The Price of the Elite

(c) 2000 - 2003 Simon Challands

Chapter 6 - Explanations and First Encounters

     The pilot unbuckled himself, stretching to relieve the aches the jump had left in his muscles. He hoped his passenger had suffered worse, left floating in a zero-G environment whilst the transit occurred. Steeling himself, for he was tempted to leave her locked away for the duration of the journey, he moved to leave the bridge. A though crossed his mind; he paused to rummage around in some lockers behind his seat until he found a small sidearm.
     When he reached the door to the ship's entrance lock he pressed the button to activate it, and stepped back quickly, onto a part of the floor where the Gecko's dubious artificial gravity wouldn't cause him any surprises.
     The door opened to reveal a scene of misery. Bruises were starting to show on her face, along with numerous small cuts, and a few gobs of vomit drifted slowly around. The pilot grimaced in revulsion at the sight, and the smell. He had no pity for the cause - everything that happened to her was deserved, and that it had messed up his ship only made him angry. She seemed to be conscious, but paid no heed to him. Then something else caught his eye - a small metallic flash, as something drifting in the detritus caught the light from the open doorway. Some of the woman‘s other possessions were also scattered around the small room, but they were immediately identifiable, and ordinary. This other object appeared to be some sort of jewellery or ornament; he could just make out that something was engraved on its surface, but what was unclear.
     ”Out you come,• the pilot ordered the semi-comatose woman. She still ignored him, too caught up in her own misery. He tried pointing his pistol at her. She was facing his way, but didn‘t react, even if she had seen it. Messed hair covered her face, and he couldn‘t see if she had her eyes open. Setting it to minimum power, he fired the pistol over the woman‘s head. A couple of sparks flashed from the point of impact on the far wall.
     There was a twitch of limbs, and a hand pushed some of the hair away. A few indecipherable words escaped the stained mouth, and she tried to twist around again. With an muttered curse at her the pilot returned to the cockpit, realising that his passenger wasn‘t going to be able to move herself in zero gravity.
     A quick touch of the controls fired the underside manoeuvring thruster into action, and the Gecko started to accelerate upwards relative to itself. In the gravity-controlled parts of the ship the movement was not noticeable, but it provided a little force in the entrance area.
     He returned to find the woman slumped on what was now the floor. She raised her head to stare at him with bleary eyes.
     ”Get out of there,• he ordered, his fist clenched about his gun. When she stayed where she was the pilot muttered a curse. He jabbed his firearm in her direction, then waved it aside.
     "Sod you," he complained. "You can't stay there forever, and you owe me some answers. If I'm not getting any I'll lock you in there for the rest of the journey, and turn you over to the first person who asks. So come on, get up!"
     Arms pushed her body up. A grimace, then a look of surprise as she moved easily in the low gravity. She slowly gained her feet. Her feet shuffled along the floor, one hand pressed against the wall to try to keep herself steady in the unfamiliar environment. The pilot backed away and returned the gun towards her, but as she left the confines of the airlock and entered the part of the ship where more obscure physics produced weight she stumbled and sank to her knees.
     Once again she was forced to struggle upwards, but this time she needed no prompting from the man, gritting her teeth and staring defiantly at him. They stood a few feet apart, the pilot standing tensely, the woman leaning against the wall, each watching the other cautiously and suspiciously.
     "Fine," the man said at last. "That's enough pushing around. I don't give a damn about what you're involved in, because I don't want anything to do with it. Anyone who chases me for you can have you. If no- one does, you get off this ship as soon as we dock and never come anywhere near me again."
     "What about the explanation you were after?" the woman snarled sarcastically.
     The pilot shrugged that away. "Changed my mind. I really don't want to know." He took a couple of steps back and jammed a door panel with his free hand. There was a grind and screech of metal before a door suddenly jerked open. Beyond were the ship's living quarters, a dingy room that had certainly seen better days. The bare metal walls were smoke-stained in places, and the bunks simply shelves without any mattresses. A couple of lockers stood in the far wall, one with its door hanging open. In a few places bare wires protuded, probably where entertainment equipment had been ripped out. Another door, presumably leading to a bathroom, was shut tight. It all looked like it should smell as bad as it appeared, but at least the air scrubbers and filters seemed to be doing a good job.
     "Stay in there," the pilot ordered. The woman took her weight off the wall and walked through the door without another glance towards her prisoner who was now her captor.
     With her out of the way, the pilot returned to the bridge. finally taking time to examine the ship's controls in some detail. Designed as a single pilot craft, it didn't take him long to assess that the primary systems, at least, were fairly standard, enough for him to handle in normal circumstances without too much specific knowledge of this vessel. But these were not normal circumstances. Hostile encounters in space were depressingly common, even in his limited experience - they were what had, in his mind, ultimately led him to this mess, after all. Personal, face to face confrontations were less so, though, at least if you did your best to keep out of trouble when on station or planet.
     Finally his curiosity once again got the better of him, as he remebered that most of the woman's possessions were still in the airlock. He didn't want to ask her, and he suspected would have no intention of telling the truth, if she said anything, but with a bit of luck she had brought some clues with her. It made sense to him to get at least a glimmer of an idea about what was going on, if it could be done without revealing that he might have learned something.
     The upward thrust was still active; the airlock interior had settled down, and it was an unpleasant, messed up sight. Most of the objects lying lightly on the floor were immediately identifiable - the gun she had threatened him with, a small bag, lying flat, most of its contents already shaken out, and a few miscellaneous cards. There was also the thing that had caught his attention earlier, caught in a corner.
     It was about two inches across, metallic, somewhere between bronze and gold in colour, with a couple of holes in one edge, with a fine chain dangling from it. There was no sign of any engraving on the face he could see; perhaps it was lying face down. Since it was spattered with the general detritus filling the small space the pilot reached out gingerly with the gun he still carried to hook the chain with the barrel. Holding it carefully in the low G he retreated to the bridge to examine it more closely.
     On the bridge he dropped the pendant to the floor before he fetched a cup of water from a drinks dispenser to rinse off the mess quickly. Then he picked it up, and looked at it closely for the first time. A blank face; he flipped it over, and dropped it in surprise. Etched into the surface was a sign every spacer knew, but few ever carried, wings on an inverted triangle, a winged helm between them, and a word screaming trouble across the pattern - "ELITE".
     This was what he had been pushed into? As if Qudira wasn't bad enough! An entanglement with Elite rated combateers would spell more than the mere loss of a ship, and they would find out soon enough who he was, and what he was now carrying. The Elite were few and far between, but not so far that they didn't hear about everything that happened to one of their members. As such, rumour had it, they formed loose clans, some preying on anyone, some wiping out those who preyed on anyone, and often there was fierce hatred between these clans. No matter that, any Elite pilot had friends somewhere, people who would aid or avenge them.
     It seemed unlikely that the woman now safely locked away was such a person. He stooped to recover the pendant from the floor. Here was the evidence, though, sitting in the palm of his hand, shining dully in the bridge lights. The pilot considered the thought that he had never knowingly met an Elite rated pilot, and therefore had no idea what they would be like. With a starship as your weapon, you could be as physically and socially impressive, or otherwise, as you wanted, and it would make no difference. But you had to be brave to be Elite, and able to take instant and direct action in moments of crisis, that much was obvious, and his prisoner did not appear to be that type.
     The pilot stepped up, turning to leave the bridge. He was still shaken, and guessed the woman was as well, but the adrenalin surge has died down. Perhaps it was time to get answers now.
     He had only taken a couple of paces before the whooping of a klaxon from behind him chased him back to the commander's chair. The scanner ellipse was no longer empty, with a strong club now superimposed on it. Warning flashed on the screen - "THARGOID CRAFT IN AREA".
     "Shit," was all he could utter, for here was something way beyond his ability to deal with. The screen showed the octagonal vessel stabilising after hyperspace exit, a cloud dispersing into space from around it. "Shit." It was beyond coincidence.
     The black disc was half-silhouetted against the sun, no lights shining of its own. It turned, ponderously at first, then started approaching. The pilot killed the constant upward thrust and forced his small craft to leap forward, away from the menace, hoping to outrun the larger vessel. The hyperdrive wouldn't be able to function for a while, and would be less than useless. The Thargoid could follow him in, catch him in mid- jump.
     The Gecko shuddered as it took an impact on the rear shields. Blasts came in quick succession; the screens dropped a noticeable amount with each one. The pilot wrenched the ship onto a new course, but soon the blasts were hitting again. He hurled the craft into wild evasive manoeuvres, each one allowing the larger and infinitely more powerful vessel to close on him. Two smaller markings appeared on the scanner, and the rate of hits increased.
     Armed only with a single pulse laser, he was no match for what he was facing. He turned towards one of the smaller targets, eventually heading towards it with the less injured forward screens. A few seconds more of incoming fire and it was down, but a small pentagonal craft was in his sights. He desperately fired the laser, and it disintegrated in a few shots.
     The scanner remained mercifully clear of any further Thargons, their mothership either being short supplied or seeing no need to waste them on such an easy target, and the pilot was all but dead. The Gecko's shields had failed, and the emergency energy reserves were nearly out.
     Space in front of the Gecko distorted, twisting itself into the shape of a new vessel, a cloud forming around it. Then a second later it flashed into solid shape, the evil-looking snake's head of a Cobra Mk III. Other blips appeared on the scanner. The Cobra quickly came to life, shooting straight over the Gecko towards the Thargoid in a heavy stream of military laser fire. The laser battering from the Thargoid ceased. The small mark of the other Thargon vanished.
     Shaking so badly he was hardly able to, he turned around to see the Thargoid under an onslaught. Two Cobra Mk IIIs and two Fer-de-Lance Lightspeeders were hammering at the alien vessel. In a seeming miracle of foresight one of the Fer-de-Lances smoothly twisted out of the way fire was returned, barely glancing on its shields. A short-range missile from the other Fer-de-Lance blew a huge explosion from the corner of the enemy, and pushed beyond endurance it vanished into hyperspace.
     The pilot jabbed at the comms, hailing at his impossible rescuers. They formed up in formation in front of him, then accelerated off into space.

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