I've never liked the sound of mining lasers. I couldn't tell you why. But I'm irritable as the point of the laser beam scratches and skitters across the dirty ice that fills the screen. This is not helped by Juleen, whose foot taps to demonstrate her impatience, as she slumps over the controls for the collection limpets that scuttle across the void, snatching virtually worthless slush to process.
"Seriously, dude. This is not working," she says in one of her delightfully direct outbursts, of which I am so fond.
"Relax," I say, "have a little patience, and we'll be pulling in the big bucks in no time."
There's a cloud of little dots on the scanner - designated the grey of inert matter. We stare at it, wordlessly, as the limpets perform their task.
Somewhere deep in the bowels of the ship, there's a clunk as the ship's digestive system - the refinery - finishes with another tonne of cargo and dumps it out into the hold.
Almost simultaneously, an orange square leaps onto the edge of the scanner. It approaches rapidly.
"Company," we say almost simultaneously.
The radio springs to life. We're expecting it, but we both jump, and sit upright.
"Hey, there, miner! What ya got?"
I hit the transmit key, and say, as calmly as I can, "Oh, nothing much. I think this one's a dud, we're going to move on."
As I release the key, the onboard COVAS pronounces, "Scan Detected", as if it were the most normal thing in the word to run an intensive scan on a stranger you've just met in an icy ring. Juleen's eyebrows raise up a notch. She looks visibly brighter.
I cycle the targets on the scanner. It doesn't take long. There's only one. Cobra Mk III. I reach for the controls at the same time Juleen's reaching for the telepresence rig. As I hit the thrusters to spin the ship around, the radio crackles into life again. The voice has changed, subtly - it's become slightly richer, I can hear the calm intake of breath before he speaks - he must be leaning right into the microphone, really straining to get every bit of the threat across that he can.
"Oh, I think you've got something you can give me, there."
"Sure," mutters Juleen, "we got something."
The nose swings around and we can see him, clear as night, in front of us. The scanner pings in delight as it completes, showing a nice clear "WANTED", and a more concerning "Elite", and I'm already on the warrant scanner.
"We certainly got something," I mutter back, and then training takes over, and we're both calm professionalism as I incant the magic words, "Weapons free."
The orange square switches to a triangle as he deploys weapons, seeing the scan coming in. Mine are already deployed, powered up, and ready to fire. I'm mining aren't I, so of course they are.
"Want to play hardball, then, miner?" he growls over the radio. He still hasn't realised. I can't help smiling.
I key the radio: "Sounds good."
And pull the trigger, as I slam the throttle forward.
Juleen's in the chair, but she's no longer there - she's dropping out of the bottom of the ship as the fighter launches. By the time she's out and free, I'm in a tight curve, keeping the main beam laser pouring energy into his shields. He's gunning his thrusters, trying to get past me into my blind spot.
He'll manage it, of course. My ship's a Krait II - it's a good balance of agility and firepower, and some people do indeed waste them on mining. His, a Cobra, outperforms in speed and agility, but is desperately weak in terms of firepower. But if he can keep on my tail, I won't have the advantage of my weapons. My main beam suddenly loses lock, swinging back forward as I release the trigger, and he sweeps past me, so close above my head I flinch. I shove the stick forward. Chances are he's aiming for my engines. I'd rather he didn't.
Juleen is thrown back in her chair by the manoeuvre. I can't fly the fighter well - I'm fine out of combat, but when the ship is lurching one way but I'm swinging the fighter another I just get hellishly sick. Juleen seems to manage fine. If anything, I think she lives for it. She's not tapping her foot anymore, at least.
As I expected, he'd ducked down after passing me, expecting me to have followed him around. Instead, by slamming down, he's underneath me, shields down to a single ragged ring on the display, with Juleen hurling plasma bolts at him. The turret - alarmingly next to my head - leaps to life and gives the gift of laser fire as the burst laser kicks in. It's not powerful, but it denies him any respite, and his shields continue to wear down gradually while my beam laser cools ready for the next shot.
He's landing a few good shots himself, but it's not done more than scratch my shields. I've not even bothered directing power to recharge them yet; I'm keeping my energy for weapons and engines. Probably about time to use both.
"Brace!" I scream, giving Juleen a fraction of a second's warning as I drop flight assistance and the ship, as if suddenly freed from the bonds of physics, spins around to point its nose directly at the Cobra. Trigger down. Blackness split by the searing beam laser. The Cobra's shields burst like a soap bubble. Still got some life in the main beam, but I can hit the other trigger now, and the multicannon roars.
"What the..." he screams over the radio. I think he might have figured out what's going on now. It's just a hunch. I wonder what gave it away?
His hull is literally being ripped apart. Like a toddler being tickled, he wriggles and squirms, trying to get out from under the combined firepower as chunks of alloys are flayed off it while other parts melt like butter on toast.
"Getting warm in here," says Juleen - the first signs of awareness of her physical surroundings since the fighter launched. She's right - beam laser's just about cooked, and the temperature of the ship itself is pretty high - just below the level an audible alarm would kick in. I let go the main beam trigger and it starts to cool down. The multicannon shells, though, are relentless - the autoloader I have doesn't even give a pause while it reloads.
More grey dots appear on the scanner as he dumps cargo, trying anything to get the slightest edge, the smallest chance of getting away from this. I smile. I can't help it. He's going to try to cut and run. He's lost his pride and his cargo. He doesn't want to lose the ship and make it three for three. Sure enough, a moment later COVAS calmly tells me he's charging his FSD, and he turns and boosts in a direct line away from me.
He's fast. A Cobra is all about fast, and his has clearly been tweaked in ways that would leave even Palin curious. Juleen can barely keep pace. I definitely can't. But he has to clear me before he can jump, and all the while he has a lot of ordinance slamming into those beautifully custom thrusters.
And I have one more present for him. A seeker leaps off the rail to my right, and streaks toward him. He has no choice, he has to jink - and every deviation from his course means more time for him to jump clear. But it doesn't matter anyway - the seeker hits home, and his evasive twist turns into a lazy spiral as the damage to the Cobra finally becomes too much to bear.
There's a moment of calm. Of silence. Neither Juleen nor I make a sound. I'm holding my breath, and I think Juleen is too.
We're just watching the Cobra. Dark. One turn. Two.
Then it lights up the belt for kilometres around as it detonates.
Juleen pulls the telepresence rig off her head as the ship's systems confirm the bounty.
"Wow. So that explains why you wasted a seeker," she says, mussing her own hair as the fighter goes through its AI controlled docking routine.
I smile, and eject the 3 tonnes of water we've mined, heading for another empty area of the belt, where we can once again become the bait.
"Yep. Wanted in six systems, and an Elite pilot as well. We've done OK with that one."
"What was his name?" she asks. She'll never learn.
"I don't do names."