Aftermath (Part 17)

by Simon Challands

an Élite story

     There was nothing more that could be done than wait for the approaching ship. The Constrictor could easily have opened the distance between them, but the transport they were following showed no inclination to move any faster. The Vipers maintained their formation about it.
     As it approached the scanners were able to take better readings of its course and speed and provide a better estimate of its intercept time, but they gave little other information. The ship was probably larger than the Constrictor, by an uncertain amount, although not as great as one of the massive Anaconda class freighters or a Naval cruiser.
     Instruments recorded that the shields were functioning. During the wait Edwards' body was placed in the cargo hold where some of his crewmates paid him brief farewells.
     There was some excitement as the approaching vessel crawled its way onto the short range scanners. The Constrictor was equipped with military grade sensors, and whilst old (and almost certainly illegally obtained) they could now begin to attempt some analysis of the ship.
     The shield technology wasn't understood by the locals, and the Constrictor's computers were unable to read any such defences. Details about its overall size could now be more accurately determined, a very rough mass estimate made, and the amount of power needed to move it was calculated. Various readings indicated the state of the ship's power source, which was clearly capable of producing much more than was being put into the engines, but it would be impossible to find out more about weaponry until it was actually used.
     There was no radio traffic between the fleeing transport and the intercepting craft, no threats or calls for surrender. Aeyris tried hailing it without success.
     Before it came within firing range three of the Vipers suddenly broke away from their escort stations and rushed back towards the invader. The main screen on the Constrictor's bridge changed view to watch.
     The three Vipers diverged to approach from different angles, gradually dwindling to specks in the rear view. With the zoom changed to maximum they could just be seen as tiny arrows. The mystery ship appeared to consist of two distinct sections, a conical nose joined by several struts to a more bulbous rear.
     The Vipers struck simultaneously, lasers flashing out into the void. Their target refused to be intimidated, and flew on as if the attack had no power to harm it. The scanner showed a small object leave the vessel and speed towards a Viper, which swung around to face the approaching missile. At the last second the missile exploded, but the Viper carried on undamaged.
     "Fancy shot," Marchero commented.
     "It didn't fire a laser at it," said Silsi, who had been following the encounter more closely on her combat console. Sawaka concurred.
     "A close-in missile defence system?" wondered Silsi.
     "Must be," Aeyris said. "This might mean they don't have ECM systems. We could have an advantage here."
     The Vipers continued their attack. Occasionally there was a laser burst from the larger ship as a target crossed the line of sight of a fixed weapon. There was also the odd strike from a smaller but more mobile gun, low powered but enough to eventually drive one of the Vipers to open the range to allow its shields to recharge.
     The primary purpose of this laser was revealed when a missile was shot at the ship. It lashed out at the remote weapon and hit it on the fourth attempt, before returning to make opportune blasts at the nearest vessel.
     "Right, that does it," Aeyris announced. "Silsi, turn to attack!"
     Seeing this new and unknown threat, the Shriy craft turned slightly to point its primary gun at the Constrictor. An intense beam sprang from it, burning nothing as Silsi evaded. Both ships moved, the pirates' vessel trying to keep out of the line whilst closing to within its guns' range and the other one attempting to soften the approaching craft.
     The next beam caught the nose of the somewhat unwieldy Constrictor. It juddered sharply and the viewscreen died before quickly flickering back into life. The fore shield indicator fluctuated wildly before settling down at three quarters of its previous level.
     "So far so good," declared Kirrik.
     "But that was some blast. I don't want to face many more of those with the shields in an uncertain state," Aeyris retorted, carefully watching the enemy and Silsi's manoeuvres. "Back off and take a wider approach."
     The Constrictor swung around, causing the next shot to miss. The raider did not follow, but returned to its original course as the Vipers struck again. Now they were closing from a different angle, more slowly, but hopefully away from being struck.
     There was a brief warning "whoop" and the "Incoming Missile" message flashed on screen. With a light tap on his chair's armrest controls Aeyris activated the ECM and grunted in satisfaction as an explosion lit the forward screen. He wasn't the only one to notice. The nearest Viper aborted its attack run and retreated to take station near the Constrictor.
     "What's he doing?" Marchero asked indignantly.
     "Ignore it," barked Kirrik.
     The Schriy raider was not ignoring it, though, and turned to abandon its pursuit of the transport in order to face the two craft now hurtling towards it.
     "Slow!" Aeyris told Silsi. "Don't run ahead of the Viper. Sawaka, lock a missile on that ship."
     Now they took a curving path to delay the time when they themselves would once again be targetted.
     "Problem!" Sawaka announced suddenly.
     "The shields aren't recharging! Look!" The indicator was, indeed, still sitting on the three quarters mark.
     "We're lucky they work at all," Kirrik pointed out.
     Still they closed, and they were well within range before Silsi fired. But when she did, she was certain that the military lasers would strike their target. They did, producing a spectacular flare of light. The Viper opened fire shortly afterwards, but whereas the Constrictor had hit rear section it struck against the cone. The flare dimmed and spread, but nothing touched the hull.
     All at once the Viper veered out of the way, its drives glowing brightly as it changed course as quickly as it could. For a second no-one gave it much thought, then suddenly Kirrik yelled, "Get back! Abort the run!"
     For a moment Silsi instinctively turned to stare at him, nonplussed.
     "Turn away!" Kirrik screamed again. The pilot recovered and pulled hard on the joystick, attempting to dump forward velocity at the same time.
     The ship seemed to explode; there was a bone-wrenching crash and a glaringly bright flash before the lights went out, leaving the odd chaotic flicker from a confused instrument. For a brief moment there was no sound from anyone, then voices broke out, screaming in terror, swearing in anger, crying in pain.
     Another jolt. The noise increased, in amongst it was Aeyris' futile attempt at trying to restore order. From somewhere drifted the acrid stench of smoke.
     A third time something slammed into the Constrictor. The screaming voices on board were silenced. The ship tumbled into space, spinning fast and out of control.

Part 18
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