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Ill Gained Goods

The Cheetah sat in the darkness. Quiet. Still. Its engines were cold and its systems silenced. Light refracted off of its surface. Visually, it was no more than a ripple in space. One missed by eyes and sensors alike. Tucked deep in the dark pathways of the system it waited.

"Obelisk inbound." The words flickered across the pilots vision. Deep in the center of the ship wrapped in the confines of the pod, the pilot watched. Two hundred kilometers away, the massive freighter that the pilot had been watching dropped out of warp a mere fifteen kilometers away from the gate.

The Cheetah's engines flared to life, their energies dissipated and cooled before they were exhausted into space. The pilot entered coordinates. The small ship twitched and leapt into warp. It dove towards the Obelisk and slid out of warp only a few kilometers behind, at a spot picked days before by the pilot. The tiny ship moved forward and dropped its cloak as a large fleet dropped out of warp ahead of the barge. The busy system masked its sudden approach as it wound past a Noctis and slipped under the long, cargo laden length of an Orca.

Passive scanners flared to life. The ship slid by the Obelisk. It's engines pushed it in a smooth and steady path towards the gate. Information began to flicker across the HUD. The Cheetah pilot smiled from within the confines of his pod. On his view screens the Obelisk vanished in the distance, its path arrow straight for the gate.

This had been worth the wait. The Cheetah transferred the jump coordinates to the gate. The gate flared to life and the small ship shot across vast distances to land deep in another system. Uedama's customs cruiser flickered past the Cheetah. Its scanners found nothing aboard other than the pilot and his empty cargo hold. His information, not illegal anywhere in space, had already started to transmit to the fleet waiting somewhere between the system's planets.


***
"Sunborn Song. Obelisk. Inner Zone Shipping. On a long haul from Diodixie. Right on schedule," So-so announced to the rest of the fleet. "Wake up and preheat. We have a live one. Estimated cargo value, seven billion."

"Seven billion in what?" asked Mookay.

"I don't care if it is seven billion in corpses and kisses. As long as it sells," Blink Off snarled. "Shut up and pay attention." The rest of the fleet pinged their awareness. They were ready. Ten Talos sat in the darkness. They were all new ships. Ridiculously new. So-so had a mild pang of guilt that they would never meet their true destiny in combat. Their mottled gray and green forms were dull against Uedama's dark blue nebula. The neutron blaster cannons that sprang out created dull, squat lumps across the smooth hulls. Dark, strange shapes illuminated by the nebula's background glow.

Vibrations rippled through the ship as hybrid charges were loaded. The giant, plasma filled canisters rolled into the ammunition racks. They glowed with a faint luminosity. The refill slots were empty. This would be a one time project.

A Catalyst idly orbited the fleet. Its unbalanced wedge oddly graceful as it swept in a slow, lazy curve that brought it within meters of the massive Orca that waited with them. "Don't bump me, Rollz."
"Wouldn't dream of it. That's for Capkaka." A target beacon appeared above the HUD icon for the Machariel that sat a bit away from the fleet. Visually, the massive battleship, darkly mottled was almost invisible where it sat in a pool of shadow. Or it would have been invisible to someone silly enough to use their eyes to see. So-so's view spun around, spun out from the fleet his attention focused on something else.
The distraction. So-so keyed up and whispered, "Go."


***
On the other side of the system, a small catalyst fleet landed on the gate to Ikao. The three ships arced like silvery green scythes in the darkness and opened fire on an Iteron that had dropped out of warp only a moment before. The barge buckled under the condensed plasma that exploded across its system. Other ships spun away from the carnage. Engine trails tore through the clouds of vaporized metal. Then it cracked along its axis and exploded in brilliant blue flames.

A moment later, massive battleships appeared and the three Catalysts exploded even as their guns spat out the last unneeded bursts of ammunition.

The broken Iteron burned in space. Beside it a Viator decloaked. Its squat, bulky form slipped past the carcass of the barge. Experienced crews worked like the fluid machine they flew. In moments, the wreckage was empty and the Viator vanished from sensors. Green tractor beams lashed out from the Noctis shadowed under the gate. The wrecks of the catalysts vanished into its maw, the pieces churned and reprocessed.
Amidst it all, the CONCORD fleet swarmed. The massive ships scanned the area, their guns still cooling. The pilots were already gone. Their Catalysts written off. The target's eight hundred million ISK haul was tucked into the belly of the Viator. The Viator pilot burned for a station, his cloak screening him from hostile eyes. The distraction was accomplished.

A single icon flared brilliant on the Cheetah pilot's display. Within his pod he smiled. The freighter had landed in system.

Across the system the Talos flickered to life. As one unit they turned, graceful in the weightlessness of space.   Their engines flared to life as they moved as one, synchronized unit. Below them, the Machariel twisted, incomprehensibly agile. Its engines pulsed bright light and it vanished from immediate scans. Behind, the Talos pilots held their formation and waited. Patience warred with excitement. Experience won. Just.


***
The Machariel landed on the gate. The massive battleship was a long shadow even in the light. It immediately swung around and accelerated out of the mass chaos of ship traffic. Small ships, close to the gate but in its way slammed against its shields. Energy met and mass won as they were catapulted off path and careened into other ships. In moments, all was disorganized and the battleship arced up over the space lane and paused. Many ships, intimidated by its size moved away from it. The traffic developed a mild curve to it and the pilot laughed to himself.

He was always amused by those that feared what they did not know. No true Angel Cartel would sit so calmly above a feeding ground such as the traffic that the gate created. Hopped up on sooth they had the self control of gnats. Plus, the gates swarmed with faction police. No Angel Cartel ship could duplicate the complex identification of a pod pilot. That information was relayed publically and his ship was registered. He had even insured it with the Secure Commerce Commission two days ago.

He waited and did his best to project harmlessness. Nothing to see here. He even had his guns withdraw into the hull. Harmless pirate battleship just waiting for an assignment. His corporation was even innocuous. When he had registered the ship, he had registered it under Tri-Hub Transportation Support. It was a shell organization that pretended to hire out escorts for industrialists. He was rather pleased with the information advertisement he had made for it. Several hundred million in deposits for fleets he would never send to the reassigned locations were already nestled into the corporations wallet.

Patience. He waited. Such ponderous ships, freighters. He had done a few courier jobs early on. That short amount of time had consumed his tolerance to fly them. Back when he was told "Welcome to immortality. Get a job." Somewhere across the galaxy he had a Hoarder rotting in a hanger. He had walked away from it, boarded his Slasher and jumped into null sec. A few hours later he woke up in his vat clone bay but he walked past the Hoarder the second time. After that, he never went back. He had to wait a short eternity before the mark landed out of work. If he did not have the time ticking below his left eye he would have wondered if the ship had warped elsewhere. It had only been minutes. They felt like hours. Each second a minute upon its own. When the last one ticked down the freighter landed. Its warp engined died down and it started its ponderious progress to cover the last fifteen kilometers to the gate. Propulsion systems flared in neat patterns as the ship's AI entered the space lane and started to move the freighter towards the gate. It was a predictable pattern that. The AI's on these ships always behaved the same way. Predictable. Patterns. Familiarity breeds complacency and all of that. The Machariel slipped into motion. For most ships it would be impossibly fast. For this one however, Capkaka chuckled as his velocity mounted. Out in the system somewhere, quiet and still, Larc was tied into a very special Tengu. The Machariel arched over the ship lanes in a clean, neat trajectory. As the ship's velocity crept up past three thousand meters per second it slammed into the freighter.

The ship's AI reacted. The shields flared. Inside, cargo containers tightly held by the gravitational units rocked. The freighter unbalanced, attempted to correct. The engines attempted a staggered sequence to compensate. They failed and it started to tumble. Capkaka spun the Machariel around. It twisted like a cruiser. It looked like a ball as it rolled. Approach calculated, Capkaka spun around for another run.


***
"Pil Shorn, you have the warp in?" Invisible to the freighter pilot, the Cheetah was just three thousand kilometers away. The freighter's massive body blotted out everything else. If he had been watching the view screen he might have been intimidated by the size of the ship that passed him. Instead, dozens of commands relayed minute adjustments to the Cheetah's position. "Whenever you are ready."

"Fleet prepare for warp." Nine 'X's flickered down her fleet list. Everyone was prepared. Ready. Focused. "Fleet warp." There was a pause. Then space stretched. The massive warp engines engaged. Power poured from them and hurtled the fleet across the system. Distance became a matter of instances. Warp was fast. Too fast. So fast. But not able to be sustained between systems. However, inside of a system it worked just fine.

The Talos slipped out of warp just as the Machariel rammed the freighter again. The helpless ship rolled. Propulsion engines flared bright green-blue as the ships maneuvered away from each other and towards their prey. In the distance, nearly one hundred kilometers away lay the gate. It was so close but today, for the freighter, it was too far. Its autopilot was helpless against the game the Machariel played with it.
"Target." The locking icon flickered for a second as the scan captured the freighter. The guns swirled on their mounts as they spun up ready to spew their charges across space. Now came the sensitive part. If even one pilot was stupid today they would lose this. "Hold," So-so breathed and pressed the fire button.
A warning popped up. Bright and friendly its message was at odds with its appearance.

"This action is an attack on your target. Attacking this target is a crime, will result in a security status penalty for you and will bring CONCORD to enforce the law by destroying your ship. CONCORD will kill you! Do you wish to proceed with this dangerous action?"
"I am a dangerous action," So-so told the warning. The warnings were irritating.

The freighter tried to react. Someone had woken up. The Mechariel continued to treat it like an over sized ball. Each time its thrusters pulsed the massive battleship slammed into it again. The shield collision caused the engines to stutter as the navigation system recalculated the load balance and again attempted to correct the ship's course. The warp engines started to spin up, but they were never able to balance themselves before the Machariel made another pass.

"Ready?" Another series of X's flashed by. Each ship icon flared purple. They were all targeted. All ready. So-so would have taken a deep breath if he could. "Accept CONCORD's stupid warning. I'm in the mood to smack a loot pinata."

The turrets twisted on their mounts. Bright gouts of Void Xenon grade hybrid charges exploded into space. The turrets ratcheted back. Heavy coils absorbed the recoil and snapped the next charge into place. Space exploded in light as the freighter's shields absorbed the barrage of altered plasma that rained down upon it. They flickered and warped. For one second they held and then distortions started. Gouts of plasma punched through the shields and the ship buckled as the charges slammed into its body.

The shield compensated and then failed. The relentless onslaught of plasma continued. The turrets started to glow red from the heat as they were pushed beyond their specifications. So-so growled as gouges appeared along the freighter's side. They peeled back, showing its structural core. Slabs of metal and shrapnel exploded around it, slamming into the fleet of Talos.

The Machariel tapped the freighter one last time. Its own shields saved the freighter from damage. The energy was transferred and the Obelisk spun as its armor peeled away from it. "Go go go go go!" So-so howled over the coms. "CONCORD is here!"

The earlier distraction had done its job. Its armor in tatters the freighter started to disintegrate. It's own mass, no longer supported, started to twist and buckle. The pilot could only hope to be saved. It was the bleak hope of the lost. Even as CONCORD's massive battleships snapped into view he tried to find a strand of hope to grasp onto.

Shutdown commands were sent to the Talos. Engines hummed down and cooled. The ships were locked down as frigates swarmed them with stasis webifiers.

Ooni exploded first. One moment his ship was there, the next it was a brilliant blue super nova. For a second it was as brilliant as a sun. Then the scattered particles slammed against the other members of fleet. As the first bits of disinigerated Talos slammed into the fleet First Say's ship vanished into incandescent blue brilliance. His pod warped out, safe under treaties older then CONCORD.

Grim determination gripped them. One by one the fleet shattered under the attack. So-so went down. He slammed his pod into warp. Behind him, the others kept their focus. As he stared at the rear camera another explosion lit up the battlefield. It was larger and brighter than the others.
The freighter was down. From within his pod, he grinned.


***
Even as the freighter exploded so did the remainder of the Talos fleet. The shattered hulls gave off a dull glow. The plasma that coated its exploded ribbing and shattered form. The structural plates slow to cool. Capkaka scanned the ship. "Oh yes. The drop gods have been kind."

"Landing." Neatly, six blockade runners dropped out of warp into the field. The massive, armored creatures swarmed the wreck. In moments, they grabbed and dragged freighter containers and loose debris into their holds. They aligned even as they pulled in cargo. When each was full the pilot immediately warped to a preselected safe spot. Each pilot had their own. CONCORD swarmed the field but did not stop the looting of the wreckage. They did not like it but they allowed it. A Noctis appeared after them. Unwieldy and awkward it spun around the wreckage. Armor plates, circuit boards, consoles, wiring, they all vanished into its hold. The simple ship spun, safe from CONCORD as it touched nothing the freighter had carried and rendered its wreckage down to a handful of scattered particles.

Only then did the Machariel leave. The solo catalyst pilot followed. He had been a backup plan in case the freighter developed a sudden case of friends. Bored by his lack of action he followed the Machariel's path away from the battle field.


***
Far away, in the golden lit quarters that So-so called home, a stick of incense burned itself out. The last bit of ash settled atop the alter.

Bob, the Drop God's face smiled from the carvings.
-----------------------------------------
-Sugar Kyle 10/29/2012

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