Pilot Jibbler looked up from the monitor; “I’ve been thinking about my own place,” he mused, “but it seems like a lot of money.”
The Hyperial sales rep knitted his long fingers on the table and leaned forward. His voice to an intimate, “A month’s mining and you’d have what you need,” he brushed the shoulder of his shiny blue suit, “I’m in the position of being able to provide the coordinates of some high purity asteroids.”
Jibbler also leaned forward, dropping his voice, “What’s in it for Hyperial?” he asked.
The sales rep leaned forward even more, his tie touching his. Glancing over Jibbler’s shoulder he whispered; “Aristo Conglomerate needs raw materials. All we ask is that you bring the ore to Hyperial rather than a Quantar ore processing depot. With your own station you’d have the facilities to store the ore until you make the runs to our processing center. I know 150 million sounds like a lot of money, but you’d make that back in a few weeks.”
Jibbler leaned back in his chair. It was a lot of money for a working pilot. Could this be for real? He knew most of the wealthy pilots owned their own stations. 150 million credits would take a month’s worth of mining. Then his eyes came to rest on the monitor before him; a picture of a sexy new Intensity fighter revolved on the screen. It made Jibbler’s head spin thinking about it. How ultimately cool would it be to have whatever ship he wanted? Not worrying about the money anymore. But he also knew that stations needed to be stocked and right now pilot owned stations—or POS’s—were a growing issue. Lot of folks thought they were screwing up the economy.
“Maybe I could just use someone else’s POS,” he said, feeling a bit overwhelmed. “I think Dailatron would lend me some space.”
The sales rep shrugged expansively, “But what if his silos are full? Pilot Dailatron mines too doesn’t he?” then leaning back in his chair; “Look, if you don’t think you can handle it I understand, but soon all the best locations will be gone. Then it’ll be too late to change your mind. You wouldn’t want to be stuck having to build your POS in Unreg would you?”
It hadn’t occurred to Jibbler that space was limited, but if TRI decided to end POS construction then the Hyperial was right. Could he afford to wait?
Once again the rep leaned forward and lowered his voice, “I don’t need to tell you this, but McPlowed owes his success to the POS’s he’s built.”
Jibber chewed his lower lip, “Yeah, I know. But I like hanging out at the public stations.”
The sales rep examined his manicured nails and smiled, “And you still can.”
“What new station?” asked LeFte, entering the Quantar Core Commissary, plunking his tray down on the table and taking a seat. Pilot Gunny, continued to eat, shrugged and thumbed back over his shoulder in the general direction of the galaxy beyond.
“The one they’re building in Quantar Core, they’ve been working on it all day,” LeFte shook his head and looked around the crowded mess at the other pilots eating breakfasts, lunches or dinners depending on their personal diurnal schedules.
“Is this for real?” he asked, “Who’s building themselves a station now?”
Gunny dropped the half eaten sandwich in annoyance and mumbled through a mouthful of protein burger; “I don’t know you rock-licken’ miner,” he washed his meal down with a big gulp of Quantar Ice and gestured down the table, “But you guys need to get out and see the galaxy before these POS’s fill it up.”
“Hell, containers full of new station modules arrive every day at Oct Outpost,” added Comatosed, squeezing his lunch tray onto the mess table. “I was there yesterday and saw three cargo-tows arrive. A friend in traffic control said that was just the beginning.”
“What’s gonna happen with these old TRI stations?” asked LeFte gazing dolefully around the commissary he’d come to know.
“You mean once pilots stop using them? Everything gets recycled,” replied Voltar, “They’ll dismantle them to fab more POS’s.”
“No way,” said Gunny, “They’ll never get rid of the old stations. Not all of us can afford their own place you know.”
Jibbler pushed his way through the throng and forced his tray between Comatosed and Gunny, “Guys, a Hyperial sales rep was here, he was trying to talk me into building my own POS,” he said through a mouthful of food.
Pilot Tron looked up from a nearby table, “Not you too Jibbler?”
Seated next to Tron, pilot Dailatron spoke up; “Hey I wouldn’t mind another POS if it meant I don’t have to watch Jibbler eat.”
“I’ll take 100,000 credits to go away,” announced Solrain pilot Jargo as he casually eased his gray-green fighter from behind the asteroid, “and for another 50,000 I’ll even take care of that kraken that followed me into the sector,” he said, indicating a Conflux that was converging on their location.
Hugging a cesium rich asteroid, Octavian pilot Mcgiver rolled his eyes in frustration, “You’re the third pirate to shake me down this week,” he complained, “can’t you guys get organized and put me on a rotating schedule or something? It’s costing me money to stop mining every time you guys show up. What’ll you parasites do if I stop coming out here?”
Jargo eased his fighter to within a thousand meters of the miner. A cascade of red vapor poured from the asteroid as the mining lasers cooked the rock, almost obscuring the utilitarian vessel. “Well, we could work out a direct deposit sort of thing if you want,” replied Jargo with a chuckle, “you can write it off your taxes as a business expense. Think of it the toll for using my sector. But I’m really gonna need that cash.”
Mcgiver considered swinging the miner around and launching missiles, but with over a hundred units of cesium in his hold, the ship would be a bastard to turn. Plus missiles cost as much as the ore. “Doesn’t your conscience bother you at all?”
“Heck,” exclaimed Jargo, “I probably wouldn’t be a pirate if I had a conscience. But I am, so I probably don’t, so no, my conscience doesn’t bother me. Now if you don’t mind.”
Pirates might not have to endure the tedium of mining, or the hours of piloting heavy cargo haulers for a living, but their chosen profession was plenty dangerous, what with all the trigger happy cowboys in space. And finding agreeable sheep like Mcgiver wasn’t easy. If you calculated his booty by-the-hour, Jargo was working for minimum wage.
“Okay but just don’t forget to take care of that kraken,” Mcgiver reminded Jargo as he transferred the payment.
McPlowed could furrow a brow with the best of them. Standing before him, Octavian pilot and New Dawn squad member Newtron thought he could actually feel the power of concentrated annoyance emanating from the Solrain billionaire; “You want what?” growled McPlowed in a voice that reverberated in Newtron’s chest.
“An advance on next week’s earnings,” repeated Newtron suddenly feeling very sorry for having asked and wishing he could be anywhere else at that moment. “Just a loan, I’ll pay you back.”
Like a shroud Long hair hung around McPlowed’s his face and took a menacing step closer to the smaller Octavian pilot. “Didn’t I already loan you twenty million?”
“Five,” Newtron squeaked, “but you said don’t worry about it,” Newtron looked around for a handy exit, this was worse than facing an angry manta. “I mean we’re in the same squad and after all you’re the richest guy in the galaxy.”
McPlowed took another step, forcing the smaller pilot against the wall. “I’m not your personal bank Newtron, and ‘don’t worry about it’ is a figure of speech, doesn’t mean you can’t still offer to pay me back.”
“Pay what back?” asked another pilot entering the commissary.
McPlowed angrily spun about at the interruption, but it was LupinOne, New Dawn squad commander and close friend of McPlowed’s. “This pet idiot of yours thinks I’m his personal banker,” answered McPlowed.
LupinOne stopped and appraised his old flying buddy admiringly, “Well, you are a generous soul.”
“Arg!” McPlowed shouted and flung his arms in exasperation then spun on them both, “I don’t know why I even bother eating here anymore!”
LupinOne cast Newtron a grin, then turned to placate his angry friend. “I was about to say, I’ve been hearing rumors about a Hyperial sales representative trying to talk pilots into building their own POS’s,” explained LupinOne soothingly. “And you can’t blame Newtron and the other pilots for falling for their sales propaganda.” He paused and raised his eyebrows inquiringly, “Is that what this is about Newtron?”
“I just need money to reequip my Raven,” Newtron was referring to his light fighter. “I lost another one, this time tat least it was to a phocaena.”
McPlowed point a big finger at the nearest bulkhead, “Stop trying to be a flux hunter and do something useful like mine.”
LupinOne raised a hand in apology, “Still McP,” he replied calmly, “you’ve got to going after a phocaena in a light fighter shows the right attitude.”
“There’s attitude and aptitude,” responded McPlowed. “People need to accept their limitations.”
“Point taken, but take it easy on Newtron, I’m sure he’s doing his best.”
“Not if he expects me to underwrite his failures,” replied McPlowed.
From behind LupinOne, Newtron tentatively raised his hand.
“Oh for the love of Mike,” said McPlowed, “this isn’t school. If you’ve got something to say speak up.”
“I wouldn’t need the money except that I tried reequipping on Poltergeist’s POS,” he shrugged his shoulders. “The computer removed my newb equipment”—referring to the bare bones guns, radar, power-plants and engines a replacement ship is delivered with—“but didn’t pay me for it, so I didn’t have anything to buy the equipment with. I couldn’t even buy my old stuff back. Luckily I hadn’t sold the engine or I wouldn’t have been able to launch. I had to find my way home without a shield or radar, it was scary.”
“Why didn’t you just reequip at Oct Outpost,” asked McPlowed. Oct Outpost was Newtron’s factional station.
“There was no equipment there,” replied Newtron, “I was headed here when I spotted Poltergeist’s POS and I thought it would save me the long trip.”
“When did Poltergeist get a POS?” asked LupinOne suddenly interested.
Newtron scrunched up his face, “I heard it’s pretty new.”
LupinOne and McPlowed exchanged glances.
“Space will be wall to wall POS’s pretty soon,” said LupinOne.
Newtron cut the throttle, hauling back on the joystick to bring the Raven’s nose up and over performing a slick, quick one-eighty. Opening the throttle to max, he could hear the rocket roaring and feel the thrust shoving the ship forward as the velocity readout flickered to triple digits. In the center of the HUD—heads-up-display—the stars were replaced by a telescopic-zoom window of the flux he was after; a kraken C8, which was currently racing toward him at 400 plus meters per second and nearly in firing range. Newtron lined up the cross-hairs and watched the readout as the distance fell.
At 5500 meters Newtron pulled the trigger and the little fighter began to vibrate as the machine guns opened fire, sending armor piercing shells and white tracer rounds towards the alien. The kraken’s shields glowed red and the krak went evasive. Newtron adjusted the stick to keep the cross-hair aligned. The kraken’s return fire hit the Raven too. Suddenly the kraken wasn’t alone; a manta had joined the party and added fire as Newtron sped between them, shields falling to just over fifty percent. Newtron held his course, even as the two Conflux whipped around in pursuit. Still at max velocity he opened up the distance from his homicidal pursuers. The smaller manta was the quickest to come up to speed, but it also had the least punch. The C9 was the most dangerous but it was already damaged. Once again Newtron cut throttle and pulled back on the joystick, executed another one-eighty flip and accelerated back into battle.
Ignoring hits from the manta, Newtron’s fired and finished off the C8 in a breathtaking blast. Then he switched his attention to the C6 on his tail. Leaning on the afterburner Newtron pushed the Raven to over 500 meters per second giving the shield generator time to catch its breath, and at fifty percent Newtron flipped the Raven again and raced back into battle.
The manta took a few hits, its shields shimmered red as the alien went evasive. This time Newtron swung around for a dogfight, feeling he was a match for a manta. The two combatants drifted wide as they tried to bring their fire to bear, but the manta’s thin armor crumpled under the ammo fire and a minute later it was all over, the flux exploding less than a hundred meters off Newtron’s starboard bow.
“Good little ship,” Newtron said as he patted the dashboard. He set course for the nearest jumpgate and took off for home. He was anxious to get back to Swarmbusters without losing another ship.
As Newtron passed through the Stith on his back to Amananth, he noticed a pair of contacts on his radar; SlimPickns, a friend and member of the squad ‘the Brotherhood’ in a Quantar miner, and No_limit, a Quantar pilot in a Typhoon fighter. No_limit was broadcasting pirate tags and coupled with his close proximity to SlimPickns, nestled up to a big asteroid this spelled trouble.
“Everything all right Slim?” asked Newtron over the chat channel as he swung the Raven around to investigate.
“Only if you enjoy being fleeced at the point of a gun Newtron,” replied SlimPickns in his country drawl.
Now, to be honest, Newtron wasn’t all that well versed in the very complicated legalities of pirating, having spent most of his erratic career dealing with the straightforwardly hostile Conflux. Still, seeing No_limit’s big fighter pointed at his friend stirred something in Newtron.
“OK No_Limit,” radioed Newtron, “why don’t you just move along.”
“Bug off Newtron,” retorted No_limit angrily, “this is legitimate pirate business, it doesn’t concern you.”
Newtron spent a few moments processing the concepts of legitimacy of such pirate business and was disinclined to ‘bug off’. “I’ve got plenty of ammo left,” Newtron said with a bravado he didn’t really feel, “why don’t you go find a real job?”
Silhouetted against the distant nebulas, No_limit’s fighter actually seemed to waver, as if the pilot was trying to decide whether to hold his position or turn to face this new threat. Looking very menacing, the blue-gray pirate-ship swung around to face the intruder. “Get lost Newtron,” No_limit said angrily, “I said this isn’t your business.”
Nervous Newtron accidentally squeezed the trigger firing a salvo from the Raven’s cannons, a shell of which hit the Quant fighter with a small bang producing a greenish shimmer from the shields.
Suddenly a chime sounded from in Newtron’s dashboard and a message scrawled across the chat screen;
‘Bounty: Octavius has placed a bounty on Newtron in The Stith.’
“Huh?” Newtron exclaimed as he saw the bounty, “Hey, wait! No_limit’s the pirate, not me!”
But in response the Raven’s shields lit up in red accompanied by a sound like the crumpling cellophane.
“Hey!” Newtron shouted as No_limit fired again. The little raven took a couple more hits before Newtron was able to react by jamming the throttle open and gettin out of the line of fire. Wrenching over the joystick Newtron tried return fire on No_limit, but the wily pirate pilot kept out of the way while his lasers (usually much better choices in PvP situations) scored still more hits. Newtron managed to flashfire for the jumpgate. No_limit’s big Typhoon was no match for the Raven in a chase. Newtron was able to make it through the gate, and escape to relative safely before No_limit could catch him.
“But …but,” stuttered Newtron intelligently. He hated carrying on this kind of conversation over the radio; he was much better at wheedling face to face.
“You’ve just got to deal with the bounty yourself, it’s not that difficult,” said LupinOne with authority. “With a temporary bounty, your best course of action is to fly to a POS and dock immediately, and then wait for it to time out, that’s usually all it takes to remove a temp bounty like yours. But I would like to remind you that New Dawn has a strict policy against engaging in random pvp behavior.”
“But I’m still five sectors away from Swarmbusters,” replied Newtron. “And No_limit’s probably out here looking for me.”
“Newtron,” responded LupinOne, “Don’t come back to SwarmBusters with a bounty. Just find a station and dock. And don’t exacerbate matters by fighting back, or getting other squad members involved. If there’s nobody on your radar then you’ve got enough time to reach any station and dock. Don’t turn this into some feud between you and No_limit.”
“But No_limit’s a pirate,” Newtron complained, “and he was after SlimPickns. You know; good old Slim.”
“Yes,” responded LupinOne tiredly, “I know SlimPickns, but No_limit wasn’t carrying a bounty when you shot him, and you even said he hadn’t fired on Slim, so legally, you’re the one in the wrong.”
“I’m supposed let a pirate blow someone away before I start shooting?” Newtron asked exasperated, “that’s just not right.”
“Newtron, if it was unregulated space or you were both wearing military tags it would be a different story,” explained the New Dawn Commander. “Or, if No_limit had fired and hit SlimPickns even once, then No_limit would have received the bounty and at that point it would have been legal for you to shoot him.” LupinOne paused to let that sink in, “but even then, we do not encourage PvP behavior in New Dawn. That’s why McPlowed resigned last year, remember? McPlowed had some personal PvP business he felt he needed to pursue, so he resigned temporarily so he wouldn’t drag the squad into it.”
“So, we don’t protect our friends?” asked Newtron rhetorically.
“No, we do protect our friends,” responded LupinOne, “but we follow the law. Now I suggest you fly smart and avoid anyone you think might shoot at you, find a POS and dock. And avoid TRI stations because the security drones will launch and shoot you. Get to a POS, and then wait until this bounty expires.”
For once, Newtron was completely at a loss for words.
No POS had ever looked so lovely; a series of big gray industrial cylinders festooned with launch and docking tubes; covered in blinking lights. Radar showed a cargo-tow dragging a cylindrical container across the sector. No threat to Newtron. It would look extra stupid to have gone half way across the galaxy only to run headlong into a swarm of Conflux or group of bounty hunters. Newtron zoomed into the docking rings at max throttle, flipped a one-eighty and speed-docked. A minute later, the parking grapple swung his ship down off the hangar elevator and moved the Raven into a parking place.
Newtron climbed out of the little brown Raven and the space-chilled fuselage was already sparkling with condensed dew. He nearly tripped over the repair droids that scuttled up to deal with the scorches in the armor. A big refueling droid rumbled up too, but paused while it waited for Newtron to get out of its way. Stepping aside and bowing Newtron said; “It’s all yours,” as the big robot ministered to the spaceship.
Newtron hadn’t lost a fighter in a week—a personal best for him—and had managed to sock away a few million credits, so he was on his way to paying McPlowed back. But fluxing missions had always been more personally rewarding. They didn’t pay nearly as much, but the work paid more than enough to cover his living expenses—as long as he didn’t lose any more ships. The flux missions also culled a smidgen of respect for Newtron among his squad mates.
Now, due to his ignorance of the law, and his regrettable PvP skills Newtron had almost lost his ship to that annoying pirate No_limit. He would’ve been out half a million for the insurance deductibles. Now, exasperated, Newtron wondered how long it takes for bounty to fade. With a sigh he headed off in search of a lounge to pass the time with alcohol. But then, a pilot stepped into the hall,
“Newtron right?” he said.
Newtron jumped in surprise.
“Sorry, do I know you?” he asked, studying the other man’s face and wondering why he couldn’t have found a deserted POS.
“Name’s Tritian,” the pilot replied, “and we’ve met before.” The guy was a tall, dark Octavian in a neatly pressed flight uniform.
Newtron studied the Oct with narrowed eyes, “You do look familiar, but…” suddenly Newtron remembered the name; Tritian was another pirate, someone who’d made quite a name for himself lately. Newtron knew that he would not have forgotten meeting someone like him. Still, the pirate seemed to think he knew Newtron. “Maybe you’re thinking of someone else,” Newtron replied, “Because I’m pretty sure I’d remember meeting you.”
“No,” the other man responded with certainty, “we’ve met before.”
Newtron squinted and studied the pirate’s face. “You look familiar, but then, you’ve been in the news a lot.”
The taller pilot crossed his arms and leaned against the bulkhead, “But, that wouldn’t explain why I know you. You can’t see who’s watching you on the other side.”
Newtron straightened up, “Do you do business with New Dawn? Been to Swarmbusters or Amananth lately?”
The other pilot stepped away from the, “No,” Tritian said flatly, “and this meeting isn’t a coincidence, I tracked you down. I need somebody I could trust.”
“Me?” squeaked a surprised Newtron looking around for an exit.
“Sure,” replied the pirate casually. Then glancing around he continued; “after all, you kept your mouth shut during the affair with the Amananthians.”
“Eh?” croaked Newtron, and stammered, “What’re you talking about?”
The pirate put a firm hand on Newtron’s shoulder, “You kept quiet about Istvan’s true identity,” he lowered his voice again, “and those artifacts we found in Canis station.”
Newtron shook the other’s hand off and took a step back. “Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about. The only people there were my friends Bengaley, Dariel and that anarchist Rastamon but…” with a note of shock he called out; “Rastamon?”
“Quiet!” said the big man under his breath and quickly looking around. “That’s a dead man’s name.”
“But…but…” stuttered Newtron.
“You did alright back then,” said the taller pilot trying to calm his skittish companion, “I never forget when somebody does something like that.”
“Rastamon?” Newtron whispered inspecting the other pilot’s face; now that he knew, he suspected that the pirate had some cosmetic work done, “What happened to you? It’s been three years. You just disappeared, I thought you were dead.”
The pilot previously known as Rastamon leaned back against the bulkhead, “Things were too hot after we foiled the GM’s plan. There was no way anyone was going to take our word over theirs about what really happened. And it was only a matter of time before Istvan and company would come looking for revenge.” Rastamon-Tritian made a dismissive gesture, “So I retired to a little hideaway in Unreg and laid low. I spent time creating this new identity for myself; Tritian’s been a good cover for me, he does his job as a pirate, and until recently hasn’t made waves.”
“Huh,” said Newtron with a shake of his head, “so you’ve been hiding in plain sight. And making a living as a pirate? Well, good for you. Folks should know you’re a hero instead of a pirate, but I’m sure you’re safer this way. So, need another patsy? I got to tell you, a year in that sanitarium was quite enough for one lifetime thanks.”
Tritian-Rastamon punched Newtron in the shoulder, “Awe, now don’t be like that,” he said. “What was I supposed to do? Take you with me? You wouldn’t leave those friends of yours. I couldn’t face the authorities; I’d been on the wrong side of the law for too long. But you were a certified crazy person, so you weren’t a threat to the Amananthians. Hell even that xenobiologist and your goody-two-shoes friend couldn’t convince anybody about what really happened. Plus, you were already in that institution when I found you, the time you spent chasing the Istvan around the galaxy and rescuing Dariel was like a little vacation.”
Newtron took a half-menacing half step forward and his raised voice; “Vacation? When I got out Istvan and Khronos turned me into a flux!” he pointed in the general direction of space; “Bengaley was so messed up that his parents made him leave TRI and go back to run his dad’s business. And Dariel had herself cloned so she could keep an eye on herself.”
“They turned you into a flux?” Tritian asked skeptically.
“Yeah,” answered Newtron, calming down a little, “I got better.”
“Well, it could have been a lot worse,” explained Tritian, “If the GM’s had their way that squad you belong to would have been flux food and the galaxy would be speaking Amananthian. Anyway, I was thinking you’d make a good pirate.”
“Me?” replied Newtron in surprise, “You’ve obviously never seen me PvP.”
“Nah,” Tritian replied with a dismissive gesture, “You don’t need to know how to fight, that’s the beauty part, miners and cargo-tows can’t afford to fight back.”
“Yeah, but why me?” continued Newtron. “There must be better candidates for the job.”
“Knowing you can trust a man when things get tough, that’s something you can’t know until you’ve been in the mess with him,” explained Tritian. “Anyway, let’s find a place to sit, I got some ideas I want to discuss.”
It turned out there was a automat commissary just down the corridor. The two pilots sat opposite each other; Newtron still suspicious, especially now that he knew who Tritian really was. Tritian’s persona appeared easy-going, but Newtron had never been comfortable around the scary Rastamon.
“So what’s worrying you this time?” asked Newtron in a hushed voice, “Istvan turn off the escape pods again?”
Tritian selected a drink from the table automat and shrugged impassively, “Nothing melodramatic,” he remarked casually, “I’m worried I’m going to starve as a pirate.”
Newtron starred at Tritian for a moment, waiting for the punch line. When it didn’t come, he scrunched up his brow and asked; “How’s that a problem?”
Tritian picked up his drink and sat back, “What’ve you got against being a pirate?”
Now it was Newtron’s turn to sit up sort of straight, “Are you serious? Well, present company accepted, what good are pirates?”
“You’ve got a bounty yourself,” Tritian reminded Newtron. “You’re practically a pirate yourself.”
“That’s not the same thing at all,” argued Newtron. “I got this stupid bounty because of a pirate. If I’m anything I’m anti-pirate.”
“Really?” asked Tritian in a slow drawl.
“Present company accepted,” corrected Newtron.
“Pirate culture is the last refuge of the unfairly accused and the persecuted,” explained Tritian.
“Pirate culture?” Newtron tried the phrase himself. He considered whether it was worth arguing with his dangerous acquaintance. “If you mean that unregulated space is a good place to hide when there’s been a misunderstanding, sure that’s why I’m here. But that’s not the same as pirates being useful.”
“And who would you turn to if you were on the run?” asked Tritian.
Newtron raised his eyebrows and asked; “You’re saying pirates would offer me aid if I was on the run? I never heard of them acting like some secret brotherhood. Course maybe I don’t know pirates the way you do.”
“”Maybe not all pirates would help you out,” agreed Tritian, “but the same could be said for the squads as you found yourself. Rastamon offered you aid when you were in trouble did he not?”
“Rastamon,” Newtron emphasized the name, “was more of an anarchist than a pirate. And anyway, you wanted my help.”
“Isn’t everyone motivated by self interest?” replied Tritian. “New Dawn offers you security because you’re helping keep the flux in check, but see how quickly LupinOne abandoned you when you picked up a bounty?”
“He’s just following the rules,” Newtron replied. “When I was in the nut house LupinOne defended me.”
“But not with action,” rejoined Tritian. “It took a pirate to break you out of that place.”
“So what are you saying?” Newtron started dubiously, trying to steer the conversation back to the main point, “You and me team up and find other friendly, friendly pirates? You don’t think they’d tear us apart like a pack of wolves?”
“The pirate wouldn’t fight us if we are carrying bounties. They’re only gonna fight bounty hunters and that’s only if they can’t avoid it.”
“Or I could just wait here for the bounty to fade,” said Newtron.
“You have that option this time,” countered Tritian, “but what about the next time? Maybe there won’t be any pirate squads left to turn to. Remember, the pirates may be the last refuge if the Amananthian’s try to take over again.”
“So why are you starving anyway?” asked Newtron. “And what do you expect me to do?”
“Pirating’s tough,” answered Tritian. “We could watch each other’s back.”
“Or we could wait for our bounties to fade,” suggested Newtron.
“It’d take forever for my bounty to fade,” answered Tritian. “And these Unreg stations aren’t stocked very well. I can’t equip my fighter and food might become a problem.”
“You need help taking down a defenseless miner?” asked Newtron.
Tritian smirked. “I need help watching for bounty hunters and hauling booty back to the station. Bounty hunters are less likely to jump a pirate when he’s got company.”
“Unless they recognize my name or ever seen me in the sim,” added Newtron. “I’m not that threatening, especially in that light fighter.”
“Don’t sell yourself short;” argued Tritian, “Anyway, one hunter isn’t going to tackle two pilots for a bounty. And, you kind of owe me.”
“Come again?” snapped Newtron sitting up. “I spent a couple months in a sanatorium.”
“That’s where you were when I found you,” argued Tritian.
“There’s gotta be a better way,” replied Newtron.
Tritian leaned forward, “You could speak to Istvan,” he said.
Newtron sat up abruptly, stuck a finger in his ear, wiggled it around vigorously and said; “Come again?”
“The galaxy filling up with POS’s,” continued Tritian, “these old TRI stations in Unreg don’t get traffic anymore. Nobodies stocking them or trading here.”
“And?” asked Newtron.
“Maybe giving these old stations higher payouts for ore and for commodities and enable them to generate missions. Also, he could make the pirates a legitimate faction so they could “home” in Unreg.”
“Yes,” Newtron agreed, with some trepidation, “that all sounds nice from a pirate’s perspective, but what does Istvan get out of this and why should I be the one to talk to him? He’s likely to have me arrested if I showed up in his offices.”
“He was complaining about the mega-rich matter farmers screwing up the economy, a pirate faction would expand the economy. And pirate raids would help redistribute the rich pilot’s wealth,” explained Tritian.
“Okay, that almost makes sense,” agreed Newtron, “but I still don’t see it should be me specifically who talks to Istvan.”
“Well, he owes you,” answered Tritian.
“Hmmm,” mused Newtron, “You seem to be under the impression that Istvan and I are on friendly terms. ‘A’ he thinks I’m an idiot and ‘B’ he’s pissed I helped you out.”
“’A’ you didn’t rat him or his buddies out,” answered Tritian. “And you spent time in that asylum to keep their cover story. And you wouldn’t have been in the bug house in the first place if it wasn’t for the GM’s fudging with your head.”
Newtron sat back. “It’s nice to be appreciated, but I don’t think Istvan see’s it that way. I did mention that Khronos turned me into a flux?”
Tritian moved his drink to the side. “I’m telling you,” he said with authority, “Istvan’s in your debt. You can lean on him.”
Newtron gulped, “And what’s your plan after he has me thrown out an airlock?”
“He won’t.” said Tritian.
“Why don’t you go talk to him then?” whined Newtron.
Tritian lowered his voice. “Because I wrecked Istvan’s plans for galactic domination, if he knew who I really was I’d be the one thrown out that airlock.”
“Istvan’s pretty smart, what makes you think he doesn’t know who you are now?” asked Newtron.
“Because I’m still alive,” Tritian replied, “which is why I spend my time pretending to be a pirate in unregulated space.”
“Okay,” said Newtron resignedly, “say I talk to Istvan and he doesn’t kill me right away,” he paused to gather his thoughts, “What do we do if he just blows me off?”
“Then we watch the pirates starve,” responded Tritian.
Each TRI station held offices for TRI administrators. The General Manager was responsible for coordinating the functions of government.
The General Managers as civil servants operated behind the scenes, and unlike elected officials they rarely made public appearances. The GM’s jobs were also not vulnerable to the election process, so GM’s tended to survive from administration to administration. In fact they lasted a good deal longer.
What Newtron had learned was that the GM’s were not what they appeared to be. They weren’t even human. The GM’s were secretly all Amananthians. The ancient station in Amananth was automated and no one had actually ever seen an Amananthian. Or so they thought. In fact the Amananthian’s were practically running all of TRI. And they had been for a very, very long time.
There had been a war long ago. There was no record of this war, because it ended with the cataclysmic destruction of most of the galaxy. It had been an accident, the Amananthians had only been trying to defend themselves, but their Conflux had gotten a little carried away and caused a gravitational tidal wave that had set human civilization back almost to the Stone Age. It also wrecked most of the Amananthian’s civilization as well; only Istvan, Khronos, Omega, Scorch, Josh, and Digitus had survived. In atonement for destroying human civilization they had insinuated themselves into human society and worked to rebuild it. The Amananthian’s had Puritanical ideas about things, and sometimes those views were at odds with the humans themselves.
Now that their attempt to reset the galaxy through force had been thwarted, the Amananthians were back to redesigning the universe through bureaucracy.
Now Newtron—his bounty having ‘warn off’—was here at the Quantar Core station, to meet with GM Istvan. He hoped that Istvan wasn’t the sort to harbor a grudge. He was frankly shocked that The GM had agreed to meet him.
“You have one minute,” said Istvan.
That was one minute more than Newtron had expected to get. Now that he was here, Newtron wasn’t at all sure Tritian wasn’t rally the crazy one.
Newtron looked around the large office; an enormous window with a view of the stars, shelves of real paper books, an actual wooden desk and a colorful holograph of the galaxy in a corner of the room. It was all very imposing, like the GM himself.
“I’d like to talk about the pirates, pirates in unregulated space,” he stammered.
“I know where the pirates are,” replied Istvan, “Do not waste any more of my time than necessary.”
“No, I don’t want to waste your time,” agreed Newtron, then; “How about giving the Unreg stations to the pirates?”
Istvan regarded the imbecile standing before him. He could think of no reason why he shouldn’t have him thrown out an airlock. Yet Newtron had kept his end of the bargain—so far—now Istvan felt inclined to at least listen to what he had to say. “Not that this is in any way a concern of yours,” Istvan steepled his fingers, then casually continued; “but there have been ambiguities in the current law structure which have allowed delinquent members of the pilot community to parasitize legitimate commerce. I intend to rectify that situation with a system-wide reform initiative—higher bounty payouts—so you need not worry anymore about the pirates.”
“Oh?” said Newtron.
“Another eloquent response Mr. Newtron,” remarked the GM.
“No, wait,” sputtered Newtron. “What I mean is, don’t you think there should be a place for pirates?”
“Yes, prison,” replied Istvan smiling to himself and pressing the intercom; “You can send in my next appointment Ms. Lawson, pilot Newtron is leaving.”
“Wait!” stammered Newtron, “I’m not through yet!”
“I asked you not to waste my time,” replied the GM laconically. “This conversation borders on the insipid.”
Newtron could see Istvan already tuning him out. “So what’s the point of unregulated space without pirates?” he asked quickly.
The GM looked up from the computer screen, “Point?” he seemed to regard the question rather than the questioner and shook his head. “Unregulated space is simply a buffer zone between the factions; a demilitarized area of space to help defuse conflicts before they become full-fledged wars. It has no point aside from that. What are you implying Newtron, that the pirates are entitled to their own space?”
At least Newtron had Istvan talking again, “Well, pirates help the economy.”
“Explain the logic behind that remark,” replied the GM enjoying the hint of debate despite himself.
“It’s like a redistribution of wealth,” explained Newtron, uneasily.
“Seriously?” asked Istvan but then; “Are you implying pirates perform a service, like tax collectors?”
“Pirates steal from the rich and give to the poor,” replied Newtron.
“I believe they keep their ill-gotten gains for themselves,” argued Istvan.
“Yeah, they’re the poor,” explained Newtron.
“What I fail to understand,” interrupted the GM, “is this sudden interest of yours in pirates,” as he spoke, Istvan consulted Newtron’s service record. “You have never demonstrated any tendency for pirate behavior, as I recall you were decidedly anti-pirate when last we met.” Here he was referring to Newtron’s week as a trial Sentient
“If you’re talking about the Balrog, they weren’t pirates,” corrected Newtron, himself referring to the squad he’d clashed with while fluxified. “They were just griefing cargo-tows, not even asking for money.”
“Indeed,” Istvan yawned disinterestedly.
“Real pirates either burgle gear off cargo-tows in flight, which is quite a chore, or they make pay-or-die demands and then let the hauler go on his way,” explained Newtron. “The Balrog were just shooting down haulers for no reason.”
The Amananthian sighed, “These are simply fine distinctions in behavior. I am familiar with the mechanics of most piracy. Never mind, I have an intuition that your interest in pirate business is a façade, who put you up to this Mr. Newtron?”
“I know a few pirates and I was hoping to appeal to your sense of good business.”
“Aside from Rastamon—who was more of an anarchist, since when do you have any pirate friends? That is an unconvincing explanation,” remarked Istvan. “I realize I should have expected a visit like this eventually. In fact I should be surprised it took you this long. This is really about extortion, yes? You want me to give you an entire TRI station in unregulated space?”
“What? No!” Newtron blurted out, “I just thought as long as the stations weren’t being used anymore the pirates could use them.”
“A few old museums are being underutilized so you naturally thought that they would make cozy pirate homes,” replied the GM, “How do I insure that you go away? Specifically what are your demands?”
Newtron was shocked, he hadn’t really believed this would work and half expected to be tossed out on his ear. But Tritian was right; Istvan was ready to bargain. Newtron could have kicked himself for not trying something like this earlier.
“This isn’t blackmail!” Newtron explained, “I was just thinking that missions could be offered at the stations in unregulated space and pirates could ‘home’ there.”
“You do not want the titles to the stations?” murmured the GM.
“NO!” exclaimed Newtron, “Maybe think about setting up a faction for pirates.”
“Unregulated space is supposed to be factionless,” explained the GM. “The actions you suggest will be seen as pandering to the criminal element that frequents the unregulated space.”
“Maybe you could call it a mercenary faction,” suggested Newtron.
Istvan was now out of his seat, “Altering the status of those stations could disrupt the galactic economy. Haulers transferring commodities from TRI stations to the unregulated stations could create an imbalance. And how would I explain that this was not an obvious reward to the pirate criminal community.”
“Okay, don’t call them pirates anymore then;” suggested Newtron, “call them privateers if it makes it any easier. Privateers would be factionless before someone hires them right?”
“Is that all?” said the GM finally.
Newtron relaxed slightly, “I think so.”
“I will see what I can do,” said Istvan,
Newtron smiled and left the office.
The GBS station had been discovered adrift by a jumpgate survey team while exploring in the wild stretches of gas nebula known as ‘unregulated space’. GBS is an acronym assigned the station by TRI cartographers, no one knows what the builders of the station called it. That is because no one really knows who they were or what language they spoke. The station was found derelict, open to space and pock-marked by millennia of asteroid impacts. There were no examples of the builder’s language, either in written or electronic; in fact no electronics at all had survived, though that was probably the result of vandals, recyclers and scavengers looting the hulk over the course of centuries.
The station itself is a magnificent and foreboding sight. It has the industrial look of antique machine tool the color of rusted steel. Flying buttresses, ribbed arches and Gothic curves decorate its topside, supporting long, reinforced bridge-ways. It was an alien sight to those early surveyors.
TRI was eager to have a trading post in the remote reaches in the center of the galaxy, and it was deemed less expensive to retrofit the ancient ruin than to build something from scratch. Structural integrity was ensured by TRI engineers installing over pneumatic support brackets—the basic structure was substantial enough to—survive the gravitational tidal wave that had wrecked the earlier galactic civilization.
Giants; mantas, eels, kraken, and phocaena prowl the surrounding space those avoid the station sector. Fields of densely packed asteroids present hazards to navigation, though cargo-tows sometimes cross these stretches. GBS now stands as a lonely outpost on the edge of civilized space. Eventually survey teams discovered several other similar stations hidden in unregulated space; Lothar’s Landing, Klatches Hold, Evenings End. All derelict and some say haunted; rebuilt and restored by TRI.
The arrival of a TRI enforcer—TRI’s official fighter—would have caused raised eyebrows at any station in regulated space. But its arrival went almost unnoticed at GBS.
The pilot was also unusual; a tall darkly robed figure, he kept to the shadows and looked like an undertaker as he made his way through the dim, uninhabited station. The pilot walked to the stark pilot’s lounge. There he paused assessing the room; and the bar’s sole occupant before making his way over to the table. The focus of his attention was also tall and lean, dressed in a dark black flight uniform. The seated pilot was a striking figure; sharply angular features recognizable by any TRI pilot, they belonged to most dangerous ace to ever fly a fighter. The Octavian pilot Liet.
There were many aces in TRI history, some considered legends in their time; Tesrend, Singleshot, Algore, Purge, Biteme, Gimli, Radi to name a few. But Liet was in a class of his own.
The newcomer took a seat opposite the ace and said; “I have an assignment for you Mr. Liet.”
Liet regarded the speaker’s face, “Istvan,” he said in a dry voice. “Melodramatic entrance, but you’ve come a long way for nothing.”
Istvan shrugged, “I have come a long way, at some personal risk. You are not even interested in hearing what I have to say?”
By way of answer, Liet downed his drink and with a clunk upturned the glass on the table and started to leave.
“Wait,” said Istvan forcefully, “this is worth your while, I understand pirating is not very lucrative these days.”
Liet, hesitated, “Alright GM,” he said quietly, “but if you’re setting me up you’d better hope that you really know how to fly that enforcer you arrived in.”
Istvan lowered his voice even more, “A contract; I want someone shot down.”
In spite of the tension, Liet laughed out loud, “Well of course you do,” he drawled sarcastically, “and who merits my attention?”
“An Octavian pilot named Newtron,” answered the General Manager.
Liet stared at the GM without a change of expression, “Who?”
“He is a pilot in New Dawn,” replied Istvan.
Liet knit his brows together, “Never heard of him, is he some new ace or something?”
Istvan shrugged, “I do not believe he has ever won a PvP duel, though he has shot down a number of Conflux.”
Liet choose not to dignify that last piece of information with a reply, “Why are you wasting my time?” the pirate asked portentously, “the stations are full of trigger-happy pilots who can shoot a fluxer.”
Istvan shook his head violently, “Newtron may not be a threat himself, but the members of New Dawn may offer him protection.”
Liet’s expression didn’t change, “And?”
“Members of the Brotherhood might help as well,” added Istvan. “New Dawn and the Brotherhood have a mutual assistance agreement.”
Liet continued to stare “And?”
“I believe Rastamon may also provide Newtron protection,” Istvan added; throwing out his trump card.
“Rastamon’s dead,” replied Liet.
“Rastamon disappeared,” corrected the GM, “that is not the same thing.”
“Whatever,” drawled Liet, “I not worried about Rastamon. I don’t need this and you don’t need me; you’re just wasting my time.”
Istvan leaned forward, “Name your price.”
“Look,” said Liet curious in spite of himself, “what’s this about, why do you want this guy griefed so bad?”
“I just want this man punished,” Istvan he replied simply.
“Well, me shooting this guy down isn’t going to accomplish much besides piss him off,” answered Liet. “You’ll just be costing him the price of his gear and insurance deductibles.”
“I do not want you to only shoot him down once,” said Istvan, “I want you to shoot him shot down every time he launches. I want those insurance deductibles to eat away his savings until he cannot afford even a shuttle. I want him so dispirited at that he never leaves a station again.”
Liet’s expression didn’t change, “Well, that’s a lot of shooting. And you’re right; his buddies won’t like that; I’d say even pilots who don’t know him.”
“Would that be a problem?” asked Istvan.
The infamous ace shrugged, “I don’t care who gets in my way, and I’m not impressed with any of those pilots you mentioned. But what can you do for me?”
Istvan smiled, “How would you like a warehouse full of performance enhancing artifacts for that Phoenix of yours?”
“I’ve got artifacts,” said Liet under lowered eyebrows.
“A pre-collapse size five engine,” replied Istvan. “And I will pay you an additional fifty million credits for incidentals.”
“There are no size five arti engines,” smirked Liet.
“Oh but there are,” replied Istvan, “and I have them. Pre-collapse shield generators, power-plants even weapons all that would fit your fighter.”
“I’ve never heard of arti weapons,” sneered Liet. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“pre-collapse weapons exist, as do the engines,” replied Istvan. “But their existence has been kept secret.”
Liet licked his lips and gazed off in the distance, “How many?” he asked.
“A dozen of each,” answered Istvan confidently.
Liet shook his head, “Man, this guy must really have fluxed you.”
Lothar’s Landing was almost identical to the GBS station. That was because it too predated the collapse, discovered in the early days of the reconstruction, and presumably built by the same long forgotten craftsmen. The station was named after the Solrain cargo pilot who had chanced upon it. These sectors must have been important to their builders for without jumpgates, Lothar’s would have taken years to reach by spacecraft. Though located in unregulated space, Lothar’s is a less dangerous sector than GBS, so if you were looking for a place to hold a pirate meeting it was better suited.
Newtron was impressed; he didn’t expect Tritian to pull it off, but there were more than a dozen pilots in the antique hangar. Pirates tended to be rebellious, paranoid loners. They were recluses, and the act of assembling this many suspicious in one place was quite a feat. The question now was whether these normally anti-social, possibly sociopathic pilots would be willing to listen even for their own good.
Tritian banged on a droid to get everybody’s attention, the sound echoed around the hangar.
The group was boisterous and loud voices drowned out any attempt at sensibility. This many pirates in one place meant not enough prey to go around. Sephiroth shouldered his way past Garak, one eye on the junior pilot, and cautiously made his way over to the automat for a drink. Elpirata kept a wary eye on the rest of the crowd for any sudden movement, one hand on his holstered blaster.
Tritian nodded to Newtron who, facing these notorious bad guys, he was having second and third thoughts about their plan. Newtron cleared his throat to get attention; practically inaudible over the din. Tritian shook his head and kicked over a chair. Ten heads snapped around ready for trouble. In the momentary quiet that followed Newtron found his spine and in a higher pitched voice then he was born with started talking. “Gentlemen?” he squeaked out.
“Gentlemen?” snarled Garak to some laughter.
“Okay,” continued Newtron, “illustrious pirates then.”
“Hey, I reassemble that remark!” shouted Spacious to the amusement of some of the crowd.
“Get to the point already,” drawled Jargo “I want to get out of here. I don’t like being around so many bountied pilots, it smells like a set up for an ambush.”
“What would you guys think of forming a squad?” asked Tritian grabbing the opportunity
“For what?” asked Elpirata, “what would the point be? I mean seriously, there’s not enough loot to go around these days. We’re better off keeping some distance between us; everyman for himself.”
“Mutual protection,” suggested Tritian, “Intimidate escort.”
“Elpirata’s right,” added Spacious, “There’s not enough to go around.”
“What if we were a faction?” asked Tritian. “What if we could home here at the Unreg stations?”
“We’d starve,” laughed Garak. “These Unreg stations aren’t being supplied anymore. Better to have a friend with a POS.”
“POS’s don’t generate income or stock replacement ships,” explained Tritian. “What if these unregulated stations stocked ships so you could ‘home’ here and generated supply missions?” asked Tritian.
“Why would they do that?” asked SGA, “
“It’s possible that the GM’s are considering changing that policy,” offered Newtron, “trying to make these old stations more relevant.”
“You know this how?” asked MarcusCole.
“Newtron’s got a friend in the GM’s office,” explained Tritian.
“Even if the stations generated supply missions, who would haul their crap out here?” asked Sephiroth.
“We would,” replied Tritian, “the pirates.”
“Why would we do that?” inquired Elpirata reasonably, “And where would we get equipment to haul here. Most of us aren’t welcome at the regulated stations.”
“We’d steal the stuff,” exclaimed Garak looking to Newtron for confirmation, “right?”
“Right,” agreed Newtron nervously, “Or pay legitimate cargo-tows to haul their goods here.”
“Why?” sneered Kidd, “We’re not a faction. We’re pirates. It’s safer just to point guns at them and demand they give us money.”
“But if the stations are supplied then you’d have someplace to spend the money,” explained Tritian, “safely.”
“We just barely make enough to pay for fuel and ammo now,” explained Sephiroth. “Nobody’s getting rich pirating.” There was a murmur of sad agreement from around the room.
“We used to burgle loot from the cargo-tows”, stated Elpirata, “but then they started carrying traps.”
‘Traps’ were random explosive devices that would blow up after being burgled.
“So we switched to straight pay-or-die demands and now they call us griefers,” added Elpirata, “Well, if we didn’t shoot down the occasional cargo-tow nobody would take us seriously.”
“Still, it would be cool to have a place to hang your helmet,” lamented Sephiroth. “Even these crappy old relics would be worth homing to.”
Newtron hit the flashfire and kicked the pummeled fighter forward at the last possible moment, just out of the line of fire. He was holding the accelerator down so hard his fingers ached while he expected to be blown up at any moment.
The Phoenix’s armor was down to nine percent and the ship spewed a steady stream of sparks while Newtron afterburned through his fuel. He now blessed his earlier self for having had the foresight to carry two extra drop tanks while flying these extended flux missions. The only thing that separated him from destruction at the hands of Liet (Liet really?) was that artifact engine. It provided a slim, seven meter-per-second increase in speed over Liet’s Phoenix not much, but enough to keep him out of gun range. If they kept to a straight flight path, that distance would slowly increase as they continued to fly. Ironically, it was because of that ancient artifact engine as well as the mass reducer modx that Newtron absolutely had to stay out of Liet’s range. Not that Newtron ever wanted to get shot down, but artifacts were uninsurable if Newtron lost the ship to Liet, Newtron would be out over ten million credits, plus the insurance deductible on the Phoenix and its regular equipment probably another half million. Newtron was nearly always living pay-check to pay-check so such a loss would be a terrible blow to his bank account.
But why had Liet attacked him? And right out of the blue it’s not like Newtron was flying military tags, or had ever talked trash to the famous ace on the radio (he wasn’t that nuts). And he certainly didn’t have the credits to merit a pirating, not when there were more lucrative fish out there like miners and haulers. Liet’s Phoenix had sprung from its hiding place in a hollow asteroid and it was only a lucky accident that the ace hadn’t finished Newtron off right then and there.
“Liet sir?” Newtron radioed the pirate hoping to talk or maybe bribe his way out of the situation. But there was only an eerie silence from his pursuer. “Liet,” he tried again, “what do you want? Sir, if I’ve offended you in some way I’m sorry, I certainly wouldn’t have meant it,” ventured Newtron exploring groveling techniques, “I’d be happy to pay you something for any trouble you’ve experienced at my expense!” The thought of electronically flinging a hundred thousand credits at his persecutor seemed financially advantageous compared to the cost of losing his expensive spacecraft. But still Liet didn’t answer. While Newtron was pretty sure he could keep out of Liet’s gunnery range, the small advantage he had in speed wouldn’t be enough for him to really escape. He’d never get far enough ahead to dock at a station before Liet caught up and blasted him with the Phoenix’s armor down to nine percent, it wouldn’t take more than a couple of shots to blow away Newtron’s shields and tear through what little remained of the armor. Liet could probably anticipate any course Newtron chose to reach a safe station and Liet get friends there a head of them to wait in ambush. Newtron could only hope that by making completely random gate choices, Liet wouldn’t be sure of his route.
So, wondered a desperate Newtron, it was back to why was Liet trying to shoot him down. He hadn’t been the target of a pirate since he was a newb and a young DireCoyote burgled a modx from him in Quant Core. Bing! A light bulb went off in Newtron’s head; his recent visit with Istvan, the GM could certainly have interpreted it as attempted blackmail – Newtron would’ve — and now this. This was all too much of a coincidence! Istvan must really be pissed at him to go to this much trouble. Maybe Istvan really wanted to show him that he couldn’t get away with trying to pressure the GM. Maybe getting Liet to shooting him down would send a message to Newtron to back off. Istvan and the other Amananthians used to control the Sentients and to a lesser degree the flux, at least that was the case when Rastamon and he busted into their command center in Canis. Why would Istvan have enlisted Liet when he could his flux could harass him?
What Newtron didn’t know, was that even as the chase in deep space was transpiring, GM Istvan was seated in his office, listening to the radio chatter of Newtron’s and Liet’s, monitoring their movements via sector beacon telemetry and taking a very keen interest in the confrontation.
Anyone familiar with station construction would have been surprised to learn just how stout the locked door to the Istvan’s office actually was. With his activities thus safely hidden from view, Istvan was seated before a control panel that only a few other people knew existed, and those people were all fellow Amananthians. Those controls were normally securely hidden behind decorative and practically indestructible panel doors which were camouflaged to look exactly like beautifully polished, varnished mahogany. The lock to the control cabinet required an Amananthian’s hand-print to open, and concealed within were some very sophisticated, very alien controls indeed – and those controls controlled everything. They controlled magnetic storms, Conflux swarm movements, factory production and even certain individual spaceship functions at least those utilizing artifact technologies. That was natural, because the Amananthians were secretly in charge of everything.
GM Istvan was listening to the subspace radio and monitoring the activity of Newtron and the pirate Liet. Istvan was eagerly awaiting an indication that the destruction of Newtron’s ship at Liet’s hands was imminent, because the GM was already in the act of momentarily turning off the POD retrieval. That way, when Newton’s ship was shot down he wouldn’t be saved by the POD system and it would look like a very rare, but not unheard of malfunction – and there would be no indication of Istvan’s interference. The GM had never intended to accede to the suggestions – or demands as he saw them – outlined by Newtron, and he feared that the New Dawn pilot would always be a problem unless he was permanently eliminated, he would have settled for having Newtron permanently banned from the Jumpgate universe, but as there were no legal grounds for doing so, this would have to suffice. Newtron had somehow managed to avoid being shot down by the Conflux lately – perhaps he’d finally learned to fly properly – otherwise Istvan could have waited for one of Newtron’s usually all too frequent ship losses to arrange this “accident”, but the pilot’s new found caution had made that vigil tedious in the extreme. It was much more efficient to control the entire procedure through an intermediary such as the pirate Liet, and with Newton spending so much time among the pirate community lately; such a shooting incident should surprise no one. The pirate Liet, while arrogant and irascible, was also naturally secretive – and given his financial incentive – more dependable then the unpredictable Sentients Istvan might otherwise have employed. Of course, the pirate would now be a liability – a witness to Istvan’s involvement, but considering Liet’s already dangerous profession, arranging an accident for him would arouse even less suspicion.
Out of the corner of his eye Newtron thought he saw an indicator light blink. Quickly scanning the console, he ran through the various buttons and idiot lights denoting the condition of most of the Phoenix’s functions. Everything seemed to be in order until he spotted at the POD system display, it was off! “Oh, no, no, no, no, not again!” he shouted.
“Liet!” radioed Newtron desperately, “there’s something wrong with my POD system, please don’t shoot me!” But there was no answer from the other Phoenix, trailing just 7000 plus meters behind him. “Liet, can you here me? I said my POD is on the fritz. Liet?” still nothing. Newtron tried yet again, stabbing the radio enable button until his finger hurt, but still there was no response. Then he noticed another dark indicator the radio power light he wasn’t even broadcasting! “Oh, no, no, no, no, no!” shouted Newtron, “Istvan you fluxer!”
Tritian decided to switch tactics and tried hailing Liet on a private channel instead; “Liet, this is Tritian,” he began; “I need to speak to you,” no response. ”Liet,” he tried again this time on the sector broadcast channel, than when that didn’t work he switched to the system wide service. There was no response to any of his attempts, what did that mean?
Being Octavian and flying a Phoenix himself, there was no way that Tritian could hope to catch the two Phoenixes; they had too great a head start, but the radio thing was bothering him. Tritian started to get an eerily familiar feeling about the situation and a suspicion as to what might be going on. One; why would Liet be after Newtron and why especially now? Why would the ace go after a nobody? Sure Liet would target a freighter full of commodities or a fat rich pilot unfortunate enough to fly within radar range, or even another combat ace just to remind folks what the pecking order was, but Newtron was none of those. A contract maybe would Liet act on someone else’s behalf? Would the pirate target a nobody if somebody put a price on the nobody’s head? Maybe if the price were right; after all, Liet was a mercenary, and who would want Newtron shot down? That was obvious; Istvan!
OK, Titian thought, perhaps this was partially his own fault. He’d pressured the New Dawn pilot to confront Istvan over the pirate issue using their past association as leverage. Maybe Newtron hadn’t handled it as well as he thought and pushed Istvan too hard. But that didn’t make any sense either. Shooting Newtron down wouldn’t really accomplish anything, maybe send him a message, but Istvan had more to lose if he scared Newtron too much and the pilot started talking. What else could this be? If anything Istvan might want Newtron dead. Was it possible the Amananthian would go so far as to have the pilot murdered?
Committing a murder, specifically killing someone on purpose, was practically impossible in the modern TRI universe; there were just too many safeguards these days and the station’s medical facilities were miraculous. TRI physicians could repair any injury; even reviving the recently dead. It would require an accident of spectacular proportions – literally obliterating a body before the doctors would declare a person dead. No mere assassin’s knife, bullet or blaster could do the job. Clones could be grown from the victim’s tissue samples and downloaded with the pilot’s last recorded memories from their ship’s data banks. And of course thanks to the POD system fatalities from spacecraft accidents, Conflux attacks and PvP battles almost unheard of. The last fatality Tritian could remember occurred three years ago during the Foundation squad attacks.
The Foundation squad Istvan and the other Amananthians had been behind that whole episode. The Foundation squad’s Dragon heavy fighters had been remotely controlled by the Amananthians to rein carefully orchestrated destruction down on the galaxy in preparation for a massive Conflux invasion. And the Amananthians had figured out a way to turn off the POD system to permanently remove inconvenient pilots who got in their way. The POD system was mostly artifact technology and that was all pre-collapse like the Amananthians.
Was it possible Istvan would resort to something like that again? Tritian looked at his fighter’s console and assured himself that his POD system was still functioning. Maybe it was possible for Istvan to turn off the system on a specific ship. He might even know how to interfere with a specific ship’s radio remotely.
If you could create a malfunction in the POD system then it was indeed possible to really kill someone and Istvan might just be able to engineer that. When a spaceship explodes the thermonuclear event vaporizes everything on board there are no remains, apart from the POD and if that wasn’t working there would be nothing no survivors. And if there weren’t enough tissue samples of Newtron to clone him then he’d really be gone. Everything fit, it was just the sort of thing the Amananthian might do erase a troublesome pilot wiping Newtron out and eliminating the last person who knew his secret at least as far as Istvan knew. It was all possible, maybe even likely, certainly something Istvan might do.
Tritian had to think of something; he knew he could never convince anyone of the truth that’s why he’d changed identities in the first place. Istvan was a powerful and popular government servant; Newtron was the court jester, Rastamon a terrorist and Tritian a pirate. No one would believe any of this, and it would only be worse if Tritian admitted his true identity and spoke up concerning Istvan’s past.
From the course Newtron was maintaining, it was likely he was headed for Amananth and probably Swarmbusters. With the lead Newtron had he would probably make it, unless Liet had an accomplice or two waiting in ambush, though that wasn’t likely Liet was a loner. But even if Newtron managed to get to Amananth, he’d never have time to dock without Liet catching up and blasting him. However, if Newtron had help he might make it. Tritian had even farther to go to catch Newtron than Liet, but if some of Newtron’s squad mates in Amananth were there to run interference, then Newtron would have a chance. It was even possible they could shoot Liet down. But if Newtron couldn’t answer Tritian, then he wouldn’t be able to radio ahead for help, and it wasn’t likely that anyone from New Dawn was going to listen to “Tritian the pirate”, who had been harassing some of them for months. Still, he had to try.
“Hail, anyone from squad New Dawn,” radioed Tritian on the system-wide chat comm. There was always the danger that if Liet’s radio was functioning, he would hear the transmission, but that couldn’t be helped. And if Tritian could line up assistance then they might dissuade Liet from pursuing this further. “Is anyone from New Dawn on-line?” Tritian continued.
“Yes, this is New Dawn,” answered WiseSam, “how can we help you?”
“One of your pilots Newtron is under attack and being pursued,” continued Tritian, “he’s heading to Amananth and should be there within the hour.”
“Newtron is being pursued and heading towards Amananth?” repeated WiseSam, “How many attackers?”
“One,” answered Tritian, “but Newtron’s ship is pretty shot up and he probably won’t be able to dock without assistance.”
“Let me refer this message up the chain of command,” responded WiseSam, “Tritian,” he added; emphasizing that he knew who the caller was and therefore had serious reservations concerning the validity of the information. Oh well, thought Tritian, that was to be expected.
A minute later a new voice was on-line, “Tritian, this is LupinOne,” announced the New Dawn commander. “What is this all about?”
OK, Tritian thought, how could he explain the situation without sounding like a lunatic or conspiracy nut? “Your man Newtron is being griefed and I thought your squad might want to lend him a hand,” replied Tritian.
“Who is doing the griefing, and why are you the one requesting aid?” asked LupinOne suspiciously.
“The griefer is Liet,” answered Tritian simply, “and I think your man is having radio difficulty,” continued Tritian whose story sounded dubious even to him in this age of unparalleled electronic reliability.
“Tritian, considering your vocation and history, I hope you forgive me for being a little skeptical concerning this call,” replied the New Dawn commander in a reasonable voice. “So if you don’t mind my asking; this wouldn’t be some lame attempt to draw a few New Dawn pilots out for an ambush would it? I only ask because we’re kind of busy and not anxious to waste time dog-fighting you and your friends.”
Tritian was between an asteroid and a hard place. He punched up a secure, whisper channel to LupinOne; “Lupin, I know you have no reason to trust me here, and any explanation I give you is going to sound crazy, but you need to trust me on this; your man Newtron is in some serious trouble and not of his own making.”
There was a significant pause before the New Dawn commander responded, “That all sounds pretty cryptic. Considering the possible loss of equipment inventory my pilots might incur if you’re screwing around, I’m going to need more than that Tritian.”
“Look,” replied Tritian, “the situation is too involved to get into right now even on the “secure” whisper channel. Believe it or not, I’m trying to protect you here too.”
“Have you been drinking? That’s not good enough Tritian,” countered LupinOne. “Even you have to admit you’re not making enough sense for me to take you seriously. If Newtron’s in trouble with Liet he’ll just have to take his lumps like a big boy; I warned him about getting involved with pirates.”
The frustration level was making Tritian’s head ache, “If I’m right about what’s going on out there, Newtron may not be in a position to learn any lessons here, not if you don’t get out there and help him.”
“Sorry Tritian but this conversation is pointless, I’m going to have to get back to work.”
“Wait Lupin,” Tritian knew he had to get through to him, even it meant going out on a limb. “Don’t hang up, there are things going on here that I can’t presently explain, the situation is too complicated and dangerous to discuss over an unsecure radio channel. And without physical proof in hand, my explanation is only going to sound like some wild conspiracy theory. Even this abbreviated conversation might be too much for us to be having, but I’m telling you there is more to this situation than we can get into and you really need to get some guys out there and run interference so Newtron can dock.”
“You’re implying that the whisper channel is unsecure?” asked LupinOne with more than a little suspicion in his voice.
“If someone has access to the right technology,” responded Tritian, “any radio signal can be unscrambled.”
There was no answer from the New Dawn commander.
“OK,” radioed Tritian, “I can’t explain now, but I’ll agree to meet you later at a neutral location of your own choosing, and try to tell you what’s been going on.”
There was another long pause and Tritian began to think that the New Dawn commander had already hung up on him. Then; “What’s Newtron’s present situation?” asked LupinOne.
“He’s in the Stith, about 8,000 meters ahead of Liet, who’s about 20,000 meters ahead of me.” Tritian replied.
Another pause, then; “And you’re saying it’s just Liet?” asked LupinOne, still sounding very suspicious.
“Isn’t he enough?” answered Tritian.
Still another pause, then; “Alright Tritian, keep trailing them, I’ll see what I can arrange on this end,” said LupinOne, “and Tritian, when this is over, I’m going to need that explanation. And if this turns out to be a scam I’m going to make shooting you down my new hobby,” intoned the New Dawn commander.
SlimPickns, outbound from Amananth station, was crossing the Stith, piloting a heavily laden cargo-tow on route for delivery to Oct Outpost. He was more than halfway to the Jumpgate to the Diluted Reaches when the gate flared and a ship appeared. It was a Phoenix; its thin swept-back wings darkly silhouetted against the brilliant white of the swirling particle cloud. The big fighter hurriedly maneuvered around and shot off, straight at him. SlimPickn’s immediately recognized his friend Newtron’s transponder call-sign; but his Phoenix was apparently heavily damaged, trailing sparks through the night like an ancient Chinese skyrocket. Newt was apparently headed for the gate to the Last Parsec. SlimPickn’s was about to give him a friendly hail and ask what happened, when the gate flared again and another Phoenix appeared. It too swiveled about in their direction and launched. In contrast to the Newt’s, this Phoenix was shiny brown with bright green fusion contrails, and checking the registration, Slim was surprised to see that it belonged to the most dangerous of pirates; Liet, and from appearances; he seemed in hot pursuit of Newtron. Even while Slim was wondering what to make of this new development, the gate flared yet again and a third Phoenix appeared. This one was lagging significantly behind the first two but according to its transponder this third one was flown by yet another pirate; Tritian.
Liet was accustomed to tracking bountied pilots down; he’d been doing it for years. And with Newtron’s small lead this was proving to be a pretty simple job. Newtron would lead him back to his home station, where Liet could set up camp and blow Newtron away each time he launched. He’d do that until Newtron had nothing left to buy a ship to launch with. Still, even Liet had to admit this seemed extraordinarily petty of a TRI General Manager. You’d think Istvan would be above harassing some no-name like this Newtron.
While three fighters following the same course could be a formation, SlimPickns knew that would be one strange formation with Newtron in the lead. It could also just be a coincidence that the three were heading in the same direction, but considering two of the three were pirates and Newtron was pretty shot up, that really didn’t seem likely. “Hmmm,” thought Slim, “what has Newtron gotten himself into this time? You know, two aces versus one pigeon really seems like overkill.”
As the first two fighters came within range SlimPickns targeted one and loosed a Morning Star missile straight for Liet. “Maybe today’s your lucky day Newtron.” he said to himself.
The missile lock alarm sounded and Liet’s attention snapped to his radar screen; Morningstars! That cargo tug up ahead had launched and they were heading straight for him! Liet went evasive; forgetting about Newtron for the time being he knew the guy was probably headed to Amananth and Swarmbusters anyway and corkscrewed his fighter around in a tight high speed turn. Liet had lots of experience evading missiles, but that didn’t make it a sure thing, he didn’t even have time to check and see who the pilot was who launched them probably just some hauler panicked at the sight of the incoming pirate.
Newtron had noted his friend SlimPickns was in the cargo tow ahead but with his radio out couldn’t hail him, but he hoped Slim wasn’t about to become a target too. Then he saw what looked like a missile or two flash by and noted something odd was happening behind him Liet had broken off the chase and was afterburning away at a right angle. With Liet veering off, Newtron made it to the gate with plenty of time to spare and a lot more lead time.
Tritian got out of the cargo-tow’s way, having witnessed the missile launch, he cheered the Good Samaritan hauler but didn’t want to risk the same treatment himself after all, and he was wearing pirate tags too. With Liet racing for the horizon Morningstars on his tail, Tritian corrected his course and made it to the gate long before the famous ace would be able.
When Liet finally emerged from the gate in Amananth, he expected Newtron would have long since docked and he’d just be setting up camp, waiting for him to launch. What Liet hadn’t expected was more than half dozen fighters hanging in space between the gate and Swarmbusters.
LupinOne, McPlowed, Delphince, Hotdog, Solarwind, Dr-McManus and strangely, even that pirate Tritian were between Liet and the station.
“Can we help you Liet?” radioed LupinOne, as he approached the formation.
Liet considered the ramifications of a protracted fight; he didn’t really have the ammunition (or armor) to deal with all these guys just now. And a pod ride home wouldn’t accomplish anything but make for a long trip back. Liet figured he could always catch Newtron on the fly somewhere, sometime in the future.
“Just passing through,” Liet replied laconically, “nice to see you boys keeping up the neighborhood watch. Never know when some hoodlums might show up.” And with that he steered his fighter around in a long, slow turn and lazily headed back through the gate.
“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice,” said Tritian in businesslike tones.
“Not at all, have a seat” replied Istvan studying the pilot’s face. “You look familiar, have we met before?”
Tritian paused to appraise the office, ignoring the proffered chair. He stood before the dark wooden desk, “Yes,” he replied, “but that was a lifetime ago.”
The GM consulted his computer then turned back to his guest, “I see by your record that you’ve spent much of your career as a registered pirate,” he said by way of conversation, “but you switched tags recently.”
Tritian smiled warmly, “Well, just for this meeting really. You know, I’ve always thought the idea of registration to be a pirate as being something like an oxymoron in terms,” he said as he ran his finger along the polished surface of a large, beautifully carved and darkly varnished cabinet standing to the side of the room.
“I suppose it does seem confusingly contradictory,” agreed Istvan, sensing something very wrong with this whole exchange, “was that what you wanted to talk about? LupinOne said this was important.”
“Actually, I wanted to talk about Newtron,”