The Haunting of Station 451

by rt-mus

[Chapter 1]
Rt-mus sat at his command desk, reading the latest flight journal entry with skeptic consternation.

FJE 11045
OPERATIONS PROCEDURE – Artifact Search and Recovery

PILOTS INVOLVED – Rt-mus, Usul, Starfire12

RESULT – Successful recovery of 18 artifacts.

COMMENTS – ‘Ghost ship’ sighted by STARFIRE12 blocking docking Tube to station 451 (HunterS Squad Depot). Docking not hindered by sighting or presence of said ship by pilot.

Rt-mus fades back into his memory, recalling that day……

‘Sir, docked at station, commencing life support recharge and engaging automated refuel and freight movers. Bays 3 through 7 are open and available for landing’ Usul chattered over the local bands. ‘Roger, Usul, commencing docking pattern. Star, hold your position until I’ve hit the tube, then commence your run.’ Firing his docking rockets, Rt-mus slowly crawled toward the cavernous tube in his tow ‘Aye sir, holding position’ echoed in his headset. ‘I’m in the hole, automated station sequence initiated. Start your run Star.’ Quiet static filled his ears as he waited for the compliance reply.
‘I…..I can’t sir.’
Rt-mus mentally ran through an emergency reclamation procedure for malfunctioning ships in his mind as he asked ‘Why not?’ Hesitation apparent in Star’s voice conveyed the uncertainty more plainly than a warning light on any console. ‘There’s a ship in the tube, sir. Weird thing is, it’s not showing on any of my scanners. It simply doesn’t exist to my ship’s computer!’ Usul’s voice crackled to life over the comms array ‘ Sir, I’ve got a green light on the docking tube. According to station sensors, it’s 5 by 5’. ‘I don’t care WHAT the systems say, Usul, there’s a ship in that hole!’ Star’s voice started to borderline panic as he frantically switched his radar through its cycles, his eyes telling him what his sensors were not. There were many dangerous things Rt had seen in space, but few were as dangerous as a panicked pilot in 500 tons of slow maneuvering starship. . Thinking quickly, he broke into what was quickly turning into a mayday situation to calm Star down ‘Star, you’ve been sitting in that tow now for 48 hours, your eyes are tired, playing tricks on you. What I want you to do is engage your auto-docker and close your eyes. I promise you everything will be all right. I will PERSONALLY re-assemble your ship if something goes wrong. Alright?’
Star could not hide the apprehension in his voice as he replied ‘ Aye sir, auto-dock engaged. I’ve also brought the auto-eject systems to 2nd level ready in case my eyes aren’t as tired as you think.’ The massive bulk of machinery slowly pushed forward into it’s docking tube cradle, sliding effortlessly through what Starfire swore was a solid object in his way. A great sigh of relief was heard emanating from his cockpit as soon as the auto docker finished its work and his tow was sitting safely on the loading dock’s floor.

Rt-mus approached the tow and patiently waited by the cockpit ladder for Starfire to climb down. As Star’s feet hit the ground, he rounded on Rt with a litany of commentary ‘I’m telling you this station is haunted. I don’t know why in Roh you picked this sector, but I’d bet you there’s not another station out here for a reason, sir. Being way out in the middle of nowhere, unfindable save for rotacol coordinates is just ASKING for weird things to happen….. I’m telling ya I don’t like this station, and it doesn’t like me. One of these days this station’s gonna take one of us out, sir. I pray to Hamalzah you believe me and we ditch this relic before that happens.’ Turning on his heel, Starfire walks to the hangar door, leaving Rt-mus alone with the massive ships and auto-freight movers.

Closing the flight log, Rt-mus rubbed his eyes. The reports were growing. First there was the report of a dock hand that had been trapped in the hold of his Tow when the station kit had been loaded at Core, and consequently spaced when the station had been ejected to set up at it’s home. There had been stories from guests of -=HunterS=- of strange noises and sightings of a black cat running around the guest pilot suites on deck 14b, near the main docking and launch tubes. Search of the station for any unusual life-signs turned up nothing. Now his pilots were seeing ships that weren’t there while landing at those very tubes . Rt-mus sighed, dismissing it as space fatigue.

[Chapter 2]
‘Usul, I’m heading to the squad depot to dump this haul, then I’ll be back out to help you mine that asteroid’ Rt-mus tuned to the homing beacon on the -=HunterS=- depot, lining up the station on his HUD and engaging the heavy thrusters. ‘Roger, sir, you’ll have to bring the station on-line, it’s in stand-by mode with the docking sequencers engaged. I set it to conserve consumables before I left.’
As Rt-mus pulled up along side the main docking ring, it struck him odd that the station appeared to be powered fully, running all lights and actively pinging it’s position to the sector. ‘Usul, I thought you said you hibernated this thing?’ He muttered into the mic as he started his docking sequence. ‘Sir, I did! I have my atmosphere suit right here from walking to my ship in hard vacuum!’ Thinking it odd that somebody else would dock at the station without broadcasting and even odder that the station perimeter warning systems didn’t send a message themselves, Rt positioned his ship in the docking tube, letting the auto-docker move him into the main cargo bay. Checking his ship’s sensors, he cautiously punched the hatch button, hoping the sensors weren’t wrong in telling him there was a proper atmosphere outside his cabin. The hatch happily slid up and back, letting in the comforts of home. Rt-mus walked to the main cargo area, and engaged the freight drone to unload his tow. Hearing a satisfying clunk as the freight mover engaged, he turned to head to the bridge.
On the bridge, Rt-mus sipped his coffee as he waited for the freight bot to finish it’s job, checking station security systems and initiation logs to while away the time. There was nothing out of the ordinary in the logs, save the life-support being put into hybernation mode and brought right back online 5 minutes later. Pulling up the launch tube logs, he cross-referenced launch times to this occurrence. Usul’s miner lad left 2 minutes after shutting the systems off. There were no docks between the time Usul left and the time he had docked. Yet the system had restarted and reset the life support. No automation malfunctions. Rt couldn’t help but wonder and was about to dig into this mystery with a fine tooth comb when a chirp from the freight mover signaling it’s completion grabbed his attention. Rt walked over to the stations main computer and punched up the manifest on his ship….Empty. Just for curiousity’s sake, he pulled a camera of his ship’s hold onto the main screen. The hold was 100% full of the stores he’d just hauled in. ‘Stupid bot’ he muttered, heading to the cargo bay to personally supervise the unloading of his ship.

Upon arrival in the cargo bay, two things hit Rt-mus at the same time. The first was the sight of 500 units of stores stacked neatly in the commodity storage area. The second was the sight of a small black cat sitting in the center of his ship’s cargo hold. The cat looked at him inquisitively, then opened it’s mouth….’Mew.’
Turning to the stations computer console and punching up the scanner system, Rt ran a sweep on the cargo bay. Data churned and spit out an answer that chilled Rt to his core – Life-signs : 1
Turning back around, he stared into the empty hold of the tow…. the completely empty hold. Rt ran to his miner, climbing the cockpit ladder two rungs at a time. Dropping into the seat, he keyed hatch closed and initiated ignition sequence, triggering the launch systems almost before his engines were fully online.

‘What took you so long?’ Usul’s friendly voice broke the silence as Rt-mus hit the cold vacuum outside the station. ‘I’ve cored two ‘roids and I’m halfway to the third.’ Rt-mus keyed his mic, but failed to utter anything other than ‘sorry, fell asleep getting coffee. must be getting space fatigue.’
In the back of his mind, he heard the echo of a cat’s meow.

[Chapter 3]

‘RT, where the heck are you?!’ LordHunter’s voice rang in Rt-mus’ headset, jarring him from his wandering thoughts. ‘What’re you talking about LH, I’m sitting 5k off your nose, 13 clicks to the Connexion jumpgate.’ Rt-mus and LordHunter were running a standard cargo mission, pulling an equipment contract. RT was in his tow, the ‘midnight ryder’, with Hunter as escort support. RT hadn’t had a more dependable and efficient escort since his days running -=Hunters=-. Hunter checked his radar again, pushed his visor back and rubbed his eyes, then scanned the inky blackness of space in front of him. ‘RT, if you’re sitting in front of me, what kind of relic did you find last artifact hunt that allows you to drop off my radar *and* visual contact?’. For all intents and purposes, RT had vanished from the sector as completely as if he’d taken a pod ride. ‘Hunter, run a syscheck on your radar, I’ve got you sitting at 5328 km to my 6 o’clock position, 2 degrees downbubble. I’m not running any artifact, and you know as well as I do that I’ve got an antiflux mounted, so ECM’s aren’t an issue. I’m cutting my engines to let you catch up.’ Rt-mus throttled back the ‘Midnight Ryder’, feeling the massive PCE-5’s slow from a roar to a dull hum as their thrust dwindled. Braking thrusters fired, RT spun the Ryder over so that he could face Hunter as he slowed his rig to a crawl. ‘RT, I swear to you I’m not spaced, you’re just not here…..WHOA! EVASIVE! EVASIVE!’ LordHunter barked into his mic as he sent his Typhoon into a hard roll, just barely scraping its belly across the cargo container of the ‘Ryder’s undercarriage. Rt-mus gunned the thrusters and juked back on his stick, sending the ‘Midnight Ryder’ into a steep upward curve in an attempt to give Hunter a little breathing room. ‘This is pooched. I’m pushing on to the drop point, LH. I’m switching to encrypted comms 14.3mHz, I’ll keep a verbal dialog of my location so you know where I am. Something goofy is going on, I’m advising extending the escort bubble to 25k so we don’t end up riding pod’s home. See you at the drop point.’ ‘Roger, confirmed.’ LordHunter keyed off his mic before finishing his sentence, muttering under his breath ‘damn pilot is bad luck… I gotta tell Kanga that boy is cursed…..gonna get us all killed, just like his last squad..’. Hunter pointed his ship toward the next jump point and recalibrated his comms system to the pre-arranged frequency, waiting for RT’s call that he’d made the jump.

[Chapter 4]

Rt-mus stood outside the ‘Midnight Ryder’, examining the hull where Hunter’s typhoon had left a long streak of white paint. He shook his head, turning from his ship to start the station’s autoloaders, setting them to unload his hold into the station’s equipment bins. His thoughts wandered a bit as he contemplated the events in space, thinking of other times strange things like this had it had happened.

He thought back to the days of his own squad, of the stories told by his pilots and their growing apprehension of flying with him. His XO, Usul, swore Rt-mus was cursed. Whenever they flew together, Usul would maintain half the range of his radar distance from him, never taking his eyes off his ship. He swore the ship would fade away from view and scope if he didn’t constantly watch it. Usul started to believe Starfire when he said that the station was haunted, as well. ‘Things just aren’t right around here, RT’ was a common statement to be heard from Usul.

Starfire was the most vocal about it, refusing to wing with him on missions and cursing the station he’d set up for them. The station eventually voiced it’s displeasure with Starfire, when the autoloader malfunctioned while he was unloading one day and grabbed him out of the hold instead of the cargo he was standing by, crushing him in it’s pincers and stuffing him into a commodity bin. If the pincers hadn’t finished him, the 12 tons of unrefined ore most assuredly did when the loader dumped it on his head. The squad started to disintegrate after that day, swearing RT was cursed and his station possessed. Soon, Rt-mus was left alone in his station, as his squad one by one disappeared to ‘accidents’ or left the squad for fear. The greatest blow to -=Hunters=- was when the station claimed Usul, the only pilot who hadn’t abandoned him. He’d just entered the docking tube, the grapples locked into his ship, when the lift’s control box fried out and set off Usul’s autoeject. Usul’s pod careened across the hangar bay, making Usul a permanent tenant to the station by firmly embedding his body into the bulkhead wall. This was the last straw for RT, who disbanded -=Hunters=-, mothballed the hangar bays and set off to the deepest regions of space to find artifacts, that being the farthest he could get from anything alive save the conflux. Years passed, the only people ever making contact with Rt-mus were people who’d come to buy his artifacts, even then the meeting was so brief as to leave the buyer wondering if they’d ever talked to him at all.

Then came the day Kanga, the leader of Semper Paratus, docked at RT’s station. He’d been patrolling Quant space, and come across a station in the middle of nowhere. It looked pretty run down, almost derelict, but not quite abandoned. Upon landing, he found the interior to be in pristine shape, complete with 3 hangars full of ships and a market full of Artifacts. He waited for the station’s sole occupant to return, and propositioned him with joining the squad in return for use of the station. Rt-mus had his reservations, fearing the curse of the station would start all over again. On voicing his thoughts to Kanga, Kanga just laughed and said ‘no worries mate, we’ve suffered far worse’. RT reluctantly signed on with Semper Paratus. Soon enough, the spirit of station 451 made its presence known…..

‘RT, what do you feed that little guy? I haven’t found anything palatable in this place at all’, Voight asked as he walked into RT’s office. ‘Feed who? It’s just you and me on this station.’ Replied Rt-mus without looking up from the sector chart he’d been examining in preparation of his next artifact run. ‘That black cat sitting on your bunk.’

Rt’s face lost all color, and his head snapped up to look at Voight for signs of a joke, but only saw the puzzlement on Voight’s face of a sincerely asked question. Rt-mus keyed the lock switch on his desk that would close and seal the door to his quarters. Hearing the solid ‘click’ come from the other room telling of the door’s seating in its jamb, Rt rose from his desk. ‘show me’, was his only reply.

Voight turned around, expecting to see the small black cat sitting on the bunk, but finding an empty rack. He dropped to his knee, looking under the bed and around the room, expecting to find the animal hiding somewhere in the room. ‘I swear it was here a minute ago!’
‘Voight, I don’t have a cat. That’s the station saying hello to you.’

Voight stood, looking at Rt-mus as if he’d flipped his lid. ‘go ahead and use my console, run a sensor sweep on the station. Tell me how many life-signs it comes back with.’ Voight keyed the console to sweep, and looked even more confused as the report clicked back with ‘total lifesigns – 2’. Rt-mus looked at Voight’s expression, reading his face as it went from curiosity to confusion to fear. ‘What did I just see?’ he asked, the look on his face betraying the fact that he didn’t really want the answer. Rt-mus sighed, resigned to telling the stories of the station again, knowing that there’d be one less person willing to spend another cycle onboard station 451.

[chapter 5]
“Kanga, he’s bloody cursed!”, LordHunter’s voice echoed through the docking bay of 451, ringing in Rt-Mus’ ears. He was just about to open the bay door and greet his CO and 2nd, but stopped short just outside the door when he heard the sounds of arguing. “Nonsense! Next you’ll be telling me this station of his is haunted, and there’s a black cat or somesuch running around in here, and all the other blather that’s been passed on about him. He’s just a poor mate with really crappy luck. Now I don’t want to hear another word of this LH, I’m not dropping him from Paratus, and bloody well nothing is going to happen to Paratus because he’s in it. Hush on this subject, it’s poor form to talk about your squaddie behind his back, let alone in the home he’s graciously opened for us.” Kanga’s tone held a note of finality in it, which carried all to well the meaning of his statement to LH. “Sir, yes sir.’ Hunter replied, stiff as a board.

Ever the optimist, Kanga had refused to even entertain the stories and tales of sightings on and around 451, had refused to listen to Hunter’s recounting of RT’s tow vanishing from space. He refused to accept the conclusion that the curse was responsible for V0ight’s disappearance into the anomaly, stating that faulty wiring does not a ghost make (unless you happen to be the pilot). Nothing was ever recovered of v0ight’s craft, no pod ejection, nothing. RT and V0ight had been checking out a new anomaly when v0ight’s engines pulsed up without explanation, shoving him nose first into the anomaly. Some folks claimed he was vaporized on contact, some say he jumped through and ended up in an uncharted sector. There are even a few who claim to catch snippets of a mayday message when they travel in that sector. RT knew better. His curse had claimed another mate.

“Ah, there you are! I thought you’d have met us in the docking bay, mate.” Kanga said as he came into the mess hall. RT had done what he did best, he disappeared. After hearing his 2nd in command going off about his curse, he wanted no parts of talking to anybody. Unfortunately, being the only inhabitant of a squad station left the choices of people to talk to rather low, and Kanga had come with a purpose. “sorry, sir. It sounded like you and LH were having a discussion, I didn’t want to interrupt so I came down here to get a drink.’ RT pulled the top off the bourbon, freshening his glass and pouring another for his CO.

“You know, I’ve seen guys with nasty luck before, and I’ve seen guys with bad reputations for that luck. Sitting at the bottom of that glass isn’t going to change your luck. You need to hit space again, you’ll get back in the swing.” Voiced Kanga as he swirled the dark liquor in his glass.
“I can’t sir. If I fly, my people die. If they stay more than a week on this station, they die. Hell, I’ve even hit the self destruct button on this rig about half a dozen times. It never went off…. Checked the wiring, checked the detonators, even took one outside and set it off without a problem. In here? Nothing.. I’ve tried hitting this damn POS with a nuke…. It bounced. I’m stuck here, until whatever it is decides it’s my turn. I’m bad luck, Kanga. Get away from me.’
Kanga’s face darkened, his brow knit in consternation. “Poppycock! I will not accept that! I need you and LH to haul a commod stack up to Wake station for me tomorrow. That means you , in your tow, full up on matcons with him running defensive point. Semper Paratus does not believe in curses, they believe in comrades. Will you run the load for me?’
RT looked at his CO with a critical eye. Looking out the mess hall’s window at the dark hangar bay, he sat and thought for a moment. There, in the dark, backlit by the low-light arrays, sat half a dozen ships who’s owners would never return for them. In the middle of them all was his ‘Midnight Ryder’. She sat low on her cradle, clean, quiet, looking like she was waiting for the next run.
‘I’ll do it. Are you and Hunter spending the evening here on 451?’

[chapter 6]
LordHunter quietly walked wing 16b of the station, his bootsteps the only noise to be heard for several levels in any direction. He had decided to take a wander around the station to kill some time while Kanga found RT. He hated sitting still, and with nothing on the holovid and nobody on the station to talk to, he decided to explore.

RT had a massive station, capable of housing a squad of 30 or more, but had powered down the sections he didn’t use. As he rounded corner after corner, going up ramps and down halls following the centerline of the station, one passage caught his eye as he glanced down it. The seeing eye icon emblazoned on the door told him exactly where he was before he ever approached the door. It was the -=HunterS=- squad barracks, shut down and sealed off, a silent shrine to RT’s lost squad. Punching up the atmospheric systems for the section’s wing, he pressurized the area and popped the door. Frame relays snapped shut after their long disconnection, and the Lithium-quartz lamps embedded in the ceiling flickered to life, bathing the unused hall in a pale glow. LH walked the hall slowly, looking at each cabin’s nameplate as he went by, until he finally ended the hall at the squad mess hall. Walking in, he looked around and marveled at the accommodations RT had built for his squad. A full kitchen setup had been installed, complete with ionizer disposal and thermatouch range. The cold-vac freezer had to be as big as a recruit’s ship, and he didn’t doubt it had been stocked with the best Quantar could provide. Along the wall next to the cooking range were several taps, each marked with their perspective beverage. The last one made him rather thirsty – ‘Coffee: 3P custom Brazillian’

Tapping the console, Hunter noted that there was still some grounds in the machine. ‘it’s been in hard vacuum, probably still good’ he mumbled to himself, pulling on of the synthmat cups from it’s dispenser and punching the serve button. Thick, dark fluid flowed into the cup, the console pinging happily when it was full. He pulled the cup from the machine, and turned to find a seat and read the old statusboard that hung along the back wall. As Hunter sat down, a flicker of motion near the door caught his eye. Sipping his coffee, he casually stood to face the door, figuring he was about to receive a lecture on snooping or a cussing out for disturbing the shut down section, depending on who walked through the door. After several moments, when nobody entered, curiosity got the best of him. He walked to the door and looked out, but found the hall empty. ‘jeezus, my brain is playing tricks on me.’ He muttered, turning back to the mess hall to get his cup of joe. Hunter stopped dead in his tracks, eyes fixed on the table he’d been sitting at. Casually gazing back at him was a pilot, sipping a cup of coffee. ‘Come on back and cop a squat, friend. Space is too damn quiet to not enjoy company.’

LordHunter’s mind shifted into overdrive. He fought for control with his inner self, who wanted nothing more than to run screaming down the hall as fast as his feet would carry him. He stared the pilot down, looking for something that would tell him he was hallucinating. The pilot was sandy haired, about 5’10”. Blue eyes, and was wearing a standard green jumpsuit with the -=HunterS=- insignia on the right shoulder pocket, much like that RT wore around the station. His blood ran cold when he read the callsign sewn over the left breast pocket – “Usul”.

“I … I think ….. think I’m good right here, if you don’t mind.’ LH said. “Ahh BS, get over here and have a seat, squaddie! Jeezus, you might think you’ve seen a ghost or something….’ Usul cracked a grin as he shuffled up and made his way over to the machine to pour himself another cup. The system whirred and blipped, signaling the end of it’s cycle, and Usul pulled the fresh cup. Returning to his seat, he jerked a thumb at the bulletinboard, ‘which run you doing? Haven’t met you before, but that’s nothing new around here. RT cycles pilots faster than an Eel going for a lost recruit’.

Letting off a nervous laugh, Hunter nodded to the statement, slowly walking toward his mysterious company. He cautiously sat down across from the man, reaching for his half empty cup. ‘LordHunter’ is it? Well, nice to meet you, sir. I wasn’t aware we had company on the station, and didn’t notice your squad tags from the door. Apologies, sir.’ Usul snapped off a quick salute at Hunter, then regained his casual composure. ‘So what brings you to the HSD, Hunter?’

‘Just talking with.. with your CO… about doing a run. I didn’t notice you in here earlier….. pardon my rudeness, but where’d you come from?’ Hunter spoke quietly, still fighting his subconscious to make doubletime back to the section bulkhead. ‘I came up the freight lift from the squad hangar. RT hates it when we do that, though, says we’re not nearly as edible as the stuff that is supposed to come that way, but I figger why go all the way to the main elevators when my cabin’s 3 up from the mess hall, Right? Sorry I startled you.’ Usul prattled on cheerily as he sipped his coffee. Hunter made a vain attempt at drinking his coffee, but couldn’t bring himself to take more than a sip, which tasted like dry cardboard instead of the rich brew he’d been enjoying only moments before. Usul finished his cup, crushing the styrocell and tossing it in the trash ionizer, then hopped up with a bounce ‘ well, I better go log in so RT doesn’t think I went arty hunting in the middle of a run or something. We’ll see you around Hunter…. Good to meet you!’ Usul strolled out of the mess and rounded the corner, whistling a happy tune as he walked down the hall.
An uncontrollable shudder passed over LordHunter, who looked down at his half-empty cup, then the trash bin. He tossed his cup into the hole, listening as it quietly disintegrated the object.

He stood, and slowly walked back behind the cooking range. Behind the cold-vac was a small liftgate, the freight elevator Usul had spoken of just beyond. Looking over it’s console, Hunter found that the machine was in hibernate mode, that nobody could have come up the lift from below without first engaging the power coils where he was standing. ‘Get a hold of yourself, meatstick!’ he snarled at himself. Popping the power coils active, he stepped on the lift and dropped the gate closed behind him. The freight hummed and vibrated as it traveled down it’s shaft two floors to the hangar deck below. Upon arrival, the liftgate swung out of the way. Hunter looked around the quiet hangar, noting the mining ships and fightercraft sitting quietly in their cradles. He had no doubt they were all in storage mode, he could see from where he stood their status consoles all displaying the redlight bar of offline.

Roaming the hall, he couldn’t help but think about the massive waste that was taking place in this bay. There was more hardware here than he’d likely lay hands on in his lifetime, let alone own. If this station were broken down and sold off it’d make a tidy fortune for the seller. Just then the lift gate snapped shut and the freight elevator disappeared into it’s shaft. Hunter ran over to the console to see what was going on and call the lift back to his floor, but noted the system was once again in offline mode. He cursed the machine, slamming his fist on the console. ‘frigging thing auto-sequenced, now I have to figure out how the heck to get out of here….’ Muttering to himself, he started to walk the perimeter of the bay, when he noted that the Heavy miner at the end of the row’s status console was flashing green, prepped for launch. He moved toward the ship, getting about halfway to it’s open cockpit when the noise of the liftgate caught his attention again. Turning, he noted Usul hop off the lift and run full out for the miner, hollering into his wrist-comm ‘on my way sir, station hibernate sequence is a go…. Yes I’m running! I forgot my damn vac-suit in my ship again so I’m racing the purgers! Usul out!’ Usul put his head down and dumped on the speed, running straight for LordHunter. ‘LOOKOUT MEATSTICK!’ Hunter screamed at Usul, bracing for impact. Usul ran headlong into Hunter, passing straight through him, and continuing to run straight for the waiting cockpit.

That was the last straw on for LordHunter’s frazzled nerves. he bolted for the lift, diving onto it as it’s gate slid shut and it started it’s journey back up to it’s start point. Reaching the top, Hunter charged the gate, slamming into the wall in front of him and bolting for the mess hall door. Careening down the hall toward the section’s bulkhead, he bounced off corners slid along railways. Turning the last corner, out of breath, Hunter pulled up short. There, in front of the bulkhead door, was a small black cat. Red warning lights lit up in their corners of the roof, signaling sector decompression of the autosequence. His final shred of sanity gone, Hunter growled ‘it’s me or you, kitty… I’m going out that door!’ launching himself headlong for the bulkhead. Hunter raced the final 20 feet of the hall, diving for the door as the bulkhead started it’s decent. his head slammed into the bulkhead as the door dropped into locked position. Looking up blearily at the console above his head, he dragged himself off the floor to abort the sequence. Sparks crackled behind the console, and LH noted what he’d hit in his dive. His weight had ripped the console tray free of the bulkhead, disabling it. The last thing LordHunter heard, over his own muffled scream being ripped from his throat by rapid decompression, was the sound of a cat purring…..

[Chapter 7]
“It’s a good thing you keep the statmon tuned on your wrist-comms, RT. LordHunter owes his life to you for it. Now if we could get him past whatever gibberish he keeps going on about, we could figure out how he ended up in the -=HunterS=- Squad barracks to begin with!” Kanga said as he loosened the collar on his flight suit. He’d just docked from his run to Quantar-Core, where LordHunter had been sent via emergency pod after he and RT had found him.

RT’s wristcomm had chirped the squad bay on 16b had been brought online while he and Kanga were discussing logistics of the upcoming flight. double-checking the system (he never trusted first relays anymore) he found that the section was indeed online, but the auto-hibernate sequence was queued to start. Kanga and he had raced to the door, fearing intruders through the squad bays, only to find LH’s unconscious and bloodied form on the other side of the bulkhead. He was holding the console for the inside of the door, ripped from the wall. They’d wasted no time in packing him in a pod and shooting him at Core.

“tell me, what’s he ‘gibbering’ kanga?” RT asked. Kanga sighed, looking around the room, almost to the point of fidgeting. He spied a coffeemaker and quickly walked to it, trying to hide the unease in his posture. “Kanga…. what was he saying?” RT pressed, staring a hole into Kanga’s back. “Mate, you don’t want to hear the ramblings of a guy who just survived a decompression… he’s not all there yet. He’s probably still in a lot of pain from the bends and..’ Kanga stammered out, as he turned to face RT-Mus.
‘Kanga, What. was. He. saying.’ RT’s gaze locked Kanga’s and pinned him in place. It was cold, black, piercing. Kanga had never seen that look before coming from RT. It was the look of a commander who wanted revenge. The look of a man gathering facts before he set a plan in motion, so as to be informed about what he was going against. Kanga looked at the floor, then relayed the tale, “He said he talked to Usul, he said Usul triggered the decomp, then bolted to his HM. He said Usul was hollering into his wrist comm about not having a suit, and was racing the purgers, and that he ran *through* him, and that there was a black cat that kept him from getting out of the section before the bulkhead dropped and that he’d pulled the panel off the wall trying to deactivate the shutdown. Mate, he’s looped it. the doc’s say he spent too much time without air, and that he’s lost a lot of grey matter. they’re going to transfer him to the QD pilot’s home when he can be moved.’

Looking up, Kanga watched RT slowly sink back into his seat, a look of shock across his once determined face. “Usul was your 2nd, wasn’t he? the one who …. who’s part of the hangar bay LH was in…” Kanga trailed off, feeling rather uncomfortable referring to RT’s XO and his accident.

RT’s face had lost all color, and when he looked up at Kanga again, a look of urgency
struck Kanga like a purgatory in the tailpipe. “They’re all part of this station… all my
-=HunterS=- are still here. Usul, Star… I can tell you where every last one of them
lived, show you where every last one of them died. I knew it was a bad idea signing on with Semper Paratus. I knew it was an even worse idea opening a wing for you and yours to bunk in. The station is trying to claim you all as well, now. Kanga, you have to get the hell off this station before it decides on what to do with you.’

[chapter 8]
“c’mon mate, you can’t believe that!” Kanga started to say, but the look RT’s eye killed his retorts before they ever found voice. “Kanga, we need to *go*. grab your stuff.” jumping up, RT started to half pull, half drag Kanga to the Paratus wing they’d recently brought online. none of the squad had bunked there, other than Kanga and LH, fearing the station’s ‘ghost’ and RT legendary curse. reaching the doorway, he popped the door switch and jogged into the barracks, all the way to the back room that he’d set up for Kanga and LH as an officer’s quarters. Kanga’s duffels were still sitting on his bunk, packed, and his mission portfolio resting neatly on the desk next to it. scooping up the binder and gear, RT spun around and pressed them into Kanga’s still surprised hands, then started to shovel him toward the hangar bay. ‘RT! wait a tick, mate! we can’t just bolt out of here like this!’ Kanga managed to say between shoves and prods. ‘like hell we can’t, mount up!’ RT replied, pushing all the more urgently. ‘we’re spacing right now. I’ll even flip for the rental rooms in QC till I find a better place, and give you a place to stay till they move Hunter. But I’ll be damned if I feed this station one more squadmate!’

“Mate, we *can’t* space right now, believe me! we CAN NOT GO!” Kanga urgently pushed back, dropping his gear just outside his Typhoon. “Why the hell not, you crazy bastard?! You may not believe in it, but that won’t stop it. Give me one good reason why we can’t get out here before you get added to the list. just one.” RT stopped his forward push, standing in Front of Kanga with arms crossed, waiting for an answer. ‘I’ll give you two. first, I’ve got no fuel left in my ship, I burned the last getting back here and your silo appears to be empty.” Kanga held up his hand to hold RT’s query into why he’d burned so much getting out to the station. 451 wasn’t so far from the jumpgate that a ship would burn off a full tank of fuel, even AB’ing all the way.  “second, there’s a swarm outside. I had to do some serious maneuvers to make it out here in one piece, hence the lack of fuel. did you not notice the fresh ammo marks on my ‘phoon’s hull?’ Kanga jerked his thumb at the softball sized pock marks just aft of the cabin where it was readily apparent something large and hot had struck. “if you want to space this second, be my guest… I’ll meet you at the pod recovery dock in about 5 minutes… there’s a nasty one out there, mate. I was going to suggest calling in New Dawn to clean it up but we got on the subject of LH.’

Walking over to the station console, RT-Mus punched up the outside viewscreens. the normally black ink of space was limned with pink, and great packs of conflux swirled around the station in clouds. “damn… damn damn DAMNIT!” RT slammed his fist on the hangar wall, frustration getting the better of him. He tuned the transmitter array to New Dawn’s frequency, and sent a ping. a few minutes later, the console lit up with the face of LupinOne. “Yeah RT, what’s the issue? find another PCE-WE3?” he queried. “Lupin, I have an issue outside my station, I need some back up if you’re in the area. seems the Queen crapped a frieghter load of ‘flux on my door and I’m stuck in the tubes. You have a squad handy that could do a sweep and clear for me?” RT flipped the feed switch for the outside cams and included the stream on the link. “Holy pink on a stick, RT, what’d you do? hook a whistle up to your station’s array?!” LupinOne’s shocked look spoke more than his exclamation ever could. It truly seemed like flux space had opened up and dumped squarely
on station 451. “I’m calling in the fleet, we’re going to need the whole crew to drop that mess. ETA 2 hours for assembly and convergence. sit tight, bud, we’re on our way.” Lupin’s face winked off the screen as he cut the connection and started his signal runs on his squad.

“Well, that’s that then, I guess we need to go get some coffee and wait this out, eh mate?” Kanga said, walking up behind RT to look at the vid feeds again. “not likely… stow your gear, commander. we’re fueling that ‘Phoon and launching as soon as ND cuts us a hole’ RT said over his shoulder, flicking the console to the station auto-fueler screen. “RT, there’s nothing in your fuel cell, I checked it before I got in… unless you can make synthahol out of thin air and conflux tails, I’m stuck till the nano-assembler regens enough.” Kanga stated. RT keyed up the fuel silo’s inventory screen, noted it read less than 1%, pulled the station’s power arrays online and keyed the ‘power all’ button. Quiet whirring and hums could be heard from all quadrants of the station as 451 came to life, breathing in the power and life support like a great beast waking up from a long nap.

“then let’s find us some gas, brother.” the gleam in RT’s eye made Kanga shudder.

[chapter 9]
There are three hangar bays on 451, and they’re full to the last slot with the ships of
-=HunterS=- pilots. I know at least *one* of my boys had to have refilled his tanks before putting up their rig. It’s just how they flew.’ RT explained to Kanga as they made their way down what seemed to him a myriad of endless hallways and bulkheads. He was struck with the size of RT’s station for the first time. He’d seen the size of it from the outside many times since docking that day long ago, but never associated that it was the same station once inside. RT-Mus had always kept 3/4 of the station powered down and closed off. He’d never had to go into any of the extra wings, contenting himself with the space equivalent to a 2 point station. He’d also refused to deconstruct any of the other sections, leaving them as memorials to the past.

“how much syth was left in Hunter’s rig?” RT asked as they rounded yet another corner on their way to the farthest arm of the station. “I got about a 1/4 tank out of him. I had the autoloader transfer it to your silo, so we can fill both our rigs to the tits before we go.” Kanga responded, still looking around like a Solrain tourist in Amanath’s museum sector. “Good call, if we can fill that silo, we can charge up your tanks and top off the ‘Ryder’s in one swoop. we also need to make a little detour to storage pod 3-18 on our way back through.” RT stopped at a service ladder recessed off the main hall. “Up this hatch, we’re coming up on the market storage bins. I’m trying to stay away from the lift accesses, they’ve been offline so long I’d hate to be caught on one if it failed.” He started up the ladder, then slowed a moment, looking at the hatch above his head.

“Something wrong, mate?” Kanga asked from the bottom of the ladder. RT-Mus jerked out of his memory, looking around, then back down at Kanga “sorry, just remembering this was the storage section that Starfire was crushed in.” RT pulled himself the rest of the way up the ladder, twisting the hatch handle and shoving the cover up into the room behind it. The market storage area was cavernous, littered with stacks of boxes. bins of mined ores lined the walls. RT-Mus and Kanga climbed out of the hatch, letting it fall back in place with a hollow clang. turning the handle, RT stood and started across the chamber, heading for the passage that would take him to the outer areas of the section. “RT, can I ask you a question?” Kanga voiced, his curiosity getting the better of him. “I can understand leaving the barracks and ship hangars in state to honor your old mates, but why in Roh haven’t you processed all this ore out here?” RT stopped, and looked around as if for the first time at the chamber he’d been crossing. “you know, you’re right. Star spent most of his days filling these bins up, it’s almost a dishonor to let it rot instead of being used.” He walked over the closest bin, pulling open the cover over the control panel, and
punched several buttons. the floor vibrated as long quiet milling machines churned to life.

An autoloader deployed from its standby recess to move in front of the bin, it’s great
clawed arm scooping up tons of ore, then nimbly spinning on it’s access to offload the catch into the grinding mill chute, which had opened in the center of the room. raw ore was crushed, ground out and filtered into its individual elements, then shuffled off to shipping silos on the hangar bay floor. RT moved from bin to bin, initializing and queuing each one into the processor’s load, then setting the bin set for the processed ore to be moved to. “There. it’ll all go down to the docking bay for somebody to move. I’m leaving the station wide open when we leave, and I’ll be damned if I come back.”

Suddenly, the whining grate of twisting steel pierced their ears, then all went quiet.
Kanga and RT looked at one another in confusion, unsure of what just happened, when the solitary sound of bootsteps could be heard coming from the back of the room. “RT… the damn autoloader has jammed again. It looks like it got the claw caught on the feeder plate.” A thin, stocky lad came around a stack of containers to stare at the two. The blood drained from his face, and RT started muttering “no… nononnono not again….”. Kanga looked at RT, then back to the young pilot who seemed to be impatiently waiting orders. heaving a sigh, the pilot turned and headed back the way he came “I’ll just climb up the mast and kick it free, it should be fine.” RT-Mus was glued to the floor, visibly trembling as he watched the scene unfold itself. snapping out of his stupor, he launched into action, calling after the mystery pilot with a bellowing roar “STARFIRE STAND DOWN!!!”

Kanga could only watch in shock as starfire hopped up the arm of the autoloader and gave the feeder plate a swift kick. the plate slide out from the edge of the claw and bounced off the spinning crusher blades, then spun back. it slammed into the base of the loader’s arm, knocking Starfire from his footing to slide into the held-open claws of the autoloaders moving assembly. A piercing shriek erupted from his lips as the now freed claws snapped shut, crushing his torso in their Titanium grasp. the autoloader spun back to work, moving over to a pile of raw ore and opening its jaws, letting the limp form of Starfire drop onto the minerals like a ragdoll.

RT’s scream of ‘NNOOOO!’ brought Kanga back from his daze just in time to see RT-Mus running full speed toward the broken body of his squad-mate. Acting purely on instinct, Kanga threw himself into RT-Mus, knocking him to the floor and pinning him down. A split second later, the auto-loaders cycle repeated itself, dropping its loader claw onto the ore below it. It picked up another 12 ton load to process, Starfire’s body buried among the ore that he loved so dearly to collect. “let me go! Get off me! STAARRRR!” RT-Mus shrieked and wailed, slamming his fists repeatedly into Kanga’s back and head. Kanga refused to let go, knowing RT would plow headlong into the running grinders to save a ghost. “It’s not your time, mate! he’s been gone years! RT! He’s dead, mate.. there’s nothing you can do…” Kanga kept hollering the words like a mantra over and over into RT’s ear. The grinder whirred and chewed the oaded
ore into dust, transferring it to the assigned silo with mechanical efficiency, then spun down as it finished its chore. sliding neatly back into the deck, the safety cages slid back over the grinder’s cavernous maw, and the chamber was quiet once more.

Kanga released RT, rubbing the side of his head and watching him closely to make sure he didn’t make moves to attack. RT sat up slowly, staring at the spot where the grinder had disappeared, all trace of fire gone from his eyes. After several moments, Kanga spoke up: “I didn’t realize you were there for that. That had to be horrifying.” RT looked at Kanga with blank eyes, replying “I’ve been there for them all, Kanga. I watched them all go. If Halamzah were to take me tomorrow, I’ll never forget any of them.” Stirring from his spot, RT stood and started toward the far side of the room, blank resignation on his face. “Come on, we’ve got a little ways to go before we get to the secondary hangar bay.”

[chapter 10]
Kanga followed RT along the myriad of halls and catwalks, noting his surroundings becoming less and less ‘living comforts’ and more the industrial complex a mining starbase was supposed to be. heavy movers ran under the hallway’s floor, pulling ore carts along on their transit lanes to refinery areas. transits with tanks, supplies, and finished products were hauled to loading bins in hangar areas, or dropped into purchase slots in the station’s marketplaces. Kanga watched a second ore train zip by under his feet, the ore freshly processed, through the plexi-steel flooring, a lone traveler in what used to be a busy thoroughfare.

RT pushed onward, and Kanga wondered how in Roh he knew all the little twists and turns of the station so well. he felt it’d take him several lifetimes to know a station such as this so intimately, and stuck close to RT’s lead. at long last, RT stopped in front of a non-descript bulkhead door, keying the console and toggling the safeties. The door slid into the ceiling with a whisper, and lith-ion lamps crackled to life in the chamber beyond. light emanated from both the ceiling and floor, illuminating the walls and room in a spectral glow. Great hulking masses sat quietly, half bathed in shadow, held suspended neatly over their grav arresting yokes.

RT slowly walked to the center of the chamber, looking from vessel to vessel. “It’s like I was just in here yesterday. they’re all racked out and ready to soar, hell I’d hop in one of these birds and get us gone. thing is I don’t have any of their command access codes. I let my boys personalize their machines to their styles of flight. The securities were kept private so that the ‘group of individuals’ could be maintained. fortunately, I can still maintain them without popping the hatches. Let’s key up the fuel-loader and get us some gas.” RT moved to the first rack of ships, punching up the maintenance access systems for the medium fighter at the bottom.

the loading tow slid from its storage locker with a crisp hum, extended its arm under the ship, and linked into the grav cradle. lifting the diminutive fighter effortlessly, it
maneuvered the ship into position over the launch access hatch, then released and returned to its home in the corner of the hangar. Next came the repair/refuel drone, grumbling along the ground on it’s repulser assembly. it accessed the rear fuel hatch of the little fighter, it’s feed tube looking like a great python wrapped around the guidance mast as it connected and secured itself to the ship’s hull. a console opened on the side of the loader, and a blinking yellow light could be seen from RT and Kanga’s position at the edge of the deck. RT walked over to the fuel-pod, and keyed in the process command for tank recycle/storage. pumps fired to life on the machine, and the sound of gallons of fuel slithering through the pipe to the storage tanks could be heard.

After several minutes, the console chimed completion, and RT keyed the next ship into place. slowly and methodically, each ship was pulled from it’s cradle, drained, then replaced. Finally, the last ship slid from it’s cradle and placed onto the access hatch. As RT started for the fueler, a voice caught him by surprise. “Heya chief! whatcha up to?” RT turned to see Jager walk from the pilot’s lounge, carrying his helmet, geared up ready for take off. RT stood staring, shock visible on his face. Jager walked over to the fueler console, noted the system registered full, and keyed the disconnect sequence. “thanks for checking the charge, boss. I swear the cap
system on this bird has a leak, but I’ll be damned if any of the sensors will find one. Alright, I’m off to move that germanium shipment to Tri-point. we’ll see you tonight!” Jager hopped up the ladder of the hauler’s cockpit, keyed his access code, and climbed in.

RT backed slowly away from the ship, picking up speed as he went, suddenly turning and running to Kanga as fast as his feet would go. he punched 3 keys on the bay’s console, then grabbed Kanga and throwing him toward a sub hatch that had slid open. “MOVE!” he shouted in Kanga’s ear as the hauler’s engines came online. RT and Kanga scrambled through the hatch, keying it closed and sealing it just moments before the floor bucked under them, sending them to the deck. RT
laid there, eyes tightly shut, slowly banging his fist on the floor. Kanga looked around in mild shock, then at RT, then the side room’s console. red flashing lights lit the console like a Christmas tree, and Kanga could hear the hiss and whirr of safety systems and failsafes going off all around him. ‘RT, what just happened?’ he asked in confusion. Just as quickly as it had started, the sound passed, silence returning with the sound of the tube access doors closing with a final ‘chunk’.

RT looked at Kanga with haunted eyes and replied ‘Jager was lost in a launch accident when the capacitor on his hauler overcharged and blew while he was in the tube. the vaporized fuel hit the blast on his engines and blew his ship to pieces, filling the hangar bay with a fireball. The only way the emergency countermeasures could save this section was to open the outer hatch and flush the oxygen from the room. It spaced Jag’s ship with it. we found his cockpit adrift 2 days later, the plexi-steel canopy had been shattered in the explosion. It was never determined if he died from the burns he suffered or the decompression when the emergency system opened the airlock.”

RT stood, looked at the vid-com into the hangar bay, shook his head, then keyed the hatch open again. The room looked exactly as it had before, save for the fuel hauler’s full pod and an empty slot at the end of the row of ships.

RT keyed the fueler to reroute it’s load to the silo, then returned to where Kanga was standing just inside the door. “next stop, the storage bay….” he said with resigned determination.

[Chapter 11]
LupinOne lined his squad up on the Quantar Crossing gate. Keying his mic, he finished his pre-attack planning.  “On my mark, we’re punching that gate and taking back this sector! Avenge, take your wing and move to my 5 o’clock. Noct, are you and your crew in position on the Path of Hordes gate?” comms chatter relayed that all was set and his birds were in position. “Alright, people, look alive! Lets show this pink who owns the border. GOGOGO!” 15 ships funneled into the jumpgates, pouring through them into Quanus Crossing like angry hornets from their nest. “Noct, gun
that shark down! Avenge, grab that prawn…. SQUAD BREAK! Light ’em up!” Guns roared and lasers screamed to life as New Dawn bored a literal hole through both sides of the waiting swarm, cutting a path of destruction to meet in the middle.
fast and furious, Lupin’s pilots broke and reassembled with clockwork precision, one squad singling out the big flux and grabbing its attention while another swept the packs of squid and snails aside like so much space dust.

LupinOne keyed his transceiver to station 451’s docking array, swinging his ship in the direction of the station. His Vantages barked, then barked again, turning the kraken in front of him into so much goo. Kicking the AB’s in on his Intruder, he blasted toward 451 with the fury of a heat seeker locked onto the exhaust of a freighter. He flicked his comms array over to private frequencies and sent a call toward the station. An Eel dropped in on his six, lining it’s deadly plasma guns up on the speeding ship. Lupin’s shields crackled and flared around him, and he juked his stick hard right, breaking free of the Eel’s deadly barrage. “Dammit RT, pick up the link!” he muttered to himself, snapping the Intruder over on it’s path to start a circle of death on the attacking flux.

———————————————————————————————

RT forged on down the hallway, Kanga in tow, twisting and turning, dropping through hatches and climbing access ladders. turning back out onto the core pathway, the two commanders trotted toward the station’s hub. RT stopped short at a nondescript access panel about the size of the door on a thermalfreeze unit. looking it over, he nodded and said ‘this is the one.’ Kanga looked at him quizzically, then asked ‘what’s up? don’t we need to get to some storage pod or something?’ RT grinned, then popped a small handle cover that had been concealed just above the panel.

the panel recessed into the wall, then slid to the side. “the storage pod we’re going to is concealed. It holds my private collection of arty’s and oddities that I’ve collected over the years.” ducking into the small hatchway, he waved Kanga to follow. the passage beyond made the two crouch as they followed it, then opened into a small chamber lined with shelves with a small technician’s table in the center. another hallway, much larger than the first, led from the room on the left. RT wasted no time scooping the curious looking piece of machinery off the table and into a tech pouch he found hanging on the wall, then moved across to what appeared to be a disc library. picking through the indexed plates, he found the disc he was digging for. He dumped it into the pouch as well, followed in short order by the disc reader sitting on top of the shelf.

“what’s that mate?” Kanga asked, RT’s rummaging having grabbed his attention from the walls of curiosities. RT was engrossed in something he was reading on the reader, then nodded and walked to the far wall, grabbing what looked like a basketball with wires and tubes criss-crossing it’s face. he placed it in the bag next to the first doodad, then turned to his companion. “let’s get out of here, bro! I’ve got the stuff I came for. we’re going to have to mount them on the ‘midnight ryder’ when we get to her, but that shouldn’t take 5 minutes. “okay, but what are they?” Kanga repeated, trying to get a better look in the pouch RT had slung over his
shoulder. “A little payback, if I’ve done my research right.” came RT’s cryptic answer. RT turned and raced down the larger hall, calling behind him ‘come on! there’s a secondary access to the hanger this way.”

——————————————————————————————

LupinOne banked hard, rolling up behind the Shark with the trained efficiency of a machine. “Nocturnus, correct 3 degrees port” he called into the mic, lining up the conflux in his sights. squeezing the trigger, the Vantages mounted in the belly of his ship rapped off with report after report, hurling mortar shells into the fleshy backside of his prey. The shark spun on its axis, shifting course away from the ship it’d been pursuing to engage the new, painful threat. Lupin gunned his stick back, turning the Intruder on it’s nose, and jammed the flashfire trigger. Afterburners pumped, then screamed as the gaseous additive emptied into the fusion port on the engines.

contrails rolled from yellow to amber to brilliant red, and the intruder launched forward like a greyhound sprung from it’s cage. In a deft twist, Nocturnus flipped his Tornado on it’s back, punching the AB’s hard and opening up with his featherfires. Prey had become predator and predator had become prey in the swift shifting nanosecond that was space combat. “He’s at 55% armor, Lup! drag him back around for another volley.” Nocturnus chirped into his mic, rolling his Tornado with the fast
moving conflux as LupinOne arced back toward him.

“2nd squad, get ready… I’m bringing him through!” Lupin broadcast, banking hard to avoid another burst from the Sharks big guns.  His Intruder whined and bucked as he popped the 2nd flashfire off, slamming him back into his seat. the Path of Hordes gate was just in front of him, and closing fast. The gate shimmered, and 4 New Dawn warbirds emerged from the blue glow to line up on the incoming target. with cold calm, AvengeND keyed open his mic, uttering 3 words “squad, fox 3.’ contrails bloomed from under the ships as a mesmerizing swarm of hellrazors and morningstars ran free of their rails to streak toward the massive conflux. too late the big beast banked to avoid the oncoming onslaught, rocking and shuddering as missile after missile slammed into it and detonated. the shark rolled, exploding into a thousand thousand particles as it’s armor gave way to the barrage.

“that’s it for the pink… good work guys. take ’em home and check on the pod-riders.’ Lupin keyed, then lined up on 451 again, turning the intruder’s tail to the gate. “let’s hope RT can get my signal now’ he murmured.

[chapter 12]
The ‘Midnight Ryder’ sat quietly on her grav-pad, silent save for the occasional buzz of an arc welder or the clink of a tool on her maintenance hatch. RT worked with patient coordination, mounting the second artifact he’d grabbed and linking it into the ‘Ryder’s power coils. Every so often, he’d stop and read the screen on the disc reader perched just inside the maintenance canopy, checking relay readings and output capacities to the chart he’d pulled up. Nodding satisfaction, he clipped a final cable to the arty and secured the other end to the Ryder’s hull. scooping up the disc reader and snapping it closed, he scrambled down out of the maintenance hatch. 10 pressure bolts later, the hatch was replaced and RT was watching his wrist-comm display. He’d tuned it to Kanga’s comm, in case they’d been separated in the run to the outer reaches of the station. “Kanga, how’s that wiring repair coming?’

static crackled on the link, then Kanga’s face appeared in the tiny vid. ‘I’m just about done, mate. you want to try explaining to me again how the wires for the fuel silo linkage to that terminal got so banged up? It just doesn’t make sense!” the vid screen scanned over a hunk of wiring laying on the deck at Kanga’s feet. It looked as if it’d been chewed through in several places by a small animal. RT knew the answer to the question, and had told Kanga that it was the curse, but Kanga still refused to believe. He’d doggedly repeated that what he’d seen deeper in the station was some sort of hallucination caused by too high a concentration of one of the chemicals in the carbon scrubbers that had been left offline too long, or something very near to that. RT had stopped listening at the first sign of Kanga’s objection.

“alright, bro, let me know when you get the harness in place, and I’ll activate the refueling system and get our ships up to snuff while waiting for you to get down here.” He flipped the hangar’s console over the repair controller, and set the system to replace the peeled armor on Kanga’s ‘Phoon. The service bot rolled next to the battered Typhoon and ran over its hull with the sweep analyzer on its lift arm, marking points in its memory that would need armor addressed. RT watched the machine for a moment, then shifted to the freight mover panel. He keyed up the armaments selection tab, then punched in a load requirement for the ‘Ryder’s cargo hull. A security keyport opened on the side of the panel, and he pressed his thumb to the pad, registering the transaction and releasing the specified weapons systems from their security lockers. A loading truck slid up to the Ryder with crisp movements, effortlessly boosting the massive containers into the hold and affixing them to the deck with cargo straps. After the loader moved from its task, RT stepped into the belly of the ‘Ryder. heaving a sigh, he set to work, popping the transport safeties off the equipment lining the ’Ryder’s deck. ‘ I hope the ancients weren’t cracked in the head when they wrote this DSS….” he muttered, pulling out the arcwelding wand.

just then, his wrist-comm chirped. Kanga wiped his brow, stating with a huff ‘k mate, the harness is in place, I’m on my way back to you. how’s the retrofit of that thingamajig you were building coming?” RT grinned wearily, and said “I’m just finishing the tap job now. I should have it buttoned up before you get back.” Kanga nodded “I’d still love to know just what it’s supposed to do, how about a tell, eh?’ RT shook his head, “Sorry, friend. I don’t care what you say, this station has ears and I’m not for tipping my hand on the way out the door.’
Kanga rolled his eyes in exasperation, then keyed the comm off and headed for the maintenance hatch. he’d secured himself to the rigging twice, per RT’s request, then started the dizzying climb back to the hangar’s floor. below him, he could see the glow of the arc wand emanating from the open cargo doors of the ‘Ryder. When he reached the bottom, RT switched his wrist comm back over to station frequency.

Immediately, it lit up with the chirp of an incoming transmission. Keying open the vidlink, he was greeted by LupinOne’s relieved grin. ‘Damn it boy, I was afraid that ghost of yours finally got to you. The flux are toasty, your docking rings are clear for your launch.’ RT grinned and winked at his wrist ‘ Thanks, Lup. As soon as the repair bot is done on Kanga’s phoon, we’re heading out.’ LupinOne looked puzzled for a moment, then asked ‘Kanga? you riding his bird out or something?” Now it was RT’s turn for a confused look. ‘naw man, he’s right here. he surfed in on the front of that swarm you just cleared.” Lupin shook his head, then said with a hint of sarcasm in his voice ‘ya know, if I didn’t know about that station of yours, I’d say you’re cracked. I saw him in the pod recovery chamber at Quant Core when I was refueling. he tried surfing the swarm, and it chewed him up pretty good. Anyway, deal with your spooks, then meet me out here and I’ll run escort for you to QC. LupinOne out.’

RT looked up from his wrist link at Kanga, who was still standing several feet from him watching the fuel loader finish its job on the Typhoon. slowly he started to back deeper into the hull of the ship, never taking his eyes off Kanga. Kanga turned to face RT, and the sight chilled him to the bone. Kanga’s eyes were gone, replaced with soulless black orbs that gleamed with a wicked light. “looks like the jig’s up, eh mate?’ he said with an evil grin. RT turned and bolted for the front of the ‘Ryder and grabbed his flight helmet from its hook on the cockpit stairwell. He slammed it on his head and turned back, turning to stand nose to nose with the ghost of station 451. “I don’t think you’ll be leaving tonight, RT. You’ve always said that when it’s your turn I’d come for you. You’re the last one in your squad….guess whose turn it is?” RT skittered back from Kanga, stumbling over something small and black that had slid behind his feet. The black cat looked at him with a grin that looked like it just caught a mouse. “mew”

The spectre advanced slowly, bloodied arms extended toward RT, wicked looking claws where hands should have been. RT sat gape mouthed for a moment, staring at the apparition in disbelief. The cat started to purr, and the sound snapped RT out of his horror induced awe. keying his wrist comm, he punched a key on its vidscreen and said with a shaking voice ‘Midnight Ryder, auto launch sequence, initiate… NOW’. The bay doors on the back of the Ryder whined closed with quick precision, and RT felt the deck under him vibrate as the powerplant churned online. The spectre started to laugh ‘Oh no, *mate*, this ship may space, but you’ll never see the stars again!” clawed hands reached down and grabbed RT’s flight suit, hauling him to his feet as if he were a youngling instead of a 200 lb. man. ‘You’re about to join me in the netherworld.’ The beast launched RT back into the cargo hold, where he slammed hard against the lashed crates in the middle of the floor. The beast grinned, “I’m going to let this ship hit space, then we’re going to open the hold and see how well you can breathe… just like you did to me!” an evil cackle erupted from it’s lips, and it started toward RT with more determination. The floor shifted slightly under RT, signaling the ‘Midnight Ryder’s decent into the launch tubes. RT fought himself to his feet, and glaring at the abomination that was his curse, spat “I don’t think so, you dead sunovabitch!” leaning on the bulkhead wall, he reached over to the closest crate. mounted on top was a twist-key arming pack, its wires disappearing into the side of the mysterious box. the launch claxon went off in the cockpit, letting RT know the ‘Ryder was about to get its punch into space. “you wanna know what this little ‘doomahickey’ is? lemme show you!” RT braced against the hull frame, snapping up the arming box and savagely twisting the key. The ship bucked as the station docking system spit it out, pressing RT into the wall and causing the beast to stumble a bit in its stride. RT jammed his finger into the activate button on the box, and a shrieking whine started to emanate from the crates. The creature froze, its scowl of hatred twisted further with a look of confusion. it looked at its legs, as if to will them to move farther, but they stuck fast in place on the deck. RT popped the retaining strap holding on the crate closed, and let the panels fall to the deck. “I found a gold DSS a while ago, and read it from end to end. Ever hear of an Ancient by the name of ‘Tesla’? It would seem in his later years he was quite the supernatural fanatic, he even designed something he called a ‘containment grid’ to capture and study spirits. I had to rewire a very rare artifact I found near where I found that DSS, and give it a power supply Mr. Tesla couldn’t dream of. but it would seem his theory is sound. Ghosts are echos of the energy that makes us. I rewired a phase coil from a Guardian shield, patched it into Mr. Tesla’s little toy, then linked it to the ‘Ryder’s cap.’ He pointed at the mass of wires and equipment, now exposed. The base of a Guardian sat on the deck, a shiny bronze colored object wired into its power coils. In front of it sat a bundled pack of Glaive missiles, their warheads open with a nest of wires running between them. “the rest of this little array is going to make sure you don’t screw with anybody ever again.”

The ghost of 451 looked at RT, the confused look sliding from his face, to be replaced with one of rage. ‘You will DIE! I will have my revenge!” it howled. RT looked down at the crates wires criss-crossed over and around the 4 Glaive missiles sitting on the deck. “oh yeah, I’m going to die alright…. first things first.” RT strode over to where the beast was anchored, hauled back his fist, and punched the creature as hard as he could in the face. The beast howled in rage but try as it might it couldn’t move from the shoulders down. RT pulled back and slammed its face again and again, each blow raising dark blue-black bruises on the creature’s face. “the containment field keeps you on *my* plane, and if you can’t phase you can’t escape. It’s time for you to go to Hell, and I’m driving you there PERSONALLY!” RT hauled back and belted the spectre again for good measure, feeling its nose crush under his balled fist. RT hopped up the staircase to the cockpit, slid into the jumpseat and jacked his helmet into the console.

The speakers crackled to life as the connection sank in “…upinOne to ‘Midnight Ryder’…. Come in ‘Ryder…RT, you okay over there?” Lupin’s voice held a note of concern. RT ran his targeting reticule around until he picked the Intruder out among the stars. Keying open his mic, RT worked a sense of urgency into his voice “LupinOne, this is RT! Exodus, I repeat, we are status Exodus. My fuel cell is misting up pretty bad, and I’ve got a stack of Glaives in the hold. They’re hot, looks like the pins disappeared on them. I’m gonna punch for the anomaly and see if I can sling ‘em into it before the Ryder goes nuke. WE ARE EXODUS, I REPEAT, EXODUS. GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE BROTHER!” RT killed the mic on his helmet, cycled his reticule to the anomaly, and kicked the thrusters into full burn. The mammoth vessel lurched forward, augering toward the rip in space. The comms system crackled to life, LupinOne’s voice hard ‘RT, don’t try it! Punch your pod! You’ll make it out of the blast range if you hit it now. Don’t get crazy on me now! There’s nobody out here but me, you , and that damn station. Punch out dammit!” RT cut Lupin off “Negative ND1, I’m pulling too many G’s for safe detach… my only hope is to get this hulk away from the gates and powerdump it. Now get your tail gone! RT OUT!” RT-Mus yanked his comms jack out of the socket, pressed back into his jumpseat, and punched a flashfire. The great ship heaved forward, driven by the booster. In the hold, the beast growled and gnashed, continuing its rant on what it was going to do with RT-Mus when it got free. RT looked over his shoulder at it and shouted ‘up yours! You died in an ACCIDENT. My squaddie’s didn’t deserve your wrath, you should have just taken ME. -=HunterS=- never give up, you bastard! I’m taking you to the pits and introducing you to the devil MYSELF.”

He patched the range meter into the command module on the lead nuke, setting the trigger distance at 500. He punched the autopilot up and locked in the anomaly, then set it to ride the afterburners all the way and punch the remaining flashfires in succession. Taking off his helmet, RT scrubbed his short hair back, then stood. He grabbed a prybar from it’s stow hole in the cabin, walking back to stand in front of the spectre. “we’ve got a good 5 minutes before we go thermal, and I’m going to do my best to make sure you don’t make it in one piece” , he lifted the bar and swung it full force into the monster’s ribcage. The creature’s lungs blasted out their air as ribs cracked, and it gasped and choked. “been a while since you sucked air like a human, huh?” RT growled as he swung again. The beast’s arm cracked with a sharp snap, and it bellowed in agony. RT stepped back, winding up for another swing, when a streak of black dropped from the ceiling onto his head. The cat raked and scratched at RT’s head, digging claws into his face and biting at his scalp. RT staggered back, clutching the animal in both hands and hurling it at the spectre. The cat yeowled as it hit the containment field, which caught it and held it suspended in the air next to its master. RT-Mus staggered back, his footing sliding on one of the cables around the warheads, and he went to the deck. His eyes were useless, he couldn’t see past the blood in them from the cat’s attack. Impact claxons sounded in his ears, and he smiled. “let’s go for a ride, shall we?’ he said dragging himself up again. The creature roared “NNOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” and despite the field around it, slung its arm toward RT. RT was flung against his modified creation, blasted back by the sheer force the beast had issued. The last thing he saw through his bleary, bloodsoaked eyes before it all went dark was the arming lights flare green on the warheads…..

[Chapter 13]

The creature watched the internal console of the Glaive in front of him charge, shifting its standby light to ‘ready’. Behind it, the audible systems alert in the cockpit chimed collision signals, noting 1500 until impact. It growled and tried shifting, but the containment field had re-established its vicelike grip, holding it fast. Smiling wickedly, it looking at the limp form of RT-Mus slumped over the very machine that held it. It knew RT didn’t have much longer, watching the pool of blood slowly gather around the machine’s base. Just then, the rear of the ‘Ryder’s cargo hold lightened, slowly glowing azure blue as two orbs materialized there.

Starfire exclaimed, rushing over to RT-Mus’ limp form. RT hung from the modified Guardian base, suspended in place by the artifact he’d wired to it. The Ghost of 451 chuckled evilly “You cannot save your precious commander… he is mine.” Ignoring the beast, Starfire gently tried lifting RT-Mus from his position, but abruptly stopped as he noticed that the only thing keeping his C.O. from bleeding out was the very thing keeping him from slumping to the ground. He looked at Jager, a desperate look on his face, “Jager, get up there and abort the timers!”

Jager looked from the body of RT to the creature to the cockpit “Star, there’s no way for me to get up there… the field cuts this ship in half. I’ll end up stuck to ugly over there….” Star grimaced, “dammit! we have to *do* something.” the ghost of 451 suddenly broke into horrendous laughter “There’s nothing you *can* do. I told you I’d take him, and I will. If you turn off that machine to get to the cockpit, I’m free. your precious commander can’t breathe in a vacuum, and there’s not way to pod him from there. Give up, I have won!” Jager glared at the creature, then walked determinedly to the back of the ‘Ryder. “Star, cover RT… Cover that whole damn thing he’s on if you have to. when I say so, punch those phase coils. I have an idea.” Star looked at Jager in alarm “Jag, if I charge those coils it’ll fry him!” Jag growled “just trust me for once, Star…. do it.” he flipped open his wrist comms and keyed open the transponder. “Usul, we need you…”

———————————–

LupinOne watched on in desperate frustration, knowing there was nothing he could do. RT-Mus had severed his contact link and told him to get out of the sector. Instead, he’d jumped out of sector and returned as soon as the gate had recharged. scanning his long range radar, he’d found no trace of the ‘Midnight Ryder’. Lupin turned his ship toward the sector’s anomaly, scrutinizing his radar while flying at full burn toward his objective in hopes of seeing something, *anything*, that would give him some clue to what happened to his friend. Suddenly, a chill went down his spine. Lupin lost all control of himself, going suddenly stiff. Sitting frozen, eyes wide, he heard a voice come from the jumpseat of his Intruder. “Hang in there, friend. I need to borrow your ship for a moment.” Lupin had heard that voice before, had spoken with him on long missions that New Dawn had been contracted to accompany. He’d taught that person all he’d known of fluxxing, training him at RT’s request so -=HunterS=- would have a squad based flux specialist. fighting for control of his body, he finally uttered the name of the pilot sitting behind him, “Usul?”

Usul grinned, and leaning forward he clapped LupinOne’s shoulder. “I don’t have a lot of time, Lup. I’d try explaining it to you, but that’d take the next 10 years. I couldn’t be sure you’d pick him up on your scanners, so I’m driving. try to relax, don’t fight me on it and we’ll be fine.” Lupin watched as his ship’s controls switched to the auxiliary systems for the seat behind him, felt the ship yaw and punch AB’s as it veered course from directly toward the anomaly toward a shining speck that appeared to be moving opposite the star patterns of space. “You’d have never seen it, Lup. The Ryder’s phase shifting… she’s just ‘not there’ for you.” LupinOne managed to look at the radar console, and true to Usul’s word there was nothing on the screen. He relaxed back, exhausted from fighting his own body, and let his ship fly itself.

———————————–

Proximity alarms sounded again marking the 1000 marker to target, and Jag hollered back to Starfire ‘Get ready!’. Starfire heaved a great breath, his form becoming less solid and more liquid. Slithering like a great snake, he wrapped himself around RT and the machine he was impaled on. a bluish white film seemed to creep over the entire mass, and Star’s voice could be heard emanating from the general area “I’m ready, Jag.” Hit it!” Jager slammed the over-ride button on the hatch door closing mechanism, running back to RT. He dove at the shield base, shifting to the same blue-white consistency Starfire had only moments before, gelling and spreading across the structure on impact. Starfire punched the test charge button on the Guardian’s coil base and the system flared, its phase coil ramping up with the full power of the ‘Ryder’s capacitor. The Ghost of 451 bellowed, then froze mid scream as the added voltage surged through its corporeal form, completely immobilizing it. The containment field started to glow, becoming almost palpable against the air around it. Jagers face appeared on the front of the shield’s base and he grinned. “you’re stuck like a duck named chuck, bub…. have a nice ride to hell, and say ‘hi’ to the Devil for me, will ya?”

The rear hatches on the ‘Midnight Ryder’ groaned, complaining noisily against their safety catches as the cabin pressure pressed hard against them. without the heavy mechanical arms secured to hold them in place, they twisted, strained, then finally blew into the vacuum of space. The hold rapidly decompressed, yanking everything not strapped down into the void. The shell that was Jager and Starfire held RT to the Guardian’s base as its phase array ramped again, the whole mass becoming less than tangible in the dark blank it sailed through. the makeshift cabling reached the end of its tether and popped from its weld joint, releasing the assembly from its last connection to the ‘Ryder. The ship shot away, almost impacting with the anomaly, then disappeared into a bright white flash as the Glaives detonated. Jager screamed at Star “here it comes!” as the expanding orb of destruction that was the thermo-nuclear blast caught up with the tumbling shield generator. Its edge touched the still intact test field just as the other end brushed the edge of the anomaly’s mass. red-pink flares shot across the detonation cloud, arcing against the guardian’s spectral field. Starfire’s hand grabbed the severed power terminal on the shield base and forced the cascade of raw power into the generator. The phase coils ramped and discharged, sending the protection field ballooning out from them yet again. The whole structure surged away from the blast area as if it were shot from a cannon.

———————————–

LupinOne watched as the speck grew and took form, becoming the ‘Midnight Ryder’ burning full afterburners for the anomaly. his range meter clicked up, displaying 27k to the ship. Suddenly, there was a puff of white from the rear of the ‘Ryder. His cockpit alarms squalled the nuke alert, and he slammed his eyes shut, watching the brightness well up though his tightly shut eyelids. “we’re out of time… hang on Buddy!” Usul could be heard saying from behind him. he heard the familiar click-snap of the Flashfire button, and felt his ship punch forward with its added velocity. opening his eyes, he almost wished he hadn’t. where the ‘Midnight Ryder’ had been only moments before was a red-orange cloud. It spread from the edge of the anomaly to a blue glowing dot in space. looking closer, Lupin swore he saw a face twisted in rage and agony in the cloud, reaching for the dot. Just as suddenly as it appeared, the cloud dissipated, sucking into the anomaly with hurricane force. a tiny tendril lashed across the rapidly approaching dot, and it seemed to lose its place in space. Usul sent the Intruder into a power dive, pointing the nose of the ship directly at the fast speeding dot. he hammered down on the afterburners again, dragging the nose of the ship through space to track the blue ball. A guttural moan of horror escaped LupinOne’s lips as the blue orb grew in size and solidity to resemble a small asteroid. Just as the Intruder was about to impact the object, Usul flipped it into a tight barrel roll, pulling back hard on the stick. just before it spun from Lupin’s view, the orb shifted again, taking on a translucent appearance. LupinOne felt a heavy ‘clunk’ run through his ship. suddenly, his cargo meter shot from 0 to 7 units. His hands and arms sprang back to life, once again under his control, and he shook them trying to get rid of the tingle coursing through them. “no time for that, Lup… get to QC like your tail’s on fire! RT’s in your hands now.” the voice faded out as it finished its sentence, and Lupin didn’t have to look in his rearview to know Usul had disappeared again. “Hang in there, bro” he whispered, flipping the Intruder on its tail and punching his second drop tank, dumping the needed resupply into the ship’s fuel stores.

———————————–

LupinOne paced in the waiting area of Quantar Core’s medical wing. Kanga sat in one of the racks of chairs, watching him. “why don’t you sit and have a rest, Lup. you’re going to walk a hole to the next deck down if you keep it up.” he quipped. The doctor pushed through the swinging doors, and Lupin pounced on him with a verbal barrage of questions. After several moments the doctor waved Lupin away, stating ‘Commander Rt-Mus is in stable condition. as soon as the techs finish mounting the new optical prosthetic, he should be on his way out. One thing to note though. He may be a little self conscious of his chest. We couldn’t get a small part of the machinery he’d been stuck to out of him. It appeared to have fused with his spine. It’s also still active… apparently pulling a trace amount of energy from RT-Mus’ natural bodily current. what did you say happened to him again? I’ve never heard of somebody trying to manually repair a phase coil on an industrial class shield before, and that chunk certainly wasn’t modern tech.” the doctor let his voice trail off as the doors slide aside, RT-Mus striding into the waiting room. “Hey hey, Lupin! Kanga! I didn’t expect a waiting committee.” he said cheerily. his expression shifted slightly, and he asked ‘I heard you brought me in Lup. Tell me, what happened to the ‘Ryder?” LupinOne shifted his gaze, still a bit shaken by what he’d seen. Looking back at RT he replied ‘She’s gone, man. I watched her go up in a ball of white. I… I could have sworn I saw a face in that cloud, but I’m thinking my eyes were playing tricks on me.” Shifting the topic, Lupin grinned “I’m so glad to see you’re alive! c’mon, let’s go grab a brew…” Extending his hand in friendship. RT reached to grasp the open hand, and blinked as his hand slid quietly through Lupin’s as if it was never there. Lupin let out a yelp and pulled his stinging hand back, shaking it vigorously.

“sorry Bro, still getting used to keeping myself on this plane…. Doc tells me I have to concentrate on it so I don’t phase out….” RT-Mus shrugged, heading for the door. Kanga’s utterance of “Crikey…” drew his attention as he reached the door. The motion detector thoroughly failed to sense him, and RT slid through the solid door as if it were wide open. A few seconds later the door slid open, revealing a grinning RT-mus to Lupin and Kanga, who just stared slack jawed at their comrade.

“guess being the ‘ghost in the machine’ is going to take on a whole new meaning, huh?” he said with a chuckle.

[Epilogue]

Buzzard tooled quietly through space, hunting another artifact to add to his growing collection. he’d been out in Outer Third all day, not another soul to be seen or heard from in hours. His rotacol chimed that it was time to turn, and he banked his ship. typically he’d reset his scanners at this point, instead grumbling softly as the sector’s anomaly popped up on his radar screen. “stupid thing… always gets in the way” he muttered, continuing on his path. His comms system started to crackle, picking up static that the anomaly typically gave off. Buzzard started to ignore it, then tweaked the knobs a bit instead, trying to clear up something he thought he heard. The radio whirred and crackled, then went cleared for just an instant. “… is the Semper Par…..hip ‘SupaFong’, my present loca….on is …… I repe…..ilot v0ight from the Quant…..Semper Paratus requesting assis….’ Buzzard quickly tried to fine tune his comms array to the frequency, but was met with only static.

The End?

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