“Orbit established. What’s taking you so long?” asked Erikson from the bridge of the massive Hammer, an Anaconda class warship. It hung over the moon of Strauss Reward like the sword of Damocles.
“Interdicted en route,” replied Furieux with a chuckle. “A couple of opportunistic Eagles decided that I might be easy prey.”
The big man guffawed. “I hope you showed them the error of their ways! I have to admit, that Dropship of yours holds her own better than I expected. She has teeth and lives up to that pretentious name you gave her!”
The Immaculate Deception dropped into orbit with an audible thump. “It’s all in the piloting, my hirsute friend. I tend to avoid combat when I can, but I’m not averse to a little laser foreplay.”
Erikson’s hearty laugh boomed over the comm. “Good. And I hope the defence force at Lambert Observatory do too, because things are about to get a little hot down there, eh?”
“Hotter than a June bride in a feather bed!” Furieux answered cheerfully, smiling at his wing mate’s infectious high spirits.
The white Dropship fell into position alongside the Anaconda. Strauss Reward was a relatively small rock, but saw a lot of trade traffic owing to the three major surface settlements that formed the hub of the system’s main economy. Unusually, these lightly populated trading posts often saw more visitors than Bedaho’s sole orbital station, Peters Terminal.
Furieux ran a quick check of the Dropship’s status. “All systems showing a hundred percent. I’m good to go. Are you ready, Hammer?”
“Of course. Once you get a handle on the defences, upload the sensor data to me and I’ll drop in once I see a suitable tactical advantage . I expect the Raiders will have a few skimmers in place but I don’t think they will have access to much more than that. If you can concentrate on the ground to air turrets on arrival I’ll take care of the moving targets.”
“Roger that, Erikson. See you on the ground, brother.”
Furieux spooled the frame shift drive and the Deception vanished into a low orbital cruise. From the Hammer’s view port Erikson saw nothing but a pair of blue, ethereal, snake-like jet streams left behind against the backdrop of the pockmarked moon.
After dropping into real space, twenty kilometres from the observatory, Furieux toggled a couple of switches and transferred power to the shields and weapon systems before making a final approach. Initial visuals suggested the base wasn’t particularly large. A single central control tower streaked towards the sky, surrounded by a defensive wall. Dotted around it were other smaller installations of unknown purpose.
He adjusted the sensor range to gain a wider scope of data that detailed the base’s layout. Unsurprisingly, Lambert Observatory possessed over a dozen sensor arrays and it was easy to see why the Raven’s Scouts wanted these assets for their own. The information contained within the base would be highly beneficial to the party. These massive structures dominated the area south of the control tower and were defended by several anti aircraft guns as well as numerous smaller gun emplacements; their primary purpose to defend against ground based assaults. Around the perimeter were a series of beacons that defined the restriction zone which flashed every few seconds as a warning to encroaching vessels. As soon as this was crossed, the automated security protocols would be activated. Normally this involved the launch of remotely controlled ground based Sentries and in the case of high security installations, the larger S9 Goliath class skimmers.
Initial scans complete, Furieux transferred the Deception’s sensor data to the Hammer via normal uplink channels as he circled the area. He raised a comm. “Stationary targets resolved. Uploading now. They seem light. Suggesting you come in from the north side. There are two defence turret platforms at the rear of the building that may be a threat to you. Engaging now.”
“Affirmative, Deception,” Erikson responded. “Data received. Commencing descent.”
Furieux flipped the safety on the flight stick and deployed the Dropship’s hard points. Powering out towards the rear of the base, he swung the heavy vessel around expertly in order to set up the first pass. The back end of the ship slipped outwards a little further than he had anticipated and he cursed under his breath. Of all the things Furieux disliked about the Core Dynamics’ workhorse vessel was its weak lateral thrust. Compensating for this was something he still had to get used to. As far as he was concerned, the ship’s lack of tight control meant that it would make a hopeless smuggler. Still, as a reasonably versatile fighter and small scale personnel carrier, it couldn’t be faulted.
As the smuggler had predicted, flying over the installation boundary set off the base alarms. Almost instantly, half a dozen Sentry units rose up from the surface and immediately began firing at the perceived threat. The Deception’s shielding flickered but took little damage. Furieux ignored the remote units and focused on the large defence platform instead, a far more important target. Despite its heavily reinforced hull, Erikson’s Anaconda flew shield-less and didn’t have the same maneuverability of the Dropship. The laser platforms were potentially more dangerous to the Anaconda than to Furieux’s own ship. The twin pulse laser cannons began to swivel around to face him but Furieux locked onto it, opening fire with a barrage of quad multi-cannon shells. The platform exploded in a shower of sparks within moments. The projectiles ripped through its mediocre armour with a satisfying sound. The destruction of the secondary gun emplacement would require a second pass however, and Furieux’s ship took a few hits to the underside in the process of passing over it. Nothing that was cause for concern, but a glance at the indicator told Furieux that the first ring of shielding was gone. Flying out a few hundred metres over a rocky outcropping, he spun and prepared for a second assault.
Meanwhile, Erikson brought the Anaconda down slowly to the north. Roughly twenty kilometres away, the large pilot made a few adjustments to his power systems and begun a slow flight towards the base. His sensors indicated that only one platform remained at the rear and he deduced that Furieux must have taken out the first. A green blip on the scanner showed that the Deception was fast approaching emplacement and Erikson made the decision to lend the smuggler a hand. Deploying the many hard points studding the Anaconda, he targeted the defence platform and let loose a couple of bolts from a plasma accelerator. The emplacement never stood a chance. Erikson grinned maniacally at the resulting explosion.
“Mother of all Tucans! Careful!” yelled Furieux over the comm. “You nearly took me out along with it!”
“Precision targeting! Nowhere near you!” Erikson bawled.
“Tell that to me when you have to pick my escape pod up after the…”
“Missile detected,” announced the Deception’s computer, quickly followed by the sound of several impacts on the port side of the ship. The Dropship’s shields dropped and the last couple of hits tore through the light armour of the hull.
“I’m under attack! Missile volley from somewhere inside the base. I’ve taken major hull damage, Erikson. Forty seven percent. Thruster nacelles took the brunt.”
“Back off and breathe, son. I’m picking up the heat signatures of twin Goliath class skimmers inside the walls of the base. I’m surprised they have access to that hardware. Get out of there. I’ll engage as they reload and give you a window.”
“No need to tell me twice,” Furieux responded. “Goliaths? I’m impressed. The Raiders really wanna hold onto that base.”
The Anaconda offered covering fire while Furieux balanced the ship’s power equally to shields and engines. He fired the afterburners and shot out of range eventually bringing the vessel down into the basin of an ancient crater. As he did so, the Hammer moved in towards the rear of the installation, its giant multi-cannons pummeling a few attacking Sentries as it passed over the rocky grey landscape. The Anaconda was a powerhouse. What it lacked in shielding it more than made up for with the strength of its hull. The weak bullets spat out by the Sentries had little effect on its reinforced armour. The more powerful missiles from the S9 Goliath skimmers were a different matter however, and with each and every assault from the explosive warheads, Erikson observed the slow depletion of hull integrity.
“I can’t get eyes on those skimmers, Furieux. They are walled up in the central courtyard and flying over it will be suicide.”
“Acknowledged. We need to get the blast doors down.” The S9’s were not to be underestimated. The firepower they wielded was enough to bring down even a well armoured Corvette and they were not exactly defenceless either. In the right hands, the Goliath was a dangerous foe. Furieux considered the options. “Hey, can you keep them occupied for a while? I have an idea.”
“I can keep them off you temporarily,” Erikson answered. “But I can’t take these kind of hits indefinitely.”
Furieux lowered the landing gear and brought the Dropship down with a hiss onto even ground. He cut the engines and unfastened his safety harness. Quickly stepping out of the command chair, he hopped up the steps into the rear of the ship. Built into the floor was an exit hatch that led into the main cargo bay. The Deception had been fitted with a small vehicle hangar that contained a single Scarab SRV, a small six wheeled planetary rover used primarily for surface reconnaissance. It was of a somewhat fragile nature, but was equipped with a top mounted plasma repeater and light shielding as well as an uplink scanner to interface with the various terminals commonly found on surface installations.
Furieux dropped down into the vehicle, buckled up and triggered the launch procedure. The SRV was maneuvered by a pair of docking arms that secured it during flight as well as lowering it down to the surface. Once free, Furieux released the handbrake and shot off towards the observatory, dust and gravel kicking up around him. The vehicle sped across the landscape at high speed until it reached the edge of the crater. He slowed the SRV down and begun the climb, choosing his path carefully so as not to tip over. He hoped that Erikson was managing to occupy the two Goliaths. Once up on the plateau the small rover would be a sitting duck should the enemy turn their attention to him. Shielded or not, a Goliath could shred a Scarab in a very short space of time. Confirmation came quickly.
“I hope you have something good to tell me, Furieux.” Erikson shouted over there comm. “My hull is taking a beating and I still can’t get a line of sight on these bastards!”
“Hold tight, Hammer,” said Furieux as the Scarab leveled out on the surface. “I’m gonna try to disable the base’s security protocols. Stay with it and I might buy you a drink or five!”
The smuggler glanced out of the left window of the SRV. Erikson’s Anaconda hovered away from the centre of the base. Missiles launched from the skimmers smashed violently into the underside of the ship. The Hammer was a strongly armoured vessel but those barrages would quickly begin to affect Erikson’s systems. Furieux maxed the throttle, worriedly.
Aboard the Anaconda, Erikson surveyed the damage to his systems. Both the cargo bay and thrusters had taken a significant battering. Despite the ships point defence, many of the missiles had made it through and were driving into the ship. What a mess. This should have been easy, but whoever was remotely piloting the skimmers inside the base knew exactly what they they were doing using the walls of the complex as a shield. Hull integrity was now under sixty percent, but Erikson couldn’t move the Hammer out of range while Furieux was headed to the hub in the tiny Scarab. The Goliaths would destroy the SRV within seconds.
“Furieux, move it along! I can’t take much more of this!” he said trying to get a visual on the Scarab. He had to squint to see the small fast moving pinpoint of light on a course for the observatory.
“Going as fast as I can. There’s a Sentry up by the entrance. I’ll take it out, just keep those Goliaths off me!”
Furieux deployed the Scarab’s plasma repeater and targeted the Sentry that had begun to make a move towards him. It hovered above the ground and jinked from side to side while opening fire, but the shots were repelled by the Scarab’s shielding. Finger on the trigger, Furieux let loose a stream of rounds that pummeled the unit and he yelled with delight as it crumpled and fell to the surface in four separate places.
Finally reaching the entrance to the base, Furieux slammed on the handbrake and skidded to a halt. He deployed the uplink scanner and connected with the terminal located just behind the giant blast doors. In most cases, these terminals were encoded with security protocols that required pass codes or biometric ID chips from elected personnel. However, there was software available to circumvent such measures and these products were sold on black markets throughout inhabited space. Fortunately, for reasons that Furieux liked to keep to keep himself, his Scarab was equipped with such a program. It would take a little time though and the smuggler sincerely hoped that Erikson could hold out for the duration.
As the scanner worked it’s magic, the terminal feed was filled with data as the software begun it’s cycle. From what Furieux could see, it was going to take a sixty seconds to complete. “Almost there, Erikson! Hang on!”
“I have to move out! Hull integrity at thirty one percent. I’ve lost the three main weapons. The hull is breaking apart! Get out of there now!”
Furieux glanced at the countdown indicator. Thirty seconds left. “Come on…come on.” he murmured at the screen.
“Furieux, I’m not kidding around. Get that SRV back to your ship! Integrity at nineteen percent. I’m leaving!”
“Think of the celebration my friend! Think of the booze! Think of the women swooning before the glorious accounts of your heroism!”
Suddenly, all the floodlights winked out and the entire base was shrouded in darkness. The gun platforms powered down and each and every one of the remaining skimmers were deactivated. They fell to the ground uselessly. Furieux watched the main blast doors into the courtyard draw up, revealing the pair of now disabled Goliath skimmers that had been the main cause of their troubles.
“Erikson. It’s done. Everything alright up there? Get Reade on the comm and tell him to bring in the troop Dropships. Entry point is breached. This dump is as good as ours.”
“Uhh…Furieux? Don’t shoot the messenger but I just received word from HQ. We need to pull out. Right now.”
“Eh? What are you talking about?”
“The details are not clear but its a direct order from the Fleet Commander. We are to return to Salam Enterprise immediately and meet with Commander Reade and the other mercs. I don’t know what the Ravens are playing at and I’m as mystified as you are.”
Furieux frowned and stared at the breached entrance to Lambert Observatory. After the recent violence it seemed eerily quiet and serene.
“Well hell,” he said, quietly.
Furieux stormed into the Star & Garter with Erikson who followed closely behind. Reade and the other commanders, Bentzen and Syn were seated at the same table as before. As the two pilots approached, Reade stood up. There was no need for words. Furieux simply held his arms out at his sides – palms up – the age-old universal gesture for what-the-hell?
Reade looked a little sheepish. “Apologies for the interruption to your operations at such short notice Commanders, and I congratulate you on your success at Lambert Observatory. Rest assured the base will be free of any enemy personnel. Ground based infantry are being deployed as we speak. However, there have been some new developments within the sector. I have received word that the Fleet Commander is returning to Cai from the Paipai system. He…”
Furieux interrupted. “Get to the point, Reade. Erikson and I were just beginning to make waves, and you haul us out of the field because Ginova wants a homecoming party?”
Bentzen, the white haired assassin leaned forward in her seat. “Perhaps if you shut your mouth for a moment we might all learn the real reasons for the withdrawal,” she said. Her tone was disdainful. It was difficult to tell where her hair ended and her face begun, it was so pale.
Furieux turned to look at her. She had a muscular, almost boyish figure and her unapproachable demeanor was, as always, blatantly apparent. “The only thing you need to learn is how to crack a smile, flower.”
Bentzen sat back and gave him the finger with a black gloved hand along with the most withering and sarcastic sneer Furieux had ever witnessed on another human. Erikson laughed.
“Commanders! If you please!” said Reade returning to his seat. Erikson and Furieux remained standing. “We have recently been made aware of a group said to have ties with the Federation who are working within the the borders of Bedaho. They call themselves the Ice Storm Squadron and are reputedly linked with the office of Felicia Winters. We are currently in the process of gathering intel as to their numbers and what exactly it is they want in Bedaho. Until we can gauge their activities, the Fleet Commander has recommended that it would be prudent to begin a complete withdrawal of all Scout wings and hired personnel back to Raven’s Landing.”
Erikson swore angrily. “Are you telling us that this entire exercise has been a waste of our time?”
“No, not at all. We still have plans to move into Bedaho in future. But with the sudden emergence of these Federal allies along with a slight situation in Paipai, we currently don’t have the resources available to position ourselves favourably at this time.”
Syn, the diminutive bounty hunter shook his head. “I’m happy to continue removing tagged targets from either crew, pirates or Feds. Credits are credits, and so far, I’ve been making a hefty profit. I’ll remain in system, regardless. If this means the end of our contract, then so be it.”
Reade nodded. “I understand, commander. And that is, of course, your choice to make.”
“So put simply, we lack the manpower to oppose this group?” Erikson asked. “Is that what you are saying?”
“Correct,” replied Reade. “We do not know the Ice Storm Squadron’s exact numbers yet, but sadly, we are not in a position to bring in more ships from Cai.”
Furieux listened as Erikson posed more questions. He liked the burly giant. He was intimidating but had a heart of gold. Unlike the other two mercs, Erikson wanted a result. They pay was secondary. It forced Furieux to question his own ethics. No ties, no bonds, no attachments. The Raven’s were purely a source of credits but he couldn’t help but feel a part of them.
At that moment, a waitress walked by the table carrying a tray of octagonal glasses filled with various liquids. Furieux reached out and took one as she passed and grinned at her playfully. “Perfect timing, sweetheart. Put that on Commander Reade’s tab.” She returned his smile before walking off. Furieux watched her depart paying particular and unashamed attention to her rear. Bentzen shook her head in disgust.
“Ubi concordia,” Furieux mumbled absent mindedly as he turned back to face the group.
Reade glanced at the smuggler. “What?”
“Sorry, I was thinking out loud. I know some people who might help us. They won’t come cheap however, and they are a boisterous bunch.” Furieux sank the contents of the glass in one quick swallow.
“Are they as professional as you?” Syn smirked.
Furieux didn’t rise to the bait and merely ignored the bounty hunter. Syn would have to be watched closely. There was something about the small man that didn’t sit well, a kind of sly knowingness that Furieux found unnerving.
“Despite this,” he continued, “they work particularly well when they have focus and reward. I suggest Ginova contact them. I know for a fact that they can change things. If the Fleet Commander sees fit to employ them, you may wish to put a large amount of credits behind the bar. A trip from Patocuda will most likely trigger a thirst.”
“Interesting,” pondered Reade. “Tell me more, and I’ll pass your proposal onto the Fleet Commander.”
Furieux grinned. “Good. Now then. Who’s round is it?”