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Tip of the Spear

This is the third episode of the Librarian Conspiracy. Kestrel, an investigator from the Imperial Flight Operations Bureau, is investigating a strange book-based cult in Colonia. A member of this cult, pilot Emma Patton, has agreed to escort him outside of Jaques Station, where bounty hunters are after his head for an unknown reason. The escape plan involves using Emma's Python, Myth and Moth, to sneak out undetected under the guise of mining in a nearby ring. Little do they know that a mysterious Fer-De-Lance is after them.

There was silence in the icy ring of one of Colonia's gas giants. Emma's Python, Myth and Moth, was slowly cruising towards the asteroid field, pretending to be mining. It was Emma's stratagem to get Kestrel out of Jaques without appearing too suspicious - follow her usual flight plan to the letter, which involved filling her monthly mining hours in the system for the Colonia Council. It was relatively risky - high-waking from an asteroid ring wasn't a reliable evasion tactic - but it made sense to her. The best way not to attract attention was to act like normal. It was a good old smuggler principle.

Of course, the success of the plan relied on the fact that they had not been spied on, or followed.

Suddenly, Emma gave a slightly distressed glance to the radar panel.
"Well...Kestrel...ever been into a ship-to-ship battle?"
The inspector became visibly paler in an instant.
"No. I've investigated the remains of several of them, but I've never seen actual action. Why?"
The pilot just pointed at three blips on the realspace scanner. Three ships converging on their position - two small ones, possibly a medium one.
"They're not miners?"
"No, they aren't. Looks like my little stratagem wasn't that clever after all. Kestrel, put your helmet on. Are you subject to panic attacks?"
"Erm, no, not usually. We've recieved training to resist under pressure, even if I have to admit that..."
"Good. I'm just trying to determine whether or not I'll have to lock you up in the cargo bay or if you can be useful up there."
A red light blinked on the scanner array, alongside with a small line of text : WARNING - TRACKED CONTACTS HAVE DEPLOYED THEIR HARDPOINTS. Emma pushed the throttle of her Python forward and Kestrel felt the g-force pushing against his chest as the ship darted through the asteroid field.
"I assume we do not have weapons on your ship."
"No." Emma nonetheless deployed the Python's hardpoints. "Only mining equipment."
"And your escort?"
"She's not there yet. We'll have to hold out on our own."
Kestrel shivered slightly. Two of the ships were imperial eagles, accelerating towards interception speed. The other, slower ship was a Fer-De-Lance. It was positioned a few dozen kilometers above the Python, blocking its potential high-wake escape route. Classic interception tactic, he thought. The two Eagles were here to harass the Python and force it to move away from the asteroid field, in open space where the Fer-De-Lance could easily outmanoeuver it. These bounty hunters followed the usual procedure to a T. They would have been stupid not to - it was clear Myth and Moth wasn't capable of defending itself.
"And system sec?"
"They'll be here...after it's over. As usual. Alright, Kestrel, I'm going to need a co-pilot. Relax, I just want you to push a button." She pointed towards two buttons gleaming in front of Kestrel's seat. "That's the seismic charge control panel. Left button is the safety, right button is the trigger, and the haptic screen below them is the arming delay. Default is at one minute. I want you to bring it down to zero."
"Zero? What's your plan?"
"I have a single trick, but I think it's a good one." As the Eagles accelerated towards the Python, quickly closing the distance between them, Emma went to flight assist off flying, turning the Python around in a U-turn, then firing the thrusters again to stop right next to a massive icy asteroid. The Eagles had separated in a pincer movement. They opened fire with burst lasers - they probably didn't expect to seriously damage the Python's shields, but they wanted to put pressure on the pilots. Most civilian ships would panic when being fired upon. Emma barely gave them a glance.
"Safety off." She whispered. The Eagles were now less than a kilometer away. Kestrel obliged. He had a very extensive knowledge of ship equipment, and he knew by heart the specifications of standard seismic charges. In theory, they were specifically engineered to be hard to weaponize. Seismic charges were good at cracking asteroids but they could not stick to ship hulls and were very bad at inflicting damage to them. Their outer surface disintegrated completely during the explosion, only inflicting very local punishment. In order to be turned into something truly dangerous, they needed a way to generate shrapnel. Some people would turn seismic charges into improvised weapons by wrapping them in metal scraps, for instance, in anarchy systems. But another very effective way of generating high velocity shrapnel would be, for instance, to blow up a very fragile asteroid with high metallic content...
Oh, thought Kestrel. I'm about to become a criminal.
"Safety off." He answered. His hand loomed over the trigger.
"Alright. The charges will be in manual mode. Push the trigger when I say so." Emma stopped the Python completely, then fired five seismic charges at the asteroid, covering not most of its surface like they should had they had been used for mining, but a specific, crevice-littered part of the asteroid. Then she engaged the reverse thrusters of the ship.
"Now!" Said Emma, as the Eagles went around the asteroid. Kestrel pulled the trigger. The seismic charges detonated in unison. The asteroid shattered, but not in the way a proper core mining explosion would have done it. Instead of cracking the asteroid, the seismic charges created a powerful geyser of near-absolute zero ice and low temperature diamond shards, that pierced the asteroid at both ends, cutting the trajectory of the Eagles like a blade. The first Eagle saw its shields disappear immediately under the sudden impact of high velocity ice and debris. The low temperature diamond shrapnel pierced its hull and cut through the thrusters, sending the small ship in an uncontrollable spin. The pilot of the second Eagle showed better reflexes and almost avoided the geyser. Almost : if the Eagle avoided most of the debris trail, its evasion manoeuver put it right in the path of a nearby fast-spinning asteroid which it collided with at high speed. The Eagle bounced off the asteroid with a flash of blue light as its shields went down, then exploded when the containment field of its fusion engine collapsed. The Python itself barely escaped the blast, its hull shaking but its shields barely scrapped.
"I assumed I kill someone, right?"
"Yes, you did. Is that a problem?"
"I am supposed to be the law."
"In imperial space, that is."

A lot of things happened simultaneously in the two minutes that followed. The Fer-De-Lance immediately assumed a new trajectory, boosting towards the Python, weapons deployed for interception. Emma manoeuvered the ship right behind the asteroid, trying to put as many obstacles between the combat ship and Myth and Moth as she could. Kestrel felt the ship's temperature brutally drop as Emma deployed a heat sink to further lower the Python's signature and break lock. It proved useless : the Fer-De-Lance's pilot had no patience for fancy gimballed weapons and guided missiles. They had tracked the Python with the naked eye alone and as Emma tried to slightly reposition the Python in the hopes of making a break for open space, the Fer-De-Lance opened fire. Four high-caliber, high-velocity railgun slugs darted through the icy mist surrounding the cracked asteroid, cutting right through the Python's shields. The energy barrier blinked as it failed and a dozen alarms lit up on the bridge. Frameshift drive loss, said the display a second later. The Python boosted away. Another salvo deactivated its shields for good. Kestrel heard a weird sound - something like a muted impact, followed by silence.

There was something right in front of him. A delicate pillar of golden silk frozen in motion. Then he realized this silk was made of long strings of molten metal and scattered glass, and he also realized that there were two symmetrical holes the size of a thumb in the cockpit, drawing a line that had passed a mere centimeter away from his head. A red message blinked on his Remlok suit's display.
The alarm ceased and there was nothing left but silence, ponctuated by Emma and Kestrel's breathing. The Python was moving at high speed towards the outer side of the belt, the Fer-De-Lance in pursuit, ready to finish them off.

"Come on Isi...." whispered Emma. "I know you're close..."

WARNING : FSD SIGNATURE DETECTED suddenly said the ship's COVAS.
Something blinked right in front of them and a Krait Mark 2 screamed as it reintegrated realspace, immediately opening fire with three short-range beam lasers tracking the Fer-De-Lance. Kestrel's helmet darkened to absorb the sudden influx of light and energy. The Krait drifted at high speed while still firing at the Fer-De-Lance, which immediately broke contact with the Python. Kestrel turned around. From his point of view it looked like the Fer-De-Lance was now falling alongside the Krait towards the ring. The Fer-De-Lance went flight assist off and turned around, trying to break contact with the laser beams hacking at its shield. It clearly appeared to Kestrel that the Fer-De-Lance was trying to capitalize on its superior firepower by turning the dogfight into a joust but the Krait was having none of it. As the Fer-De-Lance began its first pass against the new combattant, the Krait's pilot suddenly switched to flight assist off - Kestrel saw the engines shut off and the ship decouple its movement and thrust vectors while the Krait performed a zero-g turn to find itself on the tail of the Fer-De-Lance. For a brief moment it looked like some kind of delicate ballet between the two ships, moving gracefully in complete silence. Then the Krait resumed firing its beams, barely stopping to top up its shields with a shield cell bank. Kestrel saw the exact moment when the Fer-De-Lance's pilot gave up - when its shields started to flicker, the Krait's multicannons to spin, poised for the kill, about to turn the harmless dance into a bloodbath. The Fer-De-Lance broke off immediately and boosted away while charging its FSD for high-waking. The Krait didn't pursue.

A few minutes later her pilot contacted Myth and Moth on their private frequency. Her voice had a strange accent that Kestrel couldn't really place, perhaps imperial.
"Myth and Moth, this is Battle Butterfly. How are you doing?"
"Frameshift drive out, aft manoeuvering thrusters out, and a sligth atmosphere leak. Life support is alright. Phew, Isi, that was too close for comfort. I know you like dramatic entrances, but damn..."
"A good pilot, Emma, is never late nor early, but precisely on time."
"Oh, shut up with that."
"Can you drag your sorry wreck of a ship to Bolden's?"
"If you stay close to us, yes. I'll reboot the FSD, the railguns just disconnected it." Emma had a sigh of relief. "Well at least now Kestrel, your pursuers will probably ease up the pressure a bit...but this will be a good ten thousand credits in repairs and I want to know who the hell you exactly are and why the hell you're interesting enough for a bloody Fer-De-Lance to be bothered, because as it stands, I don't really see any reason right now."
Kestrel raised an eyebrow.
"Admittedly, you saved my life and all, but I'm also an imperial investigator on mission. Why should I tell you anything instead of just paying you a few millions to shut up?"
"There's a saying in just don't say no to a woman who brought a mining Python to a space battle."
"Is that a real saying?"
Emma gave Kestrel a gentle smile.
"I just invented it."

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