“Under the Gun”
BOOK ONE= THE CREW
”Bou liubis, a cherta ne drazni.”
-Old Russian Proverb
”Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”
""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.
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.
”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..
”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.
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.
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…”
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.”
”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…”
”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.”
”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.”
”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.”
”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.”
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, 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.”
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.
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…