Fotla: Nav Beacon
“New contact: 4km.”
“Target.” I ordered ASTRA, my ship's AI, to highlight the ship on my radar scanner and I checked the vessel's type, faction allegiance and legal status. “Right then, who are you?”
I glanced down at the HUD as the scan completed, identifying the ship as a Viper Mark III. I deployed my weapons when I saw its commander was affiliated with the Fotla Jet Corp, a local pirate group with ideas above their station. I had been assigned to thin out their ranks to send a message to their leadership that the Empire would not tolerate their presence in the system, nor their dishonourable tactics of shaking down unarmed cargo ships. The contract specified for the destruction of ten Jet Corp vessels. Earlier in the day, I had already taken out half a dozen of their ships, mainly low-rent Sidewinders and Eagles, plus one moderately upgraded Cobra Mark III. None of the engagements had been a serious test of either my ship or my piloting skill.
“How much is he worth, ASTRA?”
“55,940 credits, my lord.”
“Three more like him and not only will that be mission complete, but I'll also be able to afford an upgrade for my shield boosters, too. Power to weapons.”
I brought my Imperial Courier about, visually picking out the arrowhead-shaped silhouette of the Viper against the dazzling yellow globe of Fotla's primary star. ASTRA adjusted the polarisation of my bubble canopy to compensate and prevent me from being blinded, allowing me to see that the pilot of the Viper had noticed my interest and had changed their course to intercept. I checked to see whether the pirate had deployed their weapons, noting that the Viper was armed with twin multi-cannons and rail guns; classic tools of the trade for a pirate seeking to disable ships to plunder their cargo.
“I'm not looking for trouble, Imperial.” the ship-to-ship radio crackled, the interference from the star's intense magnetic field distorting the pirate's voice.
“Then you shouldn't fly for Jet Corp.” I replied, flicking the hat switch on my joystick with my thumb to target the Viper's power plant. “Defend yourself, pirate.”
I lit the afterburners, boosting past the Viper before it could deploy its weapons.
“Flight assist off.” I ordered ASTRA, looking up to keep my eyes on the pirate ship as I pulled hard on the joystick to flip my Courier around to turn back on itself without losing velocity, the gimbals on my burst lasers tracking upwards to come to bear on the target as the Viper accelerated away, its thrusters leaving a glowing vapour trail behind them. I drifted behind the Viper, engaging my afterburners a second time to stay within weapons range, grunting as the acceleration pressed me back into my flight seat. The Viper's shields coruscated as my twin burst lasers lit up the nacelles on the wingtips of my ship, the triple-thuds echoing around my cockpit as the weapons capacitors cycled megajoules of energy through the discharge cells of the lasers three times a second. I kept the trigger depressed as the Viper began evasive manoeuvres, jinking randomly using its lateral thrusters to try and throw off the tracking algorithms of my gimballed weapons. I countered the gambit with short strafes from my own thrusters, the Viper pilot becoming increasing desperate as his shields started to buckle.
“Fuck you, Imperial!” the ship-to-ship radio hissed. “You'll die for this!”
“Power surge detected.” ASTRA warned.
I threw my nimble Courier into a barrel roll, continuing to fire at the Viper as it suddenly flipped 180 degrees, thrusters flaring bright blue as the pirate disabled the fighter's g-limiters and flight assistance software. The dual rail guns on the Viper's nose flashed, the hyper-velocity projectiles crashing into my ship's shields, perilously close to either side of my cockpit. The Courier rocked under the impact, but my shields held. I continued to roll wildly, strafing vertically as the Viper's multi-cannons opened fire. Rapid, angry torrents of white-hot tracer bullets whipped past my canopy.
“Full power to systems.” The extra system power reinforced my shields as some of the multi-cannon rounds began to find their mark, allowing them to shrug off the maelstrom of blows of the tiny kinetic projectiles, which were more suited to shredding hull armour than degrading an energy shield envelope. I let my lasers cool down and checked the status of my quarry's shields: 8%. It would be another couple of seconds before my burst lasers recharged to full capacity, but I needed to keep the Jet Corp pirate on the defensive. Our ships were only 400 metres apart, thrusting and strafing around each other at maximum g-force, trying to keep each other in the line of sight of our weapons. The Viper's rail guns were on fixed mountings, so it was relatively easy for me to stay clear of their field of fire, but the gimballed multi-cannons were harder to avoid.
I tried to stay above the Viper's centreline, so that the Viper's hull blocked the firing solution its multi-cannons had to my ship, while leaving my own weapons in play. I kept the ventral hull of the Courier pointed towards the Viper, as I had not yet sprung my own unwelcome surprise on the pirate. My Courier was not only armed with two burst lasers, but also had a Class 2 Manticore Cannon on a gimballed mounting on its belly hardpoint. Under normal circumstances, I would wait until the shields of my target had fully collapsed before using it on a target, as its ammunition supply was limited. I had already shot 22 of my full combat load of 105 rounds during the engagements earlier today, so while I was not exactly running short on ammo, I still did not want to use the cannon profligately. The uranium-tipped sabot rounds the cannon fired were expensive, each one costing as much as a day's docking fee. However, the Viper's pilot was more capable than his Pilot Federation ranking of Competent suggested, so I wanted to end the battle quickly. One shot from the cannon would be all it would take to destroy his shields. I did not let the frenzied pinging of multi-cannon slugs ricocheting off my shields distract me from lining up the cannon shot. When the alignment of relative velocities between our two ships was perfect, I pressed the secondary trigger on my joystick with my thumb. I watched the uranium-tipped projectile crash through the remains of the Viper's shields, the sabot round piecing the canopy of the Viper. The glass ruptured with an explosive decompression, the shards glittering in the starlight as the gas in the breached cockpit rushed outwards, freezing almost instantly in the vacuum.
“Incoming message, my lord.” ASTRA interjected. “Priority one.”
“For the love of... Can it, ASTRA! Haven't you noticed we're in the middle of a fight to the death here?” I snapped back, irritated. The Viper's hull might have been breached, but the Viper was still mobile and hostile. Depending upon how much the pirate had spent on his RemLok life support system, he still had enough time to make a break for the nearest starport or try and take me down with him.
“My lord, it's Imperial Navy Command.”
“Hold on. I need another minute here.” I fired the cannon again, the projectile ripping through the Viper's armour to puncture its power plant. Orange flame spluttered through the hole in the hull plating. A quick check of the HUD showed that the integrity of the power plant was down to 63%. Two more shots would do it. I loosed a third cannon round, knocking the power plant down to 29%. The cannon's autoloader system whirred as it ejected the spent clip of 5 rounds and retrieved another from the ammo rack below the hardpoint. It would be another few seconds before the cannon would be ready to fire again.
“Comms priorities being overridden.” ASTRA informed me, sounding distressed.
“Lord Roche, this is Command.” The haughty voice of Marquis Durante was the last thing I needed to hear. Especially in the middle of a dogfight.
“Stand by, Command. A little busy here.” I snapped back, trying to ignore the distraction. The Viper pilot knew that there was little chance of him winning our battle. He was running out of air and power, and I could easily outmanoeuvre his wounded vessel. Now increasingly desperate, the pirate disengaged their g-limiters and pulled one of the tightest Immelmann turns I had ever seen to come about, twisting to invert their ship simultaneously though a half-loop and engaging his afterburners, intent on ramming my ship.
“Full power to engines.” I reversed my throttle and engaged my vertical and lateral thrusters at full burn, barely avoiding a collision with the incoming Viper by a matter of centimetres. As the Viper turned for another pass, I rolled my ship and boosted away in a long, broad arc, engaging my dorsal thrusters to widen the radius of my turn. The Viper barrelled in straight towards me, afterburners blazing, but the tracking on my gimballed weapons was faster. My burst lasers, now fully recharged, flared again and I sealed the pirate's fate with a final cannon round. The containment vessel surrounding the power plant of the Viper ruptured, the resulting explosion twisting and ripping apart the hull as if it were no more sturdy than aluminium foil. The yellow flames were quickly snuffed out by the vacuum, leaving only the charred, distorted hulk of the fighter behind. The HUD flashed, showing that I had been awarded with the Jet Corp pilot's 55,940 credit bounty.
“Marquis Durante, my apologies for keeping you waiting.” I greeted my Naval Controller with the courtesy his rank was due. The fact I couldn't abide the man was immaterial. Protocol had to be observed. “I just had to finish dealing with some pirate scum.”
“Indeed, Lord Roche. I have been monitoring your progress. Regrettably, I must cut short your mission in Fotla.”
“Why, your grace?” I asked, worried. The Navy had never interrupted one of my assignments before.
“It is not your concern at this time, Lord Roche. You have carried out your instructions admirably to this point and you will be fully compensated for the mission.” Durante avoided answering my question directly, which worried me even more. “Report immediately to Adams Orbital. Governor Torval will brief you on your new assignment. Command out.”
I shifted my weight uneasily in my seat. It had been nearly a year since I had last seen Laure Torval, Governor of the Beta-1 Tucanae system. A woman with powerful family connections, who had granted me her patronage. A woman who had given me both my ship and my first mission with the Imperial Navy. A woman I had once been indentured to as an Imperial Slave for fifteen years.
“ASTRA, new course. Beta-1 Tucanae.” I said, swallowing with trepidation. “It's time to go home.”