Newtron and the Jumpgate: Chapters 1 – 10

by Newtron

Prologue

Tens of millions of kilometers from the nearest planetary body, light years from the nearest star, a bluish white cloud of highly charged subatomic particles revolved between four enormous electromechanical satelite assemblies. These were cubist-tulip-shaped objects the size of skyscrapers, joined at their stems. They stabilized the gravitational forces of the weird, unstable anomalies discovered throughout the galaxy. These anomalies connect discreet points in space light years apart.

On the quantum level, space and time are illusions created by our energy entropy point of view. In the realm of cosmic relativity, all points in space are in fact one point of zero space-time.

And of course the speed of gravity, is instantaneous.

The resulting mechanism or Jump Gate as the apparatus is known, was the transforming social and economic marvel of the age.

Of course a single Jump Gate was worthless, essentially a portal to infinite nonexistence.

The Jump Gates — the scientists and engineers of the TRI Reconstructive Initiative — built a series of the unimaginably expensive Gates and shipped them around the galaxy by space transport, an effort which required hundreds of years, strategically placing them at key locations throughout the known sectors.

Very convenient.

Thanks to the miracle of the Jump Gate system, ordinary spaceships — little more than terrestrial aircraft and submarines heavily modified to operate in the radioactive vacuum of space and ordinarily capable of no more then five or six hundred meters per second — could cross the galaxy in a matter of days rather than millennia.

The implications of this were, as you might expect, unprecedented, unrestrained and unabashed commerce.

The width and breadth of the galactic pantry lay open to the mega-corporations and robber barons of the human race.

The construction of the Jump Gate system had the potential to make more money for more people than any discovery or development since the invention of money. But before the corporations could rush into the void, there was one more serious problem they had to resolve — a manpower shortage.

Thanks to vast fields of metallic asteroids present all over space, the raw materials of industtry were readily at hand. But it required human pilots willing to endure the mind-dulling tedium of operating a space-mining craft to collect them. With billions of tons of uranium hidden among the trillions of tons of precious and common metals, and the very lax galactic environmental laws concerning interstellar space, energy was, for the first time in human history, truly abundant and cheap.

Still, it required even more pilots willing to endure the incredibly tedious job of asteroid-prospecting, because the ore wasn’t going to collect itself.

Yet another economic opportunity was that the universe had once before been home to an even more sophisticated galactic empire, far more technically advanced than the current one. This ancient empire had mysteriously and conveniently vanished eons before in what is now termed the “Great Collapse”, disappearing almost completely. Almost, but not quite.

It turned out that although the ancient’s worlds were gone (or at least any trace of them weathered and eroded away), bits and pieces of the old empire could still be found floating in space. Some of this stuff, while of archeological interest, also contained eons-old technological hardware.

The ancients, were master craftsmen, and among other things made wonderfully powerful compact rocket engines, amazingly efficient power plants, incredibly dependable computer enhancements, and almost magical mass displacers.

These technological “artifacts”, as they became colloquially known, were often perfectly functional even after thousands of years drifting in deep space.

Amazingly intricate, fantastically efficient and inexplicably reliable, TRI scientists attempted to copy these electrical-mechanical marvels but never succeded in replicating them. These “artifacts” were scattered among the stars like so many stellar Easter eggs.

If you had to live in a previously occupied galaxy, it was nice to have had predecessors like the ancients. Still, their artifacts might have been wonderfully sophisticated, but they weren’t just going to collect themselves.

The galaxy is huge; at current ship speeds it would take thousands of years to travel between the stars. Traveling any real distance in space meant Jump Gate travel, leaping light-years at a pop, but passage through a Jump Gate proved to be lethal, as the extreme shifts in gravity squeezed ordinary human flesh and bone into a puree resembling baby-food.

That is, unless you underwent the irreversible genetic modification that enabled your body to withstand the extreme gravity involved in passage through the Gate; unfortunately this meant it was impossible to ever set foot on a planet’s surface again.

Needless to say, this put a damper on recruitment, despite all the large, modern and very comfortable space stations the corporations had built. It was a real problem and needed a serious answer, and so…

The corporations came together in an unprecedented show of financial cooperation, and formed TRI and the Bureau of Stellar Cartography. The main purpose being to recruit, train and outfit any pilots they could connive to get behind a joystick.

Being business people, their answer was to provide zero interest loans for entry-level cadets, a free space shuttle and all the basic equipment a pilot would need. TRI offered simple missions for the cadets to run, while they new pilots honed their skills. As the trainee’s bank accounts grew, they were encouraged to trade in their ships for more sophisticated models.

Still, just as it seemed things were working out, the Conflux, a race of aliens living in deep space, showed up and started killing off the pilots, and annoyingly recruitment dropped off once again.

But then the TRI engineers made a startling discovery. They found almost by accident, that assembling certain plentiful ancient artifacts together, produced a device that would instantaneously transmit an object, in this case a small capsule, just big enough to hold a pilot, to receiving stations located anywhere in the galaxy. Easily fitted to existing ships, this invention became the TRI’s primary safety device, and labeled it the “Emergency Escape Pod.”

The Pods reinvigorated the space program. Without the fear of a gruesome death at the tentacles of the Conflux, or from pilot error slamming your spaceship into the side of an asteroid, galactic travel finally became safe. Safe despite the hostile aliens, uncharted asteroids, generally poor training and the many intoxicated pilots. The ranks of the cadet enrollment program swelled yet again, asteroids were being mined, goods were being hauled and the corporations, TRI, and a few industrious pilots became very, very rich.

This is the story of the week that everything started to go wrong.
__________________
“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” – Einstein

Chapter one – Space

It was really the strangest thing you were ever likely to encounter in space, thought the Octavian pilot, and that’s saying a lot. He toggled the targeting system through the objects that appeared on his radar; these showed up as three-dimensional images on his Heads-Up Display’s small representational imager just to the left of his screen. There he observed the images of the Jump Gates for the galactic sectors, both The Stith and The Sea of Shadows, just as they should be — the clouds of charged particles swirling among the electro-mechanical petal assemblies. But where the Jump Gate to the Aman Hook sector should have been, there was now something very, very different.

Ten thousand meters away there was a huge pinkish-purple object. The TRI-Bureau of Conflux Studies had classified this type of oddity an “Infestation.” In shape it reminded the pilot of an apple turnover.

“Biggest damned pastry in the galaxy.” he mused.

It was big indeed, the size of a small space station. It completely engulfed the four Jump Gate assemblies, hiding the gate and effectively barring access through to the Aman Hook sector. Jets of pink vapor escaping from its corners gave the pilot the weird sensation of watching a living thing; — like a termite mound or a hornet’s nest. The analogy wasn’t far off. The TRI-BCS had determined that Infestations were the product of an artificially produced nanobiological virus, planted by the Conflux. The parasite grew very quickly, literally before your eyes, engulfing whole space stations, or in this case a Jump Gate, while drawing all the power it needed from its host in the process.

The pilot, who was named Plasma, because all the better names were already taken, inched his fighter in for a closer look. These things might be pink but he knew they were tough; it took tactical nuclear missiles to even put a dent in one. His ship’s own lasers and ammo would be useless and the anti-aircraft missiles his fighter carried would be no better — might as well just take a few pretty pictures and contact HQ.

He finished scanning the infestation and sent the info off to TRI via the subspace-com-net, now all he had to do was sit back and wait for backup, maybe a half dozen bombers loaded with nukes. Still he kept a nervous eye on the other two Jump Gates, it would only take moments for infestations to form in those too, and he wouldn’t be the first pilot the Conflux had managed to trap in a sector. Those poor guys had probably gotten home only by the use of their Emergency Escape Pods.

Thank God for the flux-fighting pilot squads like Red Dawn, the Storm Riders and New Dawn; they’re the ones who kept the Conflux at bay — TRI almost never officially venturing out into space itself. Instead, the galactic government set up the pilot-squad-system, making it easy for pilots to form squads of like-minded members, and these squads often functioned as businesses. TRI would enter into business contracts with the squads, and thus they encouraged private participation in matters like security and civil space defense; “business efficiency worked better than government bureaucracy” was their motto.

The young pilot nudged his big fighter forward, then, tilting the joystick to the left and back while increasing throttle, he banked to port and then circled about. An efficient fusion power source provided energy to a controlled fusion-reaction rocket engine, and the craft; a large and sophisticated Phoenix-class fighter, accelerated to cruise, which in the case of this ship was over four hundred and forty meters per second. “Way faster than my old shuttle,” Plasma thought and grinned, remembering his early days as a cadet — when work involved piloting underpowered and under-armed little transports around the near-station sectors, hauling the mail or performing other menial assignments while working his way up the ranks.

With a steady hand on the stick, he executed a wide sweep of the area, taking him within a few hundred meters of the other two Gates, as well as the enormous space relay-beacon — used to track and monitor traffic through the sector. Finally he passed two separate pilot-owned space stations — monuments to the incredible wealth amassed by some industrious pilots and pioneers.

He shook his head and raced past the huge, gangly structures. Lately it seemed space was littered with these things. Private stations in which a squad, corporation or wealthy pilot could store their spare spaceships, hardware, ammunition and throw really exclusive parties. Plasma didn’t think he’d ever have the kind of money needed to build one himself — a private station cost hundreds of millions of credits, and why would he want one? He really preferred the hustle and bustle of the bigger and crowded public stations; they were beautiful, elaborate designs, really gigantic too, literally cities in space often with thousands of inhabitants all going about their interesting lives, working to provide the many services necessary for a comfortable daily life in space, keeping the TRI fleets flying and providing way-stations for commerce traveling between the planets. Why would any person want to live alone in a castle in the sky?

He toggled back through the targets; nothing had changed. He checked his radar; it had a range of 35 kilometers and presently showed as much almost-empty space in every direction.

The rugged spaceship, which looked curiously like a jet fighter with its uselessly aerodynamic fuselage and long wings, was painted dark brown like all Octavian faction vessels, and it had a bright yellow flaming bird stenciled down each side. He really liked the look of those stencils, though again all Oct ships had them, from the smallest shuttles to the largest cargo-tows.

Time passed, and out of sheer boredom, and to appease his own curiosity, Plasma flew the Phoenix within shooting range and fired off a few ammo rounds at the fleshy-looking monstrosity; it might look soft and doughy, but the high-velocity ammo rounds failed to even leave a mark on the weird pinkish surface. He fought the urge to shoot off a couple of missiles at it too, he knew that it would be a totally wasted effort. While very effective against Conflux, like a squid or a manta, or another spaceship, the sophisticated guided missiles would be useless against that big pink thing. No sense losing a couple of expensive weapons just to blow off steam.

Plasma looked down at a photo taped to the console. There were better things to spend his money on. It was a picture of his lady friend, a med tech at the Oct Depot space station where they both lived. She was extraordinarily beautiful, but he didn’t really notice. This was the future, and everybody was beautiful, and unbelievably fit, everyone’s teeth naturally perfect, their skin flawless in whatever color they chose, everyone had perfect vision and lustrous hair, unless they preferred to be bald. So the fact that she was a ravishing beauty queen was almost totally lost on him. He just really thought she was funny and fun and he liked spending his free time in her company.

Something appeared on his radar and grabbed his attention. He refocused on the situation at hand: a purple dot. The system assigned color values to various types of targets — gray for asteroids, blue for man-made ships, and purple meant Conflux. He toggled through his targeting system to find out specifically what it was — a “manta” C6, so named for its resemblance to some kind of long extinct fish. It was as big as his spaceship, capable of flying at four hundred and fifty meters per second and armed with deadly accurate lasers. When he was in training he avoided them like the plague, but over the years he’d developed his flux-fighting skills and was now proud of the fact that they posed him no problems. Now he could take one of these mantas out in one or two passes – jousts, in pilot parlance. This was great, he could use the TRI bounty credits they paid for killing flux, and manta Conflux carried decent bounties.

Another purple dot appeared, and then another and another and another and then he lost count. “Damn,” he thought “a swarm!” Swarms were a relatively new flux tactic. In the past, Conflux showed up in ones and twos, now it wasn’t uncommon to be minding your own business, flying through a sector like this, and — WHAM — suddenly there were twenty or thirty aliens altogether. Usually the best tactic was to run if you didn’t have back–up of your own, still it was worth checking it out a little more thoroughly before he vamoosed.

Toggling through the new targets confirmed his observations; one pair of squid, two more mantas, three kraken and an eel. No, make that two kraken and a Sentient kraken.

He winced, and hauled the big fighter right around, aiming for the nearest Jump Gate.

Squid: pretty basic, never a problem, three mantas he could handle but he’d probably still get hurt; those kraken were tough and almost out of his league — the eel was almost as fast as his Phoenix; that was dangerous, but it was that Sentient that stopped him.

Most Conflux, like mantas, are just sort of colorful living organic machines, and they seemed programmed to follow straightforward, predictable patterns. If you read up on them, and he did, you knew exactly what one would do before the fight even started. Tactics might vary from one type to another, but that was the entire extent of their abilities. But a Sentient was different; Sentients could take the form of any of the species of Conflux, though they usually seemed to be kraken. The difference was that Sentients seemed to think more like a human pilot, at least that’s the way it appeared. They would be much faster and deadlier than any ordinary kraken, which were quite nasty all by themselves, but a Sentient thought independently, followed no routine, adapted to any situation and the standard Conflux countermeasures. This wasn’t good. He was definitely in over his head.

With ten thousand meters to go, he went to hit the afterburners, but suddenly there was a loud crackle and the Phoenix’s shields lit up; he was taking laser fire!

He quickly hit the Flash-Fire button — releasing a stream of tritium vapor into the fighter’s rocket engine and neatly doubling his ship’s speed for a few moments. The engine temperature rose just as fast as the ship’s velocity and it quickly entered the danger zone. But it only lasted a few seconds, then with the Flash-Fire’s tritium supply used up, his speed began to quickly dwindle with five thousand meters still to go. With nothing to lose, he fired off his two missiles and then shouted with glee as he saw the two kraken on the targeting system running face-first into them. Suddenly the inside of his cockpit was lit up brilliantly red, and the ship’s shields crackled loudly as laser fire and plasma energy danced over the fuselage. The shields screamed in protest while trying to repel the tremendous energy, then collapsed altogether. The bombardment quickly tore through the fighter’s armor and Plasma caught a brief glimpse of the control console on fire before the universe exploded in a dazzling light show, then blackness.

The next thing he knew, the Octavian Core space station hangar crew was opening his escape hatch and helping Plasma out onto the landing deck; the Phoenix’s Emergency Escape Pod still sizzling behind him, the fighter, destroyed, was nowhere in sight.

“Lose another ship, eh pilot?” the officer in charge of the receiving crew asked with a frown.

“Thank God for TRI insurance!” answered Plasma and he ran for the accident claims office to get himself another ship.

Chapter two

Call sign: Newtron
Full name: Nicholas Nerdlinger Newtron
Homeport: Octavian Core Station, 94502

General background information:

Newtron was the favorite legitimate son of a talented couple of wealthy lint farmers, he was raised on the airless moon of the gas giant planet Anorexia.

Cursed from a young age with a rare combination of agoraphobia and claustrophobia, Newtron was never able to be comfortable. His teachers in school remember little about him other than his strange sense of pervasive ennui. While never excelling academically, he did have a remarkably sparse attendance record. His art teacher was impressed by his skill at forging notes from his parents excusing himself from class.

Relocating to the Octavian sector to be near his psychologist after having tracking him there, Newtron was surprised to find himself enrolled in the Octavian arm of the TRI pilot program.

Despite failing almost all the challenging and rigorous tests, TRI accepted him due to his great skills in obscuration and obtuseness, traits surprisingly absent from the cadet core. His instructors at the flight academy recalled him hazily, though the shuttle maintenance crew had many anecdotes attributable to “He who docks by Braille”.

A member of the illustrious anti-Conflux TRI squad New Dawn, probably due to a bizarre postal error, his opinions oftened tended to be diametrically apposed to their reality.

Recently distinguishing himself for his controversial in-depth studies of the psychological behavior patterns of the Conflux, a field in which he has virtually no expertise or qualifications, he has angered many in the TRI-BCS community by his incessant whining about Conflux rights, and for eating more than his share of donuts at their meetings.

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The Story

There were many avenues of opportunity open to cadets: mining asteroids or hauling weapons and commodities were economically rewarding and relatively safe. There was TRI service, which wouldn’t make you rich, but it’s steady work and the benefits are terrific, at least for those willing to follow orders unquestioningly.

Instead of choosing one of the more labor-intensive jobs, Newtron opted for a correspondence degree in xenobiology and joined the TRI-Bureau of Conflux Studies. He actually was interested in the bizarre creatures, a group referred to as the Conflux, which were the only xenos available to study.

And xenobiology involved a lot of field work, as he hated the idea of being trapped in a cubicle, or the monotony of watching a mining laser ever so slowly eat away at an asteroid, or worse — the nit picking, clock watching, market researching haggling-over the-price-of-milk life of a commodities trader. He’d heard that Xenobiology attracted mostly female cadets, and being youngish and from a world not known for its social graces, he thought the BCS might be his best bet for meeting members of the opposite sex, and having anything to talk to them about.

The TRI-BCS was under the direction of one Dr. Holly Q’son, who may have been female but Newtron could never prove that, having never met her. The doctor was more interested in acquiring Conflux population numbers and swarm movements than improving Newtron’s social life, and so he promptly found himself behind the joystick of a lab-equipped fighter alternately chasing jellyfish and squid and being chased by kraken and space eels.

This wasn’t really a problem unless you were the sort of person who might not appreciate the sight of exotic multi-hued gas nebula, vast fields of colorful asteroids, and strangely evocative and ethereal cosmic anomalies.

This unfortunately perfectly described Newtron, not that he didn’t appreciate the irony of the situation, but the vast stretches were aggravating his latent agoraphobia. And spending weeks locked inside the cozy little cabin of the heavily armored fighter wasn’t doing his claustrophobia any good either. So it didn’t bother him that he wasn’t moved to tears by the wispy red nebula set against the deep dark black with the tiny pinpricks of light from stars far, far away.

But what surprised him, was the realization that he’d appeared to actually made a discovery, that the manta C7 population here in Mokk’s Battlefield had completely and mysteriously disappeared.

That their dissappearance was a fact that he would even notice astonished him most of all. And even stranger to him was his new-found reaction; this strange (to him) interest compelled him to consult his own notes regarding Conflux numbers in this sector, and then stranger still, he picked up some paper and traced out a graph, highlighting the weekly changes in C7 population.

Fewer and fewer Manta C7’s. The C6’s were plentiful; there was no question there. Just park your ship at any number of spots and watch them zoom in like you’d just rung the dinner bell.

It wasn’t like anyone would miss the C7’s, heck they’d probably throw a few parties at hearing the news at stations all over TRI space. But it bothered him, he realized, and that it bothered him bothered him. What did this mean? And why did he care?

Mantas were tough, big as spaceships, faster than most, armed with organic lasers and plasma cannons; they were ill tempered, too. But where had they gone? Did something else eat them? Were there Conflux diseases that might be killing them off? Or perhaps it was a breeding cycle sort of thing? Now Newtron’s head was starting to hurt.

Later, on rising from his afternoon nap, it staggered him to realize they were still on his mind. He tried to play solitaire but couldn’t let it go. Perhaps he was sick, is that what was wrong with all those industrious people he knew? Working too long on anything, even the Conflux — you were bound to start developing an interest. Maybe what he really needed was a vacation.

He settled into the cockpit and checked out the screens. Only a couple of snail C4’s cruising the sector very far away. His fighter was equipped with an anti-flux device, sort of an unreliable repellent but it seemed to be working — they hadn’t noticed him yet.

He watched the snails for a while; they were pathetic clumsy things. Terrible shots, slow as molasses, and apparently too dumb to avoid any fights — they were the underachievers of the Conflux and really posed him no threat. He felt pity for them then, then sat up with a shock! “They’re Conflux for God’s sake! How could I feel sorry for those things?” The very idea had him reeling, a hint of revulsion at so alien a thought.

Releasing the parking brake, he fell in behind them and cruised along for awhile. Maybe he should take a few potshots and collect the easy snail’s bounty. Still they weren’t really bothering anyone; certainly they weren’t a threat. But he’d never just sat and watched them before; and was fascinated now — forgetting his earlier feelings – Newtron was lost in the moment.

A couple of hours had passed, and the snails were entering an asteroid field. The two seemed to be slowing down. Then they dodged about back and forth, up and down. They looked like clumsy sheepdogs he thought to himself. What the heck were they doing? He snuck in for a look.

They seemed to be eating! It looked like they were eating little asteroids! He didn’t know they did that. He quickly pulled out his copy of the Conflux field guide. He flipped to their section and read it with interest; nothing­–no mention of diet. How could that be? Hadn’t anyone ever just shadowed them before, watched their behavior? No, it was all about their firepower, speed and combat behavior. Kill, kill, and kill. There were diagrams and holos, anatomy and physiology, maps showing where the flux were likely to be found and in what numbers. Nothing about diet, not a single blessed thing, humph!

These people called themselves researchers? Was this the work of true xenobiologists?

My, his head hurt, he stretched with a yawn. Work to do, so much work, it’ll never get done.

He snapped off some pictures to record his discovery; after all that would be the professional thing to do. Then he wheeled around the big fighter, set course for Oct Core station, and zoomed off back toward home.

Newtron never noticed that all the while he had been watching the Snails, something else was watching him.

Posted by Newtron on 08-19-2004 04:21 PM:

Chapter three – The Xenobiologist

Dariel was a Xenobiologist. She was a Xenobiologist in exactly the same way that Newtron was not. It was her chosen profession, she’d put herself through school, she worked hard and she was good at it.

Being both very good and very professional made her very unpopular in the way that people who tended to throw off the grading curve usually were, at least among her TRI-BCS colleagues. Not that this bothered her really, she was far too interested in her work and much too busy to care about such things as her own popularity; she had her research and lots of Conflux body parts and tissue samples to study. There were also many long technical papers to write that she knew hardly anyone would ever read. And she had a mystery, one that she was surprised no one else was working on. The Conflux existed in space, they lived and seemed to thrive there, they were there when the first explorers went through the early Jump gates and they were still a mystery, so little was known about the aliens themselves, aside from how to kill them. The very idea that such creatures could evolve in space went against everything she’d learned about the natural evolutionary process, not to mention the basic carbon-based biological system. Yet there was almost no research being done in this field. Dariel didn’t know which was a bigger mystery, the Conflux, or the lack of study concerning them.

While Dariel was certainly passionate about her work, she knew that her work was largely ignored among her professional colleagues; unless it was useful for combat and such, say — how to better kill Conflux — it wasn’t even considered important. For the most part, the reports just filled computer databases and used up copy paper– still they were very much appreciated by the paper weevils in the library.

She was smart enough to understand the basis for her compulsions.

Her parents had been tour operators, taking tourists out to observe the great ocean beasts of her home world. they were also conservationists. Organized poachers prowled those oceans and hunted the creatures to extinction. Her parents had tried to intervene, and had paid with their lives.

Dariel left her world an orphan but the passion for understanding and protecting wildlife was in her blood. Now she lived and worked among the stars, and Dariel questioned TRI’s policy concerning the bounties they automatically assigned for killing the great the denizens of space; the Conflux. She could understand having to kill them in self-defense, the Conflux were preternaturally aggressive and attacked any ship that crossed their path, but for the most part it was easy to avoid them, yet many pilots actively hunted the aliens.

What impact would that have on the species as a whole, what would the long term implications be, and did humanity have the right to exterminate another species, simply because they were aggressive?

No one was asking these questions so it was up to Dariel to do it, and she wouldn’t quit, even if no one else cared.

Yes, nobody else was doing this research, which Dariel considered so vitally important, something her father would have understood, and if she didn’t do it, there would be no one else who would. Someday soon, she would publish something that would make people stop and pay attention to the questions she had. Dariel had little way of knowing someone else already had.

Chapter four – New Dawn

LupinOne was the overall fleet commander for a TRI pilot squad. The squad called itself “New Dawn” and had almost one hundred members and several private space stations around the galaxy they used as regional headquarters.

Now there were quite a few squads in TRI. The idea was to encourage pilot squads to perform the work that was often expected of government. Policymakers believed that private enterprise was more efficient at performing these functions. The system seemed to work very well. The squad system provided a forum for networking and exchanging professional advice.

Some of the squads were just boondoggles to get TRI to pay for private beer bashes and to host their X-rated squad WebPages.

While others squads like “Mac”, “ACME” or “Stormraiders” actually performed useful services to justify their tax-exempt status, and generally made the party squads look even more useless and disorganized.

This was true of the New Dawn squad members because they were some of the most overachieving do-gooders to ever graduate from the space academy. They focused their efficient attention on the problem of dealing with the Conflux, and as a result had written the bible on how to fight them. I mean literally, someone had actually sat down and typed it all out with pretty pictures and other nitpicky detail — lots of insightful observations and thoughtful conclusions, tactical guidance and other stuff you really had to admire.

Thanks to squads like New Dawn and others, the Conflux menace was at bay, beaten back into the void, and ceased to be more than a dangerous annoyance to the rest of human space. And if you did have a problem with say, an infestation or such, a quick call and the Conflux exterminators of New Dawn would arrive to handle the situation.

This was all very good for the rest of TRI; the other pilots could get on with devoting their time to more profitable enterprises, like mining in safety, hauling cargo without fear, or manipulating markets and making gazillions of credits, all thanks to those hard working guys in squads like New Dawn. Of course there were rewards to the work of keeping the Conflux in check; it was exciting, and the bounties paid by TRI made it profitable — you just weren’t going to get rich doing it.

As a result, many of the pilots under LupinOne’s command were sort of part-timers, they spent a good deal of time making their money in private service, while devoting as much time as they could spare to New Dawn. The system worked well enough — when something important came up, a crisis of some sort concerning infestations or Conflux swarms near populated areas, the pilots of New dawn could be counted upon to drop whatever they were doing and band together to handle the problem.

LupinOne insisted that his squad act like professionals, that it functioned well. Also, its members had the best healthcare, to keep fighting the Conflux wherever they were found.

The Conflux struggle was the one real threat left in the galaxy, besides the occassional pirate, in many ways they were still enigmatic and unknown, despite the century or more that TRI had been dealing with them.

So as Commander of New Dawn, LupinOne was eager to learn as much about them as he could, not that there was much in the way of research done. It was perplexing that more resources weren’t spent on trying to better understand the nature of the flux.

Where were they really from? Why were they so aggressive? It was a mystery. And how could living things exist in the cold vacuum of space?

Scientists didn’t seem to have answers to those questions. What did they feed on, what was the reason they were attacking human pilots? Was it territory, or because we were somehow interfering with their food supply? Most importantly; how many of them were there? Over a century of killing the Conflux, often by the dozens, and yet it seemed there were more than ever. Nobody seemed to be working on answering these questions. Well, almost no one. There was a junior xenobiologist named Dariel working for TRI who was writing about the Conflux.

And she had gotten the attention of LupinOne.

Chapter five – The Space Pirate

“Unregulated space”, is a backwater section of the galaxy, referred to as “unregulated” because TRI’s mandate does not extend its jurisdiction to the dozen or so sectors in this hostile Conflux-infested section of the cosmos.

Here, in unregulated space, in an otherwize nondescript little privately owned space station, was a fellow named Rastamon. A fellow many regarded as a pirate, though that wouldn’t be the definition he’d apply to himself.

Rastamon also read Dariel’s reports, and for reasons not very different from those of LupinOne, the New Dawn Commander.

The Conflux has been described as a race of very large, colorful, space-dwelling creatures that attack humans whenever they see them. No one really knows why they do this, not even Dariel, and most people really don’t care. There is no arguing with a member of the Conflux. They’re like ants at a picnic — pink ants the size of whales, flying faster than the speed of sound and shooting lasers from their heads. And humans are their picnic.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a broken down shuttle with a inoffensive little mining laser, or in a massive Dragon fighter with five big plasma cannons capable of vaporizing a comet in a single salvo. A little C1 squid, its four wiggling tails, will attack head-on, without any regard for its own safety, and will keep coming back till you or the squid is dead.

The kind of information TRI pilots really want — what’s important to them — is where the flux are likely to show up, how fast can they fly and how can you kill them. Thanks to the TRI-BCS, Dariel’s predecessors and colleagues, and the folks at squads like New Dawn — this information has been gathered, processed and efficiently catalogued.

How fast is a phocaena C-12 and where are you likely to encounter one? How can you kill a C-15 without it killing you?– all available on-line. Every couple of years some new type of Conflux appears. Pilots and TRI specialists then get to work gathering information on their combat capabilities and weaknesses and write it all down, and the BCS processes it.

Dariel may know how much calcium and potassium a flux is composed of, how small its brain is or how much energy they are capable of generating, but in the end her bosses at the BCS really don’t care all that much about that kind of thing, they just take her reports, pat her on the back, and file the information away, because the truth is almost no one is ever likely to read it.

Except Rastamon.

Now, Rastamon belongs to a squad too. It’s quite exclusive, he’s its only member, and till now he seemed content with that.

Now, an odd thing about Rastamon’s little “club” is that he calls his squad the “Conflux” evidencing perhaps a little identity conflict. According to the TRI you can call your squad anything you want, they have no problem with that. What they do have a problem with is the way Rastamon goes around shooting all the other pilots that get in his way. That’s why most people think of him as a pirate.

Now the real difference between Rastamon’s “the Conflux” and the Conflux’s “the Conflux” is that one is an apparent homicidal psychopath who’s very, very good at fighting humans, while the other is a race of homicidal psychopaths and merely pretty good at it.

If you ask Rastamon why he acts this way, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend doing so face to face, he might tell you it’s because the Conflux were in space first and it’s the humans who have done the invading. He might also say he’s defending the Conflux and the Conflux’s territory — though it’s highly doubtful any flux ever asked him to do so, still that’s his argument and you’ve got to give him some credit for sticking to it. I suppoe this makes Rastamon the champion of the Conflux cause.

Dr Sejanus Hycche, TRI-Medical Chief Surgeon, has suggested that Rastamon is more than likely suffering from a space-related illness — “Wynar’s syndrome” — known for inducing feelings of delusion, paranoia and feelings of mistrust towards TRI. All of which would quite honestly describe Rastamon, but Dr Sejanus Hycche’s diagnosis isn’t going to help you much if you’re staring down a laser cannon Rastamons got pointed your way.

Delusional or not, Rastamon is considered a pirate, which as I’ve said, is interesting because he really doesn’t see it that way; he thinks himself a Conflux advocate, and as such he’s interested in learning as much about his adopted wards as he can. And except for Dariel’s reports, there isn’t really all that much available concerning the flux, aside from how to kill them. Only Dariel seems interested in what make the flux tick, and so Rastamon reads her reports to see what she has to say.

Now there is one more member of Dariel’s little study group, but we’ll get to him later.

Chapter six – Confluxed

TRI-News Report:

Biomass confiscated

Today, TRI-FDA spokesmen announced the confiscation of a large warehouse of Conflux biomass from a popular dog food company located on the planet Hellion.

Apparently the biomass, obtained from the bodies of Conflux, and ordinarily used in the production of nuclear weapons, was black-market material and well beyond its expiration date. As a result, the company was able to buy it well under current market value.

Commenting on the announcement, a New Dawn “biochemical specialist” named Newtron said of using Conflux biomass in the manufacture of pet foods; “Biomass is an alien biochemical organism; you’d be better off feeding your dog a radioactive bicycle tire soaked in trichloroethylene. At least it would be a terrestrial compound.”
#

TRI-News Report:

Endangered species?

In a recent conclusion to a three-month study of various Conflux, a New Dawn researcher, pilot Newtron, states that the C7 Manta is a species in decline and possibly a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“While never appearing in numbers as large as its more common cousin the C6, the C7 has all but disappeared in areas where it was formerly sighted. Conflux hunters polled note that it’s rare to find them now, and the few that do show up seem much smaller than in the past — under the limit”.

Asked to comment on this turn of events, wildlife researcher Newtron points out that the encroachment by POS’s into the shy C7’s habitat, as well as a decline in its primary food source, namely new pilots, may be to blame for the falling numbers. That, coupled with the rise in populations of more aggressive C8 and C12 Conflux which compete for the same food and territory, has driven this reclusive and beautiful animal to the brink of extinction.

Newtron added; “With numbers this low, it’s unlikely the C7’s can maintain a healthy genetic diversity, which would make them prey to inheritable diseases like ‘Conflux distemper’, ‘ick’ and ‘interstellar psoriasis,’ all of which have appeared in the few C7’s observed during this study.”

While there is talk of a captive breeding program, this is unlikely to be successful, as C7’s have never survived long in captivity, “They’re just too delicate, poor things.” Newtron was quoted as saying. “All we can really do is encourage recruits to travel to more remote locations, not shoot the few individual C7’s that remain, and hope for the best”.

#

TRI-News Report:

Misunderstood Conflux?

A report out on a recent study into the behavior of the C-4 and C-5 Conflux, otherwise known as “snails”, has suggested TRI has been misinterpreting them up till now.

“I believe the snails to be asteroid-vores” Conflux “behavioral scientist” Newtron is quoted as saying. “They are the bison of the spaceways, happily munching on small asteroids. Not really aggressive, but put on fierce displays in an attempt to drive off pilots invading their feeding grounds. How else can you explain their poor marksmanship?”

While some pilots have lost ships to snails, Newtron insists that this is quite rare. Usually the Snail’s attempts are mere bluff and bluster and are usually met with lethal return fire. “They’re big, dumb and poor shots,” says Newtron, “you, know, many ships are lost to asteroid collisions. Perhaps if the snails were left in peace they would clear up the space-lanes for us. Remember, Snails are more afraid of you than you are of them.”

#

TRI-News Report:

Protest over C-0 bounty

A researcher at the New Dawn Wildlife Center has called for the rescinding of the bounties on Conflux C-0 “Jellyfish”.

Conflux field researcher Newtron was quoted as saying, “I seriously doubt that a single TRI pilot has ever been killed by a jelly. Even domesticated dogs kill and injure more people, but you don’t see a bounty on them. My field observations have shown these jellies to be playful, gregarious creatures, drawn to the bright lights of the stations, where they probably see shuttles as other Conflux and attempt to play “tag” using their tiny little lasers. It’s kind of cute when you look at it that way.”

This parallels with a rise in the number of injured jellies reported each week. “A newbie shuttle pilot can be forgiven for taking a potshot at the first alien they see,” said Newtron,” but some of these injuries are from plasma weapons — that means veterans are shooting at jellies. Why not swat butterflies while you’re at it?”

Most of these injured C-0’s have to be euthanized because the technology doesn’t exist to treat them effectively at this time.

“If you really want to curb the spawning of jellies,” continued Newtron, “I would suggest turning the station lights down — saves energy too.”

#

TRI-News Report:

Pilot Newtron hospitalized

TRI announced today the hospitalization of former New Dawn member Newtron.

“We’re keeping him under observation at the present time.” a TRI official was quoted as saying, “Sentries found him in the station hangar wearing a chartreuse spandex jumpsuit, and painting an Intensity fighter bright purple. He was mumbling something about assimilation.” said the official, “It’s sad when we lose good pilots to space madness, luckily Newtron wasn’t all that good.”

When asked about the possibility of a recovery for Newtron, the official replied, “He had been spending a lot of time in Mokk’s Battlefield and the Canis sectors recently; we think perhaps he suffered from too many pod rides home. He became mentally unhinged — but think of all the hardware we’ll be saving if he’s kept in a comfortably padded room and not allowed back in the cockpit.”

#

TRI-News Report:

New Dawn comments on Newtron press releases

A spokesperson for the squad leading the fight in the Conflux War, New Dawn, today announced that press statements made by pilot Newtron do not reflect the opinions of the New Dawn Squad and are should not be attributed to New Dawn in any way. “He’d just show up in our lobby and issue statements to the press,” a New Dawn spokesperson said, “but honestly, he’s never had an office here. He claimed to be a xenobehaviorist or some such thing, but we never saw any of his credentials. We just thought he was a crackpot. To think they let that man fly…”

TRI officials said that Newtron was still under observation and being kept sedated for his own good. “We don’t think he’d hurt anyone,” remarked Dr Hycche of the TRI Rehabilitation Center, “but he just droned on and on about the misunderstood Conflux; we were afraid one of the other pilots would euthanize him if we didn’t quiet him down.”

Asked if there was any hope for a recovery, the renowned Dr. Hycche said, “It’s obviously Wynar’s syndrome; the young man spent a great deal of time in deep space. It’s not often we see cases this extreme; and we certainly don’t want Newtron back behind the controls of a TRI fighter again.”

#

Thursday

It was Thursday.

Usually my favorite day of the week, Thursdays were nurse Schmitt’s days off.

“Nurse” is the euphemism TRI-Healthcare uses in its budget reports to create pleasant images of the creatures assigned to look after us patients in the Rehabilitation and Re-education wing. I suppose this is intended to avoid frightening accountants and the bookish political types responsible for approving the Rehabilitation Center’s budget in Congress. The actual sight of the pin-headed, psychopathic gorillas that minister to our needs might keep them up at night.

My Nurse Schmitt was unusually pin-headed, exceptionally psychopathic and surprisingly large even for a human who so closely resembled a gorilla. Anyway, Thursdays were his/its days off, leaving me to relax in the care of a less pin-headed, smaller gorilla-type who was merely very bad tempered — luxury.

It was just after breakfast — bacon, toast and eggs I imagine–pureed all together and squeezed through a tube the nurse had gently shoved up my nose and down my throat. A last tug on the straightjacket belt, and then the padded door of my cell shut me off from the universe once again.

I was just getting myself comfortable in a corner, and looking forward to the morning’s hypnotic, subliminal rehabilitation program displayed on the visor of the therapeutic helmet clamped around my head, when I was surprised to hear a dull, loud thump, which I also felt through the floor. Suddenly I was rudely pulled to my feet and before I could protest that it had been surgically attached, the helmet was ripped from my head.

A tall, dark muscular individual in a black jumpsuit had me by the elbows. “What’s your name?” He growled through clenched teeth, a look of puzzlement wrinkling his piratical brow.

“Newtron?” I tried not to make it sound like a question as I gargled around the feeding tube still running down my throat. I noticed the door to my cell hung half-off its hinges.

My new acquaintance examined me like an old container of Chinese food one discovers in the back of one’s fridge, “You? You’re Newtron?” He asked, holding me now at arms length; “You’re the pro-conflux guy that was quoted in all those TRI news reports?”

“Yes.” I said, standing up and doing the best I could to look professorial in my straightjacket with the feeding tube in my nose and blood running out from several places on my skull. “I’m Newtron. Though I’m not sure I would label myself pro-Conflux. I’m more anti-anti-Conflux. you know, like not hunting them I mean, still some of those creatures are pretty dangerous.”

“That’s the TRI propaganda they’ve been feeding you!” he shouted, and cast a malevolent sideways glance at the re-education helmet lying on the floor. “Lucky for you I got here in time.”

I thought back to my weeks under Nurse Schmitt’s gentle care and considered how that phrase “in time” was all a matter of perspective. It was at this point that I noticed the faded name tag embroidered on the left breast of his dark jump suit — RASTAMON.

“So, you’re here to rescue me.” I hoped that didn’t sound like a question — he looked like he was having second thoughts.

“I read your stuff, thought we shared a point of view. Was I wrong?”

“No-no,” I stammered, not wanting to look this gift horse in the mouth. “You know, I really am pretty pro-conflux the more I think about it.”

He frowned, took one last look around the cell and seemed to come to a decision. “Alright, we can talk more about that later. TRI cops will be here in a minute, time to move.”

Yanking the institutional fashion statement off me, we took off down the hall, coming up short a step later while I paused to pull the tube out of my nose.

“Where’s your ship?” he shouted. I had no idea; they hadn’t provided a valet parking receipt on my arrival.

Ammo rounds ricocheted from the door frame as we entered the hangar deck, and we got separated from each other in the confusion. Then I saw Rastamon lithely leap into the cockpit of his heavily customized fighter.

I was twenty paces ahead of thirty very upset looking individuals in TRI uniforms, and made a run for the only other fighter still in the hangar — an Intensity belonging to Solrain pilot LordSid. There were some traces of purple paint staining the fuselage.

Luckily the keys were above the sun visor; I wouldn’t have had time to hot-wire it.

I turned the key, the engine coffed and died, then caught on the second try as the first of my former care-givers clambered onto the wings. I put a nasty dent in pilot Bengaley’s cargo tow as I backed out — I was never much good in the parking garage — but once I got it pointed in the right direction I was out of there.

Unfortunately in all the confusion, Rastamon had apparently taken off and as I rocketed out of the launch tube, and around the station, he was nowhere to be found. How would I ever thank him? Thanks to Rastamon I had a new reason to like Thursdays.

#

The hiding

Newtron would never have imagined himself a fugitive from the law. But then, were it not for Rastamon’s involvement and Newtron’s borrowing of LordSid’s handy fighter, TRI would’ve had little further interest in the escaped mental patient.

Still — any appearance by Rastamon in regulated space usually got their attention, and they took a dim view of spaceship thieves.
Newtron spent a frenzied hour yanking panels open, pulling out security chips and transponders, bypassing remote anti-theft cut-off circuits moments before they were triggered, and doing his best to convince the ship’s voice recognition program that he really was LordSid but that he had a touch of laryngitis.

In the meantime, TRI-Security scrambled station patrol drones while the fighter sped on. The chat-com chimmed: announcing that TRI had slapped a hefty bounty on him. Through no skill of his own, Newtron made it to the first Jumpgate ahead of the drones and then safely through the next, burning a Flash-Fire before a drowsy miner there even noticed the bountied pilot alert.

He made it to the Darkened Crossroads sector and then out into unregulated space before a pair of fighters there even got within radar range. Then, choosing a gate and direction at random, Newtron watched the kilometers fly by, barreling out as far from civilization as he could manage without getting lost, hopefully well beyond the radar range of any prospectors out there searching for ancient artifacts. He blazed through more sectors, through “the Connection”, a pair of krakens on his tail, finally ending up in the Light Crossroads sector after jousting briefly with a Conflux eel.

He had a close call there, fighting the nasty eel in this unfamiliar ship, firing the guns, banking around, he was holding his breath right up until the alien’s explosive demise. Then, seeing the bounty reward flash across the comlink, he realized he’d wasted the effort, those credits would be going to LordSid’s account.

Chapter seven – Pirate contemplation

From the observation dome of a private space station, hidden deep in unregulated space, a pirate contemplated the vast universe. He stroked his goatee, in the manner of pirates of old, gazed out at the stars and wondered at the strange chain of events that had brought him here.

Like Newtron, Rastamon also carried a bounty, though for him it was nothing new. It was like some old overcoat with a long forgotten stain; he’d had one so long, and grown used to it over the years.

Rastamon had taken a chance landing at the Octavian Core station, regardless of however surreptitiously he’d managed it, and finding his way to the hospital’s rehabilitation detention center, then engineering that pilot Newtron’s escape. Rastamon was also was an expert at disabling alarms; he knew how to circumnavigate protocols and otherwise cajole security programs as they tried to alert the authorities to his presence. Still, those were all temporary measures; sooner or later an actual set of eyes would’ve spotted what the electronics couldn’t see. So Rastamon retreated back to his lair, empty handed, to rethink.

Rastamon was formidable — ruthless and deadly — he was aware of his strengths, as well as his weaknesses. The problem was he was one man, and he had a big job to do. And while Newtron might very well have been a flake, and it seemed almost certainly was, still even a mental patient could have his uses, whether Newtron himself was aware of it or not.

Rastamon turned from the window and walked back to his spaceship — the hull still ice cold from spaceflight, beads of condensation glistening on the paint, gleaming whitely under the bright hangar lights.

He felt sickened by the constant, colonial encroachment into space by the greedy corporations, TRI, and those mega-rich merchants and station builders who continued to push ever farther out into free space, into territory that was once solely the domain of the hunted Conflux.

While Rastamon was without country, society, or friend, he knew that he was still human. It couldn’t be helped.

But what he could do was try to stop TRI, to sabotage their plans and return space to the magical creatures which had evolved there. Yet he knew he had limits, he recognized them, and he knew he couldn’t accomplish all his goals alone. Rastamon had to get busy if he was going to solve this present problem; plans were underway, things were happening, and he needed to act. He’d thought maybe Newtron could’ve helped — an extra set of hands — but he was gone now, probably grabbed by the station drones or the first rookie to fire up a shuttle.

Well, Rastamon would just have to see for himself…

Chapter eight – A Commander’s musings

LupinOne rose from behind his long desk and poured himself another cup of coffee. Turning back and looking through the large view port, he caught the sight of a ship coming through the Jumpgate from The Gyre.

The ship belonged to SpaceDrake, a fellow New Dawn member returning from a long cargo run. It would be the nukes they needed for restocking. With all the recent Conflux infestations it was all they could do to keep up.

He watched as the pilot expertly aligned the unwieldy cargo-tow with the docking gate on the mammoth white spherical oddity they knew as Amananth station.

Amananth station, was a city in space, and mysteriously deserted. Perfectly clean and orderly, marvelously advanced and automated to the last detail, the station functioned perfectly. TRI pilots found it just that way when they’d first discovered this sector.

If Amananthians themselves existed, they never showed themselves, and there were many who thought they were long extinct. The lonely station continued to function through the ingeniously efficient simulated personality AI programs that operated the hangers, markets and simulators. It courteously dealt with visitors like the pilots of New Dawn and other TRI squads.

Commerce — like that being transacted even now by SpaceDrake — the producing and selling of some of Amananth’s extraordinary technical products, as well as refueling, making repairs and rearming, were all performed by slick robotic automatons, which, while not resembling humans, may or may not resemble Amananthians either.

Many pilots were uneasy in the vast cathedral-like station with its numerous locked doors, cryptic symbols etched into the bulkheads. The eerie quiet bothered them, they’d say. LupinOne, who had spent a lot of time there coordinating squad activities here, had grown used to the place.

None the less, New Dawn had set up its own private station, as its head-quarters, located here in the same sector. Amananth was special, for it possessed a unique version of the strange unstable gravitational anomaly that were found throughout the rest of the galaxy.

The anomalies had been determined to be natural phenomena by TRI scientists, though none had a very satisfactory explanation for what would cause them. TRI explorers had also found hundreds of “stable” anomalies, and these, when coupled with the “gyroscopic gravity de-fluxer” — the invention of the brilliant Solrain scientist Watt J. Samon — were the basis for the Jumpgates themselves.

Then, it was discovered that one of the three anomalies here at Amananth was partially unstable, closely resembling the weird plasma clouds in other sectors. When the partially stable anomaly was coupled with a de-fluxing assembly unit, it produced a Jumpgate like no other. It created a gateway into another dimension, virtually a parallel universe.

But this universe was populated by very hostile inhabitants. They had found no humans there, or any stations that may have once been home to humans. But they did find Conflux, many Conflux more dangerous varieties.

Also, the pilots found what appeared to be organic Jump gates, at least that’s what they turned out to be; they were bizarre, pink-limbed things. Perhaps grown, maybe alive? Even TRI scientists hadn’t come to a conclusion about that.

New Dawn had originally been chartered to investigate and repel the Conflux alien menace, and so, on the discovery of this portal into what was now referred to as “Conflux space”, it was logical to establish a station — this station — where they could have quick and decisive access to Conflux space if the need arose.

A Conflux Long-range Advance Warning System, or “CLAWS”, was a network of space beacons throughout Conflux space.

TRI space was monitored by a network of sector-station beacons, which kept track of vessel traffic and magnetic storms, and provided warning when it sensed hostile activity. That system had been constructed as part of a long civil infrastructure and defense initiative which had taken over a century to complete. With the discovery of Conflux space there was a feeling of urgency for establishing a similar system there. After all, TRI had no idea what resources the Conflux had or how they would respond to discovery. .

The CLAWS array was a remarkable achievement, but it would have been an almost impossible task without the cooperation of many squads coupled with the resources of TRI. It was a series of beacon arrays, all heavily shielded, and modified to function in this parallel universe, transmitting information back to human space.

The arrays were placed at all the various sector locations that had been discovered to date, though there was still considerable mapping to do. LupinOne felt they had just metaphorically scratched the surface of this new universe.

The arrays had required the efforts of many dedicated pilots, and thousands of man-hours of work. And thanks to TRI and the technical assistance of Dr. Teodoro Vanagriff of the TRI-BCS, they had improved on the original beacon design using many of the ancient artifacts gathered from of all places, Conflux space itself, which seemed as littered with the ancient debris as human space was.

Now the array was in place, and functioning almost perfectly, relaying Conflux swarm movements with tachyonic efficiency. But the beacons had an apparent weakness.

The system had already broken down more than once. Despite its location in Conflux space, it didn’t appear that the flux had molested it. They might not even understand what it was, the Conflux being an technically organically inclined race, while CLAWS was all steel and circuits.

LupinOne’s team had repaired and replaced several major components that had seemed to fail for no apparent reason. He found it hard to believe the almost magical ancient artifacts themselves could fail; he couldn’t remember an incident such as that happening before.

Nor did sabotage seem likely. The very location of the beacons, in the most dangerous parts of unknown space would have dissuaded any sane individual from venturing there. And who in their right mind would want to interfere with such an important galactic security effort in the first place? Still there had to be an explanation and as a great fictional detective once remarked — when you exclude the impossible causes, the remainder, however improbable, must be the truth.

The CLAWS relay system had to remain operational. The Conflux seemed to be up to something, of that LupinOne was sure. New Dawn had encountered more swarms, larger than before, and many more infestations. And they had discovered new varieties of flux. Conflux behavior was different, and they had been having more frequent encounters with Sentients.

An alert flashed across his computer screen, looking up LupinOne read;

“KTRI: FUGITIVE NEWTRON HAS ESCAPED FROM TRI MEDICAL FACILITY.”

Speaking of insane individuals, grinned LupinOne.

Then another alert:

“KTRI: NEWTRON AIDED IN ESCAPE BY PILOT PIRATE RENEGADE RASTAMON OF SQUAD CONFLUX.”

Now that guy might just be crazy enough to sabotage the CLAWS, thought LupinOne.

He sat back and thought for a minute. God, you got to hand it to that Rastamon, a jail-break from a TRI station, what a gutsy thing to pull off.

LupinOne looked at the pile of folders and other papers in neat stacks and covering most of his desk, then at the pen in his hand. “How long since I’d been behind a joystick?” he asked himself. He gripped an imaginary joystick and squeezed off a few shots at the fugitives in his mind’s eye.

Newtron — LupinOne felt a little sorry for that guy, seemed like a likeable fellow and Lord knows enough people had gotten space-sick. Another New Dawn member lost to Wynar’s syndrome. And let’s face it, you couldn’t spend your life fighting the Conflux and not develop some admiration for them. Even he could appreciate Newtron’s desire to want to see the creatures as majestic, natural wonders. The mantas, for instance, were elegantly refined, and if you had time to stop and contemplate a C12 before it tried to kill you, you had to admit it was truly a work of art.

In the beginning, LupinOne had also seen the flux as some sort of exotic wildlife — impossible, unbelievable storybook creations flying amongst the stars. But they were dragons, and in the end he had become a knight whose duty it was to vanquish them — he and New Dawn.

But you had to have lost all touch with reality not to understand why humans were fighting the Conflux.

Newtron was wrong, the flux were not in danger of extinction. Lupin had been killing them for years and it seemed there were more now than ever before.

He dug nder his files and lifted a report from the TRI-BCS. It was from a researcher named Dariel.

When all this had started, the Bureau of Conflux Studies had done invaluable work. The data on Conflux variations, their habits, specifications and tactics, all was very important information. But even when he was a recruit he was aware of a lot that was missing. What were the Conflux? Why were they aggressive in the first place? How fast were they reproducing? Where did they come from?

TRI-BCS had giant tanks of formaldehyde with tons of Conflux body parts floating in them, but apparently they still had few answers.

This Dariel tried to find those answers looking through a microscope. LupinOne used his pilot reports and the CLAWS relay. Newtron probably had used his imagination.

LupinOne wondered — who was closer to the truth?

Chapter nine – A Sentient’s musings

The creature stared at the CLAWS beacon and tried to comprehend it. Like an armored whale floating in space, the Sentient kraken was an anachronism; a creature that defied all logic according to modern biochemical anatomical science. It thrived at a temperature absolute zero, survived in the vacuum of space, and it seemed immune to intense cosmic radiation. The Conflux generated its own fusion power, could fly at hundreds of meters per second, and possessed organic weapons which rivaled those of the technically advanced human race.

Now it approached this beacon for perhaps the thousandth time, straining to see the array more clearly, to focus on the details it must be missing, to understand why this thing was here. The Sentient was special, it normally functioned with two seperate minds, but only one possessed the understanding to answer any of the questions the Sentient had, and it wasn’t sharing any answers with the other one.

The Sentient was taking a chance being here in the first place, though here, it had no choice in the matter. As formidable as the Sentient was, it was accompanied by almost equally deadly escorts; the invaders — the TRI pilots — were possessive of their things. Still the Sentient, like all other Conflux, was expendable. New Conflux could be grown more easily than the invaders could make replacements for themselves, or this ugly “thing”.

The invaders had made many, many trips to assemble this object, and for what? It was ugly, disgusting, full of angles and corners and riveted sides. It appalled the Sentient, as did the invaders themselves. Their grotesque metal bodies and giant soul-less hives were beyond understanding and therefore beyond deserving of mercy.

The Sentient could not understand the beacon, or its purpose, yet it knew the invaders considered it important, so it must be in some way.

Still the object wasn’t alive, of that the flux was sure. The invaders were just barely so — tiny little living elements in their large armored bodies.

Soon such things would cease to be important. That path was now clear and the invaders oblivious.

Chapter ten – Bengaley

Bengaley’s ship was very far from the nearest gate and it made him more than a little uneasy. This was unregulated space — a place where pirates and some of the more dangerous aliens dwell — and Bengaley didn’t think of himself as much of a fighter.

He was normally deskbound, technically a field inspector with TRI-STCC. It was important enough work, and he did have to travel a lot to various stations, but combat was not his strong suit and he felt secure enough to admit this limitation.

But situations change — today he was an artifact hunter – and, God, it was boring, how do these guys do it? It had only been a few days and he was so bored he’d already counted all the rivets holding the dashboard together, all the little tick marks on every dial, and played twelve hundred games of computer solitaire. It was no surprise that the Artifact Guild was made up of mostly anti-social, introverted types.

But today, he Bengaley, was out here, making an effort to discover the valuable artifact treasures himself. It was a simple matter of programing a spiraling course around the sector, allowing for the radar range to overlap, to cover as much space as possible in a merciful period of time. And due to space drift, new “arties” to appeared in previously searched sectors all the time.

Hard to believe that a great high-tech empire had once controlled the galaxy, and it was now all gone except for these widgets floating in space. The artifacts TRI pilots had found were of such high technical value, very advanced over the current level of human technology, how could the old civilization have failed? It gave one pause to consider how fragile a thing civil society was. It was all the more reason to fortify the underpinnings of the current bureaucracy, like his work at the STCC.

Bengaley’s ship was a Pioneer class cargo tow — pilot-speak for a space-going tugboat — a giant, white wingless dragonfly. The Cargo tow was equipped with a powerful radar that enabled him to probe space out to 48,500 meters in every direction. So far he’d managed to retrieve several potentially valuable pieces.

Time ticked on as he executed the standard search patterns, preprogrammed into the ship’s computer. Bengaley was almost done exploring the sector out to a distance of 120,000 meters from the Jump gate. At that point he would have to decide if it was worth expanding his search out perhaps another sixty or seventy thousand meters. He rolled his eyes and shook his head at how long that pattern would take to perform.

His targeting system distinguished between asteroids and other spaceships, Conflux, or space wreckage and the artifacts he sought. There were bits of space debris he had to waste time sifting through. Countless faction battles were fought in space and many, many wrecked fighters and pieces of fighters drifted among the stars.

TRI had taken great pains to develop biodegradable ship fuselages that decomposed once a ship was abandoned, this helped to reduce the amount of hazards to navigation. Yet it took time for the wrecks to decompose, and there were still many bits and pieces to deal with. Like that of a darkened fighter that now appeared on his screen.

It looked cold and dark, and appeared to be drifting in space. It was still at extreme range but it looked pretty much intact. It could be a pirate — he hoped not — hiding out here, far from the shipping lanes. Perhaps a pirate licking his wounds or counting his ill-gotten gains. Still a pirate could hardly make a living drifting hundreds of thousands of meters from the jump gates hoping some schnook like him would by chance wander by. Just to be safe — Bengaley was always safe — he targeted the fighter and flipped the safety guards off the missiles’ triggers.

The distance rapidly diminished and he got a better look. The fighter’s white wings reflected starlight and now appeared perfectly intact. Bengaley felt icy fingers on the back of his neck. His cargo tow was pretty unwieldy, it was too late to alter course now.

The fighter was dark; there wasn’t a flicker of power radiating from it. Bengaley slowed as he came within range, straining for a better look. Something odd about the cowl… was that purple paint? He was close enough now to read the call numbers stenciled on the tail and then he knew for certain; this was LordSid’s fighter! Bengaley had been in the hanger the day LordSid had discovered that Newtron had vandalized it. Bengaley could still hear LordSid’s scream reverberating down the station halls.

The Tale Continues …

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