Newtron and the UnSentient (part two)

by Newtron

Chapter Nine – Stingray

Newtron opened his eyes and his first thought was; “water,” he was really getting thirsty.

Splurp!

Newtron found himself looking around for his ice-roid mirror once again, hoping he’d find himself in something with a radio and a water dispenser. Drifting up he saw a Stingray! Now you’re talking!

The Stingray was fast, very, very fast—over 700 meters per second if memory still served. They were also heavily armed though lightly shielded.

Now, Stingray-Newtron wouldn’t have to worry about the stupid flux hunters getting in his way! Hell, he wouldn’t even have to fight back; there was no ship in the galaxy that could catch him! He could circle SwarmBusters all day, with every pilot in creation on his tail and they couldn’t touch him!

Stingray-Newtron wondered if there was any way he could melt the ice-roid for the water. He was better off getting help to get out of this predicament.

He headed for the anomaly and back to Amananth again. But in his haste he made a mistake, this wasn’t Amananth; he’d have to try again.

As he turned to head back, he saw a ship emerge from the nearby jumpgate; a big Chinook cargo-tow. Suddenly, two Intensity class fighters appeared from a nearby POS and made a beeline for the cargo-tow. Stingray-Newtron must have been within their radar range, but they were so intent they probably didn’t bother to check their radar to check out the purple dot, figuring this was a squid sector, nothing for fighters or cargo-tows to worry about.

The fighters launched a spam of missiles at their hapless victim, which launched several missiles in return. The Intensity’s went evasive but the big cargo-tow—weighed down with freight—couldn’t evade. The missiles exploded before they got close—the tow must’ve been equipped with an ECM. But the fighters slalomed their way through the asteroids and scraped off their pursuing missiles.

Stingray-Newtron recognized a big donut-shaped asteroid and guessed this must the Stith—unregulated space. Now the fighters were making their way back toward the tow.

Stingray-Newtron had seen enough, he had no problem with honest pirates but this was just griefing. And while Newtron wasn’t an ace—he would never have taken on a pair of Intensity’s by himself before—things were different now! With almost double their speed and incredible maneuvering ability this should be like taking candy from a baby! Grinning ear to ear Stingray-Newtron leaned forward and accelerated like mad after the pirates.

Quantar pilot GrimGriz was preparing for the worst, if he reached the jumpgate he might be okay, but the odds weren’t in his favor. The cargo-tow was too unwieldy to fight off the fighters and he was out of missiles. The fighters would wear his shields down and he’d be taking a POD ride home. “Okay, how much do you guys want to let me go?”

But the pilots—two guys from the Balrog squad—didn’t reply, at least not with words.

Gnomemog opened fire first followed a moment later by Rahastes. They strafed the cargo-tow, the ship’s shields flaring brilliant green.

The Stith is home to squid and most pilots wouldn’t be bothered by a squid or two. So Gnomemog and Rahastes didn’t even bother to check the pink radar dot racing towards them.

At 4000 meters Stingray-Newtron opened fire on the two fighters and was thrilled to see shields flare brightly and armor sparks showering off the burning hulls. “Wow!” He thought. “This thing’s really got guns!”

Rahastes had no idea what was happening. One second he’s blasting the Chinook, the next his shields were gone and his armor was burning before his eyes. Panicked, he dodged to port and hit his Flash-Fires. The burning Intensity fighter accelerated out from under Stingray-Newtron’s attack, then, AB fuel expended, its speed dropped.

Like a bat out of hell Stingray-Newtron jumped on his quarry—“Wow, this thing was responsive!”—and started shooting again. The fighter—caught by surprise again—exploded in a brilliant red and green flash!

Gnomemog had watched the whole short affair in openmouthed shock.

“Where the hell did that thing come from?” he shouted to no one in particular.

GrimGriz agreed this was an unexpected turn of events and with the Stingray turning back; both pilots cringed in anticipation of what was to come.

Gnomemog turned his fighter toward the approaching alien, prepared to defend himself but then the stingray did something unexpected; it changed course, circling the ships. Confused by the flux’s behavior and assuming it was a Sentient, the Balrog pirate scrambled for the safety of the nearest jumpgate.

GrimGriz grimaced, but then the Stingray turned—so incredibly sharp—and was right behind the fleeing fighter. The pirate and hit his flash-fires hoping to make it to the gate and launched his last missile at his faster pursuer but Stingray-Newtron didn’t even bother looking as the rocket raced by. Flash-Fires empty Gnomemog corkscrewed his fighter hoping to confuse the flux, but took a broadside of the Stingray’s fire. The Intensity’s shields flared green, sparks showering off its hull as the Conflux came in for the kill. In a brilliant blast the fighter was gone.

Looking around, Stingray-Newtron saw the cargo-tow near the jumpgate. He’d saved that cargo-tow. Maybe whoever the guy was, he’d be grateful enough to communicate with. Then again he might fire off more missiles. Either way, the cargo-tow was Stingray-Newtron’s best bet—the pilot couldn’t outrun or kill him. Stingray-Newtron headed for the nearby anomaly to catch him on the other side. But on exiting into the next sector there was no sign of the cargo-tow. Stingray-Newtron had misjudged the jumpgates again, damn!

***

     GrimGriz was watching the team of brand new robot forklifts unload the Chinook.  SwarmBuster’s hangar bay appeared to have a fresh coat of paint. He turned as the lift doors opened and McPlowed made his way towards him.

“My crew chief tells me you ran into trouble in Unreg,” the big man announced.

GrimGriz shrugged and motioned with his coffee mug towards his ship. “By all rights I should have gotten a POD ride back to Quantar Core and that ship shouldn’t be here.”

McPlowed leaned over the railing and noted the Chinook’s empty missile racks, “Five missiles are cheap compared to a hundred million credits worth of hardware,” he mused off hand.

GrimGriz shook his head, “Nope, wasn’t my missiles that drove ‘em off.”

McPlowed caught an inflection in the younger pilot’s voice and turned to face him, “Well, however you managed it I’m grateful, I’ve lost three loads of equipment to griefers in the last few weeks—no pay or die demands—the freaking idiots just start shooting. I’m starting to get paranoid.”

GrimGriz turned to face McPlowed, “Four attacks on your transports? I’d say you’re right to be paranoid; maybe someone’s leaking your schedules and routes to these Balrog dicks. But don’t thank me for saving your haul; believe it or not a Sentient covered my back.”

McPlowed was rarely in the mood for jokes, and glanced sharply at the Quantar pilot standing next to him, “Another Sent?” he asked incredulously, “and it didn’t set off the alarms? You’re sure?”

GrimGriz shrugged, “It had to be a Sentient, but you’re right about that beacon.”

“This Sent, was it a Phocaena?” asked McPlowed, looking GrimGriz in the eyes.

GrimGriz crossed his arms, “No, Stingray, and it tore the pirates a new sphincter—it was a slaughter.”

“Huh,” said McPlowed, “Never seen a Stingray Sentient before. And it blasts the crap out of your griefers but leaves you alone? What the hell’s going on around here?”

“Dunno,” replied GrimGriz, “but whatever the beacon says, you got a big mean Sentient to thank for saving your cargo.”

***

     Gnomemog and Rahastes’s reception committee was less sympathetic at their arrival in a pair of POD’s.

“How the hell did you numbskulls lose two fighters in two minutes,” demanded Gothmog, “all the escort cowboys are tied up blockading stations.”

Rahastes climbed out of his steaming POD.

“It wasn’t an escort boss,” he shrugged, “It was a Sentient, I swear.”

“Damnedest thing,” agreed Gnomemog brushing himself off.

Gothmog’s eyebrows pinched together in a frightening manner.

“A flux?” he said, “you’re telling me a flux shot you down?”

”A Sentient,” corrected Rahastes quickly. “A stingray Sentient, it was incredibly fast, I couldn’t land a shot.”

Gothmog took a step back.

***

     Stingray-Newtron spent the past hour jumping from sector to sector looking for that Chinook but finally had to admit it must have docked by now.  Now he’d settle for a miner working the asteroid fields, he didn’t care which. The idea of making contact with a freighter or miner was appealing. Out-running missiles was no big deal for a stingray, and the heavy ships couldn’t shoot at him. Once he found a hauler on his own, he should have plenty of time to tap out a message on the guy’s hull or something, whatever worked.

Blasting those pirates was fun. Newtron had never been much at PvPing but this was like flying some super-ship.

Stingray-Newtron could tell by the color of the beacons that he was somewhere in Quantar space, and he sensed the presence of a freighter in the distance—a Quantar Thunder– and set off in its direction at top speed. Then he sensed two more ships—Intensity’s—emerging from a nearby jumpgate and also heading for the freighter.

“What’s this, more pirates?” He said to himself.

Sure enough, as soon as they got within range of the cargo-tow the fighters launched a missile spam. Stingray-Newtron had a flash of déjà vu then changed direction towards the two fighters.

This time the pirates must have been watching their radars; they broke off their attack and circled around to meet the oncoming alien. Stingray-Newtron picked the farther of the two targets and raced up a long arc that brought him in behind the frantically turning fighter. He was aware of the second Intensity firing wildly in his direction but he was still able to really hammer the hapless fighter. It was Flash-Firing in an attempt to out-circle him, but the Intensity’s shields blazed green. Breaking wide, Stingray-Newtron used his incredible maneuverability to place the first fighter between himself and the other, while burning his victim’s armor away.

Blam!

The first pirate went up in pyrotechnic splendor and now he turned his attention on the second.

Pink contrails blazed behind the second Intensity as it tried to turn inside the Stingray-Newtron’s circle, but the pilot couldn’t land a single shot. Stingray-Newtron was now behind him and burning up his ship too. In a few moments it was all over and both pirates were taking POD rides home.

There was no sign of the cargo-tow. The fight had gone on too long and he’d had lost track which gate the hauler had jumped into.  Stingray-Newtron was back to his search.

***

     “What the hell happened this time?” shouted the tall darkly dressed man striding out across the POD retrieval platform. Gothmog was not in a good mood.

“It was that freaking Sent again,” answered Gnomemog in self-defense as he stepped out of the still steaming POD.

“We’d just launched a missile spam at the tow and that freaking Sentient just comes barreling out of no-where,” Added Rahastes, coming up to stand next to Gnomemog who was nodding in confirmation.

“You’re telling me that some flux—a Sentient—shot you out of space twice in the same day? That a flux is tracking you across the galaxy to shoot you down?” Gothmog grabbed Gnomemog by the shoulders, “You’re telling me that a Conflux has personally intervened twice in the same day, in sectors light years apart, to keep you from taking down a couple of cargo-tows?” he stopped and then lowered his voice, “Is that what you’re asking me to believe?”

Gnomemog wished Gothmog wasn’t holding him by the shoulders. He would really have liked to put some distance between himself and the angry squad leader.

“Yes,” his said half-heartedly, “that’s what happened … really.”

Gothmog spun on his heels and grabbed his hair with both hands, “Arg!” he shouted through gritted teeth, “How are we supposed to bleed the stations if you keep letting these deliveries get through?” he turned back to his minions, “And what do you think our investors are gonna think when they get the bill for four more fully equipped fighters? You lost three to the Brotherhood last week! Now we’re going to have to switch POS’s since you’ve managed to lose all the fighters we had stored here!”

“Hey, it’s not our fault!” interrupted Rahastes—Gnomemog shrank away from his rash friend, “the Brotherhood’s one thing, but how do you expect us to fight a Sentient? That thing’s twice as fast as us and it corners like it’s on rails.

Gothmog took a menacing step toward the shorter pilot, and lowered his forehead, “How?” he growled through gritted teeth, “There were two of you!” he shouted, “In fully equipped Intensity’s for God’s sake!” he yelled again, spittle landing on the hapless Rahastes’s face. Gothmog staggered back and tried to compose himself, “Alright,” he said as much to himself as to the others, “I’ve got to make a call. You two,” he said facing them again, “get our last fast transport ready, we’ll have to use the alternate POS and grab a couple of new fighters.” And with that he turned and stalked off towards his office.

Chapter Ten – The Hunter

Ambrosius had been following a trail. Not a tangible physical trail—this was space after all—but one based on intuition and experience. Singleshot and Radi were now tracking two of the station strippers they’d discovered around Ekoo’s Stop. They’d dealt with a couple of pirates already but those guys would re-launch as soon as they fitted out new ships from station Angband. Ambrosius was now following a different scent. He’d been keeping an eye on traffic in and out of unregulated space and had divined a pattern. There seemed to be a lot of movement to and from Hyperial, and now he was following what he suspected was a Balrog pilot named Gothmog who seemed to be heading for the isolated station-city.

Normally Ambrosius would have been content with just shooting down the Balrog, or any Balrog for that matter, but the blockade wasn’t working. These guys were well supplied and just kept coming back. It called for a different strategy. With the equipment the public stations had already lost/sold pickings were getting slim. Now Ambrosius was curious about the Balrog’s interest in Hyperial. He’d let the pirate keep his ship a little while longer to see what business Gothmog had in one of the galaxy’s most enigmatic locales. Was this where Balrog got their financing?

Ambrosius was flying his usual fighter—a Typhoon—using his telescope to keep out of the Gothmog’s radar range. He already knew where the pirate was heading. The trip to Hyperial was a long one, but finally they were traveling through the Far Gate with Hyperial the next stop. Ambrosius entered the sector just in time to see the Balrog docking at the old asteroid-based station the Quantar referred to as “the Defiled Temple”. Ambrosius waited to make sure the Balrog was really docking and not pulling a drive-through to throw off pursuit—it was possible the pirate had spotted Ambrosius tailing him—but it became obvious that Gothmog was here to stay so Ambrosius docked himself and double-checked his sidearm to make sure it was fully charged.

By the time Ambrosius got through station security Gothmog was nowhere in sight. Hyperial was a big station with miles of corridors carved through the ancient rock, it could take hours to locate one man, but a few credits in the right hands told Ambrosius where the Balrog had gone.

Hyperial is home to several major manufacturers of capacitors, weapons and engines, so Ambrosius wasn’t surprised when he was directed to the offices of Aristio Conglomerated, located in one of the station’s larger, more up-scale halls. The business entrance was beautifully carved in stone with tall fluted columns and a sculpted lentil. Ambrosius entered through heavy glass doors and found himself in an elegant reception area. There were polished models of the Rush and Dream gravity driver engines on display as well as Screwdriver and Morningstar missiles. Ambrosius noted a clean, modern desk at the far end of the room and as he approached a head popped up from behind and despite himself Ambrosius jumped slightly at the face of the Hyperial before him.

“Sorry,” chimed the light, musical voice of the person sitting upright behind the desk, “dropped my pen, always doing that. May I help you?”

The person seated before Ambrosius was a native Hyperial, and despite years of dealing with them, he’d never got completely used to the experience. As Hyperials went, the “young lady” was one of the more attractive examples he’d encountered. Relatively thin, with smooth clear unblemished bluish-green skin, the women’s face was broad and low, with black eyes the size of oranges set a top her head. Her smile was thin and a foot wide, stretching from ear membrane to ear membrane. She had no forehead to speak of and her face jutted smoothly forward ending in a pair of tiny nostrils. Hands with five delicate fingers were a long as his feet. The Hyperial looked unnervingly like a smartly dressed giant tree frog. The nameplate on the desk said; Delores Ribbit

Before Ambrosius could open his mouth the receptionist drew a quick breath and clapped her hands excitedly.

“Hey I know you!” she almost shouted, “You’re Ambrosius! I’ve seen you on the newscasts! Oh my god, wait tell I tell my girlfriends! You don’t have an appointment do you?” she asked as she quickly consulted the computer. Then throwing up her hands she said, “Never mind!” she jumped out of her chair, “Appointment or no, Mr. Croaker will definitely want to meet you!”

The receptionist disappeared through a big door and Ambrosius heard muffled voices from the other side. Then Delores popped back out and hands clasped behind her slim waist said; “Mr. Croaker is just finishing a meeting and will be right with you Commander Ambrosius.”

“Thank you,” Ambrosius managed to say and settled into a comfortable couch next to a glass coffee table. Ms. Ribbit hurried over and clasped her hands in front of her, “Can I get you anything while you wait?” she asked excitedly, head tilted to one side.

“Uh, no thanks,” said Ambrosius sitting down and reaching for one of the colorful magazines fanned out across the table before him and picked up the latest copy of Quantar Life.

***

     Behind the large office doors Mr. Croaker was indeed in a meeting.

Mr. Croaker was probably as different from Ms. Ribbit as two people of their species could be. While she was young, tall and slim with a healthy smooth complexion and a stylish youthful dress, Mr. Croaker looked old, short and squat with a pebbly gray complexion and a stodgy business suit.

Across the desk, stood the pirate Gothmog; tall and ominous, wearing a black on black flight suit.

“150 million?” growled the Balrog pirate, placing both hands flat on the desk, “That’s all you’re going to give us?”

“Not at all my dear Gothmog,” drawled Mr. Croaker laconically, “that’s what you are going to give me.”

Gothmog squinted and shook his head, not sure he’d heard right, “What?” he said, “We lost four ships already and that gear we bought cost money. We need a lot more if we’re going to keep this enterprise going.” He said.

“I agree,” replied the Hyperial businessman as he lounged back in his tall leather chair. “But I’m not going to extend you more credit; you’re becoming a riskier investment.”

Gothmog snapped up straight and lowered his head. “What the hell does that mean?” he snarled, “We’ve done everything we agreed to do.”

“Yes,” responded Mr. Croaker, “but as you say you have lost four very expensive fighters, which I should point out, were not insured. And, of more importance, you have let shipments of weapons and equipment reach SwarmBusters. It could take weeks for the pilots to consume all of that, pushing our timetable back significantly.” He folded his long knobby fingers together on his large round stomach, “To be honest Mr. Gothmog, I had expected more from you.”

Gothmog ground his teeth and stepped up to the desk, “I told you we’d lose ships pirating. And now with all this Sentient activity everyone’s even more on edge—nobody could’ve be predicted that. Plus, the Brotherhood has set up blockades.

The Hyperial lifted his shoulders slightly, “I wasn’t assigning blame,” he said, “just pointing out why I’ve devalued your part of this contract.”

“And I’m pointing out why we need more ships and more equipment. This was your idea in the first place remember?” growled Gothmog, “this isn’t just moving numbers around on a spreadsheet; you lose ships in battle, unpredictable things happen.”

“Well,” said the Hyperial, “I’m not terminating our contract, simply renegotiating the terms. I’m still willing to be a partner in this venture, but as your risk valuation has degraded I think you need to put up some collateral if you expect to continue.”

Gothmog was a man of action and all this business talk was giving him a headache.

“So you want us to buy the ships and equipment ourselves?” he asked.

“No, no, no,” replied Mr. Croaker soothingly, “but so far we’ve shouldered the entire financial burden, I think you and your associates should put up something now. We still have faith in your abilities.”

“You want us to put up 150 million?” asked the Balrog. “That’s all we’ve got, we’re not making anything on this operation.”

The Hyperial spread his hands expansively, “Yes, but you have all that stock you purchased with our money. And you will eventually get much more at the successful completion of this endeavor.” He said smoothly. “In the meantime I’ll have one of our market associates coordinate the loading of what you need into a suitable cargo-tow; we will hold that fighter you arrived in as partial payment.”

Gothmog rolled his eyes and let out a groan.

“Now, if you will excuse me,” continued the Hyperial, “I must see to my next appointment, good day Mr. Gothmog.”

Gothmog stood his ground for a second, but then growled and turned toward the door.

“Ah, the other door please,” said Mr. Croaker loudly, “we wouldn’t want Mr. Ambrosius to see you here.”

Gothmog stared at the door to the reception room for a long moment while he fingered his side arm then turned on his heel and went out the other door.

***

Floating alongside the anomaly, Stingray-Newtron saw the transport leave the POS. The Intensity’s had docked at the same POS so these guys must be related. Stingray-Newtron guessed he was outside radar range and proceeded to follow them from sector to sector. Three anomaly jumps later the pirates made for yet another POS, he couldn’t be sure which sector this was but he had guessed they were still in Quantar space, maybe somewhere near Quant Core. He waited and watched while they docked.

***

     Something chimed on Ms. Ribbit’s desk. “Oh!” she exclaimed enthusiastically, “Mr. Croaker will see you now!” and she got out of her chair and opened the door for Ambrosius, “It was really nice to meet you sir!” she said.

Mr. Croaker strode across the room and held the door for Ambrosius, “Well, we don’t often have celebrities visiting us at our manufacturing offices,” said expansively, “to what do I owe the honor?”

The Brotherhood commander decided to get right to the point, “I followed a pirate, a member of the Balrog squad here. I believe his name is Gothmog.”

The Hyperial spread his hands, “Well of course the identities of my clientele are confidential but why shouldn’t this Gothmog pay me a visit? We are a major equipment supplier for the entire galaxy.”

“The man is a pirate,” restated Ambrosius.

The Hyperial may have smiled, it was hard to tell, “Surely that’s a legal distinction?” he asked coyly, “How is it Gothmog a pirate but you can call yourself a legitimate businessman?”

Ambrosius wasn’t going to be insulted, “Gothmog and his associates are griefers, attacking and ambushing innocent civilians engaged in legitimate work, and they are stripping the stations and shooting down transports.”

Mr. Croaker walked back to his desk, “Again, how is that different from your own operations?”

“The Brotherhood,” began Ambrosius, “are law abiding pilots, not ambushing griefers lurking behind asteroids. We have a mandate from TRI.”

“Ah, TRI,” mused the Hyperial, “But isn’t that just another squad, larger and better funded? It’s an interesting distinction, that a smaller squad like the Balrog who disagrees with TRI business practices is labeled pirate while your Brotherhood is given the mantel of respectability. All because you favor the TRI economic policy and the laws that they wish enforced. This would be a very involving topic of debate, but if you don’t mind, I am rather busy. If there is nothing else let me just say that it has been a pleasure meeting you.”

Ambrosius wasn’t through and crossed his arms, “So, I’m guessing if I dig a little I could turn up evidence that you’re funding the Balrog. I could see if they were shooting down your competition, but I don’t get why you’re goons are shooting down everyone’s supply ships, and harassing miners too. Are you trying to bankrupt the galaxy?”

Mr. Croaker would have raised an eyebrow if he had any, “My goons?” he asked sounding amused, “Well I see no point in denying that until recently I was engaged in a limited partnership with Gothmog, but we have since severed that contract, the details I’m not at liberty to discuss.”

“You admit it??” asked Ambrosius, flatly surprised, “You admit you’ve been financing these attacks?”

“I financed the purchase of a large quantity of commodities,” the Hyperial explained, Aristio Conglomerated cannot be held responsible for the actions of our customers that would be ridiculous.” he licked his lips, “And you are foolish if you think that your Utopian system of commerce is any way to run a galaxy. You are not divinely entitled to any special immunity from competitive market forces.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Ambrosius a bit confused at the way the conversation was going, “The Balrog and the other pirates are attacking shipping all over the galaxy. And they’re stripping stations of equipment. Why would you help the Balrog or any pirate?”

“Well, as long as you ask,” Mr. Croaker leaned back, “It’s an investment in the market. With all of the new construction it became apparent that the markets are not efficient enough to keep up with demand.”

“And these attacks supposed to help the economy?” asked Ambrosius.

“We don’t care about your economy,” laughed Croaker. “We pay the Balrog 500 million credits as a sort of consulting fee. The Balrog may in turn use that money to buy ships and equipment, with which, I have just now learned they use to shoot cargo haulers and miners.”

“That’s business?” growled Ambrosius, “That’s not even piracy, it’s just griefing. Where’s the profit in that?”

Mr. Croaker snorted “For an investment of 500 million the Balrog destroy billions of credits in inventory, all of which must be replaced.”  Croaker actually did manage a little smile this time. “And in the end, the Balrog spend their 500 million buying more equipment from us.”

“But you’re only one of many companies,” said Ambrosius.

“On the contrary, we’re a conglomerate, haven’t you read our title?” Croaker waved at a list of the companies that made up Aristio Conglomerated. It included Comforge Industries, T&P Systems, and Samsun Universal—most of the major manufacturers.

Ambrosius shook his head in befuddlement, “But, you’re doing this just to sell more equipment? You sell equipment anyway, why pay the Balrog to strip stations?”

“Because we can set our own prices at our partner’s POS markets,” replied Croaker, “and not be constrained by the fixed price system the TRI stations mandate.”

“You bastards,” Ambrosius was taken back a bit, “You shoot down our ships just so we have to buy our equipment from your POS’s?”

“We don’t shoot anyone,” the businessman seemed surprised at the question, “Those are the acts of just one of our customers. We’re in business to sell equipment to all TRI pilots, what did you think we intended to do?”

“We’ll see what the pilot community has to say about this,” Ambrosius said menacingly.

“Any loss in projected business due to slanderous, and unsubstantiated claims would be actionable,” stated the Hyperial, “Our lawyers have assured us that TRI courts are quite harsh when it comes to such issues and open minded when it comes to corporate law.”

“So you’re going to let me just fly out of here with everything you’ve told me?” Ambrosius’s eyes narrowed and he suspected a trap, “Or do you think you can stop me?”

“I have no intension of stopping you,” the Hyperial shrugged, “you’re free to go. In the meantime, I look forward to supplying all your future equipment needs.”

Ambrosius stared at the bizarre creature for a few moments, resisting the urge to shoot him, then backed out of the room and stalked off to the hangar. Minutes later, he left the station and set course for Quantar Core.

***

          When the two Intensity’s emerged from the station a few hours later Stingray-Newtron was waiting, and when he was certain of their direction he made for the nearest anomaly and jumped to the next sector in the same direction. Stingray-Newtron was careful to stay out of range as he observed the griefer’s progress from jump to jump. With the growing thumbnail celestial navigation under his belt Stingray-Newtron figured they were somewhere near Amananth. Within minutes, a cargo-tow appeared in one of the sectors gates and after spending a moment orienting itself; and it took off in the direction of another jumpgate. From its ponderous movements and glacial acceleration, Stingray-Newtron guessed the tow was carrying a heavy load. A few minutes later the fighter’s spun about and took off on an intercept course. So did Stingray-Newtron.

***

          Ambrosius wasted no time after leaving Croaker’s office. He raced through the station and searched the hangar for Gothmog’s transport—it was gone, and he had at least a half hour head start. Launching and burning for the gate, the Brotherhood commander put a call through to New Dawn.

“Yes Ambrosius,” responded the New Dawn leader, “what can I do for you, how is the blockade going?”

“That’s what I’m calling about Lupin,” answered Ambrosius, “I need you to set up a watch on all New Dawn’s assets, and escort any transports McPlowed’s got out there.”

LupinOne heard the urgency in the Brotherhood commander’s voice, “What’s going on Ambrosius, what are we looking for?”

“I can’t explain just now,” Replied Ambrosius, “but you need to protect SwarmBusters cargo runs 24/7.”

“Well…” drawled the New Dawn commander, “Ambrosius, we’re spread a little tight right now—you know we’re experiencing a lot of Sentient activity just now.”

Ambrosius rolled his eyes but said nothing, then, “Lupin, this is important, trust me on this, someone with inside info is leaking supply routes and times to griefers. I’ll explain more when I get there. I can’t go into detail on an unsecured channel.”

***

     The two fighters must have spotted Stingray-Newtron, because they altered course and burned for the nearest jumpgate, Stingray-Newtron adjusted course to cut them off, but before he started moving he was aware of a new presence in the sector—it was large group of flux and they were bearing down on the cargo-tow—big flux—a swarm had just jumped into the sector. Being this close to a swarm raised the hair on the back of Stingray-Newtron’s neck—it was strange he didn’t know if he should be afraid of them or not.

The swarm was fixated on the cargo-tow—still only halfway across the sector. It felt odd, thought Stingray-Newtron, that the swarm was ignoring him completely.

Within moments the fastest of the swarm, a big pair of deadly “krill” were within shooting range. Stingray-Newtron had also made it to the tow and he started shooting the flux. The krill appeared confused by Stingray-Newtron’s actions. They broke off their attack on the tow, turned to face him, hesitated, and then turned back to the tow. Krill are incredibly fast and highly maneuverable but are lightly armored and within moments Stingray-Newtron had destroyed both and turned to face the next challenger.

A huge shark was closing fast. Almost as fast as a stingray, the shark was twice as big and armored like a battleship. The flux would be within weapons range in seconds the outcome would be quick and inevitable. Stingray-Newtron sighted along the alien’s trajectory and chose a spot for an interception. He hoped to catch the shark before it got within range of the tow—but it was going to be close.

As a stingray, Newtron’s speed was superior even to that of the shark and he rapidly made up the difference. At five thousand meters he opened fire on the bigger flux. The first half dozen shots went wide—hitting a fleeing target is way harder than it looks—but finally he managed to score a few hits. Instantly the monster circled about and Stingray-Newtron darted to port to avoid a counter-attack. But the attack never came, as soon as the shark identified Stingray- Newtron it lost interest and turned back on the tow.

Stingray-Newtron raced to a dozen meters of the behemoth, and, at, point blank range, opened fire. This was going to be tough; as a TRI pilot Newtron had never managed to bring a shark down.

Once more the beast wheeled about, Stingray-Newtron hitting it a few more times as they raced past each other, but again the flux held fire, turning away again. It was a weird exchange, Stingray-Newtron firing at the shark—hammering away at the behemoth’s incredible shields and armor—and the shark, appearing to suffer astonishingly short term memory loss, losing interest and returning to chase the now distant cargo-tow.

As soon as the tow made it to the jumpgate, Stingray-Newtron broke off his attack. He’d almost armored it, but with the cargo-tow safe Stingray-Newtron lost the stomach for the one-sided fight and stopped persecuting the monster. No sooner had the cargo-tow disappeared, the shark too lost interest and raced off for the rest of the swarm.

***

     “Weirdest thing I ever saw,” said Hotdog as he stepped off of the hangar deck on board SwarmBusters.

LupinOne walked over to meet the newly arrived cargo-tow pilot, acutely interested in all recent weird activity.

“What’s that Hotdog?” he asked.

“I was jumped by a swarm in the Gyre. I was a goner for sure, but then a stingray Sentient appeared out of nowhere and started blasting the other flux,” Hotdog paused and stared up at his cargo-tow up, “It saved my ass, now why do you suppose it did that?” he asked the senior hauler.

It was a question he’d like the answer to as well, thought LupinOne.

***

   For Stingray-Newtron weird had become his new normal. Life as a stingray was much easier than life as the lesser flux. At 700 plus meters per second he was fast enough to zoom through sectors, jumping from one to another without fear of harassment. But he was no closer to figuring out how to un-flux himself.

Melting a new ice mirror, Stingray-Newtron considered his reflection. He was a mean looking bastard, but there was no sign of a door, access panels or apertures, not even windows for that matter. And there was no human face peering out from behind alien “eyes”, nothing to distinguish himself from any other stingray.

Newtron had already made two attempts to communicate with his squad while visiting their POS. He couldn’t radio New Dawn and they probably wouldn’t allow him the time to “write” a message explaining his condition again. Well, that only left one option; he’d have to demonstrate somehow that he wasn’t an ordinary flux, or Sentient.

Or was he? The thought gave Newtron pause. What if this was exactly what Sentient were? Maybe other pilots had been harvested by the Conflux.  Maybe their brains were transplanted into flux to make Conflux sentient. But then why wasn’t he a killer Sentient too? Maybe it didn’t completely work on him. Or maybe, with time, he’d become a killer.

At least for the moment Stingray-Newtron felt more human than Conflux. He’d heard that Sentients were known for odd behavior so he’d have to try something new. Flying around the station wagging his wings? Writing long notes on all the asteroids in Amananth hoping someone would notice one?

He’d gotten pretty good telling which sector was which and could navigate in a reasonable fashion, so once again Stingray-Newtron set course for Amananth. Suddenly a cargo-tow appeared in the jumpgate on the far side of the sector. His “Conflux sense” told him that this wasn’t his New Dawn buddies but it did feel familiar. Maybe this was his chance to have a little one-on-one time with a pilot and try to do some communicating.

Stingray-Newtron zoomed across the sector to within a few thousand meters of the cargo-tow. The tow pilot must have panicked at the sight of the stingray because he launched a spam of missiles in Stingray-Newtron’s direction. He avoided them easily. The cargo-tow was still a considerable distance from the gate and while heavily armed, a heavy freighter can’t maneuver worth a damn.

Aboard the cargo-tow, Gothmog was frantically radioing for help. The POS was in the next sector—the Last Parsec—and with the tow’s big shields and heavy armor maybe he’d survive long enough for the fighters to bail him out.

Positioning himself just ahead and off to one side, Stingray-Newtron matched speed with the cargo-tow and started wagging his wings up and down, watching the cargo-tow carefully for a reaction. Stingray-Newtron circled around to the opposite side and tried it again.  Then he made his way over to the big tow’s bow, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pilot through the cockpit windows. Since Stingray-Newtron wasn’t shooting at the guy, maybe the pilot would understand the flux was trying to communicate.

The face Newtron saw didn’t belong to a friend. The pilot was familiar, but only from the newscasts, Stingray-Newtron recognized Gothmog from the Balrog pirate squad, and Gothmog didn’t look happy.

In fact Gothmog was very unhappy. He was sitting on a 150 million credit shipment of weapons and equipment in a practically defenseless cargo-tow, still 40,000 meters from the gate and there was a stingray meters from his view-screen. Strange that his targeting system hadn’t labeled the ray a Sentient, but it was definitely a stingray and here it was in Dark Gateway and this one was by itself and playing with him.

Gothmog had 150 million in cargo plus another 20 million for the cargo-tow and equipment and none of it were insured. And he’d left his fighter back at Hyperial as collateral. This was very bad. He knew that unless help arrived soon, the moment the flux tired of this game it would burn his armor away and he’d be taking a very expensive pod ride home. Without a hope of fighting back, Gothmog had nothing to lose and opened the general F5 com radio link and broadcast; “Emergency, emergency, emergency! Sentient in Dark Gateway! Send help!” Gothmog might have been a pirate, but everyone else would be too focused on a Sentient to pay any attention to him.

Stingray-Newtron on the other hand was undeterred, even if the pilot was sort of a known bad guy, maybe he could still send a message for him. Stingray-Newtron inched closer and started literally tapping on the cargo-tow’s cockpit window; he wished he knew some sort of code. But, just then, help—for the cargo-tow—arrived.

The first was a trio of Intensity class fighters. They emerged from the far Jumpgate and made directly for Stingray-Newtron. Again Stingray-Newtron felt a tingly flux-sense, he knew these guys.

Stingray-Newtron’s senses told him these pilots they were the same ones he’d fought before; odd that the same guys that ran before were coming to the rescue of this pirate’s tow. The fighters launched a swarm of missiles at him, but going evasive, Stingray-Newtron easily out-maneuvered them. He raced around their weapons fire and burned up most of the rear-most fighter’s shields. The fighters turned to face him, just as their missiles returned on a second approach. Stingray-Newtron sped around the group in a tight, fast circle. The fighters were firing frantically, even hitting each other in an attempt to hit the flux between them. Stingray-Newtron conserved his shots, taking care to avoid getting hit himself—stingrays are built for speed and have little armor—now he only shot when he was sure it was safe and the shots counted. They hadn’t strayed far from the cargo-tow and now Stingray-Newtron used the huge freighter as a shield, diving underneath and circling back around to scrape off the persistent missile spam. He was rewarded with a spectacular blast as most of the missiles hit the tow and decimated its shields.

“Shit!” screamed Gothmog, “Watch where you’re shooting!”

But the fighters weren’t listening; they were too busy dealing with Stingray-Newtron’s evasive tactics and seeing their own missiles used against them, but, at the sight of the cargo-tow barbecue they dropped their guard and Stingray-Newtron raced into their midst, guns blazing. One of the fighters went up in a flash, the other two scattered with Stingray-Newtron on their tails. Now, with the odds down to two-to-one and without missiles to worry about, Stingray-Newtron dealt with the other two in short order. He turned his attention back to the cargo-tow just in time to see it vanish through the Jumpgate, but he knew where it was headed and raced to the anomaly.

Gothmog was agog at the sight of the stingray-Sentient appearing in the Last Parsec.  But then half a dozen fighters emerged from the Aman Hook Jumpgate and raced directly for the stingray. Now if Gothmog could make it to his POS and dock while everyone was occupied with the flux he’d be free and clear.

Stingray-Newtron wasn’t happy to see the approaching fighters. He could outrun them easily, he might even be able to survive a fight with them, but he didn’t think he’d be able to communicate with them and he wasn’t happy about letting this pirate get away. He didn’t know what Gothmog was up too, but those earlier Intensity’s were the same guys had been defending him which meant that this guy was some sort of bad guy and shouldn’t be allowed to dock.

In the lead rescue ship, Ambrosius was responding to the distress call. He gave orders to the other pilots in the impromptu rescue squad. Targeting the stingray he was surprised the sector beacon was not broadcasting a Sentient warning alert. Perhaps the Conflux had found a way to cloak themselves against the current beacon arrays and the targeting systems. If so, the Sentients could run amuck in the galaxy. Ambrosius read Gothmog of the squad Balrog’s identifying sign—he had half a mind to leave the station stripping griefer to the Sentient or even shoot him himself. Ambrosius had been following Gothmog since he’d left Hyperial, but the old saying; “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, came to mind and Ambrosius set himself to the more immediate task of eliminating the dangerous Conflux.

Stingray-Newtron found himself evading a fresh flock of missiles and dodging sharply to avoid the highly accurate fire from these new adversaries. He raced in a tight circle but found the pilots had anticipated this move and his shields flared from an accurate salvo. Stingray-Newtron kept his speed up—his only real defense—and he circled back toward the cargo-tow.

“Crap!” screamed Gothmog as he realized that the stingray had repeated its missile scraping maneuver, brushing the cargo-tow’s hull as it rocketed underneath it. Once again the freighter’s dark shape was lit by a series of brilliant missile impacts.

“Smart move for a flux,” commented Ambrosius wryly.

“Shoot the stupid thing, don’t compliment it!” screamed Gothmog over the radio. His cargo-tow’s shields were gone and his armor now badly damaged by the Sentient’s tactic.

Obi-Wan and Captain Cow had anticipated the Sentient’s trajectory and positioned themselves for kill shots while Andymacht and Elmdor were keeping up the heat in an after-burning pursuit. ELPIRATA and Bumblebee now joined the chase and Stingray-Newtron was feeling seriously outnumbered and a lot less secure. He could still make a getaway; a dash for the anomaly and none of these TRI ships would be able to keep up, but if that pirate docked Stingray-Newtron would lose him. Circling tightly he opened fire at point blank range and watched the sparks fly off the hull of the cargo-tow. He slowed a bit to keep hitting the target and turned to fly down the freighter’s back, then circling around for another run. Suddenly his shields lit up as multiple pilots began scouring hits. Stingray-Newtron pulled up and made for deep space, then grimaced and circled back around to try for another run at the cargo-tow.

“Damn this thing’s persistent,” said Captain-Cow as he raced to intercept.

The converging fire of the seven fighters was too much for even a mildly sentient stingray to cope with. Stingray-Newtron saw his shields flare brightly and his armor spark brilliantly but still had the pleasure of seeing the cargo-tow explode a single second before he followed suit.

Chapter Eleven – Shark

It was a very short Pod ride for Gothmog who sprang out of the capsule with veins bulging from his temples. Gasping for breath at the bewildering sudden turn of events, he shouted in rage “What the hell was that all about? That was a hundred and fifty million credits worth of equipment I lost! Where was my escort? How could you idiots let this happen?”

Gnomemog was taken severely aback by Gothmog’s anger, but tried to sound reasonable, “How could we know a Sent would show up in this sector?” he pleaded reasonably, “And why was that thing attacking my cargo-tow and not the fighters?”

“We’re not equipped to deal with a Sentient anyway.” added Sordul.

Gothmog turned on them both, spittle flying from his mouth as he yelled, “What are the odds?” he screamed, “How many times have we been attacked by Sentients in the last few days? Something screwy is going on!”

“You can’t think their targeting you personally?” asked Golum in surprise, “How could they? Flux just don’t act like that, I’ve never heard of a flux just following around one squad.”

“I don’t care about what you think,” snarled Gothmog. “Between lost ships and cargo we’re out over three hundred million credits this week. If you can’t handle these freaking Sentients than get someone who can, but get this plan back on track before I re-evaluate your roles in this organization.”

Golum shrugging his shoulders made a suggestion, “Hire New Dawn to escort our next cargo run from Hyperial?”

“No way,” replied Gnomemog, “we’ve been hitting them too many times recently. They definitely won’t want to help us with our situation we’ve got to use an intermediary to fly our next cargo load.” He scratched his head and had another thought, “How about   Vorlon31? That Flux Clearance squad of his has a real high kill rate. But we’ve hit a few cargo runs of theirs so they’ll be suspicious of what’s going on here. Hey, maybe the Hyperial can hire them so it doesn’t look like we’re involved.”

“I don’t care who the hell you get,” growled Gothmog, “as long as they take care of the problem.”

“What’s this all about Ambro?” asked LupinOne as the he settled himself into a high-backed chair in the Stone Temple’s lounge.

Ambrosius put a couple of mugs of Quantar Ice on the table and pulled up a chair. “How much do you know about the Hyperials?” asked the squad leader.

LupinOne reached across the table to claim one of the drinks, “Well, I know they’re non-human, they’re factionally neutral, they build some great equipment and they don’t maintain a space fleet.” offered the New Dawn commander, “how am I doing?”

Ambrosius regarded his friend across the table, “Do you trust them?” he asked evenly.

LupinOne shrugged, “Well, like I said, they’ve never taken sides in any of the faction wars; I suppose they’ve never given me a reason not to trust them, why?”

“Well, our blockades weren’t working to stop the station strippers,” said Ambrosius, “so I thought I’d go after the griefers instead. After all, they’re as much to blame for the shortages. So I followed Gothmog, the Balrog chief. He led me to Hyperial.”

LupinOne put his drink down, “I know the Balrog are pirates, but most of the station stripping is just honest pilots trying to outfit their POS’s. Eventually the POS’s will be stocked up and things should return to normal. In the meantime you should try to encourage any pilot who is having problems finding gear to join a squad like the Brotherhood or New Dawn and help keep the squad POS stocked, then they at least have access to their own equipment.”

Ambrosius set his drink down and watched the bubbles rising to the surface of the drink. “That’s not what this is really about,” he replied. “The Hyperials are paying the Balrog to shoot down cargo-tows restocking public stations and squad POS’s. They’re stripping the public stations because their prices are fixed. They want to force pilots to shop at Hyperial backed stations where they can control the prices.”

“How do you know this?” asked LupinOne.

“Because Croaker, the head of Aristio Conglomerated told me,” answered Ambrosius. “He practically was bragging about it. Daring me to try to stop them.”

LupinOne whistled. He’d know Ambrosius too long to doubt the squad leader’s story.

“How are we going to keep our own POS’s stocked if the public stations are empty and the factories are cleaned out as soon as they finish a production run?” asked Ambrosius. “Space is too big to blockade every suspect station or hunt for griefers. How do we tell the bad pirates from the good ones—so to speak? How is it fair for a pilot who goes to the trouble of hauling all the raw materials to make his own equipment, only to see the fruits of his labor vanish as soon as the factory run is done and the stuff is ready for sale?”

The New Dawn commander raised his eyebrows, “This is all we need just while we’re dealing with all the recent Sentient incursions.”

The Brotherhood commander pushed his chair back and leaned forward. “Forget your Sentient problem,” replied Ambrosius. “With the station stripping and the scarcity of equipment, you’re not going to be able to keep Swarmbusters stocked if these griefers down your cargo runs. You’re going to need all your pilots on escort duty.”

LupinOne regarded his friend. “Well, it’s been said before; all it would take is a couple of determined pilots hitting the right cargo equipment runs to bring the economy to its knees. But what can we do? There are POS’s all over the galaxy. Do we spend all of our time chasing the Balrog?”

“We take out the Balrog the Hyperial will just hire some new mercenaries,” replied Ambrosius.

“Damn,” replied LupinOne, “That’s why this Croaker isn’t worried isn’t it?”

“And remember, he makes money no matter which side wins,” added Ambrosius. “He sells to either side.”

“I’ll talk to Istvan about this,” mused LupinOne, “But I can already hear him say that this is a private matter. And I don’t know if the Hyperials are breaking any laws.”

The Brotherhood commander stood up, “Croaker sounded pretty confident, and he threatened to sue me if I started telling people about this.”

“If he said that he must be worried about something,” answered LupinOne, “Still, he must have figured you’d do something, after all, you tracked Gothmog to him.”

“Maybe if every pilot in TRI knew about this they could boycott the conglomerate’s equipment,” replied Ambrosius. “That would hurt him where it counts. Of course we’d have to figure out what Aristo doesn’t control or have an interest in. It might not be so easy.”

“And a half dozen griefers with Hyperial telling them cargo schedules and routes will be tough to handle,” agreed LupinOne. “

“The Hyperial figure they’ve got nothing to lose no matter how this works out,” added Ambrosius. “Even if we stop the Balrog the Hyperial are still selling us equipment. All they really want is conflict – the more we fight, the more equipment we use up, the more they sell us, the more money they make.”

LupinOne stood, “So we’ve got to run interference with the Balrog but try not to lose equipment in the process? And we’ve still got all this crazy Sentient activity to deal with too.”

“Speaking of that,” Ambrosius perked up, “A Sentient blew Gothmog and his cargo-tow away a few hours ago, lucky break for us as.”

LupinOne raised an eyebrow, “A Sentient took out Gothmog? That’s weird and convenient timing.”

“I’ll say,” agreed Ambrosius, “The stupid Sent just kept after him. Ignored all of the fighters and concentrated on Gothmog’s cargo-tow. Weirdest thing.”

“That’s pretty weird alright, “Agreed LupinOne with a far-off look in his eye.

***

     The clawed coils were back, and looked aggressive. “I’m one of you apparently!” Newtron cried as he felt them try to get a grip on his hide, apparently his armor was slippery, but he was getting jerked around quite a bit. “Owe, owe, owe!” he shouted as sharp claws dug into vulnerable areas. Maybe, whatever the coils were, they were sensing something alien about flux-Newtron and were intent on finding out what that was. Flux-Newtron attempted to fire his weapons at them, but nothing happened, maybe they were disabled inside the hive. This was getting serious.

“Splurp!”

Saved by the splurp! Newtron it was a tremendous relief being outside the hive and away from those coil things. What would they do to him next time? Was it possible those things could tear him apart? Not for the first time since this whole mess started, he was afraid. Maybe he should try harder to avoid getting killed again. Okay, so what kind of flux was he this time?

Newtron looked around for his mirror-roid.

Newtron could hardly believe his eyes; he was a shark! Technically Newtron was a C-25, 26 or 27, whatever. He was a shark!

The biggest, baddest, meanest flux of them all, a shark was a monster of a monster. More heavily armored than a bomber, with shields that regenerated so fast they shrugged off lasers and cannon fire. Over two hundred kilometers an hour faster than any TRI ship and it could corner like a light fighter and was armed like a battleship.

Nothing could hurt Newtron now. He was practically indestructible!

OK, thought Shark-Newtron, smiling wickedly to himself, only the very best flux hunting pilots managed to kill sharks and those were stupid drones. If Newtron kept his head and avoided big groups, he wouldn’t have anything to worry about; hell, even he could survive a direct hit by a nuke.

He was getting thirsty though, how long would it take to die of thirst?

First things first, Shark-Newtron was going to find those Balrog guys and put them out of business once and for all. The pilots could only see him within radar range, but he could sense everything in a sector, like infinitely powerful radar. Before he died of thirst he was going to stomp those stupid griefers till they were too afraid to leave their POS, then he’d kick they hangar door down and blast everything inside just to be thorough.

With that, Shark-Newtron spun about and blazed off towards the local anomaly.

***

“Vorlon, there’s a Mr. Croaker, from Aristio Conglomerated on the horn for you,” said RedDwarf.

The squad leader of Flux Clearance entered the office and picked up the phone, “Vorlon31 speaking.”

“Ah, commander Vorlon,” began Croaker in his deep throaty voice, “I don’t believe we’ve met, I’m the General Manager for Aristio Conglomerated.”

“Nice to hear from you Mr. Croaker, we’ve done a lot of business with your company obviously, what can I do for you?” replied Vorlon31.

Croaker responded in a clipped, businesslike tone, “With all this recent pirate and Sentient activity, we’ve been having some trouble getting our shipments through. I was interested in procuring your squad’s services for some escort work.”

Vorlon31, phone in hand looked out over the hangar floor below his office. “I appreciate the consideration, but we’re a Conflux fighting squad Mr. Croaker, escort duty really isn’t our style. Perhaps you would be better off trying one of the military squads like the Brotherhood, StormRaiders or OMC.”

“Yes, yes,” replied Croaker, “I understand, but my main concern is this Sentient issue, very unpredictable and intrusive activity lately. I think your squad has considerably more expertise in that area.”

“Perhaps,” responded Vorlon31, “but from what I’ve heard the Sentient’s seem to be more interested in these pirates for some reason. I would think your concern would be with pirates yourself and for that the military squads are better suited to deal.”

There was a short pause as Croaker seem to consider the squad leader’s remarks, then; “Frankly Mr. Vorlon, I would feel much better knowing my merchandise was under the protection of your expert squad. If it’s a question of cost, rest assured, we would make it worth your while. Name your price.”

***

   Shark-Newtron didn’t know for sure what sectors he’d been through, but he knew he was in Quantar and Amananthian space. He’d started at Quantar Core, that station was unmistakable, and had worked his way, sector by sector to Amananth and back. He’d also ventured into Octavian space, going as far as what looked like the Diluted Reaches before turning back. There was no activity around the Balrog station there. Shark-Newtron waited outside radar range of passing traffic. Finally, he headed back towards Quant space, via what he assumed was the Stith. It was all very frustrating.

Shark-Newtron saw a lot of ships, but he’d become pretty confident in his ability so he was sure he hadn’t mistaken his quarry. Perhaps after the last encounter the griefers had enough and went home. Well, what else was he to do if the pirates were all gone?

***

     Feldman was at the controls of the big Solrain Viceroy cargo-tow. Ordinarily the SoLiCiDaL pilot flew solo, but today he had escort, for no good reason he could think of. Still, Feldman wasn’t a guy to ask questions, he was a man of complete discretion, which was no doubt why the sales manager from Aristio Conglomerated had contracted him to deliver this cargo to a POS in the Last Parsec, no name, just Rotacol coordinates.

2500 meters off the Viceroy’s starboard bow was Draken from Flux Clearance. Lordopic was following the same distance astern and Feldman knew Vorlon31 himself was scouting ahead somewhere. What all the fuss was about was beyond him. These guys were hardly a military escort. No these were flux killers. There had been a lot of strange Sentient activity in the news lately, maybe that was the connection. Well, it was the Hyperial’s money to waste.

What Feldman didn’t know was that there was a military escort, but it was far out of radar range.

***

     Ambrosius was shadowing Feldman and the cargo-tow, but that almost seemed like a coincidence to him. His real quarry was the two Balrog fighters traveling in parallel with the little convoy. Ambrosius wasn’t sure what the deal was but Gnomemog and Golum were well back, out of radar range of the Viceroy and its Flux Clearance escort. This was some mighty strange business. He wasn’t sure if the Balrog were there to jump Feldman, which would be SOP for these guys or if something else was going on. And why was Flux Clearance escorting Feldman? Was this delivery for them and they were just making sure they got their equipment? Ambrosius got on the radio to the Stone Temple and asked Spork, Lego, Obi-Wan and SlimPickins to meet him when the convoy reached the Rounds of Quantos.

Vorlon31 wasn’t particularly happy either. He never liked activities that distracted him from his hunt for flux, and so far all they’d managed to flush out were a few squid and snails. There might be a few manta and kraken up ahead, but he thought the odds of a Sentient showing up were astronomical. Sentients rarely attacked shipping in the middle of the galaxy.

In fact, the only guys happy about the current arrangement were Gnomemog and Golum, though if they had known that Ambrosius was shadowing them they might have had a change in heart. Still, the Balrog pirates were keeping well back from the convoy, not wanting to spook Feldman or the flux hunters. And so the strange parade went, traveling through the stars. Ambrosius picked up his rendezvous in the Rounds of Quantos sector, his fellow Brotherhood brothers emerging like ghosts from the asteroid field and taking up station out of sight of the Balrog; out of sight but ready for action should the griefers make their move.

“Where’s the cargo-tow headed anyway?” asked Obi-Wan over a secure radio channel.

“Probably Flux Clearance in Amananth,” answered Ambrosius, “Maybe Gnomemog is expecting reinforcements when they get to the Stith or Last Parsec. Still, we shouldn’t underestimate their stupidity, they could attack any time.”

In actual fact, Gnomemog and Golum were expecting reinforcements by the time the convoy reached the Last Parsec, but only to make absolutely sure this cargo-tow made it to their POS without incident.

Shark-Newtron was the most surprised by what he saw when the ships materialized out of the jumpgate. He’d been watching for hours, hoping the Balrog would show up. But when Vorlon31, Feldman, Lordopic and Draken appeared he was taken back. His flux sense tingled when he saw the Vorlon31 after the sector, but he couldn’t tell who the other pilots were. Shark-Newtron stayed out of sight as the cargo-tow lined itself up, then launched from the gate, Vorlon31 headed off ahead and the two other fighters took up positions alongside the cargo-tow.

“Good,” thought Shark-Newtron, “people are finally getting serious about this pirate problem.” Then Shark-Newtron realized the cargo-tow was heading for the POS he’d been watching. “What the hell?”

Feldman guided the cargo-tow across the sector and approached the designated coordinates, skillfully flipping the big freighter 180 degrees at the half-way point, then applying full power to coax the heavy ship to a gentle halt. Shark-Newtron’s attention was riveted, he was sure the POS the cargo-tow was approaching was the same one the Balrog guys were using. But these guys didn’t feel like Balrog pirates, what was going on?

It was at that moment that Gnomemog and Golum emerged from the Jumpgate. They were far enough from the POS that Feldman, Vorlon31, Lodopic and Draken probably didn’t see them on radar; the two pirates raced off into the asteroids.  But Shark-Newtron spotted them immediately. “Now what?” he thought. Shark-Newtron was confused about whether he should be doing anything about the cargo-tow near the Balrog station. Then, the Brotherhood ships arrived through the jumpgate.

Ambrosius had seen enough, he knew that the Balrog station Angband was in Last Parsec and figured they must have decided this was a good place for an ambush. He, Spork, Lego, Obi-Wan and SlimPickins, immediately raced out of the gate in hot pursuit.

As five new fighters appeared Shark-Newtron halted. He had prepared to go after the two Balrog fighters, but now with five new ships, all Quantars, the situation changed once more. The new ships wheeled about and shot off after the Balrog guys.

This activity hadn’t escaped the notice of Feldman; his cargo-tow’s powerful radar had alerted him to the new activity. “Hey guys,” he radioed to his escort, “we’ve got a lot of new company.”

Lordopic spotted the fighters and read off the call signs, “The Balrog and the Brotherhood,” he said, “looks like we’ve got ringside seats for some shoot-out.”

At that moment an event occurred which altered the situation yet again. Three ships emerged from the POS that the cargo-tow was preparing to dock at. Intensity class fighters launched and took off after the Quantar ships.

“Keep those fighters away from the cargo-tow,” shouted Gothmog over the radio. Grievous and Rahastes took off after the intruders, setting their missile targeting systems for the closest fighters.

Ten fighters converged on each other from all over the sector.

“Hey Feldman,” called Lordopic as he watched the three Balrog fighters launch and rocket off after the Brotherhood pilots, “who the hell are you working for anyway?”

“Hyperial,” responded Feldman laconically, “Arisitio Conglomerated, but they never said who their customers are.”

Shark-Newtron had seen enough and he knew it was time to take action. The fighters were evenly matched, but the cargo-tow was now rotating to align with the station’s docking tube. He took the measure of the fighters acting as escort and reached a decision. The station belonged to the Balrog and the cargo-tow was making a delivery. Even if the Quantars shot down the Balrog fighters, the pirates would be able to re-equip with whatever the freighter was delivering. And no matter how good the Quantars were, they would eventually be worn down by the fresh fighters launching from the Balrog POS. He had to stop that delivery.

“Holy crap,” shouted Draken over the radio, “holy crap, there’s a shark coming straight for us!”

“Where the freaking hell did that come from?  It’s a Sentient!” yelled Lordopic, “Get that cargo-tow inside that station now!”

“Hey, this thing only moves so fast!” replied Feldman excitedly, “I guess it’s time for you guys to earn your pay!”

At over 600 meters per second, Shark-Newtron was on the cargo-tow before it could complete its turn. Feldman fired off all his missiles but he knew better than to expect them to even come close to the Sentient. Lordopic and Draken raced in with weapons blazing but the shark was moving too fast to hit and circled back around the cargo-tow. The Viceroy’s shields lit up as the shark’s weapons came to bear and Feldman watched in horror as even the mighty Guardian shield generator struggled against the attack.

Ambrosius was in a duel with Gothmog, the two circling at afterburner speeds, Typhoon and Intensity evenly matched, each ship’s bow wobbling slightly as the two pilots alternated between shooting at each other and trying to tighten their circular course more while still keeping their opponent in sight. Ambrosius squeezed off a few shots at a time and was rewarded to see the Intensity’s shields percentage points dropping with every pull of the trigger.

Obi-Wan and SlimPickens were locked in similar duels with Golum and Gnomemog, the Brotherhood pilot’s intensely practiced PvP skills providing the edge over the Balrog pilots. Spork and Lego were legendary aces, never-the-less, Grievous and Rahastes pressed their attack.

Ambrosius hit the button for his flash fires and accelerated into an even tighter turn, scoring multiple hits on Gothmog. The pirate ship exploded in a ring of orange-red fury.

Spork too made short work of the slower reacting Grevious and that left Lego to hammer down Rahastes’s defenses while SlimPickins and Obi-Wan chased their opponents around in mad circles.

Shark-Newtron was having a harder time then he expected, the two defending fighters were relentless and the cargo-tow pilot was a cool customer, ignoring the beating his ship was taking while he concentrated on docking the big white freighter. If Newtron didn’t finish him quick the tow would disappear into the station, safely beyond his reach. In the meantime Lordopic and Draken were scoring hit after hit on him. One ship Shark-Newtron might have been able to shrug it off, but two were wearing him down. Still, sparks began pouring off the cargo-tow’s hull as its shields collapsed, and Newtron knew victory was only a few seconds off.

Suddenly, Vorlon31 came racing in out of nowhere. Vorlon31again!—thought Shark-Newtron. Now Vorlon31’s squad was between Newtron and the civ-rippers that were harassing the whole galaxy.

Shark-Newtron swerved to avoid the concentrated firepower, chicaned around a pair of missiles then got back in firing range and opened up again on the tow.

One of the missiles exploded meters off Shark-Newtron’s port, knocking out his shields, but he was able to hit the cargo tow again, burning down its armor. It was going to be close, the freighter was a only a few hundred meters from the docking tube and safety, but its armor was burning furiously and a few more shots would kill it. Then Shark-Newtron could get the hell out of this shooting range and the sector.

But Vorlon31 had come prepared to kill even a Sentient. He had a special surprise and let loose with a nuke, targeted at the POS. At this range no one had time to do more than cringe as the big missile slammed point blank into the building and detonated. The blast lit the dark like a small red sun. Shark-Newtron, who was down to fifty percent armor exploded like a pinkish red bomb. But the nuke also knocked out Lordopic, Draken and Vorlon31s’ shields and most of their armor, but it also finished off the cargo-tow just meters from the docking tube.

***

“Aaaaaaaaaaarg!” screamed Gothmog as he kicked open the escape Pod lid, “Did the cargo-tow make it? Where’s the cargo-tow?

Golum came running from his still steaming pod and slid to a halt radio in hand. “Vorlon31 got the Sent!” he said excitedly, “He nuked it!”

“Where’s the freighter?” yelled Gothmog spinning around, it was nearly docked. It should be here.”

Gnomemog climbed out of his sizzling POD and held up his radio, “The cargo-tow didn’t make it, the Sentient finished it off.”

“No!” Gothmog screamed and he grabbed Gnomemog by the collar, “That was all the supplies we had! The station’s empty! We used everything when we launched after the Brotherhood!”

Two more PODs materialized on the platform and Gnomemog and Golum had to physically restrain Gothmog to keep him from strangling Grievous and Rahastes as the climbed out onto the platform.

“You idiots!” shouted Gothmog, veins bulging at his temples and his eyes popping out of their sockets, “We’re ruined! We gave the Hyperials all the money we had for that last shipment and now that’s gone!” He whirled around and flung his blaster at the row of empty space-ship berths. “What the hell did I ever do to the flux to deserve this?” shouted Gothmog again. “We’ve used up everything in the station. We can’t even leave! We don’t even have a shuttle!”

“If the Hyperial could get one more transport through,” started Golum, but before he could finish the sentence Gnomemog and Grevious were busy trying to pry Gothmog’s fingers from Golum’s throat.

***

Something was approaching through the red haze, tall and thin, darker than the rest, it seemed purposefully intent on Newtron and quickly closed the distance across the crowded alien hangar.

Pinkish-purple coils snaked across the floor, ceased their painful probing of Newtron’s hide and retreated away into the darkness to either side. Newtron cringed at the thought of a new hive onslaught and wondered if this was the end, here in an alien hive, no one around to ever know what really happened to him or the role he played in foiling the pirate’s plans. “Oh well,” he thought, “What’s new?”

Something loomed before the ruined shark but the streaming, steaming goop that dripped from the hive roof obscured Newtron’s vision. A gray face appeared; a pair of deep-set eyes squinted angrily. Newtron jumped in surprise at the sight of the human looking countenance.

The dark thing stepped back, struck the side of the hull and the shark split open disgorging Newtron onto the soft, wet, sticky deck. He was buried in an avalanche of pinkish conflux entrails. Newtron scrambled backwards through the gore, through the puddles of slime and slipped under the dubious protection of the ruined shark, purple drool oozing and dripping down on. Newtron coughed violently as the alien atmosphere reached his lungs and he spit out mouthfuls of the mucus that he’d been swimming in for most of a week.

“Are you quite through?” boomed a familiar voice “how it is that one simple human can be such a nuisance in its short lifetime?”

Newtron cautiously peered out from under the shark. “Istvan!” he sputtered, then staggered to his feet, “You’re here to finish me off?” he looked around for something to defend himself with. “Here, away from witnesses.”

Istvan was the TRI General Manager and while he looked human that just proved that you really can’t just a book by its cover. Istvan was secretly an Amananthian, one of the last few examples of the ancient, nearly immortal race of creatures that had once, long ago, ruled the galaxy. Istvan and a handful of other Amananthians had survived the “Great Collapse” of over a thousand years ago. Now, vastly outnumbered by humans, the aliens had insinuated themselves into human society—if you can’t beat them join them—into crucial government positions—General Managers—the highest bureaucratic roles in government service. Newtron had no idea how they’d managed to avoid detection, but they were in positions which enabled them to run the galaxy; aliens hiding in plain sight. Istvan said their only goal was to make amends for the calamity he and his kind were responsible for. But they were hardly kindly old souls of an advanced benevolent race. The Amananthians controlled the Conflux, in fact the Conflux were Amananthian creations, “defense drones” from the time of their first contact with humans.

Istvan shrugged—Newtron hated when he did that—it was a characteristic of the aliens – a lot of shrugging. “I am not here to kill you,” he said. “This was Khronos’s idea of a little joke it seems,” he paused momentarily as if searching for words, “Khronos is perhaps not the most stable of Amananthians and he took your previous interference a bit personally.”

Newtron staggered back, “A joke?”

“Khronos selected you to be a Sentient,” explained Istvan, “Really an honor.”

“You’re not here to kill me?” fumbled Newtron, “Then what, rescue me?”

“Hardly,” boomed the Amananthian, “it’s not my job to rescue TRI pilots.” Istvan stepped forward menacingly, “I’m here to stop you from further interference in the galactic economy.” The GM’s voice grew louder, “You are a walking, or in this case flying catastrophe.”

“What?” asked a bewildered Newtron?

The GM pointed a finger at the hapless pilot, “You were transformed into one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy, but instead of battling TRI pilots you went out of your way to target the Balrog pirates. You intentionally destroyed their fighters and freighters.”

“You expected me to shot my friends?” shouted Newtron, seething with anger, “what makes you think I’d go along with that?”

“The biological reconfiguration you underwent upon joining TRI should have made you more susceptible to manipulation,” explained Istvan, “But something malfunctioned, both you and Rastamon became unstable, psychotic.  Khronos should never have chosen you for the Sentient program.”

“So you’re responsible for the Sentients too?” Newtron jumped up and down in a puddle of shark guts, “Why turn pilots into Sentients?”

The Amananthian towered over Newtron, “We use pilots to control Conflux—make the Conflux Sentient, to balance the conflict. Otherwise TRI pilots like your friends in New Dawn would exterminate the Conflux.”

Newtron blinked feeling he missed something. “What?”

“Conflux,” explained Istvan pointing to the dead shark for emphasis, “are impartial, they attack all TRI pilots, and they do not discriminate, they do not take sides, and they do not protect cargo-tows and fight pirates.” He paused, perhaps to let that sink in, “but you could not even do that right.”

Newtron felt like his head was going to explode, “The Balrog were pirates!” He shouted, “And crooked ones at that!”

Istvan did something very un-Amananthian, he slapped his hand to his forehead and moaned aloud, then refocused his withering gaze on Newtron. “You complete nincompoop, I came here to stop you from interfering in affairs that you do not understand. You are a menace and an idiot in the bargain.”

Newtron had spent a life being a screw up, but this was a new one on him, “Hey, wait a minute…”

“The only compensation to your activity,” continued the GM, “is that the pirates and their employers were in the process of undermining the balance of economic power in the galaxy. Your actions may have forestalled their plans.”

“Like I said,” sputtered Newtron, “the Balrog, are bad guys.”

“Your blunders may have a positive influence,” agreed the GM. “But your actions will leave LupinOne and Vorlon31 with many questions.”

Newtron put his hands, “Hey I just wanted to get out of that thing,” he pointed to the shark, “I was starving and dying of thirst.”

“Then why did you not just eat?” asked Istvan, “The nutrient dispensing system is fairly intuitive.”

“I couldn’t find it,” replied Newtron a bit embarrassed.

The Amananthian rolled his eyes, “idiot,” he muttered and pointed to the clawed coils writhing across the deck. “Those are the nutrient tubes. You merely had to allow them to attach themselves to the Conflux.

“Oh,” replied Newtron defensively. Then looking around the alien hangar asked sheepishly, “Now what?”

The Amananthian regarded him for a long moment, speaking to himself; “Khronos has already been reprimanded and despite your behavior I suppose I am still bound by our earlier arrangement. And I suppose no one would ever believe you.” Suddenly a pair of tentacles shot out of the darkness and grabbed Newtron. He was jerked he off his feet and dragged into a dark and humid tunnel.

“Hey!” was all Newtron had time to say.

Splurp!

Next thing he knew, Newtron was tumbling end over end, strapped into a pilot’s seat! All around him was the wonderfully familiar sight of a perfectly ordinary Raven cockpit. He grabbed the joystick and arrested the ship’s roll, then looked outside the cockpit windows.  “Wow!” Was all he could think to say.

Newtron looked down at the console, punched up the system map and shook his head. He was in Aman Leap, 30,000 meters from the jumpgate to the Amananth sector. He turned the fighter around and headed off for the jumpgate.

Epilogue

The Balrog were on the run, somehow they were able to scrape together enough for a couple of newb-equipped shuttles, but they were broke and hungry in unregulated space. Their POS’s were all under surveillance and hefty bounties made them enticing targets for eager bounty hunters. Ambrosius dismissed the pirates as not a significant threat. He had more important matters to deal with then a bunch of has-beens. Ambrosius was busy, the Brotherhood had lots of new escort business for all the cargo-tows and miners who needed to get their product to the stations. As for the station stripping problem, well, that was still a problem, but things were looking better for the moment.

And the Hyperial? Well, Ambrosius would keep an eye on them too.

Vorlon31 was all over the news.  Everyone wanted an interview with the great Sentient killer.

McPlowed seemed to be drinking more than usual.

No one seemed curious about Newtron’s absence when he showed up at Swarmbusters. There were no questions about his shiny new ship. Nocturnus and No_Limit chided Newtron for missing all the action and -Omega- produced a vid player to show him security footage of the Sentient that had got into the hangar and wrecked the place.

It seemed everyone was too busy telling stories about the excitement to ask Newtron what he had been up to, which for once was just fine with him. Who would believe him?

 

END

 

 

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