Newtron and the UnSentient (part one)

by Newtron

Chapter One – The Snail

Newtron was chasing a snail.

This may sound like an oxymoron, but this was a snail the size of a small house, armored like a small tank, is able to fly through space at over 300 meters per second and shoots armor-piercing explosive charges out of its nose. This snail, was an alien—a “Conflux” to use the local idiomatic term.

Newtron on the other hand, was a fairly ordinary physical example of a human being, so you won’t be belabored with any descriptive analogies concerning his otherwise rather mundane attributes except that this was the future, and everybody was beautiful, unbelievably fit, everyone’s teeth were perfect, and their skin flawless in whatever color they chose.

Newtron was chasing the Conflux with the aid of a spaceship—an Octavian “Raven” light fighter. The Raven was about the size of a smaller house, armored like a thinly armored tank, and was capable of flying through space at over 450 meters per second while shooting any number of interesting and powerful weapons.

Clarification here; it was earlier stated that Newtron was “chasing” a snail, when it would be more accurate to say that they were mutually chasing each other.

Newtron was chasing the snail in an attempt to extract its highly radioactive bodily juices – colloquially known in TRI scientific parlance as “biomass”. Biomass is important in the production of nuclear weapons—for which TRI has a variety of uses—such as blowing up the annoying Conflux infestations that sometimes engulf jumpgates. The volatile and radioactive flux juice is extracted using a type of mining laser/matter displacer and it’s necessary to get very, very close to the target. It also takes a few seconds for the process to work. Snails—like any Conflux—are understandably reluctant to give up their biomass since they usually die in the extraction process. So besides being quite unstable, biomass is also fairly valuable.

Conversely, the snail was chasing Newtron because that’s just the kind of thing snails and other Conflux do. They chase pilots, they shoot at pilots, they try to kill pilots, and they might even try to eat pilots. This has been their behavior since humans first encountered the space dwelling alien vermin and it was this unreasonably violent attitude and total disinterest in interspecies communication that led to they’re being labeled with the sobriquet “Conflux”. For over five and a half standard years TRI pilots had fought off attacks by the aliens, thwarted the alien’s attempts to impede human space travel by clearing out their gate-infesting blockages and more recently, taking the fight to the flux’s own section of the galaxy; otherwise known as Conflux space.

Newtron was a pilot with the legendary squad New Dawn; an organization of pilots from all three TRI factions working together to combat the Conflux menace. That Newtron would be out here in deep space, attempting the difficult and dangerous job of extracting biomass from an uncooperative Conflux is perhaps an interesting story in itself.

A few years earlier, “cadet” Newtron—who was something of an underachiever—had been caught cheating his way into the pilot academy and publicly admonished. Astonishingly Newtron had been pardoned based on the intervention of LupinOne the Commander of the squad New Dawn. The Commander pointed out that the galaxy needed all the pilots it could get and Newtron’s determination to be a pilot should be rewarded.

The Academy agreed to drop all charges and Newtron was released into LupinOne’s custody and a job with New Dawn.

Despite LupinOne’s intervention, Newtron found himself an outsider, un-trusted by his squad mates and TRI pilots as a whole.

In an effort to ingratiate himself into everyone’s good graces, Newtron was really trying. He was doing the jobs the other pilots didn’t want to do. This included spending many, many hours sitting on his butt at the controls of a lumbering mining vessel extracting ore from asteroids. Newtron spent many more hours dodging space pirates as he hauled cargo back and forth across the galaxy, and now Newtron was out here—in deep space—flying a thinly shielded light fighter while trying to suck the guts out of a snail.

And the snail wasn’t making his job any easier for him.

Newtron was getting quite dizzy as he chased the snail around in fast elliptical orbits. Every pass would bring him within a few dozen meters of the pinkish-purple space cow, at which time he’d rake it with the beams from the InSight® guns. But then the normally ponderous snail would manage to slip by and Newtron would have to lean back into the turn while his insides would try to lean back out.

The fighter’s inertial compensator was supposed to cancel all the effects of rapid acceleration, deceleration and centrifugal force. But all this spiraling around and around and around, at maximum thrust was evidently testing the limits of that technology.

Newtron, who was prone to motion-sickness anyway, was feeling pretty nauseous. Stars whirled by his cockpit windows and the fighter’s shields flared an almost continual red as the snail unreasonably kept shooting back. Just as Newtron seemed to get the big, dumb, pink creature lined up, it always managed to slip past.

Fellow pilot Nocturnus had told Newtron that collecting biomass was easy—and at 34,000 credits a unit, it paid pretty well too. But obviously Nocturnus had a cruel sense of humor and Newtron swore if didn’t suck the stuffing out of this snail soon, he was just going to shoot the damn thing. He could always go back to hunting flux—that was something he was only half-assed bad at, but with the equipment shortages, outfighting another big fighter like a Phoenix wouldn’t be easy. And he couldn’t afford another miner and all the equipment it needed.

Newtron had spent the last two months mining ore for the big Faction Mission everyone had been working on. He’d spent hours and hours (and hours) sitting at the controls of a mining ship while the Broker® mining lasers vaporized the asteroid in front of him and sucked the gasified ore into the cargo hold. It was mindless tedium Newtron almost couldn’t endure. He was playing a game of computer Solitaire when he crashed the miner into the station and lost a week’s worth of work.

Newtron didn’t really have too many other options—the haulers didn’t trust his dog fighting skills (PvP for short) enough to hire him as a fighter escort. And he didn’t have enough credits to buy his own cargo-tow. He’d still have to come up with the money to buy commodities from one station to haul to another.

But if collecting biomass didn’t work it was back to hunting flux for Newtron. He was just good enough at hunting to make a little profit. On a good day he’d kill a few bigger flux and collect a hundred thousand credits or so. On a bad day he’d get tangled up with a phocaena or a couple of krakens and get his ship shot out from under him, which would lose him a few hundred thousand credits in insurance deductibles.

But Nocturnus said there was decent money to be made collecting biomass and Newtron had believed him. Nocturnus had even lent Newtron his personal Burglar® matter displacer.

A sudden flash of pink filled the ships view-port and Newtron realized he’d finally gotten behind the stupid snail he’d been chasing! Jerking the joystick left and right he managed to hold the InSight® beams on the beast’s pebbly hide for a few moments longer than usual and the Burglar® chimed musically while the snail exploded in a beautiful flash of light.

The cargo meter now read; 1 unit.

One stinking unit of biomass, for all that work—Newtron almost cried. It took him another two hours of dodging mantas and multiple squid attacks before he filled his cargo bay with 5 more snails.

The popularly held view of the patriotic TRI pilot ideal was of heroic, zealous, jingoistic, hardworking pilots performing daring and dangerous feats for the benefit of the galaxy and the galactic community.

While this may not have described Newtron, in all fairness, he wasn’t the worst pilot serving in TRI. Nor was he the least skilled or the most accident prone or even the most dishonest and not even the laziest, but he certainly ranked highly in the competition for those titles. (The Oct Core station hangar chief even referred to Newtron’s docking style as “the Braille Method”)

But from Newtron’s perspective, he felt he was under-appreciated for the resourceful potential he displayed in avoiding work while surviving the dangerous profession he found himself barely engaged in. But sometimes the universe needs people like Newtron in to balance things out.

An alert chimed from the dashboard and displayed the message;

   “Mission Complete, return to Octavian Outpost Station”

With a smile Newtron wheeled the little fighter around, and heading for the gate, setting course for Oct Core station. He never noticed that all the while he’d been out there chasing snails; something else had been watching him.

***

Chapter one and a half – War footing

Squad Commander Ambrosius roared his warning to several fleeing transports, “You’re all on the Brotherhood’s KOS list!”—KOS short for “kill on sight”. Ambrosius continued, “Station stripping will not be tolerated!” His fellow Brotherhood aces Singleshot and Radi—also on blockade duty—prepared to make good on their squad leader’s threats and roared off after the now retreating ships, chasing then back to the jumpgate. The Brotherhood had set up this blockade around Quantar Core station in hopes of stemming the hemorrhage of weapons and equipment out of the station’s municipal market. Pilots were buying up big equipment at a faster rate than it was being replaced and the spiriting it away to their own POS’s.

From the cockpit of his Typhoon fighter Ambrosius appraised the squad under his command—it was a formidable group of Typhoons, Tempests and Tornado fighters piloted by highly skilled warriors—no one in TRI would take this blockade lightly. But the squad leader knew that this was just a gesture; Quantar space was far from “sealed” against this sort of intrusion. There wasn’t the manpower to monitor all the stations all the time.

Ambrosius defined anyone hauling more than their fair share of equipment away from Quantar public stations—that essentially meant pretty much anyone trying to stock their own private station—as hostile. The blockade was meant to slow down the drain on station resources, but Ambrosius knew that to really stop the station stripping would require a more active effort. He would have to track these strippers back to their own bases—taking the fight to their territory.

Station stripping had become a problem as the result of a recent TRI pilot recruitment drive. Large numbers of new pilots were swelling the ranks faction wide. TRI had to find homes for all of the new pilots. But the galactic economy wasn’t prepared to feed so many new mouths and

TRI had subsidized new POS’s all over space—some folks even thought space was getting too crowded. The trouble began when the new pilots started to buy equipment at the public TRI stations to stock their new POS’s. With a hundred new stations they quickly stripped weapons and equipment from the big public stations which left veteran pilots scrambling to find gear they needed. There were equipment shortages everywhere.

To alleviate this problem, veteran pilots redoubled mining and manufacturing operations. Freight haulers put in overtime distributing weapons and equipment. But there was a lag trying to keep up with demand and shortages continued. This angered many hard working vets watching as stocks vanished as soon as the deliveries were made—some responded with violence. The resulting battles between veteran pilots and recruits “station stripping” to stock their new POS’s, resulted in many lost ships, and weapons and equipment that needed to be replaced. Pilots were forced to launch with substandard “newb” equipment and many pilots had to visit station after station to find the engines, power-plants, shield generator or weapons to bring their fighters up to competitive level.

Tensions were running high.

***

Chapter two

Two Intensity class fighters emerged from the jumpgate into the Diluted Reaches. Pilots Golum and Gnomemog studied the sector for a moment then flew approximately 25 clicks to an enormous lumpy gray asteroid with a “C” shaped hole just big enough for two ships to squeeze into. The big bagel shaped rock would provide cover for the two fighters, shielding them from an unlucky glance in their direction, while powerful ECM devices dramatically reduced their radar signature. There the two pilots waited; they didn’t have to wait long.

The jumpgate from the Dark Gateway flared and a Roc class cargo-tow appeared in the sphere of sparkling energetic particles. At the controls of the giant space freighter was Pilot ELPIRATA.

ELPIRATA was a man of great patience—sort of a prerequisite for the job of cargo-tow pilot. The long, heavy ship took its time to turn, fully loaded as it was with the weight of a great many power-plants and starship engines. ELPIRATA was accustomed to the sluggish response, all part of the job he knew so well. He was attempting to aim the ship for a spot in the middle of another jumpgate 40 thousand meters on the far side of the sector—it looked small even under extreme magnification. It took the big ship a full two minutes to rotate around and then EL spent another few minutes carefully aligning the HUD’s cross-hairs exactly center in that far off gate. Being was a man of precision he made the careful adjustments, while checking to be sure there were no small  asteroids in his path—his course would take him by a large collection near the sector’s beacon. There would be no chance for mid-course corrections. Finally ELPIRATA scanned the sector for any unexpected company, for he was also a man of caution, and once the cargo-tow was moving in a specific direction, there would be no point in attempting evasive maneuvers, the ship couldn’t be turned, let alone stopped without the help of a nuke. Once moving, the cargo-tow would be irrevocably committed. Satisfied that every variable had been accounted for, ELPIRATA pushed the throttle to max thrust and sat back; this would take some time.

The big freighter slowly moved out, emerging from the blindingly bright jumpgate into the inky blackness of deep space. A blazing green torrent of plasma thrust erupted from the tow’s mighty engine, the biggest available to any TRI ship, but even so the acceleration was glacial. After several minutes the Roc had reached barely 100 meters per second and had crawled only a few thousand meters from the gate.

The prey was committed and vulnerable now; Golum and Gnomemog dropped the pretense and brought their fighters out from their hiding place. Instantly two indicators appeared on the cargo-tow’s radar and ELPIRATA knew he was in trouble. With any luck the two approaching Solrain fighters were a pair of honest pirates and for a reasonable tribute, the cargo-tow would be allowed to pass, but then ELPIRATA saw the names of the two pilots displayed on his targeting system. “Crap,” He said.

Sure enough, there was no “pay or die” demand or any attempt to zoom in close and beam out cargo with the aid of Burglars© and Insights®. The two fighters just launched a spam of missiles and opened fire as they got the range.

ELPIRATA wasn’t unprepared for this; the Roc was outfitted with a PWD100, a device that emitted a powerful pulse designed to cause missiles self-destruct before they got too close. “Wasted your money boys,” commented ELPIRATA laconically. Unfortunately, the PWD did nothing against the fighter’s ion cannons. The cargo-tow’s shields lit up in a red crackle of interference energy. The Roc was equipped with a, Guardian shield generator the most powerful system on the market, but even it had its limits. Now it was a race; would the cargo-tow make it to the next gate before Golum and Gnomemog burned through its shielding and the tow’s armor? It wasn’t looking good for the cargo-tow.

“You guys want to talk about this?” radioed ELPIRATA humorously. But there was no response. Defiantly ELPIRATA fired off a barrage of missiles—at least he’d make them pay for this.

In a station several sectors from the attack, klaxons began blaring and yellow spinning strobe lights flashed intensely warning personnel that they had to vacate the POD retrieval platform for an incoming responder.  A few moments later there was a flash accompanied by acrid smoke indicating an arrival. As the smoke cleared it revealed a POD, steaming as water attempted to condense on its sizzling surface. Retrieval personnel clad in yellow jump-suits raced back onto the platform and helped the pilot out while an emergency medical technician checked him for injury. The pilot thanked the technicians and turned to leave the platform. Another Pilot, Mike2, stood off to the side watching the proceedings,

“Well, that’s one way to avoid docking a big cargo-tow,” He said grinning sheepishly.

A dispirited ELPIRATA waved a tired hand in greeting and stepped heavily off the platform. “Freaking griefers, didn’t even want to talk terms, just started blasting. Where’s the profit in shooting me down?”

“It’s a crazy universe when pirates can’t even follow their own rules,” agreed Mike21. Then he slapped the senior pilot on the back and led him towards the pilot’s lounge for a commissary drown-your-sorrows drink.

***

Chapter two and a half   -SwarmBusters-

The headquarters for New Dawn were housed in a large, bluish-white 8 point space station located in the Amananth sector of TRI space. The station was named “SwarmBusters”, a nod to the avocation the squad specialized in—hunting and killing Conflux. The station was actually owned by the New Dawn trillionaire McPlowed, but he leased it to the squad at very reasonable rates.

This POS was a hive of activity. New Dawn presently had over a hundred members. SwarmBusters provided all the comforts of a TRI public station—ship’s hanger and repair center, restocking and weapons supply, commodity brokers, hospital, living quarters and so forth—and so far McPlowed had managed to keep fully stocked, despite the shortages plaguing the rest of the galaxy.

SwarmBusters, provided a safe, comfortable haven where New Dawn members could relax between assignments, and it was here in the busy commissary, that Newtron reflected on something he had been made to read back in school; “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” began Newtron, “The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” He said aloud. “To grunt and sweat under a weary life.”

“I never said it would be easy,” remarked the big Quantar pilot seated across the commissary table. “I said it paid well. If it was easy, everyone would be out doing it.” The big pilot was named Nocturnus and Newtron wasn’t arguing with him, since Nocturnus was one of the few pilots in New Dawn that even deigned to talk to him, Newtron felt a certain obligation to accept Nocturnus’s version of the conversation that Newtron remembered very differently.

“Well, it took me all day to collect six units of biomass,” replied Newtron, “but I could’ve made that many credits in a few hours hunting flux.”

Nocturnus set down his drink and looked Newtron in the eye. “Were you, or were you not, just two days ago complaining to me that you were losing your underwear on insurance deductibles?” He waved a thick finger at Newtron, “and six units of biomass are worth about two hundred grand if my math skills are correct.”

Newtron avoided looking up, concentrating instead on using a fork to push the remains of his lunch around his plate.

“I give you a safe and reasonably interesting way to earn some cash—aside from mining, which you’re apparently too good for—and this is the thanks I get?” Nocturnus may have been genuinely upset; it was difficult for Newtron to tell. “You want to know how much that Burglar® I lent you is worth?”

Newtron raised his shoulders and nodded in a show of conciliation. “I’m just saying it’s not what I thought it would be is all,” he tried to sound sorry. “Maybe I just need more practice; it’s only been one day after all.”

“What’s only been one day?” asked a Solrain pilot, walking up to the table, cafeteria tray in hand.

“Oh, hi Lordo,” said Nocturnus, “Newtron was complaining that collecting biomass is too much work and doesn’t pay enough.”

Lordopic shrugged and put his tray down next to Newtron’s. “Yeah, well what did you expect? The flux isn’t going to just sit there and let you suck out its innards. Why are you sucking biomass anyway? Mining and hauling is the real way to make money.” He stabbed an object off his plate with a fork and examined it carefully. “Anybody know what this is supposed to be?”

“Pork?” offered Nocturnus uncertainly.

“Really?” remarked a surprised Newtron, “I thought that was chicken.”

“Well, whatever it is,” continued Lordopic, shrugging and stuffing the mystery-object in his mouth, “you know what your problem is Newtron?”

Behind Newtron’s back Nocturnus’s eyebrows shot up and, he started twirling his index finger around his temple—the universal sign for crazy—then pointed to Newtron.

“Yes I do Lordopic,” answered Newtron, “it’s been explained to me by competent educators.”

“No, not the dyslexic-crazy bit,” continued Lordopic nonplussed, “you’re just plain lazy. You can’t be bothered to put in an honest day’s work. You’re always looking for some get-rich-quick scheme. What you really need is to stop whining and just do the job.”

Nocturnus visibly relaxed and started making noises of agreement. Newtron stirred the objects on his plate around some more and contemplated the validity of the statement. It appeared to the other two pilots, that he was taking their criticism seriously, which of course couldn’t be further from the truth.

Newtron was thinking that with less than ten million credits in the bank, he was practically broke. There was hardly anyone he could really talk to about his problems.

LupinOne had been nice enough to give Newtron a job. That was pretty decent of him considering—he had to admire LupinOne for that. Still, LupinOne was an important squad leader so they were never very close.

***

     It was the same old story, man versus machine, in this case computer, and pilot Mad Cat wasn’t about to let the computer get the better of him this time. Not again. The pilot had the tradition of the squad Green Drazi to uphold damn it. Jumping up out of the pilot’s seat and walking to the back of the cabin, he shook his head and flexed his fingers. Then turned and stared at the console and the mocking, glowing screen. Not this time. Mad Cat knew intellectually that the odds were largely a matter of luck, but it didn’t feel that way, not when a computer had beaten him this many times.

Mad Cat had the hearts, the clubs and the diamond suit stacks partially filled. He had the king of clubs with five cards stacked and the king of diamonds sitting by itself. He had an empty space where he could bring down the King of clubs from the deck, or, he could move the king of diamonds to the empty space revealing the one remaining card beneath it. Still, that hidden card could be a dud, a dead end. Mad Cat might be better off with that king of clubs, at least he knew what he’d have and that would be three kings on the floor and whatever was next in the deck.

What the pilot really needed was a seven, clubs or spades. The Green Drazi pilot could put that on either the eight of hearts or the eight of diamonds and move a whole stack of cards, starting with a six of hearts over to that king of clubs stack and complete the first suit stack, open up a new space on the floor and reveal whatever was beneath that six.

Or Mad Cat could be trapped with all his floor space filled and nowhere to move the last cards. He’d be damned if a few pieces of silicon, gallium arsenide and wires were going to get the better of him again.

Shaking his head once more, he strode over to the console and sat back down.

Just as he started to move his cursor, a green indicator appeared on his radar, followed a moment later by a second one. Mad Cat turned from the Solitaire game to identify the intruders.

A pair of Intensity class fighters, the targeting system identified the pair of pilots as Grievous and Rahastes, both Solrain and both of squad Balrog and their heading was straight in his direction. Damn.

Mad Cat grabbed the controls and flipped off the mining lasers. His ship, a Quantar Chinook class miner was three quarters full of semi-fluxors; he’d been mining this sector all day. Miners like this one were big heavy boats, and a load of ore reduced the ship’s sluggish acceleration and lackluster maneuvering abilities to positively crippling performance. Still, there was no point in going down without a fight and the Green Drazi pilot began the arduous task of turning the miner from the big black and bluish asteroid he’d been working to face his visitors, arming his missiles as he did so. He knew the drill, these guys weren’t here to talk and from what he’d heard they weren’t willing to negotiate.

The battle didn’t last long and though he got a few licks in, it was pretty one-sided.

After the quick POD ride home, Mad Cat was trying to forget all that wasted hard work and lost equipment, relaxing in the POS’s officer’s club. He was joined by fellow pilot Yajnho.

“Heard those Balrog assholes paid you a visit,” Yajnho said affably.

Mad Cat looked up from his dinner and swallowed. “Assholes,” he grumbled around a mouthful of food, “What’s their problem anyway?” he asked rhetorically, “Who benefits from blasting miners? It’s not like they got any credits out of me. An honest pirate I can understand, but griefing someone who wasn’t doing them any harm is just stupid and wasteful.”

“Maybe they’re independently wealthy pirates and they just shoot down guys like us for fun.” Yajnho shrugged.

Mad Cat shook his head, “Yeah, and now I’ll never know how that last game of Solitaire turned out.”

***

     In an office in the “SwarmBusters” station, owner McPlowed was at his desk and hard at work running his multi-billion credit empire. McPlowed’s holdings included several more private stations and a whole lot of merchandise that had to be moved between them to balance the supplies. McPlowed had to be careful when it came to moving large quantities of weapons and equipment. When a man like McPlowed reacted, the whole galaxy felt it. Weapons, equipment and commodities in the quantities McPlowed dealt in could seriously affect the balance of the economy. Too many Centrifuge© power plants in one sector could overwhelm the demand for them there, driving down prices, driving down production, driving down the processing of the raw materials necessary for their construction, driving down the mining of ore required for processing into those raw materials and driving miners to other sectors in search of asteroids of more marketable material. As a result, McPlowed had to stay on top of his inventories, watch the markets and shift commodities between sector stations to help keep the economy balanced. At the moment he was going over the current inventory of SwarmBusters Limited when something he scanned on the station’s stock list of commodities caught his attention.

“What’s with all this biomass?” McPlowed asked sounding exasperated.

“Newtron,” replied LupinOne, the famous New Dawn squad leader, looking up from a TRINN news report, “He wants to make a contribution.” LupinOne stretched back in one of McPlowed’s luxuriously comfortable office recliners.

“Oh that guy?” responded McPlowed, looking up at the ceiling and consulting some ledger he apparently kept in the back of his mind, “You know, he owes me about twenty million credits. A month ago he stranded himself in the station, sold off his old equipment before realizing he didn’t have the credits to buy new stuff. Said he “was confused” on how the POS markets worked and couldn’t re-launch his ship. He didn’t know POS stations don’t pay for equipment?”

LupinOne smiled across the room. “Well, he’s new at this. I guess I should take some responsibility for the situation. I suggested to Newtron that he home his ship here at SwarmBusters. I should have checked to see if he knew how a POS differed from a public station.”

The difference being that the trading computer at a public station pays you the current market value for any equipment or weapons you offload.

“What’s he some kind of idiot?” asked McPlowed.

“He hasn’t had much experience in a private station.” answered LupinOne.  “And with all the new pilots setting up POS’s and all the equipment stripping and hoarding that’s been going on, the TRI stations were probably low on equipment. Maybe Newtron couldn’t fit his fighter out properly at a TRI station. I thought since he was now New Dawn, he should have the benefit of our POS facilities. But, you did help him out of that jam with that loan so you should feel good about yourself.”

McPlowed shrugged and replied, “I did tell him not to worry about the money. Still twenty million is a lot of biomass. He’ll be sucking flux for months to pay that off,” McPlowed consulted the computer again, “and it looks like he goes through ships pretty fast, and with insurance deductions eating into his profits it’ll take him years to pay me back. Newtron should just get himself a miner and dig asteroids like everyone else.”

LupinOne chuckled at that. “I don’t think he feels he’s cut out for mining. He isn’t bad at fluxing, but you’re right, losing too many ships is expensive.”

“Well this isn’t a charity, I don’t know why you took him in,” replied McPlowed, “I don’t see what he contributes to our squad. We don’t need the biomass since I’ve been getting good prices on radioactives from Hyperial.”

“It’s not charity,” responded LupinOne defensively.

Chapter three – The Sentient

As the Raven circled the latest snail Newtron’s lasers burned through the creature’s hide and he was rewarded by a chime tone from his computer—another unit of biomass had been beamed aboard. His readout told Newtron that the flux’s armor was down fifty percent. Leaning in and hanging on, they circled each other once more—the Conflux firing away too, vainly attempting to hit the Raven. Newtron kept the Insight© beams on the snail’s hide. This time he was rewarded by a colorful explosion as the flux blew up and another chime as one more unit of flux-guts topped off the fighter’s tanks.

“A good day’s work,” said Newtron, patting the dashboard of the Raven. Despite himself, he was starting to grow fond the sporty little machine. On the radar a new pink spot appeared and got his attention. “Sorry, all full,” Newtron said to the far away flux.

Newtron turned the Raven in the direction of the jumpgate, but out of habit he toggled up the new arrival and instantly stabbed the afterburner button. It was a Sentient, a kraken-type Sentient Conflux with its telltale gray spot on the tip of its tail, and it was racing right for him.

Ordinary Conflux—like the ones he’d been hunting—were drones—simple-minded creatures following very predictable patterns. Flux categories ranged from weak C-0 jellyfish to practically indestructible C-27 sharks. But Sentients were something altogether worse. Faster than any ordinary flux, shielded like cargo-tows and armed like assault fighters—Sentients were in a class by themselves. Unpredictable, they appeared to think like human pilots, employing circle fighting techniques and sometimes even toying with the prey. Newtron had once helped defend a station against a Sentient attack—a whole group of pilots battled a single Sentient. One on one, Newtron knew he was out of his league—big time.

Frantic, Newtron was racing at top speed away from the super-kraken, though he knew this was itself a futile strategy for light fighter was far slower than the Sentient. Newtron jerked hard to port and jammed on his braking thrusters—and managed to surprise the alien with a tight circle—he even got in a shot before his own shields lit up. His only hope of saving his ship, his equipment, Nocturnus’s Burglar®, and the precious biomass, would be scraping the Sentient off his trail—circling some structure and hoping the Sentient would crash trying to follow—but the nearest thing around was an anomaly thousands of meters away and Newtron doubted he would ever reach it, or that the monster would even be bothered by the tactic.

But it became apparent to Newtron that the Sentient was just toying with him. It actually backed off the attack as Newtron made for the anomaly. Newtron didn’t know what affect an anomaly would have on a flux but he hoped this change of strategy might confuse the alien momentarily, though Newtron hadn’t thought it through any farther than that. Even so, he managed to reach the ionized gas cloud and began to circle around it—trying to put it between him and the flux. At this point the Sentient must have lost patience with its little game. It opened fire once more and the Raven’s shields and armor quickly started burning away. In a desperate move Newtron drove the little fighter straight into the heart of the anomaly, hoping to hide from the flux in the particles but the Sentient simply followed him in—still firing away—Newtron tried firing back amid the panic. He almost made it back through the brilliant ball of light before his ship exploded.

***

    Ladybeth was navigating the asteroid littered environs of the Hyperion Gate sector; taking care nothing obstructed her cargo-tow’s path to the Rounds of Quantos jumpgate. Quantar space might be a miner’s dream but it was a navigator’s nightmare. Hers was much needed supply run for the Flux Clearance squad. Battling the Conflux, clearing infestations and hives from space was an equipment consuming profession. Dangerous work, it wasn’t unusual to lose a ship a week hunting swarms even in TRI space. The Conflux and their minions might be predictable, but accidents happen and even the flux gets lucky.

With all the griefing (indiscriminant attacks) going on lately, Ladybeth wouldn’t have minded an escort, especially hauling a big load of expensive engines fresh from Hyperial, but resources were stretched thin with everyone scouring the galaxy for hard to find equipment. No escorts were to be found. It made keeping Flux Clearance’s POS’s stocked tougher and Vorlon31 had even suggested no unaccompanied trips through flux space until the crisis was over. Few things were more frustrating than having to launch with an undersized power-plant and engines that couldn’t bring your ship up to hull speed. Or, pushing the throttle open only to have the radar and all the avionics blink out when the engine sucked up the meager power you did have. It was annoying and hazardous, leaving you blind and still not able to reach speed. More than once, she herself had visited far off stations, spending days on wild goose chases for listed items, only to find out the equipment needed had been sold hours before she’d arrived. Ladybeth remembered one particular trip all the way out to Solrain depot only to find the market stripped clean of everything but the most rudimentary items. Oh well, she thought, her tow passing through the gate to Ekoo’s Stop, finally Quant space, almost home.

Which was the moment she spotted the incoming fighters, and her heart skipped a beat. Damn, she thought, they must be using some pretty powerful ECM’s they were well within radar range and she was only now seeing them. Hopefully they were just passing through the sector going in the opposite direction. But as their icons appeared on her radar and Ladybeth read the names she figured there wasn’t much a chance; Gnomemog and Golum, two Balrog boys.

Oh well, she thought as she fired off her missiles and prepared to defend her cargo-tow’s honor, she’d almost made it home.

* * *

     As Newtron awoke he had the weird sensation of being very hung-over and very sticky. Yet he couldn’t remember getting himself intoxicated. Then he remembered: “Wait a minute, I haven’t been drinking.”

The last thing Newtron actually remembered was flying his biomass mission and then getting tangled up with a Sentient. “Why did it have to pick on me?” he complained to himself. Now he’d lost another ship, Nocturnus’s Burglar®, and the four units of biomass he’d spent the whole day collecting.

“Crap!”

Newtron looked outside. The hanger wasn’t looking so good. Maybe there was something wrong with the lights, everything was pink—actually a sickly pinkish red—he wasn’t sure. It was like Newtron was seeing it all through a distorting lens smeared with flux goop – the images swirled and blurred around him. He felt a little nausea as he tried to bring it all into focus.  “What the hell?” He said.

Newtron shuddered involuntarily as he heard a loud weird, squishy, whiny noise just outside his ship. It looked like strange coiled things were moving around but he couldn’t make them out, then there was a sudden jerk as something new happened and he was moving—fast!

“Splurp!”

Newtron found himself tumbling in space! He could feel the cold airlessness of space on his skin and in panic, he tried to hold his breath—this was a terrible, terrible mistake! How did this happen? Who in their right mind would launch an unprotected man into space! This was murder!

But he didn’t die. He should be dead, he should have exploded as the nitrogen boiled out of his blood and the gases in his intestines sought to escape confinement. Newtron had been so shocked by the weird sensations and wonky hanger bay and then being unceremoniously pooped out into space that he hadn’t noticed—he was in the ship—at least he thought it was a ship.

Newtron had been launched into space, but there was something seriously wrong with this fighter. The inside was completely dark. He couldn’t read the controls—couldn’t even find them. There was a gibberish mixture of purple and pink symbols swirling about his vision. Newtron couldn’t find the flight controls either. His arms, legs and head felt leaden. He turned his head but the act of looking around caused the ship to spin.

There was movement nearby and out of the corner of his eye Newtron saw a squid race past! He was under attack and he couldn’t even fly the stupid ship! But then another squid zipped by without even firing a shot. It dawned on Newtron they weren’t after him. Odd—he was easy meat—but they were ignoring him and the tumbling fighter.

Newtron couldn’t tell where the com panel and more importantly the radar was, but somehow he sensed there was another human pilot in the sector, somewhere off in the direction of the nearest gate. Apparently the squids had locked on to the other pilot. Newtron couldn’t identify the gate or the pilot, but he got the vague impression it was a smaller Octavian fighter, and an image of a “Chiropteran” fighter came to mind—it was headed into battle with the two squids. Newtron leaned forward, straining for a better look and to his surprise found he was suddenly headed in their direction. Well, at least that simplified things. He “leaned” to the left and the ship responded with a fast turn to port.

The Oct pilot flying the Chiropteran took out the two angry squid very quickly and then turned and headed towards Newtron. Newtron—normally a loner—was very happy to see a fellow Octavian. Now he just had to figure out how to operate the radio—if there was a radio—so he could tell the guy that he was in trouble and ask for help.

But as he closed the distance the Octavian fighter suddenly opened fire.

“Owe! Owe! Hey!” Newtron shouted as his ship was hit several times in a row. Those impacting shells actually hurt! “What the hell is your problem?” He yelled uselessly at the other pilot.

The other pilot fired again and only a quick duck to starboard kept Newtron from taking yet another hit. Leaning forward caused the ship to accelerate and he tried putting some distance between himself and that other idiot, but the Chiropteran was fast, quickly catching up and then again pounding Newtron’s flank. Newtron dived first to the left and then to the right, then up and down. The action seemed to confuse the other pilot momentarily—he’d acted all tough coming head on, but now that Newtron had gone evasive the guy broke off the attack, flipped one eighty and flash-fired straight for the gate. Newtron needed help, but he wasn’t going to try talking to this civ-ripping idiot, instead he let the ship drift and took stock of his situation.

Drifting in space Newtron tried to puzzle out what was going on. Something was wrong—this ship was badly screwed up. From inside the cockpit it looked like the outside was on fire. Something was definitely odd about this cockpit too, Newtron couldn’t move in here. Was this all some bizarre hallucination? It was as if the cockpit had collapsed around him. How could something like that happen? Newtron tried looking outside some more, but couldn’t really see the sides of the ship. He felt weird vibrations too. It was also uncomfortably warm and smelled bad. The life support was probably as wonky as the rest—just his luck he’d probably die of carbon dioxide poisoning before he’d get to help and the POD system was probably out of order too.

Newtron brought the ship up to the jumpgate and stopped. Where was the button to activate the jump sequence? In the dark cockpit he couldn’t find anything and couldn’t turn his head to get a good look around. He could be looking straight at the button and not know it. Whatever happened to this ship had probably messed up the dashboard too.

Leaning forward again, Newtron edged up to the gate and flailed his arms around hoping he’d bump something that would activate the gate. Out of frustration he just flew through the gate—nothing. He turned and flew through it again. Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! How was he supposed to get home if he couldn’t jump?

“Aaaaaaaaarg!” yelled Newtron to anything that was listening.

He whipped the ship around in spinning circles, flew through the gate again and again, while throwing his arms around inside the cockpit. Then, he spotted an anomaly in the far distance and out of mindless frustration blazed off after that. “Fine!” he thought, “I’ll try this again!”

Newtron zoomed into the bright particle cloud, but instead of the usual screech of protest from the shields there was silence, just a flash of light and he was out on the other side.

Except it wasn’t the other side.

Looking around, Newtron spotted a field of asteroids close by. He was sure they hadn’t been there before. Newtron had a thought—was he was in completely different sector? How the hell could that have happened?

Looking around again, Newtron spotted something not too far away and had an inspiration. He took off in the direction of the asteroids. As Newtron neared the field he concentrated on one particular roid—an ice asteroid. As he approached the enormous ball of ice he saw that it was battered, stained and lumpy—discolored white and blue. He got close and inspected the surface; it was badly pitted and pocked like a dirty snowball.

Newtron backed off and thought about shooting the asteroid if he could figure out how to use his lasers, if he even had lasers, suddenly—zap!

Newtron didn’t know how, but the ship had suddenly fired its laser straight into the ice when he had thought about it. Newtron moved back in towards the roid and saw the spot where the laser had melted some of the ice. Most of the water had evaporated away into space. But there was a refrozen, shiny puddle where the laser had struck. Moving in still closer, Newtron could just make out a distorted reflection—it was a squid.

***

   Solrain pilot Goatberd was traveling through the Gyre, his tow-load of equipment almost home to Amananth. He was relaxing, reading the latest news from TRINN;

(TRI-FP)

TRI physicist Delphince reports on recent studies of the Higgs-boson effect; and other breakthroughs in the field of quantum physics.

“As a quantum component of the theoretical standard model The Higgs boson particle has been studied for millennia,” explained Delphince. “The classic analogy of a Higgs boson effect is that of a pool of molasses that sticks to otherwise mass-less fundamental particles that travel through the field, imparting them with mass that form the various components of atoms.”

Explaining the relevance of his studies Doctor Delphince goes on to explain; “The galaxy in which we live appears to be saturated with Higgs-bosons. This imparts drag and limits the absolute speed of objects in space. It has long been recognized that this must be a local effect—astronomical observations have provided countless examples of celestial objects traveling at speeds of large fractions of the speed of light. This “high drag” effect appears to be regional, and long supposed to be a legacy of The Great Collapse.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” drawled Goatberd hefting a monster mug of coffee. Despite two powerful fusion engines the maximum speed of his Pioneer was a little over 450 kilometers per hour. Thank the Ancients for jumpgates, otherwise they’d never get anywhere in space.

He was 25 clicks from the gate and safety when the Balrog hit him. Three heavily cloaked fighters appeared and suddenly started shooting. Goatberd immediately got on the radio and called for help, but by the time the New Dawn fighters got to the scene, Goatberd was already being decanted by the POD retrieval crew on board SwarmBusters. The crew chief handed him a clipboard with the standard insurance claim forms.

“Welcome back Goatberd,” called out McPlowed from the mezzanine overhead. “But close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time,” responded Goatberd swearing to spend less time reading.

Chapter five

The Quantar fighter emerged from the jumpgate into the Last Parsec and vectored at full speed to a bluish-white 4 point POS. The fighter flipped 180 degrees and did a full throttle burn to a clean stop and then dove cleanly into the POS’s docking tube. As soon as the elevator platform brought the fighter up to the hangar level, Commander Gothmog jumped from the cockpit and marched up to the market. There he logged in and checked through the inventory.

“What the hell,” he grumbled aloud, “Damned double-crossing griefer!”

With that Gothmog checked his watch, turned on his heel and leapt over the railing and ran back to his ship, swearing under his breath the entire way. Moments later he was back in space and heading for the jumpgate.

Parked 40 clicks away, Pilot Radi looked down from the zoomed up image and noted Gothmog’s arrival and hasty departure in his log. Then he keyed his radio.

“Radi reporting in, connect me with Ambrosius.”

*   *   *

     Newtron was looking at the reflection of a squid. But it was supposed to be his reflection he was seeing, how could this happen?

Newtron looked again, millimetering closer for a better look. It was pretty blurry; the ice didn’t form a very good mirror even with the black of space behind him. There was a squid there in the reflection though, that was pretty certain, but maybe was the squid in the ice. Could the squid be on the other side of the ice-roid? As he looked again the squid matched his movements exactly—this was a reflection, definitely a reflection.

A squid? He, Newtron was a squid? Or maybe he was in a squid? Had he been eaten by a squid? Newtron crept back up to the ice and tried see if there were any windows in the squid to look into. Frankly Newtron had never been clear on whether flux were ships with cockpits and pilots inside or were actually big dangerous animals that lived in space. But how did he wind up inside one?

Newtron thought back through his encounter with the Sentient. Could monster or the anomaly they were dancing around have had something to do with this? He’d flown through anomalies before—back when he was a newb doing scanning missions. But nothing like this had ever happened before.

Maybe it was that Sentient—could it have done this to him? But even if, why would it? And what about that biomass he’d been hauling—essentially radioactive flux-guts—could that stuff have played a role in this? What about the weird Burglar® device he’d been using? They were based on Amananthian technology—transmitting matter through space and stuff. Maybe it fused him and the flux together? Or was it some combination of all those things.

But the most important question was if he were inside a squid, how would he get out?

Newtron let himself drift back a few meters and lasered away at the asteroid until he’d melted a really good size area of ice. Then he crept back in, searching for a more evenly reflective spot for a better look. He was rewarded with a shiny, smooth puddle about three meters across. With the light from the nearby anomaly off to one side he got a good look at his reflection. It was a badly distorted fun house mirror, looking like a squid holding its breath and as he turned the image stretched out, morphing into an anorexic pink mollusk with a bright little star in its center. This was not good.

Newtron was stunned. No wonder he couldn’t find the fighter’s controls or operate the gate. He wasn’t in a fighter.

Had this sort of thing ever happened before? Newtron couldn’t remember, and now he was mad at himself for sleeping through all those pilot briefings.

Okay, Newtron told himself, there’s got to be an answer to this. He looked around at the anomaly in the distance. He’d already flown through that once and it hadn’t unsquided him. Now what?

*   *   *

Chapter six – Station “Balrog”

Urias;

“What exactly is the difference between a pirate and a mugger, anyway? As far as I can tell it’s simply the eye-patch and the parrot.”

      Pilot Radi of squad Brotherhood had tracked a station stripper to his lair; a rather large, bluish white POS in the Last Parsec. He’d set up visual surveillance and monitored the comings and goings from a distance safely out of radar range—using a telescope to keep an eye on the station. In just a few hours he saw three Intensity class fighters entering and exiting the POS and leave through the jumpgate towards the Stith. Without the use of his radar Radi couldn’t positively ID the pilots, but he had a good idea who they were.

Now Radi and Brother Singleshot kept a much closer watch on the station. Ambrosius, in a third Typhoon radioed to Radi, “I’m going in to check out their nest.”

The POS was registered as the “Angband”, a Quantar pilot station. Being Quantar himself, Ambrosius found the computer gave him access to the station. Maneuvering his fighter, he made his approach and docked manually without incident. Moments later a big automated elevator platform carried his fighter up to the hangar floor level.

It seemed to be your standard Quantar issue 4 point POS and the station appeared to be deserted save the automated systems and maintenance robots that kept everything in tidy order. Still, it was a large structure and an army could be hidden out of sight down its wide corridors. In the Typhoon’s cockpit Ambrosius opened the small armory compartment and removed a blaster, clipping it to his belt—no need to take unnecessary chances he thought—he’d explore prepared.

There was no reception committee as he climbed out of his Typhoon—he hadn’t expected one. The hangar was brightly lit and quiet save the gentle popping and whirring of automatic systems and Ambrosius footsteps echoing down the halls. As the Commander walked across the hangar floor he was prepared for a challenge, but none was forthcoming.

Making his way up to the station’s automated market on the mezzanine level, Ambrosius examined the POS’s commodity manifest. He read a name and took an involuntary step back. The market belonged to the Balrog. This was a Balrog station. Station stripping was just one of the Balrog’s sins. They were also big time griefers, ambushing pilots going about their own business. How much stripped merchandise these guys had managed to store away?

He scanned the lists of items and was amazed at the quantity of choice merchandise they’d accumulated. They had been very busy. Ambrosius made a few purchases—he’d take what he could carry—which wasn’t much in a fighter, back to Quantar Core. According to the manifest there were dozens of Instigator® power-plants, Centrifuge V© power-plants, NovaTM plasma cannons, Flails©, Hitman©, Vapor® and InjusticeTM guns. There were also over a thousand Flash-Fire units and many more items than a simple POS usually bothered to stock. Before logging off he decided to check out commodities just to be thorough and there something caught his attention;

Quantar IceTM ___ quantity: 1012_____Price: 1,000,000 credits

“A billion credits for a thousand units of Quantar IceTM?” thought Ambrosius.

He recognized this procedure, even he used sometimes. The station owner could list a cheap commodity for some outrageous price. Someone could buy whatever it was, transferring money without it looking like a bribe/loan/payoff—it was a system based on trust. Maybe these guys were laundering money for some reason. Someone was using Ice sales to hide big cash transfers.  Loans were common between squads. What kind of transfer would you need to hide—protection money from haulers? Maybe somebody was underwriting the station-stripping these guys were doing but why bother to hide that?

Ambrosius figured he’d seen enough and headed back down to his ship. These guys were already in trouble with the squads—griefers who ambushed miners and haulers, grabbing up more than their share of new equipment, hoarding it at their private stations were looked down upon. But this was a big operation for some crummy griefers and pirates, you didn’t make much being assholes. Where were they getting the resources? How were they financing multiple stations, fighters and all this equipment?

As Ambrosius reached the hangar floor a sudden movement caught his eye and he grabbed his pistol—false alarm—water had condensed on the cold hull of his ship and dripped to the floor, a robot was vacuuming up the puddle. Looking around, Ambrosius moved on but was still on edge—no pirate squad he ever heard of had these kinds of resources. It looked like somebody had laid out billions to finance this station stripping operation, and whoever was pulling the wanted to remain hidden.

*   *   *

   Squid-Newtron figured that the anomalies acted like jumpgates for the flux and so he’d had been using them to travel from sector to sector.  Apparently the direction you entered the anomaly from determined which sector you emerged into and he then spent what seemed like hours (he had no clock) trying to figure out which way he was going based on the name engraved on the beacons. Astrogation had never been Newtron’s strong suit; he usually relied on computers to do the hard work. It took many hours of trial and error navigation but finally he got a break when an Octavian Phoenix suddenly appeared inside a gate in the sector he was in. Evidently Squid-Newtron must have been out of radar range or maybe the pilot wasn’t interested in the bounty on a single squid, because the fighter passed from one gate straight through to the other without hesitation.

Squid-Newtron had been drifting near the local anomaly and now gauging the angle of attack flew into it at the same angle the Phoenix had taken into the jumpgate. Sure enough, when Squid-Newtron popped out of the other side he was rewarded with the sight of the Phoenix emerging from the nearby gate. Continuing this technique, Squid-Newtron followed the fighter from sector to sector all the way to a big Octavian station!

But emerging into the sector Squid-Newtron suddenly become the focus for every pilot there. Almost as one, half a dozen ships swiveled about and headed in his direction.

Of course! Thought Newtron, and figuratively slapping his forehead, what had he been thinking? Ordinary flux never appear in TRI stations sectors. The only exceptions were jellyfish—the almost harmless little flux that the newbs practice on—and Sentients!

Holy crap! Thought Squid-Newtron, maybe I set off the Sentient alarm! They think I’m a Sentient! A TRI alert would be going out all over the galaxy. Dozens of pilots would be converging on him, shooting and launching missiles!

Panicking, Squid-Newtron headed for the station—five Oct fighters zooming in on his butt. A Chiropteran pilot up ahead was trying vainly to land a shot on him but Squid-Newtron slipped by, then pulled up just in time to avoid a fusillade of fire from several fighters blocking his path. Squid-Newtron wheeled about and headed towards the station docking tube, praying he could pull off a high-speed dock and hoping that if he got into the hangar the station crew could cut him out of the squid before opening fire. Suddenly a tingling feeling was running up his spine and Squid-Newtron was aware there was a missile on his tail. It was a white missile with green and blue stripes—a Sabre? These maniacs had launched a nuke at him! What was wrong with these guys? Were they crazy? Even if they thought he was a Sentient, he was only a squid for crying out loud, a nuke was way over-the-top.

In blind panic and a shower of red sparks he managed to skirt the edge of the station and came face to face with three new pilots emerging from the launch tubes—he didn’t know who was the more startled. Accelerating away Squid-Newtron barely made it around the next corner—managing just to duck behind the station—when the nuke went off. His shields screeched in fresh protest and the blast filled the night with fire and red light.

As squid-Newtron nosed back around the other side there were no sign of the three newly launched fighters—blown to smithereens no doubt—and the rest of the fleet was well out of range, having retreated to avoid the nuke.

Now was his chance and he scrambled around the station, bouncing painfully off the corners and raced for the docking tube. He just made it in, losing the rest of his shields and some of his armor in the process, and…nothing!

Squid-Newtron was in the docking tube, lights flashing all around him, painfully aware that there were a dozen fighters bearing down on him, and struck by the realization that the station wasn’t going to let him in. He rammed his nose into the docking door a few times but nothing happened. His pursuers were only moments behind but he’d lost the strength to fight back.

Laser fire rained down upon him and Squid-Newtron’s shields blazed in protest, but he wasn’t instantly destroyed like he expected. Apparently the fighters were having a hard time hitting him inside the tube—shots were ricocheting off the walls around him. Squid-Newtron turned himself around and looking for a break in the attack seized his opportunity and raced out as fast as he could. He headed straight at the closest fighter, who panicked and tried to dodge giving Squid-Newtron the chance he needed to get through the hail of ammo and laser fire. But before he was able to make it to the gate they started hitting him again in earnest. Then he remembered the gate wouldn’t work for him and before he could think of what to do next—blam! He exploded.

*   *   *

   Regan was hauling a load of precious metals and water to Quant core when she was hit. If the heavily decorated Quantar ace had been flying a fighter the Balrog griefers would probably have been the ones going home in POD’s. But the while Regan’s Chinook’ was fast, heavily shielded and bristling with missiles, it couldn’t maneuver worth a damn and the Intensity’s kept out of her gun sights as they wore down the shields and armor.

When the retrieval crew helped Regan out of her POD on board her squad’s POS she marched straight across the hangar floor and past Dogzilla as he came up to commiserate with her. Instead of complaining, she climbed right into a big Typhoon fighter and toggled up the power and prepared to launch.  But as Regan did the pre-launch check she saw all newb equipment listed. Regan punched the dashboard and screamed out loud. Dispirited, she climbed back out and marched off to the officer’s lounge, Dogzilla, JoeStraz and Mcgiver knowing enough to stay out of her way.

*   *   *

    Newtron opened his eyes and groaned—he was back in the messed up pink hangar. Then he had a thought; could this be a Conflux hive? With its sickly reddish-pink fun house interior and snakelike coils writhing on the deck it didn’t look like any station he’d ever been in before. The idea of being inside a hive scarred him to death, but it made sense, this is probably what happened to flux when they got blown up. Well, now what?

Out of the blue he felt something touch him and Newtron jumped—it was one of the coil things on the deck.

“Splurp!”

Newtron was outside, tumbling again, with an effort he straightened himself out. He spotted a few asteroids and zeroed in on a whitish-blue ice one. After a little work with the laser he crept in for a look.

There was a manta looking back at him.

A manta? Great, he was still a flux, but at least a manta wasn’t too bad as flux went. Mantas were reasonably fast, good at maneuvering and had decent firepower—now at least he might have a chance to find one of his old squad-mates and figure out a way to communicate—before getting blasted out of space.

Also, now he had an idea of which direction to go. With a jump Manta-Newton was back in Amananth, and within sight of SwarmBusters. Not seeing any pilots about he decided to wait out of sight for someone he recognized. It didn’t take long; Vorlon31 appeared from the Aman Leap jumpgate.

Manta-Newtron was hiding behind a POS but remembered that wouldn’t hide him from radar and a moment later Vorlon31 was heading straight for him.

Crap! The top flux killer in the galaxy would have to be the first guy to show up! Moments later a few more fighters emerged from SwarmBusters.

“Sentient Alarm!” radioed Vorlon31. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a Sentient boys.”

“Why isn’t it attacking?” asked pilot JoeStraz.

Instead of answering, Vorlon31 fired mortars—his favorite weapons—and landed several hits in a row.

Damn! Thought Manta-Newtron, how can Vorlon31 be that accurate? Vorlon31 hit him several more times before Manta-Newtron was able to scramble out of range. A couple more shots like those he’d be dead, he was already down to 60 percent armor. Manta-Newtron continued at top speed to give his shields time to recharge, at least he had some speed. But Vorlon31 was persistent; he was on afterburner and Flash-Fires and wasn’t going to let his quarry get away. Manta-Newtron’s shields were back to 50 percent but Vorlon31 was persistent and the other fighters were closing in. Manta-Newtron peeled off to port, trying to turn without presenting his broad back as a target to everyone. His pursuers were hanging on, but at the last moment Manta-Newtron braked and turned to starboard, raking Vorlon31 with laser fire as they passed each other. Maybe Manta-Newtron could scare these guys off! Manta-Newtron was more maneuverable at these speeds and he might be able to keep out of Vorlon31’s line of fire. But, this strategy wasn’t perfect; if he made any mistake the TRI pilot would finish him. And Manta-Newtron just couldn’t fight back—the manta was just not tough enough for Newtron—with his poor PvP skills—to beat Vorlon3. Suddenly Vorlon31 pulled up, let off a series of devastatingly accurate shots and BLAM! Manta-Newtron was gone.

*   *   *

     Newtron awoke back in the hive again. Oh well, he thought, at least he was warm and cozy. In fact, now that he thought about it he felt pretty good. He wasn’t hungry, although he was a bit thirsty, and all his other bodily functions were apparently okay. Weird, he thought, being a flux wasn’t that bad, aside from being Vorloned. Well, thought Newtron, he was tired of running and getting shot, maybe he could just stay in here for a while.

“Splurp!”

“Damn it!” shouted Newtron to no one in particular, “Don’t I even get a break?”

Again Newtron found himself tumbling through space. Steadying himself once more he glanced about to find his ice mirror and get a look at himself. Spying his previous creation he ambled over for a closer inspection. But seeing his reflection caused Newtron to groan in despair.

“I’m a snail?” Newtron said in horror.

Big as a barn, slow as a shuttle, about as nimble as cargo-tow and poorly armed. A snail was humiliating!

“A snail?” repeated Newtron. They were just trying to get him killed now.

Snail-Newtron looked around for a moment and then closed his eyes and raced face-first into the nearest asteroid.

 

Chapter seven – Lost in translation

Newtron woke again in what he now assumed must be a Conflux hive—it was pretty disgusting in there. Newtron was glad he had something between himself and that stuff outside.

Splurp!

Well, timing is everything even for flux—he was back in space. Arresting the now familiar tumble, Newtron flew to his mirror and appraised his current situation. What was he this time?

“A kraken?”

“Alright,” thought Newtron. A kraken was small and nimble, had decent speed and maneuverability. The krakens were pretty tough customers and they had fearsome firepower—this might be enough to keep Newtron safe.

As Kraken-Newtron headed for the nearby anomaly, he thought he’d have to be smarter this time.  While TRI pilots were limited by their radars to identifying objects at 50 kilometers at most, scientists figured Conflux were aware of everything inside the sectors, regardless of the distance. If that was still the case for Kraken-Newtron, then he should be able to jump into Amananth and stay well away from the stations and still be aware of the pilots without them seeing him. But he needed to get close enough to see a ship to know who was piloting it. This could be tough. He needed to get a message to New Dawn and let them know what was going on. Newtron hoped LupinOne would know what to do.

But the problem was how to get a message to them? He didn’t have a radio. And they’d shoot him before he got close enough to try any visual signal like wiggling his wings (did krakens even have wings?) Then Kraken-Newtron remembered the ice asteroid and had an idea.

With a couple of jumps he was in Amananth and Kraken-Newtron raced straight for SwarmBusters station. No ships were about, odd; normally the warnings sounded when Sentients entered station sectors, but maybe the scanners were as confused as he was.

Okay, he’d made it to the station without getting himself killed again, but Kraken-Newtron’s work was far from over. He still had to get some kind of message to LupinOne. He couldn’t use the radio, but maybe Kraken-Newtron could use his laser to write a message on the station the way he’d melted a mirror into the ice-roid.

After a moment Kraken-Newtron realized this wasn’t going to be easy. He had to move his entire body like a giant pen and the weapon produced sinister calligraphy. The result was ghastly penmanship.

But before he’d finished a ship emerged from a launch tube and stopped dead. A minute late a dozen more poured out—damn!

Station owner McPlowed was in one of those fighters and was angrily radioing; “Damn it Lupin, how did this blasted thing sneak up on us?”

“I have no idea McP,” answered LupinOne, “But there’s the Sentient warning.”

TRI ALERT: Sentient in Amananth Sector

McPlowed armed his missiles and closed the distance, “What the hell am I paying taxes for if the system doesn’t work right?”

Coming around the edge of the station, McPlowed got his first look at what the flux was doing. “Damn it,” said McPlowed, “that stupid krak’s burning up my POS! That’s the craziest Sentient stunt I’ve ever seen.”

LupinOne had to agree, this was particularly un-flux-like behavior.

“Yeah McP,” he replied, “you know the last few Sentients reports described some peculiar activity. Maybe we’ve killed all the smart ones. That Sentient that attacked Oct Outpost yesterday didn’t fire a shot. Hotdog said it just flew into the docking tube and wouldn’t come out.

“Strange even for a Sentient,” agreed McPlowed angrily, “but what’s that thing doing to my station?”

As McPlowed and the New Dawn pilots roared into shooting range Kraken-Newtron spun 180 degrees and ducked under the POS’s hangar. He wasn’t in the mood to get shot again and a kraken wasn’t fast enough to outrun all the fighters spread between him and the anomaly. Kraken-Newtron really wanted to avoid having to fight his way out. His only advantage was that it’s pretty difficult to hit an evading target and kraken weren’t very big. He might not be able to outrun the New Dawn fighters, but if he weaved back he might just make it to the anomaly. In the meantime he had to try to keep the station between himself and the pilots.

The pilots jockeyed to get a shot at the hiding flux, and AvengeND noticed the burns in the side of the station.

“Hey guys,” he called out, “that Sentient isn’t attacking the station, it was writing on it!”

“Oh great, now I’ve got flux graffiti to clean up!” complained McPlowed loudly, “insurance doesn’t cover stuff like that.”

But this caught LupinOne’s attention, “Can you read it, what does it say?”

While still keeping their eyes on the screwy kraken, a couple of other pilots maneuvered their bulky fighters in for a better look—which was a little tricky. Nocturnus queued up his landing lights, almost blinding the other two pilots but brilliantly illuminating the bulkhead.

“It looks like; II-=-I-/II-III-I= M-III-+-W-T-III-O-N-I-N-III F-L-II-X”, replied AvengeND, “or maybe that’s; III-II-L-II-III-E III-N-E-V-T-R-III-M—it’s hard to make out.”

“No, it’s; H-E-L-F, and; III-II I-M-N-E-VV-T-R-O-M-I-M-A-F-I-U-X,” corrected Nocturnus, “or maybe; H-B-L-II-M-E-I-M-N-E-V-V-T-II-O-M-I-M-II-F-L-V-X.”

“Wait a minute, let me get a pen.” Said Omega-, “OK, I’ve got: H, B, L, P…”

“That’s an “E”,” corrected Nocturnus.

“No, he’s right, it a “P””, counter-corrected AvengeND.

“OK,” continued Omega-, “I’ve got; H-B-L-P-M-E-I-M-N-E-V-T-R-O-M-I-M-F-L-U-X. Is that right?”

“I think that first B is an E,” repeated Nocturnus.

“None of it makes any sense,” said LupinOne, “Maybe it’s the Sentient’s name.”

“Think its tagging the station?” suggested Omega-, “like branding it?”

“How can this Sent be laying claim to the station?” asked Nocturnus incredulously, “it hasn’t put up any fight and now it’s hiding under the station. Weirdest flux I’ve ever seen.”

“Still, there must have been a reason for it to have made those markings,” mused LupinOne, “as well as its unusual behavior.”

Suddenly a brilliant orange flash enveloped the other side of the station.

A moment later Vorlon31’s fighter eased around the station into view.

“Hey New Dawn,” radioed the Solrain pilot Vorlon31, “I took care of that Sentient kraken for you.”

Chapter eight

“Poor Communication skills,” thought Newtron.

As Newtron woke up he was struck by a memory, a TRI fighter rushing up behind him, then, BLAM!

Vorlon31 again! Damn that guy!

Newtron had just caught a glimpse of the well-known flux hunter before the pilot blasted him to smithereens.

How the hell had Vorlon31 snuck up on him like that?

Never mind, he was back in the hive again, a steamy pink nightmare of flux shadows hovering in the dark and snake-like claw-tipped coils writhing across the floor. Newtron watched in exasperation as the tentacles stopped whatever they were doing and started moving towards him.

“Splurp!”

The Conflux station launched him once again! Damn it! Don’t these aliens ever take a day off? Newtron struggled briefly to get control of the tumbling flux and went to the ice-roid mirror to get a look at himself.

For a moment he almost couldn’t believe his eyes, a phocaena! Though it was slightly small than the kraken, the phocaena was a crazy step up in performance and fighting ability from the lesser Conflux and fast enough to outrun any of the big Octavian fighters. Now this was more like it. Now he could go back to Amananth and see what the gang at New Dawn made of his message.

As phocaena -Newtron made his way across the sector towards SwarmBusters he stretched his senses out to search for hidden pilots. No more sneaky attacks by Vorlon31 with his long range mortars. Phocaena -Newtron was ready to turn tail and run if anybody showed up and made the slightest aggressive move. He reached the station without challenge and took up waiting for someone to show up to talk. He didn’t have to wait long.

“TRI ALERT: Sentient in Amananth Sector”

Fighters of every color poured out of the station launch tubes, from nearby POS’s and even from the nearby gates and they all looked pretty mad. Spinning quickly about phocaena -Newtron could see fighters cutting him off to the nearby anomaly—his escape route—he hadn’t planned on that but he might be fast enough now to make it. Ships from every faction jostled for position to get a shot at him and half a dozen opened fire simultaneously.

Not waiting around to give anyone a shot, phocaena -Newtron accelerated forward then slid sideways between ion and ammo bursts. He turned and remembering how that pilot had panicked earlier accelerated again, straight for the closest fighter. Sure enough, the pilot rolled his Typhoon sideways and raced back towards the station and fighter. Newtron recognized the guy, it was a pilot named Phoebus who when he realized phocaena -Newtron was still on his tail made straight for the docking tube. Suddenly phocaena -Newtron had an inspiration, but the timing had to be perfect—too fast and he’d crash spectacularly, too slow and the tube would close behind the Typhoon before phocaena -Newtron could get through.

“The Sent is right on me!” radioed Phoebus as he tried to keep his speeding Typhoon lined up with the docking rings. “I don’t know why it hasn’t blasted me yet!”

“That’s Sent behavior,” LupinOne speculated out loud, “we’ve seen them toy with pilots before.”

The Typhoon hit the docking tube at 99 meters per second and phocaena -Newtron was literally on his ass as the doors opened and incredibly, they both flew inside.

And then all hell broke loose.

Emergency—emergency—emergency!” Screamed the hanger speakers; “Conflux in the station! This is not a drill!

Warning sirens were shrieking their protest and panicked personnel scrambled off the flight deck at the incredible sight of Phocaena-Newtron rising out of the elevator shaft into the hanger bay amid a chorus of alien howls. Phoebus’s Typhoon caromed off several parked fighters as he tried to swing about in the confined area—engine exhaust burning the paint off the walls and setting rows of crates on fire.

Phocaena-Newtron didn’t like the close quarters and being more nimble than the TRI ship rose into the air over the screaming fighter. With the Typhoon in the center of the hanger there wasn’t enough room for any of the other ships to move. Seizing the moment, Phocaena-Newtron turned towards the traffic control windows on the second floor mezzanine of the hangar. On the other side of the glass-steel, flight-control personnel flung themselves behind their desks and crawled for the exits at top speed to escape the ten meter pink monster.

Down on the hanger floor, half a dozen security guards poured out of the personnel lift and into the howling chaos, and braved the anti-gravity waves which sent tool chests, crates and trash flying around the room like a tornado of metal. They began firing at the Conflux, but hand held weapons were about as effective as pea-shooters against the armor-plated leviathan. Ricocheting ammo zinged off the walls and punched holes through expensive maintenance bots. Countless fires had erupted as the superheated exhaust from Phoebus’s Typhoon burned everything flammable.

“What in holy Hyperial have I done to deserve this!” shouted McPlowed clawing his way into the hangar, his uniform ripped to shreds by gravity waves. “Damn you freaking Sent!” he screamed and flung his coffee cup at the flux. “Everybody out of the hangar now!” he ordered, as the coffee came splashing back. McPlowed turned and raced for the stairs.

Phocaena-Newtron had hoped that someone would remain in the control room—his idea of tapping out a message on the window was his last hope of getting help—but it looked like the control room was now empty. He was just about to turn away when he saw movement on the other side of the glass-steel. McPlowed burst through the doors, his face twisted in fury. But before Phocaena-Newtron had a chance to begin, the furious POS owner leaped across the room and hit a big yellow button, slamming down blast doors all through the hanger bay. And before Phocaena-Newtron could react McPlowed flipped the cover off a large red button and smacked it with his palm.

The elevator door snapped open, exposing the hangar to space—instantly everything inside—Phocaena-Newtron, Phoebus’s typhoon and millions of credits worth of burned, bullet-ridden tool chests and maintenance bots was ejected into space.

As Phocaena-Newtron tumbled out amid the chaos he saw he was surrounded by dozens of fighters.

“Fire!” shouted AvengeND.

An almighty storm of ammo, plasma and laser fire ripped into Screamed the hanger speakers;-Newtron, blasting him to bits.

“OK,” radioed LupinOne, “good job gentlemen!” The kill shot had been nicely timed, but the New Dawn commander couldn’t help thinking there was something important they were missing here.

***

   Later, after emergency teams carried off stretchers laden with injured men and maintenance crews put out the last of the fires, LupinOne had a chance to check in on the station owner. He was a little worried about McPlowed—the trillionaire wasn’t taking the recent Sent attacks well—feeling they were somehow personally directed at him. McPlowed may have been rich, but all the repair bills were adding up, and due to the unusual nature of the incidents, he wasn’t getting help from TRI insurance either.

“That hangar’s screwed,” lamented McPlowed as he surveyed the blackened bullet-riddled mess, “totally shot.”

“I’m sure Phoebus’s sorry about the fire damage.” soothed LupinOne.

“100 million for the maintenance bots alone,” continued the billionaire, “and another 100 for all the burned fighters that got scattered into space.”

“But you did the right thing,” replied LupinOne helpfully, “that Sent would have been murder inside the station—never saw a flux pull that off before. Spacing it was absolutely the right call, a gutsy move on your part too.”

“Station maintenance crews are already working overtime trying to remove that flux-graffiti,” grumbled the mournful station owner, “and they don’t make that color of paint anymore.”

“That’s too bad,” replied LupinOne, “I always thought it was nice.”

“Think I’m going to get drunk,” finished McPlowed.

“Really?” asked LupinOne seriously, “I thought you already were.”

 

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