An ageing pirate contemplates his career during a well-planned raid.
"Captain! Are you there?" The voice calling over the comms unit could only be Boggs. "Captain, we've found a freighter. She's a big one." The spotter scopes had been quiet for a few days. They had been an expensive investment, but an essential one for any pirate - they always found something eventually. As the rogue salesman had stressed, it was like having a telescope that covered half the sky.
Transport ships flew through the system regularly but never at the same points within it. The pirates had to be lucky to spot one resting as it passed through, and close enough to catch it. This had been the fifteenth ship they had seen, all the others had jumped to the next star before they could be trapped. Most spaceships stayed only long enough to do a safety check then moved on. No pilot wished to hang around an uninhabited system.
Herrick coughed until his throat cleared, then opened the comms channel and barked orders to his crew. "Zeb, Vorman, engage the ship and activate the hyperspace field drone. Let's hope they don't escape this time."
Herrick brought up a status screen. The freighter sat 12 million km away, and apart from its size the pirates knew nothing about it. The scope only registered large ships at that distance. Boggs would have seen nothing more than a tiny dot on a screen. They couldn't even tell if the ship had an escort protecting it. Herrick switched the view to Zeb's front cameras to see live pictures as he approached.
Boggs had not been wrong about the freighter's size. It must have been 2km from end to end, a vast grey triangular slab floating in space. Thankfully the freighter was alone, thought Herrick. Zeb's Firebird shot flashing streaks of bullets at the gun turrets lined up atop the vessel, smashing them and leaving their barrels limp and useless. A few of the guns spat back at him but none came close to hitting the spiralling fighter.
A drone launched from Vorman's Falcon and attached itself to the hull of the freighter. The drone created a particle field that disrupted the ship's own hyperspace field. If the ship tried to enter hyperspace without a complete bubble around itself, then it would be split apart.
Once the freighter had been immobilised, Herrick gave the orders for the rest of his fleet to make a hyperspace jump to arrive next to it. As soon as they materialised, he opened a comms channel to the defenceless vessel.
"We have a radiation bomb and we're not afraid to use it. If you disobey us, we will activate it. Do you understand?"
The line lay silent for some time. Herrick hoped the freighter captain wouldn't try anything stupid. The pause worried him, but the freighter couldn't call for help - no other vessels lay within contact range. Herrick thought the captain might be inexperienced and was probably checking the ship's procedures. Companies usually had a rule that vessels should never fight back against pirates. They calculated that it was better to lose a percentage of their shipment and keep their craft intact than to lose an entire vessel.
"This is Captain Horgo of the Abundant," replied a weak voice at last. "I understand, we will cooperate."
"Open your cargo bay," ordered Herrick.
A rear section of the ship yawned open. Enzo launched a cargo drone. It hovered downwards and disappeared into the vessel's vast dark mouth.
After the drone had been gone for a few minutes, Herrick asked his second in command, "Is everything going well?".
"Wouldn't you like to know?" snarled Enzo.
Herrick found his colleague's unpredictability an irritation, but he knew that Enzo's sensible half would make an appearance sooner or later.
"Got seven crates now," said Enzo calmly. "One more then I'll bring her out. It's platinum!"
Platinum! Herrick grinned. One of the most valuable metals in the galaxy. A man could retire on a crate of platinum, and they had eight.
Or he could stay on another year. They needed more drones and better scopes. Being a successful pirate meant keeping up with the Fleet Police, fighting for the upper hand, each side advancing a little as they devised a new tactic or technology. The endless game. Herrick enjoyed that struggle, but he began to feel that he deserved a rest at last.
The fully laden drone flew out of the freighter and Herrick woke from his reverie.
"Set destination to rendezvous point six," he said, coughing.
"Aye." The four crew replied.
"Recover the hyperspace field drone."
"Aye," replied Vorman. The robot craft whooshed back to his Falcon ship.
"Let's get out of here," said Herrick. They jumped away into hyperspace, leaving the freighter alone again.
The five mismatched battered wrecks of the pirate fleet circled in empty space. A lonely orange sun blushed far below them. The chances of anyone coming here are remote, thought Herrick. The current star system didn't even have a name, just a number. Nobody likes an empty unnamed system.
Enzo's hold contained the valuable plunder. Herrick had rigged all of the ships so that none of them could jump anywhere without his permission. He wondered if that was the only thing stopping Enzo from flying away with the goods. Probably. Once a ship entered hyperspace it could not be followed if its destination was not known.
Enzo and Boggs linked their cargo bays, and together they removed the raw metal blocks from their crates. Boggs carried half the spoils onto his ship. Herrick watched them nervously over the ships' cameras.
They ejected the empty crate frames into space and those drifted away. Vorman then used a high-powered scanner from his vessel to examine all of their ships for tracking devices, nanobots or beacons.
"Nothing," said Vorman. "No tracers at all."
"All clear then," said Herrick. "Back to the base."
"Do we have to?" asked Enzo.
"Where would you rather go?"
"I'm thinking of going back to Earth. I could sell my share of the platinum and live like a mine owner."
"If you want to go, then go, but you can only take one block with you. Leave the rest with us."
Enzo screamed for a split second, then said. "No, I'll come back with you."
Herrick sighed and they set course for their base. I miss the old days, he thought. There were always crazy folk doing this but Enzo is worse than most. Enzo had been raised among pirate raiders, and had never experienced life outside that underworld. That made him more dangerous than any of them, and despite his erratic manner he had cunning aplenty.
Herrick could still remember what it was like to work in a normal job on a trading ship, until temptation and greed had led him down a wilder path. He had begun to long for a quieter life again.
He knew he couldn't carry on much longer. Enzo would take over the gang once he left, and pirating under Enzo's command would not be much fun for the others. Herrick wanted to make sure they all had a chance to start a new life, and now would be as good a time as ever.
Herrick smiled as he caught sight of the dusty rock they called home. They had been away for weeks. There were few comforts in the bare underground cavern hollowed out of a small moon, but after living there long enough it had become as cosy as an old pair of shoes.
The system was safe too - a remote double binary system called Talitha B that never seemed to receive visitors. Herrick had insisted on leaving a spotter scope drone in orbit around the moon's planet. No ships had been seen in the five years they had been hiding out there.
The retractable doors of the base slid open as the pirate fleet approached. The doors had been painted grey to match the dull landscape. Once the men had all docked and left the landing area, Herrick poured them each a glass of purple Elvorian rum.
"A great success!" he toasted.
"Better than the last one," smiled Boggs. Their recent hauls had been poor - tonnes of netting destined for a water world; crates of alien animals (which were valuable but difficult to keep); and millions of screw nuts. One of the perils of their method of working was that they could never predict what they would steal.
"There are five of us," said Enzo with a devious look in his eye, "But eight blocks of platinum. How do we divide that?"
"It depends," said Herrick. "If any of you want to leave, take a block and go. If you all want to go, then that is another matter. We can take a block each and share the profits from the remaining three. I suggest we split up to maximise our chances."
That prompted an intense discussion among the group about what they would each do with their share of the spoils. Some wanted to visit a pleasure moon, and others wanted to buy more powerful weapons. They began to realise that they could do all of those things and more.
They had never seized such a valuable cargo before, and might never do so again. Dreams of a life of luxury appeared within reach. Among pirates, the term "retirement party" was often used as a euphemism for something terrible, but for them it could end well. They all agreed that they had been incredibly lucky.
A loud crashing noise shook the base, and a voice came over the base's comms system.
"This is the Fleet Police. Surrender! We know you're in there."
Enzo reached for his gun and raced into the tunnels below. Zeb followed after.
Herrick coughed and remained with the two engineers. He knew it was over. "How did you find us?" he asked over the comms unit.
"Do you think you're the only ones who know how to use a spotter scope? We've had drones watching this system for months. You pirates will soon be eradicated from this whole sector."
Herrick considered the words. He didn't think piracy would ever be eradicated. Others would take up the challenge - people who were smarter and better at staying one step ahead.
But for me the game is over.
He took another sip of rum.