August 9th 2013
It had been, Gates reflected, a frustrating week. First, the 325 had developed an electrical problem in the damaged wing after the jump, then the sole civilian shipyard in orbit over Nemo III claimed all their repair bays were occupied.
He would have landed and taken advantage of the cheaper facilities planetside, but re-entry into the planet’s atmosphere would surely burn out the rest of the electronics in that stretch of wing, costing more time and money he didn’t have.
He’d set the ship into high orbit and sent a message to Morgan asking for a meet, then settled in to check his mail. Courier ships ran electronic mail across systems, delivering it to local holding networks for delivery when a recipient checked in. It wasn’t entirely secure, but it worked well enough if you had enough junk mail to cover for the occasional nugget of important correspondence encoded in some advertising packet or other.
Buried in one such advertisement proclaiming the wonders of Universal Health Corporation’s latest life-extension treatment, Vasser’s message was brief and to the point: No additional developments our end. Any on yours?
The reply Gates sent was equally terse: No. Still trying. Running at it from different angle. The blue-green marble of Nemo III spun carelessly on beneath him as Gates deleted the actual junk and scrolled through a few more messages, finding them no more pleasing. Those of his informants who’d responded didn’t have anything on Les Inconnus. Those that didn’t were even more unlikely to have anything, as they were generally involved in, or reported on, matters political.
The comm blinked, indicating an incoming message from dockside. Gates slapped the pickup, “Gates.”
“Sir, your request for service on the 325 has been expedited.”
“Expedited? By whom?”
“A friend to this yard: Jimmy Morgan says he owes you.”
Gates was caught off-guard. He hadn’t thought to get a pleasant surprise anywhere during this investigation. “Ah. Very good.”
“Please proceed to bay One-Eight along this course.”
Gates slugged the data to his navcomp and set things in motion as the shipyard rep continued, “Our estimate on your repair time is about fourteen hours. Will you need a shuttle to the planet or care to stay aboard the station during the work?”
“A shuttle, please.”
“You can pick up your complimentary shuttle ticket upon arrival. The next will be leaving the station at 17:15 Zulu. If you have other business to attend on station, shuttles depart for the surface hourly at quarter after.”
“Our pleasure. Thank you for choosing NemoNautics for your service and repair needs.”
Several hours later, he was sitting down at a table across from Commander James Morgan (Retired) and placing his noodle order with an attractive server.
“Good to see you, Gates,” Morgan said as the server left.
“And you, Morgan. How have you been?”
“Old and decrepit.”
Gates snorted. “You’re twenty years my junior.”
“It’s not the age, it’s the boarding actions.”
“I’m not some young woman you’re trying to impress. Besides, how many desperate boarding actions have you been in?”
A snort. “None.”
“So, you retired yet?”
Gates shrugged. “Kind of.” The lie came easy, Morgan wasn’t Advocacy: “On suspension, again. Doing some bounty work to keep myself afloat.”
“Bounty work? Who you looking for?”
“I wanted to know if you have any intel on new criminal organizations in this region of the Empire.“
“What are they into?”
“Slaving, smuggling, and piracy.”
“Corel, Nexus, Magnus, maybe Cathcart and Taranus, too.”
“That’s a lot of systems for your people to fail at tugging a thread loose.”
Gates shook his head, “I know. I wouldn’t be gnawing on noodles and listening to your inflated tales of yesteryear if I had other options.”
Arminius chuckled, “I’ve been called much worse, and far more inaccurate, names.”
Morgan tossed his head, “I’ll ask around.”
“I am retired.”
Gates grinned. “Heard that before.”
“It’s true, this time.”
“Guess I should have called in that marker from Vega back when.”
Morgan raised his hands, “Hey, I’m not saying I won’t get you some answers. I know I owe. It’s just that I’m not directly in the loop anymore. Besides, if I wasn’t interested in paying you back, I wouldn’t have arranged your repairs.”
“And thanks for that … How’d you come to call the shots for that kind of thing, anyway?”
“I’m retired from the Navy. The pension ain’t the best, especially with my exes to pay, but I managed to land some consulting work. Enough to scrape a nut together so I could put my fingers in a few pies.”
Gates nodded, “Good to hear you’re doing all right. Even so, I’m buying.”
“Damn right you are.”
His MobiGlas beeped as Gates signed off on the repairs. He stepped away from the counter and attendant, taking the call, “Gates.”
“You private?” Morgan’s voice.
That was quick. I knew Morgan wasn’t as retired as he let on. “Not really. Just about to board ship. Call me back in five.”
Gates finished up the paperwork and set out for bay 18. The MobiGlas went off again just as he was boarding. He slapped the hatch closed and routed the call through the 325’s intercom. “All right, I’m private,” he said, stowing his gear and beginning to change into his flight suit.
“Good. You were right, there is a connect between the pirates in Cathcart and Taranis. Starting about a year ago, some organization calling itself Les Inconnus muscled in and laid a couple of pirate clans flat, then offered the same guys new ships and weapons, so long as they made nice and played by some new rules. My information is sketchy on the new rules, but it’s clear the main point is keeping your mouth shut about who is on payroll and who isn’t. Our sources were clear that those who refused the offer didn’t appear again.”
“Anything on the where and who of Les Inconnus?”
“Corel-359 is supposed to be some kind of command center for their operations.”
Gates checked his MobiGlas, “Isn’t that a dead rock?”
“Yes, but private.”
“Why hasn’t the Navy moved on them, then?”
“Bigger concerns elsewhere, and I’m sure someone, somewhere along the line, is getting a subsidy to encourage them to look the other way.”
“Gates, don’t go after these people. By all accounts, they’re heavy hitters.”
“Last I checked, I am one too.”
“Hey, I tried, right?”
“Sure, Morgan. And thanks for the intel, I needed it. We’re even.”
“No, I still owe you, Gates. Safe travels.” The line went dead.
Gates was jumping to Corel an hour later, having updated Vasser about his destination.
Gates was on a ballistic course, coasting in toward Corel-359 over the last three days, sensors in passive mode. The rogue planetoid was well out from the system primary and off the beaten path, its orbit an odd ellipse currently passing above the plane of the ecliptic. It made sense as a base in that regard, but the fact it was a lifeless rock made it a hard sell for anyone mindful of logistical costs. There were several rings of ice and dust around the planetoid, as well as four even smaller orbiting rocks cluttering up readings, but drive signatures were easy to pick out, even for civilian sensors at a distance.
_Problem is, even with my enhanced sensor suite, I’ve picked nothing up. Not a damn thing. Messing with my cherub-like demeanor, this waiting game. Much longer and I’ll be in orbit myself.
To hell with it._
Gates went active — all at once — punching the throttle up to eighty percent and pinging everything in the local area with his sensors.
Minutes passed, the 325 building speed and a more accurate picture of the planetoid and its orbital companions. Still, nothi–
Three drives lit up on the tactical display: two in front, one almost immediately to starboard and below his line of approach. Gates picked the two ahead for attention from missiles, setting the comp to find a targeting solution even as the 325 identified his opponents as a pair of Cutlasses and an Aurora.
Gates altered course, stretching the time envelope to prevent the Cutlasses closing before he’d dealt with the closer Aurora.
The targeting comp pinged readiness. He pressed the firing stud.
For a moment, nothing happened, then the 325 lurched as the missile drives, still clutched in their pods, ignited.
They won’t arm this close to the ship, so they shouldn’t explode, but someone ha– sudden certainty froze his blood — Morgan! Get me expedited for repairs so you can sabotage my pods, eh? Should never have trusted hi– The ECM suite started blatting. Missiles incoming, from all three ships.
He started evasive maneuvers, test-firing the mass-driver and cannon. Both were working properly, as were his shields.
If he survived the missile attack, there would be a reckoning.
Face set in a death’s head grin, Gates pushed the throttle to the stops.
Wolves beware, this old dog still has teeth.