The Dark Wheel
by Robert Holdstock

Chapters 12 34 56 78

Chapter Five

Out of Witch-Space: the dizziness, the slight shudder, the brief disorientation. Ahead of them, the distant, red-blue disc of the planet Xezaor was only slightly brighter than the gleaming field of stars around. The planet's sun was dim and very close by. It glowed red. A dying star, as the world ahead of them was a dying world, a cooling world, a world whose wealth and industrial development could not hold back the process of Galactic ageing. Xezaor was a world where luxuries and warmth meant everything, now, and Shanaskilk fur, with the multiple heads still intact, would fetch a high price.

   Routine. A routine trade run. Elyssia dozed, Alex punched co-ordinates into the auto-pilot and prepared to pass the time of the long run-in to the world.
Routine, a routine which Alex was by now well used to.

   Out of Witch-Space and then the slow approach until the Coriolis station came on target—
Nothing to do . . .
Nothing to see . . .

   The Cobra rocked and a sound like the screech of metal being bent apart echoed through the bridge!

   'Company!' Alex said loudly, and Elyssia blinked awake. She must have assessed the situation in an instant. She remained where she was. Alex was at the console and there were only seconds available for thought.

   Alex had been taken by surprise, not because he hadn't been paying attention, but because the attack ships had been so close to the egress point from hyperspace. With their tiny hulls between him and the glowing sun, they had not been visible for an instant, and they had been performing a 'tumbling' routine, mimicking slow-moving asteroids.

   Alex had half noticed them and half ignored them. They had got the first shot in, then overflown the Cobra.

   Now, they grouped behind as Alex punched up maximum speed, and scanned space for them.
'Here they come . . .'

   The shields screamed as laser fire played off them. Beam lasers! Those ships were well equipped.
But then, so, now was the Nemesis, the dramatic name that he and Elyssia had given to their ship. Alex checked the rear monitor and lined up the firing window. He stabbed out two bursts of fire from the newly installed aft-laser. The pirate ships veered apart, one of them struck.

   As he had them on the screen, he targeted a missile. A missile from one of the attacking craft began to weave towards them, and his screen flashed with warning. Alex operated the Nemesis's ECM, and after an agonizingly long few seconds the incoming missile vanished in a burst of heat and light.

The hull screeched and Alex dived. He noticed that the shields had begun to put a drain on the first energy unit.

   Elyssia sat calm and quiet while Alex handled the situation. Ahead of them, the planet edged closer, rising and falling and spinning in a dizzying way as Alex fought for a better combat position.

   Then, instinct took over. He looped the Cobra a full 180 degrees and raced head-on at the pirate vessel that had been behind him. Now he could see that it was a Fer-de-lance, a sleek, fast ship that was probably loaded down with sophisticated navigational and defense equipment that had been installed by the original owner. Or maybe not . . . such equipment took cash to maintain, and this ship had seen battle service aplenty.

   As pirate and Alex closed, Alex took a chance. They had only four missiles and one was targeted.
He punched for fire and the Cobra jolted as the deadly sting shot across space.
It reached its target and the Fer-de-lance literally disappeared.
Had it hyperspaced? No.

   When Alex activated the rear screen, he saw the spreading ash cloud, a silvery glimmer against the stars . . .
'Good shooting!' Elyssia said enthusiastically.
Through the cloud of metal and ash came the other ship.

   Alex looped again. A laser strike depleted the aft shield even more. But now that the enemy knew that its prey had an anti-missile system, it was going to try and dogfight Alex to destruction.

   The ship was a Cobra too. It's fuel-scoop gaped, ready to suck up the canisters of precious
Shanaskilk fur from the wreckage of the shattered trader.
Alex had other ideas.

   Again, Xezaor was ahead of them. Rear-shooting, Alex ducked and darted towards safety, and the pirate weaved a snaking pattern against the star-field behind. Alex targeted a missile-
'Save it if you can . . .' Elyssia breathed.
'I know,' Alex said. 'But we can afford a replacement . . .'

   'We won't afford the fuel-scoop then,' Elyssia reminded him, and they both laughed. At a time like this, worried about their shopping list!

   The space station, and the safety it afforded with its own fighter defenses, was too far away. Alex veered sharply sunwards, and dropped his forward velocity dramatically. The pursuing ship copied the first movement precisely, but took a few seconds to orientate to the second. It overshot. Before it knew what was happening it was no longer the hunter but the hunted.
'Go, Alex, go!' Elyssia shouted, as Alex shot off pulse after pulse of laser fire. The Cobra on the screen ducked and weaved, but Alex was equal to it, hardly thinking, just reacting. The temperature of his forward laser began to rise dangerously. The Cobra ahead of them launched a missile at them and Alex shot it, not even bothering to program the ECM.

   Elyssia gasped at the cheek of that, and glanced at the young man in whose hands her life was being so capably held.

   A moment later it was all over. The pirate exploded, his screen energy finally exhausted. Alex saw the wink and flash of a jettisoned escape pod and for a second—

   Remembering the beam of fire that had destroyed his own escape craft, remembering the savage destruction of the Avalonia . . .

   —he was tempted to go in pursuit. His better judgement prevailed. Around them, cargo canisters tumbled like sycamore seeds.
'And us with no scoop to pick them up!' Elyssia muttered.
Alex grinned. 'We claim two. That's quite a bounty.'

   Elyssia looked down at him as he sat and guided the ship towards Xezaor. 'Alex, you're a natural.
It's an honor to ride the stars with you.'

   No-one had said a word, neither of them commented on it: the fact that this had been Alex's first solo combat'

Chapters 12 34 56 78