Randly Clark enjoyed being a scout. More often than not he was on his own, away from the fleet and in deep space, exploring areas that had only been seen by astronomers. According to the regulations, he had given numbers to the stars that weren't in the normal guides, but he was allowed to name any Earth-like planets he discovered. That was why there was a Clark's World and a Randly's Planet, and half a dozen others named after his family or his current girl friend.
Clark was not a young man by scout standards. He was just over forty and had been flying through space alone for twenty years. At first he had been bothered by the enforced loneliness but quickly grew to enjoy it. There were no commanding officers to harass him about the length of his hair or the fact he hadn't shaved. There were no early morning meetings, no rigid schedules that had to be followed and no reports to be written until he returned to the fleet. Then, most times, he could find someone who would transcribe his notes for him, or he could use a voice access computer and just talk about his trip.
During the years with the fleet, Clark had been assigned a single ship and had been allowed to modify it. That was one of the rewards for being a scout. Too many couldn't stand the lack of human companions. A deep space mission drove them to the brink. Clark didn't mind it and the modifications allowed him to take the longest of the missions. He had a library of old Earth movies, books in the computer, and a computer navigation system of his own design that allowed him to sleep twenty hours a day if the mood moved him.
So, when Clark, who had been launched with a dozen other scouts to explore the center of the galaxy finally located the enemy, he had been asleep. He had been dreaming about a steak dinner, baked potato and green salad. He'd never eaten a real steak, but had eaten salads and potatoes but he d eaten wonderful simulations of them. Or so he had been told.
He snapped awake, his attention focused on the radar display in front of him. There was a single target more than five thousand miles from him. He glanced at the navigation console and saw that the closest star system was more than four billion miles away, the star at the center a bright ball of light and off to his right.
"Okay," he said out loud and reached for the joystick. He touched a button so that he had full control of the scout ship. He pushed it to the left and began a rapid turn. He touched the thruster and shot forward, toward the small ship displayed on the radar.
With the forward view screen at full magnification, he could see that the enemy ship... or rather the unknown ship, wasn't much larger than his own. It was a fat orb with stubby wings and a clear canopy set forward. It looked nothing like a fighter or interceptor or even a space craft. It looked more like a lifting body designed to fall through atmospheres without incinerating itself. It was not like anything that belonged to any group, race or planet that he had ever encountered.
"Okay," he said again. He slowed slightly, but kept his nose pointed at the other ship. He activated the computer voice input.
"Identify craft located four thousand, six hundred miles in front of us."
"No matches found."
"Is the craft manned?"
"Thanks for nothing," said Clark. "Did the craft come from the closest system."
"Number of planets in system?"
"Twenty-two...Six inner planets, two in the biosphere. Three that are rocks. Eleven that are gaseous giants on outer edge of the system."
Clark took a deep breath. He rubbed a hand over his face and then turned his attention to the craft. It was closer and seemed to be coming straight at him.
"Okay," he said. He turned to the right and dropped away from the enemy. "Let's see if it follows."
He activated the rear camera and watched the other ship as it blossomed with flame and turned to pursue.
"Okay," he said. "I get it."
Now he accelerated and pulled back on the stick, lifting the nose and beginning a loop. When he was pointed at the enemy ship, he rolled to the right to level out and continued to accelerate. There was no reaction from the other ship.
Clark raced forward, accelerating as he closed the distance. All sensors, radars and detectors were on. If the enemy didn't know he was there, it would soon see him. He was radiating electro-magnetic waves across the spectrum. He'd look like a small star to a radio astronomer.
"Computer, do you have a reading on any occupants of that craft?"
"Fine. Is that craft armed?"
Clark took a deep breath and kept the nose of his craft pointed at the enemy ship. He didn't waver, holding the stick steady and continued to accelerate, all instruments searching for additional detail.
"There is a ninety percent probability that the craft contains a single air breathing occupant."
"Thank you, computer."
Clark decided that he would buzz the enemy ship, photograph it and then make a run into the planetary system. Then, depending on what he found, he'd head back to the fleet.
"Warning! Warning! Shot detection. Shot detection. Missile has been fired."
Clark jinked right and then left and then fired a flare as he retarded the engine to cut the heat from it. "Type of missile?"
"Missile launched and homing on intruder," said the computer. "Missile running true. Interception of incoming missile in fifteen seconds...Detonation, detonation. Threat has been eliminated."
"Well, now we know," said Clark excitedly. "We'll go after him."
He pushed the stick forward into a deep dive, and continued on around, rolling out heading for the enemy. He accelerated, forcing himself back in his seat. He fired his laser knowing that the beam would be dissipated by the distance. It wouldn't have the power to punch through the enemy's ship's skin even if he managed a hit. With the laser firing, he launched two missiles, one behind the other.
The enemy ship dipped and then turned, rolling away from him. The dogfight was taking place at over three thousand miles using sensors and radar. Clark couldn't see the enemy ship visually and knew it couldn't see him.
"Beam weapon," the computer warned. "Outer hull is beginning to heat."
Clark jinked right and then left and the beam slipped off his hull. "Status of missiles," he said.
"Running hot and true. Impact in two minutes, fourteen seconds."
Clark had thought about using the enemy's own beam to aim a missile. It could ride the radiation thrown off by the beam for guidance, but that would be wasted if either of his missiles destroyed the target.
"Keep me advised of missile progress."
Clark rolled out, pointed his nose at the enemy ship again and accelerated rapidly. He wanted to close the distance between them and destroy the enemy. At the moment there was too much distance and it gave the enemy pilot too much time to react. A kid with a BB gun could take out the missiles at the distance they were fighting.
"Beam on again. Hull is heating."
Clark jinked up and twisted around, putting a different side of his ship toward the enemy. He began a slow, continuous rotation so that the beam couldn't lock onto a single point to superheat the skin of his ship to punch through it. It was the best defense.
"Two thousand, five hundred miles to enemy ship."
Clark checked the heads up display. The enemy ship was running straight toward him. The closure rate was climbing rapidly.
"Time to impact, one minute, thirty seconds. Missiles running true."
Clark watched them as they raced toward the enemy. The heads-up displayed them as pin points of light, the track marked in yellow and the enemy ship in flashing red.
"Missile destroyed," said the computer.
There was no spectacular explosion. The first missile blip just disappeared from the HUD. The track faded leaving only the second missile and the enemy ship.
"Second missile destroyed."
Clark hadn't expected either of them to get through. He just wanted the enemy to know that he had some teeth too. He continued to roll, twisting right and left, presenting a difficult target for the enemy. He fired his laser, saw it touch the side of the enemy ship and slide away.
"Distance five hundred miles."
Clark nodded, not realizing that he had. He kept his attention focused on the HUD and the enemy. It was beginning a slow turn as if to retreat into the star system.
"Two hundred fifty miles."
Clark fired the laser, aiming at the tail of the enemy ship. Numbers on the HUD told him that the skin temperature of the enemy ship was increasing rapidly. It spun away, dove straight down relative to him and rolled, breaking the beam lock.
"Fire two more missiles."
"Missiles away. One hundred miles."
The nose of the enemy ship seemed to erupt. Clark knew that it was firing at him, but he ignored it as the distance shrank. They were only fifty miles away from each other. Clark flipped a red cover out of the way and hit the button concealed under it. A spread of torpedoes flashed out. Small weapons that homed on the only heat source around. Clark made sure that it radiated heat by keeping the laser beam on it.
Through the tiny windows of the cockpit, Clark actually saw, for the first time, the enemy. The ship was a dark color, barely visible against the backdrop of space and had they not been close to galactic center, Clark doubted he would have seen it.
"First missile destroyed," announced the computer. "Beam weapon superheating hull."
Clark aimed his ship right at the enemy and kept up the pressure with his laser. The second missile disappeared in a bright flash of light and then the first of the torpedoes struck the enemy ship. There was a flash of light near the nose of the ship, a second one a few feet behind it and then a brilliant burst of brightness at the center of the enemy craft. An explosion that was hotter than a star flared. Clark turned his head and closed his eyes.
"Enemy ship destroyed," said the computer.
Clark couldn't resist the victory roll. He aimed at the center of the expanding cloud of debris, then pulled up to fly over it and barrel rolled as he passed it. "Got you, you son of a bitch."
"Enemy craft contained two life forms," the computer announced. "Two escape pods monitored."
"Direction of flight?"
"Toward the star system. Wait one. Target planet is fourth from the star. Intercept possible."
"Life forms on board?"
Clark turned toward the star system. He couldn't see any of the planets nor could he see the escape pods. They were too small and too far away.
"Probability of lifeforms in pods is twelve percent," said the computer.
For an instant Clark was confused. Why provide escape pods if not for the crew. Then he thought about the intell probes carried in his ship, that were carried by each of the scout ships. They were designed to home on the fleet rally signal and provide data in the event that his ship was damaged or destroyed and he couldn't report.
"Can we still intercept and destroy?" He was searching for the pods on the heads up.
"Plot course for intercept and destroy each of the pods when possible."
The computer didn't respond. Clark felt the ship turn and accelerate. He leaned back, scanning the instruments and then trying to see something through the tiny windows. A pinpoint of light flared and caught his attention.
"First pod destroyed. Second has entered the star system. Course is unaltered."
"Are any of the planets inhabited."
"Sensor scans reveal an industrial complex on the fourth planet."
Clark had been a scout long enough to know that the computer hadn't answered the question that he had asked. It told him that there was an industrial complex but that didn't mean the planet contained any life.
"Second pod has been destroyed."
"Decelerate," said Clark.
"I have the flight controls again," said Clark.
"Ship control relinquished."
"We will make a quiet pass at the fourth planet and then return to the fleet."
"Orders specify," the computer warned in its flat, mechanical voice, "Locate and report all spacefaring entities. The mission has been accomplished."
"I know that," said Clark. He didn't care that he was arguing with a computer. "We will check out that industrial complex first."