Sunday, October 15, 2006

Yon Lonesome Road: Chapter 4


Jump-space, or hyperspace, was a peculiar thing. Its exact nature was unknown; it was believed by some to be an offshoot of the 'real' world, perhaps another dimension, where the laws of physics didn't normally apply. Thus, an object could reach light speed - and beyond - without any of the adverse effects, i.e. total annihilation, that would occur in real space.

For some reason, ships that went into Jump brought with them their own 'bubble' of realspace. There had been attempts made to counter this by weakening or strengthening the power of the Jump engines, to no avail; fighters and single-man courier ships brought with them only tiny bubbles, while larger ships produced comparatively larger ones. The greatest dreadnoughts, superdreadnoughts, and battlesuns could bring other capital ships along with them; the Lonesome Road managed to bring along a Valkyrie gunboat.

Toshiro and Garth stared at each other in blank surprise; neither had realized just how close to the Jump limit they'd come, and they weren't sure which was more shocking; that they had been dragged along, or that they were still alive now that they had been. Valkyrie 227 had been dragged in close to the hull, and now rested snug against it; realspace engines were of limited use, since once they were free of the bubble the Lonesome Road produced, they would be destroyed by the strange and twisting energies of Jump space. They were, in effect, stuck on what might be a weeks, even months, long journey.

"Well," Cutter said at last. "This is another fine mess you've gotten us into."

Garth didn't bother to argue with whom the blame lay; he merely shook his head and slumped back into his chair, pale faced beneath his visor. "We just became the first Imperial pilots to be kidnapped by an enemy ship," he said at last.

"At least we still have Kawai-chan," Toshiro said, patting his control yoke. "As soon as this tub comes out of Jump, we'll cut the grapples and give them hell."

"And how long will that be?" Garth snapped back. "We've got a couple days rations, tops. Week if we stretch it, but we'll be starving before we run out of food - and that's assuming there's spares in the back. Since your baby here was laying in pieces on the deck a couple hours ago, I'm not too confident of that."

"Well, let's check on that." Toshiro unbuckled his harness and floated back; the shuttle was too small for an artificial gravity generator, and the power requirements would have been too draconic for a small boat, anyway. Garth shook his head in despair, then followed.

The impromptu inventory didn't last very long, and they found themselves buckled back into their flight chairs for lack of anything better to do.

"Nothing?" Toshiro couldn't let the complete lack of supplies, the devastating emptiness of his ship, go. There were no spare batteries, no extra oxygen tanks, no ammunition or food at all; the rest of his "Kawai-chan" was an empty shell, outfitted with the barest necessities for launch and interception, and nothing more. "How can there be nothing?"

"Well, five minutes from inspection to magnum launch," Frosty said wearily, closing his eyes. With the engines, shields, and weapons shut down, they had enough extra power to fire up the life support again, and had done so to save their dwindling suit batteries while they talked things over. "I suppose it's not surprising that the flight mechanics might have forgotten to replace some things."

"Some things?" Toshiro was too numb to even muster up the proper indignation, though he gave it a rousing try. "Some things? I don't think they left us so much as a packet of coffee."

Frosty managed a tired smile. "You need to cut down on your caffeine intake anyway, Cutter," He said, finishing his suit's power-down sequence. There didn't seem to be much point to removing it all the way, but he saw no need to waste battery power that might well prove vital later. Toshiro had no such concerns, and though his helmet lay next to him his suit lights still glowed and flickered fretfully. They sat back, silent for a few minutes, lost in their own thoughts.

"Who would have thought we'd end like this?" Toshiro said at last. The irony was palpable; to make one's living flirting with death, living fast and on the edge, now condemned to die slowly, terribly. The only thing more ironic would have been to die groundside; or perhaps of disease. The entertainment palled quickly, and they returned to silence, lost in their own brooding thoughts.

A thumping echoed through the boat, shaking them loose of their reverie. They stared at each other, then grabbed their helmets and scrambled out of their seats. "I think it's coming from the hatch," Frosty said inanely. Cutter didn't bother to reply, as he was already rummaging through the gun rack.

"At least we've got weapons," He said with a vicious smile that quickly fell. "No bullets? No bullets?"

Garth tugged his helmet on and ran for the hatch as the thumping echoed through the ship again. The outside cameras revealed nothing, and he stared at the monitor in confusion for a moment. Was lack of oxygen already getting to them? The thumping came again, and he slowly looked down, comprehension dawning. There was a small hatch in the deck intended for cargo and maintenance; he tugged his helmet on and hit the switch. The doors slid open with a grinding sound, but there was no rushing wind or explosive decompression; instead, there was a warm light. After a moment, a girl poked her head up through the hatch, looking around curiously. Frosty stared at her for a moment, confused. She finally turned to face him and smiled, her face curiously feline; it took a second before he recognized her as an Advanced cat, for the evolutionary accelerated animals were rare in the Empire. She pulled herself the rest of the way into the shuttle as Cutter came into the cargo bay, mumbling under his breath; and tugged on a line attached to her tail until a small cooler came up.

"Thought you fellows might be getting hungry," she said cheerfully. "So we brought a couple of ration packs and some coffee. I'm afraid it's not milk and cookies, but it's the best we can do under the circumstances. Oh, and when you're done eating the captain would like to speak to you, but he's a big grumpy puss and Cyn thinks he could use some time to calm down anyway, so take your time okay?" She gave Garth a devastating smile as she pushed the cooler into his hands, then hopped back down through the hatch. There was a whirring noise from below as the merchant's airlock closed, and Garth hit the switch for their side absently.

"Well?" Toshiro said after a moment. "Are you going to open that thing, or what?"

"What just happened?"

"We just got boarded, and they brought us dinner. Now dish out the grub or give me the damn cooler. I'm hungry."


The assembled crew plus two met in the lounge to discuss their fates. There was little question that the two Imperial pilots were now prisoners of the Lonesome Road; while nobody had gone out of their way to rub the situation in, it was clear who had all the guns. The two pilots had mugs of coffee in hand, and clung to the white ceramic as though they were lifelines, listening more than speaking as the ship's engineer ran through the damage reports. It was obvious the cargo ship would need some time to repair, though they were both amazed at just how little damage they'd managed to inflict; there was more to the independent freighter than met the eye.

Cutter put his mug down with a sharp tap as Elise wound down her report, and all eyes in the room turned to him. He stood up, fidgeting uncomfortably, and said bluntly, "Who are you people?"

Hawke frowned, for introductions had already been made. "What do you mean? I'm John, that's-"

Toshiro cut him off with a sharp gesture. "I know your names. I'm asking who the hell are you? Union Intelligence? Corporate? Do you work for the Red Dragons, or one of the other Syndicates?"

Hawke and Glenn traded glances, Cyn smiled, Kate looked uncomfortable. Elise merely looked confused, and she perched herself on the counter with a puzzled meow.

"We're just... us." Hawke said at last. "No more, no less. Just a bunch of rogues trying to make a living out here in the deep, dark black."

"You're telling me a bunch of ronin in a half-dead tugboat managed to outfight my squadron with only minor damage?"

Garth cleared his throat. "Toshiro, you want to wait until I've finished my coffee before you start insulting them? I'd kind of like to die with a full stomach."

"Nobody's going to die," Hawke said firmly. Tommy cleared his throat.

"All due respect, Captain, but that may not be entirely accurate. We still need to figure out what to do with them."

"Nobody's going to die," Hawke said firmly, locking glares with the gunslinger. "We'll drop them and their ship off when we get back into realspace, and we can all go our merry ways."

"With a loaded gunboat at our back?" Glenn asked.

"We'll disable her guns."

"They'll run for the nearest Imperial outpost, and we'll have half a fleet on our ass before we get halfway to-" he paused, looking at the two Imperials, and finished lamely "where we're going."

"We'll take their engines offline," Hawke grit his teeth. Garth spoke up around his coffee mug.

"And let us drift until we're found or die? No thanks, I'd rather you just shoot us here."

"That can be arranged," Tommy said grimly, and Hawke raised his hands to the sky in frustration.

"Fucking children!" He snarled. "Nobody's going to die tonight, and we'll burn any other bridge when we come to it." They sat in taut silence for a few minutes, some steaming, others holding their peace.

"Look," Hawke said at last. "Can we have your parole? Our supplies are going to be stretched pretty thin trying to cover two more mouths, so it would help us out a lot if you'd help us around the ship trying to get our systems back online. We've got a ways to go before we reach where we're going, but once we get there we'll see what we can do about getting you back to the Empire. We're not out to hurt anyone."

"So... if you're not smugglers, spies, criminals or war profiteers, why were we chasing you?" Garth asked, setting his mug down next to Toshiro's. The crew traded uncomfortable looks.

"Well... we're not precisely smugglers..."

"...or war profiteers..."

"...or criminals..."

Hawke cut them off with a quick gesture, and gave the two pilots a smooth smile. "Mistaken identity. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time." Garth and Toshiro traded looks, then smiled back.

"Sounds plausible to us."

"Yeah, we get that a lot." Garth said, folding his hands in his lap. "So, where are we headed? How long until we get there?"

"You'll see," Hawke said, standing. "No offense, but the less you guys know, the less we have to worry about biting us in the ass; and the more comfortable we are turning you loose when we get there."

"Okay, well." Frosty said, standing up as well. "Um, should we camp out in our shuttle, or is there some place we can toss our kip?"

"We'll look at moving your Valkyrie into the shuttle bay," Glenn said, straightening. "In the meantime, there's a bunkroom y'all are more than welcome to, and we'll see if we can't dig up some clothes in your size so you aren't wandering around in your suits all the time."

"Much appreciated," Garth said, nudging Toshiro until the other man stood as well. "For the food, as well. I have to say, you folks are taking this a lot smoother than I would have imagined, given that we were shooting at you a couple hours ago."

"Yeah, well, we're just forgiving kinds of folks," Glenn said, putting an arm around his wife. Cynthia gave him an elbow to the side, drawing out a whoosh of breath as she smiled at their new guests. Hawke turned an amused look on the two of them, then back to the Imperials.

"Kate will show you to your bunks," He said. Kate gave him an irritated look, then turned and left the room without a word or so much as a backwards glance. Garth and Toshiro were nonplussed, then quickly followed.

"Jerk," Cynthia tried elbowing her husband again, but he was alert enough to block and wrapped her in a hug.

"What?" He said with a smile. "It's true enough, isn't it?"

"Bah," she said, leaning up to kiss him. Ozymandias' visage flickered into life on the screen.

"Whoa, no mushy stuff in the lounge please." He said with a slight smile. "You are upsetting my delicate digestion."

"You'll have to stay under cover for the next few days," Hawke told the AI, chewing on his lip in thought. "Things are going to be hairy enough around here."

"Should have just let me shoot them, sir," Tommy said quietly. "They're going to be trouble."

"Dammit Tommy, we're not murderers. I don't like killing people for no reason."

"Thought that was why you hired me. Sir."

The two stared at each other for a long moment, before Glenn spoke up. "Iave to say, I'm not too fond of pointless killing either, but Tommy's right. Those two are going to be a problem."

"That's why Oz here is our ace in the hole," Hawke said, cocking a thumb at the telescreen. "As long as he stays under wraps, they won't know we've got an eye on them. They get up to any mischief, we'll be able to fix it right quick, before they can call down the law on us."

"Hopefully," Tommy muttered under his breath, flexing his golden arm reflexively. The fingers made an odd skittering sound as they rubbed against each other, and he rested his good hand on the cold metal as though trying to calm it.

"We're not barbarians," Hawke said firmly, folding his arms across his chest. "This subject is closed, people. Now, let's see about getting the Lonesome ready for realspace again; if our luck keeps on this way, we're going to want her engines doing their finest when we hit reality."

Tommy shrugged and stood up, leaving without another word; Glenn kissed Cynthia and nodded towards the fore of the ship. "I'll be on the bridge then, skipper. It's about time for me to take the watch anyway, make sure we're running smooth." He strolled off, as if he didn't have a care in the world. Hawke rubbed his temples as Cynthia started to leave the room, looked up as she paused.

"John," she said hesitantly. "If they do turn on us... if they try to cripple the Lonesome or call down the Empire on us..."

"Steps will be taken," Hawke said coolly. "I won't let anything threaten my ship, or my crew." She looked at him, took in the white-knuckled grip on his sword hilt, and nodded slowly.

"That's what I thought," she said, and left. Hawke ran his thumb around the sword's pommel, taking some comfort in the rough metal beneath his fingers, and stood still in thought for a long time.


The next week went by surprisingly smoothly, providing a welcome relief after all the chaos. The two Imperials did their best to fit in with the crew, taking an interest in the Lonesome Road and her upkeep, helping to repair the damaged engines and weld fresh plates over the breaches in the cargo hold. Their supplies were running low by the time they broke out of Jump on the edge of the Logres system, but they'd weathered the missed meals with alacrity and good humor, helped along by Elise's secret stash of chocolate brownies that she begrudgingly shared when the going got rough.

Logres was a rough system, straddling the border between the Empire and the Union; while not as rich as the original Core Worlds, she was wealthy as far as Border Planets went, most of her prosperity coming from her position as a trading and mining post. The lack of habitable planets hadn't done much to discourage human settlement, and her two main stations, Camelot and Tintagel, circled the twin gas giants that defined the system. She had a yellow-orange sun not unlike that of fabled First Earth, but for some reason the sun's satellites had never developed the proper conditions for life, and most of the system was dominated by alternating belts of mineral rich asteroids between gas giants.

Logres was fiercely independent, and while the two space stations were known to fight off and on for dominance, they were united in their desire to keep the Union and the Empire out of their affairs. Since neither great nation wanted to see its rival rise to dominance in the system, the arrangement generally worked; this independence made the system a valued base of operations for smugglers, traders, freebooters and ne'er do wells of all sorts, free of most of the Core's restrictive laws while maintaining its higher levels of technology.

Unfortunately, the same factors that made it such an attractive homeport for traders made it just as attractive to pirates; and so it was without surprise that the crew of the Lonesome Road found themselves ordered to heave to and prepare for boarders not long after emerging from Jump.

Hawke drummed his fingers on the back of Kate's chair impatiently. Under normal circumstances, he'd simply order her to make a run for it; any nonmilitary vessel fast enough to catch the Lonesome Road was generally too weak to take her, and vice versa. But with the trouble they'd been having with the engines lately, he was worried about taking them up past normal cruising speed. Fighting wasn't an option; with their missiles depleted during the battle with the Empire, there was little she could do against a capital ship like the battered cruiser that hung before her, even if they managed to beat off whatever fighters or shuttles it might be carrying. He considered surrender for a moment, then shoved it aside with an inward snort of disgust. The lack of cargo might not discourage them; they could decide to take their profit out of his ship, or his crew. As a former military man, Hawke had nothing but disgust for pirates, and no intention of turning either over to their tender mercies.

"Looks like they've got a second ship just around the corner here boss," Cynthia radioed from the aft turret. "Smaller vessel, maybe a retired frigate."

Hawke cursed silently. The presence of the second ship meant that the pirates were larger and more organized than he'd hoped; worse, a frigate might just have the acceleration needed to catch up to the Lonesome Road before she could safely get to top speed... assuming, of course, that the engines would hold up that long.

There still wasn't much choice in the matter. He grabbed the mike. "All hands stand by, we're making a run for it. Cyn, you're on point defense; Tommy, keep an eye out for fighters. Don't bother taking potshots at the capital ships, we'll never get through their shields." He clicked the mike off and tapped Kate on the shoulder. "Bring us around and set a course towards Pyrsifal, Kate. We'll see if we can't lose them in the asteroids, then head for Camelot."

"Aye aye, captain," she said smartly, punching in the required course. Ozymandias flickered on the screen, his usual avatar covered by a knight's great helm.

"Captain, would we not be better served by heading straight for Camelot Station? We can call for assistance from the Fleet units there."

Hawke shook his head grimly. "First off, they're probably jamming us. Second, there might well be Imperials at Camelot, and I'd rather slip in under their radar - it's possible that they've got an all points out on us by now, and I'd rather not let them know we're here just yet. And thirdly, for all we know, these bastards are a Fleet unit, just trying to pick up a little extra income on the side."

The Lonesome Road spun tightly on her axis and her engines flared as she launched herself for the asteroid belt. The commanding voice on the other end of the radio ranted on for a few moments, its threats getting more and more detailed and gruesome before Hawke cut it off. It took the cruiser another moment before it realized that the freighter wasn't going to change its mind and heave to, and it slowly lurched into motion.

"Oz, how far away is that frigate?"

"What frigate, Captain?"

The question brought Hawke up short. "Are you playing games? If it's not a frigate, what is it?"

Oz was clearly puzzled. "Captain? I have only the pirate vessel and ourselves."

"What about the second pirate?"

"What second pirate, sir?"

Hawke grabbed the radio. "Cynthia, where's that other ship?"

"Looks like she's bearing about 193, um, point 013, skip." She replied. "Almost on a flat plane with us, a few klicks beyond that cruiser. Why? What do the sensors say?"

Hawke stared at the sensor screen. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Cyn, are you sure-"

"There're two ships back there, John." She interrupted irritably. "A big one and a little one. If the sensors are porking up, it's not my problem, but don't try to tell me I'm going blind."

Hawke and Kate shared incredulous glances, then looked at Oz. The AI shrugged apologetically and raised the visor of his helmet. "Sensors seem to be working just fine, sir. I can see the cruiser, and I can see the Pyrsifal asteroid belt. But no sign of any other ships almost ten thousand kilometers around us."

"A cloaking device?" Hawke asked. Kate shook her head.

"That's not possible," she said heatedly. "Our sensors may not be up to date, but we should be able to pick up a vessel of that size, no matter how they're shielding their emissions."

The ship shook as Cynthia opened up with her turret, detonating a volley of missiles a few meters from the stern. The fireball lit up the shields, but did no damage to the newly repaired engines.

"They're not playing any games," Kate observed wryly, adjusting her course slightly. Hawke's grin was more of a snarl, and his hands were tight on his sword hilt.

"They can't afford to let us go," he said. "If word gets out about a pirate band this close to Camelot, it could shut the system down; work dries up for them, then the Fleet comes hunting. Hell, maybe even an allied fleet - it would be good exercise for the Union and Imperial units both, a good bug hunt like that. Keep the vermin down, keep the edge of the sword sharp, and get the latest intel on the other guy. Just like Christmas."

"Your cynicism is most heartening, sir," Kate said dryly, jerking the control yoke up hard. A missile sped past beneath them, the pirate weapon lacking the tracking capabilities a more advanced weapon might have. Imperial issue, probably, though there were plenty of Independent navies willing to sell their surplus to the highest bidder.

"Watch your fire back there, Cyn, there's more getting through then I like to see."

"Little busy, boss. That cruiser has a hell of a throw weight, and now that frigate's coming up, to- Mother of God!"

Hawke grabbed for a restraint, expecting her outburst to indicate a coming explosion; instead, he watched the pirate cruiser light up like a firework, explosions ripping up and down her spine. He and Kate stared on in confusion as the ship tried to turn, its energy weapons lashing out at.... nothing.

"The pirate vessel seems to be experiencing some sort of internal malfunction," Ozymandias regarded calmly, his voice tinny in the helmet. "I suppose that is what comes of improper maintenance..."

Hawke ignored him, picked up the radio again. "Cynthia, what the hell just happened?"

"That frigate - no, smaller than a frig, maybe some sort of advanced patrol craft or corvette - justt opened up on the pirate with a hell of an energy barrage, skipper. Looks like the pirate didn't see them, either, until they were already too close. Pirate's trying to run, but I don't think she'll get very far."

Hawke watched the screen as the pirate ship turned away, wobbling as one of its engines took a lancing energy hit from a patch of empty space.

"The other bandit's turning way too, boss. Guess he feels he's done enough now that they're running." Venting atmosphere and trailing flame, the pirate limped away. Hawke let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding.

"Deus ex machina," he said softly.

"Pardon?" Kate looked up. Hawke blinked and shook his head, hardly aware he'd spoken.

"Nothing. We just got luckier than we have any right to be, assuming that ghost ship wasn't just saving us for itself." He punched the radio again. "What's it look like back there, Cyn?

"Looks like our hero's going his merry way. Think he's headed direct for Camelot."

"Kate, go ahead and bring us around on a direct course for Camelot. The sooner we're docked, the happier I'll be." He turned to leave the bridge, calling over his shoulder, "And if we ever find out who's captaining that thing, remind me to buy him a beer!"

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