Hai Ho: Nav Beacon
I took Laure's advice and headed directly for the Hai Ho system after my ship had been fully serviced and I had grasped the opportunity to settle down for almost eight hours of restful, uninterrupted sleep at one of Kuhn Port's more exclusive pilot lounges. At a rate of 30 credits per hour, a night at the Kuhn Commander's Lodge cost double the docking fee of my ship, but it was a good investment. I'd been flying for nearly twenty hours straight since leaving Beta-1 Tucanae. A tired pilot was a combat-ineffective pilot. Following the stress of the encounter with Stenberg at LHS-1163, I knew that, mentally and physically drained as I was, continuing to chase Zeta without being well-rested would likely get me killed. The house courtesan who escorted me to my room had been somewhat bemused my by polite, but firm decline when she offered me her services, but nonetheless had accepted my 500 credit tip with characteristic good grace after I had explained that I was only after the comfort of the establishment's silk sheets, rather than that of its silken-skinned bed attendants.
Suitably refreshed and ready for another long day in the commander's chair, I had flown the (...)Gravitas(...) directly to the Hai Ho system to meet with the illicit tech reseller from whom Zeta had bought the batch of multi-use cargo hatch limpets that had emptied Commander Ol Clark's cargo racks in Kappa Fornacis. As the frame shift drive span down and recharged, I checked for any interesting ship contacts on the scanner. I was taking a big risk just being in the system, having been labelled a legal fugitive in Federation space following the death of Admiral Stenberg. Even if I made it to Feynman Orbital without attracting the attention of the local police force, docking would be risky. If I was bounty-scanned by the picket force providing security for the station, I'd be lucky to make it inside the Coriolis station's toast rack before my Courier was shot out from under me. I was hoping that my presence in system would be enough to spook Zeta into playing their hand. There was good money to be made from simply reporting the types and numbers of ships in transit from and into a system. Interested parties included not just pirates wanting to plunder heavily-loaded cargo ships, but also local police ships looking for privateers and freebooters, plus bounty hunters and assassins trying to track down their targets. Given the size of the bounty on me and my ship, it surely wouldn't take long for me to be noticed by the information brokers that kept watch on which ships were ingoing and outgoing from the system.
"Hai Ho, Hai Ho, it's off to work we go..." I muttered in a sing-song tone as I secured the ship from hyperspace, reprioritising power assignments to ensure that all my systems capacitors were fully charged. With no immediate threats revealing themselves on my radar scanner, I ordered ASTRA to lay in a course for Feynman Orbital. The industrial station was run by the QED Foundation, a Federation-aligned corporation that specialised in the production of technologies with a disputed or ambiguous legal status, including the multi-use cargo hatch limpet that I had retrieved during my investigation at Kappa Fornacis. It was only a relatively short hop of 647 light seconds from the navigation point to the station, but it didn't take long for my new legal status to attract attention of the unwanted kind from the local police force.
"Prepare to submit to crime scan, pilot." came the verbal warning, a scant five seconds before the police Asp engaged its frame shift interdiction module to attempt to rip my ship out of supercruise for a standard ship inspection. Under normal circumstances, it would be a simple matter just to throttle back, submit to the interdiction and let the police pilot do their job. Indeed, this would normally be the manner in which I'd respond to such an interdiction attempt, but given that I was flying around with a 500,000 credit bounty on my head following the events at LHS-1163, I wanted to avoid an engagement with the local police force at all costs. The space outside the Courier's appeared to seethe and coalesce as the Asp established an interdiction tether between our two supercruise bubbles. Disrupting the integrity of the multidimensional supercruise field surrounding a ship could have catastrophic effects on the hull of a vessel ripped from higher dimensional witchspace to standard four dimensional realspace, hence why most pilots chose to simply submit to the interdiction and take their chances. A failed evasion attempt from an interdiction had the potential to do significant damage to their ship. Given my situation, however, I had no choice other than to risk evading the interdiction attempt. I could ill-afford adding a cop-killer's bounty to the already considerable price on my head.
My ship appeared to stall as the interdiction tether was established, joining the supercruise bubbles between the local police ship and (...)Gravitas(...) together with a multidimensional conduit that would either pull our ships together in realspace, or leave one ship badly damaged as the one ship outmanoeuvred the other. ASTRA marked an escape vector on the HUD and I kept the throttle set to 100% as I pitched and rolled the ship toward it, making constant fine adjustments as the escape vector weaved across the canopy, seemingly at random, as the interdiction tether twisted and shimmered. The hull groaned in protest, like a submarine approaching crush depth, as the supercruise field around (...)Gravitas(...) quivered, straining and threatening to collapse. Seconds turned into minutes as I fought off the interdiction attempt, my trajectory through the system spiralling and doubling-back on itself again and again as I struggled to break the tether binding my ship to the police vessel's supercruise bubble. The Asp's interdictor module must have been almost military quality in its range and effectiveness, as against a civilian-grade module, I normally would have expected to have been able to break the link by now, given my ship's superior agility and speed. I was considering whether it would be wiser to submit to the interdiction and outrun the Asp in realspace, when I noticed three new contacts on my scanner moving to interdict the Asp. Intrigued by the bizarre turn of another ship interdicting the ship interdicting me, I kept manoeuvring at full speed towards the escape vector, hoping that I would be able to get away in the confusion.
My optimism was short-lived, however. I set aside a fraction of my attention from flying the ship to try to identify the three new contacts. The ship models alone were not encouraging reading: Eagle, Adder, Anaconda. I was not close enough to scan the ships for their pilot IDs, but I suspected I already knew the commander of the Anaconda. The pilot of the Asp was too preoccupied with trying to intercept me to notice that he was under threat himself. The Anaconda slipped into the witchspace slipstream of the Asp and latched onto it with its own interdiction tether. Caught by surprise, the police pilot wasn't able to react fast enough to evade the disruption of his supercruise bubble. The tether linking us together also collapsed with enough force to catapult me back into realspace with the Asp, where the three new contacts were waiting for us.
"Hull and module damage sustained." ASTRA, as was her usual habit, stated the blindingly obvious, while I brought (...)Gravitas(...) out of a flat spin from its uncontrolled drop back into realspace from supercruise flight. It took me a couple of seconds to regain my sense of 3D space as the fluids in my inner ear continued to slosh around from the centripetal acceleration of the spin, threatening to make me dizzy.
"Deploy hardpoints, ASTRA. We might be in a spot of bother here." I ordered, bringing my Courier back onto an even keel, letting the scanner resolve the ID beacons on the four contacts only eight kilometres away.
"Ahoy there, me hearties!" I recognised the strident voice crowing over the ship-to-ship radio with a cringe. I was most definitely in trouble. "Sorry to stoop into cliché, but it's what's expected from a famous pirate, you know? After all, it sounds a lot better than 'Hey youse cunts, you're fucking dead', right? Sharky, I believe you and Zenith have a score to settle with Roche over there. You keep him busy while I take care of this stupid Asp who thought they could get between me and my prey."
"Roger that, Thunda." came the acknowledgement from the pirate Adder, which fell into a loose echelon formation with the Eagle as they boosted on full afterburners past the police vessel, which was closing in to engage Thunda Sue's Anaconda, somewhat ambitiously.
"Commander Thunda, you are wanted for the crimes of piracy, murder and theft in the Federation. Stand down your weapons and engines or prepare to be destroyed." The police pilot demanded.
"Is this idiot for real?" Thunda Sue laughed hysterically. "Where do they find these guys?"
"You have ten seconds to comply." The Asp pilot blustered, apparently oblivious to the reality of his situation. Even if I had wanted to intervene, I had my own problems, with Sharky's Adder and Zenith's Eagle now closing to weapons range.
I targeted the Eagle first, anxious to get one ship out of the fight as quickly as possible. While I had shot to wound and disable during our fracas outside the harbourmaster's office at Kappa Fornacis, I could not afford to give any such quarter here, outnumbered by four-to-one; the spirit of fair play and sporting chances be damned. I had flown Eagles for over a thousand hours during my flight training at Beta-1 Tucanae, so I was intimately acquainted with their strengths and flaws. Ironically, its greatest strength was also its greatest vulnerability. The Eagle was the most nimble ship of all currently in active service, with a pitch and roll rate so fast that novice pilots often were overcome with motion sickness during their first solo flights. This agility, however, came at the price of a fragile hull and a lack of ultimate speed, due to its undersized power plant. The armoured plating surrounding the Eagle's frame shift drive was particularly weak, meaning that a critical hit was able to cause a cascade feedback reaction through the power distributor that could cook off the power plant and the shield generator. "ASTRA, target the Eagle's FSD. Full power to weapons."
"Acknowledged. Targeting subsystem. Under attack."
The Adder and Eagle opened hostilities in tandem. The Adder was armed with a gimballed pulse laser on its Class 2 dorsal hardpoint, with a pair of Class 1 rail guns on its belly. At this distance, it was easy enough to alter my course at random intervals as we closed to avoid the magnetically-driven projectiles, but the gimballing on the pulse laser was harder to evade. The Eagle had an armament of three fixed multi-cannons to minimise the power demands on its reactor, while still posing a real threat to larger ships. I ignored the ringing the tiny uranium sabots made as they deflected from my shields, instead bringing all three of my own weapons to bear on the narrow profile of the Eagle as it bored in towards my ship. Crimson beams seared from my wingtips, raking across the prow of the Eagle, boiling away its shield envelope in less than three seconds.
"Bastard!" Zenith growled, flinging his Eagle into an evasive barrel roll, lighting his afterburners, to try and evade the tracking of my gimballed beam lasers.
I continued to ignore the incoming fire from the Adder, even as a stray rail gun round clipped my aft shields, registering as a vivid red flare over the ship's avatar on my HUD, indicating the location and incoming vector of the damage. I ignited my own engine boosters, clinging doggedly to the Eagle's vapour trail, knowing that my Courier could easily out-pace the Eagle. I kept my eyes fixed on the Eagle's forward-swept wings, my combat instincts allowing me to anticipate the small ship's every move, interpreting the tell-tale neon blue flames bursting from the thruster modules every time Zenith moved his ship's control stick. I depressed my primary and secondary triggers simultaneously, my beam lasers leaving radiant scars across the Eagle's urban camouflage skin, needing only two concussive reports from my Manticore cannon before the fighter disintegrated in a shower of orange sparks. The HUD flashed briefly to inform me that I had been awarded with the pirate commander's bounty, but I was too preoccupied to take note of how much it was, other than noticing that it had been a six figure sum.
"Good kill, Roche!" Thunda Sue congratulated me, as if her own fight with the police Asp was little more than an irritating distraction. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her ship, Kurgan, reaching out towards the Asp with eight fiery fingers of hard light, the beam laser turrets tracking inexorably closer to the police vessel and threatening to sear it into tiny, blackened chunks. "I know you shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but I never could stand Zenith, anyway. You've done the universe a favour. See if you can do it another one."
I didn't reply. It was a common tactic amongst pirates to try and distract a pilot's attention by making provocative comments. Pirates liked to goad their quarry into arguments, as it distracted them from the business of piloting, making them lose focus and become easier targets. Rather than responding, instead I concentrated on making sure that Sharky joined his partner Zenith as a cascade of rapidly freezing meat molecules as quickly as possible. I knew that it wouldn't be very long before Thunda Sue dispatched the Asp, and then I would have a real fight on my hands.
The Adder was larger and more resilient than the Eagle, but slightly less manoeuvrable. It was about my ship's equal in agility, but I again had a speed advantage, which would allow me to stay clear of the fixed mountings of the rail guns on the Adder's underwing hardpoints.
"Gonna fuck you up, Roche." Sharky promised. "Are ya ready to feel Sharky's bite?"
I snapped my Courier into hard turn, just as Sharky unleashed both rail guns. I saw the blue trails left behind the twin projectiles whip past almost instantaneously, one above and one below my starboard wing, within a couple of metres of striking my shields. I retaliated with a five second burst of my beam lasers. I'd fought Adders on hundreds of occasions during my career and I knew their weaknesses almost as intimately as I understood those of the Eagle. Their life support system was located behind the aft bulkhead of the ship's cockpit. The shape of the Adder's hull meant that any shot directed at the life support system from the forward aspect of the ship would breach the flight deck. Any hit that caused the life support system to incur a critical failure would most likely kill any crew on the flight deck. Using the thumb selector on my flight stick, I cycled through the Adder's subsystems until I saw the life support model being highlighted on the HUD. It would have been quicker to use a voice command and get ASTRA to select it for me, but as I took down the Adder's shields, I didn't want Sharky to get wind of my strategy. Pirates did have the nasty habit of listening in to private conversations between a pilot and their AI.
Unlike his former compatriot, Zenith, Sharky was a competent pilot, who was able to use his ship's agility to maximum effect, always keeping his dorsal pulse laser in play, even if I was able to keep clear of the line of fire from his rail guns. Unfortunately for the pirate, my beam lasers were far more effective against his shields, making them teeter on the verge of collapse before he had whittled away 30% of my shield strength. I pressed my advantage, knowing that I would soon have a sterner test, in the shape of Thunda Sue's Anaconda.
"ASTRA, redirect engine and weapon power to shields. Full recharge." I ordered, sending the first of three rounds crashing through the tenuous remains of the Adder's shield envelope, the sheer kinetic energy of the dart-like sabot rounds hammering the Adder's life support system into microscopic fragments. As my Manticore cannon buzzed, replacing its spent clip with a fresh 5-round magazine, I sealed the Adder's fate with a sustained burst of beam laser fire. Another six figure bounty voucher acknowledgement flashed up in the upper right corner of my HUD, but I was too pre-occupied to take proper notice. White hot fragments from the Adder's hull glanced off my shields as I wheeled (...)Gravitas(...) about, just in time to see the Anaconda ram the Asp with its nose, pitching the smaller ship into an uncontrolled tumble. Kurgan's laser turrets homed in on the helpless police vessel, half a dozen bright red beams enveloping the Asp in a lethal embrace.
"Damn you, pirate!" the Asp pilot screamed as the Anaconda's lasers burned through the police ship's armoured plating. The Asp vanished in a short-lived explosion as the laser fire from Kurgan cooked off the power plant, unleashing the energy stored within.
"Just you and me now, Roche." Thunda Sue chuckled, as she brought her Anaconda around in an unnaturally tight cobra turn to intercept me, the long nose of her ship twitching as she fought the considerable momentum of the hull without the help of the flight assistance computer. "How about we dance?"
Thunda's Anaconda was a formidable vessel, one of the largest that was available for private ownership. Not that she had obtained her ship legally, judging from the disguised markings strewn across Kurgan's hull. The infamous Thunda Crew's sigil was painted over the hull in a half-hearted attempt to disguise its original registration with the Federal Navy. No doubt she had 'liberated' the ship from its rightful owners, and was now using it as the flagship of her pirate fleet. With no less than eight beam laser turrets, Kurgan was a mobile fortress with enough firepower to take down my shields in a only few seconds, but its sheer size and mass did give the ship one vulnerability: my Courier could out-turn and outpace the Anaconda easily, so if I could stay close enough to its tail, not only could I avoid being hit by the larger ship's turrets, but I would also put myself in the perfect position to disable the ship's main thrusters. Taking out the Anaconda's thrusters would take longer than destroying its power plant, increasing the likelihood that I would take damage, but simply killing Thunda wouldn't gain me anything in my investigation. On the other hand, if I was able to disable her ship, I would be in a position to demand information as to Zeta's whereabouts. The challenge was to stay alive long enough to be able to do so. "ASTRA, flight assist off. Engage afterburners."
Kurgan's turrets flared into action, crimson fingers of destruction snatching at the space around my ship as I raced at maximum boost to close the three kilometres between our vessels. I dumped a charge of chaff to cover the closure manoeuvre, confusing the tracking of the turrets as I twisted and weaved the ship in a spiralling trajectory towards the Anaconda, holding fire until I was at point blank range, where my beam lasers could do maximum damage against the Anaconda's immense shields.
"Oh, you're clever, Roche." Thunda congratulated me, mockingly. "You might actually be a good enough pilot to make me break sweat."
I ignored her, barely even hearing her words as I concentrated hard on keeping my ship in the vapour trail of her engines, out of reach of the majority of the Anaconda's turrets. With my shields now fully recharged, I redirected my power priorities back to my weapons, my gimballed beam lasers searing across the tail of the Anaconda, gradually chipping away at the integrity of the shield envelope. Thunda countered by initiating a long tumble of rolling scissors manoeuvres, trying simultaneously to throw off my pursuit and bring more of her turrets into a firing solution with my ship. I kept up my fire as the Anaconda dropped and span through space, rolling over like a dog trying to impress its master, its dorsal and ventral thrusters sparking as the nose of the ship pitched end over end, trying to shake me out of the ship's defensive blind spot. The odd stray shot from the Anaconda's turrets grazed my shields, biting a small, but cumulatively significant lump from their overall strength. Fully focused, my hands manipulated the flight controls instinctively, my eyes fixed on the Anaconda's sleek blue and white hull, using continuous, minute tweaks of my joystick, throttle and trimming thrusters to stay out of the line of fire as much as possible. My beam lasers continued to nibble away at the Anaconda's shields, which were now only at half strength. My own shields were holding well, at just under 80%, plus I had four shield reinforcement cells in reserve. The fight had descended into a battle of attrition, a battle that I was currently winning; a fact that hadn't escaped Thunda's notice.
"When Zeta told me who the Imps had sent after her, I did some research." Thunda Sue sounded impossibly relaxed, considering the circumstances. Our ships were locked in mortal combat, yet she sounded as if we were sitting down for a civilised afternoon tea. "You're a throwback to a more civilised age, Roche. I'm told you've never killed a woman in combat, is that true?"
I didn't reply. I knew that the pirate wasn't truly interested in an answer. They just wanted me to waste my mental faculties on engaging in pointless conversation, taking my focus away from the dogfight.
"A strong, silent type, too." Thunda lamented. Disappointed by my lack of response, she tried another tack. "Are you still fucking that Imperial bint at Beta-1 Tucanae? Torval? All curves and cleavage? Hips broader than a Python? Norks like an Ocellus? Changes her hair colour more often than her underwear? I bet she gives you access to all her docking bays."
I tried not to let my temper flare, strangling a defensive retort, instead depressing my secondary trigger and spearing a cannon round into the Anaconda's failing shields. It wasn't that effective in terms of damage, but I emptied the clip, sending Thunda what I hoped was a wordless, but otherwise eloquent reply to her taunts.
"Oh, have I touched a nerve there, Roche?" Thunda asked, her voice the epitome of bemused innocence. "Tell me, which of her docking bays do you like the most? Fore or aft?"
"Suzie, if you don't shut up right now, you're going to find out the limits of my gallantry first hand." I snapped back, emptying another clip of cannon rounds into the Anaconda's shields. They had begun to buckle, some of my weapons fire leaking through the deflective energy bubble to damage Kurgan's hull.
"You're my kind of man, Aemon." Thunda responded, amused. "I'd ride you to a coronary. I like it from behind the best. Here, try it."
I didn't even have time to swear as Thunda reversed throttle and re-engaged her flight assistance computer, coming to a full stop in less than a second. Inwardly cursing myself for being stupid enough fall for her distraction tactics, I cut my own throttle, wrenching my joystick desperately to try and avoid a collision, but my momentum carried (...)Gravitas(...) into the aft of the Anaconda, my right nacelle smashing into the rear of the larger ship, damaging my starboard beam laser and acting as pivot to spin my Courier out of control over the dorsal hull of the Anaconda. I applied quick torques with the pitch and yaw thrusters to counter (...)Gravitas(...)'s rotation, almost getting the ship's attitude to match its velocity vector when I came under fire from the Anaconda. The brief spin had caused me to drift into the line of fire of the Class 3 turrets forward of the Anaconda's cockpit. My Courier reeled under the impact and I knew that the tide of the battle had turned. Now I was suddenly on the defensive, and my Imperial Courier's slight hull would not withstand the kind of punishment I had been meting out on the Anaconda. If I didn't regain the initiative in a few seconds, it was all over.
"ASTRA, deploy chaff. Power to shields and engines. Afterburners now." It was now my turn to plunge (...)Gravitas(...) through a defensive series of scissor and cobra turns, hoping that the chaff would throw off the tracking of the turrets for long enough to find the Anaconda's blind spot in the lee of its main thrusters once again.
"Shields offline." ASTRA notified me, a high-pitched warning alarm chiming rhythmically in the background. "Taking damage."
"Fuckfuckfuck..." I swore under my breath, as I'd forgotten in the confusion of the collision's aftermath that I could have reinforced my shields with a recharge cell. Now that the shield envelope had fully collapsed, this was no longer an option. I hoped that my mistake would not prove fatal. It would take another thirty seconds for my shields to recharge and come back online. I had to hope that the ship's hull would hold out that long and rely on (...)Gravitas(...)'s speed and faster turn rate to keep me out of trouble. "ASTRA, more chaff."
"Such a shame. You were good, Roche." Thunda sounded almost mournful. "But not good enough. I did warn you."
I was too busy trying to evade turret fire to respond, hurling my Courier through evasive manoeuvres, trying to out-turn the tracking of the turrets and get back onto the tail of the larger ship. A thick crimson beam raked across the nose of my ship, barely missing the cockpit as it trailed backwards across my port wing, leaving a deep scar in the mirrored surface of the hull composite, the protective coating being boiled away by the intense laser radiation.
"Hull integrity at 75%." ASTRA intoned neutrally.
“Boost.” I used the remaining energy in my engine capacitor to try use the Courier's superior speed in a high yo-yo turn to overshoot and then drop in behind the Anaconda. It was a dangerous gambit, as if I was unable to pull off the manoeuvre, I wouldn't have enough energy left to boost out of weapons range of the pirate vessel. I used Thunda's own tumble tactic against her, ejecting another load of chaff as I rolled (...)Gravitas(...) over and over to confuse the Anaconda's turret tracking programming and keep Thunda guessing as to what I was trying to do. “ASTRA, one more pip to weapons.”
I exhaled, trying to stay calm as the crimson lances of deadly light reached back out towards my unshielded vessel, which I managed to wrestle back into the wake of the Anaconda's thrusters with only a fraction of a second to spare before my chaff screen dispersed. Having regained the initiative, I blasted Kurgan's thruster modules with both beam lasers and another full clip from my cannon, reducing the Anaconda's top speed and agility. I knew I had to work quickly, as the pirate ship's shields were less than a minute away from recharging. It was now Suzie's turn to swear. “Oh, shit! No you don't!”
I responded with more cannon fire, a further five rounds tearing the Anaconda's thruster control module into pieces, leaving the pirate ship drifting and unable to manoeuvre. I kept mobile to prevent the still-functioning turrets from getting a target lock, switching my targeting computer to aim at the power distribution subsystem, located behind the Anaconda's cockpit. Ten more quick rounds crippled that system too, leaving the Anaconda stranded and helpless. I cut my throttle back to zero as my shield envelope re-established itself around my ship, letting the stricken pirate vessel drift slowly into optimal weapons range.
“Well. That was unexpected.” Thunda Sue's voice crackled over the ship-to-ship radio, ironically amused.
“Where can I find Zeta?”
“What? No gloating? No threats?” the pirate queen asked, pleasantly surprised. “You really are a gentleman, aren't you Roche?”
“Don't waste my time, Suzie. I know you're doing a system reboot. But I can crack your power plant quicker than you can repair your thrusters.”
“I don't have to tell you shit, Imperial.” she snorted in reply, her pride still intact.
“I don't have to let you live, either. A million credits is a lot of money, Suzie. Start talking. Where is Zeta?”
“Quit stalling. Patience isn't one of my strongest virtues.”
“No, I'm serious. Zeta'll be dropping in on us any second. I'd pop a shield cell now if I were you.”
“New radar contact. 18 kilometres.” ASTRA reported.
“See? Told you.” Suzie smirked. “Here's your dilemma, Roche. You won't be able to take me down before Zeta gets here. It's either Zeta or me. And the Imperial Navy doesn't care about me.”
“Dammit, I knew I should have just killed you on Harvestport.” I grimaced, reluctantly following her advice and deploying a shield recharge cell to ensure that my shields were fully topped up before Zeta's Imperial Clipper got within weapons range.
“Too late now, sugar.” Thunda chuckled, as Kurgan began to limp away under minimal thruster power to disengage from the combat zone, as its frame shift drive began charging for a hyperspace jump. “That's twice you should've killed me but didn't. Don't think that fact's gone unappreciated, mind. One day I'll make it worth your while. Another time, Roche."