normal. Vital signs are beginning to reach the proper levels.”

Ooo. Muffled sounds. Were those words? A glimpse of light, my lids must have opened. Limps are still not wanting to do as I command but I think I got a finger to twitch.

“Ah did you see that Doc? His finger moved, I'm sure his finger moved.”

Alright never mind the limps, let's try getting these eyes open and get sight back. Good grief the lights bright but at least they're open. Having a hard time processing the information they're giving me but dang I'm not dead.

“Ok Aitken I'm Doctor Baker. You are on the space station Frigschneck's Asylum. You were brought in unconscious and with a deep laceration to the left side of your head. You had a few burns but everything should heal.”

I couldn't get my eyes to focus correctly but lets try something else.

“H...how long?” Ok I really would have liked to finish the question about the time I had been out but that was all I could get out.

“12 hours Aitken. Not too long at all.” I think the doctor smiled but my eyes still refused to focus. I did manage to see the tubes in my arms before...black.

“Hey how you doin”?”

I felt like I had just woken up but with the galaxies worst hang-over. It made me glad I didn't drink any more, I wish it had been more fun to get this one though.

“Rotten.” I answered a worried looking Charity. “How did I get here?”

“Once I felt the air leaving, I guessed you had failed with the negotiations.” She smiled and gave a small snort of air. “So I floated out of the cabin just in time to see the Mk. IV turn away and you slumped in the pilots seat. The HUD said we had just under seven minutes of oxygen, so I left you where you were and started the reboot/repair system on the power plant. It took a while but it gave the plant 50%, just enough to get the Conda back to the station. So here we are.”

“Thanks.” It was my turn to smile, it hurt but was well worth the pain.

It turned out my injuries were kind of minor. Twenty self dissolving sutures in an 8 inch gash on my left forehead was the worst. The scar would heal but I'd have a mark that while fading would be there for life. The burns to my hands could have been worse but fire needs fuel and that was taken away when the canopy blew open. So those were just flash burns and nothing to worry about. Oh and joy of joys I had feeling in my limbs again.

“Doc says you'll need a week or so to completely recover. Modern medicine is wonderful but they still haven't found an effective way to help with concussions. You friend have a doozy.”

“Not a chance.” Just then Doc. Baker appeared. “Nothing personal Doc. but I don't like doctors and I like hospitals even less than that. If I can get a flight suit off of the December I'll head back to it and assess it's damages, thank you.”

“Typical pilot Charity. He's more worried about his ship than he is about himself.” I thought I detected a slight mocking tone but could not be sure. Hey my brain was a little scrambled. “Very well Aitken you can discharge yourself, I can't stop you doing that. However you should be aware that headaches and blurred vision might affect you for quite some time. We're not sure what hit you but hit you it did and hard.” He continued in a more concerned tone.

Charity gave a frown but headed back to the Conda for a clean set of clothes for me. I wasn't sure if the blood would come out of the others but they could wait till later or be disposed off.

Once dressed and escorted by Charity we headed off toward the December. Sure my legs were a little wobbly. As much as I tried I had real problems reading any of the signs through the blurry vision and yup it did feel like someone was playing kettle drums in my head but we made it. Charity only gasped once and tried to balance me when I nearly stumbled. Getting on board gave it's own set of challenges but again through pure stupidity we managed. Once back on the bridge I nearly wished I hadn't made it back.

My eye was drawn straight away to the line of cannon shell holes along the nose and how they continued into the bridge area. I could see by the angle they drew that the panel in front of the pilot seat had blown. The line continued then stopped about half into the bridge. That angle was the reason he had missed me, a degree or two to the port of that chair and it would have been a different outcome. Whatever it was that had hit me was of course long gone out into space but with the amount of damage done as circuits blew it could have been any of the metal parts that were missing. Looking out of the now glassless canopy made me wince even more. The whole upper nose section armour had been chewed to pieces and would need to be replaced. Now that I had seen the damage I had to have a word with the local engineer.

“Well Capin' if I pull everyone off of every other job I could have it done in a week.” He paused for dramatic effect. He was wasting his time as both he and I knew that would never happen. “But with our current schedule it will be closer to two, especially since we are replacing all the armour.”

“Ok, go for it. You have my account details.” With a nod he headed off to get his work detail as he prodded a grubby finger on to a pad as he went. For Charity and I it was the Lunar Gray Mk. III. Since she had been in the largest cabin for the time she had been hiding in Fehu I let her move into again and I took the slightly smaller of the two. When I say largest I mean it had a locker extra so it wasn't that large.

The happiest person out of all this, apart from a well paid engineer, was the Doc. I had daily check ups and he seemed happy with my progress. Right after him on the happy scale was Charity. She was happy for the company and someone to talk too. Poor girl must have been going stir crazy while I had been gone. So that went, engineer, doctor, gangster moll and then me. Believe me I do not mind spending money, heck that's why we earn it but I had a lot going out and nothing coming in. If I could have got a FSD for the Cobra I would have been gone but I knew from previous experience that no station in Fehu had one. Well not one that would reach a close system, so I felt trapped. For exercise every day I would leave the doctors office and check up on the Conda. It was coming along on schedule, which seemed to be crawling for me but flashing by for the engineer. I think the poor guy was sick of seeing me by day three.

The only highlight for me came out of the blue one day on the Cobra. I was checking personal messages when I let out an oath. Charity just happened to be there to hear it.

“What caused that?” She asked a little surprised as I tended not to swear often. I waved her over and let her read it. Her response was very close to my own.

----Sender has hidden Name and point of origin----

----To: Cmdr Aitken----

Please accept our apologies for actions of two pilots of our organisation. One it seems you have taken care of and the other will be reprimanded and demoted. While we do not condone the death of our pilot we understand that it was in self defence. We have completely reviewed the mission directives that were given to our pilots and feel they over stepped their authority. Further review revealed that you have completed the mission as described in the original BB outline. We thank you for your service and with the final payment in your account, we now consider this mission complete.

----Message Ends----

“Well that's one bogey man off of our tails.” I quipped. “Would still like to know who I was working for but oh well. Lesson learnt.”

“Happy to hear you have picked up something from the ordeal, just the Silver Boys to worry about now.” She replied with a small hint of a smile.

“Just.” I murmured under my breath. “Come on I have a doctors appointment. We'll grab something to eat at that restaurant you like on the way back, ok.” She nodded and so we headed off.

I must admit I enjoyed her company. She was bright with a ready wit and not afraid to speak her mind. Which might have been why I agreed she could come along for a week or two when we departed. Of course the other reason might have been that as the December got closer to being fully repaired I did not seem to be matching it. I still had headaches and while my vision was getting better, it was far from what it had been. The doctor did not seem to be worried and assured me everything would be fine in due course.

“It's white.” Charity remarked once see set eyes on the December for the first time after the repairs were finished.

“It's called Tactical Ice. I thought it would be a nice change and well if anyone is looking for us it might throw them off for a little while.”

She gave me a sideways glance. I knew that meant 'no chance of that' but I had to try and keep the situation positive. If my former unknown employers could track us down here so could anyone else. I gave a shrug and headed into the formerly black Conda.

Once on board I checked all the systems and was happy to see that everything appeared to be in working order. All parts of the repair and refit had been done and so we were ready to depart.

“Have you ever flown a Conda before?” I asked Charity, a little late in the day but it was not that big a worry.

“Just the once a few years ago, a meeting that went bad and we had to get out of there quick, I just happened to be in the right place.”

“Alright, I'll be in the left seat so I can take over if I have to. Aim high when you exit the slot and take it slow. You'll be fine. When your ready.” She asked for permission to return to the surface, we sat there for a moment as Charity composed herself. Her eyes closed and I could see her walking through the procedure in her mind. Clearance for take off was given and the large white triangular ship ascended to the mid point of the flight path.

“4 pips to engines and give it 50% power, that should get it up to 90m/s or so and just glide it out.” I said encouragingly or I hoped it sounded that way. We tapped the toast rack but just enough for the shields to give a brief flash and then we were out.

“Nicely done. Now as soon as we clear the “No Fire Zone” give it full power. I'll give you the vector once I have the course laid in.”

“Where we going? It can't be Robigo as this thing is too big for the Mines.”

“Nah. I stopped going to Robigo when it became popular. Just asking for attention when everyone and their mother is flitting in and out of there.” I responded while I scanned Galmap.

“Ok. Not Robigo, so where?”

“Uracenufon. We won't get the amount of jobs we could if we switched to a smaller snip but one or two big jobs is all I am looking for.”

“Why not Aditi? They still have a few jobs for smugglers I hear.”

“I've had enough of Imperial systems for a while, haven't you? It'll be good to mix with some Independent scum again.” I looked over to her as I relayed the vector for the jump out. She looked calm but the stiffness of her posture gave away that she was concentrating on her every action. She gave a couple of small nods for my statement about Imp. systems and to acknowledge the vector. Betty gave her usual countdown and we started our journey toward Uracenufon.

The journey was happily uneventful. I say happily as it gave me the chance to check over the newly installed systems and look out at the long white nose. Every time I looked out I had to remind myself that I was indeed in the December and not some other ship. Replacing the the image of the black nose in my mind looked like it was going to take a little longer.

“Aitken, we just entered the Uracenufon system.” I heard Charity as I put away the coffee cups in the galley. I took my time, Bunch Dock was close to the entry point but the Conda would take a little while to pull out from the star. I also had no plans on interrupting her, this was her show.

We dropped outside of Bunch at an acute angle to the mail slot. Should be interesting I thought and was happily disappointed went Charity just pushed the throttle open and headed in. It took a little of using the lateral thrusters but after obtaining landing clearance we slid through the rectangular entrance with no problems.

“I'll be back in around an hour.” I said after we were nicely tucked up in a hangar. “Get some rest. I hope we're going to be busy.”

I enjoyed working for the Purple Pirates, they gave me the goods, the system to deliver too and of course they paid well. I met my contact in the usual place and we started going over the jobs he had. I ended up taking four missions to two systems for quite a handsome profit. With a handshake I left his office and headed for a coffee shop. A freshly brewed cup sat in front of me as I planned the best way to deliver the cargo that was I hoped being loaded onto the December. I ordered two cups to go and headed back to the ship.

I received a wave from the crew loading the cargo into the hold and raised the cup in my right hand in mock toast to their efforts. On entering the bridge I saw Charity looking through the ships systems.

“Brushing up before me leave?” I asked as I handed her one of the cups I carried.

“I'm grateful for all the help you have given me Aitken and don't want to mess this up, that's all.” She took a sip from her coffee and went on. “Mmm, so what we got?”

“Four drop-offs, two in LHS 3666 and two in CD-61 6651, a station and a planet settlement in each.”

“Any shadows?” The question came as she lowered the cup from her lips.

“No. Not in this run.” I saw disappointment flow across her face. “Hey, I still don't know if your up to this type of piloting. I don't mind the fine if we get scanned with the contraband but if it were shadow deliveries, well, I don't want my rep. with the Pirates being damaged.”

“Sure. Sorry, I forget that this isn't a game, it's how you make a living.” She paused and looked around the newly refurbished December. With a smile gracing her face she showed me there was no hard feelings. “A comfortable living at that.”

“Pfft, just a tool for the job young lady. The way I have this thing set up it carries a heck of a lot more than an Asp and still gets similar jump range. The fewer jumps we have the less likely we are to get interdicted by some hotshot System Security out to make a name for themselves.” I saw a light on the control panel wink out. “Ok, we're loaded, let's get this show on the road.”

The December wasn't full but with the tonnage in the hold it was going to take us eleven jumps to hit LHS 3666. I gave a small grin as Charity remarked at the difference in the handing as we took off. I left it there so that she could give her full attention to leaving the Ocellus station. I didn't have a home system as most pilots did, I had a few I visited but none that I would call home, Bunch was one of those few. It was a splendid looking station and more than once I had marvelled at the way it seemed to change colour depending on the stars angle. When we had entered less than two hours ago it and been a glowing white, now that the orbit had change it seemed a dark grey, almost black. The blinking navigation lights and the light from habitats giving its position away, Charity roused me from my imagination.

“No fire zone left, opening her up and heading to exit vector. I guess that's the last easy exit we'll have uh?” She asked.”

“Nah, our first drop-off, Meyrink Orbital in LHS 3666 is an anarchy port and the two surface stations should be good too. I only see one tricky entrance on this run but interdictions will probably come into play somewhere.” I replied as we began our first jump. Just as Betty's voice faded Charity began to close the throttle, I place my hand on top of hers and set it to maximum again.

“Flying style changes a little when you start smuggling.” I told her with a light tone. We burst into the system staring at the bright orange/yellow star. Charity whipped, well as much as you can call it that in a Conda, us to the port and down. “Fuel scoop engaged.”

“Told it in there. If it gets to warm yaw out a little, if you start drifting, easy back a touch on power. You shouldn't have to do that on a one jumper, maybe the star after an unscoopable. As soon as you are full or a little before we should be lined up. If you see any Security ships in system hit the FSD as soon as you start pulling away, we have heatsinks for a reason.” Again I said it lightly with a smile. “ If there is nothing in a system with us wait for the scoop to disengage. Anything else comes up, just ask.” Her brunette hair bobbed up and down as she let me know she understood. “It'll be second nature before we hit Crouch Orbital.”

Everything was going fine as we headed deeper into the bubble. Very little appeared on the scanner and I started to think it was going to be a milk run. That changed when we were two jumps out from LHS 3666.

“Anaconda please submit to a scan. This is a routine system scan as this is a known smuggler route.”

Charity look at me with a questioning expression on her face.

“Ignore him, line up with the exit vector and gun it.” My hands were poised over the system distributor controls as I continued to watch the scanner. Just as Charity started the FSD spool up it happened. BLAM, tether activation. I set four pips in the systems control, two in the engine control and pulled it back to half power.

“Keep it centred the best you can and we might slip this one.” I said encouragingly.

The fight was on, an Anaconda with an underpowered Power Plant against a Viper Mk IV with security systems installed.

I watched and waited. Charity was putting up a decent fight with honours even when the tether marker drifted over the exit point, I slammed the throttle wide open and broke the tethers hold on us. Blasting in to the next system Charity turned to me.

“Where'd you learn that trick?” She said, the sweat matted hair sticking to her forehead.

“I've had a lot of practice, smuggling and Ratting. Smuggling cos you don't want to pay the fine. Ratting cos if you submit it takes away valuable and some clients don't have any to spare.” I was resetting the distributor and trying to make it sound like it was no big deal.

“People interdict Fuel Rats?” The shock in her voice was all to real.

“You have no idea.” I replied with a chuckle. “Alright line up for the next jump, we've got some, er, questionable cargo shall we say. So, be alert and expect trouble.” Again the brunette hair bounced up and down in reply.

“Illicit Cargo” popped up on the HUD for about the fourth or so time on our journey and for the fourth or so time we ignored it.

The short run to Meyrink Orbital went well and with there being an anarchy faction in control, the entrance had no security set up to scan ships. Apart from Toxic Waste, nothing else was on their prohibited list.

Once we were in the hangar the unloading didn't take long. 25 tons of cobalt was unloaded. The crew at Bunch had loaded the hold well, I also had a funny feeling that they could liberate a cargo from a hold well too. The irony of this delivery was not lost on me either. The cargo we were delivering to an anarchy port was probably the only cargo that would be deemed legal in our next three ports of call.

“Where to next?” My eager young assistant asked as I returned from supervising the unloading and collecting payment.

“Eisenstein Landing in system, on LHS 3666 A5A. You up to landing this thing on a planet?” My turn for a question and to tell the truth it was more a moon than a planet.

“Should be similar to the Cobra, right? A little bigger and a lot more sluggish.”

I nodded and plotted in the course as Charity got clearance to leave the station.

Everything went smooth. Landing bay 7 was quiet and the 5 tons of battle weapons were offloaded and gone into the dark.

“What do you think they want those for?” Charity asked as cannisters vanished from the dock.

“Don't know and I didn't ask. Best not to in this line of work.” I gave her a side ways glance to make sure the warning sank in. She mouthed 'I know' and started to prepare for departure.

Dropping into CD-61 6651 my eyes went straight to the scanner again, nothing, good.

“And before you ask.” I began to regale why we were doing the 10,000ls jaunt before we went to Crouch Orbital, which was only 1,000ls into the system. “We'll get the easier of the two out of the way. Once that's done you have a choice. Fly the 10,000ls back or jump out and then back into the system.”

“I'll wait till we reach Polansky's Inheritance before I make up my mind but I am leaning toward the jump options.”

“I'd do the same. 10K isn't that far really but if we can cut down the time all the better.” I truthfully answered. Time wasn't an issue with these missions but it was always good to practice shaving a few minutes off a route.

Twenty Five tons of narcotics slipped into the dock. Charity gave me a look as I returned, all I could do was shrug. It wasn't the way I chose to enjoy myself but if others enjoyed the sensation that they produced who was I to deny them there pleasure.

As we rose from the surface of CD-61 6651 B1 I laid in a jump to the nearby system of HDS 3215. The jump out and back posed no problems.

“Ok, when we drop at Crouch Orbital back up to 10 or 12ls out from it.”

Again the brunette hair moved up and down. The angle we dropped out at wasn't as acute as the one earlier at Bunch but a little realignment would be needed once we were far enough out.

Charity settled for 11ls and realigned the Conda so we were staring straight at the letterbox shaped entrance.

“When your ready, floor it. Do not touch the throttle after that, I'll work the power settings ok?”

She looked over at me, took a breath and nodded. Then she pushed the power lever fully forward.

Crouch was another Ocellus station but because of it's distance from the star the light did not make it as eerie as Bunch. That wasn't my main concern as I watch the distance counter roll down. At 7.49ls from the station Charity requested docking permission. I was delighted to hear that we had been assigned landing pad 40, being near the back of the station it meant we had more space to slow down in.

At 3km out I fire chaff and dropped a heat sink. Opinions varied amongst pilots as to if these made a difference. I wasn't sure but if and it was a big if, they gave me an edge I would be silly not to use them. Charity looked over to me quickly, I kept a hand on the power lever and gave a nodded toward the mail slot.

“Aitken we're 2km out, please tell me I am not going into this station at 190m/s.”

“190, nah. We should be down to about 185 as we go through the slot.” I lied a little. She was doing fine.

Just as the long white nose started to enter the toast rack I set the power to 50%, we had bled a little more that the 5m/s I had told Charity but not much more.

“Ship scan detected.” Betty announced right at that moment.

“As soon as we clear get her down below the entrance level. Don't worry about lining up with the pad, we'll have time.” I calmly requested.

We dropped 10 or 20 meters as she nosed the large ship down. We had slowed to 90m/s before we were half way down the flight path. I dropped the landing gear and Charity guided all of us onto pad 40.

“Piece of cake right?” I smiled at Charity.

“Well kind of. There's quite a lot to do if you don't want to get scanned. The flying straight in at speed seems to be the easy part.”

“You'll get used to it. Well that's until the Security guys come up with better sensors or procedures. Come on, lets get the payment and grab some coffee.” I stood up and made my way to the exit.

“How's the head doing?” I heard genuine concern in her voice.

“It'll be fine once the gnome rock band gig stops.” I quipped.

“Still that bad uh?”

“Bah, I'll be good after a coffee.” I gave her a wink as we reached the hangar floor.

“To tell the truth I think I could go for something a little stronger.” I could see that the adrenaline from her first high speed entry into a station was still flowing through her. Her hands were shaking and her breathing was still rapid.

“Well I'm sure we can find a bar that sells both.” I said as we started to head toward the elevators and then the stations main level.

“Sounds like a pl....” Just then a shot rang out. I dived behind some crates that lay close to the exit. Charity, well Charity dropped lack a sack of potatoes. I crouched behind the crates and looked down at my hand. As if by magic the .45 I had started to carry with me was in it. Where had that shot come from and why wasn't Charity moving?

“Aitken. Aitken let me know if you can hear me.” A voice from above called. I started to scan the dark upper levels of the hangar but could see nothing in the shadows.

“Oh I hear you alright.” If I could get him to keep talking I might zero in on his location by sound. For some reason my already blurry vision was becoming worse. I glanced at the unmoving body laying just a meter from me. Oh keep talking bio waste for brains, keep talking.

“Ok man just stay where you are and you can live. The hit was on her, not you. The Silver Boys can't find anything on you or they would have upped the payment. You know how these things are man, nothing personal. Just business.” I could hear movement he was pulling out, I might have one chance. “Don't. I don't enjoy killing man and you have no bounty on your head so don't make me waste a bullet on you.”

I looked up just in time to see the light of a door closing. Well, there would be other chances for him. Sure it might take a little detective work but I knew who had put out the contract, so finding who had carried it out shouldn't be that difficult. I stood up and tried to blink my vision clear.

“Aitken.” A weak female voice whispered my name. I looked down at the body of Charity to see it looking back at me. I knelt down beside her. “Let me catch my breath. Has he gone?”

“Yeah and how the...” She interrupted me.

“Come on old man.” She teased as she rolled over and came to a sitting position. “They've had body armour for centuries. Kevlar I believe was invented in the 20th century and is still very effective today. Never leave home without it.” It was her turn to wink

I rose from my knee and stood there looking down at a smiling young lady. Stuck out my right hand and helped her to her feet.

“Now about that drink.” She continued as we both resumed our original course toward the exit. “Whoever said diamonds were a girls best friend did not see this situation ever happening.”

All I could do was shake my head as the elevator doors slid shut.
Goodbye to Charity – A Rats Tale

Goodbye to Charity – A Rats Tale

“In what way do you think that it's not over?”

I had just picked up the coffee cup and had not even had my first sip when the question answered my sceptical remark. Charity sat at the opposite side of a two person table in non-descriptive eatery. She had at least had a sip from the wine glass before her, so I followed suit and took a slug from the newly dressed cup before me.

“Think about it. You're missing something in the big picture.” A little cryptic perhaps but you didn't need to be a detective to work this one out, or so I thought.

“Nope. You lost me.” A small shake of the head followed by another sip of the deep burgundy before her.

“Tell me what the Silver Boys will do when the merc goes to collect his reward?” I was going to give her all the time she needed to work this out for herself.

“Well, they'll listen to his report, check the scope-cam film, then check the local mo...oh.” The penny dropped. “There will be no body in the morgue.”

“Yup. Then they put another contract out on you and we start from square one.” I paused as a plate of appetisers where delivered to the table. “Eat up, once we are ready to leave I have an idea what we could try.”

Charity gave me a quizzical look, I nodded towards the food, reached for an onion ring and started to eat.

Once we had finished eating and had another drink, we walked out into a wide corridor. The sights and sounds of Crouch Orbital were similar to other stations I had been on but like the others it had it's own unique feel. Even though CD-61 6651 was a Federation system it had a more lively feel than most others. I put that down to the amount of independent factions that lived within the station. I'd looked up our destination before we left the eatery and even though it was near the back of the station, we walked to it.

It didn't take long to reach the proper doorway, even with a few stops. On the way I explained to Charity what we were away to attempt. That prompted one of our stops at a cafe with tables outside the main cafe room. Charity spend 10 to 15 minutes a computer that she took out of her bag. Happy that she had taken care of everything we set out again. From there it did not take us long to reach the morgue.

Walking through the door I looked around a room that looked like a doctors waiting area, although I didn't think any amount of treatment would help those who were taken here. Sitting behind a sign on a desk was a man in his early thirties. The sign proclaimed him as Dr. Lawson, next to that was a picture frame, a cup and the always present computer terminal. He didn't even look up from it as the door closed behind us.

“Hello Dr. Lawson I have a hypothetical question I would like to ask you.” I kept my voice level hoping not to show any nervousness.

“Oh, hello. Sorry I was busy and didn't hear you come in. Sure, ask away Mr?” I chose to ignore his question but ask mine.

“How would one go about inserting a made up death into the system and if it's possible who would I see about getting it done? Hypothetically of course.” With that I gave as friendly a smile as I could. He looked at me and seemed to think it over for a second or two.

“Sure it's possible and you would have to see me. There would also be a cost, hypothetically speaking, of course.” the answer was deadpan with no hint of sarcasm, just another day at the office.

“Ok, how much?” Stuff the hypothetically bull, lets get this done.

“Mill and a half.” Still deadpan. “You got that kind of money old man?” I heard Charity stifle a laugh or perhaps a gasp of shock. Either way I continued on.

“750 and you still will be ripping me off.” I replied not letting any irritation at his jibe detectable in my voice. As I did so Charity tapped my shoulder.

“He's going to do it, why are you haggling with him?” She whispered so only I could hear.

“Cos he expects it and he is trying to take me for a mug. I know what I'm doing, ok.” With a nod she back away.

“Mill, 250 and I won't go any lower than that.” He replied to me in an amiable voice. I made a slight show by wrinkling my brow and then gave a shrug.

“Mill even or I wait and send your next shifts kids through college.” I turned to Charity, gave a wink and pointed at the door.

“Ok, mill even it is. I am going to need your name now so we can get this started.” I gave Charity another wink and turned back to Dr. Lawson.

“Nope, you still don't need my name as it's not me you're erasing from the universe. I will need a padd with your details so I can transfer the money. 750 now and 250 once I'm happy you've done the job properly.” I took the offered padd as I propelled Charity to the chair at the other side of the desk from Lawson.

“I might have guessed you knew what you were doing. Just another petty criminal.” I heard him say as I walked away from the desk.

It didn't take long to set up the transfer and leave the 250,000cr in an account I kept for such emergencies. As I waited for them to finish I looked out the one way window at the people walking past. There wasn't that many, not this far back in the station. A young couple arm in arm were walking past when Lawson cleared his throat. I turned, took the few steps to his desk and handed the padd over to him.

“Alright Doc, I'm going back to my ship. There I'll check local records and if everything looks good I'll release the last 250, ok.” Again I gave the friendly smile and with Charity beside me, we left.

“You made sure the autopsy report had the correct entry point right?” I asked her as we walked along.

“Yeah, it looked good and thanks. I guess this means I'm officially dead.” She replied as she glanced at me.

“Yup, I hope you didn't forget anything when you set up your dummy accounts, cos Charity Nascimento no longer exists and you can't get at anything in her name.”

“So do I but if I'm dead and don't exist any more I can go on a crime spree an' never be caught.” She gave a small chuckle.

“Correct kind of. Charity can't be caught be you can. Name or no name. Also where you going to hide all your ill gotten gains. Dummy accounts only work if you have a name to start them with.”

“Yeah, I didn't think it all the way through. Sorry it's my first time dying, I'll get it right next time.” Again she gave a chuckle. “So what's next in your plan?”

“Whoa there, plan? No, no, I'm making this up as I go along, but I do have an idea. Let's get back to the ship and we'll talk it over.”

We made one stop for coffee on the way back. Of course I paid and took the chance to tell Charity to start thinking about a new name.

Once back onboard the December I sent a personal message and then started plotting the route we would be taking. Charity dumped her bag in her cabin and then joined me on the bridge.

“So, where we heading?” She asked.

“Sol. Abraham Lincoln Station to be precise.”

“Are you going to tell me or is it going to be a surprise?” A small hint of irritation beginning to creep into her tone.

“I'm not sure it will work but.” I paused to let just how much I should tell her. Would raising her hopes up just to have them dashed if my idea failed, seemed a little cruel. “I know or knew I guess, someone who works in the Federation Census Bureau. If anyone could pull of creating you a new identity he's the man.”

“Uh, you double cross him or something?”

“No nothing like that, I just haven't seen him in a while. Oh he is also my ex-wife's brother, big brother at that.” Heck she might as well know it all.

“Oh.” She sounded deflated and I could not blame her.

“We got 3 hours to get to Sol, you think you can make that?” My vision was still giving me problems and whatever the outcome it was something I had to try.

“Yeah I can do that.” She gave me a smile and sat down at the controls.

“Course is laid in, ready to go when we have clearance.”

Clearance came quickly and the Anaconda lifted gracefully off of the pad and angled toward the slot and hopefully a new beginning for Charity.

“Shoot the stars Aitken, this had better be important. Way to give a guy heart failure with that message.”

As well as being the brother to my ex-wife, Kevin Fischer was my oldest friend. We had lived close to each other growing up as kids, went to the same school, sat in the same classes and the friendship occurred naturally.

I also understood his concern at the message. It had been short and to the point I thought but sure it could be looked at as being urgent.

“I'm 3 hours out and need to meet you. See you at the usual Galnet Hub. A.”

“Good to see you too Kev. Thanks for meeting me here.” I gave a smile as I was telling the truth, it was good to see him.

'Here' was a Galnet Hub. A meeting place with computers, Galnet feeds, snack machines and drink dispensers. In the busy hurley burley world that was the Sol system this was a place for people to meet, relax and talk over the news of the day.

“Sorry A, good to see you. You've picked up a you battle scar since we last met,” This time it was Kevin's turn to smile. “What can I do for you?”

I scanned the surrounding area with my eyes, we were tucked into a corner of the area. It wasn't busy and no one was near enough to over hear our conversation. So I told Kevin everything. All my exploits since I had left Sol just over two years ago. He listened, nodded occasionally, I even got a laugh or two out of him telling of some of the dumb stuff I had done and of course I told him about Charity. He gave a snort when I told him about the battle scar. Just as I finished my story I turned the terminal in front of me so Kev could see Charity's obituary.

“Well, that makes it a little easier. You want me to give her a whole new identity I take it?” My old friend asked as he looked over the screen.

“Yeah, I can pay Kev.” I didn't want him to think I was taking advantage of our friendship.

“This is a good job A.” He said as he looked over the death report. “The coroners seal and signature are close to impossible to duplicate. You know some great hackers or you managed to get the real thing to do this.”

I told him it was the latter.

“Good lookin' girl, you involved?” He asked looking up from the screen.

“No Kev. She is the same age as Maddie.” Kevin's oldest daughter. “I'm the closest thing she has to a friend. I couldn't just not help her.”

“That Fuel Rat stuff you do, making you a little soft, A?” He said it with a smile so I knew he understood, well as much as I did. “I don't need your money, IF I do this I do this for the same reasons you do. Cos it feels like the right thing to do.”

“Come on Kev, I know you are not looking for a hand out but at least let me put something in a fund for your grand kids.”

“My grand kids? What about your own? Once Robert's married you know Song is going to want kids.”

“Already taken care of, not that Robert knows. Let me do the same for Maddie and Stacey.” Stacey being Kevins youngest and other daughter.

“You want a coffee?” He asked as he stood up. I nodded and he walked over to the drink dispenser and returned with two cups. We both sat in silence as Kev ran my request through his mind. I was half way through the coffee when he spoke again.

“Ok. Have her be at my office 8am tomorrow.” He slid a business card across the table. “This won't be as easy as what I did for you thirty years ago but it's possible. Will there be any come back from the gangsters she was involved with?”

“If they think she's dead, none that I can see. As you said the obituary was real. They only thing they can link to her is me and I have an idea how to take care of that.” I replied as I picked up the business card and placed it in one of my flight suits pockets.

“I'll let you set the funds up for the grand kids, you're still Crazy Uncle Aitken to my kids.” He looked into his empty cup and then stood up. “I'll probably not see you until Roberts wedding, Song and him seem to be in no hurry, so don't die before I see you next time.”

“I've no plans on that score.” He gave me thump on the shoulder and left.

I slowly wandered my way back to the December, I'd grown up on this station and I wanted to see the changes that had been made since then. Some of the stores had different names and a few of the kiosks had moved but it looked and felt pretty much the same. Mum and Dad had moved out to Titan City just after I graduated from college, even then I had stayed at the Abe. Getting employment from one of the top shuttle lines in the Sol system meant being based out of the Abe and I honestly though I would never leave. Life hardly ever goes to plan and I had only minor regrets, none about leaving the Abe though.

“Hi Dad.” I nearly jumped out of my skin, I had been so deep in thought I hadn't seen Robert waiting by the hangar entrance. I hoped he did not see my surprise and gave him a hug.

“Sorry I should have told you I was coming to Sol but it was a spur of the moment thing.”

“You don't have to explain anything to me Dad. Uncle Kev doing ok?” He asked as if in passing.

“Yeah your uncle is doing fine Robert.”

“Sorry to read about your friend being shot Dad but that should be a warning not to cross those type of people.” I wasn't sure how much he knew and did not plan on pushing the point.

“I'm still here Robert, so I must be doing something right.” I answered with a grin.

“Let's try and keep it that way.” He answered with the same grin. “Gotta go Dad. Good seeing you.”

“You to son.” And he was gone.

I gave the business card to Charity. She looked it over and smiled at me.

“Be there at 8am tomorrow and Kev will take care of you.”

“Thanks Aitken. It's late I'm turning in. See you tomorrow.” With that see left the bridge and went to her cabin.

I made myself a coffee and sat on the bridge, wondering just how much Robert knew. In the end I gave a shrug, Charity was alive and hopefully with Kevins help she would continue to live for a long time.

I fell asleep sitting in the command chair on the bridge, not the first time and probably not the last either. When I awoke Charity was already gone. So I started preparing the December to leave, checking the fuel level, plotting in the next course and so on.

Charity returned at around 2pm, or someone who looked like Charity.

“Emma Rosales, pleased to met you Aitken.” She said as she walked on to the bridge.

“Well that's going to take a little while to get used too.” I replied with a smile. “Well Emma, the course is laid in, so I hope you know how to handle an Anaconda.”

With a girlish giggle she sat down and requested clearance to the flight deck. A few moments later we were surging into the darkness that is space and lining up to our exit vector.

I sat in silence for most of the journey out to Shinrarta monitoring the systems and allowing Emma to concentrate on flying. I also knew what came next, as necessary as it was I was still not looking forward to it. Once docked at Jameson Memorial I turned to look at Emma.

“What do you think the Silver Boys will think and do when the reports of a woman answering the description of Charity Nascimento has been seen in my presence?” I asked.

“Think? I don't know. Do? Well, they'll send someone out to see who I am, put two and two together and put another contract out on me.” She didn't look any happier than I felt. I nodded knowing see knew that this arrangement was coming to a close.

“Pick out a Cobra Mk.III, I know you like that ship. Have it fitted to the way you want and then head out to Ceos. There you can do runs between Ceos and Sothis, legal and otherwise if you wish. I'll front you 250,000cr and the ship to get you started. You should be safe all the way out there, ok.”

She walked over and took me in to a warm, friendly embrace.

“Thanks. I've never had a friend before, what are you going to do?” Still holding me she asked.

“Well, the December is too well known, so it's staying here for a little while. I'll pick something else up once I'm ready to go. Not sure what I'll do yet. If I was you, I'd earn a couple of mill before I came back to the bubble, or more and get yourself an Asp or whatever you wish. Give enough time for the Boys to get interested in other things.”

“I'll repay you Aitken, every last credit.” She said as I felt the tears from her on my neck. I gently pushed her to arms length.

“No you won't and young lady I fully expect to see you again. This is a 'see you later' moment. Not a 'goodbye' one.” I told her with a smile, although I felt like tearing up also. She gave a nod and continued.

“Goodbye Charity, see you later Emma.”
A Rats Tale

Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks

“There you go Aitken, all loaded.”

N'tone and his gang of loaders and just finished stowing two hundred tons of cargo aboard my ship.

“That's a different Conda you have this time round, isn't it?” He asked.

“Yes, yes it is. The old one was becoming to well known in Security circles if you follow my meaning.” I replied. N'tone let out a booming laugh.

“I do indeed my crooked friend, I do indeed. Fly safe Commander.” He gave me a mock salute before leaving. “Until next time.”

Yes, I had tried other ships after Char..sorry Emma had left Shinrarta. I had jumped into a Cobra Mk. III too. Man I love that little ship. Fast, manoeuvrable, a pure delight to fly but little as I said. Even if I had removed the shields it would still not haul the amount, I and my clients were used to. The other thing was I did not like running shieldless and I was also looking for more range.

I thought about another Asp. Sure it had the range and more than doubled the carrying capability. I ruled it out, nothing screamed SMUGGLER more than a high cargo, long range Asp.

I did have some fun in an Imp. Clipper. Big cargo bay, loads of speed. Agile for it's size too but again it came back to the range.

Now you could say greed played apart in my final decision but I could counter with what was expected of me from said customers. So I went back to the Anaconda, not the December but a whole new boat. The December sat in Shinrarta, set up as an ExploRataconda. A bit of a mouthful so I'll stick to December. D modules, except the FSD and thrusters. The power planet may have been A rated too but it wasn't the largest you could fit. I added a two SRV hangar, a fuel limpet controller of course, ASD, DSS and whenever the fancy took me it was ready to go into the black. Cargo capacity may not be the best but it could scavenge if I needed it to.

Back to the two hundred tons though. This customer had two deliveries to the same system. Again it was one to a surface base and one to an orbital space station. Even better was that the station orbited the planet with the base and since I was piloting, one was a 'shadow' delivery. 20 tons of Nerve Agent to the surface and the rest was narcotics to the station. I did not know or care, ok maybe I cared a little but the profit from this one run would make up for the loses I had being suffering of late. Again I didn't mind helping friends but my credit balance had taken a hit. Some of it was spent on business expenses, like the new unnamed Conda. That would take a little longer to make up, the other outlays would be covered by this one trip.

It was shaping up to be a near perfect job. Independent system to Independent system. I'd laid in the course to Mandhrithar, obtained clearance and eased the Conda off the pad. I'd made a few adjustments to this ship as it's main task was to be smuggling, larger thrusters, distributor, power plant and more cargo space. I added an ADS but didn't bother with any SRV hanger, this one was built to haul large amounts of contraband and faster than the December.

I'd lined up with the slot and pushed the throttle open a little, I eased over to the right so as to be on the green side. Just as the nose reached the slot mist I pushed the throttle wide open and hit the boost button. Erupting from the station like a rocket propelled grenade I held the course straight, boost, boost and the mass locked light winked out. Frame Shift Drive charging. As soon as we were in supercruise I pulled back on the stick, shifted it gently to the left while adding a little roll and the exit vector lined up sweetly. It was only the second time I had tried out the new power configuration and was pleased with its performance, even if it had only been a practice run leaving an anarchy station. Practice makes perfect.

As you can guess my vision was close to being back to normal. During the week I spent in Shinrarta I had seen a local doctor. He diagnosed migraine headaches, gave me a different medication which seemed to work. As soon as my vision starts to blur I had to pop a med and it reduces the effect. I hope over time I will be able to dispense with them altogether.

The journey to Mandhrithar went without incident, as always I was checking the scanner and looking for possible threats. I wasn't sure if things were quiet because of ridding myself of past problems, not Emma as she had never been a problem, or I was just being lucky. Whatever the case I wasn't complaining and enjoying the relative peace.

Of course that was short lived once entering Mandhrithar.

“How have you managed to get so far with such a big haul?” Boomed from the communication speakers. I saw no point in replying and prepared the ship for what was to come next.

BLAM! The tether took hold and we began the tug of war dance that could lead to one of our deaths. Death didn't happen for either one of us as I fairly easily broke the hold and continued on my way to Mandhrithar B3.

A moments inattention can cost any pilot and so it nearly did for me as I came closer to the planet. I was checking over my systems preparing to enter orbit, then land at Sato Vision and vaguely heard the transmission of “Moving to intercept now.” I honestly thought it was some other ship that the Security Ship was after until I felt and heard once again, BLAM!

Having just had a little practice with a potential pirate I found the Security to be as effective as that would be pirate. Having broken the tether and double backed a few light years the landing at Sato Vision was an anticlimax to the whole experience.

I watched as a bunch of thugs, with the appearance that only a mother could love, unloaded the 20 tons of nerve agent. I hardly spoke to any of them and was more that happy to see the squad of SRVs exit the hangar to drive to parts unknown. I was paid electronically and returned to the bridge a happier man.

At Fox City in orbit around Mandhrithar B3 the crew of Longshore men unloading the 180 tons of narcotics were a little more approachable and directed me to a place I could eat. It was the docks canteen and while the choice of fare might be sparse, the quality and amount were not.

I was sitting at a table with bench seating tucking into a dish of stew when a shadow moved across my vision.

“Aitken, isn't it?” A roguish looking guy asked. I had a mouthful of stew so just gave a shrug. “Well whoever you are I have some information for you. Rumour has it that United Epsilon Indi Flag are looking to start producing Indi Bourbon again and are looking for pilots to smuggle in other boozes.”

“Why?” I asked after I had swallowed the stew.

“So they can use it to bribe Indi officials. Of course they could also blackmail the officials once they have it in their possession.” A not very pleasing grin appeared on his face. “I'll send you the details and then it's up to you. No skin off my nose if you don't want to make some easy credits.” I saw the details flash on to my padd as the messenger for the drunk left.

As I read through it my mind was made up. I started to look at routes that would make a decent loop. Once I had worked out what I would haul and from where I also decided that a Conda was a little overkill and an Asp would do better. It was a four legged loop from Epsilon Indi to Leesti, then Wuthielo Ku, then Eranin and back to Indi. If they really wanted the Bile Distillate from HIP 59533 I would make the trip but as the outpost was so far out I left it out of my planned run. I finished the stew and the coffee I had bought to go with it, returned the dirty dishes to the proper area and returned to the ship.

The easy credits may have been the reason some were making this a goal and they wouldn't hurt. For me though there were other reasons too. Prohibition didn't work in my mind. It had been tried multiple times over the centuries and people always found ways to get their fix, whether it be alcohol or some other drug. I wasn't complaining as it was strict rules, however misguided they may have been, like these that kept me in a job.

Once I had plotted in the course to Shinrarta, I noticed that Leesti and Eranin where only a couple of jumps away for an Asp, with that mentally noted I departed Fox City and started heading back to Jameson Memorial.

I'd renamed the Oxen Craig, the RJ Mitchell with plans to run it in a Buckyball race that I had backed out of. It appears I am not meant to be a racer. I had thought that since smugglers use similar tactics as racers do, I would be able to set a decent time. I never managed and so I decided to stick to what I was good at. I reworked the internals a little and even with a A6 scoop I could still fit 50 tons of cargo, more than enough for this job.

I performed a couple loops before I began to tire, it had been a long day. I decided to get some sleep and continue the next day. I returned to Shinrarta and got some much need rest aboard the tactical crimson Anaconda.

I awoke but did not feel refreshed until I had my first cup of coffee. Once that was taken care of I hopped back into the RJ Mitchell and headed for Leesti. At George Lucas I bought 14 tons of Evil Juice and as much Azure Milk as I could find. Course plotted in for Tarter Dock, Wuthielo Ku and I was off. Once docked I sold the Azure Milk and bought 16 tons of Froth, then I plotted the course to Eranin. 150Ly or so later I glided into Azeban City and bought up my share of Pearl Whiskey. I paused a moment as apart from the previous day this was the first time I had been in Eranin in over a year, I think I was buying fish to deliver to I-Bootis but I could be remembering it wrong. Once my bout of nostalgia had passed I prepared for the final two jumps to Epsilon Indi and another delivery to Mansfield Orbital. Everything went according to plan and I completed 3 or 4 runs for my days work, apart from hearing Scan Detected a few times, I was moving to fast for them to be completed, it all went without a hitch. I returned to Shinrarta, had supper and turned in.

I was up early next day but in no great hurry as I pondered my next move. As I said earlier I loved the Cobra Mk. III and was thinking about using it. The only thing that put me off was the thought of the long haul down to Tarter Dock. I had some breakfast as I worked out my little problem. Just as I finished my second cup of coffee the idea hit me, just miss out Wuthielo Ku and jump between Leesti and Eranin. If I was requested to go to Wuthielo Ku I would just head back to Shinrarta and jump in an Asp. Simple and it should still net me a tidy profit. With my mind made up I boarded the chrome finished Cobra the Ythan and set out for Leesti. Everything was going well once again I had sold the Azure Milk at Azeban City and had just entered the Epsilon Indi system. I can only think that it was due to the fact that I had not encountered any problems in the two days before that I failed to see the Clipper on my six. BLAM! The tether of an interdictor grabbed the Cobra. I instinctively began to fight it but too late, I found myself spinning as a blue haze appeared on the edges of my sight. I had just opened the throttle and started to glance at the scanner when lasers began to hammer my shields. Twisting and turning I watched as the FSD cool down went, what seemed to me at a snails pace, toward operational.

“Stand and fight you cowardly pirate.” “At least die like a man and not the dog you are”

Were two of the phrases I heard over the comm.

As my shields failed I managed to send a message back.

“I don't have any guns. I am a trader on my way to Mansfield.”

I felt and watched as apart of my hull was eaten away and then the firing stopped.

“A trader you say. What would a trader be doing here in a ship favoured by pirates?” I heard once the firing had ceased.

“Sorry to disappoint you but pirates are not the only ones you pilot Cobras you know.” If the Clipper pilot heard distress in my voice it was real. I didn't like being shot at when I knew I was guilty but to be shot at for just being there, well I really did not like that.

“I'm aware of that. My apologies if I caused damage and any undue anxiety Commander.” I would take the apology and depart with my life, it could have been worse.

“No worries Commander, good hunting.” His heart was at least in the right place, even if his trigger finger was a little itchy.

“And good smuggling to you.” With that telling remark he was gone. I returned to supercruise and had no further problems reaching Mansfield.

I did another couple of trips without incident. I was about to climb the steps back to the cockpit after helping unload my third load when I was approached by a member of the United Epsilon Indi Flag.

“Greetings Commander. I have a request of you. Could you return to Eranin and return with more Pearl Whiskey, we have an official who is rather fond of it and would like another batch, so we can bring him round to our way of thinking. If you get what I mean.”

I got what he meant alright and agreed to his request. So I missed one run over to Leesti, no big deal in the grand scheme of things. I fired up the Ythan and did the two jumps to the Eranin system. Bought the booze and did the two jumps back to Epsilon Indi.

I have no excuse for what happened next, I did everything wrong, I reacted to slow and the actions I did take were very predictable. I saw them coming in and fumbled as I tried to select a system to jump to. Before I had done that a tether had been attached and I was spinning back into normal space. I saw two, perhaps three ships appear in front of me as I turned and boosted in the opposite direction. The hail of fire quickly stripped my shields and then it was beating at the hull. I'd messed up big time and I could only see one way out, I closed the throttle and waited for the pirates to catch up.

“Hello there. Happy to see you came to your senses, now give us the booze and we'll let you live. Deal?” A mocking voice advised me.

“Alright I'll give you what I have.” I replied. I attempted to jettison the 12 tons of whiskey and nothing. Laser fire started to ping at my already damaged hull.

“Hold on, I'm not going anywhere.” I said into the comm unit. Then I remembered that to get more range I had fitted an A2 power plant and that meant shutting down the supply to the cargo hatch. I switched the shields offline, well they were down anyway, and powered the hatch up. With that done I abandoned the whiskey, open the throttles and got out of there.

“Thank you for your contribution to the fund Commander.” The mocking voice followed after me.

I stayed in normal space for a good while, berating myself and waiting for the shields to come back on line. When they did and I had calmed down, I jumped back to Eranin and bought more whiskey. I wasn't thrilled about returning to Epsilon Indi but I had agreed to deliver the whiskey and all I could do was die trying. In fact that was a very real possibility.

I don't know if the pirates were busy or had bugged out but I made it back to Mansfield without any further problems. There I was met by the customer.

“Good grief what happened?” He asked as the damage to the Cobra was easy to see.

“Pirates. It was only a matter of time before they got here.” I answered with a shrug.

“I am sorry for the trouble and grateful that you got the whiskey to me.” I helped his men unload the whiskey and when they had gone I surveyed the damage to the Ythan. With the two attacks the hull was down to 31%, modules had taken damage and I wasn't happy with my performance. Shaking my head I climb aboard and limped my way back to Shinrarta. I wanted the engineers there to fix it up, I had used them before and knew their work. Once I had arranged for the repairs to start I called it a day. I found a coffee shop and ordered the biggest cup they had and sat down. I must have sat for an hour or two drinking coffee and trying to forget the events of the day. I was not very successful and knew if anything like this happened again I had to perform better.

It was back to the Asp when it was time for me to go next day. The Cobra was still under repair and probably would be for a day or three. I returned to the three booze route I had been using and quickly fell into a routine. Dock, buy, jump and drop. I also took the chance to gain more proficiency with planetary braking. It was a skill I had never been very good at but with all the docking I was doing I could see an improvement, I still missed more than I hit perfect but even that was better than missing all the time. Even if I did miss it still reduced the interdictions by security forces and it sped up the times between systems.

It wasn't until the fourth lap round the loop that I hit trouble in Epsilon Indi. This time I saw the four man wing in plenty of time. I had selected a new target system when I heard “Target acquired moving into position.” Sure it sounded very ISS but I was friendly with the controlling faction in this system and these guys were not green. I had lined up with the exit vector and was just about to engage the FSD when another transmission came over the comm. “Break off Hades Wing, I repeat break off attack run.” My thumb remained over the FSD engage button as I paused to see what would happen next.

“Cmdr. Aitken, you rescued me some months ago when I ran out of fuel. For that I owe you and the Fuel Rats my life. We will leave you alone to pay some of the debt back. If we see you again I may not be able to call the dogs off.”

I thought about replying with a thanks but after the previous days events I found it hard to thank a pirate.

“There is no debt, we saved you because you needed help. Nothing more, nothing less.” Good grief, now I was trying to change his mind.

“I know that. I'm going to pull my wing out of here for a while. Just to make sure one of these rogues doesn't take a pot shot at your cargo hatch. Fly safe Commander. ”

“Sure.” I could think of nothing else to say to him. I watched as the hollow rectangles formed up in formation and jump out.

I relocked my target to Mansfield Orbital and continued on my way. After landing and unloading my wares I chatted to the dockers. Yes, pirate activity was up, yup, roving bands had been reported all through the system. I took little comfort in knowing I was not the only one to have suffered.

I decided that I had pushed my luck far enough for one day and returned to Shinrarta once again. As I walked into the hangar the way the light struck the new Conda reminded me of the colour of my mothers favourite flower, Sakura. Uh, funny how names can come to you and have a strange meaning. I don't think my mother would approve of the direction my career had taken and she would have a very dim view of today's events. She might approve of the Condas name, and then again maybe not.

Even with its home away from home feel I didn't sleep too well on the Sakura. I had thought I could handle most situations out here, well I was still alive. Perhaps that was why, I usually knew when to throw in the towel and call it quits. The promise of easy credits must have blinded me this time around. Well that was easily fixed.

After coffee I jumped into a DBX. The Cooper had not been used for sometime but due in no small part to the attention it received in Shinrarta, it fired up first time.

I headed to Eranin and picked up a shipment of Pearl Whiskey and then onto Epsilon Indi. Once it was unloaded I thank the dockers for all their help and slipped each guy a tip. In this heavily electronic economy this was one of the few times that real currency came into its own.

“That's you quitting then Commander?” The lead of the crew asked.

“Yeah, enough is enough and I think I hauled my fair share. Time to grab a bite to eat and head out back to the edges.” I replied trying to sound cheerful. 'They' might hate quitters but if 'They' saw away out and 'They' could still survive, better to retreat and live to fight another day. I think 'They' would hate dying even more.

“I think you did, yup. You might want to try the diner about a block down, turn right as you leave the hangars. Hope to see you again Commander, fly safe.” We shook hands and he departed.

I found the diner he had recommended and ordered a Tex-Mex Omelette, I had no idea what a Tex-Mex was but it looked good in the picture, toast and of course coffee.

While I ate the same representative of the United Epsilon Indi Flag that had asked me to pick up a shipment of whiskey for a fussy official came to see me.

“If you check your account Commander you will see a bonus we are paying all the pilots who helped us out. It is with our thanks and gratitude.”

A quick check on the padd and I was happy with the unexpected bonus. “My thanks to you and your organisation, pleasure doing business.”

“Those funds will be released at the end of our venture.” A genuine smile rose on his lips.

I stood up for another round of handshaking and then he too departed.

I pondered what I was going to do next. I was considering heading deeper into the bubble, sounds silly I know as I had a yearning to get away from most people. Visiting friendly places and faces sounded good.
A Rats Tale

The Devil You Know​

“And that ladies and gentlemen is the reason for the moral decline of our youth.”

I looked around the room I was sitting in just to be sure I was not dreaming Since I didn't appear to be I posed Gabe the obvious question .

“You don't believe the bull manure this guy is spouting do you?” The tone of my voice was one of disbelief.

“This guy” was the host of “IMHO with Gunther Strutter” airing on the GalVision Holo Network.

“Me? Heck no, but you'll find quite a few who share his view's.” Gabe replied shaking his head. It made his jowls wobble and I bit my tongue so as not to laugh. “This is one of the most popular shows in the Federation I'll have you know.”

He stood there wagging his finger at me as if I was a schoolboy who had been caught skipping class. This time I let out the laugh.

“But it's complete rubbish. Good grief it sounds like a propaganda piece more than a real program.” I replied once I had regained some of my composure.

“I get it but some of our citizens never leave the system they are born in. It's mostly those that eat this stuff up.” Gabe did not sound or look happy about it either.

“If you believe this guy then I am the model Federation citizen. I don't drink and I don't do drugs.”

“Well, you COULD be if you didn't deliver those substances to places they are not welcome in.” The older human was now struggling to keep a smile from his face. “You sir are the root of all evil in this Federation of Harmony.”

“Root of evil, hardly I'm just the delivery guy. And the only harmony here is made by the fat cats singing as they count the cash they've stolen from their citizens.”

“I'm not saying you're wrong but I'm not saying you're right either.” He paused to shoot me a wink. “And I know it wasn't what you came out here to do but you've done alright being a delivery pilot.”

“As you and Dad did back in the day too.” I retorted.

“Yes well, we all do what me must to make ends meet. Let me top up your coffee.” He picked up the cup and headed toward the kitchen area. “Oh and switch that rubbish off would ya.”

I didn't have too, at the sound of old man's voice the GalVision program blinked out.

I'd been in Atagat for a week and the friendly faces in this friendly place were doing me good. We had talked over my foul mood about the events in Epsilon Indi and Gabe had put me straight. He was blunt and to the point and that's what I needed to hear. He reminded me that those types of smuggling jobs were not my usual M.O. If they were I would be doing Robigo runs with half of the pilots in the bubble. That maybe just because I hadn't been caught in a while that I got a little cocky and let my ego write checks that I was unable to cash. Also it was possible that I wasn't the ace pilot I seemed to think I was or at least acted like I was. And another thing if you hadn't heard easy credits you wouldn't have gone, in fact the line easy credits should have been enough to get you heading in the opposite direction.

You know what? He was right and everything had been my own stupid fault. Even with all that in mind, I had still come out ahead. Well in credits anyway. The only thing to suffer was my pride and as Gabe had remained me, again. The pirates were professionals, not like some of the System Authority pilots, who were mainly kids and washed out military jockeys.

That had been the first day, once it was all out in the open and out of my system, I started to have a blast. We just hung out around the station taking in the sights and sounds. I offered him the chance to take out the DBX I had arrived in but he politely refused. Apparently his flying days were done. I did show him around it as he had never seen one close up. He was impressed but said he would still have preferred his Cobra. He was even more impressed when I reminded him that I had Dads Cobra back at Shinrarta and then I had to promise to take it the next time I visited.

Tiny would pop round when he wasn't working just to check on Grandpa and the crazy little guy. He was a good kid and loved to listen to the old man's stories of yesteryear.

So as not to put Gabe out too much I usually slept aboard the Cooper. Sure it was a little cramped but it wouldn't have been the first time I had no other choice. I hadn't taken a DBX far out into the black as when they were first released I was the proud owner of an Asp Explorer. I had used one for ratting as I found the way they ran cool a wonderful feature. Then I found the cash for a class 6 scoop for the Asp, it never had any heat issues but with a size 6 scoop you didn't even have to pause at a star. It just hammered the size 4 the DBX used. Not to worry, I had found other uses for the DBX and still enjoyed flying it.

So that's where I was heading, humming a along to a song coming from a nearby bar, when the old lady in front of me stumbled and dropped her bag. Being that I'm a smuggler and not a pirate I bent down and scooped it up for her. As I handed it back she gave a kindly smile.

“Why thank you young man. Let me do a kindness for you in return.” She patted me on the cheek a few times. “If you'd just cooperate with the nice gentleman behind you everything will work out fine.”

I was just about to ask what gentleman when I felt a gun being press into the small of my back.

“No funny stuff and I won't have to put a ventilation hole through your gut. Stay straight and follow the nice lady.” As he spoke the “nice” lady took the gun out of my shoulder holster and dropped it in her bag. She turned and started walking down the walk way. We walked past four doors before she stopped at another nondescript one. She swiped a card through the locking system and gave it a firm but gentle push.

“Now, you be a good boy and do as the nice gentleman asks. Thanks for the help sonny.”

Then she continued walking down the aisle. Me, I was firmly and not so gently propelled through the door into a large empty room. Well it would have been empty if it wasn't for the chair that sat before a large screen attached to one wall. I was pushed down into the chair facing the said screen.

I was just about to ask what the hell was going on when the screen lit up.

“Hello Aitken, so good to see you again.” A middle aged man in a well tailored dark suit smiled at me. Mr. Smith. I wasn't sure what he knew and wasn't sure what I should say so I said nothing.

“Excellent. You still know how to keep your mouth shut. That my dear sir will come in handy.”

I nodded and remained silent.

“Before we get down to business we must apologise for the unnecessary death of Miss Nascimento. We did try to stop the Silver Boys from putting out the contract but they would not hear of it. Vengeance had to be seen to be working and they wanted to send a warning to others who might think about betraying them.”

“Alright, I understand that and thanks for the condolences, but what do you want with me?” He regretted not being able to use Charity again was what I was getting from his over syrupy sympathy.

“She was a good gal and we know that you helped her escape as do the Silver Boys. I don't think the Silver Boys know just how much you did help her. All that time in Fehu and then jumping around to haunts only low lives would frequent. If they did they might be just a little bit more upset at you than they are. So we would like you to do a small job for us.” The cold grey eyes seemed to burst alight for a split second as he finished.

“Alright. You keep saying we and us. Would that be you and your Orrereian Tape Worm, or do you have friends I don't know about?” I was pushing my luck but I didn't like being coerced, coerced my eye this was outright blackmail.

“Ah Aitken, I do like how you keep your sense of humour. Even when you have no clue who you are up against.” The coolness had returned to the grey eyes and I knew to say something would more than likely be beyond my luck limit. I pushed any way.

“Well please do enlighten me my wise Mr. Smith.”

“I think not. On to business. We need you to jump into one of your little spaceships and scan the Swoilz LM-C D sector.” Ok a little trip out into the black no worries.

“Which one or ones would you like me to scan?” I asked.

“All of them.” A simple and to the point answer.

“Sorry but I don't seem to have access to a star chart at the moment. Just how many systems are we talking about?” I really have to learn to keep my smart-alec mouth shut sometimes.

“80. We just need you to drop into each system, scan it, the main star of the system and bring the finished scan data to us.” He replied.

“ADS of the system and DSS of the stars, ok. Should take me about a week.” No point in lying as I was sure he had others who would give an estimate on time needed for such a mission.

“That concurs with the time I was given. Couple of other rules to follow, no landing on any of the planets in any of the systems you scan. Also when you are finished you will be returning to the Llyr system. Last but by no means least, if you do not return before the end of the seventh day their will be others looking for you. Do I make myself clear.” I could detect the menace he was trying to project.

“Yes guv, as clear as crystal guv.” I bit back any other comment I was about to make and quit while I was ahead.

“Quite Aitken.” A slight smug smile of satisfaction crossed his lips. “We'll see you in Llyr within the next seven days.” The screen went dark. The light from the open door lit the empty room, the other gentleman must have left while I was talking to Smithy. I stood up and walked back out into the still busy shopping aisle. Took a deep breath, gave a shrug and headed for the hangar area.

Once aboard the Cooper I left Gabe a message saying an emergency delivery had come up. I next checked to see how far out the Swoilz LM-C D systems were. Ok all between 840 to 900lys out. I then plotted a course for Shinrarta and left the station. The Anaconda December sat there ready to go, it had a larger range than the Cooper, not by much but enough to make a difference to me. I don't think I could have put up with the cramped conditions of the DBX for 24 hours a day for the next seven days. The more refined Conda with it's ample room would work out well.

I arrived at Shinrarta and caught some sleep on the Conda, well I had been heading to bed when I had been diverted. When I woke up and I was sitting on the bridge with coffee I contacted Emma.

“Ok this has to be important or you would not be contacting me out here.” She had a concerned look on her young face.

“Yeah, it could be. I need all the information you have on Mr. Smith?” I had a little time to waste and having a little more background on the gentleman in question might not hurt.

“I really don't know any more than you do.” She looked a little perplexed and so I explained to her what had just happened. I did not tell her any details about Mr. Smiths request but everything else I could and did tell her.

“Oh no he was never a part of the Silver Boys. I was his liaison, pretty much the same as I was to you.”

“He was an independent operator too?” I was finding that hard to believe.

“No, I never knew who he represented, I don't think it was any of the powers even though he had close ties to the Federation. I just don't know and I was never told.”

“So all that Lead Controller stuff was just a cover?” I asked a little bewildered. Emma gave a small nod. “Ok, well now are things out there for you?”

“I'm doing ok. If things keep going the way they have been I should be able to buy as Asp with upgrades soon. I might just wait and get something a little bigger. I'm not sure yet.”

We talked for a while about ships and what she hoped to do. Now that Smith was on the go she did not seem in a hurry to get back to the bubble, I must admit if I hadn't been given a deadline I might not have come back either. I told her if she needed a little help getting the Asp to give me a call but to her credit she seemed determined to do it on her own.

“Alright Missy you stay in touch and be careful who you talk to ok.”

With a “Sure Dad.” the screen darkened.

As I said the December was ready to go and as soon as I got clearance we left. Getting out of the bubble did not take long doing the 28 to 30 jumps out to the Swoilz was going to take a little longer.

No worries, it gave me time to think. I wasn't sure if that was a good or a bad thing. He and who ever he represented were looking for something. That much was obvious, but what? A planet type? A star type? Something on or around either one? I simply did not have enough information and so I just kept jumping, honking, scanning and jumping again.

I turned my thoughts to the how I was going to accomplish the goal of scanning 80 systems. I decided to do them in numerical order, not the most fuel efficient way of doing it but fuel didn't cost me anything with a fuel scoop fitted. Also probably not he most time efficient but it would stop me getting confused and scanning a system twice. Or I hoped so anyway.

I dropped into Swoilz LM-C D1, scanned the system and jumped to the next. Once I got to Swoilz LM-C D10 I stopped. I made sure there was plenty of empty space around me. Dropped out of supercruise and powered down most of the systems. Day two came to a close and I had little doubt I would finish the job in enough time to beat the deadline.

It didn't take long and about half way through day 5 I finished scanning Swoilz LM-C D80. Once again I flew out 100ly away from the main star and made sure I had clear space around me and dropped out of supercruise. I saw no point in rushing back, especially since I had two days before Mr. Smiths timer wound down to zero.

I run on Galactic Time and according to the ships timer I was up early. Once all the ship systems were back on line, I had floated to the galley to make and get coffee, I sat and plotted the route to Llyr. Baraniecki Vision in Llyr to be exact. And that's where I was by the late afternoon of the same day.

I was already keying in the details of the connection I had been given as the December was being pushed back into is hangar space.

“Ah Aitken you're back. Good.” I had expected a flunky but Smith himself popped up in the feed. “If you'll transfer the scan files over to this comm. connection.” The proper address system popped up on the bottom of the screen and I touched it to activate the transfer.

“Wonderful. That should take a little while and once we have analysed it all we'll be in touch.”

“What's this all about and why do you need me to do it?” I was starting to get a little ticked off being at Smiths beck and call.

“You don't need to know and why you. Easy you're available and we wish to keep our eye on you.” Again the smug smile came into view. “This may take a day or two so don't leave the bubble, there's a good chap.” The connection broke and I was staring at a black screen.

Ok, I won't leave the bubble, he didn't say anything about leaving this system though. Mind you it would not be difficult to guess where I had gone. Fuelum was one jump away, so that's where I headed.

I could see Nadzieja eyeing the new armour on the December before it came to rest in the hangar bay in Wollheim.

“Looks like Imperial work.” She remarked as I made my way over to her as I disembarked from the ship.

“Good eye and yeah I had some problems down in Fehu that necessitated the work.” I replied. “And a hello to you.”

“Sorry Aitken. Hello, I get a little possessive over the ships I look after.” She looked and sounded a little abashed.

“No apology need Nadzie. If I could have made it back here I would have preferred you to look it over too. I just didn't have that option.”

“That where the scar comes from?” Turning my head to get a look at the left side of my head, I nodded and was happy to find it didn't hurt. “Well if you don't mind I'm going to look her over.”

“Be my guest. I'll be a round some where.” I answered as I headed for the exit.

“Thanks, Wollheim isn't that big that you can hide.” I glanced round to see her and her crew moving inspection equipment into place.

The day or two stretched out into a full week. I really didn't mind as it gave me a chance to catch up on the happenings in Fuelum and the Verse in general. Nadzieja made a few adjustments but was overall happy with the way the December looked. I was enjoying myself chatting to new and old Rats. I was sitting in the lounge with a coffee when Derry stuck his head in.

“Aitken, someone is trying to raise you on comms.”

“Tell them I'll be aboard my ship in 5 minutes Derry and thanks.”

He waved his acknowledgement and vanished back into Ops. I picked up my cup and made my way back to the December. It had to be Smith. The only other people who would call me, apart from Emma, were already here in Fuelum.

So it was no surprise when he called a minute after I had returned to the Anaconda. “Ah Aitken, you are very predictable you know.”

“I'm not trying to hide Smith. No way was I waiting in Llyr till you decided it was time to call.”

“Well decide I did. We are sending you instructions for the next part of this operation. Once you have read through them, don't take your time. We are expecting you to need 21 days to cover all this at the most. The gives you 5 days for each phase and a day for travel. Apart from what we ask for, anything else you find you can keep. We'll hear from you in 3 weeks time in Llyr.” With that the screen went blank.

I pulled up the message and began to read. Almost at once I started to wish I hadn't. I had to travel to 4 of the 80 systems I had scanned, land on a specified planet and hunt for a downed probe. Namely I was looking for a needle in a haystack, or four needles to be exact. Of course I had lots of questions racing through my mind as I read the message. Where there 80 probes sent out and the other 76 made it back? Or where these four sent to 20 systems each? Or perhaps there were 8 and they had a 50% failure, or success, depending on your point of view. Once again I did not have enough information for my liking.

I laid in the course to the first of the four systems and pulled up the system map, of course it told me very little as I had only done an ADS and detail scanned the star. Well one thing was for sure, I would detail scan each body in each system to see what, if anything, I should watch out for.

Swoilz LM-C D6 was my first target and so I set off. The journey back there was about as exciting as it had been the first time, namely it wasn't and I dropped into D6 with no problems. I set about scanning all the planets in system which was probably a waste of time as I had been instructed to land on Planet 1. In total I had 4 High Metal Content planets, a terraformable Water World and the Class F Star. Planet 1 was a HMC and I headed toward it. As I approached I checked the gravity and found it to be 0.78g. Although I had landed on higher gravity planets in the past, it was still nice to see that this one should not prove any problems. To be sure everything would go smooth I reduced my power to 50% until I hit orbital cruise, once that was established I increased power to 75% and continued descending at a -25 degree angle. Orbital glide kicked in and I held it steady, a few seconds later as the glide finished I opened up the throttle and powered down to an altitude of 2km over the surface. Glancing between the altimeter and the scanner display with the power wide open the December ate up the kilometres as I watched for anything unusual. It didn't take long before the scanner started to show the something ahead was not supposed to be there, the blue colour bouncing back at me was the tell-tail sign. I cut the throttle, dropped the landing gear and angled the nose down toward the approximate area. Forward motion came to an end and I started easing the large Anaconda down using the vertical thrusters. With a solid “thunk” the gear hit planet and the engines automatically shut down. That was a safety feature I could have done without but every ship had it and I hadn't heard of anyway round it, c'est la vie. I flipped the auto-pilot switch on and headed down and forward toward the SRV hangar. Inside the hangar two Scarab SRVs sat waiting to be unleashed. I took two in case I wreaked one, always good to have a back up. Even though it was a low g world I could still walk to a fashion instead of floating as I usually did. I say to a fashion as I more bounced that walked as my strides were greatly exaggerated. Once strapped into the Scarab I hit the deploy button and held on as the hatch opened, the magnetic arms lowered me to about a meter or two above the surface as the wheels unfolded like a metal octopus and locked in place. A pause of a second or two and then a jarring drop and I was down.

Applying the brakes and increasing the wave scanner range were the first order of business. Once I had set the throttle to a setting I liked, I dismissed the December and waited. I could hear the hatch close and the thrusters powering up. A shadow lifted over me and twin tails of blue fire slapped into the surface 20 or so meters in front of me. The Conda would stay in orbit until I recalled it. With it gone the wave scanner would give me a clearer reading of what was a round me. The metallic mass that was an Anaconda registered as a huge wall on the wave scanner and could hide what I was looking for.

My usual method was to drive a 360 circle after releasing the brakes and seeing if anything showed up. I made round to about 120 when the scanner started to show returns in the upper bands, a sure sign of something man made was out there.

I headed in that direction over the undulating landscape, slowly rising and falling with the terrain and kicking up dust as I went. Sure enough a a bright red hollow rectangle showed up on the scanner and as I drew closer I retarded the speed a little. As I topped a rise my jaw nearly fell open as I saw the unmistakable shape of a probe with a trail of debris where it had hit the surface and finally come to rest. I slowed further yet as I waited for what I knew had to come. The red rectangle meant there was some sort of defensive measure ready to deploy. Just at the edge of that perimeter a Sentry skimmer sprung up and started to scan around the downed probe. The drone had no idea that I had been sent to retrieve the contents of the probe, all it knew was that if the correct code was not sent to destroy anything that entered it's warning area.

I backed up a little, targeted the drone and put four pips to weapons. I pulled the trigger and watched as the dual plasma repeater reduced the Sentry to scrap metal. With that threat gone I drove up to the probe and targeted it. Once close enough I activated the data link scanner, downloaded the data and was done. As I waited for the December to return after I recalled it, my thoughts were of being back in the bubble in days not weeks. I watched as the Tactical Ice Conda landed and then drove 450m to it. Back on board I made coffee and sat on the bridge musing over the days events. More than happy with the ease at the first days discovery. I turned in with hopes of continued good fortune.

I only had a few hours sleep and then was on to the second system, D25. Body 2A was the target, I say body as it was more of a moon round a HMC than a planet. In all it was just another system except for the fourth planet, it was an Ammonia World. I really wasn't into listening to gossip and hear say but I couldn't help remembering hearing tales of Thargoids. I had been a teenager during the Thargoid war but I remembered that it was speculated that they lived on Ammonia Worlds. Rumours had been swirling the past few months that strange ships had been seen around Maia. So of course the skinny was the Thargoids were going to make a return, I had no idea if it was that was going to happen but I felt a little uneasy, I must admit.

Swoilz LM-C D25 2A was very different from D6 1. It was a rocky body and it lived up to that name. Gray granite like rock welcomed me with large sweeping plains and towering pillars. After an hour of driving I suddenly picked up a contact and as I drew closer it became stronger and stronger until it was nearly solid on the wave scanner. Looking down from the edge of a crater I could see it was some type of automated base. As well as a tall, slender communication tower, it also had two defence turrets. I was also betting it had Drones too but they wouldn't show up till I got closer. Keeping a safe distance I circled it once hoping to see any indication of a power or faction that it belonged to, but picked up nothing.

I must have got too close as one of the turrets opened up, swinging round I opened up with the repeater and laid waste to the first turret. Two Sentry skimmers popped up and along with the second turret, opened fire. Moving position the Scarab hustled behind a slight rise giving me an excellent field of fire on the skimmers and cover from the turret. With some well placed rounds the two Sentry drones were soon piles of spare parts. Darting out from behind the rise firing as I travelled the second turret was soon reduced to a column of smoke rising toward space. Relieved that all opposition had been removed I moved in and used the data link scanner and download whatever information the communication tower held. I then moved about 1km away and recalled the Anaconda. I had to travel another 1km as there wasn't a decent landing site closer. Once docked I decided to move to the other side of the moon. Just in case anyone came looking to see why there tower had stopped transmitting. Day one on D25 2A didn't find me the probe but hadn't been a complete waste, you never know I might even get paid for the stolen information.

Day two found me back in the SRV and heading toward a likely signal source. With the rock being smooth in wide areas I was able to move at a respectable speed and was even enjoying myself. The terrain was flat and I could see that I was heading toward a downed ship. Again I reduced speed as all indications pointed to it being guarded. Right on cue two drones popped up and again each Sentry went down, exploding when hitting the surface. Cautiously I drove into what looked like the remains of a T6, straight away I could see two cannisters and two escape pods. After Smith told me to keep anything I found I had decided not to pick up anything. I could imagine that after I deliver the probe data that my ship would be searched for any ill gotten gains. Even though they were legal salvage I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of seeing me busted if I did pick up the wrong thing. Scanning the cannisters Narcotics and Personal Weapons struck me as the wrong things. I did how ever pick up the two escape pods, I just couldn't leave them to die once the oxygen ran out. I would try my best when I got back to the bubble to return them to their port or origin. I was just turning away from picking up the second pod when something caught my eye. Moving the scanners range out to maximum I was a little surprised to see another signal 500m away to the South West. To my delight it was a probe, sure there was a Sentry but once it was taken down I had half of my mission covered. I'd only needed three days to get this far and I still had dreams of being back in the bubble within the week.

I didn't hang about, once the December had returned and I'd board, I headed to LM-C D46. The system took the rest of the day to scan, four stars and only two planets but they were spread out. I was happy not to see an Ammonia World. The designated planet was B1 and I intended to land so I could grab some sleep before I started my search. The gravity was just over 1g at 1.15 but I still took great care so as not to damage the ship.

I didn't know it when I set out next day but I was to spend the next four days being very frustrated. The wave scanner was busy but it was busy with the wrong stuff as far as I was concerned. Tea, coffee, cargo racks that once shot open revealed elements that I was not searching for, I also picked up another two escape pods. I hit pay dirt on the fifth day and took down another drone before getting to the probe. 3 down, 1 to go with 8 days gone. So much for being back in the bubble within a week.

Swoilz LM-C D75 contained a varied bunch of planets. 2 HMC, a Water World, another Ammonia World and an Earth Like World or ELW with a rocky moon in orbit around it. It was that moon I had been tasked to search. I still had 14 days to finish and felt very confident that I would succeed, right up until I got a good look at the terrain on 3A. Canyons cut deep into the surface making it look as if it was about to split into thousands of pieces. I set the December down on a plateau between two deep fissures, deployed in the Scarab and after dismissing the ship, I got to work.

Day one was wasted chasing signals that lead me down into one of the canyons. I found cannisters of gold. Normally I would be over the moon to discover such a thing but not today. Once I had managed to get out of that canyon I recalled the Conda and called it a day.

The next six days were very similar, oh did I mention every time I found gold Sentry and Stinger drones shot out of the sandy soil and started firing. I was averaging 12 drones a day and wasn't very happy. I wasted one whole day looking for elements so I could refuel, rearm and repair on the move. By the end of the week I wasn't very happy and for the first time doubt started to creep in. I was starting to think that pirates were using this moon as a gold storehouse, I must have discovered 30 to 40 tons and not picked up one cannister.

Day 8 started with the usual discovery, gold. Blasting the drones that appeared I drove on not happy about ignoring such a valuable find. I was skirting the edge of a canyon and approaching a crater near the end of it when the scanner pick something up. Lying slap bang in the middle of the crater was the last probe. The probe hadn't made the crater just blind dumb luck that it came to rest there. I took care of the usual Sentry that popped up and downloaded the data. It was late in the day by the time I returned to the December. I had the best nights sleep since I had started out on this mission. So with five days left I lifted off from D75 3A and headed for Llyr. I bid the ELW a fond farewell as it had provided a spectacular vision when on the horizon, the Ammonia World I chose to ignore.

“Excellent job Aitken.” He had that smug smile on again and no wonder he hadn't risked his life to get the probe data.

“I'm happy you're happy Mr. Smith.” I hope he heard the sarcasm dripping from my reply.

“I'm sure you are.” Yup, I think he got it. “Well, we'll be in touch Aitken.”

“Hold on I have a few questions if you don't mind.” After two and a half weeks rooting around on astrological bodies that more than likely no one would ever land on again, I thought I deserved some answers.

“Sure, go ahead.” Smith sounded a little to amiable.

“What were the probes doing out there?” It was worth shot.

“You don't need to know that.” He replied with an air of condescension.

“Alright. I recover data from four probes, how many were sent out?”

“You don't need to know that.” I could see a pattern developing.

“Two systems had Ammonia Worlds, any connection?”

“You don't need to know that.”

“Is there anything I can ask that you will answer without being a jerk?”

“You...” I seemed to have upset his flow. “Not really,we don't feel the need for disclosure at the moment.”

“Uh huh” So what I gave up, blood from a stone comes to mind.

“So in closing Aitken. We have returned all the data, minus the probe data, to your ships computer. You should make a little bit selling it to UC. We've thrown in a little bonus for the Communications Base data, that could come in handy. As I said we'll be in touch when we need your services again. Ciao.” With that the screen went dark.

First thing was to return the escape pods to their home systems, shouldn't take to long I hoped.

Then I wanted answers. I wasn't sure who would have them but starting with Gabe was always a good idea.
The More Things Change – A Rats Tale

“Thanks for calling Dad, don't leave it till my next birthday until you call again.”

The image of my son faded to black on the screen before me. With the conversation over I pushed back the chair and headed back into the sitting area.

“So how old does that make him now?” Gabe asked as I took the seat on the opposite side of the room from him.

“I could have sworn it was 24 but Robert tells me today was his 25th.” I replied giving a small shake of my head.

“Don't worry about it, it's easy to lose track of our children's age, they grow up way so quickly.” The older man gave a shrug and took a drink from the cup on the table before him. “Did you ask him about your Mr. Smith?”

“No. I don't want to involve him if I can help it. I'm still unsure of the relationship between them. I don't want to cause him any problems.”

“Gotya. So it's just what I can find out?” Gabe looked at me and gave a nod. “Give me a few days it might take a little while.”

“No worries. If you can't find out anything with your network of contacts no one can.” It was my turn to to drink from my cup of coffee.

“Are you going to hang out here or have you other plans?” He stood up and headed toward the communications unit that I had just left.

“Not sure yet.” Which was the truth. I had been thinking of trying out mining again. I had spoken to a couple of good ol' boys last time I was at Wollheim and picked up a few tricks I hadn't known. On my travels I had spotted a few systems that looked good. Good to me meant pristine ring with a station in the same system, doubt that made me a good miner but I liked seeing my efforts pay off sooner rather than later.

“Ok.” Gabe was already logged into the comms unit and sounding a little distracted. “Try and stick around for a day or two.”

I was putting the cup back in the kitchen area and thinking about heading back to the Asp when Gabe walked in.

“Sol, Alioth and Achenar. If Smith is known there we'll find out about it soon. I have 'friends' in...” I stopped him there.

“I don't need to know your contacts Gabe. Call me paranoid but if this all goes south I really don't want to land more people than I have to in my mess.” I put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“Yeah makes sense but if they get to you, then get me. Whatever you have landed yourself in we're in it together. Weather we like it or not.”

“Sorry maybe I shouldn't have got you involved.” It was a statement, not a question but Gabe answered anyway.

“No, you did the right thing coming to me. Now go get some sleep and I'll see you tomorrow.” I seldom heard the edge of determination in his vocal tone but hear it I did. I also knew that it would be a waste of time to argue back so I said my goodnight and headed back to the Asp.

Much to my surprise I actually slept well. With all that was going on I expected to have a fitful night but no. I awoke feeling not bad for a guy who hadn't had any coffee yet, that I would take care of on my way to Gabe's.

Some months ago, after a visit to see my old friend Judge Karaca I had found the “Cafe Marseille”. It was a little coffee shop off the beaten path and man it made the best coffee in all of Glashow City.

“Hi Aitken, been a while.” Said the cute waitress.

“Yeah, I've been busy elsewhere Fasa. How you been?” I'd made friends with the staff as I came in anytime I was in Glashow City.

“I'm good.” She replied with a dazzling smile. “Usual?”

“Sure.” I nodded and as she walked away I pulled out my padd and started surfing through the bulletin board. I wasn't going to do any work but old habits died hard.

“Don't mind if I sit here do you?” A calm voice asked.

“No, be my ge....” My voice trailed away as I looked up to see a middle aged man in a dark well tailored suit. “Uh, so you're not just a face on a screen. Pleased to meet you in person Mr. Smith or does that remain to be seen?”

He sat down at the other side of the small two person table. “I think you'll be interested in what we have to talk about.”

He stopped as Fasa put a cup down on the table before me. “I'll have the same if you don't mind Miss.”

With another dazzling smile she wafted away back to serving area.

“Manners and clothes maketh the man uh?” I quipped after a sip at the delicious blend from the cup.

“Politeness costs nothing Aitken but can have rewards that far exceed that outlay.” A crease, that may or may not have been a smile crossed his lips. “We are what we are and you are a crook. Not as petty as the authorities would make out. But weather intended or not, you have made a name and a living from being on the wrong side of the law.” He paused as his coffee was delivered. After dressing it to his liking and taking a sip he continued.

“Excellent, you also have good taste in coffee it seems.” Another sip and then more talk. “You can tell Mr. Wyndham to end his search, I am about to tell you as much as he will find out. Probably more.”

“Sure I'll tell him once I make it to his place.” I replied, a small shift in my posture to feel the insurance I carried in the shoulder holster. I didn't think he would pull anything but better safe than sorry.

“Soon.” Another sip, a moment to gather his thoughts and he continued. “Things are about to change. In the coming hours, days, weeks opportunities will open, my associates and I are in a position where we can use help from individuals such as your self. Interested?”

“Sure, a little more information would be nice but please continue.” I took a pull from my cup and waited to hear what else Mr. Smith might have to tell.

“We are a small group of individuals also, we just have a little more influence than most.” Again what might have been or not been a smile appeared. “We use this influence to steer things in a direction that up until now has keep the universe peaceful.”

“You don't get out much uh. Murder, piracy and all kinds of nefarious operations happen every day.” I had to interrupt as he was sounding more an more like an Antel devotee.

“Small potatoes Aitken, we look at the big picture. Those and other things may happen in the background but the overall hostility level has remained at a low level.” He picked up his cup and drank in the aroma before taking a sip.

“You must be talking about the Super Powers cos I see high level hostility every time I am in space. I don't see where I can help you with that.”

“Correct and you and others like you can and do help in that matter.”

“You do all this for the Federation cos I see both sides building up their Navies and one wrong move from someone and it geys ugly.” I nodded toward Fasa and smiled, indicating that I would like a refill. Smith paused and indicated that he was would like a top up.

“The Federation is the area I work in but I do not work for them. We have others that work within the other Powers.”

“So you guys working in the shadows keep the lid on a simmering universe, stopping it boiling over to all out war.” I stopped to allow him to nod at my assessment. “You use or employ indivduals and small groups I would imagine to help you with this pursuit.” Another nod. “Why me?”

“Good question.” He seemed to gather himself for the next statement. “You don't blab everything you have done or learnt. Take your test out to Swoilz. You informed only two people of your trip and it's goals. Mr. Wyndham and your friend out in the Sothis Cluster. Keeping ones mouth shut is a rare skill in these times.”

“Test?” Stuff the compliment on keeping quiet, I wanted to know why he had called two mouths of my time a test.

“Yes Aitken, we had to be sure you were made of the stuff we are looking for.” He waited for me to say something. When I didn't he continued. “The probes were planted but the outpost you found was a bonus. That information has been put to good use.”

I glanced around the orderly little coffee shop. The two and four person tables set out in what appeared to be haphazard order. The few other patrons chatting, smiling and sipping from their coffee cups. Fasa brewing, making and serving said cups.

“If I agree, what do I do and will I make cash doing it?” I broke the heavy silence that had decesnded over our table.

“What you normally do. Run guns, assassinate those that are deemed worthy of that fate. Your everyday 'crook' stuff.” He spoke over the cup he had been lifting to his lips. “Only difference is we'll give you the location and faction we want you to work for. So yes you'll make money out of it.”

“Federation factions I imagine.” I replied.

“From me, probably. Others will supply you with Empire, Alliance and even Independent factions. While there will always be internal strife, outwardly we wish to keep everyone ready for whatever may come.” The statement was said with a calm, level tone of voice but I read between the lines.

“So the gossip and rumours have some substance to them.” Again it was a statement not a question.

“There are always rumours going round Aitken. Some are based in fact, some not so much. The one you are inferring, might have some truth to it.” Again with the level, calm tone.

“Winter is coming.” I muttered under my breath.

“Perhaps, that remains to be seen. No harm in being prepared. Of course even when you have an assignment you are still free to do your own thing. Word of encouragement Aitken, get back into that Fuel Rat thing.”

“It's been you and others like you that have kept me out of it briefly.” I said with a little surprise in my voice.

“I offer apologies from my group. The others can take care of themselves.” I wasn't sure but I think that was his attempt at humour.

“Does your 'group' have a name or do I refer to you as 'Smiths Group'?” He seemed to ponder the question for a few seconds.

“If you mean like 'Ancients of Mumu' or brotherhood of so and so, then no. The consortium I represent here haven't given it much thought.” What may or may not have been a smile once again brushed his face briefly.

“Ok, you can tell The Consortium that I'm in. Do you have anything in mind at the moment or what do I do?”

“Excellent, I'm sure the rest of The Consortium will be happy.” He paused, gave a shake of the head at the title I had given them and continued on. “Plans are being worked on, we'll be in touch. Go mining or something and thanks for the coffee.”

With that he stood up, nodded at Fasa and left. I took another refill and sat wondering what I had once again got myself into. It was definitely shady, not as shady as The Silver Boys and on a different level but shady none the less. I also wondered just how much he did know about me, especially after the mining quip. Emma/Charity seemed safe, good to know and I might have to call on her for back up sometime in the future.

I paid the bill, leaving Fasa a generous tip. Told her to say hello to her parents and then I returned to the Glashow City walkways. As much as he had tried to put a not in the near future spin on things, I decided that going mining might not last long if I did. What ever was brewing could come to the boil soon and staying close to the center of the bubble might pay off. My mind made up that left only one thing to do.

Tell Gabe what had just happened.

Sorry,a little dialogue heavy but just setting up for 2.1
Worth the Wait – A Rats Tale

“I've heard back from my contacts.”

Gabe told me after I had finished telling him the tale of my morning. “And?” I asked.

“Not a lot. Some reports of 'person or persons unknown' influencing local governments. Nothing concrete but they seem to be propping up a few and trying to tear down others. It's not like you to get wrapped up in politics.”

“I'm not.” I replied. “Their just another customer to me. Weather I agree with their aims has nothing to do with it. As long as I get paid, it's all good.”

The older man kept his eyes on me for a few seconds longer. He appeared to be about to say something, gave his head a shake and turned back to the computer screen before him.

For my part I gave a shrug. I wasn't going to push him, he'd tell me his thoughts in his own good time.

“So what you going to do? Go mining like Smith suggested?” Gabe asked when he finally spoke again.

“Nope. I might hang here or head out to Uracenufon, see if I can pick up a few quick jobs.” I said absent mindedly.

“Hang out with some friends or with a bunch of ruthless pirates? Tough choice there bud.” He wasn't even trying to hide the disapproval in his voice. So I relented, a little.

“I just thought I'd been taking advantage of your hospitality to long Gabe. You could use a rest from me.” The tut, tutting came back immediately.

“I'll let you know when you've out stayed your welcome, ok.” Again with the disapproving tone. “Now, how about another cup of coffee?”

Well my gut feeling was off this time. I could have made a tidy little sum even from mining in the time it took for The Consortium to get in touch with me. Of course Gabe was happy with the week as it gave him time to try and make me change my mind, or should that be my ways.

I was saying good evening to Gabe and thinking about heading back to the RJ on the night of the seventh day when I received the communication. Pushing the connect tab I sat down at Gabe's terminal.

Before me appeared a heavy set, bald headed, tough looking, dark complexioned giant. The first thing that went through my mind was 'special forces'.

“Greetings Aitken. My name is Noah and I have been given your name by a mutual friend, Mr. Smith. I have a task for you that should see you profit by the end of it.” I said my hello back but did not commit to anything just yet. “I am sending you the details now. Basically we need you to go to Eurybia and help stabilise one of the factions there.”

I clicked on the file that had been sent and started browsing the basic details. Noah continued as I did.

“You'll see there are two factions in that state, we want you to focus on the Blue Mafia.” The look of surprise on my face must have been glaring as I noted Noah nodding.

“Yes, Aitken we wish to keep the leader of that group in place. We can deal with him, we have an idea of who would replace him and they are not quite so open to manipulation.” It was my turn to nod.

“So you would be the Empire guy I take it?” I chipped in when he paused for breath. He eyed me with a look that would have got me running in the opposite direction if he had not been at the other end of a secure connection.

“Sure, you can call me that if you wish. You've got all the details, your contact will inform you of the contracts to do and when your time should end. Any questions?” The look he gave said I dare you, so I dared.

“Jet Major Systems. Do I help them?” I really didn't care either way but getting a little under his skin could be fun.

“No Aitken. Just follow instructions and everything will work out.” The impatience in his voice was obvious. “Oh and one more thing. Added to the mission brief are a few names you may or may not find useful.”

With that the link was terminated.

The names drew my attention, the mission details would work themselves out once I got to Eurybia, but the names were something different. I transferred the file from Gabes terminal to my padd and wondered back into the living area.

“So where are you off to?” The Old Man asked.

“Some place called Farseer Inc. in the Deciat system by the looks of it.” I replied as I read through the details on 'introduction' to each name. I didn't see the shock on Gabe's face but I heard it in his voice.

“Farseer! By Jupiter it's been a long time since I heard that name.” The note in his voice got my attention and I looked up from the padd.

“Do tell.” I quipped, my curiosity peaked.

“Felicity Farseer was an explorer around the same time your Dad and I were. Our paths crossed a time or two, nothing more really. What's she up to how?” I didn't believe the “nothing more really” part but I could push that later.

“She's become an Engineer of sorts, tinkering with FSDs, drives, power plants. Homely old girl by the looks of it.”

“There's images.” Gabe blurted out and was standing next to me before I could answer. “She's actually quite attractive for a lady of her age.”

I may have been adding two and two together to get seven, but I hadn't seen Gabe like this before.

“How long did your fling with Felicity last?” Let's roll for the seven.

“Not long, she was more interested in 'the black' than me.” He looked at me with a grin and gave a shrug. “It would have been fun, special perhaps but it wasn't meant to be.”

“You want to come along?” I asked not wanting to trample on his memories.

“No, that ship sailed years ago, life's been good to me, I'll let this one lie I think.” I could see the Gabe I knew coming back but I still hung out for the rest of the day. Once I was happy that he would be fine I made my farewells and headed back to the Asp.

Entering the Deciat system my eyes looked at the scanner out of habit. Everything looked normal enough, what ever normal was for any system. Most of the traffic seemed to be heading for Deciat 4 and Garay Terminal. A few others and myself were angling for Deciat 6, 6A to be exact and the mysterious Farseer Inc. base.

I'd already been to Maia to pick up a few tons of Meta-Alloys as my 'introduction gift', I was starting to think that the reward had better be worth it or pandering to this needy engineer was going to be a pain.

Nearing Deciat 6A I throttled back to 75% power and watched as the moons details came into focus. At 6Mm distance the deep valleys looked like a giant bird of prey had raked it's immense talons over the surface before it's beak had pecked out the craters that where dotted here and there. According to the HUD, the base I was heading for was set into one of those craters.

I also noticed that the sun did not shine on Farseer at this time of day as I looked at a orange dot in a sea of black. No worries, nothing that I hadn't done before. Entering orbit and glide all went as normal. I popped out of glide 12km from the base, a few lights gave me the indication that I needed to stay properly orientated, everything looked normal and then that changed.

“Lakon Alpha India Tango, this is the automated docking system. Please ask for docking procedures before attempting to land. You presence has been noted.”

Ok, I thought, different and a little interesting. I continued as I normally would and requested landing clearance at 7.4km. Again the robotic, synthesized voice came back and gave me final approach instructions.

I glanced at the direction indicator at the side of the scanner and noted that the pad was directly in front of the our nose. I looked up but could not spot the raising and falling lights I was accustomed to. It took a moment for my confusion to pass but two details were causing it. The first was a large communications pole that was slap bang in the middle of the complex. Of course my landing pad was directly behind it, no problem, a side slip and there was the second reason for my momentary state. The lights were blue, I had taken the yellow-orange lighting for granted and my brain took a second or two to register the subtle change. Apart from all that it was a normal enough landing. The elevator clanked and clinked as I descended into the hangar area and with a final thump I was in.

“Commander Aitken when you disembark you will see an entrance marked “Workshop”. Please use it.” A female voice informed me, not the mechanical of the automated landing system. I took off my helmet, laid it on the now vacant pilots chair and took a deep breath. Sure it was still the recycled air I had been breathing most of my life but there were subtle differences that could be picked up. With the aroma and taste of this type I was guessing they had real plant life in a few of the structures I had observed on descent to the pad. With solar panels, a few power converters and with the plants to help with air and food, this was as close to self sufficient as could be for a moon of this size. Interesting I thought as I headed for the workshop entrance.

“Aitken, come in, come in. Now what can I do for you? I bet it's FSD range increase, well it would be as you're here.” The older lady before me waffled. She looked around Gabe's age, late eighties I would guess but never suggest. I got the impression that she was a little, madness seemed a little strong so I settled for eccentric. With everything being automated here at Farseer Inc. I could only imagine that the time alone had taken it's toll. “So while the Meta-Alloy is unload, and I have a need for more of those, yes I do, lets you and me become better acquainted. I'm Felicity Farseer, but you knew that, you may call me Felicity.”

With that she dusted off what looked like a chair and motioned for me to sit. A little bemused I followed her instructions.

“I knew your Father. My condolences to your mother and the family on his passing.” Maybe it was the initial meeting or the worry at meeting my fathers son but what ever it had been she seemed to be calming down a little. She continued after I thanked her. “I met her once in Sol, before you were born of course, lovely young girl, well we were all younger back then. Such a happy couple, well suited.”

As she talked she handed me a padd. A small list of components stared at me from the screen under the headline “Level One Frame Shift Drive Range Increase.”

“If you thumb through you'll see the other level one's I have on offer. As soon as you acquire those parts and you want the improvements, come back and I'll get to work.”

“I have everything on the first three pages, FSD, thrusters and for the power plant.” I replied while I could get a word in.

“Good. Then if you are ready I can get to work.” She didn't wait for me to answer but stored toward the door I had just entered. “Help yourself to coffee.” She pointed out a coffee machine at the back of the workshop and was gone.

She was in and out for the next few hours, picking up a tool or other piece of equipment. Now and again she would say something but most of the time I got a smile or a nod. The coffee was palatable which was a good thing.
“Now, you will see minor increases with this level of modification. I have given you on your padd the next set of components and materials that I need if you wish to continue with my experiments.”

I looked over the updated info on the padd and gave a nod. There was nothing on it I saw that would give me a problem.

“I have something I have to take care of for an acquaintance but I'll come back once I have these.” I smiled as I held up the padd and the list of ingredients.

“I'll look forward to it. As we progress, you will see a large increase in jump range. You do understand that you may lose performance in other areas?”

I reassured her that I understood the risks but the better jump range would more that make up for them.

As the Asp R.J. Mitchell ascended and I corrected my flight path to the correct vector for system exit, I gave the side of my helmet a tap with my right hand. It sounded different, it might be my imagination at knowing Felicity had been messing around with the internals but I thought I could hear a distinct growl as it climbed. Not to worry, too much as I could test it out on route to Eurybia. The old lady had been correct, I only saw a few light years of difference in the range but as she had explained that was only a level 1.

I have no idea who Chris and Silvia are or were but I would be using their Paradise Hangout for the time it took to help out the Blue Mafia. As the Asp's landing gear touched down it had earned itself a new name. The Mitchell name had been for a specific reason and I had failed in that. That engine sound had persisted and so I had renamed it 'Growler', it fitted.

“Greetings Cmdr. Aitken, my name is Prospect Jaquelyn Lawrence and I will be your contact for dealings with the Blue Mafia here in Eurybia. I have sent a list of available missions to your computer please complete anyone or more of them. Your help is gratefully received.”

She had short hair, sunglasses and looked mean, not my type but I was looking for work not anything else. I took a few courier missions and set off.

Now, I'd like to tell you tales of daring deed as I swoop between asteroids, avoiding laser fire by millimetres and escaping by the skin of my teeth. But I can't. The 48 hours I spent hauling missions and courier jobs were pretty routine. Well there was this one guy that was very persistent with his interdictor but I have to own that as I was too stubborn to jump to a different system. On top of that I wasn't too impressed with the pay, not that I ran at a loss but I had become accustomed to higher paying jobs for my friendly factions. The high point came on the last day, just as I had returned to Eurybia. Prospect Lawrence approached me, thanked me for my contribution to their cause and loaded a new contact into my computer.

“With the arms load out you have on your Asp you should find her helpful.” With that cryptic line she thanked me once more and departed. I looked over at 'Growler', two beams and four seeker missile mounts, different I admit but nothing that unusual. Looking at the information I had been given I noted that the 'Engineer' was a Liz Ryder, never heard of her, and that she worked on missiles and mines. Ah, now the cryptic sentence made sense. Then I looked at the introduction gift and my eyes opened a little wider. 200 tons of landmines. Wow, someone was a little paranoid. A quick check of the Galmap and I headed out to pick up the tribute. I wasn't sure if I was going to keep the armament load as it was but having a contact that could work on ships systems was always worth having, so I got down to work.

She was younger than I had thought, her picture was a little deceptive I guess. I was guessing, again that she was a little older than Robert but not by too much. We chatted a little about the changes she could make to the weapons on the ship. I was also in luck that I had some of the components need to make a few alterations to two of the missile racks. With that done and the promise of even more exotic modifications if I desired should I ever return to Demolition Unlimited, I sat in the Asp and thought about my next move.

Bunch and the Disc were what I came up with, why not, I got on with the controlling factions and they paid well. Running missions until The Consortium wanted me to do their bidding, if I should agree, sounded fine by me.

I did follow some of the advice Mr. Smith bestowed upon me and became more active with the Fuel Rats. Thanks to Cmdrs. Ethan McAllister, Ratasum and P. Fraser I got a refresher as I followed their rescues as back up. That led to me helping out a few unlucky Cmdrs. with fuel limpets myself.

Mind made up, I plotted in the course. Next stop Uracenufon.
A Rats Tale

Slap and Tickle

“One more time Commander. Who are you working for?”

I didn't get the chance to answer. Just as well as it would have been flippant, not that it would have mattered. The fist that connected with my jaw had enough force behind it to topple the chair that I was strapped into over.

The cool metallic floor felt good against my left cheek. It was a good counter to the warm fluid with an iron taste that was rapidly filling my mouth. I probably had a tooth loose and so spat out the blood to be sure.

“You disgusting dreg.” I heard my captor say with contempt.

The nerve's in my scalp shot their electrical pulses to the pain receptors in my brain as I and the chair were hauled back to the up right position by my hair. I had been so busy over the last few months that the time to cut it to its usual millimetres crop had not presented itself. Once again I was wishing I had taken the time to smell the roses.

After my scream at being righted by my hair. A low chuckle rose to my throat as I sat there contemplating the situation.

“You find this funny little man?” With the question he kicked out and struck my left knee, I bit back the scream that wanted to escape my mouth a second time.

“No.” That's all I could reply as I tried to work out which teeth were loosening. Of course I couldn't leave it there. “I was just thinking that when I get out of here, I'm put some dentists kid through collage getting my mouth fixed.”

“IF not when little man.” A cruel, stereotypical villains smile cracked his lips.

I could hear the cracking and groaning of the leather of the gloves he wore as he curled his right hand into a fist. I was bracing myself for another blow when a door opened.

“Enough.” My chin was resting on my chest and so I managed to glance up. A thin rakish individual in an impeccable uniform stood there. “You've been beating him for long enough. Move on to the second phase.”

My tormentor, a larger man, well built. That's muscular well built not fat well built, saluted the thin guy. “Yes Sir.” The Muscle nodded and two more goons came in.

The bindings behind my back that had pinned my arms to the chair back were removed first. The agony as the blood rushed back into my hands lead me to a small groan, that was repeated as my feet were freed also.

The freedom of my limbs was short lived as the goons tied my feet together and retied my hands behind my back. A black sack was then placed over my head so that my world went dark.

I heard movement around me, whispered voices and other low level sounds. Finally I sensed a presence before me.

“Who are you working for little man?” Muscle asked me, even through the cloth of the sack I could smell the horrible and probably cheap aftershave he wore.

I was swaying a little as I stood there, unaided, which I was quietly proud of, and answered truthfully.

“No one. I work for myself.” It was barely above whisper.

“Very well.” Muscle said and I heard his foot falls retreat. “UP!”

Something had been looped through or around the bindings behind my back. That in turn must have been put over a rafter, joist or even a pulley, all guesses but I think I am close. Suddenly and with no warning my arms shot up my back and my feet left the ground.

I heard a scream fade and realised it was mine as my throat hurt from the effort. The pain surging through my shoulders was immense as my full weight rested on just those two joints.

“Not so funny now, uh little man.” I heard Muscle say just before he punched me in the gut. The air in my lungs rushed out and the pain increased as my body tried to retrieve the displaced air. Involuntary movement as I gasped for air caused powerful waves of pain to wash across my shoulders, which in turn caused gasps, expelling air, of pain. It took a little while but my breathing settled down once again and I could try to hang still.

“We'll leave you, so you can think about your answers and your future. One may be short, depending on the other.”

Footsteps and a door slam and then quiet. I assumed someone was still in the room with me and so kept my thoughts to myself. Trying not to think about the massive amount of pain surging through my body I started to think about what had led me to this situation.

It had been a normal trade run. I had been doing a little smuggling in the area when I noted that this station had a high sell price for Combat Stabilisers. During my usual activities I have been known to keep an eye on legal prices, so I knew of a market selling said items for below the Galactic Average. Sure the Clipper I was using only carried 160 tons but it was still a tidy little profit.

As the goods were being unloaded I was chatting to the dockers when three uniformed self importants walked in.

“We are looking for a Commander Aitken.” The tough looking bruiser at the front asked.

“That would be me.” I stupidly volunteered.

Before I could react the other two held my arms, a black hood was over my head and a second or two later I felt a thump to the back of my head, then darkness.

I had awoken tied to a chair, flight suit gone, my wrists and ankles in pain at the bindings being tight. I still didn't know who the hell this bunch of jokers were or what they wanted. Heck I wasn't even sure I had done anything wrong in this system but I had obviously upset someone a little.

Time had no meaning as I hung there and my mind started to wonder. Images of blazing hydrogen rich stars danced before my eyes as my brain tried to distract it's self from the pain signals it was receiving. A blazing bright orange M Class star was the back drop to a lonely Sidewinder with a young Commander looking for help. Fresh from flight school he had not fitted a fuel scoop and had become lost with little hope he thought of survival. I had been a few jumps out and answering his call for help was why I carried a fuel transfer controller. Joyful sounds of survival bled through to my ears as I swooped in firing fuel limpets.

The Sidewinder faded, to be replaced by a Fer de Lance with no scoop and a scoopable star close by or was it a scoop and no refuel able star close by. Two voices talked to me about Galmap, lines followed by dotted lines, KGBFOAM and thanks. With two pops and high wake emissions left behind the FdLs left. I sat there before the huge burning star as a Viper Mk III floated into my vision.

“You sound like you're from the Abe.” The pilots voice having a tinny sound to it in my helmet.

As the limpet streaked toward him I told him that I had grew up on the Abraham Lincoln. Fuel Transfer Complete flashed up on my HUD and suddenly I was blinded by a blazing white light.

Whatever was suspending me was released and I crashed back to the station floor, screaming in pain as my muscles were once able to move in a different direction. The blinding light had been the hood being removed, everything was still behind a veil of white light as my eyes tried to adjust. My brain was having it's own battle as the nerves in my body sent reports of pain from every sector.

The leering face of 'Muscle' swam into view as he took hold of my face.

“Where's the funny one liner now Little Man? Where's that air of arrogance and sense of superiority?”

With that he let go of my head and it crashed back to the station floor. If that had caused pain I didn't notice it as it was just a drop of water in an ever expanding ocean. Standing up he barked out commands to the other thugs in the room.

“We move on, strap him in and prepare him.”

Two gorilla like individuals picked me up and started to move me toward a table like object. Before laying me on to the upper surface they took off the binding on my wrists and ankles. The muscles in my back went in to spasm immediately and the pain at having everything loose again was excruciating.

With every part of my body screaming and I include my voice, I was strapped on to the table device. Thick pieces of leather with heavy duty buckles held me in the shape of a X. Then someone in a lab coat starting attaching circles of plastic with wires leading from them to me. One each on the sides of my forehead, two on my shoulders, two on my abdomen, one on my genitals and two each on my hips and calves.

Suddenly and without any warning the table pivoted around its central axis and I was standing upright, face to face with Muscle.

“Last chance Little Man. Who are you working for? The Progressives? Justice Party? The League? Or the Exchange?” He paused to give all that time to sink in.

“No one, I keep telling you I'm an independent.” I weakly croaked out.

“Very well. Keep your secrets if you wish.” He turned and nodded to the guy in the lab coat standing behind a podium. “Setting one on my mark.”

Turning back to me with a wicked grin and a glint in his eye, “This will tickle a little. Mark.”

My body went rigid as the pain flowed through it with the electricity. I didn't scream but gave out a gasping sound as I tried to get air and relief into my lungs. It only lasted 10 seconds but that fire coursed to every fibre of my bruised and battered body. Just as suddenly as it had started it ended.

“Well?” Muscle asked his breath hot and dank on my face.

Silence was my only reply. I could have lied but doubted it would get me anywhere. I'm sure many did lie and still ended up dead, this had to be one of the most useless ways of extracting information. So I gave him nothing.

“Setting two, MARK.”

My body went rigid again and this time I emitted no sound, oh I tried but nothing emerged. For my dazed, confused brain it was the last straw and so it shut down.

“In here Chief I think I found another one.”

A voice roused me, not that my brain wanted to be conscious and my body protested at any movement. I was in a cell, I'd been in a few but this one was spartan in the extreme. The only thing in it was a stainless steel bowl. Weather it was for bodily functions or to be used as a drinking bowl I wasn't sure. As I sat and stared at it the thought occurred it could be for both.

I didn't get longer to ponder on it as someone I recognised walk in.

“Geez Aitken you look terrible.” Chief Leopoldo Turner remarked.

“You should see the other guy, not a mark on him.” I feebly replied.

“Probably not for much longer.” He turned to the pirate behind him. “Get a blanket or something to cover him.”

“How?” I asked as I continued to stare at the bowl. It must have unsettled him a little. He covered me with the blanket his subordinate had given him and gently helped me to my feet.

“We'll talk about this when we get you back to your ship. For now let's just get the hell out of here.”

I offered no protest as he and the other pirate put my arms over their shoulders. It was a slow progress but eventually we made it back to the Clipper but not until we had made a stop. The Dock Workers Refresher Station wasn't glamorous but I needed to feel clean and it had showers.

“So how do you want to do this? I sure don't want to get my duds wet.” The pirate to my right voiced his concerns.

“No worries. Just set me down on the floor, turn the water on and let it wash over me.” I still didn't trust my legs to hold me up. Getting the dried and not so dry blood off of them and the rest of me did. While I sat there with the very refreshing liquid raining down on me the Chief sent the other pirate to meet us with their medic at the Clipper. As I sat there letting the water cleanse some of my my now stinging wounds and having the odd sip to quench my thirst the Chief told his tale.

“You might not remember but few weeks back we had a few customers ask that our couriers meet go betweens to find out the final destination.”

I nodded as I did indeed remember, not the specific intermediates or the final customer, but just actually doing the jobs.

“Well it seems one of them was playing both sides of an inter-faction dispute. Being the middleman and then selling the info to this bunch of dregs. Sorry to tell you Aitken but we had no idea you were here. A couple of guys from our mob went missing, we got a tip off a few hours ago and set up this rescue, raid to get them back. They hadn't started roughing over our guys yet as they had you to work on first by the looks of things.”

“No apology necessary Chief. It goes with the territory of being an independent operator.” My voice was just above a whisper and it was draining the little energy I had to talk. “I'm just grateful you guys got me.”

“Ok, enough talk and water for you. Your turning even paler in front of me.”

He flicked off the shower controls wrapped a couple of towels around me and then placed the blanket over my shoulders. With a move that looked beyond a man of his size he scooped me up in his arms and started to carry me. It hurt, it hurt like hell but I knew the Chief was not the cause of the pain and just bit my lip. I had never been so happy to see that blue Clipper before.

“From what I have with me Aitken I can tell you, you have busted ribs, bruises that run real deep to the muscle, burns, various lacerations, some of them done by knifes and a concussion that will make you sleep for a while. So let it win and get some rest” With that the medic left me on my bunk aboard the Clipper named 'Claymore'.

“Thanks Fuchs.” The Chief said as the medic left the cabin. “We'll get you seen to properly when we get back to Bunch. You don't mind me flying this thing do you?”

“No. No I don't. Get us out of here and don't spare the horses.”
A Rats Tale

Another Chapter​

“Hello Aitken. You seem to be healing well.”

The visage of Mr. Smith remarked over the comm. unit.

I suppose he was correct as I had not being doing a lot since the Purple Pirates had rescued me. In fact I had not been allowed to do a lot since then.

Chief Turner had arranged things so I was only doing legal haulage and even then the trips were not that far from Uracenufon. It seemed that the relaxing time I had been having was coming to an end. Then it suddenly struck me.

“How did you know I had been lying low?” I asked the well dressed man before me.

“Come, come Aitken. How do you think those ruffians out there found out about your predicament?” His lips tried to form a smile but failed.

“Uh. Sorry I didn't give it much thought. My thanks to you and The Consortium.” I meant it too. I had no idea what would have happened to me had I not been rescued. That was something else I had not given much thought.

'You are welcome and I will pass on your thanks to those that helped in that incident.” Another attempt at a smile and another failure. “And now to business. We have need for a person with your skill set to help out the Chapter of Isinor.”

“Skill set uh, not for my belief system.” I could not help but chuckle. The Chapter of Isinor were well known for being very picky in who they dealt with. For them to be turning to someone like myself who did not share their view of the Universe was very unusual. “Ok Mr. Smith what does this bunch of religious nu...”

I bit back the word “nutters” as a robed figure walked in to view. Mr. Smith raised an eyebrow before continuing.

“This is the 'Divine Harley Maxwell' he will be your contact to the Chapter.”

“Greetings my son and thank you for agreeing to help us in this matter.” I hadn't, I still didn't know what the help was and knew I was being railroaded. I gave a small shrug.

“You're welcome.” I paused as I had no idea how I should address a 'Divine'. So I took the easy way out. “Sir.”

“No need to be so formal Aitken, just address me as Divine Maxwell or Divine.” I gave a nod. “Now we have that out of the way please make your way to the Anotchadiae system. There will be instructions on the Mission Board in Malerba Orbital. Again thank you my son, your help will be gratefully received.” He pushed his hands together and gave a slight bow and retreated from sight.

“Any profit you make is of course yours Aitken. We look forward to the reports of your progress.” Mr. Smith failed once more with an attempted smile and the screen went dark.

“You'll be leaving us I take it?” Leopoldo Turner asked as I made my way through the hanger area.

“Yeah, got a tip off about a bunch of good paying jobs. I'll be using the Asp, so if you want it someone can use the Clipper.”

“ We might just take you up on that offer.” The pirate leader answered with a toothy grin. “Thanks.”

“It's the least I can do.” I blurted out as a meaty hand gave me a hearty thump on the back. “ I'll be back once the pay starts going down hill.”

The goodbyes said, such as they were, I entered the Asp Explorer Growler and prepared it for departure.

It wasn't standard nor did it have stock parts any more. Felicity Farseer and a few others had worked their strange brand of magic on it. It could jump further and travel faster in normal cruise than it had before. Sure it might heat up a little quicker but if it got to high, well that's what heatsinks were for.

“ Lakon Alpha India Tango you are approaching an Independent station. Be warned you do so at your own risk.”

Not the friendliest welcome I have ever had but by no means the worst either. Hey the station didn't fire at me, so that was a plus. I requested landing permission and received it quickly.

Malerba looked pretty much like most stations, a little run down perhaps but nothing out of the ordinary. As the engines shut down I flicked the request and I was heading into the hangar. The usual whirs, thunks and clicks followed. As soon as I was motionless I undid the chair belts and headed for the access ramp. Sure I could have brought up the Mission Board with the on board computer but I needed the walk and had decided to look around a little. I might also find a coffee shop, or so I hoped.

After a little rooting around I found a coffee stand that had a few tables and chairs arranged round it. So I ordered up a cup, dressed it and took one of those chairs. Everyone looked well fed and busy. I could only guess that the station was doing well and they had little time for it's upkeep. A gave a little smile, if the station had a boom going the profits should be good.

I rotated the always present computer screen toward me and punched up the Mission Board. As the Divine had told me a couple of jobs with his name tagged to them were present. I was guessing but I would have laid money on my hunch that if anyone but me clicked accept the missions would not be available to them. Not my worry as I looked through them.

Jump to a nearby system, scan it, locate the Trade Data capsules and then retrieve them. Sounded easy enough and the pay was not bad so I hit accept, finished my coffee and headed back to Growler.

As the Fuel Scoop glugged away from the star I fired up the ADS. 'Hooonk', as the sound faded away I brought up the newly acquired system map. Two Class M stars and six other bodies. The return echo from the scanner showed that the data capsules were close to the fourth body that orbited the second star, only 71,000ls from where I was. Oh well, the pay was good so I targeted the proper body and settled down for the journey.

Everything was quiet, a few other ships in supercruise but that was normal enough. Sure it was an uninhabited system but miners, scavengers and those just looking for new places to land or looking out for new canyons to race through were common enough. I still kept an eye on those contacts that did show up but nothing gave me a sense of alarm, piece of cake I thought as I swung the Asp around the target body.

I had just finished the second orbit of the fourth body when the data flashed up on my sensors. I flicked the targeting system to lock onto it and glided the Asp in it's direction. The lock was good and as the range decreased I hit the 'safe disengage' control.

On a larger ship I would probably have a limpet collection controller on board but as the Asp is a medium sizes ship and quite manoeuvrable, I had forgone that luxury. Deploying the cargo hatch I lined up to scoop the first of the four cannisters I had been contracted to rescue.

As I listened to the beep, beep, beepbeep, beepbeep, for the third time a new sound interrupted me.

“Dang, I don't believe this worked.”

“Yeah no kidding, we caught this guy cold.”

“Alright buddy I don't know who hired you to pick these up but back off this is our find.”

The rumbling sound of the third capsule entering my cargo bay signalled to me it was time to leave. Checking the scanner display I noted a FdL and a Python slipping in behind me.

The cargo hatch was closing and I was a fraction of a second from hitting boost when I heard one of the voices again.

“You were warned.”

The next sound was the splash of lasers on my shields. Followed very closely by the growl of the Asps modified thrusters kicking in. The flash of lasers and tracer rounds lit up space around me as I boosted, twisting and turning to escape my rivals. Thankfully I had paid attention to the warning in the mission brief warning of possible other interested parties and had an escape route plotted. I had thought about high waking out but the long haul back from the entry point had ruled that option out for me and so I jumped back into supercruise. I kept the throttle walled all the while checking the scanner display to see if I was being pursued. Reacquiring the signal source as I turned I waited and throttled down. As if on cue two new contacts popped up on the display. Just as they began to turn I hit the safe disengage again and dropped.

Quickly I targeted the last cannister I needed and lined up. As sure as Sag A* is a black hole my two new friends dropped in for a visit. They were way too late. I had the cargo hatch closed and was boosting the Asp onto the high wake vector before their fire started. Four, three, two, one, engage and I was gone.

I noticed the next interesting piece of the mission as I scooped from the star Anotchadiae.

ILLEGAL CARGO shone brightly on the HUD. I shook my head wondering just what a religious order need with smuggled data. Not for the first time on a job I decided that it was none of my business and headed onward to Malerba.

Everything was routine after that. Well routine for smugglers, request docking permission, get within 5 or 6 kilometres out, hit silent running and sail through the slot.

The next few days were not so harrowing and I fell into a familiar pattern. Browse Missions, accept and usually end up delivering data or miscellaneous goods. Day four was shaping up to be a copy of those but fate had other plans for me as I sat in Growler.

The red lights and blasting siren could only mean one thing, RATSIGNAL.

“Hey Aitken you up for a little long range rescuing uh?” Dispatch joked as I responded.

“Sure, all dressed up and waiting for some place to go.” I replied. This was no Case Red, if it had been Dispatch would not be so relaxed.

“Alright, it's out past the Horsehead Nebula. I'm sending you the location now.” I confirmed receipt of the information and requested clearance to the flight deck from Malerba Flight Control, all thoughts of missions gone.

“CMDR Wildc4rd is gearing up to run out too. Looks like we got a Rat Race.” After gaining permission to leave, I exited the slot. I then pulled up the comms contacts.

“Hey Wild you ready to go?” I ask Wildc4rd.

“Already on my way Aitken. How about you?”

“I just left the station, looks like you got the lead what's the plan?”

“I'm going to head for Betelgeuse and then up. You?” I nodded to myself. Wild was probably taking the route most travelled and the one I would most likely have plotted myself.

“Well I'll take a different way, see if we can't meet up at the client. Wregoe systems and then down.” To us I didn't think it mattered who was first as long as the client was refuelled. Taking different approaches meant if one of us hit trouble the other should be clear.

“Roger. See you there.” Wild replied and then the comms went dead.

It wasn't going to take us too long, about the time it took to go from one end of the bubble to the other, times six.

I was about 1,400ly outside the bubble when dispatch called.

“Dispatch to Aitken, how you doing out there.” I must admit it was good timing as a few minutes before the call I had started to have a problem.

“I hit a wall out here Dispatch. My FSD doesn't seem to want to lock onto a few systems, even though I am within range. I'm going to keep plugging away in the hope of punching through.”

“ Roger that Aitken, thanks for the update. Let me know what's happening. Dispatch out.”

It was a bad habit of my, not keeping the dispatcher updated. I guess I have been operating on my own for too long. Right now that was not foremost in my mind. I continued to plot and continued to be denied. In frustration I started plotting in a direction I did not want to be going in, a direction away from the clients system. I'd plot three or four systems to my right and then see if I could find something to lock onto ahead of me. When I say right and ahead it is relative to the direction I wanted to go. Of course once I found a system 'ahead' of me, I then could not find away back 'left' in the clients direction. I kept plugging away convinced that even if I didn't find away through that Wild would. Then....

“Aitken to Dispatch. I have gotten over the wall. Ten jumps to client.” With the modified FSD it had cut at least five jumps off of the distance I had to cover.

“Roger Aitken I'll inform the client you are close by and to power up comms with you. Dispatch out.”

I heard a new voice calling me over the comms and responded with my ETA. The rescue went well, no fuss, no drama, just a happy explorer who had misjudged his fuel level. I then talked to Wild once the client in his Asp Explorer had departed. Wild informed me he was going to stay out a while longer and do some exploring of his own, so we never got to meet up. I followed Wilds route in reverse to return to the bubble. It was my first time visiting Betelgeuse and I was happily impressed by the red supergiant.

Arriving back in Malerba I had the FSD checked out, just in case one of Felicity's mods had made it mess up. Apart from some unusual modifications everything was working as intended the station mechanic informed me. Befuddled by the problem, especially since the FSD had a clean bill of health I but it to the back of my mind and looked through the Mission Board once more.

The next few days were consumed by delivery missions, recover missions and a few source missions thrown in for variety. As I was looking through the board on the sixth day the Divine Harley Maxwell decided it was time for a comms call.

“Aitken, we are very happy with the work you have done for us over the past week. We now feel it is time for you to change locations and would be delighted to receive you here in Charnas Terminal in Isinor.”

I thanked him back and set off for Charnas Terminal, a surface city on Isinor 5 A.

After landing I was shown to an office where the Divine was seated talking to a stunning red haired woman. She was dressed in a flight suit and was obviously not one of the cults followers.

“Ah Aitken my son, let me introduce to you a friend of Mr. Smiths.” As they both stood up I had a sinking feeling in my gut. Another one of Mr. Smiths friends was unlikely to be good news for me. “This is Lapin and I believe she has some work for you.”

“Really.” I remarked as the tall, elegant woman stood before me.

“Do you remember hauling fuel to Jaques Station?” She asked coolly. All the time eyeing me for a reaction.

“Sure, wasn't that long ago. He was getting ready to jump, that was maybe a month or so ago.”

“Yes. We'd like you to go there and help him out in anyway the station administrators see fit.” She picked at an invisible piece of fluff on her flight suit.

“Uh hu.” I replied “He was in one of the Gliese systems if I remember correctly.”

“Was being the correct word. He has since jumped and is in need of help.”

“Wait, he was jumping to Beagle Point, 56,000ly from here. What kind of help can I give him out that far?” I meant it, sure I could take a Conda and have it modified but even with larger jump range it would still be a one way trip. No way could anyone be expected to shuttle supplies that far.

“He didn't make it to Beagle Point. He fell short due to having unknown artefacts on board.” She said it as if she was asking me to pop down to a local shop and pick up some groceries. She then reached behind her neck with her right hand and flicked hair long hair. Giving a quick shake of her head so it resettle on her back.

“Where is it?” I'd had enough of the deflecting the answer to that question.

“Eol Prou RS-T D3-94.” The calm answer was given. “Before you ask that's a little over 22,000ly from here.”

22k, they don't ask for much do they I thought. Very little else went through my mind as I tried to fathom the scale of the task at hand.

“Well Aitken, can I have an answer?”
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