Centuze's engines flared up as she hard-burned towards the Hypercruise Lane. If the data provided by the EPF remnants was accurate, this would be the time they would find out. Her lateral de-accelerators pulsed into action to break the pre-fall corvette's approach as she slowed to around fifty metres per second, enclosing on the Hypercruise Lane; which was about a kilometre or so off her bow. She had to be careful; Cresent was a busy system neighbouring the heart system of the Imperial States itself - Lorentis. Civilian traffic adhering to the strict shipping lanes packed the designated fly-ways to and from Cresent's central shipping platform; flanked on either side by mighty Hypercruise Lanes that guide vessels to and from the system's major installations.
Erica didn't even flinch as the Centuze roared underneath a two-hundred metre long cargo freighter, weaving between her escort craft with dizzying speed for a sixty metre long warship herself. Of course, Erica was an experienced corvette pilot; she'd been doing it for long enough, whether it was pirates, Radacri or the goddamn Imperials, it was all the same to her: don't get caught.
The civilian craft made slight adjustments to their trajectory to avoid a speculated collision as determined by their automated navigation systems but otherwise remained on course; as was standard for the highly controlled and regulated core-systems, manual spaceflight being essentially illegal in all of central Aquarius within designated traffic lanes. No doubt their crews were alarmed, but there was little they could do to outwardly express their concern as the Centuze hard-burned towards the Hypercruise Lane, though the Federal Security Forces were almost certainly aware of the corvette's infraction. The least of which was manual spaceflight in a restricted zone, considering she wasn't even on the Imperial Starship Register and had a long and, if you asked her captain, proud, history of criminal activity within the cluster under Imperial rule.
As Centuzi deaccelerated, her precious cargo was subject to significant inertia - that much was part and parcel of running a blockade, yet it didn't stop the dozen or so 'terrorists' from clutching the overhead handguards to steady themselves as the five-thousand mass ton vessel pulled manoeuvres almost certainly not intended by her spaceframe.
"Next stop, the gate to Sentry." Erica announced as the Centuzi crossed the Hypercruise Lane threshold. As she did so, she had transmitted a modified access code developed by the EPF remnants - providing authoritative access to the Hypercruise Lane Network without a civil permit as used by regular traffic. It was a single-use trick, since the code would be invalidated in moments after the FSF operators cottoned on to the ruse, but Erica was hoping that a slow day in Cresent and a timely 'failure' of certain docking restriction systems would be sufficient to allow their safe passage.
Erica didn't really have any concern as to whether the EPF's code would work, she had no reason to believe it wouldn't, but there was always that sense of anxiety that the Lane would just up and refuse access. Then it would most certainly be a one-way ticket to FSF... or worse, Imperial, custody.
There was no need for anxiety as the Hypercruise Lane's distinctive octagonal enclosure pulsed with subspace energy; the actuators containing the Jump harmonics rotating and locking into position as the 'tunnel' materialised before the approaching corvette. Erica pushed the throttle as far forward as it would go, flaring up Centuzi's engines as she passed the threshold and began accelerating to Hypercruise speeds. Even though the Albatross-class corvette had its own Hypercruise engine, it was still necessary to use the Lane network to, ironically, approach the gate out of the system without immediately alerting the FSF patrols in the area; since hypercruise in restricted space outside of the Lane network was entirely illegal, any approaching unexpected HC signatures would immediately raise the alarm.
It would be about twenty local system minutes or so, before the Centuzi and her precious cargo arrived at the gate to the Sentry system, twenty minutes of anxiety for her charge, but Erica had done this countless times, for her, this was life.
"FSF Patrol Cresent Tango Zero Seven One reporting, be advised, Sentry Gate, a suspected terrorist-affiliated vessel is approaching from the H-C Lane from Stonewater Shipping Platform. Vessel signature consistent with CV-type and is considered armed and extremely dangerous. Data enclosed."
Static "Understood, FSF Patrol Cresent Tango Zero Seven One. Data received, local patrol forces have been alerted."
"Threat is elevated to High status. Requesting assistance from Imperial Navy..."
"Report submitted, confirmation has been received. All FSF Patrols hold back and allow the suspect vessel to exit the vicinity of the Hypercruise Lane. We have locked down the Gate pending arrival of the INSD Task Force. Civilian Traffic has been suspended... standby."
Half a dozen Kite-class patrol ships scrambled from the Gate platform altered course to fly parallel to the Hypercruise Lane, maintaining about a ten kilometre distance. An emergency alert had been broadcast to all civilian traffic and engaged with their navigation systems' flight control computers, slowing each vessel to a safe halt while the Security Forces conducted their operation.
"INSD is en route, eta, 1 minute, 30 seconds."
As Centuzi approached the exit Lane near the gate to Sentry, Erica couldn't help but feel uneasy. The corvette had passed several large freighters in the lane, all of which had de-accelerated much earlier than usual. In fact, there was essentially no other traffic ahead of the Centuzi. Coincidence, or had the FSF realised what was going on? They had no reason to suspect Cresent was to be used as the escape route for the daring raid in Lorentis, if local security were even aware of it, but even a routine security stop would threaten to jeopardise the entire operation.
She had about a minute to make a contingency should the security forces be aware of the run attempt. Aside from punching out of Hypercruise early and risking interception from the Imperial Navy's zone restriction enforcement units, there wasn't a lot she could do other than follow the Lane to its exit and cross that bridge when she came to it.
Erica squinted at the HUD readout as the Centuzi approached the Lane exit. This was it, by this point the FSF would already have reports of severe traffic infractions near Stonewater Platform, but counting on the EPF's 'intelligence' assistance, it should take them too long to respond, by which point the Centuzi and her cargo would be long-gone through the gate to Sentry, and beyond that, the EPF's cruiser waiting for them in the Gateway system. From there, they'd be escorted to Crimson Reach and, ultimately, freedom. FSF patrols thinned out considerably in these edge systems, especially the ones just under the Crimson Barrier Nebula, since it was pretty quiet out there these days - even in the times of the Civil War.
"Hold on, we might have a small problem." Erica spoke into the intercom, briefly glancing round to the escaped prisoners sitting in her passenger compartment - directly behind the cockpit. "Nothing to worry about, but it might get a bit bumpy".
The prisoners returned her gaze with anxious looks, but they trusted their pilot to get them to the safety of the Independent Systems of Crimson-North.
Centuzi rapidly deaccelerated as she breached the threshold of the Hypercruise Lane exit, not wasting any time sight-seeing, Erica floored the throttle, sending the corvette into yet another hard-burn straight out of Hypercruise. The inertial stress of exiting the H-C Lane gravity field sending pained metallic groans throughout her aging superstructure, forcing the passengers to once again grip the overhead rails to avoid being painfully pushed back into their seat harnesses.
"Just a few more minutes". Erica whispered to herself as the gate to Sentry materialised into visual contact off the bow of the rapidly accelerating corvette. As per the plan, Centuzi would then transmit the modified access permit and be on her way. Well, that was the plan.
Centuzi's proximity alarm sounded as the shipboard computer announced 'Intercept Detected'; red warning lights flashing on the dashboard illuminating the dimly light cockpit.
Erica kept her cool. Probably just a routine security stop; after all, the ship was unregistered and flying erratically within a controlled shipping zone, but that wouldn't be a problem once she left Aquarius entirely. However, it would soon dawn on the veteran blockade runner that this was no routine security stop.
"INSD on-scene. All FSF forces maintain holding pattern and secure the sector. Handing over to INSD operators. Gate Control, out."
Two Imperial Navy Sector Defence Dragonfly-class Deep Space Fighters exited free Hypercruise about a dozen or so kilometres ahead of the suspected terrorist vessel; disengaging their active camouflage and jettisoning ECM flares and cruise disruptors from their external stores before their extended wings retracted into their fuselages, giving them a smaller profile as they rapidly approached the corvette.
"Unidentified unregistered vessel. This is the Imperial Navy Sector Defence. Cut your engines immediately and comply with all following commands or you will be subject to immediate termination."
Erica's stomach almost twisted itself. How the hell did the INSD arrive so quickly? They must have been on edge since the raid in Lorentis. This just became significantly more complicated. The corvette's electrical systems had been disrupted and her drive computer reported high-gain EM disruptors were active in the vicinity; locking the corvette into an electromagnetic well preventing her powerful engines from forming the output energy required to enter hypercruise.
The passengers looked anxiously toward their pilot, they knew that capture now would almost certainly lead to their execution, apprehension in an FSF detainment facility would be a luxury they wouldn't be afforded in Imperial hands; termination on the spot was the expected fate of suspected terrorists.
"What's happening?" One of them spoke out, looking fearfully at the red warning lights flashing in the cockpit.
"Just stay calm." Erica replied, she knew there wasn't a lot to be done now other than complying and riding it out. There was some slight hope that the INSD would attempt to take them into custody to interrogate them for information following the raid in Lorentis.
"We're cutting our engines. We will comply." Erica spoke into the communication system on the same channel used by the INSD ships. "Please, do not open fire. We are going to co-operate." she added, if by any chance appealing to the humanity of the compliance-augmented INSD pilots was worth anything in this age...
The INSD Dragonflies split up, one approached the corvette's bow at about a kilometre and the other passed over her at full impulse cruise, doing a 180-degree turn about two kilometres off her stern and coming back to face the rear of the corvette as the six Kite-class law enforcement vessels passed nearby, holding a reasonable distance between the corvette and the civilian traffic beyond.
"Your co-operation is noted. You will be escorted to a law enforcement facility where you will dock and continue to co-operate. Your navigation computer must comply with the designated waypoints immediately. Failure to adhere will result in your immediate termination. Do you understand?"
Erica raised her eyebrow slightly, she certainly wasn't expecting that, even if it was somewhat likely that the INSD would want her, and her passengers, alive. Too many blockade runners were executed in space, leaving nothing but salvage drones sweeping up the remaining wreckage.
"Understood." She replied anxiously.
Glancing round to the passengers, who began to almost break down in fear at the concept of returning to Imperial custody, Erica raised her hand abruptly.
"Just stay calm. Something's up with them, if we co-operate we have a higher chance of survival. Got it?" She demanded, invoking anxious nods of acknowledgement from the passengers.
"INSD reports the suspected terrorists have been taken into custody. Transferred control to ISS. Further reports are requested to conclude this case..."
"Case is concluded satisfactorily. Submitting report."
|| STATUS: Intelligence received from interrogation.
|| RESOLUTION: Subjects terminated.