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JGZinv:


“Line on the Sand”
by
VA Madcap

Chapter One

The bridge of the VSS Excalibur smelled of fresh carpet a new electronics even two weeks after its commissioning. I always loved that smell; even after commissioning fifty ships I never got used it. The Excalibur was the newest addition the Void Alliance Fleet. She was a refitted Galspan Destroyer. She was armed with the latest heavy pulse lasers. Her outer hull was made of nanotubules and reinforced with titanium. Her shields were a new technology barely tested. The Excalibur had hardly finished its shakedown run before I had been ordered to take her to the extreme edge of Void Alliance space. There were some unconfirmed Tachyon Drive Emissions that we were to investigate. VA could spare no more ships. Adm. Robertson had the rest tied up protecting his pet project the VSS Constantine.

"Alert me when you have anything on those tach emissions, I'll be in my quarters."

I headed to my quarters to get some much needed rest.

 

Chapter Two


"No!! I don’t wanna GO!!!." I awoke with a start. It was that dream of when I had to leave my family to go to the Academy because the Sol Military said I had potential. They came to my house while early one morning. I didn't understand completely why I should leave my only home. A man in a Sol Military uniform said it was a great opportunity. So I agreed to go. I was only fourteen, one of the youngest at the Sol Military Academy. I was too be trained according to my area of knowledge. This was soon to be discovering as strategy. The Academy was located in Paris, the seat of the Sol Government. It was easy to get into the routine of military life at the Academy.

I rolled over and went back to sleep. The sound of my Executive Officer, Captain Johnson, calling to me from my doorway brought me back to conciseness.

"Sir?"

"Yeah, XO what is it?" I replied only half awake.

"Sir we are receiving some kind of interference form a probe of some sort. I thought you might want to have a look at it."

"I'll be there in a few minutes."

"Yes sir, its in hanger bay two."

Five minutes later I walked into hanger bay two, there on the floor was a silver teardrop shaped object.

"Do we know where it came from?" I asked.

"No sir." My XO replied.

"Do we know what its doing here?"

"It appears to have several observational instruments." Replied Ensign Talbert.

"It also has several powerful transmitters. One of them keeps repeating its transition." Said Lieutenant Roberts.

"Could it possibly be a homing beacon of some kind?" Asked Johnson.

"Possibly, its regular enough." Replied the Roberts.

"Well find out what you can from it, and send it on its way if its not doing us any harm."

"Yes sir." All three replied.

As I headed for the exit I paused. I looked up at a Pegasus that was black with red trimming a had the VA insignia painted on the wings. On the nose was painted Krystal, below that was a picture of a crystal with silver lightning bolts coming out of it. That was my Pegasus, Krystal. Why the name Krystal? I'll tell you. Her name was Krystal Adams. I met her two year after I arrived at the Academy. It is hard to describe something so perfect. Her hair was about shoulder length, and was like gold. Her eyes were of a dark brown, I could look into those eyes a loose my self and forget there was anything but her. She had a smile that made the sun seem dim. I only have two pictures of her. One, just of her, sits in the cockpit of my fighter and the other, of both of us at my graduation ceremony, is in my room.

After I left the hanger bay I headed back to the bridge. As I rode the lift to the command deck I rested my head against the cold metal wall of the lift. The chill of the wall reminded me of the cold of space as I drifted off.

Chapter Three


"Get him off my six! ADCAP to Boxer where are you??"

I sent my fighter into another twist and roll maneuver as more laser blasts shot past me. My wing man and I had been jumped by four pirates and now one of them as after me.

"Damn it Boxer! Hurry up!"

I heard a scream then static as my wingman's ship exploded.

"****! Now it's 3 to one!"

I rapidly latted and hit my afterburners. I had only bought myself a few more seconds. I tried to burn then slide so that I could bring my lasers to bear but I could hear the missile lock warning.

"OH ****! Here goes everything!"

I pulled the eject lever as the missiles slammed in to my craft. I immediately blacked out. When I finally came to it was hours later on board the cruiser that had picked me up. It took weeks to get rid of the chill of space. It had gotten to my bones, I had to wear a jacket in the middle of the summer, but I was alive.

The whoosh of the lift doors opening awoke me, I was shivering. I stepped on to the bridge of my ship once again.

"Sir, Commander Scott wants you in engineering."

"Thank you," I looked at the young officers rank, "Thank you Ensign."

I turned around and went back into the lift. The trip to Engineering was longer than the trip up from the hanger. When I walked it to Engineering my chief engineer Commander Scott, was busy yelling at a group of technicians. I waited patiently as Scott's temper was well known throughout the fleet.

"Ahem"

"Oh Admiral! I dinna see ya standin' there."

"You said you wanted to see me?"

"Ah yes, I was runnin' a diagnostic on the new boosters we installed and….."

"Is this gonna be a long story commander?"

"Well anyway, I thought you might like to know I found a way to increase the output of the boosters without taxing the cold fusion reactor anymore."

"Can you do this for the shields and lasers as well?"

"Oh I should think so. Hmm lemme see, if we reroute the…." He muttered to himself as he trotted off to work on his latest improvements. I sighed to myself as I headed back to the lift again.

"This could be a long day." I muttered as I stepped on to the lift.

 

 

Chapter Four


Graduation at the Academy was always a city wide event. It seemed that half of Paris showed up for the graduation ceremonies or the reception afterwards. I was eighteen at the time I graduated I was the youngest in my class. I was given the rank of Ensign in the Sol Military. I would receive my assignment in a few weeks. After the reception I went for a walk with Krystal, although we weren't seeing each other I still enjoyed being with her. She was one of the few people I knew that were my age.

My first assignment was to the Sol Military headquarters on Mars. There I met many influential Admirals, General, and politicians. Four months later I was transferred to the command ship Conqueror. There I worked with Admiral Halsey on plans for the defense of Mars. I spent about three more months aboard the Conqueror before I was transferred back to Earth. This time I was located in San Francisco.

I awoke slowly. Memories of sandy beaches and sea gulls fading like the morning fog. I looked at the clock next to my laptop. It read ten hundred hours.

"Damn!" I had over slept. But my XO waking me up at three fifty hundred hours hadn't helped any. I quickly put my uniform on and headed for the bridge. This was already a bad day.

Chapter 5


"Sir Fleet Admiral Icefox is on the main COM for you sir."

"Put it on the main view screen." I turned to see John Robertson on the main screen.

"Vice Admiral ADCAP, what did you discover?"

"Nothing here except radiation and asteroids. But we did discover a probe of unknown origin. We scanned it, pulled it aboard, studied it and let it go."

"What did you find out?"

"Only that it seems to have a homing beacon built into it."

"Interesting."

"If you say so sir. Commander Scott has managed to increase the output of the shields and engines along with the warp thrusters and lateral thrusters by fifteen percent."

"Excellent, my compliments to Mr. Scott. So I can expect to see a demonstration by the Excalibur tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow!?"

"Doesn’t that work for you Admiral?"

"Uh…I mean tomorrow, yes sir she'll be ready."

"Good. I'll meet you half way. Icefox out."

That was the last thing I wanted to hear. We were still working the bugs out of a new propulsion system I had suggested. The warp thrusters, as the new system was called, allowed a ship to make short tach jumps with in a system. Icefox distrusted this new technology stating that it was untested and unproven in combat. If he was going to be here tomorrow we only had twenty-four hours to get everything ready.

Yes, this was going to be a very long day indeed.

Chapter Six


After six months there I was transferred to Paris. While there I worked closely with many politicians. I learned there the ugly truth behind politics, its all for money. Politicians bribed one another for votes on their plans and agendas. Even the President of the government was paid to issue pardons for several pirates. After four months I had had enough. I resigned my commission as an ensign. I said my good-byes to Krystal and all my other fiends and bought a one way ride on a freighter headed for the Hub.

The Hub was the central point of all travel between the Sol system and the Fringe. Once I arrived there I purchased and outfitted a Pegasus with my remaining money. While on a mission one day I ran into my current boss, John Robertson better know as Icefox. He told me about the Void Alliance. After I returned from my mission I proceeded to submit my application to join VA. It was a week before the accepted me in to their recruitment program and a month before I officially joined them. As I already had training I didn’t have to go to the VA academy, but I was still and Ensign.

Six months later VA and another clan by the name of Enhanced Breed got into a war. The war didn’t last very long as EB was relatively new and VA had numbers and skill on its side. EB quickly sued for peace and the war was over almost as quickly as it had begun. I was apart of the opening battle, EB was obliterated, I myself picking up a few kills. But as time when on I grew bored with my current position which was now a Lt. Commander. I spoke to Robertson about helping him out in running the War Ministry. He quickly accepted my proposal. Now as a Vice Admiral I am in charge of running and maintaining the fleet. But I have made the Excalibur my pet project.

"Engineering to Command Deck"

"Yes Mr. Scott?"

"I'm takin the engines of line to do a wee bit of alignment, they is rattlin' a wee to much for me tastes."

"Acknowledged Engineering Bridge out."

With the engines of line we were not gonna be doing much moving so I decided to inspect the outside of the ship. As I left the hanger I could feel the vibrations from the engines through my seat. You never get over the thrill of being pushed back into your seat as you engaged the afterburners. I flew a distance out cut my engines and spun my ship around for a look at the ship. Her hull was solid black with red trimming that highlighted the different parts of the ship. The VA insignia near the front was red and outline with gold. If it hadn't been for the red trimming and the lights from the command section and her running lights she would have blended in with her background. After circling the Excalibur a few times I landed my Pegasus in the main hanger.

As I headed for my quarters I crossed paths with one of the few women on board. Commander Spear was one of the highest ranking female officers in the fleet and was a highly qualified pilot. She commanded one of the Excalibur's three wings. When I reached my quarters I immediately hit the shower. After changing I sat down at my laptop to work on the always dreaded but necessary paperwork.

Chapter Seven


The alert klaxon sounded snapping me out of the day dream I had been having. I sprinted for the lift, as I arrived I met Johnson.

"Wasn’t the drill scheduled for another two hours?" He asked me.

"That’s what I said, nineteen hundred hours."

"Then what the hell is going on?"

"I have no clue."

As we stepped on to the bridge chaos greeted us. I headed for the command chair but did not sit down.

"What the hell is going on here!?" I demanded.

"A frigate and a minelayer tach jumped almost on top of us." Spears replied.

"Why didn’t we know they were coming!?"

"Because the sensors were offline for a routine system check." Stated Johnson.

"Damn! What's the damage?"

"Minimal damage to the shields, that’s more than that minelayer can say. It will need at least new shields and new laser turrets when it gets back to its base." Talberts stated.

"Okay everyone lets find out who they were, where they came from and what the hell they were doing in VA space. And turn that DAMN NOISE OFF!!"

 

A few hours later I contacted Icefox and alerted him to the situation and that the ships that attacked us were of Bora make. But they had Fringe Raider markings on them. FR was a rival clan that was making false claims on parts of VA space. It appeared that these Tachyon Drive Emissions were FR ships. Icefox informed me that he would arrive at my current location in twelve hours and join me aboard the Excalibur. I then retired to my quarters to catch up on some sleep.

Eleven hours later I was awake and putting the final touches to my dress uniform. It was solid black with gold rank stripes on the cuffs and red trimming on the seems and edges of the collar, and cuffs. Rank was on the shoulder in gold. The pants were black as well with a red stripe down the side of the legs. All the buttons were gold as well. With one last look in the mirror I headed for hanger bay one, were Icefox's shuttle would be landing. After he disembarked from the shuttle I proceeded to introduce him to the officers that were present.

"Admiral I believe you know my XO Captain Johnson. And these two are my wing commanders: Commander Spear and Lt. Commander Defiant. This is our navigation officer Lieutenant Jackson. This here is my security officer and weapons officer Lt. Commander Rome. Well gentlemen and lady, shall we head for the bridge?"

"Hey you forgot me!"

We all turned to look were the voice had come from, and there stood my good friend Griffin Moone.

"GRIFF! Hey man what are you doing here?"

"Thought I'd drop by and see your new pet."

"Well let's go have a look."

The hour long tour finally ended on the bridge. The bridge officers had gone back to the bridge after leaving the hanger. Griff seemed impressed, he also seemed to make pretty good friends with my Chief Engineer. Icefox on the other hand was a bit skeptical. He didn’t seem to trust all the new technology we had installed mainly the warp thrusters. These enable the ship to make short tach jumps with in a sector. I tried to lay his fears to rest but it seemed to me that only a demonstration would do.

Chapter Eight


Icefox informed me that the fleet was spread thin at the moment. The reason being that IK was running military maneuvers again along all its boarders, EB and NB were stirring up trouble again and BK was raiding outposts for the fifth time this year. That meant that the Exalibur was the only ship available to deal with the FR threat.

In response to the new information I ordered several probes launched so that we may be given advanced warning to any possible attacks. A few hours later we received a report from one of the probes indicating that it had discovered a fleet of ships. Before it could say how many or what kind they were or who they were the transmission ended abruptly. I ordered a peg stripped of all weapons in place of those given more shields and as much speed as we could give it. Then I ordered Ensign IZ to take the modified pet out to the last know location and determine what exactly had happened. I had my hunch as to what had happened but I wanted a count of those ships too.

An hour later IZ reported that he had arrived at the last location of the probe. What he found didn’t make Icefox or I happy. He hadn't found any warships but he had found twenty transports, five heavy freighters and ten light freighters and five mech transports. It was an invasion fleet of forty ships. What puzzled us all was were the warships had gone to. We would find out soon enough in the worst possible way.

Chapter Nine


I told IZ to get back here as fast as he could. Moments later our sensors picked up Tachyon Drive Emissions. Then two carriers, five cruisers, ten destroyers and four minelayers completed their jumps. Suddenly our sensors were filled with the fighters of those twenty one ships. I ordered all our fighters scrambled. I also ordered Dark Ice to take the shuttle Icefox had arrived on out with the hope that it would draw some attention. Then I ordered the ship to prepare for battle.

"Everyone find your seat belts, we're in for a rough ride!" I announced over the broadcast system.

"Admiral, what's goinin' on up der?

"We've found the enemy fleet, Scotty. Or should I say they found us."

The whole ship shuddered as all our pulse lasers opened up at the same instant, vaporizing the first wave and clearing the way for our fighters.

"ADCAP to Spear."

"Spear here."

"Do me a favor."

"What's that sir?"

"Waste the ****ers."

"With pleasure."

After our fighters had cleared the hanger and were out of our range the lasers fired another volley and proceeded to fire at will. The constant firing continued for about a half an hour with out much damage to the ship. The shields had absorbed a lot of punishment but the new armor on the hull was holding strong. Finally I had had enough of just sitting there.

"Jackson prepare the warp thrusters! We're gonna take the fight to 'em."

"Yes sir." A pause. "Thrusters ready sir."

"Okay drop us between the two carriers."

"Between them!? That’s suicide!" Objected Icefox.

"Let me handle this. You wanted a demonstration, well here it is. Okay Jackson do it!"

The Excalibur disappeared in a flash of light only to reappear between the two enemy carriers. Our pulse lasers opened up again with a roar. The Carriers were caught completely off guard. Our lasers made short work of their laser turrets and shields leaving them defenseless.

"Give the carriers one more volley and then jump over to the minelayers."

"Aye sir!"

That finally Volley was followed by several minor explosions from the carriers and as both of them exploded the Excalibur

s the were helpless. Instead of finishing the minelayers off I chose to attack the cruisers next. I ordered the Excalibur to jump to the front of the cruiser group. As we came out of that maneuver two destroyers made a suicide dash at our ship. I ordered Jackson to maneuver as close to the two nearest cruisers as he could. When the kamikaze destroyers were about to hit our ship I ordered her to jump behind them. The two cruisers never knew what hit them. all four ships went up in a massive explosion. The three remaining cruisers turned tail and tach jumped out of the system. With the retreat of the cruisers the remaining eight destroyers attempted to pick up what remaining fighters of theirs there were to be found. Our fighters let them be and finished off the minelayers. I ordered the Excalibur to take on the four nearest destroyers.

"Admiral! We canna use the warp thrusters! They’ve burnt out!"

"Alright Scotty! We'll have to make due with out them."

With out the warp thrusters we lost the advantage of being everywhere almost at once. As we took on the four nearest destroyers they called for help and pretty soon the Excalibur was under fire from eight bora style destroyers.

"Admiral!"

"Yes Scotty we're kinda busy up here!"

"I know Admiral, but…" His words we lost as the shields failed and several circuits on the bridge and in engineering exploded.

"What was that Scotty!?"

"I said she can't take much more of dis, she's packin' quite a wallop!"

"Acknowledged! Bridge out!" I yelled over the noise of a fire extinguisher. We were running out of options fast. I had an idea, it was crazy, but it might work.

"Jackson! Target their strongest ship. Focus all our fire on it!"

"Aye sir!"

"When its shields get to twenty percent I want to ram it!"

"SIR!?"

"RAM IT!? ARE YOU CRAZY!?" Demanded Icefox.

"Just crazy enough to get us out of hear alive!" I snapped. "You heard me Lieutenant! Just do it!"

"Yes sir."

Seconds later the Excalibur slammed in to the nearest FR destroyer. She didn’t explode but she started to move back.

"Increase power to the engines!"

"Sir they’ve transferred all their remaining energy to their engines."

"Admiral! If ye push her any harder the whole ship will blow!"

"Acknowledged Scotty. Bridge out. On my command fire all forward batteries into the bridge of that ship! Put a couple shots through their hull were we are touching them as well."

"Weapons targeted sir!"

"FIRE!"

The enemy ship exploded and the Excalibur shot through the area where it had been. By this time our fighters had returned form destroying the minelayers and were harassing the remaining seven destroyers. The enemy had had enough. All seven destroyers, what was left of them, tach jumped out of the sector.


Chapter Ten

The battle was over. We now took stock of our casualties. We had lost eight fighters and the shuttle Dark Ice was piloting. The warp thrusters were completely burned out and would need to be replaced. The bow of the ship would need to be rebuilt, and our shields were completely gone, but we were alive. Scotty was complaining about the mess that the battle had made of engineering. I spent the next two days typing up reports and doing the hardest part of being a commander: writing letters to the family of the deceased. Funeral services for the dead were a solemn occasion. Icefox was quite impressed with the performance of the ship and its crew. He opted to ride the ship all the way into space dock instead of taking a shuttle back to the Vigilance. As the crew exited the ship to low the repair and refit crew to have they received a standing ovation from the staff of the dock. The crew was even treated to a round of drinks on the house at the Pulsar. The crew was given two weeks of shore leave. I choose to go back to earth. I had some loose ends to tie up.

JGZinv:


“Showdown in Antares”
by
Hannibal of New Dawn

The void of space that could be seen through the window from which Admiral John McCurrie was peering was lit up with green, yellow, blue, and red beam fire. The explosions from fighters and bombers could be seen even though they were 20km away. The Admiral looked on with sadness, for his most beautiful ship, the GTD Carpathia, began to crumble into many smaller pieces from the exploding shivan bombs which tore through her hull. Never had the Admiral seen such destruction since the Battle of Sol almost two years before.

A single tear rolled down his face as he watched his beloved Carpathia began to make a port role towards the single gas giant that orbited the nearby star. The ship's hull began to buckle as she entered the atmosphere of the planet called Antare Prime. Soon the Carpathia was completely engulfed in the atmosphere of the gas giant, and all you could see was a small dark spot where the ship had entered the atmosphere. Then a giant ball of gas and debris shot up from the planet, leaving mostly parts of the engine as the Carpathia's tomb stone.

"What have we done to deserve this?" the Admiral said to his first officer.

"I don't know, sir. I - I really don't know."

"How could a civilization such as ours, which took thousands of years to develop be destroyed in a matter of six years?" The Admiral looked on as another marauder-class cruiser began to collapse in on itself.

"Sir, Captain Brutherford is requesting that we withdraw now or face a total fleet decimation," the communications officer to the Admiral's left said.

"Tell them to withdraw to this position. Here is where we will stand our ground. I think our three destroyers, two corvettes, and 4 cruisers, plus several fighter and bomber wings should be able to hold off another wave of Shivan reinforcements." The admiral gave the communications officer a wave of his hand to signal him to proceed.

"Captain Brutherford, withdraw all forces to our position as soon as possible. We are going to make a final stand here."

"But we won't survive another assault even if we had another colossus-class ship with us." The captain was enraged about the idea.

"Those are the Admiral's orders, Captain."

"Very well then, Ensign."

The four destroyers, which were badly beaten, began to enter subspace when a heavy red beam shot struck the GTC Thanatos, a mentu-class cruiser, sending molten metal into the void of space. She then collapsed on herself in a ball of expanding gases. Meanwhile, the other vessels, including corvettes, cruisers, fighters, bombers, and other smaller modified transports and freighters, began to exit subspace near the Admiral's own small fleet of ships.

"This is it commander. This is our last stand..."

JGZinv:


“The Light Show”
by
Dragon of Neechi

The Angels of Death were limping back from a well fought but hardened battle with the Loki resistance. Since the end of the Galspan/Bora war the ships from both sides became available on the open market and all the clans of the Fringe took advantage of the strengths that each manufacturer had to offer. The combination of the two technologies proved to be lethal and the alliance of Sol grew stronger than ever. But alas there is no rest for the weary, for just as one peace is founded another threat will always be waiting behind the curtains.

The Loki were slowly being crushed by all the forces of the Fringe but the new campaign was not without difficulty. Many good pilots were lost and new factions of evil doers were taking advantage of the disruption caused by the resistance. The Fringe, it seemed, would never be a safe place to fly alone.

The AoD, lead by commander Scythe, consisted of three Hammers and a Peggy but from the damage they incurred, it was doubtful they had three complete ships between them. Wildfire's Peggy was only held together by the dirt and grime that he'd let build up on it. One more shot would have done the cleaning he often neglected to do and now it paid off. Or so he liked to think. The hull integrity alarm was driving him crazy, and he couldn't shut it off because the main coupling array was fused to his life support generator. The throbbing grew deafening and he wondered if people back on Neechi could hear it.

Val and Maximus brought up the rear with their damaged hulls facing inwards towards each other in case of stray debris, all forming a protective circle around Wildfire as they slid their way towards home. One sector was all that remained as a barrier to safety and comfort... and the victory party with all the CoME groupies and live Industrial. Yes everyone's thoughts were well past the last two tachyon gates and rapidly pre-living in their minds what they would be doing tonight. A hero's return was always guaranteed to get you laid.

"AD 1 I've been painted," cried Val. At first no one heard him so he had to scream it over the comm. "Damn it guys wake up! I got bright eyes. We're being targeted."

"Full stop!" Ordered Death Scythe. Any thoughts of celebration quickly evaporated for them all as they focused on the new developments.

"I'm going after them!" cried Val as he jammed his afterburners.

"Stand down AD 2! That's an order." came Death's reply.

"WTF?!?" No way Hosé. I'm going down fighting!"

"Don't you think your in deep enough water with the Hierarchy as it is?" asked Death in a more civil tone. "Don't add disobeying a direct order to the list."

"A lot of good it'll do me if I'm dead," he complained, but nevertheless he was falling back into formation.

"Umm, this is AD 3," stammered Wildfire. "I got four small craft at just over 120 clicks. Undefined, must be pirates. They know were hurtin', too."

Despite the undesirable odds, Commander Scythe was suddenly and genuinely relieved. He'd take on a band of vagabonds over an organized assault squad any day. The four new ships were advancing, but slowly. Perhaps they would just go on by but that was highly unlikely. The pirates in this region kill for sport and salvage any undamaged parts that remained. He had to act fast.

"AD 3 prepare to board me!" he shouted.

"Umm, sir?" asked Wildfire.

"You heard me, get that helmet on and seal up. Your going for a walk."

"With all due res..."

"Now Wildfire! We don't have time for this. Drop your shields and pop your hatch on my command. Stay strapped in until you have the grappling band in both hands. Copy?"

"Roger," said Wildfire a little unconvincingly. "You better not drop me."

"I have a plan but I need your ship. It's our only chance with our ships as banged up as they are," explained Death Scythe as he maneuvered into position. "Remember the fun we use to have at the end of our training sessions when we first started out?"

"You mean the light show?" asked Wildfire.

Death chuckled at the memory of that name Wildfire had given it. "Yeah, that's the one"

"AD 1, Bogies at 100 k," reported Val as he and Maximus held their positions and monitored the approaching threat.

"Roger that AD 2, OK Wild, transfer all flight codes to remote and send them to my ship."

Wildfire flipped a few switches and keyed in the commands on the console. "Done."

"Double check your harness and pop the hatch. I'm right above you," prompted Death as he popped his own hatch and started at the sudden temperature change despite the protection of his flight suit.

"Aww man, it's freezing out here," complained Wildfire as he wrestled with the grappling band and finally got a good grip. "OK boss, here I come."

He unbuckled the harness, the only thing holding him down, and when he began to rise he instinctively pressed his feet down but failed to get the desired results. He rose a little faster than he expected so he tried to grab the edge of his hatch and dropped the grappling band. It drifted just out of reach and taunted his clumsiness.

"Damn it Wildfire!" said Death.

Inside his helmet Wildfire looked hurt. "What the hell are you complaining about? I'm the one floating here."

"Please hurry. Pull yourself back in. Your just gonna have to jump for it. I can't unstrap now."

"Hows about I pull myself in and stay in. I'll take my chances," said Wildfire.

"That wasn't a request AD 3. Do it, now! I'll..., catch you," he said and almost laughed at the absurdity of it. "Let's go pilot, they're closing fast."

Without further argument Wildfire launched as hard as he could and drifted aimlessly in the wrong trajectory. He was going to miss the Hammer all together. He'd hardly begun to curse himself when Death boosted a lateral thrust to his left and caught Wildfire like a game saving pop fly. Wildfire hit the deck with a clump and Death slammed the hatch control like it was some kind of bug.

"Nice catch commander, but what now?" It was Maximus. "Those mine grubs will be here in less than a minute."

Scythe immediately started barking orders, possibly his last. "AD3 Take my helm. I'm on the Peggy!"

They quickly swapped places as Death took his position at the main computer and continued with his plan. "Alpha Recoil X21 Execute on my mark. Desired coordinates 0437 mark 5291. Copy?"

"AD 2, I copy."

"AD 4, I copy."

Their fate was closing in to just over 10 clicks when Commander Scythe barked to commence. The crippled yet agile Peggy shot backward at lightning speed as the three Hammers split off and engaged the laser throwing guest that had just arrived. The skilled pilots of the AoD were quickly able to lead their dancing partners in a ballet of evasive maneuvers . Holding their fire to gain speed, they needed only to avoid any direct hits and simply lead their prey in the waltz of death. Their commander would take it from there. He'd promised, so it would be.

Val, Maximus and Wildfire, now in Death's Hammer, shot around and through the four pirate ships and converged within half a click of each other and latted in a three point circle. What seemed like minutes was only seconds before they were surrounded and under fire, and heard the crackling command saying "NOW!" coming over the comm. Death had counted on their gloated overconfidence and smiled as they closed in on the Hammers. He watched as the scene turned 90 degrees and fell away behind them in a rushing blindness. The AoD squad executed textbook moves and shot their relatively harmless medium lasers in a shower of diversion. Seeing the weak lasers and being momentarily confused about who's target shot where, the pirates regrouped in the spot that they had been lead to.

Death had programmed the auto pilot in the Peggy to travel to the same spot at the same time doing 1196 kpm. The same speed as Solaris Torpedoes. He transferred all power to weapons and did some fancy engineering to the core emitter transfer route. Now here she came, out of nowhere surrounded in the bright blue light of twelve fully charged sols. A fiery projectile wrapped in a blanket of destruction, she hit the first ship and it blew up immediately, taking the pirate with her. Seven Sols hit the next two targets and they were space dust. The last ship escaped the brunt of the assault but caught one Sol on his starboard shield. He ran, but didn't get far as Wildfire closed in and scraped up enough power to fire one last rail to blast him out of the galaxy.

The threat was gone but not the adrenaline. The others were hooting and hollering and remembering the party that awaited them but Wildfire was silent.

"What's wrong bro?" asked Death.

"You didn't tell me you were gonna blow it up. I still say we could have taken them, and I would still have my ship."

His squad mates just laughed and assured him Dragon would make sure he got another one. Then Death looked at his longtime friend and said, "That was one hell of a light show though. Wasn't it?"

This made Wildfire grin and say, "Come on, let's go party!"

JGZinv:


“Under the Gun”
by
VA Misterfour

BOOK ONE= THE CREW

 
”Bou liubis, a cherta ne drazni.”

-Old Russian Proverb

”Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”

-Matthew 27:40

""I think of this war as it really is, not as the people at home imagine, with a hoorah! and a roar. It is very serious, very grim…"

-Manfred von Richthofen


Part 1= ”Hyperbole”

Hey, what’s up? I’m Automatic and I am in the middle of something. Try to keep up, will ya?

I gotta hand it all to the man in gift wrapped iridium plasteel, that guy Dragon, head kahuna of Neechi, knows how to throw a party. I got all my gang stuffed into a freighter owned by the Star Pirates (what a dumb name), make that, used to belong to the Star Pirates. They don’t know we’re here, right? So here we are, like lobsters in a tank at a restaurant, and they let us Tach jump right to their base, hidden away in the corner pocket of the universe on this planetoid, just barely an atmosphere, and we jump out and bash out their relay, wham, bam, thank you, good bye and then the Star Pirates know the gig is up. I mean, I only got six guys, but they know that it’s too late, we’re on to them, and then Neechi receives the coordinates and come out of space, it folds and unfolds like a conjurer’s trick, and there’s their premier Capitol Warship, the WitchWyrm, all cannons and admantine hull gleaming, a brooding, gruesome monster aloft in the void, drop pods like copper eggs descending onto the planetoid’s surface, starships drifting away to gun their afterburners and engage the Star Pirate’s beleaguered forces.

Let the games begin, man.

My plan was thus, true believers…

Hit ‘em hard and hit ‘em fast. Beam the coordinates through the encrypted Tach gate (something Neechi did not know how to do, thanks to the sophistication of the Tach gate coding, how do you think I got the gig?) and smash their communications grid until Neechi arrived.

What if Neechi did not arrive?

Try to fly through the Tach gate and get away.

Yeah, right…

I maneuvered my Hammer…scratch that, you don’t maneuver a Hammer, you chuck the sucker through space like a brick and hope you don’t soak up too much fire, anyways, I moved…f*ck it…my Hammer swung into some Star Pirate Orions that had engaged our flank, odd shaped mothers, painted gold and red, with the mechanical skull icon on each side, and I let the first one eat some plasma, sliding and following up with a rail shot, pretty damn perfect, and he became fire and metal parts.

The other two buzzed me, strafing by and igniting my shields with las fire. I caught the WitchWyrm out of the corner of my cockpit, magnificent, it’s weapons fire painting the starry black scarlet with ordinance, the defensive stations around the planetoid’s perimeter reduced to cinders and scrap one by one from the Capitol Ship’s assault.

Oops, blast torps, one sec…

Ouch, close, where’d my shields go? Not so smug now, are you, Otto?

I gave the first Orion plasma and rail, watching it’s reactors ignite, pop, pieces of it plinking against my hull. Quick lat, slide, the whole machine vibrating with physics, transferring power into shields, here he comes, the las fire scorching my hull, and then firing plasma…

He flipped gracefully, but still caught a few, the shields reacting milky bright, the planetoid blue-white behind…

My rails were like fire-and-gold bolts, battering the Orion in half, they went in opposite directions, into space forever.

”Machine! Gimme some good news!?” I said.

”The perimeter is not yet neutralized.” She said.

”Ok, Sixers, form on my wing. Dead clients don’t pay.”

”Copy.” Machine said, her voice breaking up as the conflict escalated around us.

I moved quickly, rerouting power, wondering if the Star Pirate’s headquarters was getting’ stomped yet. I imagined the lances of the Neechi smashing into the Pirate’s mechyards, those 80 ton monstrosities tearing up the forces like Zeus putting the swat down on Typhonaeus, Dragon had been very sure of the plan, and I have to admit, no bad code in the program, there…

I could see Machine and Sorcerer, both in slate gray Orions, come up on my 4 and 8, respectively. They were packing blast torps, nasty nuke beasties, and I never really thought about their choice of ordinance until they decided to cover me-

Whoops. Explosion. Wow, pretty lights…

Sorcerer’s voice through a squelch of static.

”Otto? You alive, man?”

”Sec!” I said. Sorcerer can be such a mother when he is not being a motherf*cker…

”Pegs, wing, comin’ at us fast, like they do best.”

That was Dos, calm guy, doesn’t get all dramatic in a fight. He was in a Bora Cutlass, you can tell by the rails whacking into ships like the hand of some deity. Whammo. There goes one, now.

I had gotten smacked with a blast torp, hull fine but a little beaten, shields recuperating, there they were, two gold and black Pegasus interceptors bearing down on me, those Star Pirates liked speed, fragments of las fire on all sides, couldn’t see Dos anywhere, the space a satin black, with the violent and yellow blossom that was the distant Augustus nebula spreading all magnificent beyond the Star Pirate stations, the crescents of distant explosions, the haunting shadow of the WitchWyrm eclipsing space, stark obsidian with the sun behind, the pegs swooping in with a buzzing whirr, I’m twisting, keeping them in my sights, don’t want them shooting at my ass, then my plasma falling down on one, a flash of electric yellow and molten blue…boom…

Then an X of rails, Inferno and Dos teaming up on the remaining Interceptor. Bye, bye…

”Hey, Boss, I think the mop up is over, but the WitchWyrm needs some help, they want to do the bop on an incoming Dropship…”

Inferno’s voice brimmed with a self assurance that came from the vitamins he ate or somethin’. He was born to sound so confidant as to be arrogant to most. But he moved a Hammer around like he was born in the saddle. I fly them, and even I think their ugly. Like blocks of beaten iron, so un-aesthetic, ya know? But is you know what you are doing, you can be such a terror, despite the speed at which other ships can maneuver…

Did it really matter?

”Hu, you alive?”

His voice was calm, like Dos’s.

”I think we’re all here.”

”We’re too good to kill.” Inferno said.

”Hail, hail, the gang’s all here.” Machine added.

”Statistically speaking, we should have lost SOMEBODY…” Dos jumped in.

”I saw a quad plasma salvo bounce off Inferno’s ego…” Sorcerer put in his line.

”That was my c*ck.” Inferno quipped.

”Yeah, let’s take this show on the road. C’mon guys, business, war, the important stuff?” I had to be the big boss, sometimes.

”Automatic, you copy?”

Dragon’s voice was even, authoritative. Like the way Sorcerer could sound.

”Right-o, Dragon. How goes the punitive mission?”

”We appear to be winning, but that will mean little if we don’t stay on top of the ground war.”

I could see the ruins of the defensive platforms-gruesome, battered and rent asunder in the cold starred black.

”Ok, where are the bad guys?”

”We’re the bad guys…” Inferno’s two cents plinked onto the intercom.

”Shaddup Inferno, Dragon is giving us commands.”

”Uh…yes, well, there is a Dropship on course, intercepting your position, we need you to slow it down…”

”Roger, copy, come on Sixers, let’s get nuclear…”

The Dropship was closing, it’s guns already sending crimson bolts of disruptive energy into our wing. Ka-blam! Pretty ballsy of them to send it in with no protective fighters…pirates must’ve been desperate…

We closed in, it’s hull burnished gold in the interstellar sunlight, I knew that some twenty mechs were enclosed within it’s armored chassis, waiting.

I sent torps into the propulsion systems, las fire igniting my shields. I caught the flash of rails out of the corner of my eye, and could just discern Sorcerer and Hu hitting the Dropship’s other side.

Dos took a hit. I lost him from my radar.

”Dos!!?”

”Hey.” His voice was scratchy. ”I’m messed up, no systems, retreating…”

”Yeah, go for it, we’ll cover you.”

Las fire hit my ship, and I afterburned instinctively, to the rear of the megalith, it’s engines like burning brass, it was bring, sun-bright, I turned my eyes from it.

Dragon, on the comm..

”Automatic?”

”Yeah, just a sec.”

Hu flew past me, his ship sparking, and I afterburned, pulling shield energy into the burners, then up and over, the guns still blazing, Inferno up close and personal with the thing, and then our rails descending like gold/red cables onto the buzzing systems box, a cement colored dermoplast unit, and it went up with atomic force.

I think I told the wing to retreat, the dome of the Dropship left behind. I saw it, as I looked back, an orb of dermoplast and admantium, slowly rolling to a shuddering stop as the pilot engaged retrorockets uselessly, ion steam like silver foam, drifting in clouds about it…

My wing fell back, safe from the paralyzed Mech-carrier’s weapon’s fire…

Mission complete, pilgrims…



Part 2= ”Catalyst”

Aunt Aggie looked into the pot of soup she had made for the family. Joe, Oscar and Tolio were gathered around the table.

Try as I can, what precisely the Iscariot looked like always escapes me. I remember it from when I was young, and I only remember the outside of it once, a shadow against the naked burning face of the sun.

I remember the inside, especially where we lived, in Olsom Cellers. That’s where you lived when you were rust-poor.

Faddah was working late that night. It was just us, like always. Faddah-Dad, but I called him Faddah- would work late, like that. He had to. He was a space cargo trucker, and the work was dangerous, intermittent, and didn’t pay much.

Our home was deep down in the Iscariot…I remember walls the color of rusted iron, always leaking water or coolant or worse…there was a atmosphere problem, never knew why, but it could go steamy humid or bone numbing cold, depending on the orbit.

We were packed into the cube like rats. Three rooms, side by side. One bath. The rooms were small…Faddah and Aggie shared the one room, then the middle, where we ate, and then Joe, Oscar and Tolio. And me.

Aggie had gone begging to put that soup together. Shreds of cloned meat, some rat, cloned vegetables…and potatoes. Always potatoes, a vegetable that seemed remarkably suited to the environment. To this day I f*cking hate potatoes.

Joe and Tolio had snuck out and stolen some bread. Aggie turned a blind eye to it.

I remember the sodium burner above the table. It gave everything a garish shine…the drip of the sink…rat bites. Always rat bites. They crawled in from the drains.

Deeper down, in the sumpsters, they got as big as raccoons. One of my friends died from a bite, when I was small…

Aggie’s face had deep lines of concern, but cooking made her younger, somehow. I just remember her seeming to relax into a mode, the sweat beading on her forehead, the corners of her mouth smiling, somehow.

Oscar was just a baby. He cooed at the table and hit a plastic rattle with a clown face on the table.

Metal. Everything metal. And plastic. Even our clothes were plastic woven. Thick taxes prevented us from shopping in the upper levels, where one could purchase cloned cotton weeve.

”Bah bah bah bah bah.” Oscar said, cooing to himself.

Joe looked at me, squinting, his ugly mouth crooked.

Joe always hated me…I felt it. When I stared at a vid or Aggie, he would look at me sidelong, his mouth in a scowl.

Which made no sense because we were half-brothers. Our mom had died having me, she gave birth to Joe years before, and his dad had died, murdered by dealers I found out later. Faddah had met mom, then I came, and then Aunt Aggie had moved in and Faddah and her had Oscar, then Joe.

Oscar always looked sullen, his face slack, almost. He had a piece of chalk, and occasionally put it in his mouth.

”Stop that.” Aggie said. She took the chalk from Oscar, and then brought the soup to the table.

We had no bowls. Instead, we all spooned from the soup.

Joe’s ugly scowled face beamed, almost.

”What’s in that, ma?”

Aggie looked at us all, proud. She could feed her family, and give them wonder.

”Pepper. It’s pepper. I found a cube that someone dropped…”

I taste pepper, sometimes, when I think of those walls, in that colony, long ago. It burns the roof of my mouth like red giants burn planets too close to them.

Pepper.

Rust…



I gave my report, in full, to Neechi command.

The rest of my company had retired to celebrate.

We were aboard the WitchWyrm, in orbit around the tan and green planetoid that was once the home of the Star Pirates. TNN reporting craft had come in like locusts, beaming results through encrypted tach channels across the galaxy, covering the ”the major coup against the Star Pirates by combined mercenary and Neechi fighters.”

That really nukes me. Mercenary. They couldn’t get my name right? The Sixers…how hard is that? Phuc.

But my stock had gone up (I’m a corporation…you can invest in me. I’m worth 154 credits a share…compared to Galspan’s 2345 credits a share) and my shareholder’s were pleased. High numbers this quarter, double what we made to date last year. We also had a combined interest approval rating that promised big dividends at the rate we were going.

The board room was all chrome and dermoplast…the table a gravitized disc of rose quartz, flecked in gold. I felt out of place, my rad-proof flight suit lined with wires and cables, covered in soot and rust stains. The collar was high on my neck. I just wanted to get the meeting over with and be with the crew.

It felt good to look at these guys, for some reason. They gave questioning glances to my rank, not realizing that the gold stencil bar code was meaningless…just an advertisement for nitrolite (you laugh, but that ad for nitrolite is an extra 50,000 credits annually, according to our contract).

I felt battered and proud and silly and sick with andrenaline, but I gave them all the specifics, and we watched the film report from the comm. panels all of our ships carried for such a thing.

I was told then that the leader of the Star Pirates, Oslovo, killed himself rather than be caught. He would have been convicted of criminal conspiracy as well as war crimes, probably would have gone to the disintegration chamber, so it’s just as well the sick phuc cut his throat open with a sharpened piece of iridium.

The Neechi officers wore crisp blue uniforms of the finest materials, medals and ranks in perfect order. They looked like officers in the vids, perfect complexions, sharp eyes like flint, stern, commanding features. They looked like they made more money than I did and slept in better beds and had better hookers. Their academy rings all gleamed in the light, the platinum burnished and flecked with obsidian.

I didn’t get to go to the flight academy.

Credits were transferred via tach gates in banque-galactique code and we were officially paid.

Dragon seemed impressed by my presentation.

He sat back, aloof, his uniform positively festooned with medals, indicators of rank, and assorted trophies. I sometimes believe looks get you where you end up, he looked regal and calm, like some sort of predatory bird, perched high above it all, surveying his domain, not missing a detail.

But then the presentation was over, and they were getting up, all of them, and I realized, by the way they smiled at each other and shared inside jokes, the silence of the business atmosphere now discarded, that I was a merc and they were what they were: clanners. Clanners in a big time clan, too.

Now I really wanted to be back with my crew.

I packed up my bronze coloured titanium palm top and checked my bank account.

Hell, yes.

I looked out into space, through the shielded dermoplast that kept us from all eating vacuum.

So vast, so utterly void and yet stirringly beautiful, like the cold face of a woman from across the room who is married to a multi-billionaire and you can never have her. But she is there, full of stars and suns, whole planets within those infinite veils. Standing this close to space, I always feel like I might fall through the dermoplast and just disappear into the galactic nothing. It is night that will never know day, forever.

Then I blink out of it, and I am no poet, I am Otto, of the Sixers, one of 5,837 merc groups in the galaxy. I am a space dog.

Dragon had said something to me.

”What? Sorry, I feel tired.”

”I said, Automatic, would you like to accompany me to the Main Hold? I want to show you a prize the Neechi have recently required.”

In person his voice had a dark lilt to it, accented, like those Earth Brit pilots a century ago might have sounded like. Formal, baroque.

”Yeah, sure. Got some coffee? I need to clear my head up…”

”Of course.”

We walked out of the room and into the cold corridors that were the interior of the WitchWyrm.

The only thing I like about the Neechi is the fact that they don’t get overly aesthetic about the interior of their ships.

Naw, I mean, they paid me, and they showed up for the fight, and they were professional enough to make up for my lack of it, but some clans got fruity really quick with their ships, like they were on some bisexual love cruise (which, don’t get me wrong, are great fun if you are high on methamphetamines and half way through college) but the Neechi used a blue steel gloss and oiled brass design that made you feel like you were in the darkened Victorian walkway of a Jules Verne submarine, the electric burners giving an eldritch glow to the smoke-dark corridors, comm. panels and sensor arrays glowing like wet neon…

Then I realized he was talking.

”…was a huge success. Far greater than our best estimates. Our investors are pleased.”

”Investors?”

”Yes, Automatic. We are a corporation, and we operate in conjunction to other corporations for mutual profit. We are still humanitarian, however, and mercy missions make for good public relations…”

”Eh.”

”Not to worry, I own a large enough percentage of the stock to call the shots. We are still a clan, we just operate according to more economic ethics.”

”Supply and demand.”

”Yes.”

”So why f*ck up the Star Pirates? Why not strike a deal with them and make a profit off of an organized protection racket? The smuggling alone would have put you in gold bath tubs for life. You would have made money off the baronies, smaller corps and merchants, plus the less powerful clans…”

”Sound like an organized criminal conspiracy.”

”Cops are thugs, married women are prostitutes.”

”What-?”

”Uh, I mean, it all depends on how you look at it. Star Patrol don’t wanna have all the criminals disappear, they would go out of business, ya know…but there’s always a profit. Ya follow the profit.”

”Well…the line between being a pirate, a merc, and a clanner is blurry indeed. But regardless, the Star Pirates took human life, civilian human life, and endangered peaceful trade routes. So they were eliminated.”

”Yeah.”

”It’s quite a shame Star Patrol is on strike, otherwise we would not have been involved, and our energies could have gone to our current war with the Furnace Brigade. But the pay is appreciated.”

”Yeah.”

I felt rusted and lumbering in those corridors, marching with the Commander of Neechi past saluting officers and callow faced recruits so perfectly clean shaven ya’s think they were eleven years old. They were bleached and polished, free of so much as a mar. Here I was, my suit frayed and rad burned, the coils of my couplers in bad need of a resurfacing…

We left the soft warm dark of the WitchWyrm’s corridors for the harsh cold neon brightness of the Main Hangar. It was all hollow acoustics and machine echo, the voices of one hundred conversations rebounding off of ferroconcrete walls. White cotton shirted technicians mothered the Neechi star ships, checking arrays and reloading weaponry.

Some pilots were still close to their ships, swapping tales with other pilots. I realized that with Neechi spread out from here to Sol they probably only communicated through Ezboards, and now here they were, face to face for the first time in years.

Dragon seemed proud, and he had a right to be. I scratched at my neck, realizing I needed a shave (and a beer).

Twenty salutes later we were looking out into Space Dock, through a dermoplast window so big a Claymore could have barnstormed through it.

”There.” He said, gesturing towards the sphere of sea and land that was the Star Pirate’s former planetary stronghold. It had not been huge, as military installations went. No bigger than a small Earth town, most of the planet untamed wilderness. It would be populated by exodites and drifters in a week. On corporate loans, of course. Ain’t it funny how the world works?

”Yeah. Nice planet. I saw a desert planet once. I always wanted to pilot a mech, ya know? Go around and tear up the real estate…”

”No, that cruiser there.”

I looked at a ship, smaller than any of the Neechi’s, pitted by ordinance, with a face that was brooding and worn. It was a maverick design, a Frankenstein’s Creation of old and new tech- Madorian arrays, Gal weaponry, Bora reactors…it’s skin was unpainted, burnished, glowing chrome in the dying light of the Augustus Nebula.

”Yeah. Kind of tore up. Look’s tough. Ex-pirate, eh? Spoils of war, well done, Dragon.”

”Actually, quite some time ago Neechi downsized it’s operations long enough to refit many of our ships, so as to make for easy repair and maintenance. All of our bases are designed by Godcraft, and all of our cruisers, freighters, fighters and destroyers are manufactured by Gauzzi. This craft, being a conglomeration, would ill fit in with the rest of our ships. So it’s yours.”

The top of my head felt like it had flipped off. Holy f*ck.

”Holy f*ck. You mean that? Jesus, I don’t know what to say, I mean, our contract said nothing about spoils. Are you sure?”

Dragon seemed please that he was playing the benefactor. He beamed like a jinn granting a wish.

”Yes, quite. Neechi has no need for it. Additionally, our contract only called for you rendering their relay sensors ineffective, as well as beaming us the required coordinates for our assault. But you took out that Dropship, and if it had landed that could have blown the entire operation. This is your reward, thank you.”

Wow.

”Wow, thanks, this puts The Sixers in the big time bracket. We don’t have to hire Guild Freighters anymore to lug us around. Wow. Those things are easy to fly, I know that chassis design. Like a Claymore. Wow.”

He seemed amused at my gratitude.

”Make no mention of it. Let’s see the inside, shall we?”

It was what you expected in a carrier freighter/carrier. Not as polished and pristine as the insides of one of the Royal Guard’s ships, but it had everything you needed. There were GUI controls, redundant energy transmitters…and it was big enough to carry ten fighters.

I noticed a few las burns in the dermoplast, but didn’t ask Dragon about it.

Oh, it was no pleasure cruise ship, we weren’t going to be doing guided tours for the rich and self indulgent, but it was better than what military operations normally required, and that was good enough for me.

The Deimos batteries were the most current thing on the ship. It carried an unusual amount of cannons for a ship with a reactor grid that size. I wondered how much it taxed the systems…

”Damn, Dragon, this works. Damn fine…”

”We are still doing a few repairs, but I knew you would be impressed.”

He stood there, the starlight upon his features, looking over the computer’s mainframe. The wall behind him was cut by black emissions coupling, the color of old nickel. I sat in one of the ceramite chairs, my thumb digging into a quarter sized chunk that had been shot out of it.

He turned, the half-light making him look regal, as if he was the Emperor of Space or something. Like royalty.

”What are your plans now?”

”I am going to sleep and meet with the team after that, surprise them…I have been working out some business plans, some new stuff that will make us all rich in a few years…we’ll all take a break and plan our next job. Nothing too extreme.”

”You going to be planetside on Haglogg?”

”Yeah, the crew needs some earth under their feet. I don’t think any of ‘em are spacers. I was born in space, they weren’t…”

”I may be able to refer a future job for you…are you interested?”

”Eh? Yeah, ya gotta make money, ya know…”

”So why aren’t you in a clan?”

”It clashes with my drinking schedule.”

”No, really.”

I had my reasons.

”No reason, just not my style. This way I can see more of the universe. Excitement, adventure…”

We left the ship, whose name I was just now starting to mull over (Mijionar? Nah. Sixgun? Nah. Death-Octopus? Nah.) and went back to the crowded area that was the Main Hangar Bay. I could hear the sounds of welding mechanics in the distance, and the groaning of engines being tested and refitted.

”We should be at Cix station in 14 hours.”

”Excellent. Yeah, I am gonna sleep.”

”Dobriy vyecher, Otto. Za vashe zdaroveeye ee blagapaloocheeye.”

I felt a bolt of ice pound it’s way into my spine.

”What?”

He looked confused.

”I said that-”

I stepped forward a bit without intending to.

”No, I didn’t hear what you said.”

”I meant, I mean, do you speak Russian?”

I tried to calm down but that never works.

”No, no, I don’t speak that. I didn’t understand you.”

”Oh-” He said, blinking. ”-I had thought that-”

”What? You thought what?”

I backed up a bit, in my mind. Easy, Otto, this guy just gave you a carrier…

I turned away a little and tried to ameliorate things on account of my attitude.”

”Listen, Dragon, I am tired, I’m sorry, I didn’t get it. I mean, naw, I don’t speak Russian. Ha ha. It just threw me off a little.”

He still looked like he did not know what was going on, but he shook my hand and acted with a lot more aplomb than I would’ve.

”Sorry, Otto. I think I heard you were Russian somewhere…”

”Eh, forget about it. I should have been more educated. You take it easy, I am going to sleep before I embarrass myself further. Thank you again, I am in your debt.”

I shook his hand again and staggered past some rad-suited technicians messing with a jade green Phoenix bomber…Gal Span design, like some Behemoth of Space, loaded to the gills with ordinance. They spoke French to each other, joking about the battle. When you are alive, and nobody you knew personally died, it’s all a grand joke, maybe.

I looked at my scarred reflection in the mirrored steel of the inside of the elevator, seeing the exhaustion there.

The Neechi had great officer’s quarters. Even had running water and a lion-sized vid screen, with 3,000 channels.

I crashed, and dreamed of Russian winters and wolf haunted snow swept steppes of blue and white…

JGZinv:
Part 3= ”Theory”

Faddah was an angry man.

The Iscariot was built eighty years from when I was young, by Spillark, Inc., before Spillark got bought out by Godcraft Industries.

Stations get built in weird increments; especially the way really big stations like Iscariot get built. Spacer technicians move in and build the preliminaries, then you move in workers and add to what you have created. It’s fundamental, and usually takes ten years after that date at which the base is first started to really finish.

Faddah’s own faddah had come over with the Russian workers to build the final stretch of the Iscariot. I find it ironic, now, that after granddad broke his ass to do outer space construction on the Seseki Towers Suites, he stuck around to raise a family.

There’s more, but I always felt Faddah hated me in some small way, hated everybody because the early builders, all Russian, had been screwed over by those megacorps, left behind and buried in the bowels of that station. He was cruel to ma and all of us, but I don’t hate him for it, he knew no other way, maybe. It was that ribbon of hate, wound through the bloodline, and sometimes he would come home out of his mind form the bar and blame us…

All of this is old news. Everyone has a cry story, even the people I do jobs for.

No one has a right to *****. Everyone has a cry story.

Screw it.



Wanna know something sick?

I had a brother, not the youngest.

About two years ago he was killed.

Now, we weren’t too close, I hadn’t talked to him in quite some time. You lose track of things like that. The universe is too big, I guess. One day it’s all over, and you wonder what happened to the hours, mawkish, but true.

He was killed by some Madorian guy named Fontaine.

I heard about it later, it was just some alley fight or bar brawl…but my brother was a softy. He didn’t fight. He was the guy who smoothed things out, ya know? So I was told that it was some argument, that the Madorian officer pulled out a knife and got him right in the neck.

Stupid, just stupid. Senseless.

I had it all set up. Fontaine, while wanted in several systems, made a trip every year to some huge fencing tournament in Pleides. A big one, I’m told. Quite a deal in fencing circles.

I had a simple plan to take Fontaine out. Two fist long pegs, three-fourths an inch wide, drilled a hole in the middle of each, ran some piano wire through and made it about a yard. I had worked it out, running it around in my mind at the funeral, in all of those bars, at the bottom of a bottle…it kept me sane, that direction. I looped it around his neck, in my imagination, one thousand times.

”This is for Vinscenzi.” I would say. ”You will be in Hell, soon…”

Then some Iconian Knight officer named Argentum killed him.

I feel worthless, somehow. Like I failed in some way.

I even hate that man, the one who killed Comerca. I hate him, even though I owe him.

People are funny, somehow. We know we are wrong, but we know ourselves too much, somehow. I think in my head that I am a fool. I had not even talked to Vinscenzi for half a decade. But in my stomach I wanted to kill Fontaine, and I hate that IK pilot for taking that closure from me.

I am a fool. An old fool.



I woke up late.

My dreams were of gossamer stars, velvet space, piss-yellow flames engulfing ships. I saw Capitol Ships foaming blood colored flames, in my dreams. Images of planets and suns, collapsing, the glaring neon of the hud, the nerve splicing klaxon of the missile lock warning. This is the audio elegiac a pilot is left with, I suppose.

I looked at the titanium colored walls. I turned on the vid screen, I activated the coffee machine, I downloaded a business channel on the stereo. I paced for a bit, organizing my thoughts…

I had a Capitol Ship. A cruiser.

Not a big one, mind you, but it could haul my entire crew, we could ship real cargo, we could smuggle things that could get us either rich or jailed for the rest of our lives. We were big time.

You have to understand that five years ago I lived out of my ship, a jade green Orion called the ”Pretty Baby.”

Now I had a Warhammer, a whole wing of pilots with decent equipment, and a Cruiser.

I sipped my coffee and watched a TNN reporter inform me and millions of business people across the universe that stock in nitrolite was falling down by a single credit. Some more news, mostly about a new clan that had been formed, they called themselves New Dawn, and had been instrumental in the success of a moon rebellion somewhere.

I sat at the foot of the bed, listening to the distant electric drone of the ship I was in, alone in the vacuum, bringing me back to Trilithon Station.

I had a bagel with cream cheese and lox, and blueberries and milk.

It struck me as funny that at the exact moment I was sitting there, as I came to the decision I had just put together in my brain the night before, I could have been anywhere in the galaxy, on any ship, going to any destination. I could have been anyone, I was generic and alone, even the coffee I sipped was clone to 100,000 across the firmament.

In that precise instant, although I was completely unaware of it, because I am a stupid yutz, sometimes, I was as happy as I was going to be for a while.

I had never heard of Joshua, or the Hollis Ring.

I had never heard of the Levitcher Rebbe or any Hassidic Jewish Luddites or the Lucero Corporation.

I hadn’t the slightest shred of logical evidence that Hugon was a moon that was completely without atmosphere that orbited the gas planet, Jupiter II.

I had certainly never heard of Thurio Muzgen.

I can’t blame everything now on that exact moment aboard that Neechi starship. There was no real precise instant the Fate was decided.

Blame on the black star, blame it on the fallen sky, blame it on the satellite, or the color of Earth water, or the manipulation by corporate scientists on the very molecules of the planet they had built for an eccentric millionaire, who would later have an epiphany because his wife was Jewish, and had died, and he was near dying, and so he performed one last act, a good deed, to somehow settle his life up until that point. And so he bought and gave away an entire planetoid, and became Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar…

Lost, yet?

Don’t blame ya.

I envy your ignorance.

I wanna be where I was, again.

The vid screen had 3,000 available channels. It gave me so many facts and statistics about everything that I was left with nothing. It became a blur of silver static and frozen neon, reflecting upon me with no impact, numbing; invisible.



The Trilithon was a structure that always stood out from any other station I would ever see.

A great, vast cylinder, with grooves on the side, flickering lights of smoked green blinking across it, four miles wide, ten miles across, thirty levels, with administration being the top level.

Not too well policed, but not the hell-furnace I grew up in. This place was business, of all types, bring your guns and knives, but everyone around you is carrying, too, punk.

The constables here are polite, reasonable; a detective in a platinum colored longcoat shows up and makes requests, investigations, whatever he needs to do…and he is calm the whole while. But outside are helmeted, masked, cerramite armored gents with repeating gyrojet rifles, and while they are waiting outside, the detective shakes your hand, the ring he is wearing samples your DNA, and then sends the specifications to his friends outside. Now those gyrojet rockets are programmed to home in on your genetic code, and they are the size of a cigar and explode after they enter your body. Hiding behind a wall for cover does not help.

The cops don’t have much trouble, here…but it’s not like people call the cops, ya know…

Crime? Yeah, there’s crime. Show me a station that ain’t got it. That one, you say? Liar. All stations got ‘em. The ones that don’t are corporate controlled, and that’s the worst kind of crime. The kind you think are straight. Corporations take money, and governments are in on it, too.

Forget about it.

People absolutely freak about the Trilithon. Like, it’s not supposed to be that big. As if there is a limit to how big stations should be.

There’s plenty of room in space. That’s why they named it that. Otherwise, people would have talked about launching a man into the hall closet.

Ha!

The Trilithon has art museums and Zen rock gardens and restaurants. It has docks for ships beyond description, it has zoos and movie theatres. It has public schools and a downtown section. You look up and there is that metal cave ceiling, all aglow with construction, lights and commerce. The place is always night.

What else?

Casinos.

Two universities.

Four churches and a mosque.

A baseball park.

Malls. Big ones.

You get the point. Any more nouns and you’d stop reading.

So yeah the Trilithon is big. But it’s also, well, it’s hard to put. Ya see, I have seen movies by folks who have always lived on planets and never go into space. People who don’t go into space, in this day and age? So they don’t go, so they don’t know space. They show you a black expanse, with stars. Cute little white ones. And they twinkle. Aw, how f*ckin’ cute.

Space is big, REALLY BIG. But you see things, get it? Amaranthine clouds of distant nebulae, silver and milky blurred crescents of distant galaxies, The vivid black against black of dark matter, the dotted and rock speckled mystery that were asteroid fields, remains perhaps, of planets long ago. The blue, emerald, violet and copper orbs that are planets, and it’s all around.

I wanna big glass ship I can see through, and I will fly way out there, and be surrounded, and feel like God, space above and below and all sides. Emperor of the great big universe.

You can see that from the Trilithon. For those of you who have lived on planets, and you go way up into you're cute little mountains and think space is so clear, your wrong. It’s here, in the stations and in the starships and where I work and breathe, not on some planet, buried under atmosphere, crushed by oxygen.

That’s it.



We had all taken a shuttle in from WitchWyrm. I had a Neechi pilot drop my new ship off at the Trilithon. None of us had said a word in the shuttle. We never did. After combat, unless we lost someone, no one ever said anything to each other. It was just exhaustion. Combat exhaustion. We would celebrate, but later. For now, we just all took quick looks at each other and departed our different ways for other places to get our heads on straight.

What’s wrong? Oh, it’s been ten pages and you want an action sequence. I almost forgot.

I grabbed Esprezzio by the collar and in one swift move broke all his front teeth with a cue ball. CRACK!

He went over backwards, almost taking me with him, and I gave him another before I let go and he dropped…

How’d I get here?

I lit a cigarette and stood on the wet gloss of the street in front of Moe’s, the glare of distant businesses lighting my way, the ground choked with trash, old electrics and discarded nitrolite cans. I kicked a beer bottle, checked a leather wallet lying on the ground for money, and made a phone call.

That being done, I entered Moe’s with a clean resolve, although my conscience certainly did not follow suit.

I wore my best Sixer’s flight jacket, a shiv and my best blank look. I just kept my eyes mean. That’s the key, you’re not a tough guy, you’re not an easy mark, but you can f*ck it up with the best of ‘em.

I shoulda been an actor.

Moe’s was ten black pool tables, overhead ruby quartz sodium burners, the downtown smog of cigarette smoke and hashish, and the cold comfort and numbing promise of the bar.

Chrome, plastic and blued steel, that was the bar.

You dropped in just recently, but let the record state Esprezzio had left us to hang. People are f*cking dumb. They make deals with mercenaries and don’t follow through, hoping mercs like me will die and they don’t gotta pay us. Ha ha! We’re mercenaries, don’t they get it?

Esprezzio was with two mooks, probably hired muscle.

He looked at me like I was the second comin’ of Christ, and he was an atheist, and it was time to pay up.

”Esprezzio, where was our rockets?”

I owe it to him, he played it as cool as Siberian December.

”Otto, I owe you a drink and an explanation.”

He was wearin’ a steel colored suit, alligator boots and red tint contacts. Had black spiky hair, probably thought he was the frikkin’ devil. What a punk.

”Rockets, punk. Fifty plasma deals, Bora make, with 6/66 marks. Where were they? I had to pay up, big time, and you said you’d have them at our last jump point. I paid you large, and what happened?”

”I couldn’t get them. Cops grabbed it. Sorry.”

One of the mooks grew a voice.

”Hey, this is our game.”

Some music came on. Something with heavy bass and synth, pulsing like jungle drums, with a voodoo organ back beat.

”Ok, Esprezzio, you know the drill. Twenty five large, plus five for making us sweat.”

He looked side to side like I was some nerd at a party, embarrassing Mr. Popular.

”I do not have the money now, Otto. I will have it next week.”

The mooks began to shift.

And I got it. They were with him. He took my money and got muscle.

I should have called Inferno, but my blood was up and there was no backing down, so-

I smiled, touching my tongue to the roof of my mouth, knowin’ what I know, that I had pair of brass knuckles and a shiv, and-

”Esprezzio, I am going to ask one more time, and then it’s nuclear war. So, pretty please, my money?”

He took a step forward, as did the mooks, one of ‘em was a big curly haired guy in a mining guild uniform, the other had a crew cut and veteran tattoos.

”Otto, you are embarrassing yourself. I will pay you when it is convenient. You are a filthy mercenary, and you should know your place. You are a bottom feeder, and I will summon you when I-”

I grabbed Esprezzio by the collar and in one swift move broke all his front teeth with a cue ball. CRACK!

He went over backwards, almost taking me with him, and I gave him another before I let go and he dropped…

There was the demented drunken carnival glare of red and blue, his teeth like white pearls on the crusted floor, the mook whipped the pool cue around and opened my head.

There was stars and the other swarmed me, I went down a bit, covering up, the other trying to bring the cue to bear-

Then I had the brass knuckles. I swung up, feelin’ it connect, mining guild uniform going back with a roar of pain, then tattoo boy whipped the damn cue around like a God-damned Shao-lin monk and I backed up, blood on my head, on the back of my neck, I had the shiv, the knuckles in my left, tattoo boy moved forward, there was a blur-

-and I ducked almost under the pool table, hearing the thing stick clatter above me, people were screaming, the bouncers were on their way, and I brought the knife up across his face and made his plastic surgeon a rich man. Then I gave him a swat with the knuckles, and his face looked like a mask of blood, the rooms spinnin’ from all my adrenaline, I felt weightless, I kicked Esprezzio for making my team sweat it out when we realized we had no rockets, and then the bouncers landed on me and the cops that I had called earlier landed on all of us.



An hour later they had me in the back of a hover car.

”Your are a damned meshuggenner, you know that, Otto?”

My head was a helmet of pain.

”F*ck him, I had that bastard steal those rockets for me fair and square, and he ditched out, took the money and spent it on narcotics, I know it. Jesus, it’s getting to where you can’t trust a crook anymore.”

They had a good laugh and handed me more coagulants and painkillers.

Mirosky, the cop I had called, looked at me with big watery blue eyes. He had thick wrist and a thicker neck, a cop from the old school, fifth generation in a family of them.

”You gotta slow down, Otto. You are thirty, remember?”

I gave them both five large for their service, and they dropped me off.

I try to co-opt when it comes to law enforcement. It’s so much easier, and such good business.

Everything was cool. Everything.

Tomorrow, I would tell the team we were big time, with our own cruiser. No more lean times for us.

Later, I held a cold beer against my aching skull and made some calls, stayin’ one step ahead of Esprezzio.

Just business.

Dragon gave me a call, before I got home.

More work.

Part IV= ”Catalyst”

Oh, yeah, I never mentioned the planet that Trilithon orbits, Baalbek.

How should I say it? What poetry come to mind?

Ah, the words that rise from the depths of my wisdom, here they are, emerging…

F*ck that place. I hate planets. Starbases have air conditioning and planets have pollen that give me allergies. Besides, I have never had good luck there.

So f*ck it. No adjectives for that place. Look it up yourself.



Vinscenzi was born after Oscar, by a year.

I remember first looking upon his face, cooing at the light of the sodium burners, above.

Faddah, like I said before, was an angry man, prone to fits of just pure rage, but I don’t think he was a bad man. He was a man of his environment, a cargoman, one of the thousands aboard the station we grew up on. It was tough, bonecracking work, working outside the station, attached to rocks or ships, then inside the vast storage houses in the station. Sometimes he would leave for jobs, and Aggie seemed to dread that, as if someday he would not return. But he always did.

Faddah was not a bad man, he was just a man who was not very good.

He looked like a tractor. Big, broad, with a paunch from beers and the heavy protein diet all cargomen got from the companies. Bald, his hands huge and clumsy, he walked with a slouch, he seemed to have little neck, just a mass of muscle.

His face was dour, always dour, and his eyes were black, almost beady, but I don’t like that word. He was not dull, he was just compulsive, with little patience outside of his job. He seemed to trudge through life, all imagination gone, his joy had become drink, long ago, and he saw no reason to change that.

Faddah beat a man, once, because the man had caught me lifting his watch. I had come home, my eyes black, Joe and Oscar in tow (Tolio had died a few months earlier of a fever that killed him is only two days, while Faddah had begged his bosses for the medicine that might save him. A lazy clerk kept forgetting to make the order, and three days after Tolio died, it finally arrived.), and Faddah had seen the marks.

”What’s at for?” he looked at me, his big face starting to scowl.

Joe put in his piece.

”He tried to lift a watch, Faddah. Man catch him and punch.”

”Z’at so? Huh? You do nothing? You and the lump, there, watch Ottavious get hit? You no help?”

Fadddah’s Russian accent would become more pronounced as he lost his temper. His face would become pale, not rosy when he was in a good mood.

Joe was in the light in a way he did not intend to be.

”But…Faddah, Otto…”

”I DON’T CARE! You don’ get it? We are family, eh? Not like some bastards who do not’ting. You always take care of family!!! So he get hit, you do not’ting!? Eh!?”

My head was a big block of clay, the pain like a hand grabbing at me with talons. Every noise seemed muffled, except for my father’s voice. As if my head was underwater.

Vinscenzi had stopped cooing, watching the whole drama with unconcerned, baby interest. He turned his little head, big eyes regarding me, eyebrows slightly arched.

Then Faddah was stomping down the corridors I had grown up in, I was crying, almost, but he just dragged me, his hand engulfing my own small one, and then we were upon the station depot center, where a great deal of traffic came through, to other ships, different parts of the station. Back then it was all gray green, with walls of lockers, huge screens of advertisements and station news comms, the floor that same rusted metal surface that our room seemed carved from.

Throngs of people, then the station trains. Huge things, the color of coal, with mirrored windows, the distant shadows of people behind it.

I had run here, earlier, and then, goaded by Joe, had tried to grab the watch as the man had set it down beside him. I did not even realize at the time why I was doing it.

The man was still there, a military man, it seemed. His uniform was a deep, rich brown, like chocolate.

The man seemed calm, aloof. I remember thinking maybe I should not say anything, just follow Faddah for a few hours around the sweat and stick of the corridors, but I knew he would be a volcano all night, so-

”Zat him?”

I had been staring, paralyzed with fear, I guess. Behind all of us was a fountain, and a church, with stained glass pictures of Jesus and cherubs. Above, vast and away, the glint of machinery.

Faddah had pulled me alongside him. People drifted past us. Other cargomen, personnel, vendors wearing paper aprons, whores with smeared make up…

”YOU! With the fists??? Hit my boy!?”

The crowd parted around us. I remember being embarrassed and afraid. Everyone seemed like giants, looking down upon me. I wanted to sink into the floor and disappear.

The military man wore tags, of sorts. I remember thinking, what if he had a gun? But of course no one did, where we lived.

His voice was crisp, almost British.

”Your boy should mind his mitts. Keep to his toys, not other’s items.”

”So? You hit him!?”

”Good dose of manners, sir. Perhaps he has none at home. Next time, I’ll keep his ears, like they do in other, less forgiving stations.”

I can’t remember what the man’s face looked like. It seemed obscured, somehow. I remember just his voice, the curt way it sliced through the air.

Then I remember the man pulling a hook-knife, smoothly, and then Faddah had simply punched, there was the sound of a brick, fragmenting, people were gathering, and I watched as the knife hit the ground and spun in a semi-circle, Faddah was upon the man, who lay on the ground, and I could see his fist-

The thuds seemed to echo about us, and Faddah stepped up from the man, kicking him, I realized he was a soldier, there was an insignia of sorts on his chest, and Faddah kicked him while the crowd watched.

Then he stepped back, breathing heavily.

The soldier looked as if he had simple fallen asleep, but he was breathing, a choked, thick sound.

I could see blood in smear and streaks, the train arrived, roaring beyond us.

Faddah stood there, watching, his bared teeth glinting with spit. Then he grabbed my arm.

I remember wondering, stupidly, where the knife had gone. Then the throngs of people gathered themselves and entered the train. A deluge. I could not see the military man, anymore.

Faddah turned and looked down at me.

”You good?”

I looked up at him, dumbfounded, and then I nodded.

”You take care of your brothers. Always remember that. See him?-” He pointed at where the man was, somewhere under the throng of miners, merchants and toughs. ”-He had nobody, so I could land on him. No family, nobody, you get landed on. What you think?”

I looked up at him, and for the first time in my young life I saw it, at the corners of his eyes and mouth, the way he regarded me so small below him.

Compassion.

There was never any police, this far below. As long as the wageslaves paid taxes, the oxygen didn’t get shut off, and the cops didn’t care who wasted who, I guess. The soldier had been down for whatever, and had gotten beat. Maybe the cops arrested someone else, I don’t know. This far down, cops just did not care.

A week later, Faddah beat Aggie. He had come home late and drunk, and she had cursed him for being so. I heard every bit of it. I remember the next day, Aggie rocking back and forth, holding a small green plastic ball that had been Tolio’s, crying with some abandon.

Joe and Oscar had been somewhere else.

She had been feeding Vinscenzi, glumly, and then had picked up the ball, set it in her lap, and put her face in her hands, quaking, making dry, shuddering sounds.

”I am sorry, Aggie.” I had said after too much silence.

She gripped me, then, tightly, and I realized just how miserable this all really was, so little food, so little of anything, even each other. There was nothing down here, nothing. Only rust and rats, steel and plastic, and dead people with long faces. The chemical smell, the sodium burners, the constant rumble of distant mechanics, all of it.

”It’s not that, Otto. It’s…I worry. One day I will not be here. Who will take care of you all? Who will take care of Vinscenzi?”

I didn’t know what to say. I was young.

”I will take care of Vinscenzi, Aggie. I always will.”

She told me what a good kid I was. How I had a soul, even down here, and how God was with me, and that she loved me.

For whatever reason I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that, until that point.

But it wasn’t always a big horror story or nothin’. Faddah got a raise, once, and a bonus of sorts. We took a vacation, to the planet our station orbited.

I remember seeing the station retreat from view, and being on some beach, with sand, water, and the giant blue sky above, with it’s two suns, and the trees. Big, leafy palms swaying cheerfully.

Aggie and Faddah had just watched us as we ran in the wet sand, amused by our play. We spent a week in that little village, I don’t even know where it was or what it’s name is, only that we could not afford anything, but it did not matter. Faddah and Aggie spent money on fish and beer, and we all loved it so.

Tolio and Joe had raced each other, and then Oscar had thrown a ball, it had gone off by the trees, and I ran to catch it.

Some man had been walking by, then stopped to watch us. He picked up the ball and handed it to me.

I took it, looking up at him, an old guy with sad lines around tired eyes, and then Oscar had run up beside me.

”Tolio and Joe are in the water!” he said it with great cheer, because Tolio had been afraid, for the last few days.

I ran, my feet sinking into the sun drenched sand, and looked back at the man, who seemed to wave at us, at the ocean, at all of nature around and above us.

I remember being happy, chasing after Tolio, who stood waste deep in the blue green sea, arms raised like some boy-Poseidon. Happier than can really be compared to, even now.



I woke up.

My head was split to the core. Ouch!

Oh, yeah, and I had a hangover. Oh, God.

The other cop had used a dermal stapler for me. Glad I don’t have much hair.

I took a shower and a ton of painkillers. All the pain went away.

I had a bagel with lox and cream cheese, and some raspberries with milk.

A pot of coffee soon followed.

Then it hit me.

Oh, yeah, I was down ten thousand bucks, I still had to do something with Esprenzzio.

But I had a Carrier, you get it? Sent down from God on high to Dragon to me, too bad for the cause of good.

I made some calls and summoned the team. My boys (and one girl), the Sixers.

We met at Cynosure.

Overlooked the downtown section. Exquisite, the streets before you like a Christmas Tree. The ceiling above like the stars past them.

The architecture of Cynosure was that weird white steel, subtle holograms and black alabaster 2200 style, art deco meets Flash Gordon meets retro. Carpet, the color of bronze.

I dressed corporate as a joke. Gloss shoes, black slacks, white long sleeved shirt and a tie the color of titanium. Even styled my hair.

We got a room to ourselves.

The waiter was Han. Mandarin, he could guess your Chinese astrological sign and make a damn good Martini.

They staggered in.

Sorcerer. Flew an Orion. Into computers, has bionic eyes and a bionic hand, intensely political. Had weird pet peeves, like this week, he despised hypermediazation.

Is that even a word?

So, what is hyper mediazation?

”The extent at which the media as we know it will over cover every single aspect of a story drowning us in details so we miss the big picture. It’s a form of crowd control. Can’t trust the media.”

Thanks, Sorcerer. Are the Bora terrorists?

”No, they are freedom fighters. Because they won.”

Wow. I am smaller in your presence.

But Sorcerer was older than I was. He had been around the universe and lived to tell the tale, and sometimes he gave me an insight my young age would not allow. I valued that, man.

He wore blue jeans and a white t-shirt, exposing circuitry tattoos. His hair was stark white, he had a paunch, almost, and he was in his forties. Oh, yeah, he killed a Devil’s Fist pilot, long ago. He doesn’t talk about it.

Machine, next. I didn’t know much of her history, it bleeds out, sometimes. She has a nice ass but she is more like an older sister, to me.

She had a husband. He died. She cries, sometimes, but she won’t tell us why. Or how, or for what, or when, and we don’t ask ‘cause she will kill us.

She loved chess and hated drugs, even the soft ones.

Had two great Danes. Fed ‘em quite a bit. They were fine beasts, about the size of draft horses. They jumped me one time and knocked me down and licked my face and I pissed myself in utter terror.

She could paint, and consumed as much ginko and lecithin as could be safely ingested by a human being. Oh, yeah, she was a black belt in silat. She carried a knife, a nice one, and could carve her initials in your forehead before you got your gun.

She wore a black jumpsuit with Sixer marks. And a leather bomber jacket. Sorcerer was always polite enough to not stare at her butt.

She had long black hair, with a streak of white. She had mature features, but she was only 23.

Hu Jing-De.

He was into Rinzai Zen, Taoism, Bauldelaire, and anything else remotely French literature. He was a master of the kusuri-gami, no, really, he could sling it around and hit an apple on your head from ten feet, he could hit anything the size of a quarter from any conceivable angle around him, even under his own leg.

He was a quiet guy, mostly.

Merc Quarterly had named him, ”…one of the most proficiently deadly Pegasus starfighter in the galaxy.” He had turned down B.C., twice.

Hu Jing-De hated Inferno. But they were both very professional about it.

He was smiling, his pale Japanese features regal and calm. He wore black slacks and a coal gray long sleeved shirt, with a bracelet of platinum. His head was shaved, with a thin layer of black hair.

Dos came in, beaming.

Poor, dumb, friendly, nice Dos. He held doors open for people, he treated women like they were fragile diamonds. He was exceedingly polite. He had a great deal of friends who were women, who thought he was the perfect guy, but would never date him. When you first met him, you were stuck by the notion that this was a guy you could trust your wife, you woman and your wallet with, than it dawned upon you that he was a push over you could piss on, and he’d apologize for preventing the urine from hitting the concrete.

F*cking Dos, he was the best of us. He was.

Inferno loved tearing into Dos. Any way he could. To Inferno, as it was with the rest of the f*cking universe, politeness was equated with niceness, and that was itself equated with victim. So he victimized him. Took his coffee, called him secretary, cut him off in conversation…to Inferno, Dos was the little brother, there to be picked on.

One time, though, a year ago, we had hired another mercenary group to help us with a supply run to some Bora rebels who were getting ready to rearrange the molecules of some Galspan folks in a bad way. We had stood in a vast depot hangar, wide enough to hold a fleet, composed of corrugated iron, filled with armoring machinery. Our voices reflected off discarded beer bottles and exposed and sparking cables.

I remember the whole place smelling like fluorocarbons and dermoplast.

They were a tough group. The macho, in your face, ”I kill everyone” type. Even wore those bad assed aviator sunglasses, the kind that make you look like you have no eyes, and you are a murdering robot head? Well, like those.

So one of ‘em, a bad assed guy by the name of Durolt, had stood with us on a ledge overlooking our ships, back when I still had a Bora Cutlass. It was a thirty foot drop, easy, to the scarred and pitted surface.

It had been Inferno, Dos, Durolt, and myself, all going over the final tactical evaluations for our run. Durolt had pointed out something I can’t remember, something like the range of the lasers on the Capitol Ship we had to go past, and Dos had corrected him, genius for statistics that he was.

So Durolt had told him f*ck you.

Dos had apologized, slightly cowed, and had walked off.

Now, that’s just attitude, no big deal, right?

But something had set Inferno off, the way Durolt had looked in the direction of Dos, as he walked away. The narrowing of the eyes, the clenching of the jaw…this was a guy who put people in the grave the way you bought milk at the supermarket. I had felt the tension just go up.

To Durolt, Dos was low man on the totem pole, because we treated Dos as the low man, get it?

So Inferno goes, you should kill him, teasing.

And Durolt say, I think I will, later. Dead serious.

So Inferno just pushed him off the ledge, no dramatics about it…he shoved Durolt to his demise like you would throw a paper coffee cup into the trash.

He didn’t make a sound, just disappeared. I blinked, thinking Durolt had never even been there. Just like that, presto chango.

Durolt did not even get a chance to make a sound, he was just at the bottom, a look on his dead face like he was going to say something, but now he wasn’t.

Those mercs, can’t remember their names, must not have liked that guy too much. We had already paid them, so it’s not like we had an angle. We told him Durolt just tripped, and they divided the money from Durolt’s share amongst themselves. They even stripped his body before they dumped him into a disintegrator. Calling the cops is not an option for mercs. Bribing disintegrator operators is an old business allocation, easy as pie, no matter how many psych evals they went through.

So, to Inferno, Dos was a second class citizen, he got reamed because he was an easy target. But only by us.

Poor Dos. He was Jewish, loved hardware, really loved to re-engineer complex electrics. He was a writer, mostly business theory, and handled all of our accounts. What a guy. Mellow, he was even a veterinarian. Can you believe that? Most meat was cloned, and here he was, not eating it.

But the guy was a born in the seat Cutlass pilot, and I think between Inferno and myself, we were mean enough to make up for the lack of that specific quality in Dos.

Just ask Durolt.

Dos wore what he always wore, those black mechanic’s jumpsuits. And, as usual, he had that goofy smile, like a dog you had just finishing patting on the head. It made me hate him, and hate the universe that devoured people like him, and the people like me who ate nice guys as appetizers, and the women who wouldn’t bang him because he wasn’t a caustic a**hole like even Sorcerer could be. It made me loathe the negative traits that kept me alive in the business.

Yeah, that was Dos. God bless him, and God damn me.

Inferno came in, his gait casual and as self assured as always. He wore a black business suit, dark steel colored plastisoft shirt, kevlar weave shoes. His hair was in a perfect pompadour, black with cyanic streaks.

He was Bosnian, I think, with sharp features and a forehead that was always smooth with a sort of sociopathic uncaring. His aristocratic eyebrows never so much as knitted or beaded. He kept himself cool, Satan cool, and as clean as a pampered housecat. He was our immoral compass, a constant reminder that ultimately, no matter how much we tried to believe we had a conscience, we existed to make money and kill people, in whatever order it took.

Inferno wasn’t too well liked, by Hu, by Machine, probably not by Sorcerer, certainly not by Dos. But he called me ”Boss” and was very loyal to the group. He knew a Warhammer like nuns know the Bible, and had his finger on the pulse of the anything criminal. People owed him favors, wherever we went.

We had picked him up a year ago along with five others. New faces, all of them, he had been teamed up with a guy called Benzick. Well, everyone else died, including Benzick, and I think it just made him crazy, not in a frenetic way, but in an ice way, like in the way people die in their sleep, quiet.

He made the team uneasy. He used f*ck like a comma, smoked as much as two packs a day, cut you off in conversation and had a tone of voice that could make you feel like an idiot, or a small child. He was abrasive, surly, aggressive-assertive, and as polite as a shark in a feeding frenzy.

But he didn’t make mistakes, bagged girls in the three’s and didn’t care about dying, what you thought of him, or whether or not you even liked him. I envied that, in some way. He reminded me of Konstantin, I guess, and he was a credit to The Sixers, even if half of us wanted to beat him to death with a concrete ash tray. I can’t begin to tell you what he had done to folks who crossed his path in the wrong way in the years I had known him. No, really, I am not trying to sound like I am some hardened veteran in the company of spooky assassin types.

I could tell you stories, man.

He had claimed to come from Old-Earth royalty, or Europe, or somewhere in the Fringe, or on the edge of Sol government, or from Martian politicians, or from Luna. But it hardly mattered, he worked with us, and there is little more else to say. You’ll see the rest.

Inferno took a seat to Machine, who scooted three inches away from him. He lit a cigarette.

I lit the holo of the Carrier, which I had decided to call the ”Time Baby III,” for personal reasons.

It flickered there in the artificial light.

”People,” I said, ”We are now in business for real.”

Moment of silence.

”Is that our next target?” Inferno asked, breathing out a stream of smoke.

”No, it’s ours.”

They froze.

Having their attention, I told them the story.

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