Quattras had spent a month being “Dr. Peione” full-time, micromanaging the relocation of his entire personal operation to planetside while maintaining a presence at 4TUNA R&D facilities and the corporate office. When he finally had an opportunity to fly a local aerospace warrant execution, he jumped at the chance without reading much of the contract, a fact that his DED contact had pointed out.
“I’m serious, Quat. This Anders fellow is dangerous.” I’ve been told that before, Quattras thought. I shoot down battleships for money. This is nothing.
“I’ve handled plenty of kill warrants, J.”
Fifteen minutes later he dropped out of warp in his Viper, to be met by an Anaconda, a pair of Vipers, and an Eagle. He zeroed in on the heavy firepower – his target, in the Anaconda. He scanned to verify the warrant as he pulled into a high-transversal approach and kicked the thrusters into high gear. He deployed his weapons and switched off the flight assist, swinging his nose around to point directly into the larger ship’s exposed power core while keeping a perpendicular course. He opened fire with a pair of beam lasers and began slicing into the Anaconda’s shields, while readying his cannons to finish the assault.
At once the Anaconda’s wingmates converged on Quattras’ little fighter. All of them equipped with lasers, they shredded the Viper’s shields before he could regain forward momentum. He diverted all available power to the engines, hoping to pull range and let his shields recharge enough to fire off a charge cell and get back into the fight.
As he pulled up to escape the fray, the Anaconda swiveled around far enough to fire its twin plasma accelerators, And discharged with such force that Quattras’ cockpit rattled. The balls of hyper-accelerated plasma shot just past Quattras’ Viper as he pushed the throttle to 380 meters per second and retracted his weapons, preparing to jump out if need be. A second volley boomed from the Anaconda. One shot flew past the glass so closely Quattras could feel the warmth of its glow, the second shot hit his port main thruster, and struck so solidly that it sent the fighter spinning off course.
“Hull integrity compromised. Thrusters offline.” Quattras was beginning to regret buying a fighter with Aura installed.
“Fuck fuck fuck,” he screamed as he kicked the power console to his left. The delicate network of circuit boards and wiring inside sparked in protest, and the remainder of his thrusters gave out entirely, his ship spinning adrift while the enemy wing quickly closed distance.
“Fuck fuck FUCK,” he shouted as he pulled up his systems interface and selected the menu option labeled “Reboot/Repair.” The ship’s lights went dark, his console shut down, and his suit’s life support systems kicked in as the oxygen scrubbers went offline.
Five seconds passed. Five long breaths before he began taking fire again. He couldn’t see it, but he could hear it and gods he could feel it. Pulse lasers first. That must be the Vipers. Autocannon fire, that’s the Eagle. Any moment now Anders and his Anaconda will be in optimal range and boil me.
The console powered up and went through its boot diagnostics.
A pair of plasma balls flew wide below the Viper’s firing arc. That’s the trajectory shot. Now they know right where to aim. Cold Wind be with me.
“Thrusters online.” Without a thought Quattras diverted all power to thrusters and pushed away from his pursuers, charging his frame shift drive. The seconds ticked by as his drive spooled up, building heat in the bay behind him. One of the Vipers crossed in front of him and let fly a volley of laser fire. The photon blasts lacerated the armor on his fore end. He arced into a tight spin to dodge the fire. Three seconds… two seconds… A spray of light laser fire hit his canopy, and the windows split with a sickening CRIKT. One second… The cracks grew longer and precious oxygen began visibly leaking through. The lone Eagle in the enemy wing let loose a final burst of autocannon fire, and a single lucky round struck the canopy above Quattras’ shoulder. The protective layers splintered apart, sucked with explosive force into the infinite black. For the longest three tenths of a second of his life, Quattras was exposed to hard vacuum. In that three tenths of a second, he saw everything – his family, his career, his marriage, this very mission – in a different light. A clearer light. As the emergency visor on his flight suit clamped and sealed and his HUD informed him that he had four minutes of breathable air, Quattras resolved that he was going to live his life – be it four minutes or four centuries – differently.
“Frame shift drive charging. Four, three, two, one, engaged.”
The Viper hurled itself into deep space and towards the nearest outpost. Away from the rocky planet and Anders’ kill team, to a small station orbiting just outside the rings of a gas giant.
At three light seconds from his destination, with three minutes of air left, a single message came over local comms. It was Anders.
“I’m not done with you yet, Commander.” An interdiction field suddenly wrapped itself around the fighter. Quattras dropped speed to maneuvering velocity and yanked hard on the stick, spinning to stay centered in the safety of his warp tunnel. Anders stayed on his tail, herding the Viper away from the station and toward the rings of the gas giant. Fine then, let’s play chicken. Quattras pushed forward on the throttle, even as proximity warnings came on and red lights flashed in the depressurized cabin. An indicator on his ship HUD flashed COLLISION in orange letters while a klaxon sounded, inaudible without life support. The tunnel held its course and the two approached the rings, so close that their finer structure was now distinguishable. The gravity well of the planet began slowing the ships, but Quattras continued pushing harder into his nose dive. The tunnel arced sharply upwards and began to fade as Anders pulled back the throttle to a few hundred Megameters per second to avoid collision. Quattras meanwhile rolled to place his wings parallel with the rings, held his speed at 0.1c, and nosed down to barely skim through the gap between two rings. Anders couldn’t turn in time, released the interdiction, and began seeking a path around the ring to continue his hunt. Two minutes of oxygen left.
Quattras plotted a path between the planet’s outer cloud layer and innermost ring to approach the station in hopes that its orbit would put it in the right spot at the right moment.
As he pulled distance from the planetary surface and ring he adjusted his course and arced past the station at a few hundred Megameters per second, pulling the wounded Viper around to approach from the far side at just over a hundred kilometers per second. When he dropped out of supercruise, he found himself on the wrong end of the station with one minute of air left in reserve.
All power still to thrusters, he sped towards for the far end of the station. Once at max velocity he turned off his flight assist system, killed the throttle, and spun vertically 360 degrees.
“Hartsfield Market Control, this is 4TUNA flight quebec papa one-two-seven requesting docking permission.” Thirty seconds.
“Copy quebec papa one-two-seven, you are cleared to dock. Please proceed to bay 32.” Quattras re-engaged the flight assist as his fighter flew past the entrance, leaving him pointed in the right direction. He swapped throttle control for manual thrusters and queued to dock.
Fifteen seconds. The station entrance was a madhouse. Some Clipper pilot had jettisoned nearly a hundred tons of biowaste in the mail slot trying to avoid a trafficking fine, only to get himself blown up trying to dock. Now an endless parade of Lakon Type 7’s and Type-9 heavies had to try and squeeze between the canisters of glowing who-knows-what and the still-smoldering remains of what had just moments earlier been a shiny new Imperial ship-of-the-line.
Five seconds. Quattras adjusted his rotation to squeeze between a slow-docking Panther and an Eagle whose auto-dock module seemed to have gone predictably haywire.
Zero. The constant quiet whir of the pumps in Quattras’ suit ebbed. The ship slowly glided through the slot and re-pressurized once in the station’s internal atmosphere. Quattras carefully set the Viper down on its pad in bay 32 and leaped from his seat, out through the smashed canopy, to the steel bulkhead below. Ripping the mask from his face, he dug out a crumpled pack of Amarrian Spirit cigarettes and lit one as he gulped in the delicious open air of Hartsfield Market Station.
Quattras ran through his pre-flight checks for a third time, getting the feel of the new fighter. This wasn’t like his trusty Viper that had survived a hundred engagements and was squirreled away for when he came back to her. The Vulture was brand-spanking new, and all of its paint was clean, bright and – the largest difference – intact. But it wasn’t shiny in that same way his old Viper had been, and the lines weren’t sleek and sexy like the smaller fighter had been. But the Vulture is a machine built to kill; a one-and-one cockpit mounted between a pair of large weapon hardpoints, and just enough thrusters to sling it around the battlespace. The running joke was that the Vulture class superiority fighter had more lateral thrust than afterburner power. But oh those guns.
The stock loadout – a tiny pair of gimballed class 1 pulse lasers – looked positively comical in the massive weapon bays. The pair of class 3 cannons that it now held were comical in their own way.
“Like a midget shoulder-firing a pair of bazookas.”
“Excuse me?” The salesman looked a bit shocked at what he had heard.
Deuce guffawed as Quattras crossed his arms and cocked his eyebrows at the young man in that do-I-really-have-to-explain-myself sort of way.
“I want this little bird to pack as much firepower as its power grid and frame can handle.”
“I understand, sir. Of course, most of our clientele have opted for the pulse laser/cannon combo.”
Quattras took a step forward and leaned towards the smaller Gallentean salesman. “Are you questioning my methods, baseliner?” The last word was spat out in feigned contempt. Deuce’s face turned a deep red and he braced himself, wracked with hysterical laughter.
The veiled threat had netted him a small discount and impressively prompt installation.
“So where do you want me to wait?” Deuce had been practically salivating with bloodlust since being told of the Anders contract.
“I just need you to wait in the station I’ve marked on your map. I’ll hail you when the time is right.”
Quattras circled the place he had last seen Anders’ squad, scanning every ship that passed through. He had been at this for hours and was beginning to fear he had lost his chance to catch the outlaws.
“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”
“Say again, Deuce?”
“You want me to dock at a station called Big Harry’s Monkey Hangout?”