Beta-1 Tucanae: Nav Beacon
I was bathed in intense blue light when the Imperial Clipper plunged out of the energetic maelstrom of witchspace back into reality, the frame shift drive thudding characteristically as it span down to recharge. My trip across Federation and independent space to return home had been uneventful, but surely had not gone unnoticed by the network of informants and trackers that passed on the locations of ships of special interest to the many different parties willing to pay a premium price for such information. I knew I wouldn't have long before the system security forces and a myriad of bounty hunters looking for a payday were likely to come swooping down on my ship. I brought up the ship's throttle to retreat from the nav beacon quickly, hoping that no other ships would jump in before I finished turning the ship towards my destination, Adams Orbital. I selected the station in the navigation computer interface at my left, keeping one eye on the radar scanner as I pitched and rolled the ship towards my supercruise vector. I was about to activate the frame shift drive to propel me into supercruise when I caught the tell-tale flash of an incoming ship dropping out of hyperdrive about ten kilometres off my port wing. It was too far away to catch me before my ship could enter supercruise, so I indulged my curiosity to check the contact list and see what it was. A chill ran down my spine when I saw the ship class. It was an Anaconda. I took a closer look at the spearhead-shaped vessel out of the viewport. It was a very familiar-looking Anaconda.
"You've got to be kidding me..." I breathed in exasperation, just as the ship-to-ship text console lit up.
Well, well, sugar. Fancy meeting you here. I'm impressed you made it this far, Roche.
What do you want, Suzie? Secondly, how the hell did you know it's me?
That part was easy, sweetcakes. When Zeta didn't show up for our rendezvous, I put two and two together. Ballsy move, Roche, hijacking a ship in space. You should come work for me.
I'm flattered, but I think I'll pass.
Your loss, Roche. We could make a lot of money together. More than enough to replace all the beds we'd break. Still, I've got another proposition for you. Wing with me. I owe you for letting my butt wiggle away from Kappa Fornacis and Hai Ho. It's only fair that I protect yours and get it safely to Adams. No punk of a bounty hunter is going to touch you if you're flying on my wing. Once I get you into the station's no fire zone though, you're on your own.
Thunda Sue's Kurgan was now only three kilometres away, taking the lead in an echelon right formation. Its hardpoints were stowed and its frame shift drive was charging.
What's the catch?
No catch, Roche. I like your ass, that's all. It'd be nice for me to know that it's still out there somewhere and that at some unspecified point in the future, I might be able to get my hands on it.
No promises. But I'll take the escort.
Good choice, Roche. If you ever get bored of that Imperial tart's docking bays, remember that I'll keep a berth open for you.
I responded only by accepting Thunda's wing request, closing up our formation until I was within 200 metres of the imposing Kurgan. I could see that the damage I had done less than a day earlier to the flying fortress had been hastily repaired, no doubt at great expense. If we did get dragged into a fight on the way to Adams Orbital, I pitied the commander that would be on the other end of the Anaconda's immense firepower.
Nav computers locked. Wing link established. Jumping in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...mark!
The fabric of space-time wrinkled and coiled into a luminous white tunnel before the noses of our ships, lancing us forward into supercruise with a brief stab of pseudo-acceleration. It would take several minutes to cross the 3500 light-seconds between the system's star and the Coriolis station, so with little else to do, other than make minor course corrections and keep a watch on the scanner for hostile contacts, Thunda Sue turned out to be a chatty travelling companion.
I suppose this is going to be a pretty big break for you, isn't it Roche? Taking down two enemies of the state in a couple of days? That's got to put you on the fast track.
What would you know about it?
I toyed with the idea of a career in the Navy. At least until I realised that I couldn't stand being told what to do every five seconds by people who don't know their ass from their elbow.
That still doesn't explain how you became a pirate. Plenty of other things you could have done.
I like this way of life, Roche. The thrill of living on the edge. Knowing your next fight might be your last, but fighting anyway.
You could get that from bounty hunting. Why piracy?
More money. More notoriety. Better sex. When have you ever heard of anyone falling over themselves to get into bed with a bounty hunter? Pirates get more respect, not to mention a better class of tail.
There's got to be more to it than that.
Like what, Roche? A sob story about a broken home, an exploited childhood and an escape into the underworld? Not from me. My parents run a very successful export business out of Coulter City in Tionisla. I could have followed in the family footsteps, running cargo around the Old Worlds, probably dying of boredom before anything else. I chose this instead. Big, fast ships and plenty of excitement, money, men, women and booze. What more could I possibly want? How much are you worth, Roche? I've been doing this for nine years and my crew has enough put away in assets to buy our own star system. Think you'll ever earn that much in the Imperial Navy?
At least my hands are clean.
You're not qualified to judge me, Roche. There's no such thing as an innocent out here. I thought you'd have learned that by now.
Coming up on Adams Orbital. I typed, wanting to change the subject.
I see it. Let's see what kind of welcoming committee the Governor has waiting for you. Disengaging FSD in 3, 2, 1... mark.
The Anaconda and the Clipper dropped back into realspace thirty kilometres away from the Coriolis station. Between us and the station was a very well-armed Fer-de-Lance heavy fighter, its scorched and scarred livery carrying the air of bounty hunter about it. I saw that it was deploying hardpoints, its armaments including a formidably destructive Class 4 Plasma Accelerator. Thunda and I responded in kind, arming our weapons. I checked the HUD and saw that my cannons were still well-stocked, with over fifty rounds each.
Oh, Commander Creighton! It's so nice to see you again! Thunda announced, boosting ahead to engage the Fer-de-Lance with her beam laser turrets, dodging vertically at the last moment to strafe out of the way of an incoming plasma sphere.
You know this guy?
Ex-husband. Wants to kill me. Long story. Make a break for the station, I'll keep him busy.
As I flew past the warring former lovers, I blasted the Fer-de-Lance with the Clipper's full complement of weapons, weakening the heavy fighter's shields substantially.
Roche, don't fight. Just run. He might have friends on the way. Get to the no fire zone.
You're sure you don't want a hand?
We go through this every couple of months. Don't worry. He's as good in a pilot's chair as he is between the sheets. Which is about as useful as ant powder on a Thargoid nest. Go.
I stowed my ship's weapons, redirected my weapon power to shields and engines and boosted beyond the Fer-de-Lance's weapons range as it floundered under the assault from Kurgan's eight beam laser turrets. I was just five kilometres short of the no fire zone when a horde of contacts emerged from the radar shadow of the Coriolis starport. It was an Imperial Clipper, escorted by no less than eight Core Dynamics Vultures, flying in an inverted-Vic formation, with the Clipper taking the rearmost position at the base of the V. I recognised the gold and purple insignia on the side of the Clipper instantly. It was Laure's personal ship.
How dare you come here, Zeta? After all that you've done? Laure signalled, the plain text appearing on my comms console only hinting at the full extent of her fury. And I see your traitorous stench brought some vermin in with it. Praetor 1 through 6, deal with that pirate scum.
The first three rows of Vultures in Laure's fighter group instantly engaged their afterburners, boosting past me to engage the Anaconda and the Fer-de-Lance.
Laure, it's me. Stand down your fighters. I typed, using the running lights on the nose of the ship to flash a private signal in Morse code. We had first discovered the ancient method of communication during a family vacation on Summerland, before my parents' disgrace, using it to tap messages through the bedroom walls to each other, long after I was supposed to have been asleep.
Wuh-oh... Time for me to go. I'm out of here, Roche. Come find me sometime. I'll put some excitement in your life. Thunda messaged me over our private wing channel, when she noticed the half-dozen Vultures bearing down on her tussle with the Fer-de-Lance. Kurgan appeared to be undamaged, but the heavy fighter was very much the worse for wear, with one wingtip missing and flames gutting out from multiple breaches in the ship's armoured plating. The pirate queen rolled her ship and boosted for open space, the dorsal radiator vents glowing brightly in the darkness as the Anaconda's frame shift drive span up.
See, Zeta? Even your hired scum show you no loyalty. I'm going to enjoy watching your ship burn. Praetor 7, take out their thrusters. Praetor 8, destroy the ship's FSD. But leave the death blow to me.
Laure's two escorts opened fire with Class 3 rail guns, knocking 30% off my shield strength in a single salvo. I redirected full power to my shield recharge rate, boosting towards Laure's Clipper, so that she could see my Morse signal more clearly. Laure, stop! It's me, Aemon! Zeta's dead.
My Imperial Clipper could outrun the Vultures, but I had to stay close to Laure's ship so that she stood a chance of seeing my signal with the running lights, and I couldn't afford to stray too far from the station's no fire zone, in case any other bounty hunters turned up. Neither could I head directly for the station itself, as Laure could ensure I was denied docking permission and even command the starport to destroy me outright. My only hope was that I could convince Laure in time that I was who I said I was. As I rolled and pitched the Imperial Clipper through a series of defensive scissor turns, I noticed that the flight of Vultures Laure had sent after the Fer-de-Lance and Thunda Sue's Anaconda had entered engagement range. The crippled Fer-de-Lance was overwhelmed in seconds, vanishing in a bright starburst of sparks as the ship's fuel stores were detonated by a rail gun round. Kurgan's turrets reached backwards, red fingers of hard light raking across the shields of the incoming Vultures, covering the larger ship's retreat, its sheer firepower warding off the swarm of heavily armed fighters until it blinked away into witchspace with a brief flicker of white light. The six Vultures wheeled about applying full boost, to reinforce the two ships trying to disable my ship. Another pair of rail gun projectiles crashed into my shields, a sonic alarm ringing across the bridge to alert me that the protective energy bubble was on the verge of collapsing.
Laure, please! Call off your fighters! I aimed my ship's nose directly at her ship, signalling frantically with the running lights. My shields failed as four more rail gun rounds from the Vultures slammed into the Clipper's hull, taking its thrusters and frame shift drive offline. I didn't even try to perform a system reboot to allow the ship's systems to try and reroute some of the components from my other modules to bring back some functionality in the damaged subsystems. It would never complete in time, anyway. I used what little power there was left in the fine control vernier thruster modules to point the nose of my ship directly at Laure's. The eight Vultures formed a globe around my vessel, waiting for the order to strike one final time. I kept signalling with the landing lights on the Clipper's nose, praying that Laure would eventually see the message only I could have sent her. I saw the reflections glint from Laure's canopy as she brought her ship to within a hundred metres of mine, the beam laser turrets on her wingtip nacelles and the multi-cannon turrets on her underwing hardpoints pointed directly at my cockpit. I surrender.
You coward, Zeta. You can't even die an honourable death. Why won't you fight?
I made the mistake of fighting you a long time ago. It was wrong then, and it'd be wrong now. It really is me, Laure. And I love you, no matter what. But before you do anything, check the ship's registry. Not electronically. Check the hull code. I closed my eyes. There was nothing left that I could do. Seconds ticked by, the tension making it feel like hours. Nothing happened. Seconds turned into minutes and when I reopened my eyes, I saw that the Vultures were retreating towards the starport.
I'm coming aboard. Give me a minute to get the docking tube connected.
Laure's Imperial Clipper rolled and ducked beneath the belly of my stricken ship, using its dorsal thrusters to ease gently into a position where it could link together our landing ramps and their airlocks to allow my ship to be towed further into the no fire zone surrounding Adams Orbital, also allowing free access between one ship and the other. I stopped signalling with the landing lights. The code I had been sending was the same sequence of letters that I had etched into the hull on my EVA before jumping back to Empire space: FFTTOTGTBMEBOTWD. To the untrained eye it would just seem like a standard hull registration code. For Laure and I, however, the sixteen letter sequence held a much more personal significance. It meant Fell From The Top Of The Gravitas Tree, But Missed Every Branch On The Way Down, an accusation Laure had levelled in my direction, following my protestations at her renaming of my Imperial Courier.
I met her at the airlock, once our ships were secure. Even dressed in an unflattering flight suit, Laure was effortlessly gorgeous, despite her tearful, red-rimmed eyes. Her long hair was tied behind her head in a spiralled coil, having been re-dyed with a hint of cherry red to replace the blue she had worn when I had departed on the mission. We embraced without a word as soon as the airlock opened. When we were both suitably reassured that we weren't just imagining being back together, I took Laure's hand and led her back towards the flight deck.
"Aemon, I'm so sorry. I almost had you killed. When I got the news that your ship had been destroyed... I... I went a little crazy. And when Zeta's ship turned up... I didn't think it could be you."
"It's okay. You got my message in time. That's the important thing." I squeezed Laure's hand in mine as I opened the door to the stateroom where I had left Zeta's body. The corpse of the strawberry blonde woman lay motionless on the bunk, as I had left it. "Here she is, Agent Zeta."
Laure walked over to the bunk, looked down at Zeta's face and recoiled with a gasp of shock and recognition. "Aemon, that's..."
"You didn't know?" I watched Laure's face carefully, hunting for any signs of duplicity. I knew her well enough to see through her politician's poise and sense if she was lying.
"I had no idea." Laure's blue eyes were wide with genuine shock. "No wonder Naval Command insisted that you be the one sent on the mission. What greater test of your loyalty could there be than to kill your own mother?"
"I didn't kill her. She took her own life. Cyanide capsules hidden inside false teeth."
"You brought her to justice, Aemon." Laure replied, proud of what I had done. "You achieved your mission objectives. The Imperial Navy won't forget that. You'll be a Viscount before the end of the week, I promise you."
"What happens now?" I asked, taking Laure's arm and leading her to the bridge, satisfied that she had been as much in the dark about the true identity of my target as I had.
"We report your success back to Command, and while we wait for your promotion to be confirmed, I'll get this ship refitted for you. I was going to buy you an Imperial Clipper to celebrate your elevation to Baron, but I see you acquired one already." Laure said, ironically amused, as she sat on the broad circular projector for the holographic radar scanner, beneath the panoramic canopy. The customised purple glow from the holographic HUD emitters gave her pale skin an ethereal, exotic look.
"How much will I owe you for that?" I asked, leaning against the armrest of one of the flight seats and smiling.
Laure looked up into my eyes, her full lips moist and inviting. Laure eased her torso backwards, propping herself up on her elbows. "I'm sure I'll be able to come up with a reasonable repayment schedule. We can discuss the full terms after the wedding."
"Are you sure you want to risk upsetting Zemina?" I stepped forward to keep eye contact as Laure lay down on the radar scanner's carbon fibre bulkhead between the ship avatar and target HUD projectors.
"Definitely." Laure's azure eyes sparkled with defiance, as she reached up to take my hands and lean me forward over her. I had to support myself with my knees against the edge of the bulkhead to stop myself from falling. "She's going to have to get used to the fact that I'm not some lapdog at her beck and call. I've always thought of you as family, Aemon. Tomorrow you'll truly be a Torval. No-one will hold your family's past against you then."
I bent down to kiss her lips, revelling in the scent of her perfume and the warmth of her hands on the back of my neck. "I love you, Laure."
"I love you, too." The beauty of her smile was heartbreaking. Her expression turned impatient as the seconds passed. "What are you waiting for, Aemon?"
"Permission to dock, Governor."
"Oh, I thought you'd never ask..."