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As soon as the pirate disappeared into a ball of fire in space I felt better. I really didn't know where these guys were coming from. There always seemed to be a ready supply of pilots and ships ready to take up a life of piracy. I had been in Troy now for over three months and I was getting sick of defending myself from this scum.
The last few months had been good to me, I had to admit. A few lucky breaks had given me enough money to buy a cargo expansion for the Tarsus, and I had been surprised at the difference it had made. Intra-system transporting was now turning me a steady profit on top of the odd mission which came up from time to time. I had upgraded my weapons and engine, bought a tractor beam for salvage, and now that this patrol was over I was going to have enough for a jump drive!
I was finding that there were items that were a necessary purchase in the Gemini sector that were well out of my reach for now. I was surprised that my uncle had lasted as long as he had. Still, with a jump drive I would get the chance to make some more lucrative runs, maybe even a cargo mission or two. I had decided that with the exception of the jump drive, I was going to try to hold off on any more upgrades, saving a nest egg for my next ship. I wasn't really sure what I was after yet, but I figured that the real money came to people who had the ships capable of handling the more dangerous missions. The odd patrol or base defence was fine, but it didn't necessarily make for the business opportunity of a lifetime.
I keyed Achilles base into the nav computer and waited for the auto pilot light to engage. As soon as the ship was under its own control I headed back for a well deserved sleep. By the time I woke up I was already on Achilles. The autopilot had cut out but the ship had still flown directly for the base without my intervention and the base's ALS had cut in once I was close enough. Modern technology was a wonderful thing. As I entered the base I checked my computer. Sure enough my kill had been registered and I had been paid for the patrol. Between that and the food I had in my hold I thought I was just about ready for the jump drive. I headed to the commodities exchange a happy man.
I came out even happier. The base had not had a delivery for some time so I had done well in my trading. The liquor I had brought with me was particularly successful, I found out that the bar had nearly been dry. That should be worth a couple of tips from behind the bar, I thought. I entered the ship dealer's premises and bought my jump drive. The man seemed happy to see me, I had come in here every so often for my upgrades in the last few months.
By the time I got to the bar I was quite pleased with how things were turning out. I was by no means a major player in the system, let alone the sector, but things were starting to take off. The bar was quiet again. Another break for me I thought. The bartender was pretty free with his information that day. He was in a good mood now that his supplies were in better condition. We had been chatting for a while about some of the key players in Gemini before he let slip about a peach of a cargo run to Speke in the Junction system.
"Really? I hadn't heard about it. There has been nothing in the mission computers about it." I let my comment slip innocently enough. Speke was a pleasure planet according to my maps and I would not have been surprised if the mission was an under the counter job. I had heard from the bartender on Helen that quite often people who were hiring directly could be found in the bars, that they usually paid well because they had reasons for not going through the usual channels.
He looked at me with a little confusion on his face. "My friend told me it had just been entered on the Guild computers this morning. Are you sure?"
He smiled at me. "You don't know about the Merchant's Guild? How long have you been in Gemini now?"
"Obviously not long enough. What's the Merchant's Guild?"
"It's a group who have offices on most bases and planets. They broker shipping deals for members and offer them through their own computer systems. The pay is usually higher seeing as the clients who come to them are paying for the reliability of Guild members in lieu of taking pot luck with traders through the mission computers. They are also said to offer high bounties on pirates who attack Guild members, but they don't advertise that publicly of course."
"Of course. So where do I find the guild offices?"
The bartender pointed upwards and away from the bar. "The offices are actually on a level above the landing areas. They'll be open for a few hours yet, though. There are not many ships in at the moment, why not take it easy and have another drink first?"
I decided he was right and let him pull me another drink. It was several hours later that I headed for the area on the base that the bartender had directed me to. At first I had some difficulty finding the office. I wondered how the general public were supposed to find this place to give their business to the Guild, then I realised that they were the people trusting their missions to the computer on the main concourse. The people who could afford to have the Guild look after their consignments would know where they were.
I entered the office and was greeted by a little round man. He was exactly the type that I had expected to see running an office for the Merchant's Guild. He was balding and had the atmosphere of someone who had done well for himself in the trading game. What surprised me was the welcome I received. He was a warm and friendly person, someone who had clearly spent years marketing the services of the Guild to both pilots and clients.
There was no-one else in the office and he asked me to take a seat so we could speak in comfort. He was good, alright. We spoke together for a while about the opportunities available to enterprising pilots in the Gemini Sector before he started with the sales pitch.
I had to admit that the package sounded good. Membership in the Guild allowed me to take the pick of missions from their private computer systems. These were mainly cargo missions of course, but they paid well. There were also some bounty missions that were offered by the Guild from time to time. They made sure that any people attacking Guild ships were hunted down for good. While revenge may not help the people who were killed in the first place, I could see that there was an image that the Merchant's Guild was trying to impress upon the entire sector - attack us and you will pay. There would have to be some pirates who would think twice before attacking Guild ships, although I knew it would make little difference to the Retros.
Finally he got to the bottom line. One thousand credits. I had that much, barely. I had been hoping to use it for a stake on my next trading run, but this might just work out a little better. I asked a few questions. Yes, membership was instantaneous on payment. While he was very skittish about answering questions about current missions until I signed up, he did let me know that the mission I was interested in was still available. I agreed to join. He took the credits and left me alone with the mission computer.
As it turned out, there were two missions for Speke as a destination. I grabbed them both. I had the space in my hold, so I thought to myself that two commissions were better than one. I nodded to the Guildsman on my way out. Things were really looking up.
I headed out of Achilles the next day, after a full night's sleep. I thought it prudent considering that this would be my first inter-system flight in the Tarsus. Whatever happened, I wanted to be as ready as possible for it. I keyed my nav computer for the jump to Pender's Star and sat back, engaging autopilot as soon as I could.
The jump point was clear of any trouble, that was good. I left the ship to coast into the jump point's field on its own. I found the field quite attractive, I had even in my old Navy days. The blue spheres of energy that formed around these natural points in space had a way of hypnotizing me, calming me down yet making me more alert at the same time. I sometimes thought that it was this very attraction that had kept me in space all this time. The field came closer as I watched and little time had passed before the Tarsus was inside it. All around me, through every window of the ship all I could see was the swirling blue plasma-like energy engulfing the ship. I took a deep breath, and engaged the jump drive.
Jumping between systems (or at least between jump points) is an experience that is very difficult to describe to people who have not experienced it before. The closest I think that you can get is that it is like the universe shudders for a second, then resolves itself around you once more, only from a different perspective. Part of the problem with this explanation is that it is a vast over simplification, the other part is that people find it very disorienting making it almost impossible to gather a coherent impression of the experience in any event.
What I can say after so many jumps is that you never get fully used to it. As the jump drive engages, you hear its familiar whine as it builds up its energy for one tremendous burst. Once released, that burst propels the ship with you in it between the stars in a blaze of light and energy. Everything around you goes white, no matter how tightly your eyelids are shut. When you finally come to (and you do seem to black out for a while) you are in a field identical to the one you started in only it's in another star system.
What are these jump points and how are they formed? I don't think we will ever have an answer to that. Strangely enough, both the Kilrathi and the Human races have found ways of travelling through these points without understanding them. I sometimes think that they may have been put there for us by some higher race, but really it doesn't matter. They are there, and back on that particular day I came to in the blue field of the jump point in Pender's Star.
My nav computer showed three points in this system. There were no habitable planets, but there was this jump point, the other one to Junction, and a third nav point directly between the two. That probably meant asteroids. I shrugged inwardly, I had no intention of flying around the middle nav point on manual and in reality it was time I got used to asteroids once more. I was a good pilot, but I was rusty around asteroids which would be a real problem in this sector. It was time to correct that problem. I laid in a course for the other jump point and engaged the autopilot.
I realised I was in trouble the second the autopilot disengaged. The field was huge. This was as good a reason as any to charge the sums that were being paid for this cargo run. The asteroids themselves would have been problem enough, but the pack of pirate talons heading for me through the field were going to make things real interesting. I strapped myself into the pilot's chair. I was going to be in it for awhile.
I surprised myself with travelling through the asteroids. I had not lost much of my previous abilities at all. The Tarsus was responsive enough, and I was soon back up to full speed, dodging up and down just like in my Academy days. The pirates were good in the asteroid field too. I suspected as I watched them racing towards me that they were experienced in hunting inside this asteroid field. They knew it well, and most ships that passed through would lose a lot of nerve in the asteroids making them an easy target. I charged my guns and readied myself for dog fighting, vowing not to fall to this scum out here in the middle of nowhere.
There were four of them all up. The first one never made it to me. Maybe he was cocky, more likely just a bad pilot, but in any case he actually hit his afterburners when he saw me, aiming straight at me. I was missing rocks by very narrow margins without afterburners, and I could barely chance a glance at the ball of fire which appeared when the pirate and the rock met. Three left.
I suspect that the first ship erupting in flames sobered the remainder of the pack. These pilots closed in more cautiously, but they were still flying close to the Talon's envelope. I targeted the nearest one and opened fire as he came in range. The rocks didn't give me the chance to lay down a heavy volley at the Talon, but neither did it get off much fire. He stayed in my range and I swung around behind him, letting him have it with all guns. Between trying to dodge the asteroids and me, he was finding it hard. I had already weakened his front shields enough that the two asteroids he struck trying to shake me were enough to end the fight. My shields were back at full strength as I swung to take on the next one.
The remaining two Talons were not taking chances. They both had a missile lock and fired their missiles at me, deciding to hell with the cargo. It was clear that they now preferred me dead than as a source of loot. Obviously they didn't want to come up against me again. Four missiles were heading straight for me. I didn't have to do much to try to shake them, I was already rolling about to avoid asteroids. Two missiles missed me, one struck an asteroid that drifted between me and it, and the last one struck me from behind.
The gut-wrenching crunch of metal striking metal told me I was in trouble. The missile had taken out the entire shield and damaged my rear armour, as well as some equipment. I keyed up my damages screen to see that my afterburners were now a wreck and my engines didn't sound healthy either. The screen said they would last me the distance but it was time to end this now.
The loss of my afterburners would have concerned me if we had been fighting in open space, but in the asteroid field it was not a strategic loss. My radar told me that the pirates had not moved to capitalise on their missile strikes by getting in behind me. They were coming at me from in front, where I was strongest. I planned to keep them there. I targeted the next one which was closing fast. I turned to make a run straight at him and let rip with all guns. It surprised him, he had clearly been aiming for an oblique attack and when I went frontal it put him off for a moment. It was all I needed. My guns took out his shields and weakened his armour so much that in the end I didn't even try to evade him at the end of the run. His ship exploded as I rammed him, and it took my shields down by only a small value.
The last one was simple after that. My front shield soon regenerated and the pirate could not get behind me with no wingmen to distract me from him. He could run from me, but I just waited until he was coming back into range before letting him have it. I was a better shot than him and after half an hour of wearing him down a dumb fire missile finally ended it.
I slumped back in the chair for a moment. The sound of a rock grazing my side shields brought me back to the present and I checked the nav computer to see where I was. The fight had brought us to the heart of the asteroid belt. I went back to my standard flight style until I was on the other side and clear of all debris. I was very happy when the autopilot light engaged once more. I needed a drink.
By the time I reached Speke I was quite nervous. Without my afterburners I was at a disadvantage in open space but the rest of the journey passed without incident. The ALS engaged on Speke and the ship eased its way to the surface of the planet. I let the tension that had built up inside me drain away. I was safe and considerably richer. I knew that the repairs would cost, but I was still in front for this run. Of course there was also less chance that I was going to run into pirates on the way back (if I was heading back to Troy) seeing as how I had removed an entire pack. My confidence in the Tarsus was improving.
Speke was an interesting place. Most Pleasure Planets are interesting I guess but this was my first time on one in Gemini as a privateer. I can still remember the fun I got up to as a pilot on leave with my squadron at planets similar to this one. I brief chat with the girl behind the bar confirmed that the fly boys hadn't changed much. I didn't mention my history to her. She was cute and I thought it might be more useful to get her on side anyway. The bartenders in this sector seemed to be the fount of all wisdom and knowledge and I intended to drink deeply around them, in more ways than one.
One piece of good advice I got was maps and scanners. I didn't have to worry about upgrading and losing them with the ship. Once I bought the maps and the scanner they were mine and I could hook them into any ship I pleased. I thought about the asteroid field and wondered how much more efficient I could have been in the battle with toys like colour coding and ITTS. I had learned to live without them but I knew deep down that they could make all the difference, otherwise they would not be standard on Confed fighters.
The other little piece of gossip that I had picked up at Speke was about a woman named Tayla. Apparently, she had been running a drug cartel through the pirates and it was based in the Troy system. I had been working in the middle of organised crime for the last few months without realising it. I was surprised that I had not heard this at one of the bases in Troy, but then I also thought that the bartenders there were unlikely to speak of matters close to home. Speke clearly saw itself as distant from that sort of operation. Junction had become more of a roadside stop perched beside a very busy highway. If there was drug traffic coming through Junction, it was just passing through like everyone else. When you thought about it, Junction was the perfect system for a pleasure planet.
At least I could now understand why there was a high pirate presence in Troy and Pender's Star. If Tayla's operation was known of on Speke, that had to mean that pirates were bringing their contraband to and from Troy via the Junction System. That in turn meant that Pender's Star was the one point the pirates needed to control as it was the main route into the Humboldt quadrant.
I thought about this for a while. Maybe it was time to leave the Humboldt quadrant for a while, find a quieter place to trade my way up into the cut and thrust. I checked my credit levels, I could buy the full suite of Gemini maps and still have a small amount for a stake in a cargo run. I could check over the maps and try to find a place to base myself for some runs that would make me money but keep me out of a lot of trouble. It was a risk of course. Humboldt may end up being the quietest place in Gemini anyway. That didn't matter in the end. Sooner or later I was going to have to make a cargo run to somewhere outside Humboldt quadrant and the maps would come in handy. I needed them whether I liked it or not.
The ship dealer on Speke was helpful and installed my maps for a bulk discount price. Even so, I thought five thousand credits was a lot but I could afford it. I headed for the mission computer in the main concourse. If I was going to make this work I would need a mission. My stake was starting to look a little low again. There were the usual patrol missions, the odd bounty, and a single cargo run. I looked it over carefully. Movies to the Gracchus Refinery in Raxis. I checked Raxis out on the nav computer. Three nav points, the refinery, an agricultural planet named Trinsic, and the jump point to New Detroit. Potter Quadrant was far from the Kilrathi border, but close enough to Perry Naval base to discourage the wrong element. New Constantinople, the Gemini capital, was nearby, as was Oxford. I couldn't see how a university could attract the sort of traffic that Troy clearly had. Mining towns were notorious. It was even rumoured that most of the bases the pirates controlled were abandoned mining bases. Add to that the layout of the system and Raxis was starting to look very good. Food from the planet would make a profit at the refinery, and the produce from the refinery would be needed on the planet. Very few nav points meant that any patrol work would be short and sharp. My guess was that it would be an easy system to defend if the bases had advanced knowledge of attacks. I keyed in acceptance of the mission.
I spent the rest of my stake on movies. I didn't want to take a near empty hold all that way and I figured that there had to be a reason that movies were being shipped from here. It had all the feel for me of a new beginning. Maybe Raxis was the start of a more stable life, maybe it would turn out to be a promising adventure, I didn't know. Still, it would be fun to try my hand at a new place. I decided not to waste time at Speke, I supervised the loading of all the cargo and then entered the Tarsus, firing up the engines and requesting clearance for launch. I soon had it and was back in space, headed for a new quadrant.
I guess I should have suspected that it would not have been completely plain sailing but at least on the busy lanes I didn't have to worry about fighting off waves of pirates and Retros on my own. The jump point to 119CE was crawling with Retros. I was targeted by two Talons as soon as I entered the area. This time the Militia had sent in a squadron of Gladius fighters, so even without colour coded radar I knew who was who visually. There was a real firefight going on out there.
Other merchants were trying to make it to the jump point without getting killed. For some reason, the retro talons were targeting the merchants rather than the militia ships. I suspect that they were simply trying to cut off some supply lines but their tactics were all wrong. They were getting ripped apart by the Militia pilots and most of the traders were making it to the jump point as a result. Besides, even the merchant ships were capable of defending themselves a little.
I noticed a Galaxy class ship under heavy attack. My scopes told me it was in trouble, and there were three Retros on his tail waiting to finish him off. Before the Talons that had locked onto me were in range, I noticed that the Galaxy had both its upper and lower turrets blasting away at the talons, and the Militia were coming up fast on them from the rear. In the end the talons were no match for the firepower being unleashed at them. The Galaxy took out one of the talons with its turret fire. The Plasma Guns were very effective against the light fighters. Once the Gladius fighters got there little was left of the Retros to mop up and they made an easy fight of it.
There was no further chance for observation. The two Retros unleashed some of their favourite rhetoric at me and I knew they were in range. I had already charged my guns and as they took their first pass at me I swung out of the way, taking a few shots at them to let them know I was still there. I got in behind the first one and let him have everything I had left. Retros are fanatics, and I always found that fanatics don't make good pilots. These guys in particular always thought that with God on their side, nothing could harm them. My blasters were proving that belief false and this time the pilot paid for his belief with his life.
I was fortunate in that the Talons around me had been in the fight for a while now and they didn't have missiles. The second retro was using his blasters, trying to take me out side on. I swung around, heading straight for him to find that he had not left himself any room and rammed me. My front shield went to near zero instantly, but it held. The collision spun me around, and when I regained control over my ship the retro was nowhere to be found. The debris field nearby told the tale. He had been badly damaged already and the collision had been fatal.
There was still activity around me. A Drayman was in deep trouble near the jump point and the militia were having trouble with the last two Retros. They were not going to be able to save it, I could see that from back where I was. I hit the afterburners, but there was little I was going to be able to do. I could have taunted the Retros, drawn some fire, but with my front shields still a long way from having regenerated that bordered on suicide. Besides, that was the Militia's job. In the end I got there too late, but only by seconds. As I opened up with my blasters at the trailing retro, he loosed his last missile at the Drayman. They both exploded simultaneously. I had to admit to being a little pissed at the militia pilots. They were supposed to be there to protect the merchants but they had failed this one. The last retro was in trouble but surprisingly he didn't try to run for it. He actually took on the Gladius wing and did some serious damage before finally going down in a ball of fire.
The Militia called me, thanking me for my help. I fought down the urge to abuse them. I knew that they had really tried their best even if it hadn't helped. I told them they were welcome, anytime, etc. I felt sickened by the loss of the merchant knowing it could have easily been me. I had to get myself kitted up for survival in this quadrant, this was ridiculous.
I noticed that my radar was tracking a lot of objects near the jump point as I headed towards it. Targeting them I realised that the destruction of the Drayman had loosed a lot of its cargo. Not only was this a waste but it was a navigational hazard near the jump point. As much as I was upset about the ship being destroyed I knew that the cargo would only go to waste, or worse yet be picked up by pirates if I didn't take it myself. I keyed up my tractor beam and checked my hold. I was running a little under half full. I had the space. I started tractoring it in, one crate at a time.
I glanced over to the Militia pilots but they were ignoring me. I am sure that they had come to the same conclusions and that they thought that maybe by letting me pick it up it served as some compensation for the efforts I put in and kept it from pirate hands. I still felt a little guilty but credits were credits. I soon had it all picked up and stowed and as I was already near the jump point I continued on my way.
The 119CE system was a war zone. Four jump points in the system and I only had to use two of them but for a system with no bases I was quite surprised at the amount of activity there. Pirates, Confed, Militia, and traders, all in all out brawls in the space lanes. In the end I didn't really tip the balance at all. The pirates had their hands full as it was and the military didn't care much if I distracted a target or two. There was a lot of merchant activity through the system and most of them were just hauling themselves through the fighting, ignoring everyone unless they were fired upon. In the end I took the same approach, leaving the fighting to the ships best prepared for it. I have to admit that I felt a little disappointed not to be back in the thick of it but I had done my bit already. Now all I wanted was to get to Gracchus. I soon found myself in the jump point to XNN-1927, taking me to the Potter quadrant.
I activated the jump drive to the sound of gunfire and explosions around me. When I recovered from the jump, it took me a while to work out what was different. I looked around me, still feeling a little disoriented, and there was nothing. Not a solitary ship in the area. Peace. I checked my ship. No damage and the shields were regenerating quickly enough. It looked like the fight had not been carried through the jump point. I shrugged to myself and keyed the nav computer to the next jump point, heading off as soon as I was free of the jump field. The rest of my journey was equally as peaceful. Even the New Detroit system was rather quiet for the industrial hub of Gemini but in any case I was soon in the Raxis system and it was only a short while later that the Gracchus Refinery was filling my screens. Another mission accomplished and possibly a new life to start. Whatever happened in Raxis, I knew it was make or break for me.
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