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“We've given you a discount this time.”
I was paying for the twenty two units of Kitten Brand Coffee at Kirk Dock, CD-75 661. This was the third stop of three and the station I had decided to have lunch at. Such generosity also led me to as ask a question. Why?
“You're a good customer and our economy is booming, a few credits off a couple units of coffee won't break us.” Of course this prompted a follow on question. What brought it on?
“Void Opals. What you haven't heard of them? They're the latest craze. Much sought after for their property of absorbing light. I'm sure you can find a miner who will tell you all about them. Oh and before I forget let me give you some information about another coffee we have heard about.” 'Beep' my tablet chirped as the data was transferred.
“Thanks Lieutenant I'll look into that.” With that complete I headed for a local diner leaving her to the inevitable paperwork.
I found a good place for the quick, simple meal I was looking for and over soup and a sandwich I read the details about my additional stop. I was happy to see that it was not too big a detour to reach LFT 1421. I was not happy to notice that the distance between entry point and the station was 775,000ls. Damn that had better be some good coffee. Only one way to find out, after talking to a couple of miners I caught up to in the hangar bay, I set off.
The silver Orca I returned to wasn't Anthem, after being out in it last time I had taken the profits from that journey and but them into a second Orca. This one I had fitted out a little differently, larger shields, smaller fuel scoop and even though I was hardly ratting at the moment I still fitted a fuel limpet transfer system. Everything else was cargo racks apart from a FSD booster.
I'd got the idea after remembering the times my father had spoken to me about the ancient ocean clipper ships of Earth. Not ships designed to carry a lot of cargo but a ship that gave up capacity for speed. Apart from the Imperial Clipper which kinda fitted the bill, heck it's in the name, the Orca seemed to me to be the perfect ship. I still had one or two things to improve but so far I was happy with it. Oh and with the Goldskin Leather exclusive to Saud Kruger it was comfortable, handy on a long cruise.
“There you go all loaded, 36 units of Void Extract Coffee. As you can imagine we don't get overwhelming numbers rushing out here to buy it.” The Docker gave me a nod as I returned to the ship.
“After the journey out I was certainly buying it but once I tried it all doubts were removed. Always happy to travel for a good coffee.”
“Yeah it's good stuff Commander. You have a safe journey home.” With that she and her workmate headed to their next offload.
Good stuff indeed. Dark and robust as the roasters had told me. I was thinking it would make a mind blowing espresso and as a full cup, a Macchiato.
Once back at Perez Ring Zev kinda agreed with me but did say he had other ideas in might use once he had gauged the flavour. I was interested in trying it as a Macchiato with caramel perhaps. That is what Zev put in front of me as I sat waiting for Shoshanna to complete her work day. As I had guessed I was enjoying the Caramel Macchiato made from the Void Extract, it had a strong but sweet taste to it which rapidly vanished as I watched the tall red headed woman walking across the walkway.
“Hello Aitken, pleasure to meet you again.” She sounded anything but.
“Lapin, it's been a while. Please sit down. Coffee?” I was not going to sink to her level of displeasure, weather it was with the company or the surroundings, it wasn't my problem.
“Thank you.” She replied taking the seat on the opposite side of the table. “I'll pass on the coffee though.”
“Your loss.” She didn't reply straight away but a pair of well manicured hands were placed on the table as if saying 'look I'm not armed.'
“We have a job for you.” Ah, well I wouldn't have shot her, not here anyway, but it may well have been a wise precaution.
“Hmmm. Why now? It has been almost a year since I heard from Mr. Smith or anything related to The Consortium.”
Shocked? Not really. I always thought I'd hear from, or in this case see them again. Surprised? To tell the truth yes. I never would have expected Lapin here. Jason Sugar again sure but not her. She had made no attempt to hide the disgust she felt for my kind.
“We're rather busy with..” A slight pause to form the proper words. “other matters. This task better suits your range of skills better than others we are inclined to use.”
“So you have need for a smuggler again.” I took a sip of coffee savouring the taste of the caramel as it mingled with rich flavour of the coffee. “What's the pay?”
“The arrangement Mr. Smith and yourself originally negotiated still stands. Will that suffice?”
“Sure.” Another arrangement but this one usually had me making profit. Whatever I made while doing The Consortiums busy I kept. Sometimes it was worthwhile, sometimes not but every now and then I scored big.
“Good. I believe you have a few ships out in the Pleiades?” I nodded. I had a couple of ships docked at Alcazar's Hope. “Very well. Travel out to Darnielle's Progress in Maia. There you'll meet with your contact.”
“That's it? Can I have a little more detail? A name? Where at Darnielle's am I to meet the contact?” In my normal line of work I would not ask or not as many questions but this was shaping not to be my normal job.
“Believe me Aitken they will show themselves to you. If you could be there with in the next few days we would be appreciative.” Right at that moment Shoshanna turned up. I gave her a grin, stood up to kiss her and offer my seat.
“Lapin meet Shoshanna Adil. Shoshanna this is Lapin. Sorry I don't know her surname or even if she has one.” Shoshanna glanced at Lapin. The red headed beauty stood up, brushed non-existent creases from her flight suit, casually looked all around her, pausing her gaze on Shoshanna for a moment or two before turning back her attention to me.
“My, my, we have done well for ourselves haven't we. Ciao Aitken.” With that she walked off heading for the hangars.
“What the hell was that all about?” Shoshanna exclaimed as Lapin vanished into a crowd.
“Well that depends on which part you mean.” I replied as I sat back down as Shoshanna had taken the seat vacated by Lapin. “The attitude or what she was here to talk about.”
“The attitude I see nearly everyday, comes with the job unfortunately. No what has she got you doing now?” She was non pulsed by Lapin, no surprise as I had kept her mostly up to date with my dealings. Mostly as there were details that for her and my good would go no further than me. “She didn't seem to like you much.”
“Meh, I won't lose any sleep over a self important bureaucrat no matter how good looking they are.” A barista placed a coffee in front of Shoshanna, who with smiled and thanked them.
“Yes, she is quite striking isn't she.”
I then told her exactly what Lapin had been seeing me about. Which to tell the truth wasn't a lot to tell.
“That's the same Lapin that got you started with the whole Jaques thing?”
“Sure. You think I know more than one of her?” I had no idea where she was going with this.
“No of course not but Jaques wasn't the first place she had you going too.” I was still unsure what she was getting at.
“Nah, it was Jaques with Meta Alloys and food stuffs.........” The the penny dropped. “Darnielle's to buy the Alloys. You think there's a connection?”
She was sipping at her coffee and gave a shrug. “Do you?”
I was approaching Maia A2A still thinking about the events of the evening before. We had finished our coffee and sat talking for a few hours more before heading to Shoshannas quarters. I then spent another couple of hours talking thinks over with Gabe on a secure holo-net connection. With his departing advice to 'watch yourself' still ringing in my ears I'd climbed in beside Shoshanna and fallen asleep. After morning coffee I'd hopped into Bullseye and set out for Maia. Why the DBX? Of the ships I had at Perez Ring the Bullseye was the one with the largest range. I had no Conda at the Ring with the only one I currently owned, December, tucked up in Wollheim Vision.
“Cleared for landing pad six.”
As the orange insect like ship descended into Darnielle's Progress I started to undo the harness and think about my next move. As I been told I would not be able to go meet the contact, they would seek me out but where?
I sat with a coffee in my hand watching the days activity from the greasy spoon I had visited my last time on Maia A2A. I say coffee, while not the worst I had ever had it most certainly wasn't the best either. A SRV was just leaving a hangar cargo bay when into my peripheral vision a movement caused my head to instinctively turn.
“Hey Aitken how you been?” He looked pretty much the same as he had the last time I saw him. Well 21 or 23 it didn't make that much of a difference.
“I'm not too bad Bay. How're you and what the hell am I doing out here Kid?”
“I'm ok.” He replied as he slid a tablet across the table. He sat down as I picked it up and started to read. “As you can see we won't have to travel very far this time.”
“And they want us to do this why?” Bay wasn't the client so I had no problem asking him questions.
“I didn't ask them that question but I am sure they have their reasons.”
“I'm sure they do but even if I knew them I might still disagree. Sorry this makes no sense but I'm sure they'll pay so gimme an hour or so and I'll meet you back here.”
“An hour, where you going?” He asked as one of the canteen staff delivered a cup of tea to him.
“Alcazar's Hope. I have a ship set up for this kind of operation.”
“So you've done this before then?” I shook my head as he took a sip. “Ok, this I gotta hear. You have a ship set up but you've never done this. Do tell.”
“Well a year ago or so. Aegis or the Feds, somebody put the call out for this kind of mission. I had the ship all set up to take part when I got called away for a rescue. T6 pilot ran out of fuel close to the Rift.”
“You got him?” This time I nodded as I drank down the not so good coffee. “So if you haven't done this type of job, can you manage it?” Bay asked with concern tingeing his voice.
“Sure, I know what to do. When I got back from the Rift I talked it over with a couple of the pilots who had taken part. Don't worry.”
“Alright but why will it take you an hour to hop to Merope and back.?”
“Cos I'm going to need a little time to check over the ship but more importantly I could use a decent cup of coffee.” With that I stood up and head back to the DBX.
“Oh! Its a Mk. IV” Bay exclaimed as I approached him in the hangar at Darnielle's.
“Yeah, Oh! is a Mk. IV.” A look of confusion swept across his face and I was happy to leave it at that. I saw no need to explain my reason for calling the Cobra Mk. IV Oh!. For you though I will. Simple really and I found it amusing. Bays' exclamation about the Cobra was a regular response when you flew a Mk. IV and one I had used to name this ship. Sure it was inferior to its more famous and sought after stable mate but for this type of job I had thought it would excel. All that glorious internal space could be put to good use.
“So how many of those special limpet controllers do you have fitted?” The young man asked me.
“It's got six, 16 unit cargo bay, I had planned on using just twelve limpets. I like having a back up in case the first six fail or get destroyed.” I wanted him to know that just because I hadn't actually attempted to get Thargoid tissue samples I was very aware of how to do it. “You know I still can't believe these guys want us to do this, I mean didn't they get enough samples from the big hunt?”
“I don't know Aitken that's a little above my pay grade but from the way Lapin was talking I think this is the first time.” Yes I was fishing and I caught something. I now had a better idea that The Consortium was probably not working with Aegis or the Feds, kinda. Ok it wasn't 100% reliable but it might move Gabe in the right direction.
“Do you have limpets loaded already?” When I told him I did not he continued. “Good that gives me time to load the cold unit before we take off.” The cold unit, whatever it was didn't really bother me but...
“We? I never agreed to you coming on this fools errand. Not happenin' Junior I work alone.” I was waiting for him to come back with the fact that I had taken him to Colonia as a reason to dispute that, I give him credit for at least thinking for himself.
“So you gonna stop, climb out of the cockpit and put the samples in the cold unit while a Goid is around, if that's the case I'll be in touch with Lapin the second after you leave to ask for someone to come out and help as you ain't gonna make it back.” He had a point I guess but I wasn't willing to concede yet.
“I'll wait until I jump to supercruise and then go see to that task.” He was already shaking his head before I had finished.
“C'mon Aitken even the slight increase of the temperature in the hold will cause degradation to start. The two or three minutes, minimum that it takes to get back to SC will be too long. They'll be no use to anyone.” I had no idea if he was right or not, I wasn't a xeno-biologist. So I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I've ordered the limpets to be loaded so that means you got about an hour to get your cold unit loaded. I'll see you when I get back.” Hey he might have been right but it didn't mean I had to be happy about it.
Was I sulking? Yes. When it came to ships I fly I prefer to work alone. Heck a good half of the rescues I had done I had been the only Rat there and I liked it that way. Yes it was better to have a back up, I'd seen that proved but it didn't mean I liked it. I liked to think that no matter the problem I would work out away to solve it, not just in rescues but in most things. Yeah, yeah, big ego I know. It did get taken down a peg or two sometimes but not often in my opinion.
“You ready to go?” I asked Bay as I re-entered the hangar. I didn't stop to hear the answer but kept walking toward the midnight black Cobra.
“Been ready for fifteen minutes.” He hopped up from the crate he was sitting on and followed me toward the staircase that led in to the ship. “Fitting went better than I had expected and the loaders didn't hang around.”
Good. We were set then, I knew what to do and I had spent the last hour talking to incoming pilots to get an idea of the best system to go Goid hunting. I didn't tell them that of course, most people would consider me nuts to go picking on Goids. There were exceptions of course and they were trying to keep the threat as they saw it at bay. I didn't know what the hell the Thargoids were after and until they affect me personally, I really didn't care either.
Clearance granted, elevator rising, lower thrusters engaged, landing gear up and throttle open.
“Where you wanna do this? I hear Merope is crawling with Non Human Signals.” Sure I was technically in charge but it really was the the kids baby.
“Can we stay in system I have everything set up for storage and transfer at Darnielle's.” He was glancing over the instruments as he talked.
“This doesn't have anything to do with your jump phobia does it?” I asked remembering just how tense he had been the last time we left here. Tense, heck it had been damn near panic as I remembered it.
“No. All that jumping to Colonia and back seems to have helped tame it a little. Especially on the way back, I hitched a ride in a T9 that was tons more jumps than your Conda.”
“Ok, in systems it is. Old-timer back there told me to scan the nav-beacon at entry point and the system will light up like a Christmas tree.” I could see the puzzled lock on his face at the mention of Christmas tree but let it go. I wasn't a religious teacher and had little experience in that area. His beliefs were his and if he wanted to expand those he could on his own. “They'll pop up all over the system or so I hope.”
5, 4, 3, 2, 1, engage. A short 650ls to the nav-beacon and listen to the countdown again as we jumped back up in to SC. I sat looking at the scanner and the old guy had been right non human signal sources were all over the system. I choose one that was close to Maia A2a and set off.
“You want me to bring up the shields?” Bay asked as we closed in on our first target.
“You're welcome to try but I doubt you'll be successful.” I answered and waited for the penny to drop.
“No shields uh.” It didn't take long for him to work that out.
“We're going to running cold and shields generate lots of heat. Anyway I know that shields aren't very effective at keeping Goid weapons out and since we will be cold I hope they won't need to shoot at us.” It all made sense but I still was uncomfortable running without them and shared some of the concern that appeared on his face. The other thing that decided it for me was once in silent running the shields would be off anyway, so why fit them? That was in the past and we would have to live with that decision. We were in range to drop and so I disengaged the FSD.
“This feels wrong.” The first words out of my mouth once we had dropped.
“What you mean? How can this feel wrong if you've never done it before?” Bay sounded a little panicked and I couldn't blame him.
“Not samples sure but I've dropped into Goid carnage before and this one has no green cloud.” Before Bay could answer a unresolved object appeared on the scanner. Too late to worry about the lack of cloud now. As soon as it resolved I had it targeted and of course the scanner read out told me nothing. Thumbing another switch and the hard points deployed. I looked at Bay saying.
“Let's see what we got here.”
Rising up before us was a sight I had not seen before. A glowing green-yellow monstrosity with what looked like counter rotating blades of petals.
“For the love of.....” Bay exclaimed as the behemoth flower like ship? Life form? Hybrid? Swam closer to us. My thumb was hard down on the Xeno-scanner that was equipped on Oh!
“Read out says it's a Hydra.” I paused as the 'blaaaaarrrppppp' noise of the Goid scanning us washed over the Cobra. “Get back to the hold it will move off soon and then I fire the limpets.”
Right on cue the strangely pretty in an ugly way thing started to flip over and move away from us. Half way through it's flip I pulled the trigger and six pre-programmed limpets dropped out of the cargo hatch and streaked off toward the Goid.
“Alright head on back to the hold I'm hoping this doesn't take long.” Bay unbuckled and drifted his way toward the door that led to the cargo area. My eyes stayed glued to the Hydra and the rapidly gaining limpets. When the limpets were about 50 meters away from it I flipped a switch and Betty announced 'Silent Running engaged' followed up a few seconds later with 'limpets attached. Now all I had to do was wait and keep a finger hovering over the heatsink control. I held it there even as the temperature rose above 80 and the alarm, a damn annoying alarm pulsed it's tone into my ears. As the readout hit 95 I pressed the eject button, 'peh-swoooooosh' echoed in the cockpit as the plug of metal containing the ships internal heat was dispensed into icy space.
“They're on their way back.” I told Bay over the ships intercom. Slowly, well it seemed slowly from my point of view, the six limpets wound their my back.
After the 'ker-chunk, thweep' of the samples being deposited in the hold, Bay drifted back ito the cockpit. I asked him if it went well, 'affirmative' I was told so I sat silent as he strapped himself back in to the right hand seat.
“What is it doing?” Bay asked, I guess himself as I had little idea what it was up either. It had scooped up some of the wreckage and know turned it's attention to the larger ship hulks that were strewn around. Once finished it turned, increased it's speed and with 'Unknown Anomaly' ringing in our ears it jumped out.
“That has to be the ugliest thing I have ever seen in my life.” Bay Kosmatka with a hint of relief tinged with fear said to me.
“Yeah something else ain't they.” I replied as I closed the cargo hatch and pushed the throttle all the way forward. The rest of the journey was in near silence and gave me time to reflect on what we had just done. One hundred percent success, no damage, six samples and all at the cost of six limpets and a couple of heatsinks. I could only hope they would all be this smooth.
We returned to Darnielle's and restocked the limpets and put the Hydra samples into cold storage. I did have to explain to Bay why I was vetoing going after another Goid when we had samples already on board. Once I told him that if a Goid scanned us and found any Goid samples, Guardian tech or human escape pods with in the ship it was liable to go nuts. He agreed that being shot for a few samples wasn't something on his to do list.
Our next trip out we got a Basilisk and again everything went smooth. Next up was a Medusa, again it all went well. Bay did quip that perhaps he had been wrong about the Hydra being the ugliest thing he had seen as the evil glowing red of the Medusa was ugly and damn frightening.
“No green mist again.” Bay observed as we dropped into our sixth signal. Four and five had been annoying as the Goids in those and jumped out before the Research limpets had finished and were destroyed, resulting in an empty return to Darnielle's. An unresolved object appeared and I waited for it to move closer to us when suddenly Betty announced we were being fire upon. As I slammed the throttle forward a mass of red dots blossomed on the scanner. I hit the FSD button to jump back into super cruise and started taking evasive action.
“What the hell are you doing?” Bay screamed at me. I remained silent as Betty started her countdown and once safely back in SC I answered him.
“Saving our lives. I have no idea what the hell just happened back there but being in an unarmed, defenceless tin can I thought it prudent to get out of there.”
“Those were Scouts and samples of them are needed, plus that unresolved object could've been a Cyclops and we need that too. We have to go back.” The younger man was now acting like the ex-marine he was and I could only ask myself one question. Why now? I checked the ships instruments and was happy to see that it had only lost five percent of it's hull armour.
“I get that but gimme a few to catch my breath. That was unexpected.” The ease of which we had done the first three had made me complacent and I needed a little time to clear my head and steel my nerves.
I doubted we would find the same signal source and so just targeted the closest one to our position, boy was that a mistake. I should have guessed something was wrong when the first thing we spotted was a Federal Assault Ship with an Eagle in two. I was just about to call it a bust when space was suddenly filled with Goid Scouts. My choice of words would not be used in polite company, like I care, pfftt. I target the nearest Scout and fired the only thing I had to fire at it. Limpets. The next few seconds? Minutes, hell it felt like hours as I tried to follow and stay with the Scout. As soon as the limpets were released Bay unhooked for the chair and with a little difficulty guided himself to the cargo bay. As I saw the limpets detach from the Scout I knew the part of the operation I had been dreading was here. I closed the throttle and the ship slowed and then stopped moving with it's cargo hatch open. As expected red bolts of energy started to hammer into the Cobra and there was not a damn thing I could do about.
“We're down to twenty percent hull.” I shouted over the intercom. “One more hit and I take us out of here.” But damn the limpets were close.
The hit came but the limpets were below us so I waited, waited and waited.
“Bay?” I screamed.
“Go.” His reply came a split after the usual noise sound of limpets returning.
Twisting turning with the FSD charging I held my breath until we eventually jumped.
“We got three samples.” I was told as Bay floated back into the cockpit.
“Cool, it matches the amount of hull armour we have left.” Bay looked over at the read out and gave an audible gulp. Three percent shone bright next to the scanner read out. The trip back to Darnielle's was in total silence this time. Not a word past between us.
“That's it. I'm done.” Were the first words I did speak after leaving the dented, beat up Cobra.
“We still have Cyclops samples to get.” Bay declared.
“Get some other mug to get them, I'm done.”
“C'mon Aitken we just have one more type to find and that's it.” He was almost pleading.
“Nope.” I pointed at Oh! “It's going to take at least a week to repair that and I have better things to do that run a near suicide mission. Get your samples and cold unit off that ship. You got half an hour.” I didn't wait for an answer as I climbed the stairs back into the cockpit.
After twenty minutes I saw Bay his cold unit with the samples inside, I would imagine, leaving the hangar. I got clearance and head for Alcazar's. Stuck the Cobra in a hangar and paid the stations maintenance crew to fix it up and then headed home back to Perez Ring and a decent cup of coffee.
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