Tales of the Black Knight: The Orphan's Search

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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.

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Chapter 95:Whisper in the Night

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...

Chapter 101: 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."

Chapter 102: Then and Now

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."

Chapter 103: Enter the Black Knight

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."

"Please explain."

"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.

Chapter 104: Date Night

“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.”

“Yes.”

“Go on.”

“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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Tales of the Black Knight: The Orphan’s Tale
By Vincent Shuta

Chapter 1: Mischief and Mayhem

Her boots scratched through the rust of the elevator floor. Heavy steel doors slammed behind her, causing a thin, orange cloud to fill the room. She hoped for not the first time that the guts of the elevator were in better shape than the car.

 

Her armor resembled the skin of a dragon. Small, overlapping metal “scales” mixed freedom of movement with airtight protection. Strangely enough, this didn’t accentuate her form. A transparent shade of violet over a base of black gave the effect of pure darkness better than night itself, and her exact shape was tough to make out at any distance. “Ultra Violent” was what her sister called the color. The memory tightened the knot in her stomach.

On the way down, the suit read her mind, and a message was sent to the millions of molecule-sized robots that were embedded in the metal of her armor. As soon as the nanotechnology received this message, it went to work. Metal scales became soft fabric. Now the pilot could easily be recognized, and in some ways this made her even more terrifying.

The girl was nineteen, wiry and muscular. She had black hair tousled in a thousand different directions, and thanks to the dance of nanotechnology, now wore a loose-fitting sleeveless jumpsuit. On her right upper arm was a tattoo; a band of black two inches wide.

Upon entering the bar she headed straight for the bartender. Carla Jurik had mastered the mercenary trade long before she mastered the perfect pour. She wore her gray hair with pride—few mercs lived long enough to find a pleasant retirement.

The girl rarely confided in people, but sometimes you need the help of someone who’s been places you haven’t. Over the years Carla had earned her trust.



The crowd parted quickly for the girl with the black armband, each wondering which skeleton she had been paid to avenge. Each hoped that it wasn't the one hanging in their closet.

A German accent greeted her as she took her place at the bar. “Mischief, you’ve drifted in here more times than I can count,” the Carla stated. “But I can’t remember you ever looking like this. What’s wrong?” The young girl looked like she hadn’t slept in days. Actually that was normal for Mischief. What was abnormal was the fact that she looked it. She leaned over the bar and whispered.

“I’ve got trouble. Where can we talk?” As they talked, a young man in a miner's uniform put his hand on the bar next to them. “I've got a message for you, Babe. If you're looking for Mayhem, you've in the wrong—”

Mischief abruptly nailed his hand to the bar with a butterfly knife. A second knife pressed against his neck stifled his scream.

“Where is she?” Mischief took the second knife from his neck and waved it in front of his eyes. “I'd love to pick your brain...”

The man was hyperventilating and going into shock. “Where is who?”

“Mischief!” The bartender shouted. “What's rule one in here?”

“No cuttin' in the bar. But if he knows...”

“Larry's only been out here a couple months. All he knows is there are free drinks if Bellona wins the system battle. He always pays his tab from Gunsmith's generosity. Ah hell, he's passing out. Pull that knife out of my bar.”

Mischief retrieved her knife from the man's hand as he collapsed to the floor in shock. Carla pulled a injector from a drawer behind the bar. “Jam this in his arm—the one you cut.” A few seconds later the man's eyes fluttered and he came to—screaming.

“Larry, if you're going to start the evening all cool and suave at least follow it through,” Carla chided. “Get up to the medical floor. You'll be fine.”

Mischief put her boot on his chest. “Wait, what about this message?”

“Mischief, do you want my help or do I throw your ass out of here?”

As Larry ran for the door , Carla continued. “Do you think I'm too old to pay attention?”

Mischief shook her head. “How did he get the message?

“Couple of goons in suits spoke with him about an hour ago. So where is Mayhem?” Before she could answer, Mischief started to do something she hadn't done since the bunker. She fought it hard, but lost. For the first time since she took the name Mischief as one of “The Orphans,” she broke down. She panicked.

She started to cry.

She heard Carla leave, and started to panic even more—until she heard Carla's voice: “Hey Chuck, I need you to watch the bar for a little while. And make sure you turn on the video feed for the battle. I'll be in the back room if you need me.”

 

Chapter 2: No Better than Rome

“Greetings battle fans!”

On the screen two grinning men in black shirts and teal jackets appeared—ex-news anchor Lance Dupre and ex-fighter pilot Bill Chevtol. Bill privately told people that he worked for free. They paid him handsomely to put up with Lance.

“This is Lance Dupre along with color commentator Bill ’The Reaper‘ Chevtol, here for this week’s exciting confrontation: the contest to determine who will own Bloody Bellona!”

Bill relaxed his forced smile as the shot changed to a deep space view of “Bellona’s Star,” named after the Roman goddess of war. In mythology, her thirst for blood was endless. Six blood-red planets orbited the star, whose dusky orange light inspired both awe and foreboding. When they announced the name, the astronomers who discovered the planet suggested that Bellona might have selected these crimson jewels for a necklace of her own design, with fire at its center. Or perhaps the necklace was a gift from Mars, her closest companion.  The name selection was far more prescient than they had intended.

He only relaxed it for a second. You never knew what the producers would do. It was showtime again as he delivered his first line.

“Almost since its discovery, this star system has been the home to fire and bloodshed, as rival corporations vied for the rights to the rubies that orbit that eerie ball of fire.” Calling the planets rubies typified Lance’s melodramatic style. “Balls of Rust” would have been more accurate, and in truth, only the fourth planet had ever been explored. But in every other particular, Lance was right. The history of Bellona-4 would have pleased the war goddess immensely.

“But now, thanks to the Safe Battle Treaty, the terrible bloodshed has been replaced by the greatest sporting event in human history! What do we have in store for us today, Bill?”

“This is going to be a classic contest, Lance: the men and women of the Bellona Mining Company against the raving lunatics of Havoc Incorporated. These two haven’t met since that awful incident in 2312 when the Havoc shot up the Bellona escape pods, killing fourteen pilots.”

“Bill that action caused their planetary claiming rights to be revoked for over a year.”

“Yeah, Lance. And the only reason they’re back is because they threatened to back out of the Treaty.”

The so-called “Safe Battle Treaty” of 2306 put an end to the corporate warfare that had been spreading throughout all of known space at the time. Space exploration by the private sector had led to some of the greatest achievements in human history. The bounty of those achievements sometimes led to greed. This in and of itself was not unusual, but for the first time in centuries, there were no restrictions on the actions of the greedy. The corporate entities had their own planets—and soon their own armies.

A long series of battles and massacres became known as “The Turf Wars.” Companies were trying to wipe each other out to steal resources. Rival mercenary groups were raiding planets in an attempt to extort “protection money” from the people. The deaths were tolled in the millions, and it was nothing short of a miracle that a solution was discovered. The Safe Battle Treaty redirected the companies’ vast fleets of starships, and forged a structure by which planetary control could be contested without the death of innocent civilians.

It also gave birth to the most watched show of any kind in human history.

Bill didn't think Havoc Inc. had any qualms about a return to the old days. They weren't so much a corporate entity as they were a gang of maniacal thugs who took over planets so they could terrorize them. They exploited the treaty to keep invading armies off their soil, and so far it had worked.

“Considering the carnage that occurred over a year ago, I’ll bet there is no love lost between these two teams!”

“None whatsoever, Lance. Let’s take a look at the battle location.”

The scene shifted to open space. In the center of the location was a mobile bunker, covered with cameras and broadcast antennae. The bunker’s walls were made of armor thirty feet thick, as the mobile edifice supposedly housed Lance and Bill. Apparently the ratings seemed to be higher if there was a chance—however small—that the two would die. In reality they were safely watching the contest from a remote location.

Bill gave his standard battle explanation for what seemed like the millionth time. “As always, the battle zone is a cube four hundred miles on each side.  At the corners and at 10 mile intervals are medical stations. Each of the fighters is equipped with an escape pod that activates automatically if the ships damage exceeds a certain level, or if the ship leaves the battle zone. Computers on board the medical ships target the pods, and pull them into the station’s hold via magnetic tractor beam”

For what seemed like the millionth time, Lance “spontaneously” interrupted Bill. “That must be a heck of a ride, Bill.”

“Oh you know it, Lance.  The pilots have to be removed from the battlefield as quickly as possible. The G-forces from the tractor beam are so high, few enter the bay conscious. And all the men will spend the next several days bloodshot and sore.”

Again Lance interrupted. “Sounds like my last trip to New Vegas.” It was the same joke every week. As someone who had experienced the power of the tractor beams, Bill grew particularly weary of it. I’ve got to talk to the producers again.

“And of course,” Lance continued, “The team that winds up with all its men in the medical station loses the planetary system. The winner gets to keep it for three months before anyone else can challenge.” This gave the victors time to rebuild for the next battle.

Bill struggled, as he did every week, to keep his cool. Every pilot was wearing a suit of armor with a self contained air system. Depending on the generosity of the team, some even had a small fusion pack that powered a personal shield and suit thrusters. There were very good reasons for this precaution. Some guys got clipped by fire before they ever got to the medical stations. Some were pulled right into missiles or mines. The suits would protect the pilot if the escape pod was damaged, but many pods were merely vaporized. The danger was only discussed when it could not be avoided—such as when Havoc targeted the pods with guided missiles. Even then it was only mentioned in passing. Naturally we don’t want to disturb the viewers.

Bill’s thoughts dripped with sarcasm, but as he did ever week, he eventually resigned himself to the necessity of it all. He’d seen civilians butchered by these same ships. Surely this was better…

“It certainly looks like everything is in place, Bill. How do these teams stack up?”

“Well, Lance, the Bellona Mining Company has been working hard to make up for the losses of a year ago, and their fighter strength is now up to forty seven pilots—just three shy of the maximum allowed fifty. Most are flying the Consolidated SF-42 Griffin, which is probably the most common fighter we see. It’s tough, it’s quick and it packs a heavy wallop. Some are flying the Asguard SF-39 Marauder, which has more firepower and armor, but which is a bit harder to steer.”

A screen appeared showing both fighters in profile. The Griffin traced its lineage back to atmospheric craft, and was as comfortable in the sky as above it. Various weapons adorned the underside of its wings, based on the pilot’s preferences. The Marauder took the shape of a flying wing with a pair of turrets at the inside of the ‘V': one on top and one on bottom. The weapons mounted under the wing for the most part were similar to the ones available to the Griffin.

“Speaking of ships, is ‘The Gunsmith’ still flying an SF/B-5 Stronghold?”

“I’m glad you mentioned it, Lance. Xavier ‘Gunsmith’ Thompson is still at the helm of the flying brick. He’s one of only a handful of fliers who still use it.”

A picture of pilot and ship appeared on the screen. Xavier Thompson was a transplanted Australian in his late forties, who earned his nickname when the Turf Wars came to Bellona-4. Rather than choose a side between the corporations, he joined a rebel force of miners. Before the wars, he was a machinist and metalworker. When violence came to Bellona-4, he turned his skills to making weapons for the rebels. He was well known by his nickname well before it ever became a call sign. In battle, he wore an armored suit that matched the color of the rocks on Bellona-4—rust and dust.

The “flying brick” fit its nickname in every measure. Originally a fighter/bomber, the center section was a large rectangle, with four turrets mounted; two top, two bottom. The pilot sat out front, and the fusion generator and main engine was at the rear.

The center section held the cargo / bomb bay, with matching doors on top and bottom. The bay was modified to accept varying mission packages, from surveillance gear to cargo boxes, space mines or countermeasures. Today it was loaded with ship to ship missiles.

Long, thick wings extended out from the sides, ending in two, huge thruster pods. There were a pair of openings in the leading edge of the wing that acted as thrusters for braking, but normally Gunsmith just used the thruster pods. No fewer than ten racks of weapons pods, and two munitions pods, loaded with mines and missiles, adorned the underside of the ship.

Bill continued. “The Stronghold is heavy. It is a huge target and it moves like a fly caught in molasses. But it is covered in guns and has the heaviest armor of any fighter. ‘Gunsmith,’ makes it work for him time and time again.”

“What about Havoc Incorporated, Bill?”

“The Havoc members are all in Marauders, loaded with energy cannons and ‘Haymaker’ missile launchers. I’ve been on the receiving end of the Haymaker, and it’s not pleasant, Lance. They can tear your ship in half.” A video from one of the previous battles appeared on the screen. The camera controller was lucky to get the shot of a Griffin having its right wing blown completely away by the missile. He was doubly lucky, since if the missile hit the cockpit, the pilot might have been killed, and the shot would have been unusable. This was family programming, after all.

Bill continued. “Havoc usually tries to take out as many members of the opposition as they can in the first pass with a massive missile volley, and count on superior numbers to carry the fight. That’s been their method since Grant ‘The Professor’ Hanover took command of the Havoc from Peter ‘Pain’ Palmer.”

“Took command” was a bit of an understatement. Palmer’s remains had spent the last five years lashed upside-down to the gates of Havoc’s headquarters on Hathor-3. Hanover referred to him as “An art project in progress” and planed to have him sprayed with clear sealant when the “look was right.”

Bill rested his smile once again as the screen showed the two commanders side by side. He said a silent prayer that the man in the flying brick would carry the day.

Chapter 3: The Lightning Rod

The truth was, beyond sheer sentimentality, Gunsmith mostly flew the huge ship to call attention away from his pilots and onto himself. He held a special concern for his pilots, and would rather every missile was trained on him. Flying an easy target, he often got his wish.

Normally, having a sitting duck as a battlefield commander wasn’t the most prudent tactic for the safety of anyone. Confusion caused by the loss of the commander has cost many men their lives in the history of warfare. Gunsmith was perfectly aware of this, and if he commanded the Bellona Mining Company’s forces in battle, he would have taken better care of himself. However, he had discovered a diamond in the rough a few years back—a man with a talent for such duties beyond his experience. Gunsmith was not one to throw away diamonds.

They flew as four groups of ten and one group of seven. Gunsmith took the seven, his ship and six SF-39 Marauders, directly at the oncoming force; the other groups were at two o’clock, five o’clock, seven o’clock, and ten o’clock around the center group. They flew the more maneuverable Griffin, and would get on the tails of the pursuers after the primary attack. Midnight wing—Gunsmith’s wing—would do the same if any of them survived the initial attack.

The commander of the two o’clock wing, and overall leader of the Bellona ships, began to marshal his forces.  “This is two o’clock.” A mellow, bass voice called out.  “Wing commanders: please report status.”

“Midnight: Weapons armed; eyes sharp.”

“It’s always five o’clock somewhere: Weapons armed; eyes sharp,” said Glen “Easy” Callaway. His armor was painted in gray primer, because he hadn’t gotten around to picking a color yet. He was relaxed in every situation, but too friendly a fellow to earn any nickname involving cold or ice. As one of the younger officers, he had a tendency to drift off on his own adventures from time to time—but never during a battle. During a battle, his “five o’clock” wing was “always somewhere” causing trouble for the enemy.

“Lucky Seven: Weapons armed; eyes sharp.” Catherine “Dice” Duvalier came to the world of corporate armies through the smuggling trade, running illicit weapons into war zones for causes she believed in. Some causes lived up to her expectations, while others fell far short. Thirty six years had passed since her birth, but in that time she gained the knowledge, skill and experience of someone much older. Her suit sported a dark green jungle camouflage, from her days of smuggling weapons into New Ecuador.

“Ten O’clock; Weapons armed; eyes sharp.”  Chris “The Preacher” Bellweather’s suit was also painted in camouflage—a mix of muted reds and tans normally associated with two planets: Bellona-4 and Hathor-3.  At times he was boisterous and witty, often in search of a debate for the sake of one. Other times he would be reserved and reflective, as if the words would not come to him. His past had given him more than ample reason to be inconstant in his moods. In the cockpit he found solace in single-minded intensity—especially when on the other side of the battlefield was the man who christened him “The Preacher:” His own brother, Sebastian.

Chapter 4: The Black Sheep

Across the battlefield, Sebastian “Batch” Bellweather reclined in the cockpit of his Marauder. His suit bore the color of dying embers—a mottled camouflage of black, brown, and dark orange. Flames appeared to flow from the hands to the elbows, thanks to a particularly skilled suit artist.

He threw the switch to arm his weapons—one of the few mechanical switches left in modern cockpits; power flowed to the dorsal and ventral high speed turrets, and the four heavy cannons in the leading edge of the wings. Four “Haymaker” missiles, slung under and over the middle of each wing powered up and began to search for targets. The central pod beneath the ship armed its mix of missile interceptors and mines.

“Professor, this is Batch” he signaled. “I’m showing them in five groups. Which one you want iced first?”

When it came, the calm baritone was shaded with a slight southern accent, as its owner grew up just a stone’s throw from the Mason-Dixon Line. “All ships: This is The Professor. They’re going to expect us to strike the leader down to cause confusion. He will fall and the confusion will follow, but not first. We will confuse them all and strike the group in the upper left quadrant. Use the Serpent formation—follow me in no more than three ships wide, and take your turns shooting as you go past. Arm your weapons, accelerate, and prepare to fight.”

Chapter 5: The Serpent

One by one the ships disappeared—to their pilots at least. Their visors became a heads up display that showed the space around him, along with some critical data. The aim point for the guns, and the health of the shield and armor all glowed in front of them. A sparse, green wire frame of the ship glowed around the pilot as a point of reference.  It provided a fantastic view of the battle, but the pilot invariably felt exposed to the void of space and whatever dangers lie in it. Most of the best pilots looked at that as a good thing: it kept you focused and aware of the danger.

“Two, this is Midnight: I've got Havoc on the scanner playing follow the leader.”

“Serpent formation again, eh? How inventive.” Havoc used the formation because its pilots tended to lack the discipline needed to fly in formation. In the serpent formation, they could lock their navigation controls on the ship in front, and let that pilot—usually Hanover—do the flying. All they had to do was fire their weapons. “You heard him, team. They're going to try and gang up on one wing at a time. As soon as they pick a target, wheel around and nail them in the flank.” To an expert commander, the Serpent formation was almost a gift. It left most of the enemy fighters exposed. However, whichever group faced it head on was in for a bad day.

The lead Havoc ship was suddenly highlighted by the visor. Its pilot was broadcasting on the public channel, for everyone to hear. “Xavier, you sentimental fool. Isn’t it time to retire that rust bucket? Perhaps I should retire it for you today.” Hanover was obviously trying to goad the Gunsmith into something. “If you ask nicely,” the Gunsmith replied, “I’ll give you a ride home in her. You’re going to need it.” “My first order of business today will be to prove you wrong.” The Professor replied.

A confident but wary voice warned each of the Bellona team members on a secure channel: “It’s a trick. He wants us to think they’re going after Midnight. At the last second they’ll go after a different group.”

The Serpent formation started to loop around, on a general path towards the Gunsmith and the Midnight wing. Like a drunken eel it weaved its way towards the opposition. At the edge of missile range, the front ships fired a volley of missiles at Gunsmith’s ship, and then the entire train lunged at the two o’clock wing.

Interceptor missiles streaked from Midnight wing. Much faster and more agile than the “Haymaker” Missiles, they quickly detonated the incoming ordinance. Midnight and the other wings turned to attack the Serpent, just as the head of the Serpent hit Two o’clock.

The leader of the Two o’clock wing faced The Professor head on. Their shields glowed blue around them as massive bursts of particles and radiation were deflected. At the last possible moment, the two ships rolled ninety degrees and passed each other. The Professor was behind him now, but that left forty-nine more ships to deal with.

“Stay close!” He called to his wing. “Go right down their throat!” Some of the Havoc ships broke left and right to face the outside wing men, and that gave the inside ships room to fly. The Bellona ships would have worn down first, but the Havoc pilots kept making a huge mistake. They were firing missiles, which are a notoriously bad choice of weapon in close quarters fighting. A steady stream of fire from the Bellona team was exploding these projectiles as soon as they left the launchers.

The resulting explosions caused massive damage in the Havoc ships; holes ripped in the wing would expose channels of superheated plasma generated by the fusion core of the ship. A bleeding ship quickly lost power. Eventually there would be a massive structural failure, or an all out explosion. If such a failure were imminent, computers in the ship would activate the escape sequence, and launch the pilot from his ship in an escape pod.

As the two o’clock wing went down the Serpent’s throat, it lit the Serpent on fire. Ships were bleeding, and pilots were ejecting on both sides. “Wing’s gone! I lost my…” “Computer is out! I’ve got no…” Each sentence was interrupted by the escape sequence.

The escape sequence was calculated based on the navigation and tactical systems of the ship. One pilot ejected to the right, the other straight down, to keep it clear of oncoming ships. The magnetic beams were synchronized with the ships computers, and fired as soon as they got a clear shot. But in the hail of fire and flying ships, it was a miracle they weren’t shot in their pods or run over.

“Keep moving guys!”  By now the leader’s shields were gone and the armor was earning its keep. The head on attack was protecting his wings from all but glancing blows, but the forward armor was glowing orange, and his long range scanners died. In this game the forward armor was the worst to get damaged; if your wings or tail got blown off, it was easy to eject. Even if the fusion chamber behind him was breached, it tended to vent outward through the hole that breached it. True it was violent, and usually destroyed the ship, but there was a second or to for the computer to remove the pilot.

If the forward armor failed, the pilot could be shot dead before the computer could react.

Chapter 6: Dogfight

In the mean time, the other groups attacked as well. “Five, seven, and ten: Go for the throat!” Gunsmith called, taking command. It was obvious that the nominal battlefield commander was going to be too busy to make tactical calls for a while.

The three wings attacked the flank of the ships just burned by the two o’clock wing. “Midnight: cover two.” Midnight wing rushed in just ahead of two o’clock, turned ninety degrees and flew sideways down the line, guns blazing. The Gunsmith’s turrets took an especially heavy toll, cutting fighters completely in half. The rest of the wings ripped apart anything that survived the onslaught.

“Their formation’s breaking up!” Easy’s voice rang through the communicator. “They’re starting to scatter!” The view started to open up in front of the remnants of the Two o’clock wing. “All ships,” Gunsmith called. “It’s a dogfight now.” Chaos ruled.

Two Havoc fighters dove at Gunsmith. The flying brick brought it's turrets to bear, but couldn't turn fast enough to bring its interceptor missiles into firing position. Two Haymakers took out his shields, while a third blasted a massive hole in his port thruster pod. One enemy ship flew high, the other not high enough. His ship broadsided the Flying Brick. The Brick barely flinched, but the Havoc ship was torn open, and spent spinning out of control. One of Gunsmith's wing men blew the tear open the rest of the way, forcing the enemy pilot to eject.

As the Gunsmith looked to port, the wire frame view of the wing became a solid view—and an ugly one at that. “Fine—I’ll just turn left from now on,” he said to no one in particular. He wheeled left and his turrets sent another Havoc Pilot flying through space at the end of a tractor beam.

In a matter of a few minutes, the Bellona Mining Company had destroyed forty-one of the Havoc ships, and lost only eight of their own. The vastly superior forces of BMC were making short work of the scattered enemy ships.

Chapter 7: Sour Grapes

The Professor shook his head in disgust. He understood that those recruited to his cause were likely to be undisciplined—for now at least. The rest of the world simply wasn't reading enough Nietzsche. His group weren't reading much of anything, let alone Nietzsche, but they were living the core principles in a rudimentary way.

He performed a loop while he checked his ship status: Three guns and one turret destroyed; plasma bleeding from the port wing—badly; power was at sixty-two percent and falling. All the ships had embedded nanotechnology to allow instantaneous in-flight repairs. However, the microscopic little robots couldn’t sew together a hole if superheated plasma was flowing through it. You had to shut down and let everything cool off for a bit. All things considered, that wasn’t a great option right now.

He did have one “Haymaker” left. He set his course for Gunsmith's bleeding fighter. Well, at least I can keep my promise to you.

He tracked the Stronghold as Gunsmith tried to bank the wounded and ungainly fighter/bomber to keep in the battle box. He dove at him just as he came out of the turn.

Over the communication line Gunsmith chuckled.  “You've lost and now you're going to take a run at old Xavier, eh?” he said. Behind his armor, the Professor smiled. “I hate to disappoint,” he replied.” “Bring it you crazy...”

At that moment the Professor's starboard wing was blown off. He looked behind him and saw a damaged Griffin, it's nose nearly shot off. He barely had time to scream an epithet before the escape pod activated, and the burning hulk skated off into space.

Chapter 8: Diamond in the Rough

“Bill, I can hardly believe it. Have you ever seen such total domination like this before?” Lance said.

Now Bill's grin was genuine. “Well, Lance, I've seen the Serpent formation before. And it's great against an inexperienced opponent. But according to the stats here, he sent his force against the wing led by Joseph Zam. Joe has more than enough experience as a wing commander to handle the Serpent formation.”

Bill deliberately used Joe's real name. He hated his own call sign. It was given to him because he grew up on a farm in Nebraska—not because he was some “Grim Reaper” of the skies, which became the standard forced upon him.  In fact, Bill had it put in his contract they could only use the nickname two times per show—he got a huge bonus if they used it more often than that. He needed to make a living, but he'd left that life for a lot of reasons. He had no urge to be the “Reaper” any more.

“Ah! You refer to...The Black Knight!” Lance interjected, with way too much drama in his voice. At times like this, Bill desperately wanted to slap Lance. He half hoped the ratings would go down, so he could suggest it to the producers as a gimmick.

Chapter 9: Pride Before a Fall

“All ships form up to head for home,” The Black Knight ordered. As the ships formed up, he checked the damage status of each. “Midnight One, Four and Seven: eject for slow tractor retrieval,” he ordered. A low power tractor beam was used after the battle, so that the pilots wouldn’t suffer from excessive acceleration. The ships would be abandoned in space.  “Two o’clock Nine: follow suit. Five o’clock Four, you get the free ride home as well.”

Four of the five fighters ejected without comment. Nobody wanted to stick around in a burning fighter longer than they had to…well, almost nobody.

“Midnight One: COM link check.” The Black Knight called out. “I can hear you fine, mate.” The Gunsmith replied. “Then what are you doing still flying that hunk of junk. Your port thruster is shot.”

“I told that arrogant son of a Great Dane that this old girl had a few battles left in her, and I intend to bring her home!” The Gunsmith sent the main engines to max throttle, which slowed the escape of plasma. It also sent him hurling at breakneck speed. “Besides, that port thruster is fine!” he added. Just then the port thruster broke off completely. Somehow, the ship had found a way to bleed plasma even more profusely.

“Xavier, be reasonable—at least cut power and let the ship heal up the gashes!” Knight implored. “No can do, mate,” he replied. “My fusion igniters were hit, and there isn’t enough left for the ‘bots to repair. If I shut down, I can’t fire back up.”

Up ahead was the worm ship. Despite the name, it looked nothing like a worm. Rather it appeared as giant ring with a command center at the top. The ring contained a particle accelerator thirty miles in circumference, that could generate the multitude of microscopic black holes needed to open a stable “wormhole” to Bellona-4. Essentially, it created a shortcut from one point in space to another. By passing through the wormhole, huge amounts of space could be traversed. In this case, it was only saving them a day or so since the battle location was so close, but then these ships would be moved to the next battle location. For planet to planet jumps, even larger ring stations had been built, so that trade could be maintained.

“Gunsmith, I’m going to shoot you down myself if you don’t eject. How are you going to land? What if you take out one of the domes and a few thousand people in the process?”  Through the wormhole they could see the ruddy planet Bellona-4 now, as all colors but the reddish orange of Bellona’s star were banished from view.

“Knight, this is not the first time I’ve landed this crate with a dead thruster! It’s tricky, but there’s a technique to it.” The wounded Stronghold flew through the ring and into the space over Bellona-4. Another ring ship was there stabilizing the other side of the wormhole. The other ships quickly followed after him.

“Which is?”

Gunsmith rolled the ship ninety degrees, balancing the entire ship on the starboard thruster.

The Black Knight targeted the starboard thruster.

“Listen, Knight: Follow me down. If I start to stray towards the domes then shoot out the other thruster and I’ll drop out the way. I’ll put ‘er down in the sand on the other side of the landing pad for extra safety.”

The Black Knight hesitated. Strong winds buffeted the planet at a constant. Just chasing him down would require tremendous skill. A Griffin showed up on the other side of Gunsmith. “This is Easy, Knight. I’ll fly down with the two of you. Between the two of us we should be able to keep an eye on the Boss.” The Black Knight almost laughed. He was convinced Easy chose that call-sign so that he could talk people into things—usually dangerous things.

“Alright…it will be worth it to see the expression on Uncle Butch’s face when you tell him he’s got to tow that burnt up beast out of the sand and fix it.” Vince “Butch” Beredda was the Lead Ship Technician for BMC, and just so happened to be The Black Knight’s uncle. The Knight was sure that his uncle took the job just to keep an eye on him. An expressive, gregarious spirit, he would no doubt have a conniption when he saw the ‘Brick—especially since he was the only tech qualified to repair a Stronghold.

“That’s the spirit, mate!” Gunsmith said as he began his approach. “This is going to be a bit quick on the way down, so try to keep up, alright?” The ship picked up speed as Knight and Easy followed him down. The key was to set the approach up right, since mid-flight corrections for the wounded ship would be almost impossible.

The Black Knight called up the required trajectory on his screen, and overlaid their true trajectory. It wasn’t long before the two started to differ. “Gunsmith, you’re heading too far north.” he said. “Roger, mate!” Gunsmith replied. Using the various ports on the starboard thruster, he flipped the ship around and fired the engines at full power, desperately trying to drive the ship south. He was now falling upside down toward the ground at over four hundred miles an hour—and he was still drifting too far north.

“Easy,” the Black Knight said. “Have you ever used the tractor beam while in an atmosphere?” The emitters were located next to the cargo bay doors on most ships. On the Griffin, the small bay doors were on the bottom. The emitter looked like nothing more than a bulge in the armor.

“Gotcha, mate. On three?”

“Three.”

The tractor beams from the ships slowed the burning wreck down, and pulled it further south. It worked great for a while. But about three hundred feet from the ground, they started to fail. “What’s happening?” Easy asked. “Dust and crap in the atmosphere—” He didn’t need to say anything else. The tractor beam emitter, by its very nature, was showered with millions of particles each time it operated in the rusty atmosphere of the Bellona-4. Soon the non-magnetic armor plate was gone and the emitter was damaged. “Cut the beam on three!” Knight ordered. If one beam failed first, Gunsmith could go into an uncontrollable spin. “One…Two…Three!”

The badly wounded fighter dropped like a rock. It was headed exactly were the Gunsmith said he would land, at a speed about three times too fast. Only a hundred feet from the ground, he flipped the ship nose to the sky, and fired the main engines. The ship slowed quickly, and finally was only ten feet of the ground. Gunsmith kicked the thrusters one last time, flipped it upright, and let it fall to the sand with a heavy thud.

“Told you it would be no problem…” Gunsmith said.

The Black Knight scanned Xavier’s cockpit; the scanners showed no injuries. The cockpits were designed to cushion the pilots from sudden, high G’s. The normally backbreaking crash was the least of what the ship saw that day. He watched as Easy buzzed the landing pad with a full barrel roll. The Black Knight simply set down on the tarmac about 30 yards from Gunsmith’s ship, dropped out of the cockpit, and headed for the wreck.

He was about six feet tall, clad as everyone else was in a “dragon scaled” armored space suit. It closely followed his athletic form. Just like all the other suits, a small fusion backpack provided power. A small “breather” built into the backpack extracted any oxygen that could be found in the man’s breath or in the atmosphere around the suit. Small, high pressure tanks on his back stored the vital gas for later use.

Vents in the fusion pack gave him flight capability, and an energy shield protected him from the heat of the jets—and any other dangerous energy. The suit was made of the same super light, super strong alloy as the ship’s armor, and was coated with a high temperature paint that reflected energy weapons should the shield fail. Over all of this, it was coated flat black. He claimed it caused fewer reflections inside the cockpit, and aided in covert operations outside the cockpit. It was obvious to all that the color held a deeper meaning. Very few were allowed the opportunity to discuss it.

He casually ambled in the direction of the wrecked ship. He could have shot straight over to the ship in an instant, but he knew he would only get in the way of the landing crews who were trained to deal with such emergencies.

Sure enough, a huge yellow vehicle, rolling on eight huge tires, rolled up next to the downed Stronghold. Gunsmith stayed inside. Even though he’d shut down the plant, some residual plasma was still flowing. The sand around the ship had mostly turned to a mixture of glass and molten metal. After a minute or so of hosing the ship down with fire and heat suppressant foam, the rescue squad signaled he could exit—just stay away from the burnt wing. He opened the top hatch, and used his suit jets to bounce out of the ship, landing next to The Black Knight.

Across the tarmac, a large building lay before them. It had no squared edges, to better weather the near constant dust storms. A massive door, easily three hundred feet wide and a hundred high, began to open, retracting into the building. A dozen or so draggers—four wheeled open vehicles used for towing the ships into the hanger--rushed out onto the tarmac as soon as the door opened enough. Each had a built in heavy tractor beam unit to lift the ship a few inches and tow it, and a few extra seats on the side for passengers. Each was driven by a technician in a blue armor suit similar to the ones the pilots wore, so that they could work on the fighters outside. The Bellona fighters were coming down en mass now, and it was their job to get them inside before they ran out of landing space. Meanwhile the fire suppressant foam poured on Gunsmith's wreck was boiling into a thick steam, which blew across the tarmac, complicating landings.

As they began to walk towards the hanger, The Black Knight punched Gunsmith in the shoulder—just hard enough to express his displeasure.  “NEXT time I WILL shoot you down if you don’t eject when ordered! Look at this!” He shouted, waving his hands at the wreckage and smoke. “What kind of an example is this setting for the team? Do you think I need a dozen hotshots trying the same stunt after every battle?”

Gunsmith held up his hands. “Believe me mate, by the time you and Easy turned on the tractor beams I had ceded the argument in my mind. I’ll make a speech to the troops, use some video from my flight recorders, and explain why it was a dumb idea.”

“Excellent.” The Black Knight said, regaining his composure. They walked for another minute, and Gunsmith added, “But you’ve got to admit it was a hell of a stunt…” The Black Knight shook his head and laughed, as the stress of battle finally started to leave him. Just then Easy buzzed the landing pad again. Gunsmith activated his communication link. “Easy, set that thing down now or we’re going to drink all the rum in the bar on you.”  The Griffin reversed all thrusters, and dropped for a landing right where it was. “Got to know what motivates a person…that’s all.” Gunsmith said, as The Black Knight continued laughing.

One of the draggers rolled to a stop next to him. The tech driving it pointed towards the Stronghold. “What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Turn it into a dog kennel?” Gunsmith walked up and peered closely into the tech’s visor. “You’re right. It was worth it for the look on his face.” The Black Knight looked in is visor, and laughed again.

At this point, a gray suit of armor landed next to them. “Did someone mention rum?”  “Hop on back, I’ll drive you in.” Butch said. “There’s a bunch of reporters waiting to talk to you.” He turned and looked back at the wreck one more time, before shaking his head in disgust.

The tractor drove through the wall of steam and into the hangar bay. The air circulators kept the air fresh even with the bay doors open. There was a little positive pressure compared to the outside, so the steam didn’t intrude.

It did allow them a heck of an entrance, appearing out of the fog as if it were planned. Later, reviewing the video, the Bellona Mining Company’s publicity agent made a note to purchase a smoke generator for future interviews. Xavier squashed the idea, pointing out that a smoke generator on a landing field would probably prevent more interviews than it would enhance.

Chapter 10: If you're going to talk the talk...

Just inside the door were a dozen or so competing news teams. BMC didn’t have many formal news conferences—the Gunsmith had no patience for them. What you could get out of him walking to the showers was what you got. Gunsmith hopped off the dragger as they approached the reporters. His armor became fluid and changed into a long riding coat, revealing pants and a shirt both made of denim. He took off a backpack that held his armor’s fusion generator and tossed it to Knight, as he and Easy took the ride to the main elevators.

“Gunsmith! Over here!” The reporters all clamored for attention. Gunsmith kept walking towards the elevators. “Ok, you in the purple,” Gunsmith said.  A young woman from the Bellona-4 News Service wore a purple dress with a somewhat short cut. Gunsmith always picked the local news first. “Mr. Thompson, what made you decide to bring the ship down?” “Sheer pig-headedness: The Prof said he’d retire it for me, and I said it would fly another day. So rather than be reasonable I landed it. My XO says he’ll shoot me himself next time I try something like that.” This was all true and made for great sound bites. “Will it fly again?” “Yes. That’s two for you. Now you in the yellow,” he said, pointing out an older gentleman in a pale yellow suit jacket.

“Dan Bracer, Earth Watch News: With this victory, are you in position to pursue Havoc, and challenge for Hathor-3.” Gunsmith paused. “Perhaps we could take the planet, but we’re not in a position to deal with the victory.” “Could you elaborate?” Gunsmith turned to the first reporter “See what you started? Now everyone wants two.” There was an even wave of chuckles in reply. Xavier had a way of pulling laughter from just about anyone.

“Hathor-3 is a planet given over almost totally to anarchy. A good percentage of the people want the place to be managed more normally, but under the control of the Havoc, most every scofflaw and ne’er-do-well this side of the Dark Zones has settled there. If you just win the planet and declare ‘Ok, law is back,’ the riots will kill just about everyone left worth protecting. Now you in the fish tie.” He quickly picked out another reporter, hoping for a new topic.

“So are you saying that you’re just going to let the innocent people suffer under Havoc rule?” So much for a new topic, Gunsmith thought. “Where did you read that from my answers? Short term there’s nothing I can do about it. Long term, I have no answer to give you. I wish I did. And so we come to the elevator, and the end of the questioning.” As the clamoring increased he added, “For those who didn’t get their questions answered, post them to the BMC Hypernet forum and I will do my best.” As he finished the doors closed, giving him one second of peace…before he was assailed with laughter.

Gunsmith turned around. The elevator was reasonably large—suitable for 100 people or for use as a cargo elevator. All the pilots who were able to land were present. He had to laugh with them. His dislike for press conferences was well known.

“Alright mates, you’ve earned a good laugh for today. We also earned the right to keep our home for a bit longer, and did so in dominating fashion!” The fighters of BMC applauded and cheered. “We’re going to need to keep building, and the fights ahead will be tough. But for now, the drinks at the Iron Rail are on me.” With that there was a roar from the team, and everyone went back to talking among themselves; Gunsmith always ended his post battle speeches with the same line.

Chapter 11: ...you've got to walk the walk.

The Black Knight clasped his hands behind his head and leaned against the wall. Gunsmith’s answers to the media were the truth and nothing but the truth, but they were light years away from being the whole truth. History had proven that the only time you can let the media in on the battle plan is at the victory party. Even beyond the temptation to “break the next big story,” any one of them could be on the payroll of Havoc Inc.—or any number of factions who would like to see BMC fail, no matter the cost in life.

The doors opened, revealing a cavern carved out of the rock that was roughly two miles high and ten miles in diameter. Beneath this dome was a city onto itself. The height of the buildings followed the curve of the dome, with huge steel supports running along the corners of each building. All the structures were steel, windowless, and were painted bright silver. Powerful lights mounted on the roof of the dome were focused on the buildings. The glow from the reflected light lit the cavern well. Inside the buildings, systems similar to the ones used in the fighters provided a perfect outside view, without the use of glass.

The main products of Bellona-4—iron, steel, and other alloys—were used in almost every structure on the planet. The pilots walked out onto a steel bridge three stories above the cavern floor. Below them was a roadway, cut out of the rock and lined with wrought iron. Fusion powered cars and trucks thundered beneath them at speeds ranging from fifty mile-per-hour entrance ramps to the three-hundred mile-per-hour “Main Lane”. In the long tunnels that connected the different mines, the vehicles could exceed four hundred miles-per-hour. The tires were rubber-band thin, so that the magnetic wheels could stick the cars to the road at any speed.

As the Black Knight walked across the bridge, the Gunsmith caught up with him. “You’re heading down to the Iron Rail of course.”

“I most certainly am. I’m just going to take a quick shower. And you?”

“Absolutely, mate; you’ve got to celebrate what you can in this life.”

“So,” The Black Knight started, “when are we going to take Hathor-3?” The steady stream of vehicles beneath them stirred up a wind that would foil most any eavesdropping device. The two men had many weighty conversations on the bridge. The Gunsmith stopped and leaned against the railing. “Soon, I think. We challenge them soon while their pilots are still sore. Some will be afraid, and they’ll make bad decisions. Some will be angry, and their decisions will be just as bad.”

“First I'd like to check up on our contingency plans for the aftermath. "

"Already on the schedule, mate. I’ll talk to Exile, and see how Plan B is going. You check on the status of Plan A.”

“Why do you always get to talk to the rebels and I get to talk to the lawyers?”

The Gunsmith shrugged, “What can I say: I’m the cool one, landing on one thruster. You’re the one who wanted me to play it safe and eject. Mr. Boring Play-it-safe! You belong with the lawyers.”

“Me? Boring? I’m the one who’s always pushed plan C. But no, that would cause too much chaos…”

“Now listen here you. Strolling up to Grant Hanover and cutting his throat does not constitute a plan. As bizarre as it sounds, we actually need SOME sort of control in place so that we can TAKE control when the time comes.”

“Cut his throat? How gauche. I was planning more of an elaborate sword fight, culminating with a thrust through the solar plexus…”

“Knight, even if you were able to somehow get into his fortress, defeat his guards, and then best him in a fight…”

“If? Now I’m hurt.”

Gunsmith stared at the Black Knight for a moment.

“Show me your face. That’s an order.”

The Black Knight’s armor shimmered and flowed into a simple black shirt and pants. This revealed the face of a man pushing thirty, but not pushing very hard. It had been too long since his last haircut, and light auburn bangs fell into his deep brown eyes. Most noticeably, a broad smile stretched across his face.

Gunsmith chuckled. “Messing with me again, eh mate? And yet you wonder why you don’t get better assignments.”

Chapter 12: The Iron Rail

Still kidding back and forth and laughing, they entered the main Bellona Mining Company Headquarters. The top floor held the command center and medical center, and the other floors were taken up with the living quarters for the pilots, managers and everyone else who worked in that facility. Gunsmith and Knight had the two apartments directly beneath the command center.

In the first floor was the Iron Rail: a combination bar and restaurant that served as the BMC cafeteria and reception lounge. Almost all the business deals that were made on Bellona-4 were made in bars, and the ones related to BMC happened right here. Everyone trusted a public bar more than a private board room. At least in the bar there would be witnesses—in theory.

As a customer walked into the Iron Rail, he or she would be presented with contrasts. The walls were paneled with stainless steel; the tables and the bar rail from which the establishment took its name were made of wrought iron. The use of steel and iron was not an accident; nor was it simply expedient due to the availability of the materials. They were chosen to pay homage to their primary customers’ home.

The floors, the ceiling, the chairs, and the bar itself were made of wood: hardwood for the ceiling, floor and bar, and a softer wood for the chairs. All were stained a warm, amber brown, calling to mind the beer and whiskey available for consumption. Ceiling fans were scattered about to keep the air moving, and scattered about the walls were pictures of mines and miners from various points in history. Everything from excavations of Bronze Age mines from ancient Earth, to pictures of the mines lost on Bellona-4 during the turf wars. Here and there were a few treasures as well. A mining hat from a Pennsylvania Coal mine circa 1940 was placed prominently next to a black and white photograph. The frozen moment of time pictured was a boxcar in the swirling waters of the Susquehanna River, taken during the Knox mining disaster of 1959. Above the bar was a pick ax used during the gold rush of 1849 in California.

For a planet that lived and died with the mining trade, you would think the bar’s décor would be typical. But the other establishments on Bellona-4 decided to give the weary miners a break from their trade, and went with other motifs.

The owner of this establishment knew she was serving warriors. She decided from the start that they shouldn’t forget the reason they fight the wars. It was a trap Carla knew too well.

Chapter 13: A Pirate's Nightmare

The front door to the iron rail was kicked open, and two men walked in, greeted by the cheers of everyone present. One was Gunsmith; dressed in his usual blue button down shirt, blue jeans and long riding coat. The coat was a good luck charm of sorts for him. He became fascinated with the history of both Australian and American cowboys and outlaws in his youth. As he fought oppressive corporations during the Turf Wars, the stories of men such as Ned Kelly from his native land brought special inspiration. He bought his first riding coat at seventeen. When that coat got ruined in a fire fight, the leader of the rebellion—Hudson Maxwell—bought him the current nanotech treated version that doubled as his armor.

In addition to keeping him warm and dry, it concealed the heavy caliber pistols he kept on each hip. The traditional gun had long ago taken its place next to the sword as a reliable weapon that demanded respect. Though energy weapons could produce more damage, they could also be deflected by shields. It took a lot of armor to stop the steel jacketed bullets he used.

As for the blue collar / blue jeans combo, Gunsmith always said that the last frontier of science was a cloth that was better than denim, and he didn’t think they’d found it yet. On another level, he identified very much with the people he was tasked to protect. He never wanted to get the ‘corporate’ mindset. A dressed-down look helped.

The younger man, who had decided the foot was an excellent implement for opening doors, was Easy Callaway. Average height, average weight, and as colorful as the Hawaiian shirts that were his trademark, Easy was the least threatening person you would ever meet. This masked the fact that he was a crack shot and an expert pilot, and allowed him to move in the roughest crowds without the slightest hint of trouble.

His dad was Gunsmith’s neighbor when they were kids. When his son decided to reach for the stars, he sent him straight out to Gunsmith, so that Gunsmith could keep him out of trouble. Gunsmith sent him a letter back: “I can’t keep the lad out of harm’s way out here mate, but I’ll make sure he can handle himself well enough that harm regrets the meeting.” Eight years later, harm had a lot of regrets.

The door opened again, and Dice walked through to another round of cheers. There was a touch of red in her dark hair, and a touch of green in her blue eyes. She had a smooth sort of beauty, that she could play up to catch attention, or play down to blend in. Her style was whatever the situation required; from mechanics overalls to a low-cut evening gown. This evening she decided she could be herself, in a dark green jumpsuit with a jungle camouflage print—stylish, but not gaudy; casual, but not too casual. In other words, it was exactly what the situation required.

Easy and Gunsmith reached the bar first. Chuck had just finished wiping down the bar—with a nanotech spray that got rid of the blood while fixing the hole left by Mischief's knife. “Hey there Chuck,” Gunsmith opened. “How’s business tonight.”

“Busy. Looks like an expensive for you, Gunsmith. At bare minimum Easy is here.”

Easy put on a mock hurt expression. “I resemble that remark! Speaking of which, how about a Pirate’s Nightmare to start off the evening?” It was Easy’s term, which ended up on the menu. It referenced a time long past when sailing ships carried molasses and rum on their routes, and when buccaneers would seek their cargo. If the buccaneers were successful, other dangers would await them. If they sailed poorly, or consumed too much of their precious cargo, they might end up with a Pirate’s Nightmare: rum on the rocks.

“In honor of fifty shipwrecked pirates,” Dice chimed in, “I will have the same.” Gunsmith chuckled. “Let’s keep things simple—make it three, Chuck.” Chuck walked to the end of the bar, poured four ‘Nightmares, and sent them sliding down the bar in the style of the old west. As Easy reached for the first drink, a dark skinned hand intercepted it, and held it high to make a toast.  “In honor of fifty safely shipwrecked pirates…” he said, and took the first sip. In most other bars after a battle, you would have heard some protest to that sentiment. But BMC was no bloodthirsty crowd, and all knew how The Preacher felt about his brother.

That didn’t mean there wasn’t a protest. “Oh come now mate, I’m supposed to get the first sip,” Easy joked. Dice tapped him on the shoulder and took a sip of her own drink. Easy quickly put his drink to his lips before he fell further behind.

The Preacher smiled. The youngest of the officers, he always wore a shirt with applets, and kept his hair cropped close.

Chuck waited for Gunsmith to finish his first drink. He didn't believe any man should have to face death twice without at least one drink as an interlude. “Gunny? Carla's got someone in the back room. Not sure what they're talkin' about, but I'm guessing it'll be your problem soon enough.”

Gunsmith cocked an eyebrow. “Well out with it man, who is she with?”

The door to the back dining room opened and Carla emerged with Mischief.

“Chuck, keep those coming.” Chuck was already pouring more rum.

Dice put a hand on Gunsmith’s shoulder, and kept her voice low. “She looks terrible. I wonder what’s going on now.”

“Nothing good; Mischief likes a certain amount of trouble just to keep from being bored. Unless she’s suddenly found her conscience, I'd say were all in for an interesting afternoon.”

Chapter 14: Junk Mail

In his Bellona-4 residence, Joe Zam reviewed the latest BMC messages and got ready to head to the Iron Rail. The apartment had a very open layout. The bathroom was enclosed on the north side of the room, so that visitors could have their privacy. Everything was decorated in similar fashion to the iron rail, save for the mining motif.

For a two room apartment, it was large with some nice amenities. He had had the option of having construction work done to segregate it into smaller rooms, but this struck him as a waste of effort. If he were married and had children, that would have made more sense. But all that got put on hold thanks to Grant Hanover.

On hold for how long, he wondered. He glanced at himself in the bathroom mirror. He was twenty-seven years old. Modern medicine was letting people have children into their fifties, and life expectancy was up to over one hundred and twenty, so in theory he had lots of time. In reality things were different. People in his line of business rarely lived into the triple digits.

My line of business…this was never my line of business…He felt the old anger building in him again and took a deep breath. He shook his head, and broke the chain of thought for what had to be the millionth time. He touched the gold cross around his neck and left the vagueness of the future to someone who didn’t see it as vague. He knew he should let the past go as well. I’m here…no point in wondering why I’m here. Perhaps someday he would accomplish the amazing feat of letting go, but for now he put the past back in the trunk where he kept his old dreams.

The south wall of his apartment was entirely given over to a computer screen, which in addition to showing the messages he was sorting, displayed a strategic map of inhabited planets, and a tactical map of Bellona-4. He didn’t really need to look at the screen, as the computer read the messages to him one by one in a female voice with just a hint of Asian accent.

Most were congratulatory messages from organizations of all types. Even other criminal syndicates were pleased. They broke the rules to serve a purpose—Havoc broke rules to make a point. “A rule isn’t truly broken until it doesn’t exist anymore,” Hanover once told him. “Lots of people transgress rules, but hardly anyone actually breaks one.”

Hanover intended to break them all. This made other criminals nervous; they’d spent a long time learning to go around the system. But they needed the system to go around. Without it, they’d be just as lost as everyone else.

The messages weren’t strictly social. The leader of a mercenary security agency known as The Rule of Law sent a message requesting permission for his ships to patrol the space controlled by BMC, as part of a larger patrol mission centered on Hathor-3. Havoc Incorporated was known to take out its losses on local shipping, many of whom had contracts with Rule of Law for their defense. BMC had no airspace restrictions; this was just a sign of respect. Joe returned the respect, thanking them for their efforts to increase the security of the systems, and promising ships to assist in the patrols when they were available.

That took care of the formalities, but there was one thing that remained. The leader of Rule of Law, Thomas Ivy, invited him to go fishing the next time he was on Earth. “If you don’t want to fly home with the fish, we’ll just catch and release.” He added. Ah, so were playing that game again, Joe thought to himself, and replied that he would make sure he got down that way as soon as possible.

The next message was from an official at Asguard Technology—the company that built the Marauder fighter, among other ships. He was going to blow past it as junk mail, but it had a max priority rating. Oh it was a sales pitch alright, but a bit more aggressive than the corporate norm.

One of his people was scheduled to go to earth, pick up some parts, and talk to them about buying a few Marauders—there were a few in the group who used them. They wanted that meeting cancelled, and insisted that either Gunsmith or his executive officer meet to discuss a larger purchase. “It is in your best interest to contact us as soon as possible,” the computer read. “Otherwise, you will be taking on more risk than is necessary.” Joe was incredulous…was that a threat? He bookmarked the message, and decided to bounce it off Gunsmith. Odds are he might be able to talk Gunsmith in to letting him kill two birds with one stone. There was no point having them both make the trip back to Earth.

Just before he left, he checked the ship logs, to see if anyone interesting had landed on the planet. The computer knew to flag certain ships. “Well, son of a gun; Mischief’s come to visit,” he said out loud. This had to be trouble. On his way out the door, he grabbed his gun belt. Low at his right side was a double-barrel, over-under pistol; the top barrel fired armor piercing, high velocity bullets, while the bottom was setup for a non-lethal stun ray. When Mischief came to town, you had to be ready for anything.

Chapter 15: Screaming at the Deaf

Grant Hanover was tall and narrow. From his frame to his features to his mindset, he was as narrow as they came. He wouldn’t argue the first two points with you. He’d admit quickly that he was more built for basketball than football. He’d point how his strong but narrow jaw matched his narrow nose—and he’d point out that the ladies found it quite handsome thank you very much. But as for his mind, he thought it was the most flexible thing going.

When asked why he wouldn’t consider other peoples’ opinions, he would state that they were just that—opinions. He had discovered the truth, and the truth trumped all opinion. To be sure, it was possible to make him change his mind. But first he had to consider you his equal intellectually, and then you had to build a case that beat his logically. These two things didn’t happen very often. The last time they occurred together they set him on a path of destruction.

The man known as “The Professor” walked into his residence on Hathor-3 feeling like he’d been dragged backwards through the eye of a needle. The tractor beams that pulled him to safety left his eyes bloodshot and his body bent and sore. He grabbed a glass and got some ice water. Any one of the liquors on his shelf might have seemed more appropriate, but his head was already banging, and drinking in a bad frame of mind only made him feel worse.

He took a quick slug from the glass, and collapsed onto his bed. His residence was isolated from the rest of the Havoc base. It lay underground twenty miles away from the base down a high speed tunnel from the main landing strip. A full mile under the surface of the planet, it could not be approached without the knowledge of the occupant. Palmer had built it that way. He was convinced one of his lieutenants would kill him someday. Pete Palmer wasn’t much of a visionary, but at least he guessed that right.

Pete was pretty lavish with his accoutrements at least. The walls were finished with white marble, and the floors in black. The high ceilings were done in redwood, and matching ceiling fans assisted the climate control system. The Jacuzzi would seat twenty, and in Palmer’s day it would see that many.  Palmer was known to have drowned a few people in it—some for business, and some for pleasure. He was a sadistic fellow to say the least, and his call sign of “Pain” was well earned. He always joked that he picked marble because it was easier to clean up the blood, but he was only half joking. The last blood spilled here was Palmer’s.

Hanover closed his eyes. He hadn’t dwelt on Palmer in a long time. He half hoped he would appear before him, like some modern day Jacob Marley, to give him some kind of guidance about the true nature of death. He considered himself far too enlightened to believe it a possibility, but he pondered the thought anyway. What if Palmer was screaming at him, but he was too deaf spiritually to hear him?

He dismissed the thought. If there was an afterlife, Palmer was too busy having hot coals shoved down his gullet to care what happened to Hanover. And if reincarnation was the plan, he was some parasite that lives only in goat manure.

While the thought was in the process of being dismissed, it prompted him to abandon his earlier wisdom concerning drinking in a bad frame of mind. Hanover got up,  slugged down some vodka, and tried to focus on the present situation.

He had to figure out some way of leading this sorry pack of misfits into battle. It was a sad truth that the vast majority of anarchists were merely uncontrolled hooligans that didn’t want to live with rules or responsibilities. He seemed to be the only one who understood that responsibility and freedom walk hand in hand. With ultimate freedom, comes ultimate responsibility. That was his goal: break down the systems that imprisoned people, and let them live freely together—doing what was right because it was right, not because some leader, or some policeman, or even some god was making you to do the right thing.

This didn't change the fact that he could only attract losers to his cause. True, he joined Havoc as opposed to creating his own organization. It was also true that most of the losers he was stuck leading were here before he was. But he’d been at this a while now; and it wasn’t like there was a shortage of people in the galaxy. Why couldn’t he find some people with his mindset? Batch had potential, but even he needed a lot of coaching to get to Hanover’s level. Didn’t anyone read Nietzsche anymore?

He corrected himself—even Nietzsche was focused on gathering personal power. Joe used to point that out every time…

He slugged down another glass of vodka. He couldn’t believe what an obstacle Joe had become. He figured Joe would spend a few months in the hospital, bury his friends and move on, like a good little engineer. He was right about the hospital time, but the rest he had miscalculated badly. Correction—Palmer had miscalculated when he ordered the Professor to finish him off. One attack he might have gotten away with. But the two taken together forged his old friend into the Black Knight—his nemesis. Perhaps that was Palmer’s plan, he thought, and then dismissed the thought out of turn. Palmer had no such grasp of the human equation.

All this over a stupid initiation ritual; “Prove you can kill—and kill close,” Palmer had said. Eventually I got to show you that up close and personal, Pete.

Joe was just the kind of person he needed, but there was no way Joe would give up on the traditions and structures that made him so comfortable. C’est la guerre; that’s how most people are.

Perhaps I’m simply ahead of my time.

It didn’t matter really. He was here now, and the present would have to deal with him. More specifically he would have to deal with the present. In the present, he would have to harness these thugs, crooks, murders, and any drifter who would sign on to his cause. He would have to accumulate great personal power to achieve his goal, but that was a side effect—just like the destruction he would have to cause to set the human race free. In his mind, the ends more than justified any means. The alcohol drowned out any arguments from the remnants of his conscience, and he was able to focus on the current plan.

And if all went according to plan, The Black Knight and the rest of the Bellona Mining Company would cease to be roadblocks soon enough.

Chapter 16: Knights of the Round Table

Gunsmith listened to Mischief’s story like a father listening as his kid explained the dents in the family car. A representative from Asguard Incorporated had contacted the Orphans about purchasing more ships—a lot more ships—and mentioned “how dangerous life can be for people without the right equipment.” The current leader of the Orphans—a well known maniac known only as Scythe—agreed with the man. A few seconds later, the few scorched bits of the agent that remained were in no position to be comforted by the success of his sales pitch.

Not long afterward, Mischief lost all contact with her sister, Mayhem.

Scythe only ran the orphans because he was the oldest one left. The original leader, Raven, had some sort of breakdown and left to find herself. She was far more resourceful and intelligent than Scythe—almost everyone in the Orphans was. But kids will be kids, and the oldest called dibs and that was that.

Gunsmith rubbed his temples. Years ago he tried to get Raven to disband the Orphans and join BMC. That way the kids wouldn’t have to struggle just to eat, and they could have some proper guidance. This “paid assassins” gig was a dead end. She refused, and now the fruits of that decision were ripe for the picking. After Mischief and Carla left the room, Gunsmith turned to his officers.

“Alright mates, anti-clockwise from me, what do you think? Easy?”

Easy took his hands from behind his head and leaned forward. “Well, it’s obviously some kind of trap. I don’t think the girl realizes she’s a piece of cheese, but that’s what she is.” He turned his head to Dice, who was sitting next to him, prompting her opinion.

“I find it really hard to believe anyone caught Mayhem with her guard down. When I was running chain guns to New Ecuador she was making her money knocking off warlords. First time I saw the girl she was underage in a bar when a bunch of thugs tried to pay her back for taking out their leader. They approached her from behind without saying a word. Three seconds later there were five smoking corpses on the floor.” She turned to the Preacher.

“Mischief said the last time she spoke to Mayhem, she was thinking of buying a big ship and running poppies and stabilizer from New Ecuador out to the processing centers on Janus-5.” Stabilizer was a mix of chemicals and nanotechnology that could purge the body of almost any poison, and repair the damage done. Taken with the more dangerous controlled substances, you could “Get the high and not the die” as the addicts like to say. Because of this nefarious use, it was controlled in similar fashion to prescription drugs—and it was abused about as often.

“If she was running cargo, her freighter would have been vulnerable to pirates. I know her piloting skills are excellent, but an outnumbered freighter is in trouble no matter who is flying. And if she decided to use some of the renegade worm ships that are away from the main trade routes to escape detection, she could easily have been ambushed. I think we could take a look into it without too much danger—see if we can find the wreckage of her ship.” The Preacher turned to The Black Knight for comment.

“I think we’re going to have to do a bit better than that. Based on the message I just got from Asguard, it looks like we're the next client on their call list.”

That got everyone’s attention—especially Gunsmith. “They threatened us?” “They said it would be ‘in our best interest ‘to come down and consider a larger order. It validates her story in a way, but in a way it validates it too well.”

Gunsmith rested his arms on the table and leaned forward. “Then the question is what are we dealing with here? Is Asguard abandoning traditional marketing methods, or is this all part of some larger conspiracy?”

“I’m not sure those are mutually exclusive options.”

“Let’s think of it this way,” Easy chimed in. “If they want to kill us, the easiest way for them to do that is for us to do nothing. We’ll still have no idea what we’re dealing with and they’ll pick us off one at a time. If we play along, and keep our wits about us, we might be able to figure out what’s going on.”

“He’s got a good point.” Knight added. “How about this, Gunsmith; I’ll agree to go down and see them. I’ll see what kind of threats they’re throwing around, and if they can follow through on them. Whisper can back me up if there’s trouble.” Whisper was one of the younger officers, but was arguably the most dangerous in hand to hand combat. She was every bit as dangerous in the cockpit. Best of all, Whisper was already on Earth.

“Actually I was hoping to go have the chit chat with them. They did ask for me after all.” Gunsmith was more than happy to do it to. He’d seen more than his share of rough situations. No one else in the room was going to go for it, but The Black Knight replied first. “That’s what they want. If we give it to them, they’ll probably get cocky and overbearing, and I know how that grinds on your nerves. Besides, Ivy asked if I would like to go fishing sometime soon—a little ‘catch and release.’ I’d hate to disappoint him.” Gunsmith nodded. “I wonder if he knows something about what’s going on with all of this.”

“Or is the Rule of Law is involved somehow.” Dice’s background in smuggling left her a trifle wary of security companies.

Now it was the Black Knight’s turn to lean forward. “If the ‘Lawyers’ are involved, we’d better find out soon. We’ve got too much riding on that relationship.”

Gunsmith looked around the table, and saw consensus in the eyes of his officers. He didn’t need it, but it was a nice luxury. “Alright, we give them a bit of predictable, and throw ‘em a few curves as well. They’ll expect me in their offices; we send Knight with Whisper as a shadow—but make sure you and Whisper do your homework on Asguard. I don’t want you going in there unprepared.” The Black Knight nodded, and Gunsmith continued. “They’ll expect Dice in New Ecuador, and they’ll get her—but Easy is going to work the same side of the street.”

“I can spend all day watching Dice’s back,” Easy added, and received a friendly punch in the shoulder from Dice.

“They’ll expect Preacher in the Janus system, so we’ll send him, and I’ll shadow him.”

The Preacher frowned. “Hey boss, that leaves us without much in the way of command and control back here—plus if any of us need the cavalry, who’s going to ride in?”

Gunsmith rolled his eyes. His officers—and even his regular troops—were so overprotective of him. “You have an alternate suggestion?”

Chapter 17: Trust

“Vehicle approaching, speed: 420km/hr.” The residence computer signaled its warning at an hour that should have woken Hanover out of a deep sleep. But he didn’t sleep very deeply anymore, and almost never at night. Somehow, when that dull red sun rose over the horizon on Hathor-3, he found he could at least sleep fitfully for a few hours. The strange part was, that buried this far down he couldn’t see the sun.

He could count on one finger the people he trusted. His one finger approached at a speed fast enough to make good time, and slow enough so that Hanover wouldn’t get nervous. It really didn’t matter to him in this case, but it was a sign that the young man understood the situation and respected him. Those were rare qualities.

Batch was one of the only ones who seemed to get it—to understand what he was trying to accomplish. In many ways he was much like his estranged brother; intelligent, loyal, and courageous. But Batch was the pragmatic one. Where Batch wanted to change the world, the Preacher wanted to save it.

“Saving the world is the task of the ignorant idealist,” he said out loud. “Changing the world is the work of the visionary. Computer: allow garage and facility access to the approaching visitor.”

He grabbed his gun belt and headed to the elevator. His predecessor had taught him well never to trust completely.

Chapter 18: Cowboy Up!

Sunrise on Bellona-4 found Mischief annoyed with her hair.

The late night makeover was weird enough, if only for the fact that a mining company would keep a hairstylist on twenty-four hour call. She was pleasant enough, and no one could fault her work—except Mischief, who kept her hair wild and random for a reason.

Life was wild and random. Why shouldn’t her hair match?

The concept that she made too good a target to be useful in the search for her sister was a solid one, and so she accepted the even, straight hair and bright blue dye job. She even accepted the nanotech conditioner that would keep it straight and blue for the next several months.

She accepted the white jumpsuit that she was told were all the rage in the Janus system now. She’d used urban camouflage before. The long sleeves covered the tell-tale tattoo that would give her away. Again, what mining company kept clothes for every occasion? How much undercover work did BMC do?

She did worry a bit about how this was playing out.

She expected them not to believe her. At best she’d expected them to put her in some kind of holding room while they checked things out. She had a good many ideas ready on how to break out of said room.

She did not expect them to give her a ship and a bodyguard.

Mischief stood in the apartment they had given her, looking out at the landing pad. She was near the top of one of the domes, and had an excellent view. Either that, or she was in the pit of one of the mines, and her video screens provided an excellent view anyway.

Several fighters were being prepared for takeoff, and one of them was hers. It was considered too risky for her to fly her Marauder, which they parked in a closed storage area. But they gave her all the access codes in case she needed to get to it.

Across from the fighters she saw what looked like some kind of tank being loaded into an armored light freighter. The ship looked like a triple-size version of the Griffin, though it was a much older design. You could tell it had seen a lot of action over the years. It was classified as “light” in comparison to the mile long super-freighters, and even the normal thousand foot-cargo carriers. Mischief knew from experience that particular class was heavily gunned and armored, and anything but light.

The armored vehicle being loaded was shaped like a wedge with six huge wheels. Four panels suddenly dropped open, revealing a turret with three heavy energy cannons—the same as the ones used on the fighters. The turret spun through three hundred and sixty degrees and the panels popped back up, enclosing it in the wedge form once more. She guessed from the flat black paint job that it was The Black Knight’s ride. I’d heard he was an engineer once. He must have cobbled that up from spare parts. But it didn’t look cobbled. It looked deadly and indestructible. She’d never seen anything else like it. A heavily customized armored truck with a stainless steel finish rolled up in front of the tank, in position to be loaded as well.

Next, a large flying wing rolled out of the hanger—another freighter, this one built by Asguard. Older than the first freighter, its lines mimicked her Marauder.

They were really throwing everything they had into this. The truck and the tank was probably part of a contingency plan for a rescue operation. And they were treating her—a criminal—as if she were part of the team.

She shook her head. Either they were geniuses, and she couldn’t figure out their logic (yet), or they were dunces, who just believed whatever they were told. Of course, there was the third possibility that they were completely insane.

She smiled a bit, and hoped it was either the first or last possibility; she was comfortable with geniuses and crazies.

Chapter 19: Rebels and Lawyers

As the Black Knight walked with the Gunsmith towards the old flying wing, he decided this was another excellent time to express his concerns. “Are you sure this is a good time to fly out to Hathor-3? It’s not like they’re in the best of moods out there.”

“This is why you get to deal with the Lawyers all the time,” the Gunsmith replied. When the Black Knight didn’t laugh, Gunsmith matched his serious demeanor. “Havoc is not expecting me, and I’ll be flying a freighter full of tobacco. It’s common courtesy to offer smugglers some privacy. I’ve got that big old green suit of armor in there. They’ll never see my face or give me a second look.”

The Black Knight nodded and tried to change the subject. “How’s the Smoketown Express running anyway? I haven’t seen her out in ages.”

“Butch gave her the once-over twice. I’m taking it out to New Ecuador to load up, so I’ll have plenty of shakedown time before I head to Hathor-3.” The two men stopped before the massive ship. “Ok,” the Black Knight finally said. “Send Exile my best.”

“Cheers, Mate,” the Gunsmith replied, as he climbed into the ancient freighter.

Chapter 20: Fishing Expedition

“So, we’re getting some tugs on the line?” Hanover said, with some pleasure. Batch nodded. The word from their contacts had come through: the Black Knight was going to Earth to meet with Asguard Technology. “It’s too bad we couldn’t catch Gunsmith, but this is almost as good.”

Hanover turned and raised an eyebrow at Batch. “Oh young boy, do you think we’re fishing for tuna?”

Batch looked at him confused. “I’m…sorry?”

“We’ll catch the big fish with the nets later. There was no way they would let their precious Gunsmith walk into such an obvious trap.” Hanover explained. “So the plan was always to get the Black Knight…” Batch continued. Hanover shook his head. “Oh I doubt they’ll get him. They may think they can kill Joe, but I doubt he’ll let me down like that. It would destroy the whole point of the exercise.”

Batch just shook his head. “Professor, I’m a bit lost here. What is the point of the exercise?” The Professor slapped his hand on Batch’s shoulder, grinning ear to ear. “In due time son; just watch as the play unfolds.” The Professor raised an eyebrow and looked at Batch. “Better yet, let’s get you into wardrobe and give you some lines. Head back to base, and get some ships ready…I’d say about four. That will take care of you, me, Ice Pick, and the Slouch.” Batch nodded, and headed off to ready the ships and the men.

He still had no idea what the Professor was planning, but he knew better than to test his patience.

Chapter 21: Return of the Serpent

The Black Knight let his fighter fade away into transparency. Behind him was one of seven worm-ships that led to the Earth Security Corridor. The Corridor was just a region of space outside the solar system, where Earth Defense Forces could examine any inbound ships for contraband or hostile intent. The battleship EDF Vigilant was positioned near the end of the corridor, and EDF fighter patrols operated from its docking bay.

It was a great concept, but the Vigilant and its fighters were never up to the task. The Vigilant was little more than a thick-walled, floating bunker that housed the controls for three unmanned worm-ships that led to earth orbit. There was an excellent reason they were unmanned; each contained a nuclear weapon that would destroy the worm ship if an invasion were to take place. Each bomb could be detonated by the crew of the Vigilant, or would detonate automatically in case of the battleship’s destruction. The Vigilant was so poorly armed that its survival usually depended on the fact that it held the keys to Earth.

The fighters were perfect short range patrol ships—as long as you didn’t have to fight anything. Ironically named “Sentinel,” the grand name of the ship belied its true character. Behind the long, steeply raked cockpit was a small fusion generator and main engine. A pair of tubes extended the length of the ship, mounted side by side on the bottom of the fuselage. On the left was an advanced scanner pod, which could determine the contents of almost any cargo bay, shielded or unshielded. On the right was a single laser cannon.  The scanners were highly valued, and until the EDF released the technology for general consumption, it was common for pirates to hunt the small ships to try and salvage the scanner.

The weakness of the fighters and their base ship—combined with the EDF’s limited mandate to defend the Earth side worm-ships, led to rampant piracy along the “Earth Insecurity Corridor” as it came to be known. Pirates were especially known to strike from behind the worm-ships that were the entrance to the corridor for Earth bound travelers and the exit for those outbound.

His ship at full battle readiness, The Black Knight entered the corridor to find it busy with activity. To his left he could see a supercargo ship easily a mile long exiting the adjacent worm-ship portal. It looked like a bizarre magic trick, as the ship seemed to appear out of nowhere. In fact it was a much better trick, as the crew of the ship was still light years away, on the other side of the portal. Sentinels were buzzing around it, checking and recording every square inch with their scanners. Four Griffins, similar to the one The Black Knight flew, but painted in the deep blue livery of the security company known as the Rule of Law, blazed through the opening at high speed and took up a position ahead of the cargo ship.

“Incoming fighter, identify yourself and your destination,” the lead fighter hailed. The Black Knight recognized the voice immediately. “This is Bellona-42402 piloted by the Black Knight; destination Earth. Is that Ajax I hear?”

“Hey Knight; I thought you flew Bellona 42401. You didn’t get popped in that last battle did you?” Knight laughed. “No, but her nose is a bit sore. ‘401 is getting a break while the techs perform some rhinoplasty.”  “Well, I’m glad to hear you brought her home. Speaking of which, would you mind running point for us as we bring this beast in?” “No problem, Ajax. I’ll keep an eye open for …” an alarm went off in the cabin.

“Alert! Hot ships inbound!” The Black Knight punched his engines to maximum power. No fewer than seven SF-39 Marauders entered the corridor at high speed. They shot past his Griffin, and headed straight for the cargo ship.

“Inbound ships. Reduce speed and identify yourselves.” Ajax called. No response. “Identify or be destroyed!” he repeated. There was still no response. The swarm of sentinels scattered.

“Perhaps we’re not being clear with our intentions.” The Black Knight signaled, as he pulled onto their tails. He fired a volley of energy blasts in front of the lead ship. It flinched down and to the right—and the other ships followed in unison.

Don’t tell me it’s the serpent formation, the Black Knight thought, as he dove to follow them. All the Havoc pilots should still be recovering from the battle…

“Safety-two,” Ajax ordered. Two of his fighters dropped back to defend the cargo ship. The other automatically formed on his wing. “Final warning: stand down or be destroyed!” He called to the aggressors, as he threw his ship into a hard dive. The pirates had the momentum to get around him, and the lead pilot cracked the whip. They snapped around and came up behind Ajax, with the Black Knight hot on their tail.

“Alright gang; playtime’s over.” Knight called out. He had no time to wear down their shields, but the Black Knight saw fit to mount a machine gun on each wing. The high velocity, non-magnetic rounds cared not a whit if the shield was up or not. The lead ship crumpled like a wounded bird as the armor piercing bullets tore through its hull. The escape pod kicked away just before the ship blew up. In the blink of an eye the Black Knight snapped open his ship's cargo bay, and activated the tractor beam. This fool would have some explaining to do.

Meanwhile the other ships broke off left and right into two groups of three. “I’ll go left!” the Black Knight called. “I’ve got right!” Ajax responded, as he and his wingman rushed to close the distance. The ships tried to snap back around on the Black Knight, and he slid his ship left and right to stay behind them. It was very much like holding a cobra by the tail, while trying to avoid a deadly bite. Well, this worked before… He let go of the tail and aimed straight for the head. He threw his ship into a hard barrel roll, as he opened up with every weapon at his disposal, and dumped mines in the path of the oncoming ships. The Marauders blasted past him, bleeding plasma from a dozen fresh openings, only to be completely blown apart by the mines.

Time to check on the other side of the battle. Ajax and his wing man had clipped the tail of their serpent—and its escape pod was nestled in Ajax’s cargo bay. But the young wing man couldn’t keep up with the twisting ships, and had fallen behind. Ajax kept sniping at the ship in front of him. “Shields down…come on you lousy….” And he put a full volley into the main engine.

As he tried to dodge the crippled ship, a piece of the torn hull ripped through his port wing, venting plasma into space, and killing his port thruster. The last fighter headed straight for its target, totally ignoring the two Rule of Law fighters in its way. Now it was in missile range of the cargo ship.

The two Rule of Law ships opened up with everything they had, blowing the ship to smithereens, but not before the pirate fired a trio of Haymaker missiles. At maximum power and then some, the Black Knight rocketed past the two defenders. Interceptor missiles streaked from their launcher beneath the Griffin's belly. One by one the Haymakers exploded as the interceptors plunged into them. The last Haymaker was nearly upon its target and the blast caused the gigantic ship to list sharply.

The Black Knight threw full power to the thrusters, and skimmed under the bottom of the gigantic freighter. He looped back up over the top, and headed back to check on Ajax and his men. “Hey, is anybody hurt?” the Black Knight called out. “My wing is damaged, but I can make it back. My men are fine, but it looks like only three of the fools ejected.” The Black Knight’s stomach turned sour. “Well, we didn’t ask them to attack.” he offered.

Suddenly, his radar lit up with ten Rule of Law fighters inbound. “All non-Rule of Law fighters will power down weapons and surrender immediately.” The Black Knight recognized that voice as quickly as he did Ajax's: Commodore Dwight “Singer” Singleton. Singer was at the same rank level as the Black Knight, though there were multiple commodores in the Rule of Law. “It’s cool, Singer. We got ‘em all.” The Black Knight replied. An alarm beeped as several missile radars acquired him. “You will power down your weapons, and submit your ship for inspection at the nearest base or be destroyed.” “Are you out of your mind, Singer? That’s the Black Knight!” Ajax interjected. Ajax was so well respected that he could get away with a bit of insubordination every so often. “I have my orders from Admiral Ivy! And they will be followed!”

The Black Knight shut down his weapons. Once again, the Lawyers were living up to their nickname. “Alright, Dwight; lead the way.”

The excitement of the day was still the exception for space travel, and now the Black Knight faced one of the the space traveler’s worst enemies—boredom. He had an hour or so to kill before they reached their destination: the Rule of Law battleship Sun Tzu.  He was half tempted to load a video to watch, or at least check the diplomatic boards, when his com channel activated again.

“Black Knight, this is Singer. I need you to run a scan on our ships. Focus on life signs.” The Black Knight started the scan. “No problem, Singer.” He was ready to report that the scanner readings indicated that Dwight needed to get a life. But something else caught his attention. “Singer, I’m not showing any life signs in the escape pods we picked up.”

“When we checked your ship we got the same readings, so we decided to check Ajax. Our ships are programmed such that the interior cargo bay doors can’t be opened unless we’re docked, so we can’t investigate.”

He ran a scan of his own ship—not only for life signs, but for potential and kinetic energy sources. If he was carrying a bomb, he wanted to know right now. The scan showed clear.

So, you bring me in for questioning, and now you want a favor, he thought to himself. If it wasn’t a life or death situation, he would have told him get out a cutting torch. “I’ll lock my guidance systems on to your ship and check it out,” he replied instead.

His seat folded away into the floor, revealing a passenger section as empty as it was cramped. At the back was the cockpit access door to the cargo bay. He cycled some air into the cargo bay and entered.

The cargo bay on a Griffin wasn’t much to write home about, but it could hold a few escape pods. This was especially true of Marauder escape pods, which were a neat trick of engineering. The interior walls of the fighter closed around the pilot to form a silvery sarcophagus, with an access panel to display life signs or open the pod. In theory the pilot could extract himself from it, but usually the pilots were in no shape to do so for a while after a good, brisk ride from a tractor beam.

The Black Knight knelt down and activated the panel. It read no life signs. It could have been damaged in the battle, but he doubted it. Perhaps the occupant had some rare disorder that made him susceptible to death from high G’s? Or, though this didn’t happen often with the Marauder pods, it was possible to have your head and neck broken or crushed if you happened to be in the wrong position when they closed around you.

Preparing himself for what could be a fight if the reading was wrong—and for what he would see if the reading was right, he activated the opening sequence.

After all that preparation, what he saw was both a relief and a mystery. “Singer, this pod is empty.” There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line. “Roger that, Knight; we’ll discuss your findings on the Sun Tzu.” The Black Knight shook his head. I bet we will.

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