A bad day in the asteroid fields ---
"I've had better days."
The bartender looked at me as I nursed my Liberty Ale, probably thinking that what I had just said was pretty obvious, judging from my worn flight suit and brown hair that was going prematurely gray. He arched one eyebrow as he continued to wipe the bar in front of me.
I took that as an invitation to continue. "I just spent the last month out in the Silverton Asteroid Field, mining silver. Filled my hold and was headed back here when I got jumped by some Molly raiders." I shook my head. 'It was either dump my load, or get blown to bits. I didn't really have a choice."
The bartender sympathetically shook his head, and began drying glasses.
"To make matters worse, well ... tonight's my daughter's eighth birthday. I haven't seen her for a month. She wants a robotic pony. That's what I was going to buy with the profits from the silver. And now... I ain't got nothin. My ship's about to fall apart, and I can't even afford to get it fixed. But the worse part is disappointing my little girl. She has the prettiest blue eyes you've ever seen, and a smile that melts your heart." I sighed, and swallowed the last of my ale. I felt like crying.
"You're right. You have had better days."
If I hadn't been so depressed, I would have jumped, because I never saw the man sit down next to me. But right at that moment, I didn't care. He was of medium build, about my size, really, but better fed. And considerably cleaner and better dressed. His blond hair looked like it had just recently been buzzed short, and his blue eyes had a sadness to them, the kind that poets write about and makes cowboys sing songs.
"Yeah," I sighed again, staring into my empty glass.
"Maybe I can help."
I turned on my stool and looked at him. "Look at me. I'm a half-dead asteroid miner without enough credits to my name to even buy another ale, let alone get my hull repaired. My name's Agosto Hayes... and there's nothing I can see that I have to offer you."
He nodded. "Maybe not," he said with a shrug, "But maybe you do have something you can offer me."
"Yeah? And what would that be?"
"You can help me out."
"Ok, I'll listen. I don't have anywhere to go anyway."
"Ok. Here's the deal. My name's Rock. I'm a bounty hunter. About six months ago, I was part of a group that captured a Xeno by the name of Uriel Khan."
I jumped. "Khan? You helped get Khan? Heck, I heard about him, even out in the asteroids. You did everyone a favor when you put him away."
He shrugged. "Yeah, well... I just got information from, well, sources, that he's going to break out of prison. And in a pretty violent way... he's not too happy, and he plans on taking out his anger on Huntsville Prison Station and everything he can reach. Which includes this system. Wiping them out, totally. And he can do it, too."
I just stared at him as he continued.
"The LPI doesn't think he can do it; they believe they're airtight out there, especially with Battleship Mississippi stationed there. But if anyone can escape, Khan can. And sources in the Bounty Hunters Guild says he will. Tonight. And then the bloodshed begins." He looked at me with those eyes of pain. "I'm not going to let him do it. But I need someone to watch my back. There's other bounty hunters going after him, too... but most of them are just interested in the money. The rest of my group is too spread out to get here in time to help me stop him. That's where you come in. I've got enough credits to fix your freighter and get you a few extra shield batteries. You just have to keep them from sneaking up on me from behind. I'm pretty sure they'll make a break for the Silverton Asteroids, so they can lose any pursuit there, probably in a small group- three or four ships, maybe smaller. The rest of the forces they've gathered will most likely disrupt surrounding trade routes and make other diversions, while Khan escapes in the asteroid field. You've been there; you know the routes. You help keep me safe, and I'll give you half of what ever reward there is for returning Khan to prison."
I nodded. "But why?" I asked. "Why me?"
He looked at me again. " My daughter would have been eight today, just like yours. But she and her mother were killed when station Freepoint 7 was destroyed."
"That's when I became a bounty hunter. And that's why I want to help you out. Because I never got to go to my little girl's birthday party." He looked at me, straight in the eye.
"I never got to give her the robotic pony she wanted."
"Miner Alpha 3-0, you are cleared for departure. Good luck out there, and watch your step." Pueblo Station's space traffic controller's voice faded from my communications array as I launched my ship into space. I brought up Rock's Anubis fighter on my computer display, and began to maneuver into formation.
Rock's voice crackled from my communications array as his image appeared in my head's up display screen. "Good, you're here. I was beginning to think you'd had second thoughts."
"Well, it just takes me a while to get these engines warmed up. She's an old Dromedary freighter. I call her The Outsider, since we're always out somewhere away from everyone else. I don't have much in the way of weapons, just a Justice Mark 2 gun, a Stunpulser, and a Javelin Missile launcher I use for the heavy asteroids. Course, I've only got 3 missiles left right now, and four shield batteries. I told you she wasn't much."
He nodded. "It'll do. Iíve got my ship, The Obliviator, decked out with the best weapons money can buy. Follow me out to the jump gate to planet Houston . From there, we'll cruise over to the North Dallas Debris Field. I've heard rumors that there's an ancient jump hole located there, somewhere. It's only one-way, ending in the Silverton asteroids, and it's so old, it's close to collapse; unstable. Dangerous to use. Unless you're desperate."
The jump gate locked on to our ships and tractored us in for docking. As we passed the rim, the surrounding space shimmered and stretched into rainbow glows. Rock continued speaking.
"Khan's desperate. I know he has some tricks up his sleeve, but still... he needs to disappear fast. That's why I think he'll risk the jump hole."
I watched the klicks count down on my heads up display as we got closer to Houston . Rock was silent now, and I leaned back and watched the hypnotizing colors stream past me. I never tired of traveling through trade lanes.
"We'll have to be quick when we get there so we're not seen. Stay in formation with me, and I'll lead us to position in the debris field. All right, we're here. Look sharp."
My autopilot took the ship's weapons offline and fired the engines up to cruising speed as Rock turned his Anubis towards the debris field. Soon, broken bits of ancient ships and assorted other space debris was floating past me. "I've heard that there're still things to find out here, although the area is pretty picked over."
"It's true," Rock acknowledged. "Now, maintain radio silence. Break formation... and watch my back. I'll take the heavy fire."
My display turned white, as a huge explosion shoved our ships forward in the debris field. "What the hell was that?" I yelled into my comm link.
"Good Lord," Rock whispered. "They did it. They actually did it."
"Did what? What the heck is going on?"
Rock's voice was hard, emotionless as he replied. "There were rumors that Khan's posse had gotten a hold of a fusion bomb and sneaked it onto Battleship Mississippi. I figured it was just a rumor... I didn't think Khan would actually use one, even if he had one." Rock sighed.
"I should have known better."
We took up position behind the shattered hull of some old ship, the metal scarred and pitted from the surrounding debris. "The jump hole isn't far from here. We've got to hit it right behind them, if we're going to make it through."
"So, now what?"
"Now... we wait."
Five minutes passed in an eternity. I was sweating, my flight suit sticking to my back as I shifted in my seat. I checked my battle display for the tenth time. I was ready as I could be.
"I've got contacts on my screen."
Two points of light flashed towards us; past us. "Come on!" yelled Rock. The engines on his Anubis fired. He leapt forward, and I dodged debris as I struggled to keep up.
"Hayes! We have to go faster! Divert more power to you engines!"
I glowered at my heads up display. "I'm going as fast as you are," I grumbled.
Ahead of us, there was a flare of multi-colored light. "They've found the jump hole," Rock stated, matter of fact. "I'm closing in now. Looks like there's only two ships. Anubis fighters, like mine. Their weapons aren't any stronger than mine. This is going to be easy."
"Too easy," I said under my breath, as I steered into the jump hole after Rock.
The journey was rough. My freighter was taking a beating. Alarms began to go off as I switched to my rear sensors for a look. Behind me, where I would normally see the swirling colors of disappearing stars as light tried to keep up with the ship, all I saw was the ragged edge of darkness and a sickly glowing purple.
"Rock! The jump hole is collapsing behind me!" I warned.
"Hold on," he replied calmly. "We're almost there. Just hold on."
A few seconds later, we shot out into the asteroid field. Behind me, the jump hole faded and disappeared. "I don't think anyone will use that again," I whispered.
"Look alive, Hayes!
I jumped as yellow fire flashed past my screens. "They've spotted us" Rock said. "I'm engaging the enemy."
Wicked laughter crackled from my communications array.
It was Khan.
"I'm going to use what's left of you to grease my hull," he said. "You're no match for me... and I have a score to settle, Rock," he hissed.
"Bite me," said Rock, and fired a volley of missiles.
We wove thru the asteroids, Rock leading the way, his thrusters far more powerful than mine. But I knew these rocks, and was able to keep up. The second Anubis tried to circle around to get behind Rock. I fired my Stunpulse, trying to get a lock on his shields, draining them so I could weaken him with my Justice guns. The Anubis leapt away, undamaged... but at least he wasn't coming any closer. I heard him laugh. "This fool is actually trying to take me on," he said.
Ahead of me, Khan was dodging all that Rock was throwing his way. I could hear Rock cursing as he dodged the return fire. The second ship moved in past me, as I frantically fired volley after volley. As it closed within 100k, I launched one of my Javelin missiles.
It missed. I had two left.
I cursed. "Hayes! Get him off of me!" Rock yelled. Ahead, two huge asteroids loomed. I swung frantically around one, while the other three ships went the other way. Coming around the other side, I saw that the battle was going badly. Khan was heading directly for Rock, and the second ship had swung around, closing behind him. I saw Rock drop a Driller mine. It floated slowly towards the second Anubis, as Rock continued to fire on Kahn.
I saw my chance. As the second ship swung wildly to avoid the Driller mine, I closed in tight on his tail, nailing him with everything I could fire from my guns. I locked both of them together, firing in one continuous stream of hot plasma, pounding his shields. I glanced at my battle display, watching as his shields slowly drained. Pulling up, I pushed my thrusters as hard as they would go, the engines screaming as I clipped the tail of the Anubis. Just as I turned away, I launched one of my last two Javelins, and pulled out, dodging asteroids.
" Hull breach!" The Xeno pilot screamed through the communications array. "I've got a containment leak... I can't hold her! I'm going to..."
My display lit up as his ship exploded into particles of light.
"You'll pay for that," Khan's voice hissed ominously from my speakers.
"Not a chance," Rock replied, as he whipped around an asteroid and came in at Khan's ship from a perpendicular angle.
"Incoming missile," my battle computer calmly announced. I looked around wildly, accelerating in a vain hope to outrun the missile.
I knew I couldn't.
An explosion rocked the back of my freighter. I spun out of control, careening off asteroids, frantically trying to maneuver.
"Shield failure. Hull breach imminent." The battle computers synth voice was as maddeningly calm as ever.
"Shut up!" I yelled, as I dumped the power from my four reserve shield batteries into the generators.
That's better, I thought. My shields were only at half efficiency, but theyíd recharge, slowly. My hull, however, was in sad shape. I was dangerously damaged, and didn't have any nanos for repair. I scanned quickly to see if I'd get lucky and the other ship had dropped some that I could tractor in, but there was nothing. I was in trouble.
As I slowly regained control of my ship, I watched as Rock beat on Khan without mercy. Kahn dove and turned wildly in the asteroid field, trying to shake him. But Rock was too determined, sticking on his tail, firing... firing....
Khan's ship exploded. "You _will_ pay for this, Rock!" he screamed, as his escape pod shot from the exploding cloud. Funny how the ring leaders were always the ones who took the ships with the escape pods, leaving their henchmen to die without one.
"You did it, Rock!" I yelled. "Let's tractor him in and get out of here before reinforcements arrive!"
There was no reply.
"Rock? Rock!" I yelled.
His ship flashed past me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a Rheinland fighter decloaking. It shot forward, towards Rock.
"Goodbye, Hayes. Get back home and eat a piece of cake for me"
I threw my hands up in front of me, reflexively, as his ship exploded. "No!" I screamed. "I can't do this on my own!"
I glanced at my battle computer. Starkiller missiles. The Rheinlander had caught him point-blank with an aptly named Starkiller missile.
I was dead. There was no other answer. I had nothing left to lose; I was dead.
I had nothing left to lose.
I tightened my grip on my ship's controls. "You'll pay for that, you son of a...."
This was my turf. I knew the asteroid field like the back of my hand. I had a little girl waiting to see her daddy again. I had just lost the only friend I could remember having in recent years.
I had nothing left to lose.
The Rheinlander came straight at me, confident in its superiority. The pilot didn't even bother to speak to me, as it tractored in the escape pod of Khan. I fired, my weapons bouncing off its shields without harm.
"Warning. Explosive gasses detected," my computer announced, calm as ever.
I dove on the Rheinlander, my beat-up freighter shaking as the last of my shields died.
"Warning. Incoming Missile. Warning. Shield Failure."
"Shut up shut up SHUT UP!" I shouted, spinning frantically, diving, accelerating, anything I could do to survive. Another blast shook the ship, nearly throwing me from my seat.
"Warning. Hull breach imminent."
This was it. I was as close as I could get to the Rheinlander fighter. He continued to come straight for me, knowing he had me dead in his sights. I could picture him savoring his victory. Yeah, but what was one little freighter to him? What danger was I?
"As dangerous as a rat in a corner," I yelled, firing my final missile. I watched as it plowed into his shields, smashing them. An asteroid he couldn't avoid broke across his hull. He accelerated, trying to get a clear shot.
Straight into a pocket of methane gas.
"I'm going to use what's left of you to grease my hull," I whispered, and fired straight at the methane gas.
I don't know how I managed to survive the explosion. I'd like to say that it was because of my great skill as a freighter pilot, and probably will say that whenever I tell the story in the future- but it was probably just the luck of the ancients looking out for me.
The Rheinland fighter was gone. In the clearing debris, one lonely escape pod floated, spinning madly. I tractored it into my hold. As luck would have it, I also managed to grab a shield battery and some nanos that had survived the explosion.
I set my engines on auto pilot, and set a way point for Pueblo Station.
"Go to." My computer said. I grunted.
"Miner Alpha 3-0. This is Commander Lantz of the Liberty Security Force on Pueblo Station. You are granted emergency docking status upon arrival. We believe you have acquired some, ah, property that we have misplaced. We look forward to its return."
Liberty Police officials were waiting for me when I docked on Pueblo Station. I watched as they unloaded Khan's escape pod from my hold. Commander Lantz walked over and shook my hand. "You've done the system a great service this day," he said, "I wish I had a medal to give you, but with the 20,000 credits that just got uploaded to your net account, I suppose you can buy one for yourself if you really want one."
I stared at him. "T-Twenty thousand credits?"
He smiled at me. "Yeah, I suppose you really couldn't have known. Right after Khan escaped, the reward went out... 20,000 credits to whoever could capture Khan and return him alive." He shook my hand again. "I know you can afford your own now, but as a way of saying thanks, I'd like to buy you a drink."
I felt like gravity had released its hold on me as I waved and started walking towards the station hub. "I appreciate it!" I called back over my shoulder, "But I don't have time right now."
As he waved back, I started to run.
"I have to see a man about a pony."
I wanted to end the story with "I have to go see a man about a horse", but it sounded too forced.