Chapter 3 Happiness is a Warm Gun
  The orange type K star, Veliaze, shone in the distance. Winston busily searched out the long range scan for potential attackers, while Albright set the navigation systems to bring the ship to Chester for its last refuelling stop before their destination - Old Blackelk, on Hope, in the Gateway system. The long range scan showed plenty of pirate activity. It was a certainty that they would get attacked. At least Albright would get a proper test, thought Winston to himself. So far, the only attacks they had received had been extremely half-hearted. Most of the attackers simply fled once the fighter launcher disgorged its load of radio controlled drones. Others had been, quite frankly, "crap" as Winston had put it rather bluntly earlier in the journey, and had quickly succumbed to either the fighters or the Asp's 4MW beam laser. None of the attacks were challenging enough to find out whether Albright really was any good as a combateer.

  To be honest, it would also be a bit of a test for James Winston himself. He hadn't fired a shot in anger for quite some time, and he suspected he was rather out of practise. So it was with some relief when the long range scan showed only one group of pirates turn to make an intercept course with the Asp...

"OK, Chuck," said Winston, "we are going to be attacked by this group here." Winston pointed to the long range scanner. The scanner couldn't give out exact numbers at this range, but there was definitely more than one ship.

  Albright studied the scanner intently for a few moments. Every ten seconds or so, the position of the ships would be updated, the computer showing prediction lines for the group's course through space. They intersected the Asp's course towards Chester. The interceptors were only about 0.5 AU from their current position.

"When can we tell how many ships there are?" asked Albright.
"Unfortunately, not until they are within about 200 km or so. That still gives us plenty of time to run away should it turn out we are hopelessly outgunned," replied Winston.
"You sound as if you've done this before," said Albright, without thinking.
"You could say that," replied Winston, briefly raising an eyebrow in surprise at Albright's statement.

  Of course, James Winston had been awarded an Elite rating. That meant he had defeated thousands of enemies. To say that he had done this soft of thing before was an understatement so gross that it could punch a hole clean through space-time.

  Winston elected not to engage the stardreamer. It was deeply unpleasant being brought out of its effects when the attack alarm went off, and since the intercepting pirates weren't that far off, there was no advantage to using the stardreamer. It certainly wouldn't last long enough to give them any rest whilst waiting for the inevitable. It would be interesting to see how a sim-combateer coped with real life combat. Winston had met people who had only done sim-combat before. He was of the opinion that Sim-Combat was a lousy substitute for the real thing, with most sim-combateers being hopelessly outclassed by combat pilots with only "Average" ratings. Albright had been a bit full of himself. Maybe he'd get a dose of humility this time. Winston's plan was to allow Albright to launch the interceptors. while he did nothing, just to see how Albright would perform in a real situation. There was some risk involved, but it wouldn't be too difficult to help out with the Asp's 4MW beam laser if things started to get out of hand.

  The Viper Mk.2 hurtled out of the pulsating blue hyperspace exit cloud and into interstellar space. Jane Willams slumped back in her control seat, and wiped the sweat of her forhead. It had been close... very close. The nightmare image of two Asps bearing down on her Viper, beam lasers slicing through her shields like a hot knife through margarine, kept flashing through her mind. Fortunately, she had reacted extremely quickly to the sudden attack, and hyperspaced, forcing a mis-jump. They couldn't chase her now.

  The damage report showed that she only had a minor hull breach in the equipment section and depleted shields. However, her fuel level was such that she would have to make an extra stop before reaching Gateway. It would be a very close run thing. She knew that James Winston was even now hurtling ever closer to his destination, and possibly his and Albright's doom. At least her employers had bought her story about having a desperately ill nephew. They granted her compassionate leave for the next four weeks. She realised that if they ever found out what really was going on, she probably wouldn't live long enough to give her version of the events to the subsequent board of inquiry.

  She sighed as she brought up the navigation system. Forced misjumps were always somewhat unpredictable, and this one was no exception. She hadn't even travelled in the desired direction. The only inhabited system within range was Tiethay. At least she could make Gateway in one jump from there.

The pulsating red hyperspace exit cloud appeared around her ship as she engaged the drive.

Whoop whoop whoop!

  The attack siren of Winston's Asp screamed its dire and dismal warning across the bridge. The computer had identified the intercepting vessels as a definite hostile force. Winston and Albright could now see that this consisted of a Cobra Mk.3 and two Sidewinders. Winston thought that it could well be a challange, but nothing that couldn't be handled without too much difficulty.

"Alright, Chuck, you can show me how well a sim-combateer does these days," said Winston, with a smile.

Albright gave Winston a sly grin in return, and Winston didn't really know why. The young man was being extremely cocky for a first real combat experience. Winston thought that this skirmish might help bring Albright's ego down to a managable size. The first real combat experience for someone who has only done sim combat was usually a humiliation. Winston knew he was taking a calculated risk, and that some of the four remotely controlled interceptors may be destroyed in the attack. However, it was a risk worth taking - certainly better than trying to instruct Albright with the Asp alone.

  Winston got an ident on the three ships that were closing. It looked like the fight might indeed be interesting. The Cobra pilot was not only a fugitive with every police organization, he was also rated Dangerous. The two Sidewinders had Competent ratings to go along with their long criminal records. Albright would have his work cut out with those three.

"OK, Chuck, show me what you can do," said Winston, as the three ships came within firing range.

  Albright flashed Winston another extremely irritating grin, and launched the fighters. The enemy hadn't been expecting four tiny ships to rocket out of the Asp, and it obviously took them a little by surprise. Normally only Thargoids did that kind of thing. However, this surprise didn't last long. The battle began in earnest!

  Winston took control of the Asp, but did not fire. He could see Albright's look of intense concentration. The lead fighter was on manual control, with Albright directly piloting it via a holographic video link. The other three robotic craft acted as automatic wingmen. Winston simply flew the Asp erratically, trying to make it hard for the enemies to hit him. Every so often, a laser strike would register, but at that moment it wasn't affecting the heavily shielded Asp. Winston noticed that Albright appeared to be doing the right thing...he was targeting the most dangerous ship and giving it a great deal of punishment. The enemy Cobra was no longer trying to attack his Asp, instead it was desperately trying to avoid being gouged by Albright's fighters.

The battling formation wheeled around.

"Warning, incoming missile!" warned the ship's computer. Albright ECM'ed it, and it exploded harmlessly. The Cobra began to trail debris as it started to succumb to the fighter's attacks. The two Sidewinders were now trying to help the Cobra by attacking Albright's fighters. However, Albright had already anticipated this, and modified his attack course such that the Sidewinders overtook them and got seriously out of position. It was a nice move, and not a move made by a novice. It was not a move a typical sim-combateer made. Without mercy, Albright bore down on the Cobra, lasers blasting. The Cobra's drive exploded, and shrapnel hurtled in every direction.

  The Sidewinders started to turn tail to run. Winston looked over at Albright, whose features had arranged themselves into a grim look of determination. The fighters streaked after the Sidewinders, and Winston commanded the Asp to follow with a few nudges of the controls. Albright commanded two of the fighters to automatically attack the one Sidewinder, whilst he took command of the others, and began to finish off the other. There was a brief tussle of activity as the Sidewinders vainly tried to escape the deadly attack, followed by two explosions!

  Albright sat back in the chair, as the fighters returned to their bays inside the Asp's lower equipment deck. Winston was astonished at the young man's performance. It was the performance of a combat pilot rated at least Dangerous, if not better. Not the performance of a typical sim-combateer!

"So, what do ya think?" said Albright, the cheeky grin quickly returning.
Winston nodded. "Very impressive. Are you sure you've only done sim-combat?"
"Well, I might have got a few battles in here or there, while going to sim-combat competitions, but that's pretty much it," he replied.
"Well, we'll have to visit Riedquat on the way home", said Winston.

  But Winston had his suspicions. There was more to Albright than met the eye, he thought. But to have a co-pilot that just acted like Albright did just then, in the heat of a battle...making a potentially deadly situation look trivial - copilots like this were difficult to find. Winston knew that at least their odds of survival had just got better, despite the surprise that Rafael Vincent undoubtedly had in store for them.

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

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