September 20th 2013
The White Stag appeared on the edge of his passive sensor envelope. He’d been on station for two days, waiting for this moment, sleep troubled with recurring images of his cockpit canopy shattering, waking hours spent fearing Les Inconnus had discovered Stroller was compromised. It took longer than it should have, but the White Stag’s escorts slowly appeared, like drops of blood, on the nav plot. He went over the readings: the White Stag was a Drake Industries light passenger liner, about the size of a Navy frigate and designed to transport a better class of tourist or a party of corporate executives in speed and relative safety. She would have strong shields and excellent point defense, but almost no offensive weaponry. She was straight-line fast, and nimble for a vessel her size.
Another full minute passed before his sensors tagged the escorts as Cutlasses. With four Cutlasses along, destroying the White Stag would be impossible if his plan didn’t pan out. Les Inconnus must have a contract with Drake Industries, the number of Cutlasses they field.
More minutes passed. The plot updated again, target and entourage moving in-system from the jump point. Gates sighed with relief. The White Stag’s heading confirmed Stroller’s information: the ship was supposed to rendezvous with another carrying the local Nexus leadership somewhere among the scattered rocks of the system’s sole asteroid belt.
For now, more waiting.
Four hours later, Gates adjusted position, trusting that his tags would show he was just a mining prospector. It wouldn’t stand up once they took a direct read on his ship, but he had to hope they weren’t likely to take a close look until it was too late.
The White Stag’s skipper had other things on his mind, anyway: the system boat the local Les Inconnus bosses were using to meet their counterparts had recently arrived and was now leaving the larger vessel’s grip. It took up station about 100 klicks away, presumably to await the end of the meeting. Not a combat craft, so Gates chose to ignore it, but its escorts remained with the White Stag, bringing the total to six.
Sweating in his flight suit, Gates continued the slow, nearly parallel approach.
An hour ground away at his nerves.
The better part of another.
Gates was nearly in active sensor range. Still no indication they’d figured out where he was. His ship was fast approaching the point where he’d have to alter course to keep closing. He’d been running passive targeting solutions on the escorts for the last hour, planning to distract as many as he could, then saturate the remaining defenses with missiles while he went straight in on the liner.
That was the plan, anyway.
Damn, but I never sweat this much. He cracked his neck, first one side then the other, popping vertebrae in an attempt to calm down. Get it together, Arminius! There’s work to be done and no on else to do it. One clean strike to cut the head from the beast. One action to hold back the continuing tide of lawlessness and disorder. One fight, nothing beyond this moment, this trial by combat.
Not wanting to give himself time to think about it, Gates grabbed his helmet and jammed it on in one nervous motion.
Judging the moment, Gates triggered the simple remote. Well ahead of the White Stag, Saint Claire’s Kiss ignited its drives and started accelerating at a snail’s pace toward the liner. The tramp freighter hadn’t been the most expensive thing Gates had purchased for this operation, but he’d made sure Zhou was well-compensated. Fair was fair.
The seal between helmet and flight-suit wasn’t fully closed when Gates opened the channel and started talking through the empty hauler’s comms: “White Stag, this is Captain Trevor of the Saint Claire’s Kiss. We believe we have something you’ll have an interest in.”
“Saint Claire’s Kiss, this is Captain Jahangir Kung, commanding White Stag’s escorts.”
The murdering bastard himself. Good. Gates kept the smile from his voice, “Don’t want to talk to you, want to talk your bosses.”
“Not going to happen.”
“Well then, I suppose they don’t care what Gates had to say when we caught him.”
A delay of a few moments, then: “Might be you do have something we need to discuss.”
The drive signatures of four of the escorts intensified, courses set to overtake Saint Claire’s Kiss.
A few minutes more.
Gates let go of the trigger. Saint Claire’s Kiss stopped adding thrust.
“How did you come to be in possession of the man?”
“He didn’t pay promptly.”
A barking laugh, then: “You were one of the ones hit our station?”
“Could be. Could be I just have someone you want, for an equitable price.”
The escorts were closing fast, already in missile range.
“I don’t know, could be we just take your ship out with a couple missiles.”
“Sure, but then you wouldn’t learn what Gates had to say about a turncoat in your organization he was using to secure intel for bounties. How do you think I knew to be here?”
“Oh?” Kung asked, clearly hoping for more.
“Not that easy. Six hundred thousand credits and safe passage and you’ll get it all: Gates, with whatever he learned about your operations.”
Several moments passed in silence, probably Kung asking his bosses for permission.
“All right, I’ll bite. Prepare to be boarded.”
“Just don’t try and change the terms of the deal, hear?”
“Right, Kung out.”
The four Cutlasses closed in, one preparing to dock with the ugly little freighter. Gates flipped the switch below the drive trigger on his remote.
Saint Claire’s Kiss, her drive, and the explosives with which Gates had packed her detonated. Kung and another of the Cutlasses disappeared into the expanding ball of ravening plasma, while the remaining two were clearly disabled, drives flickering.
Just the right amount of bang for my credits, I think. Damn stuff was more expensive than Saint Claire’s Kiss — gotta be sure to thank Seabrook properly!
Only two escorts remained on the White Stag, and those were distracted by the death of their commander. Satisfaction flooding him, Gates used that distraction to start launching his missiles as fast as the pods would cycle. As the final missile parted from its cradle he changed course, heading directly for the White Stag and pushing the throttle to the stops.
Two minutes to cannon range.
The closer escort turned into the missiles boring in on her, trying to narrow her sensor profile. The pilot was doing everything right, launching countermeasures even as the first of Gates’ missiles, now in active tracking mode, closed.
Gates checked on his quarry: the White Stag was launching her own countermeasures, the captain making sure she wasn’t getting hit.
The nearer Cutlass had avoided the first missile only to take the second one square on the nose. Shields dead, the first missile looped back to explode just aft of her, shredding the primary drive.
It took Gates a moment to find the other escort. When he did, he snarled.
Damn smart. The Cutlass was tight alongside the White Stag, where the larger vessel could use her her point defense guns to protect the escort from Gates. First one, then another of his missiles were burned from space. But by then Gates was close enough to start hammering the larger vessel with everything he had.
He had the aft shields nearly down when his ECM suite blatted a warning. The Cutlass, looking for missile lock.
He swung the 325 into a looping spiral around the axis of his target, maintaining fire from all guns.
Just a little longer.
The warning tone warbled up to a screech, a missile incoming. Fear momentarily paralyzed Gates, mind’s eye replaying past battles. Each breath was suddenly as hard as sucking water from a rock.
He squeezed his eyes shut.
Get out from under it, Gates! No time for this shit!
He broke free of his paralysis with a shout only he could hear. Letting up on the firing stud, Gates slammed the 325 through another roll, exiting closer to the White Stag, so close as to be almost atop the liner’s shields.
The warning tone stopped abruptly as the canopy lit with a dull flare of light: the White Stag’s point defense lasers boiling the deadly missile into its constituent materials.
“See, two can play that game, you bastards!” Gates howled into his helmet.
He cranked the 325 ‘up’ and away from the liner, started battering the bigger vessel’s shields down, one eye on the Cutlass in his plot.
He began scoring hits through the shields, mass driver munitions vaporizing armor plate.
The White Stag spun along its axis, presenting fresh armor to Gates’ guns. He obliged the maneuver with more fire, tagging a shield generator.
The missile lock warning returned, started to doppler up again.
Gates maneuvered in tight with the liner again.
Too late, he realized the White Stag’s point defense systems weren’t firing.
Good coordination, damn them!
The missile detonated off his starboard side. The explosion pounded his shields flat and vaporized the armor all along that side of the 325.
Gates’ grin was feral: the White Stag had taken as much damage, if not more, than the 325. He inverted relative to the Cutlass, presenting his unmarked side to the escort.
The 325 shuddered, lashed by fire from the Cutlass. Ignoring it, Gates kept pouring fire into the wounded flank of the liner, blasts erupting deeper in the hull with every shot.
Just a little longer.
Another pounding, another set of warning lights. Gates adjusted position, started weaving back and forth across the liner’s drive nacelles, still firing steadily.
The Cutlass kept at it, as well.
An attitude thruster on the 325 disintegrated, causing a sudden slow-down in his weave. The next salvo of laser cannon fire meant for Gates lashed past and punched into the White Stag’s hull.
Something finally broke inside the White Stag, a sudden stuttering of her main drives making her slide from under Gates’ guns.
Gates sideslipped then pulled back on the stick. The Cutlass stayed with him through the upper part of the loop, started losing him at the apex. Gates tried to roll out behind his pursuer, but his remaining directional thrusters weren’t up to the task: he exited alongside the Cutlass instead of behind.
Wary of a collision, his adversary turned away, hard. It was the wrong thing to do. The Cutlass clipped one of the White Stag’s drives. The resultant explosion was shocking in its violence.
A massive chunk of one of the vessels — Gates was fairly sure it was part of the Cutlass – flew free of the spherical explosion toward Gates.
In the instant before impact, Gates threw his arms up, an animal’s reflex in the face of death.
Metal and ceramic met metal and ceramic with a crunching finality.
The cockpit went dark; so did Gates.
The rattling quality of his own breathing brought him back. Snorting air through a broken nose. Not the first time that’s happened, eh?
He blinked, tried to get his bearings. The cockpit had enough light to see drops of his own blood floating inside his helmet. It was the thick red of head-blood, already partially clotted.
Thoughts were sluggish: Gravity’s out.
Last thing to go, more often than not. If it weren’t, spacers tended to make messy pancakes on the inside of their vessels.
Sudden fear rose up, threatened to drown him.
He let it win for a while.
At least, Gates told himself, he was letting it out.
He eventually managed to dig his medkit out and self-administer a shot of O&S.
Gates spent his last moments of consciousness screaming.