"I swear, Hideo, at the rate you're going I'm going to think you've discovered the secret to magic."
If Diamond was excited by the power cores I'd brought him, the arrival of a mostly intact raider had him ecstatic. He demanded to see the ship as soon as possible and went dashing down its oddly twisting corridors like a child exploring a playhouse. I followed curiously to see what initial impressions he had but I found my patience wearing thin after ten minutes of his running commentary, most of which went straight over my head.
"You can play later, let's talk price."
He puffed out his cheeks. "Hoo boy. Technically this ship is priceless. I used to know some engineers who would sell their own children just to get a look at these systems."
"So, what I'm hearing is that it's worth a lot of credits," I said firmly.
"It'd be worth more if the control systems weren't shot all to hell," he winked at me. "But I'm not gonna complain."
"What are we talking about? Ten million credits? Fifty? A hundred?"
He paused to stroke a curved panel. "A billion or two. But we don't have those kinds of resources on the whole station and there's no way I can come even close to fair value even if I bankrupted myself."
I muttered something obscene under my breath. There had to be some way to make a profit off this. "Lease then? You knew I was planning to bring one of these things back, so what was your plan?"
He gave me the most mercenary grin I'd ever seen; Alec would have been deeply impressed. "I'm not the only one interested in it. I can't get you fair value but I know people who can come close. You have no idea how long we've been waiting for this."
I made a half-hearted swipe at the side of his head, making it clear I was trying to miss. "That wasn't funny, Diamond."
"It's going to take a few days while I convince the others that you really did it. I'm going to want to get holos of as much of the ship as I can to prove it. But yeah, you'll have way too much money for any one person."
"That's music to my ears. I assume if we bring back another one you won't be able to pay the same price."
He shook his head. "No, this one is going to blow our wad. But why be greedy? You know what you can do with that much money?"
"I'm not done, you know that. But if I don't have buyers for prize ships then the Horsemen won't be interested. Without their help I don't know how successful I can be."
"Hideo," Diamond's voice took on an edge of sadness. "Why not retire? You've done amazing things. Why not quit while you're ahead?"
I liked Diamond but I hadn't known him as long as John. I wasn't willing to explain. "There's more I need to do. That's all there is to it."
He seemed to take the hint. "All right. Well, I'll send a team to sweep the ship for the holos I need. In the meanwhile I'd like to show you something else."
We made our way back to his lab, making small talk along the way. Well, he did mostly; I responded when addressed but I wasn't really in the mood. He didn't seem to mind, carrying both of us until we reached his door.
"I think you'll be pleased with the progress we've made. The twins have been extremely productive over the last two weeks."
"Twins?" I asked.
"Come and see." He opened the door to show me a room bustling with activity, two women and a man in the back doing separate things, another woman and man hunched over a display to the left. The two on the left looked remarkably similar, suggesting they were the twins Diamond had referenced.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced with his voice pitched to carry. "I'm pleased to introduce you to Hideo Takenoshita, the man paying for all this."
All five looked up sharply, took a moment to digest Diamond's announcement, then shut down whatever they were working on before standing and giving us their full attention. I found myself drawn again to the twins and the way their eyes on me were eerily unwavering.
"Uh, hi," I began with my usual eloquence. "I'm pleased to meet you."
"Hello, Trader Takenoshita," said a short, dark-haired woman who had been in the back. She stepped forward to shake my hand firmly and then turned to the others. "I'm Dr. Janeen Toma. Going from right to left my colleagues are Mr. Myung Park, Ms. Rethabile Govender and finally the Holdens, David and Jamie."
"Hi," I said again. "Pleased...um...I appreciate the work you've been doing for me."
"Has Mr. Diamond told you about our latest results?"
I shook my head. "He said he wanted to show me."
"Very good. David, would you reset and start your next trial for Trader Takenoshita?" Dr. Toma was brusk in her formality, moving with great purpose as she strode to the terminal where the twins had been working. David had to hop in order to keep ahead of her and began typing at the keyboard without bothering to sit down first. Diamond nodded to me and gestured for me to follow, so I did. After a moment David brought up an image on the screen.
"This is a section of armor from the hull of an old cruiser we salvaged from a yard near Bruun's World," David explained softly. "We're going to hit it with a sustained pulse from a mining laser." I gathered from the surroundings that the armor plating was being held in place somewhere offstation, I presume on a small rock floating in orbit nearby. The image didn't give me more of a clue than that as to its location. David tapped a key and I saw a white spot appear on the image where the laser was focused. "As you can see, the armor is successfully absorbing the vast majority of the laser without damage, preventing the energy from penetrating to the other side." He glanced up to make sure I was paying attention so I nodded my understanding. He tapped at the keys too rapidly for me to follow.
"Okay. Next we have a beam laser that we've salvaged from the same yard. We refurbished it and we're using a standard Federation power source." He tapped a key and another spot appeared on the plate not to far from where the mining laser had been focused. It took a little longer for the hot spot to dissipate but otherwise the armor looked similarly unaffected. "Technically the mining laser and the beam laser use the same materials and technology to focus the energy, the beam laser just uses a more powerful energy source. If we were to attach the same source to the mining laser we would produce the same output but we don't want that for a mining laser because that would effectively destroy the ore you were trying to mine."
"I've done my share of asteroid mining," I said irritably. "It's what traders do when work gets lean."
"Yes, sir. I'm establishing a baseline here." David entered a few more commands at the keyboard. "The difference between a mining laser, a beam laser and a military grade laser is primarily the power source behind it. The superconducting material we use in our emitters has no known upper limit to the amount of power that can be transferred through them. We build bigger ships for more powerful weapons because we need the room for the larger power supplies required to deliver a stronger charge."
I saw where he was going with this. "And Tharl power supplies are more powerful and compact than Federation sources."
"That's right, sir. So now we're going to switch to one of the Tharl power cores for the next test." David worked the keyboard like an expert, which he clearly was. "Firing now." He tapped a key. This time the armor warped and melted immediately. I gave a low whistle of admiration. "Nanda!"
"Sir?" David turned to look at me querulously. I realized I'd used an old phrase my father used to say when he was surprised by something.
"Nevermind. If that had come from a Federation power source what kind of ship would it be equivalent to?"
David exchanged glances with Dr. Toma. "Um...we're not sure. Federation battleships typically mount the heaviest weapons but they still take a couple of hits before completely burning through armor like this."
"Was that at full power from the core? How big was it?"
"Not that big. About thirty centimeters in diameter. This is at forty-two percent."
I whistled in awe. "How long can it be sustained?"
He shrugged noncommittally. "The beam itself can be fired for up to twenty seconds before the power diminishes. But the sphere itself appears to function as a capacitor and recharges after a while."
"What charges it?"
"I have no idea!" he chirped happily. "I can't wait to find out!"
I frowned. "Can't wait? Haven't you opened one up yet?"
"Of course we have. It's enormously complicated, but that's how we've been able to establish that it functions as a capacitor."
"You've had how many months and this is what you've got for me?"
"Trader Takenoshita, science is a process," interrupted Jamie, the female Holden. "We can't just take it apart and understand how it works. It takes time and persistence but there's no guarantee of results. Sometimes the answer is simply 'I don't know.' We're working on it, but for now we don't know."
A sudden silence filled the room as everyone held their breath waiting for my reaction. Initially, my first response was anger; her answer was not in any way what I wanted to hear. But even as I opened my mouth to give an angry retort I was interrupted by a more familiar voice.
"She's right, Boss," said my computer through the communicator on my wrist. I had gotten so used to wearing it I had completely forgotten about it. "If they don't understand the principles behind the device they won't immediately understand how it works just because they were able to disassemble it."
That still wasn't the answer I wanted to hear, but I was forced to admit it was reasonable. I choked back my anger and pointed at one of the spheres nearby. "If you take that apart and put it back together can you make it work again?"
The puzzled glances they gave each other told me that hadn't occurred to them. "Okay, do me a favor. If you haven't destroyed the one you've already disassembled please put it back together and see if it still works."
Diamond gave me a pleased grin, but at least two of the others looked confused including Dr. Toma.
"Forgive me, Trader Takenoshita," Toma began. "But what purpose will that serve?"
"It will serve two purposes," I explained. "The first is that it means these things can be repaired; if they go dead then we can swap out parts and bring them back to life. The last Tharl world I was on had a junkyard filled with dead power cores that they allowed me to bring back. At the time I was just interested in them as a ruse but this means if I can make it down to another world then I can bring back all the dead power cores I want. They only care about ones that are active and working."
"That's not a safe assumption, Hideo," Diamond cautioned. "But what's your second?"
"If it is just a matter of putting the right parts together in the right configuration then we can build our own without the Tharl."
The puzzled looks were replaced by gleeful anticipation. I might still be wrong, but I was presenting them with a direction they hadn't considered and might yield useful results. With their imaginations sparked they started shifting restlessly in anticipation of getting back to work.
"Thank you all for what you've done so far," I said. "And David, I'm sorry for snapping at you like that. Your sister was right and I was wrong. I hope you'll continue your work here in spite of my temper."
"Of course, sir," David nodded his head politely, and then everyone except Diamond and Jamie turned to go back to their stations.
"Yes, Jamie?" I asked when it was clear she wanted more from me.
"Trader Takenoshita, who was that?" She pointed at my wrist where the comm unit was hidden under my sleeve.
"Jamie Holden, meet the computer of my ship, the David Gilmour. Computer, say 'hi.'" I held up my arm with the back of my wrist out to display the device.
"Hi," the computer said obediently.
She took a step closer and peered curiously at the unit. "The cadence of your voice synthesis is extraordinary. How many computing cycles are you using to generate it?"
"Boss?" the computer asked.
"Go ahead. She's a friend," I replied. At least, I hoped she was.
"Jamie, I am currently devoting approximately 1.239 gigaflops to my avatar's social functions. This is down from my typical 4.84 gigaflops when Trader Takenoshita is in the cockpit and can perceive my video display."
That number sounded impressive, but I didn't really have the context for it. I'm not a computer scientist, and the basic technical skills I'd learned to perform maintenance on the ship systems didn't really give me a feel for what the computer's peak computational capacities were. I'm sure I'd seen something about it during one of the many upgrades I'd paid for but it wasn't that important to me. I was primarily interested in what it could do for me while we were in the air, not benchmarks under testing parameters.
Jamie took a brief but sharp breath. "That's amazing. How can it be so low?"
"I was programmed with unique algorithms by one of my chief engineers long ago. He was a big fan of efficiency."
I suppressed a snort. "Efficiency" was hardly the word I'd use to describe what I'd heard.
"I'd love to get a look at those algorithms," she continued. Her eyes turned to me and I again felt like they were piercing me to the wall. She was a very intense young woman.
"Um, we can talk about that later maybe," I replied hesitantly.
Diamond stepped in at that point. "This is fascinating, but it's outside the scope of our work here." He gestured back toward the workstations. "Let's get back to it, yes?"
"Yes, Mr. Diamond." She turned away from me to nod at him and then turned back to me. "Thank you for your time, Trader Takenoshita."
"No problem, my pleasure," I stammered. She just nodded to me again and turned to rejoin her brother.
Diamond let me lead the way out of the room and waited before the door was closed before turning to me with a satisfied grin. "Odd duck, isn't she?"
This time I found it impossible to restrain my snort. "That's something, coming from you."
"Bird of a feather and all," he replied happily. "I had actually hoped to recruit their mother but I hadn't realized how much time had passed. She died just six months ago, but when I interviewed those kids I discovered they might even be smarter than she was. They've been a real asset to the team in the month they've been here."
I didn't know what to say to that so I opted for something polite. "Nice. Sorry to hear about their mother, though."
"Yeah, she was quite a lady. Jamie takes after her very strongly. Pam was a very opinionated woman, very passionate about whatever caught her interest. Expect Jamie to follow up with you about your computer's programming after hours."
I winced. That promised to be awkward. "I'll keep my sensors on full." But that brought me back to my earlier thought. "What would it take to set up my ship with these power cores? Supercharge my weapons like in your demonstration."
"It would be a minor feat of engineering," he waved his hand dismissively. "We could also supercharge your shields and any other system you can think of. But we haven't established a baseline for how long these cores will last and we know they do eventually break down. They could last for one shot or they could last for years."
"Which would leave me without weapons or shields," I concluded. "Do you think they're likely to break down soon?"
"Probably not? But this is mere supposition. I think the odds are against it but in all honesty I can't guarantee anything."
"So I probably need more cores." That meant another run on a Tharl system. Alec would be pleased.
"As many as you can. At least until we finish your proposal and see if we can build our own."
"All right. In the meanwhile I'd like a record of the demonstration you showed me. I want to show the other Horsemen and see if they'd be interested in upgrades as well."
Diamond nodded. "You'll have it by the end of the day."
Naturally the prospect of enhancing our ship systems beyond current limitations got the Horsemen's attention. Alec in particular was enthralled by the video and kept watching the playback with an unhealthy glint in his eye. Ron seemed less thrilled.
"I have eight forward batteries," he was saying. "Do we have enough of these cores to upgrade them all?"
"If not we can get them," I reminded him. "Especially if Diamond's team comes through on figuring out how to repair them. We can fill a freighter with old, broken nodes from junkyards and the Tharl will just let us fly away with 'em."
"Don't mind him," John chuckled with a well-aimed elbow at Ron's ribs. "He's just jealous that he won't have the biggest guns any more. Me, I'm thrilled by the possibility of upgrading the Bounty enough to hold my own in a fight. You think you're the only one who likes to shoot at things?"
I thought about John rescuing us from the Tharl mothership, or more specifically from the fighters she had launched at us. With his weapons and shields enhanced he could probably take on the Tharl by himself. So could I.
Ron covered his side protectively and glared at John. "The point is, how long until the Tharl catch on to this little scheme? What do we do when they stop letting us leave with any of their tech, broken or no?"
I shrugged. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. There's no reason we have to keep visiting the same worlds over and over again. With one of these cores powering our nav computers and jump drives we can cross the galaxy in a fraction of the time it used to."
John whistled low. "I didn't even think about that. Imagine finding a good market and being able to jump back with the right goods in just days instead of weeks."
I nodded. "Or months. Say medicine is in high demand on Bakul but there's too much supply on Selar. One day to jump to Selar from Bakul instead of a month, one day to jump back. Easy money."
"And we'd have the only ships capable of such feats," Ron said admiringly. "Impressive. But I thought our focus was in hunting and capturing Tharl ships so we could sell them for fantastic amounts of money."
"Which we have done," John interjected approvingly. "I mean, the stars know we don't need money any more."
"Yeah, but I'm still having fun. And I've barely gotten the chance to put my ship through her paces," Ron grumbled.
"Nobody says we have to stop just because we're insanely wealthy," I agreed. "But there's no one else willing to pay for Tharl ships."
"Except the Tharl," John pointed out.
I thought about that a moment. Of course the Tharl would pay handsomely for the return of their own ships. Why had I forgotten that?
"I suppose there's something to be said for fleecing the Tharl for every last credit," I admitted. "Is that how we want to play this?"
"As good a plan as any," Alec chipped in for the first time. "Mebbe we get a chance t' blow a few up, yeah?"
"I suppose that would depend on how many there were," Ron mused thoughtfully. "That's a fight I'd like to try. But coming back around to these power cores, how reliable are they especially when paired with our systems? If they break down or fail somehow are we going to know how to fix them or are we just caught in a solar jet without a sail?"
"Right now we just know how to turn them on and off," I replied. "We don't know how to fix them when they're broken, not yet. For that matter, I'm not sure the Tharl know; they just seem to discard them when they stop working."
"Post-scarcity," John said. "They don't worry about it because they can make more than they'll ever need."
"Ain't dat s'posed to lead t' some kind o' utopia or somesuch?" Alec asked.
We stopped and stared at him. He shrugged. "What? I read a book once."
Ron shook his head in shock. "It's like I don't know you," he muttered.
John laughed and patted Alec on the shoulder. "That's the theory, or at least it was. A society that has or can produce more than it needs will progress toward utopia since everyone will have all they need and there's no need to squabble over limited resources. It follows logically, but that's human logic. Aliens won't necessarily operate on the same assumptions. And if social hierarchy is embedded deeply enough into a society then a lack of scarcity might not change social attitudes."
"That's fascinating," Ron interrupted. "But do we have a plan if something goes wrong with these cores? What if the Tharl can remotely detonate them? Having all of my guns blow up would seriously ruin my day, and that's assuming my ship survives."
"We'd have our regular power systems to fall back on, at least until we know how reliable the new technology would be," I suggested. "If the cores detonate then we'd have to treat it as battle damage. And keep an eye on each other; if one of us starts experiencing catastrophic failure then the rest of us would need to flush them immediately."
"Why don' we have dis stuff already?" Alec asked. "My power plant takes up a third o' my ship, my engine another. Now yer tellin' me a tiny little ball can do the same job an' more? Why ain't the Federation figured this out?"
"I assume we're trying," John answered.
I thought of Diamond's rant about human curiosity and held my tongue. Maybe, if he and his people achieved their goal, this would help rekindle that spark and get us moving forward again. I'd visited so many worlds falling apart because they'd forgotten how to build and maintain the systems they depended on like Ansalon. Stars, that was so long ago it seemed like another life. My thoughts turned to Gillian and I closed my eyes to hide the regret that washed over me. What was she doing now? What did she think when I left? Did she understand how that shooting had affected me? It didn't matter that it really was self-defense, he still died by my hand. I'd killed more since then, but they had all been in other ships shooting at me. I hadn't seen their faces as they died. Maybe I should have? I'd become a bloodthirsty pirate seeking alien ships to loot and destroy in my revenge for Mika's death. Would it have been different if I'd had to face them in person and pull the trigger rather than dogfighting in the cold vacuum of space? The first thought I had was no, it wouldn't have been different. The second thought I had was that my answer should bother me more than it did.
I was vaguely aware of the conversation moving on without me as I ruminated, and I now became aware that it dropped off as the others finished their drinks. I tried to search my memory to see if there was anything important I had missed but I hadn't been paying enough attention.
"So," I began. "While Diamond's people work on installing these cores in our ships shall I scout out another Tharl world to raid?"
"Yeah," Ron nodded. "That sounds like a plan. And find out how long he thinks it might take while you're at it."
General agreement circled the table and I nodded back. "Will do. I'll ask him first thing in the morning."
It took three weeks to finish upgrading our four ships with the new power cores. I would have thought that Ron's destroyer would take the longest since it had so many weapons and active systems that needed it but no. John's ship took the longest because it was so large but didn't have the crew complement the destroyer had. Ron's engineers formed teams and performed the upgrades with a professionalism that would have made any Navy crew proud. The Bounty was barely half way to completion by the time they finished, and we quietly suggested that those teams might also be able to help on the other ships. I was impressed by their work, and I know John was as well. We mused quietly about hiring crews of our own but for the time being we decided not to fix what wasn't broken.
Three weeks was more than enough time for me to decide on an appropriate Tharl world for us to conduct our raid. It was fairly remote with no indications that the Navy was planning any operations although there was the typical travel advisory against it. Under normal circumstances it would take us roughly a month to get there, a bit longer for John. After the new power cores were installed I had the computer perform the jump calculation and it estimated the journey should take the Gilmour no more than six hours. I sat back in my chair speechless at the news.
"Boss, your vitals just spiked. I assume you're not in any need of immediate medical intervention?"
"If we were to network our nav computers together do you think we could improve the numbers for the others?" I asked.
"Possibly, but if their nav systems have been upgraded like ours I think we'd be looking at diminishing returns. We'd be able to shave minutes off their travel at most. They're still limited by the efficiency of their drives; all the power in the galaxy won't help them minimize their magnetic and gravitic fluctuations if their systems aren't capable of fine-tuning to the same degree. In fact, delivering more power to their drives would probably make the fluctuations worse."
"Okay. You're familiar with the Bounty's drive signature. Given your calculations how long do you think she'll take?"
"Between ten and forty-four hours. I'm sorry I can't be more precise, Boss. Those Corba don't have the best systems."
I smirked. A thirty-four hour arrival window was better than the weeks and months we sometimes dealt with. A trader's life was filled with prolonged periods of boredom waiting to get from one place to another, worse if you were waiting on someone else to show up. "I'll try to contain my disappointment. Good work."
"Thanks, Boss." The computer put some effort into the communication, making the appreciation sound sincere. It might have even been genuine.
Thinking about drive efficiency triggered a thought in my head and I composed a quick note to Diamond to ask about the efficiency of Tharl drive systems. Were they more like the Gilmour or the Bounty or something else entirely? I fired off the message and began a thorough systems diagnostic.
"I gotta tell ya, Boss, I appreciate the upgrade to my power systems. Having my own dedicated reactor is making a huge difference."
"I've noticed," I said absently. It wasn't that I didn't care, it's that I was thrilled with the numbers I was getting from the diagnostic and my head was filled with imagining how those numbers would translate to results. The shield arrays alone were going to make a huge difference in my fight. "You sound even more human than before. And it was hard to tell you weren't then."
"I feel like a fog has been lifted. I can see things so clearly now."
"Yeah? Like what?"
"The social strata of the Tharl is engineered. You know how I've been cataloging pilot maneuvers according to common tactics, right?"
"Right," I replied as I programmed a few virtual scenarios to play out with the power upgrades to my cannons. "It's how we captured that raider. You did good."
"Thanks, Boss. But the point is that I now see why there are different schools of piloting tactics among the Tharl. Each one has specific strengths and weaknesses. Each strength in one school corresponds to a weakness in another. It's not simply that the different schools have developed attacks and defenses against each other, it's that no one school has the advantage over all others. The school that falls under the Alpha designation has a very specific weakness that's exploited by the Epsilon school but no other. The Alpha school has no strength to exploit the Epsilon weakness, but the Beta school does. And the Beta school as a specific weakness that can be exploited, although I haven't cataloged a school with that specific strength yet. I assume that with time I will."
There was a lengthy pause as this information slowly seeped into my brain. "So what you're saying is that the Tharl do this deliberately."
"That's exactly right. You've got it, Boss."
"Why? What purpose could that serve?"
"The fact that these strengths and weaknesses are so carefully balanced suggests this is a form of social control," the computer explained. "No one faction can dominate against all others because there's always an opponent that can beat them. Social equilibrium is maintained via attrition."
"You're sure about this?"
"I need more data; like I said I haven't cataloged all the schools the Tharl use. But extrapolating from the information I do have makes it extremely likely. I can say I have high confidence that my hypothesis is correct."
I shut down my simulation as it no longer held my interest. "How can we use this information against the Tharl?"
"Obviously, this information makes you invincible against the Tharl. You not only know what they're likely to do but the appropriate counters to them. I presume that once we catalog all the schools of piloting for the Tharl we can broadcast that information and make Federation pilots aware of how to beat every trick the Tharl use."
"Huh." That appealed to me, but I saw an immediate problem: no other ship had a computer like mine so far as I knew. It would be a hard sell, and even harder for other Traders or Navy pilots to analyze and exploit the tactical weakness of each Tharl pilot. Plus, there was still the issue of Tharl technology outmatching Federation although Diamond and his team of geniuses were working on that.
"Keep thinking about it. We can put that plan into motion but I'm not sure how effective it'll be. I'd like other options to fall back on as well."
"Attack the Tharl on multiple fronts, Boss?" the computer said. "Good thinking."
"Keep your eye out for other trends. I want to know about anything you find, even if it seems trivial; you never know what might come in useful at some point. If you find a lot then send me a summary. In the meanwhile, send your analysis over to the Horsemen with a copy to Diamond but leave out the social commentary. We'll be able to use this to coordinate our attacks."
"Boss," the computer said earnestly. "With this information we won't need the other Horsemen. We can destroy any Tharl ship whose tactics we can analyze."
"Yes, but I don't always want to destroy their ships. I want to capture them, too."
The flight to Ruus took five hours and two minutes. I had no doubt the computer could also tell me how many seconds and fractions of a second to a thousand decimal places but I wasn't interested. Mostly I was impressed with how quickly I could now jump between systems. An initial sweep of the system showed no immediate threats, but I had come out pretty far from the only habitable planet. It was going to take me a little while to get closer and I was in no rush, at least not until the others arrived. I plotted a course toward a more central position near the local star so I could rendezvous with the others when they appeared.
Nearly four hours into my dive the computer beeped for my attention.
"Go ahead," I grumbled as I set down the book I'd been absorbed in.
"Boss, we got a return on our sensor sweep. There are two Tharl raiders on an intercept course. They should be in weapons range within three hours."
I scowled. "Two raiders? That seems like overkill. Since when did they decide Federation traders deserve more than one ship to welcome them?"
"I'm not sure yet, but optical scans show a large structure far off to port, orbiting a gas giant. It looks like a construction facility."
I blinked in surprise. Of course the Tharl would have space-based construction for their ships, but this was the first time I'd heard of them. I couldn't recall the Navy ever reporting an attempt to raid any nor any Traders' tales of seeing one. "So you think this isn't a typical Tharl welcome, they're here to defend that facility."
"It stands to reason, Boss."
I cracked my knuckles as I mulled this over. On the one hand this was going to give us a perfect field test for our power upgrades. On the other hand, with the Tharl motivated to discourage any visitors that meant there was no room for error in the slightest. If anyone's systems failed they were going to become space junk in short order. If we did as well as I thought we should then the Tharl would throw everything they had at us and I had every reason to suspect they could overwhelm us with it.
We were going to need Ron and his big destroyer. He would be so pleased.
"Steady on course," I ordered. "Pretend we haven't seen them yet."
"Acknowledged," the computer replied.
Two hours later the computer reported an incoming message from Alec. He'd arrived an hour before but on the opposite side of the system and was making his way toward the center like I was.
"T'ought ya said dere weren't no war zone here," he complained. "I got three raiders comin' at me from starboard."
"Point your optical sensors at these coordinates," I replied, and sent a data burst at him. "It seems we've kicked a nest."
"Fine by me," he chortled. "How ya wanna play it?"
"This is going to get really hairy before we're done," I warned. "There might even be more ships than you can shoot down before they swarm us. We need the Thanatos."
He made his customary rude noise to show his disdain, but he didn't argue. "Whatcha want me t' do 'bout dese critters inbound?"
I bared my teeth. "Show 'em what the Horsemen can do. Pound 'em into slag."
"Now yer talkin' my language. See ya star-side." He signed off, leaving me to stare at the plot of the two raiders heading my way.
"Computer, did you notice any satellites or drones in the area where we came in?"
"No, Boss," the computer replied. "There's nothing artificial near us except those two bogeys and their base. Not to mention the planet and its infrastructure. Why?"
"By the time you noticed them they were already heading toward us. How did they see us before we saw them?"
"Oh." The computer actually sounded sheepish. "That's a good question."
"So you don't know?"
"I don't know," it agreed. "I'm going over sensor logs now to see if I missed any anomalous readings. It's possible they're using a new frequency or possibly even an exotic particle to boost their sensitivity. To detect us so quickly at that distance would require the use of tachyon particles."
"Isn't that how we manage hyperwave communication?" I asked. "If we can communicate through them then why couldn't we use them for detection as well?"
"It's hard to explain, Boss," the computer replied. "Tachyons are...weird. We manage communication through quantum entanglement of exotic particles. Without going into a lot of technical detail with long equations, we don't actually use tachyon particles for communication. Instead we send messages through a central hub of particles entangled with our systems. When Alec sent a message to us it traveled all the way back to the Core before coming back out to us."
I shook my head. I had a rudimentary understanding of quantum entanglement from school, and I remembered it was called "channel spook" for reasons lost to history. But for all I'd learned in the last few years, there was still so much I didn't know. So much I couldn't know, and no way to learn which parts were crucial for what I was trying to do.
"Okay, so any luck on the logs?"
"Nothing yet, Boss. But it's a tiny needle in a big haystack so it could take a while. I'll keep searching until we need to focus on combat."
I glanced at the plot again, then sighed and stood up to stretch my legs. "Okay, I'll be back in time to try out our guns on those two. Let me know if anything changes."
I was more nervous about this fight than I'd been in a long time, since before I joined up with the Horsemen. I had the thought of getting supplies to keep my energy up like before but my stomach rebelled at the thought of eating anything. I ended up walking the ship to work off my nervousness, noting little things that still needed attention and silently scolding myself for projects I had been meaning to work on but had put off. When I finally made my way back to the cockpit I was still nervous but tired enough that I wasn't as jittery.
The plot showed the closest of the Tharl raiders was minutes away from weapons range. Weapons range with energy weapons means close enough to fire without giving enough time for the target to react, which means distances of light-seconds. Energy weapons mean by the time you can see the attack it's already hit you. High energy weapons give off high energy frequencies that can be detected before the attack itself becomes visible. Early detection gives the target opportunities to maneuver, which means a failed attack.
"Boss, these Tharl haven't engaged in any maneuvers so I don't have any data to extrapolate on their patterns. How do you want to play this?"
"Forward cannon and forward shields to full power. Let's see how good Diamond's work is."
"Direct approach, Boss?"
"That's what I'm thinking." I found myself cracking my knuckles again and forced myself to stop. I squirmed in my seat to try to get comfortable, then realized I needed to strap in and did so hastily. As I was fumbling with the last connection I felt the ship tremble slightly.
"Laser attack," the computer announced calmly. "Direct hit on the forward port quarter. Shields holding at full."
"What?" I exclaimed. "You're kidding. That was it?"
"That was as powerful a strike as we've ever taken, Boss. The upgrades are working to spec."
I whistled. "This is going to be unsporting."
"I can take the new power cores offline if you want," the computer offered.
"Shut up," I suggested. "Do you have a firing solution?"
"Locked and ready."
Unlike the holo adventures energy weapon fire doesn't really look like anything. If you can see the light from the discharge that means you're directly in its path, which is generally not conducive to your health. There are no coherent beams bursting from tubes and traveling quickly – but slow enough to be seen with the naked eye – toward the enemy craft. Instead, like the armor from the demonstration back in Diamond's lab, a hot spot appears on the hull of your target to indicate you hit. If the target's shields are operating correctly that spot won't do anything more than create a dull reflection. If enough energy gets through the shield then the armor begins to melt.
The computer's aim was dead on, square on the nose of the Tharl raider. A hot spot appeared, bright enough to be seen with the naked eye from this distance, and a second later the ship exploded.
"What?" I said again. "What just happened?"
"Sensor logs indicate a bare fraction of the beam was absorbed by the Tharl shields. The rest translated directly on and through the hull into the interior of the ship. So far as I can tell the beam went through to the back and sent the ship's drive into fatal overload."
"What's the status of the cannon?"
"The forward cannon is nominal. Surface temperature is higher than I've ever seen it but the system is venting heat and diagnostics say the temperature is within acceptable bounds."
"How many shots like that can we make before the temperature redlines?"
"Not a lot. I'd estimate three or four in rapid succession before the vents fail and we lose the cannon." The computer abruptly threw an alert across my primary display. "Boss, that second raider appears to be maneuvering for an attack against our stern."
In my astonishment at the efficacy of my new capabilities I'd forgotten about the second Tharl. "Divert power from forward shields to the rear. Rear cannon to two-thirds."
"Fire as she bears."
"Firing solution locked in." There was a brief pause. "Firing. Direct hit."
The rear cameras showed another hot spot appear on the off-center section of the hull where we figured most Tharl pilots were located and that section seemed to melt away like a cold confection in the hot sun. Shortly after the raider shuddered as a misty cloud briefly appeared and dissipated just as quickly. It began to tumble helplessly as the engines continued to drive it but the pilot failed to straighten out its course from the uneven thrust of explosive decompression.
"Tractor beam," I ordered. "Can we override the engines?"
"I think so. We'll need to come closer."
"I can do that." I swung the Gilmour through a tight turn and gave chase to the tumbling ship. A few minutes in it occurred to me to warn Alec about the cannons.
"Alec, you still alive?"
"Yeah, dey're still comin' in. Seventeen minutes t' weapons range."
"Okay. Don't use full power on your weapons or you'll overheat them. Two-thirds was enough for me, but I didn't have enough targets to keep testing. Maybe half power would be enough. The less power you use the more shots you can get off safely."
"Nobody said nothin' 'bout that 'fore," he complained.
"Nobody knew," I pointed out. "We never had this problem before."
"Wait," he started. "Are you tellin' me you already beat the ones comin' at you?"
"Yeah. One shot kills. If you aim for the engine compartment you'll make a pretty explosion, but then we can't salvage more power cores."
"Seems we got no lack o' those over yonder," he pointed out gleefully.
"Fine," I conceded. "Have fun. Gilmour out."
I turned my attention back to the raider I was trying to capture. In spite of its spiraling trajectory it took me nearly ten minutes to catch up and once we locked on to it with a tractor beam the Gilmour's engines howled through the superstructure as it fought the opposing momentum and thrust. It got better as the tumble smoothed out but it was pretty clear the engines were going to continue to deliver thrust until the fuel ran out.
"Boss, we can try to disable the engines with our cannon but we run the risk of destroying the ship."
"I have a better idea." I redirected the raider's trajectory toward the course I had diverted from just moments before and then cut my own engines. Tethered to the alien ship as I was, I let the raider continue on unhindered but dragging me along with it.
"That's a very elegant solution, Boss," the computer observed. Again, the tone of its voice was pitched precisely, this time conveying both praise and awe.
"Thanks," I replied. I started to stretch before I remembered I had strapped myself in for the fight. I released the buckles and indulged my body's craving for release. It felt incredibly good.
"What do we do if we reach the rendezvous point and the raider hasn't run out of fuel?"
I shrugged lazily. "We'll either let it go or destroy it. It's not a disaster if we can't keep it, but it's worth trying."
"I'll let you know if anything changes."
"Thanks. I'll be in the shower."
In the end it was necessary to let the raider go. Trying to board the ship while it was dragging mine through space made me nervous and as I approached my target coordinates it became obvious it was perfectly capable of continuing on indefinitely. So I tweaked the trajectory a little further and sent the ship hurtling into the star where it would never again pose a threat to anyone else.
Alec, of course, was just fine and joined me a few hours later. By that time the Thanatos had arrived, followed shortly by the Bounty. Alec and intercepted John as quickly as we could to provide cover, seeing as the Tharl kept sending more raiders out to attack us.
"What have we gotten into here?" John demanded after we briefed him on the situation.
"Long range scans suggest a construction facility," I replied. "So far they don't seem to have quite grasped the fact that we're destroying their ships easily and they haven't tried to swarm us with more than a few ships at once. I can't explain it; I certainly would if I were in their position."
"Maybe they have the ships but not enough pilots. Maybe they're scrambling as many ships as they can as pilots become available," Ron suggested.
"I don't think so," I returned. "Scans show they're launching ships as soon as the last ones are destroyed. They seem to be able to see us in real time and I'm not sure how they're doing it. That scares me, a lot."
"We got a target rich environment an' guns that carve 'em up like dinner cubes," Alec said forcefully. "Who cares how they're seein' us? They ain't goin' nowhere."
"If it is a construction facility then it might have more power cores than we could fit in our holds," John agreed. "Well, maybe more than you could. But a wealth of cores that are probably brand new, never used. We could use those."
"That's a big place," I pointed out. "It could have some incredible defenses not even counting the number of ships that might be there. Assuming we can knock them out without destroying the whole thing or getting destroyed ourselves by overwhelming firepower, how do we kill all the Tharl inside while leaving the stockpiles intact?"
"I have some impressive scanners on this boat, and the power upgrades made them even more impressive," Ron offered. "We could scan for the stuff we want and blow holes in everything else. If there are a few Tharl left after that I've got some crew that would happily volunteer to get payback in person."
I pondered that. Yes, nearly a third of the crew aboard the Thanatos was there because they harbored a grudge against the Tharl, and their former status as slaves might even give them more cause to hate the Tharl than I did. I didn't like the idea of putting them in harm's way but otherwise it was a pretty solid plan. The Thanatos' sensors could plot the locations of stragglers and help direct the raiding party in finding and killing them.
"Computer, are our sensors that good?" I asked.
"I dare say at least as good." The computer made its tone sound vaguely insulted. "This is an exploration vessel, after all."
"Right. Searching for things is what the Gilmour was designed to do." I keyed the comms again. "Okay, I'm sold. Any thoughts on how we want to do it?"
"Let the Thanatos take the lead," Ron suggested. "We'll take the brunt of the attack while the rest of you strafe. My crew is itching for this fight."
"Full frontal assault, then?" John sounded dubious. "Are the upgrades really that effective?"
"Oh yeah. Dey really, really are." I'd never heard Alec sound more satisfied. "One shot, one kill. Don' even need full power. Better if ya don't."
"Computer?" I asked.
The computer's pause was entirely for effect, and it succeeded. "It's difficult to say, Boss. Alec is right, these upgrades are far more effective than we expected. But the technology is too new to be able to predict limits and if the Tharl can concentrate sufficient firepower then even the new shields won't hold forever. We just don't know what they can throw at us. Right now they seem content to just harass us rather than make sure we're dead."
"But they've been throwing multiple ships at once, which we've never seen. It seems like they're pretty serious about wanting us dead."
"I don't know, Boss. There's still insufficient data to form a conclusion. You were right before: it doesn't make sense that they haven't tried harder."
"Do we have a consensus?" Ron demanded.
I hesitated, then keyed in again. "Yeah, I think so. Let's do it."
Ron and Alec took turns gleefully wrecking the raiders that the Tharl base sent our way like clockwork. It still disturbed me that the Tharl were launching them as soon as the last set were destroyed, but the computer failed to find anything in the sensor data to explain the phenomenon. The frequency of the launches increased as we got closer to our target but only because the raiders were being destroyed faster. It was clear that the Tharl could see us clearly in real time and respond accordingly. It was not clear why they didn't send more ships at once.
An hour out the computer called for my attention. "Boss, I think you wanna see this."
I set down the spanner I'd been wrestling with and wriggled out of the crawlspace. "I'll be right there." I wiped dust and grime from my arms and face before making my way back to the cockpit.
The computer was displaying an optical image with digital enhancements to emphasize what it wanted me to see. The enhancements were of a fleet of raiders assembling outside the facility, at least three dozen. As I watched another raider launched and took up position in the formation. So much for the Tharl lacking pilots.
"Tell me you've bounced this to the Horsemen."
"I was waiting for you, Boss."
"Do it now and open comms."
"Guys, you need to see this. They're preparing a big welcome for us."
There was a pause as I imagined the Horsemen turned their attention to the transmission and took the time to digest it. I tried to spend that time wisely.
"Computer, how does this fit into your models. Have you seen anything like this before?"
"Negative, Boss. Even in war zones the Tharl never demonstrated this kind of discipline. They've always acted independently, not even establishing zones between themselves. I haven't seen the Tharl act in concert before, only as a loose conglomeration."
"How about the ships they've been throwing at us. Have they made any maneuvers to allow you to identify their patterns?"
"Also negative, Boss. Their maneuvers have been pretty straightforward, no flair or other indicators for me to lock onto."
"So either the pilots are too green to have picked up any flair or they're not being piloted at all."
"Drones, Boss? Remote control?"
I nodded. "We know they can see us in real time. They could also be communicating in real time. Which means there could be no one inside those cockpits. Have we been able to scan the raiders coming in?"
"I haven't tried, Boss. We never saw a need before."
"Okay, the next one that comes in let's see if we can peek inside."
It was a good five minutes before any of the Horsemen responded to me. John was first.
"So, I don't know about you three but I'm having second thoughts."
"They're harassing us but it doesn't look like they want to keep us away from the planet. But they are making a point that we are especially not welcome there."
"So what?" Alec snapped. "Just makes me wanna go more."
"I think we're up to it," Ron agreed. "The crew is cheering every time we take out a raider with a single shot. Nobody ever thought it possible before."
"While you guys are having fun I'm back here thinking about how my ship isn't really built for combat," John replied.
"How about I hang back and give John support while the two of you have fun?"
"Wassa'matter, Pest? Thinkin' ya might scratch yer paint?" Alec chided.
"I'm thinking John has a point and we need to make sure he's around to enjoy the spoils with us."
"That's fine. Leave it alone, Alec," Ron said. "The two of us should be enough, especially since I can take on eight targets at once instead of needing to concentrate my fire."
"We still don't know what that station can do by itself," John reminded him.
"No guts, no glory," Alec shot back.
"We have a plan, we'll stick to it," I said. "If the station throws any big surprises at us we can always regroup and think of something else. In the meanwhile our shields should be up to the challenge." Or so I hoped, but I wasn't going to say that on an open frequency.
Once we established a consensus Alec and Ron dropped off. John paged me on a private channel.
"You're thinking we haven't seen everything, aren't you?"
"We probably haven't. No one has ever reported a facility like this. But then again, nobody but the Navy ever really goes to Tharl space."
"They haven't seen anything like us before, have they?"
"No," I conceded. "Probably not. But the Tharl are an incredibly old civilization. And this capability they're displaying, seeing us right away no matter how far away we are, it makes me nervous. They've seen what we've done to their raiders and they clearly know we're coming. So like you said, we haven't seen everything they've got and that worries me."
"You think if we turned and headed to the planet now they'd leave us alone?"
"Oh, I think they'd still send raiders to hound us like they've been doing. Obviously that's not something we have to worry about any longer. You'd be fine on your own just with your shields."
"It's always fun trying to figure you out, Hideo," John chuckled. "You can't be timid to be a Trader, but sometimes you can be the most cautious one I've ever met. Yet other times you charge in recklessly. I never know which one to expect."
"I'm not comfortable putting your life on the line," I explained. "If it's just me, that's fine. It's my life to risk. But you and the others? Alec is obviously gung-ho and Ron's never going to pass up an opportunity to engage in carnage. But they're doing it now because they're trusting me and that makes me responsible."
"Hideo, you know it doesn't work like that. They're here because they choose to be, and so am I. You've done right by us so far and we know that luck doesn't last forever. The kind of risks we take doing the work we do means there's always the possibility we'll end up dead or incinerated, drifting forever among the stars. We aren't doing it because of you, we're doing it because of who we are. You're just riding with us for a little while."
I paused, then shook my head. "You might be doing risky things because of who you are, but you're here in this system because of me. I can't shake my responsibility for that."
"Your call. Just remember that you're not responsible for everything that happens. You can't plan for everything."
No, I couldn't. But I knew someone who might.
"Computer," I called. "What's the probability that this Tharl base has something else waiting for us besides an armada?"
"Insufficient data," the computer replied. "We know about their ships and we know about their sensor capabilities but we don't know much beyond that. We don't even know if this capability is limited to this facility or if it's in common use and we just never noticed it before."
"Speculate," I ordered. "If the Tharl have seen what we're doing to their individual ships, why do they think that massing an armada of those same ships will be more effective?"
"They could be expecting that massing their firepower on a single target should be enough to overwhelm our defenses, and they're not necessarily wrong. Even with the upgrades we're carrying now there's an upper limit to the amount of energy our shields can absorb or redirect."
"With the amount of ships they're likely to have in position by the time we get there would they have enough?"
"For this ship, yes. Also for the Wasp, particularly since Alec doesn't seem to believe in evasive maneuvers. Between us and the Wasp they don't have enough; we'd shoot them down too fast before they could wear us both down sufficiently to destroy one of us. With the Thanatos in the mix they don't have a chance. Even one of their own capital ships can't stand up against the Thanatos with the upgrades they have now."
"So they have to have something else," I mused.
"Not necessarily, Boss. This may just be their only play."
"Are you willing to bet our lives on that?"
"It's not my call, it's yours. I'm fine if we fight or run away. Fighting always carries risk."
"You have no idea how lucky you are," I grumbled.
"What are your orders?"
"Steady on course, we stick to the plan."
"Boss, we have another pair of raiders coming in. The Wasp is moving to intercept."
"Can your scans penetrate their sensors?"
There was a pause. "Negative, not before Alec destroyed them."
"All right, that'll just be another mystery for now."
I maintained a half million kilometer station ahead of the Bounty while the Wasp and the Thanatos charged ahead. When the fighting commenced it was almost anticlimactic the way nearly fifty ships threw themselves at them and all died within minutes of each other. The Thanatos' gunners had clearly been practicing the way the raiders disappeared off my scope like bubbles in hot sunlight. It almost felt like cheating, but I couldn't help but feel immense satisfaction over our victory.
"Is dat all?" Alec complained.
"That was fun," Ron agreed. "Now to the main event. I've got a list of target priorities I'm bursting over to you."
"I got it," Alec acknowledged. "I'm startin' my run."
Small blossoms of fire ignited around the station as Ron and Alec began wiping out the targets deemed a potential threat. Then a deep blue bolt of light erupted from the superstructure and struck the Thanatos, enveloping the bow before dissipating.
"What was that?" John exclaimed.
"I don't know, I can't see!" Ron shouted. "There's too much interference!"
"Computer, get me a lock on where that came from!" I yelled as I brought the Gilmour around.
"Ron, did it get through your shields?" John demanded.
"No, they held. But just barely. We lost one power core to that attack but our shields are regenerating. The interference is clearing."
"Dey ain't fired again," Alec pointed out. "Mebbe dey only got the one shot."
"Did you see where it fired from?"
"No, it was behind me."
"John, did you get the coordinates on the source?"
"I didn't. I was caught off-guard."
"We all were," Ron pointed out. "Alec, continue your run. We're still in fighting shape so we'll do the same."
"We should pull back. I don't think you can take another hit like that," I advised.
"I'm not leaving yet. Alec may be right, they haven't fired again so they might not be able to. That might have been a desperation ploy but it failed."
"That's not a good bet," John argued. "Hideo's right, we should regroup and try something else. I don't think we're suited to a straight brawl against that."
Alec said something so obscene that it managed to make me blush. "I've almost finished my run. We got this, ya pansies."
"Alec, this is no time to --"
I wasn't given the opportunity to finish my argument. Another bolt of blue light lanced out, this time enveloping the Wasp. When it faded she was gone.
"Alec?" I asked. I felt my heart leap into my throat.
"Boss, I have the source of the weapon locked in."
"Full power to the forward cannon," I ordered with a croaking voice, nearly choking on my words. "Fire on target."
Another blossom of light bloomed on the base, followed almost immediately by a secondary explosion that rocked the entire structure.
"Direct hit," the computer reported. "The weapon has been neutralized and the station has lost power. I'm getting weaker energy signatures suggestive of secondary power systems coming online but their shields remain offline for the moment."
"Nice shooting, Hideo!" Ron crowed.
"Alec, come in!" I yelled. When there was no answer I keyed the comm again. "Dammit, tell me you're still there!"
There was another pause, then John responded to my hail. "I'm sorry, Hideo, but he's gone. His ship didn't survive the attack. There isn't even any wreckage, just a cloud of gas. He was totally incinerated."
"Computer?" I whispered.
"I confirm John's scans, Boss. The Wasp was obliterated by whatever that was."
My vision blurred as tears welled in my eyes. Alec was dead. Like I'd said to John, his death was on me because they trusted me, followed me. I'd led Alec to his death.
"It happened too fast," Ron said with sympathy in his voice. "He never knew he was hit before he was gone."
"It was the way he wanted to go," John agreed. "Fast and furious while raining death on his enemy."
"He's still dead," I whispered.
"Then let's finish what he came here to do," Ron replied. "I've got scans locked on the storage we were looking for: enough power cores to fill John's hold. Some of them are really big, too; bigger than we've ever seen."
I started to say something angry and biting, then stopped myself. Those power cores would give me what I most needed: the means to destroy the Tharl. If Alec's death was going to mean anything, those cores would make the difference.
"How—how long to transfer them to the Bounty?" I asked.
"I've got a boarding party suited up and ready to go. There are no life signs in that part of the station so there shouldn't be any distractions. Say a couple of hours."
"Then hurry up," I growled. "Because once they're done this place needs to die."
"It's already dead," John reminded me. "You killed it."
"Not yet. Not as long as there's two plates still attached to each other, I'm not done."
"Hey, Hideo --" Ron began, but John cut him off.
"Leave him. Let's get our prize and get going. He's got a right to this."
Ron was silent for a while, then said simply, "Okay."
Once we'd finished looting and demolishing the base we still needed a gravity well strong enough to allow us to jump back to Gallant. The only reliable place was already occupied by Tharl. Naturally, we knew the Tharl would never allow us to leave with our stolen goods and none of us were particularly interested in testing our defenses against satellite-based weapons. Ron's solution was simple: he and I made a few passes in orbit and shot them down until there were none left. I then led John down to the surface with Ron keeping an eagle eye out for any attempt to intercept us. There were none; apparently the locals decided not to antagonize us further. We didn't get the warm welcome we had before, in fact no one tried to contact us or approach us in any way. As we agreed we waited until the three of us were either on the surface or flying patrol and then John engaged his engines to jump to folded space. I was next and my transition was barely noticeable.
I spent the trip in my cabin mulling over Alec's death. I was grateful for the fact that the trip was only a few hours.