Aftermath – Part II

by Nocturnus

Chapter one

A beep sounded from the depths of the cockpit of the Khamsim, and it’s pilot stirred. Looking curiously at the cargo readout, he noted it was still far from full. Confused momentarily, he checked over everything – no flux, no radar contacts at all, nothing seemed unusual. It beeped at him again, and he looked at the communications panel. A light was blinking at him, indicating a waiting call. Flipping the switch to reactivate it, he answered, “Yeah?”

“Jede? It’s Mahk, we met at Amananth a while back.”

Jede blinked, remembering. “Yes, I remember you. How can I help?”

“Well, You know how I was once ISU, right?”

“Yeah.”

“When I left, I took a heap of stuff, mostly mine, of course. But I must of grabbed something else while packing up.”

“And this has what to do with me?”

“It’s an encrypted data cube. It has your surname on it. I didn’t realise what it was until I tried to read it, it was unmarked, honest.”

“Yeah yeah, so where are you?”

“Sitting at TriPoint. I was going to bring it to you. It is, after all, yours. Where are you?”

“Have three guesses, though I bet you won’t need them all.”

“Heh. OK then, I’ll be at GBS shortly. Do you guys need anything?”

“Why? You in a tow or something?”

“Yes, actually. Just got the certification a few days ago. I’m looking to try and make up the cash I spent on equipping this thing.”

I logged into the GBS computer remotely and checked on the stocks of stuff. Nothing seemed to be in great need, however.

“Nah, you can come empty. If you insist of bringing something, you could bring food, but we have a few weeks worth for the moment. We’ve a decent stockpile of mined commodities you could take back though, if you want to make some profit.”

“That could work. OK, I’m on my way. Talk when I get there.”

The channel dropped into silence. Something seemed funny; no one just ‘returns’ things they took without reason. And a data cube with my family’s encryption on it just happened to be something he took. Forget seeming to be funny, this downright stunk.

Finishing off the roid I had been mining, I set a course for home. The last months had been a real adventure, learning the ins and outs of my father’s old ship. It was a unique piece of hardware, modified thoroughly by him, the embodiment of a miner’s wet dream. Pointing the nose at the gate, I pushed the throttles up a notch. A gentle vibration came from the back of the ship, as the twin Dreams gave the ship a nudge. Making the final small corrections, I pushed the throttles to full power, and the gentle vibration became a muted roar. I was pushed back gently in my seat for a few minutes as the ship accelerated to full speed. Shortly after, I made the jump across the void from Saron’s Shoulder where I had been mining. Sitting in the gate, I lined up the docking rings and headed to them, flipping, slowing, turning, and then docking, all in one smooth movement. Practice made perfect.

The bay droid floated over and took the tons of ore from my ship. I sat there and watched it slowly rise a little on the AG support as the weight was taken from it. It wasn’t a bad haul for the time spent out there, plenty of radioactive materials for a change.

I was sitting in the mess hall, having a quick feed, when Mahk arrived. I told him where I was and he soon walked in. I offered him a plate and pointed at the pile of organic fruit. He smiled, took the plate, then a bunch of fruit, before sitting down beside me.

“How was the flight?” I asked, watching him carefully.

“Good.” He mumbled through a mouthful of banana.

I waited until he had finished that mouthful before asking the next question, having seen enough chewed food for the day. “How are you finding the tow?”

“It’s nice, but I have cheap engines on it. I’ll do a run to Hyperial later to try and get some Dreams, or even Rushes. I’m using a set of Shepherds for the moment, and while it works, I can be a little hairy if something bad happens.”

I arced an eyebrow mentally. He flew to GBS in a tow, with engines that would have a hard time outrunning squid. Alarm bells started to ring in my mind.

“Yeah, I bet. I don’t even like Shepherds on anything but a fighter, and even then, only if I have no other choice.”

He nodded, chewing on another piece of fruit, then swallowed before replying. “That’s why I’m going to Hyperial – to get something better as soon as I can. I just thought I might try and drop that thing off to you on the way.”

The alarm bells rang a little louder. It was a safer trip to Hyperial than it was to GBS at the best of times, let alone on sub-standard engines.

Feigning indifference, I asked for the cube. He wiped his hands on his flight suit and reached into a pocket, pulling out a tiny metal case, before setting it on the table.

“No name, no identifying marks. I didn’t realize it wasn’t mine until I tried to access it and ran into the encryption. I looked at the TOC on it and found only your surname. That’s when I realized I had made a mistake.”

I picked it up and opened the case. Inside was the cube, made of what appeared glass. Holding it up to the light, I noted it’s apparent smokiness, the hundreds of millions of bits of data inside it clouding it. I flipped it around a few times until I found the corner with DV on it – my father’s initials. He always signed things like that, partly out of pride, partly for quick identification. Mahk watched me keenly.

“Yep, it’s one of Dad’s. Probably station records or something. I’ll look at it later, if no-one’s lost any sleep over it for however long you’ve had it, then it can’t be too important.”

“Eh, whatever. Nothing to do with me, right?”

I looked carefully at him. I could detect a hint of disappointment in his voice, but it was only fleeting.

“Nope, probably nothing at all to do with you, most likely not even to do with ISU. It’s all good though, thanks for returning it.”

“No problem. So, you don’t mind if I load up on goods from here? You know, to take to Hyperial?”

“You’re insane. You have next to no thrust to begin with, and you want to take some heavy materials. By all means, go ahead, but if you wanted to kill yourself, I’d rather you not waste my hard work.”

“Nah, I only want a little Iron. It’s one of the required commodities for Dream engines, and Hyperial is forever running short. I can make a decent profit on it, and get my engines made. They’ll be in their bays before they even cool.”

“Well, ok then. If you swing back this way then you can take more stuff. Safe journeys.”

“Thank you.” He stood, and left. I sat there and peered at the data cube. Dad was often cagey, but he never encrypted anything unless it was really sensitive. What the hell had he gotten into this time?

I flew over to the Labs in the Khamsin, docking without incident. Mom had seen me dock and came down to meet me. I climbed out of the cockpit and gave her a hug.

“Hi Mom.”

“Jede, honey. What brings you here?”

I explained about the data cube to her, and she nodded at my suspicions. “Dylos never encrypted anything unless it was dangerous knowledge. Heck, even all our research was only mildly encrypted, more to stop the casual snoops from stealing it. I’d be very concerned about what he has in there.”

“May I use the computer here to read it? I didn’t want to put it anywhere near the GBS computer, just in case.”

She nodded. “Yes, that was a wise decision. Use the terminal in your mothers office.”

I winced at that. “You are my mother, not her.”

She looked at me with a tear in one eye. “Both your parents would be saddened by you saying that. But it is your choice. I’m more than happy to treat you like my own, but you aren’t.”

“I don’t care. I made my choice. Let’s leave it at that, OK?”

She nodded. “Yes, lets.”

We walked in silence to the offices, and I sat at the terminal. A fine layer of dust coated everything in the room; it hadn’t been disturbed since she was murdered, many years ago. I dusted off the desk, and the terminal, and then placed the cube in the reader.

The terminal prompted me for the phrase. I typed in our family motto. It spat out an error – the phrase was incorrect. I retyped it, wary of my father’s tricks. It accepted it this time. A set of plans appeared on the screen, a wireframe of some unknown fighter. Then the panels faded in, filling it out, making it look like a toy model. The dark grey of the armor was contrasted with the green streaks and logo. A Quantar ship, by all appearances, but still none I was familiar with. A set of readouts at the bottom showed it would be in full operational status, once reactivated. Mom spotted it first.

“There, it says it’s docked. But where? Not here, that’s for sure.”

I looked closer, zooming in on the window. A set of rotacol co-ordinates blinked at me, next to the words “Hyperian Hook”. The co-ordinates placed it several hours out from the gates.

“Did Dad have more than one station?”

“So it would seem. He had a forward post in that sector, Mujahedin would base out of it for raids against the Hyperians and Sols, but I thought it was destroyed long ago.”

I flipped to the next window, examining the stats on the ship, along with extra notes. It appeared to be outfitted with AF class equipment, something neither of had ever heard of.

“I don’t get it. What the heck is an AF-E4? Or for that matter, an AF-S5?”

Mom stared at it, just as puzzled as I was. “Maybe we should go find out? I have some suspicions, but I’m sure I’m wrong.”

“Care to share, anyway?”

“Well, I suppose. Even though he was part of ISU, he managed to befriend a few of TRI’s engineers, most likely through his contacts at the schools he taught at. He managed to sneak in as a test pilot under their noses, and had access to all kinds of toys. He smuggled some of it out, and we reverse engineered it here.”

“So that ship is possibly some kind of TRI prototype?”

“Maybe. I know they had a few ideas that they ended up aborting for various reasons, even before the great conflux attack. If I had to guess, I’d say that the AF is the Advanced Fighter. From what I remember, it was to be a mass produced version of the Enforcer, but cut down a lot. There were all kinds of rumors about it, from it having enough firepower to level a station in minutes, to it being little more than an Intensity with an extra cup-holder.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, wow alright. I’ll get Ridgeway to move the Dragons out of here to make room for extra ships for us, so you can bring it here if you can get it. Knowing your father, though, it won’t be as simple as just going there and taking it.”

Chapter two.

I left the Khamsin behind and took a Cyclone instead, opting for the ability to fight or flee over the extended radar range. I swapped out the CM artifact that I had acquired, and placed a Rotacol in it instead. A few quick laps around GBS to check everything was working, and then I was off. I raced through the Outskirts-Zealots Refuge sectors, a few Eels taking an unhealthy interest in my little ship. If there was anybody trying to follow me, they’d have a hard time dealing with them as well. I paused in the gate at Zealots Refuge, half expecting the automatic announcement of KTRI to tell the world I was here, but nothing happened. The few squid who had appeared to investigate my jump quickly fell to my weapons, and I headed across to the Great Venure Belt. I raced across it as well, jumping into Hyperian Hook as soon as I could.

Setting the rotacol to the co-ordinates given, I pointed the ship in that direction and headed off. It would be several hours to get there, so I set the autopilot and read a book.

I was brought out of the story I was reading by a beeping on the console; I was one minute away from my destination. I looked around on the radar for my target but found nothing. Slowing down as I got closer, I shook my head in disbelief as still nothing appeared. Acting on a guess, I fired in the direction of where the target should be. Nothing.

“Where is it?” I mused to myself, not sure what I had missed. I flipped the co-ordinates around and reset the waypoint. More wasted hours later, I still hadn’t found it. I spent hours looking at every possible combination, failing to see anything. Eventually, I gave up and headed back, passing by a miniature swarm of squid that had been chasing me.

I sat at the terminal, staring at the display. The data cube program insisted that the base was active, and that it was where I had looked. I attempted to log into it and pull up the records, looking for the radar traces. I went through it, and found what I was looking for. According to the log, something stopped four clicks off to a side, and then went off in another direction. I scratched my chin, wondering what had happened when I saw another contact appear. Someone had been following me.

I showed this to Mom, and she shook her head. “I suspected something was up. Although I have no idea as to how you’ll find the base if you were that close but couldn’t see it.”

“What if it was cloaked?”

“Maybe, but where would he get technology like that?”

“The same place that you’d get anything like that, steal it from TRI.”

“Maybe. Perhaps we should go back with your Mom’s Intensity and see if I can find it with the scanners?”

“We might have to. Are you ok with that?”

“Well, I really don’t want to get into a combat situation unless I have to – I’m not a fighter like you, or your father was.”

“I know. But I don’t trust anyone else.”

She paused for a while, thinking. “OK”, she finally said, “I’ll come with you. We’ll take the Intensity, but loaded for combat.”

I nodded. “Thanks.”

We walked down to the launch bay and organized to have the ship pulled out of deep storage. Normally TRI wouldn’t let a pair of Quantar fly a Solrain ship, but given I was legally half Solrain, and the fact we couldn’t give a damn what TRI wanted, it mattered little.

The “Gaia 2” rose on the lift to our level and we watched as the droid raced over it cleaning it all off. I checked the equipment of it with a laugh. “This thing is insane. Artifact engines, Artifact Shield, Artifact boosters…”

Mom nodded. “Yeah, she was legendary for getting into and out of trouble. I bet it’s not as fragile as you’d expect, either. ISU developed some rather exotic alloys to replace the standard TRI armor, based on recovered Enforcer wreckage.”

“Really? Jeez, no wonder TRI hates us, we keep threatening their monopoly on all the advanced technologies.”

I climbed aboard and restarted the ships computer. Everything checked out ok, the scanners were fine. I had a FeatherFire mark 2 cannon fitted to the center gun mount. The computer spat up a warning, “Error: Weapon power exceeds capacitor.”

I frowned, looking at the tiny little cap, part of the standard equipment load out for new pilots. I shrugged, and had an ISU-C fitted. Problem solved.

Mom climbed in and sat in the seat behind me. Unlike standard issue ships, this had a second seat so an observer could record and process the multitude of information coming from the extensive scanner equipment. In times of crisis, the second person could also take over flying entirely, which was a real help when it came to teaching people to fly.

I hit the launch control, and the ship dropped into the tube. The door above us closed, the air outside was evacuated, and then we were pushed out into space. Hesitantly, I pushed the throttles forward and the ship took off like a startled animal, reaching 400v in what seemed a fraction of a second. Grinning like a madman, I pushed them all the way to the stops and held on. Seconds later, we were cruising just shy of 600v.

“Be gentle with it now, it’s not indestructible.” Mom warned me. I nodded, and twisted the ship towards the gate. A trio of Eels met us on the other side but I outpaced them easily. Laughing, I jumped into the next gate. Nothing even came close to us, as we flew down to Quantar space, and it took next to no time to arrive at our destination.

“OK, I’ve hooked up all the scanners to your radar, it will give you a decent boost in range, plus pick up anything anomalous that a radar usually wouldn’t”

I looked down at the radar, noting the effective range of 65Km. “You weren’t joking about a decent boost. It’s almost doubled what it was originally.” Mom laughed at that. “Is that all? You should try it in a ranger, we got over 100 K range from one. They took it artifact hunting. That’s where a lot of our technology came from for a while, we just had people working in shifts scouring the depths of unreg looking for wreckage.”

We sat in silence for a while, until I saw something on the fringes of the radar. I cycled through the targets to find it, but it disappeared. I gently pushed on the stick and put the ship into a loop, flipping around and heading back the way we came. Mom queried this, but nodded when I told her what I had briefly seen. Sure enough, the target soon reappeared, and then got close enough for a proper lock.

“TRI shuttle, 33 K off, and we’re catching it fast.” Mom said.

“Good call turning around, eh? Let’s whack it.”

“If you say so.”

We accelerated towards it, watched it turn and try to run. It accelerated to just above our speed, and started to leave us behind.

“He’s going to escape.” I whined.

“No he’s not. He’s got thirty or so minutes travel to the gate and GBS is closer than that.”

“You’re calling for allies?”

“Already have. They’re entering Quant space now, actually.”

I grinned. “You expected trouble?”

“Of course. Every time I can remember this ship leaving GBS it has been trouble. Why break tradition now?” She said, grinning back at me.

We continued chasing, only to find it suddenly stop. “Looks like the cavalry has arrived and he’s realized he’s caught.” Before too long the voice of one of the rebels boomed across the sector comms.

“TRI Shuttle, stand down and surrender, or be destroyed.”

A few moments passed and everyone closed in on the shuttle. Finally, a woman’s voice responded.

“This is the TRI-R shuttle Gamma seven. I’m standing down awaiting orders.”

“Gamma seven, prepare to be boarded, and yourself and your ship taken to GBS for questioning.”

“As you wish.”

The shields on the shuttle switched off and the craft drifted to a halt. A Condor soon arrived, and docked with it, before opening the cargo pod and swallowing the smaller ship whole.

“OK guys, you’re good to go. We’ll hang around for a bit and make sure you get no more disturbances. This one will be held at Barrier Rift Station until we decide what to do.”

I nodded, “Thanks for that.” Turning around again, I headed back into deep space on a slight tangent to the true heading, still a little unsure. Eventually everything fell behind me, the extended range showing nothing. Only then, did I change course heading towards the co-ordinates I had.

Many hours later, the ship’s computer beeped at me. I glanced at the radar, seeing nothing. “We’re a minute away, and nothing is showing yet.” Mom told me, “Slow down a little and let me take in everything I can.”

I complied, pulling the throttles back until we were cruising at 150v. “Found anything yet?” I half whined, half joked.

“Real soon now…”

“How soon?”

“How about now? I can see something. It’s reading like a roid, but has too high a magnetic profile… Looks like we found it, but now, what do we do with it?”

“There’s probably a trick to it, but what would it be?”

“I don’t know. We might be able to go in using the sensors only, if you’re careful.”

“Well, lets give it a go.”

“Take care. I’ll reset the rotacol to right on our target.”

I watched the waypoint jump a little, and flew carefully towards it. I was squinting at the region of space where our target was supposed to be when I saw it – A slight flickering, which stood out against the stillness of space.

“Do you see it?” I asked Mom. She looked up with a smile.

“Yeah, and I think I know what’s happening. Watch this…”

I gawked as the flickering intensified, then disappeared, leaving an asteroid with what appeared to be a docking bay in front of us.

“Wha??” I started to say, but Mom cut me off. “Hurry up and dock, this will stay off for only a short time.”

I flipped the ship into the docking bay, and let go as the automated systems took over. The ship paused in a small room, and then the roof opened and we rose into a docking bay.

Checking that there was a breathable atmosphere outside, I clicked open the cockpit and climbed out, Mom behind me. The silence was broken only by the ticking sound of the Intensity behind me cooling down.

“We’re here, whatever here is.” Mom said behind me, looking around. I looked at my personal terminal, but there was no response from the station. No refuel, no repairs, not a thing. We walked quietly to the door into the station, touching the biometric lock with my thumb. It went green and the door opened. “At least this place knows who we are.” I said. Mom nodded. There was a corridor that led to a small computer room, adjoining some sleeping quarters.

“It’s a real bachelor pad, isn’t it?” I joked.

“Heh. Not really a woman’s style, for sure. Grab a chair and let’s see what the computer has to say.”

We sat at a terminal each, and started to dig through whatever files we could find. It didn’t take long, other than the software to allow the remote interrogation, and the station controls; there was nothing to be found.

“Looks like this place has one purpose, to hold that ship.” Mom said, typing in a few commands. “It’s in the launch bay now. I just brought it from storage. Let’s go.”

I nodded as I stood, and we walked back to the bay. Next to the Intensity was the new ship. It was about half the size of the Solrain fighter, looking like a much smaller and flatter version of the Octavian Phoenix. I climbed into it and hit the buttons to activate the systems. I watched the bootlog scroll past, laughing at the stupid comments Dylos had put in it.

“TRI ISU Advanced Fighter project. Version 7.223. Please insert the key.”

Key? I looked around at the console; most of it looked standard, nothing unusual, until I found a strange looking socket. The shape of it pulled at my memory, familiar yet not quite recognized. I thought about it some more, scratching my chin, but eventually gave up.

“Mom!” I called across the deck, “Can you come look at this?”

“Coming”

She jogged from the Intensity to the AF, climbing the ladder and looking into the cockpit beside me. “What’s up?”

“It says it needs a key, and all I can find is this socket here.” I pointed at it, and then continued, “I know that shape, but do you think I could remember what it is?”

She looked at it a moment, then pulled her amulet from around her neck. “Try this.”

I took the amulet, an exact copy of my father’s, and placed it gently in the socket. Traces of light refracted through the emerald at the center of it, then a message appeared on the screen.

“Incorrect Key.”

Mom looked at me. “Do you still have Dylos’s amulet?”

“No, I buried it like he asked me to. Months ago, in fact.”

“Hmm… You know what I’m thinking, right?”

“Yeah. Lemme see if I can bypass it first. I don’t want to be desecrating graves for no good reason.”

I grabbed a tool from my kit and started to unscrew the key panel. The console beeped at me, and I looked at the screen.

“Warning! Attempts to disassemble ship will result in destruction.” A timer counted down from one minute, stopping only when I replaced the screw I had removed.

“It’s smarter than it looked, Jede.”

I sighed, before responding. “Yeah, looks like I have to go back to Perasca now. I’m sorry father.”

“Maybe he wanted it left like this. There may have been a reason it was so well hidden.”

“Maybe. But can we just leave a treasure like this sitting here?”

“I would. But I won’t even pretend to speak for you. You’re your own person now, Jede, you make your own choices.”

The comms set beeped. “You guys still alive in there?” asked the rebel wing leader.

“Yeah, we’re coming out in a moment. We need to go to the Perasca ‘roid field. Can you escort us?”

“As you wish. We’re just sitting out here taking potshots at the squid that come to investigate us.”

“OK, be there in a while.”

We closed up the AF and climbed back into the Intensity, launching it. Looking behind, I saw the faint flicker of the base.

“How’d you uncloak it?”

“Fired a laser-link beam at it and attempted to log into the computers. It had an encrypted log on, and passwords for everything. Of course, they were our standard passwords, so it wasn’t a big drama to turn it off briefly.”

“Aaah, makes sense.”

We flew on quietly until we reached the gate, where the pair of rebel Phoenixes was waiting for us. They fell in behind us and we made the jumps through Quantar Space. We reached our destination sector before too long, and flew past the wreckage that was once the station, heading for ‘roids that were the planet’s remains.

“Heads up people, I’m seeing more TRI shuttles, 60 k in front of us. They’re in the ‘roid field.”

“OK, we’ll go on ahead a little and keep them busy, you get what you need done.”

Mom made an annoyed sound, before asking me if I had told anyone about what and where I buried.

“No, only the captain of the Carrier I was working out of knew where, and no-one knew what.”

“Is he trustworthy?”

“Well, TRI would be most upset at some of his actions, like selling artefacts on the open market and shooting down Enforcers.”

“Then how would TRI know?”

I thought for a bit. “He said there was a mole on his ship he couldn’t find. Maybe that has something to do with it?”

“Hmmm. Maybe.”

I flipped through the radar and noted the situation. Three shuttles, watched by an Enforcer, were flying around as if they were looking for something. I explained the situation to the others.

“Gotcha. We’ll be defensive for now, no sense in antagonizing them… Yet.”

Chapter three.

We flew on in silence. We passed within 24k of one of the shuttles, which turned and ran straight for the Enforcer.

“Scared ‘im,” said the rebel wingman.

Almost immediately, a voice came across the sector comms. “Unidentified ships, stand down and identify yourself.”

“OK, we’ve antagonized them. What now?” asked the wingman.

“Eh, let me handle it,” replied his wing leader.

“TRI ship, this is the Coalition of Free Pilots Phoenix ‘Peace through power’. We are on a peaceful mission, and have no desire to shoot anything.”

A few minutes of silence followed that as the Enforcer tried to work out what to do. “Rebel ships, leave of be fired upon.”

I grinned. The warning was more than we usually got.

“TRI Enforcer, your parents should have used more effective birth control. Any movement towards us on your part will be construed as an attack and we will respond in kind. I repeat, we are on a peaceful mission and have no desire to shoot anything.”

Mom stifled a giggle behind me.

“Rebel ships, this is your last warning. Leave, or be fired upon.”

“TRI Enforcer. Come get some.”

The Phoenixes split up and did a loop as the Enforcer accelerated towards them.

“He took the bait guys, you’ll see him on the scope in a few moments. Scanners show he’s using ion weaponry, and a large amount of power is going to his engines. Shields seem fairly weak, so be careful.”

“Thanks Jede. Hang back unless we need the help, I’m hoping it will be fairly easy.”

They pulled out of the loop, lighting their afterburners, and headed towards the Enforcer. They dodged the first few shots before closing into range, and started to pelt the ship with laser fire. It took only a few moments to strip it’s shields and the Enforcer lit a flashfire, racing out of battle.

“Typical Sol,” one of the fighters taunted, “FleeeeEEEEEEeeeeee!”

“OK Jede, do your thing. We got this under control now.”

I flew into the roid field carefully; stopping at the roid I had buried my father’s amulet on months previously. I cycled the air from the cockpit, popped the glass open, and drifted out. A few minutes later, I had recovered the small box.

“OK Guys, I got it.”

“No worries. That Enforcer is long gone, and the shuttles are leaving as well. Can we down them?”

“And save them the trip home? Meh, why are you asking me for, I’m not your boss.”

“OK, we’ll just tickle them then.”

They flew towards the shuttles and opened fire, bringing the shields. The sector comms burst into life, “This is TRI shuttle lambda one, we are unarmed. Please do not kill us.”

Mom scanned them and told us they were telling the truth.

“TRI shuttles,” replied the rebel wingman, “I won’t kill you if you tell us why you were here.”

“If I do that, then TRI will kill me.”

I blinked at that. TRI was known to be ruthless, but killing it’s own staff for telling their mission seemed a bit much.

“Well then, you have a dilemma. Make your choice.”

“If we tell you, can we seek asylum at your station?”

I jumped on the comms. “What skills and/or knowledge can you bring?”

A few moments went by before he answered. “I am a cartographer. My wingman is my assistant. I have no secret knowledge I could bring, nor any other skills. This is my first ever flight in a ship, so I don’t even have any pilot skills of worth.”

The wing leader asked me what they should do. I looked at mom, but she shrugged. I guess I had to make the decision.

“Follow us to GBS. At the least, your ships will be of use. Beyond that, we may find a use for you. Any problems, and we’ll throw you out the airlock without an EVA suit, understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

The rebels escorted the shuttles to GBS, while mom and I flew to the station once more. We docked, and I walked over to the fighter. Climbing in, I sat the amulet on the socket, and waited. Lights refracted from behind it, and the fighter powered up fully. I checked off everything, noted a few off things, then launched, doing a quick lap around the station before signaling Mom that all was ok. She launched soon after, and we flew back to GBS.

“So, what’s it like to fly?” she asked.

“So far, much like any other ship. It has an extra stick though, I’m not sure what that is.”

“Is the escape pod working?”

“Says so.”

“Then what have you got to lose?”

I laughed, and then pushed the second stick up. I felt something pushing me into the seat and the Intensity fall below me.

“Whoah.”

“Yeah, I saw.”

“What is it?”

“Looks like some kind of vectored thrust system.”

“Really? Lemme see if this works…”

I cut the throttle, then spun the ship until it was facing backwards, then pulled the throttle backwards. Sure enough, I accelerated in reverse. It was a disconcerting feeling, so I spun around again.

“Impressive” was Mom’s reply.

“This thing has eight FeatherFire Mark twos on it, and according to the power grid, can fire them all at once, continuously. No wonder TRI is anxious to get it back.”

“No kidding.”

The remote comms burst into life.

“Jede? Ceran? You out there?”

Mom answered it first, “Yeah, what’s up?”

“GBS is under attack. TRI has a fleet of Enforcers pounding on everything, trying to destroy the station. I think we really got to them this time.”

“OK, we’re on our way, be there in… Twenty minutes? Can you hold out?”

“We’ll have to. I’ll get the others prepped in replacement hulls to help out once you distract them.”

“Replacement?”

“Yeah. Five Enforcers versus three of us is not a pretty sight.”

Chapter four.

We pressed on, racing for the gates. Almost twenty minutes later, we flew past a TRI supercarrier parked in Saron’s Shoulder. Enforcers were flying towards it, looking to dock.

“Mom, you get home and I’ll work on this lot. Get reinforcements, OK?”

“OK.”

I raced towards the rearmost Enforcer, opening up as I closed within range. The firepower of this fighter was awesome, stripping his shield in only a few salvos, before he dived to dodge the rest. I followed, trying to keep the pressure on, pounding at his hull. A few more shots would of done it, but his wingmen were on my tail, blasting at me.

“It’s showtime!” I thought to myself, and pulled hard on the second stick, dodging to the left and bringing the throttle back to full reverse suddenly. The unexpected maneuver took them all by surprise and they all flew past me, copping a few shots as they went past. I threw the ship forwards, now the hunter. Realizing the sudden change of roles, the Enforcers split up forcing me to pick a target. I cycled through them, finding the one I was on before. He was making a break for the Carrier, another falling in behind him to try and protect him. I watched another still close within firing range, and opened up on it. He flipped to a side, most of my shots missing completely. I mirrored his move, and came in high, pounding him with ion cannon fire. Realizing he had been out maneuvered, he lit a flashfire to put some distance between us.

Weapons fire was arcing against my shield again, so I dodged to a side, turning to face the threat. He didn’t fall for it this time, but I managed to make him run before he hurt me too badly.

“Guys, where are my reinforcements? I’m just stalling them, I can’t make any headway against them here.”

“We’ve got a problem, they smashed the launch tubes. We can’t help.”

I swore, tracking another Enforcer and pulverizing it. I lit a flashfire when it did, chasing it and finally destroying it as my weapons fire penetrated its hull, sparking off a massive explosion.

Two more were behind me though, laying into me. I took a gamble and raced into a patch of roids, narrowly missing them. It worked, and they broke off, unsure of their own abilities. I began a wide loop around, trying to give my shield time to recharge.

“Jede, honey, I have a plan.”

It was Mom to the rescue again. “Talk to me, I’m running out of options here.”

“Come back to GBS sector, I’m going to infest the gate.”

“What?!”

“I think I have enough biomass to infest the gate. It won’t be as strong as the conflux infestations, but it will stop them coming after us for a few minutes. We might have to make our last stand in here.”

“Uhhh… OK then.”

I lit a flashfire and raced for the gate. The Enforcers, sensing victory, chased after me, but I had enough of a lead to escape them. I jumped through, and raced out of the gate, hoping I’d miss the pylons. I was close, scraping a wing on one, but not doing any serious damage. A missile exploded behind me, and a strange pink film started coating the gate, before solidifying into the familiar shape on an infestation.

I docked quickly at the labs, setting the droids to repair, refuel, and replace the spent flashfires. Mom was waiting for me, in her Cyclone.

“I’m going out there to fight with you.”

“I’m not going to stop you, but I wish you didn’t have to.”

“We don’t have much other choice. The BRS launch tubes are beyond quick repair, it’ll be an hour before they are usable. The gate will stay closed only for a short while.”

“Where the heck did you get that missile from that infested the gate?”

“Dylos stole it, your mother learnt from it and published her findings. TRI-CSD had her on the hit list from that moment onwards. They claimed it was experimental only, to see if they could make an effective counter to it, but many believed that the CSD and the conflux were working in a partnership.”

“I… see… How long will that gate hold?”

“Not long. A single anti-conflux missile will destroy it. They just need to go back and rack one up. Or if they wait about ten minutes, it’ll die naturally. The cloned conflux material isn’t stable enough to live long.”

“Well, let’s get out there and welcome them.”

We climbed back into our ships and launched. The gate was still infested and we flew in tight loops around it. It started to glow, then dissolve in front of us.

“Here they come,” I said, “No doubt expecting us.”

The jumped in and cleared the gate as quickly as they could. We took off after them, bringing its shield down and shooting a wing off. The ship spun out of control, heading into deep space. I saw a second explosion reflect off the side of GBS station, and cycled my targets, fearing the worst.

“Mom? MOM! Talk to me!”

Chapter five.

Silence.

“Damnit Mom, TALK TO ME!”

“Yeah, yeah,” she answered, “just a pod ride, nothing new.”

I sighed glad she was ok. “Stay there.”

“OK then.”

I pulled a sharp loop around GBS, the heavier ships going wider, giving me some distance. One of them expected it and met me on the other side, copping some ion fire for his trouble. As I went past, I flipped around and went in full reverse, shooting at them as I tried to run. I was really beginning to love this ship.

A new radar contact appeared beside the gate, and I hurriedly cycled to it. It was a carrier, warping in. I flew towards it, dodging around it hoping that the others would slam into it. They anticipated it, and gave the ship a wide berth, giving me some more space.

The carrier finished warping into existence, and a trio of Dragons launched from it. “Hi Jede, I bet you’re glad to see us?” came a familiar voice across the comms.

“Captain, yes, yes, very glad to see you, if you’re on my side, that is?”

“Of course. A lot of us have ex-ISU family, if not ex-ISU themselves. We just decided not to join the CFP overtly, instead trying to help where we could without being noticed.”

An enforcer blew up to a side, victim of flail rounds.

“What about their super-carrier?”

“You mean, my super-carrier. I have people capturing it as we speak.”

I started shooting at an Enforcer who hadn’t noticed me, forcing it to stop shooting the Dragon it was on and evade. The pilot thanked me and fired on the fleeing ship, finishing the job.

Before to long, the attackers were destroyed, except for the one which was disabled and drifting.

“Uh, Jede, We have to withdraw now, there’s a swarm in Sarons, causing havoc with the others. Can you help us?”

“Of course. On my way.”

I spun the ship and headed for the gate, beating the Dragons but a few minutes. Inside, I started to count the pink dots, but gave up.

“You weren’t kidding about the swarm,” I told the captain, racing through the targets for the high priority conflux. I settled on a Stingray and headed to intercept it. It was soon dead, and I picked another target, this time a pair of Krill. We fought for an hour, trying to protect the super-carrier, but eventually it was destroyed by the constant onslaught of the conflux. The shockwave killed a lot of conflux, and what was left quickly warped out.

“Thanks for the help, Jede, a shame we lost the ship. I’ve never seen conflux as brutal as that before.”

“Sorry I couldn’t have been any better help, Captain.”

“It’s not your fault. We’re bringing the carrier in to salvage what debris we can. Some of our guys want to stock up on commodities from GBS, is that alright?”

“Yeah, go for it.”

I flew back home feeling like dirt. Despite the awesome firepower of the ship, and insane manoeuvrability, the conflux had won. I docked at the lab, took the amulet and put it back around my neck, then climbed out.

Mom was waiting for me, and gave me a hug.

“I was watching. You did your best; in fact, you did better than anyone has any reasonable right to expect of you. I’m proud of you. If TRI had more pilots like you in ships like those, we’d of won the conflux war, I’m positive of that.”

I looked up at her. “I’m not a kid anymore, I know how it was out there. Doesn’t make me feel any better. I was asked to help, but in the end didn’t help that much at all. It sucks, but I’ll get over it. I’m just sad that I disappointed a friend.”

Mom nodded. “Ridgeway is a bit annoyed at your prisoners, they’re at GBS awaiting interrogation. Do you want to head over there?”

Chapter six.

Ridgeway was indeed in a pissy mood. I’d barely gotten my feet on the launch deck when he paged me, practically demanding me to get to the prison level. I ran the whole way, almost colliding with him inside the room. I looked up at him, trying to regain my breath.

“What the heck did you think you were doing offering them all asylum? We could of just taken their ships from them and sent them to wake in a Premia or something, but they expect to be able to stay here now.”

“Well,” I started.

“Well nothing. We don’t really have room for them here, and they have no skills they could use.”

“Then tech them.”

“What, do I look like your father or something?”

“Hey, you taught him, and a lot of the rest of the people around you. From everything I’ve read, you’re not a bad teacher either.”

“Mmmmph,” he muttered, “but then what? What purpose could they fill here?”

“Wasn’t ISU originally founded on the desire to escape TRI? And that all pilots, of all abilities, were welcomed? Didn’t you even escort some people straight from initial flight accreditation to GBS?”

“Yes, but that was in the past. This is now.”

“So what? That sounds more like a cop-out than anything. You’ve been saying that we need more pilots for a while, some younger blood. Those who are left of the original ISU aren’t young, yourself included. Do you really want your vision to die with you?”

Ridgeway glared at me in silence, and I began to worry that I had pushed it too far.

“Face it, without young people, the empire of ISU will die out, and TRI will have won, once again.”

“It’s not an empire.”

“You know what I mean. I’m the youngest person here; Mom is probably the second youngest. Two does not make an empire.”

Ridgeway stared at me some more, and this time I was sure I had gone too far. His frown straightened out a little, then he turned and walked into the next room. “Come on,” he said as he walked, “we have interrogations to do.”

A lot of people had expressed concern in the past about our methods of interrogation. All I will say is that we use stolen TRI equipment, and we’re a lot more forgiving than TRI is.

The next room held the interrogation machine. Three people sat on chairs, hands cuffed behind them, while a trio of armed CFP pilots watched them.

“OK,” Ridgeway began, “I’m sure you all recognize that lovely piece of TRI technology over there.” He pointed at the interrogation machine, and all three grimaced. “Yes, I see that you do. Now, we like to play nice here, unlike TRI. So lets have a little chat first, then we’ll see about the machine if I don’t like your conversational skills.”

We learnt little from the two pilots who we picked up from the asteroid field of interest. They were a pair of lab assistants with the BSC, who had been asked to map out the remains of Perasca compared to how it was when it was a planet. They knew nothing about why, or who gave the order. They figured something was wrong when we showed up, but had no idea what was really happening. Ridgeway was a little skeptical, but after putting one of them on the machine in lie detector mode, had no choice but to believe them.

The woman who had been following us to the cloaked base was different. She looked at us with green eyes under dark hair, whilst waiting her turn to be interrogated. She gave a name of Mari Bel’sra, no pilot name. Mari was a junior researcher for the BSC, and her field was detection systems. Ridgeway asked her to go sit in the seat for the interrogation machine. She stood up, and I saw how tall she was. She calmly walked over and sat down, arcing an eyebrow at us, waiting for us to say something.

Ridgeway smiled, and quietly said, “We could use her as breeding stock, at the least.” She shot us a withering look, then said in a caustic tone, “If that’s all the use I’d be to you, then you should of just purchased some women from the slave markets.”

We ran through the usual questions, mostly confirming what she had already told us.

“What skills can you offer ISU?”

“Well, you could use me as breeding stock, like you said, but I think that would be a waste. I can fix ship electronics and control systems, radar systems, and scanner systems, that sort of thing. I can maintain all that, as well as the bigger sensor arrays. I’m a passable operator, too. I mapped out the internal maps for several of the conflux sectors, although I doubt that approaching TRI to see my work would go down too well.” She smirked at that last part.

“What are your plans for the future?”

She gave us a quizzical look. “Do I even have a future? I’m not sure you’d just let me leave, would you?”

“You can leave if you wish. We only ask that you do not pass on any of our secrets to TRI, not that you’ve seen any yourself.”

“TRI will probably kill me. If they don’t, they’ll be most unhappy at losing a shuttle in my control, plus they’ll assume you tortured me for all the information you could, which means I’d lose my job, and never get security clearance again.”

“Or think you’re a double agent.”

“Yes, that also.”

“So, does that mean you’re asking for asylum here?”

“If I don’t get asylum here, then you could probably purchase me cheap from the slave markets in a few weeks time. Then I’d really be of no use other than breeding stock to anyone.”

I looked at Ridgeway and nodded, the readings indicating her truth, and a touch of concealed fear.

“So, I’ll take that as a yes. For now, you’ll be kept under guard in separate cells, until we decide. If you wish to leave and return to TRI, you have but to ask.”

“None of us would do that, for the reasons I outlined. We’re trapped by your interference.”

“Oh, we’re all trapped. Just most of us don’t realize it.”

Chapter seven.

I docked again at the labs, and walked into the offices to see Mom. I found her unconscious on the floor, and raced to her side. Nudging her, I yelled to wake her up. She didn’t respond, so I dragged her into the lab and put her body on one of the benches, activated it, and then scanned her. Traces of knockout chemicals were found in her bloodstream, nothing toxic, so I left her there to recover. I scanned the station logs for any dockings, but nothing unusual showed up. I contacted Ridgeway on a secure laserlink, and explained what I had found.

“What?!”

“Yeah, no trace of who it was.”

“What about airlock logs? Maybe they came in with an EVA suit?”

I opened them and found the last entry. Bingo.

“Yep, that’s it. I can’t tell who though, let me check the camera footage.”

I opened the camera data and cycled through it.

“Plenty of pics of someone in an EVA suit, but nothing we could use to identify them.”

I saw the intruder walk into the office, and casually point the stungun at Mom, before she slumped to the floor.

“I’m going to tear whoever did this into little pieces, then feed them to the Manta!”

“Easy there, we have to find who it was first. I can’t see that being easy though, we have little to go on.”

I cursed.

“Is she ok?”

“Yeah. She’ll wake up with a headache, but she’ll be fine.”

“OK. Can I send that new science woman over there? She checks out fine, I’d be interested in if she can do anything to that AF you have there.”

“Yeah, if you… Hang on.”

I flipped to the camera overlooking the AF. I watched as the EVA suited person climbed into it, then a few minutes later, back out. Checking the timestamps, I saw it was just after he stunned Mom.

“They were after it. I’m gonna go check it.”

“OK. I’ll send her over then? You can meet her in the docking bay?”

“Yeah, that’ll work.”

I raced down to the docking bay, and climbed into the cockpit. Mom’s amulet was on the seat, so I picked it up and looked at it. Whoever was trying to steal it knew what they were doing. I pocketed it, and inserted mine into the docket. The AF powered up, and I started to change the security settings, putting a password system in place. I set it to accept wrong passwords on the fourth try, but lock down and alert me, then shut down five minutes later.

Mari knocked at the cockpit, looking at me curiously. “Is this one of ISU’s own craft? It’s unlike any I’ve seen before, but looks like it has Quantar markings…”

“Yeah, it’s… A special ship. One of a kind, as far as I know. Mine. All mine.”

“Oh.”

I looked at her. “Sorry for being a bit rude, someone just tried to steal it.”

“Oh! That’s understandable then.” She backed away and climbed down. I hopped out and climbed down after her.

“So, what do you want?” I asked.

“In what sense?” she replied, with a sly smile.

“Well, there is lab space for you if you want it, tell me what you’d like and I’ll try and organize it for you.”

“Oh.” Came the disappointed reply. She thought for a few moments, before listing her wants. “Office space, access to a decently powerful computer system, a link to the sensor arrays on the station, and some lab space. Engineering tools would be useful, but I can get those myself.”

I nodded and walked towards the labs. “Follow me, I’ll show you where everything is.”

She fell into step beside me as I pointed out the various parts of the station – the mainframe room, the sleeping quarters, the offices, and finally, her new office.

“We’ve pretty much walked a loop, the launch bay is just down the hall a little more. You can do whatever you wish with your lab here, and your office has two terminals. I’ll give you restricted access to our mainframe, for now.”

She nodded. “Thanks, uh… I’m sorry, I never caught your name?”

“Jede.”

“Jede…” She smiled. “Thank you Jede, I appreciate your assistance.”

“Sure. Remember, you’re still on probation for the time being.”

“Yes, I know. What’s the likelihood of getting a ship to use?”

“Use for?”

“Going back and forth to GBS proper, if I need stuff.”

I thought for a moment. “What ships are you qualified to fly?”

“All the shuttles, the scouts, and the light fighters.”

“Ever flown a Cyclone?”

“Once for real, several times in the TRI simulators.”

“What faction are you?”

“Most of the TRI staff has renounced their faction. I was born a Solrain, but never considered myself one.”

“So you ignore the factional requirements and just fly whatever you want?”

“Yes, except it’s what we’re told to fly. Want rarely comes into it.”

“I see. Well, my Cyclone is usually here if you need it. There was another you could of used, but it was destroyed in the battle with the Enforcers.”

“Ouch.”

A beeping on my personal terminal sounded. I looked down and saw a message from the med-lab, stating that the subject was regaining consciousness.

I walked to the med lab, Mari following. Mom was lying there, moaning softly.

“Relax Mom, you’re alright.”

“Hnnnnggg… Urrrr…”

“Ssssh,” I consoled her, “Just relax, I’ll get something for your head.”

Mari handed me some painkiller pills. I thanked her, and offered them to Mom, with a glass of water. She sat up, took them, and then stared at us for a few minutes.

“I feel… crap.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“What happened?”

I explained about the intruder, and the events immediately after. Her hands went to her chest, searching.

“Do you have my amulet?”

“Yes.” I handed it back to her, and she put it around her neck again, staring at the gem for a few moments then tucking it into her flight suit.

“Thanks.”

Mari walked a little closer and inspected the readouts on the equipment.

“Who’s your friend?” Mom asked groggily.

“This is Mari, Mom, she was the pilot who was following us. She’s asked for asylum here.”

“I see.” She turned to Mari and looked her over carefully. “Welcome aboard then, I’m Ceran,” she said coolly.

“Thank you,” Mari replied, equally coolly.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have things I need to finish.” She stood up carefully, and then walked out of the med labs. Once out of earshot, Mari said quietly, “I don’t think she likes me.”

“She doesn’t like anyone who works for, or worked for TRI. There’s a bit of bad blood there.”

“A bit?”

“Yeah. She won’t talk about it, but I’ve been told they did some really horrid things to her.”

“I… see…” Mari frowned, before continuing, “Not all of TRI is bad, you know.”

“I know. But the good parts are controlled the bad parts, and so have little to say in the matter. I think that if you knew the real reason why you were following us, and those other two knew why they were reconstructing a dead planet, you’d all of turned the assignment down.”

“Maybe… but maybe not. You don’t turn down assignments too often in TRI or you lose favor with those in charge. Lose too much favor, and you miss promotions, or get promoted sideways. Or, accidents start to happen.”

I looked at her. “Why am I not surprised?”

She looked back with a grin. “Perhaps you lot have been telling too many conspiracy theories over your meals?”

I laughed. “Perhaps.”

She looked around a bit. “Speaking of meals, do you have anything to eat here, or do we go back to GBS for that?”

“I could probably scrounge something up here, but we usually eat at GBS.”

“Hmm… you hungry?”

“Yeah. Wanna go get something to eat?”

“Yes please. Can I get a ride with you?”

“As long as you don’t mind sitting in the cargo bay.”

“That’s fine.”

We walked in silence to the launch bay. Mari went to slip into an EVA suit, but I stopped her. “No need. Our cargo bays are habitable. We occasionally have to travel with people in the hold, it’s not a problem.” I climbed into my Cyclone and opened the hold. Mari climbed in, and we launched. The trip took only a few moments, and we were standing on the main launch floor at GBS. A wing of Phoenix sat to a side, in various states of disassembly. Droids and tech crews were all over them, working on them.

“What’s happening?” I asked one of the techs, “I’ve never seen an entire wing grounded at once?”

“We’ve had a few premature pod activations. Looks like someone sabotaged some of our ships. Want me to check yours over?”

“No, I’ll do it myself later. Just make sure no-one goes near it.”

“Easy done, this place is in a lock down right now. No one goes near a ship that isn’t his or hers. No exceptions. Order of Ridgeway.”

I nodded and headed on to the mess hall. Mari was already there with a plate of synthetic meat and vegetables. Sitting next to here was a similar plate, and she waved me over.

“I got this for you, I hope you don’t mind?”

“Nah, I eat almost anything.” I replied, taking the seat as offered. We made small talk as we ate, watching the other pilots as they walked in and out. A familiar pair walked in, saw Mari, and waved. She waved back, and they headed over, sitting opposite us.

“Mari, good to see you. You look like you’ve settled in.”

“Yeah, so it looks.” She turned to face me, “This is Justin and Patrick, lab grunts. But you probably knew that. Guys, this is Jede.”

They looked at me and grunted. I smiled back at them, not sure what to say.

“How are you pair going?” Mari asked.

“Eh, slowly learning stuff,” one of them said.

“Yeah, slowly is the key word,” chimed in the other.

“What have they got you doing?”

“Grunt work mostly, we’re ferrying materials around, cleaning up the place. Maintaining the refinery machinery at times. Supervised at all times, for the time being. How about you?”

Mari nodded. “They’ve chained me up in a lab.” She tilted her head at me, “And I get a shadow as well.”

I wasn’t liking where this conversation was going, so I pushed my plate aside and stood up. “I’m going to check out my ship.”

Mari stood as well, “Want some help?”

“Sure.”

“OK, see you guys around.” They grunted at that and said something, but I was too far from them to hear it. I flagged down one of the techs and asked what they had been finding.

“Seems someone has been melting the insulation around the primary data bus in the backbone. You’ll have to strip gear out to get at it, and inspect it the full length. It’s not a fun job. I’ll reallocate a droid to help you.”

I thanked him and walked over to my ship. A droid was sitting there awaiting instruction, so I set it to work stripping the components from the hull. Mari showed up with a set of tools, and helped me remove the panels to access the data links. The two of us spent an hour inspecting it, but found nothing. The others had found three of the eight Phoenixes had been sabotaged.

The rebel leaders called a meeting soon after, the various squads assembling in the launch bay. Many angry voices were calling for blood, over the sabotaging of the ships. Several fingers were pointed at the new additions to ISU, who were absent at the request of the leaders. It wasn’t a pretty sight. After a few minutes of pointless bickering, I took charge of the meeting.

“SHUT THE F**K UP THE LOT OF YOU!” I yelled. Everyone stopped, and turned to look at me. “Thank you,” I said, “Now, we have a problem. Arguing and blaming will accomplish nothing. Lets deal with the facts, right?”

A rippled of agreements came from the crowd, so I continued. “We lot two ships outside, and found three more sabotaged. All were Phoenixes, I believe?”

One of the techs piped up, “Yes, that is correct.”

“Can you tell me anything else?”

“It appears that whoever it was gained access to the ships, and melted the primary data bus loom along the backbone of the ship. The result of that is a computer malfunction, resulting in ejection in order to preserve the pilot’s life.”

“Right. Do you have any ideas as to what caused it?”

“Looks like some kind of laser device – perhaps a handheld laser pistol on a wide setting, or similar.”

I looked through the docking records to when the five sabotaged ships were together last. Looking at the other docked ships at the time, I counted two Typhoons and seven Intensities. “Any ideas as to why only the Phoenixes were touched?”

He thought for a moment, before answering. “Maybe it was the only ship they knew enough about to sabotage? The Phoenixes weren’t in the same area, so it would have been easier to just do the ships in the area, not walk all over the bay.”

I thought about this for a few moments, while the crowd murmured amongst themselves. Someone piped up, asking about the security records. Before I could answer, someone else answered for me, explaining the lack of coverage of cameras in the area. I noted that as something to change in the future.

“Who else was docked at the time?”

The tech checked the logs. “Mostly our guys, obviously the entire wing that was suspected of being sabotaged. Plenty of guys from that Super Carrier were coming and going, purchasing commodities.”

“Who exactly of our guys?”

He listed the names. The only two I recognized were Mahk and Ridgeway. I looked over at Mahk, who was talking with one of the other leaders. Ridgeway saw me looking, and walked over.

“If you’re thinking he was responsible, then forget it. He was with me the whole time. Although, when he was in ISU last, he was forever on the launch deck learning to maintain things because we were short staffed for a while.”

“Fair enough, although I’m not sure I like him for other reasons. A while ago, when I was serving on the Nicolette IV, the captain mentioned he suspected he had a TRI mole.”

“Really?” Ridgeway said, contemplating this. “Lets go ask him what he thinks then.”

We walked into the mess hall and over to the captain, and I introduced the pair. Ridge went straight to the point.

“Jede mentioned you thought you had a mole onboard at one point. What can you tell me about that?”

“Yeah, we thought we had one, but he’s either too good to be found, or hiding, or gone. I haven’t had any problems for a while, since the last lot of people left seeking their own fortunes.”

“I see. So it isn’t impossible the mole is still around, just keeping a low profile?”

“Not at all. I’d be surprised that he evaded detection for so long, but otherwise, it’s possible.”

“Hmm… Thank you.”

We walked back out to the meeting. The others had been discussing things and we listened to what was being said. It seemed that the same things were being said over and over, mostly trying to blame everyone else, so I stood on a box.

“OK, listen up!” I yelled, getting their attention again. “We have some leads, but nothing concrete for the moment. We’re accomplishing nothing more here, so lets just get on with life and be a little more careful.”

“So that’s it? We just suck it up and hope it doesn’t happen again?” called one pilot.

“Lets put everyone on the interrogation machine!” yelled another.

“Yeah, that would work!” said someone else.

“OK, we’ll vote on it, just like the old days. All who wish to have everyone interrogated raise your hand.”

I made a quick count, just under half. “All who do not wish that to happen, raise your hands. The remaining pilots raised their hands. I counted them, eight more than the previous count.

“The no’s win. End of story.” I said, “OK, meeting over.”

Everyone dispersed muttering to him or herself. I walked into the mess hall where the visiting pilots were, and informed them the meeting was over and they could come and go as they had been. They left, and I grabbed a beer. I sat there, drinking it, thinking about what had been happening. I finished the beer, not coming up with anything, and walked to my Cyclone.

Mahk was there, waiting for me.

“I heard you thought I had sabotaged the ships.” He said, accusingly.

“It was just a thought. I thought about a lot of people, so don’t get stressed over it.”

“Yeah, whatever. Hey, I got a problem you could help me with?”

“Oh, what kind of problem?”

“I want that AF but I need your amulet.”

I reached for my gun, but couldn’t move. I wobbled a little, and then fell over. The last thing I saw was Mahk with a knockout pellet gun in his hand, then everything went black.

Chapter eight.

I awoke tied up in an EVA suit in a tiny cargo bay. I wriggled a little to try and get out of my bindings, but was tied up tight. Every move I made had my head pounding, like a hangover from Oct Lite.

“Aah, you’re awake. Good to see.” Came a voice over the commset in the suit.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m just collecting a bounty. TRI offered half a billion for this ship, although I might just keep it for myself yet. It’s a nice piece of work, thanks for getting it for me. Oh, your worth a hundred mil as well, not as much as some of the others, but still worth bringing you with me.”

“Bastard.”

“Now now, you’re the bastard here. I know your parents weren’t married; I was there when it happened. Nice security system by the way, although your passwords are too easy to guess.”

I blinked, and then smiled. “How’d you work it out?”

“Easy. I tried your name, then names from your family. Your fathers name did it nicely.”

My smile broadened.

“So you think.”

“What do you mean?”

“You did it on the fourth attempt, right?”

“Yeah, how’d you guess?”

“You didn’t have the password. Four wrong attempts lets you in, but then the self destruct will trigger in twenty minutes.”

“You lie. You wouldn’t do a thing like that.”

“How long have we been flying now? Five minutes after you launch, it’ll shut down. It should be due soon, I bet.”

“Your lies don’t impress me.”

I waited, saying nothing. Before too long, the engines cut out.

“Right on time.” I said.

He swore at me. “You better disable it or you’ll die too.”

“Disable it so you can put me into TRI’s hands? I’m dead either way. At least this way it’ll be quick. If TRI got their hands on me, on the other hand…”

“I’ll just eject then. You’ll die; I’ll steal your cyclone and escape. I’ll kill your Mom just for the thrill of it.”

I clenched my fists, before forcing myself to calm down.

“Good luck. The pod is disabled as well. You don’t think I didn’t think of that?”

He swore again. I went back to wiggling my way out of the bindings, having gotten some slack.

“Well, looks like we both die then. I’m going to come back there and hurt you bad, just because I can. I’ll make you bleed, make you cry. It’ll be a relaxing way to wait out my death.”

I got a hand free and used it to free the other. I grabbed a piece of sharp metal and used it to cut the bindings around my feet, careful to not damage my suit. I just finished that when the door opened. Mahk stood there in his EVA suit, with a length of metal in his hand.

“Heh, you’re free. Oh well, at least you’ll put up a little bit of a fight. The end result will be the same though.”

He swung it at me, but I ducked it, moving in a little closer. He brought it down on my head, but I dodged, getting hit on the shoulder instead. I stifled a cry of pain as it knocked me to the floor, pain flooding the joint. I rolled to a side as he swung it again, feeling it hit the floor where I was moments ago. I lunged at him as he recovered from the shock of hitting the floor, slashing at his suit with the piece of metal. I connected, breaching his suit. I slammed into the wall, carried by my momentum, and almost passed out form the pain of my shoulder hitting it.

“You little ****” Mahk screamed at me, trying to hold the suit closed. I looked at him, watching the blood escape and boil in the vacuum of the cargo bay. He tried to swing at me, but had no power behind it. I punched at him, hitting him in the side, knocking his hand from the cut in the suit. He screamed as more of his blood sprayed out, grabbing at the suit trying to close it up again. I kicked his leg, knocking him to the ground.

“That’s for stunning my Mom, you traitor.” I said, and walked past him, into the cockpit, locking the door behind me. I sat in the chair, and reset the computer, entering the correct password. I carefully grabbed the throttle, and pushed it as hard as my shoulder would let me. Targeting the gate home, I carefully flew it back.

“Don’t let me die, please Jede” called Mahk, weakly.

“Screw you. You tried to kill me, I’m just treating you like you would of me.”

“I’ll give you anything I have… TRI secrets, the name of my accomplice, you name it.”

“No deal. You tried to kill me, you threatened my family, you die.”

“I’ll tell you who killed your Mom.”

“Huh?”

“Your real Mom. I know who killed her.”

“So you’re offering me a chance at revenge, if I save you?”

“Yes.”

“Not good enough.”

“F**k you, you ****! What do you want from me?!”

“I want you to die. At least have the grace to do it quietly, I’m sick of your whining.”

I jumped back into GBS sector, lined up the docking rings, and set the autodock. It would be too much to ask from my shoulder at the moment to just dock manually. The computer took over, flipping the ship and lining it up. I heard a thump from the cargo bay, but ignored it. Moments later, I was being lifted to the flight deck on the gravlifts. I took my amulet back, unclipped the helmet of my EVA suit, and put it around my neck again. Carefully climbing down, I was met by a bunch of techs.

“Mahk’s in the cargo bay. He tried to kill me and steal the ship. If he’s still alive, he’ll need a full guard.”

“If?”

I ignored that, and continued. “I need medical attention, like right now…” I fell to the floor, the pain finally catching up with me, as I surrendered to the emptiness.

Chapter nine.

“Jede,” my father called.

I looked around, seeing only blackness.

“I’m disappointed with you,” he continued, “I wanted that to stay away, I knew it would bring only trouble.”

“I’m sorry father, I didn’t know,” I called to the shadows.

“No, perhaps you didn’t. It should have been obvious though.”

“I said I was sorry, what more do you want?”

“Me? I want nothing now, I’m beyond wanting.”

I waited in the silence for him to talk some more.

“Father?”

“It matters not now. Look after our family. I won’t be speaking with you any more.”

“Wait!”

Silence. Then finally he answered. “What?”

“Who killed her? Do you know?”

More silence. Then another voice, behind me.

“Yes, we know who killed me. It matters not, for he is as good as dead now.”

“Mom?”

“Yes. The past is behind us, there’s nothing you can do to change it. Just accept it, and learn from its mistakes.”

“Thank you, I think.”

But there was no reply.

“Jede?” asked another voice.

“What?” I tried to reply, managing only a slight moan.

“Sssh, you’re going to be fine.”

I slowly opened my eyes, squinting against the harsh light. Taking a deep breath, I focused to talk.

“What?”

“It’s ok honey,” said my Mom, “You’ll be ok, we had to re-set your shoulder. It’ll be a little sore for a while, but you’ll survive.”

I blinked a few times, trying to adjust to the light.

“Someone turn the light off”, said my Mom, and a few moments later it was darker. I blinked again, able to see clearly again. Looking down at me were Mom and Mari, behind them the familiar pattern of the med-lab ceiling tiles. Slowly, my strength was returning, and I tried to sit up. They helped me up, and I sat there a little shakily.

“Where’s Mahk?”

“He’s not a concern anymore. Let it go.”

“He knows who TRI’s first assassin was. He was the one who attacked you. I want to know where he is.”

Mom paused. “He’s dead. He had a ruptured EVA suit, and a punctured lung.”

I stared blankly for a few moments. He was dead, by my hands. I started to tremble, not sure what was wrong with me. “I… I… Killed him?”

Mom nodded.

“I didn’t mean to, I was… just angry.”

Mom nodded again. “Let it go, if you can. If you had of brought him back alive, he would have been killed for his crimes against us. You merely hastened the process. I know it might seem a little cold to speak of him like this, but you can’t get worked up about it. Think of all the conflux you’ve killed, threats to our way of life. He was just like them, another threat.”

I sat there trembling, not sure what to think.

“Ridgeway wants to know when he can discuss this with you, what would you like me to tell him?”

“Is he here?”

“No, he’s on GBS itself, but he’ll come over to see you when you’re ready.”

“Tell him he can come over now, if he wishes.”

Mom nodded and walked off to send the message. I sat there, still trembling, when Mari sat beside me and put an arm around me.

“Hey, We’re all glad to see you make it back. Try to relax a little; you’ll go into shock otherwise. That could be bad.”

I leaned into her a little.

“I’ve… never killed anyone before like that. You get a bit removed from it while dog fighting, you know?”

“Yeah, I can imagine.”

“And even then, they can eject and save their skin. Most do, and come back later or whatever.”

She nodded as Mom walked back in.

“He’ll be over in a few moments. He’s looked at the flight recorder and such already, and says to tell you it’s not going to be a trial on your part, he just wants your perspective on some of the events.”

I nodded, relaxing a little. Killing someone was probably the only thing that could bring the death penalty upon you. Justice was still fair, but often as brutal as the crime.

“Look, I’m going to give you another injection. It’s anti-shock medicine, and a little of the anesthetic neutralizer. OK?”

I nodded, and took the injection. I felt a tingly warmth start to flow from where it was injected, along my skin and throughout my body.

“I’m going to leave Mari here with you – I have work to do. I’ll be checking in on you from time to time though.”

We nodded and she walked out of the room.

“Your Mom is really protective of you. When you collapsed, she demanded an escort wing while she flew you here herself. I was barely allowed to help her with you; she did the majority of the work herself. Not that it mattered, I know only a little basic first aid anyway.”

“Yeah, we’ve always been close, since my first Mom died.”

“I see.”

“It’s ok, I’m at peace with it. I hardly knew her, Ceran pretty much raised me while Mom was in the field doing research. A TRI assassin killed her, trying to destroy our leadership. Dad was devastated, I was too young to realize. That’s pretty much when he went really anti-TRI, it took a lot of talking to reign him in again after that. Apparently he really lost it, and did heaps of damage to Sol Core in his bomber. Made the news even, I saved that to our family archives.”

“That explains the newer offices, I guess. There’s a floor where TRI offices are, that are a lot newer than the rest. We were told it was a terrorist attack that destroyed them.”

I laughed, “Yeah, Dad could be a terror at times. But you know what they say – One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

“True words, indeed.” Said Ridgeway as he walked in. “Could you excuse us please Mari? I’d like word with Jede in private.”

Mari nodded and she got up. “Of course.”

Ridgeway watched her walk out, before closing the door and leaning against a piece of equipment.

“Well, I reviewed the flight recorder before I came here. You’re in the clear, so stop worrying about that if you were.”

I nodded.

“We know he had an accomplice, but we cannot work out who it is, yet. We have been running thorough background checks on various pilots, but that takes time.”

I nodded again.

“The only thing missing is a recording of whatever you said to each other in the cargo bay. Because it was from one suit to another, it wasn’t routed through the ship, and therefore not recorded. I’d like you to tell me as much as you can about what was said.”

I sighed, and told him what I remembered. Ridgeway got a little agitated when I mentioned his final offers to save his skin.

“We could of used him alive, by the sounds of it, although it might have been a trick. The autopsy showed he had a hollow tooth, full of poison. It was intact, so I’m not sure what he was going to do with it.”

“Ugh. How brutal.”

“Yeah, TRI is getting worse as time goes on. Oh, and welcome to the club.”

“What club?”

“The I-have-a-TRI-bounty-on-my-head club. You’ll need to be a lot more careful where you dock in future, if that’s true.”

“Wonderful. Just freaking wonderful.”

“Anyway, I’ve taken enough of your time now. You relax and get better, there’s no rush for you to be outside for now, so keep away from flying unless you have to. That shoulder is pretty messed up, from what Ceran told me.”

“Yeah, ok. So what do you propose for me to do then?”

“Meh. I know what I’d be doing if I had a pretty young thing all over me, that’s for sure.”

I blinked and glared at him. “What the heck are you talking about?”

He laughed as he opened the door. “If you don’t realize by now, I’m not about to tell you.”

I went to ask him again, but he walked out. I looked at my shoulder; it was bandaged heavily, and hurt to use it any more than small, gentle movements. Mari walked in and looked at me.

“You’ve a few hairline fractures in it. Try hard to not use it, and it will heal a lot faster. If you overstress it, you’ll do more damage.”

“Damn. How long do you thing it’ll take to heal?”

“A week or two until it’s stable, and four or more to heal completely. More if you do something stupid and enlarge the breaks.”

“Great, I’m station-bound then.”

“Yeah, much like me. Oh well, at least I’ll have some company.”

I looked at her, seeing how she was smiling at me. She caught my look and tilted her head a little.

“What?”

“Nothing,” I replied.

The smile turned into a half frown, then she shrugged.

“Whatever.”

Chapter ten.

I spent the next few weeks pulling apart the AF, with the help of the best and brightest of our technical team. Between us all, we had fairly complete documentation on how it was assembled, and had some approximate figures on component performance. No-body was game to pull apart the engine. There was nothing like it, and if something went wrong, the ship would be ruined beyond repair.

The rest of the equipment turned out to be high performance variants of the current range of high-end equipment. Piece by piece, the components were carefully disassembled and documentation made. Most of it seemed to be modular in design, the original standard equipment having various artifact modules bolted on, after being stripped to the barest essentials. Already, our crews were pointing out theoretical ways to make improvements on it. One of the first improvements was to make the cargo bay habitable, as was normal for all CFP ships.

By the time we were finished, and had reassembled it, my shoulder had healed enough for normal flight. While it was apart, I loosened the tension on the controls of the ship, to make it easier for my shoulder until it was fully healed. This enabled me to fly as much as I had before, at least in this ship. It had a side effect of making it rather twitchy to control, but I was able to handle it without problem. Anyone else who tried to fly it would be in for a rough ride, however.

There was a celebratory dinner at GBS that night. The three refugees were being granted full flight status within ISU, as well as new identities to protect them from TRI. I flew Mom and Mari over in my Cyclone, and the three of us split up to organise various things. I went into our family quarters, grabbed another flight suit, and sat in the shower for a while, letting the hot water relax my shoulder as I rested.

I finished up in the shower and got dressed. Looking at the clock, I saw it had been about half an hour since I got in, and the dinner was to start soon-ish. I had just finished getting ready when there was a knock on my bedroom door. I opened it to find Mari standing there.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” she replied.

“What’s up?”

“I just came looking for you. Dinner will start soon, and I was hoping you’d sit with me.”

“Sure. How’d you get into our private quarters?”

“Your Mom let me in. She left a few minutes ago to go down and help.”

“I see. So what did you do in the few minutes since you came in then?”

She blushed. “Actually, I was going through some of your files, nothing I couldn’t directly access though.”

“Why?”

“I’m curious about you.”

“Oh,” I said, unsure of what to make of the situation. “Well, I’m ready, shall we get going?”

She smiled. “Yes, lets.”

I hesitated. “Come here for a moment.”

She walked into the room, and sat on my bed. “Hmmm?”

I pulled up the security system for our quarters and motioned to the fingerprint reader. She pressed her finger to it, and I took a record.

“There, done. You’ve access to our quarters now. Don’t make me regret it, although I’m sure I won’t.”

She gave me a look, her eyes twinkling with the hints of mischief. “Oh, is that so?”

I smiled back. “Indeed it is. Now let’s go.”

We walked out and made our way to the dining hall. It was decked out with decorations, a change from it’s usual drab but functional appearance. Several large containers sat to a side, full of cans of various beers. The table was laid out with all manner of food, from joints of fresh roasted meat to platters of exotic fruits, and bottles of wine interspersed amongst it all. Ridgeway sat at one end, in a high backed chair that looked almost like a throne. To either side of him, were Patrick and Justin – the other refugees. Mari led me to the end where two seats were empty; the place cards had our names on them. We sat, and watched the others find their seats. Eventually, we were all seated and the chatter slowly stopped as one hundred and seven pairs of eyes peered towards Ridgeway.

He stood slowly, and cleared his throats.

“Fellow pilots. Thank you for joining us on this occasion. It is unfortunate that these events have been fewer in number of late, as the amount of people who seek to join us dwindled. We are a close community, and we all do our part in keeping it alive. From the fighters who protect it all, to the maintenance staff who keep everything working, I’d like to thank you all, for doing your part.”

Applause filled the room, and he waited until it died before continuing.

“But like most communities, without fresh blood, we will only stagnate then die, over time. And if we are no more, then TRI will have a monopoly, and those being oppressed by them will have no refuge.”

He paused to take a drink of his water, then gestured to the table in front of him.

“All of us are refugees of some kind or another. Escaping TRI for various reasons, it is almost a tradition amongst us. Today, we have more refugees, who like all of us, are hoping to start a new life, free from TRI. They have been on probation for a month, and in that time, they have shown their dedication to our community. Justin “Smackdown” Arpelos, stand and be welcomed into our midst.”

Justin stood, and was applauded. He blushed, took a bow, and then sat down again.

“Patrick “Vilifier” Jensol, stand and be welcomed into our midst.”

Patrick stood, and was also applauded. He took a bow, thanked everyone, and sat down again.

“Mari “Seer” Bel’sra, stand and be welcomed into our midst.”

Mari stood to applause, and a few wolf whistles. She blushed deeply, and thanked everyone, then sat down again.

Ridgeway raised his glass of wine. “A toast, to the newest members of our family!” Everyone else raised their glasses in the toast.

“Well, now lets eat!” Ridgeway said, and then sat down.

Platters were being passed around and people were piling their plates high. The wine and beer was flowing freely, and the chatter was a dull roar. The party lasted for several hours, and slowly the numbers thinned out as various people went back to their quarters to sleep off the alcohol. Mari wobbled unsteadily through the crowd, quite drunk from people who were buying her drinks all night long. I watched her fend off a few passes made by drunken pilots, and laughed at them. Anybody would think they’d never seen a woman before in space. She caught my eye, and wobbled over to me, before collapsing into my arms.

“This… party rocks…” She slurred, “but take me drunk, I’m… home…”

I helped carry her back to our family quarters, unsure of where she had been bunking. I left her in the spare room, next to mine. The quarters here had six elongated rooms connecting to a larger lounge room/office. Most speculated it was for smaller squads to use as sleeping quarters, with the central office. We had a room each, even one for my Mom and Dad (which were left untouched since they died). The two remaining were used as a spare bedroom for guests, and a small office. The main room was used as a lounge. It was small, but a lot more than most other stations could offer. I left a dose of anti-hangover medicine by the spare bed, next to a jug of water, and went back downstairs to the party.

Ridgeway saw me re-enter and raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Patrick and Justin were sitting at the table, playing some sort of drinking game. Mom sat to a side, sipping at her wine, so I sat beside her.

“She OK?” Mom asked.

“Yeah. I left her in the spare room to sleep it off.”

“Oh?” She said, a little surprised. “Do you trust her amongst our stuff?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Well…” She began, looking a little flustered.

“She’s not TRI anymore, Mom. She’s one of us. Remember? You can’t just hate somebody for what TRI did to you once upon a time.”

“How would you know? You’ve not been through what I have,” she spat angrily.

I sighed. “No, I haven’t. And I thank you all for that. But sooner or later, you’ll have to put that in the past, like so many other things that have caused us to suffer.”

She stood up abruptly. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m going to bed. If that floozy is up to no good, I’ll have her tossed out of the nearest airlock without an EVA suit.”

“But…” I protested, but she was gone. I swore in frustration, more at myself for not being able to help her. Ridgeway came and sat beside me, but said nothing.

“What?” I eventually snapped.

He looked at me for a few moments, and then spoke. “No need to get testy. You should go a little easier on Ceran. She only wants the best for us all.”

“What did they do to her?”

“I’m not sure I should tell you. It was pretty bad.” He said, frowning.

“Just tell me. She refuses to, and I want to know.”

He looked at me again. “There’s a good reason why she doesn’t. Will you not respect her reasons?”

“How can I respect them when she won’t even tell me them?”

“She’s afraid, partly for herself, partly for you. She doesn’t want it to turn into a revenge thing.”

“Was it really that bad?”

“Yes. Worse, in fact.”

“How much worse?”

He sighed. “You’re not going to let this one drop, are you?”

“No.”

He frowned. “OK, I’ll tell you some of it. Early on, not long after you were born, she was captured by TRI. They wanted some of your mother’s research, but couldn’t get to her. They took Ceran, possibly because of a mistaken identity, possibly because that’s the best the could get.”

I nodded, and he continued.

“They tortured her for a long time, not just on an interrogation machine, but also by hand. The leader of the security unit in charge of interrogating her forced himself upon her, often. He invited all his friends to do the same. She didn’t crack.”

I stared at him, jaw open, and blood draining from my face. Forcing yourself upon a woman was the ultimate insult to her; most committed suicide after rather than face the shame. Some of the religious works treated those kinds of suicide as murder by the rapist, and punishment was dished out appropriately. Others pretty much said that a woman in that position was unclean in the face of Hamalzah, and unfit for any status, or childbearing. Ridgeway saw the look on my face and interrupted my dark thoughts.

“You see why she didn’t tell you. You can’t tell me that you don’t want to kill those responsible?”

I shook my head. “You’re right. I’m going to kill them.”

“No, you’re not. They’re already dead. Your father took care of it. Cost him what was left of his standing with TRI. He was stripped of both rank and test pilot status. His tentative ties with the corporations weren’t enough to save him, and he became an outcast. His people understood, and refused to bow to TRI pressures, but for the most part, he had to live here with us.”

I nodded, the passion of my anger subsiding a little.

“We took her back, of course. She was very shaken for a while, and latched onto you as a child. She looked after you while your Mom was working, and well, you know the rest. And believe me, that’s the nice version. Your father recovered the file on her interrogation and it detailed exactly what had been done to try and make her crack. She’s lucky she still had her sanity when he rescued her.”

“He rescued her?” I asked, almost unbelieving.

“Yep. Flew to Sol core in his bomber, docked, hacked their network to find her, blew a big hole in the side where the guard post was, killing them all. Went in with an EVA suit for her, and extracted her from her cell. We were a little behind him, he had gone alone. Caught up with him in Zealots Refuge under fire from the Solrain squads. We scared them off and took the pair home.”

“Wow” was all I could say.

“Yeah, he really had reason to hate Sol core. You know how he later laid waste to a big chunk of it in retaliation for killing your Mom. That earned him a pod ride home from a pair of Enforcers. It took a lot of talking to stop him going back to finish the job.”

“Was he really that good?”

“No, not really. He was very fiery, that helped. Fighting is best left to you younger people, as we age, our reflexes dull and our aim deteriorates. We’d be forever bailing him out of trouble, having bitten off more than he could chew. It was kind of funny, in a way. He was a good man, lets leave it at that for tonight, OK?”

I nodded in agreement.

“Well, this old guy is going to catch some sleep. If you’re not tired, and not to drunk, feel free to do a quick patrol around our space. If TRI has wind of this party, they might try something. I’ve allocated a wing to maintain ready status, so we should be ok if you need sleep. And… I’m off.”

He stood up, and walked out, waving to a few others as he went. I followed, but missed the elevator by a few moments. Patrick walked over to me, as best he could, and put an arm on my shoulder.

“Thanks man… for not… blowing us up when… when… we were out there…”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Nah man… you don’t get it… we… ugh…” He leaned over and threw up on the floor. I got in the elevator and closed the door, retreating quickly to our quarters.

I walked in and checked on everything. All seemed fine, so I went into my room. A shape was under the covers of my bed, so I approached carefully with my gun pointed at it. Tossing back the covers, I saw Mari squinting at me.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m drunk and lonely. You’re a nice guy pointing a gun at me. That’s not nice.” She said, speaking slowly.

I put the gun down, and sat on the edge of the bed. “OK, now, what are you doing in my bed?”

“I didn’t like the other one. It was too lonely.”

“So you just thought you’d sleep in mine?”

“Well, your Mom wouldn’t like it if I slept in hers.”

“Heh.”

She extended a hand to me, but I ignored it.

“I’m not going to bite you,” she giggled.

“It’s not that. First, you hated me for forcing you into becoming a refugee here. Then there was that little episode with the other two in the dining hall; you gave me the impression the sooner I died, the better. Now you’re sleeping in my bed because you’re lonely? Why not go find one of the other pilots?”

She frowned, and looked away. “I like you lots. You’re nice to me, you never make passes at me, and you treated me like I belonged from the start. The others looked at me like I was destined to be some toy for them, or as an outsider.” She looked back, eyes red, a trail where a tear had fallen.

“Look,” I said, “It’s not that I don’t like you. I do, at least as much as I like everyone else. It just seems… Rushed? Like you were trying to use me to get ahead. I’m not sure if it’s the Solrain way, but to me, it was odd. You know of the troubles we’ve had lately, I didn’t want to get too close in case you turned out to be trouble.”

“So that’s it”, she sniffled, “You don’t trust me?”

“Oh, I trust you. But you were making me suspicious. What could I do?”

“You could come to bed now, and we can talk it over in the morning?” She asked, hopefully.

I looked at her and sighed. “And if you’re a spy, or an assassin, or whatever, I’ll be dead by morning.”

“Do you have to be so stupid? If I wanted to kill you, I probably could of done it a long time ago. The entire CFP is in this station now, if anything went funny, I’d have a hell of a fight to escape alive.”

I sighed in resignation, and slipped out of my flight suit, standing there in my thermal underwear. “Fine. No funny business.”

She grinned at me. “Does it matter? They’ll assume we were up to no good anyway.”

“I can always lock you in here and sleep in the spare room myself, you know?”

“OK, no funny business. I was only making fun of it.”

I turned out the light and slipped into bed. Mari’s warm body was soon curled up against mine, and we slept.

Chapter eleven.

I was woken by an alarm going off. I disentangled from Mari’s arms and slipped into my flight suit. Mari moaned slightly as I tried to wake her up, so I handed her the anti-hangover meds and walked into the main room. Mom was already there, talking to someone.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Someone set a bomb on the station, the main reactor has shut down. No-one can dock or launch.”

I swore.

“No-one knows where Mari is, she’s currently the prime suspect.”

“Uh…” I started, “I know where she is.”

Mom glared at me. “Oh, really? Where?”

I pointed behind me at my room. She sighed. “I should of known.”

“Yeah, can we save the lecture for later? What is happening?”

“Looks like a conflux swarm. The gate is infested. There’s three pilots out there who were on guard duty, but they’re having a heard time of it.”

“I’ll fly over to the labs and grab the AF then.”

“How do you intend to do that? The launch bays are offline here?”

“All I need is an EVA suit.”

She looked at me as if I was crazy. “And one shot, you’re dead. This isn’t like being in a ship, where you can eject. I’ve seen what happens to people who are hit with conflux weapons.”

“Well, we’ll have to leave it to those three pilots, and hope they can hold it off.”

Someone knocked on the door. It was Ridgeway.

“Where’s Mari?” He asked me. I pointed to my bedroom, and he poked his head in.

“Nice work. OK, she’s off the list. I think I know who did this now, and it’s none of the new people. But that’s not the point right now. If we get you to your lab, can you launch in the AF and help out? Our guys are good, but they’re not going to last too much longer.”

“How?” asked Mom.

“We’ll put you in an EVA suit, have the three outside cover for you, and one of them can tow you over.”

“You’re as mad as he is, Ridgeway.” Mom exclaimed.

“I’ll do it.”

“OK. You know it’s going to be dangerous, right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, lets go.”

Mari emerged from my bedroom, looking at us with sleepy eyes. “What’s happening?” She asked.

“Jede is going to be towed to the lab from an airlock here, with a conflux swarm outside waiting to kill us all, so he can get to his AF.” Mom snapped.

Mari looked at her, then at me, then at Ridgeway. She walked over to me and kissed me on the cheek.

“That’s for luck.” She said, as I blushed. Ridgeway chuckled, and she turned to him. “Get him killed, and I’ll come after you myself,” She threatened.

“He’ll be fine.” Ridgeway answered.

“And Jede, be careful with your shoulder.” Mari reminded me.

I thanked her and ran with Ridgeway to the airlocks. We got in an EVA suit each, and toggled the airlock.

“I’m coming with you, and taking one of the combat ready Intensities. We’ll need all the help we can get on this one.” He said through the suit communicator. We grabbed a magnetic winch each, and strapped it to our arm.

“OK guys, we’re ready for you. Swing on by nice and slow, and we’ll latch on.”

“Roger that.” Came a reply.

Ridgeway affixed a cannon to his forearm, and pointed it at me. “Fluxfire personal assault cannon. It’s better than nothing, but I hope we don’t need to use it. Anyway, here comes our ride.”

We watched a phoenix do a lazy loop around the station, then pointed our arms at it, and fired the winch. A pair of cables snaked out towards it, latching onto the wingtips. We jumped out, just as the slack was taken in, and were jolted cruelly.

“We’re on.” Ridgeway said.

“Roger that, I can see you.”

“Hey Jede, I think I’m getting too old for this kind of thing.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, but it’s still a rush.”

We were towed along behind the ship, heading for the labs, watching the combat. From this distance, it was an impressive light show. A pair of squid flew past us, and Ridgeway aimed his assault cannon at them, but they didn’t turn to engage us.

“I might be armed, but the only thing that will save me from being killed is the fact we’re jostling around in the wake. One direct hit, and we’re flux food.”

“OK Guys, we’re getting close. You ready to disengage?”

We both said yes.

“OK, I’ll loop around it, you pair disengage and re-latch to the station. Your momentum will loop you around a few times, and then use your suit thrusters to slow yourself. Ready yourselves, and go on my mark.”

I hovered my finger over the controls for the magnetic winch, and stabbed the release button when told. The cable released, and started coming in as the winch took in the slack. We sailed past the station, and the magnetic clamps brushed against it, before attaching. We continued to sail past, the slack in the cable slowly disappearing, and then with a jerk, we started to orbit the station. I engaged the braking thrusters of the suit, trying to slow down before I collided with the station. Around and around we went losing our speed slowly.

“We’re still going too fast, let out more cable to buy more time.” Ridgeway called over the comms. I grunted an acknowledgment and released the clutch, flying out some more. We continued to circle the station, wrapping it further with the winch cable, slowing down. Eventually, we slowed enough to attempt a landing onto the station.

“I’m going to try and stop on the Hangar module,” I told Ridgeway.

“OK, Be careful. I’m still a little too fast to try.” He replied.

As I came around again, I waited until I was lined up then locked the clutch open. My momentum carried me across the station, throwing me against the hangar. I grunted as I bounced off it, and then managed to lock the clutch again. The slack disappeared almost instantly, tugging at my arm, sending me into the side of the station again. This time, the magnetics in my boots latched on and I came to a stop.

“I’m stopped and on my feet.” I said.

“I’m about to try that myself.” Came the reply.

I walked across the outside of the station, towards the airlock. Ridgeway flew past me, trying to stop. Pausing to enter the over-ride codes, I entered the station and ran for the control room.

“How are you guys going outside?” I asked the pilots as I ran.

“We’ve lost one, he ejected and made it back to GBS. The rest of us need to dock and repair badly.”

“OK, I’m opening up the research labs for you to dock at. I’ll leave some flashfires on the docking bay, don’t waste them, but don’t be afraid to use them if you need to.”

“Roger that, I see access granted. Thanks.”

“Jede, I’m in as well.” Said Ridgeway.

“Good. I’m bringing up a ship for you. It’s set to go.”

“Yep yep. Meet you at the docking bay.”

I signed out of the security terminal and ran down to the docking bay. Ridgeway waved from the cockpit of an Intensity, then dropped into the launch tube and was gone. I climbed into the AF, touched the amulet to the socket, entered the password, and was soon following him into battle.

Chapter twelve.

I launched into a group of flux. The other pilots were trying to get a chance to dock, do Ridgeway and I picked off the flux as best we could. The octet of FluxFire ion cannons tore the flux to pieces, and the swarm started to thin considerably. I dived under a stingray and flipped around, lining it up to open fire. It pulled up hard, as if expecting my attack, exposing its large profile. I ended its life with a few shots. Three Phocs were chasing Ridgeway around the labs, so I fell in behind and picked them off. He thanked me and blasted past me, heading towards a small group of eels. I shook my head in amazement and followed him. The group of eels split into two, spreading out.

“What the?” I exclaimed.

“Yeah, exactly. They must be sentient, or being led by one.” He replied.

I followed him by eye while flipping through targets. I stopped at a familiar sight. A jellyfish, doing 400v, was hanging back from the battle. “I see it,” I called.

“OK. You get it; I’ll kill these Eels. Where are the rest of you people?”

“We’re about to launch. You want us to help you or Jede?”

“Jede should be able to take care of himself in that thing, I could use a had to work these eels.”

“Roger that, launching now.”

I was closing rapidly on the jellyfish, and started to line it up in my gun sights. It finally noticed me, and started its wild maneuvers to try and escape. I easily kept pace, thanks to the vectored thrust system. I dropped shot after shot into it, slowly bringing it’s shields down. It continued its wild dance and I kept shooting. Soon enough, the familiar sight of the electrical arcs upon the conflux skin was visible, and it exploded in a gooey mess not long after.

“Got the sent, heading back now.”

“That would be a very good idea, we’re in even more trouble now. How far out are you?”

“About one-forty clicks from the gate, why?”

“TRI decided to pay a visit. We got six enforcers, against the four of us. Hurry back.”

I lit the afterburners and headed back, using the lights of the battle as a guide. I saw one explosion, and crossed my fingers. “Tell me that was one of theirs,” I asked.

“Yep, five of them left now.” Came a reply. I cheered inwardly.

“What about flux?”

“All dead.”

“OK, I’ll dock and change guns. FluxFire won’t do much against TRI shielding.”

“Got that. Hurry.”

I lit a flashfire and was pushed hard back into my seat. Locking the radar on to the labs, I flew into the docking rings, flipped, and applied lots of thrust. It was a nearly perfect powerdock, except for clipping the ring slightly.

The ship hadn’t even risen to the docking floor when I had programmed the droids to drop out the FluxFires, and replace them with FeatherFire Mk II ion cannons.

“Jede, you there?” Came Ridgeway’s voice.

“Yeah, why?”

“If you have missile mounts on that thing, pack some torpedoes on. We got big problems out here. And hurry up.”

“Roger.”

I ordered some missiles. ISU once had a small stock of old style fission bombs, so I loaded the last of them on. The other two missile racks took a kataka torpedo each. The droids replaced the last of my spent flashfires, and I stabbed the launch button.

“OK, I’m coming. Two torps and a nuke onboard.”

“We had some nukes left?” someone asked.

“Just the one I’m wearing.”

I cycled through the targets, finding that the enforcers had been reinforced. Then I saw what Ridgeway had meant by big problems. A TRI super-carrier was parked next to a TRI Cruiser. I swore.

“Yeah, I bet you’ve never seen one of those before. We need that carrier gone, we’ve already exhausted its supply of anti-missile stores, and so you have a clear run.”

“OK, how should I approach it then?”

“Like most TRI designs, it has most of its firepower facing forward. However, this one also has some facing backwards. Top down is fine, or from the side. Below works, but they have more armor there because of the launch bays.”

“What if I toss this thing into the launch bay?”

“That would work really well, assuming you don’t get blown to pieces in the run.”

“I was thinking of coming in backwards, popping up to launch into it, and then diving out of the way again, actually.”

“If you’re sure you can do it, then yeah. If not, stick with what I’ve told you. Fire your torps first to weaken the armor, and the nuke should crash into one of the decks.”

“Got it.”

I twisted and dove hard, before reversing and applying lots of reverse thrust. Watching over my shoulder, I saw the cruiser getting bigger and bigger. I lined up the launch bay, and then skimmed along the outside, far too close to the ship to be healthy. I pushed the thrusters up a little, following the contour of the hull. Suddenly it jumped, and I pushed hard up. I stared into the launch bay for half a moment, and then launched all three missiles. A launching enforcer copped one, the impact forcing him into the wall and causing him to explode. I pushed down hard on the throttle, suddenly under fire from the many turrets, but it was too late.

I saw another flash, and then a massive fireball escaped from the launch tube. The carrier started to roll a little, and then smaller fireballs escaped from all over the place. Debris blew off in all directions, and the ship started to crack across the middle.

“Nice work, now get out of the way before it blows.” Someone warned.

I flipped around and applied the after burner, trying to put some distance between our ships.

“There it goes, what a lovely sight.” Someone said, as the sky lit up. I felt my ship suddenly being thrown around by the shockwave, and then it subsided. I turned around and headed back towards the labs to refuel and get more missiles.

“How is everyone going?” I asked.

“We’re down two people, and the two of us are fighting three enforcers. The others are trapped at GBS and can’t launch, although I’m told that they are working hard to get the power back up.” Said Ridgeway, “Once that happens I… Uh oh!”

“Ridgeway?”

“Enforcer got him. He ejected to GBS as well. It’s just you and me now, Jede. I got the one who got him, but two of them against one of me is a bit much. I hope you can get here quick, before…”

I saw that explosion and didn’t need to ask.

I lit a flashfire and pulled in behind one of the enforcers, but it lit one as well and escaped to the safety of the Cruiser’s defense guns. The other settled in on my tail, and I hit the reverse thrust to try and get behind it, but it expected it and dropped a missile in my path and peeled off to a side. The missile hit, taking out most of my shield. I lit yet another flashfire as the pair turned to attack me, and retreated to the lab to dock. I managed to dock roughly under fire, big pieces of my armor missing from the back of my ship.

“It’s a little hot out there. How are you people going in GBS?” I asked.

“Ridgeway has concussion, he got knocked around a bit in that last pod ride. They’re patching him up, but he needs to rest for a while.” Someone answered.

“Fair enough, how are you going with the power?”

“The emergency supply failed, life support has shut down. We’re rigging up a pair of intimidators to run it; it’ll do, but won’t be enough to do much more than keep everyone alive. At best, we could send some people and droids into the airlocks with personal missile launchers, would that help?”

“I don’t know. I have two enforcers out here on my case, and that cruiser is by the gate. We really need help, but as long as that cruiser is there, it’d be suicide to get in.”

“Yeah, I bet. I’ll rig up some torpedo launchers on the droids, and try to help. It’ll take a bit to bring that thing down though, so I hope you have a plan of your own.”

“Not really, other than try to not die.”

“Well, then I hope that plan works out for you.”

I impatiently waited for the flashfires to be replaced, and new torpedoes to be loaded onto the racks. I was about to hit the launch button, when my comms burst into life.

“Jede! Don’t launch yet.”

“Why?”

“They’re waiting for you. You launch, they’d be on you straight away.”

I swore.

“We have a plan, hang on. They’re sitting there, so we’ll launch torpedoes at them, with the guidance turned off. If they don’t move, then they’ll get hit. If they do move, you can launch.”

“How long?”

“Five minutes. We’re disabling the guidance on them now.”

I sat there in my seat, fidgeting. It seemed like an hour later when the comms burst into life again. “We’re launching now… Missiles away.”

I counted the seconds, and almost dead on twenty I heard a series of explosions.

“Got them, but they’re still there.”

“OK, I’m hoping I can catch them unawares. Wish me luck guys.”

I launched and pulled hard on the stick to flip around. The tube filled my vision, and then gave way to the blackness of space. The enforcer was sitting there, like a vulture. I applied full throttle to avoid flying into his stream of bullets, and let loose with my own weapons. Just as I started to accelerate, I dropped my three torpedoes and lit a flashfire, going straight over him. He tried to turn to follow me, but the three missiles collected him, destroying his ship. I saw the explosion reflecting off the station, and turned to find the other ship. It was already on my tail, trying to hit me. We looped around the station a few times, me trying to get him off my tail, him trying to fill my ship full of rail slugs.

He lit a flashfire to catch up, and I turned sharply, hoping to use my lower mass against him, but he followed almost perfectly, my tight turn. I swore as more slugs hit my ship, lighting up the shield warning. Cutting the throttle, I spun quickly to face him, and lit a flashfire. More slugs flew past my cockpit, hitting the ship, blowing chunks out of the armor plating. One hit the cockpit glass, shattering it. The shield of the pod fired, keeping the atmosphere inside for the moment, and the eject warning started blinking.

The enforcer dropped some missiles in my path, but I pulled up to dodge around them. A huge clang noise was heard as his ship collided briefly with mine, and more warning lights lit up across the control panel. Watching the missiles on the radar, I looped around the station, hoping they would hit it. My gamble paid off, but cost me some distance from my attacker. Slugs were impacting upon the rear of my ship again, and I threw it into a wild corkscrew hoping to escape.

My wild flight path was helping my shields, as most of the shots went past me. Dodging to the left to go around GBS proper, I noticed a pair of assault tows docking with the airlocks. One of them detached, and headed back to the cruiser as I watched, then I had to pull more evasive maneuvers again. I lit my last flashfire, hoping to be able to run for the labs and dock. The enforcer lit one behind me a few moments later, trying to keep up. Counting down the seconds until the boost ran out, hoping I’d reach the dock in time. It ran out just as I entered the docking rings, and I was holding the throttle at full reverse thrust to try and stop. Warning lights were solid red across the board, as the occasional bullet penetrated the armor.

“C’Mon, please hold together for a few more moments,” I murmured to the ship. I had the nose pointing into the docking tube, and pushed the throttles forward to dock, when suddenly I was thrown clear out of the ship, in the escape pod. The auto-docking took a few seconds, and I was climbing out of it on the docking bay at the lab station. I swore, angry and frustrated at myself, then fell to the floor on my knees exhausted as the adrenaline rush left me.

Chapter thirteen.

Picking myself up a few moments later, I ran to the computer to see what had happened. Watching the footage, I saw my ship about to dock, then the enforcer colliding with it, destroying us both. I was the only one who ejected safely, his pod trapped in the wreckage of my ship and being consumed in the explosion.

I raced to the Pioneer of my Mom’s, the only ship left in hangar, loaded a pair of lasers and a quad of torpedoes onto it, and launched. The second assault tow was just leaving GBS station, so I fell in behind it and opened fire on it. It’s shields dropped quickly, and I was about to finish it with the torpedoes when the sector comms opened up.

“Rebel pilot, cease fire, unless you wish your people to be killed. This is a prison ship. I repeat, cease fire.”

“TRI prison ship, turn around and dock at GBS.” I replied.

“Rebel ship, Go to hell.”

I opened fire again, but was too slow in damaging it before it was close enough to the Cruiser that I had to retreat or be shot down. I flew to GBS, and the Cruiser started to warp out. I parked near an airlock and drifted over, letting myself in. The signs of battle were everywhere, with dead TRI marines and destroyed assault droids littering the corridors. I followed the path of carnage into the depths of the station, noticing the occasional dead CFB pilot, until I was standing at the far end of a storage hall.

A small pile of bodies was in the corner, and I walked over to see who they were. Patrick and Justin were amongst the dead, the rest being CFP pilots. I walked to a station interface computer, and logged in. Searching through the sensors array, I looked for signs of life, but found none. Checking the station status, I saw numerous warnings about the primary reactors. Reading the log, I felt the blood drain from my face as I realized it was in the final throes of going critical.

I ran back to the airlock, and flew away from the doomed station. Docking at the labs, I loaded as much as I dared into the tow, then launched again. Racing to the gate, I jumped out into Saron’s Shoulder. I was just pulling out of the gate when it exploded behind me, removing GBS sector from the map. I flew on towards one of the gates, not sure where I could go or what to do. Once again, I had no home, no family, and no friends. The tow contained a few meagre possessions, and a few pieces of artifact equipment, which I had managed to grab.

I tried to contact the captain of the “Nicolette IV”, and after a few minutes got my answer.

“Jede, what can I do for you?”

“I need a home.”

“Why? What happened?”

“TRI destroyed GBS. There’s nothing left.”

“****! Jede, I’m sorry. Of course you can have a home here, can you get to us or do you need someone to come get you? We’re docked outside Hyperial station at the moment.”

“It’s ok, I’ll come to you. I need some time to think anyway.”

“Sure, just be careful. Did TRI really leave no survivors?”

“They took some prisoners, and I read no living survivors on the station, but I didn’t have a chance to identify all the bodies before the reactor went.”

“Ouch, they were playing rough for sure. I’m sorry for your loss, I just hope there’s something we can do.”

“Yeah, me too. Me too.”

I closed the comms channel and set a course for Hyperial. Passing through gate after gate, each jump strengthening my desire for revenge, I flew on.

They would pay.

>>> to be concluded <<<

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