Newtron and the Jumpgate: Chapters 21 – 30

by Newtron

Chapter twenty-one – The squad

Space appeared to be darker here in the Conflux universe. The illusion of faraway thin clouds, were in fact gas nebula trillions of kilometers away, obscured the stars, and as a result, Conflux space seemed lonelier and more remote without them. Looking out the cockpit windows and “down” could produce the sensation of falling. This often led to a feeling of vertigo and sometimes panic. As a precaution, pilots were warned not to look “down” in space.

This passed through the pilot’s minds as they held formation. Robo29, Backspace, Quilland, Hopes-Kiss and Viper281 did a visual sweep of the area ahead choosing not to rely solely on the sophisticated electronic scan his fighter constantly performed.

Backspace took point and Robo29 guarded their flank. The five white fighters bristled with powerful weapons all on hair triggers. In the adjoining sector, LupinOne flew a heavily modified scout ship, it was customized, using special artifacts that improved performance, by increasing the output of the power-plant and engines. He was using its significantly more powerful radar, monitoring the movement of a swarm of Conflux, which appeared as a pinkish-purple blob on the edge of his screen. He was especially careful to keep track of any attempt to backtrack by the flux. LupinOne kept in continuous contact with the rest of the pack on the squad channel.

The swarm seemed to be assembling amid the rings of a distant gas giant. With the stars behind them, the planet — a turbulent white and pink orb covered in wispy storm clouds — seemed bright enough to read by. LupinOne wondered if that was home to the angry aliens.

If that was home, thought LupinOne, the flux must be very alien indeed. He was musing over the report he’d received from the Brotherhood just before starting this mission. Spork, Lego and Tesrend had been returning from sentry duty; the idea of those three sitting still for that job amazed him; they’d plotted a return course that enabled them to check up on a few unguarded beacons and had surprised three ships suspiciously close to one. The intruders indicated the Foundation was their squad, confirming that suspicion. Evidently not fools, the three Foundation vessels fled with the Brotherhood in hot pursuit; unfortunately they managed to elude Spork and company and made a mysterious getaway.

Well, that confirmed it, that humans – anarchists – were probably behind the problems they’d been having with CLAWS. Recruiting the Brotherhood had already paid off; now they needed to anticipate the Foundation’s next move, unless the encounter scared them off for good. LupinOne turned his ship about and passed through the alien jump gate, then fell into position near the other ships.

Even if LupinOne’s attention was not otherwise occupied, it’s doubtful he would have noticed the lone Sentient paralleling him, or sensed the concentration it focused towards the scout ship — immense energies flowing along its central nervous system.

A new swarm suddenly appeared as if out of nowhere. It shocked them all that it had apparently gotten past all their sensors, almost as if it had materialized out of the inky blackness of space.

Blazing pink and purple Conflux charged towards them at close range, red lasers and white-hot plasma lanced into the ambushed ships, and the New Dawn pilots exploded off in every direction. This enabled their shields to recover and get some distance for their longer-ranged guns to work as an advantage against the surprise attackers. As soon as they were out far enough, they toggled through their targeting systems, to determine who the flux had chosen to attack.

It had long been established that swarms of drone Conflux focused their attention on one ship at a time, attacking until it was destroyed, then refocussing on the next closest. This was a weakness that the flux hunters had learned to exploit.

LupinOne, paused his escape from the ambush briefly, and fired off a few rounds at the nearest alien. He scored several hits, and that got the rest of swarm’s attention. Then, he put the petal to the metal, the sleek, powerful “artied” ship exploded into motion and raced off with the swarm in hot pursuit.

The New Dawn pilots flipped their fighters one-eighty and came roaring back. Blazing green contrails, each pilot picked a target and after-burned to close the range. The flux were oblivious to the pursuing fighters, intent on the speedy scout-ship. As they zoomed through the swarm, each picked a target and as the pilots got within range started to hammer the aliens. The insulted flux, flipping one-eighty, turned on their new attackers, now it was each pilot, one on one with a flux.

Lupin continued flying, “towing” the remaining Conflux away the battles.

The pilots had great skill, gained through years of combat experience, and it enabled them to turn the tables on the ambushers — which seemed to explode in a choreographed sequence. The squad then turned and headed for the remaining flux, still pursuing the scout-ship.

Within minutes it was over, and the sector was clear of flux. The New Dawn pilots turned their ships and headed for the Jump Gate, never noticing the lone, watchful Sentient off among the asteroids.

Chapter twenty-two – The Assignment

In the Ekoo’s Stop sector, at the large gray POS known as the Stone Temple, Ambrosius addressed the pilots of the Brotherhood, gathered in the great hall. “Hamalzah favors the faithful,” he intoned.

“It seems Commander LupinOne had reason to be concerned. The Foundation squad has implicated itself in the CLAWS situation.”

“Why not call this squad out?” asked Lego, “arrange a place to meet and gank em till they go home promising to be a good little squad.”

“And what’s with their membership being classified ?” asked Spork. “Lego’s right, let’s find out where they home and go exterminate them.”

“Being classified means we don’t know what station or POS they call home,” explained Ambrosius. “And who’s going to watch the CLAWS beacons while you’re all off chasing leads all over the galaxy?” he paused for a second. “This may turn out to be a more involved job than I first thought.”

Several pilots made dismissive noises at that. “Maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about those beacons,” said Tesrend. “Let LupinOne assign some New Dawn pilots to sit sentry duty on their arrays, while we go find these Foundation guys.”

“Yeah,” agreed Lego. “So what if someone takes a potshot at the beacons? We got along fine without them up till now, what’s the big deal? We kill flux all the time; we don’t need the beacons to tell us how to do it.”

“Brother Lego’s right,” agreed Spork. “So TRI can’t track the flux in flux space, what’s that to us? Let’s just declare war on this Foundation squad and get on with our lives; this is just overcomplicating the whole issue. Why waste our time on sentry duty when We could be proactive?”

Heads nodded in agreement.

“Let’s just hunt these Foundation guys down,” added Radi. “Heck, we don’t even need a reason. And they were flying Octavian Dragons — that sort of narrows it to Oct space.”

Skillelea clanked his beer down. “I always thought this Magellan project was just a way to give New Dawn a more important role among the other squads; if they want it so much let ‘em earn it.”

Ambrosius hadn’t said a word while the others blew off steam. Now that they had gotten all that off their chests, he cleared his throat. “Anyone else?”

“Yeah.”

“Brother Lakota?” Ambrosius indicated the pilot sitting at the other end of the hall.

Lakota was spinning a pen on the table in front of him. “Just who is this Foundation squad anyway?”

“Classified,” answered Lego, “like we said.”

Lakota looked at Lego. “Why register a squad and then classify the membership? And why monkey with the CLAWS relay? Just to piss off New Dawn? Those guys stay out of everybody else’s way. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s not like knocking out the beacons is really gonna bother TRI; they don’t even care enough to get involved. Why doesn’t this Foundation squad pirate the freight haulers and miners like other anti-social squads? And why go through the trouble of listing the squad on the public server if you want to keep it classified? It makes me wonder what’s really going on.”

Ambrosius pointed a finger at Lakota, “I was wondering the same thing.”

Chapter twenty-three – Prawn’s Nest, Conflux space

Deep in Conflux space a cloud was forming. It roiled, eddied and swirled. Some areas thinned while others swelled and flashed iridescent pinks and purples as sections caught the starlight. The cloud stretched across hundreds of kilometers of space and was growing at an exponential rate.

Several kraken-class Conflux floated passively near the sector Jump Gate observing the storm from a distance. They were Sentient Conflux.

Unlike the vast majority of the Conflux, the Sentient were possessed of independent thought, and to some degree, reason. While the Conflux were deadly and efficient combat units, they followed predictable strategic patterns — genetic programs that they followed without question.

Given time and careful observation, the human invaders learned, and adapted to take advantage of weaknesses inherent in the drone-like alien combat programs, and the Conflux were helpless against this adaptive behavior. Their strategy was written indelibly in their genetic code. Conflux swarms were a comparatively new development and had initially taken the invaders by surprise, but then they had adapted to the swarms, too.

Sentients looked like ordinary Conflux of any class, though the kraken were the most common. The drone code for combat behavior was disconnected in the Sentients, instead, they were free to use their powerful sensory system to observe the invaders and “learn” from their behavior. Ultimately, they began to develop interests in other activities as well, and so these two were here, now, observing the growing cloud in the distance.

Simultaneously, they sensed the approach of something else. Their nervous systems seemed to vibrate along with the harmonic frequency generated by the entity as it moved into position between them.

Chapter twenty-four – The Opening Shot

Octavian pilot Bones had been flying cargo tows for years. As freight haulers of the space lanes, the tows were a vital service for the galaxie’s economy.

Cargo tows required no small skill to fly, especially when fully loaded. A heavy cargo tow, such as the one Bones had now, accelerated like it was stuck in molasses, and took ages to stop. And as for turning, well you had better get it pointed exactly where you wanted to go before you started off, because midcourse corrections were impossible. Many pilots had overshot a Jump Gate, and took kilometers to stop, turn around and make another pass.

Still, Bones enjoyed the challenge flying the tows, and as some consolation, the ships were heavily armed and armored.
And, once you got them going, they were pretty fast. Hauling was a pretty safe duty, too, aside from the occasional pirate. And most of those would just demand payment on the spot, a “pay-or-die” demand — usually something reasonable — a quick electronic credit-transfer, and you were on your way.

Instead of his usual load of commodities or heavy equipment, today Bones was transporting a large load of nukes — spares for squad New Dawn. Seems they were going through quite a few nukes lately with all the infestations that seemed to be cropping up. The flux were really trying to block traffic, for whatever reason, especially around Aman Leap, entrance to Flux Space. Anyway, the cargo was important, worth hundreds of millions of credits, and on top of that, was totally uninsured. The thought of all his money tied up in the big container behind his ship made Bones a little nervous, so today he was flying with an escort.

That concern manifested itself in the form of a Phoenix-class heavy fighter, piloted by a younger Octavian who called himself Plasma. Together, the two pilots had crossed three-quarters of the galaxy, and were nearing their final destination — Amananth station. From there, no longer be Bone’s responsibility, the cargo would be transferred to New Dawn’s POS.

In the meantime, Bones and Plasma had spent the quiet time playing computer solitaire, computer chess, and the usual road games based on guessing what the other pilot was looking at. Occasionally, Plasma would get to relieve the monotony for himself by chasing after some unfortunate flux that wandered in too close.

As they entered “The Stith”, Bones and Plasma hadn’t noticed the three fighters, which may have been hiding behind the sector’s anomaly. At least that’s the direction they were coming from when Bones first picked them up on his radar. When he did notice them, they were still pretty far out, but were closing at afterburner speeds.

Bones alerted Plasma to the situation, and then keyed a trio of missiles, targeting the approaching targets. Plasma brought his fighter in closer, leaving plenty of maneuvering room between himself and the cargo tow. Then he too targeted the intruders with his missiles.

Then the pair settled back — Bones awaiting the pirate’s pay-or-die demand. If the odds had been even, he might have tried fighting it out, but against three, and the three were heavy Octavian Dragon fighters, well, he was prepared to be reasonable. And missiles weren’t free either. Plus a lucky shot might spoil his cargo. The nukes might not take kindly to a direct hit.

Bones opened a whisper channel to Plasma. “Hey son, let me hear what they have to say before you go blowing these guys away. Maybe they’d be happy with a little pocket change rather than risk pod rides home.”

“You’re the boss, boss,” replied the younger pilot, his targeting system still locked on the lead fighter. Plasma had focused on and magnified the image of the lead Dragon. Strange, he thought, if these were pirates, why aren’t they broadcasting “pirate” ID’s like the other pirates do. Some folks have no sense of honor. Then again, maybe Bones had enemies he hadn’t told Plasma about, maybe this was a grudge thing.

At this point, Bones was beginning to wonder the same thing, he too read his com — no names. Never saw that before. But they did belong to some squad — The Foundation; that sounded familiar. He opened a hailing frequency. “Foundation vessels, this is pilot Bones of Red Dawn.” A few moments passed with no response; the intruders were now at fifteen thousand meters.

“Hey Bones, what’s with these guys?” asked Plasma, “You got enemies you’re about to share?”

Long experience and common sense combined to give the senior pilot a feeling of unease; this wasn’t right, this wasn’t simple piracy, and if this is the way they wanted it, fine. The Dragons were now at ten thousand meters.

“OK Plasma, we’ve tried to play by the rules; but they’ve got other ideas so it’s on them now. These guys had better be keeping up their insurance premiums, cause they’re about to take some pod rides home.” Bones paused for a moment, then,”When they get within range let em have it.”

Bones and Plasma had been heading on a direct line from the Last Parsec, the one they’d entered the sector from to the gate for The Gyre some 33 kilometers away, and they were traveling at 433 meters per second. The hostiles were on a tangential course designed to intercept them at around the 20 kilometer mark. With the cargo tow’s heavy load, evasion was out of the question, and at this point any attempt to flash-fire to try to outrun them would just delay the inevitable and screw up their own targeting.

As the three Dragons entered missile range, both Bones and Plasma, launched their rockets. A total of six highly advanced and powerful Lance-class missiles blasted off towards the hostiles. Simultaneously, the Foundation ships launched six of their own at the cargo tow.

Plasma’s Phoenix fighter was armed with four rail guns, Aristo “Hitmen” and Annilitech “Barraks”. Each “gun” a tube, filled with a series of powerful electromagnetic rings, operating sequentially, to accelerate a slugs of plastic encapsulated steel to ultrahigh velocity. As the Dragons entered his guns’ range, about 5500 meters, Plasma opened fire on the lead ship.

The hostiles opened fire at the same time, the three each being armed with five of PSI Corp Nova-class plasma cannons. Novas employ clouds of iron-tungstate particles, superheated by powerful induction coils. The cloud or “plasma” is contained within a strong electromagnetic field. As the forward end of this magnetic containment field collapses, the packet of energetic plasma is propelled away. In an atmosphere, the plasma cloud would collapse in nanoseconds. However, in the vacuum of space, the packet will retain its integrity for several seconds, giving the Novas a range comparable to the rail guns and with much more destructive power. All were now targeting the Phoenix escort fighter.

In the excitement of the moment, Bones and Plasma could be forgiven for being too preoccupied to notice that their “pod escape system’s” indicator lights had gone out. As Pilot Plasma’s rail guns started to hammer the lead Dragon, his shields were knocked out and his fighter vaporized by the massive barrage from the attackers; it was sadly ironic that he was killed by the very weapon he’d named himself after.

As the missiles got within 1500 meters of the Foundation ships, they self-destructed. Bones was not surprised to see this, electronic missile defense systems were fairly common, his ship was equipped with one too. What did surprise him was that as the six missiles of his attackers entered within 1500 meters of the cargo tow, they didn’t do the same.

Letting out an oath, Bones smacked the PWD100 anti-missile countermeasure control unit a couple of times. It still failed to activate. He wondered if he could sue Amananth for any loss of cargo caused by the faulty ECM.

Bones then noticed, Just as Plasma’s fighter erupted in a fiery blast, that his pod indicator light was out too. But before he had a chance to properly digest that bit of information, the six enemy missiles plowed into his ship, knocking out his shields and most of his armor, followed an instant later by a barrage of plasma now concentrated on him.

Moments later the second blast cloud began to dissipate, and the three Foundation Dragons turned and headed back in the direction of the anomaly.

Chapter twenty-five – Friends

Newtron and Bengaley had little luck locating Dariel. She wasn’t at her Sol station apartment, her lab, the station commissary, the fight simulator, or her fighter, which was parked in its assigned space in the hangar.

It wasn’t helping that they were trying to perform this search clandestinely. One of them had just lied to several clearly suspicious TRI security officers, and the other was an escaped fugitive who had just entered a secure military facility under false pretenses.

The scheme had worked well enough; Newtron and Bengaley had exchanged ships, they’d taken turns shooting at each other until the two craft exploded — transmitting the two back to Solrain station in Wake. There, Bengaley had been interrogated at some length for arriving in LordSid’s pod.

Bengaley’s story was that he had encountered Newtron in deep space and the escaped fugitive had taken Bengaley’s cargo-tow by force, leaving him in Newtron’s stolen and heavily damaged fighter.

The station security inspectors had finally accepted the story, albeit with some degree of skepticism, and a DNA test proved his identity, so he was free to go.

Newtron on the other hand, while impersonating Bengaley, encountered no trouble whatsoever, and walked out of the adjoining retrieval bay unmolested.

Now Newtron had to keep poking Bengaley, whose attempt at covert skulking was drawing looks from passersby. Newtron was fairly sure that the average person on the street was too busy with his or her own life, to bother giving them a second glance, but he was having a hard time convincing Bengaley of that.

Bengaley brightened, as he remembered they were now near Delphince’s apartment. Preoccupied with the task of trying to recall exactly which unit it was, he had forgotten, much to Newtron’s relief, to act like a fugitive, as they made their way along the public corridor.

“This one!” Bengaley said, happy with himself, and relieved that they were almost to safety.

Newtron didn’t really know Delphince all that well, and wasn’t convinced as to just how safe this was going to be.

“I just hope he’s in,” said Bengaley as he pressed the doorbell.

“I just hope he’s alone,” added Newtron.

The door opened, and not for the first time, Newtron involuntarily shook his head at the sight of the seven-foot-tall bipedal porpoise in a bright floral shirt, shorts and sandals.

“Bengaley!” Delphince squealed several octaves higher than humanly possible. “How nice to see you! Do come in, I am entertaining.”

“You can say that again,” mumbled Newtron.

Bengaley covertly elbowed Newtron in the ribs as they entered the apartment, which to Newtron smelled faintly like an aquarium in need of a cleaning.

Inside they found it to be modernly decorated, with art on the walls, and sunny — with numerous leafy plants. A large steaming hot tub dominated the living area next to a jazzy oval coffee table displaying a colorful tray of sushi.

Leaning against a well stocked bar, and sipping a blue daiquiri, stood a rakish figure in an elegantly styled collarless suit, with soft leather shoes and an expensive watch, all in contrast to the furry face, hands and tail of the genetically modified howler monkey-pilot named Kingmonkey.

Raising his glass in salute he asked cheerily, “Who do we have here?” in a voice so bass that it rattled Bengaley’s ribcage.

“This is my good friend Bengaley,” responded Delphince, slipping off his sandals and sliding into the tub. “I am afraid I do not know his companion. Help yourselves to a drink, you two.”

Bengaley took a tentative step forward and prepared to introduce Newtron who, not needing a second invitation, had made a beeline for the bar. “Thank you Delphince,” he began nervously. “I’d like to introduce my friend, Newtron,” who responded by raising a frosty glass of his own.

“Spluds!” said Kingmonkey, spewing daiquiri over the sleeve of his suit.

“Blorp!” Delphince bubbled from his blowhole and jerked upright in the tub.

“I thought he looked familiar!” gasped the monkey as he attempted to wipe off his beard. “…from the evening news!”

“Bengaley,” challenged the dolphin in a loud voice, and now rising from the tub, “while I am always happy to see you, I must ask what you are thinking bringing this escaped lunatic and wanted fugitive into my apartment. I am not happy to have you involve me in harboring an escaped criminal!”

For the first time since he’d known him, Bengaley suddenly realized a seven-foot-tall bipedal porpoise could be quite intimidating when upset.

“Actually, we weren’t necessarily looking for you, specifically,” answered Newtron from the bar. “We were trying to find Dariel, and Beng thought you might be able to help, too.”

Ignoring the unwanted guest, Delphince concentrated on the normally responsible STCC Field Inspector, who now didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. “Bengaley?”

“Look,” stammered Bengaley, now wishing he was still out skulking in the hall, “I realize this must look bad, but Newtron’s not a bad guy, this is all just a mix-up. He’s a bit eccentric, yes, but not clinical. I’m just trying to help out a friend here. I thought you, being a brilliant scientist and all, might be able to help him. Nothing sinister.”

“So you want to involve Delphince,” asked Kingmonkey, “in aiding and harboring a wanted fugitive? He could lose his commission.”

“Not harboring, no,” gulped Bengaley. “Look, it’s not like he’s killed anybody. He just escaped from a rehabilitation center. I’m just trying to get him some help.”

“Maybe he should turn himself back in then,” responded the dolphin.

“Let’s go,” said Newtron, setting his third daiquiri on the counter. “Maybe Dariel will be more open-minded.”

“Wait!” Delphince stood between the fugitive and the door. “According to the news, Rastamon broke you out of the hospital. Is that true?”

Newtron spread his hands, “Look, I have no idea why he did that. I didn’t ask him to help me.”

“And why do you want to involve poor Dariel in your problems?” growled the monkey. “Why not do the honorable thing and just head off into unregulated space?”

“A life of recycled food, water and air?” asked Newtron, “Constantly looking over my shoulder for the next bounty hunter? No thank you, I need to get out from under this rap.”

“Rastamon broke you out, and yet you are not involved with him? I find that hard to believe. And you expect me to help you and you intend to involve poor Dariel.” Delphince squeaked menacingly, “And why involve Dariel?”

“Newtron thinks maybe a xenobiologist can figure out what happened to him.” Answered Bengaley. “Why he went crazy.”

“But I thought you were a xenobiologist?” asked Kingmonkey, pointing to Newtron.

“Yeah, well I need a real one,” he answered.

Delphince took a step toward him and tried to look him in the eye. “Why?” he asked seriously.

Newtron shrugged his shoulders and threw his hands up. “Because something happened to me out there, something took control of me, or maybe brainwashed me, or I don’t know what.”

“And just how is Dariel supposed to help you with that?” asked the dolphin. “You need a psychiatrist, not to mention a lawyer; she is a scientific researcher.”

“Yes, she is a researcher,” replied the fugitive, “who’s been writing about the maybe telepathic Conflux.”

Delphince drew himself up, “That was me, Sherlock,” he said.

Newtron scratched his head, “Really?” he asked. “Well I knew I read someone was doing it somewhere.”

“Yes,” the dolphin continued. “I have been studying the flux for years but this is the first instance of brainwashing that someone has suggested.”

“Well I was out there following flux around for months,” said Newtron. “They had plenty of time to monkey with my head.” Then to Kingmonkey, “Sorry.”

“Well the flux have never communicated with us, and that is a mystery.” said Delphince. “The Sentients have broadcast threats of doom — but it is always oneway, never responding to any attempt to communicate. And frankly, if the flux had a problem with you snooping on them, they would just shoot you and be done with it.”

“Well they tried that a lot,” answered Newtron. “I had to kill a lot of them, and ran away from a lot more. Why would I suddenly become a Conflux advocate?”

“Wynar’s syndrome?” suggested Delphince, becoming a little interested in the topic in spite of his earlier objections.

“Then why is Newtron OK now?” asked Bengaley.

“He doesn’t seem OK to me,” growled the monkey.

“True, it does not make sense,” said Delphince, ignoring the insults, ”unless they managed to cure him at that hospital.”

“No chance;” replied Newtron, “it was just a padded prison cell with high-tech torture devices”

“Did the Conflux make any attempt to communicate with you?” the researcher asked. “You observed them for months, what did you see, anything out of the ordinary?”

“Well,” started Newtron, ” I don’t remember ever having a conversation with one, if that’s what you mean. And all that stuff in my reports and those interviews I gave, there was nothing I think the flux would want to cover up.”

“Yes, but,” answered Delphince, “you do not really know what the Conflux consider sensitive. If, and I am just saying hypothetically, “if” the Conflux somehow altered your mind, why would they want to bother? It is not like they reprogrammed you to sabotage the stations for them, or even shoot other pilots. You just made some ridiculous statements to the press and made a fool out of yourself. You became a Conflux sympathizer at the very worst. It hardly seems worth their effort.”

Newtron shrugged, “Like you said, who really knows what the Conflux want? Maybe they just wanted some sympathy.”

“Well I am one of the foremost authorities on Conflux communication,” stated Delphince, “or lack thereof. And I can say that it is highly improbable that the Conflux would have brainwashed you.”

“In the first place,” continued the doldhin, “I do not think the flux understand humans well enough for anything like that. To alter a person’s personality requires a thorough understanding of the subject’s thought processes.
Secondly, they have demonstrated over and over that their methods are far more direct and violent. Controlling your thoughts or planting suggestions seems more like the behavior of a human than the Conflux.
Anyway, Dariel’s field is Conflux anatomy, physiology, and biochemical research. She is trying to unravel what ever passes for their DNA. So it is most unlikely she would be of any assistance to you with your problems.”

“Well I was just fishing,” said Newtron, trying not to sound disappointed. “Any ideas of what might have made me go nuts? Something I can use to stay out of the hospital, or jail?”

The researcher thought for a moment, “You were isolated for months, with no one around but Conflux for company? Maybe that should be your defense,” suggested Delphince while taking Newtron by the arm and leading him toward the door. “Anyway, this seems like a question for that nice Dr. Hycche, so why do you not go back and ask him. And stop bothering Dariel about this.”

“Can’t find her anyway,” shrugged Bengaley.

“That girl’s been practically sleeping in the lab these days,” said Kingmonkey.

“Well she wasn’t in her lab or her apartment,” said Bengaley.

“She has been spending a lot of time lately down among the formaldehyde tanks, examining Conflux body parts,” said Delphince. “She is obsessed with their physiology.”

“I thought the Conflux biochemistry was worked out long ago,” said Bengaley in an attempt to extend the conversation and delay their eviction from the safety of the apartment.

“It was,” answered Delphince taking the bait. “I do not really know what she expects to find. There are some anomalous anatomical issues she’s brought up that are very interesting — large sensory nerve bundles and odd, powerful structures that she is trying to explain as a possible directed-communications apparatus, or some long-range communications systems. The most highly developed of these structures were found in the remains of the Sentients, but there are also similar, smaller organs in all of the ordinary Conflux.”

“That sounds promising.” Newtron said brightly. “Like for telepathy?”

“I doubt very much it has anything to do with your problem,” said Delphince, finally, and then shoved the two out the door and closed it in their faces before Bengaley could think of something else to say.

Newtron shrugged and patted his friend on the back, and then they both turned and bumped straight into two enormous TRI security officers.

Chapter twenty-six – The Hunter

Tesrend’s fighter performed a very wide circle between the Jump Gates for The Gyre, Last Parsec and Canis. He was looking for something, but at this point wasn’t sure exactly what that would be.

While returning from sentry duty, he, Spork and Lego had surprised three Foundation ships in The Depths.

The ships had been clustered around the CLAWS beacon there, and when the Brotherhood fighters showed up, had made a run for it. His squad mates and he had chased them out of Conflux space, through the Amananth sector and The Gyre, but lost them here in Aman Hook, where, it appeared the three Dragons had simply vanished.

While they did have a considerable lead on them, the Foundation ships should still have been visible when he, Spork and Lego came through the gate – instead, they were nowhere to be found. They couldn’t have really vanished; it wasn’t magic. Perhaps they had some new cloaking device he hadn’t heard about yet, though that seemed unlikely. There was an explanation somewhere and Tesrend was determined to find out what it was.

After the last meeting at the Stone Temple, Ambrosius had approached Tesrend and asked him to personally take charge of tracking down the Foundation squad. This would allow the rest of the squad to continue the round-the-clock sentry duty on CLAWS.

For a single pilot, tracking three heavy fighters might seem foolishly dangerous, but not in Tesrend’s case. With over a thousand confirmed wins, Tesrend was a living legend — the ace of aces — and only a handful of other pilots, most of them also Brotherhood, were in the same league.

Few pilots would think of challenging Tesrend in a dogfight, so in regards to this assignment, it never occurred to him that the odds weren’t already in his favor — after all, there were only three of them.

So he’d gone over their flight logs and computer recordings from that day, and he listened to his fellow pilot’s guesses at how the Foundation ships had gotten away.

Given the Octavian Dragon-class fighters’ performance specifications, he’d calculated the distances they could have covered and the time it would have taken. Then, subtracting the time the Brotherhood’s Quantar Typhoons would have taken to accelerate up to speed; he knew the maximum distance they could have covered before he, Spork and Lego had arrived in Aman Hook: 22,000 meters.

That was the outside limit, the farthest the Dragons could have gotten even using two Flash-Fires. They could have slowed or doubled back, but they couldn’t have gone any farther.

Tesrend retraced the route and tried flying it at various speeds, numerous times, but the conclusion was always the same. The Foundation ships couldn’t have made it the 24,000 meters to the gate for Canis 9502 without being spotted. There was a Pilot-Owned Station, “Fluxxaco”, but at 30,000 that was even less likely, the same with the gate to Last Parsec at 33,000 meters.

Aside from some asteroids, the only other object within range was an anomaly.

As a newb, Tesrend earned credits and gained some experience by flying a scouting mission to scan and photograph one of those peculiar astronomical oddities; he’d found through painful experience what happened when a ship ventured too close to one. But he’d also survived.

In the Amananth sector there were two anomalies a few thousand meters from each other. It had been long speculated that the Conflux may use anomalies in the same way humans use Jump Gates. So in an experiment, TRI had captured one of the two anomalies in Amananth within a modified Jump Gate apparatus, and the result was a gateway to another dimension: Conflux space. Was it possible that the Foundation ships had used this anomaly in Aman Hook the same way? It was unmodified so it didn’t seem likely, but Tesrend had to be sure.

He brought his fighter to within two thousand meters of the swirling reddish-pink cloud, the blue corona and a white-hot center. Odd as it was, there didn’t seem to be anything too different about this one that he could see.

Tesrend stared at it for a few more moments, then, cursing and shaking his head, he pushed the throttle to max and the Typhoon rocketed forward through the charged particles surrounding the gravity well. Intense light suddenly blinded him; the shields screamed in protest. Then, just as suddenly, stars reappeared against the black background of space as he raced out the other side, the shields down to 90 percent.

Well that obviously wasn’t how the Dragons had got out. Tesrend swept the fighter around and came within a few dozen meters of the “Fluxxaco” station. He noted the many burns and scars on the structure, where frustrated Conflux had taken their shots after the pilots they’d been chasing escaped inside.

Without having solved the riddle, Tesrend spent another hour going over the nearby asteroid field, but that was a dead end too; the boulders wouldn’t have hidden them from the radar. It was a mystery, one he would eventually solve. In the meantime, he turned and headed for Amananth.

Chapter twenty-seven – Incarceration

Newtron studied the inside of the detention cell. He focused on an elaborately sophisticated light panel next to the heavy, mirrored circular door, not because he had any hope of defeating the locking mechanism, but because it enabled him to avoid Bengaley’s withering stare.

The pair floated near the center of the white room. They floated several feet apart and, due to the spherical nature of the cell, it was impossible to retire to a corner and sulk.

Zero gravity was maintained for security purposes and it caused the two of them to drift slowly, very, very slowly together, as they represented the only two bodies in the room exerting any gravitational influence on each other. And although the gravitational effect was almost immeasurably small, over the last eight hours they had bumped into each other three times.

This hadn’t helped Bengaley’s mood — and his murderous look intensified with each encounter. And so Bengaley, normally the most peaceful of individuals, was now teetering dangerously close to violence towards his companion.

His attitude really had little to do with the “gravity” of the situation and everything to do with how he ended up being in a detention cell in the first place, and Newtron’s part in that process.

It was perhaps, a reflection of Newtron’s concern for his friend, and a little self interest as well, that he felt the need to finally speak up to try to improve the situation.

“I’ve got an idea,” Newtron said brightly.

If Bengaley had heard him, he gave no outward indication; aside from the sound of grinding molars, but Newtron decided to persevere.

“I’ve been thinking,” he went on, “about our situation I mean, and I’ve come up with an idea.”

A minute passed without a response, but Newtron wasn’t the sort to let that stop him. After all, this was for Beng’s own good, and anyway, Newtron was bored, and he enjoyed hearing himself talk.

“The guards should be coming around to check on us soon.” He glanced at his friend, who was avoiding looking anywhere near his direction. “If we could manage to distract them, I think we could make it to the hangar. In the confusion we could grab a ship or two. I don’t think these TRI guards ever encounter determined escapees.” Still nothing from Bengaley. “When Rastamon broke me out of the rehab facility, the guards were so flabergasted we made it all the way to hanger without trouble, so I don’t see why it wouldn’t work here too.”

Still no response from Bengaley, but Newtron was on a roll. “So anyway, I’ve got an idea for a diversion that might work, purely as an original idea.”

Newtron paused to see if his friend was taking the bait. He was prepared to be patient. At least a full minute passed. Then just as he was about to try a different tack, Bengaley spoke up.

“If you don’t mind,” Begaley said with obvious restraint, “I think I’m through with a life of crime. I think I’ll just wait for my lawyer, and see if the judge will let me do some community service or something.”

Newtron certainly understood his friend’s point of view, but it wouldn’t be of much use to himself.

“What makes you think you’ll get a chance to talk to a lawyer?” he asked innocently.

Bengaley looked at him like he’d spoken a foreign language. “Why wouldn’t they? It’s your right after all. You always have the right to an attorney.”

Newtron scratched his head — the act of which started him rotating slowly in the zero G. “You know, I never got to see a lawyer when they locked me up the last time.”

“That’s different,” replied Bengaley, now involved in the debate despite his previous indifference. “You were in a hospital, not a jail. You needed a doctor, not a lawyer. Maybe you did see a lawyer and just don’t remember since you were pretty out of it.”

Thinking quickly, Newtron tried scratching his head with his other hand and was rewarded by the cancellation of the annoying rotation.

“Oh, I’m pretty sure I never saw a lawyer,” replied Newtron, “and I’m also pretty sure no one should be tied up and locked away in a maximum security ‘hospital’ without that opportunity.”

His companion didn’t respond, evidently feeling the argument didn’t merit any answer. Newtron now tried a different approach. “We’ve been locked up for over a day. I think if you were going to speak to an attorney you would have been given the opportunity by now. And this station’s full of lawyers, it’s not like they couldn’t find a couple.”

To Newtron’s relief, his companion took the bait. “So why wouldn’t they let us talk to a lawyer? They always ask if you want to talk to a lawyer.”

“In the movies,” Newtron shrugged, gently. “And, we did sort of sort of smuggle ourselves past the station security and onto an important military facility. Maybe TRI wouldn’t want people to know how we did that. Aren’t things like treason usually handled behind closed doors?”

This was apparently a new and frightening thought for Bengaley, and the previous look of murderous rage returned, interspersed with one of severe anxiety. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “But we didn’t commit treason, just entered the station under false pretenses. It’s like a misdemeanor sort of thing, no way that’s treason.”

“They might see it differently,” offered Newtron. “Anyway, the fact that they locked us right up and no one’s even talked to us makes me think this isn’t a misdemeanor sort of thing.”

Bengaley performed a little breaststroke to turn himself around and face his companion. “Well, whatever. I’ve gotten myself in enough trouble trying to help you out. I’m not going to compound the issue by breaking out of detention on top of it. You’re on your own.”

“You’re right, this is all my fault I guess. Then again,” Newtron paused, “I didn’t break myself out of the rehab center.” He thought for a moment. “You know, you’re right, you should stay here and take your chances with the court. You’ve got a good record, never had any problems, you could probably say I took advantage of your trusting innocent nature and let you off with a warning or something.”

Bengaley nodded, mollified by his companion’s generous attitude. “Sorry, but I just don’t want any more trouble. I just want to get on with my life.”

“But I do need to get out of here,” Newtron said with finality. “You don’t have to come along, but I sure as hell don’t want to go back to the hospital, and you can be certain that’s where I’m headed.”

Bengaley realized the truth of his friend’s remarks and felt a little guilty at his previous attitude. Still, he wanted to try to make Newtron see reason. “I think you’re just going to make things worse for yourself. Maybe the doctors will see that you’re better and you won’t have to go back.”

It was Newtron’s turn to be quietly pensive, so now Bengaley tried a new tack. “What makes you think this cell isn’t being monitored?” he asked. “They’re probably listening to everything we say, so any plan you’ve got isn’t going to work anyway. You’ve already lost the element of surprise.”

Newtron gingerly fingered the scabs where the hospital’s VR helmet had been stitched on his head. “Well I’m screwed anyway, whether they’re listening or not, so I’ve got nothing to lose by trying.”

Bengaley attempted unsuccessfully to lean in closer. He whispered, “So where would you go?”

“Ah,” said Newtron smiling, “if they are listening, that is the sort of thing I wouldn’t want them to hear.”

“OK, then just out of morbid curiosity, what is this plan of yours?” asked Bengaley.

Newtron smiled anew and also tried to lean toward his friend. “Well, we’ve been locked up for over eight hours now…”

“Uh huh.”

“…and I had a couple of tall daiquiris at Delphince’s.”

Bengaley wrinkled his face, but then looked at the lighted panel next to the cell door. “You’re going to pee on the lock mechanism and short it out?” he asked conspiratorially.

“Nah,” answered Newtron, starting to take off his shirt. “I’m pretty sure it would be waterproof. No, this is an idea for a diversion.”

Bengaley felt the hair on the back of his neck rise.

“I could use your help for part of it, though,” continued Newtron.

Fifteen minutes later, the light panel began to change color, indicating the door was being opened. In the middle of the room a bare-chested Newtron was holding his shirt by two outside corners; Bengaley was holding the shirt by the two opposite corners, and each were trying to brace their feet against the other’s.

Between them floated a transparent golden orb.

“I call it a pissile,” Newtron grinned. Bengaley groaned.

“One,” Newtron said softly, “two,” the cell door started to swing outward, “three!”

They gingerly pulled the shirt taut between them and gently “slingshot” the yellow sphere towards the opening door. Without hesitating, Newtron kicked off Bengaley and dove for freedom.

Newtron flew through the doorway, bounced off the far wall of the outside coridoor and picked himself off the floor expecting to be shot. Bengaley, who had followed him as far as the doorway, certainly expected him to be shot as well.

It was only Rastamon’s lightening-quick reflexes that saved them. Though waves of heat seemed to be radiating from his eyes, and Newtron could swear a little steam escaped his ears. Surprised, Rastamon had managed to duck, as Bengaley observed the wet splotch on the bulkhead opposite the door, as well as the liquid pooling between the unconscious guards lying on the floor. But he also noticed a few beads of yellow liquid on the shoulder of the pirate’s black tunic.

Through sheer force of will, Rastamon lowered the shaking blaster he’d been pointing at the newly escaped fugitive, Newtron was certain he could hear the pirate’s jaw muscles cracking under the strain of the effort.

A tense moment passed while Rastamon tried to compose himself. Then, looking Newtron in the eyes he growled, “You impressed me, getting past security and onto the station.”

“Thanks.” Newtron squeaked.

Rastamon regarded Bengaley for a moment, seemed to come to a decision, and then motioned to the exit. “I know where they’re taking Dariel,” he said simply.

Chapter twenty-eight – Attack on CLAWS

The Quantar Typhoon-class heavy fighter is one of the most powerful fighters ever designed and flown in TRI space. It combines outstanding acceleration, speed, and maneuverability. It’s protected by a powerful shielding system and can carry a large variety of devastating weapons.

Tricky to fly in combat, its two-engine combination uses so much reactor power, that a pilot has to throttle back close to fifty percent to fire all its weapons, or the firing rate quickly drops to zero.

The Typhoon’s speed and maneuverability enable it to attain the dominant position in a dogfight, but it takes a highly skilled pilot to make use of that advantage — alternatively accelerating, throttling back, firing and accelerating before the speed has fallen so much that you lose optimum firing position.

New Typhoon pilots are easy meat to veterans in more balanced fighters; however, when flown by pilots who understand its idiosyncrasies, the Typhoon is unequalled in close combat and feared throughout the galaxy. It should come as no surprise then, that many of the ace pilots in the Quantar squad — the Brotherhood — fly “Phoons” and they do so with utmost confidence.

Pilots like Spork, Lego and Radi, who were all on CLAWS sentry duty when the attack came.

The Foundation ships appeared at the outer edge of Spork’s radar. He counted four Octavian Dragon assault fighters on a closing course.

The Dragon fighter has two major strengths and several deficiencies from a combat standpoint.

On the minus side, it neither accelerates nor maneuvers particularly well, largely due to its considerable mass. This, however, is offset by the most firepower of any ship in the galaxy, as well as the heaviest armor and strongest shields.

The Dragons were designed to lead a fleet into battle — “ships of the line” — and the pilot unlucky enough to be caught in a full salvo from one could be taking a pod ride back to base.

But it’s a fighter best used with support, as more agile enemies are likely to get behind the slower turning ship and hammer away at the stern of the then helpless assault fighter.

Seasoned Dragon pilots know this and fly in groups, literally covering each others’ asses.

Like Tesrend, Spork was an Ace of Aces.

Spork’s PvP kill record was phenomenal, and the appearance of the “hostiles” actually produced a smile on his face, as he had gotten very bored babysitting. Combat, after all, was the whole point to being a fighter pilot, and the slight numerical advantage the Foundation appeared to have only made it more interesting.

To be honest, this seemed a little more fair, though the reports he’d read only indicated the squad had used three ships before. Well, if they thought one more would help, then bring ’em on.

Certainly Lego and Radi echoed these feelings.

As the fighters approached, Spork opened a hailing channel: FOUNDATION SHIPS — YOU ARE ENTERING RESTRICTED SPACE. CHANGE COURSE AT ONCE OR YOU WILL BE FIRED UPON.

He was happy to see them ignore the warning and continue to approach at full speed: 436 meters per second. Good for them, he thought.

On the squad com channel Spork confirmed the readiness of his wingmen; weapons and targeting systems hummed to life.

Lego was the first to notice his “escape pod enabled” light had gone out. At first he thought it was a dead light diode, then Radi stated his was also out. Spork made it unanimous — no time to deal with that as they prepared for the fight. Spork, sent a message to squad HQ: “This is squadron Alpha, we are engaging hostiles.”

The attackers let loose a wave of sixteen missiles, and without a second thought the Brotherhood pilots ran for the nearby Jump Gate. Most of the missiles turned in pursuit, but several plowed explosively into the beacon.

“Crap!” shouted Radi, “that beacon’s gonna need some new paint!”

“Scramble!” ordered Spork, though it was purely perfunctory. Without activating the jump sequence, the three pilots expertly raced though the gate and out the other side, the swarm of missiles mostly exploding harmlessly on the giant armored structures. Several survived to continue in pursuit but some tight turns kept them out of reach long enough to exhaust their fuel, and the rockets exploded harmlessly in the Typhoon wakes.

Free of the rocket attack, the three phoons circled around, keeping their speed up, and raced back to engage the attackers.

Aware of the enormous firepower at the Dragon’s disposal, the Aces avoided heading straight in – suicide. Instead, they performed large fast circles to make targeting them more difficult; nonetheless, all took heavy fire as they closed the distance, trying to get inside the Dragon’s turning radius.

The Aces had some luck here, as the Foundation pilots — apparently not as experienced — had continued to fly straight after firing off their missiles, instead of taking advantage of the rocket attack and closing for better firing positions. “Too bad, their loss,” thought Spork.

Besides faster, more maneuverable ships, the Brotherhood pilots also had the advantage of well developed senses of “situational awareness.” They flew, trained and fought in formation until they knew by instinct where their wingmen were in relation to themselves, avoiding embarrassing situations like the one that two of the Dragon’s now found themselves in — hitting each other with friendly fire while trying to shoot Lego as he flew between them.

Enduring excruciating centrifugal forces, the Brotherhood pilots pushed the Typhoons to their limit, until they corkscrewed themselves into position behind the Dragons and hammer their enemy’s tails.

Lego, who’d made it back into the fight first, was rewarded by the sight of a shower of sparks from a Dragon, its shields down, taking heavy armor damage, finally disappearing an a multicolor eruption of fire and metal.

Radi was able to drop between a pair of the flying tanks, cut throttle and pour laser fire into the backs of the wounded craft. He winced as one of the enemy Dragons, no longer concentrating on trying to protect his wing mate, caught the hapless fighter in a full salvo. The Typhoon’s shields disappeared, screaming in protest, and he took some hull damage before Radi managed to turn the tables on the giant and return the favor.

Spork, too, had taken some hits but he flew around the stream of fire pouring out of the enemy in front of him. He got on its back and hammered away at the fleeing Dragon until it exploded before his eyes.

Lego yelped as a part of another Dragon’s salvo caught him, but then he was out of harm’s way before the next arrived and he and Spork finished off the offender before it could get back into position. The three Brotherhood ships now were free to concentrate on the remaining Dragon, which tried to fight back, but the odds were hopeless and it was gone almost before they started in on it.

The Brotherhood fighters regrouped near the beacon and assessed their conditions. All three had taken some armor damage in the fight but their shields had already regenerated.

Still, the insulating film that covered the hulls would require the services of a hangar repair crew to put right. They had also used up a good bit of their maneuvering and afterburner fuel in the dogfight; that, too, would require a station visit.

Now that the fight was over, the realization of the fact that they’d just fought a battle without the protection of the escape pods, left them all a little shaky.

Damaged and exposed, without the safety net of the pods — it gave the three pilots butterflies to think about it now in hindsight. “The things you take for granted,” thought Lego out loud. It had been a century or more since a pilot had died because his ship had gone down. There were accidents, but even they were rare.

Still, it had all happened so fast they hadn’t had time to think about it. In retrospect, thought Spork, that was probably a really good thing.

Miraculously the beacon seemed to have survived the encounter with only some scuff marks. “It’s a good thing those Dragons didn’t unload any nukes on the array,” said Spork — a trace of nervousness still lingering in his voice.

“Too busy dealing with us first I guess,” said an equally jittery Radi.

“Yeah, let’s get out of here and get these birds patched up,” added Lego.

With that, Spork opened a com channel to Brotherhood HQ. “This is squadron Alpha, have eliminated the hostiles and taken damage. Request relief.”

A few moments passed before he received a response. “Copy that squadron Alpha,” came a strangely uncertain reply. “Squadron Beta currently engaging enemy hostiles. Request you hold station at present time.”

Spork looked around the small cockpit of his fighter, a few millimeters of metal separating him from the cold vacuum of Conflux space, and wondered what else might be hiding out there in the dark. He keyed the com to his fellow squad mates. “Well gentlemen, it could be a long night.”

Chapter twenty-nine – Consequences

The deaths of both Bones and Plasma came as quite a shock to the pilot community.

Not that people hadn’t died in space before, accidents happen — a worker’s suit tears and he succumbs to decompression before the leak can be stopped. Working with high energy power-plants power meant the occasional electrocution despite many safeguards and high voltage-safety training classes. Even ship malfunctions – high CO2 levels due to overtaxed life support systems — had lead to problems on long voyages.

These accidents were statistically unlikely, except to a very small percentage of the galactic population. Continual improvements in equipment fail-safes, and rigorous pilot training kept life in space a relatively safe venture. It was accepted that there was a certain amount of risk in any activity. Communities inside thin-walled habitats in space, lived with the perils of cosmic radiation, micro meteorites, and extremes in temperature. Not to mention flying spaceships and defending against hostile aliens.

TRI’s Emergency Escape Pod system, was an attempt by management to provide a system that reduced the danger to acceptable levels.

The news of the attack was released after TRI security had a chance to examine the beacon feeds thoroughly, and try to determine what was responsible for the escape pod malfunctions.

It was clear from the footage, shown on the evening news, that the Foundation fighters had deliberately targeted the cargo tow and the escort fighter with the clear intention of destroying the two ships. There had been no attempt to communicate an extortion demand. Why would the attackers want to kill the two pilots? Could the Foundation have been responsible for the malfunctions? It seemed unlikely.

A new sense of fear was spreading through the stations, and pilots began to examine every mission for possible risks. Pilots had the maintenance crews going over every millimeter of their vessels before setting foot on board. Shuttle pilots expressed nervousness at venturing outside the of the space stations sectors. Veteran pilots were taking extreme caution even docking their ships; and many combat vets were avoiding engaging even the weakest Conflux, there was the possibility that a lucky sot by a squid could spell real death.

LupinOne had extra reason for concern — a flight of New Dawn pilots was on a mapping assignment in Conflux space, as there were still many unexplored regions. Also, there were the Brotherhood pilots on CLAWS sentry duty in Conflux space on his behest. And they had already come under multiple attacks.

It wasn’t known if the Foundation ships were suffering from the escape pod equipment failure too. However, there had been three separate attacks on CLAWS beacons, and in each case the attacking fighters had been destroyed — if the Foundation pilots no longer had the benefit of the escape pods, there would now be a serious pilot shortage among the Foundation ranks.

That seemed doubtful under the circumstances. But in the meantime, LupinOne had contacted both squads and recalled them; hopefully they would make it back without incident. He had also set up recovery assistance teams that would take off for Aman Leap at the first sign of trouble.

The failures of the escape pods, and the trouble with the Foundation squad seemed to be too much of a coincidence. LupinOne found it hard to reconcile. GM Istvan had been clear in regards to divulging the classified names of the squad members, but clearly the situation had now changed and it was time to revisit the issue. As soon as the news of the attacks came through, LupinOne opened a channel to the GM’s offices at Solrain Core station.

Istvan’s assistant said that the General Manager was not available, but he would leave a message that the New Dawn commander had called.

Hours later he had yet to receive a response, that was unlike Istvan.

LupinOne made another call; Istvan’s assistant repeated that the GM was still not available, but he would be happy to take a message for him.

By the close of the shift LupinOne still had not heard from the GM, and was starting to feel a little put off, and by the next morning when he still hadn’t heard anything, he was steaming.

The New Dawn commander tried several of the other GM’s but received similar replies. It occurred to him that perhaps the GM’s were meeting on this very subject, and had no statement they felt like releasing to the public. Istvan’s assistant was covering for his bosses and giving the LupinOne the runaround,

LupinOne put in a call to the TRI Department of Security next. He explained his request to declassify the roster of the renegade squad to yet another administrative assistant. “I’m sorry Commander,” came the official’s reply. “That would be a personal privacy matter, a decision the Executive Council would have to make.” So he was back to the GM’s.

Still, while he had security on the line, “May I ask how TRI is handling these attacks by the Foundation squad, and if do they believe there is a link between the attacks and the failures of the Emergency Escape Pods?”

The admin’s expression was unchanged as he replied to this new query. “TRI has posted bounties on members of the Foundation squad. At this time we are not yet ready to comment on the equipment failure situation.”

The Executive Council had offices on Amananth station, only thirty kilometers away in the same sector as the New Dawn POS, and it occurred to LupinOne, that he might get farther if he paid them a visit, he carried some weight in this part of the galaxy and someone there might help to expedite the situation.

Lupin made his way down to the POS hangar and minutes later he was docking his scoutship at the mysterious Amananth station. LupinOne was feeling frustrated and felt the need to deal with the situation. His anxiety over the squads still in Conflux space was driving the man of action to do something, he felt the urgency to produce some result; and pestering TRI was one of the few useful things he could think of at the moment.

Despite the obscure nature of the Amananthians, a section of Amananth station had been portioned off for outside business and TRI maintained an imposing block of offices there. These were very modern, all tinted glass and they faced a large corridor in a section of the district that was segregated from the rest of the alien station. The partitioned sector was home to a number of business offices, the TRI complex being the largest of these. In the quiet lobby, LupinOne met with a security attendant who announced his arrival to the rest of the staff.

“I’m sorry Commander,” said the administrator in charge of the offices, “but the General Managers are not in Amananth at the present time. Perhaps if you would like to leave a message I can see that it’s transmitted to the Solrain Core offices.”

“I have left a few messages there already,” answered LupinOne.

“In that case, I am sure the Executive Council is taking the matter into consideration and will respond in due course,” answered the administrator. “With their current workload, new appointments have been increasingly difficult to arrange. If I may suggest perhaps a little more patience?”

LupinOne spread his hands. “I would just like to know what is being done regarding declassifying the Foundation squad’s roster. TRI has levied bounties against them, but without the pilot’s names, it’s very difficult to look for them. They could have a POS right in this sector and we’d never know it. If TRI is serious about bringing them to justice, then they really need to give us more to work with.”

The administrator put on a sympathetic expression. “I am sure that the Council is taking all that into consideration. In the meantime I will make certain the General Managers are aware of your concern, and they will no doubt contact you as soon as they reach a decision and their schedule allows.”

The New Dawn Commander left the building feeling more than a little frustrated by entrenched bureaucracy. Not that they were actually wrong, or not doing their jobs, it just felt like nothing was happening. His was the problem of being on the outside and not being able to see in. So he meandered back through the quiet station in the direction of the station hangar. Turning a corner, he was surprised when he bumped into a familiar face.

“Singleshot!” exclaimed LupinOne.

“LupinOne, my favorite New Dawn Commander!” came the jovial reply from the imposing Brotherhood pilot. “Hey, don’t you guys have your own station around here?”

LupinOne shrugged and indicated the TRI offices down the corridor. “An attempt at official business. What are you doing in this part of space?”

“Ambrosius sent me to help out on this CLAWS sentry duty you wrangled us into,” remarked the Brotherhood pilot. “No sooner do I come through the gate, then they ground all flights cause of this pod business. Anyway, I’m not here very often, thought I’d poke around this creepy old place.” He paused, listening to the echoes of their voices, then looked down the hall. “You know, I’ve been here for hours and you’re the first actual person I’ve seen. Except for the maintenance droids I think this place is deserted.”

LupinOne thumbed in the direction of the TRI compound. “There are a few government bureaucrats down the corridor.”

“I mean real people,” said the pilot, then he thumbed in the opposite direction. “There’s an automated bar down the hall; care for a drink?”

Five minutes later they were seated in a pair of faux leather high-backed chairs before a holographic fireplace — iced mugs on the table between them. Singleshot picked up his beer and said, “Sorry to hear about Bones, he was a good guy.” The pilot paused for a moment, then, “Here’s to getting our people home safely.” LupinOne nodded, and lifted his drink too.

“So,” Singleshot continued, “what sort of business has you flying around when everyone’s supposed to be grounded?”

LupinOne regarded the pilot across the table. Tesrend may be the all-time champion Ace, but Singleshot was a very close second. In fact, LupinOne was pretty sure he’d read that Singleshot held the record for bounties collected. The Brotherhood certainly had its share of Aces; Lupin was just glad they were on his side. And when the Ace of Aces asked you to have a drink with him, it was a good idea to say yes.

“I’ve been trying to get some official assistance in tracking down this Foundation squad,” said the New Dawn Commander. “I wanted to talk to TRI security or the Executive Council about declassifying their membership.”

“And?”

LupinOne shrugged. “Said it’s not a TRI security matter, that the relay system isn’t in TRI space so it’s a squad problem. And since there’s no proven link between the attacks and the equipment failure, that it’s our problem. The classified nature of the squad roster is a privacy issue and they would need some proof for a court order or something to release that kind of information. And I haven’t been able to reach GM Istvan; he’s usually sympathetic to our causes.”

“Sure be nice to know what’s going on with the escape pods,” mused Singleshot, then refocusing on the topic at hand, “But I wouldn’t worry too much about these Foundation guys; Ambrosius asked Tesrend to run them down, so their days are numbered.”

The New Dawn Commander whistled. “What about the pod problem? Tesrend’s going after those guys without a net?”

“Well,” started the pilot, “he left before the pod problems showed up. Still, I’m sure he got the warning and recall messages while in transit, but whether he’s grounded or still up flying I couldn’t say. My guess, Tes would ignore the recall notice and just keep hunting. But if his pod’s on the blink, then most likely the Foundation’s would be, too. So as far as a handicap, it’s a draw.”

“Unless the Foundation had something to do with it,” suggested LupinOne.

“Not likely is it?” asked Singleshot. The pilot took a long pull on his beer, then continued. “You know, I’ve got something like 13, maybe 14 hundred “kills”, but of course they’re not really kills at all. Those guys I shot down just went home in pods. Insurance got them shiny new ships and they were out flying again in no time.” He took another drink, then, “Hell, I’ve been “killed” a couple hundred times probably, lost count a long time ago.” He looked around the vacant lounge, “Wonder what life would be like if you only had one shot at it, one death. No returns. I wonder how many Aces there would be then.”

“You asking if you would be one?” inquired LupinOne.

The pilot shrugged. “I mean, I wonder if any of us would even be out here flying all over space, let alone shooting the crap out of each other, not to mention you crazy guys flying around in flux space.”

The New Dawn Commander shrugged back. “Pilots flew dangerous missions before the escape pods were perfected. And folks have always shot at each other.” He looked over at a monitor above the “fireplace”; the sound was off but it was still showing the latest news from TRI. Presently there was a list of names, people who had now actually “died” in space-related incidents due to the pod failures. LupinOne’s own parents had died in a rare pod-related accident many years ago. “Still, It’s important to see our squads safely back from Conflux space, and that’s why I’ve been trying to get TRI to release any info concerning these Foundation bozos. I can’t believe they’re showing up and the pod failures are a coincidence.”

Singleshot turned and seemed to regard the monitor for the first time. “Well hell, we should be able to take care of one of your problems right there.”

Singleshot put his drink down and got up. Stepping over to the monitor, he pulled the keyboard out and logged on. Next, he pulled out his wallet and removed a little dog-eared card, “My cheat-sheet,” he said. The pilot then punched up the TRI Civilian Terminal and clicked on the Squad Center icon. Under the heading Squad Information was a long list of names, perhaps two hundred listed alphabetically — all names of all the pilot squads flying in TRI space. He scrolled down the list until he reached “The Foundation”, under T. Singleshot shook his head. There was a number 1 in the box under Count, apparently indicating the number of members.

“That can’t be right,” said LupinOne. Under the heading Founder was the name: Foundation.

“Never heard of any guy named Foundation,” said Singleshot, “probably a trick to keep his name off the list.” Clicking on the squad name the screen changed, now showing all information regarding the squad. Next to the name Foundation were the words: Bringing truth to the reconstruction. Under the category for directive it listed: The elimination of the lies and deceit known as the TRI.

“Cheery folks,” said LupinOne. In the active members’ column there was only one name listed: Foundation, and he, she or it was also the founder and was ranked Solrain Optimus — the highest rank achievable.

“Solrain, I thought these guys flew Octavian ships,” said Singleshot, and when he clicked on the callsign the screen changed once again — this time showing a bright red box and the words: TRI CLASSIFIED.

“That’s about the size of it,” stated LupinOne.

“Not quite,” said Singleshot referring to the little cheat-sheet. He typed in a few commands, pressed Ctrl and Com and the screen changed once again, this time the bright red box was replaced by Squad Homepage, once again showing the squad directive and so on, but this time, “There’s no one home,” said the pilot.

“You hacked the squad pages?” asked the New Dawn Commander looking over SingleShot’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” he replied, “But there are no pilots listed, none, nobody.”

LupinOne looked the screen over. “Are you sure you’ve hacked into the right screen?” he asked. “There should be at least four.”

Singleshot nodded. “No, this is the right screen, it’s just that there are no members in this squad, period.” He drummed his fingers on the counter then a thought struck him. “My brothers took out all those Foundation ships that showed up at the beacons; if the pod system’s really screwed then maybe they’re dead, DOA.”

LupinOne considered that possibility for a moment, but then he pointed to the screen, “Look up squad Red Dawn.”

Singleshot shrugged, typed a few new commands and the screen changed once more. They were now looking at the homepage for squad Red Dawn with its five active members. The New Dawn Commander pointed to a name listed there. “Bones is still listed,” he said.

Singleshot looked at LupinOne, “Maybe I’m not the only guy who has hacked this system.” He said.

“I think I need to talk to Istvan about this,” said the New Dawn Commander, turning to leave.

“Wait,” said the pilot, “let my fingers do the walking.” With that, he typed a few more commands and got the GM’s personal service. “There’s an away message,” said Singleshot. “According to this he’s on travel, with the other GM’s.”

LupinOne perked up. “This isn’t be a good time for anyone to be traveling, even government officials,” he said, suddenly concerned.

“Well those guys probably have an army of escorts when they travel,” said Singleshot. “I’ll try reaching them in flight.” And at that, he began typing in earnest. Fifteen minutes later he looked a bit exasperated and raised his voice. “Don’t these guys wear pagers or something? The GM’s ship isn’t responding.”

LupinOne was growing impatient himself. “Is there any way to find out where they are going?”

The pilot went back to Istvan’s personal service and called up his itinerary. “Remind me to delete everything on my own computer,” said LupinOne over SingleShot’s shoulder.

“According to his personal calendar Istvan and the rest of the GM’s were going…” the pilot paused for a moment.

“Yes?” asked LupinOne.

Singleshot pointed to the screen. “Here,” he said. “They’re on travel to Amananth.”

The New Dawn Commander turned, sat down and thought about that for a moment. “Why would they be coming here? Does it say when they left?”

Singleshot consulted the calendar. “They left Solrain Core the day before yesterday, that’s before the pod failures first showed up.”

“Maybe they stopped somewhere along the way.” LupinOne brightened at the thought, “Maybe they were grounded, too.”

Singleshot didn’t look convinced. “I think his calendar would be updated with that sort of info. Any billionaires with POS’s along the way, somebody he’s friends with? Anybody you think they’d stop over to visit?”

LupinOne stood up and took half a step towards the door, “No, and it’s not safe for them to be traveling, and even if they were busy somewhere, their ship’s com system should have automatically responded to your message by now.”

Singleshot scrolled through Istvan’s calendar but failed to find anything that satisfied him. He typed some new commands and presently he was looking at TRI’s beacon traffic monitoring system. A few more commands and a map of the TRI galaxy appeared; white target indicators appeared on a series of Jump Gates, leading from Solrain Core to Aman Hook. “These are the beacons that recorded Istvan’s ships as he and the other GM’s traveled from Solrain.” He pointed to the screen. “Looks like they’re in the Aman Hook sector. No public stations there, why the hell would they stop there?”

LupinOne looked out into the corridor of the nearly deserted Amananth station. “Well thanks for your help Singleshot, I’m going back down to the TRI offices and see if they know what’s happening with the GM’s. Maybe they might be more interested in this Foundation Squad now.”

Singleshot clicked off the computer and turned to the Commander. “If you don’t mind maybe I’ll tag along. I’m the cat that hacked that system, could be useful.” He looked around the lounge for a moment, “Plus this place is really starting to give me the creeps.”

Chapter thirty – Meanwhile, in Conflux space…

Robo29 led a squadron of seven New Dawn ships on a mapping mission through Conflux space. He had received the recall order from LupinOne, but the squad had been far from human space. So when the call came through it had taken time for them to make it back to Aman Leap where the Jump Gate to human space was located, and at this point they still had two sectors to go.

They were exercising extreme caution and not engaging any Conflux — as per orders. This really grated on the squad members, in some cases fights were unavoidable; Conflux “stingrays” and “prawn” were faster than human ships and you couldn’t outrun them.

The reason for the order was not entirely clear, apparently there had been malfunctions involving escape pods and all ships were being grounded until the problem was resolved. No one in Robo29’s wing had noticed anything amiss and they were of the opinion that this whole thing was just someone’s overreaction.

It had already been a long mission; the group had managed to map several new sectors and reconned a recently discovered planet. As they passed through the gate from “the Disturbance” into “the Depths”, they rendezvoused with a wing of Brotherhood fighters currently pulling sentry duty on the beacon there.

Looking at the gate, the pilots still found it revolting. These alien gates were a pink, hideous, and apparently organic, with three giant fleshy arms, each ending in three-fingered blood-red “hands”.

Between the hands was the gravitational anomaly at the center of every Jump Gate. Still it was hard to believe anything like these gates could have been grown, yet they had found them throughout Conflux space.

The pilots slowed as it approached the sector beacon and the Robo29 opened a hailing channel to the three Brotherhood ships. “Hail from New Dawn, how goes sentry duty, gentlemen?”

The pilots were three well known aces: Spork, Lego and Radi. From reports the Commander had been following, the three had recently beaten back an attack on the beacon by Foundation squad ships, fighting against superior numbers but inferior pilots. They were a bit worse for wear, with a few sparks coming off their armor, but the Aces were still ready for action. Robo wondered if these guys were having any problems with their pod systems.

“Hail from the Brotherhood,” replied Spork. “All quiet the last few hours; maybe seen the last of the opposition.” Then he added, “You guys carrying any repair beams? We could use a touch up.”

“Repair beams” were devices used to patch up damaged armor in space, rather than having to return to a station for repairs.

“Sorry Spork,” answered Robo29, “we aren’t equipped with any this trip. Being a fast mapping detail, instead of a hunting party, we didn’t think we’d need them.”

“No problem,” replied Spork. “I’m sure we can wait till we reach Amananth.”

Backspace, piloting a Solrain Vedette-class scout ship, had continued on through the sector and now passed through the gate leading to the Aman Leap sector, reconnoitering the area. Now he radioed back from the other sector, “Gentlemen, we have a situation here.”

Robo29 turned his attention to business. “What have you got, Backspace?”

The scout ship had the benefit of the most powerful radar available, good for 54,000 meters and giving the pilot an strategic picture of the area between the other sector’s gates. The scout also had a much higher top speed than the other vessels.

As Backspace scanned the sector, he noted familiar objects appearing on his radar screen. “Looks like we have a swarm coming through from the Contact sector.” He paused to count the purple dots appearing on his screen. “Twenty, maybe twenty-five flux so far,” he said.

Robo29 addressed their absent Commander. “Well, Lupin, we tried to follow your order but the flux just won’t cooperate. We at least have the numbers to deal with a swarm that size.” Keying the com to address the rest of the squad, he prepared to give the order to go in and clear the sector but Spork cut him off.

“Say Commander,” Spork started, “does this mean we get to watch New Dawn kick some flux butt?”

“Yeah,” added Lego, “ringside seats!”

“Well,” responded New Dawn member Quilland, “if Conflux have butts, we’re going to kick ’em.”

With that, the Brotherhood pilots — who were badly in need of some entertainment after hours on station — prepared to follow the other squad, sit back and watch seven veteran Conflux hunters take on a swarm of maybe thirty mantas and eels and stingrays, oh my!

“Uh, hey guys,” interupted Backspace’s voice over the com, “there’s something odd going on here.”

“Say again?” asked Robo29. “What’s happening there, Backspace?”

“I’m still counting flux,” he answered. “There’s a lot more than usual. Don’t know where they’re all coming from, but they’re showing up pretty fast.”

Another minute passed without word from Backspace. These Conflux swarms were a fairly recent phenomenon, appearing within the last year or two, and they appeared in Conflux space far more often than in TRI space.

Perhaps swarms were a response to the effectiveness of Conflux-fighting tactics that humans had developed. Sometimes, dozens of flux would appear and target a specific pilot, usually overwhelming him. The swarms tended to number between twenty and thirty, at least that was the most seen to date. New Dawn had come up with some effective strategies to combat this new threat, and the appearance of this swarm did not unduly alarm the squadron, despite the worries over the pod systems.

“Got an update, Backspace?” asked the Commander once again. Conflux swarms were not known for their patience; usually they attacked as soon as a pilot entered an occupied sector, and so it was a bit unusual that they hadn’t done so already.

But Backspace had not finished counting yet, and it now occurred to him that he may not be able to. He keyed his com, “We got a whole new situation here.” That got the Robo29’s attention. “I’ve lost count of the flux showing up on my screen, but it could be hundreds, maybe thousands.”

Actually, the New Dawn Commander’s attention was suddenly on a different problem; he’d just checked his targeting system — the gate through which they had entered this sector was even now being engulfed by an Conflux infestation. Talk about lousy timing.

“Commander?” It was pilot Hopes_Kiss calling from a nearby ship. “I’m showing an infestation surrounding the gate to C-1097.”

So that made two — had the Conflux intentionally sprung a trap on them? Were they that sentient? It had happened before. Robo29 toggled through his targets and found the Gate to Aman Leap; so far it was clear. “OK, ladies and gentlemen. Looks like we’re going to have to take out that swarm and make a run for the Aman Leap gate before the flux box us in here.”

The radar on Quilland’s ship wasn’t as powerful as that on the scout ship that Backspace was piloting, but even without his radar, he noticed something he had never seen before. Space — normally an inky blackness — had taken on a new color. “Hey guys,” he called out, “check out space in the direction of Aman Leap.”

“Holy crap, it’s purple!” exclaimed Spork.

Gas nebula, hydrogen atoms, microscopic ice particles and even vast fields of micrometeorites could create the illusion of cloud-like formations — a wispy gray or red “haze” — but as the group watched, the night filled with a faint pinkish-purple, a color characteristic of members of the Conflux.

Backspace had also noticed the change. He’d now stopped trying to count the flux in the expanding swarm, and focused his camera on the growing cloud increasing the magnification. He could see that there were thousands of flux, mostly squid, but also mantas, kraken, stingray, prawn and everything else.

“Robo, Backspace here. I’m revising my earlier estimate. I am not kidding, there could be thousands of flux in that swarm and it looks like it’s still growing. It’s also right smack between us and the gate home. I’m heading back.”

the tale continues …

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