The Lonesome Rambler rolled gently from side to side as the ground beneath began to shake. Cynthia and Kate sat bolt upright, Cynthia jolted out of her shallow nap, Kate from her brooding thoughts by the sudden motion. The last two hours had passed like two years, hindered by vain attempts at conversation at first and then unimpeded as the two sank into their own thoughts. Kate hit the engines reflexively, bringing the Rambler into a low hover, barely two feet off the ground. Her jets stirred clouds of sand and dust that hung in a grim cloud about the ship, cutting their visibility sharply.
"Must you?" Cynthia snapped, regretting it almost immediately. Kate didn't bother to reply, concentrating on keeping the shuttle steady, right hand gripping the control yoke and her left making sure the weapons were ready to engage. The long wait had put them both on edge, but despite the abrupt nature of the interruption, Kate found herself peculiarly glad for it; at last, she had something to do. At the same time, her worries for her absent shipmates grew only more intense; the sudden seismic disturbance couldn't bode well for the two on the wrecked ship, even presuming the ship wasn't the cause of it. She set the throttles and prepared to raise the ship above the dust cloud, hoping to get a better view when Cynthia grabbed her arm.
"Hang on! There they are!" Cyn hit the release button for the airlock as two figures, barely even identifiable as human, raced out of the dust, one supporting the other. They were visible for barely a minute, and then Hawke's voice came over the radio.
"Button her up and get us the hell out of here!" Hawke's voice was firm and authoritative, but all his command presence couldn't hide the undercurrent of fear. Kate slammed the throttles as Cyn closed the airlock, the tiny ship rocketing upwards as the young pilot jerked hard on the yoke, virtually standing the Rambler on end. Behind them, the rumbling increased; Cyn checked the rear camera, and was shocked to see spurts of flame shooting through the dust cloud, bursting from the ground in geysers of fire.
"What the hell?" She wondered aloud. Kate spun the ship adeptly and raced back to the Lonesome Road, radioing ahead for Elise and Tommy to have the shuttle bay open and the engines hot. Hawke strode into the cockpit, helmet under one arm, the casket nestled in it. Cyn ducked aside as the sword brushed close to her, eyeing the relic with confusion. "What happened down there? Don't tell me that's all you found!"
"Ship's coming apart," Hawke explained tersely. "And all we found down there was this box, this sword, and more of those damn robots than I care to think about." Glenn limped up behind him, barely squeezing into the already crowded cockpit. He'd left his helmet on, but even through the visor he looked battered and worn.
"Don't look at me, I've got nothing to do with the damn thing blowing up," he said as Cyn automatically turned in his direction.
"He's right for once," Hawke said with a slight smile. "I don't know if we tripped some sort of self-destruct trap or if the power plant just conveniently decided now was the time to blow up, but the whole place started shaking itself to pieces just before we made it to the exit. We were lucky to get out alive."
Cynthia shook her head and sighed in disgust. "Well, great. We finally get a stroke of luck, and it turns out to be another bust." She turned her gaze forward as the Rambler approached the Lonesome Road, Kate barely slowing the shuttle as she lined it up with the bay. "You know, landing works a lot better if you slow down first."
Kate ignored her again, waiting until the last second to tap the brakes and slide the shuttle in. The magnetic locks hesitated several seconds before clicking on, and she powered the shuttle down rapidly. "We need to get Elise to look those locks over again," she said, unbuckling her harness and standing up. "Everyone had best buckle in," she said as she pushed past Glenn and Hawke. "I want to get this heap back into space as quickly as possible."
"In a bit of a hurry, eh?" Glenn quipped, giving Cynthia a quick hug as she stood up.
Hawke stepped out onto the flight deck just behind Kate, also headed for the bridge. "Best we get as far from that hulk as we can, in case its power plant is still intact, and decides to blow as well. Besides, I don't trust our luck lately - the sooner we're back in the black, the safer we all are."
"Captain!" Ozymandias' voice came over the ship's PA system. "You had best lay to the bridge as quickly as you can. An Imperial vessel has just entered the system, and it is headed our way." He paused, then added delicately, "Second Empire, of course."
Hawke swore under his breath. "You see what I mean? You two had best man the guns. This could get ugly." He took off at a run. "Oz, tell Elise to get back to the engine room and tell Tommy to strap himself in someplace out of the way."
"I'm more than capable of handling my guns, sir." Tommy's voice came over the suit radio, the helmet com sounding muffled and tinny as it was blocked by the casket.
"Fine, Tommy get to the forward turret. Glenn, up here."
Down in the flight deck, Glenn and Cyn hadn't moved. They looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
"Contract time?" Cyn suggested idly, still supporting much of Glenn's weight. Her husband shrugged resignedly.
"Boss-man seems to think we can outgun an Imperial," he said. "Guess that means we're needed. Maybe after, assuming we're not dead or in jail." She chuckled and pushed him on his way.
"I'll hold you to that, mister." She grinned and turned for the after gun turret, breaking into a run.
"I hope you will!" he called after her, and began his long hobble for the bridge. "Dammit, why is there never a wheelchair around when you need one?"
The ship shook and the thrusters whined, but they failed to move. Kate swore as she manhandled the throttles. "Dammit Elise, I thought you had those things fixed!"
"I did!" Elise's accent was always most pronounced when she was under stress, and at the moment she was all but yowling at the radio. "I think there's a fault in the power lines! Give me five minutes and I'll have it worked out!"
"Five minutes and we're dead, Elise." Hawke gripped the back of Kate's chair, hands white-knuckled in the hard suit's gauntlets. He hadn't bothered to remove the suit before heading for the bridge, and helmet, sword, and casket all lay in a heap on the captain's chair. Glenn stalked onto the bridge, barely holding himself up by clinging to the bulkhead. He collapsed into the copilot's chair with a sigh of relief.
"That's it," he said. "I'm not leaving the seat, even if we have to abandon ship. Y'all can carry me off here."
Kate eyed him, finally taking in just how badly the ordeal in the wreck had effected him. His face, now that he'd removed his helmet, was
flushed and streaked with sweat, and his eyes looked bruised as he studied the copilot's console with studied indifference.
"Maybe you should lay to the infirmary," she offered timidly, turning back to her console. Glenn snorted.
"What did I just say? Ass in chair, not going anywhere. Y'all can bury me here."
"No time," Hawke said grimly. He grabbed the 1MC microphone. "Sooner would be better, Elise."
"Hold your mousies, boy-o." In the engine room, Elise ripped a pair of wires from their connectors and swapped them - almost instantly, the thrusters gained a deep bodied roar and the ship gained air. "Got it!"
"All hands, brace yourselves." Hawke dropped the mike, wrapped one hand around a restraining strap on the bulkhead, and slapped Kate on the shoulder. "Hit it, Kate!"
Kate obliged, taking the newly repaired thruster's virginity the hard way. Here and there on the hull, some overloaded at the strain and either burned out or up with various displays of pyrotechnics, but the majority held and propelled the ship upwards at a dizzying rate. They wobbled slightly as they hit the higher levels of the atmosphere, and then they were up and through - free of the binding of Darkon's gravity at last. Hawke let go of the strap and leaned over Kate's console again.
"Make course for the edge of the system, Kate, quick as we can." He turned to Glenn. "We should have a few minutes before that Imperial is on us, if you want a hand getting back to sick bay."
Glenn rolled his eyes and mock-scowled at his captain. "Does anyone listen to a word I say around here?"
"Not particularly." Hawke grinned, a surprisingly youthful expression that did much to erase the careworn lines on his face. "But we really should tape up that leg of yours while it's still an option, and I think we'd both be the better for some painkillers." He offered Glenn a hand, and grumbling, the younger man took it. "Kate, you have the conn. Try to keep us out of trouble."
"What am I, a miracle worker?" Kate muttered under her breath, focusing on her controls and fighting the urge to grin like a maniac. It had only been a few days, but the situation on the ground had, at times, looked quite grim; the road ahead was long and dangerous, and she knew better than to think that their continued health was any kind of guarantee, but at least she would be facing any new troubles in her natural element. Even Ozymandias' presence, from his monitor screen lurking over her shoulder, couldn't do much to damage her good mood.
At least not until he started speaking. "Imperial Destroyer, Fafnir class. Range, roughly eight light units. It appears they are launching gunboats; I shall remind you, a Fafnir carries four Valkyrie class gunboats, any one of which could give us quite the run for our money. I must confess to some curiosity as to how you intend to slip away from them."
"I'm better than they are," Kate grumbled.
"Given your history and past performance, I will gladly grant you the benefit of the doubt," Oz said smoothly. "But there is still four of them to our one, and they are a great deal faster than we are. I calculate that they will intercept us well before we reach the minimum safe distance from the sun for a Jump. I regret to inform you, as of three point two seconds ago, this pursuit has begun."
"We'll just have to discourage them," Kate said.
"You realize that a Valkyrie carries a nose particle cannon, twin mass driver chain guns, and up to six separate rocket pods?" Oz inquired, his voice revealing nothing more than honest curiosity.
"We'll burn that bridge when we come to it, dammit." She turned and scowled at the monitor, taking her attention from ahead for the first time since the Lonesome Road had gained space. "You're not helping matters any."
"My apologies." Ozymandias said, though he didn't sound particularly apologetic. "But I felt these matters should be brought to your attention. After all, you have the conn."
"Yeah, funny you didn't bother to point those out while the captain was here," she mumbled under her breath as she turned back to the controls. "Let Cynthia and Tommy know too and bring the fire control computers online."
"Fire control is down," Oz said smoothly. Kate grit her teeth and hung on to her temper with an effort.
"And you were going to let us know this, when?" Her hands were white-knuckled on the control yoke;
"The subject had not come up, Miss Marlow."
She didn't bother to reply, grabbing for the radio. "Elise, Oz tells me the fire control computers are down. What's going on?"
Elise sounded surprised when she replied. "Yeah, I had to jury rig a new converter out of some of fire control's chips. Why, is someone shooting at us?"
"They're about to be," Kate said grimly. There was a distressed meow from the other end, and the line went dead. "When it rains..." she muttered, and turned her attention back to her controls.
After a moment, Oz said, "Yes?" Kate blinked and looked up at his monitor, where his avatar peered back at her with all signs of great curiosity.
"Huh?" She said eloquently. One of Oz's disembodied hands made a circle.
"When it rains...?" He asked, hinting that she should continue. She smiled as she realized that the AI had never heard that particular expression before.
"Why don't you look it up, Ozzy?" She smirked at her controls.
Oz sounded perturbed as he said, "I have tried. I am afraid my memory banks are distressingly bare when it comes to human proverbs and sayings. Please enlighten me, Miss Marlow."
"It'll come to you, Oz. It'll come to you." She adjusted their course slightly and hit the auto pilot. "I'm going to give Elise a hand with those fire control chips. If those gunboats show any sign of gaining, or anything else dangerous shows up, call the captain and I immediately."
"Are you surrendering the conn, Miss Marlow?" Beneath his overt disinterest, a thread of eagerness had sprung.
"Not on your half-life," she called over her shoulder as she strolled out of the bridge. "Not to anyone but Captain Hawke."
"The signal's gone dead, Captain." Ensign Hazel Greene, sensors officer and tac witch on the Imperial destroyer HMS Hildagarde looked up from her console with a desolate look. "Commo confirms that it was First Empire. We're getting a lot of detonations on the surface, but I'm afraid it doesn't look like volcanic activity."
"They blew it up," Captain Michael Gunther Dane leaned back in his chair, face stricken. "A relic of the First Empire... and those lousy scavengers blew it up."
"I can't say for sure that it was demolished, or that the civilian was the cause if it was," Ensign Greene started to say, but Dane cut her off with a sharp gesture.
"Don't try to defend them, Ensign." His voice was cold as ice as he watched the magnified view of the Oberley Clydesdale making its escape from Darkon's orbit. The ship looked a mess, with barely half its maneuvering thrusters firing and the giant, clunky engines on the rear flaring as she ascended. Once free of orbit, the ship turned its head away from the Hildagarde and lurched as the main engines engaged, propelling her clear faster than the destroyer could hope to follow. "It's pretty clear that they're smugglers, at best. Engineering, how long until our engines are back online?"
In the engine room, the Chief Engineer looked at his console with distress. "Looks like it'll be a couple of minutes, Captain. I don't see how the hell we did it, but it looks like we fried a good half of our converters when we came out of Jump. We just need to plug some spares in."
"Get my engines back up as soon as possible, Chief." Dane flicked the switch to another channel. "Flight Officer, get the gunboats prepped for interception and get them in the air. I want a full flight, magnum launch."
"Aye sir," On the flight deck, the Flight Officer looked down at the four gunboats in various stages of disarray and shook his head in disgust. It never failed; one moment they were cruising along in Jump space, untouchable and safe enough to start breaking the boats down for inspection, the next they were launching... He waved at the mechanics down on deck. "Get those things put back together on the double, and send a runner for the pilots. Captain wants 'em in the black in five." The mechanics swore and leaped to action, scrambling to replace the parts they'd just removed, throwing testing gear to the side in their hurry. Ordinance men rushed up in load lifters, the exoskeletons toting heavy missile and gun pods as though they were as light as suitcases. Despite the outward appearance of chaos, everything went as smooth as though it were choreographed; Hildagarde had come through the Scourge war, and even six months on Rim patrol chasing pirates and smugglers had done little to dent her crew's fighting edge. It was closer to six minutes than five, but by the time the boat crews hit the flight deck the Valkyrie were back together and the flight deck crew was clearing the bay, toting armloads of tools. The Flight Officer checked his chronometer and swore; there wasn't time for a proper FOD walk down. He debated doing it anyway, unwilling to take the risk of losing a boat on launch due to some improperly stowed wrench or crumpled meal wrapper when the radio crackled again.
"Flight officer! Where the hell are my Valkyries?"
"Coming sir!" He reflexively saluted the radio and rushed for the flight deck 1MC. "All hands, prep for magnum launch! Clear the flight deck!"
Captain Dane leaned back in his chair, eyes fixed on the fleeing civilian. "Clydesdale, pretty heavily modified... far out, too. What do you think, Tac, is there a smuggler base around here? Maybe some pirates?"
"Doubt it, sir." Ensign Greene scratched her head absent-mindedly. "Too far out for merchants, so there's nothing for the pirates to prey on, too close to our patrols for smugglers to take the risk. Could be lost."
"Lost." The captain snorted derisively. "And they just happened to stumble on a First Empire distress beacon? A likely story."
"Well sir," she said slowly. "That is what happened to us. Who's to say that the same thing didn't pull them out of Jump, too?"
"Then why destroy it, Ensign? Why would they destroy something so precious?" He shook his head. "It doesn't make any sense... but one way or another, we'll put the question to them when we bring them in. Assuming they aren't stupid enough to keep running when Cutter and his crew catch up to them." He grinned viciously, and Ensign Greene turned quietly back to her board. Lieutenant Commander Toshiro "Cutter" Kazuhiki was well known throughout the fleet for his flamboyant skill and 'take no prisoners' attitude. An asset during the fighting against the Scourge, his recklessness had been a detriment to his career in the two years of peace since, and it was widely believed that this tour of duty far from the Core worlds was his last chance to settle down before the Navy discharged him. Cutter was well known to shoot first and ask questions later, and by some malevolent twist of fate had managed to accumulate a squadron of rogues with exactly the same mindset.
It made sense, in a twisted fashion; after all, the best place for a nation's warriors was on the battle line, and with the long, drawn-out war against the Scourge finally done and any future hostilities against the Union still but a rumor, battles were few and far between. Out on the Rim, there was seldom a dearth of criminals, outlaws, brigands and simple undesirables - from the aforementioned pirates and smugglers to independent worlds and commissioned privateers, rebellious planets mustering secret armies, and even stragglers of the Scourge, left behind when their Brood fled the system after the Battle of Angelsfall. The idea had probably looked good on paper, getting a half-dozen of the Empire's blood thirstiest pilots and gunners out where they could keep their skills sharp and stay (mostly) out of trouble, but Greene had difficulty believing that anyone could assemble such a squadron of rogues, misfits, and troublemakers simply at random... much less throw them under the command of Cutter Kazuhiki.
The ship rocked gently as the shuttle bay doors opened, venting atmosphere into space in a sudden, dense cloud, then again as the four gunboats launched. They assembled into a loose 'v' formation and sped off, quickly outrunning the crippled destroyer, still on crash collision for Darkon.
"God help them," Greene murmured under her breath, turning her attention back to her sensors. She wasn't entirely sure for whom her prayer was intended, the able pilots of the Hildagarde... or their soon to be victims.
Hawke ground his teeth and fought the urge to stamp and curse as he watched the gunboats drawing ever nearer. The Imperial Valkyrie model was heavier armed and armored than its Union counterpart, but slower to compensate; under normal circumstances, the Lonesome Road would have had no trouble showing her heels and easily outrunning them to the edge of the system, where she could then safely Jump away. It would take a snappy pilot in a space superiority fighter or interceptor to catch the Lonesome when she wasn't in the mood to be caught, but the ship stubbornly refused to cooperate with them. Her engines flared and sputtered, and despite Cynthia and Elise working together they hadn't managed to bring the fire control computers back online, either. The ship alternated bursts of flank speed with lulls of wallowing where she simply coasted along on her inertia, and as the minutes dragged into hours the gunboats slowly gained. Far behind them, the Imperial destroyer had brought its engines back online, and it too gave chase - though at a more sedate pace.
Lonesome Road had teeth, but despite her hidden rocket pods and not-so hidden gun turrets, she would be hard-pressed to fend off four Imperial gunboats. Her weapons, installed by salvage and scrap from the crew, were intended to keep pirates and fighters off long enough for her big engines to get her free of trouble; against a modern military force, they might as well be defenseless.
"How long do we have, Oz?" he asked at last, more to break the silence than because he wanted an answer.
"We have thirty-two minutes until we are at a safe distance from the nearest gravity well to Jump, Captain." The AI said, appearing on his screen. He spread his hands, a 3-dimensional graphic of the ship, its environs, and the pursuing gunboats appearing between them. A green numbered countdown appeared by his head. "Unfortunately, we have twenty-one minutes until our pursuers are within weapons range." A red numbered countdown appeared below the green.
"We need to hold them off for eleven minutes," Hawke muttered
"Hold them off and prevent them from damaging any systems required for our Jump, Captain." Oz corrected, the graphic vanishing as he pushed his virtual spectacles higher on his nose. "I should point out that the very fact that they are pursuing us in the first place indicates that they believe we are a greater threat than our hull would indicate; we are unlikely to take them unawares with our defensive armaments, even should our fire control computer be completely operational at that time." He looked reflective for a moment. "Which I confess is a distinct possibility, as I see Miss Elise is having some success in that endeavor."
"We could just ask them what they want, captain," Kate said ironically without looking away from her controls. Hawke snorted.
"If they were a Union patrol, maybe. Hell, it's not like we have enough left of Rigeling's cargo for them to sweat us over when they boarded us. But the Empire's still got a price on Glenn's head, and I understand they aren't too happy with Cynthia and I, either." He shook his head, staring at the two countdowns. "We're better off running... and hoping."
"Running makes us look guilty, sir."
"We are guilty, Kate." He patted her on the shoulder awkwardly. "If they picked up that distress signal before the ship tore itself apart, we're really in trouble. We'll never convince them that we couldn't find anything of value aboard, and they won't stop until they know where we've hidden our ill-gotten gains." He snorted. "If it wasn't for bad luck, we'd have none at all."
"When it rains..." Oz said hopefully.
Hawke laughed. "Yeah, you've got that right." He shook his head, looked at the countdowns again and turned for the hatch. "I'm going to grab something to eat. You want anything, Kate?"
"Mm," Kate grimaced. "More protein packs. Thanks anyway, sir, but I think it's about time I started that diet I've been thinking about since grade school." Hawke gave her lanky figure a speculative look, shook his head again, and slipped out the door. Kate smirked up Oz's monitor, where the AI was clearly sulking. "Nice try, sucker."
"Your hostility is most discouraging, Miss Marlow," Oz said mournfully.
"Yeah, whatever, you over glorified excuse for a calculator." She adjusted their course slightly to provide cover as they sped past a cluster of asteroids. "I still haven't forgiven you for reading my journal."
"You did not mark it as private. How was I to know it was sacrosanct?"
"The fact that it was in a locked box underneath my bunk and you had to use a maintenance 'droid to pry it out should have indicated something, mister super genius computer." She spat without any real heat.
"Destroying my maintenance 'droid was not necessary." Oz mourned. "One could even say that it merely increased the chores shared amongst the crew, since I am no longer able to render assistance."
"You're no longer able to go changing things onboard anymore, either." She reached over her head and turned the brightness down until his monitor was almost dark. "Stacking the lounge furniture together like a jigsaw puzzle to 'maximize available floor space,' or chucking Glenn's music discs as garbage are hardly arguments for trusting you with any sort of controllable body."
"They were garbage. Cindy Lohan's third reunion tour was a crime against man and nature."
Kate mulled that over for a minute. "Well, I'll give you that one. That's still no reason to toss them out the airlock, though."
"Should I have used the incinerator?"
Cutter Kazuhiki ground his teeth as he watched the numbers on his board increase again. "Chikusho!" he swore heatedly, thumping the console with one delicate hand. Cutter was inordinately proud of his long, slender fingers, going to incredible lengths to take care of them - even as he spoke, he reached into one jumpsuit pocket to pull out a tube of lotion. He moisturized his hands and scowled at the board, but his copilot could tell that this was the happiest the commander had been since the deployment began.
"Moves fast for a freight barge," He ventured after a moment.
"Moves like a fucking cruiser," Cutter snarled back, then smiled. "Wonder if it can punch its weight, or if its just puffing itself up like a frog." He leaned back in his flight chair, studying the blip on the screen with growing interest. "This looks like it might be interesting after all."
Interesting gets people killed, boss, Lieutenant Garth Ulafsson thought but didn't say. The two were a sound team in the air, but their philosophies differed drastically and they spent little time together on the ground. Where Cutter was reckless and impulsive, relying on his incredible skill to see him through, "Frosty" Ulafsson preferred to think things through, planning carefully for every eventuality. His call sign came from several sources; his home system of Valhalla had a dying sun, not unlike the red giant that shone here, and its worlds were barely habitable even after extensive terraforming. Jotunheim, closest to the sun, was a charred cinder; Midgard, first settled, was temperate though cool, and Asgard, where he hailed from, was locked in a permanent ice age. A tall, burly man, he was pale as a ghost; between his cold climate, pale color, and cool flying, the nickname was a natural thing.
"Looks like we'll have them in another fifteen minutes," he said instead, studying the readout on the monitor. Cutter shook his head, pausing momentarily in the process of pulling on his gloves.
"Should have had them an hour ago. This whole thing is taking too damn long," He picked up his helmet. "Better strap in. Don't know what kind of guns they're packing; we should still be outside missile range, but better safe than sorry."
Frosty rolled his eyes and pulled his helmet on, the magnetic seals locking it in with a slight hiss. He'd been ready for some time, all but the uncomfortable helmet; Cutter, on the other hand, had reported to the flight deck only half dressed, and had spent the last couple of hours slowly strapping on more and more of his kit in between adjusting their course and checking their systems. Cutter strapped his on as well, and they took a moment to check their heads up display and synchronizing systems, the monitor displays going dark as the visor HUDs took over the burden. Cutter's voice was tinny in Garth's ear as he counted down slowly, then back up again.
"All right," the commander said finally. "Looks like we're good to go."
"Ten minutes," Frosty said, eyeing the countdown in the lower corner of his visor. "We're still outside missile range."
The cargo ship's engines flared and her acceleration dropped off steeply, allowing the gunboats to gain a few more precious kilometers on her. Not quite a minute gained, Garth estimated, but the continuing problems with their engines had assisted them much all ready. "Should I try hailing them to haul to?"
"No," Cutter said intently. Garth knew from experience that the pilot had a wolfish grin, eager to get on with the fight. "If they were going to surrender peacefully, they wouldn't have run in the first place. Once we're in missile range, we'll give them a warning shot and an ultimatum, shoot their engines off if they keep running. If they fight back, we'll take them out."
Garth shrugged and turned back to his controls as Cutter started humming, then singing to himself. The song was incomprehensible to the stocky Scandinavian, sung as it was in Kazuhiki's native Japanese, but the melody was pretty enough and Cutter had a decent singing voice. The gunboats sped on through the endless night, their target a shimmering gem in the darkness ahead of them.
"Missile contact," Elise reported tersely. Hawke gripped the back of her chair again, barely noting that his fingers slid easily into the grooves worn by countless times in this same position. "Looks like a warning shot, sir."
"Let this one go by, Cynthia." He said. The mike clicked twice in affirmation as the former bounty hunter swiveled her ion turret to cover the approaching gunboats. The electronic disrupting guns were the closest thing the Lonesome Road had for point defense, firing 'packets' of energy that damaged even the most hardened circuits when it struck as well as dealing damage; they were power intensive, unfortunately, and drained the ship's shields - themselves weak compared to military ones - with each shot. The forward turret held a pair of twin mass driver magnetic cannons, and Tommy had taken his place in them with some satisfaction - the heavy slug throwers were a far cry from his pistols, but they were as close as ship weapons could get. The missile rack slung below the ship was controlled by the pilot and copilot, but Hawke had given command over to Oz, knowing the AI's split second reflexes were better suited to the job that his own merely human abilities. Where human gunners had been proven to outshoot computers every time with energy and kinetic weapons, missiles remained the silicon avatar's dominant territory.
The radio crackled, an outside transmission this time. An authoritative, almost arrogant voice came over the air, ordering the ship to heave to and prepare for boarders; Hawke ignored it, leaning over to the microphone again. "Next one will be real, Cyn. Eyes wide back there."
"Go teach your grandma, cap." Cynthia grinned wolfishly; she already had the lead boat lined up in her sights, and the distance to energy range ticked ever closer. They'd be in missile range long before, of course, but she was confident in her ability to shoot down anything a small boat could send at them; the short range missiles were devastating when they hit, but the Imperial's had given far too much of their mass to warhead, neglecting the engines and completely disregarding any sort of electronic guidance. They were strictly fire and forget, and once given a course were unable to deviate significantly from it.
Of course, Imperial strategy made up for their missile shortcomings by using lots of them, and the throw weight of an Imperial gunboat rivaled that of a Union corvette or light frigate - making their hit ratio roughly equal. And with four gunboats firing in unison...
That was assuming that the Empire would try to kill them. More than likely, they would aim for crippling shots, attempting to take out the ship's engines or even life support, forcing the Lonesome Road to heave to.
None of that, Cyn reflected absently, was her problem. Hers was not to wonder why, hers was just to make them die; and that, she thought with her killer's smile, was something she was very good at. She'd always preferred bounties that read "Dead or Alive," after all...
The first missiles sprang from beneath the lead boat, followed quickly by its wingmen, and she howled with fierce joy as she brought her turret around and up, HUD illuminating the hostile targets with red glows.
"Vampires inbound," she said unnecessarily as she opened up, the ion gun flaring violet in the blackness of space. "Engaging."
"Mind your shots," Elise said snippily. "Remember, that energy hog of yours is going to leave a hell of a dent on our plant if you don't reign it in."
"Your grandma, too, Elise."
Cutter whipped his Valkyrie to the side with a sudden curse, only his intuition and incredible reflexes saving them as a missile lunged from the civilian like a thrown spear. The lance sped by, altered its target suddenly and sped on for one of his wingmen; there wasn't even enough time for him to cry a warning before the missile impacted, turning the gunboat into a flaming of wreckage.
"What the hell's a transport ship doing with that kind of firepower?" Frosty asked in disbelief, losing his famous composure for a moment as he stared at his console. Other red blips sprang into being as the ship's launcher went to full auto, spraying a volley at the flight. The gunboats rolled apart, forcing the missiles to split their flight and making them an easier prey to the automatic countermeasures. It was clear from the accuracy that the civilian ship was using Union missiles, faster and more precise than their Imperial cousins but not as hard-hitting. A Valkyrie gunboat usually had enough armor and shields together to shrug off two or more Union missiles, but a single shot had turned the ship into scrap; the sign of a talented gunner, a lucky shot, or an advanced fire control computer. All smiles gone, Cutter twisted his ship around and dove for the merchant, launching his own missile barrage.
"Concentrate all shields to forward," He ordered tersely. "I'm through playing around with this son of a bitch." Frosty complied, then brought up the gun cam for the forward chain guns, counting down softly as they came close to energy range.
"Five... four... three.. two... fuck! Jink right!" He grabbed his controls, desperately trying to return fire as the merchant ship suddenly opened up with its aft ion turret. Cutter spun them out of the way in the nick of time, the packets of ion energy crackling off the boat's shields. They flickered and wavered as the ion beam disrupted them.
"Serious firepower," Cutter said casually. It was Frosty's turn to swear as his control panel started blinking; after a few sound thwacks with a gloved fist it settled down, though it seemed dimmer.
"They effected our fire control through the hardened circuits," Garth said between gritted teeth. "From a glancing blow at best." He brought his own guns to bear as the gunboat spun round again, lunging for the merchant ship like a bulldog intent on its prey. His first shots went wild as Cutter jostled the ship, swinging her out of the way as the forward mass driver turret opened up as well; then the other gunboats came within range, and things become predictably hairier for their target.
"How much longer?" Kate asked stiffly, gripping the yoke with white-knuckled hands. Lonesome Road spun through another impossible dodge, the ungainly Clydesdale moving as gracefully as a ballerina under Marlow's skilled control. Hawke didn't bother to respond, more preoccupied with hanging on with the ship's artificial gravity generator down.
"Three minutes until we are in Jump range," Oz said leisurely in between jamming an incoming missile and targeting a gunboat with one of his own. The boat's point defenses tore the offending rocket apart, but it left them open for a sound hit from Cynthia's ion turret; its shields sputtered and failed, and she peeled off before Tommy could take advantage to hit them with the mass driver. "Of course, whether or not Miss Elise will be ready for us to Jump is another matter entirely. Do hang on, this one may smart a bit."
Impact rocked the ship as the lead boat managed to catch them dead on the side with its particle beams, tearing through the thin hull as though it were paper. Alarms flashed and flared, quickly silenced.
"Damage to frames 02-116-1 through 04-132-2," Oz said. "Cargo holds. I'm afraid I do not have any cameras in that area, so I cannot ascertain the extent of the damage."
Hawke groaned. "So much for giving Rigeling a partial cargo and his money back," he said inanely. The important thing was to focus on getting the ship away intact, and given that they'd been dog fighting the heavily armed and armored gunboats for almost ten minutes now, their casualties had been almost astoundingly light. They had only taken the one serious hit, and Oz reported smoothly that the automatic seals were already in place; the cargo bay was a modular design, and could be replaced even if it couldn't be repaired.
But the Imperials were growing bolder - or more desperate - the closer their quarry got to the Jump limit, and they pressed their attack with ever increasing fervor. After Oz's initial missile had killed one of them, the others had hung back, harrying the larger ship like a pack of wolves attacking a stag; circling, slashing at the flanks, using their superior speed to zip ahead and force Kate to dodge around them. More than once she'd been forced to roll the ship on its axis to protect the vulnerable missile racks on the belly, and despite several coordinated attempts by the Imperials they'd managed to stay one step ahead - until now.
"The damage is affecting ship handling, sir." Kate said neutrally. She was focused, intent; completely and totally in 'the zone,' she had neither the time nor energy for emotions, for anything that might possibly distract her from her flying. She reported the problem and carried on, neither knowing nor caring if Hawke could correct it; she simply made adjustments as necessary. Flying was her meat and drink, and laid before her today was a feast of holiday proportions.
"Keep her steady, Kate, you're doing just fine." Hawke struggled to keep his voice calm, but his kneaded the sword's hilt fretfully.
He wasn't sure what Elise had intended for the leather she'd been hiding in her room, but it had only taken an hour for her and Cynthia to whip up a passable scabbard and baldric for him to carry the sword slung on his back. He wore it now, but the blade lay across his lap; he'd found it curiously comforting to have it out. Kate ignored it, and if it bothered Ozymandias the AI gave no sign.
"The Chief Engineer is raising power for Jump, Captain," Ozymandias said. "I don't believe we will be able to keep the shields raised and the guns powered with this extra requirement on the power plant."
Hawke cursed silently, but kept his face smooth. "Shut the guns down, Oz." He clicked his radio on. "Tommy, Cynthia, you guys had better find a safer place to strap down. We need the power for the engines." The rear ion turret went silent immediately, the power hog switching off as soon as he spoke; Tommy, in the mass driver, continued to fire, raining steel on the enemy with single minded determination.
Hawke started to reprimand the man, hesitated.
"Captain, the mass drivers do not require an immense amount of power. Without the ion turret to cover him, Mr. Gervetti will be in a greater amount of danger, but he should be able to continue firing up to the moment of Jump with no detriment to our escape."
Hawke nodded in agreement. "Keep shooting up there, Tommy. Keep 'em off our back." There was no reply, the guns continuing to shake the ship with their monotonous thud. Hawke glanced at the ammunition readout for the mass drivers and winced at just how low they were getting; one more expense, assuming they lived through this, assuming Rigeling didn't simply have them whacked for losing his cargo. Hawke mentally reviewed how he might get the ship's accounts turned around again, and had to give up; with the advent of clone organs, kidneys just didn't bring the same payoff they used to.
The ship shook as the pursuing gunboats realized that Cynthia wasn't just trying to lure them in closer and took advantage of the lesser fire. Hawke ordered Ozymandias to burn through the rest of the missiles to make up for the slack, but even that was only a momentary respite; no sooner had their point defenses taken them out with no more than near misses to worry about than the Valkyries were on them again. Worse, Hawke could see the looming signature of the destroyer on his sensors, still distant but closing rapidly. It had a long distance to go and moved slower than the modified Clydesdale, but if the gunboats kept the Lonesome Road from Jump, or if whatever strange anomaly had pulled them out of hyperspace in the first place was still active, then they were in dire straits indeed.
No sooner had he thought it than the ship shook and there was a loud yowl over the radio. Oz had to raise his voice to be heard over the angered shrieks. "Engines have been hit, Captain. Looks like a minor hit with an ion weapon, but it seems to have been enough to overload those jury-rigged converters. We are drifting, sir."
Hawke closed his eyes. Without engines, the ship simply carried on through space on their last course, at the same speed, until they ran into something or something slowed them down. And with their engines and the rear turret out, the next step would be..."
"Mister Gervetti is taking heavy fire," Ozymandias said calmly. "I do not believe the shields over the turret will hold."
"Tommy get out of there now," Hawke said. "We're sitting ducks, and there's nothing more you can do."
There was a momentary silence, then a sullen "Roger" from the turret. The guns went dead as Tommy slid out, sealing the hatch behind him in case of a blow through. As the turret went quiet, the gunboats ceased fire as well, turning their attentions to the next step of heaving her to; using the belly mounted magnetic grapples and tractor beams to pull her to a stop. If they carried boarding crews, that would be the next step - armored Space Marines, compartment to compartment fighting, a certain bloody death for his crew. Hawke closed his eyes, certain that this was the end; they couldn't fight, couldn't run. "Strike our shields, Oz," He said quietly. There was nothing left but surrender, though he knew the Empire would not look mercifully on them after the chase they had led.
"Aye sir," Oz said quietly. Kate still gripped the control yoke, but her head was bowed and her face was grim. Hawke unbuckled himself from the copilot's chair and patted her on the shoulder awkwardly.
"You did good, Kate. I don't think there's a pilot in the galaxy that could have run them better."
Kate started to snap back at him, then shook her head in resignation. "Thank you, sir. Should I lay below?" And fetch her pistol and prepare for boarders, she left unsaid. Hawke shook his head.
"We're done. Maybe they'll go easier on us if we play sheep now, but I won't see you all butchered for my pride."
Kate unbuckled herself and stood up. "Sir. I'll be in my room, then."
"Alright, Kate. Listen for the word to muster in the shuttle bay." Hawke closed his eyes as she left the bridge and put his head in his hands. "Oz, is there anyway for you to conceal your presence? So they don't realize you're in the computers?"
"Possibly, Captain." Oz said cheerfully. "It seems a moot point, though; I do not believe they would be interested in sending a prize crew for a ship as old as our Lonesome Road. They would probably scuttle her. I do not wish to take that route, however." Something in his tone made Hawke look up in alarm. The AI's 'face' was blank, meaning he wasn't paying attention to the bridge cameras... meaning he was busy elsewhere.
"Oz, we're done fighting." Hawke warned.
"Buckle in, Captain." Oz's face became animated, and he smiled crookedly. "I have no intentions of fighting."
On the nose of the Lonesome Road, a magnetic grapple usually used for towing suddenly came to life and oriented on the lead gunboat as the ship overflew them, preparing to ready its own tow. The Clydesdale lurched as the grapples hit, reigning the gunboat back - and pulling the cargo ship forward.
In Valkyrie 227, Cutter and Frosty sat bolt upright in alarm as a thud rang through the hull. "What the hell?!"
"Prepare for Jump in five... four... three..." Oz said, his voice echoing through every 1MC speaker on the ship. Hawke grabbed at his chair, the truth sinking in; after all, they'd been so close to the Jump limit anyway - and the ship's realspace engines and Jump drive were two entirely separate systems...
All over the ship, the crew looked up, paled, and dove for restraints; in many cases, scattering ammunition and weapons behind them as they abandoned their preparations for boarders. Glenn gritted his teeth as he twisted his leg again, but he was smiling despite the pain; neither he nor Cyn had any intentions of giving in to Imperial 'mercy' again, and damn what Hawke might say.
John Hawke had never lived on an Imperial Penitent Colony. Glenn and Cynthia Rho had; and both were ready to die before going back into one of those hells.
A brilliant white light enveloped the ship and the gunboat that was slowly winching closer to them; by the time the other gunboat pilots could see again, the ship was gone, leaving only a cloud of scintillating shards and frozen water vapor from their vented atmosphere to show that they'd ever been.