Dropping the bubble wrap on the floor of his quarters, Vin grinned at the new wall clock. An old fashioned digital countdown in shiny black with garish red numerals. The embossed lettering “Countdown to” and a space for his own lettering alongside.
Where in the box was the “Alpha 4” sticker?
Giving it pride of place at the foot of the bed, Vin glanced at his ancient chronometer. He grabbed the second item from the box and headed for the hangar. As usual, the subtle shift in gravity as he walked hubward was an odd sensation.
Shinning down the ladder to the hangar bay, the cobra was waiting for him, as was familiar these days, dimly lit by the advertising screens dotted around the wall.
A month after his “alpha” credit rating jumped following a few lucky bounties, the Cobra had taken pride of place in the bay. As usual, the automated repair systems and rare engineer visits kept it spaceworthy.
The top hatches clunked open and the gimballed beams slotted into place. Below the curve of the hull, the cutting out equipment for breaking apart unshielded ships ran through a test spin.
Vin could see the ammunition racks being loaded into place and a pair of heatsink pods waiting to be loaded. Last sortie, he’d forgotten them, buttoned the ship up tight for some silent running and promptly turned the ship into a sauna…. Not enough to damage critical systems, but more than enough to cause him to panic.
Dropping the stencil out of his flight bag, he wheeled the ladder up to the cockpit window.
“Mate – purple please….” he called to the flight engineer. A can clattered at his feet as he taped the stencil in place.
Clipping the can into the maintenance arm, he keyed in his code to the console and the arm set to work, engraving using his template and then colouring and sealing the work to the hull.
Vin dropped into the pilot’s seat a few minutes later as the arm cleaned overspray off the canopy. The network of small scratches and marks from weeks of testing were visible under the hangar lights, giving him a spidery view out of the edges of the port canopy.
What had started as rumours around the pilot’s rest room about supplies and tugs heading out for a new area of space in preparation for the next round of testing had turned into fully fledged speculation and excitement throughout the station.
The fights had continued, fuelled by bored pilots using their test time to blow each other out of the sky at every opportunity. The Impeccable hulks were practically a no go area, with a combination of muppetry from the pilots of the hulks and banditry from the other testers making it decidedly unsafe.
Pushing the throttle forward and giving a quick blast on the vertical thrusters, he jumped up from the pad and out through the letterbox on the station, heading for the asteroid field.
Whilst waiting for the range from the station to allow him to jump, he glanced over his notes about what to expect from the next round of testing. Frontier had a set of systems opened up to the various factions, allowing both the Empire and Federation to take control of a small sector of space for “approval testing”. The test pilots had been recruited from all areas of the galaxy though from what he could tell, most of them were “independent” and intended to remain that way, wearing their loyalties like velcro badges on a flight suit.
A few more ships would be available to those that could afford it, as well as a range of extra equipment, not least of which were the upgraded drives, capable of longer range, high speed hops.
Having chatted to one of the tug drivers, there were plenty of labelled dummy cannisters in place and a mock economy for pilots to test, as well as improved station security in the faction stations. The drone ships software had been updated to include “piracy” as one of their settings, making the token anarchy system a likely shark swim of a destination.
The seat pushed back hard as he jumped to the asteroid field for a little more flight training. This week, he had been determined to master the ship’s controls with the flight assist turned off…. Drifting around the rocks with his crosshairs firmly planted on the nav beacon was the plan – so far, it hadn’t gone that well, yawing and spinning all over the place.
More than once, he had been rescued by the in system tug after bashing the ship open on an asteroid. Screaming twisted metal had been the soundtrack for the last few days.
As usual, the jump hopped him out with a huge rock just to port…. Vin pushed the ship into a wide yaw arc over the top of the field, leaving nothing to his sides that would dent the new paintwork.
Half an hour or so later, he felt he could at the very least describe some nice arcs through space and spin to face anything he needed when the console alert flashed that he was under attack. Pulse lasers arced off his canopy as the shields dropped to two thirds of full.
Opening the weapon bays and dumpin power to the shields and weapons, he pushed the lateral thrusters hard and spun to face the attacker. “CMDR Phoenix”.
Vin dropped the sights on to the nose of the Cobra in front of him and lashed the beam lasers toward the tester’s ship. Satisfyingly, the tester’s shields dropped to 30% before Vin’s beams overheated, leaving him with the multicannon pinging shots.
Dumping more power to the weapons, he kept pressure on the trigger and swung to try and flank the Cobra – conscious that huge rocks were spinning all around him.
Vin dumped power to the engines, jabbed the boost and swung the nose round to the nearest asteroid. Swinging around it, he could see a number of the missiles impact on the surface of the rock, but the ship juddered as two of them hit home. Despite the reinforced hull, he was worried – the Cobra had unloaded two full racks of heat seekers at him.
Arcing round the asteroid, he could see the Cobra 500m in front of him, stationary in space and pinging pulse beams off his hull.
Vin glanced at the weapon temperatures, grinned and pulled the trigger…. Shortly before his world exploded into light and sparks and the canopy blew, throwing him in to space.
“Steaming pile of horse dung.”
He watched as his battered cobra spun away from him, detonating just short of the asteroid he’d swung around.
The missiles had caught him up from the tight turn.
CMDR Phoenix’s ship turned slowly away and headed back off to hunt.