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I guess I should have known better at the time, but the mission itself went off with no problems at all and that took me off the alert. Still, no-one paid fifteen thousand credits for a run like this one. Two jumps away, shipping plastics to another refinery? I should have known better.
Still, I had the artifact. I knew that Sandovaal wanted it back when he was safe, otherwise he wouldn't have offered the bonus. I was landing on New Detroit thinking about this. I couldn't see any way of losing on this one. As soon as I landed and made it to the bar I realised I hadn't been creative enough with my doomsday scenarios.
I had to admit she was a knockout. I don't go for those pleasure planet bimbo types. I've always preferred women with a harder edge about them and the woman siting in Sandovaal's seat had that aplenty. Sandovaal had told me that he would be sitting right there, so I decided that it was time to claim the table. I walked up to her.
"You look just like your picture, Captain. That's too bad." I had to admit that her opening line caught my attention. It didn't take too many more sentences to find out what had happened on New Detroit while I had been gone. With Sandovaal dead, I found myself out of pocket the bonus and wanted for questioning by the local Insys. I knew I was innocent, but the Insys people were sure to dig up issues like the artifact and that could draw unwelcome attention to me. I thought to myself that it might be a good idea to head out of the system for a while.
I was grateful that I had never got around to changing the registration papers on the original tarsus. The new ship had been registered in my uncle's name by mistake when the clerks just copied blindly off the transfer papers. I was finally thankful that the beaurocracy had managed to make my life simpler for once. Getting off the planet wouldn't be too difficult. But, where to go?
Fortunately, Tayla had some ideas. When she mentioned her name my heart sank a little. I had come to Potter to get away from her kind and now here I was, probably going to work for her! I nearly walked away then and there but she offered too good a carrot - info on the artifact. That thing was the key to Sandovaal's death and that meant someone wanted it bad. That could come in handy for me if I could handle myself around such a crowd.
Although I was loath to admit it, some time with Tayla's operation wouldn't hurt in that regard. I figured that if I could handle myself with the pirates then I should be okay with whoever wanted the artifact. Besides, she was offering me a legit run, albeit to a pirate base. Despite the fact that she assured me that my transponder code would be distributed amongst her people and I wouldn't have any trouble while in her employ, I was still a little nervous. I took the mission anyway. I figured I didn't have much to lose, and the gains could be substantial. I waited around in New Detroit for the cargo to be loaded and then headed off as soon as possible. I was in no hurry to stay with my picture plastered all over the public zones. I had been fortunate so far. A planet with the population of New Detroit tends to breed a person who values privacy and anonymity. No-one noticed me, or at least no-one who cared enough to report it to Insys. I was soon off planet.
The run went reasonably well. True to her word, the pirates gave me no grief and Insys patrols didn't notice anything untoward in my hold during their checks. Nothing was said of my deviation from the planned flight route and I made it to Oakham with little trouble. Oakham presented some interesting challenges at first. I had never flown through asteroids with a ship this size before and in some cases it was quite a squeeze. In the end, I had the shields on full and I still took a couple of minor hits. I made a mental note that combat in asteroids with a Galaxy would not be a good idea.
There were several differences between the pirate base and a more legitimate operation within the sector. The first one I noticed was the singularity of purpose. There were no ship dealers or guilds on the base. It was purely a warehousing and distribution centre. There was a bar, but then that was a necessity if you were going to get fly boys to go there often. It was interesting to speak to the man behind the bar and get his perspective on things. He had a slant on the news of the sector that was very different to most.
I wondered where the pirates did their repairs and fitting out. Couriers would be okay, they could deal with the shipyards on the planets to which they shipped their cargo. The talons were a completely different matter though. Most of the pirates were not drug runners but ship killers. I thought about it at the time and decided that they must have some support base outside the existing nav maps. I doubted that I was about to find that out for sure, I doubted Tayla knew herself. She was clearly a big cog in the machinery of piracy in Gemini, but she was not the only one. That was for sure.
I met her in the bar as we had planned. I wasn't surprised to see her sitting there already, I suspected that they would tail and observe their recruits first time out. She was probably on whatever ship they had following me. I had kept an eye out for trackers but there was no chance of picking them up. Not through three jump points. With the right equipment they could have even monitored me from outside standard radar range. I doubted Tayla would not have made such equipment available to herself a long time ago. It wouldn't do well to lose couriers in this business.
I sat down beside her and she handed me my money, after a little prompting. Now it was time to do some real dirty work I realised. Brilliance to Hector. The pay was similar to what Sandovaal was offering but at least this time I knew the catch. I had sworn to myself to avoid Troy for a while and even with the pirates allegedly on my side now I was sure there were some in the system who would remember me and carry a grudge for something.
The Insys patrols would not be too difficult to deal with. I had spent enough time in Troy to realise that the patrols were weak at best in the system. That was part of the reason there had always been so many patrol missions available there. The run would be easy enough and in truth I had little choice and knew it. I accepted it from her and left the bar.
I didn't head straight for my ship. The thought of working for the pirates made me sick and I was in no hurry to get started with a mission like this. I checked my credits, I had plenty of funds available to me and if I had any idea how to find out about the artifact I would have left the base then and there. As I sat around, a thought struck me. Tayla was filling only a small amount of my ship with her brilliance. I had a huge capacity left and I decided to use it. I headed for the commodities exchange.
I was surprised to find they had the same computerised interface as all the other exchanges in the sector. It made sense to me in truth. Like any other industry, piracy and drugs needed commerce to survive. The computerised systems solved a lot of disputes and personal haggling. It was needed among the pirates more than anywhere else. I logged on and checked the base's supply list. They had it all - brilliance, ultimate, tobacco, everything. I bought all I could haul. Yes, I know that technically I was now a drug dealer but if I was going to make a dangerous run like that I was no worse off with a full hold. Tayla would be, though. I was going to flood the Hector market. There would be no demand for drugs there for some time to come.
As I headed back in to Oakham I could feel my hands starting to lose the jitters that had been with me since Junction on the way into Troy. I admit it, I choked. When push came to shove, I could not bring myself to fire on the Militia ships when they started attacking me after the scan. I tried to defend myself but I knew full well that I agreed with what the Militia was doing. I wasn't about to kill them for it even to save my own skin.
I ran. The Galaxy was a good ship and I made it to the jump point to Pender's Star with only some shield damage. Pender's Star was clean, at least from the entry point. The Militia didn't follow. I doubted they would. With them safely in another system my low opinion of their abilities began to reassert itself. I keyed in the coordinates of the next jump point and headed off.
I ran from the patrol around Hector itself as well. Fortunately, they had left a gap for me to fly straight through to the ALS zone for the Hector base, and I was on the ground before they knew what hit them. My first move was to dump my entire stock onto the local exchange. I made a fortune, although that was not the point. There was a supply of narcotics there to last for over a month. I had not made a huge difference, but it was a start. I just hoped I would not be in the game for long.
I didn't head directly back, either. I ran some iron from Hector to Helen, where I filled my hold full of food and liquor. Pirate bases had the same needs as any station, and they seemed prepared to pay well. I had to do some rationalization with myself to cover for this, after all was I not helping to sustain an industry I abhorred? Maybe so. In any case, I did it and that was that. At the time I remember thinking that I would show Tayla that she was not my only source of income. In reality I don't think she even noticed.
In any event I landed back on Oakham and went straight to the commodities exchange to sell my goods. I had been right, they were willing to pay, and well. They were off the usual lanes so their supplies could get quite low before new stocks arrived. They bought all they could.
Tayla was in the bar again when I got there sitting at her usual table. She made mention of the fact that I had taken longer than she had expected. I made mention of the fact that she owed me money. We were not building up a huge friendship.
It didn't surprise me that I wasn't headed back to Troy. It did surprise me that I was headed to the capital for the sector, New Constantinople. I knew that you couldn't get drugs in there over the exchange, it was monitored. You had to have contacts, which of course she did. There went my idea of flooding her markets.
She sold it to me as a promotion, but I couldn't help but realise that I would be on a much more dangerous route and that I was headed for a market I could never flood. Whatever, I thought. I didn't find much more out about the artifact other than that everyone who had possessed it in the past was now dead. It wasn't a promising progression but then none of the people who had owned it before me had been professional military people in their former lives.
Twenty thousand credits was twenty thousand credits and I was soon on my way. That was the run that made me realise how far I was in. It was one thing to have Militia pilots in talons firing at me. It was another thing entirely when the energy bolts I was avoiding were being fired by Confed Stilettos.
I knew as soon as I saw them that I was in trouble. They were in a standard search formation, looking for the sort of stuff that was in my hold. There was no way I was going to be able to fire at these pilots. Five years ago I had been one myself. They didn't have that same whiney manner of the Militia. These pilots were consummate professionals, trained to be so. When the scan came up positive the message was simple - destroy the target.
I was sick of running from people. I had been doing it in Gemini for a long time now and here I was, doing it again. Confed was a little more thorough than the Militia patrols. They stuck with me. The Galaxy was fast but it was no match for the agile stilettos. In the end I was still weaving around as I afterburned my way to the jump point. My shields were taking damage but they were still there. I was thankful for that.
I ended up running through three separate patrols before I landed on New Constantinople. Leave my ship unattended? I headed straight for the bar. I wanted to get very drunk and I wasted no time doing it. Having never been to New Constantinople before I should have spent some time with the bartender, but he was busy anyway and so I left him to fetch me the drinks.
I was glad of one thing - I had been changing my transponder code as often as possible. When the pirates were around, I left it on the normal setting so I would not get attacked, but I had not been scanned with the standard signal yet. That meant I could fly around with no contraband and be safe from the Militia and Confed patrols. My signal would not match what they were looking for. I thought about the trade stuffs they would have available here, there didn't seem to be anything that would interest a pirate base. I was drunk and sick of being played with. I finished my last drink and headed for the spaceport. I was leaving.
By the time I was landing on Oakham, I was sobering up fast although I still looked a wreck. Tayla actually commented on it when I met her in the bar once more. I thought it wise not to mention the amount of drinking I had done before taking off. I doubted that being drunk during spaceflight would meet with her approval whether I could handle it or not. Besides, I wanted my money and I was not in the mood for idle chat.
I was not in a pleasant mood and I asked her straight out why she was not interested in the artifact herself. Her answer surprised me. I took a look at myself after what she said. I was not a murderer myself, and yet she had implied that I would have to become one to hang on to this thing. I shrugged off the implication for the time being. It wasn't getting me anywhere thinking about the future and Tayla did promise to tell me more if I ran one final mission.
Given the escalation in danger I had been facing, I didn't hold out much chance of coming back alive this time. I remember asking with a sarcastic edge whether I was running catnip to Kilrah. I couldn't tell whether she was joking or not when she told me she saved the more lucrative missions for herself. In a way, I hoped she was. I had seen what the Kilrathis did to their criminals, and despite the stuff she peddled I couldn't wish that on her.
When she told me it was another mission to New Constantinople I nearly turned it down. I was in no mood to take on another mission like that especially for less money. Ten thousand credits didn't sound like a lot of money just then. I was ready to walk away and I told her so. She actually surprised me this time. She pulled out the schematics for the Galaxy class merchant ships. There were some scratchings on the schematics. I looked over what they were and began to smile. It was a very clever idea.
Just about every ship that went into space had a buffering zone around the jump drive compartment. With the exception of the Confed fitouts, starships allowed for the jump drive's activity according to the specifications of the engineers who had first designed them. Confed had been pushing the envelope of that spec for years now and they knew exactly how much space the jump housing required to hold the distortion effect to within millimetres. That was as far as they would push it themselves.
Tayla had access to the Confed specs. It was a neat trick she was going to pull on my ship. By adjusting the mounts on the jump engine, the housing could be compartmentalised and a secret hold added. It wouldn't be big, only twenty standard units worth of space, but it would be enough for the run. The good news was that the jump drive's distortion effect would hide the contents from scans and because it was fitted into the jump drive housing, I could take it with me if I ever decided to get a new ship.
It was a brilliant idea and the compartment would be useful in the future I was sure. I decided to take her up on the offer. One more flight of brilliance to New Constantinople for ten grand, a ship upgrade and the info on the artifact. It was a deal I could not refuse, if she was not stringing me along. I made this point quite strongly to her, but she didn't flinch. She was the type to know when she was pushing someone close to their limit and I was sure I was going to get my information after the run.
While I was waiting for her crews to finish I made a promise to myself that I would not touch this stuff again, at least until the smell of the drugs faded from my hold. Never say Never I used to say and I still believed that, otherwise I would not have started along this course in the first place. Still, I knew that it would be a long time before I wanted to touch the drug trade again.
I launched after her crews were complete and the merchandise loaded. I wasn't in a rush to test the system although I was sure that it would work. I did however want to put this last run behind me as soon as I possibly could. As soon as Control released me I flew through the asteroids and targeted the jump point in my nav computer, punching Auto as soon as I could.
I came out of Auto at the jump point but there was another ship there. With my load on board I was still nervous about any company, especially when they hailed me which this one did. I opened a channel, making sure to arm my guns at the same time. It was William Riordian.
I had heard of the man through some of the bartenders and it immediately made me nervous. I recalled the rumours. The man had actually been in bars bragging about running drugs. He was a fool and none of the bartenders expected him to live. There was something else though. They had mentioned that he was working for a knockout. It didn't take me too long to realise they were referring to Tayla.
The rest of the conversation went as I would have predicted. The man was pissed at me. He seemed to think I was to blame for him being pushed out of Tayla's organisation. His own stupidity didn't seem to factor into it, despite the fact that he was broadcasting her name and his previous occupation all over a clear channel. I tried to calm him down but at the same time I was preparing myself. When his ship marker changed colour to red on my radar screens I was neither surprised nor unprepared. This was going to be a fight to the death.
Riordian was flying a mercenary's ship. That made it faster, more agile, and heavier on firepower than I mine. In a fair fight between equal pilots I would have been dead. Fortunately, this man was not my equal and I soon began to wonder if talking was his only true skill. I was not surprised that Riordian was cut from Tayla's operation but I knew that if it had been me making that decision I would not have left the man alive. He talked too much.
That was when it hit me of course - they were not leaving him alive. It would've been Tayla who had made sure he found out that I was working for her, running the routes he had previously handled. It was elegant in its simplicity. She was making me do her dirty work. I was supposed to kill him, leaving her smelling like roses while I had no choice now that he was out to kill me. The fact that I could argue self defence did not make me feel any better about targeting the man but like I said, I no longer had a choice.
I spun the ship around as fast as I could, trying to duck in behind him. He was using his agility to advantage but the man had a tendency to rely on his tools more than his skill. It was the first mistake of the rookie mercenary and it was the reason that most of them ended up dead. So far he had not got a clear missile lock on me and I knew that if he did he would unleash as many missiles as he could to take me out without engaging me in a dogfight.
I made every effort to ensure that we fought with guns rather than missiles. I was too big a target to do otherwise and I was managing to pepper his shields with hits every so often as I got my shots lined up. After several quick shots I managed to reduce his rear shields to nothing and then I made the shots that counted. Several more Tachyon bursts later his afterburners were gone and his agility was reduced. This was now a fight between comparable ships, if not comparable pilots.
To his credit, he didn't try to run. I've seen some crippled ships try it but all it does is give their attacker an easy shot with some heat seekers. Riordian continued to fight but now it was on my terms. He was using his guns to try and pepper my shields and wear them down but I could dodge most of his fire. The few shots that he managed to pull off were easily absorbed by my shields and I found that the longer we fought the more damage his ship was sustaining. Shot for shot, more of mine were counting than his.
It was all over soon enough. Several well placed shots on my part all but destroyed his thrusters, and I fell in behind him and opened his ship to space with another burst up his engines. Hearing him insult me one last time as he died didn't fill me with comfort, but at least I had taken care of a threat. Realistically, I knew that if it had not been me then someone else would have taken the pilot down soon enough. It had been a shame the man didn't fly as well as he bragged. He had been as good as dead the moment he started working for Tayla.
The remainder of the flight to New Constantinople went without a hitch. I was scanned twice and the teams found nothing. The secret hold worked well. Nothing was suspected. I knew how these teams worked. If they had suspected something then they would have followed me around a little, tried scanning from several angles, but there was none of that. As far as they were concerned I was clean.
I landed and walked away from my ship as had been requested. I knew that the secret hold would be empty as soon as I returned but I tried not to think about what I was doing right now. I was angry with myself that I had come this far in my quest and stooped so low. I kept telling myself that this was the last time, that when I got back to Pentonville I would have the information that Tayla was holding out on. That was of course if I could trust her to hold up her end of the bargain.
I sat in the bar at New Constantinople and thought about this. So far I had done most of the giving in our association. She had paid me promptly for the mission completions and had not bounced me for flooding the Troy market. She had also kept her promise with keeping the pirates out of my face. Still, I had done all the real work. Paying me and telling the pirates to back off was not something that required a real effort on her part. I needed that information more than the money but I wasn't convinced I was going to get it without a fight.
Maybe I was being harsh but I doubted it. Despite her alleged qualms about killing people she was in the drug trade and to me that amounted to the same thing, probably worse. I was a killer, sure, but only in the defence of myself or those under my protection. That sort of thing was drummed into me at the naval academy but I had always held to a similar ideal. I doubted that it made me more moral than Tayla but I know which one of us I trusted more. I took another drink and thought about things. Maybe she was thinking the same things about me.
It was all futile conjecture I realised. I would find out for sure whether I was going to get what I was owed soon enough. This was the last time I had to touch the junk I'd been hauling. I made a mental note to scrub my ship down after I had Tayla's information. I wanted even the traces of brilliance off my ship.
I was on the verge of getting very drunk on New Constantinople. It no longer mattered when I got back to Pentonville. I could wait around here a little longer if I wished. That got me thinking. I finally decided I would run a mission or two on my return flight. Nobody would care and it felt important to get back into the swing of normal runs. I checked out the missions on the computer for the Guild as well as the public computer. I snapped up three cargo runs to the planet Magdalene in the Padre system. A pleasure planet. About time I took some time out to enjoy myself I thought. My trip to Speke felt like so long ago right now.
I stopped by the Commodities Exchange after picking up the missions. There was a stack of artwork available and I bought all there was. Pleasure planets loved the stuff. It didn't take long for the exchange staff to load it for me and by the time the drinks from the bar were wearing off I was in the middle of my preflight checks. The Padre system was three jumps away. In fact it was close to Pentonville anyway. I suspected that Magdalene was so successful as a pleasure planet because of the proximity to illicit supplies. I was no longer surprised to see so much Militia activity in 119CE. I realised that a lot of nasty stuff would pass through that system.
I launched from the Starbase and set up my nav computer for the run. I was about to hit the autopilot when I saw the wing of Retros headed towards New Constantinople. I checked my radar, there were only other freighters in the area. I guess it could have been my bad mood over the drug runs or maybe my concern for the other merchant ships, but I deep down I suspect it was just my military instincts kicking in that made me activate my guns and target the lead ship. In any event, if these fanatics wanted a fight, they were about to get one.
My radar showed four talons inbound and two other freighters in the area. I was surprised at the behaviour of the freighters, they were actually turning with me and arming weapons. My scans showed a Drayman and another Galaxy. One of them sent me a comm.
"Good to see you Friend."
Everything clicked back into place for me. I was back to doing what felt right and in that moment I felt all my self confidence return. I gunned my afterburners and headed straight for the talon I had in my sights.
He didn't last long. From the second he was in range he was struck with volleys of tachyon fire. His shields had collapsed by the time he started firing and as he launched his missiles he burst into a ball of fire in space. My ECM package threw the missiles off when I ducked out of their flight path and I set my sights on the next ship in the wing.
They had scattered now. It was six ships all mixed into the fray as both freighters had opened fire and the remaining talons had split to take our ships one on one. That was a mistake they never lived to regret. The Retro pilots were fairly evenly matched for flying skill, but we were not.
The pilot who took me on found that out the hard way. I had taken him out within a minute of dog fighting, his ship was more manoeuvrable, but he didn't push the envelope at all. I could feel the Galaxy groaning with the strain, but she held together as I matched him move for move, peppering his hull with fire. As soon as he was finished, I headed for the one which was taking on the Drayman.
The Drayman was simply no match for a Talon. It put up an admirable fight, but without afterburners it couldn't chase the Talon and its mass drivers were only effective at close range. By the time I got there the Drayman was in trouble. I knew that the other Galaxy would keep its Talon busy for a while though so this was one Retro that wasn't about to receive support. I taunted him pretty badly as I sped into the fray and the tactic worked, as usual. Retros never could take a joke. He switched his targeting to me.
There was a lot of fire exchanged in that engagement. Some of my turret fire came in handy, after the other two ships I had expected this one to be easy meat as well. He was a good flyer but a bad aim. This put him on the same level as his wingmen but in a way that made taking him out a much longer proposition in a Galaxy. I had been wearing down his shields over several minutes when his message of hatred came over my comm system. He thought he was closing in for the kill. I checked my radar and headed for top turret. I didn't know what he had left but I didn't like the sound in his voice at all.
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