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Bait and Switch

Sabrina Trent sat in the pub on Titan Station in front of the wide window and watched as Jupiter came back into view. She lifted an ice-cold glass to her blood-red lips and felt the alcohol burn its way down her throat. Her bright eyes were lost in thought as she waited. She pondered where she was- far from New London- and how she ended up there. She didn’t resent Denys; in fact, she thanked him. He was the catalyst for so many things that night, now months past. He brought a wry smile to her face. She had followed his exploits- not that he was ever identified, but she knew him better than anyone and could sense his hand in things.

While it could not be said that she followed in his footsteps, he had given her the courage to escape the same gilded cage they both resented so much. She smiled wryly out the window before turning at the sound of footsteps behind her.

It was a tall, overweight man, with greasy hair. The pistol protruding obviously from his too-tight belt announced him as an enforcer for one of the gangs here on Titan Station. His beady eyes fixed on her and he wet his lips. She suppressed a shutter; the clothes were made to impress. While they showed little skin, her form was adequately highlighted. She wore a long pea coat that buttoned up tight over her ample bust, but split wide above her waist, showcasing her long legs. She gestured seductively for him to sit down, even as a lump rose in her throat, even though she had done this before.

“Are you Sabrina?” he asked redundantly. She ignored it and smiled demurely and sipped her drink, staring at him as wide-eyed as she could manage. The look had its effect, and he licked his lips again and placed a hand on her leg with false casual manner. He just let it sit there, and Sabrina had to fight to not roll her eyes at him.

She knew his drink and had one on order to arrive shortly after he did. The bartender brought it over, and Sabrina gave him a smile, while her customer ignored him and gulped his drink. She sighed; this could not end fast enough.

He barely made an attempt at small talk, returning her efforts with stares and the occasional movement of his limp hand. She sighed, softly and to herself, and of course he didn’t notice. She smiled at him; it took far longer then it should have to get his attention.

“Shall we?”

He licked his lips again. She stood and took his hand with hers and led him out of the bar. Her tab was paid in advance by her employer. The bartender nodded to her as they walked out.

Sabrina had rented a small space not far from the bar. It was far from high-class, but that was not what was important. The walls were the rust-orange of Titan Station and the bed that sat in the corner certainly invited no romance. It mattered little, for he was clearly not interested in romance. He licked his lips one last time, and came in close to her. He smelled of dirty sweat and some awful cologne. Her face slowly split into a grin as he unbuttoned the pea coat.

He clearly didn’t expect what he saw as it fell open. A corset fit snug around her stomach, thin fabric covering her breasts. What sent him staggering back, however, was the brace of knives around her midsection. In a flash, one was in each hand as she closed the short distance between them.

He reached for the pistol with his right hand, but she plunged a knife into his wrist. He screamed in pain and doubled over. She brought her knee up sharply into his chin, sending him reeling backwards.

His beady eyes looked frantically at her for some explanation. In truth, she had none. It was a job, simply of a different nature than he had expected. Her instructions were to make a mess, ostensibly to send a message of some kind, and she had been well compensated to do so.

He offered little resistance now as she held his head back and plunged a knife into his overflowing gut, its contents spilling on the dingy floor. She moved deftly behind him to avoid the mess as he whimpered pitifully and reached around his neck with a knife in her palm and silenced him.

The room was quiet again and she glanced around before she left. She was long over the effects of the gore that splattered the walls and floor. She exited quickly without anyone seeing her.

It was a job well done.

Of Sabrina (Epilogue)

Sabrina changed swiftly, this time into more comfortable clothes, tight and form fitting that allowed for easy movement. She grabbed the small bag she had prepared from the closet and walked out of the bedroom for the last time. Her footsteps rang hollow on the marble as she crossed to the study one more time.

She regarded her former husband with detached bemusement. Denys timely arrival had saved her from the severely unpleasant task of dispatching him as she had been prepared to do.

He had also served as a catalyst to her. He had manufactured his own second chance at life; she intended to do the same. If he could disappear and erase almost every trace of his former life, so could she.

She didn’t see him walk away from the house as she walked out the back of the house.

Behind her, the music died and she did not look back.

Le Deformes Perverse Imitata

Sabrina Trent was busy preparing for another one of her husbands dinner parties. As a Lord of the British Empire, he was expected to entertain often and for his part, he reveled in the attention.

“Sabrina!” his voice boomed from downstairs of the mansion. She rolled her eyes in frustration and made a final adjustment to her dress, short and white, with a large black bow just below the breast. She looked in the mirror and sighed before painting a smile on her face. She was young, in her mid-twenties- significantly younger than her husband- but it was a political marriage, not a romantic one. Nevertheless, she was beautiful; pale skin contrasting her pitch-black hair and pale blue eyes.

She descended the winding marble staircase with the grace that was expected of her as the first guests were arriving. She greeted the couple, both of whom were some manner of legal consultants to the Lord Trent, with an eagerness she did not feel. She made sure they were situated with wine in the sitting room, giving her an excuse to have a glass as she returned to the foyer to greet the other guests. Soon most of the guests had arrived and she socialized with them in the sitting room, doing her best to enjoy their company.

Lord Trent came in, bringing with him a black clad guest, apparently without an escort. Lady Trent froze as she saw him, seeing a specter from her past.

His shirt buttoned at an angle, the bright silver buttons reflecting the light, and its high collar surrounded his slender neck. He had a strong chin, covered in well-trimmed stubble while atop his head was reddish-brown hair that appeared both elegant and disheveled. He was unlike the other guests, in their perfectly posh attire, yet seemed entirely comfortable. Perhaps most enchanting were the steel gray-blue eyes with with which he surveyed the other guests. They were keenly aware, yet his expression was of casual disinterest.

As those eyes drifted to her, she began to return to herself and she met his eyes, though they betrayed not a hint of recognition. He gave her a charming smile as she stepped toward him, still in entranced when her husband spoke, ignorant to the moment that had now passed.

“Dear, have you met Professor Pierce? He is the new professor of archeology at the University.”

“I haven’t had the pleasure,” she said, slowly coming out of the trance.

“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you,” Pierce replied, bowing to kiss her hand, his eyes never leaving hers.

“You do look terribly familiar,” she said formally as he straightened. “Do I know you from before?” She chose her words carefully, attempting to draw him out.

“I don’t believe you know me,” he said pointedly, and the conversation ended there as she was summoned away by another guest.

Dinner was soon served and Sabrina was seated at the foot of the table, with Pierce to her right. He was charming to all the other guests, easily engaging them in conversation. She studied him throughout dinner, attempting to rectify him with the impossible.

He was sipping his wine when Lord Trent addressed him in a bombastic tone. “Enjoying the wine, Pierce?”

Pierce did not look at him directly, instead swallowing patiently, and dabbing his lips with a napkin before replying, just as Trent began to signal him impatience. He was not used to being ignored.

“I am, thank you. Vintage three thousand, if I’m not mistaken?”

“You know your wine, Pierce.” He could not help but be impressed. “They must pay professors more than I imagined.”

Pierce smiled knowingly, glancing at Sabrina as he did so. “The ninety-eight was better.”

Trent was clearly stifled. “It was quite good,” he agreed, and changed the subject. “We were hoping the Empress could join us this evening,” he boasted.

Sabrina, watching Pierce closely, noticed he swallowed quickly, but it was missed by the Lord Trent.

“Does the Empress dine with you frequently?” he asked in a casual tone, examining the color of his wine..

“I would not say often, but she has graced us.” The trace of resentment was not lost on Pierce or the other dinner guests.

“It would have been an honor to meet her.”

Trent gave a grunt and his wife gave him a stern look. She was as politically conscious as he, and there were staunch supporters of Empress Matilda, and word would reach her ears if her husband expressed his disdain too strongly.

“Are you much for politics, Pierce?” Trent continued.

The knowing smile returned. “I spend most of my days in the past. It leaves sadly little time for the present.”

“I would imagine so. I have what I fancy to be an exquisite collection of antiquities.”

“Is that a fact? I would be honored to see them.”

“It is. I recently bought an ancient pocket-watch, over a thousand years old, exquisite craftsmanship. It still works.”

“A piece like that is valuable indeed.” Pierce had returned to examining his wine, holding it to the light and swirling it in the glass. “Possibly unique in the whole of the galaxy.”

Trent leaned back smugly at the compliment. He had, after all, been fishing for a way to show his superiority over the young professor. He now shifted the conversation elsewhere, speaking with the lawyers seated nearer him.

Pierce reclined in the high-backed chair, picked up his glass again and watched the conversation for a moment until he was assured everyone was absorbed in it. He met her eyes for a moment, smiled and winked, then turned back to the conversation at hand, listening without expression, his interest in his wine apparently gone.

The evening drew to a close without her having opportunity to speak with him, much less in private. Her heart was in her throat when she looked at him, and she bore the burden physically, her shoulders tense and sore. She knew it was him now; his name sat tattooed on her lips, aching to escape. She hadn’t said his name in years, now it was the only word her mind could conjure.

As she said goodbye to the departing guests, increasingly insane scenarios ran through her mind as she contrived to get him alone. None came to pass, as he walked out the large front door into the cool night air with a formal goodbye.

She said nothing to her husband, who went to his study while she to the bedroom to change. She sat alone for a long while, a tumult of emotions. She had recognized him, she knew it. Her heart felt tied in knots, and her throat was tight. She pulled on a chemise to sleep in and pondered what to do. He was in New London, the University only kilometers away. Hours ticked away as she sat pondering.

She walked out of the bedroom onto the balcony, open to the foyer, and could see the light in the study opposite and could hear faint noises from within. She crossed to it and pushed open the large wooden door to see the Lord Trent in his chair, a gaping black hole in his chest. His fat mouth was slightly agape his eyes were still wide with terror.

She felt blood drain from her face, not due to her despised husband, but because of the black clad figure who faced the wood and glass cabinet on the far wall, with his back to her.

“Denys,” she breathed, and saw his back stiffen, and noticed the two holstered pistols that had been added to his waist. “Denys.” In spite of herself, a single tear rolled down her cheek.

“That is not my name.” He didn’t turn around.

“Is Pierce?” she snapped. He said nothing, busying himself with his object, a locked case on a middle shelf.

“Are you going to kill me as well?” she asked with a sidelong look to her husbands corpse. She shuddered.

“You know the answer to that, Sabrina,” he said softly as he turned. “I wouldn’t have come if I had known you had married this insufferable cad.”

“What was I to do, Denys? You left. Denys, you left me.” The tears flowed freely now. She made no effort to wipe them away. “Damn the rest, Denys, why did you leave me?” He crossed to her and she fell into his arms and he enveloped her.

“You know what they would have made of me. I could never do that.” He ran his fingers through her hair, the way he used to. “Not even for you.”

“Is this what you want?” she slipped from his arms and grabbed the watch from his hand, holding it in front of his face. “Is this all you are? A thief?”

“I may be a thief,” he snapped, “but I am an honest one. Not like these hypocrites who hide behind plastic smiles and hollow promises.” He nodded to the corpse in the chair and grabbed the watch back.

“I don’t care about your trinkets anymore, Denys. You left me with nothing once. Now you’ve done it again. Just go.” She backed from him and pointed out the door.

He obeyed and walked to the open study door. He stopped as he drew near to her and taking a step to her, he wrapped an arm around her and kissed her. She returned the kiss; not trembling as she had for their first kiss, but full of passion and feeling. She knew she loved him; she always had, but had assumed he had forgotten her in the years he had been gone.

He broke the embrace and walked out the door. She followed him to the top of the stairs and watched him decent, his soft footfalls making no sound. She walked to her bedroom as he exited the front door. Sitting on her nightstand was an ancient music player which he had recovered for her and repaired. It had taken him nearly a year to rebuild it. She never told her husband where it came from and she rarely used it, but now she lifted the lid and moved the arm in place, the circular record he had replicated still sitting within.

The melancholy violin echoed through the house and out the open door. Digger paused on the marble steps for a moment to listen. He bowed his head for a moment, hearing himself play from years before. He reached in the slim pocket of his shirt and withdrew a small case of toothpicks. He rolled one around in his mouth for a moment, soaking the music in, then walked down the steps and away from the mansion.

When the music stopped a few minutes later, no one remained in the house to hear.

The Crucible, part 2: Dances With Ghosts

The moon of Cadiz loomed large in front of the small spacecraft, and Badger surveyed the surface with a wary eye.  The moon was superimposed on the planet, a blue and green sphere hanging in space.  He watched as the moon rotated, the mining base coming into sight as he approached it.

He descended, piloting his fighter into one of the docking bays, where he was met by Mondego, who greeted him warmly.

“Welcome, my friend.  How does it feel to be a free man?”

“I don’t know yet,” he replied, smiling and stretching.  “Right now, I am a stiff man.  I take it your revolution went well?”

Mondegos face clouded.  “Sadly, no.  Aznar is dead, and while I am glad he has paid for his crimes, his son has seized power.  We attempted to storm the palace while you were in transit, but he was ready for us.  We paid dearly.”

“Sorry to hear that.  What is our next move?”

Mondego shook his head.  “This is not your fight.  You are free; you should live free.”

Badger shrugged.  “The way I see it, I owe you my life.  You gave me my freedom, the least I can do is help you get yours.”

Mondego, though still troubled, smiled.  “Thank you, my friend.  Come inside, get settled and we can discuss our plans.”

* * *

The mining base was visually unremarkable, its industrial appearance reflecting its purpose and the lack of interest from the governor in improving his workers lives.  Mondego situated Badger with some small living quarters, which suited him, having no possessions to speak of and being used to cramped living conditions.

The rebels had a makeshift command center set up, and they went there next.  There was a map of Cadiz city, showing gun emplacements, locations of missile launchers and patrol routes.

“Seems heavily guarded,” observed Badger.

“It is.  Aznar was paranoid, and he wanted to show his power.  This is the result.  I am sad to say his son has followed in his footsteps.”

“What is your goal?” Badger asked.  “If you don’t have the backing of Spain, what do you hope to accomplish?”

Mondego shook his head.  “I want to sever the head.  We must topple the entire government here.  If we do that, Spain will have to negotiate with us.  They will not invade their own planet.”

“How do you propose to do that?”

“We will destroy the governors palace, and what is left of the Azrnar tyranny with it.”

“I see.  What’s this?” Badger indicated a massive reinforced bunker near the palace.

“That is is the walker hangar.”


“Walking tanks.  He has two six-legged ones, each carries up to a hundred troops, and several smaller bi-pedal ones.  Those he sends out on patrols to intimidate the citizens.”

Badger shook his head.  “Can we get in there?”

“Unlikely.  It is guarded.”

“If we could capture one, it would help.  Can we draw them out.”

“That is possible.  We have several mining rovers we have modified to serve as tanks we could deploy to the surface.”

“We can deploy them here-” he indicated the hilly area to the north of the city- “and draw them to those tanks.  I will take my ship and keep the smaller ones off your back; take a small team and get aboard that walker.  From there, you can get to the palace with nothing in your way.”

Mondego smiled.  “You have a gift for strategy.”

“I better, after fighting for years.”

* * *

A few days passed as preparations were made and details of the assault were planned out.  The tanks were completed, half-tracks with mining lasers mounted on top of them and armor plating welded on.

Badger was busy, as well.  He worked with Greaser on his ship, making more room in the bomb bays again and tuning the atmospheric maneuvering flaps.  He helped the rebels with their modifications, and found himself at home among them.  He and Mondego spent the little free time together, and came to be good friends in the course of a few days.

The final evening before the assault they were playing at cards in Mondegos quarters, and he noticed the hologram of a woman sitting on the table.

“Who is she?” he asked, examining it closely.  The woman was young, maybe twenty years old, a vision of Spanish beauty with wide eyes and cascading black hair.  Her demure smile was intoxicating, and her eyes shone with an inner fire.

Mondego was silent for a moment, and Badger could see he was struggling with emotion.
“She was,” he began steadily, “She was to be my wife.  She was killed four months ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“As am I.  She was the best of us.  She had a beautiful purity to her, in spite of all this madness.  It never corrupted her, and I adored her for it.  Yet she perishes.  The galaxy is not a fair place, my friend, as you well know.”  He gave Badger a wry smile.

“I suppose I do.  Doesn’t make it any more pleasant.”

“It does not.”  Mondego finished his drink.  “Well, it is time,” he observed.  “Are you ready?”  Badger nodded.  “Then let’s be off.  You can still leave if you wish.”

“Where would I go?  This is the closest to a home as I’ve had.”

Mondego brightened.  “I am happy to hear that.”  They stood, and Mondego departed for the shuttle, while Badger went to his ship.  He was to leave an hour after Mondego, allowing time for his team to get in place and the tanks to be deployed.  He gave the fighter a once-over again before climbing in the cockpit.  He took off and orbited the moon once, waiting for a signal from below.  He didn’t have to wait long; they were in position and the enemy was advancing, with all the walkers headed directly for them.

He hit the atmosphere, and the cockpit glowed red as he plummeted through the atmosphere.  Through the flames, he saw- and felt- something shoot past him, rising rapidly.  He steadied his ship in time to see another shoot by him.  He leveled out, and through the clearing cockpit, he saw the unmistakable smoke plumes from missiles, with four more rising from underground launch sites. He looked up to see them receding, headed directly for the mining base on the moon.

He changed course, rocketing after the first two missiles, guns blazing.  Mondego was calling him on the radio.

“We need some support, Badger.”

“They are sending missiles at the base, Mondego.  I can splash them, but I need some time.”

There was silence as Mondego pondered it for a moment.  Badger was halfway to the moon and took out the first missile, and could hear the sounds of battle over the radio.

“The moon is lost,” said Mondego.  “If we fail here, they will destroy it anyway.”  Badger didn’t wait; he flipped his ship around, firing at the missiles he past and was able to destroy another.  The other four flew on, plunging into the mine shaft behind him.  He saw the glow of the explosions briefly before the cockpit flared red again as he plunged towards the planets surface.

He leveled out outside of the city, and could see the walkers engaging the rebel tanks, two of which were already smoking ruins.  He caught a glimpse of Mondegos team attempting to get aboard one of the walkers, appearing tiny next to the monstrosity.  He set his sights on the other one, locking on and opening the bay doors.  Inside were six missiles, and two fell for a split second before their engines ignited, propelling them straight into the walker.  They exploded in a shower of flame and shrapnel, but the walker pressed on.

Badger circled the battlefield, lining up another shot, when the smaller walkers began to fire at him.  He changed targets to lock onto the one nearest him and let a missile fly.  It contacted the cockpit directly, and it exploded, legs falling in either direction.  The others let missiles fly at him, and he had to work to stay ahead of them.  He hugged the ground, weaving between the walkers.  He managed to turn sharply and get one of the missiles to hit a walker in the side, sending it to the ground.  He pulled straight up as they launched another salvo at him.  He gained altitude quickly, missiles right behind him, and more closing.  At the edge of the atmosphere, he turned back, accelerating towards the ground.

The heat was more than the missiles could take, and they exploded in his wake.  The ones at a lower altitude reversed their course to follow him.  He ignored them, and lined up his shot at the large walker.  He fired his missile at the cockpit.  He pulled up at the last possible second, warheads detonating around him.  The trailing missiles were caught in it, exploding behind him.

By that time, Mondego had gained control of the other walker, and was turning towards the city.  Another tank had perished, and the remaining ones engaged the walkers as best they could.  As they drew near the city, the radar showed a flight of fighters headed towards them.

“We have incoming,” he warned Mondego.  “I will try to keep them busy.”

They were the same type of tri-wing fighters he had seen at the Crucible, but this time there was ten of them.  He sped off to engage them as far from the walker as possible, firing as soon as he was in range.  A missile claimed one; his laser fire another.  They returned fire, and his spiraled through it as best he could, but still took some damage.  He flew past them, and they continued on towards their target as he circled back around.

He approached them from the rear and slightly to one side, opening up on the rear of the delta formation.  Two fighters broke off to counter his threat, circling around, but he stayed with the body of the formation, down another fighter before he was forced to engage his antagonists.  They drew closer to the captured walker, pouring fire into it.  It returned fire with its cannons, but it was easily evaded.

Two fighters pursued him, and he changed direction sharply to address them.  He let two more missiles fly, one destroying its target, the other inflicting severe damage.  The walker was now in the city, the building offering some protection from the sky as it lumbered towards its destination.  It didn’t stop the Spaniards from trying, though, and pieces of buildings rained down as laserfire sliced through them.

Badger came roaring up from behind the remaining fighters, and this time they were more prepared, instantly taking evasive action.  He let two more missiles fly, one missed completely and smashed into the side of a tall building and it crumbled and fell to the ground.  The second missile found its mark, detonating just below the cockpit of the tri-wing, sending the vertical wing spiraling to the ground, while the pilot tried to stabilize what was left of his craft.  He was unsuccessful, and after a series of drunken maneuvers, it crashed to the ground, tumbling down a city street, smashing into buildings until it finally slid to a halt against one.

Four fighters remained; they split into two groups.  He stayed with the pair closest to him as the other to split off and gained altitude.  He fired a missile at each and painted the area with laser fire, sending both fighters to the ground before they could even react to the holocaust. The final two had lined up and were now diving at the walker, firing with everything they had.  The armor had to be thick, for it was not penetrated, though it showed scars from the sheer amount of fire, and smoke poured from the rear.

His final two missiles flew towards the fighters, both hitting the same fighter, catching it broadside in the wings and engines.  It exploded spectacularly; all that remained were two wings, fractured and frayed, and they spun slowly to the ground below.

Meanwhile, the last remaining fighter pulled up to line up another attack run.  Badger followed him, climbing as fast as possible.  The airframe shook with the exertion; it had taken a fair amount of damage, but he got behind the enemy fighter, looping down into tailing position.  It weaved in a short pattern, staying locked onto the walker below, which was crossing into the large courtyard of the palace.  Laserfire flew from each ship, some finding its mark, some missing.  The fighter began to smoke as Badger found his mark, it spiraled by design and he lost it again.  They screamed toward the ground, and Badger finally had a clear shot at the engines of the Spanish tri-wing.  He squeezed the trigger, and the heavy cannons answered, glowing lasers drawing a line to the enemy ship, followed by a flash as the engines tore apart.  The wrecked frame sped to the earth, lined up perfectly with the walker.  It slammed into the body of the walker with tremendous violence, flattening it and sending shrapnel skyward in a fantastic explosion.

Badger pulled up and circled the smoking ruin a couple time before finding a clear area to land in.  Rancid smoke filled the air, and he crept forward with the pistol Mondego had given him drawn and ready.  Nothing moved, save for the flickering flames.  Pieces of metal were embedded in the ground and jutted out at crude angles.  The boxy cockpit of the walker had been severed and thrown forward, and he approached it with an unfamiliar apprehension in his throat.

On the far side, he found Mondego, who had crawled out somehow.  Blood was dripping down the right side of his face from a gash at his hairline, and several bones were clearly broken.  He gave Badger a wry smile when he saw him, coughing up blood as he did so.

“Well, my friend, we made it.” He attempted to gesture to the palace building, meters away, with his broken arm.

Badger looked at the building without expression.  “Let’s get you out of here.  It’s over.”

Mondego shook his head.  “I must finish what we started.  For my friends.  For Cadiz.  For Magdelena.  Do you know-” he coughed again- “do you know this is where we met?  Those were better times.  We danced in this very spot.”  He paused.  “She always loved to dance.  I told her we would dance again.” With his unbroken arm, he shifted the satchel that sat next to him into his lap.  He lifted the cover off it, and Badger didn’t need to see the detonator to know what it contained.  He coughed; the broken rib had dug deeper with the effort.  “I do not have long.  You must go.”

“Go where?” He hadn’t meant to say it aloud, but he truly did not know. Mondego did not reply, instead he just looked at the bomb again.

“Goodbye, Badger,” said Mondego.

“Goodbye, my friend,” Badger returned.  He felt a great emptiness well up inside him as he turned away.  Seconds later he was once again in the cockpit of his ship, and he looked up at the darkening sky.  The moon had been fractured by the massive warheads within those missiles, and it was now spread in a line across the sky, glowing eerily.  He looked again through the smoke to where the cockpit lay, and lifted off.

The Badger was a survivor, and he had survived again.  As he exited the atmosphere, he looked back to see if he could see the explosion, but he was already too far away.   He pointed the nose of the ship to open space and pushed the throttle all the way forward, contemplating if surviving was better.

The Crucible, part 1: Liberation

The pub was dimly lit, hiding the dinginess of the place. If it was planetside, one may have expected it to be smoke filled, but on Titan Station, smoking was not practiced. The ancient stations air purifiers were overworked as it was. Nevertheless, the air seemed thicker inside.

It was not crowded, but not empty either. A man of about thirty with short black hair and narrow eyes sat at a table near the back, partially illuminated by the glow of Jupiter shining through the oversized window. He wore a grim expression as he sipped his drink, glancing about at the other patrons. Two men conversed at the bar, one of them he had seen around before, a bounty hunter of some sort, but he didn’t know the other. Across the room, another man sat alone in a booth, a brown, wide-brimmed hat obscuring most of his face. He sat casually chewing a toothpick. A group of women talked in hushed tones, sitting as far away from the door as possible.

He surveyed the patrons without emotion, finally looking at the door as a tall, tan-skinned man with pitch-black hair walked in. He raised his glass in signal to the newcomer, who joined him at the table.

“The Badger?”

“That’s what they call me.” he replied evenly, “You must be Mondego.”

“I am,” he replied in a musical Spanish accent. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? We could lose everything if it does not work.”

“I’ve never had anything to lose,” he replied and took the chip and pistol Mondego had set on the table. “See you soon.” The Badger stood up and walked out of the pub.

* * *

Evan Jeffery Blanche, more commonly known as ‘The Badger’, was many things. He was an orphan, his parents died when he was young. He was picked up by underworld slavers, and sold from gangster to gangster. He became a pilot, flying every chance he got, which wasn’t often, until one owner enlisted him to fly as an escort for his smuggling operation. From there he was sold into his current position, a fighter in the Crucible.

The Crucible was an underground space-fighting operation ran by gangsters out of Titan Station. Gangsters, politicians and businessmen alike came for the spectacle, and to wager massive amounts on it. The participants, however, were slaves, or little better. Given a fighter by a sponsor, they were then trotted out to fight, usually resulting in their death.

But The Badger had survived. He didn’t always win, but he knew how to survive. Crowds were usually disappointed if the loser ejected, but it had built him something of a twisted fanbase.

He made his way to the dingy, rust-colored docking bay where his ship was housed. It was disk-shaped, with two cylindrical engines mounted on either side, on short wings, while the cockpit protruded from the front of the ship, a half sphere that offered a wide view. A small six-legged robot was tinkering with the port engine.

“How does it look, Greaser?” he asked the robot, who replied with a series of slurred chirps and descriptive gestures. Its voice box was broken, but he had never fixed it- he understood just fine. “Just have us ready.” He entered the cockpit and powered up the computer, inserting the chip. The ship shut off briefly before rebooting. It had removed the restricting program that would keep him from escaping.

He had no belongings to speak of, so he changed into his flight suit and called Greaser into the cockpit, where he folded himself up and anchored under the seat. The steel-trimmed canopy closed, and the docking clamps released his ship. The docking bay doors opened, and he found it appropriate that Titan Station was facing open space.

He didn’t look back as he flew out.

* * *

It was a short trip to the asteroid belt where the fights took place. The viewing stations were arranged in a rough circle around three asteroids, with room for the wealthy spectators to park their yachts to watch. The viewing platforms were already crowded and yachts filled the open spaces as Badger arrived. He was well above the arena, out of sight of the bloodthirsty spectators. He allowed his ship to drift slowly through space as he listened to the announcers discuss the odds, which were- for once- nearly even.

His introduction came soon enough, and he nosed down and circled the entire arena, coming within meters of the viewing platforms. He decided to give them a show on his way out. He came to a stop as they introduced his challengers- three pilots belonging to Governor Aznar, of the Spanish colony of Cadiz. They flew out from his massive yacht in formation, tri-winged spacecraft, with the vertical wing extending below the cockpit, and gull wings above. He watched them execute a few maneuvers and thought about what was to come. He had stopped being nervous about these fights a long time ago, and the prospect of death had never frightened him. After a lifetime of slavery, it didn’t seem so bad.

He armed his weapons systems and eyed the opposing fighters. At a signal from the announcers, the match began. He accelerated directly towards them and the two flankers attempted a pincer maneuver, their light lasers doing little damage to his heavily armored ship. He directed his heavier cannons at the center ship, tearing into its lower wing. It flew off as Badger sped past him, close enough to meet the other pilots eyes from meters away. Behind him, the Spanish fighters reversed course, and he took advantage of the nearest asteroid, hugging close to the surface as he circled it.

He came out behind the fighters just as they were accelerating after him. He launched a missile and it slammed into one of the fighters engines; detonating on impact. There was a small fireball as the oxygen and fuel exploded, and shrapnel flew from the wrecked airframe. What was left of it tumbled lazily through space.

The other two fighters wove, trying to avoid his laser fire. He stayed locked onto one of them, damaging it starboard wing, and that fighter peeled away, trying to draw him after it to open him up to fire from his wingman. He didn’t take the bait; instead reversing his engines, shoving the nose down until he was facing the other fighter. A hail of lasers and missiles obliterated it before it could attempt to evade him.

One fighter remained, and had copied the Badgers maneuver, coming around the asteroid, and he peppered the ship with laser fire. The Badger pushed his throttle all the way forward, but his opponent stayed with him. Pieces of armor flew off as he tried to shake his pursuer. He circled the third asteroid, hoping to lose him, but the Spaniard didn’t turn, instead allowing his momentum to push him straight out, pivoting his craft along the same trajectory, staying locked onto the Badgers ship.

Badger cursed, but he had another trick up his sleeve as his pursuer throttled up to close the distance again. He sped directly towards the nearest asteroid, speeding up the whole way. His craft was larger than the standard starfighter; this was by design, for it was a heavily modified bomber. Two bomb bays were housed in fuselage, and while some of that space had been sacrificed for additional maneuvering engines, there was still room for a pair of torpedoes. He opened one of the bays, and released a torpedo. Its single engine ignited and it slammed into the asteroid, a small charge at the front detonating and creating a hole in the asteroid, which that torpedo buried itself in before exploding.

Badger pulled up a bare second before the asteroid was torn apart, sending chucks of rock hurtling through space. The Spanish pilot had closed the gap too greedily, and paid the price with his life. His ship was blown apart in seconds.

The Badger could see those who had bet on him celebrating on the viewing stations. Now was the part of the contest no one had bet on, except him and Mondego. He turned his ship to Governor Aznars yacht and opened the second torpedo bay. He closed the distance in seconds, lining up his shot with the viewing deck of the yacht. The initial charge ripped the hull open just below the window with ease and the torpedo disappeared inside the ship. The explosive decompression from the hull breach likely killed all aboard. Vapor could be seen escaping for the briefest of moments through the breach before the torpedo exploded. The yacht was split fully in two, the midsection was ripped apart.

The remains of the ship floated apart, but the Badger didn’t see it. The slave circuit disabled, he punched in coordinates and throttled the engines up. It was a two week trip to the moon of Cadiz, but he was used to cramped quarters. He settled in for the long ride, and wondered what was in store with his new freedom.

Escort Duty

Commander Chris Rutherford lounged casually between the two engines of his GAP-112 ‘Havoc’ fighter; the two angled supports creating a nearly perfect hammock. To his left was the spherical cockpit, and extending beyond his head and feet were the main wings, a total of fifteen meters between the weapon hardpoints on the wingtips. Two smaller foils were mounted above and below; these could either lie flat or perpendicular to the main wings for atmospheric flight.

The Havoc was the latest GalSpan all-purpose fighter, with a stunning array of weaponry and the best avionics available, and Chris was their best pilot. He commanded Banshee Squadron, consisting of himself and eleven other top GalSpan pilots. The hangar he rested comfortably in was in orbit around Mars, and they were awaiting orders.

Chris himself lounged in the pants from his combat flight suit; comfortably tight and lightly armored; and a light shirt, black, seamless and form-fitting, with the green GalSpan star emblazoned on the chest. He was reading on a small tablet, words etched in the air so he could relax as he read, when a small notification interrupted him. It was the orders he was waiting for- as it turned out, the orders he had been hoping for. Banshee squadron was to report to the Hornet immediately.

The Hornet had just been completed, and was the latest and best warship in existence.   She could carry over 1,000 troops, six squadrons of fighters or bombers and was armed with 50 heavy cannons. Banshee Squadron would complement her perfectly, and Chris couldn’t have been more excited.

He leaped down from his perch, the lower gravity of the station allowing him to do so with ease. He sent a message to the rest of the squadron, and in a few moments they were all assembled in front of him.

They all stood at attention; in spite of- or because of- being his friend, they still were disciplined and respectful of his rank. He was the tallest member of the squadron, with thin features and light skin. He had close-cropped blonde hair and pale blue eye that seemed to take in everything, all the time. He regarded his squadron in silence for a moment, letting anticipation build, and paced in front of them before stationing himself in the center of the group. Not one of them so much as shifted.

He didn’t mince words. “We have been assigned to the Hornet, effective immediately. Her first tour is in exactly a week. We leave in an hour.” None of them said or did anything. “As you were,” he said quietly, and there were several cheers and hugs. Chris smiled benevolently.

The Hornet?” Danielle was the youngest member of the squadron, her curly brown hair cut short and tied in a ponytail. Her brown eyes were wider than usual, with a sparkle. “I never thought…”

Well, you don’t have to think. We’ll be on it soon.” He clapped sharply. “An hour, people. That means get your stuff, and settle your tabs. I expect you all to be on time.”

Of course, they all were. None of them owned much, each carried a small duffel bag that could fit in the cockpits of their fighters. Chris had donned the carapace of his suit, black and armored like the rest of it. Two small tubes extended up to his lips, supplying nutrient-enriched water during extended flights. His helmet he held under his arm; it had a wide faceplate and two nozzles that allowed it to connect to an external oxygen supply. He clamped it on and checked the seals.

Everyone ready?” Everyone nodded, and he climbed aboard his ship. The large sphere split in two, and the control column dropped down, a step on the back of it. Chis pulled himself inside, and the column folded up into the cockpit as it closed. He waited for clearance from station control before lifting off and flying out of the hangar. He proceeded a couple kilometers from the station, and waited for the others to form up around him. Once they were in position, he shoved the throttle all the way forward, and his ship shook with the energy, the airframe shook before evening out as it attained velocity. He was pressed back into his seat, grinning in spite of the G forces. He had loved flying for as long as he could remember; it was all he ever wanted to do. Even after years of flying nearly every type of craft available, he still reveled in it.

It took mere moments to come into view of the Hornet. She was a sight to behold- her hull was flat and wide, opening in the front to the cavernous docking bay. It narrowed in the midsection, with the bridge protruding high above, and the two main engine supports extending beyond they hull. The engines themselves were a sight to behold, squat and boxy like much of the rest of the ship. The stern of the ship contained a shuttle bay, storage and crew quarters.

Chris led his squadron into the docking bay. The inside was as impressive as the exterior of the massive ship. The docking bay was cavernous; clean and well-lit. There was room for eleven more squadrons, empty docking stations awaiting their arrival. In zero gravity, the ceiling and floor were interchangeable, with the fighters able to dock on either.

He exited his fighter, magnetic boots keeping him anchored the deck. He waited for the rest of his squadron to join him, and they followed him to the control room overlooking the docking bay from the rear. They were met by a petty officer, who showed them to their quarters- each member had their own, not spacious, but not a sleeping bag on a wall like most of the crew would have. This was followed by a tour of the ship; it was massive, a spacefaring city.

Chris left them to their own devices while he received their orders from the captain. They sailed in a week, escort duty from Mars or a convoy of ships to a new British colony. There had been increasing reports of pirate activity along that route, and the Hornet would show them they meant to protect their cargo.

The briefing was over shortly and Chris headed for his quarters to resume his reading.

* * *

One week later, the Hornet began to accelerate beside the dozen cargo ships she was charged with protecting. They accelerated past the speed of light until the convoy reached cruising speed. It was nearly a three-week journey to the distant colony, and though Banshee Squadron all but lived in the ready room, it was uneventful for the first two weeks.

Chris was lounging in the ready room, accompanied by his wingman, Peter Scruggs, playing cards when the intercom chimed.

Commander,” it was the captain, Joshua Beavan, a stout man with a long tenure at GalSpan, “there is debris in our path a day ahead. Most likely placed there by pirates. Prepare your men for action.” The captain was not a man of many words.

You heard the man,” Chris said to Scruggs. “Go get them up. I’ll get the greasers going.” The greasers were, in fact, always going- small, six-armed robots that saw to the majority of the maintenance of the fighters. They folded up and stowed in the cockpit. But now they would go over the ship, going through its pre-flight checklist.

The area of space they were in was completely void. They were not close to any solar system, so the terrain offered no advantage. It was certainly a calculated risk on the part of the pirates- common trade routes were marked by beacons, which scanned for anything that could damage a ship traveling at many times the speed of light, then transmitted the results on a wide band up and down the series of relays. In this way, ships had ample time to adjust for anything in their path.

Those results were now visible in the ready room, and it was certainly the work of pirates. Large pieces of metal floated directly in their path, spread out over kilometers. One ship being contacted could start a chain reaction at those speeds. Since the pirates couldn’t attack at faster than light speeds, they set this trap, clearly counting on any ships coming through to stop. Chris smiled; a perfect way to show that the Hornet now owned this portion of space.

And the Hornet did indeed begin to slow as the rest of the squadron walked into the ready room. He briefed them on the situation.

We know nothing about our enemies, so we are going for a general loadout. Standard missile-and-cannon configuration. Damocles Squadron will have heavy missiles, so in the event that the enemy has multiple heavy ships, will will provide cover for their bombing runs. Pirates in this area have been operating independently of each other, executing smash-and-grab type operations, so there is a fair chance they will turn tail and run when they see what they’re up against.”

Lights in the ready room changed to red; the sign they would soon be stopped. “As soon as we are at a full stop, we launch. Let’s get in our ships, people.” They headed into the docking bay, and boarded their ships. They would launch out the front, catapults providing initial thrust to propel the fighters from the ship. They bay doors were not open yet, and Chris stared at them, willing them to open. He hated the waiting.

Within moments, the massive doors began to move, and as soon as they were open far enough, his Havoc shot through them.

Clear of the Hornet,there was nothing to see. The convoy was in a line to starboard, the Hornet above them like a mother hen.

Stay alert,” he told the squadron. They would be close by, but it would still take them a moment once their prey was in the trap. Sure enough, not five minutes later, three ships appeared. Two were to starboard, across the convoy, while the third appeared to port. All three were identical, long, slender ships, the front resembling the hull of sailing ships of old. The stern contained large, cylindrical engines that were instantly recognizable to Chris. “Hey, Captain, those are Dynamiq ships. Where did pirates get those?”

The French. They’re privateers, hired by the government to do their dirty work.”

Chris didn’t respond; he was formulating his plan. “Damocles one, attack the ships closest to the convoy.” Damocles squadron flew older ‘Liberator’ fighters, which had a low-slung, tri-wing profile. It could carry a heavier payload than the Havoc fighters, so they carried heavy payloads to deliver to the attackers.

As he turned towards the pirate dreadnoughts, he saw small interceptors pouring from docking bay. He swore sharply.

They have drones,” he said.

The tactical officer of the Hornet spoke up. “The dreadnoughts are moving to attack the convoy. Banshee and Gorgon squadron, cover for Damocles squadron. We will engage the third enemy ship.”

He acknowledged the orders, scanning the hundreds of drones that filled the sky. “Damocles, form up with us. Stay close; they will try to tail us. Line astern, let’s try to stay small.” Each squadron split into pairs, with which a bomber formed up with, between the two fighters. Damocles One formed up with him and Scruggs; Angela Furst, she and Chris had been friends since they joined GalSpan at the same time. They accelerated to the wall of drones.

Each Havoc fighter was armed with six laser cannons, set in the wings, three on either side of the cockpit. The bright side of drones was they didn’t take much to destroy, and Chris began pouring fire into them as they swarmed around, picking a target, squeezing the trigger, then moving on to the next. The drones returned fire, each with a light cannon mounted in the nose. They were composed of two circles arranged at right angles, small thrusters mounted along the circumference of each, giving them deft maneuverability.

A group of drones accelerated directly toward them, and reversed direction behind them. Chris barked an order, and each fighter in the line immediately veered, attempting to confuse the drones and stay out of the line of fire. Chris laughed as Scruggs passed meters in front of him while they turned in opposite S-patterns. They had practiced this hundreds of times. “Cover me; I’m going back for them.”

He fired his engines straight ahead, and his ship stopped with a jerk, throwing him against his restraints. The drones shot past him and he opened up with all six cannons and accelerating after the drones.

They’re going after the bombers hard,” he said. “How long until you’re in range, Damocles?”

Almost there. Minimal damage; keep it up.”

Acknowledged, Damocles.” He spared a glance for the convoy; one of the dreadnoughts had come alongside the trailing ship of the convoy and had opened its gun bays, preparing for a broadside.

Damocles, I need that ship dead.”

Banshee four, we need some help boss.” He looked at the source of the transmission, the pair was above and to port, with a cloud of drones around them.

Scruggs, take some pressure off four.” He rocked his wings and split off, guns blazing.

Angela formed up just off his wing, and he looked over at her, her squat bomber was centimeters from his wing. Her mouth was covered by her mask, but her eyes told him she was smiling. In another life, things would have been different between them, but they were both married to their ships. He sometimes found himself wishing for that; he wasn’t as young as he once was. He wondered if she did too.

Lasers hit the plating of his ship, startling him back to the battle. “You alright over there, commander?” Angela asked.

Yeah, fine. Have you killed that ship yet?” Distress calls were blaring from the convoy, somewhat redundantly.

I’m about to. Line up astern, we’ll take out the engines.” He did so, and they circled to the back of the dreadnought. The boxy cargo ship was heavily damaged, her engines crippled. Her hull didn’t appear breached, which was typical- the pirates wanted what was in there.

More drones were attracted to them as they drew closer to their target, pouring fire at them. They continued to weave; Chris offering covering fire where he could. “Hey, not to press, but shouldn’t you be using those missiles?”

Not yet. Those drones will shoot them down before they reach the ship from here. I want to be right on top of them.”

Chris regarded the looming dreadnought and wondered how close she wanted to be exactly. His heads up display clicked off the kilometers to target, and she was still accelerating towards it.

When I give the word, you need to punch it. You need to be in front of the explosion.”

Roger that.” He was behind her, and slightly below, and could see the four missiles, blunt cylinders hanging from the bottom of her fuselage. He could also see the black scarring from where she had taken damage, a hole blasted almost through the short.

Banshee squadron, what’s your status?” He hadn’t been paying attention.

Forming up on the second dreadnought now, sir,” reported Scruggs. “Two bombers down, pilots ejected in time. Five has heavy damage.”

Tell him to get back to the Hornet.” He looked back to the massive battleship, and couldn’t see if they had destroyed the third pirate ship or not. “And punch out that dreadnought. I’m getting sick of these damn drones.”

He returned his attention to the dreadnought ahead. They were close enough to make out details of the ship, a dull green color. He could see the engine supports and the fuel cell housing, knowing Angela was locked onto them, waiting for the right moment to fire.

Chris… Go now!” He saw the missiles separate from the underside of her ship as he fed fuel to the engines, leaping forward. As he passed below the pirate dreadnought, he saw her cannons fire again, tearing into the cargo ship. Fire engulfed him briefly as fuel cells detonated and met with oxygen expelled from the ship. Shrapnel tore into the fighters, sending him into a flat spin. Warning lights flared, alerting him to damage all along the airframe. He saw Angela pull up, clearing the explosion as her missiles contacted the engines of the pirate ship. His attempted to correct the spin as his cockpit went dark, the glass adjusting to the brightness of the explosions as the pirate ship was torn apart as well. He leveled out, now spinning in only one direction. He corrected the rotation with what was left of his engines, and surveyed the wreckage. The second dreadnought appeared to have been destroyed almost simultaneously, the stern blown apart on each of them. What was left of them hung in space, gaping holes torn into the thick metal. The drones were likewise mute, now streaking along whatever course they had been on when their control center was laid waste.

With what was left of his ships engines, he limped back to the Hornet.

* * *

He sat in the debriefing room, his arm in a sling. He had broken it in the explosion, hitting it on something, but he hadn’t noticed until he was back on board. Captain Beavan sat across the table from him, his preliminary report in front of him.

Your performance was outstanding today, Rutherford. I’m putting you in for a bonus.”

Thank you, sir.”

That was an unprecedented attack. They clearly had French support; we must be vigilant for more like it. As senior wing commander, do you have any input on how to counter attacks such as that in the future?”

A couple of destroyers would have gone a long way to mitigating the drones. I’ve worked with before, and that can draw a lot of the fire away.”

Agreed.” Beavan made a note to that effect. “You need a new squadron member.” They had sustained only one casualty, Banshee Five had not made it back. Chris winced. “Anyone you would like to invite?”

Would Angela leave Damocles squadron?”

If ordered.”
“I was thinking a request.”

Feel free to ask her. Her number two is ready to command a squadron.” He made another note, and closed it. “Only a thousand people lost.”

A thousand? Aboard the Hornet?” Chris was confused; the cargo ship had a crew of three.

Beavan shook his head. “No, on the cargo ship, the Aberdeen. Colonists. Laborers.”

I thought the British took care of transporting their own colonists.”

Beavan shrugged. “These aren’t colonists in the strict sense. They belong to GalSpan, they’re just going there for the construction projects. We’ll move them somewhere else when they’re done there.”

They’re slaves?” Chris reeled.

Their needs are met.” He looked at Chris critically. “Is that a problem?”

He composed himself. “I do my job.”

Indeed you do. We all do. We’ll be in orbit for a week, relax. You’ve earned it. Then we’ll escort the ships back to Mars.”

Chris wondered what they would be loaded with.