Looking through the windshield Henry Twenty-One watched the Universe die. If someone else stood beside him, that someone would have probably said to him: ‘Forget this nonsense, the Universe is fine’. Indeed, judging by the view from the cockpit, it was impossible to say that something was wrong. There were only asteroids around. ‘Turtle’ — an old smuggler frigate — was lurking in their shadows. ‘Perhaps, it can still get better’ — Henry thought. Always start your day with positive thoughts — as his shrink used to say. ‘But humanity is definitely done’ — Henry literally saw it suffocate, drowning in infinite space.
‘Hush, hush. That's it, just a little bit more and the pain will go away. Peaceful sleep beckons.’
The captain (and the only member of the crew) drank from a bottle of protein coffee surrogate, coughed and winced.
Gloomy thoughts continued to find their way into his head. How many worlds have fallen? How many for the last cycle? On the news, especially Imperial ones, nobody ever mentioned it: apparently, the Hub worlds were safe and on the outskirts our brave men once again gave the Aliens some heat. Fancy that! Invaders, Aliens! Henry once considered pirates, Jericho and cybers to be the greatest danger. Now, wherever you jump, you’re bound to come across this Alien scum. Crystallids, that’s what they’re called, right?
Henry never found it important to dig into this sort of thing. His strategy was simple: see an Alien — run. Involuntarily, he glanced at the dashboard, with two shimmering lights above the words ‘Multiphase shield adapter’ and ‘Microwarp gate’. The knowledge that all the systems were in order made him calm. Even if the gates were useless since a jump among the asteroids would be suicidal. ‘Turtle’ with its crazy speed would crash into the first rock. But one thing made him happy — the cockpit of Raptor MKII is located in the bow, which means that the pilot would not even feel pain.
Something creaked in the frigate’s belly. Henry stiffened and listened, but the creaking never came again. Should’ve checked in for maintenance...
Leaving a bottle in the holder on the dashboard, he unbuckled the straps that held him in his chair, and gently pushed forward. Zero gravity allowed him to easily soar above the workplace. He needed to stretch his legs. The smuggler, as usual, spent the night in a chair. On-board clock showed almost ten in the morning. There were still a couple of hours until the rendezvous, so it was time to check the goods. Moving along the handles inside the hull, Henry headed towards the cargo hold. He did not see much sense in so many inspections. But his employer had her own thoughts on this matter.
A faint smile crept across the smuggler’s face when he remembered about her. Though he’d only seen her once on the intercom, boy, was she fine! Her hair, the eyes, and... the smile instantly vanished from his face when he crossed the gate of the hold.
- What are you? - Henry asked once again looking at a huge black box.
The box, as always, did not bother to answer. Its design was grotesque. Steel body was covered with asymmetric valves, connectors — all between metal terrifying ribs. This monster was firmly fixed to the floor, the ceiling and even the walls with ceramic chains. Henry slipped easily through the web. Black matte surface of the box was covered with old stamps, barcodes and labels. The latest label belonged to the customs of the Empire, 300th department, unit Alpha. Next to the symbols and all the necessary cargo information was the signature of a certain M. Summer. Somehow, Henry had never paid any attention to it. Who was that? The smuggler has worked with this customs department and the local corrupt bureaucrats for several years. But Summer's last name did not ring a bell.
A small panel on the box came to life at the touch.
Temperature.... 4 degrees Celsius.
Wait! Network online?
- What the hell?
Henry clicked the Network icon. A submenu showed up.
‘Sending data’, - the text read. Henry stared at it. Just a second later the text disappeared, and the submenu closed. The smuggler didn’t have time for a rhetorical question. In the narrow corridors of the frigate he heard the sound of an incoming message. How timely! Leaving the mysterious cargo alone, Henry went back to the cockpit. He was sure it was something important. His PDA had a special filter - it took only messages from whitelisted contacts. There was only one such contact. This means that the message from the employer...
Henry landed back in his chair, pointed at the monitor, and the message appeared in front of him:
Very soon my personal shipyard will launch its first fighters of Nyx class…’
What kind of nonsense is that?
What mercenaries? He left UMC three years ago. Even if it was a mass mailout, the computer was not supposed to accept it. His eyes skimmed over the text, trying to find at least some secret message, a hint.
The signature. Miss Summer. So it was a she, not a he. The mysterious bureaucrat from the customs... And, apparently, his employer at the same time. The system recognized her signature and accepted the message. But what was it she needed from the mercenaries? In the message she offered a whole bunch of resources for seemingly meaningless tasks. What kind of game was she up to? And most importantly...
- Who are you, Miss Summer?
Henry couldn’t read the message in time. The computer started beeping and the screen showed a map with three approaching dots. Without identification signals. Henry easily read their movements. Whoever they were, they weren’t looking for him, they knew exactly where he was, and moved his way the shortest route. Every second was important. The smuggler started the engines and immediately reversed, and a second later activated the minelayer.
Hundreds of light beads scattered where the ‘Turtle’ had just been. The lights flickered red. Through this haze Henry saw his first guest. A fighter... a command one. Bright colours, the skull and crossbones on the hull. Pirates.
Smuggler released several charges from the coil mortar, scraped the fighter’s shield and hid behind an asteroid. He immediately started to turn the vessel. It’s better to show the enemy your back than your guts. The dot on the map accelerated. The pirate fired up his afterburner. A flash. Another second and the dot disappeared. Henry had one last minelayer charge... now he had to get out of the asteroids. He started the afterburner and directed ‘Turtle’ to the nearest clearance.
The intercom came to life.
- Not bad, not bad - said a coarse male voice.
Henry pushed the PTT button on the wheel.
- Identify yourself. Where did you get this frequency?
The man only laughed in response. His laughter was so unpleasant that a shiver went down Henry’s back. He did not understand what was happening, but he knew he had to run.
The afterburners were carrying him to the saving clearance. Meanwhile, the radar reflected one more dot. Someone was trying to flank the ‘Turtle’ in a big arc. No matter, Henry thought, this one wouldn’t have enough firepower to bring down the gates. But he’d try. The next moment, the dot disappeared. Adaptive Camo? The two ships behind were gradually closing the distance. They also started afterburner. They learned nothing from the death of their comrade. ‘Turtle’ left another mine field behind it and continued flying.
That's it, just a little more...
The smuggler ship jumped out of the asteroid field and started turning. He had to turn towards the nearest gate. They definitely wouldn’t catch him there.
- Very well, - the unpleasant voice spoke again.
A ship appeared from behind the asteroids. They were on a crash course. Henry noticed it too late, but the Pirate did not open fire. Something was clearly wrong with that ship. It looked like a fighter, but the model... Henry had never seen anything like it. However, now he did not have time to even wonder. The smuggler hit a glowing button, and ‘Turtle’ spat a gate module in front of it. Several plates detached from the module in flight. They quickly expanded. A force field that usually formed the jump gate a fraction of a second later was already visible. Henry squeezed everything he could from the ‘Turtle’.
That's it, just a little bit more...
The flash blinded him for a moment. The shock wave rocked the ship. ‘Turtle’ dramatically slowed down, and Henry hit his head hard on the dashboard.
He soon woke up to find a few floating weightless blobs of his own blood, fragments of the gate in front of the ship’s nose and four beams of long-range guns aimed at his ship.
To be continued...