Does space piracy really need space opera tropes like reactionless drives and tractor beams to work? Can piracy flourish in the environment of ultimate transparency: hard vacuum?
My beloved space piracy is dead due to thermodynamics. I'm bringing it back tonight by GHU!
I'm defining piracy as unlawfully depriving merchants of their cargoes and ships for this essay. We're looking at hardish science here: no stealth in space. Space ships are hot em emitting missile magnets. No sneaking up on your victim ... not with your ship anyway.
Use a small drone instead. A drone could be cool enough (temperature wise, not rule wise) to fool radar and ladar. It would have a thermal signature when it launched to assume an intercept course but maybe you could hide that by maneuvering the launching ship and creating a big thermal signature of your own, or just firing your thrusters, or firing the drone's thruster while it's hidden (or blending in with) your heat radiators. So the drone heads off into the Black. Days or weeks later it smacks into the target. Or maybe just scatters some bits of metal in its path. For that matter maybe an ally with a mass driver fires a couple of smuggler cubes at it (empty of course). It smacks the ship and disables it.
Drones are also great if you're traveling with a swarm of settler ships (for mutual safety you know) wait till you're out of missile range of the nearest military power and send some drones loaded with high explosives to the guys in your flotilla to say surprise. Either they dump their cargo or you put a big hole where it does them no good. Pick out the cargo you want, load up on their fuel and thrust for some friendly shore. Wolves wearing sheepskin tend to live longer.
Please note if you can beat your target's deta-vee and acceleration it will not matter one nano whether they see you coming. the prey can only run so far. Canny merchants might start negotiating before the intercept ever happens to avoid losing their cargo and have holes shot in themselves. The pirate version of the 'Three Body Problem" is roughly, can I intercept this guy before that navy frigate intercepts me? This again, is where the navigator pays for himself many times over.
But assuming our pirate is being sporting and has disabled his prey from a distance in an honest to goodness ship, they move in. At this point it may not be a matter of piracy. It may be a matter of salvaging a derelict or soon to be derelict ship ("You say your ship support will only last for 10 days? Awww we can only make rendezvous in 11 days. Leave your last wills where we can find them easy ... next to any heirlooms you want to pass on to your family".)
For that matter a previously legitimate salvage or rescue operation might turn pirate. The salvage crew of a multimillion credit ship might not look kindly on a a few living crew ("Make sure there are no survivors." "Aye-aye sir!" Blam, blam BLAM! "Errr ... never mind.")
Okay, you hit the target, overcame resistance, if any, and have your desired loot and maybe a patched up ship to boot! Well many other eyes have seen you intercept and ply your bloody trade. Those cutlasses you had fabbed on Port Dread were a big clue as well. Also the victim might have gotten a yelp out. Or someone might have figured you could have made an intercept soon enough to save that crew. You aren't the only one with a navigator and some of them use their powers for good. A whole bunch of fingers are pointing at you and a small chorus of comm beams is saying in more or less official tones, "We know what you did!!!"
If you have a FTL drive you obviously book out of that star system and don't look back (not that you can see stars in FTL space.)
But hold it, interplanetary or interstellar civilization may not be as monolithic, enlightened, and far reaching as we were led to believe. Heck, people might not even be wearing silver jumpsuits. Sticking to the solar system you might find an unscrupulous government ready to buy your prize ship no questions asked and eager for you to pay for repairs, ale and whores there.
In many cases moons or asteroids might be at war with each other (declared or undeclared) and actively sponsor privateers. This will tend to snowball. First ships from Sentients' Republic of Vesta will unload everything they have on ships from Ceres' GovCorp. Then another layer is added to the deception as both asteroids change ship registry and transponders to make them appear to be from neutral ports. Then the Sentients' Republic opens up on any ship that docked at Ceres. Then any ship that received cargo from a Ceres vessel (pirate robots you know).
No one ever said it would be easy.