The CQC Lounge was full of people who must have paid a "modest fee" for some kind of visual upgrades, because there wasn't an ugly guy or girl in the whole lot. A number of private tables, some walled off with virtual "shields" to allow only certain members in, others open and virtually expandable to a larger size once more people joined it. The bar itself was kind of a holding pattern place for those who didn't want to join a group just yet. The bartender looked disturbingly like that guy from the first and fifth version of The Shining (the fifth version used a digital replica of the actor just to make it more creepy and ghost like for those that knew he died 500 years before - I should point out that every few centuries there is a movement in entertainment to remind us of our roots, which is why Homer and Shakespeare are still alive and well, but so is Kubrick and Kurosawa).
I had just ordered a drink (water - no point in wasting money on something I couldn't taste without an upgrade) and before I knew it I was slipping into bounty hunting mode. That is, I started eavesdropping. It's something that becomes second nature after a while. Guy and girl next to me--flirting, can ignore. Table directly behind me--one guy bragging about prestiging while the another accuses him of using a hack, might turn into a fight. Bartender down at the other end--giving advice to newcomer about how to use the facilities...I'm hoping he doesn't mean, yep, he means in her real life space suit because she's been here so long and doesn't want to go back just yet. Ick.
Then I noticed people disappearing. Not getting up and leaving, but blipping out of existence. It was happening more frequently now, and I was picking up a recurring theme over and over.
These were the terrorists that the Empire believed was behind the recent assassination of the Emperor. Guess he wasn't Emperory enough for them. There was the usual fanatical BS behind their actions--returning to the old ways, glory days, proper values (which apparently include a heavy dose of murder) and so on. The combat pilots were blipping out because a couple of their bases had been uncovered and it was a bounty hunting free for all. Imperial troops were taking care of the ground work, but Dawn has an ungodly number of ships at their disposal. A checkpoint and blockade was being set up to prevent any easy escape and so the Dawn were throwing their ships at the Empire in order to buy time and try and find a way to slip their key figures out to a new location.
As I've said before, I'm not in love with the Empire, but I hate terrorists even more than I hate pirates. At least I've met honorable pirates.
Suddenly it didn't feel like so much fun playing virtual combat when people were getting up and doing their duty--even if that duty was towards credits. I felt like a break anyway, outside of the cockpit this basic VR setup was counter-intuitive and kept reminding you you weren't in the real world (hard not to realize the hand holding a glass of water was in fact holding a joystick). I tossed the glass of water at the guy accusing another player of cheating and blipped out as it triggered the bar brawl I expected. Heh.
So far, two Emperor's Dawn cells were known to authorities. I chose the one at Maausk and signed up at the local station. There was intense fighting going at one of the nearby planets, presumably where they had hidden their base.
By the time I dropped in, fighting was well underway, everything from Eagles to Anacondas were in it, and it looked like a battle to the death. In this case, Emperor's Dawn's death. Seriously, it was a slaughter. The bounty hunters and Imperial forces kept their big ships focused on the heavy hitters. Anacondas and Pythons dropped like flies, and every so often my screen would flash blue with a bounty reward update. In old Earth terms the sound would be "Ka-Ching!"
The Troubadour was magnificent. The gimbled burst laser could track even the fastest Eagle, while the combined burst/beam combination melted the shields of capital ships like... I don't want to say butter, that's such an overused metaphor... a really melty thing. Once the shields were down the multicannons would tear the hulls to shreds.
My shields weren't as strong as that of a Python, though with my prismatic shields and boosters she was stronger than she looked, and her weight was low enough that I got maximum maneuverability out of her, even though it was nothing compared to a Condor. Of course, she was also a large and easy target. Despite all that, the only time I felt I was in danger was when I took on an Anaconda alone, away from the main fight. She almost managed to get my shields down before her powerplant blew.
That fight had taken me a fair distance away from the main battle, and I figured rather than waste a shield cell I could just recharge a bit en route back.
Halfway back, out of nowhere a red blip appeared behind me and opened fire. Shields down, hull taking damage. Where the heck had he come from? I had checked my radar just a moment before and was all clear. Thank God for military grade armor. I boosted away as fast as I could, but kept on taking a pounding. Dammit! I tried to get to supercruise but whatever was behind me as mass locking me. I locked on and checked the ship's readout--another Clipper, and it was staying a steady 2km behind me no matter how much I boost.
This was no ordinary terrorist. To keep up with me meant he'd outfitted a top of the line ship.
The readout listed him only as CMDR OD. But my gut told me this guy was CODE. Word was the pirate band had thrown their support behind Emperor's Dawn--for what reason I didn't know.
Unable to get to supercruise I high waked out to another star system before I lost everything and licked my wounds.
I mean my pride more than anything. OD had made a chump of me. How had he or she snuck up behind me like that? Regardless I wasn't going to let it happen again.
I dropped to a station and made some quick repairs, as well as a slight modification to the Troubadour. If OC was still hanging out there when I got back, I wanted to be ready. I replaced my spare fuel tank and added a secondary shield cell, tied into the first. It wasn't very powerful on its own (my ship's systems couldn't take the power load of a bigger cell) but it would give me an extra kick when I used it in tandem with the primary. It was worth experimenting with anyway.
Back to Maausk.
I didn't even have to reach the combat zone to find CMDR OD this time. He interdicted me en route. Good thing I'd listened to my gut about being prepared. I pulled back on the throttle and submitted to the interdiction.
Okay, flyboy, let's do this.
We dropped less than a klick from one another and opened fire more or less straight away. Neither of us had any illusion as to what this was about. From the start he seemed to have the edge, dropping my shields down and forcing me to use my supercharged shield cells sooner than I expected.
I mentioned before about how a Clipper was way bigger than an old Earth jumbo jet... now imagine two of those jets trying to dogfight. It was like slow motion compared to CQC combat, but about a thousand times more terrifying.
This guy was good.
OD had to pop his own shield cells before long, and I was beginning to wonder how long this would last--or if my heart would hold out. We thrust, jousted, rolled, turned flight assist on and off as needed, and kept jabbing at one another. I popped another cell, so did he. We collided at one point, and I hit the reverse thrusters to try and make the most of it, giving him everything I got as I backed up.
Then my shields were gone. Damn, I hadn't been able to pop the cell in time. OD's were down low, but if he... oh hell... the familiar ripple effect of a charging shield cell flickered. If he got that up I was done for. I poured on everything I had, beams and multicannons, diverting all power to weapons--certainly didn't need them on shields now.
Just before the shield had a chance to go up, they collapsed. Yes! I still stood a fighting chance.
Now we were tearing into one another's hulls. Lasers and bullets shredded each of our hulls, my canopy weakened with every joust, and I did my best to avoid head on weapons exchanges. It didn't matter. We dropped below 50% hull integrity and still no sign of either of us backing off. The canopy strained and cracked as shells ricocheted off. Another spin, thrust, turn, and then... the cracked canopy buckled and blew out, along with the ship's air.
Unfortunately, one of the things I'd skimped on to make the Troubadour into the ship she was was life support. I had a D-rated system, which meant I had seven and a half minutes of air available. Swell, just swell.
Just then I saw a number of blips on the edge of my radar. I couldn't resolve them yet (sensor range was another point I'd skimped on) but it had to be local security. If they got here in time, maybe...
OD's Clipper swung past me, flying over my head, boosting away at the same time I was boosting towards the incoming ships.
I caught a glimpse of his ship as it flew by, and saw his canopy had blown out as well. And maybe I was imagining things, but I think he saluted me as he passed.
Before he disappeared I received two text messages.
Good fight. Thank you.
I noted the hull strength on our ships - 30% vs 15%. He might have been able to finish me off, he'd had the upper hand for most of the fight, but I suppose he didn't want to risk it without a canopy and authority vessels incoming that could mass lock him. Chances are, he only had seven or so minutes of air as well.
Call it a draw, I suppose. I hadn't fought someone that good in ages. Even though Officer Dillon had shot me down, that hadn't been in a fair fight. CMDR OD had been rated Dangerous, and for once the rating seems rightly deserved.
So, after that dose of reality, I think I might stick to games for a while.
Pilot: Mossfoot - Ship ID: Viaticus Rex (Cobra MKII)
Rank: Competent - Status: Clean