2946-12-25: Tales from the Inbox: A Smuggler At Ansaldi

Elijah R. is a mercenary, as many of you are. He claims to be good at his job, and I have no reason to doubt this assertion. He is a stable, reasonable, prudent operator known for keeping a level head in a tough spot, and he works with others known for the same.

Even a veteran mercenary pilot like Elijah has moments where he loses his head, however. In a recent assignment working with the authorities of Ansaldi, he encountered a foolhardy smuggler who tried to scare off his squadron with attempts to ram their ships, hoping that, being mercenaries, they would back off, valuing their lives over the capture of one small-time smuggler. Perhaps, on another day, it might have worked.

The day this item will enter the feed stream is December 25. Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate this ancient holiday. The Cosmic Background office is, as you may already know from the vidcast schedule, closed this week as usual; Christmas is an official holiday here in Centauri, as it is on many worlds. All content we send out to the audience was prepared last week.

“We’ve got another runner, folks. He’s going low!” Elijah hauled on the controls of his light, nimble ship to stay behind the equally nimble smuggler who’d run the Ansaldi orbital checkpoint. “Sujay, give me overwatch, I’m staying with him.”

“I’ll keep eyes on him.” Sujay’s voice was calm, but they all knew the deadly game they were playing. Most customs-runners were unarmed, but juking among the rugged, forested mountains and crags of the planet’s wilderness was as perilous as any incoming fire. The trio of mercenaries were heavily armed, but as usual on constabulary contracts, they couldn’t fire unless fired upon; instead, their role was only to stay behind the target and force it to the ground in the open, or to track it back to its roost on the planet’s surface and lead the local authorities to the place.

Fortunately, Elijah’s military-surplus Raven interceptor was almost as agile in atmospheric flight as its prey. He didn’t recognize the make, but it was some sort of civilian racer, not a combat ship; its ephemerally thin and fragile airfoils were proof enough of that. It might still be lightly armed, but in a firefight, Elijah knew he would have the upper hand.

“I’m on your six. Be careful, Eli.” Anna’s cautionary tone was, as usual, not backed up by her actions. Her ship was just as agile as Elijah’s, and he could see her plummeting after him on the rear-mounted camera feed.

The smuggler dove into a dramatically narrow valley, local tree-analogues marching almost up to the ridges on both sides. The quick, fragile ship hugged the treetops at the bottom of this narrow gorge, weaving wildly around the few branches which reached their claws above the canopy. Elijah, though he stayed slightly higher and farther from the danger of clipping the trees and making a spectacular crater in the hills, followed closely.  

On straight, level flight, his military-grade ship could maintain a higher speed without being shaken to pieces by its own sonic shockwaves, and the smuggler would know that; the only hope the criminal had was losing his pursuers with wild, tight maneuvers, which the thin adaptive airfoils of his own craft would permit. Even then, Sujay’s high-flying eyes could easily vector Elijah and Anna back onto his tail. He and his cargo were, barring a miracle or a tragic accident, doomed to fall into the hands of the system authority.

At the bottom of the gorge, where it opened up onto a wider, flat-bottomed valley, the smuggler suddenly pulled up, his ship’s nose pointing directly up into the sky. At first, Elijah thought he was making a run back to space to try to make for the jump limit, but that was evidently not his aim. “Sujay, watch it!” Redlining his drive, he struggled to follow the ascending racer, but his heavier ship was slower in the climb.

“That’s a bold move.” Sujay replied absently, as the larger ship rolled out of the way just in time to avoid a collision. The smuggler couldn’t hope to survive a collisison with Sujay’s support ship; Elijah concluded the maneuver was meant to try to scare the pursuers into backing off or making a mistake. “Does that count? Can we shoot?”

“No.” The frustration in Anna’s voice was only too clear. “Unless he actually hits you.” The penalty fees for unlawful fire were prohibitively high, and even one incident would rob the mercenaries of most of their profit margin.

Elijah watched as the nimble smuggler cut his drive and, with a deft two-axis flip, pointed his nose back down toward the ground, and toward Elijah, who was directly below. “That’s a game two can play.” The mercenary pressed on, setting a collision course. “I don’t flinch.”

“Eli, don’t you dare.”

Elijah didn’t alter his course as the two ships sped toward each other, and Anna’s injunction went completely unheeded. At the last second, the smuggler flinched, his starboard airfoil flashing past only a few meters from Elijah’s canopy. The thunderous sound of the other ship’s drive passing at supersonic speed rocked the mercenary in his restraints, but his durable Raven was undamaged.

The smuggler, however, was not. As Elijah looped around to resume the pursuit, he saw that the buffeting shockwaves of the near-miss had been worse for the fragile, spindly racer than for his own ship. With one airfoil bent awkwardly and the other now missing several meters of its tip, the smuggler’s ship now wobbled in the air, unstable and shaking violently. 

“That was insane.” Anna scolded halfheartedly as the smuggler cut his speed and wobbled down toward the meadows of the broad valley below, beaten. Anna dropped in on his tail to follow him down, and Elijah maneuvered to do the same.

Elijah knew it was, but he wasn’t about to admit it, or to acknowledge the severe trembling in his hands that forced him to switch to an automatic course.