Tionisla Rising Part 3

30th August, 3265

  I stood alone, in the vast cargo bay of the Panther Clipper, stroking the duralium superstructure. I took in the sight of twenty disassembled nuclear missiles, deftly stolen from the Federation, all wired up to explode on command. Yves had done a good job to obtain so many. My Asp was loaded up into the Clipper's internal docking bay, freshly repaired from the damage it had taken during the capture of the big trade ship. I felt a certain sadness that we were going to deliberately destroy this machine - the Panther Clipper is normally a gentle trade ship, with no bad habits. I felt almost as if the Clipper was becoming a sacrifical lamb to our cause.

  I paced around the interior of the cargo bay, halfheartedly inspecting the welds and fastners that held the huge ship together. I sat down on a crossmember, and thought over the events of the last few days. Hopefully the news hadn't got back to our enemy - the Templar - that one of their ships had been captured. Shortly, the most dangerous part of our mission would begin, and I had been selected to be the captain by my bounty hunter cohorts who would crew the ship. I'm not entirely sure why they chose me over Wes, who had been in space for much longer than me. Come to mention it, Wes had looked a little uncomfortable at ending up under my command. I knew for certain he still thought of me as an unruly kid, not fit to command a Lifter. It would be interesting having him as a first officer. To add to this, I had a number of brand new crew who we had recruited from the bounty-hunting hangouts in Manchester, Tionisla. I looked over the crew manifest that we had drawn up. A motley crew indeed:

James K Winston: Captain (27 std. yrs)
Wesley LaRoche: First Officer (43 std. yrs)
Joan Mischa: Chief Engineer (33 std. yrs)
Yves LaRoche: Chief Defensive Systems Operator (29 std. yrs)
Maxwell Jackson: Defensive Systems Operator (18 std. yrs)
Mike Baxter: Weapons systems (31 std. yrs)
Jean-Claude DuGalle: Weapons Systems (55 std. yrs)
Damon L Winston: Helm (35 std. yrs)
Martin Smith: Helm (22 std. yrs)
Eileen Patel: Engineering (19 std. yrs)
Yan Mikleson: Engineering (21 std. yrs)
Viktor Ilyushin: Engineering (17 std. yrs)
Quentin Jones: Engineering (27 std. yrs)
Lisa Simmonds: Signals and Communications (25 std. yrs)
Aryana Kamov: Signals and Communications (18 std. yrs)

  The manifest might have been a motley crew, but it was a little daunting. The biggest command I'd ever had was having a copilot on an Asp. To have fourteen crewmembers would be quite interesting. Eveyone in the list from Martin Smith downwards was a complete stranger - and most of them with only the minimal experience we need for the job. And tomorrow, we launch to meet whatever fate meets us at Edurce...

  And that's the next dilemma. Due to the risk of the mission details leaking to the enemy, the new crewmembers don't actually know what the mission is. The other interesting thing will be escaping in the Asp. Fifteen people squeezed into an Asp is something I'm not looking forward to.

  My musings were interrupted. Joan had entered the ship, and walked across to where I was sitting.

"You don't look terribly happy there. Loneliness of command getting to you?" she asked.
"Well, in a way. I'm feeling rather sad about what we are planning to do with this ship, this gentle machine deserves better than this"
"You don't say that about the pirate ships you blow up on a regular basis!" she said, looking surprised.
"Well, that's different. They are trying to kill me!"
"It's only a machine, and it was used to try and kill us. I worry about you sometimes, you know"
"Oh, I know. I'm not having second thoughts - it just seems tragic to look around the precise and beautiful engineering that went into this craft, and to think we are using it as a giant bomb"

  We both looked around the superstructure in silence for a few seconds. The ship was indeed beautiful. It may have been just a box on the outside, but the shapes described by the duralium beams and crossmembers, the walkways and equipment racks, all precisely engineered...it just seemed a shame to destroy the ship - the representation of the pinnacle of human technological achievement. I could see that Joan understood me.

"Go and get some sleep," she said. "You're looking a bit tired".
"OK. Well, I will see you and the others at eleven thirty for launch."

  I went up to my quarters, in the Clipper's living area. I now had the luxury of having my own room. A captain's stateroom of sorts. Just like my Asp, the quarters were extremely functional, and there wasn't a great deal of space, but I did at least have a room to myself now. I felt I might be needing it from time to time on the journey that was to start the next morning.

31st August, 3265

  The day of our launch. The crew all came on board, and we all met as a group in the small cafeteria area of the ship. I had to give my first briefing as commander of the ship. I carefully explained as to not let on what was really happening that we had a very special delivery to a system on the southern edge of populated space, and the dangers involved. However, I could feel the subconscious waves of disapproval being emitted by Wes, my first officer. He had been rather uncomfortable since the mission started on my methods. To add to this, I knew he felt that he should have been the commander of this vessel. I'm sure it wasn't a case of jealousy at not being put forward as the commander by the rest of our group (he somewhat reluctantly approved my selection after everyone else had their say) - rather, he didn't like my methods. He thought I took needless risks, and events since we hired Maxwell had only continued to convince him of this case.

  The launch went smoothly. The Clipper's powerful engines lifted us off the pad of Manchester Starport into clear skies. The ship vibrated with energy as we climbed out into space. Our first shift was on call - not all 15 crewmembers are needed at once on the Clipper. Myself and seven other crew were on duty. It felt odd to me commanding the ship but not having my hands on the controls. This was delegated to the helmsman on duty. Even then, the ship's control was vastly different to a small fighter. Instead, the helmsman's job was to program our trajectory into the computer, which controlled the ship all the time. Manual control of the thrusters could be obtained, but there were rather a lot of them, so it was far more efficient to just delegate it to the ship's computer. Although the entire crew including myself were highly inexperienced in this kind of operation, things were going smoothly enough. In fact, it was quite pleasant to just take in the overall progress of the flight with the crew taking care of the minutia.

  Joan had her engineering department scurrying around monitoring the ship's systems, Yves and Maxwell kept an eye on the short and long range scans, watching traffic to note any signs of hostility. Damon was at the helm, monitoring our progress against the flightpath he had programmed. Mike was ensuring the weapons were configured in case of an attack notification. I watched him experimentally swing the laser turrets. Finally, Lisa Simmonds was communicating with traffic control as we departed the area. Myself and Wesley watched the operation with quiet satisfaction as we left the atmosphere in preparation for our first hyperspace jump towards our destination. The planet below us filled most of the external view, displayed on a 180-degree holographic display. The defence and weapons station both had their own viewscreens from which they could look in any direction they chose.

  We were all sure that we were once again going to be living in interesting times after the first jump. However, I was confident that with a good crew, we could deflect any trouble before it threatened to engulf us. But pride cometh before a fall, as the ancient saying went.

25th September, 3265

  The thing about space travel is that it can be extremely quiet. Since we launched, we had encountered no attackers. I had deliberately planned the safest route possible. This was quite a trick, since Edurce, in sector 2, -9 was way out on the edge. I was thinking to myself that we were fortunately about to start the final stage of our mission...the journey to Peter's Terminal in Edurce. I was starting to have a problem with crew boredom. It was difficult to keep the crew occupied, and there had been one or two personality conflicts. I had already had to break up a catfight between Aryana Kamov and Eileen Patel: they were both trying to make advances on Viktor Ilyushin. And that itself had led to a fight between Maxwell and Victor, since they both had the hots for Aryana. Relationships between all the new crewmembers had been slightly strained. Fortunately, our core group (i.e. myself, Wesley, Joan, Yves Mike and Jean-Claude) knew each other well enough that we still worked very well together. I only wished keeping the rest of the crew on speaking terms had been as easy.

  However, we now sit in interstellar space at some indeterminate point between Liabeti and Edurce. Sooner or later, we knew we would be attacked. The trouble is, when you're attacked by your own kind who are convinced that you're part of a pirate group with a massive price on their head, there is a conflict of interest. Do you shoot down the bounty hunters, even though they are really your comrades? Or do you let yourself get shot to bits by them because they think you're a pirate and you don't want to bump off your brothers in arms? Or can you come up with something else that will spare you both? And then what do you do to keep your first officer from starting a mutiny in the aftermath? Not long after hyperspacing into Liabeti, we had to answer these questions.

  Our standard procedure had been to scoop up hydrogen fuel from the atmosphere of gas giants. It wasn't to save money, but rather to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. Liabeti 4 was our largest available source, so we set a course for the planet. We were nearing the planet when it became evident that trouble was afoot.

"I think we've got trouble", said Yves suddenly. "Five ships have shown on the long range scanner, accelerating towards us".

  I pulled up the long range scan on my console. Sure enough, at just under a range of 1AU was the mass signature of the ships. Every 30 seconds, the display updated, showing them closing.

"Kamov, try and ident those ships"
"I'm on it"

  Kamov began working the communications console to try and discover who was following us. At short range, identing was easy - the ship's systems would just do it automatically. At long range, however, you had to target it more carefully. It would be fourteen minutes before we found out anyway, and that's if our suspected pursuers hadn't done something aggravating to their transponders. We'd at least be able to find what sort of ships were following us. In the meantime, I had the computer work out when they would intercept us. The news was not as good as I hoped - they would catch us up just as we reached the fringes of Liabeti 4. This meant we wouldn't just be able to escape by forcing a hyperspace misjump...we wouldn't have the fuel. In fact, we had very little fuel, so hyperspacing anywhere was not an option until we had started scooping.

  I wanted to make sure they really were following us before making any rash decisions in any case. The time for the ident scan to come back seemed to go rather slowly, as I watched the ships continue to accelerate. Judging by their closing speed, there was at least a Cobra 3, Asp or Harris in the formation.

  Finally, the ident came back. The news was not good. There was actually one more ship that the long range scan hadn't found. They were powerful ships too - six Asps decked as pure fighters. We had their registrations too, and the information we found was not comforting. The commanders all had a bounty hunting profile, and the lead ship's commander was Elite, the rest of them Deadly. I looked around the bridge, and decided it was time to go to alert condition.

"OK, we're going to battle alert. Get all the crew to their stations", I told Aryana. She would now broadcast the alert around the ship and have all the crew at their station.

"Now hear this! We are now at battle alert condition. All crew report to your positions! That is all!"

  The announcement seemed a little stuffy and formal, especially amongst our normally informal crew. We were far from a military organization. Half of our crew was resting too. It wasn't the best time to have to go to battle alert, but it usually never is. It wasn't long before Wes was on the bridge. He had obviously been woken from deep sleep.

"What's going on?" he asked.
"Look", I said simply, pointing to the long range scan on my console.

He looked at the information quietly. I could see he was slightly shocked. We thought we were the team when flying formation, hunting pirates. However, what he could see made our group of bounty hunters look like a neighbourhood watch convention.

"Holy crap, we've got to get out of here, fast", he said
"We can't, we don't have the fuel to go anywhere. We're going to have to try and hide in the atmosphere of Liabeti 4 until we've picked up enough fuel"
"We'd have a better chance trying to fight them off! We have quite good weapons"
"Maybe so, but I'm not killing other bounty hunters"

  Wes didn't seem to like that last statement. His jaw jutted out. I could almost see the words "James Winston takes stupid risks" floating around in his mind. But there was no way I was going to shoot down my own kind, despite the risk. One day we might need a favour from these people. They probably hung out at World's End at Riedquat too. My thoughts were that we could hide in the atmosphere of the gas giant whilst we picked up fuel, although that would be difficult. We would have to go dangerously deep into the atmosphere. It would be a few hours until intercept, so the crew would at least have plenty of time to prepare for the unpleasantness that would follow.

"OK then, why don't we message them and tell them who we are? We can send our idents. Maybe they can help us" said Wes.
"No way - we can't risk letting the truth get out. Should it get back to the Templar who are now only a few light years away, we are really in trouble!"
"Look, do you really think we can hide from them? There's an Elite combatant amongst them for heaven's sake!"
"It's our best chance. If we have really no option, we'll attack, but I think we have a good chance if we go deep enough into the atmosphere"

  Wes was obviously not satisfied, but he hadn't challenged my command yet. It looked like he'd at least let me continue. I was a little worried that he might try and replace me. I don't think he's ever really trusted me, and I really don't know why. However, I really needed him to trust my judgement now. After all, there had to be a reason why despite having twice the experience as a bounty hunter, he only was Dangerous, yet I was rated Deadly.

"Helm, progam a flip manoevre," I said

  Damon selected the manoevre. It was a simple way of speeding your journey - instead of using the retro thrusters to slow us down, we'd thrust for longer, then point the ship the other way, and use the more powerful main thrusters to slow us instead. It would get us into the atmosphere of Liabeti 4 before the fighters caught up. All there was left to do was to wait. The crew had become rather tense. The new crewmembers had never seen combat before, and the more macho amongst them tried to hide their fear, whilst the others obviously showed it. The rest of us were rather uneasy. None of us had quite been in this situation - we had pretty much always been the hunters, not the hunted. This lead to an atmosphere around the ship you could stand up a spoon in.

  A couple of hours later, Liabeti 4 pretty much filled the rear view completely as we started to descend through the upper atmosphere. We left a brilliant plasma trail as the atmospheric shielding tried to deflect many megawatts worth of kinetic energy. However, our pursuers were now uncomfortably close. It would not be long before they opened fire on us.

"Fuel scoops operational," said Joan.
"How long until we can go?"
"Thirty minutes"

  This would be enough to get to get to Edurce and have a 50% reserve. It was standard procedure to do this in case of mis-jumps. Wes was looking at me. He started to speak.

"We should forget the reserve, let's just get the hell out of here, there's not much of a risk of a misjump"
"No, we need the reserve. We're going to force a misjump," I replied.

  Wes didn't say any more, but I could see what he was thinking - and he obviously didn't agree with me. However, I suspected at least one of our pursuers would have a hyperspace cloud analyser. They'd overtake us in hyperspace, and jump us as we arrived. They couldn't follow us if we forced a misjump. We had no time for debate anyway, our pursuers were starting to show on the short range scanner. They were now only 50 k's away and closing fast.

  The ship had automatically started to level off for the fuel scooping. I was now about to test the integrity of the atmospheric shielding and the hull.

"Helm, take us deeper, another 10 k's please"

  Damon obliged. This would put us at dangerous levels. Not only would the atmospheric shielding be severely tested, but the hull strength too as the pressure started to try and crush the ship. Not to mention the gravitational pull. We would have to slow down and we would be right on the edge of going so far in that the main thrusters wouldn't be able to overpower the planet's gravity. Meanwhile the bounty hunters were closing fast. A sudden burst of electromagnetic radiation in the planet's atmosphere suddenly caused so much inteference on the scanner so that our six pursuers were blotted out. Hopefully it did the same to our pursuers.

  The atmosphere of the planet was intensely beautiful, as we started descending into a cloud layer. At least that would mean we couldn't be seen visibly. Suddenly, all the ship's avionics shut down. The electromagnetic interference had become too great.

"Aryana, scanners on passive mode," said Joan.

  Joan's request made good sense. We might be able to keep the passive scanner online. It was designed for use in adverse conditions. However, it showed mainly noise. Occasionally, we'd see spikes from our pursuers scanners which were still on active mode. We were now deep enough in the atmosphere that we should be well hidden.

"Missile launched! They've seen us!" shouted Maxwell from his defence station.
"ECM inoperative! We've lost the antenna!"

The atmospheric shielding was under so much stress that we had lost the ECM antenna, and could only wait to see if the seeker head of the enemy missile had a lock on us.

"Take us deeper", I said.
"James, we're at the limit," said Joan.
"Can you get the engines on 110% for a while?" I asked.
"For about 10 minutes," she replied.
"OK, Helm, take us to a depth where 110% will hold position. Engineering, override the engine controls and get us 110%"

  The bridge was lit an eerie pink colour by the planet's thick atmosphere. We continued to descend. Suddenly, the missile struck the hull of our ship, but it failed to explode. We had just got lucky. I wasn't sure whether the hull could take the pressure it was now bearing plus a missile strike, despite our shields. To add to the drama, the hull had now started to creak. Occasionally, the scanner would pick up evidence of our pursuers. It looked like they were having a lot of trouble finding us, which was fine by me.

"The filthy bastards!" exclaimed Yves. "Beam scanner!"

  I knew bounty hunters who had these things. They were normally used as a medium range search scanner, to hunt out prey who had shut everything down to become invisible to normal electronic detection means. They could also be used to search through difficult mediums...like the atmospheres of gas giants. Their scan attempts were showing up on the passive scanner. Sooner or later, they would find us, and then the fun would begin. We could go deeper and make it harder for them to find us. However, we were at the limits of how far we could go. We were already in quite a lot of danger just from the planet's atmosphere.

  Fortunately, we remained well hidden despite the hunters attempts to find us. The fuel was accumilating at a rapid rate due to our atmospheric depth. We would be able to leave in only a few minutes time - we would have to anyway - the main thrusters wouldn't be able to take 110% for too much longer. We were also now in a position that the only way we could escape from the planet was to hyperspace. The ship couldn't provide enough thrust to escape. Our pursuers on the other hand had a huge power to weight advantage over us, and so could easily escape the planet's gravity. Fortunately, we didn't see any more spikes from the beam scanners as we waited, seemingly forever, for the tanks to fill.

"Number two prime mover is starting to overrun, we've got to leave soon!" shouted Joan over the increasingly loud groaning of the hull.
"Keep it at 110% for as long as possible"
"We have enough fuel in two minutes. I don't know if number two will hold out that long!"

  The Clipper has four prime movers. If number two, and its associated main thruster failed, not only would we not have enough thrust to maintain position, but the ship would abruptly tumble out of control due to the asymetric thrust.

"It's going down - it's fallen to 109% and we're starting to sink!"
"OK, we'll have to risk not having enough fuel. Hyperspace, force misjump procedure"
"Hyp..." said Damon, his words abruptly cut off by the sudden gutwrenching jolt.

  Number two suddenly had gone to 50% power as the safety systems prevented it from breaching its containment system. The grim reality of asymmetric thrust had asserted itself, and the ship started to roll over in the powerful gravity field of Liabeti 4. Fortunately, Damon was strapped into his position and managed to regain his composure to initiate the hyperspace procedure. Suddenly, the dim blue glow of witch space travel replaced the screaming of the hull. I noticed that everyone had literally collapsed back in their positions, relieved. It had been a very close call. Whether we had enough fuel to complete our journey or not was one thing we would not know until we emerged in interstellar space.

  A few minutes of our time, but a couple of days of real time, we emerged in interstellar space. We had to discover our position and hope we hadn't lost the mission. We wouldn't be marooned if we lacked fuel - the Asp which we carried was fully fuelled and ready to go, but the mission would have to be abandoned. It would be incredibly cruel after what we had been through. As engineering initiated our position check, Wes unstrapped himself from his seat and came over to me.

"James, could we have a word?"
"Sure, go ahead," I replied.
"In private."

  We left the bridge. I could feel everyone watching us. The tension between myself and Wes had been a little obvious during the encounter we had just been through. I had a good idea that Wes was about to voice his opinions at me about the encounter. We went to my quarters, and I sat down at my desk. I indicated the seat on the other side.

"Take a seat," I said in a tone that hopefully sounded welcoming.
"I'm sorry, but I'm going to relieve you of your command," he said.
"I don't think you really want to do that," I said.

My nerves were now jangling, I wasn't sure what he was going to do next. I carefully removed my Ingrams pistol from my desk in a way I hoped he wouldn't see. I placed the weapon on my lap, within easy reach should he try anything, and set the power level to stun. Even so, I really wasn't too taken on shooting someone I considered a friend, however much he disagreed with my methods.

"Well, I think the crew will agree. Your high-risk tactics just frightened them half to death, and we've lost an engine. I would advise you to just remain in your quarters whilst I complete the mission using more prudent means," he said flatly.
"Look Wes, I took the best option we had. We've not hurt our comrades who were pursuing us, it's almost certain we picked up enough fuel, and we haven't been found out. I think that's ideal, don't you?" I replied.
"No you nearly got us killed. Those bounty hunters could have been sacrificed to complete the mission. You're just far too inexperienced to command this ship on a mission like this. We were nearly all killed just then!" he said, raising his voice slightly.

  I might have been a good few years younger than him, and he may doubt my judgement. But there was no question about it, he was too cautious and that's what frustrated me about him. Unfortunately, this had been getting to me, especially since my combat rating was higher than his. Finally, the stress of our last encounter got to me and I exploded in anger.

"Less experienced!" I shouted. "You might have been out here longer than me, buddy, but just look at your rating!"

Wes suddenly cowered in shock. He'd never seen me get angry - it was something I didn't do very often.

"There's a reason why I'm Deadly and you're only freakin dangerous despite you being a bounty hunter for over twice as long as me! You're a bloody great yellow coward! If you so much as dare as try and take command from me, you won't live to regret it!" I shouted at the top of my voice.

I felt that I had gone a little too far, but now emotion had taken my senses over. My anger boiled on unabated and I continued to rant at Wesley, who continued to wear his expression of shock. I listed every little failing I though he had in a rather cruel manner - something for which I feel very guilty about doing now. My ranting eventually dried up, and I resorted to giving Wes a piercing look over the table. At that point, the door started to open, and Damon's head poked around.

"James, we've..." he said.

I cut him off rather abruptly.

"Not now, please. Give me a couple of minutes," I said quietly. Damon disappeared and closed the door.

I looked back at Wesley. I wasn't sure what he was now going to do. He started to stand up. He straightened his well-worn leather jacket and ran his hand through his hair in a slightly nervous manner.

"Sorry, James. You're dead wrong on that. Despite what you say, I'm now relieving you of your command," he said, seething with insubordination.

That really was the wrong thing for him to say. He walked towards the door. I stood up, and carefully aimed the Ingrams at him.

"Don't make another move" I said.

He turned around to see the dangerous end of my handgun and stopped.

"You wouldn't shoot me, I know you too well" he said.
"Don't guarantee it," I replied.

  I squeezed the trigger to its first pressure. It was now on a hairline. All I had to do is sqeeze very slightly, and Wes would be stunned. He was quite right about me not wanting to do this, but I absolutely could not let Wesley command the rest of the mission. I could just imagine him aborting at just the wrong moment. I also didn't fancy having to explain to the rest of the crew that I just had to stun the first officer. Things were taking an inexorable turn for the worse. Wesley reached for the door to leave. Before his hand made it to the door, I had squeezed that trigger just a little bit more. There was a bright flash as the bolt of energy left the gun, and struck him square in the back. He silently collapsed to the floor. I walked over and felt his pulse to make sure I didn't have the gun set on too high power. Fortunately, he had survived the experience, but would be out of it for at least two hours. I would now have to face up to the rest of the crew.

  I left my quarters, carefully ensuring the door was locked. I went to the bridge, and walked in. Everyone of course noticed that Wes wasn't with me, but they didn't say anything. They probably assumed he had gone back to his quarters - after all, he was off-duty when the attack had begun. I decided I would tell the senior crew (i.e. our bounty hunting group) about what had happened first.

"OK, senior officers, I need to talk to you all in private. Simmonds, you've got it"

Joan, Yves, Maxwell, Mike, Jean-Claude and Damon all got up from their positions. The ship would be OK for now - we were just drifting aimlessly in interstellar space anyway. We left the bridge, and I led them all to the ship's small cafeteria area.

"Something rather regrettable has just happened," I said.

  I carefully watched everyone's expression. They could all sense that the news I was going to reveal was going to be fairly dire. I couldn't pussyfoot around what had just happened - I would just have to tell them.

"I'm afraid I've just had to put Wes out cold. He was about to try and start a mutiny and take command." I said, uncomfortably.

  The others all looked gobsmacked. I just hoped they were in horror of Wes trying to seize command, not me stunning him. I didn't really feel that good about having to do that.

"He was of the opinion that I had done everything wrong in that last battle. He wanted us to destroy the bounty hunters because he thought it was less risky. Because of this, he told me he was relieving me of my command, and he was about to leave and lock me in my quarters," I explained.

There was a long, pregnant pause. Everyone was still slightly shocked, and nobody spoke.

"Well, if you don't agree, please speak up. If you think Wes was right, please say so now. I want to be working with you, not against you", I said. I felt that I had blown it.
"James, although I don't agree with you stunning Wes, I'm with you," said Joan.

At least with Joan speaking up, I was in with a chance still. I knew the others respected her. The others murmured their consent. They sounded sincere, at least. I sighed with relief.

"OK, well let's get on with it. What's our current status?" I asked. Joan spoke again, since she was the chief engineer.
"Well, number two is undergoing repairs now, it shouldn't take too long. We've got enough fuel to reach Erduce. It looks like everything has worked out well."
"Good. We need to tell the crew what the rest of the plans are. It's important we get everything sorted out. While we have the chance, we should check that the Asp is in good shape. Let's get back to work"

  We all went back to our respective positions, but not after Damon had helped me put Wes in his quarters and securely lock him in. I was feeling really guilty about all I had done now, and in fact I had begun to lose enthusiasm for the whole mission just at the wrong moment. I hoped the feeling would pass.

3rd October 3265

  The events of the last couple of days have been a bit of a blur. I think I've had it for the time being with such piffling things such as crew insubordination, nuclear bombs that fail to go off, automatic triggers and packs of marauding Sidewinders. The whole event has been a bit trying, to be brutally honest, but at least the mission is over. We just need to go to a Federation base now.

  We arrived in Edurce a few days ago. The ship was fully repaired, and all four prime movers thrust us towards Peter's Terminal. We monitored communications - we wanted to see what they said to each other to make sure we can successfully pass ourselves off as being members. The actual journey in went unbelievably smoothly. It seemed to good to be true. The only disturbance was Wes hammering on his door and demanding to be let out, a request I did not grant. Things looked good - it certainly looked like the Templar hadn't heard about the hijack, since we didn't receive a welcoming committee (i.e. a horde of horribly beweaponed ships) as we approached Peter's Terminal.

  We moved slowly towards Peter's Terminal. It showed up ahead of us as a bright pinpoint of light. Other scattered objects showed up on the scanner as parked Clippers. We counted a total of twelve. This pirate group was certainly burgeoning. It was time for the final crew briefing to ensure everyone knew what to do. Our lives literally depended on it. It was also time to enlighten the rest of the crew what our mission actually was. I had the entire crew summoned to the bridge.

"OK, this is the final mission briefing," I began. "I now must reveal to the new crewmembers what is about to happen since your lives depend on it. We are now approaching Peter's Terminal, our destination. We are not carrying cargo as I initially told you. This ship is in fact rigged as a huge nuclear bomb, and Peter's Terminal is a massive pirate base. We are going to collect the ultimate bounty and destroy the Sirius Templar once and for all".

  I let this information sink in. Peter's Terminal was starting to get a little larger in the forward view. You could now see the shape of the station. Only 50 k's to go. I continued on.

"The plan is to wedge this ship in the mouth of Peter's Terminal and leave the area in the Asp that is parked in the cargo bay. Exactly two minutes after jamming this ship in the front of the station, a 20-megatonne nuclear explosion will trigger, hopefully destroying Peter's Terminal and anything within several km. To that end, we have to leave the area fast. However, we need evidence that we did this, so we cannot hyperspace out until we have recorded the explosion. This may be a very dangerous time."

  The new crewmembers, all from Tionisla, didn't look that shocked. After all, bounty hunting and pirates were a way of life for anyone who so much watched the spacedock at Manchester Starport for a few hours.

"All non-essential crew is to go with Maxwell to the Asp and get strapped in. Only Joan, Damon, Yves and myself will remain on the Clipper."

  Maxwell lead everyone who wasn't required for this final stage from the bridge. The four of us strapped ourselves into our positions. Damon set a course to dock with the station. Of course, a Clipper couldn't fit in the hole, but Damon overrode the computer and the autopilot took us closer.

"OK, no communications. We're just going to ram the door. Keep speed up to 200 kmh, divert shield power to the forward shields"

  The station grew in the front view, with the planet New America in the background in its jewelled splendour. I was quite surprised that no one had attempted to contact us as the range fell below 1km.

"They are all asleep, I think," I said
"Looks like it. Normally, they'd be demanding what we were doing approaching without clearance," said Joan quizzically.
"Hope we haven't been rumbled - could be a trap"

  We all felt extremely tense as the range meter quickly counted down. Soon, the closed docking door started to fill our view. Perhaps they really were all asleep. Perhaps they didn't bother with traffic control since they took the space station over. Perhaps they were expecting us to disgorge our Sidewinders for servicing - we just didn't know. And we never would know, either.

"Brace for impact!" I yelled over the ship's PA.

  All we could now see was the closed docking door. A couple of seconds later, the bow of the Clipper collided with the door. We were nearly wrenched right out of our seats despite our restraints. There was a horrific sound of bending metal as the Clipper started to get wedged in the hole like a cork in a wine bottle. The sound of groaning metal continued as the Clipper ground to a halt, now thoroughly and immovably wedged into the space station's entrance.

"OK, Damon, leave the engines on manual thrust - set acceleration to 1G. Start the bomb timer. Let's get out of here!" I shouted over the sound of grinding duralium.

  Yves started the timer on the bomb. We had only two minutes to get out of here. We ran from the bridge, down the main access corridor to the cargo bay. The Asp was waiting before us. Thirty seconds later, we had boarded the Asp at a dead run. I quickly checked the passenger cabin. To my satisfaction, it was crammed with my crewmembers. They had also brought Wes with them (to my relief). Everyone was accounted for. Joan and Damon squeezed in along with them, and Yves came along with me to the bridge. I needed her up there in case we had a problem with the nukes. We could trigger them remotely if necessary.

  The Asp was ready to move. The Clipper's docking port opened in front of us. We only had 45 seconds to get at least 7 km from the area. I wound on full power. The Asp rocketed forth from the rear of the Panther Clipper at maximum acceleration. I noticed that if the Templar had been asleep when we arrived, they certainly were not asleep now. Several ships had launched and a Lifter was attaching itself to the Clipper. It looked like they were preparing to dislodge the ship. Well, if they were, they hastily dropped that plan when they saw our Asp hurtle out from the rear of the Clipper.

"They've seen us, four Sidewinders have peeled off and are pursuing!" shouted Yves.

  I watched the scanner. It looked like the parked Clippers were also scrambling their Sidewinders. This could mean trouble. Yves launched the fighters. We had a full complement of four once again - I was careful to ensure that we had replacements for the ones destroyed on previous journeys before we started out. I glanced at the clock. Fifteen seconds left. I made sure that every sensor and camera on the ship was watching Peter's Base. The main camera had zoomed in on the base, and we could still see the Clipper wedged in the docking port, with its engines running. Even if the bomb didn't explode, it would eventually push Peter's Terminal out of its orbit and crashing down into New America.

Yves started counting down. "Five...Four...Three...Two...One..."

  I watched the receding space station. Nothing happened. The Clipper remained resolutely wedged in but failed to explode. We now had real trouble. About two dozen Sidewinders were leaving their Clippers, and getting ready to pursue us. They would surely catch up - we would have to hyperspace out soon. There wasn't much time for troubleshooting.

"I'm going to manually detonate. This might take a minute..." said Yves, as she worked the communications system to send the detonation message.
"OK, we can't stay here for long, be as quick as possible"

  I put the fighters on automatic control and instructed them to attack our four nearest pursuers. I kept our Asp's acceleration at full power. The further we could be away from the station, the better. That's if it exploded. The fighters engaged the nearest Sidewinders. That at least would delay them. It looked very spectacular from my vantage point.

"I've sent the message. I think they've jammed it or disabled the bomb. It did no good!" said Yves, near to panic.

"OK, we're leaving the system. Return the fighters to their bay"

  So after all this, I thought, the mission was a failure. At least none of us got killed on the way. It was bitterly disappointing. I watched Peter's Terminal on the main camera display, and set a course to hyperspace back to Liabeti. I selected the hyperspace start on the console. Just before my finger touched the touch-panel, we beheld a most amazing sight.

  Suddenly, the entire rear view went blinding white. The camera watching Peter's Terminal went offline, and a massive electromagnetic pulse rendered the scanner inoperative. Our rear shields suddenly were depleted as a vast amount of electromagnetic energy was deflected. I froze, and watched in amazement. Our pursuers had vanished. Peter's Terminal, which had been a large pinpoint of light in our rear view was no longer there, nor were the small pinpoints of light that showed the presence of the Templar's Clipper fleet. I brought the camera back online, and carefully checked for the presence of Peter's Terminal. The base was gone. The nukes had finally exploded, about two minutes late. I restarted the scanner to see if it would come back online. However, the receiver was damaged beyond repair. It was a good job we had watched the whole spectacle on a synthetic 360-degree viewsystem, or else we would have been blinded just like the scanner.

"OK, let's let the shields recharge, then get out of here," I said. We were no longer in immediate danger.

  I got up, and went to the passenger cabin. I opened the door and saw everyone crammed up rather uncomfortably. All they had felt was the acceleration, followed by a slight jolt and a loud buzzing noise as the shields deflected the energy of the explosion.

"The mission was a success. The Templar are destroyed. We are going to make our way to Sol to collect our bounty. We have a good evidence recording," I said simply.

  Everyone's spirit lifted, despite their discomfort. In fact, I managed to raise a cheer from the crew. Even Wes looked slightly happy despite the uncomfortable events of the last few days. I hope he didn't think I was making an "I told you so" speech. I didn't hang around - I went back up to the bridge to get ready to leave Erduce. We had no more business here.

Epilogue - Looking back, two years later.

  We presented our evidence of the destruction of the Sirius Templar to the Federation at Mars High. We were all relieved to get off the Asp, it had been quite a squeeze. Once we were out of immediate danger, I let the crew spread out over the whole ship. It still wasn't particularly comfortable, but it was better than being squeezed up in the single passenger cabin. The Federation had no problem in accepting our evidence - in fact, news of the destruction of Peter's Terminal had been relayed by several ships in the vicinity, and the people living on the planet New America could hardly miss the bright flash that had drowned out the mid-day sun. Fortunately, their atmosphere protected them from the dangerous radiation emitted.

  So we were half a million credits better off. I distributed the money amongst us - the core group would of course get the lion's share, since we had done the bulk of the mission. The eight of us (myself, Wes, Joan, Yves, Maxwell, Mike, Jean-Claude and Damon) picked up 50,000 credits each. Unfortunately, I couldn't capture a Sidewinder to give to Martin Nguyen for giving us all the information (admittedly under duress), but I thought it would be fair to give him 5,000 credits. It'd help him start a new life at least once he got out of prison. The rest of the crew got 13,500 credits each for their troubles. The remainder went on patching up the Asp.

  Despite our success, Wes never really forgave me for the events on the Clipper. I did try to talk to him about it, but he remained bitter about the whole event until he met an untimely end during a docking accident in Facece. The rest of our group stuck together: Damon continued as my copilot until he got the itch to get his own ship. The others made quite a few upgrades to their ships as the result of the 50,000 credits. Remaining factions of the Sirius Templar took potshots at us for some time, but with their central organization crushed, they were not noticable amongst the general bounty hunting battles that were a part of a bounty hunter's life. Yves was drummed out of the Federation Navy after they discovered that she had stolen the nuclear warheads, and so she never set foot in the Federation again. Martin Nguyen, the catalyst for the entire mission was eventually let out of prison, got work in Manchester and hasn't been in space since. We don't know what's happened to Maxwell - we haven't seen him for a few months. Unfortunately, we fear the worst. He was becoming quite a proficient bounty hunter, but one day he didn't return. Maybe he'll show up at next year's New Year's party at La Soeur du Dan Ham. Or maybe he suffered a fate worse than death and got married. We've not seen Joan for a while, but the news we've got is that she's given up bounty hunting and...well, opened a used ship sales yard in Titican.

  Whatever happened, the event did give us all quite a reputation. All of us enjoyed a brief period of fame amongst bounty hunting circles. And I got my first taste of commanding a large ship. Maybe I should join the AJN or something - bounty hunting is starting to get a little bit old. Maybe when I reach Elite.

[Editor's Note]

We found out that Maxwell Jackson had indeed survived. His disappearance was caused by being marooned for five years in a remote island on New Africa in the Veliaze system after being shot down and subsequently crashing on the island. However, James Winston had joined the AJN's intelligence corps by this time (who concealed their operatives very well). Maxwell Jackson couldn't get back into bounty hunting, and ended up taking over the World's End bar in Riedquat from its previous owner, Paul Mitterand.

© 1999 Dylan Smith.

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