Synteini: Deep Space
After nearly a week of preparation, it was finally time. It had taken half a day for me to recover from the hangover of sharing the bottle of Lavian Brandy with Suzie, but that wasn't nearly so bad as the other aches and pains in my muscles and joints that my night with the Pirate Queen had left me with. I felt like I'd been mauled by a Leestian Wildcat, though I vaguely recalled enjoying the experience immeasurably at the time. She had already skipped the system by the time I woke up the next day, leaving behind only a short, handwritten message.
Thanks for a diverting evening.
We had kept in touch via Thunda's hyperwave text network, Suzie keeping me up to date with her crew's infiltration of Adams Orbital, while I spent the time getting my ship refitted for the bombing run on Zemina's ranch and estate. Due to their reduced effective range, lasers were a poor choice for atmospheric combat, especially if there was any chance of bad weather, so I replaced Fell From The Top(...)'s weapons with something more appropriate for air-to-air combat. Two multi-cannon turrets now occupied the Class 3 wingtip hardpoints. The immense, five-barrelled weapons were capable of independently tracking different targets and they fired 120mm depleted uranium-tipped sabots able to shred the armour of an Imperial Cutter in seconds. I had opted for turrets rather than gimballed weapons as deep in the atmosphere of Synteini A2, I would want to take the fastest, most direct route in and out of the restricted airspace around Calliope. The Imperial Clipper wasn't designed for tight atmospheric manoeuvring, so I would need turrets to keep any potential defence forces off my tail. On the Class 2 underwing hardpoints I had briefly considered opting for a pair of Plasma Accelerators, just in case the Senator had any large ships defending her property, but Suzie's contacts in Synteini had reported that Zemina only used Imperial Fighters to secure the airspace surrounding her ranch. In the end, I decided to compromise, choosing to mount one gimballed multi-cannon on one of the Class 2 hardpoints and a rack of 24 heat-seeking missiles on the other. As a further precaution, I swapped out one of the shield booster modules for a point defence turret, just in case I encountered a SysSec ship with their own missile rack.
With my own preparations complete, I had jumped into Synteini two days before we were scheduled to start the hostile takeover at Adams Orbital, dropping immediately out of supercruise into realspace, where my ship was practically undetectable, skirting the fringes of Synteini A's corona. I waited, napping fitfully on the flight deck, waiting for the go ahead message from the Pirate Queen that would commence the operation.
I had to admit that I was impressed with Thunda Sue's organisation. As well as steadily building up her presence in Adams Orbital over the past five days - she now had thirty-six ships and their crews on site, crews that had used the last 48 hours to learn the layout of the station intimately - Thunda also had five ships in Synteini; two to keep watch on the movements of INV Duval's Might, the Interdictor cruiser standing guard outside Lagerkvist Station, and a wing of three ships patrolling in supercruise to monitor the activity of the local SysSec patrols. The arrival of so many of Suzie's ships in Adams Orbital hadn't gone unnoticed (it had even been reported on GalNet), but while they weren't breaking the law, all the local SysSec could do was increase the number of patrols in the system. They probably had no idea that Suzie's real target was the Coriolis station itself. Not that she would risk being on Adams Orbital itself during the takeover - she was far too savvy for that - the Pirate Queen would coordinate the operation from the relative safety of her Federal Corvette in the neighbouring system of Jotunheim. Eventually, the signal from Ramirez came.
Here we go. Good luck, everyone. Remember your targets.
Within minutes, confirmations began to come through as Suzie's crew assumed control of Adams Orbital's key systems, one by one.
Traffic control secure.
Defence grid secure.
Shipyard and outfitting secure.
Commodities market secure.
Life support secure.
Comms system secure.
Reactor control secure.
Good job everyone. Suzie responded. Now the fun begins. Prioritise the Imperial Cutters, Clippers and Type-9s. I want them all, preferably full of platinum and palladium. Failing that, pack 'em with high tech goods. Kit them out, too. A-spec the lot. Senator Torval's paying the bill. You've got one hour before I tell GalNet that the station is mine.
"Quick work." I said, flexing my fingers. It wouldn't be long now before I got the all clear to commence my run to Synteini A2. Forty minutes later the first messages started to come through that the crews on Adams Orbital were beginning to launch in their stolen ships.
Cutter #1, launching now. Eight more are right behind me.
Any sign of movement from that Interdictor yet? Suzie asked.
Not yet. It's holding station 30 klicks from the Coriolis. the Cutter pilot replied. I don't think they've figured out we've flipped the station.
They'll figure it out soon enough. Get your ships and cargoes clear before the plasma really starts to hit the fan.
After another quarter of an hour, Thunda's crew had liberated nine Imperial Cutters, seven Type-9 Heavy freighters and twelve Imperial Clippers, spiriting them out of the system before anyone had realised that the Empire was no longer in control of the station. The remaining eight teams Suzie had on the station were the real thrill-seekers, the ones after extreme hazard pay. Now that her payday had been secured, Suzie was about to poke Zemina's pride with a very sharp stick.
Get ready, gentlemen. I just leaked the news to GalNet. Expect some very hot company.
Looking forward to it, Thunda. We're all warmed up and raring to go.
Don't push it too long. Remember the exit plan. You can't get paid if you're dead. Suzie reminded them.
I had ASTRA bring up the GalNet feed on the HUD.
Breaking News: Audacious heist by Thunda Crew in progress at Beta-1 Tucanae
Accompanying the rolling text was a video of Thunda Sue sitting in the command chair of her Federal Corvette.
"Hi, I've got a message for Senator Zemina Torval. I've just stolen somewhere between four and five billion credits from you in ships, equipment and cargo. And your fabulously effective SysSec forces didn't even lift a finger to stop me. Adams Orbital is my station now. If you want it back, come and get it." Suzie signed off by blowing a kiss to the camera.
"Oh, wow. ZING!" I laughed out loud. "Talk about stirring up the hornet's nest."
Heads up. The Interdictor at Lagerkvist just jumped out. reported one of Suzie's pilots docked at the station.
Synteini is clear. All the SysSec just mysteriously disappeared. the lead commander of the supercruise patrol wing added.
Now's your chance, Roche. Go nuke the wicked witch's house and we can all get out of here.
Spooling up my FSD now. Thanks, Suzie. Good luck with those Interdictors.
"Frame shift drive charging." ASTRA intoned as I pointed the ship's nose away from the star and towards the Earth-like planet only 122 light seconds away. "Activating in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... engage."
I checked my radar and saw only four contacts, the patrol wing of three pirates flying interference to occupy any rogue SysSec ships, and a lone vessel close to Lagerkvist Station. I selected it on my contact list, identifying the ship as a Vulture heavy fighter. I recognised the commander's name - Vikki Lyell - it was one of the pirates Suzie had tasked to keep watch of activity in the starport. I didn't recall it being part of the plan that she should exit the station, but with a clear run at the planet, I put any doubts at the back of my mind. It would only take me a couple of minutes to reach the planet's atmosphere and then I'd have more than enough to keep my brain occupied. I kept one eye on the messages coming in from Beta-1 Tucanae, wondering how long Suzie's people would be able to hold the station. She had also been cryptic about how she would get the last of her people out of the starport, by which point we anticipated that the surrounding space would be seething with Interdictors, Imperial Fighters and SysSec ships.
I think the captain of the Interdictor just woke up. We've got incoming.
Defence grid is hot. Those fighters don't stand a chance.
The Interdictor is on the move, too. Closing in.
If it gets too close, we'll give it a bloody nose.
Synteini A2 filled my canopy and I used the coastlines to orient myself, selecting Calliope from the list of points of interest on my navigation computer. The Senator's ranch was just over the horizon. I didn't want to breach the restricted airspace too soon, opting instead to start my approach from a few hundred kilometres away. I checked for radar contacts and saw that the space before me was still clear. Again I noticed the pirate Vulture, this time she was following me closely, only a few dozen kilometres off my tail. This was definitely not part of the plan. I checked the pirate commander's combat rating. Lyell was only ranked Novice, but the Vulture was a capable ship. I decided to open a direct ship-to-ship text channel.
Hi. What are you doing back there?
Greetings, Roche. Nasr is keeping watch up on the station, so I'm not needed up there. Thought you might appreciate a little backup.
Looking for some action, huh?
Always. Besides, Thunda told me you really know how to treat a lady. I'll help keep the fighters off your back if you buy me dinner. Sound like a good deal to you?
Deal. Just mind who you shoot at.
Hey, I'm not some greenhorn, you know. I've got a few hundred kills. I know what I'm doing.
Okay, Lyell. Fine. Form up on my right wing and stay close.
Roger that, commander. And it's Vikki.
We dropped out of orbital cruise two hundred and fifty kilometres from Calliope, well outside of the restricted zone around the estate.
Bring it down to the deck. 100 metres. I instructed my wingmate.
Under the radar. Clever.
As I closed on my target, the messages still filtered through from Adams Orbital, where events had started to escalate wildly.
Two more Interdictors just jumped in. That's four now. We're not going to be able to keep them at bay for long.
Multiple wings of SysSec on approach. If they rush the letterbox en mass, some of them might get through.
Defence grid is starting to take damage. I've lost fire control on three guns. No, make that five.
I think it's time for you to start thinking of getting out of there. Suzie interjected, worried about her people. Roche, how are you doing?
I'll be done in about five minutes. On final approach now.
You heard him, boys. Time for you to go.
Aye, aye, Thunda. Disabling the safeties on the main reactor now. It'll go supercritical in 10 minutes.
Good job, boys. Sound the evac alarm and get to your ships. See you back at base.
"So that's how they planned to get out. Hide the wolves amongst the sheep. Odysseus himself would be proud." I muttered to myself, shaking my head in wonder. In the chaos of the evacuation, the mass exodus of ships from the station would allow the remaining pirates to hide in plain sight and flee the doomed station. The SysSec forces wouldn't dare risk accidentally shooting down innocent traders by mistake. It was a brilliant conclusion to a flawlessly executed heist. There would be a lot of happily drunk pirates back at Thunda's base before the night was out.
"Entering the no-fly zone now. Distance to target: 100 kilometres." ASTRA reported, refocusing me on the present.
We're getting close now, Vikki. Stay sharp.
Like a razor.
I glanced over at the Vulture on my right wing, watching as the fighter deployed hardpoints. I certainly couldn't fault her spirit, or her choice of weapons. Two Class 3 gimballed multi-cannons settled into position over the mandibles bracing the Vulture's cockpit. I activated my own weapons systems, the turrets on my wingtips swivelling into position. It was then that an unexpected radio message came through.
"Roche, what have you done?" Senator Zemina Torval's voice tore at me like a knife. "The debacle at Adams Orbital is your work, I presume? And why are you trespassing on my estate?"
"Ah, Senator. A pleasure as always. I'm just making a delivery. A thermonuclear delivery."
"Roche, you can't!" For the first time in my experience, Zemina's calm veneer of superiority seemed to crack. "I have over three hundred people working on the estate!"
"Maybe you should have thought about that before you had the two people closest to me killed."
"I swear you'll never be able to show your face in a civilised system again. I'm going to destroy you, Roche."
"Sorry, Senator, but I'm a little busy here. I'm going to miss our chats." I cut the channel and noted the distance remaining to my target. 80 kilometres.
Let's get a little altitude, Vikki. See what we're up against. 3000 metres.
I engaged my afterburners and ventral thrusters, my Imperial Clipper climbing sluggishly into the sky. The Vulture matched my manoeuvre easily, glued thirty metres from my right wingtip.
New sensor contacts. I make twelve of them, Roche. Looks like they're all Imperial Fighters.
Targets marked. I'll start at #1, you start at #12 and hopefully we'll meet somewhere in the middle.
The tiny, rapier-thin fighters were fast and agile, but were little more than a cockpit attached to a set of thrusters, with twin plasma pulse cannons mounted beneath the nose and a pair of streamlined thruster pods at the end of a fragile-looking set of delta wings. Individually, they weren't a threat to my Clipper or Lyell's Vulture, but I wanted to thin out the squadron before they got too close. I felt my heart rate start to increase as I armed my rack of heat-seeking missiles, the adrenalin beginning to pump through my arteries.
Our combined closing speed was nearly 700m/s, so I knew I'd only have the opportunity to launch an initial salvo of six missiles from the rack before the fighters got in behind us, then I would have to hope that my turrets finished the job before my shields failed. I locked on to the first fighter and began launching missiles as soon as I was in range. Just three seconds later, the rack purred as it reloaded, the vapour trails from the missiles diverging as they closed in on the scattering Imperial Fighters. The sky lit up with pulse cannon fire, just three kilometres separating my wing from Zemina's defence force. I returned fire with my turrets and my gimballed multi-cannon, feeling their recoil through the base of my flight seat. I quick glance to my right showed me that Vikki had also brought her weapons to bear on the second half of the fighter squadron, but I redirected my attention back to my own targets, rather than worry about my wingmate. Five of the six missiles found their victims, turning four of the fighters into showers of flaming debris, while the fifth was luckier. The fighter's starport wing pod crumbled, sending the tiny craft into a violent spin. The Imperial pilot just managed to regain control before their ship ploughed into the surface of the savannah below. Two seconds later, the Vulture and my Clipper whipped past the Imperial squadron on full afterburners, buying us some distance while the fighters regrouped. I checked my scanner, surprised to see only four enemy contacts, including the wounded fighter now limping away from the combat zone, remained.
Did you see that, Roche? Chalk up three kills for me!
Don't get too excited, there's still four more of them out there.
Three and a half, more like. Want me to take the half?
No, stay in formation. He'll never catch us now.
But the other guys behind us?
That's why I brought turrets. Keep it tight and we'll be fine.
"ASTRA, the turrets are yours, fire at will." I ordered my AI, keeping my eye on the horizon, knowing that the Calliope mansion would be in sight in just over a minute.
"Yes, my lord. Approaching target area. Drop point in 90 seconds."
I concentrated on the HUD, gaining more altitude to ensure a clean release for the cargo canister containing the four fusion warheads. I was so focused that I didn't even hear the rapid, thudding reports from my multi-cannon turrets as plasma bolts flashed past the canopy.
Taking fire. Shields down to 60%.
Hang on, Vikki. We're almost there.
"Target destroyed." ASTRA reported, the turret fire having finally started to make its mark.
Shields at 40%. Another 10 and I'm going evasive.
No! Wait. Stay tight. Don't let them split us up.
"Target destroyed. 40 seconds to drop point." ASTRA said as another Imperial Fighter went down, its cockpit shattered and burning. Outnumbered and outgunned, the last fighter broke off its attack, retreating out of the range of my turrets.
He's disengaging! I don't believe it!
Okay, Vikki. You've done well, but now's the time for you to get clear. Go for orbit now.
See you up there. You still owe me dinner.
The Vulture lit its afterburners, climbing ballistically like a rocket, racing up into the cloudless blue sky. I started to shed velocity as I saw Calliope come into view over the crest of the hill. The mansion was superficially similar to Eurynome, except much larger, each wing of the house was double the length of my own neo-Palladian house. Inside were thousands of priceless artworks and archaeological artefacts, Zemina's pride and joy. I kept my hands steady on the flight controllers as the drop timer ticked steadily down to zero. The aiming reticule on the HUD turned crimson and I jabbed the touchscreen on my right to jettison the only cargo pod aboard my ship. I didn't wait for ASTRA's confirmation of a successful release, I simply pushed the throttle fully forward with my left hand and ignited my afterburners, pitching the nose vertical in a high-g boost turn.
"ASTRA, give me visual on the target."
I was just able to pick out the tumbling cargo pod, plummeting gracelessly to the ground. The pod struck the flat roof of the mansion and the video feed ASTRA had projected onto the HUD turned pure white. A short moment later I felt the Clipper jolt as the shockwave from the blast overtook my vessel.
"Rest in peace, Laure. Rest in peace, Karina." I said, closing my eyes as the sky gradually dulled to blackness as I gained altitude. When I opened them again, the sense of triumph I had expected from my revenge against Zemina hadn't materialised. Instead I felt hollow. It was an empty, Pyrrhic victory, that had cost me my future in the Empire. I pushed away the sensation of loneliness when I remembered that I wasn't out of danger yet. I had to get out of the system and Empire space as fast as possible. A quick check of the scanner revealed that, as promised, Vikki was waiting for me in orbit, her Vulture falling back into formation on my wing.
Nice firework show, Roche. So, what now?
Now we go our separate ways. I need to get out of the Empire.
Oh, no. You promised me dinner. I'm sticking to you like glue until I get it. I expect steak, truffles...
I hope you're ready for a long trip, then. Because I'm not stopping until I reach Alliance space.
I came prepared, Roche. I'm packing a fuel scoop. I even know a good restaurant at Conway City.
LTT 4961. Neutral territory. Probably the safest place for you this side of Sag A* right now.
Okay, Vikki. You win. Let's go.
You know Roche, I think this could be the start of a beautiful partnership.
Ironically, the limited jump range of Lyell's Vulture actually made it easier for us to avoid the security patrols Zemina sent out across her sphere of influence. Instead of taking a direct route out of the Empire, we had to zigzag between independent and uninhabited systems to reach the Empire-Federation border. There things got even more complicated, as I was still the most-wanted fugitive in Federation space, following my strike on the Groombridge 34 shipyards. It took almost two days of frenzied jumping and scooping, skirting around the fringes of Federation space, but eventually we made it without incident to Conway City. As we received cordial permission to dock from the flight traffic controllers, Vikki sent me a final text message.
See you at Fleurie in an hour. Don't forget to dress up.
Exhausted from the journey, I really wasn't in the mood to go out. I showered and changed regardless, removing the medals and rank insignia from the shoulders and breast of my Viscount uniform before slipping on the elaborately embroidered jacket. I arrived a few minutes early and ordered myself an Eranin Pearl Whisky to pass the time. I stared down into the shimmering silver liquid, searching for answers, as I pondered whether I should turn Vikki down gently, or just try and enjoy myself.
I didn't look up when soft footsteps approached my table. "Buy a girl a drink? Though it'll have to be non-alcoholic, I'm afraid."
My mouth fell open as I recognised the voice. My head snapped up and I did a double-take, blinking. The blonde hair styled in a simple, straight chin length bob was unfamiliar, but the pale-blue eyes, high cheekbones and smile were unmistakeable, as was the slight hint of swelling beneath her long, loose blue silk dress. I gaped at her for a minute before my lips were able to articulate words again."H-how?"
"Aemon, close your mouth. You're attracting flies." Laure castigated me playfully, sitting on my lap to let me embrace her. We kissed ferociously, my hands stroking her back, needing to check that she was real.
I stopped to take a breath and held her beautiful face in my hands. "Laure, your ship... I thought you were dead."
"I was careful." Laure smiled back, her arms wrapped tight around my shoulders.
"But they had video of you going on board. They found your DNA in the wreckage. Your... remains."
"Not mine. Silvano's not the only person who can have clones grown on request, you know. Though this one wasn't live. Just... tissue."
"You faked your own death?"
"I've always had the option in mind if I ever needed a Plan B. I sent my ship out on autopilot and hacked the footage from the hangar bay cameras to fool everyone into thinking I was still on board. But I never thought Zemina would have the stones to order me killed. Guess I was wrong about that one."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I'm sorry, Aemon. I couldn't take the risk. Maybe I wanted to see what you'd do, but I couldn't let word that I was alive get back to Zemina, it would have ruined everything."
"How did you know that I'd go for Calliope?"
"My love, I've known you all your life. You're nothing if not utterly predictable. Once I gave you the codes to Adams, I knew there was only one person you'd go to."
"Suzie." I swallowed nervously. "Uh, did she really tell you how I treat a lady?"
"Oh, relax. That was just part of our deal so that she'd let me in on the operation at Synteini. She gave me some tips, actually. We can try them out, later." Laure kissed me, biting my lip.
"Okay, now I'm scared." I replied, with trepidation.
"I love you, you dummy. I'm just glad to have you back again without that interfering old bitch getting in the way."
"So what do we do now? We can't stay here forever, Federation space is out of the question and we'll never be able to go back to the Empire."
"Don't worry, Aemon. I have a plan for that, too." Laure said, pulling me to her so that we could kiss again.