Chapter 23 The Legend
  THEY had been travelling towards Enedlia A,B1c for twelve hours. It was going to be a long journey. The jump-point into the binary system put them some 48 AU away from their target. In due course, they'd engage the stardreamer. Nothing required so much thought as to plough on without it for that long. Winston had set Jas on the job of activating the mysterious low-frequency transmitter, aiming the directional antenna at various targets in the system, starting with all the bodies orbiting Enedlia A,B1. Albright had gone to his cabin a couple of hours earlier, complaining of fatigue. Winston was exhausted too, and dozed fitfully in the pilot's seat of the stolen Cobra Mk.3.

"Guys, I don't know if you're going to believe this, but something's coming back," piped up Jas, breaking the long silence that had reigned the ship's bridge.
"Interesting?" asked Winston.
"Considering it's encrypted using Captain Wubbles cipher key, I'd say so," Jas replied.
"Well, let's have it," said Winston, lacking enthusiasm.
"It's a navigational signal," Jas replied.

   The astrogation console came alive. The normal selection of starports showed up, with one addition. Jas highlighted it. It said simply, "NKW", with the usual selection box beside it. Winston suddenly became wide awake. He selected it, and zoomed in on the target. It appeared to be in orbit around Enedlia A,B1c1 - a moon that barely qualified as an asteroidal body. It's orbital speed couldn't have been much.

"I'm going to get Mr. Albright out of his slumber," Winston said, getting up out of the commander's seat.
"No need, I've already done it," Jas replied.

  Almost in response, the bridge door slid open, and Albright entered, rubbing the tiredness from his eyes.

"This better be good," he grumbled, settling into the right-hand seat.
"We got a reply from the LF transmission. This," said Winston, indicating the astrogation console.
"A navigation buoy orbiting an asteroid? You could've let me sleep and told me in the morning," Albright grumbled.
"I take it you haven't heard about the NKW," Winston said.
"No. And I take it you're going to tell me about it rather than letting me go back to bed," he replied sullenly.

Winston just smiled.

"Well, let me tell you about it. The NKW is a legend amongst bounty hunters out on the edge. None of us believe it of course. Well, some of us believed it for a short while but were quickly disabused of that notion..." Winston started.

Jas made a sound like someone clearing their throat. Winston glared in the general direction of the nearest bridge camera.

"As I was saying, it was just a legend - a fairy story. NKW stood for Nunan's Kilometer Wedge, an odd sounding name to give to something. But the name did have meaning. The story went that there was some kind of construct - some versions of the story said it was alien, others said it was originally made by the INRA during the Thargoid wars - it doesn't matter, there were hundreds of variations on exactly where the NKW came from, some of them wildly fantastic. The function of the NKW was always the same in all the stories - you'd navigate to the construct, which on command would cause a wedge-shaped gateway to open. Similar to a witch-space tunnel, but depending on who you were listening to, it'd either send you to a system on the other side of the galaxy, or to a parallel universe, or something like that at least. The main thrust of the story is that the NKW was operated by a secretive clan of Elite bounty hunters, who used whatever was on the other side as a kind of rally point for their operations. They'd come in and sting various pirate operations vigilante-style from this gateway. A bit like that story by Robert Holdstock, except he called his gateway Raxxla. Everyone considered the NKW just as fictional as Holdstock's story, except published by word-of-mouth rather than on a DSU in the fiction section of your bookstore."

Winston paused, and took a sip from a glass of water.

"What was Jas getting at just then?" Albright asked.
"Nothing," replied Winston. The tone of his voice betrayed the fact that Jas hadn't meant nothing at all...
"Oh come on, you can't fool me, Jas knows something," Albright said, trying to tease the story out of Winston.
Winston sighed. "It's all very embarrassing, but I lost my first ship by chasing some bogus report of the NKW existing. I should have known better, but I was barely nineteen and a bit naive really. The story just lead to an ambush set up by pirates who wanted to get rid of a few bounty hunters. I was lucky to escape with my life."

They both stared at the viewscreen for a moment, showing a green square over their distant destination, with the letters NKW beside it.

"What about this?" Albright asked.
"Probably just a navigation buoy, obviously has to do with Nova Rodstein Associates. What makes it interesting is the nav signal was encrypted, and it's out in the middle of nowhere, and it was activated by the low-frequency transmitter nestling back there in the equipment deck. So we are going to take a look. The only other thing of significance is the two ships on an obvious intercept course with us, and the fact we are decked out as a trader, not a fighter."
"How far are they?"
"See for yourself."

Albright looked at the long-range scan. The ships looked about 45 minutes away. They weren't quite close enough for a positive ID, but the tonnages appeared to indicate a Cobra Mk.1 and a Sidewinder.

"Are we in trouble?" he asked.
"Depends how good they are, and what their intentions are. If they are good, we're toast. In our haste to leave, we didn't take on any extra fuel. The only place in range is Phekda, and I don't really fancy trying to make it through Phekda space in this old crate," Winston replied grimly.
"I better not go back to bed then."
"Not unless you want to sleep through your own death," replied Winston with no sign of humour. Albright shivered. That sort of talk didn't sound good from an Elite-rated pilot.
"You think it's that bad?"
"Well, we might not die here, but if things go badly for us, we'll jump out to where we can, which is Phekda. With this ship our chances are very poor in Phekda - but we have chances. I'd rather face a slim chance in Phekda rather than certain death in Enedlia."
"And if we clear this lot off, we've got a straight run to our destination. Nothing else threatening has shown up on the scan."

The bridge fell silent. Albright felt a surge of adrenaline as he watched the scanner resolve the ship types and probable equipment. They were armed to the teeth, by the looks of it. He groaned quietly.

"Don't worry, I'm quite good at not dying, you know," Winston added dryly.

Albright found little comfort in that statement, although he knew he should. He'd noticed that although Winston never showed any obvious signs of nervousness, he had observed that Winston had a habit of picking his nails with a plastic pen-top whenever he was anxious. Winston was nonchalantly looking out the viewscreen, but excavating his nails as if there was a priceless diamond trapped in there. Albright took that to be the sign that they were in dire straits.

"Surrender your cargo, or die," came the cold voice over the comm.

Winston and Albright watched the image of the enemy Cobra Mk.1 and Sidewinder on the front view. Winston had zoomed in on their adversaries. Two 1MW beam lasers, a rack of missiles, and two ships faced their 5MW pulse laser and naval ECM. Hardly a fair fight. Their message, however, was intriguing...

"Surrender our cargo?" Winston enquired. He was more used to a straightforward attack.
"Listen, Captain Birdbrain, it's quite simple, jettison your cargo and we'll let you go. If you don't we'll get it the hard way."
"I think we should," said Albright, seeing a chance of being able to flee the scene unscathed. The other alternatives were not very pleasant.
"As you wish," Winston trasmitted, and palmed the cargo jettison. Several tonnes of industrial machinery, computers and narcotics drifted into the void.
"Now move away from the cargo," ordered the enemy commander.

Winston did as instructed. He gently added power. He didn't want to scatter the cargo with his main thruster. The rear view showed the cargo receeding into the distance. The two pirates began to move in. Albright began to breathe again.

"It'll take both of them to scoop that lot," Winston observed, picking up the pen-top and digging at his nails again.
"Jim, I think now's a good time to start running away," Albright whispered urgently.

  Winston carefully brought the ship around, and used a little retro thrust to keep the ship accelerating away from the cargo and the two pirates, who were now moving in, line abreast, to scoop their booty. He then unlocked the laser gimbal.

"Lock the crosshairs onto the Sidewinder," Winston instructed.
"Jim, we can get away...they aren't going to harm us," replied Albright worriedly. "You said yourself we can't fight them!"
"Payback for the Captain Birdbrain comment, I think. I'll show them," said Winston, turning to face his partner with a wry smile.
"No buts, just keep that crosshair locked onto the Sidewinder."

  The two pirate vessels were about to start scooping the line of cargo canisters. Winston zoomed into the bow of the Sidewinder.

"OK, now move the crosshairs onto that first cargo canister, and hold it there, I'll give the order to fire," Winston said. Albright thought that Winston must have been out of his mind. The two ships were now just meters away from the cargo, carefully lining up to scoop. The Sidewinder's tractor-beam cargo scoop started to exert a pull on the first canister, guiding it towards its open cargo bay. Winston gently moved his Cobra Mk.3 into a better firing position. Nervously, Albright maintained the crosshairs on the canister.

"," said Winston in an almost conversational tone. Albright squeezed the trigger.

  The 5MW pulse laser discharged its beam. A tongue of powerful, coherent light leaped from the ruby laser rod, and slammed into the cargo canister, which instantly flashed into vapour.

Right in the mouth of the Sidewinder's open cargo bay...

  The tiny craft shattered as the exposed equipment racks took the full force of the white-hot remnants of the cargo canister. The ship's military hyperdrive breached, breaking the craft into two. Hot plasma and wreckage slammed into the dead ship's companion, the Cobra Mk.1 taking the brunt of the explosion on its front shields. Winston wound on full power, and headed straight for the Cobra Mk.1 - still intact, but with depleted front shields.

"Keep firing at the Cobra," Winston instructed. Albright, filled with adrenaline, was almost pressing finger impressions into the cold metal of the laser gimbal control, as he held the trigger down.

  The Cobra Mk.1 turned tail and tried to run, its commander confused and surprised. It merely prolonged his agony. The pulse laser mercilessly tore into his aft shields, and started to gouge into the hull in slow, harrowing blows.

It wasn't long until the laser found the fleeing ship's prime-mover...

There was a brilliant flash of light, then nothing more than tiny fragments of floating debris. Albright released his inhuman grip on the laser control and fell back in his seat. Winston brought the ship around and re-engaged the autopilot and sat back, with a sigh.

"How did you find out about that trick?" Albright asked.
"You don't get to Elite without some cunning."
"Did we really need to do that, I mean, it'd have been safer to run away, I mean I've always heard that a good combateer knows when to run."
"You're absolutely right, but we had an opportunity, and another thing a good combateer does is take advantage of those sorts of things. I didn't want Captain Creeps and his buddy chasing after us to finish us off after they took our cargo. Never trust the word of a pirate. And if you see a weakness, exploit it," Winston replied. "There's more than one way to win a battle. I saw the opportunity and took it. Think outside the box a bit, and you can beat combateers who are technically better than you. That's what all the Sim Combat you've done has never taught you. I've seen your combat style, and you have good style. All you need to do to become a great combateer, and stay alive - is to use your cunning."

Albright suddenly realised he was getting a combat lesson not from some dry theorist, but from someone who made the grade. He remained silent.

"Despite your psych report, I think you have what it takes. You were under a lot of stress right then, but you still did your job. There's a lot of people out there who can't do that."
"You've seen my psych report?" Albright asked, embarrassed. The shrink had said he'd never amount to a combateer, and should be satisfied with being a transport pilot. It also said a lot of things that Albright found embarrassing to his pride. Unfortunately, with the way he'd been feeling after that messy incident on the slaver's ship to the debacle at Diamond, he had been more and more convinced that the AJN shrink had been dead on right.
"Yep, I've seen it, and it's bullshit. If it had been true you'd have gone to pieces long ago. Don't be ashamed of being afraid, I was terrified watching those ships approach. Just don't let fear turn into panic."
"You were?"
"Scared out of my wits. I really thought we'd bought the farm this time. This ship is so unsuited to combat, we've no shields, and we were facing two manoeverable ships with beamers. I know what the opposition would have been like had we hyperspaced to Phekda. I come from there, don't forget," Winston replied matter-of-factly.
"I thought Elite pilots were all, well, fearless."
"Only Thargoid ones. The rest of us lurch from boredom to terror with alarming regularity."
"Why do you do it?"
"Bounty hunters in general? Because we're pirates who don't want a criminal record, mainly."
"You, too?"
"Yes. I'm awful at business. It's the only way I've been able to make money. Don't let anyone tell you that bounty hunters are an honourable lot. Most of us are barely one step away from being the pirates we pursue. The press glamourises us, but the Police know better. Be a bounty hunter and you'll find you are only begrudgingly welcomed in most systems. Most of us are barely one step ahead of the law. Many of the bounty hunters I know have fallen to a Viper's sting, not to a pirate attack. Anyway, let's get the stardreamer on. It'll be days before we even get near this mysterious navigation beacon of ours."

"In vicinity of target," said the navicomp's synthesized voice.

   The stardreamer cut off. Ahead of the ship, still looking small and distant was the asteroidal body, Enedlia A,B1c1. The planet it orbited looked sullen and inhospitable in the dull light cast on its night side by the central brown dwarf and the weak binary suns. Albright had taken the helm some hours earlier, the trip stretching on despite the stardreamer. He allowed the ship to continue under autopilot towards the point marked NKW in the navigation computer. The ship began to slow.

  It was Winston's turn to look bleary-eyed. Jas had woken him, and he had staggered up from his quarters. He slumped in the right hand seat, and strained to find in the darkness what the ship was travelling towards. The ship began to make a turn, and began to face the planet below. The distance counter rolled down. The ship had slowed to about 50 km/h relative to Enedlia A,B1c - and they only had 400 meters to go. Apart from the planet and its asteroid moon, there wasn't anything to see.

"Well, this seems to be a bit of an anti-climax," Winston said at last.
Albright merely grunted in agreement.

The distance counter rolled to zero, then started counting upwards.

"Looks like we went past it."
"Want me to switch to manual?" Albright asked.
"No, let's see where the autopilot is taking us."

   They both intently looked at the scanner. There was no sign of other ships. Winston brought up the long-range scanner and began to study it carefully. The ship continued on its slow path to the planet below. Then they noticed a small indication on the scanner - something small, just a blue return. It vanished. Winston continued to study the scanner, rewinding through the last few seconds to attempt to find out what the blue return was. Maybe it was just a bit of noise that the antennas had picked up. Meanwhile, Albright was looking up through the forward view, his mouth open, suprised into speechlessness...

  He heard Winston quietly curse as he struggled with the scanner log controls, which weren't laid out as he was used to. Winston had swung around in his chair to use the main scanner control, rather than the remote display on the console, to find as much detail as he could. He therefore hadn't seen what Albright was staring at. In front of them, the barren cold planet had suddenly and without fuss apparently turned into a blue/green planet warmed by a nearby sun - teeming with life. There had been no flash of hyperspace entry. No witch-space tunnel. Just the sudden apparent transformation of the star system they were in. The navicomp display had also come alive with five starports.

"Jim, you better take a look at this," Albright eventually croaked.

Winston turned his chair around, and nearly fell out from surprise.

"Wha..? Where did that come from?" was his eventual feeble response.
"I haven't got the faintest idea," Albright replied.

  Gobsmacked, all they could do was continue. Winston eventually selected a target on the navicomp - the largest starport listed, which was on the planet below. It was all extremely strange.

"NKW?" asked Albright

Winston nodded feebly. There had to be some kind of rational explanation for this. It just didn't fit in with the way the universe ran.

"What do we do now?" Albright asked.
Winston shrugged. "Land, get out, take a look around, I suppose. Find out how to get back and report to Saunders when we find any useful information. That's the best I can think of right now," Winston replied.

  The ship had picked up speed, and it would only be a short time until they landed. The spaceport was on the side of the planet facing them. There wasn't anything either of them could do until they landed, so they sat in silence, watching the planet grow larger on the front view. Moments later, the autopilot requested landing clearance. The landing sequence continued without fuss, as it did on countless other planets every day, which made it seem all the more strange to both Winston and Albright. It was like a routine trading mission. The ship landed, the wheels now taking the weight, and the engine automatically shut down. Arrayed around the spaceport on the generous sized aprons were an array of hundreds of craft, small to large, all bearing Nova Rodstein Associates insignia.

  As if they were in a dream, both Winston and Albright left the bridge, and walked through the equipment section to leave the ship. Just as on any other planet, an autotug was already on its way to move their ship from the landing pad to the parking apron.

  Albright touched the main entry door control, and the ship's main hatch opened, the entry ladder sliding down to meet the concrete below.

© 2002 Dylan Smith.

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