A Question of Profit: Parts 1 – 4

by Fellblade

This unfinished story by the famed Octavius leader and notable bard, Fellblade, was discovered by RazorsKiss.  We had been looking for a copy since the Library opened, and we thank RazorsKiss for this excellent find.

 

Part I: I Hate Rocks

“An asteroid is a wondrous thing, beautiful, glittering, the maker of fortunes and, sometimes, the breaker of hearts” – Attributed to an unnamed Quantar miner.

The Quicksilver scout gleamed silver in the light of far off suns as it struck out into the depths of space. The sword-shaped central body thrust out from the stubby wings of the ship from which the twin massive drive flares spewed green-glowing energy into space; at the pointed end of the body was the dark, armoured glass of the pilot’s cockpit. Jull Curtis sat back in his comfy pilots seat and glanced out of the right-hand window of his cockpit, to the nebulas and stars beyond; a carpet of soft purple with shining jewels laid upon it. Then, in the corner of the window, he saw the sleek, shining shape of his wingman’s Quicksilver pull into view. He smiled to himself then leant forward out of the warm, welcoming embrace of the pilots seat and opened a comms channel with a quick tap of one finger on the controls board.

“Chaz, what do ya think mate? We’re already two hundred klicks out from the Narrow Canal jumpgate… is it worth carrying on?”

There was a faint crackle as his wingman turned on his own transmitter.

“You’re calling the shots. Mr B won’t be too happy if we came back and said we found nothing. They seem awfully sure there’s something out here.”

Jull sat back again, leaving the comms on, and stared blankly out of the front window. The area of space they were headed towards was black; no nebulas relieved space of it’s oppressive darkness, no stars; just a roughly circular area of the viewscreen which betrayed the prescence of absolutely nothing. It seemed slightly larger than it had been when they had first jumped into the sector, but they had been in space quite a while and Jull wouldn’t be at all surprised if his mind started playing tricks on him. He looked back down at the control console.

“Why couldn’t you have said ‘Let’s just go home’? That would’ve made me feel a bit better.”

There was a chuckle from the speakers.

“What won’t make you feel any better is Mr B getting irritated with you. He’ll probably give you one of Those Looks.”

“Fuck. I hate Those Looks.”

“On something that he’s made as much of a fuss about as this, he’d probably even use sarcasm.”

“Okay, okay already! We’re carrying on. Just so I don’t have to face Mr B’s sarcasm.”

“Good. I’ve got enough problems without him speaking to me sarcasticly.”

Jull returned his gaze to the view ahead. No one liked Mr B’s sarcasm. He had the unique ability to make people feel as small and insignificant as a cockroach without even having to put any effort in. If he turned the full force of his not inconsiderable talents on someone, concentrated his guile and irritation on them… well… there’d been talk of suicides. Mr B might be a little harsh, Jull reflected, but he was a fairly good boss as bosses went. It was nice to have someone to speak to, converse with, instead of just packaged orders. There were benefits to working for Mr B’s employers as well; Jull had been freelance for two years as an escort pilot, fending off pirates who attacked his laden, cargo-carrying clients. Then TRI had cracked down on the pirate cartels, driving them into unregulated space, cutting off their lines of supply and producing new, high-power ships to hunt them down. The pirates retaliated, of course, banding together into increasingly large wings. Now the time of the lone escort was over; anyone venturing into unregulated space either did it in a very fast ship or in a large convoy with upwards of twenty fighters escorting them. Jull had been driven out of work for three months, making a living doing odd courier runs for some of the larger corporations based in the Wake Station, before Mr B had contacted him. And now his days of freelance, contract work were over. He did what he was told; he wasn’t a free soul any longer, but it paid the rent and kept him fed and his ship equipped. Jull sighed. He still missed the seat-of-the-pants flying that freelance work brought with it. The speakers crackled again, snapping out of his idle dreaming.

“Jullo, I’m gonna bring down the throttle a bit and overload the radar again, boost the range a little.” came Chaz’s voice over the comms system.

“Want to see a little bit more nothing hey buddy?”

“Look, at least it gives me something to do. I haven’t even seen a rock for the past fifty klicks.”

“I hate rocks.” Jull said after a twenty-second pause.

“What’ve you got against rocks?”

“One ambushed me once when I was docking at Quantar Core. Bloody rocklickers can’t even keep their docking rings clear of fucking ‘ roids.”

Chaz laughed heartily, Jull grinned and shook his head slightly. Jull had known Chaz since the other man had been hired as Jull’s wingman, a month after his own hiring. Chaz was a good wingman, if a little too fond of beer, food, and more food. His gut was beginning to spill over the tops of his trousers. Chaz was always saying that the next week he was going to start exercising, burn off some of the fat. Of course, he never did.

“You stacked it into a ‘roid?” said the big man over the comms system. Jull could already hear the smile forming on his wingman’s face.

“Yeah… I was heading towards the rings and some tow’s engine flare half-blinded me when the idiot lit off a flashfire. Burned off to one side to get away from the engine wash and ripped half the side of the ship open on a bloody rock.”

Jull heard the faint tap of fingers on keys accompanied by Chaz quietly chuckling to himself, slightly distorted by the encryption running on the comms signal. To his right, the thin nose of the Quicksilver scout disappeared, dropping away behind him.

“Jull, I’ve… uh… got something on radar. Whoops, there it goes. Field matrix has collapsed again, back down to 10% below normal range while the automatics rebuild it.”

“You’re shitting me?”

“I shit you not, bud. Edge of boosted range, 38 klicks out, a couple of degrees to the left of our current heading.”

“All the way out here?”

“Mr B isn’t exactly well known for sending people out on wild goose chases is he? If he sent us out here there’s gonna be something… I’ m just wandering what it is…”

“Well, lucky for us, we get to find out.” Jull said darkly.

There was a pause for a moment.

“Why did you have to make that sound so damn ominous?”

“I’m just pointing out that whatever it is might not want to be found.”

“Stop giving me the fucking creeps.”

“Chill buddy, I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing, is it? I mean, it’s definately something… hey… does that dark area ahead look bigger to you?”

Jull leant forward again, slightly out of his chair. His brow creased into a frown.

“Now that you mention it… yeah. Yeah it does. Wierd.”

Jull’s radar made a quiet tone. He stood up off of the chair for a moment, and pulled it forward along it’s runners to bring himself closer to the command console.

“Fuck me…” he breathed quietly.

“What is it, speak to me buddy. Remember, I’ve got 10% less range than you on my radar here…”

“This trace is fucking enormous…”

In front of Jull’s eyes, a glowing semi-circle of light impinged on the darkness of the radar display background.

“It’s… huge.”

“Yeah, I can see it now. I think ‘fucking enormous’ is closer to the mark than ‘huge’, mind you.”

“I can see the sides on it… let’s see. I make it about 10 klicks across.”

Chaz whistled, the distortion on the channel creating odd harmonics.

“And do we know what the fuck it is yet?”

“I’ll do a spectroscopic scan.”

Jull leant forward and brought up his MODx controls, then selected his brand new, top-of-the-range T&P Longarm sensor suite, and started the spectroscopic scanner. Something behind him set into the wall started buzzing faintly as he looked up. The area of darkness ahead was visibly growing now. “Yeah, and while you’re doing it, throttle back. Whatever it is I don’t think we want to run into it… hell, it might not want us to either. And whatever it is you’re gonna do, don’t do anything that could piss it off.”

“Whatever it is.”

“Yeah.”

Something buzzed quietly in Jull’s cockpit. “Results coming in…”

Jullen leant forward over the display, the glowing green type illuminating his face. He frowned and moved his face a little closer to the screen, peering at the blocky machine type. His eyes widened.

“Well, I don’t think it attacking us is going to be a problem.” he said firmly.

“Care to elaborate?”

“It’s a big lump of rock.”

There was another pause.

“Rock.”

“You heard me right the first time. Rock. Semifluxor actually… very low in contaminants.”

“We flew out here… almost three hundred kilometers into the middle of no-where… with conflux encounters reaching an all-time high… to find a rock.”

“You haven’t quite grasped this yet, have you?” said Jull, voice impatient.

“Well… no. It’s a fucking rock.”

“Have you any idea how much a rock with a diameter of twenty five kilometers is worth if it’s solid semifluxor?”

“Uh… lots?”

“Fucking ast-ro-nomical. So much, in fact, it’s going to fuck up the market in a rather large and unpleasant fashion.”

“Hey, fucked up markets can be profited from.”

“Everything can be profited from. You’ve just gotta find the right way of looking at it.”

“Haven’t got to look too far to far to find the right way of looking at this, have you?”

“We’ll leave that for Mr B to decide. Let’s get back.”

“Yeah. I want lunch.”

“You’re always thinking about food, you lard-arse.”

“Shut it. I just like my food.”

“Yeah… whatever.”

The two scouts span slowly, then their engines flared again, sending them rocketing back to home, safety, and food.

“I fucking hate fucking rocks.” muttered Jull.

 

Part II: Heist

“Sometimes, others have what you need. Money may not buy it from them, words of persuation may not wrest it from their grasp. Force may not yeild results, and subterfuge through the heart fails miserably. When all else fails, nick it.” – Irriyor Ultennas (Solrain), Director of Chemol Manufacturing Inc.

Fen Yozak looked down the vent shaft which stretched down below her for at least five levels, the dull metal sides coated with a patina of dust and light grime. Behind her the same thin layer of dust lay undisturbed by the soles of her sensible black boots. The boots were expensive boots; they had cost her the whole of her last paycheck but, she thought, they were worth it. Boots costing someone’s paycheck was not unusual; most small jobs which people in space got by on tended not to pay particularly well. It was, however, unusual when the paycheck in question was seven hundred thousand credits. They were good boots. Fen reached down to her belt and pulled out a small black cuboid. With a deft flick of her wrist it snapped open into two separate pieces connected by a length of extremely thin cord. One of her fingers tapped at the side of one of the pieces, in a place that looked no different to any other on the matte black shape, then she reached up and put it against the side of the vertical shaft above the enterance to the horizontal air duct that she was in. It clicked into place and when she removed her hand it stayed there, the other block handing from it by the length of cord. She touched part of the hanging block, then drew it down to her and clicked it into place against something on her wrist. Then she jumped out into the air vent. The walls blurred past for a couple of seconds before a slight hand movement slowed her descent, then stopped her. She swung back into the side of the vent, her boots making contact with the metal first, noiselessly, then dropped a little further and reached into the horizontal in front of her with her legs, pulling herself in. She paused there for a moment, silent, unmoving, then turned around, detached the block from her wrist, and touched it again as she stuck her hand back out into the vent. Above her the second part of the block suddenly dropped away from the shaft wall and shot down along the length of the cord with a thin whine, making a quiet ‘click’ as it snapped back into place with it’s twin, forming a single solid block once again. She reached down and put it back into her belt. Fen turned around, then walked along the vent crouched over, movements careful, measured, one foot moving forward cautiously at a time. The layer of dust which covered the vent walls and floor was not marked by her passing; dust noticeably failed to puff up whenever she put a foot down on the metal floor. Fen’s boots were really good boots. The vents were dark; lit only by very dim red-coloured lightig to save power, but she paced past turnings either side of her, moving with confidence. She turned left, then right, then daintily stepped over a grate set into the floor through which white light poured. Voices drifted up through it, vague, incomprehensible mutterings. Fen Yozak didn’t stop; whatever the talk was about, it didn’t concern her. She was a woman on a mission. Do the mission, bug out. In and out. An easy job. Well, that was the theory, but the real world never worked like that. There were always… complications. Whenever complications might arise, people looked for professionals to do the work. And Fen Yozak was definately a professional. She turned left a couple more times, then to the right. The vent ended with a metal panel ahead of her, a metal grate in the floor lead to a room below. Light filtered through the grate, dust motes winking in and out of vision, seeming to sparkle as they floated through the shafts of brightness, driven by the light but unrelenting breeze of the air conditioning system. Fen carefully lowered herself to the floor of the vent, making sure that only her boots touched the cold metal floor, then produced a black cube from a pouch on her belt. Again, a light touch from a finger in a certain place drew interesting results. One side of the cube flipped open and swung away from the main body on invisible hinges, a plasma screen inset into it. A small, almost invisible length of fibre-optic cable snaked out from the far side of the cube. Minute fingertip movements sent the cable, flexing and twisting, down through one of the holes in the grate and into the room below. The plasma screen lit up, displaying the view from the fibre optic remote. The room below was of medium size, five meters a side, and well furnished. The walls were covered with either real or synth- mahogony, tasteful lights sat mounted on the walls instead of the conventional ceiling-mounted fluro-strips, and most of the room was occupied by a desk. What a desk… a black marble surface covered with monitors and readouts, four separate keyboards, two tablets, an array of discreet buttons under the working surface and enough paper scattered over it to chew up a significant portion of any reasonably- sized rainforest. Fen Yutak carefully reeled back in the fibre optic remote, closed the cube, then stowed it in her belt again. She stood on one leg and carefully placed the other against the wall on the far side of the grating then tensed… span… and looked up at the grate which was now above her. Really good boots. She worked quickly, breathing deeply, face reddening as blood rushed to her head, feet stuck firmly to the ceiling. Her hands reached ‘up’ to the grate with a roll of copper wire in them, then stuck a couple of pieces across from one side of the grating to the other, made sure there was a contact, then dropped. She span in mid air, hit the grate feet-first, knocking it out from it’s position, and dropped into the office below. The two copper wires ensured that the contact between the two metal bars either side of the grate was kept, and that twenty kilos of ‘tex didn’t go off like a small nuke when the grate was knocked out. Fen quickly sat down at the desk and got to work.

Getting past the vent system defences had been interesting, but she had managed to circumnavigate most of them through the judicious use of a neighbouring complex’s cent system and then the careful application of a plasma cutting torch. The lasers had been avoided using a compact expanding mirror setup, automatically triggered to avoid any human error and carefully removed in the wake of her passing. Thermal sensors had been eluded using her suit’s thermal cloaking properties, reducing thermal emissions from the body to ambient levels for up to five minutes before it had to release some energy. All that was behind her now, of course, now she could get on with her mission, the mission she was being handsomely rewarded for carrying out.

The program was very neat; it had taken her three months to construct, four years ago when she started doing this kind of thing. The disk hijacked the normal boot sequence of a terminal, bypassed security, then decrypted any locale password storage files and logged onto the local network using the ones with the highest privaledges. Fen Yutak knew exactly what she was looking for; she grabbed the file, copied it to disk, then let loose the second program. The second program had been much easier to construct and was very flexible, it simply took a file, then went through every disk and network drive it could lay it’s electronic hands on and erased anything even vaguely similar to that file. Fen stood up, ejected the disk, and walked over to a leather sofa that occupied half the length of one of the walls. It was time to make her escape. She quickly pulled the sofa away from the wall, and pulled out another cuboid that with a few deft movements revealed itself as a plasma cutter. The cutter ignited, the green plasma flame illuminating the interior of the office wierdly, casting odd shadows. She quickly bent over and applied it to the floor panelling; the polished wooden floor melted away, varnish bubbling in the intense heat of the plasma. The last of the wood burnt away, then the plasma cutter skittered over something and made an odd whining noise. She quickly flicked it off and bent down to examine what was in the way.

Shit. she thought. Under the wood was ship-grade armour plating with a forcefield over it; a forcefield that could regenerate much faster than the plasma cutter could drain it. An alarm went off.

There are always complications. And that’s why people like Fen Yozak’s employers employ people like Fen Yozak. She knocked the sofa back into place, then walked quickly over to stand in front of the double doors, drawing a small pistol as she did so. Heightened awarenesses came into play; footsteps approached. Just before the door started opening Fen’s finger squeezed on the trigger. There was a thump of superheated air, the screech of the laser, and a small circle of wood erupted into flames. The body of the guard knocked the door open as it fell, smoking, to the floor. Fen was already in the air, throwing herself forwards through the doorway, landing on the polished floor, and sliding along it on her back, flicking the pistol onto the ‘cutter’ mode, then firing into the midst of the other three guards who were mid-way through forcing their way into the room. After a second the solid red beam faded as the power cell ran dry, Fen quickly touched a button on the pistol, then threw it at the collapsing bodies of the three security guards. She drew another gun as the first skittered over the floor behind her then detonated in an explosion with a distinctly fleshy tone to it. Footsteps hammered at her ears as she sidled quickly down the corridor towards the double doors at the end of it. There was a click from the doors. Fen calmly let herself drop to the ground; a second later the door panelling blew inwards as assault rifle fire blazed away at it, bullets screaming over her head. Flames from muzzle flashes licked through the holes which were punched in the wood by the high-velocity bullets, the sound of the automatic weapons hammered at her ears. Four precise shots from her laser pistol punched four smoking holes in the woodwork, then she leapt to her feet and shoulder-barged her way through the wreckage of the door. Wooden splinters clattered to the floor around her as she glanced up and down the length of the carpetted corridor. There were no more hurrying security guards visible, just a turning at each end of the corridor and a pair of doors. And four bodies at her feet. She already knew what was behind each of those doors, and exactly where the corridor ran to in each direction, she was always very careful to make sure she knew her terrain before doing a job. She ran to her left, to the closer of the two doors, and quickly stuck a strip of metal in the old-style lock. She touched a part of the metal strip, then quickly pulled her hand away. It silvered over, then resumed its previous dull gleam. Fen turned it in the lock, withdrew a perfectly formed key, then stepped through and locked the door behind her. The plasma cutter made a second appearance. This time there was no force- field.

 

Part III: Read All About It

“You can’t change what has already happened, but you can shape people’s perception of the past. Public opinion is a powerful tool, but is dangerous; it can be wielded by anyone’s hand.” – Ariss Yellay, Minister of Propoganda for the Green Chaplains.

The comms-screen lit up, displaying the young, pretty, but tired-looking face of the docking control operator for hangar four of Solrain Core Station, her features somewhat marred by a glowering expression and an arched eyebrow. Kelsen Vass had had the visual component installed two years ago in his Quicksilver scout and when he’d switched over to his Intensity-class fighter he’d had it transferred over. It cost a great deal, but he reckoned that it had been worth the investment.

“Excuse me, sir, you haven’t paid the refuelling fee for your… oh…”

She paused as realization spread across her face like sunlight running over the land as dawn broke.

“It’s you! It’s… it’s… that news guy!”

Kelsen smiled a winning smile through gritted, pearl-white teeth.

That news guy. Just once in a while it’d be nice if someone actually remembered my-

“…Kelsen Vass!” she said, face beaming.

His picture-perfect smile gained a little authenticity with the mention of his own name. Kelsen Vass, freelance reporter, had shot to fame after discovering a bribe scandal in one of the larger Solrain legal companies; Gaynen, Perry & Silver. A string of high-profile arrests had followed his exposé and he had made a large amount of money selling the gory details off to the different news-nets, dealing with exclusives only and upping the price with each sucessive revelation that he let slip. Of course, Gaynen, Perry & Silver weren’t too happy about the whole situation and had hired a large number of highly unpleasant people to do a large number of highly unpleasant things to him. The assassins had come for him three times; twice he had run from them, then the third time he had his newly kitted-out Intensity fighter, the Scoop, and two months of intense combat training behind him from an Octavian pilot of high reknown. Of the five ships which had attacked him, three were destroyed, one disabled, and one fled. Through judicious use of a pair of needle-nose pliers and a blowtorch that a mechanic had left in his cargo hold, Kelsen was able to find out who had hired the killers, and taped the confession. After editing it for screams and publishing it to all news-nets for a considerable sum, he then sued Gaynen, Perry & Silver, for even more. The resulting payout was more than enough to set him up for life, but then things had turned nasty. A mining venture he’d set up with a group of Quantars was destroyed by the Green Chaplains because the money was going to a Solrain corporation. That had pissed him off no-end, and he’d started a one-man publicity campaign against the factionalist Quantar squad. On reflection, it was perhaps not the best of ideas. He did have lots of money, but the Green Chaplains had lots of money, and lots of guns. The resulting battles that had taken place between his hired mercenaries and the Chaplains had gone very badly, until eventually he had decided to go along with his mercenaries to assist with the battle. The Green Chaplains promptly bought them off with three times the amount he had paid them, and his ship was destroyed by the combined force. He had called off his one-man crusade due to diminishing funds, and then there had been a two-month gap with no news stories of any import at all, something that he had never experienced before in his life in space. The past week had seen a flaring up of tensions between two gigantic companies; the Argando Consortium and the Sayumi-Jameson Syndicate, which had just about managed to keep him alive and pay for the repairs on his ship, leaving only pocket change behind. Fame did pay. In this case it would hopefully pay thirty five credits.

“I’m sorry,” he said, keeping up the smile, “My credit company’s just been bought out, and they haven’t sorted out the systems merger yet; there’s probably some problem with the databases. Say… are you doing anything tonight?”

Her cheeks flushed red.

“I… uh… I’m on duty until three thirty hours, sorry. Some other time? No problem with the refuelling fee, I’ll cancel that…” she grinned a sheepish grin and waved a hand at him, “Bye!”

His smile widened and he waved back until the screen went blank. As soon as the darkness flecked with white specks of noise replaced the woman’s face on the screen, Kelsen’s smile vanished, making him seem suddenly old and tired. He turned his attention back to the view out of his front cockpit window, the inside of a pair of huge tarnished metal doors. There was a loud, bass thud, a higher-toned clunk, then a small spinning yellow light started up above the ship, the rotating beam flashing over the parting doors before him. Kelsen smiled thinly to himself, then leant forward and reached under his seat, fumbling for a few seconds before his fingers felt the seat controls. He depressed one with his index finger for a few seconds and servos whined, the chair moving forwards towards the control console. There was another thud as the main clamps released his ship, then a surge of acceleration as the station catapaulted him out into space. A blue nebula stretched out before him, unimaginably vast, studded with glittering stars. A couple of green drive trails from other spacecraft moved across the view. Kelsen glanced down at the map display while his left hand ran over the comms console, searching for the activation button.

“Let’s see… Sea of Solrain… then…”

There was a faint click as he pressed the initialization button on the comms console.

“Comms: Online” intoned the pleasantly soft voice from the computer. Kelsen nodded absentmindedly, one finger tracing over the map display. He noticed the radar display out of the corner of one eye; something was odd about it.

“Missile Lock” said the computer gently. Kelsen nodded again, then froze, and looked up from the map screen.

“SHIT!” he screamed, grabbing the flight stick with one hand, the other ramming the throttle forwards so hard that the lever was actually bent slightly. There was the distinctive roar of a rocket motor screaming past him as he barrel rolled his Intensity out of the way of a badly- timed Purgatory missile, then looped up and headed back towards the station at full throttle, Hammer cannon rounds making a blue blur around his cockpit as they streaked past.

“Missile Lock” said the computer.

“Fuck off!” he shouted back at it, then glanced around the cockpit and down at the radar to check the situation. The radar was a carpet of blue dots with an occasional red or green speck amongst them. He looped the Intensity towards the central column of the gigantic station, keeping a close eye on the two yellow dots which trailed him on the radar. Around the Intensity a battle raged on, ships flashing past it in blurs of grey, guns flaming. Lasers stabbed out from one ship to another, the targets glowing as the energy smashed into their shields. The central column of Solrain Core flashed past and Kelsen quickly jinked the Intensity to one side, putting the column between the missiles and himself. After a couple of seconds there were a pair of muffled explosions behind him; a quick glance at the rear viewscreen showed a fading explosion and scattered bits of the station’s central column whirling off into space from the dual missile impact. Kelsen, glancing quickly between the main cockpit window and the comms system, quickly tuned into the local broadcast channel. A torrent of noise screamed at him from the speakers in his cockpit.

“Peterson, Peterson, you’ve got an SJ on your tail.” said a deep voice, with a hint of urgency.

“This is Peterson, I see the bastard Franky, gimme a hand here, I’m heading for the station, need cover, I’ve taken hull damage.” A higher pitch, this one, Kelsen imagined the pilot to be quite thin and short, but it could have just been combat stress.

“SJ6, SJ6, this is SJ19, you have an Argando Invader flying up your ass; break right.”

“Peterson, look lively, I’ve got three of them on me!”

“SJ19, SJ19, guns, guns, guns!”

Kelsen, quickly targeted the ship which had fired missiles on him and looked out of the cockpit window at the fight going on, switching comms channels to send to SNN.

“This is Kelsen Vass, there’s a major dogfight outside Solrain Core… I’m going to be sending out a streaming transmission. Do you want to buy it?”

There was a series of crackles as a line of Hammer rounds found their mark on the shields of Kelsen’s fighter, the view in front of him filling with blue static from feedback. The fighter lurched and Kelsen heaved back on the stick to bring the fighter into a tight turn around one of the larger arms of the hulking station.

“This is the Solrain News Network hailing Kelsen Vass. We want good action, you hear? What price?”

“Good action?!” he said incredulously as he twisted the fighter around a structural support and headed towards the docking rings, “Good action? I’m being fucking shot at!”

“What price?”

His shields crackled again, and more hammer rounds careened past him to carve small craters into the paintwork of the station.

“Eighty thou’!”

“Hmmm…”

“Will you please hurry up, someone’s trying to kill me!”

“Okay, forwarding you the broadcast channel and encryption code. Payment will be eighty thousand credits straight to your account.”

In front of Kelsen a light fighter, trailing sparks and miscillaneous bits of itself was heading towards the docking tube, with another Interceptor following it. Behind the Interceptor was an Invader-class medium fighter, the pilot of which was slewing it from side to side to avoid the plethora of different types of projectile which were being hurled at it by the three chasing ships behind. Kelsen looked down at the information on the ship which had attacked him. It was a Sayumi-Jameson Syndicate Interceptor… which appeared to still be following him.

“This is the Scoop to Sayumi-Jameson 13, cease fire, cease fire! I am not a member of the Argando Consortium!”

“This is SJ13, roger that, repeat, roger that…” came the voice of the Interceptor pilot.

Kelsen breathed a sigh of relief, and quickly turned on his recorder, while targetting the closest ship to him… an Argando Consortium Intensity. “…good to have you on board!”

Kelsen froze again, and looked up from setting up his recording.

“Uh, that isn’t what I…”

“All AC ships, this is Olenties, I see Scoop now, engaging!”

“Roger that Olenties, Peterson just docked, I’m heading to cover your six.”

Kelsen was shaking as he hit the record button with one hand, the other looping the ship back around towards the station again.

“I… I… think someone… is… somewhat confused here…” he said, nervously, looking down at the targetting information as the Argando Consortium ship closed with him. There was a thud as something smashed into the Scoop, and the Alpaa shield flickered blue as the ship slewed to one side under the impact.

“I’m not on Sayumi-Jameson’s side!” he shouted franticly.

“You’re not?” came the voice of Olenties.

“You’re not?!” came the voice of the pilot of SJ13, “Traitor!”

Kelsens face lapsed into an expression of hopelessness as he screamed through the docking rings at almost five hundred meters a second, lasers lancing past him. Hammer ammunition smashed into the station before him as he looped around an Octavian tow which was making it’s final approach to the docking rings, hammer rounds creeping in an arc closer and closer to him, until the bulk of the cargo tow got in the way.

“This is civillian cargo tow Vespen Three, we’re under attack from Argando Consortium fighters at Solrain Core!”

The Scoop skimmed the station, the painted metal a blur beneath its hull, ammunition streaming past it, shield crackling as the occasional shot found its mark. Before the fighter, the station’s outer curve dropped away. Kelsen angled down, span through one hundred and eighty degrees, then screamed back out again, lasers blazing. The lead fighter was the Sayumi-Jameson 13, which flashed past faster than Kelsen could draw a bead on it. The one behind was not so lucky, a fussilade of lasers hammering into its forward shields which lit up, half-blinding the pilot who, in his haste to get out of the line of fire, swerved to one side and smashed one wing off of his Interceptor light fighter on the station. The wreck cartwheeled across space in a flat spin before being intercepted by another part of Solrain Core which jutted out into space, where it broke into another three pieces which ricocheted back out towards the stars. Kelsen hit the afterburners and the extra acceleration slammed him back into the seat for a moment as he arced out from the protective bulk of the station, only to dart back into it a moment later. As bits of the superstructure flashed past him, Kelsen involuntarily winced and ducked his head away from the incoming lumps of metal. Then the comms system crackled as a new, powerful, transmitter started up.

“This is Jovir Tuawana of Solrain Core Security…” boomed the voice,

“Uh-oh…” murmured Kelsen to himself quietly,

“All ships outside Solrain Core, cease fire immediately. You have five seconds to comply.”

“Missile lock” said the computer.

Kelsen glanced down at the rear view monitor to see a pair of Stiletto warheads closing with him and quickly snapped the Intensity around, the missiles screaming pass a matter of meters from the hull of the fighter.

“He said cease fire!” Kelsen shouted at the comms system, “That means stop shooting me!”

He accelerated towards the launch tubes of the station, shields recharging a little in a momentary respite before more shots started whistling past him. The launch tubes in front of him spat out four Intensity fighters simultaneously, which all turned to face towards him. Kelsen didn’t have time to steer aside; he hammered the afterburner again and screamed through the centre of them, rolling as he went. Behind him, shots intended for his ship started impacting on the shields of the Intensities that had just launched.

“This is Alpha Three, I’ve taken shield damage; Argando Consortium ships are firing on me!”

“Defence Wing Alpha, this is Alpha one; engage at will.”

Missiles uncoupled from the four ships in Alpha wing, engines igniting and sending them hurling forwards into the mass of ships which was heading towards them. Explosions flared orange and gold, shielding systems lighting up around them, ships scattering out of the way of the four fighters which roared into the centre of them, guns blazing. For the moment, everyone was ignoring Kelsen. He calmly turned his ship around, made sure the cameras were still working, and headed back into the fight.

 

Part IV: Connections

“I despise private detectives and amateur sleuths – they get in the way of things and have a tendency to complicate the most simple of investigations with wild ideas and unfounded guesses that they dub ‘instinct'” – Petri Arthanzas, Head of Security, Wake Station

Jovir Tuwana watched the large-scale three-way dogfight going on via the terminal on his desk, his irritation mounting. The SNN logo twirled innocently in the corner of the screen and the voice of Kelsen Vass spoke from the speakers mounted on each side of the screen.

“I’m headed back into the fray… Solrain Core Security fighters have scrambled and they’re cutting a bloody swathe through the Sayumi- Jameson and Argando Consortium fighters. Both companies are now in breach of the Commercial War Treaty for engaging civilian ships in a station sector, and the Solrain Core Security fighters don’t seem to be taking any prisoners.”

The view of the dogfighting ships lurched suddenly, and was partially obscured by blue shield feedback which crackled over the shell of the forcefield.

“I’m under attack again…” said Kelsen, his voice strangely calm, “it’s… the Snooper… shit…”

The view wheeled as the Intensity span around, Kelsens’ voice beginning to show the strain. A Typhoon fighter tore past, quad Hammers flaming. Jovir leant closer to the screen as an SNN commentator took over, Kelsen’s voice fading into the background.

“The Snooper is offering SNN exclusive coverage of the dogfight currently taking place outside Solrain Core station, and seems to be intent on making sure that there are no other bidders by… disposing… of Kelsen Vass.”

Jovir shook his head. Competitiveness took on a new meaning when you were dealing with newshounds… and Solrain newshounds at that, Kelsen’s voice faded back in, shouting.

“So you want a fucking exclusive do you? Eat this!”

The view span, drive tail streaming past the cockpit camera as Kelsen vectored his thrust one hundred and eighty degrees from his previous heading. The Snooper shot past, a blur of green and grey, Kelsen turning his ship to follow the patch of the Quantar fighter. His guns flared, the shields of the Typhoon crackling green, then he accelerated towards it as it turned, loosing a Kataka torpedo as the other ship span on the spot to face him. The Scoop screamed past, guns blazing, then the whole viewscreen shook violently and there was the bass rumble of an explosion. The view swung around again. In the background the battle went on, ships following one another, guns blazing away, unimaginable energies pouring out into the void of space. And before them hung a charred, sparking, vaguely Typhoon- shaped piece of metal, pitted and scarred. The edges of a huge crater where it’s cockpit had been still glowed red with heat from the explosion, twisted pieces of metal glinting in the depths of the scar. Jovir, still staring at the screen, grimaced. After a moment he leant over to the other side of his desk, pulled a microphone to his lips, and tapped a button set into the desk.

“What’s the situation like out there?”

“This is Alpha One…” there was a crackle of a shield hit followed by the telltale scream of gauss ammunition flying past, “…the Sayumi- Jameson ships are pulling back towards Wake Station. We’re currently in pursuit.”

Jovir drummed his fingers on the black polished surface of his desk, lost in thought.

“Let them go; pull back and dock a-s-a-p. Did we sustain any losses?”

“Nah, we’re fine. Alpha three took a few hits on the hull, but you know Wintrow – he always cuts it a little fine.”

Jovir nodded to himself and released the button, then glanced back to the screen. It faded back from the cockpit view to the SNN studios and a serious-looking presenter giving a detailed run-down of the battle’s statistics. His eye ran over the desk, then fell on a stack of paperwork in a brown folder. The label on it read “Olss Systems Breakin, File #001384”. Jovir looked back up at the screen and a smile spread over his face. His finger drifted over to the button in the desk again, then stabbed downwards.

“While you’re out there, bring in Kelsen. tell him I’ve got some work for him. And, of course, if he doesn’t come we’ll book him for a disruption of traffic offence.”

“Disruption of traffic?”

“Look, it’s a trumped-up charge, but I’ve got enough swing to make it stick, and he knows it.”

Jovir released the button, then sat back in his large, comfortable chair, watching the balding middle-aged presenter.

“Tensions between Sayumi-Jameson and Argando have flared up in the past three weeks over a number of high-value equipment hauling contracts for the Octavian Government. Seventeen Argando Consortium cargo tows loaded with military equipment were downed in a single week after they managed to under-bid the Sayumi-Jameson Syndicate for the contract. As a result of their failure to complete the contract on time it was passed onto the Sayumi-Jameson Syndicate. Sayumi-Jameson convoys have been coming under increasing numbers of attacks from pirates and mercenaries since their announcement of their acceptance of the contract, and most independent observers have suggested that the Argando Consortium may have a hand in this, despite a lack of anything other than cirumstantial evidence. The outright hostility between the companies was revealed today in what is believed to be the first head-to-head clash between major corporations for six years. For the reasons behind the dogfight, I pass you over to our Industrial Espionage correspondent, Nurrum Parray.”

The screen wiped horizontally, revealing a young-ish black haired man wearing a heavy, dark blue trenchcoat. Behind him the bustle of a working hangar carried on, a light tractor pulling a rack of Morningstar missile clusters driving by, and a multitude of technicians walking in all directions carrying the infinitely varied tools of their trade. The man nodded curtly at the camera.

“Thank you, Dietrich. My sources have revealed that the reason for this flaring up of hostilities between the two companies was a leak from Sayumi-Jameson about a large-scale shipment of Sport plus powerplants to Octavius Core Station. The Argando Consortium felt that this opportunity was too good to miss and seized the chance to cripple Sayumi-Jameson. Unfortunately for the Argando Consortium, the leak was deliberate and they ran into a carefully prepared trap. The cargo tows supposedly carrying the powerplants were not only empty, but fully equipped with combat gear and Morningstar missile clusters. The ambush blew up into a full-scale dogfight around Solrain Core, as you have just seen, and only the swift actions of the Solrain Core Security pilots stopped innocent civilians getting caught in the fire- fight. What is worth noting is the generally high pilot skill on both sides of this battle; the pilots of both corporations were well drilled and effective. This brings forward the question; did they…”

Jovir stopped listening to the reporter’s voice as he saw the tall, brooding figure of Kelsen Vass walk past, followed by four Solrain Core Security pilots. He turned the screen off, then swivelled his chair and pilled the brown folder towards him along the surface of the desk. An index finger slipped in under the front of the folder, and a deft movement flicked it open. He started at the lines of crabby writing, idly wondering if they’d ever make enough money to computerize the whole system, then pulled the top sheet out of the folder and onto his lap with a lone finger. Attached to the single sheet with a slightly malformed plastic paperclip was the one picture they had of the exceptionally meticulous thief. Every single security camera had been taken out beforehand, then every trace of how it was done was removed; all that was in the databanks was a fifteen minute gap. The only thing they had found different to how it had left the day before the break-in, apart from the missing information, was a collection of bodies in the corridor outside of the executive office. Olss Systems, not unusually, had declined to state what the data was, but gave a filename, type, checksum, and the first and last twenty hexadecimal values that were in the file. This had all been recorded as a matter of course on their systems. Incredibly, the file itself had not been backed up at all, although Jovir suspected that if it had been, any trace of it would have been removed anyway. Nevertheless, he had baulked at the lack of backup, only for the Olss Systems security chief to explain that that was just how important the contents of the file were – so secret that it was considered a liability to hold more than one copy of them. Jovir leant forward again and dragged another three sheets onto his lap, on top of the first. He scanned the three pages of transcribed statements from the three people who had been alive and in the area at the time for what seemed like the millionth time, eyes flickering over the useless words. All three said the same thing; an alarm went off, the person in question hurried to the scene and found a pile of bodies. There were no more details, no clues to be gleaned from making obscure connections… all they had was the single picture. There was a chime at the door, and Jovir looked up.

“Enter.”

Kelsen Vass walked in, glancing around the office and its sparse collection of furniture; a desk, two chairs, one occupied, a holo-tank, and a terminal on the desk. Jovir looked the other man up and down. He was about two meters tall with unkempt brown hair, a prominent but not overly large nose, a strong jawline, and green eyes.

“Nice office, but I don’t think I was brought here to admire your decor. What can I do for you, Mr. Tuwana?”

Jovir grinned.

“Kelsen Vass, in the flesh. How’s the freelance reporting business going?”

Kelsen frowned for a second, then lightened up a little.

“Pretty fair, actually.”

“Business picking up?”

“Y-es…” he said somewhat hesitantly, then scratched the side of his head and folded his arms. “What exactly do you want?”

“I need your help.” Jovir said simply, head cocked to one side, a faintly amused expression on his face. “I run this company,” he said, gesturing expansively to indicate everything around him, “The Solrain Government pays me to keep the peace in and around Solrain Core Station. I control the Solrain Core defence wing, I have an elite detachment of security troops under my command, but sometimes, just now and then, there’s something I can’t do. Sometimes I need a little outside assistance.”

“And this is one of those times?” said Kelsen, walking forwards to the desk, then falling heavily back into the chair behind him.

“This is, indeed, one of those times,” confirmed Jovir with a barely perceptible nod. “I need enquiries to be made, I need something stolen, and there’s a strong possibility that I’ll need someone killed.”

“That’s great, I’m happy for you, but I’m not a contract assassin. I’m a newsman.”

“I know, I know. But as a news-hound you have contacts, contacts which I need.”

Kelsen paused for a moment, considering what Jovir was saying.

“Okay,” he said eventually, “Let’s discuss payment.”

Jovir stretched his arms out in front of him, then put his hands together, interlocking the fingers, and put them on his lap.

“One hundred thousand credits for the first job. Other payments negotiated when the jobs become available.”

Kelsen raised his eyebrows.

“And the first job is?”

“I need you to find someone for me. A thief.”

“A thief.” said Kelsen quietly.

“Yup, a thief.”

“What do I have to work on?”

“A picture. Only one, and it’s poor quality; grainy, but the thief is quite distinctive.”

“Where’s the picture?”

“You see the picture after you agree to the job.” said Jovir, guardedly.

Kelsen crossed his arms again, then rubbed his chin thoughtfully with one hand.

“One hundred thousand.”

“That’s what I said.” replied Jovir, nodding slowly.

“You have yourself a deal.”

“Excellent.” Jovir smiled.

“The picture?”

“Here.”

Jovir leant forward and slid the piece of paper with the picture clipped to it across to the other side of the desk. Kelsen leant forward and delicately picked it up between thumb and forefinger, then turned it around and looked at the printed picture. The image was grainy, but showed a young, black-haired woman with brown eyes and an expression of furious concentration looking almost directly at the camera.

“Nice” Kelsen tilted his head to one side, “Got a mean look to her, but nice.”

“It’s meant to be a wanted poster, not a pin-up.” replied Jovir, irritated.

Kelsen looked up from the picture.

“Hey, cool down, I was just passing comment.” he paused. “I know a company who can find anyone. Is it acceptable if I hire them on your behalf?”

“Listen, as long as she’s found, I don’t care how it’s done. Any out-sourcing has to be covered by your own wallet.”

“That’s fine.”

“One other thing… have you used this outfit before?”

“No…” Kelsen grinned slyly, “…but I hear their CEO is easy on the eyes. Some of my contacts which have worked with her before say she’s a real smooth operator.” He paused for a moment, considering something, “Look, why don’t you come along? It can’t do any harm.”

Jovir looked hesitant for a second, then shrugged.

“Yeah, sure, why not.” he stood up, knocking the chair behind him back a foot or so. “Let’s go.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s