It had rained for hours. The memorials of the two pilots saw such crowds that nobody could recall so many in the same place ever before.
Euan looked out over his drink into the blue black of the night time harbour. The others had left what seemed like hours earlier. Only himself and the barkeeper remained. Euan could hear the feint ripple of the harbour waters just over the music played quietly from the bar’s badly tuned speakers.
The Militia had lost a handful of pilots over the years. But not for quite some time and never two in one day. The blow against their little world was bitter and would be felt for a long time to come. Not just the scars of tragedy but the militia would now need to find and train more pilots urgently, the escaped pirates would be planning for another visit, and soon.
Euan got to his feet, he could go back home but the ship was nearer. He made for the door, brushing his arm over the edge of the bar so his link chip could pay the tab.
As he trudged across the dark boat yard a shaft of light from the open door of a boat shed illuminated the ground ahead.
“.. No chance am I living up there Kayla, forget it.”
Sketch hobbled out the door and stormed off into the dark. A second later Louis Porch stood in the doorway shaking his head.
“Hey Banksy, thought you’d drowned in that beer mug.”
Euan made his way inside. The shed was a store, normally set aside for nets or crab pots but today filled with chunks of Jenifer’s smashed Condor. Marsh and the others were sat in a loose circle on various boxes and components.
“We’re moving to the mining outpost tomorrow.”
“There aren’t enough of us now. If we divide up to refuel now then it’s one on one if those bastards come back. Tomorrow I’m calling Croft Mineral. It’s the only way we can make a difference until we get more pilots and kit.”
“But no fuel? It takes 5 minutes cruise to reach here from the outpost. You’re going to run out of gas mid fight if you hit them early”
Pork Chop stood up.
“It ain’t great but it’s all we got.”
Euan wheeled around back towards the door. He flung it open with a kick and fumed off into the yard.
This either meant he was out of a job or he would have to fit guns to the Brick. Or maybe they’d sell it and use the left over to buy two or three eagles. Euan was angry, tired and frustrated yet still clear headed enough to know that even a beaten up t6 like his would sell for enough to buy a good number of well fitted out eagles or maybe even a pair of basic vipers. He trudged up the sandy road towards where the rusty black box sat on her landing legs and climbed aboard.
Morris was stretched along the bunk. His head resting on the side of the astrogation table. He had an i-paper eddition of ‘Independent Living’ and was intently reading a fourth page feature titled: ‘Risk You Rescue’.
Euan was momentarily puzzled by Moz having made himself so at home.
Morris spoke without looking up from the pages.
“She tell you then?”
“About living on the crappy mining base? They live on shitty dehydrated food and have to take radiation tabs because the reactor is so old.”
“Oh, she didn’t tell you all of it then.”
Euan crunched down onto the second bunk and burried his face in his hands.
“Get some sleep Banksy, those thargoid loving shitlickers won’t wait for us to get over it. Marsh will have us up and out there constantly for days in case they jump back here. With five ships that is going to be one long bloody nightmare of no sleep. paranoia and zero-g barf bags”
Euan rolled onto his side and buried his head under a jacket.
The days after the memorial were intense and gruelling. Euan’s fear of redundancy was at least partially forgotten after running refuel ops solidly for two days as well as hovering in supercruise to spot the raiders jumping in.
Their ships were stretched by the pirate’s tactic of arriving one ship at a time several minutes apart. Each encounter was a close and highly dangerous stalemate. Or at least it appeared so at first.
The pirates would engage quickly, and depart as soon as one of the pair lost shields. But it became apparent that they were more intent on meeting the fighters than chasing trade ships.
Trader Mikos Ithica who had witnessed the losses earlier returned several more times carrying free loads of ammunition or engine spares as a thanks to the crews. He met them aboard the mining station before finally leaving the system. The group hung together around a holofac terminal playing streamed footage of a sports event from Leesti.
“The word nearby is that they think they can take over ere, but they don know ow much ships you got.”
“We’ve been swapping colours and numbers on the Condors about. Recon we look like about 20 fighters.”
Kayla Marsh pushed herself over to the holofac controls and turned up the audio.
“We can keep this up for a while more, but we need to finish them or put them off else this will carry on for weeks.”
Mikos gestured to the stream as an advert break began.
“Ah well you won’t aff to mush more. De Rat Race will bring along better targets for em. So many spectators an supply ships.”
Ever since space travel became as cheap as surface travel, racing had grown in popularity. Both legal and illegal races around stations, wrecks and asteroids attracted large audiences and sponsors. But since the advent of frameshift technology races had grown from being dashes around a course of a few kilometres to epic runs across the stars. At one end of the scale there were endurance events thousands of light years long that would take weeks to lightning fast point to point rare goods races over in hours.
With populated space teaming it seemed the number of green pilots out between the stars was higher than ever before. This brought easy prey for pirates and slavers but also created a new breed of pilot. A loose group of experienced pilots and ship owners had taken it upon themselves to answer the growing pleas for assistance from novice commanders finding themselves damaged far from home. Between work or just for fun they would listen for distress messages at nav beacons and relay positions and ship details to each other. In recent months, owing to them often coming to the aid of ships with failed fuel scoops or having miscalculated jump stages they had adopted the name “Fuel Rats”.
The advert for Leestian Isotonic ended in a flash giving way to an announcement. A quirky voice with an Irish accent spoke as the backdrop of ring systems, red dwarfs and gas giants played out majestically.
“Altair Fluidics is prod to sponsor the first annual RAT RACE! An intense, dramatic and demanding course over three hundred light years, ten million credits prize but with just three crucial rules!”
Text appeared over the backdrop of a station as he enumerated them.
“One! No fuel scoops !”
“Two! No extra fuel tanks!”
“Three! No more rules!”
“The course is open to ships under 80 tonnes in two classes! Apply here for entry!”