“Who throws a shoe????”

The alarm chirruped from the table alongside his bunk and was promptly silenced by a well thrown shoe.

Walking over to the console in for what could only be described as a low-g onesie, Vin couldn’t help but smile as the station’s system cameras showed him the new test ship.

Where the sidewinder had sat on the middle of the platform like a child’s toy, the cobra spread its hood across, looking menacing.

The changes from the old cobra were subtle, and the outline was a familiar one. Gone were the fixed hardpoints and lateral/rear cameras and in their place were weapon hatches, designed to hide the array of weaponry available and provide a sleek exterior for atmospheric flight.

There hadn’t been anything other than rumours about the station regarding the future plans for the craft, but he could see the modifications opened up possibilities once the new systems were rolled out.

The redesigned cockpit was far more comfortable than the sidewinder – far less cramped and fitted with a co-pilot’s seat.

Nestling just left of centre, the pilot’s chair was bulkier and more padded than the sidewinder one – a benefit of having a far larger ship. Next to the cobra, the sidewinder looked like an oversized escape pod.

He had moved his quarters from the Frontier testing station to port Zelada overnight, hauling the bulk of his things in the new cargo bay. His first flight hadn’t gone entirely uneventfully – the station hadn’t recognised his pilot ID and clearance and had opened up the internal cannons on him as soon as he launched. Far from ideal, but as usual, Frontier were picking up the clean-up bill.

Docking pad 13 had been rapidly repaired after its Anaconda interface of yesterday and there were a couple of low-g drones hovering and welding the last few plates back into place.

The guys from the Thargoid & Fer-De-Lance had opened a 2nd bar here at Zelada station – the old one had become far too crowded with test pilots and those on the waiting list for system tests.

Catching up with a few of the pilots, he had seen the vidscreens showing various exploits from the previous day’s testing. Jackboot and Ian had been taking turns trying to park at the station in reverse, more people had reported the rogue Anaconda leaving scorch marks all over the station entrance and many others had been having a grumble over their pint about system dropouts.

The best news that he had since moving his things over was that the quarters were serviced by good old fashioned DNA toting real people.

Hopping out of the shower and into his flight suit, he headed for the flight deck. The test pilot quarters were all directly rimwards from their landing bay and as he moved closer to the centre, the gravity lowered, allowing him to bounce along like a 20th century cartoon character.

The maintenance crew (wasn’t it nice to have ditched those drones) called across. “Morning Vin. You’ve got a single beam for the loadout. Will leave you enough credit in case you lose her in the test areas to get it recovered.”

“Cheers, guys. Are the systems online this morning?”

“Pretty much. We’ve had reports of a bug with the Cobra systems causing minor detonation on station exit, but other than that, nothing major.”

Minor detonation didn’t sound anything other than painful – he didn’t bother asking as it would only add more grey hairs.

Strapping in to the Cobra felt good. After so many years living in one, even though this was new and shiny, it felt familiar. Old shoes, new soles and a decent pair of laces.

Heading up from the hangar to the pad, he glanced overhead to see traffic moving slowly, clicked the interface and lifted from the pad. Every time he did, the rotation on the station kicked him to the right and he had to nudge the vertical thrusters so as not to mash the tower on the pad next door.

Glancing over at the control tower for Zelada station, he fancied he could see the crazy lady sitting behind the toughened screen, finger poised over the “glowing death” button.

“Engines full” he spoke into the headset and the Cobra’s engines hummed into life. The noise was throatier and beefier than the sidewinder and the ship shot towards the letterbox at speed.

Nudging the lateral thruster as he passed through the atmosphere shield (complete with electric hum and his hair standing on end), he narrowly missed an incoming Cobra and shot past the landing beacons.

He cut back to 1/4 throttle to set the jump co-ordinates, glancing over to the left panel. A passing cobra caused him to duck as the noise from the virtual environment speakers blared engine noise throughout the cockpit. Space was a silent place, but Frontier had added the VE system to cockpits to provide a combination of aural alerts for commanders and liven up the experience.

“It’s all PR, baby, all PR. We should use it as our tagline ‘Making space sound funky’ ” the briefing warden had told him when he finished his orientation back to Frontier test station.

The cockpit lit up as the cobra that had passed him pulled into a steep turn and detonated with a dull crump. He could see the pilot ejected into space, unconscious and debris spiralled in all directions.

“Port Zelada, you have a rescue out here. No third parties involved. Dropping a marker.”

“Copy that, Vin. Thank you. Have a nice day.”

He REALLY didn’t like her accent…..

Jumping to the ID scenario, he could see the old hulk, still on fire, attached by umbilical cables to a second one. The pilots were clearly having trouble as at least one drone was caught and crushed between the two hulls as they maneuvered.

Throttling up, he picked the nearest drone, locked in the target and opened up with the beams. Tracking vertically, he nudged the thrusters to widen his turn circle and pop out behind the sidewinder.

A satisfying explosion later and his account was a few hundred cr richer.

After 15 minutes or so, the engines started to stutter and fail, jerking the ship all over the place.

“I’m jiggered if I’m going to lose this ship now I’ve got it”.

Clicking the interface across to the navigation panel, he could hear the thump thump thump of rounds hitting the shields. They failed and the hull started taking damage.

“Come ON,” he tried hurrying the panel up. With the engine stutter, the interface had slowed to a snail’s pace.

Hull was dropping slowly – 50%, 30%, 10%, 3% then the jump engines surged into life and left him floating behind a cracked canopy outside Zelada station.

He limped it back into the station, dropping dejectedly back on to his landing pad. Thankfully, the crazy lady from docking control was on a tea break and the junior that they left in charge did things by the book.

“What the hell have you done to it?” called the maintenance lead.

“Bloody thing cut out on me mid combat and I was handed my **** by a sidewinder.”

“You logged it yet? The development team have moved to Orerve, you’ll need to link your console to the new location.”

Pulling up the console again, he headed down into the hangar and looked at the butcher’s bill. There went the last of his cash reserves.

“Better not bloody crash this one…”

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