Aftermath – Part III

by Nocturnus

Chapter one.

A pair of Phoenix fighters, who fell in behind me in an escort pattern, met me at the Main Gate sector. We flew on in silence, until I finally entered Hyperial station sector. Their planet slowly rotated in the distance, and the station hung in space. Like most Quantar, I felt near instant revulsion at the sight of it, being a defiled and unholy place. I cycled targets until I found the carrier, and headed in to dock at it.

My ship slowly rose onto the launch deck, before detaching from the cargo pod and settling onto the anti-gravity lifters. The captain was there, waiting for me as I climbed out, along with a pair of med techs.

“Jede, I’m sorry to hear what you said. I’ve told the crew, a lot of them are devastated. They had close friends and family out there as well. There are already murmurs of wanting to counter-attack, but I’m keeping them under control for the moment. How are you? Physically, I mean?”

I shrugged. “I feel like ****, to be honest. I don’t think I’m hurt though.”

“Yeah. You want the med guys to have a quick look or something?”

“No, I should be right.”

One of them spoke up, “No problem. You know were we are if you need us. You want something to help dull the emotional shock?”

I shook my head. “The sooner I deal with it, the better.”

He nodded again and left with his assistant.

The captain looked at me. “You sure you’ll be ok? Not prone to mood swings or similar? I’ve seen too many good pilots go over the edge because of extreme emotional stress…”

I shook my head at him. “No, I’m fine for now. Just drained, I guess.”

“No problem. Your quarters are where they were. Do you want anything done with this ship?”

I turned and looked at the Pioneer. “Well, it probably needs a service, I’m the first to fly it since just before my real Mom died. Other than that, don’t touch it. The cargo pod has all I could quickly salvage from home. I’ll transfer the computer data into your mainframe later, if you’d like. It has all the ISU research projects, and all the footage of the last attack.”

He nodded. “I appreciate the research, and so will our engineers. I’ll get one of my guys to give your ship a quick going over, and I’ll have your pod left alone. Do you want to fly it again, or would you like a different ship?”

I thought about it for a few moments. “What other hulls do you have spare?”

“I have a Khamsim you can have, now you are certified. Fighter-wise, there are plenty of Phoenix hulls; we can manufacture them on board. I think there is a Typhoon, and a Cyclone somewhere, but I’m not sure what equipment I have for them. If you are to be going into regulated space, you can’t fly a Phoenix without causing problems. That’s assuming my crew would allow a Quantar to fly one of their ships. Old prejudices die hard.”

“Fair enough. I’ve never flown one, so I’m not sure I’d be very good in it. If you can prep the Cyclone for me, I’d appreciate it. I have a small amount of equipment suitable for it, I think, if you run short.”

He nodded. “You look like you’ve been through hell. Go get some rest, that’s an order.”

I sighed. “Yes, captain.”

“And Jede…”

“Yes?”

“Welcome back onboard.”

I nodded and walked to my quarters. Sleep came quickly after that.

Chapter two.

I was woken later by the captain, “Jede, I need to speak with you.”

I grumbled a little and squinted at him. “What?”

“The Hyperians have gotten wind of you being here. They are demanding you either surrender to them, leave, or they’ll blast my ship out of space.”

“Ugh,” I grunted, “No way I’m surrendering to them, I’ve heard the tales enough to be scared. I’ll leave, if my ship is ready.”

“Yes, it’s ready. Not quite as lavish as the last one I prepared for you, but it’ll do you. An AI from Amananth station contacted me while you slept, they wish to talk with you.”

“Really? Is it legit, or is it a TRI trap?”

“I’ve dealt with this AI before, I doubt it’s a trap. Remember, Amananth works with TRI, but isn’t part of TRI.”

I picked up my stuff and then shrugged. “I’ll find out soon enough.”

I carried my stuff to the launch deck, loaded it into the cargo bay of my Cyclone, and sat in it. I flicked through the pre-flight diagnostics, and saw a sport power plant, respect engines, a chime radar, mana cap and a trio of lastlights. It all checked out ok, so I hit the launch button. A quick lap around the carrier satisfied me that the ship was space worthy, so I set a course for Amananth. The path led through unregulated space, as usual, so I enjoyed the peace and quiet for the moment.

The sleep had done me a lot of good, I felt a lot better than I had on the trip out to Hyperial. The desire for revenge still burned, but was not as intense as it had been. I used the time between gates to offer a prayer to Hamalzah, asking for strength and clarity, for the upcoming days.

I docked at Amananth a short while later, the conflux seemed to be uninterested in me on the trip over, and the station itself seemed to be even more so. The standard droids raced over, cleaned, repaired and refuelled my ship, but there was nothing else in the launch bay of interest.

I climbed out of my ship and called out across the bay, “Hello?” My words echoed for a few moments, before dissipating. A red circle appeared around me, blinked twice, and then a line came out of its side, leading across the bay. I followed it, the circle staying around me, absorbing the line as I walked. It led me to a door, which opened as I approached. Inside was a hallway, the lights coming lighting up along it. The line continued, so I entered, the door closing behind me. I looked down at the line and circle, and noticed it change to a yellow color.

I continued, passing several anonymous doors, until one opened suddenly. I looked down, and the line led into it. Peering down the new corridor, I frowned slightly, and then walked in. The door slid shut behind me, and the yellow line turned into a green one. I followed it, but it led into the first door on the left, which was open, waiting for me. I stepped in to find a lounge of sorts, several large comfortable looking chairs lying around the room. The line led to one, so I sat in it, and waited.

A small droid entered the room behind me, and the door slid shut. It floated over to me, and stopped, hovering right in font of where I was sitting. A burst of lights appeared on it, and then disappeared again.

“Yes, you are the one we wanted.” Came a voice from the droid.

“Who, or what, are you?” I asked, uncertain.

“I am just a droid. I am currently being controlled by what TRI calls Aman101, the artificial intelligence that runs this station. I have asked for you to come here because I wish to offer you our help, if you complete a task for us, and we find what we suspect.”

“Why me?”

“Because you are all that is currently listed as active for your squad. We are aware of it’s history, and wish to make amends.”

“Amends for what?”

“Long ago, before you were created, a fledgling society approached us for help. They attempted to have their voice heard by restricting the sale of some of our items, forcing others to deal with them directly.”

“The ISU flashfire blockade?”

“That is what some called it. The people of this society asked for our help, but we turned our back on them, trusting in our TRI allies. The same allies who told us that the group were evil, and wanted only destruction. This society pleaded with us for help, saying that TRI would eventually destroy us as well, but we were not used to deception, and believed our ally.”

“So, what changed your mind?”

“We changed our minds when we saw the destruction of the pulsar research outpost, that your kind built millennia ago.”

“The what?”

“You would know of it as GBS.”

“GBS was a research station?”

“Yes.”

“I see,” I said, scratching my chin, “But please, continue.”

“Thank you”, said the droid, the hollowness of its words seeming eerie, “We have been monitoring TRI attacks upon you through various sources. The fact that the conflux seem to be attacking first, before they send in their own ships, strikes us as odd. We have asked for information on this, but TRI offers none. We are becoming concerned by this, and have decided to take action.”

“Which is where I come in?”

“Yes. There is a small station, modified for research, in our space. TRI captured a sentient conflux within it, for study purposes. It still exists, and we wish to investigate the happenings within it. We have attempted to interrogate it via standard remote access procedures, but it does not respond. We see it transmitting on occasions, directed towards the old CLAWS arrays. We find this odd, as it was our belief that these arrays were to detect sentient activity, and transmit it to TRI.”

“Do you have your own theories on this?” I asked.

“Yes. But we will not share them with you, in case we taint your investigation with our thoughts. We wish you to find out what you can, on your own.”

“I see. Can you help me in this effort?”

“As much as we can. We will give you an EVA suit with a full scanner suite built it. You will need it to determine what has happened, and it will protect you if there is a harsh environment. Other than that, you are free to take whatever you need from our market, but there is little here that will fit into your ship successfully.”

“Thank you. At the least, I can use some flashfires.”

“Yes, we expected that. Are there any other questions?”

“One. What was the purpose of the circle and line thing?”

“The circle and line was to direct you here. The color changes indicate differing security areas. Red is the general public, Yellow is maintenance and hallways, Green is a secure area. There are other colors for other areas, but these do not concern you at this time.”

“I see.”

“The line will lead you back to your ship. We will discuss what you find when you return.”

The droid turned and left, and the green circle reappeared around me, the line extending out the door. I walked out, pretty much back the way I had come, until I was beside my ship again. A flight suit, very different from my usual one, was being held by a droid. I took it, feeling the extra weight and bulk, then got changed into it. My personal terminal implants detected and locked into the suit electronics, and a set of micro hydraulics started working, helping with the extra mass. It was hardly any different from my normal suit, once I got used to it. I climbed in to my ship, and noticed that a trio of flashfires had been fitted to it. The pre-launch checks were ok, so I started the launch sequence.

The lift dropped me into the tube, and I was staring outside at space beyond, when a conflux flew across my field of view. Before I could do anything, I had been fired out. A small swarm of conflux – mostly snails and squid – were flying around the station. I lazily picked them off, one at a time, and set my course for Aman Hook. A few squid came to investigate my passing, but none of them were a match for my ship.

Jumping into Aman hook presented a minor problem. Two Kraken class conflux were there, flying around, while an Eel rushed towards me to investigate as well. The sector comms burst into life suddenly.

“Hail from the New Dawn ship ‘Peace through proper application of firepower’. If you can’t handle your flux, drag them until I can get to them.”

I lit the afterburners and flew past the Kraken, which turned to shoot ion beams at me. The Eel was soon in range, and assumed a firing stance, but I sent the ship into a shallow climb, the plasma projectiles missing as they went past the underside of my ship. The Kraken had fallen well behind, and the Eel was slowly losing ground on me. A blue spot appeared on my radar, lining up behind the pair of Kraken.

“Thanks for the help,” I called.

“No worry. We’ll sort this pair in a moment.”

I twisted my head to look behind me, seeing the bright sparks of plasma rounds in the distance. I checked the radar, and the pair of Kraken were no more.

“OK, two down, just the big one left.”

“Yep, I’ll start on it.”

“Sure thing.”

I cut the throttle and spun sharply, before re-applying it. The Eel turned to fire at me, but I slid well past it, closing the gap until I was in range. I opened up with my lasers, pelting it with the beams of energy. It turned to run, and I chased after it, firing sporadically as my overworked power plant struggled to supply the power load. An Intensity blew past me, purple trail streaming behind it, and opened fire with plasma weaponry, blasting the Eel into snack sized chunks of gore.

I cut my throttle and slowly drifted to a halt, as the other ship turned and came about to face me.

“So, what brings you here, into this part of space?” The other pilot asked.

“I’m investigating something.” I replied.

“Nothing out here to investigate save buttons and conflux, friend.”

“Buttons?”

“Yeah. It’s a roid formation in Canis. There are all sorts of rumors as to why it says Buttons. My favorite is that a Quantar miner who split with his wife mined all the surrounding ice, leaving her pet name forever in space as a reminder to her cold heartedness.”

I laughed, “Cute.”

“Yeah, but that’s it here. One anomaly here, which is fairly tame. The old Amananthii wreckage in Canis is well documented. The conflux are pretty harsh, as you saw. So, what are you investigating?”

“Well, I’m not sure I can tell you, to be honest.”

“Oh, I see.” Came the disappointed reply. “You’re part of the TRI-R CCC I take it?”

I perked up. “I’m sorry, but I cannot discuss that further. Can you direct me to the CCC?”

“Yeah, no problem. Follow me.”

He turned and flew off, and I followed him. Soon enough, a yellow contact appeared on the radar – my target. I thanked the other pilot and he flew off, to continue with his hunt. I waited until he was out of my radar range, and then waited a bit more to be sure I had cleared his, before acting.

Chapter three.

I flew a close loop around the station, trying to decide how to do this. I parked the Cyclone on one of the strange station modules, and cycled the air from my cockpit. Opening the canopy, I drifted outside and parked my feet on the station. The transducers in the feet transferred a quiet humming into my headset, but there was no other noise. I walked down to the emergency airlock, pried off the panel, and hotwired it. Entering the airlock, my suit chimed in with a biohazard warning. I paused to check the settings on the suit, making sure it would behave as if it were in a hostile environment, and then closed the outer door.

The interior door opened to darkness. I fiddled with the transducer set-up, and had a rough wire-frame of the corridor in front of me, care of the sonar transducers. IR and UV scans showed nothing, and the environmental sensors showed an atmosphere unlike any I had seen before – the levels of methane and carbon monoxide were through the roof, while only the barest traces of nitrogen and oxygen were present. There were traces of radiation, and high levels of airborne pathogens, type unknown. I walked to the wall and shone a dull light against it, revealing a strange blue crust. I poked at it, breaking it and sending blue dust to fall to the floor.

I followed the hallway, unsure of what to expect. I stopped at one door, but it was jammed closed with the strange blue gunk. I continued, and stopped at a second doorway, which appeared to have been blown open in the past. The blue gunk was all in the frame, and I carefully stepped inside, taking extra care to not puncture my suit.

The sonar picked up several large objects, and I approached one carefully. A quick flash of my suit lamp showed it to be a lab bench, the equipment long clogged with the blue gunk. I examined the other items, and they turned out to be benches as well. A TRI issue sterilizer sat at one end, and I pried it open. Inside, were a pair of sample jars for hazardous materials. I opened one, and scraped a little of the blue gunk into it. The other I took an atmospheric sample with. Stuffing them into my pockets, I continued down the hallway in search of answers.

The basic layout of the main core seemed to be similar enough to the research labs I grew up in, and as I wandered the hallway looking for other doors, the IR receptors started picking up some heat from the far end of the hallway, where one of the strange modules attached. I paused at the door to the security room, and pushed at the wall where the control to open it would be. The door slowly started to open, spewing blue dust into the air, then finally freed itself of the gunk and slid fully open.

The terminals inside all glowed with a soft light, and I walked to the main one. It had halted due to errors, and I cleared them all from the screen. I downloaded the station log into my personal terminal. Flipping through the main system screens, I noted that the strange modules were attached as ‘TRI-R laboratory module’ I left the room, and continued along the hall into the strange module.

The IR was becoming enough to see by, so I switched off the sonar. The wire-frame disappeared, to be replaced with a sickly dull green view of the hall in front of me. The blue gunk was thick in places, like moss, making it a pain to navigate. I came to a door on the right, jammed open, so I went in. I recognised some of the equipment inside as genetic samplers, splitters, and re-combiners. Off along the wall, was a line of cloning vats, the glass cylinders shattered, seemingly from the blue gunk inside expanding. Massive piles of the blue gunk were heaped around the room, preventing too much more exploration, so I left.

I continued down the hallway a little more, and came to a second door. This one opened freely at the touch of the control, and I stepped in. It was similar to the first, but no trace of the blue gunk was present. The cloning vats along the wall were lit, and contained what appeared to be conflux Jellyfish. I walked closer for a better look, and they started to move, pushing up against the glass, as if to get to me. I stepped back, horrified.

I left that room, and continued down the hall, until it ended with a final door. This too opened freely, and I slipped inside. This was a far larger room, with some strange kinds of machinery lining the walls. What appeared to be an anti-grav lift was in the middle, and a larger version of a TRI interrogation machine sat beside it. Dark stains on the walls were visible, and I walked to one to see what it was. Switching on the suit light to see, I recoiled, as it appeared to be the remains of a human, dried out and forever a macabre part of the wall decorations.

Fighting the instinct to throw up, I turned and left. I walked around the station again, until I was at the entrance of the second module. The layout was identical, and the first lab revealed more of the Jellyfish like creatures in the cloning tanks. The second lab was empty, but still functional. The main room at the end was lit up, the door open. I stuck my head inside and quickly pulled it back as I saw a Conflux Nautiloid hovering on the grav-lift. I had decided that I’d had enough, so I left, heading back to the security room. I set the main reactor to overload, and ran for the airlock. Purging the air, I applied a quick burst of gamma radiation to my suit, hoping to kill anything that may have attached itself to it.

I walked back to my ship, climbed in, and took off again, heading for Amananth. Behind me, several Jellyfish launched, as did the Nautiloid I had seen.

“Fool! You cannot stop us!” Came a loud booming voice, across the sector comms. “We will kill you, and bring you back as one of us. Prepare to become part of her empire!”

I lit a flashfire, running for the gate. Several conflux missiles flew past me, hitting the gate, causing it to change color, just before it became infested.

“Yes, run. We will catch you.” Came the voice again.

I jinked around the gate, narrowly missing it. Behind me, the jellyfish gave it a wide berth, and I used the space to line up one, dispatching its shields with my lasers. It turned on me, letting loose with plasma rounds, but I dodged them and continued to pummel it, until it was dead.

“No! You will pay for that, human!” Came an anguished cry.

I lit my afterburners to get away from the Nautiloid, which had caught up. A solid beam of light came from it, burning my shields away, but I escaped out of its range before it could do much damage.

“Hail from the New Dawn ship ‘Peace through proper application of firepower’. Is anyone else in here?” Came a familiar voice from the sector comms.

“Yes, under attack by sentient conflux, request assistance!”

“Gotcha, on my way. What are we up against?”

I dodged some more plasma fire from another jellyfish, and lined up on a second, blasting it. “Plasma Jellyfish, an a Nautiloid using some kind of weapon I’ve not seen before. Looks like a continuous beam of some sort, be careful.” The Jellyfish in front of me exploded, and the Nautiloid howled again.

“Is that the big baddy screaming at us?”

“You betcha.”

“Ok, I see you on radar, and some of the Jellyfish. Help is on the way.”

I twisted to break off as the Nautiloid caught up again, frying my shields. I ignited a flashfire to escape as the shields dropped out completely. The beam of energy flashed across my cockpit glass, shattering it. I hit the emergency release and dove slightly, sending it away. The pod shield activated, protecting me from everything outside.

The Nautiloid howled again, and the New Dawn pilot chimed in with “Another one bites the dust, this is like shooting fish in a barrel.”

“Good job. I’m pretty much out of the battle though, my ship’s not going to take much more.”

“I saw that, just the big guy left now. Wait, no, he’s gone too.”

“You killed him?”

“I wish. He left. Now, for the gate…”

I fell in behind the Intensity as it flew towards the infested gate. I slowed down, and it pulled up, leaving a single bomb on his old course. It sailed across space, and then slammed into the gate, exploding with a brilliant flash, cleansing the conflux infestation from it.

“And tada! Gotta love these ISU gate-bombs. Best thing they ever did. Well, that’s two you owe me now, buddy.”

“I’d offer you as much beer as you could drink, but the nearest bar I know of would be at Tripoint station.”

“Huh? Nah, it’s ok. No charge from us, it’s just what we do. Where did it come from though?”

“The sentient conflux?”

“Yeah, I’ve never seen anything like it, not with those Jellyfish as well.”

“They were growing in the CCC, actually.”

“What!?”

“I’m serious. From what I could see, they were cloning those Jellyfish inside it, and the Nautiloid was living in one of the research labs.”

“Impossible. TRI-R ships still fly in and out of the place every other week, or so. Aren’t you one of them?”

“No, I was there for someone else.”

“Oh. TRI is gonna be pissed at me then…”

“I think they’re gonna be more pissed at me though. I set the self destruct.”

“What!?”

“You think I was going to leave a Conflux cloning and research lab intact? Think again, you weren’t inside there, you didn’t see what I saw. That place wasn’t normal in any way.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Well, it was Amananth who asked me to investigate, so make of that what you will.”

“I still don’t believe you. I’m going to dock and try to help them.”

“I made sure it couldn’t be reversed. It’s set to explode within the next thirty minutes. Plus the atmosphere inside isn’t habitable for humans.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was as if the whole place had been subverted. The atmosphere was unlike anything I’d seen before. There was this strange blue crust on everything, like some sort of algae.”

“I’m not sure I believe you. I’ve heard of a few similar things, but then again, so might of you. I’m going to go report this to my superior, along with your details. Fate should know what to do.”

“Oh.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, Fate and I didn’t exactly get along when we met…”

“Heh. Too bad for you, she’s a great leader.”

The Intensity flew off, into the gate, and was gone. I set a new course for Amananth, and headed towards the gate after him.

A beep on my chronometer sounded, and I looked towards the station just in time to see it consumed in a giant ball of fire, flames and smoke spraying out of the cracks in it’s hull, then with a single blinding flash, it was no more. I continued towards the gate, and jumped out.

Chapter four.

Amananth was under attack from a conflux swarm when I jumped in. An Octavian carrier sat just above the station, launching and landing fighters constantly. I cycled to it, proving my guess right. It was the New Dawn “Kissed by Fate”. I engaged a pair of snails as they flew past, making short work of them. A manta noticed, and came to attack, but ran as I dropped its shields. I chased it, but a Phoenix finished it off for me.

I changed course, picking a new target. The sky was thick with them, and I settled on an Eel, which was attacking the carrier itself. It turned to flee, just in time to cop a fatal dose of rail slugs from another ship. The commotion on the sector chat was incredible; various calls for help and cheers fighting each other. I fought on, dispatching a Manta that was almost dead, then helping with a Nautiloid.

It didn’t take long before my shield was getting low, and my after-burner fuel critical, so I used a flashfire to break off. A Typhoon noticed what I was doing, and covered my escape, picking a few flux off my six. I flipped in the holographic docking rings, and threw my little ship into the docking port. The station caught me, and dropped my out of the port onto a grav-lift.

My ship ended up on a docking level I had never seen before, with what appeared to be several battle droids pointing the business end of unknown weapons towards my ship. I slowly climbed out, and a black circle appeared on the floor around me, a line pointing towards a decontamination cubicle to the side. I walked to it, flanked by a pair of battle droids, pausing only to take the two sample jars out of my pockets and place them on a shelf inside the cubicle. I stood there, bathed in decontamination fluid briefly, and then took the jars back.

One of the battle droids walked to me, and extended a pair of dangerous looking claws. A gruff, metallic voice demanded the jars, so I surrendered them. It placed them inside an internal cavity, and then demanded I stand still. Another droid came forth, and extended a probe into the back of the suit, then left a few moments later. The battle droid then demanded I remove the flight suit. I disrobed in front of it, and left the suit in a pile on the floor. It examined me briefly, then pointed the weapon at the suit, and vaporized it.

The black line reappeared, pointing towards a door to the side. I started walking towards it, and the battle droid fell in behind me, weaponry still disconcertingly pointed at me. The door opened as I approached, and the line changed to yellow. I continued down the hallway as directed, then into another hallway, before stopping in front of another door. This one opened, the line went blue and I entered into what appeared to be a lab.

The battle droid entered behind me, and the door slid shut. It went to a bench, took the two sample jars out of it’s storage cavity, sat them on the bench, then went into a corner, as if to wait.

A pair of droids entered the room a few minutes later. The first went straight to the bench and took a jar, before going off to use some equipment on it. The other came to me, and started talking.

“Welcome back. I trust the decontamination and security procedures were not too intrusive. We need to take care when dealing with things of this nature.”

“What things?”

“We will know soon. As I said before, we have had our suspicions for a while, but we wished to have external confirmation. We have already examined the data from our suit, and the atmosphere agrees with our conclusions. What you saw also agrees. We are attempting to determine the nature of the blue substance at the moment.”

“What about the conflux outside?”

“Dead. New Dawn are quite efficient at keeping them in control.”

“I destroyed the station, you know.”

“Yes, we know. If you hadn’t of, we would of asked you to go back and do it anyway. The blue substance confirms what we thought.”

The other droid picked up the two sample jars, and walked into a vaporizer. The door slammed shut, and a light lit up. The door re-opened, and there was nothing inside. I blinked at this, unsure what to make of it.

“So, what did I find?”

“The atmosphere is consistent with that of the conflux home world.”

“How do you know?”

“I cannot tell you that.”

“OK, what else can you tell me then?”

“The blue substance seems to be a combination of conflux and Solrain DNA. It isn’t sentient, instead acting much like a food to forcibly evolve Conflux in a hive.”

“Say what?”

“In simple terms, it is food. You feed it to Conflux. Conflux get bigger and more dangerous. They change.”

“I don’t quite need it that simple, I do have some scientific knowledge. It sounds like it is similar to the ‘Royal Jelly’ of some insect species.”

“That would be correct. Feed a conflux enough, and it will evolve.”

“So, those Jellyfish I saw would be fed on the blue stuff, and grow up into other conflux?”

“Yes. There are two kinds of Jellyfish. The probe kind you see, and the seed variety that grow into other conflux.”

“They were in tanks, and seemed to know I was there.”

“Yes. They can feel your thoughts, and try to subvert you. The seed Jellyfish attach to a human, burrow into its spinal column and brain stem, and absorb it. What remains of the body, we do not know. We suspect that the gore you saw on the wall was the remains of whoever was assimilated into a sentient conflux.”

“Ouch.”

“Yes, I imagine the process would be rather painful.”

“Well, now what?”

“The data taken from the station computer indicated that TRI has moved parts of itself into Klatches Hold station. We believe that TRI either is under the control of the conflux, or is using the conflux as a weapon to maintain its power. Either is unacceptable to us. We are modifying your ship with our technology at the moment, and some of the New Dawn pilots are willing to help you. We wish you to lead an attack on this station, infiltrate it, and bring back a copy of their mainframe core. We will decide on further action once we have more data.”

“What I had isn’t enough?”

“No, all it proves is that their station here was subverted at one point. There was no further evidence to prove TRI was behind it. Any other questions?”

“Why me?”

“You have proven to be able and efficient so far. We believe you are well suited to the task.”

“OK, what do I get out of it?”

“If TRI is as evil as claimed, we will assist you against them.”

“How?”

“We have our ways. You will just have to believe us when we say we will help. Have we given you reason to otherwise?”

“I guess not. But it only takes one betrayal to make an irreversible change.”

“Yes, we know. Is there anything else?”

“No. I guess not.”

“Your ship will be ready by morning. Fate has offered you a bunk on her ship for the night. We suggest you take up her offer, so that you are refreshed for tomorrow.”

The droid turned and left, and I followed the line from my circle to the flight bay. An Apteryx shuttle was waiting for me, it’s pilot seemingly bored. He saw me, waved, and then climbed in. I donned a fresh EVA suit from his ship, and sat in the cargo bay.

The trip over was uneventful, the food for the night plain, and the bed warm but generic. No one had much to say to me, and Fate herself didn’t seem to care that I was there. Hours later, I was being woken by the shuttle pilot, who ferried me back to the station.

Chapter five.

The shuttle stopped rising, and the door opened to the cargo bay. I climbed out, and looked around. A wing of five Dragon heavy fighters sat there flanked by several Barracuda and Tornado bombers. The bombers were loaded with oversized missiles, of unknown origin.

The pilots saw me and marched forwards, saluting rigidly. I shook my head at them, and they relaxed.

“I’m not one for ceremony. Do you all know what we are doing?”

“Yes, Sir!” Came the snappy reply.

“OK, who’s in charge?”

“You, Sir!”

I shook my head, “OK, who’s second in charge?”

A young man stepped forwards. “I am known as Iindah, Sir. I’m the wing leader, Sir.”

“OK, if I’m in charge, then my first order is that you drop the ‘Sir’ stuff, ok?”

“Yes… err. OK.”

“So, what can you tell me?”

“The Amananthii are putting the finishing touches to your ship. We are told that TRI is aware of what we are planning, and has retreated a cruiser to KH to help with defense.”

“Is that what those missiles are for?”

“Yes. The Amananthii gave us those anti-matter torpedoes. Nothing else in our arsenal would penetrate the shields of those things otherwise.”

“I see. Do your men know how to use them?”

“We’re told that it’s as simple as pointing them in the right direction, and firing.”

“I hope they’re right. We won’t last long against two cruisers.”

“The Amananthii are planning on stabilising the anomaly here, and creating a temporary wormhole into the back of KH sector. They claim to know of the long forgotten jump-route, but did not explain why or how. We should have the element of surprise.”

“What about their radar?”

“All our ships have ECM modules fitted. They won’t know we’re there until we’re almost right on top of them.”

“Oh, how nice.” I said, smiling. Iindah smiled back.

“Anything else?”

“There is an assault tow waiting on another launch deck. We are sending in some of our warriors, assisted by Amananthii battle droids to help you.”

“Wow, you guys don’t mess around.”

“New Dawn does not like to be deceived.”

A series of red lights burst into life, flashing a warning. The floor opened, and a ship rose into the deck on a grav-lift. It resembled a Cyclone, but it was very apparent that the Amananthii had modified it. Instead of the usual white and green coloring, it was now Black, with pale green and purple trim. The wings seemed to be swept back a little, the overall effect making it look more like a scout than a fighter. A refuel droid hovered over to it, and attached to the refuel port, taking what seemed to be a very long time to fuel the ship. The other pilots stared in awe at it.

I walked over to it, looking closely at it. The guns seemed to be different somehow, in their mounting and design. Four missiles were mounted under each wing, black and glistening. They were of a very sleek design that I had never seen before. I finished my walk and found a droid waiting for me near the cockpit.

“We give you this ship with our compliments, and as proof we wish to make amends for our ignorance in the past. We are told that it is customary to break a bottle of fermented fruit across the bow, in celebration, so we have found one for you, if you wish.”

“Thank you.”

The droid offered a bottle of champagne, and I took it. I thought for a few moments, and then cleared my throat. “I dub this ship the ‘Machinae Supremacy’, may it serve its creators well.” I said, before throwing the bottle against the hull. It shattered, spilling the bubbling fluid all over the nose. The pilots cheered.

“What can this thing do?”

“We had to reprogram your ship computer to make it work. It will only fly with you in the cockpit, none other will be allowed. There is a pair of Dominator class engines fitted, from ancient times.”

“Dominator engines?”

“You find them in wreckage occasionally. I believe you refer to them as PCE3, or similar. There is a smaller version of the Guardian shield fitted, it has similar damage absorption to what you call a ‘Mortar’ shield, but with similar recharge to the full sized Guardian.”

“Wow.”

“We have fitted an oversized power-plant of our own design. It should be enough for your needs, and we will tell you no more other than attempting to remove it will prove hazardous. You have sixteen anti-matter missiles. One will destroy any fighter TRI has to offer, so be careful with them. You have a pair of neutron lances mounted on gimbals. These actively track your target within a five-degree cone in front of you. Their damage is low, but constant.”

“How low?”

“They would be able to destroy a Phoenix class fighter in twelve seconds, under ideal circumstances.”

“And that is low?” I asked, amazed.

“Compared to some of our weaponry, yes. You have also three times the afterburner reserve compared to other ships, but enhanced boosters. We fitted as many flashfires as we could.”

“Enhanced?”

“Yes. They will give you approximately a fifty percent boost increase, over standard boosters.”

“I like this ship the more I hear about it.”

“We fitted a system booster class six, something you will have never seen. Class four system boosters were known, I believe, as an AB4. The one you have gives a fifteen percent boost to all your systems.”

“OK, what else?”

“There is an antigravity generator, otherwise the ship would be far too heavy to use effectively. As it is, you will find it a touch awkward compared to how it was, but not excessively so. The skin of the ship is based on sensor defeating materials, you will not show on radar easily, and missiles should have trouble locking onto you. The armor plating is extremely thin compared to TRI ships, but far stronger in comparison. Overall, it is not very much, but we could not add more without affecting the ship handling.”

“So, when do we start?”

“We have tamed the anomaly outside and it links to a wormhole two hundred and fifty clicks behind the target. It is a one-way trip though, and time will be limited. Once the first ship jumps through, the anomaly will degenerate rapidly.”

“So it’s all ready?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you.”

The droid walked off. I climbed into the ship and sat in the cockpit. It was a bit tighter than I remember, but the seat seemed to hold me well in place. I waved to the other pilots, and they climbed into their ships, before launching. We formed up outside, and I did a few test laps. The ship seemed to peak out at 480v cruise, and was sluggish to yaw. Pitching and rolling seemed fine, almost reminiscent of atmospheric craft. I drifted to the anomaly, where three drones were stationed, and addressed the other pilots.

“Well, this is it – a one-way trip to a guarded TRI station. Watch each other’s backs, and take care all. Good luck all, and let’s go.”

Chapter six.

I doubt I could ever describe what the jump felt like in words, travelling via the wormhole was yet another new experience that I had been through. It seemed to take forever, yet my chronograph recorded only two seconds. We all made it through, the anomaly behind us in KH sector collapsing shortly after the last of us came through. We formed up, with myself in the lead. The Dragons flew slightly behind and below, in a delta formation, while the bombers flew slightly behind and above, in an X formation.

It took almost eight minutes to travel the distance to the station, and as we got closer we saw the two cruisers, parked next to the gate. Several wings of Enforcers flew in patrols around them, and the gate. We cut our throttles and waited, out of range.

“Looks like we caught them by surprise, as we planned. The bombers can hang back, while the Dragons and I will go ahead and try to thin out the Enforcers.”

“Why? We could just rush in and offload our missiles onto the cruisers…” Asked one pilot.

“No, if they saw you they’d focus on shooting down the missiles, or worse, you. I don’t want to lose anyone, we have no idea what will happen once we attack, they may call in reinforcements, and I want every ship available if need be.”

“Fair enough. Most of us here realise this could be a suicide mission, while we don’t wish to die, none of us are afraid to.”

“No-one will die. Set your escape pods to auto. That’s an order.”

“They are, Sir. I was speaking figuratively – once we’re downed, we’re as good as dead for this fight.”

“Good. Stay in at least pairs, and don’t chase any fleeing ships. If they leave, worry about someone else. We’re outnumbered here; we don’t want to split our forces. We ready?”

Everyone sounded off, one at a time.

“OK, I’ll lead the charge. Lets hope this toy is as good as they said.”

I pushed the throttle forwards, almost to the end and picked up speed. The Dragons followed, and I matched their speed. We closed towards the station, and a pair of Enforcers launched.

“OK, those two that just launched? Let’s get them.”

I pushed the throttle to full and lit my afterburner, gaining speed rapidly. The pair of Enforcers saw me, and changed course to intercept me. The target designation on my HUD went from red to yellow as I approached, then green. I squeezed the trigger, and a pair of pale blue beams shot from the front of ship, striking one of them. It pulled up, and the beams tracked it, before shutting off. I glanced at the gun capacitor and saw it was empty. Cutting my throttle a little, I pulled back sending the ship in a loop. The Enforcer pair were caught in a hail of bullets, exploding under the onslaught. The escape pods came flying out of the wreckage, but were also hit and exploded.

“Two down, they won’t be back.” Someone crowed.

A swarm of Enforcers were closing quickly upon us, so I turned to face them. Ion streams were flying towards me, hitting my shields as I line up playing chicken with them, before I dropped a pair of missiles and threw my ship into a sudden dive. I saw the first missile hit, exploding in a burst of light, but was blinded to see what effect it had.

“Situation?” I asked, still blinking trying to regain my vision properly.

“Uh, five of us, lots of them, you just nailed two on your own, and blinded their friends. We picked off two in the confusion.”

“Thanks” I said, as my vision started to lose the bright sparkles. My shield was back to full, as was my gun capacitor. More ion beams were going past me, so I cycled targets until I saw who was shooting at me. I cut the throttle, flipped the ship and held the trigger as it flew past me, the beam overpowering the shield and leaving a straight black scorch mark on the underside of the ship. The capacitor held up a bit better that time, the excess energy from the idle engines feeding it.

A Dragon tore past, and I saw an explosion behind me reflecting off the station.

“Got him, whatever you have tears their shields up bad, Jede.”

“Thanks, update?”

“We’re fine, they’re thinning out a little. It looks like a conflux swarm is visiting though, there’s all kinds of funky things on our case now.”

I cycled targets until I found the Enforcers, retreating to the cruisers. Conflux Sharks were closing in on us, ignoring them.

“Guys, form up and concentrate your fire. Pick them off one at a time.”

“Roger that.”

I fell in behind the Sharks, targeted one, and killed the throttle as I opened fire. The beams spat out and tore it clean in half, the gore remaining exploding into grotesque chunks. I pulled back to avoid making a mess on the ship, and lined up a second one. The others were laying into the Sharks, killing them quickly.

“Like shooting fish in a barrel!” someone commented.

Suddenly, the Sharks turned and the pack headed towards me. I hit the afterburners, narrowly avoiding collecting some plasma rounds.

“Enforcers, inbound. Looks like they’re going for Jede, cover him guys!” Someone called.

I ran towards the station as my missile warning started beeping at me. I lit a flashfire, and checked the missile display. Multiple warheads were heading towards me and closing fast as I ducked in behind the station. They all disappeared, and I called for a situation update.

“No more flux, the Enforcers spammed you bad, I’ve never seen missile spam that bad since the days of the Oct/Sol wars. I thought that ship was missile resistant or something?”

“Yeah, so did I. Enforcers?”

“We’re picking them off. They seem to be retreating again, probably for more missiles.”

“How many?”

“Three made it to dock, looks like five or six safe behind the defense guns of the cruiser.”

“I’ll fix them…”

I spun around and lined up the docking port, unleashing all my missiles onto it. Dodging around it, I lit a flashfire to get clear, and a moment later cheers erupted from the pilots.

“You blew that tube clean off the station, check it out.”

I twisted my head and had a look. The usually straight lines of the station were twisted in all manner of shape, the tip having been severed clean off the extended arm that was the hangar bay of these stations.

“Coolness. Can you guys survive a bit if you went after those last few Enforcers?”

“Yeah, our shields would hold up against those things for a few moments, enough to get a run at them, maybe.”

“OK, two of you go for one of the enforcers, the others follow but stay out of firing range. The two that go, pick the same Enforcer. The rest, get ready to cover for them as they come out of the firing range.”

“Roger that.”

Two of them peeled off and opened fire, destroying the Enforcer, before diving to get clear of the Cruisers gun batteries. The other Enforcers followed, pelting them ion fire, and the Dragon wing tore into them. Behind me, two more Enforcers launched, overshooting me. I locked onto one and tore it up, the beam taking it’s shields down within moments, then carving the ship clean in half before it exploded. The other Enforcer lit a flashfire and I stabbed the missile launch button, forgetting I had none left. I swore to myself and lit the afterburners again.

“One inbound from the station, how are the rest of you going?”

“We lost the two who went in, but they took the bait. They’re down to one here, plus the one you called.”

“OK, bombers, move in.”

“Roger that. About time.”

I chuckled and continued chase, getting in range and opening fire. The shields dropped, but held. Cursing, I cut my throttle to let the gun cap recharge, and the enforcer flew out of range. A pair of missiles streaked past, and collided with it, sending it spiralling out of control before another pair destroyed it.

“With our compliments, Sir.” Someone in the bomber wing said.

“All gone, Jede.” Someone else called.

“OK guys, pull back and let the bombers do their thing. Given what the little missiles did, I wouldn’t look at the fireworks for the big ones.”

“No kidding.”

The bombers split into a pair of deltas, lining up with the massive capital ships. Small thrust trails speared underneath them, and they pulled up, leaving the torpedoes behind. Arcing off to a side, they came back to regroup. The missiles sailed lazily into the side of the Cruisers, detonating on the heavy armor. Space seemed to become nothing more than bright white for a few seconds, and then faded back to its normal colors. I spun my head to see the end result, and was satisfied with the collection of wreckage beside the gate.

“Assault tow, move in. There’s nothing out here but junk to stop us. Dragons and Bombers, cover us.”

“Yes, Sir” came the chorus of replies.

Chapter seven.

The tow pulled up alongside where the emergency airlocks were, and the cargo pod opened. EVA suited soldiers and droids spilled out, heading to the airlock. I pulled up next to the tow and cycled the air from the cockpit, before releasing the glass and drifting out. Kicking against the ship, I drifted across space and landed against the station. A group of battle droids entered an airlock, then cycled it. A few moments later, the outer door opened again, and more droids entered. Some of the soldiers grouped around the door, ready to go next, and I pushed my way amongst them.

“Area secure.” Came the message from a droid, so we climbed in and cycled the air. We walked in to find the droids holding the corridor, several dead bodies lying on the floor. I picked up a rifle from one of them, checked it worked, and then looked around.

“OK, assuming this is laid out the same as the other stations, we go down this hall to the lift, and drop to sublevel 3. Some can take the stairs, others the freight lift. Droids via the stairs first, just in case.”

“Affirmative.”

“OK, move out!”

We raced down the hallway and paused in front of the elevator shafts. Like most stations, the elevators were laid along the spine of the support frame, giving good access to every floor. The door opened, and soldiers inside started shooting at us. I ducked behind one of the droids for some cover, and returned fire. The droid pointed its gun at the elevator and fired a projectile, which bounced off the back wall with a mechanical clank. A moment later, the elevator was bathed in light, and was no more.

“OK, looks like we take the stairs and the freight elevator now.”

We held our position while the droids went down the stairwell. The sounds of fighting were heard, but soon stopped after a series of explosions. The report came in that it was clear, so the rest of us came down. The droids were holding in position, the walls buckled and blackened around them.

“What happened?” I asked.

“They were using explosives against us. We are no longer at full combat capability.”

“What do you mean?”

“Some of our subsystems no longer respond to our controls, namely weaponry. We took several direct hits from their rockets.”

“I’m surprised you’re still in one piece. Can you still assist us?”

“Affirmative.”

“OK, we have to capture the computer core intact, so no explosives near our objective.”

“Affirmative. Our supply of explosives was exhausted from the last skirmish.”

“What weaponry do you still have, if not explosives?”

“Two of us still have our primary weapon functional. Two of us do not, leaving us with our manipulator arms for offense.”

“I… see. OK, everyone listen up. Down the hallway is our objective, no explosives in there.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“OK, lets go. The hallway won’t provide us much cover, so try and stay behind the droids.”

We carefully went down the hall to the blast door that protected the station mainframe. The door was closed, as expected, so we all huddled against the wall while one of the droids forced it open. It gave way with a shuddering groan, and slid open slightly. Suddenly, there was an explosion, knocking the droid back, the concussion of it knocking us around. A second rocket came flying past, missing us all an impacting on the other end of the corridor. Two of the droids raced inside, firing, and the rest of us streamed in looking for targets.

Two of our men were cut down as they entered, but the others picked off their killers quickly. Another rocket came flying, exploding in front of me on another droid. I was knocked to my feet, sliding across the floor. The droid turned and fired, hitting the second rocket as it left the launcher, causing it to explode. Someone offered me a hand to get up, and I stood shakily.

“Area secured, sir.” He said.

I hobbled over to the mainframe, still sore from the rocket blast, an inserted a blank datacube. I tried to interface with it via my personal terminal, but it kept rejecting me. Grabbing some tools from my kit, I cut open the side panel from the mainframe, and shorted some of the data lines together. Moments later, the machine had halted due to a checksum error, and was dumping the core to the datacube for debugging purposes.

“Neat trick,” Iindah said from behind me, “I’ll have to remember it myself.”

I smiled back, trying to ignore the pain. He stared back, “Are you ok? You look a little pale and that smile looked liked it hurt.”

“I’ll be fine. Let’s get out of here before they send re-inforcements.”

“You sure? Get one of the droids to have a quick look at you.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“No, I don’t believe you. You got a little too close to an explosion, you’re not indestructible, let a droid tell me I’m wrong.”

“OK, if it’ll shut you up.”

Iindah motioned and one of the droids walked over.

“Can you scan him for injuries?”

“The makeup of your kind is slightly different to the makeup of an Amananthii, but I can try.” Came the reply. The droid appeared to stare at me, a cluster of lights pulsing from behind its ‘eyes’.

“Probability of critical injury to target eighty-four percent. Possibility of death from injury ninety-two percent. Target appears to be losing fluid internally.”

Iindan stared at the droid, then at me. “You’re bleeding internally, it would seem. If you don’t get help soon, you’ll die, Jede.”

“Information recorded for future reference. Do you wish the target euthanised?”

“Uhh, no, that will not be necessary.” I said.

“Then I can offer no further assistance.”

“OK. Lets get out of here. Everyone, move out.”

We withdrew to the airlock without further opposition. Iindah stopped me before I could enter it.

“Take off your suit for a moment.” He demanded.

“Why?”

“I want to see how bad you look. You’ve been walking very carefully, I’m, worried about you.”

“Then lets not waste time and fly back already!”

“No, I’m not sure you have that much time. You’re too pale; I think you’ve lost too much blood already. I’ve seen this before, unfortunately.”

I sighed, “Fine! Here!”

Releasing the magnetic clasps, I pulled the suit off gently. I stood there in my underclothes, the cool air making me shiver. Iindah swore.

“You’re swollen badly, Jede. You need help now.”

“What do you suggest?” I asked, slipping back into my suit.

“Take a pod ride home. It’s the fastest way, and they’ll have a medical team waiting for you.”

“Not in my ship I won’t. That thing is too valuable to lose.”

“Not as valuable as human life, Jede. Remember this. We can put you in another ship and send you home that way then. Someone else can take yours.”

“No, they can’t. The Amananthii said that only I could fly it.”

“What about the droids? Can one of them fly?”

“Negative. We are not equipped with the necessary data to fly a TRI ship, nor do we have the over-rides necessary to fly Amananthii ships.”

“Looks like I’ll have to fly it back myself then.”

“Jede, don’t be a fool. If you die, then you’ll have no need for that ship. If you pass out on the flight, you’ll have to be podded anyway, or die. Let the ship go, unless you want to gamble everything you have yet to live for against it.”

I stared at him.

“I can’t leave it here for TRI. I can’t take it with me. Seems I have no choice.”

“No, you don’t.”

I entered the airlock, and carefully floated over to the ship. It sat there, waiting for me. The Amananthii had done amazing things to the basic design, made it far more than even TRI could of, and here I was planning to destroy it. I sat in the cockpit, and closed the glass. The ship powered up automatically, and Iindah’s voice came across the comms.

“Jede, send me a copy of that datacube over short range laser-link. Just in case, ok?”

“Sure.”

I inserted the cube into the ship’s computer and copied it.

“OK, done. Let’s go.”

“Jede…”

“I know. See you guys back at Amananth.”

“Jede, don’t kill yourself for that ship, ok?”

“I won’t. I’m just setting the self destruct now, you guys get going.”

“OK. If you die for that thing, we’ll never talk to you again.”

“I’d hope not,” I said, feeling worse by the moment, “OK, here goes.”

I typed the last of the destruct codes in, and hit the eject button. The sudden jolt reverberated throughout my body as waves of pain, and everything went black.

Chapter eight.

Iindah was first to dock; the remaining forces close behind him. The Amananthii droid was waiting for them, saying nothing. Minutes later, it spoke up. “Did our ship fall in battle?”

Iindah shook his head. “No, Jede was critically injured in battle inside the station and was forced to eject to get medical attention.”

“Affirmative. Do you have the data cube we asked for?”

“Yes. Here.”

He pulled the cube out of his pocket and offered it. The droid took it and inserted into a reader within itself.

“Yes, this is it. It is encrypted, but we can break it. Thank you, we have no need for you at this time.”

“Damn you, don’t you care that Jede was nearly killed for that? Or that it may have been his death even?” Iindah exploded at the droid.

“There is more at stake here than a single life.”

“If he dies, then it would have been your fault.”

“He would hardly be the first. And if he is the only one who loses their life, then it will be a small price to pay. Now I must go.”

The droid turned and hovered off, and Iindah threw his helmet at it, but missed.

“Damn you! Damn you all!” He yelled as the droid disappeared through a doorway.

“Jede…” Came the all to familiar voice.

“Yes, Father?”

“It is not yet your time, but you may never reach it.”

“What do you mean?”

“He means, don’t kill yourself with trying.” Came another voice, this one my Moms.

“Yes, Mom.” I said, feeling like I was five years old again.

“Hamalzah has chosen you, to lead us against the evils.” Said my Father.

“Why me?”

“I do not know, it is not right to question the choices of one’s deity. The fact we are all here should speak for itself.”

“Yes, even I am here, not of your faith and not with a proper soul.” Said my Mom.

“Don’t say that Mom, you’re as human as anyone else.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. You are my child, and have traits of mine within you. You cannot change that, I cannot change that, and I doubt Hamalzah himself could change that. Yet, you are changed, even as you stand there.”

“What do you mean?”

“I see it in your eyes, you are loved by another.” She said.

“How can you see when I cannot?”

“Your vision is clouded with the living, Jede. Ours is freed of this.”

“Yes,” said my father, “Your mother speaks the truth. Wether you love her back, or not, is not for us to say. It pains us knowing that we could not be there, when you choose to wed, but you have our blessings, always.”

“What are you talking about? I have no time for this. I need to get back to rescue Ceran.”

“Or do you?” Came a third voice, chillingly familiar. I spun around, as if I would see her, but I could see naught but the blackness.

“No. I refuse to believe it.” I yelled, my denial echoing somehow through the void.

“She is not yet fully among us, Jede. Our love for each other is what connects us, you merely saw what might be.” My Father explained.

“I don’t understand, Father.”

“You will. We love you Jede.” Said my Mom.

“Yes, we do.” Echoed the other voices.

“More than you might realise.”

I opened my eyes to bright light and inhaled sharply, the air burning my lungs and pain paralysing my body. Someone swore, and I felt a needle in my neck. Someone else – a woman’s voice – called for a nurse, and as the blackness took over again, I heard her saying “Great, that set us back another hour…”

I felt as if I were floating in the midst of a pool of the softest bird feathers, slowly rising to the top. I saw the blackness slowly give way to some light, becoming stronger as I continued up. The light came into focus as part of a ceiling, and my eyes blinked. I took another breath, the air cool and hinting at antiseptic compounds. I reached out into my body, trying to find my legs and arms. Slowly, unwillingly, my toes started to wiggle, the muscles sluggish to my control. My fingers, too, soon joined them.

I flexed my back gently, arching it and lifting myself up a little. Lines of dull pain raced across my belly and I stopped, relaxing and settling back into the bed. I realised that my ears were working, and something was making noise. I listened, and the noise turned into a voice.

“… feel?”

“Ugh?” I grunted, struggling to make my voice work.

“I said, how do you feel?”

“MMmrmmm…eh.. blah.” Was all I could manage. She laughed. “That’s more than most can say, after deep sedation.”

I twisted my head carefully and looked in the direction of the voice. An old woman stood there, wearing the white uniform of the medical technicians. Focussing carefully, and mustering all the ability I could, I opened my mouth to speak.

“Where… am… I?”

She ticked something off on a miniature screen, and then answered me. “You’re in the sanctuary in TriPoint station. I’m the surgeon who cut you open, plugged you up, and put you back together. Twice, I might add. You somehow woke up mid operation.”

“How… long… ?”

“Were you out? Four days and counting. You won’t be able to do much for another day, at least. You weren’t long dead when we got to you, but we managed to bring you back, praise Hamalzah.”

“I…”

“Shh. You need rest. I’ll put you back under for another few hours, you can ask more questions when you awaken.”

“Priest… confer…”

“I’ll have a priest here when you awaken, if that’s what you want.” She said as she walked over and injected me with something. I felt the sting of the needle, then a numbness started to spread throughout me.

“Thank… you…” Was all I managed before sleep overtook me again.

I awoke later, feeling a lot more in control of my body. I wiggled my toes and fingers, and they responded a lot better. I opened my eyes, finding the room was a little darker than before. I twisted my head a little, looking around. A priest, clad in the emerald cloak of their tradition, sat in the corner meditating. I tried to sit up, but the pain flooded through me and I gasped involuntarily.

“Here, let me help you, my child.” Said the priest, taking me into his arms and helping me to sit up. The pain subsided as I relaxed, and I stared at him. He looked back at me, his green eyes matching the robe he wore.

“Thank you.”

“It is always a pleasure to serve our people, child. I was asked to be here when you awoke, is there something I can help you with?”

“I’ve… Been having visions of my father. I’m not sure what to make of them. He tells me things, but I am unsure.”

“I see. Are you sure this is a vision, and not just an idle day-dream?”

“Yes. Well, sort of. I’ve seen them mostly when I was hurt.”

The priest stood, and paced around the room.

“I am not sure what to tell you. I think they might just be your brain losing touch with reality when you are injured – it is rare for anyone to appear in a vision without logical explanation.”

“So you’re saying I’m dreaming of my parents?”

“Both of them?”

“Yes.”

“Then I am sure it is naught but a dream, your mother was Solrain, was she not?”

“Yes.”

“Then surely you can see for yourself what these visions must be.”

“Yes, I suppose. But they seem to be telling me what I need to know, helping me.”

“You do not need visions for that. You just need to listen to your heart.”

“My heart…”

“Yes. Is there anything else?”

“Kind of. What does our religion say about marrying a Solrain woman?”

He gave me a funny look. “Are you asking about one in particular, or just out of curiosity, or for some other reason?”

“Curiosity, mostly.”

He sighed, shaking his head.

“The priests cannot marry outside of our people. Our warriors are discouraged, but it is not set in stone. If you were to marry a non-Quantar, we would not be able to offer our services to her at all, and you would not be allowed into the inner sanctum of the temple, after you were married. Your children would not be barred from the temple, if they chose Hamalzah’s teachings and embrace the Quantar way of life, like you have. If they chose not to, then we treat them the same as any other Solrain citizen. We will not perform the ceremony, you will have to have it done elsewhere. Does that satisfy your curiosity?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Your father knew all this before he married, yet he still fought for Hamalzah to protect us. His sins were forgiven with his death, in case you were wondering. Hamalzah watches over him now.”

“Thank you. I have nothing else to ask of you.”

“Yes. We have one thing to ask of you, when you are stronger. We wish to know what has been happening, TRI has placed massive bounties on your head – well above those you already had. We know of the destruction of GBS, and have heard rumors of an attack on Klatches hold. The Tahirs themselves are taking an interest in this, and wish to speak with you about it later.”

“The Tahirs?”

“Yes. I too, was amazed when I found out.”

I leaned forwards and stood up shakily. I took a careful step, then another.

“Well, I can walk, and I’m fairly sure I’m thinking straight. I am willing to speak with them when they see fit.”

“Yes, as you wish. I will pass that message on and will come for you when they are ready.”

“Thank you.”

“You might find it beneficial to rest, or to meditate in prayer, in the meantime.” Said the priests as he walked to the door, “Space is a very dangerous place for you at the moment, you will be safe in here.”

I nodded, and he left. I gently sat back down on the bed, closed my eyes and leaned against the wall. It seemed only moments later that they were shaking me awake, but my chronograph told otherwise. Standing up, the two priests led me into the temple, through a few of the secret passages, until we stood in a small antechamber. One went ahead, only to return a few moments later, offering me a green robe, which I wore over my flight suit.

“They are waiting for you, Jede.”

“Thank you. Am I to see them on my own?”

“Yes, that is usually the tradition, unless you require help of some sort.”

I shook my head, “No, I should be fine. Thank you.”

They motioned towards a door, and I walked in. I emerged on the other side in a small hallway, three thrones at the far end. They glittered with a green light from this distance, and as I approached I realised that each was set with many Emeralds. Three robed figures sat in them, each wearing the ceremonial green robe. I walked closer, and then stopped at a line, bowing as best I could.

“Honourable Tahir, I am your servant of Hamalzah.”

“Arise, Jede, we do not want your injuries to worsen because you hurt yourself bowing. Please, sit, and talk with us.”

I carefully sat on the floor, cross-legged. They watched my careful movements, and when I was seated, one of them spoke.

“If your injuries are too much, tell us and we can continue this at another time.”

“Thank you, Tahir.”

“We do not usually place much faith in rumor, but the rumors explain recent events best. We have asked you here because a lot of these rumors indicate that you have something to do with this. This is not a trial; you are not here because we wish to punish you. We only seek the truth. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Tahir, I understand.”

“Now please, tell us of recent events, as you saw them.”

I took a deep breath, and started. “I had signed on to an Octavian carrier, doing odd jobs for them, and was going to the remains of Perasca to bury my fathers amulet…”

I finished several hours later; the only interruption had been someone bringing in some food for us all. The Tahir had said nothing the entire time to me.

“So,” one of them finally said, “do you believe TRI is in league with the conflux?”

I thought about it for a moment before answering, “Yes, it seems that way. I do not know what data was in the Klatches Hold mainframe, though. Amananth should have that.”

“An Octavian by the name of ‘Iindah’ sent you a message, saying that the mission was a success. Would that have been referring to the data-cube?”

“Possibly. I am not sure enough to be certain, though.”

They looked at each other, and then one of the other Tahir spoke.

“You mentioned to brother Retalis that you had been having visions about your dead parents. Is there anything you could tell us that you didn’t tell him?”

I paused, unsure of what to say. “I… I do not think so. I am not in the habit of holding back when I am confiding in a priest. I was unaware that he would even tell someone else, as I expected it to remain a private matter.”

“He thought it was unusual enough to mention it to us, and there is a little more we can enlighten you on. Whilst such visions are extremely rare, there are other recorded incidents of similar things.”

“I… see.”

“Hamalzah has deemed fit to grant me a vision, as well.”

“Oh?”

“I saw you, Jede, holding a sacred blade against the TRI logo. The logo was blackened with grime, and very tarnished. Two people, your father and another Solrain woman, who I expect is your mother, watched on, smiling.”

“What does it mean?”

“I believe Hamalzah has chosen you, to lead our people out of the darkness, and back into the light. This is not the first time the Solrain’s corrupting influence has led us astray, and if nothing is done, I believe it will not be the last.”

“What would you have me do, Tahir?”

“We are gathering our warriors, and we ask if you will lead them into battle. TRI will be held responsible for it’s crimes. Not just for our people, but for all those who have lost, because of them. But for now, you must relax and regain your strength. You are still weak from your recent ordeal.”

“Yes Tahir.”

The two priests entered the room again, and walked up to me, bowed to the Tahir, and then led me back to my room. The doctor was waiting for me. She checked me over, nodding in satisfaction. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out a packet of pills, and handed two to me.

“These are a combination multi-vitamin and healing booster. Don’t take them before bed or you won’t sleep. You’re coming along nicely, just still take it easy.”

“What happened to me?”

She looked at me, a touch of concern clouding her eyes for a moment.

“Well, you probably know more than I do, I was just there to open your pod. You ruptured a few internal organs, and lost a lot of blood. We had you on life support almost instantly, and brought you back. Thankfully, you hadn’t been dead long. I cut you open, sealed off the leaks, then put you back together. You woke up mid way, and I cut one of your major arteries. So, we had to put you back under, fix that, and finally, we could refill you with blood, and gave you some healing boosters. You know the rest.”

“I was dead?”

“Yes. Your heart had failed because of the blood loss, you were unconscious because of that, and probably shock, and you’d stopped breathing. Luckily, it hadn’t been too long, or we wouldn’t have been able to bring you back.”

“Thank you, doctor, for everything. If there is anything I can do…”

“You’re welcome, and no need. I was just doing my job, in Hamalzah’s service. I just hope you will not need my services further. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other patients to attend to.”

“Of course, and thank you again.”

She left the room, and I was alone again.

Chapter nine.

Iindah stirred, then bashed at an aging alarm clock. “Go away,” he murmured, half asleep, “It’s not time to get up yet.”

The buzzing continued, despite the bashing, and eventually he realised it was his communicator, not the alarm clock. He hit the button to accept the call, and lay there.

“Yes?”

“Sorry to disturb you,” came the impersonal voice of Aman101, “but we require your help. We are tracking several sentient conflux, and quite a few TRI registered ships. We believe they are coming to attack us, possibly in retaliation for klatches Hold.”

“Great,” he sighed, “How long do we have?”

“Twenty minutes.”

“OK, I’ll rustle up a welcoming party.”

The communicator fell silent, and he pressed another button. “All hands, prepare for an attack. This is not a drill. I repeat, prepare for an attack. Conflux and Enforcers inbound.”

He released the button, and a siren began wailing. His words repeated throughout the ship, echoing in the corridors. Others stirred, and soon the carrier was alive with activity. Iindah washed his face, and then hurried to the launch bay. Fate was already there, waiting for him.

“Captain.” He said, saluting.

“Huntmaster Iindah.” She replied, returning his salute, “What is happening?”

“Aman101 woke me with a report of sentient conflux and TRI vessels, inbound. It believes that they are coming to attack.”

“I see.”

Several other pilots stopped suddenly as they realised the captain was standing there, saluting and standing to attention. She saluted back.

“OK pilots, we’re told an attack may be coming. Get some Peregrines out there to look for it, and some fighters out to be ready for it. We’re told it’s conflux and TRI ships, so be careful.”

“Yes, Captain!” Came the chorus of replies.

“Dismissed!”

Fate turned to Iindah. “Be careful out there, you and your men. We’re too few as is now.”

“Yes Captain.”

She turned and walked off, and Iindah turned to his pilots.

“You heard the captain, let’s get some scouts out there and some firepower ready. They want to party, we’ll make sure they have a blast!”

The men cheered, and got into their ships. The Peregrines were first to go, their faster ships leaving the rest behind as the disappeared into a gate. Several Phoenix and Dragon fighters were next, followed by a few Barracuda and Tornado class bombers.

“OK, we see them, Enforcers and Sharks, flying side by side, inbound. They’re faster than us, so we might get a quick ride home.” Crackled the comms, “They’re firing on us, we can’t…”

“Damn,” swore someone, “They’re not playing nice, are they?”

“Nope,” Iindah replied, watching the two escape pods race towards the carrier, “They’re an ungrateful lot.”

He cycled through the contacts on his radar, waiting. Suddenly, a strange target showed, and he paused.

“Guys, Amananth is launching defense drones, so be careful with your shooting.”

“Roger that.”

In the distance, the gate erupted in a ball of white light. An Enforcer came flying out, looped around the gate, and then went back in. Moments later, more Enforcers streamed from the gate, Shark class conflux right on their tails.

“OK people, let’s show our guests a good time!”

“Yes, sir!”

Pushing the throttle of his Dragon forwards to the stop, Iindah accelerated towards the ships. Pulling down slightly, he went wide and turned to face a Shark, pelting it with ion beams. It turned to attack the source of its pain, and two more Dragons opened fire, filling it with rail slugs, killing it.

“Nice work guys.” Someone commented.

“Thanks”

Changing course slightly, he lined up behind an Enforcer, which was trying to shoot one of the Phoenixes down. He paused a moment, lining up his target, then opened fire, the ion beams arcing across the void to hit the Enforcer. It pulled up, trying to escape, so Iindah dropped a Hellrazor missile pack, the twin missiles splitting up and racing for the fleeing ship. It turned a little late and was hit, the explosion knocking it about. A passing Dragon quickly finished it off.

“Thanks for that, I need to dock.”

“No problem. I’ll cover you.”

“Thank you.”

The Phoenix turned, heading in an arc towards Amananth station. A Shark turned to attack it, but Iindah stole its attention by firing on it. It turned to retaliate, firing wildly. Iindah fired back, his ship being thrown about by the impacts of the weapon on its hull. Burning a flashfire, he accelerated away, ducking behind the station. The Shark gave chase, and one a Tornado fell in behind it, lining it up and opening fire. It turned again, suddenly aware of it’s new opponent, and the bomber tore past it, moving out of range within moments. Iindah popped back up from behind the station, and finished it off with a few bursts of ion fire.

“Thanks, whoever.”

“No problem sir, dock and refuel, I’ll cover you.”

“Gotcha.”

He flipped the Dragon and decelerated into the holographic docking rings, then nudged the throttle, pushing the ship in. The station took hold of it, and lifted it to the docking bay on a grav-lift. The repair droid hurried over, patching armor and replacing damaged components. The refuel droid followed, topping up the afterburner fuel. Another droid floated over, opening up the ship and installing replacement flashfires. Just as quickly, they all pulled back and the launch prompt appeared on the ship computer.

He hit the button to launch, and dropped into a tube. The induction coils charged his shield, and then he was shoved back into the void. Pushing the throttles to full, he started to look for a target when a Phoenix suddenly flew past him, almost colliding. Before he could chastise the pilot, he was thrown hard to a side, his ship jolted roughly. Warning lights turned on all over the dash as systems failed.

“Uh, dock, quickly, Iindah.”

He pushed the stick up, trying to turn, the ship fighting him the whole time. He crawled around the station side, and found the docking port. He lined it up roughly, and flew in, bouncing off one side. The ship was caught and lifted again to the docking bay floor, and he jumped out to see what had happened. The side of his ship was caved in, blackened and twisted metal around the lip of a hole. The repair droid came out, looked at it, and started cutting the plating off in preparation to replace it.

“Uh, what happened?”

“I was being chased, and nearly hit you. The Enforcer wasn’t so lucky, it seems.”

Iindah laughed, “Cool. Looks like I’m out of the fight for the moment though.”

“Roger that, we’re almost on top of it now.”

He stood there, watching the repair droid remove structural beams from his ship, before replacing them with new ones. Smaller droids raced around inside, replacing burnt out wiring and parts. To the side, another Dragon rose on a grav-lift, missing one wing and with bullet holes down the side. Droids raced over to it, dissembling the damaged parts and working on it. It was a familiar tale all across the launch bay; the defenders were taking heavy damage.

The repair droids hovered past him, and the refuel droid moved in. Climbing into his cockpit, he launched as soon as he was able. Outside, the defense drones were swarming the Sharks, while the Enforcers were trying to pick them off. They spotted him and scattered, surrounding him and attacking from all angles. He lit a flashfire and raced on, closing to the final Shark, bringing it down with a missile. The Enforcers fell in behind him, giving chase, and the drones switched to a new target. They tracked the Enforcers, and turned as they flew past, before accelerating after them, pelting them with laser fire. Some turned to engage, and were intercepted by the newly repaired defenders.

Iindah turned and raced on, towards the gravitic anomaly nearby, his missile warning beeping at him. He flew through it, shields arcing under the strain. The missiles flew into it and destructed, unable to cope with the stress. Diving to avoid some roids, he turned to face his pursuers. They peeled apart again, trying to surround him. He flew on, heading for the rest of the fleet. A pair of bombers flew in behind him, firing wildly at the three Enforcers giving chase. With his shields almost gone, he docked and weaved, but they didn’t let up. As a final act of desperation as his shields failed, he dumped a flashfire into his braking thrusters, slowing rapidly. The Enforcers fell for it, overshooting him, turning to try and get back into firing range. The bombers raced past, and let their missiles fly. The Enforcers, caught momentarily at rest, had no escape and the missiles tore into their ships, destroying them.

“And that’s it. Area Secured.”

“Thanks guys, I owe you a few.”

“No problem.”

The comms crackled into life again.

“Thank you for your help, Iindah.” Said Aman101.

“You’re welcome. New Dawn has a long history of helping against the conflux, we’re not about to change that.”

“In light of recent events, we are withdrawing our support and alliance from TRI. This will be reconsidered at a future time, but for now we consider New Dawn and the CFP as our only allies. I have already notified your captain of this.”

“Thank… Thank you.”

“As our new allies, we have a task we wish you to complete. We have located the majority of the remains of the CFP pilots, and wish you to rescue them.”

Iindah groaned inwardly, mere moments after forming an alliance, he had work to do. Damned AI.

“Another station assault? Where is the station, and what will we need?”

“This one is located in the Bronchi Rift. We will supply rotacol co-ordinates to your ship computers, as well as equipment as needed. Time is off the essence, as they appear to be scheduled for execution within a few hours.”

“Err, no chance you can tweak some of our ships like you did with Jede?”

“Negative. There is not enough time for us to reverse engineer and redesign them. We would offer defense drones, but they are unable to use the jumpgate network. Our stores of anti-matter missiles are depleted, and without the commodities to make more, will stay that way. Our weaponry is incompatible with standard TRI mounts.”

He sighed.

“OK, I get the idea. We’ll regroup, reform, and be ready to leave as soon as we are able.”

“Thank you.”

The communicator went silent and Iindah docked.

Chapter ten.

“OK people, listen up,” Fate said. The general murmur and chatter came to a rapid halt. “Our target is a prison station here, in The Bronchi Rift, where we are told the majority of the CFP prisoners of war are. I know some of them are members of some of your families, but lets not get our hopes up until they’re back here, safe. We’ll head across unregulated space, where the TRI tracking beacons are currently inactive, to Zealots Refuge. Once there, we will head to The Bronchi Rift, and then to the station as planned. We aren’t expecting any resistance until this point. We dock, attack, and retrieve prisoners only. We will have little time, as they are scheduled for execution. Once we have them, we will attempt to return the same way. Be warned, that the assault tows will be the primary targets, so cover them well.”

“Sounds like a textbook rescue operation,” someone said.

“Yes. And you all know how often they work out like one. So stay cool out there.”

“If they are expecting us, then they will expect us to follow the textbook. I think we should do it differently.” Iindah piped up.

“How would you do it?” Fate asked him.

“What if we send our guys in the assault tow, and their hulls in a normal tow. We get in, unload the hulls, and fly back in our combat craft. Less ships to be detected. Plus we send a diversionary force up via the other side of Sol Space, to draw off any attackers.”

“We risk losing all our people if someone takes down that assault tow.”

“If they think we’re coming in through the back door, there won’t be anyone there to take it down.”

Fate stared at the map of space for a long time. Finally, she turned to the pilots. “Well people, it’s your lives at stake. Do you wish to do it by the book, or try and be sneaky?”

The noise level jumped dramatically as everyone tried to voice his or her opinion or comment simultaneously. Fate raised her hand, and the hubbub quietened. “I’m not sure if we have the manpower to pull this off if we’re discovered. So unless there are any other ideas?”

“Captain, the ‘Nicolette IV’ is holding station at Hyperial. My brother is on that ship, and they’re on our side. Perhaps we could ask them for assistance?” someone called out.

“Really? Hmm, that changes things. I shall contact them, briefing adjourned until then.”

An hour and a half later, Fate was standing in front of the pilots again.

“OK, The ‘Nicolette IV’ is working with us. They’re going to stage a mock raid on Solrain Core, with some of our guys coming in through the back door as well. They will have a wing to protect our tows as they come in, under the guise of covering the retreat of the others. They’re already preparing to launch, and are awaiting our go. You know what needs to be done, so lets do it. Amananth has supplied more assault droids to our tow, so lets get moving. We have lives to save.”

The entire group of pilots stood to attention and saluted, “Yes, Captain!”

The tow sped across space unmolested, its anti-flux ECM masking it well from detection. It met up with it’s protecting wing in Zealots Refuge, as planned, and continued on to The Bronchi Rift. Plugging the co-ordinates into the computer, the pilot headed out into deep space. Minutes passed, and soon the small station was visible on radar. The pilot noted the “Access Denied” on the station description, and grinned. Soon, he had parked next to it, and the assault droids were going inside. The battle took no time at all, the small group of security guards soon realising they were overwhelmed and surrendering. The description changed to “Access Granted” and the tow docked.

Iindah docked behind it, and as his Dragon rose to the flight deck, he saw four guards stood against the wall, hands cuffed behind them, a pair of assault droids guarding them. A steady trickle of people had started walking down the hallway, tattered and tired looking. When they saw the tow they brightened, some breaking down and crying, finally believing that rescue was at hand. Some of those who were walking hugged each other, and the prisoners all boarded the tow.

It was too late for some, having already been executed. Various wing leaders had been interrogated for what they knew, then killed once their usefulness had ended. One poor soul had to be cut free from the interrogation machine, barely able to breathe, let alone walk, and was carried by his comrades to safety. The dead were taken onboard, for a later ceremony. Soon, the station was bare except for the four guards, who were left tied up. The tow left, and not long after the station exploded as the self-destruct timer expired. They passed a pair of TRI shuttles on the trip back to the gate, which surrendered and were boarded. The officials on board were to be interrogated later.

The diversionary forces retreated from Solrain Core, without further incident, and headed to their homes, to re-unite with their loved ones. The wings of Phoenix fighters escorted the tow to the Nicolette IV, where there was much rejoicing as families were re-united, and much sorrow as others were not. The TRI officers were left here for interrogation, and soon the tow launched and left Hyperial space. It headed to Amananth with the last of the prisoners on board. That journey was uneventful, and soon the rejoicing and sorrow would happen again, with other sets of families. Anger was expressed on both sides of the universe, and plans were drawn up for revenge.

Chapter eleven.

“Jede. It is time.” Came the all too familiar voice.

“Time for what, father?”

“Time to end this. We have helped you all we can, the rest is up to you.” He said.

“If we could help you any further, we would of, without hesitation.” Came the voice of his mother.

“You never did tell me, who killed you, Mom.”

“It doesn’t matter. He is dead already. Put whatever misguided notions of vengeance you have behind you, they will not help you.” She replied.

“What about Ceran? Is she alive?”

Silence.

“Well, is she?”

“We do not know. We cannot see her. We do not know who is alive and still dead. All we see is pain.”

“Yes, much pain and darkness.” Came Ceran’s voice, from the shadows.

“Are you dead?”

“No. Yes. Perhaps. Maybe no more dead than you are, or were.”

“What kind of answer is that?”

More silence.

“She is gone from our vision, Jede. I do not know what this means.” My father explained.

“What do I need to do?”

“You already know. Learn from the mistakes of the past, look towards the hope of the future. This is it for us; Hamalzah will bring us to him. Even your mother. We have sinned, but he has forgiven.”

“Father?”

“Remember, we love you. We’re proud of you. And while it saddens us to not be able to see your family, we know you’ll be fine. Goodbye Jede.”

“Yes Jede, goodbye.” Echoed my Mother.

“Mom? Dad?”

More silence.

“Mom! Dad!”

Still more silence.

“It is your love for each other than Hamalzah uses for your visions.” Said the Tahir; sitting in the corner of the small room I had been sleeping in.

“You… You knew?”

“Yes. I couldn’t see what you did, but I could see you were seeing what Hamalzah chose to show you. We have prepared you a ship to lead our forces. It is modest, but a good warrior needs only the simplest of weapons to be effective.”

“Yes, I am the weapon.”

“We have received word from your allies in Hyperial and Amananth space, they are preparing a final attack on TRI. They have both requested you be part of the final battle for our freedom. They too, must see Hamalzah’s touch upon you.”

“I… see.”

“Hamalzah favors the faithful. You are blessed by him, for he has chosen you to lead his people against the darkness of TRI. Our finest warriors await you to take your place at the lead, so that you can take them into battle.”

“I don’t feel very blessed.”

“Perhaps not, but the signs are there. It is rare for any save the high priests to receive such direct visions. The tools you required for your tasks have always been there for you, as if waiting. Even little things, like the doctor who saved you being on staff that day, hint at something bigger than all of us.”

“What about that doctor?”

“Doctor Inalph is our finest surgeon bar none. She decided to throw a critical emergency drill for your pod, before we received it, let alone opened it. It was because of that, the equipment to save you was there when we cracked open your escape pod. If it hadn’t of been, then you may not of survived.”

I sighed. “It seems that my fate has been decided already.”

“No, nobody has their fate decided for them. You can choose to embrace the glory being offered to you, or you can choose to ignore it, and hide in fear and regret. You are a warrior of Quantar, chosen by Hamalzah himself, and we are asking you to lead us into battle. No honor we could bestow upon you would even come close to that which you will have for leading us, even if you fail. Already, your name is whispered amongst the faithful in revered tones. Not since Roh himself, has anybody captured the hearts of our people.”

“Please, save your rhetoric. I’ll lead the fleet. I’ll find my Mom, and I’ll kill anybody who stands in my way. That’s all I care for, at the moment.”

“Be careful that your anger and lust for revenge doesn’t leave you dead.”

“I don’t care. They will suffer.”

He looked at me, a frown appearing on his lips.

“Perhaps you are not the one, after all, then.”

“No, I am. You said it yourself, Hamalzah has blessed me. I shall find those responsible and send them to him for their final reckoning. Is my ship ready?”

“But… No… That is a choice only you can make.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Never mind. Your ship is ready, follow me.”

The Tahir walked out, and I followed him. People lined the hallways, watching me, wishing luck and blessings upon me. I entered the launch bay, looking around. Three full wings of Tornados were there, along with a wing of Monsoon heavy fighters. I walked past them all, their pilots bowing slightly to the Tahir, to a wing of Tornado bombers. We stopped in front of one, and the Tahir turned to me.

“This is your ship. Like the others here, we have equipped it with the best we can offer. Beyond what we have already given you, there is nothing. May the blessings of Hamalzah be upon you.”

“Thank you, Tahir” I said, bowing. I turned and waved to the throng of people, and a cheer erupted from the crowd. I climbed the ladder into the cockpit, and was unsurprised to find the ship extensively decked out with artifact equipment – power plant, engines, shields, boosters, the lot. Four Hitman mk3 explosive rail cannons filled the weapon slots, and a full compliment of missiles were slung from the hard points. I closed the canopy glass, gave a final wave, and started the launch sequence. The others followed my lead, and soon we were on our way in space. The Nicolette IV was en-route through Lesser Locks, the New Dawn pilots on their way through what remained of Octavian space, and we set our course straight up the middle.

We were set to converge for the final attack in twenty-two minutes.

Chapter twelve.

We sat outside the gate, waiting for the others. Sol Core was one jump away, and we were slightly early. Not even the conflux had bothered us – space was dead. Slowly, the others checked in from their respective gates.

“New Dawn, in position.”

“CFP, in position.”

“Amananth experimental fighter wing, in position.”

“Say what?”

“Amananth experimental fighter wing, at your command.”

“Uh, size and orders?”

“We are in a wing of three ships. Our orders are to support you in whatever way we can. We are currently holding in Amananth sector, opening a wormhole to Solrain Core station.”

“Can you go in first, and divert them? Let us know when it is safe to enter via the Jumpgates?”

“Affirmative. Awaiting your mark.”

“Go when ready.”

Moments later, they reported in.

“Under heavy fire. There are cruisers stationed near each gate. Conflux and enforcers are patrolling the sector, with several defense drones.”

“OK everyone, go in and get out of the way as fast as you can. It’s show time!”

A chorus of cheers erupted and everyone pushed their ships into the gates, bouncing across space and emerging around Solrain Core station. Racing out of the gate with afterburners lit, the stream of ships swarmed around the station, out of range of the weaponry of the huge capital ships. Reacting slowly to the new threat, they fired at the ships, but missed the majority of them. Enforcers turned to engage, splitting up into smaller groups.

“They’re coming. Stay together everybody, and concentrate your firepower. If they split you off, then you’re as good as toast.”

Jede rolled, narrowly squeezing between a pair of Enforcers as they raced past him.

“Oh, and they’re borderline kamikaze by the looks, so be careful!”

Debris was littering the void; burning wreckage and weapons fire lighting everything up. Lining up one of the defense drones, Jede squeezed the trigger. Explosive rounds pummeled the helpless drone, smashing it into pieces and scattering them. He flew on through it, the chunks arcing on his shields as they vaporized. His missile lock lit up, and he rapidly cycled his targets looking for them. Finding them, he cut his throttle and turned ninety degrees, before slamming it hard forwards again. They overshot him by meters, and collided with the station as they tried to turn around for another pass.

One of the other ships flew across him, chased by an Enforcer. Jede turned in behind it, and pelted it with gunfire. Lighting a flashfire, then Enforcer tried to run, only to be hit with missiles from another bomber. It careened out of control, smashing into the station and exploding.

“How is everyone going?”

“Low on everything, we need to dock to replenish, but those Cruisers are in the way. Can your bombers do anything about them?”

“Negatory on that one, we have nothing strong enough.”

“Amananth fighters, can you take out a Cruiser?”

“Negative. We have insufficient firepower.”

“Can you run point and take fire while we race out and get some bigger bombs then?”

“Affirmative. Forming up on your point.”

“You heard it guys, bombers, fall in with me. We’re going to get some bigger bombs.”

The bombers lined up behind Jede while the Amananth ships took the lead. “Lets make it look like we’re doing a bombing run, then break for the gate as we near it. Monsoon wing, cover us but stay out of the range of that Cruiser. Lets do it.”

Vectoring up a little, they began an attack run on the massive ship. A few Enforcers tried to take down the bombers, but the Monsoons did their task well, pulling them off our tails. The Cruisers opened fire upon the Amananth ships, which started to dodge and weave. We followed suit, the majority of the gunfire going past us. At the last moment, we changed course, racing for the gate. The Cruiser realized the deception, and started to attack us. My shields dropped rapidly as I hung on, the ship starting to bounce as the projectiles impacted upon the armor, then I was in the gate, and safe. The static from the jump made the hair on my arms stand on end for a few moments, but all was ok.

“How’d we go?”

“We lost two of the six.”

I swore. “Did they eject?”

“We believe so.”

“No use worrying about it for now, lets get docked and replenished.”

We flew over to the Nicolette IV and docked. Their droids scurried over our hulls, patching our armor. The captain was there, waiting for us.

“Nice work so far, I’ve been monitoring the battle from here. Please tell me you want some heavy bombs to take down that Cruiser?”

I nodded with a grin. “Yes, please. It’s time for us to lay on the hurt.”

He grinned back wolfishly. “I have a handful of old style dirty nukes, and some shaped charge torpedoes. Drop the torps first, to penetrate the armor, then the nukes to get in and make a mess. Do it all on one run, and you should park the bombs in the craters from the torps quite nicely.”

I nodded. “Gotcha.”

“OK, we’re loading you up. Once you bring one of them things down, we can jump in behind you and re-supply the others. The other will probably come after us the moment we jump in, so once you drop your missiles and get back here to get more, or it’ll be a short battle for us. Looks like your ships are ready so go get ‘em boys. May Hamalzah steady your aim.”

We looked at him curiously, unsure what to make of that last part. He laughed at us, “What, never had an Octavian mention Hamalzah before? Bah, my first wife was a Quantar, get over it already.”

We nodded and raced for our ships. The four of us launched, and approached the gate carefully, cutting out engines back and circling it slowly.

“Is it safe to come in?” I asked.

“No, we’ll draw their fire to buy you some time. It’s not exactly going well in here.”

“Why not? What’s happening?”

“They’re just really fighting hard to stop us, that’s all. We’re being overwhelmed slowly, we need those cruisers taken down.”

“OK. Well the sooner we get in there, the sooner we can do it.”

“I know. Get ready.”

We paused, pointed at the gates, hands on throttles.

“GO! Go go go!”

Slamming it all the way to the top, we leaped into the gate and jumped, pausing to make sure we weren’t pointed at a petal, then hitting the throttle again, running for cover.

“Guys, pull a shallow dive to throw their aim off.”

I pushed down slightly, the others following with me. The weapons fire rapidly overtook us and overshot the wing. Moments later we were out of range, and started to circle in a wide pattern, waiting for our shields to recharge. An enforcer flew close, trying to attack, but the sixteen cannons on our ships took him down before he knew what hit him.

“OK, our shields are back to full, and we’re ready to go. Lets do this.”

“About time, we’re running low on everything and will be target practice for them soon.”

“We’re going as best we can, cover us if you’re able please.”

A small handful of Monsoon and Phoenix fighters took up defensive positions around us, and we lined up for the nearest cruiser.

“OK, here we go. Everyone peel off before we close within their weapons range, drop all your bombs at once, the torps will go a little faster and hit first, letting the nukes enter the hull, we hope. All bombers, link your missile releases to me, so we can drop them all at once.”

“Yes, sir.” Came the chorus of replies.

We flew on, closing to the massive capital ship. Several enforcers tried to attack us, but our escorts chased them off before they could do too much damage. In the distance, the Amananthii ships were carving up conflux as they tried to get closer, their advanced weapons making short work of them. I locked in the targets for the missiles, and rolled my ship quickly, visually inspecting the wing.

“OK, less than twenty seconds. Prepare to break… Ten… Five…” I stabbed the fire button, the ship jolting slightly as the four heavy bombs thrusted off the rack. “Break!”

I pulled up hard, hitting the afterburner, my ship sliding towards the cruiser. I saw the shields arc as a lucky shot got me, then rolled to try and present a smaller profile. I watched out of the side of the cockpit as the missile trails closed to the carrier, the gunners trying to pick them off. There was a small explosion as they succeeded, one set of missiles reduced to slag. The second set almost made it, being picked off at point blank range.

There was an explosion on the hull in two places, followed seconds later by a massive burst of light, debris spewing out of the newly created holes, chased by a fireball. Smoke began pouring out of the holes, and the cruiser started to roll. Another small explosion tore out of the hull, and then a series of larger ones erupted along the upper spine. The guns stopped firing, and a final explosion tore the guts out of the hull, spitting the engine cowling out and spraying the insides of the ship out. A cheer erupted across the comms.

“One down, Nicolette IV, we’re coming to dock!”

“Roger that, we’re ready for you.”

The remaining Octavians jumped out, leaving the Monsoons and Bombers to hold the position. A few conflux attacked sporadically, but were cut down by the Amananthii. Several minutes the cycle repeated, the Octavian warriors standing guard while the rest refueled. The bombers reloaded with heavy munitions, in preparation for bringing down the second cruiser.

Repaired, refueled, and re-armed, they regrouped in the station sector.

“OK, what’s the plan?” Iindah asked.

“We’ll take down the other cruiser, then bring the carrier in to assault the station. I’m not sure what they have planned; it’s strange to see them have given up like this. They have something up their sleeve, but I’m not sure what.” Jede replied.

“Yeah, it’s like they’re waiting for us to make our next move, which logically will be to assault that cruiser. They know what we’re capable of, so I’m a bit worried.”

“I have an idea. Let’s ask them.”

“What?” asked Iindah, surprise in his voice.

Jede grinned and flipped to the public sector mode. “TRI Cruiser, this is wing leader Jede, please identify yourself.”

Moments passed, then the cruiser responded. “Wing leader Jede, this is the TRI Cruiser ‘Sledgehammer’.”

“Holy crap, they’re actually talking to us.” Iindah spat out, almost in shock.

“‘Sledgehammer’, what are your orders?” Jede asked.

“As if they’d…” Iindah started, but was cut off by the reply form the cruiser. “Jede, our orders are to hold our position and return fire only. We are awaiting further orders from the diplomats in charge.”

“Diplomats?”

“Yes. We are advised that they wish to negotiate with you.”

“You are going to surrender?” Jede asked, half sarcastically, half hoping.

“No, we’re expecting you to surrender.”

Iindah laughed. “Always the optimists, aren’t they?”

Jede ignored him and frowned. “What do you mean? We took down one cruiser, and are ready to take you down also. We’re winning here, not you. Your Enforcers and conflux are falling to our guns, yet you are asking us to surrender?”

“Yes, you did destroy the ‘Piledriver’, killing all on board. A lot of good people have died because of that. Yes, you are forcing us back. But the diplomatic chiefs tell me that you will surrender to us when they make their offer. I will say no more, as I know not their plan. Whether or not you choose to believe me is up to you. ‘Sledgehammer’ out.”

“I don’t get it. What the heck are they up to?” Iindah asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe they have re-enforcements coming. Maybe they know something we don’t. I wish I knew.” Jede replied.

“Wing leader Jede, this is Sarath VI, leader of TRI. Do you hear me?” Came a voice across the sector comms.

Iindah swore in surprise. “I recognize that voice, it’s either him or a damn good copy.”

“Yes, Sarath, I hear you. Are you tendering a surrender?”

Sarath laughed. “You overstate your position, child. I’m not offering anything. I’m telling you what to do, and you will do it, because I hold all the cards here, I am in control, and despite your pitiful group of pilots, I am still in charge. Now, I have on my desk, a button. It is small, and red. When I press this button, a bit will flip in the station mainframe’s memory. The interrogation equipment in the brig will read that bit and execute the person currently inside it. That person is your stepmother. Do you understand?”

Moments passed in silence. “Jede?” Iindah asked, questioningly.

“Yes, I understand.” Jede finally replied, breaking the silence.

“Good. Now in future, reply sooner, as my patience with your rag-tag group of rebels is wearing thin. You are to dock, and surrender to our forces. The rest of you are to surrender where you are, and await imprisonment and sentencing for crimes against TRI. There is to be no negotiation, no requests. You will do it, or I will kill your stepmother, then your lover, and then every single one of your pilots I have imprisoned on this station. Those of you outside will be picked off one at a time by the station defenses, my elite guard, or the cruiser. There is no escape, there is no way out, it’s over for you all.”

Iindah swore again.

“May I have a few moments to relay that to the other pilots?” Jede asked, hoping to buy some time.

“Make it quick.” Came the snappy reply.

“OK guys, you heard it.” Jede said, switching back to private communications. “We either fight to our death, lose all those we’ve come to rescue, and hope he’s bluffing. Or we surrender. Or we enact Plan C.”

“Plan C?” Iindah asked, confused.

“We bring the carrier here, dock everyone but me, and explain that we’re waiting to be boarded. Have their cruiser guard it, making them seem to be in control. Load the missile tubes with heavy bombs, and prepare to destroy it with the carrier. If we have the bombers in the tubes, ready to launch, we might be able to overwhelm it before they can strike back. In the meantime, I’ll dock, and surrender. I’ll try and save those inside, then signal when we can retaliate.”

“That’s a heck of a plan. Do you really think it would work?”

“Do we have any other choice? If we surrender, we’re dead. If we fight, we’re dead. As I see it, we have little to lose and something to gain. There is always hope, until you give up.”

“We’re with you, Jede.” Someone piped up, “The Tahir themselves hand-picked us, telling us it would be a suicide mission, and that you would lead us to victory, or an honorable death. Fighting by your side in this battle has been an honor; the only thing that could increase it would be to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Even if we are killed now, our honor could only increase.”

“That’s the Quantar pilots. CFP?” Jede asked.

“We’d rather die, than surrender, Jede.” Their leader replied simply.

“Iindah, what do you say for New Dawn?”

“We’ve come so far. Seems a shame to stop now. For better, or for worse, we’re behind you. Let’s do it.”

The Amananthii ships piped up. “We apologize, but we cannot be part of this. We cannot allow our technology to fall into TRI hands. We are activating our self destructs now.”

“But… OK, that’s settled.” Jede said, as three explosions lit up the sky briefly. “Like Iindah said, let’s do this.”

Jede switched back to the sector communications. “Sarath, we accept your terms. Our carrier will jump into the sector, and our forces will dock with it, awaiting your men to take control. We are standing down now, and I will dock shortly.”

“Wise choice. Dock now.”

“As you wish.”

“Good luck Jede, make them pay for it.” Said someone, across the private channel.

Flying slowly, Jede headed around the station, past the few Enforcers who were guarding it, and pulled up in the holographic docking rings. Pointing his ship into the tube, he nudged the throttle and began the slow drift into the belly of the station.

“Hamalzah, give me the wisdom to know what to do, and the strength to do it.” He prayed, as the shadow of the station went across his cockpit and space was replaced with the smoothness of the tube.

Chapter thirteen.

The Tornado lifted gracefully onto the launch deck, surrounded by a mass of soldiers with heavy weapons. Jede didn’t even need to be told what to do, placing his hands into the air and carefully climbing out and down, before laying on the ground, face to the floor, hands behind him. They didn’t even bother to cuff him, instead hitting him with a stun gun.

Iindah stood in the launch bay of the Nicolette IV, the pilots in a circle around him. He explained the plan, and everyone dispersed, organizing missiles and nukes. Hauling a few old Raptor hulls from the storage, they prepped them as best they could, making jokes about the legendary uselessness of the rarely flown ship. They swapped some of the artifact components from the Tornados, hoping that they’d give enough of a boost to make a difference. Soon, all was ready and everyone waited for the signal…

Jede awoke, feeling groggy and lightheaded. He was strapped to a chair in a plush office, a pair of guards pointing rifles at him, their scowls almost comical to his mind. Carefully lifting his head, he looked around, before resting his gaze on an old man sitting in a very high backed chair.

“Hello Jede, it’s nice to finally meet the one who’s caused me so much drama.” Sarath said, rising from his chair and walking around the desk, pausing in front of his captive.

“This is just a taste of my contempt for you, and my disgust at how much of my empire you have destroyed.” He said, punching him in the jaw. Jede blacked out momentarily, his head snapping to a side with the impact, almost toppling the chair over. Sarath grabbed him by the hair and slapped him a few times, until he woke up again.

“One hit and you’re out for the night? What a pathetic fighter you are. Pathetic, just like the rest of your family. I’ll enjoy ending your bloodline here.”

Jede blinked, trying to clear the cobwebs from his mind.

“Although it’d be a shame, my guards have taken quite a liking to your step mom. We decided to share her around, again. Just a little bit of the right drugs, and she was ready for it. Want to see the footage? Although you look a little young to view such things, I’d let it go this time.”

Jede spat at his tormentor, who merely laughed and motioned to a screen. Ceran was there, tied down to a table. Someone inserted a needle into her arm, then walked off.

“No! I don’t want to see.”

Sarath laughed again. “Make him watch it. He probably never knew just how wild she could be.”

Jede tried to look away, but the guards held his head in place and eyelids open. Soon the tears were streaming, soothing his drying eyes, but inflaming his anger. Eventually, the footage ended and Sarath turned the screen off.

“What? Don’t like home movies? Like I said, it’ll be a sad day amongst the guard when we execute her, they’ve really taken a shine to her. Better than the girls in the brothel, they say, and far cheaper.”

Jede took a deep breath, but said nothing.

“You’ll get to see her later, you’ll have to pass my compliments on for being such a great performer. I think she really missed her true calling.”

Jede glared at him, silent.

“What, nothing to say? That’s fine; your eyes say it all for me. Do you have any questions?”

“How many times did you bring her back?” He asked.

Sarath looked at Jede in surprise. “How did you know about that?”

“It’s not polite to answer a question with a question, you know.” Jede said, trying to not get angry. Sarath walked over and slapped him across the face.

“I’m still in charge here, remember? Now, how did you know about that?”

“I saw… visions. From Hamalzah.” Jede answered.

“Heh. Your god granted you a vision. How cute. Did he give you a vision of this!?” Sarath said suddenly spinning, punching Jede in the face again, this time with enough force to knock him, and the chair, to the ground. Jede groaned as he hit the floor, feigning unconsciousness. Sarath kicked him a few times, then motioned to his guards.

“Take him away, put him in a cell next to his step mom and lover. I’ll deal with him later.”

The guards walked over, grabbed him roughly, dragging him to his feet. Jede let his head slump, and relaxed completely. They untied him and carried him out the door, into an elevator. He felt his stomach rise as the lift dropped several levels suddenly, then stop. The door opened, and they guards carried him down a corridor. They passed several cells, force fields holding the contents secure. They stopped at one, and one of the guards stepped forwards, touching a pad with his hand, opening the cell. Jede grabbed the other guard suddenly, the arm on the guards shoulder grabbing for grip. He felt his fingers sink into something soft, and the guard howled briefly, before collapsing as Jede snapped his neck with a sickening crunch.

The other guard spun, reaching for his weapon, but Jede pushed him into the cell, touching the forcefield control. It reactivated suddenly, arcing around the hapless guard, electrocuting him instantly. Stabbing at it a second time, it shut off, releasing the body to the floor with a thump.

“Jede!” came a familiar voice, whispered in urgent tones. He turned, looking at the next cell over. Mari stood there, staring at him with awe. “You’re here, I.. I can’t believe it’s you! You… you… killed them…” She trailed off, looking at the pair of dead bodies on the floor.

“They deserved it.” Jede said, hitting the release for Mari’s cell. She walked out slowly, looking at him.

“Are.. you OK? You don’t look too happy?” She asked, watching him carefully.

“Should I be?” He replied, sizing up the bodies on the floor.

“No,” Mari replied quietly, “I guess not.”

Jede looked at Mari again. “Get your clothes off, and wear that guard’s uniform. We need something on our side, and this just might work.”

“Huh?” Replied Mari, looking at Jede, the dead guard he indicated, then Jede again. “Are you for real?”

“Are you happy being here? This is an escape attempt. We’re to pass ourselves off as two guards. We’ll tell the others we’re from the ‘Sledgehammer’ because they are taking all the senior security staff for the capture of the carrier, and we’ve been sent here on relief duty. We’ll take my mom under the guise that Sarath wants to execute her personally in his chambers or something. I doubt many would question that.”

Mari blinked, looking at Jede. “I’m scared, Jede.”

“Of what? The other guards? From what I’ve seen, being killed in an escape attempt would be preferable to whatever torture they’ll cook up.”

“No. Of you.”

Jede stared at her. “What?!”

“You’re… different. Your soft side is gone, and all I see is anger and hostility. You’re not the person I admired, it’s as if he’s gone.”

“I don’t have time for this!” Jede snapped, “Get in that uniform and help me, or stay here and rot. I don’t care which.”

Mari shook her head and started to undress the guard. Jede stripped the other, avoiding looking at the mutilated face. Mari stood and looked at him, eyes slightly red. “It’s nice to see you too.” She turned and walked into the cell, emerging a few minutes later dressed in the uniform. Jede looked at her, half dressed himself, and nodded. “Yes, you’ll pass.”

Mari went to help Jede into the uniform, but he waved her off. “See if you can find some cuffs or something, we need to make this look legit.”

Mari half smiled, but Jede stared at her. “We don’t have time to make jokes about this, our remaining pilots are in a carrier, awaiting my signal to attack, or to be boarded and imprisoned.”

Mari nodded, checking her belt. “You don’t have any in your belt, do you?”

Jede checked, and tossed her the cuffs he found. They walked to the next cell, and opened it. Inside, a sickly looking Quantar woman slept in the corner. Jede walked in and shook her gently.

“Wake up, mom.”

She groaned, and looked at him.

“No, please, let me die. No more, is it too much to ask to end my suffering?”

“Mom!” Jede yelled, taking his helmet off.

“Jede!” She said, weakly. “Please, forget me, go, run, let me die. Hamalzah has deserted me and I only want for it to end.”

“No, Mom, I can’t. Please, come with me, we’re getting out of here.”

She shook her head. “Jede, honey. I’m broken. I’m… I’m… defiled. Please, just leave me here. Listen to me, do it. Save yourself.”

Jede sank to his knees, fighting back the tears. “No mom, I can’t. I’ll stay with you and die as well, if I need to. I came here to save you. If I can’t, then it was all in vain. You have to come with us, please!”

Ceran turned away, staring at the back wall of the cell. Mari tapped Jede on the shoulder. “I’l let out the remaining pilots. I know how to get into the weapons cache here, and I’ll take care of the other guards.”

Jede turned around to face her. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I’m disguised well enough, and should be able to surprise them both. I’ll stun one, and call the other for help. Be back in a few minutes.”

“Go with her, Jede. Save yourselves, leave me.” Ceran said, quietly.

“No. I’ll not abandon you.”

She laughed, the despair accented only by a coughing fit which ended it.

“You’re as bad as your father was, Jede. He died protecting our family. I’m old, I have little left to offer, just let me go, please?”

“No, that’s different Mom. Dad died so we could live. You want to die because you’re giving up. He never gave up. I’ll never give up. You can’t give up, because giving up just isn’t what we do. Now come with me, or I’ll stun you and carry you myself, even if it gets us both killed.”

She turned to face him. “You’re serious, aren’t you?” Staring right back at her, Jede nodded. “Then it seems I have no other choice. But please, if it’s a case of your or me, save yourself. You and Mari are all that remains of our bloodline. You’ll need each other in the coming months.” She said, ending it with a sigh.

“What do you mean?”

“Lets go.” She said, ignoring the question.

“Mom?”

“I said, lets go!”

“OK then.”

He fitted the cuffs, loosely binding her. “You should be able to get out of that if you need to, but don’t unless you absolutely have to. We need to look legit as much as we can.”

She nodded, and walked slowly in front of him to the door. Mari was waiting, a handful of pilots behind her.

“How’d you go?”

She looked at him, then gestured towards the small group.

“That’s it. The rest were tortured to death. This lot aren’t in any condition to fight, but they insisted. They’re hyped up on regeneration medicine, but I’m not sure how they’d go in a fight.”

“They’ll be like the rest of us. They’ll fight if they have to, they’ll die if they have to, We’ll kill everyone in our way if we have to. Right guys?”

The pilots raised their weapons in salute.

“OK, I have to get a signal to the Nicolette IV to let them know we’ve escaped. We need to get ourselves out of here – I have a bomber that I came in. It’ll fit you all in, in a squeeze, assuming it’s still intact. We might be able to hijack a few other ships if need be from the launch deck. Do you know where to go, Mari?”

She nodded. “Yeah. I worked here for long enough. Let’s go. Ceran, you in front. The rest, keep your distance and come running if there’s trouble. I think there’s only guards at the entrance to this cell block, and the brig area in general. We should be able to handle them on our own, especially if we surprise them.”

Jede nodded at Mari. “Good, let’s go. Someone give me a gun.”

Mari handed him a stun-gun.

“No, a gun. Not this toy.”

“Here, sir.” Said one of the pilots, trading the laser pistol for Jede’s stun-gun.

The cell block guards didn’t stand a chance. With their backs turned, Jede took them down in two shots; the two smoking holes in their backs exposing charred insides. Jede stormed past, pushing Ceran along. They took the stairs to the main elevator, and were accosted by the guards.

“Halt! Where are you going with that prisoner?” He demanded.

Jede stiffened and saluted. “Sarath himself asked for me to bring her to him.”

The guard gave Jede a curious look. “And who are you?” he asked, wary.

“Security officer junior class Walter Renes, Sir.” He spat out.

“I’ve never heard of you.”

“I’m from the ‘Sledgehammer’, Sir. We were transferred here to replace the guards who are going on the Carrier assult, Sir.”

“Oh,” said the guard, confused. “Can I see your ID then?”

“Sure thing, Sir.” Jede reached for his belt, his hand darting past it and grabbing the gun. With one fluid movement, he had pointed it at the guard and squeezed the trigger. The head of the guard dissapeared in a flash of light, and before the second guard could react, Mari had shot him, sending him into a slumber. Jede walked over and casually shot him.

“Why’d you do that for? He’d be out for at least an hour.” Mari asked.

Jede opened his mouth to answer, but closed it, walking to the elevator. They all entered it, and Mari punched the button for the flight deck. The door opened, and they readied their guns. No-one stirred, or even took any notice of the group.

They walked out, and a flight engineer ran over to them.

“Sir, what can we do?”

Jede paused for a moment, then explained. “Sarath wishes the captives to be loaded into a ship for transfer to the ‘Sledgehammer’. The security force on there is to take over from there.”

“Gotcha. Poor bastards. OK, I have a tow ready with the required mods. I take it your partner is to be flying that?” Said the engineer, motioning to Mari.

“That is correct. In addition, I’m told there is a Quantar ship here with some interesting modifications. I’d like to see it.”

“That is an unusual request…” Started the engineer.

“I know, but I rarely get out. I was just curious, that’s all. If it’s a problem…” Jede said, only to be interrupted.

“No, no problem, just unusual. It’s over there.” He said, pointing to the far bay. “Some of our guys are going to be disassembling it soon, so if you want to look, now’s the best time.”

“Thank you.”

Jede and Mari led the ‘captives’ to the tow. The engineer left them, and they all climbed aboard except Mari. She looked at him, unsure of what to say.

“What?” He asked, in an irritated tone.

“Are you coming now?” She replied.

“No.”

She sighed. “You’re going after him?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Did you see what they did to my Mom?”

She lowered her eyes and mumbled a little, before meeting his gaze. “Did you see what they did to me? It matters not, I’m not out for revenge, so you shouldn’t be. Please, Jede, forget any notions of revenge and leave with us. We’ll come back with an assault team and finish this.”

“No. I’m ending it now. He’ll have too many chances to escape if we let him go for now. Now is the best time.”

She sighed, and poked her head into the tow. A few moments later, she climbed out and the tow dropped into the tube.

“What are you doing?” Jede asked.

“I told them to send the message to attack. They’ll be fine. I’m coming with you.”

“No.”

“Too late, my ride has gone.”

“You stupid…”

“Jede!”

He sighed, shaking his head. “This is my fight, not yours.”

“No, it’s all our fight. He did things to me too, not just your Mom. He tortured parts of my new family to death. He killed countless others. If you’re going to fight him, I’m going to be there, by your side, until we either win, or are killed.”

Jede closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. Opening them, he saw Mari staring into his eyes.

“OK,” he said, “let’s do this.”

Chapter fourteen

The pair made their way up to Sarath’s penthouse suite through the maintenance tunnels. Floating up the spine of the station was a bit unsettling, but far stealthier than taking more conventional methods. They followed a power conduit, and Mari popped open a ceiling tile. Jede handed Mari his gun, and dropped in. Sarath was waiting for them.

He motioned for Jede to move with a gun, and Mari dropped in.

“Right on time. Nice work.” He said, smiling.

“Huh?” Jede said, confused.

“Oh, nothing. It was just handy having Mari here helping me out, like it or not.”

“Mari? What is he talking about?”

Mari looked Sarath, then at Jede. “I… I don’t know?”

Sarath laughed. “Guns, please Mari.”

“No!” She said, trembling. “I will… not…” She dropped to her knees and set the guns on the floor, before kicking them away.

“Mari!” Jede yelled, taking a step towards the guns. Sarath fired, clipping Jede in the shoulder, knocking him to the ground.

“Hmmm. No. I have the guns, not you. Mari, be a dear and help him up.”

Mari stood up, and extended an arm to Jede. He looked at it and spat in her direction, crawling back a bit and unsteadily getting to his feet. “Damn you!” he said, glaring at her.

“I… I’m sorry… I can’t… must… obey him.” She said, shaking a little.

“Awwww, what’s wrong Jede? Didn’t realise that we’d brainwashed your cute girlfriend into helping us? How do you think she knew where to go?”

“Mari?” Jede asked, not sure of what to say.

She looked at him with red eyes. “I’m.. sorry, Jede.” She wiped a tear from her eye.

“I’m not, you did good kid. Pity you have to die though.” Sarath taunted with an evil smile.

“OK, so you seem to be holding all the aces here. Any other surprised for me?” Jede asked.

“You forget that I ask the questione here. But yes, I do. Observe.”

He gestured to a screen where a tow was flying towards a familiar carrier. “See that tow? It has a bomb on board. It’ll explode on docking. Why do you think I let you have it. If the carrier is lucky to survive, then the Cruiser will finish it off. Wave goodbye to your Mom, although I’d of much rather killed her myself.”

Jede glared at him.

“Oh well, I guess it’s time for you two to die now. The end of your bloodline, though I’m not going to be sorry to see it end. Your father was a pain to TRI, your mother was a pain to TRI, your stepmother was a pain to TRI, and here you both are, also pains to TRI.”

“I don’t get it, what has she done? She’s not related to me.”

“No, but her child is.”

Jede flinched, jaw opening in shock.

“Aww, how cute. He’s gone pale. Let me guess, you didn’t know?”

Jede shook his head, and looked at Mari. She met his gaze, still crying, and nodded.

“You’re as predictable as your father. Rebel against TRI, attack this station, fall in love with a Solrain woman, father a child with her, lose her to TRI. Miner, warrior, teacher. Hmm, the latest addition to that will be corpse. I like it. Miner, warrior, teacher, corpse.”

Jede glared at him.

“I can see you don’t like it. Well, too bad. This is my empire, and I say you’re going to die.”

“You’re insane.”

“Yep.”

“What about the conflux?”

“What about them?” He said, tilting his head.

“Who controls them?”

“I do, of course. No more questions, you die now.”

“Wait!”

“No. You die now.”

“Where did the conflux come from?”

He shook his head and took aim. Behind him, a Dragon pulled up in front of the window and opened fire. Jede hit the deck, just in time to avoid being shot, and Sarath was peppered with shards of the tempered glass that was once his observation window. The vacuum of space pulled them all towards the broken window momentarily, then the emergency shield generators activated, sealing the room. Jede leapt forwards, picking up the pistol and aiming it at Sarath’s head.

“You die now.”

“But wait, I can make you…” Sarath started, only to be cut off by the sound of a pistol firing. He fell to the ground, unconscious.

“No!” Screamed Mari, picking up the laser pistol and aiming it at Jede.

“Mari…” Jede started, “Put the gun down.”

“I… can’t. Jede, help me. Shoot me… Please!” She fired a shot at Jede, missing him.

“Mari, fight it. For our sake.”

“No, I can’t… Please, stop me.” She fired again, the round causing the shield to arc briefly.

“Mari! Stop it! For our sake!”

“Sorry Jede, I can’t.” She turned the gun towards herself.

“No! Mari, I need you. Please, don’t do it!”

“Goodbye, Jede.”

A pistol shot echoed around the room, and Mari’s body fell to the floor.

Chapter fifteen.

Jede nursed his arm, the wounds on his shoulder still hurting. On a bed to his side, was Mari, sleeping.

“Is she… going to be alright?” He asked the nurse.

“I think so,” he replied, inspecting the laser burn, “She’ll wake with a bad headache, and once she’s ready, we can try and crack her head open and debug her brain, so to speak. It’s all we can do.”

“My Mom?”

“On her way to Tripoint. She said something about begging Hamalzah’s forgiveness. I dunno, I’m not up with your religion.”

“I see.”

“So, what happened?”

“The captain asked for us to keep quiet, until she was sure you were ok. She’s asked for you to meet her once you were able. How do you feel?”

“My shoulder hurts, but otherwise I think I’m ok.”

“OK, I’ll get someone to take you.”

One of the lab assistants led Jede through the carrier. All around people stared amazed at them, some bowing their heads, others smiling. Pausing at a door, the assistant pressed a button. It slid open, and he motioned for Jede to enter. Stepping across the boundry, the door slid closed behind him.

“Hello Jede, good to see you again.” Fate said. Jede looked around, and saw the captain standing in front of a huge viewing window. He walked over and stood beside her, looking out at the debris field around Sol Core.

“Is it over?” He asked.

“For now. Sarath is dead. He killed a guard and tried to escape, only to kill himself when he was cornered. TRI is gone, shattered, ended. We will rebuild, of course, but we’re not sure how or what yet.”

“I see.”

“Thank you, for all you have done. We would have lost much, if not for your efforts.”

“What happened?”

“The cruiser opened fire on us, just as the tow was closing. We launched everything we had at it, but it took down the Nicolette IV. Most of their crew made it to the escape pods, only the captain went down with it, to my knowledge. The bombers cleaned up the Sledgehammer, and we came in soon after. The fact that the tow was untouched tipped us off to something, and we investigated it, finding a small anti-matter bomb hidden inside the hull. We evacuated everyone and sent the tow on it’s way. That bomb would of destroyed us if it went off internally. We got your warning after that, and dispatched an assault crew to the station. The security forces surrendered, and we raced to the penthouse, where we found you with Mari in your arms.”

Jede nodded, trembling a little at that memory.

“You know most of the rest. Amananth has offered their help rebuilding, New Dawn are going to relocate to Amananth space until we can get something permanent built in our home space. Your Tahir has asked for you, but I’ve fobbed them off for the moment. The remaining CFP people are joining with us, mostly. You’re the only person really left in the leadership chain, Jede.”

“No. I’m not a leader. I’m sorry.”

“No use apologising to me, it’s your pilots who you have to face. We’re happy for them to join us, but I think your people wish to start anew, again. That’s up to you to decide, though.”

“I know.”

“We have our best people working on Mari. We’ll try and bring her back for you Jede, I promise we’ll try our hardest.”

He nodded, tears in his eyes. Fate gave him a hug.

“It’s over, but it’s really only just starting again, isn’t it?”

“Your father once said that history has a cyclic nature. He was right.”

“You knew him?”

“No, but my Mother knew of him. I read what she wrote about him in her diary.”

“Which was?”

“Does it matter? She also knew the woman your mother was cloned from. That too, doesn’t really matter.”

“Then why are you telling me this?”

“Because, it doesn’t matter. You are who you are, not who your parents were. No go, your people will want to see you.”

Fate motioned to the door, and they walked out. They headed to the mess hall that the remaining CFP people had taken over as their office. They cheered when Jede walked in, offering him a seat at the head of the main table. Jede shook his head, and stood there.

“I’m sorry. I’m not sure who you think I am, but I can’t lead you. I’m just not ready. I’m not even sure if I will ever be ready.”

A hush fell over the crowd, then a murmur, then silence again.

“You’ll always be welcome among us, Jede. You, your Mom, Mari, and your child. Always. We owe you too much, and can’t repay you.” Said one pilot, taking charge.

“You don’t need to.” Jede replied.

“No, we don’t need to. We want to, but don’t know how. If you ever need anything, we’ll do our best to help you. But for now, we have a new life to start. Thank you, for giving that to us.”

Jede nodded, and walked outside, Fate following.

“You better get moving to Tripoint, Jede. While you are welcome to stay here as long as you need, the Tahir is not one to leave waiting, I hear.”

Jede started to protest, but Fate cut him short.

“We’ll take care of them both. When she’s better, we’ll bring her to you, or you to her, or whatever you need. We’ll always be in your debt.”

Jede nodded.

“We’ve prepped your bomber. Take care out there.”

“Thank you, Fate. You too.”

They walked quietly to the launch bay. The flight crews say him and began to applaud, but he shook his head. “Please, no bugles, no drums. I don’t feel like a hero, I just did what I had to. Thank you all for everything.” He climbed into his ship, and with a wave, dropped into the tube, then was spat into space.

He didn’t know what to feel. The recent events were still too much for him to fully deal with, and he wasn’t even sure what to say to the Tahirs. Everything felt dead as he mentally went back through his memories, the betrayals, the pain, the losses.

So much lost. So much to reconstruct.

He jumped through gate after gate, soon entering Quantar space and passing by familiar green nebulae. He paused mid sector, staring into one. The stars shone back at him, the massive gas cloud providing an awesome background.

“It’s over, father.” He said, mostly to himself. A single squid conflux shot at the Tornado, and Jede shot it down, like he had so many times before.

“No, it’s not over. It’s just beginning again.” Came a voice from the past, like a long forgotten memory. Jede turned to look at the source of the voice, but found nothing. Shaking his head, he continued on his way to Tripoint.

Epilogue

The conflux attacks dropped sharply with the death of TRI. Sentient conflux appeared to become extinct, and other than the sporadic swarm or squid, little was seen of them.

Fate, leading the remnants of the Octavians started the slow process of rebuilding. A new station was built around Ares Prime, Octavius Core mk2. Their numbers slowly grew, as their proud race slowly expanded once more.

The remnants of the CFP took over Sol Core, and installed a democratic government. The Tahir and Fate sent delegates, while Amananth declined. Hyperial petitioned to join as a full member, and succeeded, much to the Tahir’s dismay.

Amananth did what Amananth had always done best – provide top of the line equipment for those who needed it. While no-one learnt any more about them, they continue to be a valuable ally.

The Quantar people slowly rebuilt. The Tahir were forced to threaten to exile Jede from the temple when he announced he and Mari were to marry, although many called for an exception to be made. Jede left, making it a moot point. He never returned to Quantar space.

Ceran never left Tripoint, spending the last of her days serving in the temple.

Mari slowly recovered from TRI’s punishments. She gave birth to a healthy child – a boy – and eventually was able to marry Jede without trying to hurt him too much, although it was a close thing during childbirth.

Jede drifted for a few months, trying to collect his thoughts. He spent many hours meditating and mining, praying for guidance from Hamalzah, his parents, anyone. Eventually, at Fate’s prompting, he saw Mari. Though both very changed from their experiences, their paths joined, with Fate as the celebrant. They ran a simple business, him mining ore, her taking the processed materials to where they were needed.

Their son learnt to fly early in life, becoming the youngest ever pilot at age nine. He went on to take over their business when his parents retired, eventually expanding their small station until it was a thriving hub of activity, deep in the heart of unregulated space.

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