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 Post subject: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Thu Jul 23, 2015 9:26 am 
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In which Malacandra begins his summer writing project, bringing you the further adventures of Marilee and the Macraes one thousand words at a time

You don't need to be brought up on space travel to make a good spacer.

That was certainly true of me - and if I sound like I'm flattering myself to call myself a "good spacer", the figures turn out to back me up. I'd notched up plenty kills as a Sidewinder pilot before I ran into something I couldn't handle, and that was a huge ambush that was set up to kill my boss. And even if we count that, I'd put some of my bad performance down that day to sheer guilt, realizing I'd spilled secrets that let Macrae in for an assassination hit. Of course, if I'd known then what I knew a little later, that Macrae was a couple of steps ahead of the game and he had some great help right on hand -

Anyway, before then and since I've always made out just fine as a combat pilot, and if I needed a little luck once in a while to see I came out all right, you could say the same of just about anyone. And I came from Qudira, where we barely knew that space even existed, let alone that there were ships that flew in it, much less that there are a couple of thousand worlds, no one of them more than a month or two away, and all of them teeming with human beings or some other funny creatures that might not pass for human even in a poor light, but stack up all right next to them in every area that counts.

Take Tom for instance, who looks kind of like a very big cat drawn by someone who doesn't draw cats too good, beginning with not knowing what colour they're meant to be. If he stood upright on his hind legs he'd tower over me, but when he does stand upright he mostly slouches, and he's just as happy on all fours. The amount of flesh he packs around the middle, you'd think he could barely move, and for sure he mostly doesn't hurry any place he's going - but when he does hurry, you maybe better worry. His reflexes were hot-wired by the Great Designer so he can pluck a fly out of the air without killing it, and he likes shooting with a handgun - and he can plink clays with one, without even looking like he's aiming, just a mite better than I can manage with a shotgun.

Tom's been quite a favourite with the boys on Ususor ever since he got here, and all the more since he got some seniority and, instead of being the hottest trainee in the squadron, he had a whole string of combat successes behind him and was put to licking the new recruits into shape. A lot of the ones we started out with were disaffected escort pilots like me - trained, experienced, proven successful, but getting ground down by the sheer lack of hope and what seemed like an endless supply of pirates, assassins, and general nuisances. Later, though, Macrae started getting fresh recruits trained from the ground up, not least from Scots that lived on Ususor or over in Gerete, one jump over.

Gerete's high-tech, considered as a whole planet - about as far as they go for a place that doesn't have a one-world government - but a lot of Scots look to live the simple life so far as they can, though most of the employment is in heavy industry and they have to be able to turn up for work, at least. As for Ususor, even a tractor is an unusual sight once you get away from the spaceport, and while everyone’s used to the idea that an aeroplane might turn up now and then with supplies or visitors, for the most part things get done the old-fashioned way. The gentlefolks like it that way, and – as I now know – they bring enough wealth in from their off-world property that they can treat the whole planet like a giant holiday home. The folks on both Gerete and Ususor seem to like it just fine that way.

Still, if the Ususor Scots like the simple life, that didn’t stop quite a few of them making mighty fair spacers once we started getting them trained up for it. Macrae kept the training facilities tucked away in the highlands, strictly in clan territory – and on a world where most people get about on foot or by horse and cart, a few score square kilometres is plenty big enough to park a bunch of training vehicles, landing strips, and all the necessary backup, away from prying eyes. Of course, plenty of applicants flunked the early training, but they got their fair chance and they flunked out non-fatally and with no disgrace. Macrae was quite clear about that from the start.

“This life isn’t for everyone,” was his usual opening speech. “Many are called, few are chosen, and there’s no way to tell who’ll make it and who won’t until they try out. What of it? Ye were good sons and daughters of Clan Macrae before ever you tried out, and a few marks on a pink form somewhere don’t change that one iota. There’ll be a lot of you go to your homes again a week or two from now. Go in the knowledge that you tried and found out it wasn’t for you. That’s not ‘failure’, that’s learning that this is not the way your life needs to go. There’s plenty else you can do that’s good for you, for your folks, for Clan Macrae.”

And when the Macrae says that, it’s not just empty words. Every poor crofter scratching out a humble living on his quarter acre counts as much with the Clan Chief as the toughest spacer with a thousand kills to his name. That’s why Macrae can count on hundreds of willing volunteers who’ll gladly walk through fire for him at a single word.

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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Thu Jul 23, 2015 10:33 am 
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Nice to see you again. We would appear to be experiencing a renaissance of oolite fiction. I was getting a little worried that Dangerous had taken the wind out of the sails.

But no, it would appear that despite the "new kid" on the block some of us still have a soft spot for an old thing. Long may it continue.

Write on Commanders!

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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Thu Jul 23, 2015 9:41 pm 
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Quote:
I was getting a little worried that Dangerous had taken the wind out of the sails.
ED had no bearing on my losing the will to write Oofic - though my sig could seem somewhat apposite!

Good to see you writing again though, Malacandra.

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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Fri Jul 24, 2015 1:52 am 
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Good to see you writing again though, Malacandra.
Thirded! :D

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Most games have some sort of paddling-pool-and-water-wings beginning to ease you in: Oolite takes the rather more Darwinian approach of heaving you straight into the ocean, often with a brick or two in your pockets for luck. ~ Disembodied


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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Fri Jul 24, 2015 2:06 am 
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And thirded...x, nope fourthed.

Welcome back Malacandra. And welcome back to the Sidewinder Pro :D

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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Fri Jul 24, 2015 6:48 pm 
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Before you start trying to fight in three dimensions, you’d better have some idea what you’re doing in two.

Macrae based his early training for the groundsiders on the model that Agent Elus and the escort service had used, especially with the people from the backwater worlds who had more catching up to do than most. The terrain in the highlands is a little different to what it was around Qudira spaceport, of course. That was dry and sandy, and we learned to drive little four-wheeled buggies on gravel tracks – which was fun in itself, because you could fling them around sideways once you had the way of it. The ground was wetter and the soil heavier in the highlands, so we use a different kind of vehicle, but still with the same aim in mind: teach reaction speed and, for that matter, guts.

Gerete’s well up to producing whatever kind of hardware we need, but anything that needs to be done locally on Ususor is going to have to fit in with the look and feel of the place. That ruled out using combustion engines, because while Qudira may have no objections to a hydrocarbon refinery being set up near the spaceport, the titled heads that run the show on Ususor would be likely to express their firm disapproval. The local air transport – and there’s not much of that planet-wide – uses drive technology, suitably scaled down where necessary, but that’s no good for a one-man wheeled vehicle or anywhere near, so we use another piece of old reliable technology instead.

Although electric doesn’t give you the noise and smell of a combustion engine, there’s more potential for fun than you might think. Electrics pull wicked hard from a standing start if they’re allowed, and Macrae saw no point in discouraging this. So the trainees get to start out on something with a wheel at each corner and a chassis that you sit astride, with a tiller bar to steer it and a nice simple twist-to-go handgrip that gives you enough acceleration to flip you over backwards if you don’t play nice with it. Of course they can be recharged by nice simple, clean, never-fail solar panels that you can fit once and forget about, and then you turn some trainees loose on these, with nice grippy tyres and muddy tracks over bumpy heather or through pine forests to chase each other around.

I never had so much fun in my life – with one exception that I’ll come to in a moment.

The Scots treated these motorised toys with complete reckless abandon, confident that The Macrae would never have set them up with something that would kill them out of hand without warning, and they’d cheerfully be out on them from dawn to dusk learning to wring them out good and hard. There’d be the odd bump and bruise, a few minor lacerations and broken bones, only rarely anything that meant bringing anyone back carefully on a stretcher – and the occasional minor accident never seemed to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. True, the maintenance crew we had on the estate used to be kept busy at all hours bending things straight again and now and then getting busy with an arc-welder, but they enjoyed the work as much as anyone. So, what between patching up slightly damaged four-wheelers and slightly damaged Scots, the days passed pretty quickly and the trainees learned almost frighteningly fast.

At which point we began turning them loose with lasers. Low-powered ones, naturally, not even enough to warm unprotected skin, although they got the lecture about what would happen if you took a laser to the eyeball, complete with the graphic training visuals just to convince them that this was serious for once. The danger’s manageable, of course: a visor that’s tinted just the right colour will keep a laser beam out. What’s a little hard to get used to is the realization that it’s an all-or-nothing proposition; you can either keep none of the beam out of your eye, or all of it, and in the latter case you have to accept that the sensor that’s warning you of an incoming laser really does mean what it says, and you don’t lift your visor just to make sure.

But the theoretical danger – only a practical one if you just had to try ignoring the safety instructions to see what would happen – was nothing compared to the thrill of charging about lasering each other, especially once we started introducing a little incentive: If your four-wheeler detects a hit on you, your motor shuts down for five minutes and every light on your vehicle blinks in sync to let everyone see that you just got tagged. Five minutes was just about time to simmer and plot your revenge on the sneak who just caught you, while giving them plenty of time to disappear behind the tree-line or behind a bank of gorse. And then you’d get your motor back and be haring off again all over a thousand acres of The Macrae’s prime hunting land… with The Macrae’s full knowledge, leave and blessing.

The Macrae couldn’t be there in person all the time. He had plenty of business elsewhere, on Gerete and further afield, and I mostly got left behind in charge of the trainees. But there were compensations.

I’d just seen the trainees back to barracks for what was going to be a rowdy evening – but they’d formed up and dismissed in perfect order first – when I got a nod from Donald Hamilton. It didn’t take me long to freshen up and change into Macrae best dress, and it wasn’t full dark outside when I touched the palm-lock on The Black Bear. There were no formalities about take-off, and I was soon leaving the firelit mansion behind and heading through twenty kilometres in my little Claymore. I barely needed to bring the scanner online in order to spot the Coriolis station, just about to cross into night itself.

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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Mon Jul 27, 2015 12:01 pm 
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You don’t realize how much you miss space until you’re up there again.

Unfortunately once you get used to the reality of the universe, which isn’t at all how you would have imagined or liked it to be, you have to get used to the idea that there are people up there who will gladly wreck a vessel worth half a million credits for the sake of scooping a cargo worth less than a hundredth of that amount, and cheerfully consign you to the vacuum as well for the crime of being in their way. That’s before you factor in the people who will actively seek you out and kill you for a thousand credits or so, as well. Still, for all the hazards to life and sanity that there are to be found up there, the compensations are large.

Nothing can ever replace the thrill of floating in the black-but-sunlit silence, only a few score kilometres above a whole world that’s slowly turning from day into night below you. You can get a little of that sensation by standing on a high mountain or even the roof of a really tall building – a sense of being figuratively as well as literally “above all that” – but it’s magnified a hundred times over when you’re looking down on oceans and continents blurred by height and half-hidden by cloud that seems as though it were glued to the landscape far below, and not itself drifting slowly by in its turn. As you move around the planet, you see the night line approaching below you, but you’re still in brilliant day as long as the sun is even a little above the curve of the world – not even filtered as the setting sun is on the surface, but bright even as half or more of it slips below the horizon. And then almost in an instant you cross from day to night, and when your eyes adapt you see thousands of stars merge into view, the brightest first and then more every second until the whole sky is richly carpeted, with the moving blue glow of ships’ drives lending an extra glow here and there.

Ususor makes very little artificial light; the planet’s night is almost totally black. That makes it all the easier to spot the glittering bulk of the Coriolis station from fifty or more kilometres away, even before it appears on your ship’s scanner. A ship or two drops out of Torus drive, masslocked either by the station, the planet, or the nearby traffic; here and there another one vanishes into Witchspace, leaving behind a gently-glowing wormhole that shows up as an intense blue in the night. A few ships just touch the injectors as they run in – usually ambitious courier types, though sometimes just a Cobra trader who’s been making a dash across several systems, picking up Quirium from fuel stations or solar atmospheres, who hasn’t slept in a bed for the better part of a week and is well ready for a good rest, and wants the last twenty minutes of the trip over and done with.

I was simmering with impatience myself, although I decided I’d sit tight and make the rendezvous at normal speed; that’s pretty fast in a Claymore anyway. Macrae had been off-world for a fortnight, and I’d had too much that needed doing to have gone with him, and that had meant being apart for about the longest stretch ever since we’d first met. So although a few more minutes delay were making me fidgety, it was the kind of fidget I was prepared to put up with for just a little longer now I knew it was minutes rather than days or weeks.

There is something rather delicious about being summoned to what feels like a dirty stop-out on a space station, although for what it’s worth we were both of us governed by purely practical considerations. Macrae can do almost anything he likes with a Cobra III, but he can’t land on a planet with one, whereas I can go ground-to-orbit all I like in a Claymore but I can’t Witchjump. So the easiest way for us to meet up, without needing a ground shuttle, was what we were doing now. Purely practical, indeed; but for all that, I was wriggling a little in my seat and thinking that there were one or two highly naughty debaucheries we hadn’t tried out yet, and perhaps it was time we did.

Inevitably, having decided not to hasten myself overmuch, I found myself waiting behind an Anaconda creeping towards the station so slowly I had half a mind to get out and push, and then when he was safely tucked in for the night a Boa slipped out with about the biggest posse of escorts I’d ever seen. I wondered if I knew any of them, although the odds were very long. But eventually – and when I was seriously beginning to consider starting without Macrae – I got the OK and slipped into the docking bay, finding a berth right next to The Whisky and the Music as it happened.

As you’d expect, Macrae was in command of the situation, beginning with a dinner that was well up to his usual standard and maybe a bit over on account of the long separation. It was on the Ususor side rather than the Galcop side, and the chef there most certainly knows how the Scots palate works. Still, I was very much of a mind to suggest to Macrae that we skip the dessert course for all that, and get the assignation properly under way; but I decided against it. When Macrae gets around to things in his own good time, I’ve generally found that it’s worth the wait – and, call me what you like, but I’ve grown really rather fond of being firmly taken charge of. Which, of course, you can bet your last tenth-credit that Macrae knows perfectly well, and plans for quite assiduously.

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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Tue Jul 28, 2015 7:43 pm 
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I was enjoying the unfamiliar sensation of handing Macrae something he hadn’t been expecting.

I was also enjoying another unfamiliar sensation – and one that not so many months ago I’d have been horrified to think that any but the nastiest of girls would have been interested in. Well, I guess we all do a little growing up as we age, and as for me, I’d learned to think differently of something that I used to imagine someone would only do when they were desperate for narcotics. It makes a huge difference when you want to please and delight the man you love the most in all the Eight, believe me.

Anyway…

Macrae’s well able to keep business and pleasure separate, but while I’d also enjoyed blasting up to the Coriolis station as though I’d been summoned to warm the master’s bed for him, it came as no surprise to me that he had other things on his mind once we’d dealt with the most pressing concern that a couple of weeks’ separation had left us with. And, until such time as he might need to show me some visuals, there was nothing that couldn’t be managed while I was still lying against his warm and rather hairy body with a strong arm encircling me.

The Claymore project was still his chief focus. I’d become used to the idea that it was probably going to be for the rest of Macrae’s life, and I was still in it for the duration. He was interested to hear all that I had to say about the latest crop of trainees, and he had plans of his own as well as some news.

“The honeymoon period seems to be over, sadly,” Macrae said. “We’re starting to see more organised opposition, although the Claymores are still too much for most ships they’re pitted against when the odds are anything like fair. They cost high compared to most purely in-system ships, but they’re cheaper to outfit than anything Witch-capable and they’re quite capable of standing up to an Asp one-on-one.”

Which meant, barring the more esoteric ships that weren’t around in any quantity, Claymores were measuring up to the gold standard. An Asp Mk II is the weapon of choice for the elite bounty hunters and escorts alike – no use for trading anything that can’t be carried in the ship’s safe but just fine if you want to drive your kill count up and maybe ship some of the hotter packages about the sector; it’s got the edge on all the opposition for speed and firepower and it has a slimmer profile than the Cobra III for all that it hasn’t the cargo potential of that legendary ship.

“Since when were we aiming to fight at fair odds anyway?” I chuckled, and I felt rather than heard Macrae’s answering laugh deep in his chest.

“Since never, any time we have the option,” he agreed, “but we’re hitting the end of the period when we can turn up with maybe twenty of ours and find the enemy outnumbered and outgunned. Bad news gets around. Of course, strategically that means we’re hurting pirate profits, and there’s only so much they can do about that – because we’re starting off with the assumption that they were already doing all they could to make the take as big as they could. That helps us in the long term, because I’m still getting more and more buy-in from backers who’re sick and tired of having their interstellar trade interfered with, so in terms of logistics, we’re making gains at the same time as the other side is taking losses. But… we’re rooting out a big weed here, and it’s only to be expected it’ll be finding ways to fight back.”

“Well,” I said, “a lot of your flyers will be used to fighting against odds – me included,” I said.

“Aye, and that’s a big comfort, and the reports I’m getting back from the section leaders suggest that my former escorts are still well and truly up for it; which is all to the good, because I’m going to have to start spreading them a little thinner. My raw recruits will need some backing when they first see real action, for all they’re ready and willing to give it a good go.”

“They’re all of that,” I agreed, and I brought him up to speed on the latest capers groundside, cracked ribs, broken collarbones, concussions and all. He laughed again.

“About what I’d expect. Show a Scot either a good fight or a bumpy ride and he’ll generally fling himself into it with a will. We’ve a training schedule to complete with them – and then I’ll want them shared out across a couple of flights, with at least as many experienced hands to mind them when they first get into action. I’ll be getting you to head up one of them. Am I right in guessing you’d like Tom as a second in command?”

“That would be my first choice, yes,” I said. “We’re very different in style but he’s very good at what he does.”

What Tom did was get in really close, sticking tight on the tail of anything without a rear laser and shredding it from point-blank range. His reactions were ridiculously fast and he could get off a snap shot quicker than anyone I’d ever seen. Macrae, of course, knew this very well.

“And on the other hand, Tom’s not such a hand as you are at the long-range gunnery. I’m thinking that’s because he doesn’t enjoy it as much, but whatever the reason, the two of you together should be quite the force multiplier – and ensure you can each show the recruits a different set of ropes when it comes to a real fight.”

At which point, we both decided that we’d discussed business enough for the present, and it was time to enjoy the few hours we had together a bit more. So that’s what we did.

_________________
"Sidewinder Precision Pro" and other fiction is now available for Amazon Kindle at a bargain price. Kindle previews: here, here and here.


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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Wed Jul 29, 2015 8:10 pm 
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Breakfast with Macrae is almost as enjoyable as dinner with Macrae.

Neither of us had been in any great hurry to get out of bed, but we did have more business to discuss and Macrae had his itinerary for the next twenty days already worked out, so there was only so long that we could spend procrastinating. Besides, a proper Highland breakfast in best Macrae fashion is an experience in itself, even though there’s only so much a Coriolis station can do to live up to the genuine planetside article.

Over a hot drink, toast and a slightly bitter fruit preserve that Macrae had introduced me to, we went over timescales and schedules and so on. My recruits were due to be taking to the air quite soon, which paradoxically could be done the most safely in the Claymores themselves. Given how many kilocredits each of them was already costing, it was a trivial thing to include safeties that meant they would stay at least ten kilometres above ground level until it was time to land, and collision avoidance systems that ensured that the clumsiest flier couldn’t actually hit one of his fellows if he was trying to, and an auto-land that would park the ship safely within a hundred metres of a ground beacon. That shouldn’t come as any surprise, of course. Docking computers have been a standard bolt-on for spacecraft since forever, and aligning yourself with the rotating slot of a space station is a far harder task for man or machine than touching down in a craft that comes with built-in ground-effect lifters. Unless you’re determined to short-cut a lot of safety measures – which we weren’t intending to allow the rookies to do – you can’t fly a Claymore into the ground.

“They’re enjoying the sims too,” I told Macrae. “Of course, there’s only so much a sim can do for you, but I’ve had no difficulty getting them to put in the hours. Once you’ve worked out a scoring system…”

“Aye. They’ll treat it as a game and they’ll bust a gut to outdo each other,” said Macrae. “No news there, it’s been basic training psychology for more centuries than I can count. Well, as soon as you’re ready, get them into space. That gave you no end of a lift, and it’ll do as much for them.”

I nibbled on my piece of toast as if to suggest that I’d rather be nibbling on something else, but it was more an affectionate gesture that even a semi-serious suggestion; we’d both run our batteries very seriously flat, and you can take my word for it that Macrae could keep up with a young woman much less than half his age. He grinned at me and swiped his datapad again.

“The thing I’d most be glad of would be some kind of a cheep out of the Bull and his team over in Sector Two,” Macrae said. “But we knew when he went that we couldn’t rely on hearing from him for a mighty long time, at the best.”

I sighed and nodded. There’s only one way to get from Sector One to Sector Two, and that’s with a one-shot Galactic Hyperdrive. There’s also only one way to get from Sector Two back to Sector One: by buying, installing and using enough Galactic Hyperdrives to get round the rest of the Eight, in order. There’s a reason for this which is something to do with the “chirality of the universe”, if you please, and you might as well say “Because Eesti said so” for all the difference it makes to me.

What that meant was that the Bull wouldn’t be back without a lot of flying and a lot of spending money, even though Macrae had authorised him to access the clan funds wherever he went; and in the meantime, the Bull had gone with a team of Claymores to spread alarm and dissension among the pirates in whatever system he might encounter, not just to attempt a galactic circumnavigation. Travel around any one sector wouldn’t be a problem; you seldom have to wait for very long near a Coriolis station before a trader will launch and offer a free lift to the next system over to anyone who wants to come along for the ride. You don’t get a free guaranteed escort that way, but you at least get a few more targets to share the attentions of any miscreants you might find on the other side. And wormholes stay open plenty long enough to get a score of Claymores through, if they’re flown well.

But while we were waiting, it would be hard enough to even get word back from Sector Two, even without the Bull and his confederates. Even the news agencies have to get their data shipped over the old-fashioned way; hyperlink won’t get you from one sector to another. So all we could do for the present was sit on our hands and hope that the Bull’s squadron of Claymores were managing to stay ahead of the news. As long as they were meeting unprepared pirates they could very likely wipe out nest after nest of them with no losses; they were a trained strike team in ships optimised for their present purpose, and until the bad guys learned what they were up against they were on a hiding to nothing.

Still, one of these days I hoped we were going to be able to meet up again and swap some stories. On Macrae’s latest projections – and he had that lobster genius Hugh Fitzroy-Badgerson backing him up – the Claymores were going to be a galaxy-wide presence within two standard years. Not enough to eradicate every pirate in existence, but at any rate something to give them a reason to consider turning honest. If it only slowed them down, forced them to band together for their own protection, and helped to make their dirty business steadily less profitable, well, that was something worth achieving.

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"Sidewinder Precision Pro" and other fiction is now available for Amazon Kindle at a bargain price. Kindle previews: here, here and here.


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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Sun Aug 02, 2015 7:01 pm 
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There’s a thrill in watching your trainees develop.

Long hours on the four-wheelers and in the simulator gave way eventually to some real flights in the Claymores. It wasn’t always that way, as I’ve learned. Back in the days when people were flying atmosphere craft, you had the really elementary trainers that, even then, were all they could hope to keep in the air without crashing in the first few seconds, until they built up the skills for the slightly less elementary trainers, and worked their way slowly up to the combat ships. Aeronautics had a lot to do with that.

The problem was that if you had a ship that was designed to be fast and responsive, it could only be flown by someone who could handle fast and responsive. The craft itself simply couldn’t fly any other way. The only way to make something that could turn tight and quickly was to build in enough inherent instability that it was already thinking about dropping into the turn before you even asked it to – and in that case, you had to be constantly alert to the possibility and having your muscle memory trained to keep you right way up.

Technology can take care of that for you. A Claymore’s happy to fly in atmosphere and it will make use of any aerodynamic lift you have – and, well used, that can make the difference between flying normally and flying really hot. But it won’t fall out of the sky unless you actively work on overriding the safeties and forcing it into the ground, not if you’ve asked the computer to nursemaid you. Which, of course, the instructors made sure the computer would indeed do, until told differently, and on our say-so only, never the trainees’.
That meant we could have got our raw Scots off the ground a lot earlier than we did. There are not even too many hazards in space, other than running into traffic close to a station, or docking itself. We were a little stuck on the second of those, because Ususor station’s too much of a backwater to have the docking beacon that’s nearly standard equipment everywhere in the Eight, but that was something we were prepared for the simulator to teach adequately; there’s next to no acceleration involved in docking and your inner ear doesn’t send you too many confusing signals. Still and all, no-one was going to be docking with the Coriolis station until they’d logged twenty consecutive perfect landings on the sim, and one mistake meant you started from the beginning again.

But to begin with we were conducting our exercises in Ususor’s upper atmosphere – far above the ceiling of the few atmosphere planes that the planet maintains, too low for almost any space traffic, and conveniently out of reach of snoopers whether on the surface or in orbit. That gives you a good look at the world from above, with the sky shading deep blue and the brighter stars visible along with the Coriolis station if it’s anywhere above the horizon and in sunlight. There’s very little cloud at the altitude we were at, though the odd wisp that you’d never have noticed from the ground; hardly anything to tell you that you’re not in space for real, although as I told the trainees, there is a difference for all that and you will not quite realize what it is until you see it for yourselves.

Once they’d had a chance to see what it was like up there and get the feel of how a Claymore responds, we started looking at combat practice. Again, the simulators had given them some idea of what to expect – especially when there was an instructor flying against them instead of the AI. You shouldn’t understand by that that the AI is any kind of a soft touch, either; a good heuristic AI can not only react far faster than a human being but get to learn the individual foibles of an opponent and recognise who they are by how they’re flying. But an AI will never have a mean streak or an unkind sense of humour.

To teach our trainees the worth of not getting hit in combat – and also to give them an incentive to hit each other – we wired up the training suits with an electrical grid. Nothing dangerous, of course; just a mild zap that would teach them that the better part of valour lies in not getting your shields burned away. Again, a good instructor never asks a trainee to do what they can’t do themselves, so I went up regularly and encouraged the trainees to zap me if they could. They needed to learn that it wasn’t easy. But for sheer malice –

I swear it’s a cat thing. I’ve worked with a number of different feline species as an escort pilot, and, for instance, Mausser and Tom couldn’t be more different to look at nor more different in demeanour. But Tom would happily stay on a trainee’s tail for many minutes at a time, and he’s darned hard to shake once he’s there, and he’d just chip away with a little hit and then another and another, watching the trainee’s simulated shields drop away until he was right at the zap point, and let them keep thinking he couldn’t keep his sights on long enough to make his shots count properly… and then the yelling would start as they dropped into the red zone and the volts started registering. And I’ve seen that for real too many times for it to be any kind of coincidence. Cats are just natural sadists.

Still – as Tom knew very well, and as I agreed – it made the trainees really focussed and determined to see their skills improve very fast indeed. It also made them swear all kind of revenge one of these days, and I had not the slightest problem with that; but they were going to have to work for it.

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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 2:23 pm 
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It was time for a little sight-seeing.

By now I was getting the green Scots to mingle with the experienced escorts – whom we were still recruiting at a steady trickle, with what seemed like the leave and blessing of all officials concerned – and that was giving them a clearer idea of what to expect in the wicked galaxy out there. But there’s no substitute for actually going and seeing for yourself.

I was in no kind of a hurry to get the new Claymores into action before they were battle-ready, but it would do them no harm to travel across the cluster for a Jump or two, and get used to the sensation of appearing in a new star system as well as a clearer appreciation of what it meant to live in a single-ship’s cabin for a day or two at a time, even one as palatial as a Claymore’s. Even when you take out the prospect of a fight, it’s still an experience in itself to drop through a wormhole and find yourself looking at a strange star, a strange planet, maybe a gas giant in the distance and perhaps even the exotic sight of a ring system (which I hear is even more wondrous when seen from the planet’s surface)… and to realize that somewhere in orbit around that planet is a small artificial world that is your absolute lifeline, and you had better get used to the idea of being able to find it even if you’ve taken enough battle damage to knock out every navigation aid you have bar the autocompass. It’s worth one trip just to drive that home.

Clan Macrae has a few Witch-capable freighters about the place, but not enough to provide the needed assistance for all the Claymores we had, so like any other escort ship without hyperdrive we had to wait for someone else to be going the way we wanted. Fortunately, Scots take readily to the notion of lining up for a free ride, which was what essentially we were doing, and all you need to do is loiter close to the station but clear of the approach lane, and wait to hear for someone who needs a free escort as much as you need a lift. From our point of view the market forces were in our favour; lots of people like escorts in principle but can’t make them pay – the profit margin doesn’t run high enough on, say, a Cobra I or a Moray Medical Boat – and you will generally hear an offer coming over the airwaves every few minutes, although whether it’s where you want to go is quite possible another matter.

Our first port of call was Gerete, which we got a lift to almost straight away, and then Inleus, which is peaceful enough but an unlikely trade destination for anyone coming out of Gerete system and meant we had a longer wait. This was a mild nuisance because for the most part you will pick up outgoing traffic near the Coriolis station, in practice still within the aegis; which isn’t to say that no-one ever Witches out from further away but that those who do are usually in a tearing hurry to get away from some trouble and disinclined to sit around calling for passengers, much less discuss their destination with whoever cares to listen in. Still, it gave our trainees some practice at spotting key features of a star system as they run in from the Witchpoint, and the chance to see and hear what system traffic looks like for real, and not just the simulator’s view.

Someone’s always going your way if you wait long enough, though, and if you have a wormhole analyser on board – which I did, in The Black Bear – you can have a quick look to see if the last wormhole opened was one you can use, in which case there’s no real objection to slotting in behind them; that’s not a pirate’s usual modus operandi, nor yet the Assassins’, so doesn’t tend to cause a lot of alarm to an honest trader. You need to have a quick look round to see if there are any official escorts with the same aim in mind, but usually you hear a few words from the mothership calling the fighters in and reminding them to drop into formation quickly on the other side.

We got to Inleus system that way, where the system beacon cheerfully told us that there was a strong police presence and – which I listened out for carefully – no mention of an “alien vessel reported in system”. On paper a dozen Claymores ought to shred a Thargoid without even having to try hard, but you’d be justly cautious of putting too much trust in that when half your formation consists of pink and eager rookies who’ve not yet cut their teeth on a single Adder; and even when it came to that, they might find out that there’s no such thing as a free kill no matter how the stats appear to favour you.

Our last hop was over to Beor, which again I wasn’t expecting any real trouble at. There is a steady rather than brisk trade over there from Inleus, with the slime-rats on the two worlds taking a mild interest in each other’s exports, computers going one way and mainly Beornese vodka the other, but there were better takings elsewhere and the small traders knew it. So again we had a bit of a wait before someone came through presumably with his sights on somewhere over further to the North-East of the cluster; and then we fell in behind.

However, even when you’re heading into a nice orderly system behind a respectable Boa freighter, there’s always the chance that someone on the other side has something disorderly in mind. And when that happens, it would be less than neighbourly to just run out on the poor sap you followed – though it might be wiser.

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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Wed Aug 05, 2015 1:16 pm 
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Trainees are never ready for their first fight.

All right, “never say never” if you insist, but in practical terms it’s a darned good guideline. We’d not had any intention of getting into any rough stuff this run, which was just meant to be a way for the raw Scots to get their first look at Witchspace and an understanding of what was involved in making a long trip across cluster, but it looked like we weren’t going to get things quite how we’d intended.

Admittedly this was a fight we could have run away from if we’d wanted. We came through the wormhole together, stacked in nice and tight behind the honest freighter Vasco da Gama’s Argosy, and we were just giving him a cheery wave and going on our way when we spotted the traces on the scanner. When you see Clean traces, but loitering near the Witchpoint in a manner that’s not quite usual for honest traders, you start to get suspicious – and all the more so when you start hearing a few key phrases coming over the commset.

In this case it was the over-used but still kind of chilling “Remember the rules. Hit hard, hit fast, no survivors” – a dead giveaway that the Assassin’s Guild are closing in.

Macrae has said, and I thoroughly agree, that assassin’s guilds belong in ancient history or fantasy fiction, not in a modern spacefaring society with a galactic economy and enough perils for honest spacefarers to worry about already. Unfortunately, there seems to be enough demand for their services that they manage to be a going concern despite the occasional operational losses. Assassins take good care to stay off the police record, and they’ll do their job and get out alive if they possibly can, but they’re mostly very good at picking their time and place to make good on their contract.

There are ways to stay off their radar, of course. They’re only on your case in the first place because someone, somewhere, thinks that your current mission is worth hard cash to put a stop to. If you’re just a tramp freighter shipping trade goods from A to B on your own initiative, you generally don’t have anything to worry about. It’s the higher-paying special jobs you need to worry about, because there never is any such thing as a quick, easy, get-you-rich assignment.

I sent via my own commset “Red section engage, white section cover, blue section remain in reserve. Don’t buy a farm”, which left the Scots in the safest place although it would annoy their section leader, Kiran Balogh, who’d had a string of kills to his name long before he was ever handed the keys to Ben MacDuibh. That was too bad for him. I had no intention of letting green pilots try to slug it out with trained Assassins unless and until we could arrange for the odds to be ridiculously one-sided.

Assassins always give their ships innocuous names, too. The one I lit up was a Cobra I registered as “Skullduggery’s Doom”, which might have convinced the uninitiated that its crew had only noble intentions, but the way she was firing on the Argosy certainly suggested otherwise. Our temporary ally was quick to broadcast his thanks, too. Since he had about seven or eight Assassins closing in, and apparently nothing left for his injectors, I figure he might be glad of the help at that.

Pulling up and over, I spotted another of the Assassins breaking off his attack run to turn his attention to me. I heard the target-lock warning and saw his trace turn red, and a moment later my commset passed on his message: “You just made a bad mistake, The Black Bear!”. Privately I had my doubts. I acquired him with my rear sight, saw he was a Gecko having trouble even staying with me at normal speed, and saw another trace vectoring on him from a couple of kilometres away. I could guess who that was even without getting an ID on him.

For form’s sake I put The Black Bear into a turn, gradually tightening up and pulling the Assassin after me. I could have scorched away from him under injectors but I was more than happy to play the lame duck for a few seconds; it would give the green pilots a bit of a look at teamwork in a live-ammunition exercise. All of their lasers were live, of course; we never knew when they might need them. Still, if they went home with them stone cold than I would not be in the least upset.

I heard the Gecko scream behind me “I’m taking heavy fire from the Claymore! Help!”. Well, that was a bit of intel for me to file away; news about the mysterious pirate-killers was getting out and someone, somewhere had found out what a Claymore was. But this one at least wasn’t going anywhere. He’d followed me in all innocence and blundered across Tom’s gunsight, and that’s not a mistake you generally live to make a second time.

The battle moved quickly, with the Assassins quickly realizing they were outnumbered and outgunned this time, and when that happens they don’t have any qualms about making their escape. But Tom wasn’t done, I saw; there was a Fer-de-Lance desperately injecting away from him and, even so, being caught hand over fist. I had plenty in the tank so I set off after him as well, taking a quick look to make sure there weren’t any more Assassins menacing Blue Section.

Then a number of things happened in quick succession. The Ferdy slowed abruptly, as did Tom and as did I a couple of seconds later. A wormhole appeared and the Assassin vanished, Tom cried “Wingman!” and followed him, and I hit the injectors again for a moment while I was still trying to process the oddity that wasn’t quite plain to see. Then I had left Beor behind as well.

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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Wed Aug 05, 2015 9:55 pm 
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Nice to see you haven't lost your writing touch, Malacandra.

Looking forward to reading the next part.

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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Thu Aug 06, 2015 5:32 am 
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It's high time this story inspired an OXP.

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 Post subject: Re: Claymore Mine
PostPosted: Fri Aug 07, 2015 1:03 pm 
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I would be pleased and flattered if someone wanted to write an OXP based on the Claymores - either the ships or the organisation - but I don't have the necessary know-how to do either.

If you have to go diving head-first into things, take someone to cover your back.

Better, of course, if you can lose the habit of diving head-first into things, especially when you’re supposed to be a responsible section leader and when the only person available to cover your back is the officer in charge of the squadron, but it wasn’t the time to go into all that with Tom right now. I’d have to trust Kiran Balogh to get the Claymores home safely and report in on the two missing ships, and we’d catch up when we could – which could be anything from a few hours later to a few days later, depending on how far the Fer-de-Lance had Witchjumped and how much traffic was running in the direction we wanted.

First of all, naturally, we had to deal with the hostiles in the system we’d followed the Ferdy into. Chasing after an escaping Assassin wouldn’t have been my idea of a smart move, given the very real possibility that he had his bale-out planned and there were likely to be a number of his confederates waiting to cover his escape and make sure they couldn’t get tracked back to wherever it is Assassins hide out when they’re waiting for a chore. But again, talking through that with Tom was something that needed to wait for a bit.

To my surprise we’d popped through into a quiet area. The Fer-de-Lance was blasting away as fast as ever he could, which is less fast than most people expect until they’ve seen one for themselves in operation. They’re sweet to look at and I hear they’re a comfortable ride, but the only time they really hustle is when they open up the injectors, and this one wasn’t doing that. Take that away, and you may have a well-defended ship and one that can turn tight, but I’d never seen a ship yet that could turn tight enough to shake Tom off nor any defences that a really good laser couldn’t beat down sooner or later.

Once all the squealing was over and the Assassin had made the usual petulant threats about what was going to happen to us when his confreres got around to it, and Tom had answered adequately by blowing him into a violently expanding cloud of incandescent gas, it was time to look about us for a place to hitch a ride home. And then –

The Black Bear to Highland Cathedral, we need to talk.”

“Why?”

“Check your short range chart. Then check your long range chart.”

Tom obviously did so, because a few seconds later the commset passed on a “Yrrrowwlll!” which it may have transliterated poorly and made no attempt to translate. We were in Inzaquma system, which you can look up in the atlas easily enough and which meant that we were in what some people like to call “Sector Two”, others call “Galaxy 001” and still others call “Colesque”. The bottom line was this:

We’d followed the Assassin through a wormhole he’d opened up with a Galactic Hyperdrive. That’s what it’s marketed as, you can argue about the taxonomy if you like – the bottom line is that it takes you a distance completely unmatched by conventional Witchdrive, across space that’s either uninhabited or the sole preserve of Thargoids so far as anyone knows, and we weren’t getting home without using seven more.

And to make matters worse, Claymores can’t be fitted with even one.

“We really, really need to talk,” I said.

“Agreed. Station it is, then?”

I certainly couldn’t think of a better alternative. We pulled up Inzaquma Station on the compass and set off – the one comfort we had was that in a Claymore we could get there quickly.

Neither of us had a whole lot to say to each other on the way down. I didn’t see the sense in rubbing anything in, because Tom was well able to grasp how severe the situation was, and by the same token, Tom didn’t see the sense in apologising, because it wasn’t going to make things one tiny bit better if he did.

We spotted some trouble going on as we headed towards the planet, and we briefly looked the situation over; and for several long seconds we thought about not getting involved in the trouble, which featured yet another hard-up trader being shaken down by the local lowlife on pain of having his ship blown up and himself exposed briefly to hard vacuum. But once you’ve been either an escort or a Claymore it doesn’t come easy to turn your back on trouble, and we decided we’d involve ourselves after all.

On an ordinary day, our interference would have netted us maybe a hundred credits apiece in round terms – our temporarily-adopted trader was in that much trouble – but the Claymores weren’t set up for bounty hunting. They didn’t need to be; the whole operation was funded by Macrae or whatever syndicate he’d managed to set up, and he didn’t say much about that even to me. So what they might have been worth was going to remain a mystery, and wherever the money was going, it wasn’t going to us. Still, for what it was worth we had the moral triumph that goes with the gratitude of a near-the-blanket Cobra III operator, and that was a little better than nothing.

With a sigh that the commset wasn’t going to pass on, I offlined my weapons once we were in the station aegis and called for docking clearance. Tom slipped in just behind me, and we parked up in silence and headed for the station concourse, which was crowded with giant grasshoppers – or so they looked like to me – along with the usual mix of humans and related lifeforms. We had about a million problems to think through, starting with how we were going to pay for something to eat and going on from there. This mission wasn’t turning out to be so straightforward.

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