Ghosts

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Chapter 2 – “Copperhead”.

‘Recon team alpha, what’s your status?’ An echoed voice sounded amidst a ship’s cockpit.

‘Nothing to report, so far, it’s pretty quiet out here. A few stray asteroids tickling the ship’s shields but otherwise, ghostly quiet,’ the pilot of the ship sang back cheerily.

‘That’s how we like it. We got a hauler inbound, can you shepherd it home?’

‘Sure can. Ours or is it “borrowed” steel?’ the pilot questioned as he checked his radar.

‘Well, I can tell ya’ that it ain’t Copperhead steel.’

‘So, it was borrowed then!’

‘Of course it was borrowed, Drake! Bring it in. Keep it safe from those straying asteroids of yours, as the shields are down, and it’s a little beaten up.’

‘A little beaten up? It looks like it’s limping home to me. Is that smoke coming out the back?’

‘It may well be, Drake Black, it may well be! I’ve been told it’s safe to land, so escort it home, then take a break.’

The pilot, Drake Black, radioed through to the two nearby fighters who formed a wall either side of his ship. The three vessels drifted over to a large, heavily damaged merchant craft, battered from laser fire and ready for some great repairs. The hauler fell in between the two wingmen which by boxing it in provided cover from asteroids and rocks on the flanks.

Drake led the group on through the asteroid belt, as a cold-black steel object grew larger in front of them. Drake could make out the glass window, dark on the outside of the small base, nestling within the asteroid belt’s safest point.

Reporting into the base’s command centre, docking permission was soon granted. A large rock collided with Drake’s shields sending small shards flying outwards as they closed in on the hangar. Fifteen minutes later they were landed, awaiting final checks.

‘Welcome back to Copperhead, Drake. You enjoy it out there?’

‘As if I wouldn’t, I’m a pilot, it’s what I do!’

’Good, ‘cos we need you to take some stuff out of here and through to a research base.’

‘Which base, Junior?’

‘Challoner, out in the wilderness, shouldn’t be a problem except for the jumpgate blockades.’

‘How many gates?’

‘The scout ships say just one, the Point-Three-Seven gate, Drake,’ the man replied matter-of-factly.

‘Oh, just the Point-Thirty-Seven gate, simple.’

‘It will be child’s play.’

‘Sure it will be, Junior, for sure.’

‘Drake, we need this to get through to that research base. We got you, and we know you’re our best pilot.’

‘Flattery will get you everywhere, mate,’ Drake replied placing a hand on the back of the man named Junior.

‘As long as flattery gets that stock to Challoner I’ll be chuffed.’

‘It will.’

Drake stretched out his arms as he yawned.

‘When do I leave?’ he asked in a fake grumble.

‘Whenever you want to leave.’

‘Give me an hour then?’

‘Bloody hell, Drake, how fast do you think we are? We’ll be fully loaded onto the ship in three hours at the earliest.’

‘Fine with me, what ship will it be?’

‘You will have a blockade runner, The Pearl. Fast and fully tanked, but it’ll need repairs at Challoner, but you’ll make it.’

‘A bit like the one we escorted in before?’

‘Hell no, it better be in a healthier shape than that! Funny thing that one, it’s a CEOL hauler. We took control when it was in a stable condition. The wingmen did that to it.’

‘The CEOL wingmen turned on their own hauler?’

’They sure did. We took them down but once we boarded, the hauler had to run whilst our fighters took ‘em out.’

‘I was wondering why it was unguarded.’

‘Why’d they turn, Drake? I cannot figure it out.’

‘CEOL are a funny bunch, Junior. What was the cargo?’

‘The stock seems to be basic stock, food supplies, drink, and basic ammo. We’re still evaluating all the cargo though.’

‘Food, drink, and ammo, seems a funny combination.’

‘I thought so, but not enough to merit wanting to blow it up though.’

‘Is that new CEOL protocol?’

‘Maybe so, the CEOL hauler pilot is pretty spooked about it. Whatever they say about us, that was attempted murder and that CEOL pilot knew it. His own people tried to kill him. It’s not protocol, or so he thinks.’

‘At least we aim to disable, not kill.’

‘That pilot’s shook up, he keeps saying that it’s getting bad out there when he fears his bosses more than pirates.’

‘Are we that bad ourselves?’

‘Drake, it depends who you ask. We’re good people...’

‘For pirates…’ interrupted Drake.

‘Anyway, he wants to go to Challoner with you guys. He’ll get a shuttle back home from there.’

‘It’s not ideal. We’ll make it though, I’m confident about that, Junior. Right then, I’m off to freshen up before the flight. Call me when you’re ready to lift off.’

Drake boarded the ship, steel steps echoing in the relatively empty ship. The sound of a drill suddenly whirring stirred his attention.

The large hauler was bullet-shaped, the entrance at the rear of the craft. Huge pylons and pillars strengthened the structure from the inside. The main body of the inner hull held plenty of room for stock and armour. The drill whirred away once more.

Drake ignored the workers busily bolting vast steel blocks to the inside of the ship, preparing the armour to withstand high levels of assault. In the depths of pirate space, “tanking” out ships for firepower resistance had become a priority. “Loading in” and “out” of ammo and weaponry had become essential, readying a ship for a show of force and power. Battles loomed, short and brutal, tactical plays long forgotten by the ignorant, left behind, replaced simply by bigger guns and thicker steel.

Drake knew his hauler had no guns, the weight a liability when looking to outrun enemies. The blockade runner was made for raw speed and hardiness like a stampeding rhino. The cargo had already been loaded onto the ship, tied in place and little was left for Drake to oversee. He strapped himself into the pilot’s seat, ready to leave. Tapping at holo-dials, he pressed several switches and then sat back to wait.

The armourers clanged further steel constructs into place, ensuring no leaks were left behind, a liquid sealant, strong and durable yet chemically removable was bled into any gaps. The ship was soon ready to leave.

The workers left the ship, a skeleton crew boarded, settled down for the arduous ride and the ship was not long after hurtling through a vacuumed corridor and out into the dark space beyond the walls of the Copperhead station.

Drake preset the route, set the craft to autopilot and sent the ship afar of the asteroids, rock chunks large and small propelling into the shields sending blips on Drake’s shield monitors.

‘We should be able to do the jumpgate run in five hours or so. We’ll hurl around the Estron asteroid belt and catch the guards from the side. It’s going to be a tight, anxious journey once we make the approach. They may take us to an inch of our lives. Hull breach may occur. If it does, well, you know the drill; prayers now for later will be too late,’ joked Drake informatively through the coms.

‘On my estimation it’s four hours-forty five minutes until the first hit,’ he added confidently. Swivelling his chair around ninety degrees, he propped his grey, old leather boots up on the seat to his right.

‘Four hours-forty five,’ he contemplated nervously to himself.

The ship rocketed onwards, boosters burning blue and effervescent propelling those aboard closer to a potential hull breach whilst attempting to reach the jumpgate. Outside of the craft, the asteroid belt and the colossal, assembled station were gone from the ship’s rear camera view.
A gas cloud came into the on-rushing ship’s path. As the two bodies met, the cloud exploded, rocking the craft slightly. Drake glanced unconcerned at the shield monitors.

‘Are we all ready for the attack?’ Drake stated into the coms as he ignored the hailing calls from nearby Military Police fighters. He strapped himself in as a warning shot hit the bow of the ship.

‘Onwards!’ he roared, alone in the cockpit. The five guardian fighters attempted to block off the route to the jumpgate.

Drake activated the jumpgate-override, sending the power back on and equipping the machinery for use.

Several rockets blistered the shields dropping them half-way. Drake watched out of the front window as three fighters split the pack up, turned into view and released further bombardments. The shields dropped completely, leaving the armour open to damage.
Drake flung the ship left and right, barrel-rolling onwards towards the gate. Rockets blasted into the side of the ship. The fighters swarmed around the craft, and another rocket was hurled at the boosters at the back of the hauler.

‘Damn!’ Drake roared frustrated as the missile landed, sending an engine offline. Further rockets just missed the other two boosters, railing into the extra-thick armour. Slowed down the ship crept up to the gate, shuffling along.

‘Armour and hull strength, fifty percent,’ Drake noted as he winked then waved at a fighter as it flew too close for comfort trying to divert the craft. Drake Black kept the vessel moving onwards, ignoring the fear of a collision.

‘Too… Late,’ Drake screamed passionately, as the gate activated. Two rockets landed killing a second engine, sending panic through Drake’s body.

A screeching sound kicked in. Blue streaks enveloped the ship as the jumpgate bubble impelled the craft out of harm’s reach. Drake took a look at the damage icons on his holo-panel.

‘Thirty percent of ship left. We still need to sneak in, but we’re alive and past the trouble. Let’s trust that Junior’s arranged docking permissions,’ Drake advised the crew before setting the auto-pilot back on, ready to help out with much-needed internal repairs.

Zylinski approached the man, and as he moved he weighed up the pilot in front of him dressed scruffily in a navy blue, plain hooded top with an orange stripe down the back, a navy woollen hat resting on his head, hiding brown scruffy hair underneath it. Topped off with jeans and casual boots the pilot looked like a normal civilian; casual. The man was about five foot ten in height, tanned, unshaven with a greying beard.

Nothing about the man indicated that he was a pilot, never mind the pilot of what Zylinski suspected to be the best piece of equipment currently or previously ever docked at his station.
The pilot stretched a tired body, before rubbing the back of his neck. Zylinski never took his eyes off him as both men headed towards the sleek ship relaxing in front of them. Zylinski reacted first.

Commander Zylinski analysed the man as the pilot handed his identification over to security staff. The man never said much, Zylinski didn’t expect him to. The pilot had only just reported back in to leave the station. With recent events taking precedence the whole issue had become lost in the system. Zylinski had received a message from Peter Lund alerting to the man’s appearance down on the docking bay.

Zylinski knew from Lund’s email that the man stated he was thirty-eight. The man’s well-rested grey eyes fidgeted from side to side taking in the area around him. Zylinski walked up to the man as the pilot’s identification was returned.

‘I’m Commander Zylinski, I am in charge and oversee this station. I would like a word or two with you.’ The man stayed silent.

‘Is Cursed your ship?’

‘It is.’

‘Cursed… I admit I know a little about the ship, a few myths. Sadly, I know even less about you. I have been told the pilot of this ship is Marco Koivu. That’s you, is it?’

‘It could be.’

‘I’ll assume you said “yes”. Are Copperhead good friends?’

‘Of me?’

‘Yes, of you. Are you being difficult for a reason?’

‘Nope.’

‘Don’t talk much?’

‘Nope.’

‘Copperhead steel doesn’t dock here often.’

‘Doesn’t it?’

‘Not many people can afford to buy it. Those that can are never seen docking up here, especially not with a jammed torpedo in its missile bay.’

‘Oh, is that what’s concerning you. Fear not. Double locks in place. New Copperhead tech, once it jams, it’s stopped motionless, permanently, until rolled back home into the cache. Your Peter Lund liked it.’ Zylinski tried not to react to the words, “new Copperhead tech”.

‘I’m sure he would. I don’t.’ Zylinski gave the man a stern glare. The man failed to react.

‘It was never going off.’

‘You say that, but I cannot prove that you’re right. Can you explain why it was docked with loaded missiles ready to fire?’

‘Yes. As I said, they were jammed. They aren’t going anywhere.’

‘How would you know that for sure, double locks or not?’

‘I just do, I know my ship. It’s a special ship, and it’s well made.’

‘Well made? What about the missile launcher, how did it jam?’

‘It over-heated; it was a big fight, and it happens.’

‘I’d guess it was targeted during the battle. Thermal damage can cause such over-heating. Temporal weapon-jams would have expired a long time ago. Where was the fight?’

‘I can’t remember.’

‘I assumed that. Who attacked you?’

‘I never asked for a greeting card. I just fired back.’

‘And it jammed?’

‘Eventually,’ the man never flinched as he answered.

‘You didn’t consider alerting us to this small, minor detail.’

‘No, it was not a threat.’

‘To whom, to you or to my station crew?’

‘Either.’

‘So, you know what Copperhead is?’

‘My ship has plenty of Copperhead steel, so, yes.’

‘How’d you get hold of a Copperhead ship?’

‘Money; I paid like people do.’

‘A lot of money, I guess. It isn’t cheap, rarity never is.’ No answer was given back. Zylinski considered asking the man where his money came from, but decided it wasn’t his position to do so. The man wouldn’t answer the question anyway.

‘You were using heavy torpedoes in the fight. That was a big fight you were in; there were some pretty ugly scars there.’ Zylinski pointed at the ship as it sat ominously in the docking bay. He couldn’t help but admire the craftsmanship.

‘Fighting tough does that.’

‘Is that it? Fighting tough?’

‘What did you want me to say? You know of Copperhead. Not just the myth. You know it’s all true. I wouldn’t be here talking to you without that steel.’

‘It may be true, doesn’t mean I like the danger you put my crew and citizens in. Don’t return to this station with the same problems again.’

‘I can come back?’ smiled the pilot with sarcasm.

Ignoring the sarcasm Zylinski withheld a smile himself. His answer was given with a mix of intrigue and organisational gain.

‘Yes. It’s good to show Copperhead tech to the staff. Let’s them know we can do better when repairing.’ Both men looked at the ship as the conversation went quiet for several seconds.

‘So, you and that ship were in a tough fight?’ The Commander tried again hoping for a different outcome.

‘Yes. Mercenaries came hunting me. I’m alive, end of story.’

‘Merc’s? And you with a clean record it seems.’

‘I am not telling the story.’

‘No, a story involves words.’

‘I have the words, Commander. I fight my own battles, end of story.’

‘Those merc’s sent a nice tickle along the side of the ship,’ Zylinski stated calmly.

‘Tickle? I like it. Show me another ship that would have survived such a tickle?’

‘Show me another Copperhead and I will. My problem is neither you nor the ship. As stated, it’s the fact that it was a threat to the docking bays with that damn torpedo.’

‘Fine, it wasn’t a concern to me. It was to you. Ok. Lessons learned all round. Can I leave now?’

‘Are you in a rush?’

‘Not really.’

‘How’d you get the ship?’ Zylinski asked again ignoring the man’s sarcasm.

‘As I said, I paid for it.’

‘Nice line of work. What was it you did again?’

‘Nice try.’

‘So, do you meet mercenaries much?’

‘I meet a few, and pirates too.’

‘Don’t we all. That ship helps though. I’d be grateful with a fleet of Copperhead myself.’

‘I’m sure you would.’

‘Where would I go to pick some up?’

‘Oh, I didn’t know Prime Minister Poole had agreed to buy some new ships.’

‘He has, yes,’ Zylinski fibbed to further the conversation.

‘I got mine off the back of a lorry, so to speak. I can’t help you.’

‘Shame about that,’ Zylinski frowned knowing he was getting nowhere with his questioning.

‘I think you said I’m clean?’ the pilot added as the conversation dried up again.

‘I’m sure you are, you’re rich too, Copperhead rich. I heard they stopped making ships a long time ago. It seems that the only things people can get are just repair materials from a supplier who I have never heard of, and the as-mentioned new tech. You provided Peter Lund the contact details. He hadn’t heard of the company.’

‘I provided the contact details as they were needed.’

‘They delivered the same day. Some service that. No fee was required.’

‘Commander, some organisations offer trust. You might have heard of it? It’s been around for millenniums.’

The sarcasm irritated Zylinski, who clenched his knuckles before relaxing slightly.

‘As for Copperhead making no more ships, it’s said to be true,’ added Marco Koivu.

‘You don’t know?’

‘Commander, why would I know? Surely, I’m just a grubby pilot in a pretty, shining ship?’ the man looked directly at the Commander for several seconds of stern eye contact, before turning to look over Zylinski’s left shoulder.

Zylinski realised he had reached the end of the conversation. Little more would be gained by continuing to trade the same small sentence questions for the same small sentence answers or sarcasm.

Zylinski leant into the man, whispered aggressively knowing nobody else could hear.

‘The torpedo has been removed and returned back to your missile hold as per your advice. I have no reason to delay you any more, although I’d like to. To be honest, I’d like to tear your head off your shoulders, shove it on the torpedo and have it sent into an asteroid. I can’t do that. The next time you do something as stupid as dock up into my base with a loaded weapon jammed I will have you sent through the airlock, no questions asked. You hear me? Nobody endangers these innocent people aboard my base.’ The man’s smug smile infuriated the Commander.

‘You need to do some more research into Copperhead torpedo launchers before you flip out.’

‘I’ll see you about, Marco.’

‘Sure!’ smiled the pilot as he shook Zylinski’s outstretched hand. The man turned and walked away towards his ship.

Zylinski watched him enter the craft before he turned and wandered back to his quarters. Sirens rang out as a red light illuminated the area, the sound of the base’s mechanisms moving the ship towards the entrance lost to all ears.

Cursed eased its way back towards the coldness of space, shuttling slowly out of the hangar, gathering momentum and speed as it did so. With the sirens ringing out, the ship soon roared out of the station into the openness outside. With a quick radio message sent to the station the ship edged away from the base, a few minutes later the full thrusters burnt into life, and the ship soon charged off heading away on its latest journey.

Zylinski tracked its movements as it moved off through the stars, seemingly avoiding all the local jumpgates.

‘Where’s he going?’ questioned Zylinski, tapping at the monitor panel in front of him.

‘I’ve no idea, Sir.’

‘Keep track of him for as long as you can. I want to know what he’s up to. Nobody leaves here heading away from gates. There’s nothing out here that can’t be reached quicker via the gates. And he isn’t heading down to Halcyon with those co-ordinates. Keep me informed.’

Checking his records for the docked ship, Zylinski confirmed his fears. The name given was not registered, likely a fake, or at least an alias. No records were found for the ship or the pilot. For a brief second he considered whether the records had been hacked.

Allowing the system time to search its database for a facial match, he also auto-searched for the files on Copperhead weaponry, curious in particular about their torpedo launchers. He continued working whilst the machine searched. Letting more important issues take up his time, he concentrated his efforts on the day’s tasks at hand and the pilot soon became forgotten.

The time passed by and it was several hours later before he remembered the search whilst lost in the control room. He roamed back physically tired to his quarters, took a long warm shower before settling down to read the reports. No facial match had been found which surprised Zylinski, knowing the man had to live aboard a station somewhere.

The pilot had been right about the ship’s mechanics, and Zylinski was glad he read what little there was about Copperhead ships. Most information he knew, but what he didn’t caused him to re-consider his approach to the man’s attitude before he sent off an email.

‘Lund, send me over the files for that Cursed ship, all of them.’

The message would be replied to in the morning once Lund was back on duty.

Cursed approached a remote jumpgate, deemed defunct and lifeless, its use long since lost behind newer technology. Marco Koivu activated the gate using his ship’s command screen, and the forgotten gate sprung to life. Seconds later the ship was soon hurled across regions.

Having arrived at the Ranger’s Grove region, the ship took off away from the gate at roughly a twenty-five degree angle. Away from any bases and gates, the ship moved into a quiescent asteroid field several hours later. With no mineable rocks to bore, the asteroid belt and in fact this part of the region had been long forgotten.

The Ranger’s Grove region being so large, masses of belts existed, and at least forty percent of them were known to be empty. The other belts held poor minerals not greatly desired. Miners ignored the distant empty belts unwilling to waste their time. Pirates had no business, no prey to hunt and left the area free from danger. The destination would have seemed odd until a large seemingly abandoned freighter ship loomed into view.

The pilot set the Cursed’s docking computer into action and packed up his stuff. Cursed shifted its position before heading into an automated path into an agreed docking bay at the base of the large ship.

Marco Koivu rested back into his seat, checked the ship for fuel requirements and noted them down on the ship’s computer in order to get them replenished before his next expedition. Aboard the jet-black tinged freighter machinery kicked back into life, having been left unmanned for several months.

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