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The Tarsus had sat on the launchpad of the mining base for nearly a month by the time I had arrived to claim her. I took the time to look her over properly, I had served on several freighters in my time, I knew what I was looking for. I had to ask myself what I was doing in the end. I seemed to have fallen so far since my Confed days.
I had served in the Terran Confederation Navy in the early days, the time when the Tiger's Claw was the flagship of the TCN. It had been a terrible loss when that carrier had been destroyed and many of us pilots had lost a little heart. I had been flying Hornets and Rapiers off the smaller carriers stationed near the Vega lines but after my tour was up I left. To this day I am not really sure why, it just felt right at the time. Several of us did the same thing, and with the war still going reasonably well, the Confeds didn't really care much. They knew they could always call us back into service if things got tight. They never did, although here in Gemini it always looked like they could use a helping hand.
I had tried to settle down back home, I admit that much. I guess the lure of deep space and jump engines was too much in the end. I hired onto several ships as pilot, freight handler, what ever I could get. There wasn't much call for fighter jocks unless you were interested in a little piracy or the eradication thereof. I couldn't see myself taking out Terran merchants after my days in Confed, and as for the militia, well life as a glorified security guard didn't appeal much either. I had just followed the path of least resistance for a while.
So, eventually my uncle dies (may he rest) and leaves me his ship. I had always liked my uncle and I was sorry for his passing, but the idea of a ship made me feel a little better. I had been toying with the idea of striking out on my own for a while now, and I figured here was my chance. That was, until I saw the ship.
I had blown most of my savings just getting here. I had two thousand credits in my pocket when I took delivery of the ship, and I could see that it would take a lot more than that to get her into any shape capable of surviving in Gemini. Don't get me wrong, she was space worthy enough, it's just that there were a lot of dangers out in space, and all of them out gunned this ship right now.
The Tarsus was an obsolete model of scout ships used by the TCN from the days before the war began. It could carry some armaments, but it was really designed for going places, not combat. It had a good cargo area, but the engine capacity was designed to power the engines, not shields and weapons. The standard Confed fitout was quite nice, comfortable for long hauls which is why the Tarsus was still in service among the civilian merchants. They could be fitted out reasonably well for Gemini - for a price.
This one had clearly seen better days. Most of the Confed fitout was gone. The ship had minimal engines and shields, no jump drive, nav maps for the local quadrant only (not that it mattered with no jump drive) and a single laser. This was going to be fun.
The Humboldt Quadrant looked like it had a little flexibility in it for trading. At least, that was the impression I got from the peek at the only nav map I had. The Troy system had some possibilities in it. My uncle had eked a living out of ferrying food and so forth from Helen to Achilles. The farming planet within the system produced enough food for both mining bases in system and there was some money to be made trading between the bases and the planet Helen, but not much.
My uncle had just completed a run to Achilles mining base with some food and had been in the local bar enjoying himself when the heart attack took him. He was a rarity I was told. Most traders in Gemini were dying in space these days, between the pirates and Retros there was a lot of unfriendly fire out there. My uncle dying of natural causes on the base was seen as a sign of good luck by the miners, and they all hoped I would carry on the family's flying traditions.
Yeah, I carried the piloting gene just like my uncle but I had never flown anything so under resourced before. The money my uncle had made on the last run was pretty much taken up with pad fees and legal bills, funeral costs and the like. I was going to grow up as a pilot real fast out here.
The executor had been standing patiently as I inspected the ship. As I climbed back out he asked if everything was in order. I nodded and put my thumb print on the final documents and watched him walk away. It was the last I ever saw of him. I believe that he worked out of New Detroit, at least that was where he had mentioned he was headed next. The name had not appeared in my nav map, but I kept it in mind for a visit one day. The man was dressed a little too well for the planet not to have any real trading significance. I realised that my instincts had been honed by all those trips as a hired hand on the trading ships. The captains had been people the Confeds would never have wanted, but who had known a lot more about sizing up dangerous situations than most of the military pilots with whom I had flown. I had taken the opportunity to learn as much as I could from them while I had the chance.
Right then all my experience had lead me to a dilemma. Should I leave Achilles and head for Helen as is, or risk spending my money on an upgrade and some commodities, and hope like hell they were in demand on Helen? I had no idea, but I knew that if I met trouble on the first flight it would cost me dearly. I decided to sleep on it for at least a night. The mining base had a bar which would be a good place to hang out for a while, maybe get some info from the locals.
Fortunately for me it was an easy night in the bar, and the bartender told me why. They had been attacked recently, and there had been some instability problems on the asteroid ever since. The miners were working overtime trying to stabilise the base. It was one of the hazards of building into an asteroid like this I realised. The bartender had time on his hands with the bar nearly empty and he didn't mind talking, so I spent most of my time that night listening. It was time well spent.
I didn't take long to realise that the bartenders for these colonies were an invaluable source of information. It made sense, they got a lot of traders in and overheard a lot of conversations. They had local knowledge and access to some information that you didn't hear in the newscasts. This guy told me quite a lot about life on the mining bases. I could see that they were dependent on traders for the necessities, but life also got boring out here. There was money to be made if you could get your hands on entertainments of any kind. I imagined that the drug trade would be quite lucrative as well, but we didn't discuss it. I was in no hurry to get into bed with the types that ran that industry, especially with a ship like mine.
The real news came after I had bemoaned the life of hauling trade stuffs around the system and trying to sell them again. He actually laughed. Hadn't I seen the mission computers out in the main concourse? I had in fact, but as I had never seen one before I had no idea what it was. It looked like a different type of ATM, but it was a gold mine to merchants and hunters, or at least so he said.
Often people had cargo they wanted shipped from place to place and would hire people with ships to take it there for them. Bases under attack were always advertising for people to help join in the fight, there were patrols, bounties, lots of different missions that paid well for the work involved. He told me I should check it out before I left for Helen, sometimes there were some real peaches in there for the taking. I didn't doubt it, this was a sector full of opportunities from what I could see. I thanked him and went to bed inside the ship, dreaming of the days ahead.
I woke up early the next day, ate something and prepared myself for a quick tour of the business areas of the base. A quick scan told me there was a commodities exchange, a ship dealer and a mission computer within walking distance of each other. This didn't surprise me on a rock this size. They would need all these facilities but space would be at a premium. My first stop was to the mission computer. I dug out my uncle's trading licence when the computer asked me for id. I would get mine updated soon enough but for now this would suffice. The computer clearly agreed with me and displayed the six missions currently up for grabs.
Three were transport missions to New Detroit. Oh for a jump drive I thought. I passed them over and continued scanning. I left the two patrols, they were high priced and involved hitting lots of nav points by myself. Yeah, right, like my ship was invincible. The last one piqued my interest. Helen had intelligence of a pirate raid and was hiring a small fleet of ships to help defend the planet. I thought about it. The pay looked good, a little over four thousand credits. A few had already signed on, so at least I would not be heavily out numbered. I breathed deeply and hit the accept button. I heard some activity in my Uncle's personal computer and looked down. The terminal was automatically downloading the details to it. Cute, I thought.
My next stop was to the Commodities Exchange. I had decided that if I was going to earn a little money on the way, I could risk a little of my stash in a trading game. I ended up buying some Iron. I figured that farming communities could use a little raw material for their equipment repair shops. I hoped I was right. After I made the purchase I was told that the materials would be loaded onto my ship at once. I had kept a little in reserve for the transport and when I pulled it out the commodities broker held up a hand.
"Oh no, Captain. That is covered as part of your landing fees." I smiled and put the money back. It was a lucky break and I decided that I would see if I could put the money to good use.
The Ship Dealer smiled as I walked in. I noticed some nice ships on the lot, despite the remote location of the base. I asked the dealer about this and he smiled. "You must be new to Gemini, Captain. We are part of a small franchise that operates in Gemini, we have dealerships in most places in the sector. We have used our buying power to stock three major models of ships and we keep at least one of each in every site."
This was the second person to call me Captain within the hour, and I must admit that I was beginning to like it. I looked over the ships on the lot and I could see that each had a specialisation that made it useful in Gemini. The Galaxy was clearly for cargo haulage. With the expansion, it could haul as much as a Drayman but it had better shields and gun options. Whoever had chosen this model over the Drayman was a sensible person. The Orion was clearly a tank, a heavy ship with power for heavy guns. It could also handle some cargo, but it was designed as a ship for hunters who preferred firepower and shields over manoeuvrability.
The Centurion was the real surprise. I was surprised that Confed didn't have their hands on a few of these. It was a heavy fighter with a range of fitout options and even a rear turret. I checked the price on her and whistled low. This was a nice ship, but the price tag was going to keep them few and far between. The dealer noticed my interest but I shook my head sadly when he asked if I could buy one. He shrugged, telling me to come back when I could. I finally asked about what I was there for, and he lead me out the back. There was the maintenance facility, where I could buy all the components I needed.
I looked through the options. Realistically, all I could afford right now was another laser. I made the purchase and the dealer ran off to have it fitted then and there. These folks were obliging, I thought. Maybe they had to be to keep the traders in Gemini.
I was now as prepared as I was ever likely to be for my first venture in the Gemini Sector. I hung around the base for a few hours, waiting for the equipment to be fitted and the cargo loaded. When I finally headed for the ship, all the work was complete. I checked over the new gun mounted on my ship, it was a good job, worthy of some of the Confed engineers.
I entered the ship and preformed the preflight checks. Everything looked fine. The scanner was a low end unit but it would suffice for now. There was none of the colour coding I had expected from my days on the Confed fighters. In a crowded fight I would have to make sure of my target I realised. Too poor to fix it, I fired up the engines and got clearance for launch. Minutes later I was speeding from the base and in open territory.
One thing that I was glad about was that Troy was free of asteroid fields. I could remember all those patrols through asteroid fields in my naval days and I shuddered to think of taking this ship through such a field, let alone combat inside one. I needed time to become familiar with the ship, and there were no unfriendly people outside the base at the moment so I tried a few manoeuvres to get the feel. The first thing I did was crank the set speed to maximum and the second was activate the guns. This didn't seem to upset anyone so I eased back in the pilot seat for a while and looked around me.
There were several Militia talons and a freighter or two around me. As I launched from the base I got some very wary messages over the comms, especially if I got close. I decided that it was time to try making allies out there. I sent several friendly messages in response but didn't manage to strike any great alliances out there. I figured it was best to give it time. I was an unfamiliar ship and captain at the moment, I had changed the transponder code on the Tarsus to my own and it would take time for people to get to know me out here. Fair enough. I called up the nav computer and set in a course for Helen. The course laid in for me automatically and soon the autopilot signal lit up. I hit the activation switch and slumped back in the chair as the computer took care of the rest.
I was still in the cockpit when the autopilot started buzzing. We were in range of the destination. I deactivated it and took over the controls. In the distance was the planet Helen, and buzzing around it was a small fleet of ships engaged in desperate battle. I had arrived in time.
I scanned through the targets in the area. There was no way I could tell immediately which ships were friendly but I took a chance. Most of the ships were Demons, which were usually hunter ships. Probably professional mercenaries. The three talons were likely the pirates that we were after. If they were Militia I was in trouble, but without the colour coding on the scanner I was going to have to take a chance. The ships were getting much closer.
The nearest talon broke off its current target and started firing at me. No doubt anymore. I ducked and weaved, managing to come up behind it and I opened fire with the lasers. I have to admit, I have never liked those things. They may have range, but they are a weak weapon. After a full volley of direct hits I hadn't managed to take out its shields and talons were not the heaviest of ships by any stretch. I cursed silently and settled down for a long fight.
I was thankful that the pilot was clearly not ex-military. I managed to stay on his tail, plugging away at him. Eventually the shields wore down enough for me to start doing some real damage. I had not kept my eye on the other ships but there were more hunters than pirates so I figured they would be kept occupied. I kept my scanner on his ship and I noticed that his tail was finally showing red. He was in trouble. He had slowed down and his manoeuvres were much less difficult to track now. I fired several more volleys into his tail pipe and was rewarded with a curse over the comms just before he blew. I ducked neatly around the wreckage, narrowly avoiding the missile that had been fired at me from behind.
Both remaining talons were now going for me. I did a quick count on the scanner, there were still three Demons out there, coming at us from behind the pirates, but two of them were badly damaged. This was now much closer a contest. It was clear that the pirates saw me as a weak target or at least one that might yield some cargo. They were hoping for a quick kill and departure.
I locked onto one and noticed that it too was badly damaged. Its shields had regenerated but once I was through them, it would be an easy kill. I swung out of its firing line and tried to duck in behind it. He saw what I was trying to do, and started ducking around himself. I soon found that this worked to my favour. I was a slightly better pilot, even in the Tarsus. While we were spinning around, the other pilot was having difficulty establishing a lock on me.
Soon I was behind my target letting go with a volley of blasts. I felt my own shields rock as the second pirate opened fire on me, finally getting a clear shot. He had made a fundamental mistake, forgetting about the three demons coming after him. They managed to take him out before my shields reached critical, leaving the single pirate in my sights. The Demons held back as I finished him off, receiving some threats over the comms for my trouble. The fight was over.
I thanked the hunters over the comms for their help. Their responses were reserved, but I was beginning to think I might be getting through. People responded most to fighting along side each other in this sort of sector and I suspected that I had made a small impression. My First.
I headed down to the planet and waited for the ALS to kick in. Before long the planet had scanned me and locked on to my computers. I eased back in the chair, leaving the flying to Planetary Control.
Ag planets were places where settlers and colonists set about the hard work of feeding a massive population base surrounding them. Life was hard on these planets, but they had one crucial advantage over the mining bases and refineries - open space. Their cities were domed of course, the atmosphere on most places was not perfect for human life, but it was sufficient for short to medium term survival. The farms were mostly automated, meaning that they needed a large amount of processed goods to keep things running. After I had landed It simply felt good to stand in real gravity on Helen and look up at a sun that told me the time of the day rather than where I was. The feeling didn't last long. I'm a space jock after all. I guess I just need to feel the earth under my feet every so often so I remember why I'm up there flying between planets.
I looked at my personal computer and realised that several things had happened automatically on landing. The good news was that I had already been paid for my services in defending Helen. The bad news was that the base command had already docked me for the landing fees. I wondered briefly what would have happened if I had not kept a few credits aside.
I wandered into the base, deciding to take care of business first. At the commodities exchange I sold the iron for a very small profit. It was barely enough to cover the landing fees but I had come to realise that in this game any profit is a good profit. I had noticed on my way in that they didn't have a ship dealer on site. My guess was that with one on each of the mining bases in the system a third was considered overkill. What that meant was that I had the money from my mission and the money from the sale of my iron to spend filling up my cargo hold. After I had filled it up with processed food and grain, there was precious little left for anything else. If I was going to upgrade again anytime soon, I was going to have to risk some more missions.
On leaving the exchange, I pondered over the idea of missions. My ship was not really up to much at the moment, I felt it was probably better to show a little patience. Curiosity got to me though, and soon enough I was at the mission computer checking what was on offer.
There wasn't much that held my interest. Cargo runs were out of the question at the moment, no-one needed in-system runs. Patrols were just too risky as well, I was just as likely not to come back. Shrugging, I logged out and headed to the bar.
It was three weeks before another mission that I thought I could handle came up. In that time I had slowly built my stake and I was now filling my hold each trip, even from the mining bases. I had even managed to buy some afterburners for the Tarsus. They had saved my bacon at least once since they had been fitted. I found out the hard way that repairing damage from attacks could get quite expensive so I was learning how to keep out of the fray as much as possible.
The mission computer at Helen mentioned that there was another advance warning of attack against Hector base. I was already headed that way so I decided to take it. They were paying nearly seven thousand credits! I thought they must be desperate. I hoped that I wasn't biting off more than I could chew.
Loaded with foodstuffs, I took off several hours later and programmed my nav computer for the trip to Hector. I hit the auto pilot as soon as I could and left the ship to do what it did best.
The autopilot dropped me out to manual flight about half way to Hector. At first I could not see why it would not re-engage. My heart started to sink with the thought that I would be up for another expensive repair bill until I saw the grey blips on my radar.
I looked out the cockpit windows in the direction that was indicated by the radar and saw several ships off my starboard flank. I quickly scanned through the targets. A Drayman and two talons. Any hope that the talons were a militia patrol faded as I saw the flashes of energy fire being exchanged between them and the Drayman. That made them either pirates or Retros, and either were the enemy. I strapped myself into the seat and charged the guns. It was time to get busy.
As I started my approach on the group I got the message from the Drayman. It was in trouble. Those damn ships had been cannon fodder for pirates when I was still hiring on merchant vessels, I was surprised that they were still used. In a fight they actually made the Tarsus look good. I locked onto the nearest talon and opened up with my lasers.
It put up surprisingly little resistance. In less than a minute it was another cloud of debris in space, much to the amazement of the retro pilot who had cursed me to some rather unfortunate places when I die. I have to admit, I didn't take the curse very seriously. I'd heard it several times before. The second retro was lining up for another pass at the Drayman. One look told me that the merchant was as good as dead if the retro opened up on him. I threw open my comms link and let rip with a burst anti-retro sentiment, all of which carried my genuine earnestness right then. It had the desired effect. The retro forgot all about the Drayman and lined me up, responding with the threat that I was about to die by the weapons I adored or something like that. Most of what Retros have said to me starts to sound the same after a while. They are hardly the universe's most original orators. Fortunately, this one was as consistent with the order as ever and was rapidly closing on me.
One thing I can say about Retros, they have never been good pilots. I guess that people with an innate fear of technology don't tend to push the envelope much. One on one, this pilot manoeuvred his ship with a lack of skill that put it on the same level as my Tarsus being flown to the very edge. The main difference between us was he had mesons, I was still running with lasers. And I was the bigger target.
We danced around each other for nearly five minutes, wearing down each other's shields and trying for the kill. We could have easily been there for hours. Neither of us wanted to die out there. It wasn't until the missile hit his tail pipe that I realised that both he and I had forgotten completely about the Drayman.
He had been sitting back, letting the auto-repair system patch him up some. His shields were back to full strength, which was good because his armour was all but gone. The missile he fired off must have been one he was holding in reserve, and when it struck the talon I took full advantage by following up with a full blast of laser fire into his rear. A final curse, and I saw the talon disintegrate in front of my eyes.
I eased back in the chair, grateful that the battle was over. As I lay there I noticed the autopilot light flick back on. If I didn't hurry I was likely to miss the battle outside Hector but there was one thing left to do here. I opened my comms channel once more.
For the first time, the merchant responded in a friendly manner. I think he realised that I had saved him, and between that and assuring him that his cargo was safe with me it had tipped the balance. He assured me that he would spread the word amongst the Merchant's Guild that I was okay.
Merchant's Guild? I had never heard of that. I made a mental note to look into that group in the future. In the meantime, I had a battle to join. I checked over the damage to the ship. I looked fine at the moment with the possible exception of some overheating in one of the lasers. Damn things were always going, trying to wear the enemy down. I needed better guns. I thought about the possibilities as I hit the autopilot and settled back.
By the time I switched back to manual control I found myself in the middle of a very large firefight. There were flashes going off all around me and there were ships from nearly every faction in the fray, including Militia. This was going to be fun, I thought wryly. I picked a target and locked. Making sure that it was a talon, I keyed open my comm channel to it. Before I had said a word I noticed it was a militia pilot, the comms channel was unmistakable. I was glad I checked.
The next talon I targeted was hammering a Galaxy merchant vessel. Bad guy. I gunned for him and opened up with everything I had. I had noticed that the galaxy was holding its own so I didn't bully this guy. I let him take on the galaxy while I pounded at his rear. Eventually he broke off but by then it was too late. His rear shields were gone and as he turned away the top turret on the galaxy opened up with a tachyon cannon. The purple energy bolt struck the tail pipe of the talon dead centre, causing the ship to disappear in a bright explosion. They looked like a nice ship, I thought to myself. Back to the battle. Time to pick another target.
As it turned out, the two fleets had been pretty evenly matched in firepower and skill before I had arrived. They had not needed much to tip the balance, and the Tarsus in conjunction with the quick removal of one of the pirates had been enough. By the time I locked onto the next pirate I could see he was in bad shape, I finished him off quickly and the rest of the battle was cleaned up inside twenty minutes. The militia were quick to open comms and thank me for my efforts. I noticed that the fighter from which the message had come from was in pretty bad shape, he had only just made it through.
I looked around for the galaxy that had taken out the pirate as I had first arrived and engaged in the battle, he was still there as well. The final casualty list had been seven confirmed pirate kills, and one merchant, one militia ship destroyed. It could have easily been a lot worse.
In any case, I had seen enough combat for one day. I headed into Hector base, thankful that both my ship and my hide were in one piece. As the ALS kicked in I eased back in the chair, thinking about the drinking I was going to do that night in the bar. I just hoped the bartender was in a talkative mood.
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