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Roberts Space Industries ®






August 1st 2013

By Griffin Barber

A Separate Law: Part Four

Well now, isn’t this the perfect welcome to Taranis, garden spot of Human-controlled space?

A pair of obvious pirates were closing on a trader just at the edge of Gates’ sensor coverage. He’d been tracking developments for a while, watching as the captain of the long-hauler, trying to escape the two vessels behind it, blundered across the pirate lying doggo along his path. The third pirate went active with his sensors, closing the sack.

The trade-ship captain compounded his error, slowing when he should try and shoot past the lone ship along his trajectory: a stern chase was still longest … But no, he’d slowed, the course alteration only serving to keep him in the weapons envelope of the pirates that much longer.

Missiles traced between the pirate and quarry. EMP hashed his sensors as the opening salvo of the pirates downed the trader’s weak shields. Despite the blurring of the sensor image, Gates knew what was next: a high-speed pass with guns, aimed at damaging drives and shield generators, and destroying whatever weapons the owner had mounted.

Gates felt his upper lip curling, conflicted. Bounty hunters rarely took on pirates on the prowl, preferring to take down individual bounties while the pirate was planetside, hopefully drunk, and certainly well away from ship-destroying weapons that might put the hunter out of business. It was a practical tactic, and one that, if ignored, would raise questions about his cover.

If everyone kept to their present course and speed, their trajectories would close enough to get them inside his missile envelope in just under three minutes.

Someone always survives these things, and they always talk. Can’t have ‘em talking about how I blasted in for no guarantee of cash for my efforts.

The trader’s emergency beacon lit up.

Stupid. Should have just given in and lost the cargo. There’s insurance for that kind of thing. Now the pirates’ll take it out of their hides, literally.

The tags on the transmission identified the vessel as a T-XIII, one of the cheapest cargo-haulers plying the space lanes. Capable, barely, of transiting jump points, they had large holds and minimal crew requirements, making them the piece of crap of choice for down-at-the-heels traders.

Two minutes before entering engagement range on his missiles, the tactical plot beeped. The hauler had stopped maneuvering.

Damn it. Gates increased throttle by twenty percent, increasing his rate of closure. Maybe the pirates will spook, they see me coming.

He ran the drive signatures of all the vessels against the 325’s database of ship profiles. The one that had been lying in wait was a Cutlass, as was one of the pair of chasers. The other chaser was a Caterpillar, a modified cargo hauler; big, slow and certainly not going to win any battles of maneuver.

Gates checked the tactical plot, running a missile solution on the closing Cutlass and checking the positions of the other vessels. The Caterpillar was almost on top of the hauler, probably using its tractors to haul the cargo vessel in.

The general comms came to life: “Fellow traveller, you need to make for elsewhere.”

Polite breed of pirate I’ve found. Polite and nearsighted. Can’t see what he’s facing.

Gates smiled as the range ticked down. Once he had the other ship deep enough into his envelope, he launched.

It took a measurable moment for the sensors to report their findings to the pirate, during which the comm warning continued: “I won’t warn you aga-“ the speaker cut off with a squeal of panic as the pilot realized he’d gone from fox to hen. He didn’t react well, punching out countermeasures far too early and jerking his stick around. His indecision killed a lot of speed for no gain. He ended slower than he’d begun, and moving away from his support and almost parallel to Gates.

Gates punched the throttle and went straight in at the Cutlass. The targeting computer chuckled as it worked out a targeting solution on the other vessels. If the first Cutlass survived the pair of missiles sent its way, Gates would end him with guns.

Gates adjusted course, slid sideways as the ECM suite lit up with warnings.

He ignored them for the moment, spitting his own pair of missiles; both rocketing toward the other Cutlass. Gates lined up the mass driver on the first Cutlass and snapped a burst of hypervelocity rounds at him.

He needn’t have bothered. Both missiles from his first salvo easily overtook the Cutlass and its inexperienced pilot: the first detonation downed its shields a split second before the follow-up exploded right beside the vessel’s cockpit. Several heartbeats later the hypervelocity rounds from the mass driver ripped into the flank of the Cutlass just forward of her drive section, blowing great chunks of armor and internal components free. Bleeding atmo, the Cutlass pinwheeled into the long, dark night.

He tore his gaze away, saw the pair of bright pinpoints of their drives as the missiles raced at him from the remaining Cutlass. He waited as the warnings came more and more shrilly.

At the last instant he sideslipped again, dumping countermeasures to continue along his original vector. Both missiles bit into false signatures, tiny electronic minds deceived. Spheres of expanding plasma lit the black behind Gates. He adjusted course a third time, pushed the throttle to the stops.

He’d lost track of his own missiles, had to glance at the plot. This pilot was better.

Must have avoided one of the blasts entirely. His shields were just coming back on line. The Cutlass was punching it, maneuvering to come at Gates from the side, hammer to the Caterpillar’s anvil.

Gates lined up on the Caterpillar, trusting to the 325’s better speed to get him in and out before the Cutlass could peg him with sufficient cannon fire to overload his shields.

Entering range, he snapped the 325 into a roll and held both firing studs down. Coherent beams snapped across the vacuum even as a stream of metal splinters followed at a velocity that was slower on a scale that only machines could appreciate.

The turret on the Caterpillar got into action.

Gates slammed the yoke forward and then hard left, stamping his right foot down at the same time, then immediately hammered the yoke to the right. Thrusters fired, yanking the 325 down and left before rolling in a righthand spin that leveled out ‘below’ the Caterpillar in its current orientation, preventing the turret gunner from targeting him. Turret gunnery required close coordination between pilot and gunner — something most pirate scum didn’t practice.

He brought his own nose up and fired into the belly of the Cat, hits spalling armor and releasing superheated metal vapor to glow against the black. Something broke loose inside the Cat as Gates straightened out, a half-dome of fire erupting like a glowing blister from a directional thruster.

More warnings blatted, this time from his shields. The Cutlass had come in when Gates slowed, managing several hits with its laser cannon.

Good pilot. Better, by far, than his wingman.

He pushed the comm button, broadcasting even as he maneuvered to shake the Cutlass: “Gonna have the bounty on one of you. Don’t need more. Should you want to run, I won’t be chasing you.”

Several more cannon shots tapped against his shields.

Still adding velocity, Gates cranked the 325 into a widening spiral, pushing the ship and its compensators to the maximum.

The Cutlass followed, inferior thrust costing her position with each passing second, despite the Cutlass’ better turning capability.

Starting at the apex of a turn, Gates reversed course. The world grayed, G-forces crushing despite compensators. Breathing hard and holding onto consciousness with an act of will, Gates lined up on the Cutlass and pressed both firing studs again.

Her shields buckled under the high cyclic rate of the 325’s laser cannon, then the hull cracked open under the flail of the mass driver’s munitions.

The Cutlass pilot’s gunnery was damn good: a series of successive shots managing to down the 325’s shields before wrecking the empty starboard missile pod and cracking armor all along that stretch of wing.

“Call it even, then,” the pirate’s transmission came as the Cutlass shot past Gates’ rapidly decelerating ship.

Gates turned but checked fire as the pirate continued to add velocity and run for it; a deal was a deal, after all.

The Caterpillar was already making best possible speed for the depths of the system.

He turned for the hauler. The comm went active again: “This is Captain Charles Zhou of Saint Claire’s Kiss. Please identify.”

“Arminius Gates, bounty hunter. The pirates won’t be back.”

“Oh, thank the Buddha.”

What followed was far too many tearful thank-yous that Gates found increasingly irritating. It took some doing, but the captain eventually got their primary systems up and running. Some hours later Gates was escorting the trade ship Saint Claire’s Kiss to the jump point for Nemo, trying to politely turn down Captain Zhou’s dubious offers of assistance he or his crew might render their savior.

. . .to be continued

End Transmission



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