The Drone Pirate Chronicles
Romy glanced up at the fast-moving clouds above her head, then and grinned with rising expectation into the fading light. The drones just had to come through this pass. And it would have to be soon because more extreme weather would roll in with the darkness. The mountains were too risky everywhere else for at least 50 kilometers in both directions. The winds were on the rise and snow flurries were almost certain. Perfect hunting weather.
They would come as a swarm, adopting the same strategy as the herd animals that inhabited the area. Only, animals were wily and used all their instincts to save life and limb. Drones had no such worries. Which made them a good deal easier to hunt. And even their flying would give them limited advantage today because they had no choice but to crowd into the pass and stay low.
Romy put on her goggles, glanced up at the speeding clouds above her head, and grinned with expectation. She could almost taste the fine Calavian wine her share of the bonanza would buy her. She felt a familiar tug in her belly at the thought, a longing that would only grow now that her mind had strayed to it. Get the drones, get the goods, get the coin credits, get the wine.
Newny crept to settle down beside her, trusting her instinct for a good position here in the wide niche of a cliff. He also trusted her to know when the hunt was about to begin. He finished cleaning his goggles, strapped them on, and took out his piece. He looked across and tried to spot the others he knew were there lying in wait. They were well-cloaked, so he had to close his eyes and use his implant to sense where they were. Three in similar positions on the opposite cliff and there were four others on the ground —two drovers with streaking flares and two shooters.
“What you think?” he asked quietly. “They going to send escorts this time?”
“They might risk it. Depends what’s onboard. Be ready for one or two. Hope not.”
The escorts were retired military drones that protected caravans of drones. They were heavy, not particularly maneuverable, and sometimes shot down their own carrier drones in confusion of targets. On the other hand, they could blast nearly anything into microbits given the opportunity. They were only used on the outskirts of civilization. As soon as the drones approached populated areas, the escorts would turn back.
The sight of their flying-tank silhouettes always gave any hunter mixed feelings. The good news was that they were only sent out to protect truly valuable cargo, the bad news was that their presence also meant the odds were not so much in your favor. The things were slow but deadly. If any were along with this caravan, they would have to be dealt with first. Romy was prepared. They all were. No one would even look at the cargo drones until the escorts had been taken out.
Romy closed the ventilation ducts of her inner armor and activated the outer armor. Despite what the manufacturer boasted, she knew it could take up to a full minute to reach 100% strength. Meanwhile, a lucky shot by anyone or anything could knock you flat. That first direct hit wouldn’t kill you, but it would give the other side the opportunity time to come in for the kill while you lay crumpled up in pain. She guessed Newney was already suited up. She doubted he even turned off his armor at night in his own reinforced sleep sack. The amount he spent on fueling his armor probably overshadowed her wine expenditure. But then maybe they both actually had the same motivation.
Three minutes later, the high-pitched whine of industrial drone engines floated into the pass. Romy was surprised that they already had their lights on, but she was grateful. It revealed everything that was important at a glance. Two escorts leading, one high and one low. Seven or eight cargo carriers in standard formation and one greenie that would be filled with spare drone parts and electronics bringing up the rear.
She felt the buzz of an escort scanner pass over her, but no lock-on vibration shook her. She released the breath she had been holding in order to not trigger the scan by even the slightest movement. So far so good. They were coming in nice and easy, low and slow. And when the low escort drone was 800 meters and closing she gave the signal. Romy and Newny raised their weapons and fired in synchronized, alternating firing patterns, bright laser streaks slashing through the air. Their comrades on the opposite cliff wall took on the high escort drone. The escorts fired back, sending heavy sprays of rock and soil flying into the air from the impact of their weapons. Romy got a clear shot at the spot where the armor of an escort is thinnest at the exact same moment her armor began vibrating because the damned thing had locked onto her. Shit! She squeezed the trigger and shoved Newny off the ledge.
Smoking heaps of metal lay strewn across a two-kilometer area at the bottom of the pass. Only two of the drones had escaped being shot down once their escorts had been grounded. One of the escorts had been blown to pieces, but the other lay immobilized behind some meters of debris that had fallen from the cliffside during the firefight and took potshots at anything straying into the line of its sight.
Spirits were high among the other pirates, who moved among the drones salvaging everything they could onto hoversleds, their banter flying fast and loose as they worked in the dark. But Romy paced around uneasily, a nagging feeling in her gut. Something about the ambush wasn't right. She replayed all of it in her mind´s eye. And then again. No, there was a stink to this. It was just too easy. Why did the cargo drones seem even more slow than usual? Why the slow reaction times of the escorts. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate having her skin intact and her armor needing minimal repair for once. But it was just... not right.
She couldn't shake the sensation of being watched or trapped. She turned to look up at the pass where the drones had come through. Thanks to the goggles, she could make the night time landscape out almost as clearly as if it had been daylight. But she saw nothing there. Walk away, a voice told her. And even though the wine was calling her name, calling for her to salvage just a few of the scattered boxes all around her for the coin it would bring, she could hear the voice of her instincts even louder. And they were saying it would be a mistake to remain here.
Newney was on top of one of the largest of the cargo drones, prying its hold open with gusto. She whistled and he stopped instantly. The first of the snow crystals blew in just as he straightened up to look in her direction.
"Leave it. We´ll sell the greenie for our trouble. But leave everything else."
Newny opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off.
"Leave it! We have to move."
Listening to Romy had kept him alive more than once. So he left off. Jumped down and crossed the short distance to the greenie. He blinked rapidly to change the setting on his goggles to get better visibility as the falling snow thickened.
"Lets move, then."
Together, they piled the greenie onto the sled in under a minute and pushed off.
The others looked after them, puzzled that anyone would just abandon this rare bonanza. But just as quickly, they returned to the business of securing their cut. Romy knew from experience that it was useless to try to warn them. You´d have more success prying fresh meat out of a shark´s mouth. And there was no guarantee that she was right. She and Newny could be leaving behind the best take they´d see for months or even for the rest of the year. Anything sent out with two escorts had high coin value once you delivered it to Drako´s camp. But instead they would take him the greenie and just stay afloat for now. She would shave off her own share to compensate Newny a little. The loyalty was worth it.
As they skimmed through the dark toward the desert, Romy felt the sense of urgent danger ease a bit with each kilometer they put between themselves and the pass.