The swirling colors of hyperjump coalesced into the familiar starfield and my nav systems immediately aligned on my wingmates beacon. My hands moved without conscious thought, swinging the Radius' nose clear of the star and dropping into a skew-turn to align with where Monica was chasing our potentially contaminated quarry. Back in the old days, they tell me, space flight was quiet. You spent so much of it ballistic, on unpowered orbits, that you only heard noises from your ship when something was actually happening. Those days were long gone. Between the main engines, the thrusters and the parasitic frequencies out of both the frameshift and power plant, a starship in flight was not a quiet place when it was under power, and it was under power all the time, from undock to shutdown. As pilots we almost stopped being aware of the background noise, but only on a conscious level. Some part of our mind was listening to our ships all the time and without thinking about it we were responding, like the way some pilots will be steering around an awkward gravitational null point around a lagrange station before they even notice the ships sensors reporting it - they heard the tone of the frameshift change and reacted. Only then did they look a bit closer and confirm what they were actually reacting to. This means that a sound out of the ordinary, even a relatively quiet one, positively demanded our attention. The little chirp from my com was a case in point.
I have to say, I appreciated the sheer sneakiness Monica had employed. The regular vox channel, even with our wing-beacon's encryption, would have announced my presence to anyone within normal-space range of her ship. Similarly - assuming the person monitoring the traffic knew what they were doing, at least - using the ordinary text sidechannel on the beacon traffic would have revealed that the beacon had started talking to a wingmate and wasn't just broadcasting any more. The bandwidth would have spiked and anyone watching would know Monica wasn't alone in the system any more. The beacon's datagrams had a "memo" field. A leftover from an obsolete version of the protocol that normally went unused. However, if it actually contained data that few characters of information showed up in your wings cockpits when the beacons synced.
Go 30 deg dwn-orbt. Sh! Tgt close.
Monica's beacon was showing me a location in a planetary ring system and my nav system was obediently trying to shepherd me in to dropping precisesly on her position. I eyeballed a position about 30 degrees down-orbit from the beacon, then reached up and disengaged the navlock.
I bent the trajectory a little to drop me in as nearly synced to the orbiting rocks as I could. Given the power of even an in-system crafts thrusters, let alone a hyper-capable starship, I could have dropped into the ring at any angle or velocity and had no problem avoiding any rocks that might wish to dispute the right of way with me. I suspected, however, that cutting the mains loose at max burn wouldn't exactly fit with Monica's injunction to "Sh!"
It was what my piloting instructor used to call a "grease job." The energy bleed from the transition out of supercruise left me dead center of the ring, moving just marginally slower than the rocks around me. The tiniest touch on the attitude thrusters swung me around to face back along my course, the fractional overtake on the rocks making it look like I was slowly drifting forward through them even though we were both moving in the direction my brain persisted in calling "backwards" - they were just doing it a little faster than me. If I was going to radiate any energy spikes or detectable emissions, this was the time to do it. Drops from SC produced a lot of "fuzz" but that fuzz was incredibly long-ranged and so non-directional that it was next to impossible to localize unless it was right on top of you. While our target had certainly detected my drop they had -so far at least - no indication that the drop they detected was so close and nothing to hint that it was me dropping in on them rather than somebody else going about their regular business elsewhere. Before the "fuzz" dissipated, I ran out the guns, cut the main engines and overrode the cooling system to force the radiators closed. As it tailed off I dumped a heatsink and went to full stealth mode, even pulling the breaker for the interior lights. The Radius performed quite a creditable impression of a hole in space as I watched the passive sensors and the enhanced blip of Monica's beacon creeping steadily closer.
Monica had wanted me quiet because she was being noisy.
She was selecting rocks as she passed them and blowing them apart with mining charges. She was making it blindingly obvious that to try and hide while she went past would be suicidal. I watched her methodical progress towards me, wondering how long I'd have to wait before she flushed our target, whether she'd scare them up sooner and reel them in herself or whether they'd be driven into my gunsights in an effort to avoid her spotting them. As it happened, it was about 50/50. The blip appeared on my scanner, moving steadily towards a targeting solution, at about the same time as Monica must have spotted them because her active targeting systems lit up and seized the ore-freighter in an iron electronic grip.
"Freighter in view, activate your transponder and cut your drives for verification of your identity. You are believed to have launched in violation of a lawful quarantine and as such all ships are authorized to arrest your vessel and fire upon you if you resist... I repeat, cut your drives and activate your transponder or I will fire into your vessel without further warning."
"Ah, Pumpkin... I was pretty sure we'd got lucky and that it was your ship behind us. I don't think things are going to go quite the way you planned them, now, are they?"
"Uncle Jack? What are you doing aboard that ship?"
"Arranging for some rather well connected and extremely wealthy people to owe me a favor. Even if they weren't in the process of making me quite well-off in my own right their patronage in the future is beyond price."
"I'm Pilot's Federation, Uncle Jack. Please don't make me do this"
"Pilot's Federation set against family? Against Imperial family? We both know you're not going to destroy this ship now."
That was my cue. I dropped stealth and brought up my own systems, snaring the freighter in a solid target-lock of my own.
"If it comes right down to it, she won't have to. "
"Dave! Hold fire!"
"There we go, Pumpkin. I was sure you'd see it my way. I suggest you escort us out of this ring to our jump point to avoid any further unpleasantness and we can agree a price with your friend. Every Pilot's Federation commander has one, after all.
"You know, Uncle Jack, I've always hated it it when you call me that and you've completely misunderstood me. Misunderstood both of us, in fact. Every commander has their price, I suppose, but the honor of the Pilot's Federation doesn't. You'd think a citizen of the Empire would get that, about honor I mean, but you clearly don't. But none of that matters." Her voice on the com hardened "When you opened that channel you made it about family. You made it about the honor of an Imperial family. My family. And the dishonor you are bringing to our family ends here."
Every hardpoint on her gunship vomited fire and fury in the same instant. Her energy weapons tore the freighter to shreds and the missile salvo arriving on the heels of that tsunami of fire shattered the pieces. The final missile, traveling slower than the others because it wasn't truly a combat platform, provided an exclamation point. The trio of mining charges, each one sufficient to shatter an asteroid, reduced the wreckage to its component atoms.
Whatever it is the rumor mill uses for a jump drive, if we could work out how to build it into our ships the Thargoids would be running away from us screaming. Neither of us broke com silence on our way back into the station apart from the obligatory chatter between computers to request docking assignments. When those assignments came through though, my eyebrows went up a bit. We'd been assigned adjacent slots on the "official visitors" pads right next to the dock offices. As I went through the routine of safing my drives and shutting down, movement at the side of Monica's pad caught my eye. The station manager was standing there, unaccompanied by any of his normal crowd of hangers-on. He was also in full formal court regalia. The way he'd dress if he was meeting a Senator or a member of the Empress' own family.
I watched through the screen as Monica's personnel hatch opened and the station manager just bowed.. and held it. Monica stepped out with a traditional Imperial mourning veil hiding her expression. As she passed the manager he strightened up, keeping to formal court protocol and not meeting the unseen gaze behind that veil. As she passed him, Monica turned slightly and my outside pickups carried her soft voice into my headset.
"If you would be so kind, Sir, as to have the station outfitting shops replace and refit the Beluga Dionysis' lost and damaged modules at my expense I would find myself deeply in your debt." The station manager bowed again, without words, not so deeply this time - a gesture of acknowledgement. She returned it with a flowing grace and walked into the station offices to file our report.
They don't charge a membership fee for the Pilot's Federation. If they think you're worth it, they simply invite you. But that shoulder patch does indeed have a price. Sometimes a damn heavy one.