The Forge Region – Anttanen Constellation
Uitra System – Planet VI, Moon 4
State War Academy Station
25 March YC 121
“How are you?” were the first words Ijumachi said when I came to his office for a debrief, and I saw that he meant it as a question, not as a greeting.
I winced and grumbled, “Getting there.”
“I see,” nodded Ijumachi and patted me on the shoulder. “Losing a ship is the second worst thing that can happen to a capsuleer after losing his clone, but anyone who wants to pursue a military career must be mentally prepared to such loss. That is why the hellburner exercise is a mandatory part of advanced combat training. You’ve done well, Vladimir.”
“Thank you, Mr Vuonolailen. Is there anything urgent you need to discuss with me in regards to this mission? If not, may I ask you to postpone the debrief until tomorrow? I am a bit indisposed today.”
“Of course,” said Ijumachi. “Your video record should be sufficient for the mission report. In fact, I wanted to suggest that you take a few days of R&R before the next mission.”
I gratefully accepted that offer and returned to my apartment. Opening the door I looked around and realised that I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting there alone, not today. I went to a bar located on a busy street and spent the rest of the day drinking, betting on Splinterz, watching people going about their business – pretty much doing anything that could distract me from the thoughts about the last mission. I knew those thoughts would catch up with me later but I hoped I would be in a less fragile state of mind when it happens.
30 March YC 121
The next few days I spent in a vegetable state – all I could do was soak up some light entertainment. Having no will to play any active part in this world, I totally lived up to the definition of couch potato. But gradually my outlook started expanding beyond the comfort of soap operas, and on Saturday I was jolted back into the reality by the breaking news about a pirate raid on a mining colony in Uitra I asteroid belt. The attack was attributed to the same group whose headquarters I blew up during the last mission. I picked my commlink and called Ijumachi.
“Mr Vuonolailen, what’s going on? I thought we got rid of that scum on Monday, but here they are again, attacking miners!”
“Glad to hear from you, Mr Korff,” replied Ijumachi. “Our intelligence has been looking into that incident; they discovered that the leader of that gang managed to escape the headquarters just before it exploded. In the following days he rallied the remaining henchmen and resumed his criminal activities.”
“We can’t give them time to regroup and entrench in Uitra again. They need to be dealt with immediately.”
“That’s exactly what I plan to do. We have an urgent mission and I am looking for a pilot. Are you fit enough to take a new assignment, Mr Korff?”
I took stock of my mental state and found that I was not just fit, I was eagerly anticipating a fight. Even if it would cost me a ship.
“I’ll be in your office shortly, Mr Vuonolailen,” said I and hung up. Just before the connection was broken I noticed an approving smile forming on Ijumachi’s face.
“The pirates have not established a new base yet, so they are forced to stay in space. That gave us an opportunity to scan them down, and we know their current location,” said Ijumachi explaining the mission.
“Just give me the coordinates,” I said impatiently, “and I’ll make sure that this time there will be no survivors.”
“That’s not what I have in mind, Mr Korff. Have you ever used ant baits? Do you know how they work?”
I shrugged, “Yes, planetside ants were quite a nuisance. There is some substance that makes them sick and then they go back to the nest and infect the others.”
“And this is exactly what I plan to do with the pirates.”
I raised my brow, “How? I mean, do you have some secret bioweapon which can penetrate shield, armour and hull of a spaceship?”
“No. What I want to infect them with is fear. We can never be sure that we have exterminated the whole gang and even one survivor can restart the malignant growth of piracy in our system. If, however, we can persuade them that doing business here is too risky then they will simply move away.”
That sounded exactly like what Tarumo told me after the last mission.
“Okay, so how do you propose to scare them?” asked I.
“By showing them that we are in control and can get rid of them at any time. For one thing, your appearance at their secret spot should already come as a shock to the pirates and will demonstrate our ability to find them. And to drive the message home we will show them that they can’t escape. Have you heard of warp disruptors, Mr Korff?”
“I know how they work, it was part of my Navy training, but I have never used them before.”
Ijumachi smiled encouragingly, “Very good. So this will be your opportunity to practice tackling. Your task will be to approach the pirate leader’s ship and tackle it using a warp disruptor I’ll provide. But remember, the success of this mission depends on not killing the pirate. I am repeating this because I know how trigger-happy you, capsuleers, are.”
“I’ve got the idea. Anything else?” asked I standing up.
Ijumachi turned to his terminal,” Only the coordinates.” He typed something on the keyboard and said, “You’ve got them. Countdown for your bonus payment starts now.”
On my way to the hangar I gave instructions to the dock crew to fit Ijumachi’s disruptor to my Merlin. Although I didn’t plan to fight, I thought that flying a combat frigate would articulate the message. Safer, too.
In the capsule I was greeted by Aura who looked at me and asked almost in the same tone as Ijumachi on Monday, “How are you?”
“I am fine,” replied I. “And you?”
“Oh,” said Aura dismissively, “you know how we, AIs, are – on and off.”
I laughed, “That kind of joke would sound offensive if said by anyone who is not herself an AI!”
Aura beamed, “I am glad you liked it. So, what are we doing today?”
“We are finishing the job that we started on Monday. According to Ijumachi, some pirates have managed to escape the headquarters and now they have regrouped and are wreaking havoc across the system.”
Aura narrowed her eyes and asked suspiciously, “I hope this will not require sitting on a powder keg and lighting it like we did last time?”
I chuckled, “No. In fact, this time no ships will be harmed.”
“Then how are we supposed to get rid of the pirates?”
“I’ll tell you while we are flying to their hideout.”
One could see that the pirates were down on their luck – instead of a beautiful high-tech tower they now occupied two uncomfortable asteroids. My task was to persuade them that they were not going to get any better deal in Uitra.
There were just three Guristas in the area – two Rookies and one custom-built frigate which Aura identified as the flagship. Activating the afterburner I closed the distance and willed Ampuhaukka into my customary 14 km orbit around the pirate leader. As soon as I was within the optimal range of the warp disruptor I targeted the flagship and activated the module. The pirate targeted me in return and tried to hit me with whatever weapons he had. It appeared that there were none which could shoot as far as 14 klicks, and his engine was not powerful enough to approach me. For a while I watched his ineffectual attempts to kill me, and then contacted him in the local comms channel.
“I grant you that you have large enough balls to attack a capsuleer, but you need to grow a bigger gun if you want to actually hit my ship.”
There was silence, then the pirate stopped pew pewing at me and replied tensely, “What do you want?”
I made my best effort to sound like an arrogant bastard, “You are asking me what I want? I don’t think you will like the answer but I’ll give it to you. At this moment, more than anything else I just want to let myself go, activate the rails and annihilate you with antimatter charges.”
I made a pause but there was no reply.
Sniggering I continued, “Now that I’ve got your undivided attention, I’ll let you know why you are still alive. I can easily kill you here and now but then I will have to chase the remaining thugs from your gang all across the system. It’s pretty tiresome and I’d rather not waste my time. By the way, when I warped in there were two Rookies with you. Where are they now?” I made another pause and stated the bleeding obvious, “They are gone! You see what I mean? Now I have to scan them one by one. I would much prefer if you did it for me in exchange for your otherwise worthless life.”
The pirate growled, “You expect me to awox my brothers?”
“Oh, nothing so drastic. I wouldn’t expect Guristas to break their ‘code of honour’, pardon the oxymoron. What I want you to do is to gather your rabble and get them out of this system and, for that matter, the constellation.”
After a significant pause the pirate asked me quizzically, “Is that it? Is that all you want – to move our operations to another constellation?”
As the pirate realised I was serious, the reply came instantaneously, “I agree.”
“Good. And in case you think you can change your mind as soon as you warp out, consider this: I have found you here and if you stay in Anttanen I will find you again. Next time there will be no conversation; I’ll destroy your ship, I’ll destroy your pod, then I’ll retrieve your corpse and feed it to Fedos. Is it clear?”
“Yes, yes, I’ve got the idea.”
“Then don’t try my patience anymore – get out of my sight!” snarled I.
“But I can’t!” pleaded the pirate. “You need to deactivate that warp disruptor first.”
“Ah, the disruptor! Sorry, forgot to tell you,” I said sweetly, “I was in such a hurry to meet you that instead of the Tech I module I fitted a Civilian one. Its warp scramble strength is absolute zero, so you are free to go. Oh, by the way,” I made a show of examining the dashboard, “in case you get any funny ideas, I’ve just confirmed that my railguns are real, military-grade one-twenty-fives. Now, scat!”
“Damn you!” hissed the pirate through clenched teeth and warped away.
Aura and I looked at each other and laughed.