“Well if you will excuse me my children I will leave you to your discussion.”
The Divine Harley Maxwell pressed his hands together gave a slight bow and left the office. I stood there with plans, actions and logistics flowing through my mind.
“Well?” I could hear a slight tone of irritation beginning to creep into the voice of the sultry Lapin. I looked over the room at the redhead, gave a shrug and sat down on a couch that was a long the opposite wall from the couch she had been sitting on when I had entered. She raised an eyebrow, rolled her eyes and then sat down. We were now sitting looking over the six foot or so gap at each other. Time to ask a few questions of my own.
“If and I am going to emphasize the IF, I do this what can I do or haul out there? Next do you have a timetable when you expect me to leave? Also how long do you expect me take to get there?” I didn't usually ask too may questions about the jobs I was asked to take. I'm sure that ability had saved my life a time or two but after recent events I felt that having a little more information was a wise precaution.
“Well, Meta-alloys would be a good thing to start with.” Lapin paused and smoothed a non existent crease from her suit leg. “Food of course would help too. It would be appreciated if you left within the next seven days and we would expect you to take five or six days to reach Jaques Station.”
I nodded but remained silent. Again the logistics of the whole endeavour start to run through my mind like a computer program looking for a solution. I then shook my head.
“No. It's not going to work. I have only seen images of barnacles and even if I was to go to one, I have no desire to shoot it up.” Watching her I saw a flicker of a smile appear on her well shaped lips.
“You won't need to shoot anything Aitken.” Was that amusement I heard in her voice? “Meta-alloys can be bought at Darnielle's Progress in the Maia system. Anything else?”
“Sure. What's in it for me? This is a considerable time outlay, time that could be used for more profitable pursuits.”
“You can keep any and all profits that you make, the usual agreement. I don't expect it to pay as much as gunrunning or drug smuggling but there will be some eventually.” Amusement and destain seemed to ripple through her choice of words. “You must understand Aitken that this is for the good of mankind. Not like your usual work at all.”
I was getting the impression that she did not approve of my life choices. Maybe she was trying to improve my image with the “for the good of mankind” line. I neither knew nor to tell you the truth cared.
“So you would be the Independent's voice in this Consortium?”
“That would be one way of describing it, so yes. Myself and others could be considered that ” The scorn in her voice was there even as she tried to hide it with her facial and body language. “Can I have an answer as I have others to organise. This is a big undertaking for the future. A lot will be achieved by having an outpost that close to the core.”
Call me an old softie, heck I might even care a little for the future of mankind but as see kept insisting on an answer I gave her one.
“Sure, why the heck not.” I didn't even give a shrug, it was said as nonchalantly as possible.
The smile from Lapin seemed to light up the room, the perfect ivory teeth framed by the bright red lips beamed across the room at me.
“Excellent. Mr. Smith did say you were a reliable agent. I'll send details on how to contact me if you have any further questions but it is a fairly simple mission description. I am sure that you can handle it. If you will excuse me I have other places to be, as I said earlier.”
We both stood up, shook hands, then she turned to the door. Lapin stopped in the doorway and turned toward me.
“Oh Aitken, while you got the correct figures you had the five and six back to front. It is around 65,000Ly to Beagle Point.” A smile crossed her face and in what sounded a little mocking she continued. “An easy mistake to make.” The she was gone.
I started to wonder if her parents had been canine, but kept the thought to myself. As I headed back to Growler I started to ponder if 9,000Ly would be that big a deal after travelling 56,000. The furthest form the bubble I had been was roughly 36,000 so I didn't think I was the right person to ask. Hats off to the brave souls who have done it but at the moment something a little closer to home is my problem.
I climbed aboard Growler and began preping it for take off. I had quite a lot to do and I had little time to do it in. Well better get down to business.
First stop was Bunch Dock to switch into the Anaconda FRS December. I had thought about using Growler, with it's improved jump range it would have been easier but and isn't there always a but, it couldn't carry enough. I had done a little research on my way back to Bunch and discovered that you need an enormous amount of Meta-alloys to counteract the effects of a UA bombing. That's where the Conda has the Asp beaten. All I had to do was take out a few modules and replace them with cargo racks. Now that was going to take a little while and with the help of the mechanics at Bunch I hoped it went smoothly.
“That didn't take to long Aitken.” N'tone said as we sat in the hangar having a coffee after the refit. “I hope you don't mind that the boys and me added a little colour to the boring white you had it.”
“No problem with that, thanks for the quick refit.” I glanced at the panels that had been roughly painted a bright orange. “A splash of colour so you'll be spotted when on a rescue.” N'tone had said at the time. He wasn't wrong and it didn't add time on to the refit so I saw no harm with the idea.
Next stop was Farseer Inc. With the length of the journey ahead cutting down the number of jumps seemed to be a good idea. The trip out would be just scoop and honk, any exploration would have to wait till the return trip.
“I'm rather proud of this one Aitken” Felicity remarked as she walked into the workshop. I had procured the needed parts and headed for the Deciat system with expectations of being there for quite sometime. I had only been sitting in the workshop for 45 minutes when Felicity had made her pronouncement. “That should give you around 50% over spec.”
She had offered to try and add more with tweaks but that was more than I had hoped for so thanked her departed.
“You could have done this over comms you know.” My fathers old friend told me as we sat in my favourite coffee shop. “No need to fly that great bulk of a ship here to see me.”
“I know but I'm not sure how long I'll be gone and thought I'd take this chance to drop in by to see you.”
Fasa topped up our coffees, asked if we needed anything else and departed when we said no thanks.
“Jaques station uh, 22,000ly out. You're planning on this trip alone I take it?” The old man asked.
“Sure, I've done most of my best work alone.”
“I dunno, this one feels different. That's a long way to go for a station that doesn't work.”
“I've been out further before.” I replied giving an unconscious shrug. “No big deal.”
“I'd still be happier if you company, just in case.” I could hear the concern in his voice.
“Are you volunteering?” I knew he wasn't but thought I'd ask anyway.
“Of course not. I couldn't help you fly that monster even if I wanted too.”
“Yeah, well I'll be good thanks. I much prefer working by myself.”
“I know but for some reason this one doesn't feel right.”
“You worry too much Gabe. It'll be a milk run, a 22,000ly run but a milk run non the less.”
“I hope you're right.” Fasa came by and topped up our cups once again. “Thank you young lady.”
“It'll be fine Gabe.”
We finished our coffee, paid and left Fasa a good tip.
“Be careful.” Gabe said as we parted. He for his home and me for Maia.
With the FSD modified getting to Darnielle's Progress did not take long. Approaching the moon around Maia A 2 A along with the drop toward the settlement seemed to take longer.
“Landing gear deployed.” Betty announced as I glided over the landing pad. With a thump and a brief flash from the shields the Conda settled into place. As the large ship and I were descending into the bowels of the settlement I pulled up the Commodities Market and bought the 12 units of Meta-alloys that were for sale. There was no way I was heading for Jaques with just 12 units so I sent in a call to the quartermaster.
“Sorry Commander, it's not as though we manufacturer the things. We, like you, have to wait for them to be brought to us.” He paused and looked at another screen. “I see we have a ship due to land in 10 minutes or so coming from the area that the Barnacles have been found. It could have some but no guarantee.”
Well, that was that then. Not the answer I had hoped to hear but it was what it was. I reopened the market after 10 minutes and bought the 12 units that had just been delivered. With no idea when or even if more where going to be available to purchase I left the December and went in search of something to eat.
I found a place after about 5 minutes of walking. As I entered smell of coffee mingled with the aroma of meat cooking and that made my mouth water. Back on ancient Earth I believe this place would have been called a 'greasy spoon'. A roadside cafe that thrived on the haulers that stopped to fill up on food.
Another thing that appealed to me was the view from the entire back wall. It was of the surface of Maia A 2 A. The table I choose to sit at was beside one of the giant panes of glass that made the back wall. The bacon, eggs and sausage where pretty good but watching the skimmers and SRVs going about their business were just as enthralling. I checked the market occasionally thanks to the tables computer link, buying any alloys that turned up.
I had just returned to the table with my second cup of coffee when a kid approached me. I say a kid but he was maybe 18, 19 tops.
“Commander Aitken isn't it?” A meek voice asked me. I finished taking my first sip from the cup before I answered.
“That all depends on who's asking.” Kid or not he could still be trouble or the front for someone I had upset.
“My name is Bay Kosmatka and I would like passage to Jaques Station.” I eyed him as he slipped into the seat opposite me, all thoughts of the outside activity forgotten.
“You would would you.” I put the cup down on the table never taking my eyes off of the young man before me. “Who says I am going anywhere near Jaques?”
“Mr. Smith.” He answered as he slipped a padd across the table.
It was a recording but the smug sense of superiority still oozed from it.
“Hello Aitken. Lapin may have failed to mention that you will be picking up a passenger at Darnielle's Progress. If she did this should be used to vouch for Bay Kosmatka. You need not know why he is going to Jaques Station in the Eol Prou RS-T D3-94 system. One more thing, do not tell anyone of his presence on your little spaceship or after you have dropped him off at Jaques. Have a good flight Aitken.”
I pushed the padd back over the table.
“You don't seem too happy about this Aitken.” The kid quipped after a long silence. He was right of course I wasn't over joyed at the situation for a few reasons. I didn't need one of Smiths spies aboard my ship. I didn't want to smuggle said spy into any station, which was kinda weird when you think about it. Plus of course I wasn't over the moon about the way this had been forced upon me.
“Is there anybody after you Kid?” I asked as I took another pull from my coffee.
“After me? No, no one is after me. Good grief what do you think I am?” He said in genuine surprise.
“A spy.” I once again put the cup on the table. “What do you think you are?”
He was about to answer then stopped. He gave it some thought before he eventually answered.
“I'm to pass on any useful information about the events happening out there. So I'm to be a conduit for information.”
“Uh hu. A fancy way of describing a spy but whatever makes you feel good about it.” I'd managed to buy 120 units of meta-alloys in the time I had been there, the rest of the hold I filled with food stuffs. “Come on Kid. Next stop Jaques.”
“Whoa, slow down man. For a little guy you sure move quick.”
I didn't slow down. Bay Kosmatka had to lengthen his stride, a little but eventually caught up to me as we made our way through Darnielle's Progress and back to the hangar. He kept talking up until we entered the hangar. There he fell silent and stopped walking.
“Holy crud that's a big ship.” He uttered and then fell silent for a few moments. I kept walking heading toward the entry point of the Conda. “They do say that if you are flying something this large you must be compensating.”
It was my turn to stop.
“Well 'they' have no clue what they are talking about. It's the best tool for this job. I'd really like to be in a Cobra or an Asp, neither of those will carry enough cargo.” I glanced over my shoulder at the grinning younger man. “It's also got a very decent jump range full loaded.”
“Sure Aitken, tell yourself whatever you need to.” The grin remained.
Shaking my head I walked on and boarded the December with Bay close behind. At the first crew cabin we came too I pointed to the door.
“This one is yours.” He didn't have much luggage, just a backpack. As he entered I continued to the bridge and started preparations for departure.
“Wow, so much room and it looks really nice.” Bay announced as he walked on to the bridge.
“Strap in. Once we have launch clearance we'll get this show on the road kid.” I said as I pointed to the command chair to my left.
“I'm 21 years old Aitken can you drop the 'kid' please.”
Young enough to still feel immortal, old enough to prove that wrong at some point in time. I glanced over to see him looking over at me as he pushed the buckle to lock it and himself in place.
“Sure. I can do that junior.” Before he could say anything the grinding of gears and the groaning of machinery started and we were on our way to the landing pad. With a thump and a jolt we returned to the surface. Clearance to launch was given quickly. Rising from the pad I pushed the throttle fully forward while lifting the nose to 90 degrees. As the mighty engines pushed the needle nosed ship upward I let my eyes wonder to see Bay gripping the arm rests tightly. White knuckle tightly. As the countdown to Supercruise wound down he seemed to shrink into the chair.
“Relax Bay. The December hasn't let me down yet and I don't expect it to start now.” I tried to be reassuring, not my strong suit.
“Sorry, I always get the feeling that the ship will explode at the end of the countdown. I'm not the greatest traveller around.” I heard a hint of relief in his reply.
“Well you've picked the wrong trip, cos I expect Betty to be calling that out often. Getting to Jaques isn't like popping down to the corner shop.”
“I'll be fine. The first one is always the worst.” With each word he sounded more and more relaxed. It wasn't long till he heard it again as I had lined up for our first jump. I glanced over as “Engage” was uttered and sure enough he wasn't gripping quite so hard. His tense seemed to ease at each jump over the next few and he started to take interest in what lay outside the ship.
The siren and flashing red lights made him jump out of his skin.
“What's wrong?” The panic his tone projected seemed very real. I tried to hide the smirk I felt appearing before I relied.
“Nothing wrong with us.” I said “Try to keep calm and let me deal with this.” Now it was time to ignore Bay and see what Rat Dispatch needed.
“Aitken, we have one close to your last reported position. Location should be in your computer, now.”
“2 jumps out. On my way.” I announced, while changing my plotted route.
“Roger Aitken. I'll advise client on what steps to take as you close in. Dispatch out.”
The new course wasn't that much different to our original and required roughly a 25 degree swing to starboard. As we burst out of hyperspace with one jump to go we received the clients request. I quickly accepted it and hit the FSD for the last jump. Arriving in system I engaged nav lock just as the wing request came in. Of course the blue icon showed up on the opposite side of the brown dwarf that lay before us. Pushing the throttle open I angled the Anaconda so that we were looking up at the L type star. Then the edges of my sight started to blur and we were dropping.
“Now that's a big ship.” I said to Bay as the Federal Corvette sat motionless in front of us, after the usual delay. A delay that was just long enough to make me think we had a problem but not long enough that I would jump back into supercruise.
I fired twelve limpets and chatted to the wayward Vettes Commander. The usual debrief was cut short as he knew most of the information I passed on. He had misread his Galmap thinking the Type L was a Type M. With thanks and after re-powering his modules he was on his way with an audible pop.
“That was impressive.” Bay said as he turned to look at me. “Mr. Smith didn't tell me you were a Fuel Rat.”
“I do what I can when I can. It used to be more but things get in the way.” I was looking over the Galmap so I didn't see if his expression changed.
“Things like trips out to Jaques?”
“Yup, things like that.” I'd spotted what I needed and finished plotting in the route. “Well, we're going to make a stop so we can top up the limpets and get food supplies for Jaques.”
“Alright. Not too big of a detour I hope?” Bay asked in answer. He seemed a little more relaxed but still I got the impression that he wanted to get to Jaques quickly.
“No. We would be passing through it anyway so we're looking at an hour or two.” I hit the FSD button and started the jump process.
Barnwell Dock in the Nukaitu system was a nice place to visit. I had done some business there in the past, selling commodities that some of the population desired but their government deemed less than legal. The Orbis station orbited the water world ABC 1 but more importantly it had the food stuffs I wanted to haul out to Jaques.
While I negotiated the prices for the limpets animal meat, fruit, veg and grain, Bay disembarked and went into the station proper. He didn't tell me why he was going to be gone an hour and I didn't ask but felt confident that it would have communications involved somewhere.
Just before the loading was finished he reappeared in the hangar. He nodded at me and I nodded back. Once back on the bridge I asked him if he was ready to leave and he replied with a 'yeah'. Fifteen minutes later we made our first of what would be a hundreds of hyperspace jumps.
We were about 5k out when I decided it was time to rest. Some no name planet close to a no name star in a no name system. It was around 1G and caused no issues as the landing gear and thrusters on the Conda kissed the surface. Only another 17,000ly to go. Give or take a light year or two.
Six hours later I awoke, grabbed a cup of coffee and started to plot the next 1k of the journey. I was just bringing the last of the systems on-line when Bay appeared from his cabin.
“How long till we get going?” He asked as he walked across the bridge.
“You had better grab a coffee in a zero-G cup. I'm bring all the systems on line so we'll be outta here soon.”
I got no answer but heard the footfalls heading in the direction of the coffee machine. Another check to see everything was working and then I hit the upward thrusters and we were on our way again.
Bay had time to strap himself into the chair to my left and as the countdown started he looked a little less apprehensive, but only a little. Once again he had nothing to worry about as we slipped into supercruise. Of course the next system we were aiming for was obscured by the planet we were lifting off from. After the mass lock area I continued along the same vector until the altimeter disappeared then turning the Anaconda toward the exit, hit the hyperdrive and we started our jump, honk, scoop again.
“How long you been doing this Aitken?” The question came after our fourth jump. Up until then we had sat in silence and I was more than happy to keep it that way, but I still gave an answer.
“How long at what?” I could have been friendlier but that didn't suit my mood.
“Space pilot.” The younger man said.
“Most of my life. Dad was an explorer. I used to be a shuttle pilot in Sol. When Dad died I came out to the frontier to pick up his Cobra and ended up staying out here.”
Bay sat once again in silence. I gave him a glance or two as I continued the honk, scoop and jump sequence. He seemed deep in thought and then the comms came to life.
“Cain to Aitken. Come in Aitken.” I recognised the voice and the name so I opened Galmap and sure enough about 500ly from our position I saw the green icon of a friendly ship.
“I hear you wall to wall Cain. What the hell are you doing this far out?” Commander Heinrich Cain was a former client. He had been in a FdL last time I had seen him after he had misread his route.
“I got fed up listening to explorers telling their tales of the wonders of the universe. So I bought an Asp and decided to come out and see some of them for myself.” A pause followed, I guessed he was making a jump. “What about you? Business or pleasure?”
“A little of both mate. I'm heading out to Jaques.” I replied.
“You're heading right for my present position. Drop in by and say hello.” The Imperially aligned pilot stated innocently. “I've found a planet with supplies of polonium and another with arsenic.”
“I'll stop to say hello but I have no SRV with me. I'll certainly mark them for future use if I come back out this way.”
“Sounds good my friend. See you soon.” With that the comm once again went silent.
Good to my word and 14 jumps later the December dropped into normal space a couple of kilometres away from an Asp Explorer. Bay had returned to his cabin a system before wanting to keep his presence unknown.
“Scan detected.” Betty announced. I wasn't overly concerned as I was doing the exact same thing but it did raise a suspicion in the back of my mind. We chatted, idle chit chat of two pilots doing the thing they enjoyed. Heinrich told me about some of the sights he had seen and was hoping to see. I told him that I was heading to Jaques to help as a large part of why he was there was due to Fuel Rat help with the supplying of fuel for his journey. He did let me know that he had seen a few other ships heading there, which only made the thought in my mind grow a little more. We then both made our excuses and departed the system.
“What was that all about?” Bay asked as he floated toward the chair he had occupied earlier.
“An old client just wanting to chat. Nothing for you to worry about. He had no clue you were here.” There was more truth than suspicion in my statement but Bay did not need to know what I was thinking.
Continuing onward we managed to get 5k out from Jaques before fatigue got the better of me. Finding a land-able rocky planet I shut down all non essential systems and grabbed a few hours of sleep.
“Your old client sounded Imperial. Should we be worried about that?” Bay asked when we were both awake and preparing to depart. He must have been mulling over the encounter since it had happened.
“I dunno, should we be?” I asked in return.
“Well we are both working for a man that has Federal ties.” Bay stopped what he was doing and turned to look at me.
“Mr. Smith did not recruit me for this little venture and while he may have Federal leanings, I don't think anything we do is officially sanctioned.” I didn't stop the task I was working at. There were so many things that were being hidden behind silence that it was time to end one.
“How long were you in the military?” I asked Bay. He floated to my left one hand hold on to the seat at that station and let the question sink in before answering.
“I joined up when I was 18. Got badly hurt in a minor skirmish a little over a year ago. I lost my right leg and have a cybernetic one now. The Marines released me as soon as I got out of the medical facility.” He sounded a little bitter and for that I could not blame him.
“And along came Mr. Smith giving you the chance to continue fighting for the cause.” I sounded a little cynical and for that I could be blamed.
“Yeah, something like that. I'm still not sure why agreed to help him. What about you?” I knew he was looking in my direction, waiting for my answer.
“I'm the same. Still not sure.” I lied. If Smith did know about Emma with her new identity he hadn't said anything to me and if he didn't, good. Helping The Consortium might stop him looking deeper into my past. “Well, we should reach Jaques today so let's get going.”
After the 'Sure' I fired up the thrusters and started the trek once more. We hardly spoke over the rest of the journey. The density of the stars near the core did slow the nav. computer down a little but nothing else of note happened.
Bursting into Eol Prou RST-T d3-94 my head started it's usual scanning of the space around us and looking for ships on the scanner. Nothing. I targeted 80 DD-D 774-CE-2 or Jaques as I knew it to called and started the short 1,500LS hop.
If I had been trying to show off and be cool with an excellent drop out of supercruise I couldn't have done it better. As the blur faded there was Jaques perfectly lined up and 9km from the nose of the December. Usually Flight Control would be chirping at me to ask for landing permission and to watch my speed, not here. The other thing that made it a little eerie was the lack of traffic around the mail slot.
“It may look quiet but if you don't want people to know you are here, I'd hide in your cabin.”
Bay answered with a 'yeah' and floated away. I knew that I was not the first ship out here and so the lack of traffic made me a little weary. I requested landing permission and in what seemed to me a normal time it was granted. All the time I was looking out of the large bridge windows and checking the scanner.
As the Conda slid through the airlock of the mail slot my senses were on high alert. Not only was it eerie on the outside but that feeling followed me to the interior too. The station seemed to be running on emergency power as most of the lights on the flight deck were not illuminated. I had been assigned Pad 10 which was near the back of the station. Under normal circumstances this was one of my favourites but making my way to it through the dimply lit and quiet station I could feel the hairs on my neck and arms starting to raise. A loud sigh escaped from me as I felt the gear touch the pad. The gears and pneumatics started and we were heading for the hangar decks below.
“Do you have an inventory of your cargo Commander?” A figure asked as I disembarked.
“Right here.” I held out the padd and the man dressed in coveralls took it from me. “And you would be?”
“Names Bob. I'm organising the effort to try and get this station back into operational condition.” He replied as he read the manifest of my cargo and nodded his head.
I had manoeuvred myself so that Bob had his back to the ship and I watched as Bay slipped away into the shadows and darkness of the station.
“Meta-alloys and various foodstuffs. Excellent. We'll get that damned UA bombing fixed soon I hope.” He paused and looked at me. “More of the same for your next load Commander.”
“Next load?” I asked as he started to walk away to get his crew for the unloading.
“Well this is only the start Commander....” He stopped to read my name from the padd. “Aitken. It's going to take a lot more than one trip to fix this mess.”
“Of course.” I answered his back.
Just what the hell had I got myself into this time.
I looked at Bob as he spoke those words as if challenging me to continue. After double digit trips I was ready to stop. Bob was defiant that he would make this place work. I don't mean just Jaques as a lot had happened over the time it took me to hop between the bubble and Jaques multiple times.
A little recap seems to be in order. Let me fill in the gaps.
I had left Jaques in it's desolate state and returned to the bubble, just as I had been requested to do. Once I had bought the meta-alloys from Maia and some extra limpets just on the off chance that I could sell them to someone at Jaques, I returned. As it turned out I ended up giving away the limpets to a miner. I kept a healthy supply just in case I was called on to help someone out.
After another couple of trips things changed a little, a request for different commodities was issued. Tantalum, power generators, structural regulators and energy grid assemblies were needed as a lot of the services at Jaques had been restored and other projects were now in the works. With the station being back on-line the traffic close to the slot had picked up but was still sparse to nothing while in supercruise.
It was a source of celebration that Jaques was back to normal and I had taken my time on leaving for my next run. Of course with all the services back up the miners were overjoyed and carrying extra limpets was a none issue. An hour or so before I left I heard that the call had gone out for Osmium in particular but other ores in general. That was something for me to think about on the next couple of runs of generators and regulators.
I wasn't a rookie to the mining scene I had done a little, just enough to think I knew how it worked, once I finished those runs I decided the time was right to try it again. So I fitted out the December with the best refinery in stock, a couple of collectors and of course the mining lasers. I could have stayed in system to mine as there was a pristine ring close to Jaques but there where so many untapped rings in systems around that I ended up using one that was a hop there and back.
Mining was relaxing and a nice change of pace. I knew that most of the ores we were mining were for a new settlement but for some reason what that meant and would lead to didn't occur to me, yet. My next and last two trips back to the big bubble were to pick up titanium, semi-conductors and robotics. After those I did a little exploring around the Jaques system.
I'd been out a good while and the large, blazing star that I had just scooped from was behind me as I brought up the navigation panel. I had just clicked on the station icon when I noticed a new name listed there. Colonia Hub. They had finished the settlement in my time away. Even at this late stage I still hadn't made up my mind to leave. It wasn't until I docked at Jaques that my eyes turned back toward the big bubble. I mean the stuff in the big bubble I cared about could look after themselves. Robert, well I was sure he knew where I was and what I was doing. Emma was as safe as I could have hoped for. The Rats, well the Rats were everywhere and more than a few were out here.
So what made my mind up for me.
“Look Bob. Everything you've tried to do out here is coming together.” Now I had to explain myself to a man I had come to respect. His single mindedness and determination had basically shaped the direction a bunch of ill matched ruffians had taken. “But, the amount of organisation and well, authority the colonists are expecting just isn't me.”
He stood there looking at me, he raised his arms and shook his head as if to say 'give me strength' before asking.
“What did you expect? What is you?” He remained calm and took a deep breath through his nose as I watched him.
“Expect? Dunno but certainly not the same problems we have in the big bubble to follow us out here. As for me I don't like that much authority, laws if they make sense sure but all this goody goody, let's band together for the good of all. Well that stuff can vanish into a black hole for all I care.”
“It's called community.” Bob answered still keeping his tone even. “You're not getting any younger you know. You are going to have to settle down sometime and here you get a fresh start.”
He made good points but I wasn't ready for the retirement home just yet. The small bubble may have taken a turn I hadn't foreseen but the big bubble for all it's faults, well it was still the same. Sure the backstabbing, the constant bickering about borders and other less savoury happenings were there also but those I knew. So I just shook my head.
“Well, I'm not going to beg. Your help has been appreciated. If you ever feel like coming back you know where we are.”
“Sure.” I answered. He took one last look at me, then turned and left the hangar.
Bay caught up to me just as was about to board the December and leave.
“I hear you're heading back to civilisation.” When I nodded he continued. “Ok, can you drop me off at Colonia Hub.”
“Sure. I see you got your stuff so let's go.”
It wasn't a long trip but I did get to hear why he needed me to drop him off at Colonia.
“Just in case Jaques decides to try for Beagle Point again.” He sounded doubtful but he was also being clever I thought. “ I'll pick up work just like I did at Jaques and I can keep an eye on the comings and goings.”
He did ask about Cmdr. Cain again but I put his mind at ease by telling the truth. I had spoken to Heinrich on a few trips out to Jaques and I got the impression that he had come out to the black to think about his future. He may not have been telling me the truth but either way I doubted my initial assessment that he was spying for the Empire. To tell the truth even if he had been, it didn't effect me one way or the other.
“So watchya lookin' fer?”
I was in a second-hand shipyard looking for, I wasn't sure, so I didn't answer but kept walking through the yard that had Asp Explorers, Asp Scouts, Diamondback Explorers and other small to medium sizes ships.
I had time to think on my way back from Jaques and I did. I was fed up being at the Consortiums beck and call. So I had dreamed up a plan of action. I kinda guessed that I couldn't really drop off their radar but I could make myself difficult to track. To start with it meant mothballing the ships they knew I had flown. With that done stage two was being enacted as I walked through the shipyard.
Then I saw it. Tucked away at the back of the yard, black, yellow and white with the unmistakeable Lakon canopy.
“Ah the Type-6. Aye she's seen better days that one but a grand wee workhorse she is.” The owner of the yard said. He was probably a few inches tall than I was but quite a bit older by about four decades. We talked about the history of the ship in question but even before he had finished telling me about rare routes and tug duties it had done I already knew I wanted to own it.
We haggled a little over the price and in the end I got it for under a million. The old man didn't know it but he had already given it a name, Horse. It was going to take a little work and a visit or two to see a couple of engineers but for the first time in over a year I was the owner of a Lakon Type-6 Transporter.
Next stage was easy too, a fuel limpet controller was fitted, I also thought about fitting a collection controller but decided against it. I would scoop manually if it game to the crunch.
After Farseer Inc. had finished it's modifications I paid a visit to a few of her colleagues to take care of the drives, distributor and the hard points. Now that Horse was ready to go I just needed to make up my mind where.
I was looking for a very specific set of systems that I could use. They could have been anywhere but I headed out to Alliance space. Not because the Consortium hadn't used me for that area yet, I was sure there where operatives working in and around Alliance systems. I wanted to go somewhere I wasn't know too well and one that I didn't know too well either.
As I said I'd been thinking. I'd made a promise to Gabe and I had kept it, no slaves. So now was the time to forgo some other less that reputable commodities. Imperial slaves and narcotics were the next to go. That left weapons, all weapons. There was enough diversity that I didn't see myself getting bored to quickly only selling one category of illegals.
So, that meant I needed a system that sold weapons legally and it had to be close to a system that was having a war, civil war or even at a push, civil unrest. That could wait till I made it closer to Alliance space. I opened Galmap and plotted a course to Alioth, it seemed as good as any other Alliance system to start in.
As it turned out I wasn't going to get there in the time I thought. One of the additions to Horse was an improved communication system and right on cue, RATSIGNAL.
I tuned to the Rat Channel and saw that things were a little busy, then checked my jumps to the clients system, 3 jumps out, Aitken go, on my way. Quick, easy and damned efficient.
As dispatch worked with the client I just accept and clicked at the proper times and soon enough I was floating in space with a Cobra Mk. III floating, dead before me. I fired six limpets, one after the other as the previous one exploded and then chatted to the unfortunate commander for a little while. I waited until the Cobra jumped out and then filed the paperwork. Once I was happy that everything was in order I re-plotted the course to Alioth.
It had been awhile since I had been in Alioth but some things seemed the same. The Alioth Independents were still in charge of Irkutsk and Aachen Town so I docked at the former. It was still sparkling and the palm trees along side each pad added to the feeling that the station was well looked after.
The zero-G coffee machine was something that I had taken off the December before putting it up on blocks and then plumbed it into the T6. I grabbed a cup and pulled up Galmap. Even with Galmap set with the proper filters it took awhile. I was half way through the second cup when the pair jumped out at me. I marked them on the map, drained the cup and fired up the engines.
I'd been looking for an independent anarchy system and had surprised myself when the one I did find was a dictatorship. I was a little unsure about doing business with that government type but they sold what I was looking for and there was a system at war just one jump away. I decided to risk it as I couldn't have asked for a better set up.
Landing at Fisk Colony as soon as I had shut down the ship systems and secure it, I went for a stroll. Sure I could have just bought them from the Commodities Market and left but that meant I might miss out on some info I could use. Were others running the route? Were there security checks in the war torn system? And if so just how good were they? For those answers talking to a salesman and the locals was the perk.
I stopped off at a coffee shop and ordered a coffee to go. As I was paying I asked who I should see if I was interested in buying some weapons.
“These would be to transport to Tiralya I presume?” The young man asked as he checked my credit transfer. When I answered with a yes he continued. “You'll want to see Felip Sutton, you'll find him in his office. You can't miss it, about 300 meters after you turn right out the door.”
As directed I found Felip with no problems. He was a big man and I don't mean tall. As I walked into his office he turned round in his swivel chair to see who had just walked in.
“Welcome to Karbudji Commander, my name is Felip Sutton and I am at your service.” He said in a gravelly voice .
“Names Aitken and I'm interested in obtaining some weaponry, if the price is right.” I replied taking the seat on the opposite side of the desk.
“Well you've come to the right place Commander. We of the Karbudji Purple Organisation have the finest personal and battle weapons in this sector or any other sector of space.”
With the introductions and posturing over we got down to negotiations. In the end I ended up with a reasonable price and managed to get some further information that made me happy about the whole endeavour.
The Pro-Independant Union from HIP91906 were at war with the Tiralya Silver State group so taking in arms should equal a profit but, and this was a situation that had to have been made for me, there were two system factions involved in a civil war also. To make things even better Mr. Sutton let me know that the security around the outpost I would be delivering to was very lax.
The way I had the T6 Horse set up it was capable of carrying 40 Units. Eight of that would be devoted to limpets, so I loaded it with 16 Units of each, personal and battle weapons for the first run. The runs after would depend on profit margin and on the customers preference. With four potential customers I couldn't see how I could lose.
Ok, I admit it. Profiting out of the misery of others is a horrible thing to do. An enabler to those who revel in death and violence. Yes it could mean I am a low life, scum even. A despicable individual who has no empathy for the suffering my dealings are doing. I get it I really do but the hours are short and the money is good. I do have rules though. I won't supply to a dictatorship, I'll buy from them sure but not help them in their fight to take over a station or system. I won't supply a superpower in trying to overthrow an Independent system but apart from those, everything is fair game.
I needn't have worried about the four warring factions as I didn't have to contact any of them. There was a thriving black market operating in Hugh Post. Getting in touch with it had been as easy as falling off a log or walking out of the ship and talking to a docker.
“Yeah mate, let me get the supervisor over and he'll sort ya out.”
Indeed the supervisor did sort me out. Money was transferred and the cannisters of weapons and weapon parts went. To whom? I didn't ask, I had made money and that was all I needed to know. Not a great deal of money but that wasn't my only reason for being out here and in a T6. Due to that reason of keeping off of peoples radar I didn't milk it. Battle weapons were in vogue, so I did a few more runs over the next couple of days and bid farewell to both systems.
Then I did something I haven't done in a long time, I wandered aimlessly through the bubble. Well a specific, small part of the bubble this time but it still felt good. I picked up the odd job here and there, with no real target in mind.
I'd pick up a mission from Sarmiento de Gamboa Settlement in Pie delivering a couple of Units of explosives to LHS 2637. Perez Ring to be exact.
Another Coriolis station in another star system, the comms interrupted my wandering mind.
“Lakon, Alpha, India, Tango. Welcome to this Alliance station please observe local speed limits and please submit a request before trying to dock.” A rather chirpy female voice announced.
I reached over and hit the automated request and waited.
“Lakon, Alpha, India, Tango, your automated voice request was garbled please request docking using voice comms.” The chirpy voice asked. Well this was a first, I'd never heard of any problems with the automated docking request before but I guess anything is possible.
“Perez Ring this is Lakon, Alpha, India, Tango requesting permission to dock.” And again I waited.
“Permission grant, please proceed to Landing Pad 8. Flight control out.”
I made sure I was below 100 m/s as the bulbous canopy of Horse gently pushed the airlock mist gently to the side and I was greeted by the inside of another space station. A little anti-climatic after such a promising beginning but oh well.
I was happy to get Pad 8, tuck away at the back of the station, quiet, just as I liked it, even if I wasn't smuggling. With the T6 down and the elevator lowering I unbuckled the seatbelts as I felt gravity pull on my body. I was already thinking about the coffee I intended to order as I descended the down the exit staircase. Just a quick word with the dock gang and then off to find a coffee shop.
“Aitken?” A male voice said as I reached the hangar floor. I turned to see a tall, long hair guy in his late twenties staring at me. It took a moment but it came back to me.
“Ren? Oh man I haven't see you since Summerland.” I asked astonished to be seeing another Quivira veteran. The younger, taller man had closed the distance between us and held me at arms length as we spoke. I in turn held on to his arms, happy to find another old friend.
“I remember. You left O'Hare's Hangar on another medical run and you never came back. We all thought you were captured or dead. Chaotic times my friend.” A smile had grown on his face, which was mirrored by the one growing on mine. Suddenly a thought crossed my mind.
“Wait, if you're here, did.......” I was interrupted by the feeling that someone was watching me, so I let go of Ren's arms and turned round.
She stood there in her pristine white flight suit, in contrast to my dirty, faded black one. Her hair was shorter than I remembered, the luxuriate black lines ending as it brushed her shoulders. I hadn't expected to see her ever again and I just froze as she approached me.
She stopped before me, the centimetres between us suddenly became the whole of existence. The back of her hand gently brushed my cheek.
“I know this face.” She said quietly. I replied with one word.
We lay together the way we had fallen asleep. Still holding each other in her modestly decorated quarters.
“I missed you too.” I replied.
We had spent the time since the hangar together, hugging, kissing, talking and being together. Of course we also talked about the events around losing contact with each other.
The fight for Quivira was over, we all knew that, so helping those who had suffered through the war that had raged was the next thing for us to do. The refugees we were helping had fled to the Summerland system, more had fled to the Persephone system but Summerland was our main focus to start with. This put a great burden on the government of Henry O'Hare's Hangar who were caught unprepared for such a tidal wave of human suffering. A cry had went out for medical supplies, blankets and other humanitarian aid and a bunch of us felt compelled to answer. It was on one of these runs that I had been separated from Shoshana and the rest of my colleagues.
Denton Patreus' forces were being ruthless as they swept through Quivira and Godel Dock, any and all signs of opposition were being wiped out. It had become obvious early in the conflict that the loan repayments had been a sham. Patreus had driven the interest on them higher and higher until they were beyond the reach of the small independent system. Now to drive his point home we had all been marked for death.
I had just dropped back into the Summerland system with another load of medicines when the Python I was piloting was jumped by a wing of Clippers. I could have and in hindsight should have just dumped the cargo and ran. Obtaining medical supplies was getting more difficult, longer distances to cover, higher prices to pay and I knew that they were needed so I was being stubborn and it nearly cost me my ship. I high waked out and landed at Schuster Hub in Wuru. I was a little surprised that I had not been followed but it appeared their intension was just to stop help getting to the refugees.
I had taken a lot of damage and it took time to repair the Python, too much time as it turned out. When I returned to Summerland it was a different scene, as Imperial aid given by Aisling Duval had arrived. I did stick around for a day or two to try and find my friends but all I heard were horror stories. My next stop was Persephone.
Shoshana and others had been driven out of Summerland the same day I had been jumped and had ended up in Persephone were they continued to help but had been forced to leave a short while later. Over time some of the survivors found LHS 2637 and decided to call it home.
I wandered through Imperial space for a little while longer before returning to Atagat to lick my wounds and talk things over with Gabe. The only bright spot from this time after the war was bumping into what I thought was a crazy Imp pilot with an even stranger idea but Surly Badger and his idea were not that crazy after all.
In a short while other things started to dominate Galnet, a few days after the last war update, Federal President Halsey went missing and the Quivira War was resigned to the history books.
“If you get dressed I'll show you where to get the best breakfast in The Ring.” Her chuckle warned me but I was still too slow in ducking as my flight suit hit my head.
Shoshana was already half dressed as I began and every now and then I shot a sideways glance at her. She was a few years younger than I was and I had always found it amazing that someone as kind, gentle and attractive as her was interested in someone like me. She caught one of my glances and raised an eye brow.
“I thought you were dead when I didn't find you in Summerland or Persephone, so forgive me if I make sure I'm really seeing you.” I said in reply to her quizzical look.
“You're forgiven.” Her smile was dazzling and let me know that the feeling was mutual. She held out her hand and led me out into The Ring.
The Ring or Perez Ring to give it it's official name was a Coriolis station floating about 400ls from the arrival point, I would later realise and appreciate the beauty and usefulness of LHS 2637 but not quite yet. We left her quarters and after a short walk and an elevator ride we appeared at a large open corridor bustling with people and cargo transporters. A few of the crowd walking past smiled or greeted Shoshana as they passed, one or two smiled at me but most either ignored my presence or gave me a nod. No biggie as to them I was a stranger.
The Perez Ring Brewery had a visitor center, gift shop and restaurant attached to it. It also had guided tours so that visitors could view the process as well as hear about it. I wasn't going to get the tour but I was about to hear a little of it's history. We entered the restaurant, Shoshana told me to grab a table and that she would be back shortly. I chose a table with a view of the entrance but also close to a large window so we could look out onto the boulevard and those moving about it.
The PRB logo dominated the back wall of the restaurant, a black field with a ringed gas giant in the center, the same gas giant that the Perez Ring was orbiting. It had text surrounding it proclaiming the beers name and a marketing slogan. I would see the logo later all through the gift shop, on cans, bottles, shirts, basically on everything that was for sale.
“You remembered.” I said as a plate with a full breakfast was placed before me. The mug of coffee was a given to anyone that had known me for longer than five minutes.
“Kinda difficult to forget. Whenever I saw you after a supply run that's what you would be eating.” She gave me a smile as she sat down. “Which only seemed fair as you had just delivered most of it.”
“No, I only delivered some of it. A lot more were delivering more need materials for the war effort.” I corrected her. “Come on though you were going to fill in some of the history blanks.”
“Sure. When we first got here our idea was to back up the democratic government that was in place, hence the name we picked “The Allies.” It didn't take long for us to see that we were going to need a more stable source of income if we wanted to remain here. We took a long look at who we were, what our skills were and since we had a lot of pilots who traced their ancestry back to ancient Earth's Germany, we hit on the idea of a brewery. It was a peaceful, all encompassing way for us to blend into the system. Come on who doesn't like a beer after a long days work.” She paused looked at me and once again smiled. “Apart from present company as they prefer a coffee.”
“Oh believe me at times I really would like a beer but I tend to stay away from things that could kill me.” I replied rather flippantly.
“Of course you do, that's why you have so many new scars on your body and head. I'm sure none of those 'things' were out to kill you.” No smile this time. I took a sip of coffee, put some more bacon and egg on my fork, as soon as I had it in my mouth I started to chew. All a delaying tactic so I could think about how to answer Shoshana.
“We'll talk about that later. Please continue with the history lesson.” A thoughtful and concerned look greeted that reply, but she nodded and continued.
“It took off. It was soon the hottest selling beer in the system. The price, the taste, the fact that it was local all seemed to make it that. Very soon after we started to receive orders from near by systems for it. Pilots who had tried it here would order it at a bar in another system and of course we didn't export it at that point. Once we did start to export it we hit another problem. As you know space is limited inside a space station so we could not keep up with demand, we could not expand the brewery so we hit on the idea to expand outside the system and start other brewery's in the systems that were our largest customers. It worked and at present we have six others. All are smaller than the original but cater to those systems and we can still export, and do, to them when demand raises to above their production capacity. Of course Perez Ring Brewery had by this time became a corporate and political entity. It didn't take long after we started selling Perez Beer that we became the controlling faction here due to the amount of trade we were generating. It's been a wild 18 months, I wish you had been here to be part and enjoy it.
I'd finished eating by the time she had finished her recalling of the rise of PRB and just sipped at my coffee. Question time.
“Why Alliance space? Why not an Independent as Quivira was.”
“The Alliance wasn't really what we were looking for but it has made sense since then. I know you have destain for big government but the Alliance is a little more laid back than the other two, more hands off and that suits us fine. Independent's are easy pickings for the other two, as you know from experience. Plus we can and do help other Alliance member as well as those Independent systems that accept our help. What about you, want to fill in a little more detail than last night?”
I nodded as I took a sip of coffee, gathered myself and then spent the next ten minutes giving her a brief, very brief run down of my time since Summerland. I only missed out the nitty-gritty but I did tell her about the Silver Boys, Charity/Emma, Mr. Smith, the Consortium, the Purple Pirates, Jaques and of course the Fuel Rats.
“I'll get specifics from you later but it sounds like you have been busy too. Although I doubt you will ever tell me all the details.” She knew I had been smuggling before we met and even back then I had kept my dealings quiet. Just because I had increased my activity in that area didn't mean I was about to open up a little more, in fact it made me even more tight lipped.
“Sure. How about that tour then?” I asked to deflect the conversation a little.
“Ok. Come on I can grill you on this Fuel Rat thing as we go.” Again the smile was in place. This time I returned it and asked another question but not about the brewery.
“How are the boys doing?” Shoshana had two sons from a previous relationship, calling them boys seemed a little strange as both were in their twenties.
“Still in Quivira but well last time I heard from them.” I interrupted her, not something I did often, nor did I like too.
“Nova is still there too. Still working against the Empire last I heard.” We stood in front the the brewery's main door.
“I know. Todd and Miguel help him when they can but I fear Patreus has his claws in too deep to get him out now.” Shoshana had been born and grew up in Godel Dock. Up until 18 months ago it had been the only home she had known.
“Hmmm, as tough as losing your home was I think you've done pretty well here.” Trust me to ruin her mood, I hoped I had thrown some sugar to sweeten my silly words.
“Yeah, I guess we have, it wasn't easy at times but it has borne fruit. I actually don't know if I could or would return if things got better. Although from what I know I don't think things there will.” Again a veil seemed to descend over her usually happy expression. So I quickly changed the subject again.
“So you want to know about the Fuel Rats?” I then launched into the story about Surly Badger, my first rescue, about the humble beginnings to galaxy wide acclaim. I managed to get a chuckle from her by retelling some of the mistakes I and others had made over the time the Rats had been operating. All this time we had been walking around the brewery and Shoshana would interrupt my story telling to share her knowledge of the process. We exited the tour at the gift shop and I had a further question for her.
“Where do you fit into all this?” She had never struck me as the master brewer type.
“As with most of the non pilot original 'Allies' I work in the administration side of the faction. I work in the Finance Department, not as exciting as it sounds believe me.” She gave a small chuckle. “But I did help to over see the expansion into other systems.”
“Alright. So who is in charge of this since your a corporation I guess?” Politics, man I hated politics but I understood that they were necessary.
“You remember Rodger Clay? He's the VP of Perez Ring Brewery.”
I did in deed remember Rodger Clay. He had been a Squadron Leader back during the war and he had not thought that highly of me. He looked upon me as a profiteer, that took advantage by hauling in goods for the black market during the time of conflict. That I had joined in the fight as things became more and more desperate mattered not a jot to him. To tell the truth he wasn't far wrong about my dealings but I had only smuggled in goods when I had spare cargo space after picking up needed supplies. Not my proudest moment but one I would make use of again if I was ever in the same position.
“Yeah I remember him. Thanks for the tour.” I tried not to show my concern at the news of who ran the show here and I managed. I hope.
“Come on, you look like you could use another coffee.” Her smile would have been enough but I hardly ever turned down a good coffee. Or a bad one come to that.
We were back in the restaurant, sipping coffee and looking out the window now and again when she asked the question I had been waiting for.
“How long are you staying?”
My thanks to Capt. Kirby and the members of The Allies[AID] for additional background information.
Oh I had heard her alright and as I stalled by staring out the window I watched an elderly man shuffle along the boulevard. There was nothing startling about him, just an ordinary human male. He looked to be over one hundred, again nothing unusual with the medical advances in the past few hundred years.
“Depends.” It was the best I could come up with.
“On what? Me?” She did not look happy with my answer. No not at all happy.
“You?” I did sound surprised, even to myself. “Oh no. Nothing depends on you, this is all me. I would stay here just for you, sure but it depends on employment opportunities. We both know that if I don't find work here I'll drive you and myself nuts.”
The sound of a giggle reached my ears as the old man entered a cross walkway and vanished from sight.
“If that's your only worry I think you'll do fine here. As well as the mission board, I know the transport department supervisor and they are always looking for new pilots.”
She was a little surprise when she saw the Type-6 and not the Python I had used in Quivira but once I explained I was keeping a low profile she understood. I then had to explain why I was keeping a low profile which didn't make her happy.
“They don't sound like the nicest of people.” She quipped as she entered Horse.
“Fraid to say that sounds pretty par for the course when you do what I do.” I gave a shrug as she looked over her shoulder at me.
“Maybe you should consider a different line of work. One not so fraught with danger.” I know she was only trying to be helpful but I had a hard time keeping the laugh internal, but I managed.
“Thank you for your concern,” I paused so she knew I meant it. “But even if there was such a line of work that wasn't as dangerous in space, I don't know it. Sho please don't take this the wrong way but every time a ship exits the mail slot and passes the toast rack it could be heading for destruction. It's a little dangerous out there.”
“Most people call me Shoshana or Shana but not you, why do you always have to be different?” There was no malice or anger in her voice so I gave a small smile.
“Ahh, you won't have me any other way.” Again I heard the giggle and a “Don't flatter yourself.” there was a brief flash of concern in her eyes but I knew that the conversation was over. At least for the moment.
We finished the inspection of the Type-6 and were just leaving the hangar when I thought I saw the old shuffling man again. “Come on” I mentally said to myself, “out of the tens of thousands that live in/on this station you think an old man is following you.” and dismissed it from my mind.
After lunch I was introduced to the transport supervisor and was guaranteed that I would indeed find plenty of work. That did prove to be the case. Horse had a couple of the ringed planet logos slapped on it's sides and for the next week or so we flew beer to the local systems. If and when I had room I would check the mission board and slip in a cargo delivery or a data mission if there was one for any of my delivery stops.
I saw Shoshana if and when I was back at Perez Ring and she wasn't working, if we didn't meet up I just spent my spare time in the Type-6 or wondering the station. Slowly a small number of the population started to recognise me, even when I wasn't with Shoshana. A nod, a smile or a wave were aimed in my direction and I have to admit it felt good.
I was having lunch with Sho sometime in the second week since I had arrived, when a tall, rakish fellow with dirty blond hair approached our table.
“Excuse me but it's Cmdr. Aitken, isn't it?”
“That all depends on who's asking?” I answered cautiously. Old habits die hard or in this instant, not at all.
“My apologises. Allow me to introduce myself, I'm Associate Val Hahn and I represent the LHS 2637 Ring.” He stopped to see if that produced any reaction from me. It didn't but I did notice that it caused Shoshana to look uncomfortable. When he saw that there faction name meant little to me he continued. “We have need for a pilot who has the ability to transport certain goods that would be deemed less than legal by the authorities at both ends of the journey.”
Shoshana stood up, excused herself and headed for the restroom.
“Please carry on Mr. Hahn.” I instructed once we were alone.
“We have ten units of personal weapons that we need delivered with in the next 24 hours.” He slipped a PADD onto the table showing the destination and payment.
“If you can have them loaded into the Type-6 Transporter in hangar 45, I'll deliver them sooner than that.” I replied and slid the PADD back to him. He gave a nod and told me they would be loaded within the next few hours, just before he left he asked me one more question.
“We may have larger consignments in the future. If you have access to a more spacious ship would you be interested?”
“Just you tell me the amount you want transported and leave the ship arrangements to me. Whatever you want moved, I have access to a ship that will move it for you.” I gave a small tight smile.
“Excellent. A pleasure doing business with you Commander.” A smile, a curt nod of the head and he strode out of the diner.
I was sipping at a cup of coffee when Shoshana returned. Reviewing the merchandise I was about to move and discovering that it was a legal commodity in Perez Ring.
“I have no problem with you doing what you do but try not to do it in front of me Aitken. I am a member of this stations controlling faction and by that I am in fact the Authority you are trying to smuggle past.” Once again no anger, just the facts.
“Don't get you involved?” I asked as I raised the cup for another sip.
“Precisely. What I don't know, I can't report.” She replied as she fidgeted with a napkin.
“Gotcha. I think I love you.” I said impishly. Her only reply was a snort of air from her nose and a napkin aimed at my head.
Piece of cake. A milk run. A walk in the park and any other phrase you can think of that would describe a smuggling run with next to no problems. Sure I was nearly scanned on the delivery end, the cop in the Eagle must have had implants to improve his vision but a quick boost and a drop out of his line of sight solved that minor problem.
Mr. Hahn paid up when I returned to Perez Ring and told me he'd be in touch.
Five minutes later I heard a more delightful and a more welcome voice.
“Have you been back long?” Shoshana asked as she boarded Horse.
“Nope, I landed about 15 minutes ago.” I was sitting in the pilots seat so I spun it around to see her walking through the ship toward the cockpit. “Coffee's on do you want anything to eat?”
“You mean this thing has a galley?” Disbelieve oozed out with her surprised tone.
“Yes. I could use this thing for deep space exploration, it has a bunk too.” I could not help myself and gave her a mischievous wink. It produced the giggle I was hoping to hear and brought a smile to both of our faces.
“So I get to stay at 'your place' after dinner do I?” She asked with a wicked gleam in her eye.
“You are always welcome to stay in any ship I fly, as long as you do the dishes after dinner.”
Dinner was a quick and simple to reheat lasagne. We talked, laughed and drank coffee over the meal. The dishes were even easier as everything went into the recycler. That left one thing left to check out, the bunk.
“C'mon, we'll get you some coffee to start the morning off.” Shoshana remarked taking my hand in hers as we left Horse next morning. To most people I wasn't the nicest person they were likely to meet any morning. That was only exaggerated by the lack of coffee in my system. Shoshana was showing her compassionate side by saving those I had not spoken to yet by her actions.
There was a small stall with a few tables and chairs around it close to the hangar area and so we stopped there. Sitting down to enjoy the life saving first cup of the day I noticed a familiar face.
“You see that old man over there by the cloths store?” She gave me a nod. “Do you recognise him?”
“No. Should I?” The standard response.
“Not sure but I keep seeing him. Sometimes more than once a day too.” I must admit I was puzzled by his continued appearance every time I was in Perez Ring.
“Always in this and the surrounding area?” Shoshana asked as I looked away from my would be shadow. I nodded and gave her a “Sure” as a reply.
“He probably lives close to here. You just happen to spot him whenever you land.” I looked his way again, our eyes locked for a moment before he gave me a nod and went into the store.
“You could be right. My imagination must be working overtime.” I gave her a smile and changed the subject by asking her about her work.
She was explaining something about balance and transfer when I asked if she would like a second cup. I received a no and ended up only getting a second for myself. As I sat down Shoshana was looking over my shoulder and as I took my first sip she seemed to give a nod. Once I had placed the cup on the table she leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“I'll catch up with you later, ok.” She smiled her dazzling smile as she stood and as I said. “Bet on it.” Another look over my head now as she indicated to the now vacant chair, she winked at me and was walking away before I could say anything.
“Well Aitken, it didn't take you long to hook up with the less than reputable inhabitants of the station. Well done.”
Taking Shoshana's place in the vacant sitting spot was a tall, grey hair man. He was dressed in what appeared to be a brown business suit with a black sweater under it. At first glance I supposed it was to retain a friendly but business like image. It didn't work for me.
“Hello Rodger. I'm surprised it took you this long to show your displeasure at me being on this station.” I took another sip of as Rodger Clay unbuttoned his jacket and made himself more comfortable.
“Displeasure? No Aitken it is always good to see another that survived the struggle trying to keep Quivira free. I admit I don't like you, well what you do for a living but it does have it's uses and it is those skills I am in need of at the moment.”
I placed the cup back on the table and indicated that he should continue.
“We have a messenger that is overdue, last we heard of him he was in the Mizar system. I would like you to go to that system and locate 4 trade data cannisters and return them to this station. You will be suitably rewarded for these actions.”
“When you say 'overdue' you mean attacked and killed I take it?” Rodger gave a small nod and then continued.
“Having looked through your history since Quivira I see that this is not the first time you have done such a mission but if you feel it is too dangerous I can find someone else.” He replied tersely.
“No. I'll do it alright, just making sure I have the full background.” I said in a much lighter tone.
“Good. The data will be sent to your ship shortly and if that's everything I'll be on my way.” Rodger stood up and buttoned his jacket before I could interrupt his departure.
“As you said I have done this type of mission before and usually the data cannisters are scanned as illegal. I take it you want me to smuggle them in for you?” Rodger watch as I took another sip from my cup and then leaning down he place his hands on the table. For anyone looking it would appear that he was giving me a piece of friendly advice, well in a way he was.
“That's up to you Aitken. If you do manage to get past security while bringing them into Perez Ring, I get the data. If you manage to get scanned and caught coming into Perez, well as a high ranking member of the controlling faction, security will allow me to have access to the data. Does that help you with your decision?” He rose to his full height once more and gazed down at me.
“Sure does.” I said with a faint tone of mock enthusiasm. “Thanks Rodg.”
“Yes. Well.” His posture stiffened a little as my jibe had the desired effect. “I'll see you when you return.”
With that he turned and headed down the walkway. As he past by a shop front an old man watched him pass. The old man's eyes and mine met once more before he nodded to me again. Then he too turned and headed down the walkway.
I had been standing looking at the Lakon Type-6 Transporter for what seemed like a day but was only really ten or fifteen minutes. I still found it hard to believe that I was actually considering what I was considering. In the end though it made some sense for this mission and for the first time in over a year I was going to run a ship without a fuel limpet controller. I did replaced it with it's collection counterpart however. It felt a little strange to have limpets on board and know that I would not be firing them toward a stranded ship but at cannisters containing trade data.
Exiting the station I lined Horse up with the escape vector and listened to Bettys usual litany as the blue white haze appeared on the edge of my vision. A swirling mass of cloud and light made a tunnel hurling us toward our destination system. A pinprick of light slowly shone and grew to pinhead size, shining brightly. BOOM, a blazing ball of burning gases leapt toward us as if it was trying to enter the canopy. I rolled the Type-6 adding a little bank and yaw to pull it out of the gravity well and heard the familiar sound of the fuel scoop drinking down hydrogen.
A quick check of the navigation panel had me targeting the systems nav beacon and moments later we dropped from supercruise. Once again I targeted the beacon and waited as the two computers talked to each other in their own digital language. As the onboard computer downloaded the traffic report from the beacon I watched the scanner as other, more dangerous ships showed up, lined up with their next target and leapt out. Those weren't the ones I worried about, the ones that jumped in and then prowled around looking for 'tasty cargo' were. Download complete I pushed open the throttle as one of the prowlers started to scan me. Even though limpets would not interest him I still wanted to avoid a full scan and succeed as Horse hopped back up into supercruise.
Mizar was a strange system. It contained four stars of which the two the furthest away from the entry point had anything orbiting them. So it was that as I checked the beacon data I found that I had to head for Mizar C2, 163,000ls from my current position. I gave a shrug and settled down for a long haul.
I ignored the first couple of Unidentified Signal Sources that whizzed past me. I had travelled 20k ls when I thought about scanning the third but didn't. I did scan the fourth but upon reading the return on the scan display screen I continued, something with convoy in it. The next few I scanned were Degraded Emissions. These did peak my interest but I decided that dropping out of supercruise and picking anything up was just wasting time and so forged on. When I came across an Encoded Emission, well I sat there thinking about it for a good 30 seconds or so and then dropped out to explore it. Call it inquisitiveness but I actually thought I might find something I could use or at least something I could sell. That part I guess would just be called greed.
Bursting out into normal space I saw a scene that I had become familiar with. Large and small pieces of spaceship wreckage shone and reflected the light from the distant stars. Checking the scanner I was happy to see the white blips show up. Alright let's see what we got here. A look to the left panel and a quick navigation to the Contacts tab brought up what I was looking at. I looked up and targeted the Private Data Source and as it downloaded to my computer I once again browsed over the other debris. I had just turned my head to the right to check the Inventory tab in the right panel when something caught my eye. My first reaction to the red and white fuselage was 'Wow, someone got a Fer De Lance and this is some of the aftermath.' Then it registered in my mind what I had actually seen. It wasn't spinning or moving in anyway and come to think about it, it hadn't been there when I had dropped in.
“Well since you didn't listen the first time perhaps this will get your attention.” The female voice announced. Wait, 'first time' I hadn't heard a word. I could have been distracted by the salvage, I know I had the comm on as I heard her fine this time or maybe she was just toying with a beat up Type-6. Mind you she had been half way through her statement when I had pushed the throttle to the wall. At the same time I was hitting the boost button and firing up the FSD. I wish I could say I had a system targeted so I could high wake out but I didn't, so staying in system it was.
I saw the shot from the plasma accelerator go flashing past on my starboard side as I jinked to port. I wasn't so lucky with the laser fire as the shields on Horse lit up bright blue, quick check, yup four pips in systems and once more boooost.
Beatty started her count down as the shields dropped to a ring. Ok I had them reinforced which helped. As did the visit to Prof. Palin for the thrusters, also having the distributor work so I could get a third boost from the thrusters, probably all added up to my escape, a sweat inducing, adrenaline surging escape. But it was an escape. The shields had failed just as we leapt into supercruise but the damage was minimal, just 7% of the hull shaved off.
I ignored all the other USS for the rest of the journey to Mizar C2 and entered a very loose orbit as I searched for the last messenger. Once located I dropped out and used four of the eight limpets I had to retrieve the trade data cannisters. As I had thought all four popped up illegal in my inventory screen. Even better there was not a sign of another ship.
I got Back to LHS 2637 and Perez Ring with no further incident. Getting past the security patrol was easy enough with silent running and speed. I landed lightly as I had not given the shields time to regenerate. I then quickly entered the hangar just in case any security ship still had line of sight on me.
As I exited Horse Rodger and a crew of four came into the hangar. He pointed to the cargo hatch of the Type-6 and as the four dockers headed to unload the cannisters he came toward me.
“Everything go well?” He asked looking over the yellow, black and white hull.
“No problems.” I lied.
“I've authorised the transfer of the funds to your account. Ah, excuse me I want to check the serial numbers on the cannisters.” With that he strode over to where the dockers had the cargo as I checked my account balance.
“Everything in order?” He asked as he returned to where I stood. I nodded. “Good. You got the correct merchandise. It's going to be handy having you around Aitken. I'll be seeing you soon.”
“There you are Aitken. We need to have a little talk.”
I could hear the voice of Rodger Clay but I couldn't see him. At that moment I had half of my body inside a maintenance hatch of a Type-6 Transporter. The bright yellow and duller black stripes on it's bodywork let people know that this was 'Horse' the T-6 I had brought to Perez Ring and had used in service of the controlling faction. Speaking of controlling, that's what I was busy refitting for the second or third time, Fuel Limpet Controller. I tightened up the last connection and let my body slide. As my feet impacted with the hangar floor I allowed my momentum to bend my knees and then I stayed in that crouched position as I looked over toward Rodger.
“You going to hit me with that?” He asked as I straightened up. I looked down at the tool in my hand and placed it on the small table close to where I was now standing.
“No, I'm just finishing refitting a system on Horse.” It was the third time I had done it but that wasn't a detail I shared with Rodger. Since picking up the Trade Data for him I had run a few more 'tasks.' After each I had refitted the fuel controller and of course the next task required me to take it out and put in a cargo rack.
“Problem with your ship?” He asked. He actually sounded a little concerned.
“No, no problem just routine stuff.”
“Good because I have another small task for you.” Right, here we go. “ Remember the Trade Data that you recovered a while back.” I nodded. “Great. It took our boffins a little while but they cracked them open and decrypted the information. I need you to go to these coordinates on Olgrea ABC 1b you'll find a small base there. Once there you take out the skimmers in and around it.”
“Sure. When?” I didn't ask about payment as ever job I had done for him had been profitable but I had a reason for asking about the timing.
“It'll be within the next day or two.” He replied.
“Alright, that gives me time to arrange a few things.”
“What's to arrange Aitken. You fly in, jump in a Scarab and take out the skimmers at the base. Have a little drive around and take out any more you find.”
I stood looking at him and wiped my hands with a rag I had in my back pocket. I gave a shrug and started to turn back to the T-6.
“Look if you think this is some kind of underhand activity you got it wrong. The skimmers will be wanted. They are part of an illegal breakaway faction that stole some important assets from one of our other systems. You'll be clearing the way for the personnel to reclaim those assets that's all.”
I had my back to him by this time and allowed myself a sly grin. It had dissolved before I turned back to him.
“No worries Rodger. As you said I need a SRV and Horse here doesn't have one fitted and I've messed around with it's internals enough. A day or two gives me time to arrange for a ship that has one.”
“Oh. Of course. I'll have the details and word sent to you when we've set the start time.”
With that he turned and walked out. Touchy subject I thought. Must be stressful being the CEO of a large business. Again I shrugged and headed into Horse to make my arrangements.
“So what's he got you doing this time?” Shoshana asked over lunch.
“Usually stuff, no biggie.” I answered as I caught a hint of worry in her voice.
“You forget where I work? I see the amounts you have been paid for the jobs you do for Rodger and they're a little high just for delivering beer.”
“What can I say, I'm good at what I do.” I gave her my most charming smile but had little hope she would drop the subject. She sat in silence for a few moments more as she continued to eat.
“I could take it up with Rodger you know.” She said between forkfuls of food.
“You could, yup.” I had finished eating so I took a sip of coffee.
“You're impossible.” She said as she slid the plate away from herself. “Whatever it is you are up to, be careful.”
Just then the PADD I had sitting on the table gave out a ping.
“Come on.” I said to her as I read the message. “I got something to show you.”
It was a short walk to the hangar area and as we walked we received the odd hello and acknowledgement from some of those we past. Once again I noticed the same old man in and around the area I was in. I had pretty much made up my mind he was keeping a close eye on me when I was at Perez Ring, I just wasn't sure whose eye he was employed by.
“It's a Cobra.” Shoshana remarked as we entered the hangar that held Horse and it's new stable mate. “And if I know my ship recognition, it's a Mark IV.”
“It is indeed a Mark IV.” I agreed as we moved beneath the newly delivered machine.
“Well, considering the amount of pilots that view it negatively and the amount of abuse it is given. I mean most look upon it as the red headed stepchild of Faulcon DeLacy. So why this and not a Mark III?”
“Internals.” It was a simple answer that I did mean to expand on and continued to do so. “Despite the lack of speed, lack of manoeuvrability and lack of range, it has enough room for everything I need to do surface missions and carry a fuel limpet controller.”
“So use an Asp Explorer.” She replied.
“I did think about it but the Mark IV is a little smaller and runs a little cooler.” I saw from her expression that she wasn't convinced. “Plus I like the way a SRV hits the front landing strut and is in perfect alignment to stow.”
“Hmm, well it's your choice I guess. Has this anything to do with what Rodger was talking to you about?”
“Nah.” I lied. I don't like lying to Shoshana but this one had twofold reasons. It stopped her worrying when I was absent and it might make her drop the subject of doing work for Rodger. Even if it was legitimate tasks I knew she would still worry. “I've been meaning to do some more surface salvage for awhile and as things are cooling down with missions and deliveries I thought I'd take the opportunity.”
I don't think I had totally pulled the wool over her eyes but perhaps just enough to make the time before I undertook Rodgers next mission less stressful for both of us. A quick kiss and Shoshana, lunch over, returned to work. I did tell her the ships name before she left.
“All the points you listed are the reason it's called Riffraff.” I informed her. At least she left with a smile on her face. I spent the afternoon making sure everything was in order and waiting for Rodgers call. It didn't arrive and so I was happy to spend more time aboard Perez Ring.
The call came next morning as I sat drinking coffee. Shoshana had left a few minutes before to start her work shift and as was usual for me I wrote a quick note and sent it to her personal account. I imagined she would read it when she took a break and by that time I would probably be in Olgrea.
Lifting the half cup I had remaining I stood up and headed toward the hangar area. An old man across the corridor gave a smile and a head nod as I walked away, I lifted my cup in mock salute and continued on.
According to the mission outline I had received I would have about an hour to clear out the base and surrounding area. Climbing aboard Riffraff and firing up all systems took less time than obtaining clearance to the flight deck and station exit. Having plotted the route, once clear of the toast rack I pushed the throttle open, aligned the Mark IV and jumped out as soon as we cleared the NFZ.
ABC 1b was 5,778ls from the entry point so I settled in for an easy journey. I had no plans to drop into any Signal Sources to add any difficulty. It was a moon described as an icy body but as I entered orbital cruise it looked just like any other hunk of rock I had dropped in on lately. I was hoping to drop out of the glide so as to get a look at the lie of the land round the facility. I misjudged it completely and exited the glide nearly on top of the trespass zone but by banking quickly to the right I missed setting off the alarms. It did back up what Rodgers briefing had told me about it being completely automated, nothing stirred from the pop of the Mark IV exiting it's glide and coming close.
One good thing did come from my poor glide management, as I banked away I saw a gulley running along one edge of the facility and it was this I followed as I looked for a landing site. With Riffraff requiring a small area to land on it didn't take long and I set it down on a flattish patch 4km away.
Once in the SRV I deployed to the surface and dismissed Riffraff. Applying power to the SRV I entered the gulley. It was a perfect topographical concealed route to the base and showed that it had been placed there by someone who didn't know what they were doing. It was an error I intended to use to my advantage.
It was a bumpy trip as the low gravity tended to kick the little Scarab up at every little rock. As I crept closer a white blip showed up on the scanner and confirmed something I had hoped I was wrong about. Rodgers intel. about the structure was a week old and with the modular building techniques of the day, a lot could be built in that time. The first thing that popped up on the scanner was of course a defensive turret, something that had not been there a week ago. Added difficulty for sure but nothing I hadn't dealt with before.
I got to where the scanner indicated I was opposite the turret and looked for a high area in the gulley, not so that I was out of it but just enough so that the Scarabs turret was above it's lip. Once I had, I stopped and popped into the SRVs turret viewer. I saw pretty much what I expect to see. A fairly large building with a few smaller ones dotted around it, what looked like a refuelling depot and not a lot else. Oh and of course more than one turret, four to be exact. From previous experience with this type of facility I knew I was safe until I opened fire or broke the trespass zone.
I closed down the turret view and drove out of the gulley heading for one of the smaller buildings. I was careful to not stray into the trespass zone but once beside the small building I lined myself up so only one turret had line of sight to me. A few flicks of my thumb, four pips to shields and two to the twin plasma repeaters. Thuck, thuck, thuck, thuck, thuck, thuck. I was surprised at how quickly it's integrity went down. A bright flash and a trickle of smoke and the turret was gone. I also knew what that meant to the skimmers and sure as heck multiple new contacts appeared on the scanner.
One flew straight behind me, a quick push of a button and I was back to the turret view. It's shot hit the shields but mine were hitting hull. A flash and it fell to the ground with an eye blinding explosion. Inching the Scarab forward another was soon in it's sights and fell. The third and fourth fell soon after but not before the second defensive turret picked me up.
Out of the turret view I turn into the fire and returned it. If I had been expecting this turret to behave like the first, and I had, I was mistaken. I had thought the it would destroy as easy as the first but no it was made of sterner stuff and so I hid behind the fuel depot. Once out of it's sight it ceased firing. Again I was thankful that everything was automated. If I had been using the defences I would have targeted the depot and destroyed it and whoever was hiding in it.
Popping in and out from cover I took out the second turret and sat allowing the shields to regenerate to full before moving on to the third. It was another tough nut to crack, the fourth not so much, more like the first. I cruised outside the trespass zone, setting it off a couple of times as I cut the corners. When no more skimmers appeared I recalled the Mark IV.
I hadn't been lying to Shoshana when I told her the SRV could hit the forward landing support and be aligned to load. Once back in the cockpit of Riffraff I powered up the thrusters and climbed up to 2.5km. Now I had to make sure there were not any skimmers close enough to the base to interfere with the recovery team. Landing gear up I slowly started a circle out from the base. If I spotted any likely site I dropped in and took the skimmers out. After repeating this a few more times I was just returning to Riffraff when I heard the pop of a ship exiting orbital glide. Whatever Rodger was keen to get back there was a lot of it, a Type-9 Heavy descended toward the now unprotected base.
“Aitken, the recovery team is down and heading in. You can return to Perez Ring. Clay out.”
Well that was that then. Fire up the thrusters, quick plot in Galmap and line up for the escape vector.
Exiting the Cobra Mark IV I looked back at it and gave a smile. Sure compared to it's better known stable mate it was a bit sluggish, even after the modifications I had asked for. Still, I liked it, don't ask me why but it had a certain charm that allowed me to look beyond it's faults. Next modification I thought as I walked away was a coffee machine.
I looked over at Shoshana as the Python 'Diamond' cleared the toast rack of Titan City.
“Yes she did.” I replied with a smile. This had been our third stop on our vacation tour. Not the one I had hoped for or planned but sometimes we have to make compromises.
Shoshana had been delighted when I suggested that we take some time off and take a break. My plan was to take a tour of a route I had been given. One that took in some of the most wondrous and unusual products the galaxy had to offer. Yes, I had expected to do a little Rare Trading as we travelled but it still counted as a holiday to me. Shoshana kind of agreed but asked that we add in a few stops. Gabe had loved her, the Purple Pirates had been happy to see me and mother thought she was the greatest thing I had ever found. After those three we only had one more stopping point before we could get on to my planned vacation trip.
“Course laid in, we'll be in Fuelum soon.” I told her as I started the first jump.
I had been doing a lot of work for Rodger and was getting close to burning out. The last job before I took my vacation was the one that convinced me I needed time off. It had also been one of the reasons I had the Python 'Diamond' moved to Perez Ring. The Python was renowned for being the most versatile ship in the Galaxy and I had the Diamond fitted with some passenger cabins to go a long with the cargo racks.
The job had sounded simple enough, take a CEO and her two aides back to their home system. Even better it was one jump from the Ring. Of course the station was 160,000ls away but not to worry the pay out was good enough.
The first warning I should have picked up on was when I got a look at the 'aides'. Two rather large gentlemen that screamed ex-military special forces or mercenary gorillas.
The second came and did raise my eyebrow when the passengers were strapped in and I was finishing my preflight checks.
“Pilot.” The voice came floating through the comms. “This ship does carry armaments I take it?”
Once I replied that it did indeed have the means to defend itself the comms went silent and we proceeded on our way.
The real warning came once we were in system for their destination. The ghostly voice floated once more to pilots cabin.
“Pilot, we may have some unpleasant company join us along our journey. There will be a bonus for each one you manage to destroy.” The comms fell silent before I could reply.
I'm not a combat pilot, I've done combat of course but in my opinion I am not very good. I get through either because the ship I am in can survive against inferior opposition or I run. In the case here,the former proved to be the case.
There were three, each with a bounty on their head and each one flew a Viper Mk. III. The Viper for it's size is a very capable fighter, much favoured by security forces through out the Bubble. These were not security forces pilots though, nor were they a match for a Python. Sure they beat up on the shields a little but I picked up their bounties and each bonus for their destruction. I wasn't happy having to kill people, my only source of comfort from this was that they attacked me first. Of course they may not have if I hadn't been carrying the passengers I did but they did and I had to defend myself and my passengers. After the third Viper was dispatched the remainder of the journey was uneventful. Once I had dropped off my passengers the trip back to The Ring was a shorter and incident free affair.
“Well done Aitken, no problems I hope.”
“No problems at all Rodger. A milk run.” I replied as I exited the hangar heading toward my favourite coffee stand.
“Good. I have the next job lined up for you.” As he spoke he reached out with a PADD in his hand.
“Nope. I'm on holiday.”
“Pardon?” A slightly startled Vice President asked.
“I'm taking a break Mr. Clay. I've earned my vacation time as per our contract.” We stood looking at each other slight smiles playing on our lips.
“Alright Aitken. I am not going to quibble over a a little time off. Go do what you need to do.” Rodger flashed a smile, turned and walked away toward his office.
“As far as I am aware you don't have a contract Mr. Aitken.” A voice from the shadows said.
“You can drop the Mister stuff. Just who are you old man?”
“Sorry. Aitken it is then.” The old man stepped out from a dark doorway. “No one important just a simple broker.”
“Really, good cos I have some Imperial bounties I want to cash in.” He was a little taller than I was, similar build and not as unkempt as I had previously seen him.
“I'm not that kind of broker Aitken. I trade in information not in the price of human lives.”
As we had been talking we had continued walking until we reached the coffee stall with is tidy array of tables and chairs.
“This one's on me Aitken, the usual?” The Old Broker asked. I nodded and continued watching him as he ordered from the stall. I found an open table and sat down.
“I hope I have fixed it the way you like it.” He said as he placed a mug full of a caramel coloured liquid. I took a sip of the coffee and nodded. Perfect.
“So you work for Rodger uh.” I stated as I watched him sit down.
“He is one of my clients yes.” He took a sip from the cup he had brought along with mine. I started to feel a slight sinking feeling in my gut.
“Well, I knew they would find out where I was eventually. Perhaps I should have kept moving.”
“Wasted effort Aitken. They have known nearly every movement you have made since you left what is being called Colonia.” A smile played at the edges of his lips. “I must admit I like the name you gave them.”
“So you're the Alliance member of The Consortium?”
“Me? Oh heavens no.” A light ripple of laughter escaped him. “As I told you I am a simple broker of information.”
“So why have you come to me at this time?”
“I've been paid to pass information onto you and I have.” He replied as he took another sip from his cup. “You now know that they know where you are and always have.”
Nearly always have, I corrected him in my head. I nodded and gave a shrug.
“Ok. Thanks for the information but I have a holiday itinerary to plan out.”
“You're welcome Aitken.” He took a large gulp from his cup and set it back on the table. “See you around.”
With that he stood up and sauntered down the boulevard. I watched him go with thoughts swirling through my mind. No surprise that The Consortium had tracked me down, I'd been in Alliance space for a long time, longer than I usually spent in one area. Having a middleman contact me was a new twist and I still had no clue who their Alliance member was. If there was such a person. That could wait though, I had a trip to plan and a person to ask if they would come with me.
“So you want us to go on holiday but you still want to do a little trading?” Shoshana ask in what I hoped was mock annoyance.
“The trading part is unimportant, it's the destinations that are important. We don't have to buy or sell anything, I just thought it would add to the experience.” I was being honest when I said that but adding in a little profit couldn't do any harm, could it?
“Alright.” Shoshana answered as she typed on the PADD. “We can do that as long as we go to these systems as well.” Yes it could, Atagat, Uracenufon, Sol and Fuelum were added to the trip.
Obviously I had agreed as we were on our way to the last of the additional destinations.
Wollheim Vision, Fuelum.
After landing the first person to meet us was Nadzieja. The tall dark mechanic gave us both a hug and was delighted at the introduction of Shoshana. After the formalities and introductions my focus turned to the two ships I had stored at Wollheim.
“Both are ready to fly at a moments notice Aitken but even you can only fly one at a time.” Nadzieja replied to my inquiry on the condition of the December and Growler.
“Why don't you go look them over while I take Shoshana for a look round the station.” Nadzieja suggested. I didn't think I had been obvious in my desire to check them out but both of them shooed we toward the elevators as the turned to leave through the hanger door.
I checked out Growler first and was happy to find that at a flick of a switch the systems fired up straight away. Both ships were fitted for long range operations or exploring if the mood took me. I unflicked the switch and left the Asp moving onto the Conda.
Being a little bigger than the Asp I knew it would take a few more flicks of switches to bring the systems on line. I trusted Nadzieja to have taken care of the December as well as she had of Growler so only fired up the electrical systems. I fired up and shut down one or two other systems as I browsed through the ship and listened to the comm traffic. The usual docking and clearance requests followed me as I slowly wandered the ship. The blare of the Rat Signal every so often announced that another unfortunate pilot had run out of fuel and had found themselves in a sticky situation. Rats were responding to each unlucky soul with calls of their jumps out, dispatch would then assign a Rat to each case and monitor it by sending out the appropriate instructions. Everything sounded under control as I headed back to the bridge to shut down the electrical system when an incoming call peaked my interested.
“Correct Rats I am stranded in the Pyraleau Sector.” A static laden voice said.
“Acknowledged Cmdr. Please close down all non essential systems and stand by as we rustle up a Rat or two to refuel you.”
I had reached the bridge and thumbed the comms transmit.
“Dispatch, Aitken. I'm up for the trip to the Pyraleau. Gimme five minutes and I'll be departing.”
“Aitken, Dispatch. Rodger I'll send the necessary info to the client. Good speed Cmdr.”
As I fired up the rest of systems the comms from the stranded Cmdr came in, 6,710Ly from the Bubble. I sent a quick text message to Shoshana via her PADD, checked the inventory to make sure I had limpets and then requested clearance.
The large white and orange hull rose from the depths of the hangar as the station hydraulics did their work.
“Exit approved, follow the greens to the airlock and fly safe Commander.”
Once clear of the NFZ and out of the stations mass lock shadow I lined the Anaconda up with the exit vector and hit the FSD. As I exited at the star and started to scoop the comms crackled to life.
“Master Loon to Aitken. I'm refitting at Wollheim and will be joining you on this rescue. See you in the black.”
“Aitken to Master. Roger Commander I'll keep an eye out for you.”
I'd reached my first waypoint when Master Loon left Wollheim. We chatted a little and I must admit I had not even thought about what he was going to do. In fact as I pointed out to him I fully expected him to pass and surge ahead of me at some point if he was using Neutron Stars to fuel his FSD. With my second leg plotted and no AFMU on board I continued on.
At each replot point I had a look for Master, he was indeed catching up but not at the rate I had expected.
At 5,000ly out from the bubble the stranded Cmdr got in touch with me.
“You guys are moving. It's appreciated, I have a few months of data on board and planned to stay out a while longer.”
5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Engage. The feeling of watching a fabulous show of light and cloud. Thuuu-kwak. Fuel-scooping. Gluuug, gluuug, twiddle, twiddle, BLLLAARRT.
The sights and sounds of jonking toward a rescue were familiar to me and some how soothing light year after light year.
With one system to go the stranded Cmdr made the necessary steps for the refuelling as I made sure my nav-lock was on. Betty started her count down and we jumped. Master was still a little under a thousand ly behind me and the danger of the client running out of breathable air spurred me on. Entering the system the T Tauri star greeted me with it's dull red glow but did not hide the bright blue call for help 500ls away. Wrestling the long nose of the December round to the proper heading I opened the throttle and waited.
It didn't take long before a blue haze entered my peripheral vision and the big ship started to drop from super cruise. Targeting the other Anaconda the first limpet flew across the blackness of space that separated us and was quickly followed by the second. After firing off another six limpets and a brief chat the other Conda jumped out. I next informed Master that the rescue was complete. He took it all in his stride, congratulated me and was happy to hear that the client was safe. Now all I had to do was make my way back to the bubble. I decided that I needed to rest first and 2,000ly to Eagle's Landing was a preferable choice than floating in space.
It didn't take long and with the December tuck up in the planetary hangar I sent Fuel Rat Dispatch the mission successful message and a separate message to Shoshana saying my ETA back at Wollheim would be in 12 hours.
I slept a good six hours and after coffee set off back to the bubble. Of course with there being no hurry to return to the bubble I had time to think. The things occupying my thoughts were an old man in Perez Ring, a group of high powered people and what exactly they were trying to do and a dark haired forty something year old I had just ran out on. For what looked like the second time. That last one was the only one I could alter at the present time. We still had a holiday to finish or in my mind start. A small smile came to my face, I was content with those plans at least.
I was watching the last limpet being loaded by the automated system when I heard the statement. I knew the voice and was not surprised to see Shoshana standing there when I turned round.
“Yeah I finished up a rescue a few jumps from here.” I replied, shocked at how tired I sounded even to me. “Been kinda busy but I should have got a message to you.”
“That would have nice, first time I've seen you in four weeks.” A small smile graced her lips as she spoke.
“That long, wow, I really lost track of time.” The last limpet had been loaded and I really needed a coffee. “Well I'm here now why don't we grab a coffee?”
“Sure. New ship?” The smile grew brighter and the tiredness within me lifted a little.
“Yeah, I'll tell you about as we walk.” I stuck my arm out so it looked like a chicken wing. With a slight giggle Shoshana put her hand through the loop and held my wrist. We started to head toward the coffee stall that had become our favourite.
The bright orange DBX had become my ship of choice for Ratting. It fell a little short of the Conda in range but not by much and not enough to put me off using it. Sure the recent recalls of those ships so that they could lighten them by removing a fuselage spar and add an internal slot in it's place had helped. The other thing that had drawn me back to it was the handling. Compared to the Condas albatross on ice turning, the little DBX was a humming-bird. I still looked at the Conda with fond regard and it still remained the best ship for out of bubble rescues but for in bubble 'Bullseye' was my go to ship. It's one major drawback was the 4A fuel-scoop, it was really to small too fill on a single pass of a star but with a 32 ton tank and a 16 limpet capacity, it worked for me. I hadn't run myself dry yet but that possibility was always there. This is what I told Shoshana give or take a word or two.
We reached the coffee stand and I escorted her to a vacate table and went to order our choice of drinks. As the barista made our drinks a thought floated into my mind, it made sense to me, so I acted on it. Usually these spur of the moment ideas can lead me into trouble but I could not see trouble ahead with this one. I sat the cups on the table after paying and sat down opposite Shoshana. Taking a small rectangular piece of what looked like plastic I spoke.
“Here take this.” I was greeted with a quizzical look. “When you plug this data stick into a computer or PADD with Galmap it will show you where I am or rather was, with the usual delay of an hour or two.”
She reached over and took the small stick from me.
“Will this also allow me to see where you've been?”
“Sure. It has a 30 day memory. Each new day pushes the last in the line out.” I replied.
“And what you have been up to?”
“To a certain degree, yes.” I took a sip of coffee knowing the next question.
“What do you mean “To a certain degree.”?” And I was right.
“Some of my customers do not like it when a trail is left for others to follow and before you say anything, no not just illegal transactions.” She sat looking at me for a second or two, took a sip of her coffee.
“You love all that Han Solo stuff don't you?” She asked.
“Sorry you lost me. Who or What is a Han Solo?” I asked in return. The look on here face was of honest surprise.
“Han Solo, the famous smuggler in the ancient tale called Star Wars. There were cult movies released in the 20th and 21st centuries. Copied again over and over, even some remakes for the Holo-Net. You have got to have watched them, as a kid at least.”
“Nope. Was never much into movies.” I told the truth. I had not seen much of my father growing up but in the little time I did he had been larger than life, to me. That had reflected in my career choice. I had not wanted to watch others fly between the stars, no I wanted to do it too and had spent most of my childhood making sure I would have the chance.
“Uh, well you learn something new everyday they say.” Shoshana smiled as she said that, took another sip of coffee and then. “I'll be right back.”
She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and walked away. Less than a minute later the chair was reoccupied. The occupant was not the beautiful women I had been just looking at but an old man with a slight grin on his face.
“Long time no see Aitken.” The grin grew into a smile. My heart sank a little, which one of his contacts was he going to be speaking for today.
“Yeah, I've been busy.” I told him, waiting for the shoe to drop.
“So I gather.” Shaking his head he continued on. “That's not why I'm here though. I have a message for you.” He took out a data stick, not dissimilar to the one I had just given Shoshana, and pushed it across the table.
“Whose is it from? Rodger? Smith? Or do I have other admirers?” I quipped as I took the stick from him.
“Not my place to say Aitken but I'd look at that soon. It's been in my possession for a few weeks now and whoever it's from seemed keen for you to get in touch.” With that he stood up and walked away.
I rolled the data stick between my fingers before giving a small shrug. Then I put it in the shoulder pocket I had taken the stick out for Shoshana. I'd get to that later, another few hours or so would not matter.
“Hang on a second. What exactly do you mean by “Normal Rescue”?”
Shoshana had returned fifteen minutes after the Old Broker had departed with a PADD that was Galmap capable. More importantly she had went to the stall for more coffee. Even thought her question had taken me by surprise I have to admit I could see her point.
“A normal rescue to me is one that goes by the numbers. No issues, client does everything that is asked of them first time. Friend Request, Wing invite and beacon. Their ship isn't in the EZ and then listen to the debrief. All by the numbers.” I replied happy to let someone with no Rat experience into our methods.
“So if you call that Normal most of your rescues are like that?” She was asking questions as if I were on trial but I knew it was just because she was interested.
“I'd say about 50% go that smooth, maybe less.” I do think I was generous with that estimate as the next point she picked showed in spectacular fashion.
“What about this one?”
This one had seemed normal until I was in system. It had told dispatch my jumps being on the Maia side of the bubble and had been given the go ahead. The DBX 'Bullseye' was able to jump over 50lys a jump and as I headed toward the shining blue orb of the clients wing beacon I was thankful that it did.
“Hey man my emergency oxygen timer just came on.” A very calm sounding voice announced in my ear. “Should I inform your dispatcher?”
I checked the distance once more and did some maths in my head, I was about 30 seconds away. Even if he had not upgraded his Life Support Module he had 5 minutes.
“Nah mate I'm nearly on top of you, hopefully you aren't running stock equipment.” I said in what I hope was as calm a sounding voice as his was.
“Stock? No way I upgraded this baby to A spec, so you got a good twe....”
His voice was drowned out by the sound of a Diamondback Explorer being torn from supercruise. As his words faded my vision momentarily blurred, a blue hue blinding me for a split second. Instinctively my left hand closed the throttle and I felt the forces of the deceleration like I was getting kicked in the gut. A loud BOOOM heralded our return to normal space and even before my vision cleared properly I was locking my targeting computer onto the hollow blue rectangle that floated off of my rear port side quarter. Two fuel limpets launched and arced across the black cold void toward a black Viper Mk. IV as I rapidly pulled the trigger.
Breathing easier I continued to refuel the Viper and while the limpets flew I also sent his Navigational Computer the Fuel Rats standard KGBFOAM package. It told the client about star type, route planning and what certain symbols on the Galmap meant. It also explained how to fuel scoop and it was at this point I made a startling discovery as I glanced at his outfitting in my left hand panel. We were a good third of the way to Maia and he didn't have a fuel-scoop. To make matters a little more complicated his hull was at 3%.
What I wanted to say would have come out like “How....Why......Wha......” but instead I managed to calmly say.
“Would you like an escort to the nearest station?” I had the Galmap open and was starting to look back toward the bubble when I noticed a yellow dot below our position. Of course I had never been to that particular system before and had no information on it.
The Viper pilot agreed that I should go on ahead and check out the system. Bullseye would make it in a couple of jumps but the Viper was going to need a few more than that.
Coming out of Hyperspace I fired up the ADS and then opened the System Map. 1,200ls out was the only place we could land, repair, refuel and restock, or so I hoped. Not having any information about the system I also had no data on the planetary space port. Not something I had been looking for, I would much have preferred a large Orbis station to dock at but beggars can't be choosers.
Opening the throttle wide I headed in. I hit orbital cruise and managed to time the entry to the Glide phase perfectly dropping out just 6km from the base. Docking permission granted I landed and quickly entered the hangar.
My heart sank as I opened the station services and noted there was no repair facilities. According to my contacts list the Viper had arrived in system and was heading toward the base. I passed on the sorry news that he would not be able to repair here and not to risk a landing. As we spoke I checked the Galmap for the next closest system. Once found I past on the name and asked if his Viper had enough fuel to reach it. The affirmative cheered me a little but I still informed him that I had 8 remaining limpets and if we needed to I would refuel him.
Leaving the surface base I suddenly realised my mistake and I did not repeat it. After the ADS scan and confirming this system had an outpost, only 300ly out. I dropped out of supercruise and scanned the Nav. Beacon. Jumping back into SC I opened the System Map and let out a whoop of joy.
Not only did it offer repairs but restock and outfitting too. I confirmed the situation to the Viper and waited till he had docked. Once repaired and refuelled I made sure that he bought a fuel-scoop for the return journey.
“What was he doing that far out with no scoop?” Shoshana asked, the first time she had spoken since I had started the retelling.
“He was chasing a bounty and lost track of where he was.” What I had been told, so I retold.
“Do you believe that?” She inquired a sound of doubt in her sweet voice.
“Doesn't matter weather I believe him or not. The only important thing is that he survived.” I was ready to drop the subject but could see another question forming in her mind and lips. “Yes, he got the bounty, again so he told me. And yes that part I believe.”
My coffee was still lukewarm not my favourite temperature for coffee but still good enough to drink. I finished the cup and watched as Shoshana continued to look over the PADD.
“Well I can see you are going to be busy for a while. I got to go back to the ship and make a call.” She looked up briefly.
“Sure. I'll wait here for you. I'll even get the next round in, though it really should be your turn.” Again a dazzling smile took the sting out of the rebuke.
“I can get them when I get back.” Her response was to admit she was teasing and ask if it was an important call.
“Nah, if I'm right I just have to see a dog about a man.” It produced the look of puzzlement I had been aiming for.
As I walked away heading toward 'Bullseye' I pulled out the data stick and started to roll it through my fingers.
“Ah Aitken, I was starting to think you were avoiding us.”
Mr. Smiths' near smiling image said to me. He wasn't far wrong but I did not let him know that.
“I've been busy.” Again the truth and still his smile persisted.
“Oh we know that. You do get around don't you?” I took it as a rhetorical question and said nothing. “You are also probably aware that the mission you are communicating about is long past complete.”
I gave a small nod. Sure the Old Broker had hinted at having the data stick for a while so I kinda suspected that what ever Smith was wanting me for was done.
“So I'm guessing this is a social call or you have something you wish to discuss. Knowing you the way I do Commander I hardly think it's the former, so please come to the point.”
“I've been calling you and your cohorts 'The Consortium' but you are actually working for INRA.” He wanted me to come straight to the point so I did. I wasn't good at being subtle, in fact most people would call me tactless. If they meant that as an insult I didn't take it as one.
“Hmm, what interesting ideas you do have Aitken. I'm guessing you have heard or heard of the messages the recently departed Senator Loren and her associates made public? Don't answer as it's of no consequence. The ranting of a now dead Senator are rather flimsy, don't you think.”
“Maybe but together with your lack of Alliance contact I can only come to that conclusion.”
Now he paused. His hands came together so that the fingers intertwined, slowly his head bowed down as thoughts weaved though his mind. Now it was his turn to give a nod and as he raised his head once again the light seemed to vanish from his eyes for a brief second. I saw coal black orbs look me over as if measuring my worth.
“Well whoever we are it seems you have made up your mind to severe our relationship. I will be sorry for this to be the end of our little chats but if that's what you desire I will not stop you. We can end it right here and now Aitken if that is your decision.”
I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that I had been having those thoughts. I really didn't like being at Smith's or really any ones beck and call but, yup there is that word again, the money from all the spin-off missions and quests that occurred while helping the Consortium was good. Who am I kidding, it was excellent. So thinking like that I of course could only say.
“Nah, we're good.” I might live to regret those words but life's too short to worry. They also got very little reaction from Smith.
“Good.” His only movement was to sit a little straighter. “Yes, good. Things appear to be moving in a direction that yours and others talents could be needed. We'll be in touch Aitken.”
I did manage to get out a “Sure” before the connection was broken. I sat there in cockpit of Bullseye looking at the reflection that the black screen threw back at me. As I did the image made a slow and small shaking of it's head. Sure he hadn't said they were INRA but he also hadn't denied it. The jury may have been out on that one but I knew what my vote would have been. I was half way out of the chair when a red light started blinking on a console to my left. I'd switched the usual audio warning off so that I could talk to Smith without distraction but the angry looking red pulse had just been in standby, waiting for it's moment. Ratsignal.
I pressed the appropriate button and the face of the Dispatcher came into view.
“You look the closest Aitken, I hope you got your climbing boots on for this one.”
I typed in the system that Gawaine gave wondering just what he was meaning. As the Galmap started to calculate the jumps I saw what he was getting at. The route line went straight up from my position to a system eleven jumps above me.
I strapped in, requested clearance to the flight deck before replying to Gawaine.
“Tell them I'm on my way.”
“Will do Aitken. Dispatch out.” Another image vanished to leave a black screen to look back at me. I had just completed my second jump when a green light flashed on from the screen to my left. As I lined up once more to jump I tapped at the controls and the light became a steady green glow. It wasn't until the exiting hyperspace for the fourth time that a blinking blue light started its rhythmic pulsing. Once again as I lined up to jump I tapped at the comms panel controls and I had communications. I was a little concerned to find I only had voice and no visual but gave a shrug and jumped ever upward.
“I'm sorry Commander I made a miscalculation.” A voice heavy with exhaustion reached out to me through the cabin speakers.
“No worries, sit tight I am just a few jumps out from your position.” I replied hoping that he would be reassured.
The last few jumps went without incident with each star being scoopable, I paused when one jump out to top up my tank lamenting that the DBX could not fit a larger scoop. Everything looked good and as I pulled away from orange ball that had just filled my tank I hit the FSD jump control.
Bursting into the system I noticed straight away why there had been no visual communications, pulling hard up and to the left I managed to avoid the exclusion zone of the Neutron Star. That would teach me not to ignore the the star type warning as it flashed up in the HUD next time. I could use the excuse that I was used to jumping into L Types, T types or any other non scoopable star systems when on a rescue but I should and I did know better than not to check.
As I had hoped, there just 30ls away from the star the Anaconda sat idling waiting for limpets to carry fuel to it.
Dropping in went without a hitch and as the first two limpets flew the short gap between the two ships I sent the usual KGBFOAM package to his navigational computer.
“Thank you. This is rather embarrassing to admit but I honestly thought the neutron boost would give me fuel to jump as well as the boost.” A tired but relived Conda pilot admitted.
I reassured him that he was not the first to have his problem and that I would have him on his way soon. With a 3A Transfer Controller pushing out limpets two at a time emptying my hold of the sixteen I carried did not take long. While the limpets flew we chatted and I wished him luck with his Neutron jumping. Once finished the Anaconda and the Diamondback Explorer flashed lights at the other. I watched as the larger ship lined up with it's exit vector and winked out of the system, the boost retained from his earlier scooping.
Now it was my turn to make my way home. I had done a little neutron boosting but had never tried it with the DBX. I knew how an Anaconda and an Asp reacted so was very interested in seeing how the much smaller ship would handle within the plume.
Jumping up into super cruise I aligned Bullseye with the edge of the exclusion zone where the plume was intersecting it. Easing the throttle open I pushed the little space craft into the blazing white light. As the turbulence bucked and rocked the Diamondback I pulled back on the stick till the star was roughly behind it, keeping the throttle steady. After ,the first warning telling me the FSD was taking damage the next thing to appear was the confirmation that the scoop had taken in enough of the neutron energy. With one jump of 250ly, roughly, and the other jumps of a little over 50lys it did not take long to return to Perez Ring.
As I unbuckled the safety belts and stood up out of the seat I could here the muffled sound of the station announcer reminding pilots that loitering could result in death. A little harsh, in fact a lot harsh but that was the law. Some I flaunted but that one was a no no. A warning, a bounty and if you did not move quickly enough a deadly light display from the station. I'd seen it in action and had no wish to be the display ending firework.
I returned to the coffee stall where Shoshana was still looking over my travels on here padd. I ordered us each a cup before returning to the table and placed it next to her right hand.
“Oh you're back.” See looked at the cup, picked it up and took a sip. “Thanks. You were gone for a while, everything ok?”
“You are the lead on this case Aitken. Client is Case Red.”
I had one jump left to enter the system when Dispatch past on this information. It wasn't as grand as it sounded, it just meant that I was closest to the client. Not that a Case Red was the end of the line for the in distress commander. With their usual professional efficiency Dispatch had the pilot activate the stasis mode on their Rem-Lock suit. This not often used mode slowed down bodily functions as close to death as was possible, heart rate, brain activity, breathing, you get the picture. It could only be turned on once all ships modules had been shut down and the emergency oxygen had come on line. Of course even with this method being used rescue was not guaranteed, there were just to many variables for that.
“Roger Dispatch. I'm in system and heading for the only station here.” I replied.
This pilot had known his stuff and had given dispatch a good description of his plight. System name, position when he had dropped out of supercruise and of course his lack of life support.
Rolling to the right with a small touch of yaw, I had lined up the bright orange Diamondback Explorer so that I could end my journey 25ls from the station. Yes after numerous jumps to reach this system and just under 2000ls to the station, this unfortunate commander had run out of fuel with the station basically in sight.
I wouldn't be alone in this rescue attempt. As I hit my halfway point a hollow rectangle appear of the scanner behind me. A quick check of the contacts screen informed me that Andrew Creeves, a fellow Rat had just entered the system.
“Greetings commander, how you doing Aitken.” The voice crackled through my ear pieces.
“Doing good mate, just another day in paradise.” I replied.
“I hear ya. How we handling this one.”
“I'm stopping 25ls out from the station, you might want to go to the station or 25 to the other side. Whichever one you don't take our third Rat will take it.” I relayed as I throttled back and started the DBX into a lazy holding circle.
“Who's the third?” Andrew asked. I'd worked with Andrew before on a couple of other cr's but our number three was a newer Rat and not one I had worked with. Again that wasn't a problem, all Rats were trained and drilled to be capable at every rescue attempt.
“P. Badgers. He's about 3 jumps out.”
Of course that plan was changed just as PB entered the system. He was instructed to hold at 100ls from the station. Nothing wrong with that, dispatch has the power to use the tools, us Rats, in the way then deem best. As Rats we are so used to plans changing on the fly that the new instructions to PB were not even questioned. Not always the case I may add as the survival of the client is every bodies aim and if an instruction doesn't make sense or if approaching a different way might work better, Rats will usually speak up. Rats at the scene asking for clarification of instructions is encouraged as losing a client to a misunderstanding isn't what anyone wants. It's all done in a calm and respectful manner, very little if any drama as that helps no one.
As PB moved into position Dispatch took care of adding us to the clients comms list. Just before the client went into stasis mode he gave a limited access to his ships comms controls. It allowed dispatch to do a very necessary step. Now once dispatch sent the wake up up call to the commander in stasis it was all up to him.
“Hey guys, do we know how much emergency oxygen the client has left?” P. Badgers asked as he continued to close the gap between us.
“Last reported time was six minutes.” Andrew answered.
Not that the 'last reported' meant we had six minutes. With the shutting down into stasis mode, restarting out of it, sending wing requests and dropping the beacon. We were looking at five minutes, tops. Still plenty of time if everything went right.
“Ok, Rats call when in position and ready.” Dispatch called as Badgers moved into a 100ls out and Andrew and I kept circling.
Three different voices answered almost simultaneously.
“Position plus. Ready.”
“Activation is go, go, go. Be ready for wing requests and the beacon Rats. Good luck Dispatch out.”
And now we wait. I know this part of the operation must rush past for a client but for me it always and I mean always seems to take forever. To the client a minute must seem like a second but to me circling that second seems like an hour.
Bing. The wing request is in, a quick tap of the controls to move to the appropriate screen and my finger hovers over the control for the nav lock. Another hour seems to tick by and then the pale blue square appears on the scanner. I'm close so my finger drops, nav lock on and I am dropping.
BOOM. I reappeared in normal space and targeted the clients hollow rectangle and pulled the trigger, nothing happened. Then I see the problem as Andrews howl of disgust echoes in my ears. We have both dropped short by 50km. Pewoosh, the engines of the DBX screamed as I hit the boost button. I had just recently upgraded the Power Distributor from a D to an A. The hit in range was minimal but the ability to boost in this situation was greatly appreciated.
“Fuel plus.” Came the call from PB. Holding that extra 75lys out had paid off. The use of three Rats on a Case Red was a standard procedure and here dispatch had made a great call. I would hazard a guess and say that either Andrew or I would have made it in time but the mad dash that we would have done was thankfully not needed.
It was a motley gaggle of ships firing limpets at a Vulture but between two DBXs and an Asp Explorer it was quickly refuelled. After that and a congratulations to Badgers for firing the first limpet it was time to head out of the system. Once the course was plotted I sent my departure message.
“Alright Badgers debrief is all yours, see ya next time Andrew. I'm returning to base. Aitken out.”
I was a couple of hundred light years from Perez Ring sounds a lot but it was only four jumps for Bullseye. I knew of people who had never left the bubble and to them two hundred light years would sound daunting. Having been out beyond Sag A* before Farseer and Martuuk were known about, it felt like 200 light years was just a step outside the front door. Of course that was more to do with the two ladies who worked on the FSD than the selective memory of those trips.
Docking went as smoothly as ever at Perez Ring. I didn't leave the DBX straight away as I wanted to check over the FSD. Of course with it being engineered I doubted that I would find anything that made sense. My doubts proved correct, the original stuff or what was left of it looked fine. The Engineers additions I had no clue about. I gave a shrug and hoped that my problem on the rescue would not repeat itself.
It was late in the day for The Ring and I knew that Shoshana would be asleep back at her quarters. That meant I was not going to return there and disturb her night. Sleeping in Bullseye was a possibility, no a very comfortable one though. I had done it before and no doubt I sleep in the DBX again. Not tonight I thought as I secured that ship and headed over toward the Python, Diamond. More comfort, more room and more to the point it had some CD-75 Kitten Brand Coffee I kept for myself.
After brewing up I settled down to have look at the Galnet feeds. I had heard and kept myself aware of the 'Flower Ship' sightings but this was different. Hundreds of structures had been discover out in the Pleiades. As I watched and listened to the talking heads it was obvious that no one was sure what they meant. Some were saying it was prelude to an invasion, all out war. Others were being more cautious and saying as they had not shot at us yet then their intentions were not known. I even watched one guy try to fly an Eagle and then later on an Imperial Fighter into the structures with hilarious consequences. Hilarious for those watching not so much for him I think.
For me I still was unsure how it would impact my life. Ratting might pick up in those sectors but usually pilots going that far out had enough know how to fit a scoop. Smuggling, well I could branch out into Alien Artefacts if that became a popular collectable. Undercover pawn for a shadowy organisation that might be INRA or might be something just as foul. It was this one that bothered me the most. Rumour had it that 'someone' had known about or had helped or was responsible for their return. Most of the experts were dancing round it but it was becoming clear to nearly everyone else that the Thargoids, for good or bad, were preparing to pay us another visit.
We were sitting at our usual table alongside our usual coffee kiosk. Shoshana had finished work for the day and we were having evening coffee. Let me explain why we use this particular kiosk and not some other stall or shop in The Ring.
First it's close to the hangar area so I don't have to go far when returning from where ever to have a cup if I can't be bothered making my own. Second, it's also close to the elevator Shoshana uses to get to her office. Oh and perhaps most importantly this stall has a great range of coffees from across the bubble. I sell it to them for cost, I don't pay for coffee when I visit and they cut down on the shipping costs. Win, win.
“Well I thought we could go and try out that new restaurant that opened one floor up.” I replied. It advertised as genuine Indian cuisine. I'd done a little reading about the old Earth country and wanted to see if their claim was close to the truth.
“Not after the coffee, I meant what do we do next about the Thargoid Threat?” I glanced at her over the top of the cup I had at my lips. One eyebrow raising in enquiry. Putting the cup back on the table I responded with one word.
“Nothing? Really? Why?” A one word answered deserved a few one word follow up questions. I guess.
“I really don't see where the threat is from the Thargoids, if it is them. So from where I see it the next move is theirs. Sorry if that disappoints you but I don't think we have enough information.” I picked up the cup again and took another sip.
“You don't think that 208 structures just appearing that close to the bubble is a threat? Wow.” Now it was her turn to take a drink from her cup. We sat there for a second or two looking over at each other. I knew she was waiting for me to answer, heck I was waiting for me to answer. I slowly shook my head.
“Again we just don't have enough information. Hell for all we know those things could have been set to start growing or whatever they do, millennia ago and it's just coincidence that we stumbled across them.” I didn't sound too convincing to myself never mind her. So the next question did not surprise me.
“You don't actually believe that do you?” Again I shook my head.
“But that's what I mean by not enough information.”
As you can imagine this had been the topic of conversation all over the station, system, bubble, I would guess. And no one had nailed down the reason for the sudden appearance of the structures. At least we were discussing it civilly. I could just picture the panic it was creating elsewhere in the bubble.
“Feds have got to be crapping it.” As she spoke those words I tapped on the padd I had on the table and slid it over to her. “What are these? Oh.”
“I took those when I had a look over what was left of the Fed Task Force. I had a refuelling close...ish, to the sector so I thought why not.”
“They look intact and what's the green stuff on them? By Jupiter it looks like it's growing on the ships.” The surprise in her voice was real.
“Like I said, just not enough information.”
“C'mon Aitken, even you must see this as a threat.” She remarked as she continued to leaf through the images.
“Nope. I don't know who started that fight, indeed if it was even a fight. Do you know who shot first? Feds? Thargoids? All I can make out from that is who shot last. Also note the lack of debris from any other ship type. If it was Thargoids, does that mean the Feds weapons were unable to do damage or did the Thargoids take all their debris and damaged ships with them.”
“Ok. I take your point. I'd just like to know what is going to happen next.”
“As you know my Dad was very interested in ancient Earth history. Some of it rubbed off on me. There was a time when all of the worlds factions were at war. In the beginning though after all the declarations and political posturing there was a time over the first winter where nothing but moving troops and such took place. This could be similar, this could be our Phoney War.”
Of course for all my words and detailed description Shoshana managed to put it much better and in fewer words.
“The calm before the storm.”
“In system, I have visual on clients beacon. Approx. 220k from main star. This'll take a minute or two.”
“Roger Aitken. Since you have comms with client I'll leave this one to you. If anything changes let me know. Dispatch out.”
After I had topped up the 32t tank of Bullseye I wheeled the ship round and headed toward the blue beacon shining in the distance. 220,000 out wasn't the longest I'd had but I knew it was still going to take a little time.
“I'm on my way to you Cmdr. If you see a countdown in the right middle of your HUD tell dispatch and myself what time you have left before you activate Stasis Mode on your Remlock.” I knew dispatch had already relayed these instructions, at least twice but reminding the client that this was important didn't hurt. Also it gave me time to target the star know behind me so I could stop close to their position. Then all I had to do was wait for more Rats to help out on a Case Red. That wasn't going to happen though or I hoped it wouldn't go down that path.
“Gotcha but I think I should be good. I have all modules powered down so that I am only using 0.03 per hour. I have just over half of the reserve left so I look ok for the moment.” A static riddled voice said in my ear. Even with my poor maths skills it sounded good to me so I settled down for the haul out to them.
“Hey, my canopy has started to ice up. Is that normal?” A tinny voice asked.
“Yup, perfectly normal. You've reduced your thermal signature close to nothing. With minimal modules running you are not producing the heat you normally do.” This little exchange told me a little about who I was dealing with. That and being close to Eravate and LHS 3447. It mostly likely was a newish graduate of one of those systems flight school. Probably a Sidewinder, Eagle or Hauler without a fuel scoop. Not that there was anything wrong with being a recent graduate, we all had to learn somehow and the hard way was as good as any other.
“Ok. Thanks first time I've seen this.” Yup definitely a green pilot.
We chatted as I closed the distance but even as we did the chat I had earlier with Shoshana kept resurfacing in my mind. I fought and won the battle to stay concentrated on the rescue and not allow myself to become distracted. I rechecked the nav-lock, cycled through the fire groups to make sure the limpet controller was ready and passed on any tips I could think of.
I was just about to say that I should be dropping soon when movement seemed to freeze and the blue haze appeared around me. I zeroed the throttle and hoped that as I dropped out into normal space I would not 'bump' the client. It happened occasionally with minimal damage to the client, not a great way to announce your entrance but it sure would get your attention.
As soon as I broke out of supercruise I had the hollow rectangle targeted and even before the momentum for the drop had stopped a limpet was on it's way. As I manoeuvred the DBX round to face the Eagle, told ya, the second limpet was out.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” An excited voice shouted into my ears.
As I sent the third and fourth limpets I also sent the KGBFOAM package to the Eagles navigation computer. Even though we had gone over most of the information the package contained we still went over again and yes there was no fuel scoop fitted to the Eagle.
“How did you know I didn't have a scoop before you got here?” The Eagle pilot asked.
“The entry star is scoopable.” I remarked as the shields on the Eagle started to come on line. “If you had a scoop you probably wouldn't have end up stranded in this system.”
“Oh. Well I'll fit one in the next system.” A little embarrassment tingeing the voice that answered me. “One more question before I go. You said you don't make money doing this. So why do you do it?”
I sat silent for a few moments. I could have said to make up for all the bad stuff I normally did, smuggling arms and drugs may have paid me well but I was still aware of the moral implications or lack of. I could have said it was because I wanted to be a hero but that would be a lie. I could have said I wasn't sure which was closer to the truth but what I did say was.
“Cos it makes me feel good and someone has to do it. The surge of satisfaction I feel when, just as you did, those rescued erupt with relief and excitement of being saved is one I haven't found in any other part of my life.” That's not to say I was happy with my lot in this universe. I had a lot to be thankful for and believe me I was but Ratting was the cherry on top of the whipped cream that crowned the ice cream sundae. Finding Shoshana again could not be beaten. Evading Security as I slipped unnoticed with a hold full of landmines was gratifying but saving an unlucky Commander was sweet in it's own way.
“Uh. Didn't expect that to be the answer but ok. Thanks again Aitken I hope the next time we meet it's under better circumstances.” With that the comms went dead.
I watched as the Eagle flew around me, “Surge Detected” Betty informed me. A boost from the Eagles thrusters, a bright flash of light and then I was looking at a high wake signal.
There was one reason I hadn't mentioned for saving pilots. But I did speak it to the wake signal as it started to fade.
“Cos we just might need every pilot we can get in the not to distant future.”
“That concludes this evenings Gal-Vision Alliance News. We hope to see you all for the next broadcast and as always thanks for watching.”
I was leaving the bedroom after changing and cleaning up a little as Shoshana finished watching 'The News'. It had been two or three weeks since the Thargoid structures had been discovered and around two weeks since they stopped being headline news. Sure pilots were still looking into them, they were still a big deal to some but to big media. Nope, they had moved on, looking for juicier more sensational stories. The only mentions in this broadcast were that Ram Tah had started to wrap up his research and reduce his payments at the same time. Also that an Ocellus starport had been sent out to the Pleiades to help with research of the structures. Of course to the general public all that meant very little and the initial interest had faded to an uneasy acceptance.
“You've been busy this week.” Shoshana stated as I threw the towel I had been using into the disposal unit. “And even more mysterious than usual.”
Red flag. The tone in her voice let me know that she suspected something. She wasn't wrong either but she didn't need to know that.
“Not really. Just some Ratting and a very picky customer.” That was the truth.
“So that explains the five day gap in the tracker you gave me.” She still sounded suspicions but not at the original level.
“Yeah. He was rather insistent that no trace of my movements were recorded. In the end it was no big deal.” That was a mixture of half truths and out and out lies. It had all began six days before.
I was sitting at Julian Hub in the Calor system, reloading Bullseye with limpets. I had used eight of them on a T7. After finishing that refuelling I had ran back up on a couple of cases before jumping to fire the remaining eight at a Federal Corvette. I had taken my time with the debrief to make sure a ship that size would have as little problems as possible. Big thing in the debrief was advising the pilot to fit a fuel scoop while travelling, that seemed to be the main theme in most of my debriefs. I could only hope that the message got through and in most cases I think it does.
The cafe that was popular with pilots was close to the hangar I had docked at so that was were I had headed. The Shift Drive did a very good Paella and with a mug of coffee I was in paradise. Briefly. A waiter called over to me that I had a call and he would have it patched through to the booth I was sitting in.
“Hello Aitken.” The grim looking visage of Mr. Smith swam into view. Paradise interrupted I thought. “Is this a secure line?”
“No not at all I'm sitting in a local cafe.” The image on the screen seemed to lose focus for a second, the horizontal and then vertical holds lost control for a nano second and then it was back to how it looked.
“It is now and you are in the perfect place for me to ask you to do a mission for us.” A public place, a place that I would most likely try to remain calm. “We need you to obtain some Low Temperature Diamonds.”
“Ok, how much do you need?” Not so bad, I had a mining ship sitting doing nothing so a chance to bring it out and do a little work. Ten or twelve units could take a day or so but in mining circles added to other high paying minerals they could be worthwhile.
“100 units minimum.” Deadpan, not a flicker of humour.
“Alright might take awhile but yeah it's doable. Gimme ten days or so and I'll call you.”
“We need them in seven.” Again no sign of any emotion.
“Sure get another couple of guys to help me and it shouldn't cause a problem.”
“Everyone else we use in that role has other assignments at the moment. Aitken we don't care how you get them, we need them.” I'm not that good at taking hints sometimes and this one took a little while to sink in and I did like what was going down.
“Ah, no. No I am not and do not wish to be a pirate.” Damn the Paella had suddenly got a sour taste to it.
“It's the quickest way and if done right no one gets hurt.” Easy for him to say, he wasn't the one having lasers and/or limpets fired at him.
I said nothing. Picked up the mug and had a swig of coffee, thankfully it still tasted good in my mouth.
“We'll supply the ship so if anything goes wrong you won't be out of pocket.”
“The answer is still no. Not interested.” Another sip of coffee and I put the mug back on the table.
“Ok. We'll pay you the black market price for the diamonds.” I didn't even answer this time and just shook my head. “You do drive a hard bargain. Alright we'll give you the ship at the end of the contract.”
“What kind of ship are we talking about?” So he had guessed my weakness for ships. What can I say I love to fly.
“Imperial Clipper.” He seemed to pounce on the fact that it was the first time I had shown any interest in his mission. “It's fully armed and fitted out for the task at hand or so I am told. We could have it delivered to you in abou.....”
“No not here.” I felt a little dirty. I had just accepted a mission to rob some poor schmuck of their hard earned cargo. “Let me have a look for the place I want you to take it to.”
I reached for the padd I had with me and started looking through some systems I knew might be up for the task. Anarchy obviously so no crime would stick. If it had a mining operation all the better but that was not too important as I needed some where to practice first. I knew a little about being interdicted, it happens to us all but not too much on being the one doing the interdicting. I had used it in rescues but there the pilot did not put up a fight and so a 1D had been good enough. I didn't think it would be like that in the case of robbery.
If the system also had a mining operation, good as the other method was to lure a ship away from the Res beacon and rob it at leisure. Of course I had only read about these things or had personal dealings on the receiving end. I hit lucky and found an Anarchy system not only with a mining operation but also with an ice ring around one planet. All the while I was looking l continued to talk to Smith and in the end got possibly the best deal I could. Highest black market price on the diamonds, about 52,000 per unit and the Clipper and all it's fittings. If it worked out I stood to make a good 40 to 50 million from this task. It didn't make it right of course but it did make it worthwhile. I sent the station and system I wanted the Clipper delivered to and after a few fake pleasantry's the link was closed.
It was a remote part of the bubble with Anarchy and Independent Dictatorships as the main systems. Lots of Hips, Wolfs and Sector in their names with long and short number strings. Not the kind of area you would take your mother to visit. As I entered the system I had designated for what had to be the lowest thing I had ever planned, I kept a careful eye on the traffic. Hey if I had chosen it for my caper others would be doing similar unfriendly activities. I saw the usual mix of ship types and I could almost picture it as a normal system if it had not been for the lack of Belugas. Plenty of Orcas and Dolphins but the big brother of those two would make just too tempting a target for the crooks and pirates that hung out here.
Dropping out of supercruise I was greeted by the familiar shape of a Coriolis with what were called Noob Hammers swinging round as the starport rotated. I docked with no trouble and as I had expected the Clipper was still on route. The large cargo vessels that would be carrying it had various stopping points and I doubted that this would have been its first. Nothing else for it I locked and secured Bullseye and headed in search of coffee. As I left the hangar area I asked the Port Master to contact me when the Clipper arrived.
Half an hour later or half a cup of coffee later I received the message and after thanking the Port Master I headed for Bay Four-Zero. First impressions were that it was a black Clipper, a very pretty ship, I'd flown Clippers before so that was no surprise. The Kumo insignia on the sides gave away it's sordid past (and future) and once again I shook my head at what I had agreed to do as I climbed aboard. Sitting down in the command chair I powered up the systems to see what I had to work with. Interdictor, Hatch Breaker Controllers, Collector Controllers and Manifest Scanner. The 7 slot was given to a cargo rack and that was all the space it had. Most things were A rated and modified, this included the Burst Lasers on all the hard points. Saracen as the name on the side said was made not to kill but to sting, incapacitate and then rob. That's what I did for the rest of day 1. I poked, prodded and got to know this new variate of a familiar ship type.
Day two was different, day two was interdiction practice. I quickly became aware that this was probably not the method I would use. Not because I wasn't very good with the interdictor, I wasn't but knew I would get better with practice, but because I had no idea what the ship I was dragging into normal space had in it. Then even when you did get them into normal space and started scanning with the Manifest Scanner they jumped out before it finished. Twice that happened before I let them know I was there meaning business. A quick splash across there shields with the lasers let them know I was serious, followed by a limpet to break the cargo hatch and it went well. For me that is not, so good for the other ship of course. I started off small, Haulers, Adders. Then moved on to the transport ships, T6, Keelback, T7 and the T9 Heavy. Checking their load out for the miners refinery I soon found that even that would only give me a 50-50 chance of finding LTDs but I continued to practice the rest of the day and even managed to get 20 units of LTDs and other cargo. That was another issue that if the cargo ship had mixed commodities I couldn't separate the wheat from the chaff so not only did I get the diamonds but also the hydrogen or whatever other cargo they were carrying. So just dump them I hear you say. Easy and I tried but the limpets just picked them up again. So day two came to an end with mixed results. Doing my heist using the interdictor was possible but had a few flaws. Also with no where to store the 20 units of diamonds I sold them, along with the other tat and made a little over a million for my day.
I made nothing on day three as I had hopped back into Bullseye. I had fitted the DBX with a Cargo Manifest Scanner so I could see just what type of ships would be mining diamonds in a RES. Apart from finding out the two types of ship I would be going for the only other highlight was the panic scanning some ships caused. The odd pilot got in such a state that they would boost into the asteroid they were mining. Just to show how far I had descended into the role I could not help but giggle at the sight. After seeing the third pilot do that and having a quiet laugh to myself I called it a day and headed back to the station. The main aim of the day had been achieved. I wanted to get the 100 units in one go, hopefully. Now while most ship types could and did carry diamonds I knew I would be going after T7s and T9s. Only those two had I seen carrying over my target figure.
Day four started by changing the interdictor for a cargo rack. Sure the extra space for 16 tonnes more wouldn't have meant much in itself but it added or nearly, an extra million if I filled everything with diamonds. Next I loaded 70 limpets and I was ready, after coffee that is.
The RES I had checked out was only 3ly from the station so it did not take long to cover the distance. I blasted out of supercruise 2km from the beacon point, so I closed the throttle and deployed my hard points. Four burst lasers and a manifest scanner came into play. Unresolved contacts started to show up almost instantly, switching to the contacts panel I started to watch what came into range. The Adders, Asp Scouts and even the T6s I ignored, waiting for the right victim. There it was a T9 slowly making it's way through the field. Pushing the throttles open a little the black body of the Clipper moved toward the bigger ship like a shark ready for lunch. At 4km I activated the scanner and as before the pilot shut down his mining and started to move away. Too late as I could already tell this was my target. 160 units of Low Temperature Diamonds. Opening Saracens engines to full power it streaked in as if chasing a juicy Tuna but going for the kill was not the plan, yet. A splash of laser fire against the T9s shields and the rectangle on the scanner went from orange to red. I then watched as the big ship turned to the vector I was travelling along and held my course. When the gap from it to me was at 3.75km I eased the throttles closed so that we matched speeds and waited for the distance from the RES beacon to get to a number I could work uninterrupted at.
35km may seem a little overkill but it's what I had worked out reading over a few other pirates logs. At that distance I flipped the Clipper over to face the now charging T9 and hoped I had enough firepower to stop it.
He opened fire before I did but as the ineffectual fire hit the modified shields of the Clipper I hit 50% power and started moving. My first volley from the four burst lasers took out half his shields, the next left him with barely a ring and then I was hitting hull. I switched so that the two class two mounts would only be firing and targeted his power plant. This guy knew his business and twisted his better armoured side to face my fire. I in turn continued to manoeuvre trying to get the more exposed side to snipe out the delicate module. As we continued this turning and twisting dance I could see we were getting further away from the RES and close to clearing its mass lock. I fired and let loose a hatch breaker as I kept up the pressure on his weaker side and another and one more before the bulky ship jumped out of system. I managed to collect 14 units. Not what I had been aiming for but only 86 to go. I did consider returning to the station, selling these and starting again but my temper was up and I aimed to finish the task at hand this sortie.
Even with just 14 LTDs I ahd no idea the amount of attention that they garner. So I had to fight and end up killing. First up were two Adders who like their chances, quickly followed by a trio of Eagles. After the third one had gone down I had the chance to check the contacts panel and saw a T7 on the list. Targeting it on the scanner I noticed that it's shields were slowly going down as I hurried over toward it. It was being attacked by an Asp Scout and a Viper Mk. III. Acting as the Good Samaritan I took out both attackers before scanning the T7s hold. 136 units of diamonds, if I did this right I could be finished soon. Once again I splashed the shields of my intended victim and started to pull away from it. Keeping the gap close but not too close I repeated the slow cat and mouse game out to 35km. Once at that distance I turn from hunted into hunter and worked at a better outcome than before. Again I took out the shields and switched to the size 2 lasers only. This time the pilot wasn't as good as his T9 compatriot before him and with a few well aimed shots the read out on his Power Plant hit 0% as he drift just in front of me. Tapping the secondary fire button I sent a limpet across to break into his cargo hatch, this I would repeat every time I saw the “Limpet Siphon Complete” message on my HUD. Lining up the cross hairs of the lasers directly over the now dead power plant I dispatched six limpets to collect the diamonds that were emptying from the T7. Why the lasers over the defunct power plant? It didn't happen here but during my practice a few ships had used the reboot/repair function available on their ships. I had learnt that shooting the power plant again disabled it once more. I didn't want this ship to escape before I had all the diamonds so if anything but zero showed up on the display my finger would have pulled the trigger.
Slowly but surely the hold of the Clipper started to fill up. I had to turn off the controllers once or twice to make room in the hold but at last Betty informed me that the hatch breaker had found no cargo to spill. I turned off the collection controllers once more and fired off the last six limpets I had and waited until I had 144 units of diamonds. As I was sending a message to the T7 pilot about reboot/repair an unresolved target floated onto my scanner and I cycled through the fire groups till I had all four lasers back at my command. The last few diamonds were on board when the unknown target resolved to relieve itself as an Anaconda. Time to go.
I didn't even get scanned and with no threats on the short journey to the station it had all gone smooth. Not as I had wished but good enough and I had the merchandise.
Day five was spent waiting for Mr. Smiths pick up men and talking to him over Saracens very secure link. He congratulated and thanked me for the job. He even let slip that the diamonds were to be used in some kind of research, I felt like pressing that point but I was in the habit of not asking customers questions and so I let it slide. The bag men had gone and I received my payment, just over 7 million credits and a slightly used Gutamaya Imperial Clipper with all it's internals. The Clipper would be staying where it was. I hadn't made up my mind if I ever wanted to fly it again. Mind you in a weird twisted kind of way I had actually enjoyed the whole experience. I hadn't killed any innocents so I was happy about that. Sorry for those I did shoot down but I had to defend myself and pirates can be persistent. I might not want to fly Saracen again for a while but I certainly did not want to sell it. It was a good ship and very good at what it had been outfitted to do. I headed back to Bullseye. It was time to leave.
“Don't you usually shower before you get here?” Shoshana asked as I sat down beside her.
“Yeah and I did.”
“So that was your second shower in less than an hour?” She remarked, sounding a little surprised.