Excerpt # 5
Chapter 100: The Chain
Chris strode down the hallway toward the May’s enlisted bunks. His information was as fresh as his shirt, and he hoped it would bring Rachael out of the funk she was in. She was offered a room in the main living quarters that Uncle Pat built next to the bridge, but she asked if she could come down here. Chris theorized she was extracting some security from the Spartan, bunker-like atmosphere. Or, perhaps she just wanted to hide. It wasn’t an uncommon emotion among those who watched two goons walk away from a hanger while they were still burning. He was a bit rattled himself.
She had the lights turned down in the hallways on this level. This said volumes for her current frame of mind. “Lights up” he said periodically, bringing a sense of daytime to the floor once again.
He stopped before opening her door, knocked twice, and activated the release. “Rachael, it’s me,” he called out, hoping to reduce his chances of being shot. “Are you decent?”
“No, but I’m dressed.”
He walked in the bunk room, and said “Lights up.” The lights came on and he saw Rachael shading her eyes, standing up from a bottom bunk. She had on a white t-shirt and some navy jogging pants. She didn’t look exactly ready for action, but he figured that might be a plus since they were still in a holding pattern.
“Dice and Easy have reported in from New Ecuador,” Chris explained. “Apparently for the last several months, Mayhem has been renting freighters, loading them with stimulants, narcotics, and tobacco, and flying them into the Junkyard. The ships return form the Junkyard empty on autopilot.”
“You’ve lost me. That’s a one way trip. How is she doing this over and over again?” Rachael asked. “She’s been renting other freighters on New Siberia, loading them with guns and ammo from the weapons factories, and running them to New Ecuador. She reappears on New Ecuador the next day.”
“You can’t pull off those runs that fast—not the way you’re saying it.”
Chris leaned on one of the bunks. “That’s what has Scotch confused, but he guarantees she’s back in two days tops. She’s coming from the right direction for that run, and the guns check out as coming from New Siberia.” He watched Rachael trying to figure out the puzzle, and though he had more pieces, he wanted to give her a chance to put what she had together.
Still she shook her head. “What was she flying?” she asked. “Here’s where it gets interesting,” Chris answered. “She’s been flying big ships; large cargo haulers with heavy armor and heavier guns. The last ship she rented was a ship called the One-Eyed Jack which is back at New Ecuador with battle damage. An identical ship, with the same name, was discovered in the scanner registries of the Asguard ships in dock here. The histories showed it appearing on their screens from directly behind the Devil’s skull, empty and unmanned.”
Rachael turned her back on him, and walked away for a minute, seemingly lost in thought.
He continued. “Dice, Easy and Scotch are going to arrange for a tour of the ship, and see what they can find out. If they can get to the main computers…”
“Wait a minute,” she said turning around. “You’re telling me that my sister has been magically moving between two star systems, and her ships are materializing from solid rock and flying themselves home.”
“I expect we’ll find out some pretty complicated things are going on. And I think our chances of finding your sister are very good at this point,” he replied.
She shook her head again, and turned her back on him. “We won’t walk out of here alive let alone see her…what has she gotten into?”
Chris heard something new in her voice—despair. “Rachael, we’re really moving forward. We’ve got leads now. There’s no reason to…”
Rachael whirled around and took a knife out of her pocket. The black handle was folded closed around the blade. “Do you know what this is?” She asked.
“Philippine bailsong style knife, approximately 6 inches in length; also know as a ‘butterfly knife.’ It’s illegal to carry in many places, but manipulating it is considered a performance art in others. From the style of the handle, I can tell that one is shield boosted.”
She snapped it open, and sure enough, an orange glow suffused the blade. “Now watch closely,” she said, and snapped her wrist forward an inch. The orange light momentarily extended for a few inches past the end of the blade, while needles of light of varying length shot out at right angles to the blade. It was obvious that the knife was designed for fatal strikes.
“I get it. You finally have an adversary you can’t drop in a blink. I’d think you’d be excited for the challenge.”
“Don’t mock me, Bellweather,” she snarled. “I do a lot of stuff that would be dangerous for anyone else, but there’s never a question of failure in my mind. Now I can’t see a way to win.”
“How do you know victory will involve killing?” Chris replied. “How do you know what we’ll need to do?”
She cocked her head to one side and looked at him. “We’ve been hiding in a gunship inside a locked hanger since they attacked. How long will it be after we set foot outside before...” Again she turned her back on him. This time she hung her head. “I shouldn’t have brought anyone in on this. Now you’re all going to get wiped out.”
“Hey, Asguard contacted us directly. If you hadn’t come to us we would have walked into the trap blind. We owe you to some extent,” Chris said, trying to calm her. “You don’t have to go anywhere. You can stay here while we figure everything out. Honestly, my gut instinct is we haven’t been guided to this point to be destroyed. We’re involved for a purpose.”
“Purpose!” She screamed. She whirled around, knife in hand. “Don’t start with me about purpose, Preacher. I gave up on purpose the day my parents sealed me in a tomb while they roasted alive. What was the purpose of that, huh Preacher? The only guidance from above that I ever experienced was guided missiles.” She hurled the knife across the room--away from him thankfully. She stood there shaking with rage, staring at him.
Chris squelched his own anger, trying to find the right response. Has she forgotten that my own parents were killed by nuclear fire? Perhaps I should remind her of…
That was it.
“Follow me for a minute,” he said leaving the barracks, and into an office next door. He opened a desk, and took out what looked like a small, curved piece of aluminum, as thick as his pinky. As she walked into the room, he stuck the computer interface to his forehead. A city appeared on the wall. It looked like Inner Harbor, but bigger. The domes were all huge hangers under construction, with some sort of huge building to one side. Cranes and heavy equipment were working everywhere.
“This was the construction site for a new resort being built by Stellar Luxury Cruise Lines.” Chris explained. “They’d been running tours to Janus-5 for decades, but none of the docks could handle their new super-liners. These giant hangers would handle the ships, and these structures over here would act as luxury hotels and casinos. They were going to have a contest among the denizens of Inner Harbor to name the city, and everyone was very excited.”
“Uncle Pat was offered a job managing the maintenance on the big ships, but he turned it down. He’d just been promoted to his current position, and he said it just didn’t feel right.”
He watched her face change from anger to shock as the picture behind him shifted. “This is the site a week after four 30 megaton fusion bombs were detonated simultaneously at the corners of the work site. Over thirty thousand workers died.”
Anger returned to her face. “Why would anyone do that?” she choked. She blanched as the scene behind him changed again. “As retaliation for this attack,” he replied. Behind him was the smoldering wreckage of Rocktown. “Which was of course retaliation for attacks on Stellar shipping,” he continued. The scene changed again, showing the twisted wreckage of a cruise liner; shot to pieces for refusing to surrender to pirates.
“Do you see the pattern?” He asked, in a controlled tone. “Bad things happen because people do bad things. And then other people do bad things. And the chain of hate and violence goes unbroken. Innocents are killed in the name of the innocents who were killed. Some would say my Uncle didn’t take the job there because he was guided not to. Even if he wasn’t at the site, he’d be unemployed. Stellar abandoned Janus-5 after this.”
She was staring at him, searching for an argument. “Let’s take another example.” The scene shifted behind him again, to a planet surrounded by dense, almost black clouds. She held her breath—unable to speak. He continued. “The entire population of Juno-4 was wiped out by the Stuttgart Mining Corporation, when the workers of the planet formed a union and Stuttgart's forces there mutinied. However, a small cache of children managed to survive the bombing. Some called it a miracle—until they became one of the deadliest groups of assassins known to mankind.”
She walked up and slapped him across the face. He could have blocked it, but he expected it and let her vent. His expression didn’t change, and he didn’t slow down. “You were there, Rachael. Did it not take some tremendous ‘luck’ to survive? What guided you through that hell and out the other side? Haven’t you ever had bursts of intuition that saved your skin? Had others that you ignored and paid for?”
She went to punch him this time, and this time he blocked it, grabbing her fist and holding it fast. “You want to believe in nothing; that’s your business. But don’t tell me it’s because you see evil. You’re part of the chain of violence. In ways big and small everyone is. We’re all free to be part of that chain. We’re also free to break it.” He let go of her hand, pulled the interface from his head and tossed it on the desk. “I’m not perfect, Rachael, but I’m trying to break what links I can.”
She turned and started to walk away from him. “Chris,” she said, just as she reached the door. Her voice was calm, but she wasn’t looking at him.
“Yes,” he prompted.
“Who blew up the resort?” Had she turned to face him, she would have known the answer. The heartbreak in his eyes would have told the story.
“No one was ever charged—there wasn’t any evidence.”
“That’s not what I asked you, but I think I know the answer.”
With that, she walked away, leaving Chris to wonder if he had won or lost.
Excerpt # 4
Hikari “The Whisper” Daisuke showered, put on her nightclothes, and lay down on the bed. Simple flannel pajamas kept her warm, and attempted to coax her to sleep.
Her tired muscles longed for sleep. For days it seemed they had been tensed, ready to move if called upon. Her dark eyes longed for sleep—for a stretch without constant focus.
Her silken hair framed a face that also longed for sleep. Joe told her over and over she could quit this job and become a model if she could unfurrow her brow for the length of the catwalk. Kari often missed the complement embedded in the tease, and often succeeded in denying her undeniable beauty.
She would argue back that her brow was often quite relaxed thank you very much, just not when there was danger.
Now even her face was tired from the danger.
Only her mind wanted to keep going—wanted her on her feet in case…in case what? Her mind had no answer for that, and that troubled her the most.
With a thought she turned on the lights, and looked around. The apartment was as she left it before going to earth. It was nearly identical to Joe’s apartment, but for the pictures and nick-knacks. The apartment hadn’t seen use in years, and plastic covered every piece of furniture but the bed. She could see nothing to concern her, and shut the lights off again. She forced her eyes closed, and tried to will herself to sleep.
By midnight it was obvious that sleep was not in the cards. Her mind would simply not shut down. Beyond the events of the last few days, which demanded their own attention, the return to Bellona-4 was having an unexpected effect on her. It had been five years since she last set foot on this dust ball, but something about the place was taking her back in time. She closed her eyes and tried to blot it out; back in time was not somewhere she wished to go.
She figured she would be able to relax now that Joe had landed. The apartment computer had told her that much. It was late, and he probably expected her to be sleeping. No, she corrected herself: he hoped she was sleeping, but expected her to be up. So why didn’t he see her right away? Was he disappointed in her somehow?
Nonsense, she thought. She did everything Joe would have wanted. In the end result she had to leave him to fend for himself. She felt a sense of failure in that. Just like...
Exercise; perhaps if she worked out for a bit, she could exhaust herself enough then she could get some sleep. It shouldn’t take much. She hopped out of bed, and put on a heavy robe. She closed her eyes as nanotech raced through the fabric of the robe, and her practice armor was assembled. It was pale white, and weighted a good bit more than her regular armor. Her own armor felt feather light by comparison—which was the point of course. This was optimized to help you develop, while the light armor was optimized for combat.
She opened her eyes; The Whisper was ready for a workout.
She took the lift down to the gym on the fifth floor. On one side of the hall were exercise machines and an Olympic sized pool. On the other, was a huge room used for sports. She entered "the Arena" as Easy called it, and surveyed the scene. The practice mat was out and the bleachers were recessed into the wall. She was surrounded by hardwood on all sides. It was probably one of the most expensive rooms to construct in the building, but the architect had insisted that you couldn't have a gym made of metal and not have serious injuries.
She cupped a small ball from a nearby table. With a thought it stretched and shifted into a sword. It wasn't as strong, as light, or as balanced as her good sword, but God help anyone who crossed her while she wielded it.
She started a routine without thinking, starting from a defensive stance, and performed a full spin into a low strike. As she leaped and spun, her practice blade whistling through the air, she stopped fighting her own thoughts and let them drift where they would.
Six years ago, on Katana-3...
The Katana Solar System—so named because “cutting edge” technology would allow it to be conquered—had been colonized by a conglomerate of companies from the Far East and the country that was still then known as the United States. The colonists set out in 2089, in cryogenic sleeper ships.
“Cutting edge” technology has its problems though, and after fifty eight years of traveling between earth and the third planet of the Katana system, seventeen thousand of the thirty thousand settlers were dead on arrival. Their bodies were converted to a tasteless, gritty paste that the remaining colonists used to supplement their food stores until greenhouses could be established.
It was a harsh existence. The planet had its own flora and fauna. Disease ravaged the colonists, and by the time the main living structures, power facilities, and greenhouses were fully constructed, their number had dropped to five thousand.
Pain can do one of two things; kill empathy or cause it to blossom. The people of Katana-3 made their choice, and created a society that lacked any sense of empathy. Instead of sharing the pain of others, they cast suffering aside as unimportant. Death meant more room at the table for the survivors.
For the first thirty years of their existence, they could not feed more than 20 thousand people at a time. Disease and other hazards kept the numbers down at first, but eventually they were faced with a population problem.
It was deemed foolish to restrict procreation, as they needed as varied a gene pool as possible. But they couldn't feed everyone. At first, they executed the excess by random lot. But this seemed to be a waste as well.
So they developed the contest.
It began when the children entered school. All children were trained in the martial arts from the age of five. Children who excelled especially well in certain areas were given a pass from the final contest. All others participated from the age of sixteen through the age of eighteen. Every four months they would fight one of their peers from somewhere on the planet to the death. If you survived the first battle after your eighteenth birthday, you were allowed to continue in Katana society. If you were killed, your killer said these words: "I can not live if you do not die."
Eventually, they got enough scientists together that they were able to tame the environment. They knew what they could eat, what they couldn't, and how to grow things outside the bio-domes. Their immune systems developed to handle the environment. When they re-established contact with earth, they developed inoculations for travelers so that they wouldn't die as soon as they set foot on the planet.
They developed cites, removed the population limit, and began to flourish.
But tradition dies hard; much harder than Katana-3’s children.
The rules changed. It was turned into a ladder system with a yearly champion, and the participants were all eighteen. If you were wounded in the lower rounds you could be spared, but in the final confrontation for the championship these words were required to be spoken: "I can not live if you do not die."
By her eighteenth birthday, Hikari was one of the planet’s most talented warriors. Through round after round Hikari broke legs, arms, ribs, jaws--anything to disable her opponent. Her skill was so far beyond everyone else that she didn't need to kill anyone. Where others needed to land a lucky death blow to the neck or temple, she was able to win submission after submission.
It was the final round she dreaded--not because she might die, but because she was required to kill.
It was a while before she realized that she performing the routine; reenacting the final contest in the gym on Bellona-4. The final battle for that year was decreed to be a sword fight. In heavy armor she threw the blocks and attacks, performed the somersaults and rolls, exactly as she had done in silk six years before. Her skills had not faded; they had only increased with training and experience—as did the pain.
In white silken robes she had faced her final opponent. The girl's name was Li Tarawa. She was Hikari's sparing partner, and her best friend--her only friend. In a society where honor meant killing your competitors, there was little room for camaraderie. Li thought it was all insane, and the two became fast friends. They decided to perfect their skill so that they wouldn’t have to kill, and it brought them here.
Li stood in black robes. She was taller than Hikari, but shared Hikari's muscular build. They were both athletes of the highest caliber, and this battle was highly anticipated. The whole of the planet watched them on live video, while members of the ruling class sat in attendance. There were even some outsiders in various forms of dress and armor, who had come to watch the proceedings.
On the dais overlooking the match, was the dictator of Katana-3: Shogun Rikuto Hiroto. He wore an elaborate suit of armor that was designed to mimic the style of the original shoguns. What it lacked in authenticity it more than made up for in effectiveness. This Shogun was a walking tank.
At his side, in a stand, was the sword of leadership—formed from a piece of the sleeper ship hull. It weighed over 30lbs, and the Shogun kept himself fit enough to use it. On either side of him, traditionally, would be the immediate family of the final combatants, but Li was born to very young parents, who died in the contest at eighteen. Only Hikari's parents sat to the left of the Shogun, along with her ten year old brother Akio.
She threw her brother Akio a wink to reassure him. The boy looked anxious and pale. No doubt he feared for his sister. It was cruel to make him watch her fate, but in eight years it would be his own. The standing wisdom was it was better for children to become accustomed to the trial they would face.
No…don’t remove the cruelty…just get everyone used to it early…
She stared into the eyes of her father, Osamu Daisuke. Tall, strong and imposing, in the teal and white robes of the council—the Shogun’s advisors—Osamu shook his head. The white streaks that had begun to take root in his hair would dominate its coloring soon, of that he was certain.
Osamu stood victorious in this very ring twenty-five years ago, having mortally wounded his own childhood friend. As much as Hikari and Li agreed the contest was madness, Osamu and his friend esteemed it. As they fought, they were filled with a sense of destiny and tradition that had driven countless men to their deaths over the centuries of human existence.
His emotions were torn between the love for his daughter and his fury at the way she disrespected their tradition. As Hikari stared into his eyes, she recalled the sharp slap her father delivered to her face when she suggested fleeing the planet instead of facing the fight. She was told she should fear dishonor more than death. Today Hikari was prepared to suffer both.
She shifted her gaze to her mother, Noriko. The years were kind to her, and she looked every bit the part of Hikari’s older sister. Only the purple robes and jewelry spoke to her age and societal rank. Just two years after Osamu’s victory, she fell on this very spot—a blow to the temple rendering her unconscious. It was early in the competition, so her life was not required of her. Osamu was in attendance, and marveled at the young woman’s durability, as the strike should have killed her. Marriage and children followed, but Noriko always struggled with a sense of failure that she was determined her children would not feel. She had already failed her eldest son, in her own opinion, and she was determined that the trend would not continue with Hikari.
Hikari recalled how her mother had echoed her father’s sentiments—slapping the other side of her face when she begged them to help her run. She knew her parents loved her, but somehow they were convinced this tournament was the key to every moment of her future. In fact it was—but in a way none of them could imagine.
Distraught, she looked away from them, looking up to the glass domed ceiling. The stars were out. It was a clear night. She smiled as she thought of her grandmother. Hikari took more than her name from Hikari Shousuke, who had been an outspoken opponent of the old traditions. Her writings and speeches resulted in her exile--and Hikari's eternal admiration.
No matter how deranged her society was, there were always a few who spoke out for the values of the soul. There were always a few who spoke out for love, friendship, and "true honor" as Grandma Hikari called it. To her parents’ horror, Hikari adopted the beliefs of her grandmother. Her grandmother was finally exiled for trying to get her brother out of the contest. He didn't fear death; in fact everyone feared his size, strength and skill, all of which was considerable. He too steadfastly refused to kill. Their parents disowned him, and he left the planet with his grandmother.
Li looked into her eyes. "If I am to die, at least it will be by your blade, and not a stranger. I could not ask for more."
"More likely I will die by your blade, Li. I do not see myself as able to kill you."
“You are a sister to me. I do not relish the outcome either way. But now we are out of choices." Li drew her sword from its sheath, and took up a defensive posture. Hikari followed. One thought took all her attention: There must be another way out of this!
In the training room on Bellona-4, Hikari was beginning to sweat now. The practice armor didn't have the cooling features of her main battle armor. She wore no power cell to aid in her movements. So when she did the wall-walk somersault it was done with pure athleticism, just as it was six years ago...
Her robes had been slashed by near misses. Her stomach was bleeding from a glancing blow--just the tip of the sword, pressed deep enough to cut. Both of Li's legs and arms were bleeding from similar blows. If she could just disable her, Hikari thought, perhaps she wouldn't have to kill...she could make an argument before the Shogun...
In the present Hikari was breathing hard. She was soaked with sweat. The moves came more easily for her now than they did then. They required less of her strength and concentration. But the emotional stress was much worse, for she understood it all so much better now...
Finally she got inside Li's defense. She overpowered her sword to the right, and slammed the butt of her sword in Li's jaw. Li dropped to the ground, totally unconscious.
Applause erupted from the crowd, as they anticipated what would come next. Hikari would bury her sword in Li's heart, and take the championship.
Except that wasn't going to happen.
"Speak the words." The Shogun said. "No." Hikari replied, drawing a gasp from the crowd. "We need fighters like her. You need fighters like her, my Lord. What is the point of wasting this talent?"
"I have no use of fighters who cannot kill." The Shogun replied. "We do not have the resources yet to build a fleet to protect ourselves. So we must rely on fear—the fear of an armed populace that will fight to the last breaths of the invaders."
"With swords and martial arts? I think not. You should have a shooting competition then if that is your goal. My Lord this is pointless. I will not kill my friend."
The Shogun turned to her parents. “What say you of this treason?” he asked. Her father replied first as her mother seemed paralyzed with shock. “This is her Grandmother’s influence; I should have done more to drive it form her when she was young. I…I…accept the blame for this dishonor, and ask that my daughter not be punished for my failings as a parent.” Hikari was momentarily surprised, but quickly realized that her father understood his daughter well. He was prepared for this moment.
“Such acceptance will not come without cost,” Ivy replied. “Your council seat, your lands, your own honors in the games, all will be forfeit if blood is not spilled on this floor.”
That was enough to draw a response from her mother. She screamed at her daughter: “You are ruining us! We will lose everything for your disrespect! Kill the girl! She doesn’t expect anything else.”
“Riko, please take hold of yourself,” her father bellowed. Turning to the Shogun, he began. “I accept your terms and ask…”
“Wait,” his daughter yelled, gathering everyone’s attention. “Master Shogun, I planned for no such sacrifices by my family. If you require a sacrifice, I will make it. If you want blood on the floor, then let it be mine.” The crowd gasped again at her words, and began to murmur amongst themselves. Her mother blanched, and fainted dead away.
Her father protested, but guards seized him. A quick hand signal from the shogun, and he was struck with a stun pole, rendered unconscious.
Her ten year old brother hid his face in his mother’s gown.
The Shogun stood, and drew the sword of leadership. He used his suit jets to sail upward, 20 feet in the air, his long purple cape billowing behind him. He landed in front of the girl, who was silently crying. “Don’t worry, your wishes will be upheld. Your father is just unconscious. I would not have him suffer through this event.”
He walked around her, and addressed the crowd. “Her courage is tremendous. But her wisdom is lacking. Both are required for survival of the challenge. Each of these girls has failed. And both shall die at my hand—beginning with the one who chose failure.”
Shock would have been an appropriate reaction, but she just fell to her knees in acceptance. If the Shogun wanted that much blood, nothing would stop him. “Spill as much of my blood as you like,” she said. “When you’ve had your fill, please consider sparing my friend.” Without replying, he lifted the sword to behead her, and she bowed her head in acceptance.
"Kari!" Joe called out. Hikari looked up from her reverie, startled. She had been kneeling in the middle of the floor with her head bowed, still waiting for the blow that was not to come.
Joe was standing there in the same outfit he had purchased as a disguise on Earth. He looked exhausted, and she saw the telemetry strip on his head, indicating he’d been hurt.
“Joe! What...happened…your head… are you alright?” He rushed over to her as her armor melted away and she cast it behind her. Tears were streaming down her face.
“I’m fine. You weren’t in your apartment, and you weren’t answering your communicator, so I figured you might be here. As for the shorts and sandals, it’s a long story.”
He wiped away her tears and said, "You know, when I can't sleep I lift weights, or go for a swim—the swimming works best. Going over awful memories doesn't work nearly as well." She nodded and put her head on his shoulder.
"You were reliving the contest, weren't you?"
"Yep." She said. "I can do it move for move."
She put her arms around him as he held her close.
"What's funny is you came in at the same point you did last time."
Six years ago, a shadow leaped from the crowd. His jet-suit took him high in the air, and he landed between Hikari and the Shogun. Hikari looked up to see a man clad it black armor. There was no shine to it--it was as if light simply didn't exist where he stood.
The huge man addressed the shadow in a voice that was unnaturally calm. "Who dares to approach me, in my own arena?" The black figure spoke. "I’m one of the people from the outside you seem to fear so much. I’m a representative from your neighbors on Bellona-4. They call me The Black Knight.”
"So you see!" he said to the crowd, and more to the point, to the thousands watching on live video. "The threat I spoke of is proven before you!" He focused again on the figure. "So were you sent as an emissary of war?"
"Actually I was sent as an emissary of peace. But after this display of barbarism I think you may get the war that frightens you so badly."
"You are not signatories to the Safe Battle Treaty of 2306, but we are. Under the rules of that treaty, the only organization eligible to claim this system is the Bellona Mining Company. There is nothing on Katana-3 so valuable that another army would go through our system to attack you. No offense intended, but this place is a toxic hole without any valuable minerals to be found. It’s simply not worth the trouble.”
“In any case, if anyone were crazy enough to try to take this place, we are obligated by treaty to stop them. In fact, the worm ship on our side would close and lock to prevent access. We would fight to defend you, and all other signatories would come to our aid, regardless of the politics. Your enemies would meet an unstoppable army. Up until today, you were perfectly safe. It was brought to our attention that no one had ever explained this, and I was sent with the simple task of bringing good news."
The Shogun's eyes narrowed. "And what happened today to endanger us?"
"This contest: under the treaty, if a society is found to be excessively cruel or barbaric, the signatories have the freedom to put an end to it in any way they see fit. Forcing children to murder each other in a contest would be recognized by most signatories as meeting that criterion."
The Shogun smiled. "If I simply kill you, my friend, along with the two girls, then there will be no report."
"Sir, this suit does more than protect my body. The entire event has been transmitted to my ship, and retransmitted to the worm ship. They sent it on to my commander on Bellona-4. The signal is fed back to me from Bellona-4, so I know it has not been jammed."
The Shogun's smile faded. "So what do you propose?" "I propose you free these girls. Then you will make your contest optional, and remove the requirement of death. We'll put together an inspection committee to make sure there are no other forms of institutionally mandated murder on your planet--I detected none in my time here so that shouldn't be a problem. For your compliance, you will be given protected status. You can stop being so afraid and actually do something productive here. You can have a military if you insist, but they'll be really bored."
"Protected” the Shogun said with derision and pride. “You would enslave us; deny us our freedom to live in the traditions of our own society.” He was speaking more to his own people that the Black Knight, and the Black Knight spoke in kind.
“I don’t think removing the so called ‘tradition’ of having children murder each other just as they come of age qualifies as slavery. I don’t know anyone who could make that stretch of logic.” Then he corrected himself. “Well, perhaps one or two people but believe me when I say you wouldn't want them as advocates. ”
“Listen to his condescending tone!!! Tell me Shadow from another world, what happens if I refuse, and shove this sword in your chest?" The man in black took a step forward—and shrugged his shoulders.
"You are welcome to try. Should I defeat you, according to your own rules of succession, I would replace you as Shogun. I would then implement the reforms I discussed, sign the Safe Battle Treaty of 2306, and turn the entire planet over to BMC.”
“Should I lose," the black figure continued, "You will face an invasion force far larger and better armed than you are prepared to fend off, I guarantee you." He added, "We're not really interested in having your world. Its resources are limited, its habitat is dangerous, its infrastructure is underdeveloped, and it's tactically insignificant." He took a few more steps forward. "But to end the barbaric and ritualistic slaughter of your youth, we're more than up to the challenge."
The Shogun looked up and away, at a group of colorful tapestries hung on the far wall. "Oh, and when you signal your sniper, don't be disappointed if he isn't terribly effective." A ball of white light burned through the tapestry and headed straight for the mysterious figure’s head. A sphere of transparent blue energy momentarily appeared around him, and deflected it into the ceiling, vaporizing the glass above. "See what I mean?" he added, as the wind began to whistle through the opening.
"I will not be bullied in my own arena!" The Shogun shouted. "That shield will not work against my sword!" The man in the black suit didn't comment on the capabilities of his shield.
“Your point is?”
"My point? I will stick you to the ground with my point, and slaughter these imps with my bare hands, before your dying corpse! And my army will do the same to anyone who approaches here with the intent of taking our freedom!"
The Black Knight shook his head, and unclipped a black ball from his belt. It turned to liquid, and sprang outward, making the Shogun leap back. In a blink it became a sword that was a yard long, two inches wide, and as black as the Shogun’s heart. "We’ll see.”
As the entire population of Katana-3 looked on, the Shogun lunged at The Black Knight. The Black Knight parried the attack to the right and backhanded his opponent with his left fist. Stunned, the Shogun failed to see the kick that drove him to the ground. The Shogun used his suit jets to scoot away, as he rolled and regained some sort of footing. As he regained his feet, the Black Knight was upon him again.
Desperately the arrogant leader tried to block the hail of attacks with his sword, but he soon found himself depending on his armor for protection. Sparks flew as metal struck metal. Blood flowed as the armor failed against the onslaught. Repeatedly the Black Knight struck with punches and kicks in addition to the sword strikes.
The Shogun rocketed into the air, some twenty feet off the ground, trying to buy himself some time. The Black Knight gave him some; as he soared to the same height, he backed about ten feet away. But the assault wasn’t over—the physical assault was paused, while the logical assault resumed.
“I offered you mercy once. I offer it again. You are bleeding profusely. Submit to my terms and I will let you continue as Shogun, over a period of peace and prosperity the likes of which your planet has not known. You will be renowned for your wisdom. Please accept the offer.” The Black Knight’s voice was calm and easy.
The Shogun’s voice was ragged, his breath shallow. “No…no mercy…you’re attack is spent, and now you shall face my wrath!” As his voice reached a crescendo, he aimed his sword at the Black Knight’s chest, and rocketed toward him.
The instant the Shogun refused, the Black Knight’s sword began to glow. A bright blue aura surrounded it. The shield that emanated from the black suit of armor was now focused around the sword. He had been toying with the Shogun all along.
In a split second, The Shogun was upon him. As the Black Knight’s own suit jets moved him to the side, he swung upward, cleaving the Shogun’s sword in two. He continued the arc in a lightning movement, drawing the glowing blade through back of the Shogun’s suit of armor. This lobotomized the control center of the suit, and shut down the power. The Shogun’s momentum smashed him against the wall, and gravity slammed him to the floor.
Before landing, the Black Knight surveyed the scene. The girls needed medical treatment quickly. The crowd was stunned, and all were so bound by this bizarre honor code that they probably would not attack him. With this estimation complete, he landed next to the broken Shogun.
“Finish it…” the bleeding, broken man whispered. The Black Knight shook his head. “Amazing—you crave murder even if it is your own.”
He turned towards the girls. “No, I’ll take these girls back to Bellona-4 for care. But when they are safe, and you are recuperating, I will return with a delegation to discuss your planet’s future.”
He turned to the crowd. “These girls will be free to return here when they wish. But for now I will see that they get medical care, and protect them with my own life.” His sword melted back into a ball, and was returned to his belt. He drew a pair of emergency nanotech injectors from the other side of his belt, and injected both the girls. Microscopic robots sought out wounds and mend them.
“This will take care of you until you can get proper care,” he explained. He picked up Li Tarawa, and helped Hikari Daisuke to her feet.
As they passed the wreckage that was the Shogun, Hikari stopped. “Do you have another of those,” she asked. “Yes.”
He handed her the injector, and she placed it against the inside of the Shogun’s arm. There the armor was ruined, and the bare, bloody skin exposed. She activated the injector, and delivered the mercy that he rejected so profoundly.
“What are you watching?” Hikari asked him, as she came out from behind the changing screen. She was wearing silver, silk pajamas that Joe bought her for her birthday. “Nothing really,” he replied. He lay back on the couch as she lay down on his chest. “You can put on what you’d like,” he said, wrapping his arms around her. Six years ago she asked—no, insisted—to join BMC as a warrior, to pay them back for her rescue. Gunsmith assigned her to protect Joe, but in reality, he wanted Joe to watch over her. At least this was the argument he gave to Joe, who insisted the poor girl had seen enough danger.
Gunsmith had his points though. Denying her the opportunity would have broken her spirit, and paring her up with Joe gave her instantaneous protection if something went wrong. And—this could not be denied—she was a tremendous fighter who would prove herself time and time again. In retrospect, it was the perfect decision. Their lives led parallel paths of self-inflicted exile, and each understood the other in ways that no one else could.
“Not that I’m in the mood to talk business,” she started.
“But you’re going to, I take it.”
“Does this mean my extended Earth assignment is complete, and I can go back to traipsing about with you?”
Joe considered the question. After a year or so, he had convinced Gunsmith to send to college on Earth. The argument was, if she was going to be an officer, she would benefit from higher education. Her fighting skills needed no development. She insisted on doing some work for BMC, so they gave her coordination and protection duties for BMC families on Earth. It was during this time that she became so close to the Zam family, who took her in as a daughter.
“I don’t know, Kari. I don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow. I’m sick of having you in danger…having everyone in danger…I’m sick of being in danger myself, for that matter.”
She turned to him and cupped his cheek with her hand. “It’s late, and we’re both too tired to think. I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m just happy to be with you again.”
He grabbed the large, soft comforter that had been draped over the couch, and covered her with it, pulling her close in the process. It seemed like it was too long since they both felt safe and warm. It took him back to the evenings where they were together all the time. For the most part those were sad and dangerous times for both of them, but it reminded him that there was joy to be found in any situation.
Hikari picked a channel at random, but they never found out what was on. They were both asleep before the commercials were over.
Chapter 67: A Life Lost
The Slouch walked into the store with his gun drawn. Out on the street, people were pointing and running. It made no matter to him. Most of them would be burned to a crisp by tomorrow. Besides, he was already wanted by every law enforcement agency in existence.
He looked around, and saw an older woman hiding behind the counter. Just her eyes and the top of her head were visible. “Alright, how’s about you do yourself a favor and stand up. You’ll make a better looking corpse that way. I can blow the top of your head off, but it’s a lot more work for the mortician.”
There was a flash of movement, and then a flash of light.
He could see the flame exploding from the barrel. A bullet was coming out of the barrel. He could watch it spin. It moved impossibly slow. He should easily be able to duck out of the way…except for the fact that he couldn’t move.
The realization hit him: I’m gonna die. He felt the bullet barely touch his forehead—and then, strangely enough, it retreated back into the gun. He felt himself walking backwards out of the store…saw himself standing in the crap of the basement…felt himself tear a muscle pulling a body out of the trunk of the Caddy…
Great, even when my life flashes before my eyes I get it backwards…
There were flashes of black, and then he was in an escape pod that was stuffed back into a burning fighter. He watched energy beams shoot from the holes in the craft, and the ship heal itself, cruising backwards in time.
He saw vomit on the floor, and felt it leap into his mouth. Felt the queasiness rise and fall, and felt beer pour from his mouth into a glass.
He saw scene after scene of the lifeless bodies of men and women being beaten into life. He saw burnt wreckage reassemble itself into buildings full of people.
He saw the Havoc Headquarters. He crawled back into a freighter to as a stowaway. He saw the boxes of fertilizer he slept on for weeks; felt the cold of a cabin not meant for people.
In a blink he skipped a decade and saw his father slap him for putting up with the kids in school…felt himself curled up in a ball as the bigger kids teased him and hit him…felt his mom slap him for no apparent reason whatsoever…
In another blink the rush of images stopped. He was tiny. He felt safe. He was warm and comfortable and happy. He was suddenly shocked to discover that it was probably the only time in his life that he felt that way.
He was in the womb.
Despair gripped him. What could I have done different? My whole life down the toilet…nothing but crap and horror…
And then the film started to roll forward again, skipping to very specific points in his life. Suddenly he was being hugged. It was the hug he got when he was sent to a foster home at thirteen. It was a hug he refused to return…even until today. It wasn’t his father, so what was the point? There was Dr. Pompeon, telling him for the thousandth time that his biological parents had severe psychological problems, and Jack couldn’t accept their rejection as valid. The hell I can’t…you try and brush that off…
In rapid succession, he saw every girl who was willing to try and fill the void I his heart. Every last one was a beauty. Every last was he ignored for fear of rejection. I wasn’t worth love. They were all so beautiful…they wouldn’t love me…
There was Mrs. D’Angelo, his guidance counselor, weeping the day he dropped out of high school. She always told him he had such great potential. That’s not what Mom said. That’s not what Dad said. How could I believe you?
There was Father Singleton, sitting on his adopted parents’ couch, after they invited him over to talk some sense into him. “God didn’t make your parents reject you,” the kind priest told him. “They made mistakes. They went wrong. When they failed, he sent you other people to take their place. He won’t abandon you.” But I didn’t want THOSE people; I wanted MY people! Couldn’t anyone understand that?
There he was again the last time he ever saw the inside of a church; the priest trying to console him after his foster father died of a stroke, which he suffered upon finding out about Tom’s new membership in Havoc Inc. “Your Dad is with his Heavenly Father now.” Wow. I hope he’s not whipping his ass. The word “father” meant only fear to him…
Fear; that’s what he felt as the images reversed again. Once again nausea filled him as the movie was rewound, and started to play again.
This time as the scene moved forward, he was a different man.
He embraced his adoptive parents.
He worked hard in school.
He went to college.
He got married to a beautiful woman.
Nothing different was given to him. He simply accepted the gifts that were given to him. He refused to internalize the suffering of his youth. It wasn’t a part of him. He searched for the light no matter how dark it became.
And when he walked, he walked with his head held high. His back was straight as an arrow.
The scenes sped past and slowed. A woman in surgical scrubs was handing him a baby…
And the she took the baby away…and the scenes moved backwards. His despair grew deeper. I could have had it all. I just threw it away on hurt and hate. I took the easy way out. I wouldn’t try...
Suddenly he was back in the womb, and for the first time perhaps in his entire life, he was praying. Praying to God—what God he wasn’t sure but he wasn’t about to be picky right now. He’d take anyone who would listen. Please let me stay here. Don’t make me go out again. Or let me do it over.
The images started moving forward again…but it was his life, and it was moving very fast. Please! Don’t make me see it again!! I screwed up! I screwed everything up! I NEVER KNEW ANY BETTER!! OH GOD PLEASE DON’T MAKE ME WATCH IT!! I’D DO IT DIFFERENT!!! I’M SORRY!!! PLEASE GOD FORGIVE ME I’M SOR…
The bullet drilled a tunnel through his head, and shattered the window behind him.
He crumpled to the floor.
Chapter 42: The Devil's Skull
Uranium: Its usefulness to mankind shifted, but never went away. The advent of fusion reactors reduced its importance to the power industry, but its importance to the scientific and military communities never waned. It was the stuff of magic; billions were affected by it in one way or another, but only a small percentage of people were qualified to use it. Anything that fits that definition is always highly sought after.
Roughly thirty years ago, the Stuttgart Mining Consortium discovered uranium in the Junkyard of the Janus system. It was an unexpected discovery, as the rest of the rocks had only trace amounts of the stuff. But in one part of the field, there was a area of rocks that contained high concentrations of the heavy metal. The company scientists theorized that the Junkyard might have been the remains of a shattered planet, and that the small field of super-dense rocks was either the core of that planet or the means by which it was shattered. The company management didn’t care if the Easter Bunny had put the rocks there, as long as there was a profit to be made.
They sent in mining units, and set up convoys of transports to move the goods out of the system. It didn’t take long for word to spread that a valuable commodity such as uranium was being mined and transported in the Janus system and pirates from every system swooped down on the SMC operation. This was the impetus that set SMC on the path of militarization, and eventually sent them into the Turf Wars. For over two years SMC fought off the attacks, and eventually stabilized its uranium mining operations. The profits were exorbitant, even given the difficulty of the mining and the dangers posed by pirates.
Then they made their biggest strike. It was an asteroid almost one hundred miles in diameter. Over half of the material that made it up was uranium ore. Scientists were baffled by it. Over time Uranium undergoes radioactive decay. It was nearly inconceivable to think this much could survive in once place. Wild theories were concocted; the rock could have been ejected from a supernova at speeds high enough to cause relativistic effects. On the rock, time slowed down because of the tremendous speed, and the uranium was preserved until the massive impact in the Janus system that created the Junkyard. It even looked like a bullet after impact. The top of the rock was flattened; mushroomed over the bottom of the asteroid.
Robotic Mining began at once—the protective suits required to allow for human mining made that approach cost prohibitive. Three mines were set up on one side of the asteroid, so that the operations could be observed from one control craft. The control craft that was dispatched was the eighteen hundred foot long Gewinnenwunder—or “Mining Wonder” in German. It didn’t just carry the mining equipment to the site. It manufactured the equipment from raw materials. It was a floating factory and control center, and the home town for all the workers on board.
As massive robots drilled into the asteroid, it began to resemble a skull. This wasn’t by accident. The lead engineer, Richard Wulfram, had a dark sense of humor and a bad temper. He was the sort of person that drained the life out of people just by being in their presence. He wrapped himself in other peoples’ anxiety and contempt the way a child wraps himself in a blanket at bedtime.
He was a tall man, but that didn’t matter. Had he been a leprechaun he would still have looked down on people. He had a strong build, with little fat; he had no uses for excess anything. He was exactly fifty when he stepped aboard the Gewinnenwunder. He’d been with SMC since his early twenties, and the company valued him. SMC was all about production and the production schedule. Richard Wulfram made sure that everyone under his direction adjusted their priorities to match those of SMC. There was no sacrifice too great for the company—no sacrifice to great to help him meet his goals.
People took vacations, got married, had children, all based around his production schedule. They hours they worked, the tasks they undertook, the risks they dared—every aspect of their lives was determined by Wulfrum’s will. Refuse to tow the line, and you were dropped off on Janus-5 unemployed.
If you hadn’t saved enough to buy a ticket to another planet, you were at the mercy of the Janus-5 economy. The cost of crossing Richard Wolfram meant destitution and possible starvation, or a life of crime. Many turned to piracy, attacking the ships of the company that turned against them. But this didn’t show up in any corporate reports, so it was of no concern to Wulfrum. Such malcontents made sure that the turret gunners and fighter pilots of the Gewinnenwunder earned their pay. If death was their final punishment for not following his will, so much the better.
SMC credited him with the rapid success of the mine, and backed him to hilt. Even the captain of the Gewinnenwunder bowed to his wishes; for fear that a word from Wulfrum would end his career.
He did not inspire respect. None respected him. All feared him. He wanted that same reaction when people looked at his creation. More than a mine, this was his work of art—projecting his black spirit onto the radioactive rocks themselves. He was working to turn a gift—a resource that could benefit millions—into something tainted. If it gave the men and women who worked the control ship chills, then he would sleep a little better at night.
Some tried to understand him, but he would reveal nothing. What drove him to be this way? Was it the unrequited love of a woman that left him for another? Was it the nature of his childhood? Some quoted Dickens and others quoted Freud, but it was a wasted effort. At best such attempts would kill the boredom of life in space for a few extra minutes. None could reach him, and some that tried were sent packing for their efforts.
After ten years of mining, his creation was taking shape. Two deep eye sockets were evenly spaced above a gaping, frowning mouth. Two smaller mining robots were now forming the nostrils between the main mines. The bigwigs of SMC had noticed he was making mining decisions somewhat “artistically” a year into the program, but the mine locations didn’t matter to them. The rock was reasonably homogeneous, so the locations of the mines couldn’t affect their bottom line.
Ten years after he arrived at the asteroid, Wulfrum was about to commence a comfortable retirement. There was no party for him aboard the Gewinnenwunder. The “Good-bye Dick” party was scheduled for two hours after he left—no one shared that information with him of course. Until he stepped on his transport, he wielded the rod of poverty over his underlings—and he considered everyone beneath him. His transport was scheduled to leave in twenty minutes, and he was taking one last look from the observation deck at his tribute to the productive use of fear.
As he gazed wistfully out at his creation, no fewer than twenty heavily modified pirate freighters flew out of the rocks behind the asteroid. Wulfrum would never know—at least in this life—that these were all people driven to piracy by his own cruel hand. He taught them evil, and now they were back to show him what good students they were.
There had been no pirate attacks in over three years, and only two fighters guarded the ship. Both were shattered by the initial attack, and the escape pods were turned molten by energy blasts. The Gewinnenwunder rocked as its weapon systems were blown from their mounts. People rushed in panic to the lone docked transport, only to die as gunfire ruptured its fusion core.
The control ship was bleeding air, fluid and flames from a dozen places, but the observation deck was fine. Richard Wolfram had quickly realized that his incomplete masterpiece would be his last sight in this world. What he didn’t realize was that the pirates were about to finish the work for him.
Four freighters broke off from the main attack, and approached the mine. They dropped four fission bombs, made from pirated uranium. One struck the left eye, another struck the right. One struck the mouth, and the other the left nostril. The massive heat quickly melted the walls between the two smaller mines, and fire poured from the right nostril as well.
The mining equipment was vaporized; the mine was destroyed. But something new was created. Persistent nuclear reactions were ignited in the asteroid. Light, heat, and deadly radiation poured from the openings in the skull. A lot of mass was simply superheated and ejected, creating a radioactive haze of rocks and dust.
Tears flowed from Richard’s eyes, as he saw the completed monument to the Devil he didn’t know he was worshiping. He loved having power and exercising it to make people fear him. The creation in front of him would continue doing that in his stead long after he was gone.
Ten seconds later, he was gone. As the pirate ships retreated, they fired one last fission bomb at the Gewinnenwunder. It struck the observation deck, utterly destroying the vessel. The dust and vapor that remained was left mixed with the dust and smoke that poured from the asteroid.
The asteroid became known as the Devil’s Skull, for the smoke, flame and radiation that spewed from it incessantly. And the cloud of radioactivity and dust that surrounded it, that glowed with the light that poured from the skull, became known as the Devil’s breath.
Chapter 43: The Devil's Laugh
“It looks like the trail just ends here.” Mischief noted. “So what do we do now? Lean out the window and yell until she hears us?” The Preacher’s needled her back, but gently. “Why Mischief, does driving in the fog put a stress on your nerves?” Mischief had danced with death too many times to be baited by that line. “Not at all; I’m just getting a bit bored with the view.”
“Just stay cool. There’s nothing out here that can hurt you that won’t show up on your tactical—not much anyway.” The Preachers voice sounded practiced and relaxed. “You’ve been staring at a bright tactical screen for too long. Close your eyes for a minute or so, switch back to the visual spectrum, and then look out.” She did so. When she opened her eyes she saw…darkness.
She readied her next retort when she began to notice a faint glow ahead of them, and shadows moving through the glow. “The shadows are asteroids, right?” she asked. “Or wrecks,” came the response. “Normally you can’t go by the scanners out here. There’s too much radioactive dust. But our new scanners have a few tricks left. Go to mode twenty-seven.” She did so, and suddenly a large path appeared glowing in front of her. “What’s that?” she asked. “Mode twenty-six shows the gamma radiation intensity of the surrounding dust. Twenty-Seven takes the inverse. What you are looking at,” he paused for effect, “is the wake of a big ship. It’s drifted over time, but look what happens when we adjust for drift.” The Preacher took control of her screens, and had the computer factor in drift. Slowly, the glowing path narrowed and pointed towards another glow—off in the deadly fog that was the Devil’s Breath. “That is what the wake looked like two weeks ago.”
Without waiting for the next comment from Mischief, the Preacher set course for Wulfam’s masterpiece.
From a distance, it looked like a bright spot in the faint glow of the Devil’s breath. As they drew nearer, the distorted features of the glowing skull became more distinct. “They say it’s not as bright as it once was. No one is entirely sure of the makeup of the asteroid. It seems to have veins of boron that prevent the entire asteroid from exploding,” the Preacher explained. “Some don’t believe it occurred naturally. It’s as if some alien race formed the asteroid to store their fuel, and lost track of it. Others say it was put here by supernatural forces to tempt and trap miners.”
Mischief wasn’t listening. She’d never been here before, but she’d seen that thing—in nightmares she had after the bombings. With fires still burning outside her bunker, she’d seen that horrible skull in her sleep. Not just a skull, but that skull—even though she’d never heard of the ruined mines before she ventured into space. Night after night, nightmare after nightmare she’d see that floating image of death—as clearly as she did now. She took stimulants from the medical storage lockers and stayed awake for a week so she wouldn’t have to see it, and then slept dreamlessly for three days straight. By then the temperature was dropping, and she started to have more normal nightmares.
“What do you think it is?” she asked the Preacher, in a quiet voice. Chris could tell she’d been moved somehow by the sight, and answered carefully. “Even if it’s just the core of a destroyed planet, as some believe, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t placed here as a test.”
“A test?” she whispered.
“Sure; all wealth is a test of character for those who receive it. If they’re generous of spirit, a lot of good can come from wealth. If they clutch it to themselves, or hurt others to acquire it, they fail the test, and destroy themselves. That rock was a huge source of wealth. A lot of people failed the test.” Chris paused, to see if she understood him.
“So they all got rich and went to hell,” she stated flatly. “They had their fun, and paid for it in the ‘next life.’”
“That’s not at all what I meant—though it may be true,” the Preacher explained. “In this case, the bosses exploited their employees so badly the employees armed themselves and destroyed the mine. No one can approach that rock now. It’s lost to everyone.”
He paused before continuing. “There are consequences for doing the wrong thing that are built into the nature of life. Hurt enough people and you’ll push some to hurt you back.”
“So do you think all that’s going on with Mayhem is her just desserts?” she asked, an edge in her voice. “Hey, hey—we’re talking about the skull.” he replied. “Would I be out here in the rocks and dust if I wasn’t on your side with this?” There was a pause that Mischief chose not to fill, so the Preacher continued. “Speaking of which, it would appear that the ship we’re trailing went around the other side of the asteroid—to the back of the head as it were.”
“OK, let’s go then,” she replied, about to accelerate. “Hold up a second,” the Preacher cautioned. “I’ve been jumped by pirates here before—the scanners can’t penetrate that hunk of junk and tell what’s behind it. We’ll take it wide and slow.”
They flew in a wide, slow arc to the left of the skull, eyes straining to make out anything in the clouds of dust and rock. On the dark side of the skull, they found nothing but rock. “There’s no sign of a crash or wreckage, but if I read these patterns correctly…” the Preacher paused.
“What? Spit it out,” she prompted. “It looks like the ship just disappeared into the back of the skull.”
“Could there be a base on that rock?” she asked. “Look for an entrance.”
“Nothing—it’s just solid rock…but then how…” his thoughts were cut off by a tactical alarm. “Incoming hostile ships.” The computers warned in tandem. From the bright side of the scull, four Marauder class fighters suddenly appeared, and sent missiles hurtling towards the two BMC ships. Mischief and the Preacher split left and right, crisscrossing their paths while targeting the missiles with interceptors. With the immediate threat destroyed, they turned their attention to the enemy ships. “Only four? I’m insulted,” the Preacher said calmly, firing his guns in to the lead ship. Mischief fired at the same ship from the other side, and it exploded in a brilliant globe of fire. She was immensely relieved to be able to focus on the moment, rather than the past. They crisscrossed again, dumping a quartet of mines into the faces of the remaining pilots. Two ships exploded, and one bled fire.
As they shot around to the face of the skull, he shot around to the back of the head. Chris checked for escape pods and found none. “He might be our only lead! Let’s go!” They rolled, ducked under the chin, and came up on the other side--only to find themselves alone.
“A late explosion?” Mischief asked? “The scanners aren’t buying it. Something is definitely up here. Scanning...” The preacher said. “Son of a gun…he flew right into the back of the Skull.”
A feeling of danger and dread welled up inside of Mischief. She had a lot of practice at stifling such feelings, but she wasn’t having much luck doing it today. “Preacher?” was all she had to say. “Don’t worry—we’re going. Lock your nav onto my ship, we’ll head back over to our original patrol route, and pick up the probe. Perhaps there’s another lead.”
The two ships accelerated away from the burning rock, and Mischief locked her navigation systems in sync with the Preachers. He knew the quickest way back to the probe anyway, and she needed to collect herself.
She looked behind her at the right side of the Skull as it receded. The pale glow from the other side seemed to pulse in the dust. Was it laughing at them? Girl, you’ve got to pull yourself together, she thought. She settled into her seat and closed her eyes, letting her mind drift. It’s like that skull is a portal…a gateway to…where? A chill ran through her as she pondered the most obvious possibilities, and opened her eyes, anxious to have something else to think about.
“Hey Preacher? What’s the plan after we pick up the probe?”
“We’re going to download the probe data, and go through it in detail. But first were going to need to get something to eat…perhaps I’ll buy Greg that beer. I don’t know about you, but I could use one about now,” he sounded earnest. “While we’re discussing the plan, I think we’re going to have to stop using our call signs for a while. The ship to ship transmissions are encoded against eavesdropping, but we won’t have that luxury anywhere else.”
Mischief shuddered again. The decision had been made for her to use her real name. “Mischief” was too recognizable and few people knew her real name. She hadn’t gone by her real name since she was a child. “Mischief” was born from two parents—Loss and Loneliness. As far as she was concerned, “Rachael Sheridan” died with her parents during the turf wars…along with her sister Rebecca. She felt a spike of pain every time the name was mentioned, but decided it was a reasonable sacrifice for the cause at hand.
“OK, Chris…I guess we should practice before we go someplace public,” she said without enthusiasm. “That’s the spirit, Rachael,” Chris replied. Again, she felt just a bit sick for a moment, before she turned her attention back to the scanners. Just then, the probe’s tracking signal disappeared from her display. “Chris…” she started. “I see it,” he replied, and she felt her ship accelerate. “Shall we investigate?” he asked. Rachael rolled her eyes. Do we have a choice? She asked herself.
Tales of the Black Knight: The Orphan’s Tale