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The bartender looked up as I walked in and smiled. I was a regular here on Trinsic, and after an initial misunderstanding had managed to make friends with the bartender in this place. He was fountain of knowledge (no surprises there) but what made him special was that he could read people.
When I had first walked in he had me sized up, or at least so he thought. He told me straight up that I looked like a hard man, used to hard jobs, but that this planet was a farming community and that I was not to cause any trouble. Sure he pissed me off at first, but when I stopped to think about it I realised that he was seeing all the history in me and sizing me up according to that. He was right, I was a hard man and trading didn't naturally sit with me very well. Still, it was my new life and after a few drinks I began to tell him about it. I still don't know why I did it, but it made all the difference. Once he saw that I was here for honest work he eased up, even started giving me some inside gossip.
Over time we had really become to know each other as friends. I went in there often after a run from Gracchus. Potter hadn't turned out to be what I'd expected. There was still Retro and pirate activity here, although not like in Troy. There was also the fact that the university planet did in fact attract an unfortunate element. Database theft was something that was attempted a little more often than the university staff were willing to admit. At least that was what I had been told there in that bar on Gracchus.
I'd been right about one thing. This system had the perfect trade route happening and no-one else had cottoned onto it yet. I found myself in a similar position to the one my uncle had established for himself in Troy. I was the intra-system hauler and the locals were happy to have someone who was willing to do that rather than take their goods off-system. It had been lucrative, and the few patrols and base defence missions that came up helped bump up my stake as well. I had been in-system for a little over eight months now and my time had been well rewarded. Several times I had made profits in a single run that had been impossible in Troy. I had seen the top model scanner, the B&S Omni, in the ship dealer in Trinsic six months ago and knew it was the system for me. Sure enough, it had been installed in the Tarsus three months ago. It had made a considerable difference and I had been able to take on more missions in the system, gaining further esteem at the bases. The bartender here, for one, was glad to see my previous history being put to use in defending the way of life out here rather than in destroying it.
My usual was on the bar as I walked up. I started to pull out my cred chip but he stopped me. "You drink on the house tonight."
I looked at him, surprised. "Why's that?"
He grinned. You think you could keep it a secret? Everyone's talking about what you did out there."
I groaned inwardly. The last thing I wanted to be was a hero. He was talking about the mission I had picked up on my way here. A couple of rogue hunters were trying to get into the piracy game and had actually threatened the Trinsic government with a protection racket, promising a blockade if they didn't get paid. It was a standard base defence mission, the two Demons these guys were flying had actually taken out a merchant ship or two and traders were starting to think twice about coming here.
The difference for me was that this place was my bread and butter. I was going to have to land here anyway so I took the mission, thankful for the advance warning of what I was up against. I loaded up with missiles and prepared myself for a fight.
A fight is what I got. The Trinsic spaceport had monitored the whole thing as it turned out. These two meant business and were loaded with ordnance. Fortunately for me most of it was dumb-fire. They had not even bothered with guns at first, I had dodged a lot of missiles before they got to that. They underestimated me. They thought they were dealing with a normal Tarsus jockey. Anyone flying one of those antiquated wrecks couldn't be any good, right?
They had both speed and manoeuvrability on me but they relied on their equipment too much. That didn't surprise me. I'd seen a lot of pilots do the same thing in my day, especially ex-Confed people. I'd always understood the toys Confed gave me and the benefits of them. Too many times I'd seen pilots lose it after a lucky shot took out some toy on their ship and before long they were kitty litter. I had no intention of turning out the same way back then and I made a point of taking advantage of those who did.
These two had made a critical mistake. They were low on missiles now but their ships were not heavy fighters. I actually had a more powerful engine on board and in a sustained firefight I had the advantage of both shields and gunfire. When the engines looked low I could switch to missiles to keep up a continuous assault on their shields, keeping their power reserves sufficiently low for guns to used only sparingly. Too late they realised their mistake and charged at me, cannons blazing. They were hoping to overwhelm my shields in a sharp burst and even the score.
The Tarsus is not a fighter and never was. Still, I am alway surprised to see how pilots trying to attack one treat it like a capital ship. It is a lot more manoeuvrable than most people think and I had just displayed some of its capability in front of these two and yet they were not ready when I ducked under them. I cranked my set speed down to zero and spun to face them, cranking it back up to maximum. It was a little trick that I had picked up flying Hornets a long time ago. These two were directly ahead of me, their bellies exposed. I targeted the nearest one, locked, and fired.
I had most of his shields down before he could get out of my range of fire. In the end he used his afterburners to duck out around me. I sent the first IR missile after him while I spun around, trying to line him up again. The ITTS made things easy and I had softened him up a little more before the missile did its job. One down.
The last one knew he had nowhere to go and tried to make a stand, which was admirable in a way. I am not convinced even now that he didn't still think he could beat me but the point is academic. He used the manoeuvrability of his ship to best advantage, making it difficult for me to get a clear shot. He made the mistake of screaming past me every so often and I made sure he paid for it with another shot or two into his shields. He was trying the game of attrition against me and as I knew it would it ended up working in my favour.
After about twenty minutes I could see that he was starting to wear out. The bursts he fired contained less shots and his shields were running even lower as he took hits from me. He spun around in front of me the one time I managed to tail him and that was his mistake. I had him locked and sent an IR missile straight for him. It hit his front, taking out the shields completely and weakening his front armour severely. I followed up with ramming him, which took him out finally without registering too badly against my shields. I had won and Trinsic was already broadcasting the news and informing the Merchant's Guild by the time I had landed.
I picked up the drink and nodded my thanks. The bartender just grinned. He'd seen me looking the way I did now. He knew I just wanted to drink the last mission away. He kept putting drinks in front of me for the next hour and eventually I mellowed. When he finally saw me smiling into my drink he came up to start chatting.
"You don't like the limelight much, do you?" I shook my head. I had killed people - humans, Kilrathi, anyone - for a large proportion of my career. It didn't make me want to spend a lot of time with others gazing too close into my soul. He just nodded. "For what it's worth, you did the right thing up there. I know you're busy telling yourself that you only did it for the money, but it isn't true. If it was, Troy would have turned you into a pirate faster than you could blink." I stopped and thought about that. He was right. Money was hard to come by in Troy, and a little piracy could have made all the difference to my accounts, but I didn't even think of that option while I was there. The bartender saw his words sink in and continued. "You shouldn't be hauling freight around. You make too good a mercenary and with the Militia as weak as it is in Gemini systems like ours are willing to pay a lot for mercs with some sense of honour."
I shrugged. "Maybe I do fly well, but that Tarsus of mine would be no match against any real competition. If those had been Centurions up there, being flown by good pilots..." I let the sentence hang, we both knew the answer to that one.
The bartender started wiping down the bar close to me. "Thought about upgrading? I hear the Orion is good."
"The Orion is a pig. I hated Broadswords in my Navy days and I hate tanks now. That's all an Orion is - a tank. The truth is that you can put good enough guns on smaller ships with better manoeuvrability and run rings around the Orion. The Centurion on the other hand..."
The bartender laughed. "You can't afford a Centurion, not yet anyhow. You want to be hauling cargo all your life saving up for one, afraid of the big guys?"
"I'm not afraid of anyone. Look out there, most of the pilots in the good ships buy the best to cover for not being able to fly. The real tragedy is that they can get away with it. Even bad pilots in Centurions can wipe the floor with a Tarsus, even if it was Colonel Blair at the controls."
It was the bartender's turn to shrug. "Maybe so, but I bet a well-handled Galaxy would put up a good fight. Those things are more agile than they look, and the turrets give you options that you would not have in the Tarsus. On top of that, the cargo capacity makes the ship look a lot better than anything else on the trading lanes. With the expansion, you can almost carry as much as a Drayman, without the defensive weaknesses."
It was a good point. I remembered the Galaxy that had made it through the jump point in Junction during the Retro attack. It had been capable of putting up a defence of its own if it had been fitted out properly. That was the thing about a Galaxy though. They were good ships, but you really had to spend on upgrades. That was something I didn't have the money for either, and I said so.
"Why do it all in one hit? Look, this little incident has been broadcast all over the quadrant. Pirates and even Retros are going to steer clear of here for a while, at least until the fuss dies down. The Merchant's Guild is going to insist on escorts for most of its ships into this sector despite the lanes opening again, so there won't be much incentive for the wrong element. I happen to know that the current season is producing a bumper crop. There'll be enough food here for you to fill ten freighters each time you land here. I have it on good authority that Gracchus is paying good money for it to encourage people to stop locally, especially if they have some history in the system. That means you. You could buy a Galaxy and a cargo expansion, and buy your upgrades as you can. By the time the season is finished, I think you'll have a ship to be proud of. You might even have a stake big enough to put together a nest egg for a Centurion, although your ship would be quite capable of mixing it up in an average scrap out there."
He was making a lot of sense. I had to admit that I had been thinking about a Galaxy for some time, and fitting it out for combat would be a lot of fun. Their size would make asteroid fields interesting but their agility would probably make up for their size, you would just have to fly her right... In the end that was what made up my mind. I was a good pilot and I knew I could handle her. I had a couple more drinks with the bartender then left to get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day for me.
The ship dealer waved at me as I entered. I nodded and walked over to him. "Nice flying up there yesterday." I just nodded acknowledgement, and he left it at that. He had dealt with enough mercenaries to tell which ones were going to talk about their missions and which ones were not. "What can I do for you today?"
I pointed over at the gleaming new Galaxy freighter sitting on his lot. "I'm interested in that."
I could see his eyes light up as I asked about it. He went on to give me the full pitch, despite the fact that I probably knew more about the ship than he did. I never went into these decisions blind. I knew what I was buying. He told me the price, one hundred and fifty thousand credits, less full trade in on my existing ship and equipment. I shook his hand and made the deal.
I was particular about the upgrade options. I needed money to fill the hold, so I was careful about what I spent for the first run. Highest level engines and shields, the cargo expansion and an afterburner. I was going to be travelling in-system, so I didn't need a jump drive for now. I didn't even bother with weapons, I didn't think I would need them. I didn't plan on doing mission work, and the afterburners would get me into the ALS zones fast enough. The shields would protect me until I reached safety. I stood by and watched as they transferred my scanner and maps, and then headed straight for the commodities exchange.
Sure enough there was plenty of food there and it was dirt cheap at the moment. I had enough money to fill my hold, although it was mostly grain this run. I left as soon as it was loaded. I did three runs that day and by the end of it I was rich enough to fill the hold with goods from the refinery for my return trip to Trinsic. By the time I reached the bar I was very tired but smiling. The bartender poured me my usual, but this time he charged me.
For the next few months I made up to five runs (return) a day. I didn't even bother to count the money or upgrade the ship, by the time I finished for the day I was too tired to do anything but sleep. I was making a fortune, even stocking half my hold with liquor during one run. The refinery had been paying premium prices for it and I cashed in. The return trip saw me filling the hold with robot workers and other labour saving systems which had the effect of increasing the yields on Trinsic during the season, extending it by a month. I spent less time at the bars during those days, I was just too busy. I was always made to feel welcome when I did show up and there was always another confidential tip passed along to me. That always made it worthwhile to stop by.
It was two months later that I was selling off my refined goods at the Trinsic commodities exchange and I heard the news. Gracchus was under attack. The pirates had finally made their move back into this system and they meant business. Two major air groups as best as anyone could count, and they had the refinery blockaded as an invasion preparation. All takers were being asked to defend the base, taking out the blockade. Confed was handling the supply line but it was too late for the base itself and mercs were going to have to take on the base defence role if the refinery was to stand a chance. As soon as I had completed my trades I headed to the ship dealer. I had some buying to do and for once it wasn't food.
Even after filing my hold I was surprised at how much money I had accumulated now that I had a reason to look. I fitted out the ship with Tachyon Cannons on the front along with a missile launcher and torpedo launcher. I put both turrets on, fitting them with tachyon cannons as well. I put a torpedo launcher on the top one , and the bottom one I fitted with a tractor beam. Most ships that sat behind me were not going to be able to get out of the way of torpedoes in time, and the top turret was therefore going to be able to keep dangerous ships off my tail. I had the money so I also bought a repair droid and ECM system, the level 3 unit. By the time I was finished the only thing missing was a jump drive so I bought that as well. I was loaded for bear and ready to take on the mission. The mission computer took my acceptance willingly enough and I left as soon as the equipment was fitted. It was finally time to test what this ship could handle.
As the autopilot cut out my radar filled with red blips. There were Talons everywhere and only three or four other pilots taking up defensive duties. They were taking a pounding. Time to go to work, I thought. I targeted the nearest pirate ship, charged all guns, activated the missiles and charged in.
I suspect that the pirates first saw me as a pigeon. Most of them ignored me, thinking to finish off the base defences before taking me on. The few who did decide to deal with me straight away charged their guns and went head to head with me. Mesons never were a match for tachyon cannons. I had three of them down before they realised I was here to do more than trade.
I was told after the fight was over that I am credited with saving the other defenders. Whether this is true or not, I do know that as soon as I had started hammering my fourth talon they nearly all targeted me. There were a lot of ships left and things started to get interesting. The ship I had targeted fell soon enough but my radar showed several talons tailing me. I ducked and weaved, but their missile volleys were so large that even the ECM system couldn't hold them all off. Two struck me from behind, and it was enough to take out the shields. I switched to the top turret and fired away with guns and torpedoes, taking out another two ships. They were much more careful about approaching me from behind which was good because my shields were going to take a while to regenerate. My damage screen showed some damage to the afterburners but the repair droid was on it. I would need some armour repairs but I could deal with that.
I heard several bursts of fire ring out with the distinctive sound of the plasma gun, and another talon near me burst into flames. One of the hunters in an Orion had his shields regenerated sufficiently to rejoin the battle and he did so in style. He drew away a lot of the swarm on me and I followed them, picking them off from behind. By the time the third hunter joined the fight once more there were only three talons left. It was clear to me that these pirates had never served in a military organisation. They were good, but they were not working to a plan. They had no tactics and were easy to distract. With the defenders back up to a full strength of our ships including me, we simply paired off and worked as wings. Five minutes later the base was secure.
I checked the damage report. There was no damage other than armour that the droid had not fixed. The ship had performed very well given the size of the enemy fleet. My layout ideas had proven effective and I now knew I had a ship which could take on almost anything. I felt an incredible load fall away from my shoulders. I no longer had to worry about what I would run into out here. I had the equipment that could handle it. I felt more confident, but not overly so. I was still a trader, just a safe one.
I landed on the refinery to the sound of cheering. The base had been liberated from the blockade, and the workers were celebrating. I checked my personal computer, the money was already there. I smiled to myself. I was back.
After that incident things carried on much as they had for the months previously. I continued to haul goods between the base and the planet, but I also took on the occasional patrol now that the unfriendlies were back. There was little that gave me trouble out there. More often than not it simply meant a delay in my shipping runs, albeit a lucrative one. The months past, and then one day I noticed that there was barely enough food in the commodities exchange on Trinsic to fill my hold. The price had risen, and the run soon looked a lot less rewarding than it had been during previous times. I stopped and took stock, realising that I had not taken time out for myself for a long time. I walked over to the bar and entered.
"Hello, stranger." The bartender hadn't seen me for weeks. "The usual?" I nodded and he poured. "How's business?"
"Drying up by the looks." He just nodded sagely as I sipped the drink. Looking out the window at the fields told me that it was now winter in these parts, the harvest season was well and truly over and had been for some time. Recently I had just been mopping up what had been left over from the boom and things were going to go back to usual. Looking at my credit balance that was no longer a problem, but the thought of hauling goods for peanuts just didn't appeal anymore.
The bartender clearly saw the way my thoughts were headed, and once more summed me up perfectly. "You know, you've already proven yourself here. If you need bigger challenges, you should go for it. There'll always be another harvest next year, you can come back for it if you like."
I looked at him over the rim of the glass. "You wouldn't mind?"
He shrugged. "Of course I'd mind. This system always needs privateers like yourself, willing to do whatever needs doing. Still, you won't be of any use here if you end up spending most of your time drinking in the bar instead of flying, will you?" He nodded upwards. "That's where you belong, Captain. The stars are where you need to be, and you and your ship will always be welcome back."
I nodded at him. He was right. I finished the drink, and bought another. The bar took on a different feel that night. It was a little like a party, but with plenty of nostalgia. The bartender and I chatted amiably and he kept filling my glass as fast as I emptied it. The night wore on, the run to Gracchus forgotten. Soon it was closing time and the bartender and I were the only ones left in the bar. He politely reminded me how late it was and I returned the courtesy by leaving without an argument. I turned on my way out, and saw him staring at me. "So long, barkeep."
"See you again, Captain. Maybe next harvest?"
"Maybe." I said the word with conviction, but I doubt that either of us believed it. I turned back towards the door and strode out, heading for my ship and the quarters on it.
I woke up the next morning with a splitting headache and a terrible hangover. It took me a couple of hours to shake the dizziness, even with the stims. When I felt ready I headed back into the main concourse and looked for the mission computer. I skimmed through the missions, there was not much there that interested me. I took a patrol mission that would take me to the Raxis jump point leading to New Detroit, I was headed that way so I thought the money would be a bonus. There was nothing else, so I headed up to the Merchant's Guild office to see if they had anything else. As it turned out, there were two cargo runs to New Detroit on offer. I liked the amounts they were offering and a quick burst of mental arithmetic assured me I had the cargo space. I took them both and headed down to the ship. As soon as the cargo was loaded I took off and set my nav computer for the jump point.
For the second time since inheriting the Tarsus I felt like I was leaving something, only this time there was some regret. My days in Raxis had been good ones and they had allowed me to do what I had gone there for. I had a good ship and a future in the sector now. My name had been mentioned in places, not all of them good but at least people knew of me. New Detroit was probably just the start of something bigger I thought, but what I couldn't say. All I knew was that I had run to Raxis with my tail between my legs and I left there a pilot once more. I would always remember the system kindly.
The jump point turned out to be crawling with Retros. I smiled to myself as I charged the guns. One last service for the system. Four talons came at me with fanatical propaganda filling my comm channel. I went head to head with the first one and took it out quickly. As they scattered, I followed one and then let him have a burst or two from the tachyon cannons. Two left.
They were much more reserved after that, but they were never good flyers and I soon had them at the disadvantage. The one in front of me was an interesting pilot in that he wasn't even trying to shake me off. I switched to torpedoes and sent two after him, finishing him off. The final one was not as simple. He was trying to hit me and run, but with meson blasters there was not much he could do and my shields were regenerating fast enough to recover each time.
In the end I had to lure him into a false sense of security. I cut my shield strength to one third of maximum and started flying straighter, using slower and wider turns. I couldn't believe it but he actually thought I was damaged. I took control of the upper turret and waited for him to come in behind me. Sure enough he came in, flying straight at me and arming his missiles.
He never got them out of the launcher. Just before I was in his range I shot off three torpedoes in rapid succession. They each struck him in the nose and he cursed me once more as his ship erupted in what he would have called righteous fire.
I entered the jump field when I was sure I had rid Raxis of the last of them and activated the jump drive. Once more, the universe went white and I came to in another system. My nav computer had New Detroit system showing, and I selected New Detroit the planet. The autopilot light went on and I activated it.
When the ship returned to manual control I could see the planet ahead of me. It was an incredible sight, the machinery and warehousing of the planet visible from space. It was the largest refinery complex I had ever seen and I suspected that part of the reason it existed was to service the military machine in Gemini. Just about every border sector where there was active Kilrathi engagements had a planet like this inside it. During my Navy days I had never seen one. Our job had been on the borders, these planets were traditionally guarded by the best of the local Militia. I had to admit, as far as raw processing power was concerned this planet made an impressive sight. I made a mental note to check on the raw material prices when I got down there. A planetary scale refinery would have to receive a massive amount of raw material to survive and keep the factories in operation, my guess was that they were prepared to pay good money for the supplies.
I landed soon enough and headed to the exchange. The food I had stocked up on in Trinsic made me a tidy sum and three successful missions on the way here helped the balance a little, too. I was feeling happy and headed to the pilot's bar for a well deserved drink.
The bar was not crowded but it was busy enough that I suspected that I would not get much out of the bartender that night. About half the tables were full including one up the front. At first this looked out of place to me and I couldn't figure out why. Then it hit me - in all the time I'd been flying in Gemini I had never seen anyone sitting in the front tables. I hadn't given it much thought before, and now I had no idea what to make of it.
I took a look at the man seated at the front. Middle aged, balding but fit. He was dressed well enough, maybe a little too well for a pilot's bar. I went to walk past him towards the bar, but he stood up and attracted my attention. He was beckoning me to sit with him.
i looked around. No-one else was paying any attention. If this man was a regular or something, I thought that someone would have come up and spoken to him. Instead, the entire bar seemed a little hushed by his presence. This said power to me. Curious, I walked over and sat.
"Allow me to introduce myself," he said, "I am Ernisto Sandovaal."
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