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Stories of the Fringe - Tachyon Fiction

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Our drop was as uneventful as it was ever going to be. We were in a field between vast stretches of forest and slate-hued granite rock beds. A silvery shroud of mist had fallen upon us, darkening up into the horizon to become black/blue thunderclouds that threatened storms, like livid violet bruises against an aluminum sky.
We had organized the equipment under the vast shadows of our machines, while the dropship had left us in it’s cold fusion driven wake. There’s always that feeling, as 5,000 tons of transport leaves you to your fate, that you really should have ditched a few years of combat training to take an afternoon class on typing and be an accountant for Galspan.
But I’ll tell you, Clan ops are a splendid, spending thing. We had it all. AI assisted field surgery bots. Plutonium driven Tachyon communicators. Fold up atmospheric solar tents. Self microwaving civilian grade field rations. Heavy distance surveillance gear, both audio and visual, with enough anti-encryption application software to crack anything within five miles in two hours, as long as it wasn’t mecha class, which used a radically different coding sequence. We even had constitution level gamma inductors, for perimeter work. They looked liked possum-sized hubcaps the color of chewed mint bubble gum, but one touch of a button and they faded like a mirage until you could only see the outline of it if you squinted.
We had some fine weapons, too.
Each of us were sporting laspistols, standard clan-issue assault gyrojet rifles, and one A.P.C.A.U.T.P.R. (Antigrav Portable Cartridge Assisted Unguided Tiger Projection Rifle). I kind of felt the need for something heavier, but then again, we were flying mechs into 58th territory.

“Figures I’d be marching again.” Scarlet said. “I should have stayed in space.”
Scarlet’s arms were tattooed with neon-hued ops sigils, old records of wars on other worlds, or in the cold and ferocious space between. One was a fist of lightening bolts, against a shield of copper, with a list of the dead in binary orbiting about it.
He was muscled, like he hit the weight room a day or three a week. F*ck, he looked like his Thor.
A few others had old DAB War vet tats, heavy ones, everything from footwork, piloting ops, mech cadre munitions sabotage, and a couple of Capitol Ship raiding parties, including a First-In Assault Pod tag, and from what I remembered those guys had a %90 casualty rate. I suddenly felt oddly out of my league- I was a mech jock, no more, no less, but it was what had paid for my bread, ammunition, and spare parts these last grip of years.
It was day, but there was certainly not a lot of sun to be seen. A fake night; the wind whistling low to rustle the leaves of distant aspen, droning through the silent chassis of our mechs, grim and colossal under that violet and black sky above.
I felt as if we were some post-apocalyptic band of roving tribesmen, questing in the name of some primordial cause. We were hunched over our equipment, listening to Wolverine lay out the plan. My breath frosted before me, and Scooby rubbed a coin sized heat module back and forth over his hands.
I ran a mental calculation. We had a Thor and a Loki, both of which were close range brawlers. We had a Madcat, for a hit from the distant horizon. We had a Sunder, which was probably a laser beast. Than we had Wolverine, in a Thanatos. I was pretty sure he was packing LRM’s in the broad mechs squared limb. Next to the slim profile of my Loki, it looked like a muscle augmented powerlifter- broad shouldered and malefic in the half dark.
Wolverine used a holo palm top to show us the plan.
“We roll in at angle Alpha, keeping our radars very much off, gentlemen. Once we’re within two days march from the 58th, we are going in on foot to measure the odds and take readings. We pick a time and move in, than we move out. The lift coordinate is 80 kilometers away, here.” His finger jabbed the screen, and the NAV point rippled green across a grid of gold and jet.

“Questions? Comments? Insults?”
“Yeah.” Spike said. “What about that Raven. I don’t mind fighting them, providing I’m behind 90 tons of ordinance.”
“I got personal bafflers for all of us. No way a Raven is going to spot us in the forest, here. We’ll all have blinder chaff, plus Scooby here is going to be in the background, in case he has to move in.”
“We gonna let them come to us?” I asked, wishing I had brought a module like Scooby’s.
“I’d like to, but we have to hit them fast. No one here wants trench warfare, and if we get surrounded in a pincer like Fuzion it’s going to be a lot of slow marchin’ and loud singin’ Chinese style funeral for us. We’re going to move in and out, straight line strafe, and you and Scarlet are going to hunt anyone who tries to put us between the base and harm’s way. Let Spike and I take the base, you guys hunt anyone who circles back. We’ll deal with the Raven when we deal with it.”
Miles above us, the atmosphere growled metallically.

Mech jocks and star pilots are a whole different mutation, let me tell you.
I had fallen in with all kinds, during my stint as an independent. Your far eyed idealists, your shallow greed heads, your media-driven autocratic fascist exhibitionists, your serious gun-ho soldier do-or-die-shut-up-and-be-military breeds, even your born again Christian mech jocks for Jehovah.
Clan pilots where any and all of these, but ultimately they were, like me, part hustler, part hardcore, part hellraiser.
Our team was cruising across the grassy delta towards the deep mountains where the 58th waited, crooning electronically to the distant stars beyond.
We kept it as 75kph, ECM on and radar off. But the private team chat was as brazen as it was raucous. These guys had been there, done that, gone over the deep end and had come back to brag about it with the ruthless sincerity of a human who had seen war in all it’s burning and blood-soaked revelry, and was now an artificer of it’s gruesome design.
So you laughed it up ‘cause it beat mewling with fear in some corner of a mental asylum, strapped down while a nurse tries to feed you thin rice gruel.
Wolverine told us about a drunken knife fight in a tobacco smoke clouded Ozark beer joint, culminating with the swashbuckler-like incorporation of a microphone as a kusuri-gami.
Scarlet and Scooby quipped back and forth with a steady barrage of stainless steel dynamically engineered puns (“We’re gonna mech it!” “We’re mechin’ good time!” “Loki over there, what do you see?” “What are you looking Thor?” “I’ve got an English lit degree from Mech U and have studied the auto-canon!”)

Spike waxed philosophical about experimental bio constructed infinite efficient heat sinks that would put ballistic weaponry out of business. A corporation called NH/UA was working on the design, even hosting huge simulated holo duels, with mechs carrying unbelievable amounts of energy weaponry, yet remaining as cool as liquid oxygen.
“It’s the future, mate. I’ve got a friend named Travbad who’s helping with the development schemantics.”
“No gauss? No LB10X? Kind of dry…” I said.
“It’s the future, Indy. It’s the next stage.”
“Yeah, but there’s something to be said for a 12 ton shotgun. Especially when it chambers a round…”

Later, the night outside was moonless; as black as a dish of shoe polish. The vault of rolling thunderheads above had stolen the stars and sequestered the moon, leaving us in the sepulcher of a sackcloth sky.
We skirted the river in the elemental dark, following one another’s radar signatures, until we reached a shelf of earth that split itself into a canyon of quartz and basalt, the silver mist, lit by the expanding dawn, blanketed a jungle of emerald leaves and glittering ferns the color of ferns. When the sun finally rose, it would be a cold and remote pearl in the platinum horizon.
We had negotiated the rubble covered slope, our mechs sometimes wobbling erratically as a combination of fine tuned myomers and a proto-AI assisted gyroscope kept a couple million creds worth of machinery from dropping a mile to end up as meaningless wreckage, ass up, face down.
“Nobody here brought jump jets?” Scooby asked, after his Madcat had shuddered and then slid downward (much to our immediate horror), surfing a ton of rock and dirt a fourth of a mile before it found it’s footing (much to our instantaneous relief), the crystalline dust kicked up into the canyon kilometer by kilometer, obscuring our view before it settled.
“Nope.” Wolverine said. “I’ve shot enough of those smartasses.”
Every mech jock had seen it. Two lances in a sniper fight using every hill and valley as cover, until a Shadowcat or MKII went burning up over a mountain to be shot ‘til it looked like a scorched erector set by pilots on the other side.
“Like trap or skeet.” Spike said. “Pull!”
His laugh echoed mechanically over out team comms.
We hit the jungle, the chassis of our machines crashing through the dense canopy. Vines snapped across my cockpit, broad leaves slapping against the plasteel.
I was thankful for the growth that shrouded our mechs on either side. It kept us out of view, protecting us from the barrage of LRM’s or the well-aimed gauss…

I had to admit, the brief flashes I got as I maneuvered through the flora, fauna, and foliage was worth the drop. Clusters of brightly hued flowers, crystalline waterfalls plummeting to diamond-clear rivers fringed with lush ferns, occasionally parting to reveal broad expanses of iron colored shale, fallen logs blanketed in moss, the earth unseen beneath the verdant primordial growth.
“What a quaint and lush ecosystem.” Scooby said.
“An Eden undiscovered.” I said.
“Perhaps we might acquire an atom bomb so we may do more damage than we are doing, already.”
Spike broke in.
“Don’t let your green thumbs twitch themselves into a knot. This will all grow back, regardless of how hard we squash it. I know this shrubbery. I did some infantry action in Brazil, Laos, Zanditkantlos…this side of mother nature can take a hit. Nothing delicate, here. Especially anything you see that’s green. The animals heard us and fled a long time ago.”
“Wish we had more of it.” Scarlet said.
I couldn’t agree more.
We were covered, yes, but we all knew that this would just serve burr the keen edge of our instincts when we hit the 58th comm. post. We wouldn’t have this forever, and the long green expanse towards the post would seem longer still when every LRM had us in it’s sights.
In that battle there would be no cover.
No, none at all…

We kept chugging for six hours, took an hour break, and then hit it for five more hours. That’s when the awareness that we had entered 58th communications space fell upon us, quiet and spectral, like a spider web across your face as you walk in a forest at night.
We tuned in, and there it was, a blanket of static frayed and worn, patched with Tachyon amplifiers and an audio grid of networked relay systems, out-of-date coders, and heavy emitters to spike the signal sharp enough to puncture ozone and touch planets light years away.
“Listen in, boys.” Wolverine said, his voice above the harsh discordance of a thousand data whispers. “If all goes well, no one will hear it in a week.”

Camp was simple.
We set up the mechs in a semi-circle, facing our backs against the lush tropical foliage, replete with trunks the color of blanched bone or umber, with it’s dense conglomeration of fronds, leaves, and palms swaying in the misted wind.
We synched our personal gravs to all the mechs and memorized the lift point. A step to the invisible lift chute and a vortex of physics keyed to each of the code rings we wore- and up you went, awash in weightlessness, to the door of your mech’s control pad.

It was brisk and polished, much easier than a myomer assisted lift assembly, like crews a hundred years ago had to deal with.
What a waste of hardware that must have been at the time.
The gamma inductors were put into place, but we scarcely doubted we would need them. The 58th outpost had a few tanks, but no real localized infantry. Footwork had it’s time and place, but a 70 ton machine capable of letting loose with a fusillade of sophisticated weaponry kind of nullified a platoon of guys with rifles. Even if they had MASER’s.
Communications was put in a slate colored khaki tent in the center, with a few vidscreens ready for transmission when we made the march and set up the live feed.
We had grav assisted microshielded tents, for keeping out the invertebrates and off the soil, and enough chemical showers to go around. For nocturnal illumination, we used night gear. Even with the canopy above filtering the deep, deep blue of night to black, we all knew any fluorescence could signal our location and invite an attack. “All it takes is one Shadowcat when we aren’t ready for it,” Spike said. “And then we’re right f*cked.”
Using connection epoxy, dense molecule energy wire, and pane upon jagged pane of stealth fields, we draped the camp in concealing technology. It took two hours of climbing trees and mechs with smart ropes and an endless supply of micr-gravs that Wolverine pulled out of a locker, but the effect was worth it.
Standing on the vine infested ground, sore from the monkey-work, my limbs and joints a distant throb of aching cartilage and worn sinew, I could look up and see the fields, like vast shards of translucent amethyst, angelic and vitreous in the inky grotto of the nocturnal jungle.

My dreams were indistinct and tenebrous. A cube of unconsciousness boxing me in, the faces of old memories, submerged in shadows and mouthing illusions, pressed up against the glass.
I geared up and slung a gyrojet rifle over my shoulder my hand parting the
delicate folds of the tents micro-field to reveal the verdant splendor. Too much damn nature. Made my eyes ache. I missed the look of ferroconcrete.
I had been in space for years at a time, aboard starships and in sprawling bases on the sides of moons. The primordial explosion of natural splendor hit me between the senses, like mother nature had put on a set of brass knuckles composed of teak and konked me on the bridge of the nose so hard I bled green, eyes tearing up and sight of all that damn plantlife.
I popped a can of nitrolite and drank, watching the golden half circles of fragmented sunlight, filtered by the abundance of palm trees and drifting vines above.

I found the river, following it’s silver lilt to it’s banks, the loam as dark as coffee grounds.
My feet found their way to the waters that were as tepid and opaque as cold stout beer. A mist crept in on cloudy paws to hit eddies and currents to be gently torn to cotton shreds.
The water washed over my boots. Out in the dark, a loon screamed, and I was somewhere else.

Two years ago.
A swamp on a terraformed planet, somewhere in the outer whorls of the expanding ripples of Fringe space, deep in the center.
“Over there.” The first one said.
“Naw, farther in.” The second said.
They were as professional as highly paid chauffeurs. I felt a weird sense of disassociation, as if I had made an appointment to be whacked.
I stumbled over a vine that had snaked it’s way out of the dense fog and barely kept myself from falling onto my face in the murk.
A gyrojet shell detonated near my head, sending up a gout of mud the color of decayed skin a meter off the soaked ground.
“Easy, turbo, can’t shoot you, here.” The one with the pistol, said.
They had waited for me in my own car. I used my voicelock, got in, and found myself at the wheel with a gun in my ear.
Smart angles with these guys. One with the pistol directly behind, six feet away, too far to turn on. One with a lasrifle to my near left, flanking. Then me, face forward, fingers laced behind my head. It kept me off balance and unable to do anything evasive. Not that I could fight worth a f*ck bare handed, anyhow, and certainly not in a swamp against two guys with firearms. If they had just detonated my car while I was in it with an atom bomb, I could not have been more dead.
My sonic pistol had been in my glove compartment. They took it, along with the $10,000 cred chip I had put there. For the bookie I owed it to, I might add. I has actually been on my way to his office.
It was the most classic of reasons to get railed; I had failed to pay off a bookie.

I had sold some light gauss ammo I had smuggled back while on garrison duty contracting for Galspan. I had sold it fast and cheap, and was en route to the bookie’s office, but hit men get paid for a contract, not for collecting. I don’t know how much there were going to end up with, but the $10,000 was frosting, for them.
The man with the rifle had sealed the chip into a zip pocket. They had made me drive to a swamp fifty miles out, and then had walked me in.
So here I was, in a deep cold panic, the mist crawling up hungrily around my heels.
They were spacers, probably from around Kuniper belt, from the dialect. As sharp as monofilament wire as they were, the two had not been on a lot of planets, I could tell. But to them, a barren place, a pistol, and a corpse, and you had a recipe for a profit. I was just an ingredient.
I had tried to reason with them, but even scared out of my damn skin, I didn’t have it in me to beg. I knew there was little point- they had evil, frozen eyes and the flat expressions of experienced soldiers. They didn’t operate mechs, but it didn’t matter.
My fear was up, way up. The drive had helped it along, the swamp had amplified it, but it wasn’t until my slip that the whole feeling of being truly doomed had come upon me.
This was it.
I thought of Cecile, waiting at our 99th story apartment
It was different than the andrenal jolt one got from combat. I felt lucid, my vision a tunnel of fear. There was no way out of this- and yet there was a synchronicity that was set inside of me, next to a nauseous cloud of fear. Eight Track, a.k.a. Falzio Dupre, mechwarrior, gunrunner, part time smuggler and independent contractor…he grew up on the edge of Sol, did some scores, had some moments, met a nice girl who treated him better than he deserved, and then owed money to people he really should have paid off right away and got clipped.
I should have ditched the car.
I should have called the bookie.
I should have paid him sooner.
“Hey, Mr. Track, pick up the pace, we got a ship to catch, ha-ha-ha!”
I should have called Cecile.
I should have signed on with a clan.
I should have been better to Cecile.
“Over there, by those rocks. Perfect.”
There they were. My gravestones.

I knew what I looked like- hair matted with sweat, trembling, eyes bulging in panic- my tongue felt like a thick piece of dried leather in my mouth.
We came to a shallow part of a river area of the swamp. Moss dappled logs, the color of umber, stacked atop each other, criss crossing the brackish waters that stunk of rot, decayed earth, and brine.
“Watch your step, Fitz. Keep him covered.” The voice behind me said.
Fitz. His name was Fitz. I was going to be shot in some filthy ****ing swamp by a guy named Fitz.
Please get me out of this, I thought. I didn’t know who I was praying to- call it Tao, or God, or Buddha, or Allah- but praying kept me from dissolving into a puddle of fear, even though I had no right to do it.
My heartbeat hammered in my chest. I could feel it pulsing in my throat, almost gagging me.
If I get out of this, I’m never going to gamble again. I’m going to stop cheating on Cecile, I’m going to, I’m going to, I’m going to…
They made me walk across first, and I slipped again, my leg sinking knee deep into the frigid muck.
The two hitmen behind me laughed. For no real reason, their mockery flamed me. I felt stupid and helpless, and it made me even angrier. Not that it was going to do me any good. I was outgunned in every sense of the term.
We were halfway across, the river was maybe five meters- when I turned slightly, seeing the one called Fitz navigate across, he rifle trained upon me. Is face was a series of cruel lines and merciless features, impassive and murderous…
…then a log erupted from the moss colored water in a spray of mud and bit into Fitz’s right arm with a grinding roar.
A shot went by my ear with a zip of rent atmosphere. The wash engulfed the human and the creature, I saw a glimpse of it, scaled hide, a flash of teeth, and then they both disappeared into the murk.
The other hitman with the pistol turned to where they had been a microsecond ago.
“Fitz? Fitz!!?”
His pistol was aimed low, at the water.
I charged, closing the distance, going for his arm, slipping on the moss, hitting him at his knee in an uncoordinated tackle.
Then were were in the water, chest deep.
My vision was a centrifuge of grey sky and black mud.

I punched him in the face.
He rolled with it, and then clawed at my face, cursing.
I had his gunarm by the jacket sleeve. My other hand found his shoulder as he pushed me into the water to drown me.
I kicked his legs out, and I pulled with what little leverage I had. We both went under again.
But my feet found the bottom of the pond, and I pulled and tore with my hands. The jacket came free.
I broke out of the water and onto the shore, the jacket in my hands.
Fitz was still screaming.
An alligator. I thought. Stupid luck. Stupid luck. Stupid, stupid, stupid…
The other hitman was trudging through the mud away from me, yelling incomprehensibly, towards the rifle on the other shore.
I went after him, fighting my way through the water and swamp detritus.
I tore at the inside button of the jacket, searching.
He was out of the water, almost to the rifle.
“Fitz!!?” He said, looking around. It was as if he had forgotten about me entirely, even as he reached for the weapon.
I pulled at the sonic pistol, still running forward, almost slipping. I felt uncoordinated, my vision whirling. The pistol caught on the edge o the inside pocket. I pulled, harder, realizing I couldn’t feel my legs.
He had the rifle in his arms. He turned towards me, mouth open, teeth bared. I could see the black circle that was the rifle’s barrel…
I shot him in the chest from about ten feet away.
He seemed to freeze in place, head going up, eyes screwed shut, teeth bared, then he staggered back…
I shot him again, and again, in the belly and the chest.
He sank to his knees, eyes open, mouth open, letting out a hoarse, voiceless groan.
I shot him once more, and most of his face came off in an arc of bone and skin.
There was the WUUUUFFFFT! sonics, the sound of silk ripping as his flesh and bone were cut into perfect cylinders, the he fell face forward into the reddening wet earth.
Everything kind of stopped.
There was the shore, the powdered steel sky, the branches of dead trees piercing the moors, and the hitman, dead at my feet, so red with his own blood I couldn’t see the mud on him, anymore.
I ditched the pistol. Sonics pack a hit like a ten ton sickle, and are great if you can’t hit the broadside of an Atlas, but they run out of ammo like prom queens run out of virginity.
The rifle was a snubnosed bullpup design, lethal and uncompromising. I picked it out of the blood flecked mire.
I was in some sort of autopilot. All of the swamp sounds- the droning of gnats, the croaking of amphibians, the shrieks of birds- all of it was drowned out by the white noise in my head.

The alligator had did some serious damage. His arm and been tore off at the shoulder. But the hitman was a toughguy. Crawled up onto the shore, his skin the color of a gull’s wing, spattered with gore and sludge.
The stump of his arm was a grayish yellow mess of bone and flesh, a thin river of blood trailing into the log strewn river.
I leveled the rifle at him.
“Help.” He said.
I felt as cold as the waters of the swamp around us.
He noticed his shoulder, and the six inch ribbon of skin that was still there, where his arm had been.
“Oh God.” He croaked.
He looked back to where I was, and at the rifle that was trained upon him.
“Listen,” he sputtered, pulling his body towards me with one arm. “Take me to the car…I got creds, I got guns, I got unregistered…cloned stem cell tissue…in stabilized cryogenic wafer form…you can sell ‘em fast, man, just…”
The reptile rose from the swamp with lethal certainty.
It was the size of a sofa, a few meters across, it’s narrow snout curling back along rows of spiny fangs to a rictus grin, it’s stubby clawed feet almost comical as it regarded me.
I stood there, the rifle heavy in my numb arms.
The hitman’s face froze in a contorted grimace of agonized horror as the reptile nearly severed his leg at the knee with a methodical snap, dragging what was left of Fritz into the black mire. The waters rippled, crimsoning, and then were silent.
I stood there for I don’t know how long, and then threw the rifle in after them, feeling sick, elated, or both.

I can’t tell you too much of the rest.
Everything in me was screaming, and maybe I went loony in the time it took for me to walk, quaking with the cold, hands tucked in my armpits, trying to find my damn car in all that grey drudge, which felt 1,000 kilometers from home.
There was a long car ride back, and at one point I realized I had snapped out of it…whatever I was in.
Death had been at my back, as opposing and indomitable as the 100 ton tread of an Atlas, and yet here I was.
I remember the hollow ache of my gut, the memory of adrenaline still dancing in my blood. I looked in the mirror when I got to my pad and saw a lot of it, blood, streaking my face and clothes in ribbons of crusted gore. Then I threw up in the sink.
I showered for an hour, then tossed everything I had been wearing into an incinerator.
Cecile hadn’t been there when I arrived. She was gone, possibly to her classes at the University, where she had been studying neural instructional soft carbon viral design. Light years ahead of current learning. You would be infected with a synthesized composite of DNA code and intelligent nanotech synaptic microcells. You’d get a cold for a day, and then you’d be well-versed in all the science of geostatial thermodynamics…

The bookie never saw me coming. I had stepped from the alley behind the races, gun in hand, cred chip in the other. His slate-blank barbiturate eyes had briefly blanched into twin black panes of surprise, and then I had paid him off.
He didn’t ask about the hitmen, and to tell the facts of the matter, I wasn’t about to bring it up.
I guess I should have shot him full of circular incisions and kept the 10,000, but I felt a little fresh out of good karma, and my mind was still engulfed in the Novocain grip of shot. The swamp was still with me. I had shot enough people for the week.
Later I had sat in the bed, watching the sheets rise and fall in the still-dark soft silence of the quiet evening as Cecile dreamed, and looked down at my hands, dreading to see mud encrusted under the fingernails. Or blood.
Sometimes, even now, in the worst of my dreams, I stand at the edge of that swamp, shaking.
Fitz claws his way out with one arm, his mouth a geyser of fountaining crimson.
Something clamps onto my ankle with a vise of unearthly flesh, with the cold of 1,000 graves, and I am dragged noiselessly into waters replete with alligators and pale, tide pushed corpses, rotting in the flesh-numbing depths, crowding me until I can’t see or breathe anymore…
I didn’t find religion, or become one of the good guys, or decide not to jock mechs and enter battle in and against machines that let loose volleys of city disintegrating ordinance.
But I never cheated on Cecile, again.
I never gambled again.
I never ended up under the gun of a hitman.
I never ended up in debt to a bookie.
I never walked into another swamp, again…
…and I never wore a pair of alligator skinned boots.
You know what I mean?

Then I’m back again, standing by the river, staring into the burbling crystal depths.
Scarlet stepped noiselessly from the jungle growth. Although morning, it was dim. The canopy above seemed to swipe the sun from the sky with a verdant, vine-wrapped claw.
He was geared up, steam wafting from a cup of coffee in his hand.
“Hey, you and Wolverine and I are gonna start stepping on some earth in a big way. We are going to set up some vid units and get some 4-11 on the 38th.”
“Be right there.”
“Everything cool?”
I looked into the river.
There was nothing it could tell me that I didn’t already know.
I thought of Cecile.

“Perfect…I’m perfect.”

The march wasn’t the marathon I thought it would be. I should have known Wolverine wasn’t going to subject us to it three-day hike. Not with our time frame. Hell, I have to give the man mad props, he went with us. F*ck, he even took point.
Scarlet had a rifle in one hand and the Tiger Projector in the other. He whistled for a while until Wolverine threw him a sharp look.
I had a gyrojet rifle and a laspistol on my hip. I couldn’t help but feel stupid, considering there might be a couple of mechs roaming the hills.
We followed a trail through the foliage, a valley leading to the outpost on our Westside. I felt comfortable enough, but when we spotted it’s outline a mile ahead through the silvery mist, I felt a magnetic charge run up my spine. Like we were naked, on that hillside.
Just below us was a wide expanse of dirt, tire treads going in either direction.
“Supply trail.” Wolverine said.
I broke out the binocs and checked out the base. It was what you’d expect. Big, bustling, bristling with ordinance and communications grids. The radar dish towered up beside it, it’s solar panels and data feed arrays like hematite under the cold Antares sun.
You can bet your girlfriend’s ass there were mechs everywhere. I saw something, something big, then…
The viewer went black.
Scarlet, his face grave, one hand over the binocs.
Wolverine stood a couple meters away, staring at a clearing.
I walked past Scarlet, and saw it.
A wide imprint of a mech’s foot. The ground pushed in by three feet. It wasn’t that wide, but it didn’t seem to matter.
“Makes you feel real f*ckin’ small, now don’t it?” Wolverine asked, his voice hoarse.
“Geesh, and to think that’s only a Raven.”
“Small lasers don’t seem like much when you are operating 75 tons of machinery. But when you think about what it would do to you if you got hit outside of your mech…”
“Instant incineration, man.” Scarlet said. “Nothin’ left to bury.”
“Let’s set up those viewpods and get back to op center. I feel exposed.” I said.
Wolverine looked back at the communications center. I suddenly realized he hadn’t brought a helmet. He was wearing a cowboy hat. Leather, from looks of it.
“I hear ya, Eight. Let’s vanish.”
We left the pods dug deep in the hillside, where not even someone fifteen away would see them.
I couldn’t help but think of New Dawn, maybe a light year away, get ready to move, waiting for the five of us to make it all happen.
It gave me a significant amount of perspective.

The vid feed was different, black and green, like night vision. It gave me an overwhelming amount of relief- like a good omen.
Scooby’s dialect seemed even more pronounced, just like Spike’s. As if being around each other amplified their accent. But as he gave us the assessment, it lent a degree of panache’ to the entire affair.
“We got off light, mates. No ERPPC on the outpost. No heavy gauss cannon, either. But we still got LRM projectors. Three of ‘em.”
“No prob.” Spike said, taking a nip of what smelt like whiskey from a derridium flask emblazoned with a VA symbol. “I’ll take ‘em out in midstride. Don’t you worry, gents.”
“Three LRM’s?” I said. “That’s kind of light, compared to what Fuzion had to deal with.”
Wolverine aimed at the screen with his sapphire light pen. The dot fell on the hazy picture of the base, on one of the launchers, squat and crouched, like a gargoyle with two barrels on each of it’s derridium shoulders.
“Those are quad LRM 20’s, Eight. Improved targeting systems, get a lock in two seconds.”
“Yup.” Scarlet said. “See those arrays on either side? Quad AMS. No mech could carry that many, too much heat, too much computer logic requirements, but sentry guns like these can easily handle them. So don’t use missiles on those bad boys.”
“Wow.” I was impressed.
“So what?” Spike said, drinking a can of nitrolite. “I’ll pick them off in twelve seconds. Zap, zap, zap.” He punctuated his presentation by jabbing the air with his finger at each ‘zap’.
Wolverine lit a cigarette. The smoke of it wafted into the dark blue of the night, the ruddy light from it’s tip illuminating the features of his face in a hellish glow. “Yes, Spike, you are godlike in your capabilities, but I am sure Scooby will throw his two ERPPC’s in, as well. But here’s the mech role call= No Raven, but according to our little foray in the jungle it’s there. We got two Thor’s…one by the ordinance depot…the other by the hangar…but seein’ as how Thors are standard, not a big development, there.”
“No Shadowcat, but I am going to assume it’s probably on patrol over on the other side, maybe in the hills. There’s our Thanatos, next to the hangar. Over there, next to the cold fusion silo, we have a Masakari. The main base door is open, so that’s what we got instead of a Daishi. Expect some serious long range wuuuuumph.”
Scarlet seemed elated. He punched his fist into the palm of his hand.
“Easy. Easy creds. We may as well call 58th and tell ‘em we’re on our way.”
The stealth fields above were hypotenuse triangles of neon drenched powdered azure radiance, filmy and indistinct in the opal-hued moonlight. They made me feel safe. Enclosed.
Wolverine’s voice cut through good cheer like an acetylene torch through Styrofoam.
“Stop laughin’ and take a look at those.” His calloused finger indicated two shapes, crouched next to the immense 400 ton tachyon dish.
There they were, parked in front of communications dish. Squat, crouching monsters. Mechs, big ones, certainly assault class. Huge sockets in their torsos, immense enough to house Heavy Gauss. Arms like a Vulture, with twin ordinance barrels. Their

legs were ponderous looking, but the overall appearance of the two mechs was that of moon crushing firepower.
“Jesus, are those real?”
“Yes. They’re Fafnirs.”
“New ‘uns. Big, built from Daishi parts. Refitted to carry anything from Gauss to Autocannon in those chest units. Serious firepower…takes a lot of training to handle those.”
“I would think a mech’s a mech.”
“Oh, a mech is pretty much like any other, but not these. Us pilots are pretty unique. But those are new designs, fresh from Sol space. New systems, new controls, recalibrated neural link, cybersocket flux smart tech…you gotta be half hardware to handle those. Cyberboys use ‘em. Takes advantage of the latest in wetware, hardwiring, and cybernetic implants. It’s standard with any new Clan/IS hybrid. After a while, they redesign the systems and you don’t need to have so much hardware inside you. But Banzai has a lot of cash to spend on the latest and greatest.”
“What’s that mean to us?”
“Us? We’re f*cked.”

We all took a break after that horror story. Then Wolverine brought up a map of the base and we did a play by play.
We all shut up while he talked.
“Ok, LRM20 on the hangar and two on the main base. Main base in the center, cold fusion silo south east, communications dish north of the base, with the hangar west and north west respectively.”
“We trot in going 70 kph, Spike and Scooby take out the LRM’s. Industry standard. Let’s presume that the Shadowcat and the Thor are going to do like they did with Fuzion and go into orbit and pop snipe. That leaves a Masakari and a Thanatos laying down fire, with the Thor bringing up the rear and then doing an outflank, like Fuzion, once again.”
“Everyone moves in. Eight Track splits off with Spike and takes out the Thor and the Shadowcat, but you are going to plunk off shots on the Tachyon dish the whole while. Every shot counts.”
“We all know Masakari’s…they hang back and split your skulls from range. Scooby, you get that piece of the pie. Lay down suppressive LRM fire and keep him buried.”
“Scarlet and I are going head to head with the Thanatos and the other Thor. We’ll win…we’ll f*ckin’ win.”
“Spike, Eight, after you clean up your plate with the Thor you guys will sweep back and assist whoever needs assisting, and make sure that dish is dust. Gun the Raven down if you see him.”
I piped up.
“Hey, why Spike and I on the Thor? Why not send me?”
Wolverine looked at me with a casual steadiness.

“Because I don’t know how good you are, and I’m not going to gamble the crew on it.”
His eyes were as flat and cold as a cobra’s.
I looked at him back, thought about getting pissed, then I thought about that gauss
pistol and how deep the jungle was, and deciding that thinking about getting pissed wasn’t nearly as cool as thinking about shutting my mouth.
“One problem.” Scarlet said. “What about the Fafnirs?”
“I ain’t counting them.”
“Why not?” The VA pilot took a swig from the flask Spike handed him.
“Because every time I try to, we end up dead.”
“What about-?” I began to ask.
“No. We’re dead. We’re not that good. No one’s that good.”
You couldn’t cut the silence with an acetylene torch. Too dense.

We held a meeting by the river.
The dark seemed even more prevalent, away from our campsite.
I stood away from the others, skipping stones across the river. Beyond, jungle sounds cut the dark. Animal noises, birds and nocturnal creatures, howling at the moon in the tropical night.
Wolverine seemed placid enough.
“We got options. We can move in, now, and let the dark cover us. Or we can just call it off. Or we can flank the communications base and snipe the radar from a distance and hope against a swift reprisal, but seven mechs chasing us all the way back to the lift point is not a viable agenda.”
“I agree. I don’t like any of that.” Scarlet said.
“Neither do I.” Scooby agreed.
“What are we going to do, children? March in there out weighed by two hundred tons? End up like Fuzion? No one wants to end up stepped on.”
“We’re all adults, here.” Spike said. “What do we do?”
“Those tags on the Fafnirs are Team Banzai. The best.”
“Damn.” I said. I had heard of Banzai. They weren’t Jesus, but they certainly were in the neighborhood of John the Baptist. Big, big fish in our part of the pond. Mech only, they trained in the off season like no other. Most of your premium clans like Neechi, Void Alliance or the Iconian Knights that had access to starcraft as well as mechs didn’t stay up late worrying too much about mech only clans like Banzai…until you ended up facing them in the field, in a mech yourself. Then, all those stories about just how good Banzai was could haunt you.
“So what?” Scarlet said. “There are only two of them.”
“Not to alarm you, sweet pea, but two of them are four of us.” Spike said.
“Let’s see.” Scarlet cracked his knuckles with malicious zeal.
“They got hired, maybe. Extra muscle.”
“Maybe they’re just stopping by.” Scarlet said.
‘”Hi, 58th. We’re Team Banzai, one of the most crack groups of Mechwarriors to ever haunt the stars. Just thought we’d drop in for tea and biccies. Brought the beer, let’s see if there’s rugby on, shall we? We parked the Fafnirs on your light Raven by accident,

hope you don’t mind. If we get too hammered tonight, can we sleep on the couch?” Spike’s voice echoed across the placid waters, the color of hematite in the star choked night.
“I got the audio surveillance gear.” Scooby interjected. “Let’s crack their communication channels and listen in on what they got going on, in there.”
“Make it happen.” Wolverine said.

Scooby pored over the transmissions, the computers printing out reels of communications within the 58th’s Outpost coordinates.
The IK pilot and Captain Scarlet had worked for a few hours, unleashing AI assisted software that had found subtle errors in the encryption patterns of the 58th’s code, and had exploited it with surprising success.
But the Tachyon transmissions had been well beyond us. The coding had been layered with sophisticated ionic flux wavelengths. It sheathed the Tach particles with a heavy medium of radiation that made our own cracking software useless.
“We’d need to be in a capital ship class supercomputers to break that. But we don’t need to. Our concern is what the Outpost is saying to itself, mate.”
“I need to make a call.” I said.
“It’s no risk.” He said. The gamma green glow of the liquid metal atom/xenon gave his countenance a spectral cast. He handed me a brick of some dense metal. Like a cell phone on anabolic steroids. I almost dropped the damn thing. It was a deep, deep frosted purple.
“Bring it back.” Scooby said. “It’s on loan from Excaliber. Ion-inducted tach channel frequency. Stealth encryption, worth more than you and your mech.”
Spike walked me part of the way. The hill was an incline of vines and broad, pale leaves. The sounds of the jungle seemed overpowering. An audio cacophony of croaking flora and buzzing fauna. The monkeys above us had been going pecans for a while. Our stealth fields must of drove ‘em crazy to the moon.
“Got a girl?”
I was suddenly aware of how big a guy Spike was. Like a bear. He could probably bench press an AC20 shell.
I’m less than six feet and about 140 lbs. Size intimidates me.
“We’re going back out. Wolverine wants us to watch the trail. Get a real eyeful. He’s worried about those Fafnirs.”
“Jesus. He’s worried?”
“Wolverine is a tough f*cker, but he doesn’t call missions off. Say’s if worse comes to worse, we’ll wiz in, high speed, fire everything we got and pray for speed. Those tach dishes gotta go.”
“No callin’ it off?”
“No. It’s only us. New Dawn is going to maneuver, and bringing those communications down on 58th will buy them a ten hour window for their surprise attack, far as I hear.”

“It’s a f*ckin’ graveyard waitin’ to happen out there, Spike.”
“Eight, I’m not going to act all royalty with you, like us clan people don’t put in our shots and make it happen like anyone else. Hell, you indy’s are half the working mercs out there, you guys make clans. You guys work harder than we do, I feel. Really.”
“But VA and IK, we…you gotta remember that the area of the Fringe we freight in, that was nothing for a while. Borderlands. But this clan named Deadlock or LD or whatever, they were black market cybernetics jerks, they ran slaves to some of the more messed up regions, they plundered colonies…”
“We fought ‘em. No real profit, but they had to go. It was a general consensus, years ago. It wasn’t brutal, not like Madoria or Dead At Birth, no one cared, not even Star Patrol, but we went to war and we finished it. Busted them to atoms.”
“There were times when either clan could have left the other hanging. Just got up and went. But we stuck it out. You gotta understand that there were times when we were deep. In really deep space, past Tach channels, no communication, no way of knowing if we even had back up. But we stayed. I can’t explain it, maybe it’s brainwashing or honor or too much drinking off mission, but you end up going beyond some feeling of job, or work. It’s dedication, maybe, and it all sounds fairly prissy like it should be on a gift card but it works.”
“Like you with your girl. You have to call her. Like we have to do this mission. If we don’t, we lose pride. Pride is forever. We’re the best, but to be the best we have to face situations like this. Everyone can put on a shiny ring and say a few oaths, but ethics only count in times like here.”
“Maybe it’s the pollen making my allergies go nuclear, or the fact I’ve had my fair share of my cups. But I’m rambling, yes, but you understand that no one is backing down. Wheels are in motion, Eight. Big wheels, grind you to seeds, and light years away or no, those channels have to stop.”
“I hear you.” I said. Feeling cold.
“You have to be in the game, with this one. First second I spoke with you, I thought you were in some other clan, spying on us. You’re not just some dumb indiot with “Born to Kill” tattooed on your arm, ace. You should be in a clan. You got to realize that. Wolverine would have never worked with you, otherwise.”
“After you finish your call, we’re going out.”

The call patched me through noiselessly. No static, suddenly, Cecile was there on the other end.
Her voice made me wish I had never left.
“Hey baby, it’s me.”
“Where are you?”
“I can’t talk. We’re about to go in. I’m coming back, don’t worry.”
“Three days. I’m pretty sure. Listen, go to the back of the homecomp. In the back you’ll see a panel with three screws- it’s missing one. Take it off, you’ll find a cred chip. It’s worth 2,000. Take it, close out the room, and go to our usual spot.”
“Over at-“

“Yeah, don’t say it. Get a room there, wait for my call.”
“I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.”
“Where are we going?” She sounded beautiful, half a planet away.
“Out of here. New Dawn space, probably. We’ll put the Loki in storage. I got an independent operator galactic standard travel passport I have been meaning to blow the dust off.”
“See you soon.”
“Very soon.”
I hung up.
I felt empty. I didn’t want to be here, anymore.
I felt stupid for feeling that way. I had no right. I was working, and I had done this before. Why feel like this, now?
The logical side of my thought process told me that. But it’s voice was small, hollow, and utterly without conviction.

The hike felt quicker than the initial one we had made. We got to the same spot.
It was only Spike and I. Scarlet offered to go, but Wolverine didn’t want too much of the team going out. Scooby said he’d have his Madcat ready to roll.
It was cold, gray and cold. I thought about when we first landed. The mist above seamed corporeal, like a living, griseous shadow. It crept in from the sky, down into the jungle, spreading thin tendrils through the vines and leaves.
We followed the trail, and then went low, just as a caravan of military class vehicles was making it’s way on the side of the ravine below.
Spike and I ducked low behind a fern that must have been the size of an escape pod. Spike got his Tiger Projector ready. I broke out my binocs.
“What do you see, mate?”
Two jeeps, their magnetic engines purring as they navigated the ravine, past quartz flecked rocks and triangular piles of slate. They each only had one driver, sporting the skull and chevron of the 58th.
A broader vehicle, a hovercraft, was between them. The plasteel capsule that served as it’s drive section held two shadows within. I couldn’t tell who they were. The back of it was a net of jade mesh. Maybe supplies.
They were less than a mile away.
“Well?” Spike said. His eyes darted back and forth back at the jungle we had left behind us, like he expected an ambush.
“Two jeeps and a hovercraft. One jeep has a heavy repeater. The other one has a laser…probably mech class.”
“Stay cool.”
We huddled there, fingers on the triggers of our weapons. I kept thinking we’d accidentally kick a stone into the ravine and end up in a firefight…and we were in no position to do anything serious.
Soon, they were out of view.
Spike let out a heavy breath.

“Let’s get up there and call Wolverine.”

I watched the 58th outpost, putting a few plans of attack in my mind, like if I could see the right angle than it’d be the key to pulling the assault off and living to tell the tale.
I missed Cecile. I wanted to get this over with.
I took off my helmet and broke out a can of nitrolite. I sat on the ground, helmet next to me, sipping, and then finishing the canister and throwing it in my pack, next to the ammo.
Spike came back.
“I told Wolverine. He says it’s probably a supply run, they might have a stow center dug in someplace. He wants us to stay here. Scooby is plundering the communications logs. We’ve been recording for several hours.”
“What do we do?”
“I’m going to the other side, near those big rocks. I saw a cave area, but the jungle is close to it. Good cover. Go back to where we were and don’t move. We’ll-“
He stopped, looking at a puddle of brackish water next to a log in the clearing.
It was an uneven circle of liquid, trembling, ripples of it spreading outward from the center in even rhythms.
I dove behind a tree trunk, and then froze. Spike jumped into a section of bush that was easily twice his height. The ever-present animal noises about us had stopped. I hadn’t even noticed.
The foot of the Raven was a rich red, spattered with mud, gouges in it a bright metal, glinting in what little light there was. It stomped five feet from where I had hid.
I was frozen. Pure fear, by back against the tree. My legs shook. When I swallowed, it almost hurt, my throat felt so tight.
There was the buzz whirrrrrrrrrrr as the Raven twisted it’s torso, followed by the harsh digital code sound of the mech’s sensors, searching…
Jesus, Scooby was going to start up his Madcat…what if-?
I looked at Spike.
In the shadow of the Raven, his face was a pale crescent moon of stark terror. If it saw us…
His eyes were staring at something on the ground.
I followed his gaze.
My helmet.
Holy Christ.
It sat there, mute testimony to our presence.
I don’t know how long we hid there, the mech’s gyroscope whirling as it changed position slightly, and then it stomped forward, it’s foot lifting, and then my helmet disappearing beneath it.
Then the mech smashed through the jungle and disappeared in a grinding calypso of whirling servos and buzzing myomers.
We didn’t move for a full ten minutes.
Then Spike broke out his own binocs and focused it’s crystal matrix eye onto the base.
“It went back. We’re safe.”

I almost blacked out. I felt weak.
Spike looked down at my helmet. It was beyond crushed. I don’t even think we could pry it out of the earth with a crowbar.
“Want your helmet, mate?”
“You sure? It’ll make a right fine ashtray…”
We covered the helmet with some plants and took our positions on either side of the ravine, the ridge affording us a perfect view of the base and the ground below.
I fished a mic from my pack and fitted it to my collar, a second piece going into my ear using flesh adherence foam. As long as you removed it with your bare hands, it would come off. Otherwise, it stayed on your body like your nose stayed on your face.
“They’re coming.” Spike said.
I could see them, pulling through the thin fog, the rocks grinding under the wheels of the jeeps and into the stream next to them.
Wolverine patched in.
“Eight Track.”
“Scooby followed the communications. Banzai is in that caravan. They went to a nearby depot for an inspection. They had been in their mechs for a while, and wanted a break.”
“Jesus, I-“
“They have hardwiring for those Fafnirs, Banzai Clan standard. Take them out and we don’t have to worry about those motherf*ckers.”
“It doesn’t matter what your opinion is. Take that caravan out and come back to base, we assault now. If I had known earlier, I would have risked detection and obliterated the caravan myself. Wolverine out.”
The caravan trailed closer. The hovercraft seemed larger, now, this close to our position.
“I heard. I’m taking out the first jeep and the hovercraft. Hit the rear gunner on the jeep, and then the driver, and I’ll follow up.”
“Wait, Spike, don’t hit the last jeep, we’ll use it to get back!”
“Good thinkin’, mate. Make it happen.”
We waited a minute longer, the sky as broad and dark as lead above us, the cloud cover still blanketed across the jungle.
Time stretched. I could see the individual badges on the lead drivers suit through my gyrojet rifle’s monocular. When was Spike going to-
There was a flash, I caught the blur of the Tiger for an instant, and then the lead jeep disappeared in a flash of ordinance…no fire, just scrap and dust.

The caravan stopped, the hovercraft almost hitting what was left of the first vehicle.
I turned my sights on the rear jeep.
For a few brief seconds, smoke obscured my view.
I waited, the cotton tufts drifting, I heard the other hovercraft start to cross the ravine. There was shouting, and another detonation. I felt it’s impact on my face and arms. Then the driver of the last jeep got smart and backed up with a roar of engines and a scream of tire treads, there was the harsh ruby fusion bright of it’s laser, Jesus-
I fired, missing. I fired again, accidentally hitting the driver.
His head came off in a burst of blood. The jeep stopped, the driver rocking back and forth.
I fired again, the dirt kicking up behind the jeep. The gunner was good, he stayed cool, moving the laser in my direction. Then I heard another Tiger and realized that Spike was still alive. The hovercraft flipped and crashed with a sound of sheet metal bending, the spray hitting me from my position.
The impact of the gyrojet almost knocked the 58th gunner from his seat. I don’t know if he fired at me…couldn’t tell. I shot him again, and he whirled hard, strapped in, almost going 180 degrees.
I lost him in the dust, and then realized he wasn’t moving. There was blood…enough of it to know I didn’t need to shoot again.
I ran down the ravine.
I almost tripped across the silvery white sand. The water was discolored with blood and engine fluids. I took cover behind the hovercraft, hoping Spike didn’t fire again. That tiger projector was too much, we should’ve got something smaller…
“I’m here. Almost got scorched. You are a lousy shot, Eight.”
“Yeah, I should’ve said something. Let’s go.’
“Kill those Banzai guys.”
“On it, meet me at the jeep.”
I could hear the base. Some droning signal sound, a klaxon, sounding off in the mist like a dirge of war.
I could see Spike, jumping down the rocks. He had ditched the projector.
I got to the side where the driver was.
He was face forward, his Banzai badges drenched in blood and fluids. Most of his head was either blown off or crushed.
Rifle ready, I went around the corner of the vehicle, feeling exposed. The Raven-
The Banzai mech jock had been thrown wide, his arm pinned partially under the door of the craft. He had a pistol at his side. He looked at me.
He was old, almost. A scar went down the side of his face, from forehead to jaw, his eyes a bright blue. He hadn’t shaved, and his stubble was white. He could have been my father, maybe.
I leveled the rifle at his chest.
He didn’t move. His boots were like Scooby’s, Gripfast, with steel rivets.
The klaxon wail from the base beyond broke my thoughts.
He let out a breath, not even trying for his pistol.

It was cold, very cold, but I couldn’t feel it. I was ankle deep in the shallow edge of the ravine. The water was as clear as glass. I could see the rocks beneath.
I took the pistol from his black plasteel mesh holster and threw it away from us.
He didn’t move.
“I’m not going to kill you. Stay here. If you move, we’ll wipe you out.”
“I can’t move, my arms pinned.”
His dialect was southern. Earth-Texan, maybe.
“Can you move your fingers?”
“You’re fine. Someone will come, but stay out of it.”
“You’re hitting the base?”
“Quiet, or my partner will finish the job.”
“Stay here. Don’t go back there for a while. You’ll know.”
“I can’t pilot anyways, man. My arm don’t work.”
“You’ll be fine, stay cool.”
He almost grinned, his face pale.
“Thanks. Thanks.”
I ran to the jeep, my boots splashing in the ravine.
Spike had a heavy gyrojet pistol out, scanning the ridge above us, the rocks like jutting teeth from the pale earth, the jungle verdant and dark in the heavy cloudcover.
“Both dead?”
He wasn’t even looking at me.
The body in the driver’s side move easy enough. I undid his seat belt, blood smearing my arm. I pushed the body into the stream, the water instantly reddening.
Spike moved fast. He threw his pistol into the passenger seat, whipped out a combat knife, it’s monomolecular edge a fine line of pearl against the steel. He cut up and down, in two, deft moves, the straps coming apart, and then jump kicked the body into the water a good three feet away, one hand on the edge of the vehicle.
“I can’t, too shaky.”
“No problem, get in the passenger side.” He locked the controls of the laser so it wouldn’t move around, hitting the levers with fast precision, his knife in his teeth.
I took the passenger side.
He looked up, and his eyes widened into discs of white and green. He took the knife out of his mouth and threw it into the back seat.
I belted myself in. Spike took the driver side and didn’t bother with the restraints.
He started the engine, a warm thum of magnetics, and we reversed hard, the jolt of it almost sending my head through the windshield. I looked back.
There was the Raven, coming down the ravine.
Then my vision churned, a whirling blur of shore, jungle, water and sky, we had pulled back around, and Spike was gunning, taking the jeep as fast as it would go.

We were dead. There was nothing I could do. The mounted laser, even if I could get to it, was useless.
The air itself scorched. The ground next to us became hot and bright. I suddenly could smell burning glass, and then it was behind us.
“The Raven-!!!”
“You bet your ass!” He shouted. His teeth were bared, he was leaned over the wheel, his thumbs almost touching his lapels.
He swerved, and how he stayed in his chair, I had no idea, because I almost came out of mine, seat belt and all.
Another blast of heat. Lasers. The Raven was gunning for us, it’s aim improved.
I took a look behind me and almost pissed myself. It was closer, just starting to pick up speed, it’s feet splashing the water fifteen feet in the air, maneuvering through the creek with ease.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Spike probably saved both our asses with what he did. He turned sharply, into the creek, and we hydroplaned briefly, the wheels suddenly going quiet as we left the earth, and then the waters jetsprayed behind us, a wash of white that probably obscured the Raven’s view of our jeep. The mech fired again, scalding the creek bed to steam in a cloud that must have went up two stories. Maybe that helped.
I turned around and ducked low in the seat, bracing for impact. There was no way he could keep this up. Maybe we’d get thrown clear, and the Raven would miss us-
For an instant I saw the mech, a Madcat, it’s missile bays broad and enormous against the tin sky. It came around the hill, looming upon us, and I thought it was the 58th until I saw the gold triple crown of DAB against the gloss jet of it’s chassis.
There was the sub-sonic scream of firing ordinance, the electric cackle of ERPPC’s lit the sky, hurting my eyes, I ducked reflexively, hunched over as low as possible in the jeep’s seat.
I think maybe I blacked out, or I stopped breathing, and then I looked up and realized it was Scooby.
The Raven had stopped firing. I looked back, and it was limping through the water, far behind us, dragging it’s leg like some injured superpredator.
I felt the heat blast of the LRM’s from where I was, I didn’t see them at first, arcing overhead, and the sound of them almost made me deaf. This close to a mech…when something like that moves…a part of you just feels scared, like nothing should be that big, like buildings should stay still and not walk…
I looked back again, and then shielded my eyes as the LRM’s descended onto the Raven and it was rent asunder into a billowing tempest of silver and blue cold fusion.
“Yup.” Spike said, maybe to nobody. “Yup, yup. That’s how it’s done. It’s going to be us that way, soon.”
The jeep’s engine roared, and he drove us beneath the Madcat. I caught a glimpse of it’s myomer driven servos, as gargantuan as hovercars. I suddenly remembered how my Loki looked, with it’s freshly machined LB10X, glinted quicksilver in the mechanical dark of the repair facility.

“They left already!!?” I yelled.
“Ya. Essence being of time and importance and all that.” The jungle above and around us was an eye-blaring streak of green vegetation and blue shadows. My eyes had yet to adjust.
“The campsite!!?” I was yelling. This was all fast forward. Like a car crash. Like a gun fight. Like your first sexual experience.
“Stop yelling what?” Somewhere, the rest of the crew was moving, the distant crashing sounds resonating and amplifying in the confines of the tropical forest.
“We, our equipment…”
“Well, jackass, I figure we’d call ahead and tell the 58th we need 25 minutes to pack our good things and have ourselves some tea and a nap, mate. Maybe some good chess. Ya idgit, who cares? We’re bombing the site when we leave. Wolverine and I laid the charges ourselves. We’re the second wave arse. Put some pep in your step, mate!!!”
Damn. I was a tyro, all of a sudden. It was the Raven, too close…too close…
By the time I hopped over logs and fronds, stripping my body armored vest and my holstered laspistol, chucking them into a meter square duffel, my mech helmet in my Loki, I left my rifle against a rock, I picked up my sleeping bag and dropped it, what was I doing? I didn’t need it! There was the unearthly electric groan as ninety tons of Sunder powered up, and the ground shuddered like 6 on the Richter scale, the vibration so intense I almost couldn’t feel my feet up to my ankles. This was it this was it this was…
Then there was the gravitonic lift as I was propelled weightless in a sheath of gravitons, and then I was strapping myself in, the controls and sensor screens of my mech lighting up like a Christmas tree. The rest of the crew were blips, and then I was going 76kph, crashing through the jungle we had hid inside of for those days. Spike’s Sunder was immense in front of me, it’s broad chassis eclipsing the view of the vale before me.
My tongue was thick in my mouth, my hands slick with perspiration. I threw on a set of gloves. My hands shook, in spite of themselves. This was it.
We had left the campsite behind us when my sensors registered the blast. Probably a low-yield neutron sub-atomic, or just conventional fusion bombs. In my rear angle vid, the campsite was a burning plume of flickering light, sending dense smoke into the misted sky above the jungle.
“Eight Track.” Wolverine.
“You know the plan. No radar, no Thor.”
“Stay by Spike. Cover him. Flank right. Got it?”

“Spike said we don’t have to worry about Fafnirs.”
“Not unless they have some other pilots.”
“Jesus, I’m picking up transmissions. It’s a f*ckin’ hornets nest.”
“Contact!” Scarlet said. There was the distant crash of missile impact and macro-ordinance. The line went turned to static.
Scooby’s voice came online. Despite the violence, he sounded bored.
“1 LRM down…make that another. Good shot, Scarlet. Wolverine, it would sit quite right with me if you would engage that Thor threatening my flank…thank you.”
I checked back at the base. It was an obscure series of geometric lines, cutting the aluminum hue of the horizon, clouds of missiles erupting from the towers around it. I thought of those towers, the quad LRM’s with all their technology, severing the very bleeding edge of technology…
We were closing, fast. Wolverine had been right to ruthlessly enforce the minimum 76kph directive. Scooby’s Madcat was in the rear, moving in figure-eights, staying back from the main assault, to make full use of his long range firepower.
Scooby was on the comm. His voice was still calm, almost meditative.
“I just snipped another LRM off that base…wait, there here comes the Shadowcat, and the Thor.”
There was the sound of a gauss impact, like a yard of admantium being driven through an anvil of steel with a hydraulic impact servo.
“Ouch. That will take some mending. They have gauss, repeat, they have gauss…”
I was close enough to the base to hit it with my lasers. Ahead, Spike was giving the radar dish some attention. Ruby lines of amplified light, clan-class lasers etching the battlefield, cutting the heavy reinforced construction of the dish…smoke tumbled from it’s form in black tufts, darkening the sky.
I saw the LRM’s of the tower, crouched and lethal. I imagined their barrels, four of them, unleashing fire upon Scooby, Scarlet, and Wolverine…my crew…
Then the area around and above the base became crowded with weapons fire. Scarlet took a hit, the redoubtable form of his Thor twisting from the impact of a gauss that tore into it’s shoulder, lasers that cut deep into it’s hide, even from where I was I could see the craters of impacts from the LRM’s the tower had unleashed upon him.
I was closer, now. So was Spike and the rest, the glowing dots of our radar signatures closing in on the base with steady inertia.
I hit one of them solid, the impact leaving a blackened crater. It still fired. I almost lost it in the white clouds of the missile launch. How many had hit the others as Spike and I had caught up?

“I see the Masakari. Yes, gentlemen, it’s packing ERPPC’s, only the best for our good foes. Ouch! Scarlet took a hit. I’m concentrating fire.”
I fired again. The sound of it was neon thunder in the confines of my mech. The LRM projectors were smoking…I expected them to fire again, and then Spike must have picked them out, my whole image enhancement became digital smoke and electric fire…
“Spike, Eight Track, if you don’t step on the Shadowcat and that Thor threatening our right flank, you are both getting a lump of coal in your stocking for Christmas (WHUMP! The sound of gauss, the snip of perforate air, the sonic impact of ferro fibrous being split asunder) that hurt, gents, make it happen, please. I’m playing pop the weasel with a Masakari, after all.”
The verdant stretch of the valley before us was aglow with criss-crossing firepower…the blazing ruby arc of laser fire, the metallic azure-tinged snap of gauss, the blazing jetstreams of missiles from either side. I couldn’t see the sun, through all of the ordinance.
I lost sight of Scooby, and the saw him on the move, coming out of the fire and the trailing exhaust plumes of the missiles, his flank smoldering. The air in front of him crackled with power as the ERPPC’s forked out in columns of focused energy, the lightening arc of it jolting the Masakari across from him, an immense craft that looked ponderous and yet lethal, it’s arms slim and viscous, each two barrels, it’s form an abrupt and brutish brick as it moved into a better firing position, the electrical shocks leaping in currents across it’s chassis. It returned fire, but I didn’t see the effects of it’s barrage.
I heard Spike fire to my starboard side, I wondered who he was aiming for, my attention was drawn to Wolverine, who was…
…pacing in deadly circles with the Thor, they were trading blows, the Thor was afire, though, I let off a shot, twin large lasers, I think I hit him, and then…
…Wolverine fired, I could hear the LB20X from here, feel the detonation through the shielded plasteel surface, and the Thor ran as it died, the ferocious neon silver of it’s reactor core ingniting fall, my image enhancement going white with it’s detonation. I could see the wide-shouldered etched black outline of Wolverine against the incandescence. It was only then that I realized that the right arm of Wolverine’s Thanatos had been severed. Great gouts of burning smoke billowed from it’s mutilated socket.
Spike fairly howled over the communications channel.
“Eight, it would be completely dandy if you did something about that Thor and Shadowcat team up that is doing it’s utmost to CRAWL UP OUR ASS!!!”
As if to underline Spike’s statement, an impact on my starboard torso abruptly shook my craft, the whiplash shaking me to the right, even with my restraint gear.
I heard Scooby, again.

“Scarlet, that Thanatos is trying to give me a sloppy kiss, will you please kindly redirect your attentions from the base to that particular thorn before it wedges itself into my mech’s good side?”
There was another explosion. It made my ears ache.
The Shadowcat hit my left flank, maybe large lasers, not sure, then there was the impact of LB10X. I was red, red…
“I’m on it, Scooby.” Scarlet seemed like he was having a good time.
I hit the Shadowcat in the leg, by accident, really, I was aiming for it’s flank, and it seemed to go in a half circle, trying to come in for another shot. It was hunched over, like the predatorial shapes of the LRM projectors, fast and lethal…
I could sense Spike, sparring with the Thor, I wondered what he was doing, I could see the sapphire glint of his radar signature, in violent orbit with the ruby glint of the enemy…
…the Shadowcat came around, bringing his weapons upon me…
…I hit it again, in the leg, disrupting his aim, I had used both my lasers and my LB10X’s, the detonation jackhammered on either side of me, and the Shadowcat began to drag it’s leg behind it, three clicks away, almost pathetic as it struggled to maneuver it’s 45 ton form to some sort of cover.
There was the base, to my port. There was the jungle behind me, there was the sky above, blackening with the coming night, there was Spike to my starboard, presumably engaging the remaining 58th Thor with some success, there was the Masakari within protective cover of the base, targeting Scooby, I guess, I could imagine quad electric current beams of ionic energy impacting along his Madcat, maybe…I could imagine Wolverine, hitting the base with all the weapons on the chassis of his mech, killing communication for the 58th and it’s allies so New Dawn could complete it’s assault, light years away, there was the Shadowcat, it’s cockpit illuminated with greater detail in the rectangle of my enhanced image visual, and then it’s leg came off as my weapons fell across it, and then the myomic feedback must have been too much for it’s reactor, and it went fusion, bright, too bright, scalding my vision, I could feel it’s heat as it died…my HUD flickering as I almost went nova from it’s detonation, myself.
The sensors of my mech showed my armor as green, then to yellow, the temperature in my machine rocketing to 110 degrees before the heat sinks compensated. My back and chest were drenched. If not for the helmet, it would have gone right into my eyes.
I checked back at Spike, as the Thor he was fighting followed suit. It ran in a half circle, and then beams of ravening light pierced it. The mech stopped, lurched, and then froze in mid-step before the nuclear explosion of it’s breached reactor darkening the field for miles.
“I have lost my missile racks.” Scooby said. “All fire on that radar dish, or we may as well break contact, go home, and watch reruns on the telly.”

The base was as close as we would ever want it to be. I could see the ruined metal chassis of the blasted LRM racks, like the bodies of scorched steel spiders.
I checked my radar, just as the enemy Thanatos winked out of existence, along with Scarlet’s signature. I thought he was dead until, tense moments later, his voice came through the comm .
“Whew! He blew up way too close. Legged ‘em, but it shut me down…thanks for the assist on that, Wolverine.”
“Not a problem, Scarlet. There is something delightful about a crossfire…”
I checked my heat, still good, and then cycled through my radar, trying to find more opponents. We were to the side of the base, a vast field to my right, the valley rising up about us.
I lost visual of Spike, but I saw the ruby luminescence of his large lasers knifing into what was left of the communication tower.
I focused, ignoring the explosions to my port (was that Scooby? Or Wolverine..?) and then there was the trigger and the sound of my weapons, the recoil traveling up the Loki’s arms, rocking the machine, and the radar dish tumbled like a 200 ton plate, hitting the earth, crumpling from it’s own weight, and my sensors, which had been abuzz with the base’s communications, suddenly sputtered and collapsed into audio flatline.
“It’s gone!”
“Good.” Wolverine said. “Go to the drop point.”
I saw it, in the hills, coming up over the hills, like a ghost in my radar, distant and godlike, and Spike’s mech staggered with the impact, his arm rent asunder, billowing, the flame of it’s rent chassis obscuring my view of him.
It’s arms were menacing barrels of energy weapons arrays, it’s head like a chevalier, the shoulders like medieval armor, then it backed out of view.
A Novacat. An energy mech, a real monster of when it came to energy ordinance, and it had us at range, intercepting our path to the dropship pick-up zone. It was lighter than Spike’s craft by a good 20 tons, so it could get a profound amount of speed, compared to an assault mech that would be just as equipped when it came to weapons.
He must have powered down his machine, waiting for us to get closer, listening for our tread, and then activated his mech and trudged up over the hill, targeting weak points in the enemy for easy kills.
I checked my sensor transmissions and cycled through the team, analyzing damage.
Scooby, his cube shaped LRM pods gone, bleeding thick black smog from damaged internal systems through smoldering rents in his armor.

Wolverine, the broad-shouldered form of his Thanatos burning, gouts of smoke and fire erupting from it’s ruined armor and breeched internal structure.
Scarlet, a black smear from a fierce detonation charring his ferro fibrous chassis from hip to shoulder in a jagged crescent streak.
Spike, down an arm, his hull a blinking red/orange of extensive damage from his duel with the 58th Thor.
Then, there was me, surveying a series of hills with a valley leading to where our drop ship would meet us, knowing that the Novacat was in the hills, waiting…
“See it?” Wolverine said.
“Yeah. Novacat. Took Spike’s arm off.”
“We’re beat and bloody. It’s going to have it’s way with us. Scooby-?”
“Nope, in the red, overheating bad, got a reactor leak, I’ve flushed, maybe I can risk a shot-“
“Negative, use the base as cover and hit that valley. Scarlet?”
“I can make it, but I don’t got much to offer. An LB20X…”
“Eight, you and Scarlet take that hill and skin a Novacat.”
“On it.”
“I can help.” Spike said.
“Negative, we may need you. We don’t know what other vehicles the 58th had in their hat. Plus, I want you to cover our retreat at range if Eight and Scarlet get the short end of it.”
“Gotcha. Sorry, guys, it’s all you, then.”
I passed what was left of the base, seeing the ruined shadows of the LRM’s, it’s once-proud dish, broken and immolated, and kept close to it, using it’s cover.
The Novacat came up again, and I heard the impact before I felt it, my vision going up in a jolt, my center torso hit solid, the computers infuriatingly calm voice informing me of a possible hull breach, damage critical…
I hit the hill, battering trees to the side of me. I knew Scarlet had been closer, I could see him, up and over the grassy mountainside, I wondered if the Novacat was 58th or Banzai…
I saw the sapphire radar blips of the team, glowing as they made their way through the valley. I heard the sound of LB20X, KA-CHING BOOM! as Wolverine let loose, maybe on some Tanks or sentry guns. There was the distant rattle of autocannon, I couldn’t tell whose it was.
I was over the hill and into a copse of trees, pine and ash, I don’t know, and I caught a glimpse of Scarlet, his remaining arm firing at his target (KA-CHING BOOM!) but then there was a neon streak of lasfire, and his arm was sheared at the shoulder. Particles of it spattered across my hull and cockpit.

I should have known. That’s why the base wasn’t as armed as we thought it would be. They had taken all of the creds and bought a Novacat. One mech was worth it’s weight in sentry guns, straight up.
I caught up with Spike, and saw that most of the torso of his mech was a sputtering ruined stretch of gouged ferro-fibrous. He could get decimated with one hit from a medium laser, it looked like.
“Damn. I got him, but-“
“Join the team, I’m next.”
“I’m on it.” I said.
“Yeah…damn.” Spike’s voice was drenched in disappointment.
I knew how he felt. No weapons, but still in the fight.
It took me forever to cross that treeline, as Scarlet lumbered past me, and I knew he was cooling down. My center torso was a blinking red column of injured crimson, one more hit and…
I saw him for a second, walking purposely, the five barrels of his arms singling me out. I hit him with twin lasers and then two LB10X shots, then it was his turn to blink.
His return fire gouged into my arm, my left one. It began to blink in concert with the center torso damage bar. The hit knocked me to the left, my visual through the cockpit snapping to the side.
My heat had been climbing. I could feel it, sweat beading on my face, the evil warmth and my back and underneath me, my mech’s reactor going overload, the HUD flickering and occasionally vanishing altogether. I hit the flush button with my left hand. I had been tempted to a get a SRM rack, but had decided against it, instead investing in a few more heat sinks, and damn, times like these I really appreciate my own wisdom…
The he was over the hill, and I was following. I could see the chlorine tint of his own heat flush, the scalding chemical burbling up to join the smog from the battle in the smoldering skies above.
The hill was behind me when dense clouds covered the burnished face of the sun, and a dark came down, so deep I almost hit the night vision.
Where was he?
He was there, a red blip, but my torso…
I wasn’t afraid, anymore. It wasn’t like the swamp, or the episode with the Raven. I was in command, I was in my Loki, I could do this…I had done this before…
He came into view as I twisted my mech’s torso to get into firing position. My shots impacted upon his torso, again, rocking him.
But his own fire hit my hip, my mech’s gyroscope malfunctioning from the impact, my vision tumbled and lurched, there was an impact on all sides, and for a second there was the dark of the earth, my mech was face down.

Maybe I blacked out for a few moments, then there was the blinking warning light of the damage that had been wrought upon my vehicle, my left arm was gone, maybe lost when the craft hit the ground.
For a mechwarrior, getting up from such a hit is the longest stretch of time to wait. You’ve seen it before on any battlefield, a mech goes down from a lucky strike to it’s hip, and then it falls, only to be perforated by shots from all sides, an easy and vulnerable target, and an even easier kill.
I could hear the groan of tortured internals and the biomechanical hiss of stressed myomers, then I was up in a semi-crouch. The Novacat was a blur in my HUD.
My arm was up.
The Novacat’s center was a charred plate of scarcely recognizable ferro fibrous. I could almost see the dense array of it’s internal structure, the once-proud black, gray and white of it’s 58th camouflage now battered and scorched.
My crosshair was a circle of light in my HUD, drifting towards the enemy mech. It’s weapons were five dark circles of eminent destruction.
-The corporate bodyguard, his mouth an O of surprise, his eyes gone wide in shock, the office room bending around me as a hole perforated the center of his chest. He was crimson with his own blood, the pieces of his tie falling to the ground where the sonic had cut them to curved sections…
-The smoky azure video feed of a Black Knight, hit by gauss shots from three separate directions to it’s left kneecap. It tumbles forever, the pilot crushed utterly as it’s torso detonates in blue and white…
-A hitman freezes in place, head going up, eyes screwed shut, teeth bared, then he staggers back, dying, the mud is gray, the blood is…
-The driver of the jeep’s head rent asunder from my shot. The organic blossom of his death magnified in the gold of my crosshairs, the rifle kicks in my hand…
-The Novacat, bucking backwards on it’s heels from the impact of my LB10X, and then a laser shatters the reactor core, I knew it, then. The pilot wouldn’t even have a chance to eject manually, his flesh would bubble and his hair would char before he even felt the agony, the system’s failing from the radiation, and he is devoured by fire that is beyond fire, before he can even begin to scream…
I flicked the image enhancement off (I didn’t even remember turning it on) and watched the Novacat. It was frozen, immobile, and then it was everywhere, scattered into sections, the heart of it blazing like a bright blue sun, scorching the cerulean, itself.

It was a good five minutes as I caught up with the team. My radio had died in the fall, but they had seen me on their radar.
No one asked if I had got him.
They had come across a platoon of armor as they had hit the valley. More than a dozen tanks and hovercraft= Bulldogs, Condors, Harassers. The battle had been as brief

as it was intense, damage was minimal to our side, although Scarlet’s Thor had lost it’s other limb, embarrassingly enough.
The jaunt back took five or six hours. The sky had gotten darker, the broken mountains on either side dwarfing our machines. There was little chance, at this point, of encountering enemy, but we followed procedure.
As we got twenty minutes from the lift site we finally broke radio contact, and Scooby and Scarlet had gone back and forth.
“I am so alarmed!”
“It must be disarming.”
“They really went out on a limb!”
“Now you’ll have to join the army.”
“I gotta hand it to ‘em..!”
“You’ll have to shoulder the blame.”
“My mech used to look so handsome!”
“It could happen to any-body.”
We passed a few of them. Those iron menhirs, some 5,000 tons each, waiting for a tomorrow millions of light years distant, the carvings black and indecipherable, laden with mystery. I wondered at them, through the fatigue, the eyestrain, the aftershocks of adrenaline soaked combat stress. There they were, reminding us of our proper place in the universe. Indistinct motes in the eye of God.
The burnished fist that was the nose of our dropship had been the most beautiful scene I had looked upon, it’s graceless design a dream of infinite mercy under the glossy pearl that was the Antares moon, shining through the velvet night. We had kept our searchlights off, following the blinking of it’s lights until we trudged into the welcome rectangle that was the side of the craft.
The technicians had been quick, knowing how important time was. This was the most vulnerable part of the mission. More than one dropship had landed to pick up troops, only to stay where it was forever. I had been on a few punitive strikes, myself, launching ordinance into the inside of a dropship through the open bay door of it’s hold, waiting until we knew it would do the most damage to the crew’s personnel…
The drop home isn’t worth speaking of. No one was conscious for it. We all crashed, a dense after combat stretch of grave black where you don’t even remember your dreams, you are so spent. Then you wake up, coming out of delta like a coma, feeling like you have to brush the cobwebs off you.
I grabbed my duffel bag, I hadn’t even opened it yet, and marched out with the rest into the darkness of the Operations Bay.
We were a few miles in the air, over the surface of the planet, in an isolated Non-Corporate Commercial Mech Depot, overlooking Emmitsburg Bay, near where Cecile and I lived, where I had first signed up with Wolverine. It was a clever move to break it off, here. Traffic was common from this sector, and it was an easy airlift to anywhere on

the planet you needed to go. Plus, it was easy to arrange for the transportation of your Mech.
It was lunch hour, so all of the workers were taking their union break. We stood in the shadow of the squat mass of the dropship, going over pay from Wolverine’s palmtop.
I got my 20,000. The rest got theirs.
Spike shook my hand.
“Gotta run, mate. Scarlet and I have to jet to The Vault. VA is planning a strike on a Devil’s Fist stronghold, and we’re part of it.”
Scarlet shook my hand right after, grinning.”
“You fly?”
“No.” I said.
“Damn. Well, look me up on the VA ezboards, if you want to do a job, sometime.”
“I will, really. Thank you. I mean it.”
They walked through the immense doors of the Dropship Hold and disappeared into the crowd of mercs, merchants, and marketeers.
Scooby put on a pair of titanium gold sunglasses. He had changed into an Armani suit, and had exchanged his own duffel for a leather suitcase.
“Screw work. I’m going on vacation. Sol space.”
“Let’s hit a restaurant at The Pallisades Mall, first.” Wolverine said.
“Good. Let’s.”
“You going with us?” Wolverine said.
“I can’t, I gotta catch up with my girl. We’re taking off.”
“C’mon. Hang out.” Scooby said.
“I wish I could, but I gotta jump.”
“Good luck, then.” Scooby said, shaking my hand. “I need coffee, Wolverine. I’ll meet you out in the Lobby.”
Wolverine and I stood there.
“I have to ask you…”
“What?” Wolverine said, the laptop’s desktop icons glowing feint azure on his features, in the shadows of the hold.
“Why’d you shoot that corp?”
The silence of the worker’s lunch hour got a little more silent. In it’s quiet, I was more aware of the smells of scalded steel and cold fusion waste.
“You ask f*ckin’ questions.” His voice sounded lethal and metallic.
“Yeah, you’re right, sorry-“
He laughed, quietly.
“No, you’re no rube. That corp was a 58th rep. He had contracted me to hire a lance to protect the outpost we just slagged. I took 80,000 up front, told him I’d get back to him. Seems 58th kind of suspected New Dawn would go after it, which is why those Banzai boys were there. When you told me about the job offer you had, to take it out, it

was either kill you or take you up on your offer. I wanted the corp’s money, though. So I killed him to cover our tracks, once I made sure the money he had wired to me was good.”
“Yep. Made good cash. So did you. I even threw in an extra 5,000 for the shooting you did in that office room. I’m pretty f*cking magnanimous, if you stop and think about it.”
Wow. That was pretty benevolent.
“I know, it’s good. No problem-“
I picked up my duffel and shook his hand.
“Nice business.”
“That it was. I’ll look you up, in a month.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
“I know you will. Good luck with your girl.”
I lagged a bit, checking my duffel, organizing my data chips and cred account information. Beyond, the heavy industry repair/refit macro equipment shuddered to life, making my bones throb from the distant vibration.
“I’m worried about something, Wolverine.”
“What?” He was still poring over his laptop, the scrolling code a luminescent gloss black/gold. In the chemical dark confines of the hold.
“I can’t get it out of my mind. That corp guy and his bodyguard. We killed them, but…”
“What’s wrong? Conscience all FUBAR?”
“No, but they’re big. I know they are. I see ads for them, infomercials, these guys are everywhere…”
“Your worried some assh*le is going to show up one day and stick a gun in your neck and blow your head clean off into your pretty girlfriend’s lap, right?”
“Eight, this is a corporation. They are not that smart. We stung them, hard. We covered our tracks, we took care of any witnesses, but there’s always that unknown x. Everytime you hit somebody with a sting, you are going to wonder. All those variables might add up, and someone will show up with a gun in your life.”
“Fact is, I can’t give you a clean draught of happy feeling on this. But you have to consider, that outfit is a corporate, not a clan. For every CEO or president or vice-president or board member or chamberlain or f*ckin’-seneschal-whatever you whack, there is always going to be a pr*ck in a suit who can take over where they left off. It’s for creds, really, so they don’t care. Hell, the guy you kill is replaced with some guy who gets promoted…ya think they are going to waste time and bread trying to snip you off at the waist?”
“That’s the difference between corporations and clans. We aren’t profit. IK, VA, ND, RG, SM, Neechi…we’re all in it for more. Give it any pretty Boy Scout ethical terminology you want, but if you kill Scooby or any of my clan, I am going to put you in a hole, even if I have to spend 100,000 creds to finance the op.”

“That’s why you shouldn’t worry, Eight. Those f*ckers have no loyalty. It’s a damn ant farm. They are in it for cash, only, and a hundred years down the road each one of them are going to get, at the most, a gold watch and a bronze plaque saying how nice it was they dedicated their lives to profit for some logo. If they aren’t downsized or taken out by someone below them.”
“That’s the difference. There’s me, there’s you and your girl…loyalty. Corporations don’t find loyalty to be profitable, 90% of the time.”
“Get off planet. Have a beer. Do another job. Leave all this in your rearview, for a while.”

Wolverine’s words settled in, floating downward into my cognitive processes, the way a corpse drifts to the bottom of a swamp.

I left the Mech Depot, pausing to look upon the ruined chassis of my Loki, before they began to work on it. IK had paid for the damage, and it had been severe.
Then I was stepping into a hovercar rental that drove me from the drifting menhirs that were all those buildings, overhead, there long shadows black and ominous on the faces below.

Emmitsburg Bay was a stretch of chrome under the day’s early mist.

Above and on all sides of me, the silver sun of Antares sent electrum shafts of light onto huge sprawls of urban creation, museums, art zoos, malls, apartments, corporate sectors and other modern human convenience juxtaposed by even grander stretches of natural landscape. Jungle archipelagos, mountain ranges, canyons dotted with coniferous plantlife and those odd iron constructs oddly carved with geometric patterns…evidence of life, alien, human, or otherwise, it hardly mattered.

I found Cecile waiting for me in the lounge of the New Galaxy Hilton. She had packed everything, in bronze tinted titanium suitcases. It was a sight I had been aching for ever since we left. I had no home, at least, no physical home. She was home, and where we went from there, didn’t matter.

We took a Capitol Ship luxury liner, heading for the Kuniper Belt.

Somewhere out there, new experiences were waiting, for both of us.

Tomorrow we would find them.


A Day in the Life of Fringe Station
By: Several nuts over at Fringe Station
(YellowSnowMan): Hey, whose peg is this???
Hmmm, it's in my spot and I need to park my arch...

Wait! That's Scooby's peg. hehehehe
*Shoves a torp up Scooby's exhaust port.*

And just in case he sees that..
*puts bubble gum on the ends of his demios lasers*


(Vector7): Ohh, my. Scoob's gunna have some problems. I shoved a potato up there earlier...

(Scooby): Scooby walks into the hanger after r & r (rioting and rodgering) in the base...

"Ahhh, my old peggie."

He walks 'round his pegasus feeling it's every curve, noticing the slight dents and nicks and recalling each battle where he earned them (and every failed attempt at reverse parking where he erm, earned them.)

"It's been too long. They treating you ok, buddy?"

The dust sheets come off with a cloud of space debris. Creatures skuttle away back into the shadows, disturbed by the bright light.

"Geez, it's only been a week!"

Scooby opens the cockpit and retreives the large feather duster from behind the seat of his craft. Other pilots had laughed at him for carrying this in his fighting machine, but as he donned his pink marigolds and 'kiss the cook' apron, Scooby felt proud.

"Don't worry, bud. We'll get you looking ship shape soon."

After a good hour of constant 'buffing,' the peg gleamed - apart from a nasty brown stain on the pilot's chair. His right arm ached as much as during a long space haul with only his holo-discs for company. There were almost as many crusty tissues around as well.

Scooby looked at the time and started.

"Damn, I gotta be in the Sol system in 3 hours."

With no time for final system checks, Scooby climbs into his cockpit, after giving it a quick polish. He notices an old curry container, and throws it into the hangar. The tin sprouts legs and runs into the corner.

"Damn mutant mould. Gets everywhere."

He flicks switches and the pegasus glows with life, red and green lights flicker over the HUD.

"One of these days I'm gonna have to learn what all of these mean."

Scooby notices one particularly bright, red, flashing light in the centre of his display. He chooses to ignore it for now, and promises to put his peggy in for a service once he docks at Mars.

The cockpit closes with a noise like on Star Trek, cause that is cool, and a sharp hiss as the cabin is pressurized.

"OK then, time to hit the road."

He flicks the last switch, and the engines start humming to life.

"Hey Vec, can you open the door for me, please?"

On the other end of the intercom, Vector 7 wakes with a start from a dream involving smoking caterpillars with boobies and a strange looking yellow goat.

"Huh, what? Oh it's you Boob, erm, I mean Scoob. Yeah, erm, Ok, erm, right. What did you want? Oh yeah, the door. Sure man... have a spudtastic time [hehe]... don't get too mashed [snigger]."

Vector pulls the lever and the hangar door opens. He then falls into his chair giggling like a school girl for about 5 minutes before he decides to go back to his dream.

"Okkkkaaaaayyyyyyyyyy." Scooby decides against pursuing the conversation further, cause Vec is a nutcase.

Out of the corner of his eye, Scooby notices movement... He was reasonably sure that there wasn't a snowman in the corner of the hangar a few seconds ago. He was quite sure that there wasn't a snowman in the corner of the hanger with the biggest grin that a snowman has ever had. And he was definitely sure that there wasn't a snowman in the corner of the hanger with the biggest grin that a snowman has ever had carrying an empty blast torp box - albeit with some empty bubble gum wrappers in it.

Scooby chuckled to himself, "Time to boil a snowman." He pivoted his ship on its landing gear and aimed his deimos at the snowman. As he pulled the trigger, Scooby started to laugh. The laughter died almost straight away as 3 large bubbles floated to the hangar ceiling.

"What the?? I'ma gonna havta melt this dude with my ass pipes, then."

Scooby wasn't quite sure why he felt such a need to destroy the snowman. He came over all destructive quite often - usually after a couple too many tequilas.

He flicked the throttle full open and hit the afterburner button. The split second after ignition, Scooby heard a noise unlike any other he had heard from his pegasus before. That was the last noise he heard.

But at least he melted that ruddy snowman.


The Burning Void
By: VA MisterFour

It is difficult to fight against anger, for man will
buy revenge with his very soul”

-Euriclydus 500 B.C.

Part 1= Want

The Morosmos was spiraling like a dying admantium colossus; it’s fragile orbit around the gas moon Zorathos decaying as it lost power, a gargantuan; plummeting slowly from the obsidian void into the green doom below it.

The moon Zorathos was composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide and cyanide gas, except for a dense center of cooling nickel. Its magma core would burn out in only a handful of millennia. But now it’s gravity was killing the Morosmos, and all of the crew aboard the military capitol ship.

The vessel had sustained several crippling blows to its body. To Argentum Draconis, the ship resembled a sinking earth oil tanker, drifting from space, the damaged Quantum reactor engines exuding flames of brilliant silver-violet, a catastrophe dwarfed only by the conflict around it.

The Vacuum Dragoons had struck with little subtlety, it’s Electric Rapier divisions moving in like predatory beetles, attacking with brutal precision, bombing the Altec/Lansing Corporate platform into so much burning flotsam before the IK detachment assigned to guard it could bring themselves to react.

The Vacuum Dragon’s principle warship, The Hakken, had come out of subspace within miles of the platform, it’s Rapiers staying close to corona of its tachyon field. The gamble could have sent the entire war fleet into the bosom of the Zarathos, but the maneuver was as brilliant as it was malefic, and the pirates were milking their surprise with an evil fervor.

”We’re losing the Morosmos, we need to use the Carpathian’s tractor cannons to pull it out of there. Ghostriders, bring up the support!”

The Carpathian, it’s bulbous hull pocked by ordinance and debris from the reactor detonation when the platform had been disintegrated, began to maneuver like itself to render aid… it’s shields flickered, a milky neon blue, as The Hakken kept up it’s assault.

Argentum spotted a wing of Poseidon’s moving in to bomb the Vacuum Dragoon’s command vessel. Their silver and blue forms contrasted sharply with the oily black of The Hakken, resplendent and despicable as it’s Gotham reactor space turbines brought it closer, Dragoons buzzing like an angered hive of derridium/titanium insects, their plasma missiles firing sporadically. Argentum moved his Archangel to cover them, hand shaking as he transferred energy to his burners, hearing the drum and din of the furball around him.

He had counted nearly thirty ships when the engagement had begun, he could now only count fifteen. Some prescience told him that two of the Dragoons were moving in behind him, the HUD’s klaxon screaming missle lock warnings. He could hear the cymbal clash of plasma fire about him, and knew their missles were only nanoseconds away…

He veered and arced, countermeasures exploding like miniature suns about his ship. Two Electric Rapiers veered to his nine, on course for the Poseidon’s, their burners a luminescent inferno, twinning each other.

”All available forces to cover those bombers! I need a wing to assist!”

Wingleader Eldritch appeared on his HUD. ”Argentum, we’re tied up right now. We have our hands full saving the Morosmos. Your wing will have to cover them.”

”My wing is dead, Eldritch…”

He targeted the first Rapier with biomechanical precision, a cloud of missles, like hornets of fire, turning the first into a nova of atomized material. His Deimos impacted against the second, twisting in a vertigo of physics as it’s shields crumpled like cellophane. It broke off, buzzing and wounded.

The explosion of the Rapier blinded him as he drifted threw it, microdebris plinking against his cockpit. His hands were an epileptic’s, quaking as he adjusted his flight path, realizing they were upon The Hakken.

Argentum realized dimly that someone aboard the Carpathian was giving trying to contact him. But the hideous magnificence of the command vessel, a metropolis of space, eclipsing thought and extinguishing all other sights and sounds save the sonic base rumble of the Poseidon’s afterburners…

The voice of their wing commander, TygerBlueEyes, broke through the hypnotism.

”Targeting their reactor systems now, Argentum.”

”Negative, target their engines instead, they are more vulnerable.”

”I don’t understand.”

”The Hakken is drifting too close to that damned moon. Smash their engines and those Vacuum Dragoon’s will have the same problem the Morosmos is having!”


He veered and twisted, his engines like a banshee’s wail, firing on another Rapier that came into view. It’s pilot had broken off from the delta quadrant of the battle, sniffing for the bombers with it’s radar. Argentum gave it the last of his missiles, the pilot reacting, sliding and spinning despite it’s bulk as it attempted to use countermeasures, bringing it’s plasmas to bear. Argentum predicted the maneuver, firing his lasers to where the Dragoon would be, it’s shields glowing briefly in protest before it detonated like a blazing atomic flower.

Argentum could hear the grind and clamor of Helios detonations below and behind him. From his peripheral vision he could sense The Hakken twisting and lurching, it’s crippled engines unable to maintain it.

”Break off, TygerBlueEyes, break off!”

The Carpathian and the Morosmos seemed to grapple magnetically with each other, their non-Euclydian forms as black as antimatter against the corpselight green miasma that was the moon. He realized suddenly that the cockpit was ablaze, will-o-wisps like orange laser phantoms curving along it’s interior, burning his vision to scarlet.

He screamed, and screamed, and screamed-

In the Mordarium System there is the planet of Karr, a caramel orb hovering against the spatter of red and orange that is the outer edge of the goliath that is the Skaschere Nebula. Ringing it are the factories of the Hold of General Comerca, immense production stations clanking and groaning from their internal mechanics, grafted to vast meteors birthed at the dawn of time, blind, lumpen, silent and invulnerable menhirs of nickel and cosmic ore.

Comerca sat on a throne carved from a giant ruby that one his officers had discovered on a nearby asteroid. A cloned cheetah’s mane lay across it, black and orange fur against the multifaceted gem surface.

His court lay before him in the station’s inner chamber, guarded by his Praetorian slave retinue, men in las proof ceramite equipped with gyrojet hafted guisarmes. The rabble that he was presiding over consisted of more slaves, several mining barons, more than a few munition dukes, a handful of mercenary pilot’s, and perhaps forty representatives of the various manufacturing guilds within Comerca’s system, who really held no power whatsoever.

Comerca looked at the prisoner before him. Standing next to the sorry individual was his chief of police and galactic affairs, Fontaine. Comerca made eye contact briefly with the chief, and then eyed the crowd for his Officer of War, Cerene. Ah, yes, there she was, hair the color of ocean sapphires, eyes like oily mahogany…she took a sip of her Merlot, brushing a svelte hip seductively.

Comerca checked his reflection briefly in a mirror set within the throne for that purpose. Ah, yes, perfect. The prisoner shivered, his bulk quaking within his griseous radiation suit.

Comerca regarded him.

”Your name again?” His voice was sibilant and tonal within the inner chamber.

”P-Plebisa, your m-majestic greatness, I came here to trade, but I could scarcely afford your tariff’s. After the taxes that your wisdom levies, I would make no profit, and so I departed, but your squadrons surrounded me and executed my bodyguard before I could surrender. I could have tried to escape, but I decided to give up, to beg mercy…I have done no wrong…”

”Wrong!? WRONG!?” Comerca almost screamed. Ah yes, the court always loved that. Kept their blood from growing too thick. ”You are guilty of conspiracy, cur. You will not sell to the humble Comerca, yet you will do business with my enemies!? And that is not WRONG!?”

Plebisa trembled in his corpulescence, words tripping over themselves as Comerca fairly leapt from his throne, resplendent in his gold lame’ General’s uniform. He drew a gyrojet pistol from a vat-grown leather holster.

”Your majesty, that being the case, I will gladly sell all of my wares in exchange for my freedom. According to your laws, I can at least purchase bail…”

”You are correct, slave. So for ALL of your wares you can purchase bail for your criminal trial. And then you are absolutely free!”

Comerca loved this part. The crowd lost its mind, cheering his mercy. Ah, yes, he was munificent. He turned, half-bowing to Cerene. The jade walls of the room echoed with thunder. Plebisa seemed to almost melt. I am never coming through a Tach gate to here, again, he thought.

”But!” The voice of Comerca pierced the sounds of the hall. ”You must also answer for this crime, slave…”

Plebisa’s mouth and eyes widened almost simultaneously, blood flowing from his features, leaving them as pale as candle wax, yellowish under the sodium burners above. The hall went silent, save for the sounds of element conditioners.

”You are guilty of conspiracy, as well…no bail, no trial, no prison sentence, save the sentence of…” He leveled the gyrojet pistol, it’s chrome surface gleaming.

Plebisa almost fell over. ”Pleeeeease…pleeeeease…I am at your mercy, I am no spy…” The crowd murmured in appreciation over his tears.

Comerca checked his chronometer…oh, no, it is almost time for the duel…

He looked the merchant over.

”Run.” He whispered.

”What?” Plebisa said, not comprehending.


Plebisa staggered back, and then spun, arms out, for the crowd.

Comerca shot him through the neck, dowsing several dukes in gore.

The jade walls of the throne room thundered…

Argentum never remembered his dreams. He would perceive fragments upon awakening, so much mnemonic fluff, shredding upon consciousness.

He was looking upon Marie, as she slept. Her features gentle in sleep, the room silent, save for the rise and fall of her breathing. He lies on the bed next to her, and sets his hand on her face, cupping her cheek slightly. In her sleep, she smiles gently. That was eight years ago.

Now he was within the Tournament Colliseum of the Louvre’, in the Inner Fringe arena. Facing him on the piste’ was Allegro Tonagre, the reigning champion. His opponent saluted with his sabre, a slow, lazy T, in cursive. He could not see the audience, in his dreams they were so much murk, a watery expanse of faces. He saluted in kind, the sabre light in his gauntleted hand, as steady as the pyramids at Giza. He realized, just as Allegro moved across to him like a desert adder, that his hand was as sweatless and dry as baby powder within the gauntlet. He performed a stop hit, becoming one with the fight…that was twelve years ago.

Now it was ten years ago. He stood in the spacehold of the Galileo station, under the shadow of a Freighter. The experimental reactor of a nearby Pegasus detonates, and he and three others are bathed in the antiseptic glow of its explosion. Two scientists working on the vehicle are destroyed, becoming one with the silvery conflagration. Argentum wakes, a month later, completely unharmed. He had been in a coma, the doctors tell him.

The three who were standing near him, a lawyer, an actor, and a rookie bomber pilot, are both in an asylum on Luna, unable to see or formulate speech. The three use Braille to type nonsensical words into hospital monitors, faces slack in want of reason.

The images bleed together, figments of the subconscious, with no logic to bandage them apart.

Argent wakes to the pungent bleached scent of disinfectant and the serene bleeps of hospital circuitry. His mouth has a slick saccharine feeling to it, and the sheets seem over starched. He looks down for wounds.

There are none.

He sits up, his head numb, like when your foot falls asleep. A nurse walks in, her uniform a deep wine color, like the Aegean Sea in autumn. And he realizes he is aboard the Morosmos.

She checks his pulse, his eyes, his mouth…the usual medical routine.

”What happened?”

”We don’t know. You passed out and your craft went on autopilot. They brought you here, since the Carpathian was too damaged. You appear well. Life functions are normal.”

”We won, did we?”

She smiled.

”Well, if I am aboard, I would guess that we won.”

Same smile.

”I will get your uniform. We had them cleaned.” She said professionally.

She leaves, and Seraphim walks in, leisurely. Smiling as broad as the Mississippi, he extends a calloused hand. Argentum laughs, a laugh that possesses a deep, endearing quality to it.

”Where have you been?”

Seraphim is a husky, broad gentleman, with a mustache and stark white hair. His hair is all white, old white, but his mouth is full of mirth and his face is smooth, young looking.

”I have been…resting.” He has a German accent, his voice clipped, formal.

”I haven’t seen you since Galfried Quadrant, eight years ago. You get lost?”

”No, not lost…you won the fight?”

”Seems like it. What happened?”

”The bombers did the trick, and the Carpathian hit The Hakken with a lucky salvo. Sent it tumbling end over end into that green moon. Deep Radar shows fragments of it, no one has volunteered to salvage, and the Dragoon’s are scattered. There are more smashed Rapiers out there than are stars…”


”They are having a party out in the lounge, they expect you.”

”God, yes. I need a drink. How is your collection?”

Seraphim eyes light up with pride. His collection of whiskeys is legendary.

”Still there…”

”Your niece?”

”16. Works for some science guild. I have her awards on my mantle.”

The nurse comes in and they fall silent. She hands Argent his clothes, a crisp bundle of blue and black. She is gone as soon as she left.

Argent dresses, washes his face, the steam from the sink obscuring his reflection and all he can see of his face his a misted outline. He fixes his hair, listening to Seraphim talk. He speaks about his farm, his hounds, the café’s in Berlin. His voice is like a grandfather’s, brimming with wisdom and affection. He was Argent’s first combat piloting instructor.

”I feel fine. A little disorientated. Let’s go.”

”No, I’ll catch up. I have to wrap up a few things in the Hangar Bay. Go ahead.”

Argentum stops in mid-stride. ”I’ll see you, right? We’ve got to catch up.”

Seraphim turns leisurely, hands in his pockets.

”Yes. Most certainly, young friend.”

Argent beams, as if he were eighteen again, and continues down the mirrored corridor. Faint cracks, evidence of the conflict fourteen hours ago, fragment his journey.

The Lounge of the Morosmos is composed of walnut paneling and rich, blue velvet. The furniture is a dark charcoal, and the music is pulsing, as electric and alive as the veterans gathered within. One is both deafened and blinded as they enter, phosphorescents from above dimmed to allow the customers a heart squeezing view of the Zarathos. It regards the ship like the swirling emerald eye of some stoic, distant god.

It feels like a hijacked New Vegas nightclub, engaged in a paroxysm of victory.

Every table is a discussion or conversation; every bottle opened a toast to deeds, to victory, to their survival. The tension of combat is replaced by a feeling of relief between the pilots.

TygerBlueEyes, Merlin and Rabid Chicken are at a table, trying to talk Rustbucket into one more. The RG pilot had stopped to refuel and had pitched in to help, the Morosmos reimbursing him all the same. The Tobasco in his Bloody Mary makes his eyebrows sweat, and he wipes his forehead with a table napkin.

The table sees Argentum and roars with joy.

He is trying to sit, but every hand extends itself to be shook, or claps him on the shoulder, or punches him in the arm…he feels his face almost crack with feeling.

”You son-of-a...!”


”Sent those bastards crying home to momma…”

”Thank the Deity for Poseidons!”

”No, for Helios rockets!”

”Damn bloody bastards, bold, almost DESERVED to win...”

”Screw ‘em, they were no good.”

”Argentum! I’m buying you a drink!”

”No screw Sleeping Beauty! He’s buying the bar a ROUND!”


Argent does not get to his table easily. Nor does he sit down easily. He has not had a drink, but he is intoxicated with the revelry, already.

The night turns, and becomes still in good feelings. As the music picks up, he wants to tell his table about seeing Seraphim, after so many years. He tells Rabid Chicken, but he is unable to hear Argent’s words, over the music, distracted as he is by Merlin’s cigar. Which is for the best. If Chicken would have heard him he would have told Argent the truth…a truth that occurs to Argent himself the next morning, as he recovers from the mother-in-law of all hangovers…that Seraphim died eight years ago, in the Galfried Quadrant.

Void Commander Red Storm had killed four men in duels. He had killed perhaps fifteen in combat, and some twenty-five more as a pilot. He had been fighting since he was sixteen, he was now twenty-six, and he faced an adversary that made his blood water in his veins. To him, this felt like the worst of all crucibles to be placed in.

TNN reporter Alyscia Wells had been a journalist since the age of eighteen. She had interviewed seventeen barons, thirty-six CEO’s, twenty-two pilots and countless officers. To her, it was Friday.

She set up the equipment deftly, with the precision of a surgeon. She sips some cranberry juice that had been proffered to her, and sits down, her nails and lipstick a matching titanium ice blue, her hair a creamy vanilla. Her uniform is a professional black, much like the cape that Red Storm wears. His own uniform is a majestic indigo.

His features are youthful, almost porcelain, and his hair is a dark mane the color of Cabernet Sauvignon. His eyebrows are arched and his expression is one of pride and subtle assertion.

The chamber is composed of crimson marble and charcoal-colored steel, the table between them the finest cloned walnut, onyx gems garnishing it like gleaming eyes.

The silence between him becomes as deep as an Idaho grain silo.

Her smile is warm and benevolent. ”I’ve never interviewed a warlord before.”

Red Storm’s features become one of equal warmth and benevolence. Their laughter is sudden and fills the chamber. Guards stationed outside wonder if they have become mad.

The epee’ of Comerca is a gold titanium alloy, and it arcs like a solar wind to parry the thrust to his face. His riposte is a blur, and then a beat and a disengage to stab at Fontaine’s left leg. Fontaine pivots crisply, one hand back, the thrust of his own epee’ clattering with finality upon the mask of Comerca. The combatants pause for a second.

”Game! You win.” Comerca said, saluting and bowing.

Off the stretch of olive that is the piste’, Cerene watches the two. Her features are impassive. She wears a dress of shimmering ocean green, the snowy polished marble walls of the chamber foiling it perfectly. Her lipstick is a blood, blood red.

”Fontaine, you are magnificent.” Harabec said, mopping his brow with a pasty gauntlet.

”No, your majesty, just well practiced.”

”Well, indeed.”

Fontaine has removed his own mask, and takes a glass of iced Vodka from a nearby attendant. The attendant’s face is impassive. Fontaine takes the drink down in one draught and hands the glass back to the attendant, who is wearing a tuxedo, and selects another blade, a sabre.

”Sire, I ask, why did you kill that insolent fat man?”

Comerca sets a hand of the thigh of Cerene. His other hand reaches out, and with perfect synchronization the attendant hands him a glass, similar to the one his sparring partner holds. ”Because, dear Fontaine, there is a spy on this station, and I am taking no chances. Perhaps that was him, perhaps that was not. But a show of force is sometimes in order, no?”

Fontaine’s face becomes a mottled violet. ”A spy? In OUR territory? Find him! Burn him out! Fodder for the clone vats!”

Comerca laughs, and Fontaine laughs as well. They have been consuming alcohol for some time, and now they are as drunk as a couple of Czars.

”No, no, no, my dear second-in-command, spies are to be expected.” He pauses, sipping his drink. ”I do not like them, but they are like ants at a picnic…when we assaulted the shipping fleet at Haljere’s, someone tipped them off. I have noticed odd communicae fluctuations, indicative of transmissions of an espionage nature. One was sent to Haljere, and another to Star Patrol, in New Vegas. Shortly thereafter one our pirate operations were shut down…there have been other events, and I see a pattern. I am working on a trap, a whip to snap at this gadfly…and then we shall bathe in his spinal fluid. Another game?”

”Of course.”

Comerca picks up his mask. ”Donnel, leave us.”

The attendant walks from the room, his face as expressionless and bland as balsa wood. The doors hiss like adders as they close behind him. His eyes are a pale green, shining in his face from the sodium burners above.

”Why did you go from being a pirate merc to where you are now, if you don’t mind my asking?’’ She gave a disarming smile.

”Because…it was the logical step. I desired civilization. Refinement. We had families among us, and they were tired of funerals.” Redstorm chose his words as carefully as a surgeon chooses his instruments. He had an accent that seemed vaguely Russian, old-Earth.

”But it was rather dramatic, was it not?”

”A conversion, but a private one. But regardless of my epiphanies, not a conversion that happens overnight for the rest of my people.”

”But you seem quite successful.”

”Because my people are all craftsmen. They have to be, out here, with so little resources, with life so dangerous. We were nomads, once. We do not raid now. Trade is our battle. But many…died so that we may desire peace.”

”Perfect.” Alyscia Wells begins to break down her equipment. ”You were perfect! The whole Fringe will know this side of you. An excellent story.”

Redstorm rises from his chair, his armor gleaming, the ceramite like an oil slick beneath the fluorescents.

Alyscia looks for a second at the hilt of the sabre he wears. He catches the stare, and she looks back at her equipment.


”Well…except for a few officers at ceremonies, I have never seen a person wear a sword…”

”Life is different, here. The sword is the secret to our success, although it is a bloody enigma, indeed.”

She smiles, her teeth like pearls. ”I don’t understand.”

His face seems older, somehow. We come from such different worlds, he thinks. ”Perhaps you would like to see our ships?”

”Yes, that would be interesting. I have heard other pilots talk about them…I have heard stories.”

”Then let’s see them.”

The scarlet hold that was the container of a majority of the Void Alliance fleet gathered it’s bloody glint from the peculiar nature of the ruby quartz fluorescents they manufactured for themselves. They glared above like red giants, bathing their light upon mechanic, merchant and pilot below.

Bell shaped mining Sumpsters sat next to the squared and domineering forms of Cargo Haulers. Some ships defied description, to Alyscia they appear as if they were fabricated from several vessels into one, with little concern for aesthetics. The limbs and organs of many spacecraft welded and bolted together in the name of function, alone.

There was a rough spirit of disorganization that permeated the hold. It was felt through all the senses- the sight of exhaust-stained men and women rubbing oil stained hands with iron ore colored rags, the sounds of molecular welders and metallic shouts, the scent of smoldering chrome and worksweat, the taste of rust and ozone that permeated the palate as if it were a welder’s sorbet, the spacecold feel that clung to the metals of the tools and ships, juxtaposed by the moisture of body or the eyebrow searing blast of engines and smelters- to Alyscia it was a stark contrast to the calm and cool corridors of her own work environment, back at TNN, as kinetic an element it could be near deadline.

But the frenzy, clang and clutter of it all came to a conspicuous end when RedStorm and Alyscia came upon the gold forms of the Shriekers- the name given to the fighters that composed a majority of the Void Alliance armament. They crouched like glittering ravens, immune to the chaos that afflicted the rest of the hold. There was a sanctified air, here, an expectant and holy atmosphere like the solemn spirit of a church…or a mausoleum.

On more than one craft was the dust of burnt incense, the spatter of blessing oil. My God, she thought. This is more than just military to them. They don’t just maintain their ships…they worship them.

RedStorm ushered her beneath the mechanical pinions of one of the slumbering craft. With a glove hand he indicated to a meter and a half ring that was beneath each and every one, glittering in the ruby light.

She beheld the razored teeth of the Shriekers underbelly, circling around like a chromed lamprey’s mouth.

The burning began two years ago, after Algere’s.

It had begun as a sweep and clean and became a war. Merc units, hired by pirates, to protect a cargo of stolen cloner vats, clashing with a full four wings of combined IK and RG forces. It was supposed to be simple, hull the fighters and take the freighters, but the Mercs had been an unexpected wild card.

Three wings lost on either side, and with no Tach gate in sight the Mercs had had no choice but to battle towards the embittered end…so furious were the assaults that the notion of quarter was lost and those attempting to escape the fray were shot just the same. Their comms had been silenced for the venture, and all protest would have been futile, besides.

He alone had emerged without a scratch. Some gore-stained zen had overtaken him, a pilot sympathetic response system coming online within the murky realms of his subconscious, and he had simply lost track of it all, just target, target, target…the opposing fighters becoming burning chrysanthemum’s of wreckage…both sides had been far too experienced to be destroyed right away.

He had emerged from his vessel, pilot suit reeking with the fear sweat of adrenaline, and had made it, somehow, to his room.

He had stared in the mirror, shower running until the steam bleared and obscured his features. His appearance becoming a phantom smudge, every nerve screaming and chattering in every molecule of his being.

His hands were shaking, he realized. A frenetic tension that surmounted the more he tried to restrain it, and then…the smoldering.

He saw blossoms of fire detonate across the freighter, it’s metal skin fragmenting in the void, forever. The thermal detonation of las, and the apocalyptic cacophony of torpedoes, the nerve-grating murder-wail of klaxon betraying the arrival of missiles. Death in a thousand electric forms, death squared, until the violence lost all meaning…a rage across his eyes, a sub-audible roar that eclipsed the sounds of the shower. Then the sulphuric smolder of burning…

A blossom of fire, no bigger than a pinecone, sat next to the sink, flickering against logic as it danced and jumped from the chrome of the counter.

He had threw a towel on it reflexively…in the precious oxygen atmosphere of a station fire is the Reaper’s very scythe…but another arc of fire stretched across the cold surface of the sink, and then vanished.

He had forgotten it’s dazzle, the steam of the shower cooling the thrum of twisted steel that fouled his senses.

A week later a radar grid had burned before him, and no one in the control room of the Creios Corporation had noticed. He had watched in silent wonder as the soft yellow of the mute flame radiated from the green monochrome of the Trinitron surface. He realized then that the fire burned for his eyes only, burned at the expense not of matter, but of sanity.

In time it had become an element he was accustomed to. The flames. A computer screen…a heap of clothes in the corner…the gloss black skin of an ink pin…the murky black contents of a coffee mug…the titanium edge of a Pegasus…in time he had come to regard it with some ironic humor as a lightshow, a personal, silent fireworks display.

And always there was the smell of sulfur, of exhaust and igniting polycarbon, snuffed by the darkness of space.

Do me a favor, will ya? Draw a square, about the size of a mousepad, or just use your mousepad.

Done? Good. That’s space. 2d will have to suffice, no prestidigitation to hover items indefinitely, here. Put a quarter in the right-hand uppermost corner. That’s the Mordarium system, where Comerca controls everything.

Put a matchbox in the center. That’s Phobos, a merchant base, also a Psychiatric Research Facility, and the last piece of civilization. Any craft coming from Mordarium would be heard well before it arrived, thanks to it’s Tachyon Fold Sensor array. But then, no one attacks this place, usually. Not a big chance of profit, most the time. This is a trading area for a lot of merchants…and a big Star Patrol Station. Besides, the Tach gates between Phobos and Mordarium don’t work.

To the left is an area about the size of a business card. That’s an industrial/military area, but now it’s being converted to a vast medical facility. They call it the Vault. A couple inches above that, place a dime. That’s Void Alliance territory. They mostly keep to themselves, but they have been branching out.

Then there is Gasdec/Phrenbol/Tlask, a corporate guild hidden within a gas nebula, up above that matchbox. Comerca does know it exists, but it is no prize. You have to have sophisticated components to get around, and everything here is to big to steal, to specialized to be of any use unless you know what you are doing.

None of this is really accurate. Everything is separated by light years (A distance which stretches and contracts like a band of rubber, but you have to have a handful of Phd.’s to understand THAT.) Space is like a fish tank, stations and facilities, moons and planets, all floating up and down and under and around each other in the cold intergalactic phlogiston of the universe.

Be sure to remember this all, there will be a quiz, later.

Part 2= Voodoo


Years earlier, a different time, and for him, a different name. He is a pilot, working for Mordarium. Bennet is next him, the co-pilot, and they are performing maneuvers outside Phlobos space. The Skaschere Nebula is before them…a burning cloud of ruddy-hued dust against the onyx beyond. Their ship is a Comet, a fighter-bomber of decades-old design. It’s copper colored surface is burnished and bright, the fires of it’s nuclear thrusters a marbled flare behind it.

”Mordarium is becoming stronger, without tyrants, Joey.”

”Tyrant? No one is a tyrant, here. I just think that Mordarium Space needs tougher leadership, that’s all. Comerca has the right personality…Mordarium has grown a little flabby in it’s Pax Romana…time to flex a little. Bora mining operations have already pushed into our own, and IK has fighters on our borders all the time, with impunity…”

Bennet’s usual upbeat mood is cynical, somehow. Scrolling code from the HUD reflects on his tired features. He is five years older than Joey. And he can see the pattern in the politics of Mordarium.

”Comerca’s proposals are ill-conceived. He has made promises that our resources cannot possibly match! He does not have our system’s best interests in mind, I feel it. We need to increase trade…to expand our relationships with other system’s, not expand the military…look at the Void Alliance…their insular attitudes have kept them sequestered into a mere sliver of the galaxy, with little resources to back any expansion.”

Joey scratches at his temple with his thumb. Youth fires his blood, conflict is a desirable thing, a noble thing. He is just a week from graduation from his training, and long hours in the sim chamber, digital guns blazing at digital targets, has made his head swim with possible glory. He looks at Bennet’s profile, seeing the concern etched in the older pilot’s features. Joey realizes he has known the older man almost ten years…Bennet saw combat once, and had never spoken of it. But whenever Joey sees the older pilot at his cups, and Bennet hears mention of Farhold, the battle he was in, the older pilot will silently toast dead comrades…his eyes light years away…

”Bennet, the mining guild is backing Comerca, the nobles are backing Comera, and the military is backing him…it is a sure sign. Comerca is a necessary aggression, just to keep the undesirables at bay. But even if he takes over, there are checks and balances to his power. He can be removed.”

Bennet smiles, the expression familiar to his countenance. ”Not all of the military backs Comerca, little cousin. Comerca knows this, and he is frightened by it.”

Joey looks at the binary on the HUD above, some silent, slim aspect of dread gnawing at his insides, only a little. He wants to ameliorate his friends fears with logic and common sense, but his tongue gropes for words that even Joey knows quite possible do not exist.

The comm gurgles and scratches, the signal torn to pieces by Skaschere.

”Comet 86, state your position?”

Bennet turns the ship towards Phlobos, his mind all pilot, now. ”We are returning from maneuvers, Base 7.”

”Excellent, Comet 86. 86 out.”

A month later. Comerca is the ruler of the Maderian System. His rise to power occurred swiftly, following the disappearance oh his rival, who is rumored to have gone traitor and fled to Bora territory. Joey is watching a vid of an accident that happened one hour ago. Fifty officers, returning from the Academy on Phlobos, are annihilated when a freak accident recalibrates their Tach drives and sends their ship into a sun. The investigation is swift: pilot error is the blame.

Two weeks later. The remaining military command of the Mordarian System is assembled in the hold of Comerca, aligned in rows of pleated uniforms, faces stern within the jade walls of the chamber glossy and cool, polished to reflect the light of the burners above.

Comerca walks the rows of the officers, his gold uniform fairly glowing, his step sure and precise. From the corner of his eye, Joey sees Bennet, the man’s face strangely peaceful, his eyes shining, as if he sees something the room that the others do not. As Comerca walks behind him, a still, fragile, triumphant shadow of a smile comes to his lips, and the ruler of the Mordorian System turns and draws his pistol with a smooth motion, executing Joey’s friend with a single shot to the base of Bennet’s neck.

No one moves. The room is as silent as an ossuary as attendants remove the remains. The dread clamps down on something vital inside Joey, a death grip. And he stares straight ahead, his posture perfect, as if pinioned by icy nails.

A score of weeks later. The pilot next to Joey is laughing. They are both flying a completely refurbished Warhammer, a mining design for deep-space travel, it’s cockpit rebuilt to hold two. The pilot is amused at the death of traitors, and he brays at the thought of the purged officers. The dread in Joey is long in the grave, replaced by a resolve of cold, smooth bones. He draws a gyrojet pistol with a smooth motion and places the barrel to the laughing man’s ear.

Hours later, he is in the reception area of a notorious bandit hold, deep in the fringe of Mordarian Space.

The mercenary has hair the color of salt and pepper. His mustache is as black as shoe polish.

He looks into the hollow eyes of the Mordarian Pilot before him. The pilot features seem strangely peaceful, a still, fragile, triumphant shadow of a smile across his features. The merc glances at the bloodied interior of the refurbished Warhammer, and back to the pilot.

”What is your name, young pilot?” His accent is very, very Slovak.

Joey meets his gaze.

”Give me a contract to sign.”

The Slav laughs. ”What kind?”

Joey looks at the bloody smear on the inside of his cockpit.

”I don’t care.”

Ten minutes later, he electronically signs a vidscreen with his new name. Five years pass, after that. By then, the bandit hold is completely gone, eradicated by Mordarian forces. The mercs scatter, only a handful still alive, including him.


DeathGiver looks into the steaming tan disc that is his coffee cup, at a table, alone, in a bar deep inside the research station of the Glasdec/Phrenbol/Tlask guild. He listens intently to a group of pilots speaking freely in Japanese next to him. They are confident that no one here knows the language. The music is too loud for most to hear, anyways. Their accent is Madorian, and he knows from their phrases that they are officers.

The cup burns in DeathGiver’s hand.

The funeral for the pilots and research personnel lost in the Altec/Lansing assault is done with little pomp or mawkish ceremony. The rooms floor is a grid of azure, cut by lines of gold etch. The walls are a gleaming dermoplast, the color of nickel. A vid screen four meters by four meters displays their respective names, lives, and deeds. A window above the assembled throng shows the vast expanse of space, stars glinting like pinheads of fire. The verdant moon of Zarathos casts an emerald radiance upon the mourning station.

Highlander, another pilot for RG, stands next to Rustbucket, at full attention. The gleaming polished surfaces of the tombs of the dead, ready to be spaced, are a glossy, rich black. Each on has a flag draped across it, Altec/Lansing or Iconina Knights, respectively.

A lone bagpiper plays ”Amazing Grace”. The dirge is natural, the product of ivories and leather, natural components and human breath, in stark contrast to the digital analog, chrome and plastic that everything in space seems composed of.

One by one the flags on the tombs are removed and folded with a religious attention to detail. Argentum holds one of them preciously, and hands it to the mother of one of the pilots. Her eyes are watered, red sores of grief. She places the cloth on her lap, and puts a hand upon it. She does not see Argentum salute her…she only sees a crib, in a corner, twenty years ago. The corners of her mouth crumble.

Highlander’s face is long and drawn. He watches as the ovoid structures of the tombs are loaded and launched. The sounds of the pipes remind him of his father, of a mountain of grass and a hand-carved gravestone, light years distant.

Aye, lads…he sighs to himself.

We die either very young, he thinks, or very, very, old.

Donnel walked down the corridor of the Hold of Comerca, his face suddenly the color of lowfat milk. He moves with a measured pace down the corridor, and drops off the silver tray in the kitchens. He stares into soapy water, and for no real reason, dips his hand into the tepid liquid, sifting, watching his reflection from behind the froth. He thinks of his parents, through the dizzy gravity of his thoughts, and he sees them briefly, in the burning void of the past.

Then he vomits into the water, and the murk becomes ensanguined.

Later, that night, beneath the din of machines, he lies curled up on his rubber cot, in the dark of his quarters. The nausea is a crushing yoke around his neck.

The Grid his up as always, stealthily siphoning electricity from the reactors of the hold. He looks at the holovid of his parents placed on a nearby cinder block. A drip of water dampens a corner of his cot.

There is a crack in his head, he feels, a crack that plunges in a numbing line from his brow to his breastbone. His pillow feels like a shelf of cold lead, and like last night, he cannot sleep.

Never write or record anything, he thinks. Memorize. Look at and photograph, with your mind. Attach the image to a familiar picture, a picture that is always there, your dog, your bedspread, your shoes. Now take the new image, the coordinates of a planned strike, and make it into an image, like a cartoon, a mandala. Alpha 23, Delta 45, Xerxes 0. A.D.X. 23-45-0. Never write anything down.

The letters and numbers become his father’s bracelet, before he was placed into the incinerators…

He has programmed the surge to spike it’s powers at the same time the defense array of the station come on line, to disguise itself. The coded signal will be sent to…

He feels the drug of sleep come upon him, from nowhere, from the mines of home, so long ago. His mother mends his rad suit. Rads. Killing rads.

…to the place he has been sending them for so very long, a place whose coordinates are unknown to himself, the last thing he ever forgot, it seemed. Once every other month, during a spike, he gets a simple piece of binary an affirmative, from a code unknown to all of the Madorians.

Such a silly word, he thinks, as the nausea evaporates for a while.


Part 3= Want

RedStorm’s caped and ceramite-armoured form stands tall, next to the slim and shorter form of Alyscia. Her luggage and equipment hover on a grav-field next to each other. The grav-field of her private things is slightly damaged, and the bag wobbles a bit, irregularly.

”We have very little in the way of combat starships.” RedStorm is explaining a few details about VA tactics. ”But we have perfected the manufacture of las proof personal armour. We will land on the hull of larger craft, and use our ship’s nanomolecular razors to cut into the surface of a Capitol ship, we try to target the command sections, at the weakest parts of their hulls. The personnel are often not prepared for melee. In that manner we can quickly take the ships that are against us, with little damage to the valuable cargo or components. People will readily risk annihilation when fired upon by the heaviest of ship-to-ship weaponry, but such is not the case when the same person is confronted by a pistol…or a sword.” His voice is crisp, his dialect revealing itself more and more as he talks on, his form reflected slightly in the burnished gold walls of the pod.

”But they have firearms, correct?”

The galvanized doors of the pod open up. The corridor of the Main Traveler’s Hold is filled with non-military craft and personnel. The ships occasionally glide upwards to a smaller hold above, the dermoplast gates open and swallow the ships, spacing them with electric precision.

RedStorm taps the gleaming surface of his breastplate with a gloved finger.

”Few are prepared for us, my lady.”

They approach a freighter, an older transport, crudely painted a military avocado color, lumpen and powerfully built. It is a craft completely devoid of style, so as to maximize it’s substance. Systems and components of various dimensions and intent are fastened to it’s surface at irregular intervals. A few featureless workers, clad in orange workman’s uniforms, attend to the monstrosity.

”So…this is where we part, sir.” Alyscia paused as one of the workmen began to load her items into the freighter’s interior.

”No, I will be traveling with you part of the way, I have business to attend to at the edge of Alliance territory, and I would prefer to arrive without all the pomp and fanfare. Such theatrics can become quite gauche, excessively.”

He motions her in, and follows.

One of the workman meets his partner’s gaze for a fraction of a second. He receives a brief nod, in affirmation.

The three jumpsuited men take their respective places in the ship. A pilot, a co-pilot, and a systems attendee. Preparations are made, navigational directions are fed into the freighter’s mainframe. It’s engines come to life, they sound like the angered roars of Jurassic reptiles, deafening the area in the hold around it.

RedStorm is looking out one of the portals, watching the floor of the Hold drift away, below them. Alyscia looks at his profile for a second, and then stares at one of the workmen. His orange suit is bulky with equipment and various electrics. A port opens, appearing to Alyscia as if it were the door to a frozen meatlocker, colored a minty green. The workman steps through, and she can hear the crewman speaking to each other. There is an odd displaced feeling, as the artificial gravity presses upon her like a heavy rubber blanket. She knows then that the freighter has been spaced.

She drifts off, then, tired from the days events. She has much to do tomorrow, more interviews, research, some vidcom meetings…

She floats back and realizes that RedStorm is standing, it is maybe an hour later, and he is examining a coupling on the wall, his hand tracing the outline of a interior com unit that seems damaged, somehow.

And she realizes that a workman is beside her, a copper colored las pistol in his hand, pointing at her, a meter away.

And then the hand is on the floor, the man’s scream just beginning and RedStorm’s sabre point has gone through the man’s mouth…

The mint door hisses open and another crewman is entering…there is a blur of cloak and a scorching arc of las melts an area by her foot. She is picking up the pistol, somehow free of her seatbelt, the room is tumbling and rising, her legs are wobbly and far beneath her, fear filling her being with it’s watery presence…

The ship lurches and she realizes, almost stupidly, that she is in the cockpit of the craft, space is whirling in it’s windshield, HUD lights flickering like a Christmas parade, another worker is against the wall, fountaining blood from an arterial neck wound, he is almost touching the hem of her dress.

RedStorm and the worker are on the ground, RedStorm below, twisting in a frenetic maneuvering of limbs. She levels the pistol, screaming at herself inside, and RedStorm twists the man’s laspistol into it’s owners chest and pulls the trigger once, twice…

The detonations are hollow and disembodied in the lurching environment of the freighter.

She is against the wall, minutes later, although to her it is almost an hour. RedStorm is at the controls, cursing the air, his motions jerky and abrupt. She realizes that her knuckles are ivory as they grip the laspistol, and that the pool of blood has spread across the expanse of the freighter’s cockpit, it searches and spreads like a living thing, running to the opposite wall, tentatively coming into contact with one of her shoes. She stares at it, coming back now, and she is shaking and nauseous, unable to let go of the pistol.

The freighter’s lumpen form maneuvers itself back the opposite way in which they came. RedStorm turns the chair around, the craft safely on autopilot, and looks at Alyscia. He looks at one of the bodies, and then the other. He rises up, and places the reporter into the co-pilot’s chair. He looks out at the cold fires that are the stars, aloft in the boundless welkin of space. He puts a gloved hand on her shoulder.

She holds the pistol the entire way home, and no one says a word.


Oddly enough, the private chambers of Comerca, supreme ruler of the Mordarium system, is not really that big at all. It is a warm, butterscotch colored den, with real rugs of actual bear fur. The furniture is pure, distilled, oak. The paintings are cold colored landscapes of brooding murk. You look at them, and you feel like space might feel…frozen, vast, mostly composed of vacuum.

Comerca, in a fit of facetious originality, framed a portal to the starry expanse of his portion of the universe. At casual observation one would think it is a picture, like the rest. Comerca stares out it, cigarette in hand, and listens to a digital analog recording of Leonard Cohen. He is thinking of nothing, of flight, of nucleostasis…who knows? His eyes are flat mirrors of cyanic gloss. Cerene’s nude form, her flesh like satin and talcum, graces the violet silk of his bedspread. She is asleep, but he is not. It is these long hours of non-night, knowing there is no dawn, adrift in his station, that he sees the pattern, the final blindness that erases the sight of confusion. His hands are like marble, they are organs of perfect nature, designed by their Artificer to do all that they are designed to do.

It is in moments like these, when his heart is a clenched fist in his chest, that he could probably perform neurosurgery on a microcephalic, without the aid of optical enhancement.

He thinks of his mother.

He thinks of tactical martial science.

He thinks of his Interceptor, in the aft hold of the station, and how there is a light dust present on the pilot’s seat.

He thinks of the Vault.

Fontaine likes to get elbow-deep.

He grafts a sheet of derridium to his Interceptor. He is naked to the waist, clad in denim breeches, covered in a patina of sweat. Workers from other ships respectfully hand him his tools. Always, always, he does his own maintenance on his ship. He had never intended to fly, only fix. He had only ever repaired them, maintained them. Then one day he realized that flying was second to the work he was used to doing. He knew it’s bones, it’s sinews, it’s viscerals…the use of the jumble of parts with its skin enclosing seemed second nature. In truth, he was not a bad pilot; most of his success came from his lack of training. It made his maneuvers unpredictable…and coupled with his experience it made him extraordinarily lethal. Of course, he had to be lethal; he was still alive, wasn’t he? There was no half-ways in space combat.

The vacuum environment of space suffered neither fools nor combat pilot error for very long. You had to be good, to be a space pilot. You had to be great, to be a combat pilot. You had to be somewhere between genius and psychotic, to be a combat pilot veteran.

The boss was planning something big, and whether it came in a week or a year, Fontaine wanted to be ready.

With the same slow and steady nerve that Macchiavelli probably possessed, Fontaine grafted another sheet of derridium to his Interceptor.

The little things were insipid and drenched with banality, to Fontaine. The big things promised immortality…personal Nirvana…glory.


Argentum Draconis is not in the habit of great personal recollection. He sees it as a good and necessary thing, important for the production and manufacture of wisdom, but not incredibly necessary for day-to-day affairs.

He is sitting on a chair in a room set aside for him, deep inside the steel and solar paneled structures that is the Vault. The designer of the Vault had an angle, an insight into commercial profit that most military space station engineers lacked. He specifically designed the interior of the space station to resemble that of the Empire State Building, in New York City, in New York, during the 1950’s. It is all brass and walnut, carpets of rich scarlet, polished mirrors and plants contained in terra cotta pots. Even the numbers are the same art-deco style, italicized and also brass, with painted insets. The lamps are gold, with rich blue shades.

Rather than use the typical digital controls, the designer instead incorporated knobs and pullies and levers of ceramic into everything. To avoid anachronisms, obvious electronic devices are carefully concealed, behind curtains of cloned silk and and panels of walnut. The vidscreens, a perpetual and unavoidable phenomenon of the 24th century, are instead programmed to look like windows, revealing city scenes straight from a day (or night) in New York, autumn, 1953. The AI’s are in on the gag, too. If you wave at a person on the street, they will wave back, if you make eye contact, they will avert or match your gaze, depending on their station in life. Even the women, in their pleated poodle skirts, will demurely flirt with a uniformed pilot. There is traffic, Chevys, Fords, Motorcycles and bikes. Kids in Levi’s with ducktails, baseball caps backwards and playing cards taped to the spokes to rat-tat-tat as they cruise the sidewalks.

When there is event news or a station announcement, the scene splatters into a trillion polygons, reforming to show the chrome and dermoplast chromatics of TNN or station control. Tourists love that, too. The designer, a Scottish prodigy known for his love of Americana (as well as the occasional eccentric binge), wanted people to come from light-years away to see the masterpiece, so that the facility could charge credits and make money.

The whole station is in the midst of a complete reconfiguration, as it will be a hospital facility in a month or so. With the Void Alliance working so hard to begin trade with adjacent systems, there is little need for a military presence. The station is a buzz of leaving and arriving personnel.

Argentum is realizing that the past is rising unbidden in his mind, like a primordial beast surfacing from the briny fathoms. He finishes his report and goes to a window. For a few minutes he watches a few children exchange baseball cards in from of a soda shop, something stirring in his eyes. He touches the surface and it collapses like origami to reveal space. Zarathos is a green ember, miles upon miles away. The Hasphaestian form of the capital ship Morosmos floats to the left, actually dwarfed by the hulk that is the Vault.

He thinks of Marie, without meaning to do so.

He sees her at their first meeting, eyebrows knitted in concentration, poring over a holotext on Esphecian analog matrix convertors. She bites her lip, and Argentum, much younger, just graduated, his uniform crisp and starched, his hands unetched with years, melts inside. He walks across the café’ of some station, years away, feeling the ground rise beneath him.

He shaves with a straight edge razor, a ritual amongst IK pilots, and in the mirror he sees her, they are in a library in Sommoth, their continental breakfast sitting on trays of steel before them. They have not eaten, yet, so interested they are in the drinking of each others thoughts, each young lover nourished by the personality of the other. He cannot remember the conversation at all…just the musical roll and pitch of her voice, like a silver bell under starlight above.

He is staring into his closet, his derridium-skinned traveler chest on the carpeted floor. She is buying it for him, her credit card a wafer of ink-etched rose quartz. Her hair is a blue-black, cut in a bob, and his eyes drift to the nape of her neck, at the porcelain color of it. He is holding the ring that he is going to give her, tonight, at the 3rd annual IK pilot’s graduation ceremony. He had known her for three years, then.

He is taking an elevator to the docking bay of the Vault, but he is with her again, in a greenhouse on Kirosky Station. She had dropped a fern, and they are kneeled down on the faux-concrete floor, their hands covered in soil, plucking shards of glazed pottery from the fronds and roots. They are laughing, for no reason, perhaps, and she tells him that she is pregnant. Argentum draws her close, one hand reaching up to cup her cheek, holding her face, gently. He tells her that she is beautiful, that her eyes are limpid pools of indigo, and that they will name him Nicholas. Beneath the sweated plastic of the greenhouse canopy their bare forms intertwine and shudder.

Now Argentum is standing in front of his Archangel, the Cavalier, and he is not in the past, not in the present. His hands are beginning to twitch. Somewhere, in the powderblue corridors of a military installation on the other end of the galaxy, he is receiving news of a mercenary attack upon the Capitol ship Sagittarius. Marie was aboard, performing diagnostics upon one of the tachyon units. All hands are lost. She was 23.

Minutes later, while in space, the routine maneuvers are a blur of mind-numbing confusion. Commands are lost in the paroxysm of nauseous fear that overtakes his legs, his gut, his arms. His hands abruptly jolt and jangle like they are being electrocuted. The autopilot lands the craft with a spine-telescoping thud. He ascends the ladder of the Archangel, and all eyes in the titanium and ferroconcrete hangar are upon him. He is lurching, sweating, teeth bared in his helmet like a strychnine victim, and he claws at the neck of his pilot suit. His ears are deafened by unheard turbines, by nonexistent white light. The afterburners of a near-by Pegasus erupt with a steel whine, like the silvery conflagration within the Galileio station, and the bleached ceiling of the hangar above descends upon him, draining his world of color and silence.

A day after the incident, RedStorm is standing in the interior of the Main Traveler’s Hold. He is watching as some of his trusted pilot’s prepare a cruiser to bring Alyscia back to the new Medical Facility Vault for de-briefing by TNN. She stands in a crisp white reporter’s business uniform, uncertain of what to say.

”You saved my life.” She speaks, after a moment.

He looks almost sad, looking to the side, as if the proper answer was inscribed on the side of a nearby Void Alliance Pegasus. The crimson surface is so highly polished that it bloodily reflects the both of them.

”No, I endangered it. Those spies have probably been here for years, building up trust, and saw this as an opportunity. If I had not accompanied you, they would have done nothing…for a while. I owe you my deepest apologies.”

Without thinking, she touches his cape.

”Still, you were there…”

He looks at her, deeply, and the mechanical engineering din of the Hold fades away, slightly.

He is so beautiful, so…civilized and yet…uncivilized, she thinks.

I still miss you, my wife. He thinks. I honor thee…even in death, three years hence…

”You must go. Your ship is prepared. Thank you for the fame and promise your story will bring to us.”

He kisses her hand, like a bravo.

The flight back to the Vault is uneventful. Alyscia has her hands clasped in her lap. As she verbally composes a memo to TNN central control, her thumb rubs the back of her hand, where RedStorm was.

The LeighBrackett model of the Vargcraft Capitol Ship design is a model of energy efficiency and environmental stability. It is a deep space cruiser, capable of light jumps in a fraction of the time most Capitol Ships usually need, and it is designed to be both a vessel of combat, as well as a model of comfort.

The pilots on board are the elite of =RG=. Pilots spend years of their careers trying to get here. This particular Varcraft is called the Kreighund, and it performs the dubious role of patrolling the more unexplored regions of this part of the galaxy, doing jumps between Glasdec/Phrenbol/Tlask and the Vault.

Highlander looks at Rustbucket, then at Grimbrand. They are all in uniform, but they slouch in their chairs like old gunfighters, rank and protocol forgotten. Rustbucket finishes his report on the Altec/Lansing affair.

Their conference room is a private one that Highlander keeps set aside for his good friends. The furniture is oiled walnut, and it smells like lemon. The walls are a subdued blue color, with portraits and holovids of RG pilots and more than a few Starwoman Weekly models. Their bodies are lithe and supple, gracefully curved, usually leaning against a fighter. The table is an arc of steel, hovering in place, thanks to antigravs.

Highlander looks at Rustbucket, one eyebrow raised, an arch of hair that makes Rustbucket wonder if the Irish pilot possesses supernatural powers, as raised for as long as it is. Grimbrand is lost in calculations, poring over a Nilo-Omis laptop, complete with tach and satellite uplink. His glasses are anachronistic in this century. They are horn rimmed, German, and they cost more than Rustbucket makes in a week. The area in front of him is littered with program splicers, system redux analysis spectrometers (the good kind, not the ones made by Turks last year), a cup of nitrolite, some communication boxes, and 25 silvery data bundles, shaped like pens.

”Fine, fine, Rusty, I would have talked about it with you earlier, but I wanted to wait until we were here, not while there was a funeral being done. Ye did well, glad ye lived…bad straits, indeed.”

His eyebrow goes back to normal.

”We’ve just received command from Overlord himself, and council voted the decision in today. Ye know that Star Military is moving out of the Vault, right?”

Rustbucket grabs a croissant from a nearby plate and begins to nibble at one of it’s horns. ”Yes, who’s running it?”

”It’s being turned into a medical facility. We have been assigned to guard it by Overlord. The Krieghund is on course, now.”

”Why the change? Wasn’t that area a hotzone?” Rustbucket finishes the croissant with several quick bites, the tach jump a few days ago has made him famished.

”Was, but Star Patrol is next door, at Phobos, and the powers-that-be have decided that Star Patrol next to Star Military is redundant. Besides, Void Alliance has mellowed out, and are starting to engage in commercial enterprises. RG has been given this contract, and now I am going to make sure the Vault stays secure. But I need you to work with Grimbrand on intel, when we get there.”

”Intel? As long as I get to fly…”

Highlander eyed a bearclaw. Yer my breakfast, ya wee animal, he thought. ”I have to warn you, IK is on board. Overlord knows, and has insisted that we show him every courtesy.”

”Oh, Argentum? Rabid Chicken?”

Highlander noticed Grimbrand eyeing the pastry, and he takes it. ”Argentum has had some…psychological difficulties. They moved him to Phobos. Some sort of collapse. They have a Psych facility there; that should patch him up. No, the gent on board is an IK Dominion agent.”

Rustbucket listens to the way Highlander say ”board”. Baird. ”Dominion? Here? This is none of their business.”

”Perhaps I agree, but we have been sharing information back and forth with IK for quite some time. Quid pro quo. Mum’s the word, but you are going to be handed a measure of responsibility with a joint project between Overlord and Dominion that has been going on for quite some time. So get used to him, he is going to become your best friend.”

Grimbrand looked up from his calculations. The laptop lit his face with an amber glow. ”We need you to suggest an RG agent from that area, and we know that your specialty is knowing the location of our pilots at all times.” I wanted Jaycex, but he is still on leave. Who might you suggest for deep space duty? I’ll psych eval his profile, and if he fits in, we’ll ship him his orders. We need one tough mother, works with others, but no creampuffs. He needs to have a screw loose, maybe a little. A good pilot.”

Rustbucket finishes the croissant and looks down into the table, considering. His reflection is a silver blur on the surface of the table. From above, it looks like a steel crescent moon.

Part 4= Bad to the Bone

Devil walked around the corner and felt the impact. His left eye became an implosion of light, and he was knocked onto the floor.

The Casino Stations of New Vegas are posh, corridors of mirrored bronze and floors of ocean-colored faux marble. At every interval are posters and memorabilia of the swinger culture from Old Earth. Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra…martini glasses and art deco shakers. Holograms of Circus,Circus and The Sands. Warren Beatty as Bugsy Segal, monochromatic pictographs of old gangster vids.

Devil looks up, his vision a red fog. His shoulder bag is against the other wall, having been flung from him. He sees, through the ruddy filter before him, a big blur, a bald blur, and a short blur, but suddenly his head is a bowling ball of spent uranium.

His hearing, though, is perfect.

”Well, flyboy, not so funny now, right?” The bald blur.

He realizes he has been hit, hard. He starts to get up on all fours, and takes a kick in the ribs for his trouble. He feels a rib go and falls back on his side, hearing ugly laughs.

The voices warble a bit…maybe the big one speaks.

”Look, he’s an RG pilot!”

”Where’s you ship, flyboy?” The bald one’s voice has an Old Earth English accent. Clipped, almost formal. Devil thinks of a butler or something.

”Better yet, where’s our money?” The short one’s voice is deep, almost baritone.

”Get his gun.”

Devil waits until he feels a rough tug at his holster, and grabs the person tugging, the short one. Good. He pulls himself up sharply, feeling the yank at his belt. He begins to spin the guy around, and they both hit the side of a brass wall, into an Elvis portrait. The others are trying to get shots in, and Devil feels the pistol go loose. He knees the man once, twice, and feels the short guy grab his leg and pull back, the staircase yawning behind him.

Devil hops on one foot, spinning and flailing comically, both are off balance, and as the big one punches, the blow hits Devil’s shoulder and that knocks him back to the stairwell he had climbed up before he met the Welcoming Committee and their Secretary of Pugilistic Affairs. They both go over in a scramble of limbs.

Devil hears the pistol go clattering out, and he has a moment of clarity as both of them tumble down the stairs. He grabs the punk as they roll end over end, and lands on him at the end of their crashing descent.

Devil hears the thumpthumpthump as the two others pound down the stairs, and takes the opportunity to punch his wrestling partner hard, one, two, three, four, five, six…

For a moment he gets a glimpse of blood and teeth and gets hit again, maybe by the big one. He doesn’t feel the swat, he just knows it’s there, on the peripheral of his consciousness, and he hears from one of them say that they have his pistol. The corner of his forehead is a mad din of pain, far away. He ducks, rolls to the side, and uses the momentum to stagger to his feet, bringing his hands up to cover his face and head.

The big guy is roaring and throwing haymakers, and Devil feels a couple on his arms, shoulders, ear (THAT hurt) and grabs and locks on to his assailant, lunging forward and biting the big guy’s nose with a crunch of cartilage. There is a warm geyser on his face and he hears a screaming roar of pain from his partner. He applies a judicious head butt, once, twice, three times…and drops the guy to the bloody blue marbled floor.

The last man is pointing his own pistol at him, saying something about shooting.

Devil kicks the big one, a few times, and lurches over his body to the bald guy. The RG pilot sees that the man’s arms are cords of muscle, quaking vainly to pull the trigger.

Devil wheezes, hands resting on his knees, trying to get his lost breath. He looks up and sees a black and white Al Pacino, sitting on a throne in an office uniform of sorts. He saw that movie when he was a kid.

”DNA lock.”

”What?” The bald guy is trying to make the gyrojet pistol work, almost desperately.

”Coded sequence, reacts to touch, gotta be me to use it. High-tech, punk. Royal Guard don’t fool around.”

Devil ducks suddenly and punches the bald guy in the groin, and the winds up and hits him in the ear with his left, then uses his right to hit the other ear. The bald guy cough and gurgles and hits Devil in the jaw, going down, and Devil grabs him by his collar, running him headfirst into a picture of James Cagney. The idea is such a compelling one that he engages in the endeavor again, and feels the bald guy go limp after the second thud.

Cagney and Devil’s assailant go down, the square portrait covering half of the bald guy’s body.

Blue uniformed station security, alerted by complaints from a few guests, rush in at all sides, holding stunguns. Devil realizes the guys who just attacked him were the ones he got a lot of money from at the blackjack tables. He holds up his RG station i.d. badge.

Devil’s long black hair is matted and covered in sweat. His jeans are marked with blood, as are his snakeskin boots. His leather jacket has lost a few buttons, and his face looks like hamburger and feels like a catcher’s mitt of dull agony. His left eye is already sealed shut, and he can feel blood dripping from his lip, eye and forehead onto his favorite cotton t-shirt. He knows that he has broken two fingers, a knuckle, a rib, and possibly sprained his knee. His perceptions spin around him as if he were strapped to a centrifuge, and every sound has the volume turned up way too much.

Security grabs one of his arms and puts it behind his back to arrest him.

His wrist comm beeps.

”What!?” Devil snarls, holding it up to his battered mouth.

It’s Rustbucket.

DeathGiver spent a week following the three around, trying to put it all together. The Madorians are freewheelers, using limitless cred cards that are carved from iridium and etched with platinum. In drunken binges they discuss plans, maneuvers, something about the Vault.

From a glassed precipice overlooking the Glasdec/Phrenbol/Tlask shipping hangar, they negotiate prices for several medical frigates. Money exchanges hands in epic amounts.

Because medical frigates, DeathGiver knew, did not come cheap. Not only would you be paying for all of that life preserving technology, but you would have to pay a massive licensing fee to allow you too, know questions asked, be scanned and allowed to park into the emergency hold of any space station in this part of the galaxy, to avoid any possible loss of life. Security was ensured when a station scanned for essential medical components and automatic encrypted codes.

For a week it was wandering, passing up sweet deals to tail the trio. They stop and watch a hovering Star Patrol cruiser, it’s skin humming like a silver and aqua beetle’s exoskeleton. The craft bristles with new and forbidden tech, and the Madorian officers seem to grow silent in the face of it, as quiet as monks, communing with some Bodhisattva of space.

After a while he knew their patterns. The shipping yards, the military depots, the carrier frigates. On more than one occasion they discuss the significance of Phobos. As far as DeathGiver knows, Phobos is impenetrable. It is a fortress, guarding a psychiatric research facility of no value whatsoever. Between the Vault and the nebulae of Glasdec/Phrendol/Tlask, any enterprising raider would have to go the long route, hulling lone smugglers and shipping fleets for real cargo. But he feels, in the suspicious regions of his mind, a riddle, a slippery mantra of warning.

The Hangar Bay Corridor of the corporate guild starbase was reserved primarily for cruisers, freighters, and sub-Capitol class ships. They float like blind, eyeless whales composted of derridium and corrugated admanitium, or hang solemnly like the sarcophagi of ancient, dead space gods. He sees the silver spindles of Azuran fighter-boats…the gold-hulled Gundrangs of the Void Alliance…the green hued oval shaped Phrendol Deep Space mission vessels…even a few battered and ruggedly designed Bora carriers. He felt so completely insignificant in the presence of them, as if he were some prophet from the Old Testament gazing upon the face of Jehovah. It was times like these, when he looked upon the cratered surface of Mars, or the cold and poisonous nitrogen seas of Pluto, or into the uncharted and unglimpsed vacuum regions of beyond-Fringe space, that he wondered if there was a purpose in it all, if there ever was a purpose, it there was a hand behind all of the design, or if the Designer ever existed…mankind following the pattern of survival/exploration/expansion/warfare over and over again, an eternal Moebius strip, an ancient MIDI synth audio proggie looped to play and end, only to play again.

Quite suddenly, and without warning, he missed his ex, Natalie. Ex was a strong word, but it was the only word that applied. They had seen each other for a little more than a year, and then that was it. She had never said why, and he was not the type to ask. Why now, he thought, did he even care? He had called her a month ago, but the connection between them had been pretty much dead on both ends. He could not even recall a single detail of their last conversation. It hardly even mattered, but he thought of her, just the same.

DeathGiver watched the medical frigates enter the containment hold of a Mordarion Deep-Space Freighter, and wondered at its significance.

Twilight Jack looked over the notes he had scribbled onto a digital notepad, and plunked away at his Bass, considering the math behind his music. His personal Pegasus was being repaired before him, the modification bay separated from the observation hold by three feet of plasteel. Workman spun and flipped in a ballet of zero g, etching couplings and plates of ionic shielding to the light interceptor’s titanium epidermis.

He plunked a note, thinking of what drumbeat might marry itself better to the overall feel of this dirge. Introspective, yet not mawkish…which way to go? He thought of the overall mood the lead synth could provoke from his audience. He thought of the particular and odd times his Muse saw fit to grace him.

RedStorm smoked a cigarette of Kava, staring out past the bay, past space, perhaps into any one of the three burning suns that lay within Void Alliance territory. The Mahingue, The Gorgon, and The Symm. He thought also of The Royal Guard, a clan that had once been an enemy.

”So what did the search turn up?” Twilight Jack asked, almost flippantly. He adjusted the settings on his instrument.

”The spies had been living there for almost three years. They infiltrated as mercenary pilots, acquired credentials necessary for a tentative Top Secret clearance, but instead decided to repair ships, retiring from military duty, except for occasional freighting runs. Their quarters were a hole in the wall area, sequestered from the rest of the station. They have been receiving intermittent commands from a source, always the Hydrosian Asteroid Field, always on the first of every month. And that is in three days…” RedStorm trailed off, considering his options.

”So why the silence? Wait for the transmission, trail it to it’s source, and capture the pilot. Make him talk. Threaten to space him. Why the hesitation?”

RedStorm turned and smirked. ”You know me to well.”

”I am the intelligence officer, here…as well as the only living Rock Star in the universe. Cyanic Nova Back and Forth sold more than 4 million analog cubes, and can be heard all the way to Earth. I also know that your mood is not from some regret for those spies.”

RedStorm checked his command update on his personal comm. ”I think that they were planning an attack on an RG base.”

”Are they not the enemy?”

Redstorm thought for a few seconds. ”No.”

”Then warn them.”

”They would not believe me. And-”

”-part of you does not want to, correct?”

”You are too intelligent, Jack.” Red Storm sat in one of the vinyl purple couches leaned forward, looking into the chocolate colored depths of his liquored coffee grog.

”It is no guarded secret that you have not forgiven them for Jajere Station.”

”I can respect the maneuver. We had been unusually hostile that year, and the Station was a logical departure point for an invasion fleet.”

Twilight Jack took a bottle of Tequlia and had a draught, gazing at his Pegasus. The workman loaded fresh Solarus Torpedo Cartridges. ”But you do not forgive them.”

”Damnnit, no I don’t. There were no munitions onboard that station. No ships, no military supplies of any kind. We lost sixty miners and science personnel officers, people who could not be replaced. I have not forgiven.” RedStorm felt a vise of fury grip his head.

”That is the past, Red. And consider this: what better way to patronize your past foes than by informing them of an unforeseen danger? Let us gather data, and then warn them of the impending doom, whatever form it might take.” He began to strum a requiem on his bass, plucking the notes from the environs of his mind, as would a child gather daisies from a field.

”How do you know they are going to invade?”

Twilight Jack pored over the notepad. ”The Mordarions are a kinetic people. Dictatorships must keep their inertia to survive, and Comerca is a survivalist. Besides, things have a tendency to work out that way.”

Argentum woke in sheets the color of the Texas desert, in the springtime. They had a striated, porous pattern to it, and he rubbed them with his fingers, expecting them to have the same sensation as sandstone.

A huge window of plasteel separated him from space outside. The room felt uncomfortable familiar, as if a team of interior decorators had done a thorough psychiatric archaeological dig and had made a room to fit the exact specifications of what conformed to his standards for a domicile. He could see bits of his style all around, down to the cobalt blue carpeting, the pictures of various galaxies, and a kitchen of white steel and chrome colored utensils. The lights were a soft honey color, soothing. There was even some gym equipment. And a full library of books he had read, or intended to read. A book on fencing, by Aldo Nadi, sat contentedly next to a Chinese Wok Cookbook. He then realized that the sheets were the same he had slept in during his stay in the Academy.

But underneath the meretricious gloss and décor, there was the indescribable feeling that this was a hotel, once inhabited by someone else, and the janitorial staff had not yet cleaned the place. He was suddenly consumed by the overwhelming urge to unpack.

”Computer, where am I?”

”You are in the Phobos Psychiatric Research Facility and Star Patrol Station, sector 225, floor 12, room 10, patient analysis.” The computer’s voice had a smarmy, icy attitude to it.

”Thank you, computer.”

Argentum looked around for a moment, still trying to collect his thoughts.

The door to the room, a rectangle of corrugated steel covered in rough eggshell colored plastic, slid open almost inaudibly, and a bearded man wearing a white station uniform walked in, smiling with an attitude of serene calm.

”Hello, I am Goldmark. Welcome to Phobos.”

Argentum was lead through a brief tour of the Research Facility, and the outer station of Star Patrol. He was shown the Gymnasium, the gardens and simm parks, the vid plasma, and all of the guest computer arrays. The shuttle hold was quite close to where Argentum was. Phobos Central was a dome of plasteel, heavily shielded, with a dramatic view of the surrounding system’s stars and galaxies. The whole station was composed of burnished steel, white ferroconcrete, and Caribbean blue tile. A constant theme of Uberfuturistic ran through the place. It seemed to Argentum as if the entire station had been made to look like the people of 20th Century Earth had wanted the future to look like; cold, clean, with as few earth tones as possible.

They both soon were at lunch, in the white tile and red seated restaurant of a Johnny Rocket’s, a cafeteria designed to appear as an Earthen 50’s fast food shop, only with fries of vat-grown potatoes and burgers of soy protein. Argentum realized then that he had never tasted ketchup before.

”I have noticed something about Phobos.” Argentum said.

”And that is?” Goldmark was scraping the last of a chocolate malt from a stainless steel cup with a plastic spoon.

”Star Patrol seems a little understaffed.”

Goldmark put the cup aside, wiping the spoon clean with a snow white embroidered napkin. ”Yes, they have had some difficulties, and they are still rerouting their resources, since the Vault is no longer going to be Star Military. Plus, they are performing an internalized audit, and the Psychiatric Research Facility is low priority, since we have little in the way of material and only a few medical freighters for starcraft.”

Argentum finished his lemon coke. ”Is Phobos planning on doing close work with the Vault?”

”In a sense, we always have, the Vault having been Star Military, and Phobos being Star Patrol. A lot of personnel allocation has been done between us.”

”So I am completely loony, right?”

The doctor drummed his fingers on the table for a few seconds, smiling with a comfortable demeanor.

”What do you know of psychology, Captain Draconis?”

”I majored in it at Oxford Station, before I went to the Academy. Call me Argentum.”

”Then I will spare you some of the rhetoric I would otherwise have to heap upon you. I am sure you know a little about microsociology as well, correct?”

”I know enough about labeling theory and the Stanford Prison Experiment to know what you are implying, doctor…”

”You are not insane. You are not suffering any nervous system tissue damage, no brain damage, no chemical imbalance, nothing in your history I perceive as being any sort of abnormal behavior…but your EEG is odd and you are a prime candidate for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I have read your combat portfolio, and the phenomena that concerns me is the span of time between your combat missions.”

”What do you mean?”

The doctor wiped his beard. Argentum had guessed the doctor to be around 45, but his smooth, placid features made him look around a decade younger.

”I knew a man who ran a shipping company between Earth and most of the solar system. Never slept in the same bed twice, constantly on the move, no vacations. A shaker and a mover. Ate on the go, fed himself with one hand, steered with the other. People in the company called him ”The Apparatus”. Just kept moving. By the time he was 30, he was in charge of a dozen stations and twice that amount of shipping lines…used his saved up sick days and vacation time to buy stock in the company and own more than half of it. When you look at his work record, there are no gaps between assignments…just work, work, work.” Goldmark made a chopping motion with his right hand, across the table, and Argentum thought of an assembly line. ”Then one day he just shut down. Like a coma. When he came to a month later, he said that he was staring at the vid of his comp, and suddenly it was all black, like he had taken a nap. Stress, and he was not even a combat pilot. You show no break between your missions. No R&R, except for injuries. Not healthy. We ran your psych profile through a predictability drive, and it says suicide, in four years.”

Argentums laughed ironically. ”Hence my room being the way it is? Make me all comfy? No pattern displacement? Reminder of my past, recreation of continuity?”

Goldmark smiled contentedly, like a magician does when he shows you a bit of prestidigitation. ”Any other questions?”

”What does my EEG show?”

The doctor scratched at his beard. ”Truthfully? We don’t know, and that is saying something, considering where you are. I describe it in my journals as a sort of background fuzz, a static within your pattern.”

”So what’s the treatment?”

”Truthfully? I am going to assign you some hydrogenperoxithorminebartinol caps, for possible hallucinations, and a little barbiturate solution to help you sleep, if, and only if, you need it. We don’t want you to feel like a lab rat here, or a patient, per se. Take a vacation. Relax. Your rank affords you the entire base to look around in, including Star Patrol. More than I can say for myself. Explore.”

”What about flying?”

The doctor paid for the meals with a credit chip the color of amethyst. ”We will arrange to have your craft brought to you. When you are up to it, register yourself with Star Patrol. But I am not joking here, no combat missions. At all.”

Argentum thought of flying again, of seeing the universe in front of him, the cockpit glare of solar radiance, the feeling of being weightless, with wings of steel, aloft in the starred expanse…

He realized that his hands were quaking, the fingers like claws of flesh colored plastic, and he does not recognize the limbs as his own.

Alyscia hated vid meetings. To her it seemed oddly displaced, that this person was a entertainment vid, unreal, and the whole conversation was not taking place, but that she was alone, speaking to no one but herself. She had only been aboard the Vault for four hours, and she felt like a heap of soiled laundry.

The smooth features of her editor’s face came through perfectly on the Tach channel. Victor looked as sleek as always, a man in his 50’s, with silver hair and sharp black eyebrows. He had the appearance of a man constantly bemused by the events around him, and yet completely confident about his ability to handle triumph or tragedy, as the situation turned.

”The story on RedStorm is perfection, pure perfection. The broadcast scored a 81% approval rating, with a sweep of .90 throughout out 5,000 channels. VA is unexplored, and you just got an article that is new and solid. Your pay check has been digitally wired to you.”

”I…wow…thanks you…I.”

”No need, thank you.”

Alyscia’s head swam, things were going very nicely, indeed.

”However, as a result of your story, interest in space pilot’s is at an all-time high. Space sim games have gone up by 35%, viewers that are watching space pilot vids are up by 35%, and Star Patrol has received authorization from League Officials to buy more fighters. Recruitment for the various Academies has also gone up. You have started a craze, Alyscia. TNN is even buying rights for a Void Alliance Japanese anime show.”

Wow, she thought. If I am so brilliant, give me a raise.

”That’s swift. Good news, I don’t know what to…”

”Have you ever heard of a pilot from the Iconian Knights who goes by the callsign Argentum Draconis?”

Sounds like Latin, she thought.


”He’s a lord within their clan, had some sort of accident, and is at Phobos. We want you to interview him, get his idea of what it’s like to be a combat pilot. Don’t reinvent the wheel, just the facts and a little observation for the audience.”

Phobos? She thought. Where is that?

”Hey, I’m on it.”

”We have wired you additional funds, to help things along. Treat yourself. Call me when you get there, but make sure it’s encrypted, I don’t want any other reporters trying to involve themselves in your story. Victor out.”

She stood there, feeling like she had won the lottery.

Shoes, she thought. I need more shoes. Have to impress…I’m big time, now.

She looked at her cooler, wondering what she would eat, and realized that she could dine at the finest restaurant in the base, with ruthless authority…

Reptile’s throat is as dry as Classic Russian prose, as if the dusts of a thousand chalkboards had been dumped into his gullet. All around him, in the velvet and dermoplast confines of the Phosphorous Mink, the only pilot bar in the Vault, there is an expectant quiet, as the lottery numbers scrolling across the amber monochrome marquis above finish their electric route.

He blinks through sweat and downs his Purple Grape Knee-High, counting and recounting the slim plastic rectangle in his hand.

00101897636475864 it says, confidently, cheerfully.

Again the amber marquis scrolls its message to the loyal wachers, and twenty-five sets of eyes scan their own numbers.

00101897…it says, then, 6364758…

”I’m rich! I won! I’m rich! F*ck-a-monkey I WON!” Reptile hears himself say.

The exultation from the bar can be heard all the way down to the mail lobby, and Reptile buys everyone a round.

Rustbucket watches the Vault loom closer, a stronghold in the black and gold starred tapestry of space. He is reminded of a shipyard, a dozen cruisers, frigates, carriers and jammers all suspended in close proximity to the military star base.

The IK Dominion officer is a mannequin, standing straight yet without stiffness, staring down at the command bridge of The Krieghund. His uniform is ink black, with only two silver buttons at his neck. He wears a laspistol on his hip, a silver ear comm., and a gold monocle in his left eye. Rustbucket thinks of how old he might be. His face is blank and relaxed, a portrait of predatorial contemplation. He wears gloves of black leather, and his collar is high, as if he is just a head, attached to a chrome chassis of steel servos and circuits, just remove the head and download. Doesn’t he ever blink?

Rustbucket gets tired of the quiet. ”How long have these transmissions been coming in?”

The Dominion’s voice is a low, as if he is accustomed to speaking carefully, and he moves his mouth very little when he talks. The accent is faintly Italian.

”For a few years, and only in brief signals, with vast gaps between transmissions. They are always accurate.”

”A spy?”

”Not one of ours.”

”Another clan’s, perhaps?”

The Dominion officer turns to stare at Rustbucket, smoothly, and his right eye blinks once. The monocle begins to glow and darken, faintly, like a pulse of bitmap and neon.

”I would know”.

The docking is uneventful.

Devil flew his modified Pegasus out of the Tach gate, all violent and lightning around him, to the cold silence that was the space around the Vault. From here he could see the traffic jam of freighters and other craft around the seven domes of galvanized admantium that was the former Star Military facility. Ion cannon projectors ringed the place, and the walls of it glowed with bays and windows, soft blue against the mirrored ferroconcrete. The Yard, an expanse of tubing and mechanics designed for Captiol ship parking, was bustling with activity. To merchants and traders, an impenetrable station such as this place was the perfect realm to do business…with taxes paid, with every transaction, to the Vault, of course.

Every time he came out of a Tach gate, after the fireworks and feeling of time distortion, he felt like a newbie again, a rookie. There was the magnetic rush and whirr of space folding and then he was solo again, an independent contractor…and then the mess with Phoenicia. At the event horizon of his memory, there was always the Sol Region in the Gemini Sector, and he was floated, battered, titanium hull pockmarked with laser fire. Some part of him, seven years later, was still amongst those ancient bits of iron and nickel, stone and stardust.

With RG he had found a place, a purpose, with all the benefits of clan membership, without the politics other places ended up giving you, as well. He had emerged, mangled, from that Tach gate long ago to the gates of the RG station, a lone sentinel of plasteel and cerramite on the fringe of an asteroid field.

Now, here he was, battered (well, physically, at least), emerging from a Tach gate, unto the bosom of another space station…

Devil gunned the burners of his Pegasus, feeling the freedom, the pulse, the electric hum of commerce and space around him, arcing up and around a plodding mining vessel, buzzing a merchant cargo carrier, drifting past the solemn ranks of Star Patrol ships, which buzzed past him like so many engined pinballs.

RG runs the place, now…Ha! Hard to believe we landed the contract for this fortress. Overlord must have sold his soul…I wonder if I can arrest people…

Devil’s pains had faded, after the fight. Bail paid, charges dropped, turned out the trio had a few prior convictions and a couple of outstanding warrants…maybe they were on a prison mining colony some place. The doctor’s had given him some derms, a few shots of boneglue, and a little metabolic enhancer to boot. Now Devil felt almost normal, but as hungry as a…

”I am going to eat three cloned lobsters. And some clam chowder. And real bread. Sourdough. And they better have Boddington’s Pub Ale on that garbage scow.”

He cranked up George Thoroughgood’s ”Bad to the Bone” on his fighter’s stereo, and thought of poker chips and garlic butter.


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