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In the turret I could see him closing in. I fired the tachyon guns at him, bringing the shields down just enough for the torpedoes. My finger was about to squeeze the trigger, but in the end I didn't launch a single one.
I had forgotten all about the Drayman during the exchange and so had the Retro as it turned out. As I was lining him up for the kill I saw the mass driver fire spraying over the Talon. He looked upwards in his cockpit in total surprise but it was too late. There was not much left of his ship when the Drayman had finished its firing run. I expected it to turn and leave me to finish the Talon off but it didn't. It kept going at full speed.
Bits of the Talon bounced off the Drayman's shields as it rammed the crippled ship. This guy had been pissed off completely and had decided to make the kill a sure thing. The Talon had exploded as it came into contact with the fully regenerated shields of the freighter. The Drayman's forward shield buckled heavily, but held. I scanned him, he was okay. His automated repair systems were already at work on the damage he had sustained at the beginning of the fight. One to go.
I had been right, the remaining Retro ship and the other Galaxy had kept each other occupied quite nicely. Both ships had their shields worn down but neither was sustaining damage yet. If left to it, either fatigue or shield regeneration speed would have decided the contest. Neither of them had missiles left which said more about the skill of the Galaxy pilot than it did the Retro. Getting a freighter out of the way of incoming ordnance was much harder than shaking off missiles in a fighter. I knew that first hand.
My ship came into the fray with afterburners on full. That was enough to give the Retro some doubts. He quickly changed to a more defensive flying style. Any other pilot would probably have run but I guess that the Retro still had his faith. It didn't help him. He was now facing two ships with a third inbound. The Drayman was advancing, albeit slowly without any afterburners. The Retro summed up the situation and targeted the ship it had been working on all this time, unleashing all it had.
I caught it in a scissor action. As it fired I came in with all guns blazing, striking at its exposed belly. It didn't last long. It was destroyed before it could pull up from its run against the other ship. Bits of it peppered the other Galaxy's shields before it could change course. No damage was sustained but I hoped that Captain had strapped down his cargo hold properly when I saw him pull out of the debris field so sharply.
I scanned the area, no remaining unfriendlies. My nav computer was still showing the course I had originally laid in so I lost no more time and headed off under autopilot. That fight had been fun, but Magdalene promised fun of a different kind. As my ship steadied and I leaned back from the controls I smiled to myself. For the first time in a while I was actually looking forward to making my destination.
The jump point was clear of traffic when I got to it. I checked over my systems and everything looked fine. There was no evidence that anything was wrong, but I could not help the nagging doubts in the back of my mind. I made sure my guns and missiles were all armed before entering the jump point. The hair on the back of my neck was bristling as I entered the familiar blue swirling fields that marked the area where my jump engines were ready to be engaged. I activated them and soon found the cause of my concern.
It is said that the early pioneers who went through the jump points and into space from earth were different when they returned. I didn't know much about the Pilgrim Wars but I knew that pioneers were fabled with the ability to read the jump points and have a sense for what was on the other side. I don't know if that was what I was sensing but as the laser shots peppered my shields in the Junction jump point I knew that my uneasiness had at least paid off. I found myself in the middle of a firefight between the Militia and the Pirates, guns at the ready.
Instincts took over. Within seconds I had a pirate Talon in my sights and was firing. I was happy for one thing. The scanner I had was a colour coded model. There were nearly ten Talons spinning around me and without the colour coding I realised that it would not be too difficult to shoot down a Militia pilot by mistake. Maybe I should not have shot down anyone. Tayla had warned the Pirates off me after all. In the end I didn't have a choice. Before I even realised what I was doing I had fired enough tachyon bursts into the targeted pirate ship that all bets were off. I wasn't getting out of there without taking down the pirates in the fray. So be it, I thought.
The fight had been an even one before I arrived on the scene. The Militia and Pirates had an even number of Talons in the fray, similar weapons, even similar skill levels in the pilots from what I could see. There would not have been much left of either side by the time they were finished but I suspected that the pirates would have won, even if only by a ship or two. That would have meant a lot of good Militia pilots meeting their end and that was completely unnecessary.
My Galaxy wading into the fight turned the tables on the Pirates. I may as well have been flying a Paradigm. I had much heavier armour, much more powerful guns, and fighter cover. The militia pilots were not stupid. When they saw the first pirate talon explode after being pounded with tachyon fire they regrouped around me, provided flanking cover as I took on the next enemy talon.
The battle was over in less than half an hour. The first two talons fell quickly and that was enough to tip the balance back in favour of the Militia pilots. They put two on my wing and the others broke off and engaged the enemy once more. The remaining pirates made a fight of it and were a lot harder to kill. They were flying for their lives and I no longer had the element of surprise. I was a large target and I noticed a number of missile locks engage on my ship. One of them even got a missile off, but the ECM did its job and I came out clean.
I sat back as the final pirate was targeted by a wing of the Militia pilots. I would have only been in the way as they engaged. I'd already done my job. They were dancing around for several minutes before the final blow came, the pirate yelling curses into the comms as his ship disintegrated. I checked the radar again, all clear. The jump point was clear of traffic, only the Militia pilots remained there with me. It was time for me to move on. I still had deliveries to make to Magdalene.
I activated comms before setting the autopilot. The Militia pilots were only too happy to chat for a while. I'd made some more friends that day. I'd also made enemies but I could deal with that. Calling the pirates friends hadn't sat well with me in the first place. I finished my conversation with the Militia, they were going to remain in the area for a while to patrol so I keyed in the nav coordinates and sat back as the autopilot kicked in.
Magdalene was free of traffic. This didn't come as a surprise, with the huge fight on at the only jump point into the system I hadn't expected to see any other ships on arrival. I headed for the planet and waited for the controller to announce that I was entering the ALS. Once I got the signal, I sat back and left the rest of the trip to Ground Control.
This was the first trip I had made to Magdalene. I'd seen some of the ads around the other bases, especially in Troy, but the reality was something I was glad to see for myself. The planet was similar to most agricultural planets but there seemed to be much less food production going on. They could feed themselves but they didn't have a large export market happening. They didn't have much of an export market at all, really. Save for movies there was not much that came out of the pleasure planet.
Economically, they didn't have to export much to pay for their huge import demands. Their chief industry was tourism. They were service oriented planets and that showed as I walked around inside one of the complexes near the Starbase. There were similar facilities to those provided on other bases but in different configurations. The bars for instance were huge, and expensive. They had to be to pay for all the lavish decor that they had put up. You didn't just buy a drink on Magdalene, you bought a drinking experience.
For all the additional costs and frills, I thought the information the bartenders could provide was on a par with anywhere else you could go in Gemini. I found that a little disappointing, it was like all the quality was a facade. One thing was a bonus, the bartenders on Magdalene were a damn sight prettier than the ones I had spoken to elsewhere on Gemini. On most bases the bartender was the owner of the bar, trying to extract a living from a small pool of clientele. On the pleasure planets bars were massive businesses and the owners could afford to hire attractive bartenders to try and boost business. It nearly made up for the price hike. Nearly.
The Commodities Exchange validated my cargo choices when I went to sell the artwork I had loaded in New Constantinople. I made a tidy profit on it in addition to the credits for the other missions I had completed running cargo here. It amounted to a tidy sum and I left the Exchange feeling happy. I decided that I should spend some time there. I needed a holiday.
I sat back and thought about my situation. Maybe what I needed was not a holiday, but a change in my line of work. The galaxy was a fine ship and had served me well, but I was beginning to think that it was not the total answer, either. I was in essence a trader, and that had never sat well with me. The trip here had proven that to me, I had taken out a large number of targets in a merchant ship, most would not have even tried. I needed a ship that was more suited to my talents.
I thought about that for a while. There were two options for me as I saw it. I could buy an Orion and fit it out with the top line improvements. That would give me a ship that would be the equivalent of a broadsword, a heavy gunship that could still carry a little more cargo than the alternative, or I could go straight to a Centurion.
I liked the idea of a Centurion if I was going to upgrade. Changing ships was an expensive exercise and I figured that I would end up in a Centurion eventually if I stayed in the sector. The problem was that with only fifty units of cargo space I would pretty much have to abandon my free trader status and either take on assigned cargo missions or sign on as a mercenary. As disgruntled as I was with trading I was not sure that being a mercenary was any better. I certainly wouldn't always get my pick of assignments and there were a lot of bad ones out there. The more I thought about it the more I thought that I would be better off moving by little steps. While at the planet I decided that if I was going to change it would be to an Orion Gunship.
I went to the main lobby for the starport town and I was surprised to see that there was no Mercenary's Guild office there. At first I thought that this would have been the perfect place for one but as I thought about it more I could see why they would not be entirely welcome at Magdalene. With a pirate base only two jumps away an influx of mercenaries could damage the fragile relationship between the planet and the pirates' supply route. Magdalene might not be as successful as a pleasure planet if all those pilots were chasing the pirates off their main route. There was a simple and appealing logic to it, but that didn't mean I liked it. I had been hoping to speak to them before making the purchase but in the end I decided that I had really had enough of being caught out in deep space in a ship that no longer suited what I wanted to do. I walked over to the ship dealer. I wouldn't have to scrub down the Galaxy after all.
The ship dealer was quite friendly when he found out I had the credits for such a serious purchase. At one point he tried to convince me on the Centurion but I had made up my mind and he knew better than to push any harder. I got a reasonable trade in on the Galaxy and I still had plenty of credits for a proper refit of the Orion. These ships were only any good if you spent the additional credits on them. That I set out to do.
The good news was the jump drive housing. As I had suspected the secret compartment that Tayla had fitted for me was transferred into my new ship with no problems. The other improvements and components were readily available and I had the equipment loaded soon enough. There was one thing about the Orion that I hadn't counted on, however. It ran seriously short of hardoints. Two gun mounts and a weapon mount on the front, and the same on the rear turret. I found it disappointing. There was a lot of flexibility in the layout of the Galaxy that I was now going to lose. I decided to forego the tractor beam, I loaded a missile launcher on the front and a torpedo launcher on the turret. Plasma cannons all around. They packed a punch that was a little higher than the tachyon guns, and I now had a power plant capable of feeding them in a fight.
I walked out of the dealership only a little poorer than when I had walked in. The Orion had been cheaper than the Galaxy, but the improvements had made the total cost a little higher. Looking at my credit balance, I was not really in that bad a position after the transaction. Still, I could not help stopping by when I found myself walking past the Merchants' Guild. I intended to build my balance back up to the point prior to making the change in ship as soon as possible. Add to that the idea forming in the back of my mind that having the credits to change over to a Centurion would not be that bad an idea for the future and I found myself in front of the Guild computer before I even realised it.
Three cargo missions to New Detroit. Some quick mathematics told me that with the cargo expansion I had enough space for the mission cargo, and I accepted all three on the spot. This was the second time in a row that this had happened, and I knew to take it while luck was on my side. Besides, Tayla would wait. I wanted to try out the new ship, see if I had made the right decision.
When I headed out to the landing bay in which my ship had been placed, I found myself impressed with the sight. It was actually a little smaller than the Galaxy, but so much more of it was dedicated to combat. It had much stronger armour and shields, the power plant for the beast was stronger than the one for the Galaxy, and the plasma cannons made an impressive sight on the front of the ship. The cargo had been loaded already. Now all that remained to do was see if it flew as well as it looked.
The first thing I noticed about the ship when I sat in the cockpit was the visibility. I couldn't see as much out of the windows as I could have out of the Galaxy cockpit, but it wasn't as bad as the Tarsus and there was more equipment to make up for it. Like the Galaxy, it had two MFDs although their configuration inside the cockpit was very different to the ship I had just traded in. I started through my preflight checks and I had familiarized myself with the layout soon enough. I had learnt very early on in my military career that when you get reassigned every other week it pays to be able to fly at your best in a new ship sooner rather than later. Besides, the ship felt quite familiar and I could not help but think of the old broadswords as the engines whined into life.
There were of course some fundamental differences between the two types of ship. The Broadsword was a bomber rather than a gunship. It was designed to carry a large array of projectile weapons to a sight and deploy them at capital ships. It had three turrets to keep the fighter cover at bay while it completed its mission, but really like any bomber the Confederation had built the ship needed fighter cover itself to make its run. They were a smart idea against the Kilrathi who didn't seem to have a matching craft. Their corvettes were the smallest anti-capital ship in their arsenal and they were capital ships themselves.
Th Orion on the other hand was a gunship. It didn't have the load out options for anti-capital ship runs, at least not as the principal mission. These ships were more like the tanks of space. They were so large and heavily armored to hold a massive power plant, capable of driving the two massive cannons in its forward loadout. It was more manoeuvrable than the Broadsword but it had to be. It was an anti-fighter weapons platform. Still, it would fly like a pig and I had to prepare myself for that. It was in fact a little faster than the Galaxy as well but that wasn't surprising. Combat dictated that the ship have the ability to evade when necessary.
I was finally given clearance and I wasted no time in lifting off. As soon as my ship left the ground I could tell that it was about on a par with the Galaxy for acceleration but the manoeuvrability was not as good. All that extra armour came at a price but that was fair enough as well. I wondered as I was leaving the planet's atmosphere whether or not I would get a chance to test the ship in combat on the way to New Detroit. I hoped so. I needed to hone my skills in the new ship. I thought back to when I had first arrived in the Gemini Sector, how I had cringed in that damn Tarsus whenever I thought about combat. How things had changed. Now that I had the tools I was ready to go to work.
Soon enough I found my self back in free space, clear of the planetary ALS. Time to familiarize myself with the controls, try out a couple of flight moves, etc. I checked the radar, there was nothing around. Perfect. I fired up the guns, increased my sped to maximum, and started throwing the ship around, firing the guns constantly.
It didn't take me long to realise why the Orion came with a rear turret. With all the handling of a Drayman this ship would have most of its attackers behind it in no time. I was glad that I had fitted out the turret as well as I had the main weapons array. I was going to need it, I was sure. That having been said I was impressed by the staying power of the generator. I had pounded out energy via the guns and it was still able to handle it. The scale said I was running low after several minutes but that didn't mean anything. Plasma Cannons are not the sort of weapons that you keep your finger down on the trigger for. They have a slow refire and are designed for maximum impact with a minimum of shots. These were the sort of guns you used when you were prepared to line up your shots rather than spray an area with energy like the lasers.
I was now sure that I was familiar enough with the ship to handle myself in a light combat situation. I figured that a wing of Retros would do just nicely. I still had afterburners so I also had some ability to run if needed. I would keep my options open for now and enjoy the trip if I could. I activated my nav console and set out for the jump point to 119CE.
I guess that life has a way of waiting until the very moment you think you're prepared to test you on the point. Either that or I should have been much more careful what I wished for. In any event, as the autopilot kicked out at the jump point I found four talons burning their way to my location. My guns were already charged from my previous tests so I prepared for a fight. Militia pilots don't burn to your location. They're much more likely to use the comm.
My suspicions were confirmed soon enough. The pilot of the lead ship sent a torrent of religious fervour my way. Retros. As I strapped in I couldn't help smiling even though I was concerned about taking on that many Talons with no real flight experience in the new ship. I lined up the lead ship and I could soon feel his laser shots ringing against my shields. The fool was actually going head to head with an Orion. I lined up my shots and fired twice with the plasma cannons. Four bolts of energy ripped through the ship tearing it apart in space. The next three had veered away already. I had lost the element of surprise if I ever had it. The remaining ships would be normal hard work.
I targeted the closest one and spun around trying to face it. That was not an easy task in the Orion but it did keep my rear from staying in the one location as well. I could see that the other two Talons were trying to get heat seeker locks on me. They actually got brief locks from time to time but never long enough to actually get a missile off at me. The cannons were not my ally this time. They have slow energy bolts and that means that it's too easy for an agile ship to dodge them at any range. The only way I was going to get the second Talon was to get close to it, at least until I had more practice with the ship and the guns. I hit the afterburners.
Using afterburners can be a tricky thing. One point to remember if you're a budding pilot who changes ships from time to time is that various ships have differing speeds when burning and those differences count. The burn speeds of the Galaxy and the Orion differ by only fifty KPS which means they seem quite similar in the cockpit, but fifty KPS in a tight arena can be lethal. I had not allowed for the additional speed and cut out just a fraction too close to the Talon. The pilot panicked and ended up veering directly into my forward shields.
I was lucky. My first reaction was to fire my cannons. Both blasts caught the Talon, weakening it sufficiently that the impact with my shields ripped it to pieces without causing my shields to fail completely. They came close though and the impact sent my ship into a spin. I fought with the controls for a moment, trying to bring the ship back under my direction. I managed to do so but found myself staring down the gun barrels of the third Talon as a result.
My front shields were already weak so I fired off several bursts and then turned to put a stronger shield between the Talon and I. I did it just in time, too. A series of blasts from mass drivers peppered my side as I swung around. The pilot was clearly trying to slingshot past me and start firing at my exposed rear.
He probably would have sped past me if he hadn't taken some damage from my cover fire. A quick glance at the scanner told me that he had lost his rear shields and taken some moderate damage to his rear armour. That meant that his afterburners were probably out. I took the opportunity while it presented itself and slid around as fast as I could. I was not as well placed to hop on his tail as I would have liked and for nearly a minute we were chasing each others' tail in a winding circle. We were getting nowhere and I had to do something quick. The other Talon had cottoned on and was moving in to get a missile lock.
I pulled out of the circle and headed for my rear turret. I knew the Talon would start following me so I armed all guns as well as the torpedoes in case I needed a quick kill. Sure enough the Talon followed. I fired a number of bursts into his cockpit but he managed to get a heat seeker off before he exploded.
I dived up front again as the missile struck. I was fortunate that it struck in the rear. With a shield at full strength I managed to survive with no damage to the ship. It did start spinning again and as it turned out that actually saved me once more. The remaining Talon had also managed to lock a heat seeker to me while I was taking out the Retro that had been on my tail and the spin meant that the missile impacted on my remaining shield. No damage to the ship.
One on one was a game I knew well and I found it interesting that in a close dogfight the Orion was not that under matched against a Talon. The tight moves required by the Talon were easier to execute but the Orion had size on its side. The ship was harder to turn but the Talon was restricted from making its turns too tight around the Orion by the fear of smashing into it. That meant that in most instances the Orion was a good match because in close quarters the Talon was restricted to the agility of the Orion while the Orion still had the advantage of being the heavier ship.
Of course, the Orion also had a weapons platform that could rip the Talon apart in two good shots. One on one, the battle turned into a war of attrition and the Talon couldn't hope to go the distance with an undamaged gunship. In the end I had worn his shields down to nothing and my forward shields were back to full strength so I rammed. The final Retro was shredded in space by the impact. It took me less than a minute to get the ship back under control and I calmly headed for the jump point. My first battle had been a win.
I knew deep down that I had been lucky. I was still inexperienced in the new rig and with the new layout. Brute force had got me past the post this time. I needed to do some more conventional flying in the beast before I took on odds like that again, but that was alright. At least I had kept her damage free on her maiden voyage. So far, anyway. I was still two jumps from New Detroit. I knew that anything could happen along the way.
Strangely enough, nothing did. I was expecting ships to come out of every asteroid field but in the end it was a quiet trip to New Detroit after the initial Retro attack. Not that I minded. It gave me plenty of time to get used to simply flying the ship. I knew that it was important to become familiar with the controls. It would speed my reaction time next time I found myself in a combat situation. That of course was the only absolute I was prepared to accept in this sector, I was sure that I was going to have to use the guns again even if it was for no other reason than to get my hands on the information I needed about the artifact.
As I headed for the ALS zone of New Detroit I started thinking about the artifact once more. I'd taken enough time out to soothe my nerves from the drug running I'd done, now it was time to make Tayla cough up her information. I had even given her time to retrieve it from her sources. I swore to myself that if she had been stringing me along I would tie her to the outside of my ship before lifting off, but I doubted that would be necessary. Tayla would know better than to try it on with me. The fact that she was still in operation told me that she knew who she shouldn't cross. It was time to pick up what was mine.
The ALS on New Detroit kicked in and I sat back, leaving the remainder of the flight to Planetary Control. They had me dirt side soon enough and I was pleasantly surprised with the mission credits I got for a single haul. I realised that there were benefits to doubling up on a single location and I knew that it was probably the only way I could make cargo runs worth the effort now that I had a much smaller hold.
I dropped into the bar but I didn't stay long. The place brought back too many memories for my comfort. This was where the whole thing had started. Ernesto had been sitting there when I first met him, so had Tayla for that matter. The heat was off me now and that was good. My trail had gone too cold for Insys to follow. I would be safe from them. As for Tayla, I didn't know but in any event the bar was still a source of discomfort for me. As I left after my one drink, I knew that I would be back one day but for now New Detroit would remain for me a cargo terminal and nothing more. I was headed over to the Merchant's Guild when I realised there was no point. They didn't ship to Pirate bases and Pentonville was where I was headed next. I stood still for a moment, wondering what I could do to pick up some credits along the way there.
I looked up and noticed that I was standing under a sign. It was advertising the Mercenaries Guild. The thought struck me that I finally had the equipment necessary to enter the Mercenary ranks. I could handle the odd patrol and bounty mission. I decided to check the Guild out at least. Maybe it would give me the options I was now looking for.
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