|Collision Course - Part 3|
|Source||Collision Course - Part 3|
|In the series|
Clara stayed as still as possible inside what remained of the frame of the Connie’s top turret. One hand gripped the manual override to the hatch leading into the half-destroyed ship. The other checked her suit’s scans. It confirmed her fear — someone else was here.
Suddenly, the decision to leave her Bucc’s systems running, lights blazing into the Connie cockpit, no longer seemed like such a good idea.
She didn’t think she could return to her ship unnoticed, so Clara activated the manual override on the turret hatch and entered what remained of the Connie. At least it provided her a bit of cover while she assessed her options.
Once inside, she glanced around to ensure there weren’t any surprises. The bulkheads had slammed shut when the ship’s back half blew off, leaving the front section mostly intact. She didn’t see any further breaches to the hull, and strangely, no bodies.
Clara shoved that mystery aside, EVAed into a dark corner and drew her rifle. She flicked off the safety and aimed the gun at the hatch. It was the obvious entrance point into the ship. Maybe she’d get lucky and catch whoever had just arrived coming through it.
Suddenly, an ear piercing whistle cut across comms.
“Now, that’s a nice ship,” announced Radu. “Not much of a Drake man, myself, but it’d sure be sad if something happened to it.”
Radu had his Gladius aimed at the Bucc, his fingers wrapped around the trigger. From this distance, the ship’s Scorpion GT-215 Gatling would rip the Bucc to shreds in seconds. But this gig only paid out for the return of the Connie’s black box. There were no bonuses for extracurriculars. He’d prefer to keep his hands clean, if at all possible.
“Come on, don’t be shy,” he continued over comms. “I’ll give you to the count of five to at least introduce yourself before I take my frustrations out on your ship.”
He gave it a beat, still no response.
“Five … four … three … two … one—”
“OK, fine.” Clara reluctantly replied over comms.
“Good, there you are. Quite the predicament, isn’t it?”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“Just so everything’s clear, your ship’s sitting in my crosshairs.”
“Yeah, I got that.”
“It’s not a threat, just the reality of our situation. I don’t know about you, but I’m not here looking for trouble.”
“What are you looking for then?”
“That ship’s black box. Everything else is yours. Deal?”
Clara gave it a beat to make it seem like she was thinking it over, “Fine … head on in and grab it.”
“This will go a lot faster if you just go ahead and assume I’m not an idiot.”
“Fair enough. How do you want to do this?”
“You’re going to bring the box to me.”
Various options sped through her head; almost all felt impossible. Clara glanced at her vitals. Her heart rate was elevated and O2 levels were depleting faster than normal. She tried to get her breathing under control and focus on the first step to surviving this — making it back to her ship.
“Don’t go silent on me now. We were just getting to know each other.” Radu nervously drummed his fingers on the flight stick. Her silence meant she wasn’t going to make this easy.
“What’s to keep you from killing me the second I bring you the black box?”
Radu smiled. Good. She wants to cooperate. “Listen, the fact I didn’t just start shooting up the place should buy me a little bit a trust. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead by now. Bring me the box, and as soon as I’m gone, that’s the end of it.”
Clara realized he had a point. Either this guy was telling the truth or was one devious bastard. Regardless, she didn’t see many paths out of her current situation that didn’t leave her cold and vented. Better to be alive and broke then dead and proud.
“Fine. Give me a minute to find the black box,” Clara said reluctantly.
“That’s the spirit.”
“You can call me Clara.” She offered, hoping the name would humanize her.
It was a small gesture, but hearing his name somehow made her feel slightly better.
Clara EVAed toward the front of the bridge. She stared out the cockpit window to find Radu’s ship, but the blazing lights from her Bucc made it all but impossible. So, she redirected herself and snagged the black box.
She stared at it for a moment while thinking through her next steps. Though it went against her every instinct, Clara flipped the safety on her rifle and returned it to the attachment point on her suit. It made no difference what ship Radu flew; she was outgunned.
“Got it. Coming out the top turret hatch.”
“Keep it nice and slow. No surprises,” cautioned Radu. He swung the Gladius slightly, lining it up with the top of the Connie. Moments later, Clara slowly emerged from the hatch and reorientated herself until facing his ship. Then she stayed in place.
“Now what?” Clara asked.
Radu realized he hadn’t thought through the actual exchange. He just knew he had to keep her away from her ship until it was done.
“Bring it on over.”
Clara held her position, staring down the ship’s Gatling gun aimed at her. Her heart beat so fast that it felt like it might explode out of her chest.
“Can you at least not aim that thing directly at me?”
Radu kept the nose of the ship where it was. “You’re safe enough. Just bring the box over, nice and easy.”
Clara drew a deep breath and slowly EVAed toward the Gladius. Each meter closer only made it more nerve racking. Her mind reeled and repeated the same phrase over and over again —
Just get back to my ship … Just get back to my ship …
“Am I bringing this all the way to your cockpit or what?” Inquired Clara.
“I’ll tell you when to stop.”
Radu watched Clara draw near. He wanted her close, but not so close that she was inside his ship’s weapon range.
“Stop right there,” said Radu and Clara complied. “Now, you’re going to release the box and head back to the Connie. Once me and the box are gone you can go on living your life.”
Clara was close enough to see Radu inside the cockpit. She knew that once she released the black box, her position was a lot less secure.
If she gave him what he wanted, what were the chances that she’d be getting out of here alive?
Radu picked up on her hesitation. “We’ve made it this far, so don’t screw it up by doing anything stupid.”
She quickly ran through their interaction so far. He didn’t seem like he was going to straight out kill her, but he was right, he wasn’t stupid. If he left her with a ship, there was a risk she would come after him. No, he was going to leave her in the Connie and blow her Bucc. It was the safest option he had beside straight out icing her.
“Clara. I will not ask again.”
It was then that she saw a slight movement in his arm. He was adjusting his shot. It was now or never. Instinct kicked in and she swung the box around and released it when her back was lined up with her ship. The force of the box leaving her hands flung Clara back and toward the Buccaneer. She quickly rotated her body toward her ship and hit her EVA thrusters. The black box drifted free, tumbling away from both of them.
It took Radu a moment to realize what had happened. He begun to adjust his aim on the fleeing Clara, but saw something move in his periphery. It was the black box floating passed.
Without a moment’s further hesitation, Radu swung his Gladius around and went after the box. He didn’t care if she got away, but this would all be for nothing if he didn’t return with that black box. This was his last chance to score the credits needed to pay off Madrigal for the month. That’d give him some space to try and escape his whole situation. If he blew this, there definitely wasn’t enough time to complete a new gig that paid this well. Radu knew that black box was his lifeline — if he missed paying Madrigal that installment, he was as good as dead.
He yawed to squeeze past an asteroid the box had drifted past, and tried to position himself in front of its path. Before he could match its trajectory, it ricocheted off a rock and tumbled in a new direction. Radu fired all his reverse thrusters and adjusted his course once again.
Meanwhile, Clara EVAed to her Bucc as fast as possible, shocked to reach the ship without coming under fire. She hopped in and fired up the engines, thankful she’d left the rest of the systems on.
For the first time, she looked back to see Radu’s ship navigating through the asteroid field in pursuit of the box. That should give her enough time to flee.
She’d comm Miles the second she was in the clear and explain what happened. He’d be pissed, and probably never hire her again, but at least she’d be alive. She probably couldn’t afford an EZ Hab tonight, but once back at Port Olisar she could check with Diego about that gig at Garrity Defense. Maybe being a counter jockey wouldn’t be too bad after all. It’d be boring but safe.
The voice of Clara’s old friend Gunther filled her head. He used to claim that boredom killed more people than bullets. He even blamed Clara’s nasty WiDoW habit on her looking for something to do between gigs.
Suddenly, her head started to spin. She’d been clean for three months. She could stay strong as a counter jockey with a constant flow of credits in her pocket and plenty of time to kill … right?
She looked back to Radu’s ship to see him opening his canopy, the blinking light of the black box drifting towards him. For the first time, she realized that not only had she survived this crazy ordeal, but actually had the drop on him. There was still a chance for her to come away from this with both her life and the black box.
That glint of hope was all she needed.
Radu strained, reaching for the tumbling box. He glanced over to see the Buccaneer spinning in his direction. She was coming after him.
He grabbed the box with one hand, and brought it down to his lap. No time to close the canopy, he swung the flight stick just as the Bucc opened fire. The Gladius’ shield flared before him, absorbing the shots. Aegis’ voice assist kicked in to tell him what he already knew — his front shields were in a critical state and he should close his damn window. He needed to find cover and fast. He ducked low as it resealed around him.
Radu piloted the Gladius toward a large asteroid and skillfully swung it into cover. He just needed to escape this asteroid cluster and quantum anywhere that wasn’t here. But before he could even search for a QT destination, his rear shields came under attack. He abandoned the search and focused on weaving between asteroids to stay alive.
Clara stayed within range thanks to the Buccaneer’s two massive main thrusters. She watched Radu’s Gladius duck and dodge between asteroids. She could tell he was flying to buy time for his shields. She stayed aggressive on the attack, but picked her shots so she didn’t burn through her ammo too fast.
It’d been a while since Radu had been in a dogfight. Most of his jobs of late were unfortunately face to face, so he felt a little overwhelmed trying to keep one eye on his scans and the other on the asteroids. The large box in his lap wasn’t helping matters any. It quickly became clear that Clara was the better pilot. In his experience, there was only one way to beat a better pilot — do something totally unexpected.
Without overthinking it, Radu suddenly pitched his Gladius down and out of the asteroid cluster before rolling right. The cool, bluish-green colors of Yela filled his field of view and briefly distracted him. He angled back up toward the protection of the asteroid cluster when his rear shields came under attack again. That Bucc was more nimble than he expected.
The Aegis voice assist calmly assured him that his rear shields were down. He felt the ship shake and stutter. The hull was taking damage. He glanced at his control panel to see if anything important had been hit. That’s when he noticed the quantum fuel tank was draining and, with it, the possibility of a quick escape.
Clara cursed under breath. Either Radu had a tick ten times worse than hers or he was flying erratically to keep her from achieving missile lock. He definitely had flying skills, but not enough to shake her. She finally locked in, but just as he reached the edge of the asteroid cluster. She fired off a missile anyway.
The Gladius dropped chaff in response. Moments later, there was an explosion and an expanding cloud of debris before Clara. She eased off the throttle so she didn’t run head first into anything that could damage her ship. She stole a quick glance at her scans and didn’t see Radu’s ship.
I can’t believe I did it …
Just as that thought passed through her head, something darted across her scanner towards Yela. She looked again at the debris cloud before her but didn’t see any ship parts. Her missile must’ve struck an asteroid instead.
Clara checked her scans one more time; since nothing else appeared in the area she flipped her ship and flashed her engines to pursue.
You don’t give up, do you? thought Radu, as he watched the Bucc break away from the asteroid cluster and pursue him towards Yela’s surface. At least the distance gave his ship’s shields a chance to recharge. His Gladius shuddered when entering Yela’s thin upper atmosphere. He’d been there plenty of times to know that wasn’t normal.
As he sped toward the surface, the shaking only got worse. He feared that at any moment the ship’s left wing might rip off. He’d planned to land on the side of Yela shrouded in darkness and hide, but setting down in the middle of nowhere didn’t seem like a good idea anymore. If he couldn’t get his ship off the ground, then he was screwed. Yela’s nightside temperatures were brutally cold. He had to find an outpost.
Radu exhaled once the Gladius finished atmospheric entry without losing the wing. He shook his head while glancing at his scans; the Bucc was still in pursuit. He opened his map and started searching for the nearest outpost. His heart sank when he saw the nearest emergency shelter wasn’t anywhere close. His doubted that his damaged ship could limp there before Clara’s Bucc caught up.
He looked out the cockpit and scanned the pitch black horizon. Yela’s ring hung in the sky just above it, with Crusader sitting above. Both were bright and beautiful. Radu pried his eyes off the vista and scanned the horizon. The faint light from an outpost caught his eyes. He double checked his map but nothing appeared at that location. His Gladius shuddered and briefly stalled before kicking back in. Radu knew he didn’t have long. He’d have to land and take his chances with what was below.
Where’d he go? The blip had disappeared from Clara’s scans. She’d been expecting him to get low and find canyons or other cover, but she should’ve been close enough to still see the ship’s signature. She flew over a ridge then saw a faint light below. That had to be him.
Clara lowered the Bucc. Amidst a small plain encircled by mountains sat a small outpost, barely lit. As she drew near, the Bucc’s lights spotted a small wisp of smoke rising from a Gladius that had crash landed nearby.
The ship didn’t look like it could get off the ground, but Clara still swung the Bucc back around at it. She hit it with the ship lights and saw it was abandoned. She unloaded a barrage of bullets into it to ensure it wasn’t going anywhere.
She then spun the Bucc toward the outpost and eased the ship in that direction. She lined it up with the outpost door, then hit her comms.
“Want to guess how many missiles it’ll take to destroy that outpost?”
“I’d rather not,” Radu replied, still drawing deep breaths from his sprint there. He’d made it through the outpost’s airlocks and had immediately slumped to the floor. His back pressed up against the wall with the Connie’s black box once more on his lap.
“Well, if you don’t want to find out, then you better bring me that black box.”
Radu shook his head, exhausted, “I can’t.”
“I saw you grab it.”
“It’s not that. I need the creds. If I don’t have them by tomorrow, I’m dead. Why do you care so much?” Radu pulled himself onto his feet and ventured past the open metal security gate and deeper into the outpost.
The place was in disarray, but someone had been here recently. Half eaten Big Benny’s containers littered a metal table in the middle of the room. Numerous boxes were stacked on metal shelves. Ballistic ship ammo was spread across the countertops and scattered across the floor where a box had tipped over. He leafed through some paper scraps lying about.
Out in the Bucc, Clara stared at the outpost’s door, searching for an answer to a different question: was Radu’s life was worth taking to stay in Eckhart’s good graces?
The adrenaline from the dogfight and pursuit was finally wearing off and exhaustion setting in. All she could muster in response was the truth.
“I can’t screw up this gig. It’s my last lifeline to anything respectable. I’m all out of last chances and I just really needed something to break my way for once. Kinda felt like it was … until you showed up.”
Inside the outpost, Radu popped the lid on a crate he had found tucked in the corner. Then looked at the room around him again. There, two more matching crates over on the side. Suddenly, everything clicked and he knew what he had to do.
Radu crossed to the black box and picked it up. Then he hit his comms. “I’m coming out and I’m not armed. Don’t shoot.”
He stepped into the airlock and cycled it. From her Bucc, Clara fingered the trigger just in case. She watched Radu step outside holding the black box. He walked to the bottom of the outpost step and set it down.
“It’s yours,” he said. “I’ll go back inside, so you don’t have to worry about me stealing your ship or anything like that.”
“But why?” was all Clara could muster in response.
“You said you needed a last chance. Well, I need a lot more than that to get out of what I’m mixed up in. Sounds like this thing will help you out more than me.”
Radu nodded his head then walked back inside the outpost. Clara sat there shocked, still not certain this wasn’t a trap. Finally, she climbed out, cautiously crossed the distance and snagged the black box. She returned to her ship and hit her comms.
“Thanks … need me to send for help or something?”
“Don’t worry about it. Actually, it’s probably best if you get outta here before you get caught up in what’s coming.”
Clara felt compelled to asked what he meant but realized he was giving her this out. Who knew what might happen if she didn’t take it. With that, Clara lifted off. The Bucc disappeared into the night.
Radu accessed his mobi and commed Madrigal. The NovaRider enforcer eventually picked up.
“Well, well, look who it is. You got my creds?”
“Actually, I called so we could discuss a deal.”
“Yeah, I don’t really do deals.”
“You will after hearing what I have to offer.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?”
“Details on a Nine Tails stash house. Think if I got you that, you could consider my debt paid in full?”
Radu took the silence as a good sign.
“How can I guarantee it is what you say it is?”
“‘Cause here’s the second part of the deal — you’re going to come pick me up at it right now. That way you can see for yourself. I don’t know the market price on SLAM right now, but I’m pretty sure a couple crates of it will make your bosses happy.”
Radu turned and walked out of the outpost.
“You better hurry though. Considering the day I’ve had, who knows what might happen next.”
Radu clicked off the comm, and made his way to his wrecked Gladius, hoping that his spare rifle was still intact.