The Long Haul
"This is Starry Mist to Command Station Ugros, over, prepping for departure."
"Ugros acknowledges, departure green. You're free to go."
With an audiable ka-chunk, Leesen's cargo hauler flew free of the docking clamps, the thrusters burning brightly, moving the ship away of the space station. This had been his first run alone and for once in his life he didn't screw it up. He was surprised, actually. Leesen then eased the thruster power up to cruising speed, watching slower space traffic fall behind him. Activating the auto-pilot, he got up from his chair, stretched and decided to forge around in the galley.
Leesen was a Xasheen, a tall, wiry humanoid with pale green skin. His eyes were dark, his pupils white, like all the people of his race. His noseless face was smooth and defined, his hairless head tattooed with various tribal symbols of an ancient tribe he descended from. He wore a simple pilot's jumpsuit, orange with white sleeves, with his company's logo sewn onto his left breast. Keilgal's Star Hauling it said underneath.
He started as a packer in the company, applying to become a pilot as soon as he could. The written test was simple enough, but piloting the ship was a different thing altogether. He re-took the test five times before he passed, nearly running down an expensive leisure yacht in the process.
Leesen's commlink beeped in his ear, "Hail from Lorgo's Hammer."
"Patch it through. . ." He turned to the video screen that hung in the galley. A picture of a stern-looking Xasheen male appeared, dressed in a finely kept uniform bearing the rank of captain. He must be on one of the frigates he would be meeting up with.
"Al'mar Leesen?" he grunted.
"That would be me, sir."
"Captain Jool of Lorgo's Hammer, we expected you here sooner, son, we have a job to do!"
He wasn't aware that he was late. . . perhaps this Jool wasn't really in the mood to babysit a hauler. Then again, it was Xasheen company policy that all haulers be escorted by at least two frigates. Reliability and safety was their number one concern. Maybe he was just cranky by nature.
"I got tied up at the station," he sipped blue milk from his cup.
"'Course you did. . ." Jool shifted in his command chair, "we'll be meeting up with Captain Hallahan and the Shadowbane as soon as we jump to the Caslonian Cloud. I'm sending you coordinates to the jump-point now. . . oh and Leesen?"
"Zip up that collar," Jool's picture blinked out and the screen went blank.
The pilot rolled his eyes, "Great, first day on the job and I have to deal with THAT. . ." He finished up his cup, tossing it into the sink with a horde of other dirty dishes before slumping back into his seat in the cockpit.
Beside him, a screen blinked to life, giving a detailed readout of the systems he was currently in, along with accessible jump-points. Route 11 shone blue, that must be the one Jool wanted him to reach.
Tapping a few keys on the console, the thruster gauge burst up in the red making the ship lurch forward. As it was accelerating towards its best maximum speed without taxing the drives, Leesen leaned over to one side and picked up a magazine laying on the floor. Scantily clad Xasheen women were rampant on the cover. "Time well spent," he chuckled to himself.
* * *
Caslonian Cloud was amazing. At first. Then it just got frustrating. The radiant blue nebula cracked with lightning bolts, wreaking havoc with the sensors and would've overloaded the shield generators if Leeson wasn't warned before hand. He shut them down before they made the jump.
Shadowbane was, according to Jool, right where it was supposed to, even though it crept up on Leesen, nearly giving him a heart-attack. It was bad enough the sensors were blind, the cloud just made things worse by vialing any vessels that passed through. Only active sensors were strong enough to overcome the electrical harassment, it was the only way Shadowbane could have found their position.
Captain Hallahan was a more reasonable fellow, very welcoming and very. . .comforting. Leesen felt that as long he stuck closer to the Bane, he knew he was less likely to come to harm. Jool seemed like he would just would care less.
On a split screen with both Jool and Hallahan in view, the latter said, "We're to escort you to Jemudat, they're awaiting the medical supplies stored in your haul."
Yeah, tell me something I don't know, he wanted to say. They kept repeating mission details he practically memorized on his flight to Ugros, pick up here, meet us here, drop off here, blah blah blah.
"I'd advise caution, we've been hearing reports of pirate activity in the area." Now that was something he wasn't aware of.
Leesen tapped his commlink, "I'm sorry. .what? Did you say pirates?!"
Hallahan sat back in his chair, tapping his fingers together, "Of course, pirates. Thieves, scoundrels, mongrels that delve into thuggery. They've been preying on the space ways for some time now, local traffic just isn't aware of it lest we cause panic. Such a thing doesn't exist in the inner colonies. . . and never will. Things like this are common in the outer sectors, but I wouldn't worry terribly. We haven't come across anything bigger then a corvette, mostly a fighters scrapped together and a heavy tug armed to board ships."
Jool gave a hearty chuckle, which surprised Leesen, "They'd be blasted to pieces before they knew what hit'em!"
"Yes. .quite. . .moving on shall we?"
Leesen positioned the Starry Mist between the two frigates, matching their speed and trajectory. "Why can't we just jump now?" he asked.
Jool looked annoyed, "Jumping into a nebula is one thing, son, but exiting it is another! Haven't they taught you anything?" His piloting course would have, he guessed, but he must have forgotten. Oh well, it happens. "Navicoms are useless in here, if we jump we could head straight into a star or be stranded out in Kazar-knows-where! We'll have to clear it first."
"Why this route exactly? Wouldn't it be easier just to go around?"
Jool answered this time, "People are dying on Jemudat II, Leesen, you should know that, seeing that you are carrying the supplies needed. This shortcut would shave off at least three days travel, going around it would be a waste of time. This nebula spans much farther then you think."
"And keeps those pirates hidden. . ."
"So they are here?!" Leesen felt panic welling up in his chest.
"Well we haven't seen them YET now have we? I'm just saying don't be surpr- wait, active sensors are picking up something. . . it isn't moving, but its definitely worth looking into. Radiation levels are going off the charts!"
Hallahan raised an eyebrow, "Are you sure that isn't the nebula playing tricks?"
"Not that I know of. . .its fairly strong. We're vectoring off to investigate." Leesen watched his scanner as the Hammer broke away heading deeper into the radiating cloud, the frigate's signature fading until it was undetectable. He kept his present course tucked in next to the Bane, a sudden wave of fear washing over him. It was probably nothing, just the stresses of a new job.
Jool's channel started to break up. The video feed vanished but the commlinks were still holding. "Its. . .it looks like a ship!"
"What kind Captain. . .? Anything we're familiar of?"
"Nothing that I've seen, definitely alien. We're making an active sweep of the interior."
A thought jumped to Leesen, "Think there's any people on board it. . .?"
"Not likely, there's several hull breaches, most likely caused by energy weapons from pira-" They heard an explosion followed by people screaming and panicking. "Its hostile! Return fire, return fire!"
There was a voice, his Lieutenant, "Shields are down sir! Decks 11-15 are venting atmosphere!"
"Dammit! Launch torpedoes! Fire everything we've got-KRRSSSSSHHH!"
"Hammer, respond! . . . .Jool? Jool! Respond!" Nothing. Static was the only thing replying to them now.
Leesen's hands tightly gripped the controls. They're dead, he thought, a whole frigate full of trained men and women just. . .gone! He wasn't sure how to react to a situation like this, he never lost anyone to death, not yet.
Hallahan broke him from his stupor, "The signature is moving! Shipwide, lieutenant, battle stations! Leeson! Burn your thrusters as hot as they can go, we have to get out of here and jump!"
The pilot nodded, sill fumbling with his controls in shock. "C'mon Misty, don't let me down. . ."
The Bane's gunnery officer called out, "Its closing! Target is still out of range!"
"We're almost there, hang on!"
The cloud around them began to fade, stars peeking through the pale blue mist and the familiar black void of space cascading into view. "The jump point is straight head, keep your course!"
Suddenly a whining digital screech blasted through the comms, like a banshee presaging death. This harbinger appeared behind them, a dagger-shaped vessel that looked as if it had gone to hell and back. Scorch marks and punctures littered the ship's bronze-brown hull.
"On my mark. . .JUMP!"
Leesen activated his jumpdrive, watching the stars stream past him as he tunneled through space faster then the speed of light. The heavy aching in his chest subsiding, breathing deeply and quickly as if he'd been holding his breath through the entire ordeal. He escaped, he was safe. . . at a cost. . .
* * *
"Oh no, why here?! Why now?!" Leesen yelled as he pounded the console with his fists. As soon as they entered the Jemudat system, several ships greeted them. Unfriendly ships. Pirate ships. And there was a lot of them.
A scarred, battered face of a Xasheen appeared on Leesen's vid-screen, "We've got ya outgunned hauler! Yer friend over there in the frigate can't help ya, drop yer cargo!"
His glanced changed to Hallahan and spoke through his gritted teeth, "Any thoughts?"
"They have a Type-90 Shatter-Missile aimed right at us, pilot. . . if they're packing that kind of weaponry, neither of us are getting out of here with our limbs attached." Leesen heard about shatter-missiles, nasty things. They come at you, a gigantic projectile as long as a tug, getting within optimal range before dozens of smaller missiles break off from it, a full barrage in one go. One missile can overwhelm shields and punch through the hardiest of station defences. The lone frigate couldn't stand up to that kind of firepower. "But we are not negotiating with pirates!"
Even if he did comply, its not likely they'd let him survive. They'd probably jam him into a escape pod and let him float aimlessly in space! Or maroon him on a deserted planet! Or worse!
A smug grin came over the pirate captain's face, "So. . .what do ya say, whelp? Run and yer dead, call for help and yer dead! Either way I'll get that cargo and sleep easy tonight!"
"Captain Hack! Jump signature behind us! Its. . .its locking onto the missile ship!"
Red plasma bolts streaked from an unknown vector, melting away the ship carrying the shatter-missile, detonating the deadly weapon causing an impressive explosion.
"Ehhh?! Whu-aaat?!! Reinforcements already!?" The pirate's sudden confidence shrank. "Run! Run! Get me outta here ya lard-headed fools!"
Leesen smirked, the calvary has arrived. . .wait, since when did Xasheen warships carry firepower like that? Especially way out here in the middle of nowhere! That's a surprise. He was even more surprised when discovered who it was.
The dagger ship.
It must have followed them and overshot the trajectory, doubling back to find them! More plasma bolts decimated the pirate vessels, the cobbled pieces of scrap being blasted away like a tin can to artillery. By the time it head finished off the last straggler, Captain Hack himself, it turned its attention back to Leesen and Hallahan. They used that opportunity to burn for Jemudat II, where they'd hopefully run into the local space station.
But it didn't chase them. It sat there, facing them, floating there, doing nothing. Then it swung to port and jumped away into the void.
"Where. . .what? Why did it leave us alone?"
Hallahan slumped back in his chair, "I don't care, I just want his nightmare to be over already. . . contact Jemudat, Lieutenant, tell them we're on our way as scheduled."
Leesen flicked on his auto-pilot again, locking onto the closing stations beacon. He needed something to take his mind off things. . . too much adventure like this in one day can't be good for you.