Kara stood in the nearly-empty command center, watching with a knot in her stomach as GalSpan ships dropped into normal space. The comm crackled as the squadron of BattleAxe fighters reacted to their presence with an overwhelmed fear. In spite of the actions they had already taken, and their commitment to a cause, they were still simply miners.

She turned from the window and keyed the address for the entire station. “GalSpan ships have entered the field. Leave any remaining equipment and get any personnel aboard the transports.” She shot a glance around the room, meeting expectant eyes. “Let’s get out of here.”

Her mind went in a thousand directions. GalSpan would, naturally, open fire the second a transport jumped. The Axes, French and Jack would have to give them enough room to get the final few transports away. They were massively outgunned. The destroyers were expected, the massive white ship and the one with the long neck, however, weren’t even classes with which she was familiar. They brought far more weaponry to bear than they could muster; but that was why they were fleeing their home.

Her thoughts went to that word home. She had only lived in two places in her life- here, in the Messier system, and growing up then going to New London University. Each step to date had been filled with promise and excitement, a new opportunity. This, she supposed, was much the same, at least in the sense of opportunity.

She was far less optimistic in this case.

The lift opened into the hangar, and Everett was instantly at her side. “All levels are clear. We have two more shuttles, plus one for the command staff, and evac is complete. The transports are holding on your orders.”

“Good. Once all the shuttles have docked, we will all jump together.”

“Shuttles launch in fifteen, half hour to docking. Do we have enough firepower to stall them that long?”

“I think we’re about to find out.”

The rear ramp of the shuttle rested on the steel deck of the hangar. She strode up it, unthinking, until she stood just inside it, turning to look back at the deserted station. The word home floated through her mind, just for a second, as the ramp raised, and closed, sealing Messier Station away forever.

* * *

When most planet-bound people imagine an asteroid belt, they picture a bunch of huge rocks floating around, all spinning so close to one another that ships could barely weave between them. Reality, as is so often the case with such imaginings, is a vastly different affair. Asteroids hung in space, often kilometers apart. Messier was GalSpan’s flagship mining operation, delivering vast amounts of raw minerals for production, not simply because it was such a large field- which it was- but because they we large and well-spaced, easy to build a structure around, mine in, and extract all that was worthy.

GalSpan did nothing without careful consideration, not from the products sold throughout the Empire, to shipping lanes and the ships traveling them, nor those producing the goods carried. GalSpan, as an entity, took great pains to keep those workers in line. Wages were set; living expenses- housing, food, all the rest- were finely-tuned, keeping workers in one spot, be it in mines or farms on colonies, for generations.

All that consideration, all that control, eventually took a toll, and even an entity as large as GalSpan had to pay. Entities such as GalSpan did not like to pay.

Lee Drake stood at the bridge of the Black Drake, looking out the wide semi-circular window at the asteroids, dull grey structures built around them, like massive spiders hugging giant rocks. On the far side of the field was Messier Station, round and tattered, the former home of nearly a quarter million miners and their families. Three transports remained, V-shaped hulls with offset engines barely visible in the distance. Most of the miners were long gone; each transport carried a thousand people or so; they would be dealt with in time. Matters at hand were more pressing.

“They’re not responding, sir.”

He glanced at the comm officer without moving his head. “I do not expect them to.”

“What should I do, sit?”

“Order the task force into position. Weapons ready.”

“Should I order them to engage?”

“Not just yet. Let them make a mistake.”

“Yes, sir.”

A small squadron of fighters, some different craft modified for their needs, moved in position to counter.

“What about those Dynamiq ships?”

“I am quite we can manage them. Have the Hornet launch fighters and to move to an intercept trajectory, destroyers to block those fighters.”

He shot a glance to the tactical display, seeing half the French ships moving to shadow the fighters. In a perfect universe, those ships weren’t there, but Lee knew as well as anyone, it was far from perfect. And imperfections could be overcome.

* * *

Maggie Bennett watched from the bridge of the Corsair, flagship of the Dynamiq fleet. The group of a dozen dreadnoughts had come as some sort of mix between token of good faith and promise of future orders and political statement, but most of that was not her concern.

Her role at Dynamiq was frequently nebulous, but such was the nature of expanding companies. She pitched in to do everything she could, believing in what they were doing. GalSpan set the market for nearly every consumer good in the galaxy; spaceships no exception. French trade was nearly crippled due to it and trade agreements with the British Empire. Dynamiq aimed to change that.

Surveying the weight of GalSpan might, she wondered if that was even possible.

“Split the group, six through twelve form up around the transports. Everyone else, move to intercept.”

“Yes, ma’am.” They banked to port and ahead, moving past the station. She watched it pass to starboard, the three final shuttles departing it and making their way to the waiting transports. Ahead was the GalSpan task force, including the massive Hornet. She had heard of it, but seeing it in person staggered her. The gaping maw at the fore opened, and Havoc fighters flew out, two squadrons moving to flank the miner’s BattleAxe squadron.

“Maggie, Jack is calling.”

“Put him on.” The comm officer nodded, and the voice of the freelancers came across the overhead.

“We need to buy the transports time to jump. As soon as they are clear, we will follow.”

“When should we engage?”

“As soon as the shuttles dock. Maybe another five minutes.”

“We’ll be ready.”

* * *

“Shuttles are docked, Jack,” Kara said. He sat up a little straighter, as much as the restraints allowed, and throttled up. “Goldie, give me a firing sequence on each of the destroyers.”

“Locked on.”

He flipped up the safety covering the missile launch button, took a deep breath, and pressed it a dozen titmes. Missiles shot from the tubes, flaring in front of the ship and rocketing towards their targets.

“So we’re going now?” Maggie voice came over the comm, sharp and harried.

“Yeah, sorry.”

“Thanks for the signal.”

“I usually do this alone, okay?”

“Where do you need us?”

“See what you can do about the fighters.”

“Sure thing.”

“Cole, are you there?” he hailed the BattleAxe squadron leader.

“Yes, sir.”

“Dynamiq is going to try to keep those fighters occupied. I need you to concentrate on the destroyers.”

“You got it.”

The fighters moved ahead, banking to move against the destroyers, who were already reacting to his attack. He turned to starboard, attempting to get behind them while the fighters attacked from the front. He targeted the nearest one and armed lasers, opening up on the engines. Shrapnel tore off as he poured fire into them. The engines trembled as fuel cells exploded within, sending pieces of metal flying into space.

The destroyer returned fire from the blisters on the rear, long lances of red barely visible as they flashed by. He rolled back to port, spinning out of plane with the rest of the ships. The destroyer rolled with him, bringing the guns in the midsection to bear on him. The ship rocked as they found their mark, shaking as armor burned away. He jerked back to starboard, pulling up and circling away, pressing back into the seat as gee forces multiplied.

“How are we doing, Cole?”

* * *

“Doing our best, Drake.” Cole hauled back on the stick, depressing the thumb trigger for the mining laser mounted above the cockpit, thick beam melting the armor. Vapor rushed out, igniting so briefly as the vacuum sucked it into oblivion. “Lots of fire, though.”

“They’re not here for sightseeing.”

Another destroyer filled his view as he pulled up, having moved into a position above him. He pulled hard to port to avoid it, coming within meters of the grey plating. He managed to squeeze a couple shots off at the gun emplacements as he came entirely too close to them, but after navigating the asteroid field for years, he was used to tight maneuvering.

Asteroids don’t fire back, though.

“I’m hit!” Cole’s eyes shot around to see the starboard engine tearing off Whitey’s craft. It shook, clinging by the last few bolts and welds, before ripping off, spiraling away from the conflict. Another BattleAxe dodged it, just barely avoiding it.

“Get clear, Whitey,” Cole said, too late, as the disabled fighter was torn to shreds.  He swore, turning his attention back to what was before him. “Hey, Drake, their fighters…”

“I see them.”

One destroyer was down; two squadrons of fighters were moving in.

* * *

Kara all but ran down the ramp of the shuttle as soon as it was locked onto the deck of the Amunet, jumping off before it was fully descended, carrying across the docking bay in low gravity. Everett was fast on her heels, omnipresent tablet before him.

“They’re engaging the destroyers,” he said.

“Let’s get up to the bridge. Tell the captain to prepare to jump.”

They were underway by the time they reached the bridge. The buoy floated directly ahead, strobe light slowly rotating, almost lost among the distant stars. It drew closer, imperceptibly at first, but steadily as they accelerated.

“Ma’am, the Hornet is moving to intercept.”

“Have the Dynamiq dreadnaughts to intercept.”

“Group A is engaged with the destroyers. Group B is already moving.”

“Good. How long until we are clear?”

“Ten minutes.”

She looked to the tactical display, the blue dot representing the Hornet moving to across, between the silver buoy icons, Britain to the left, the buoy marking the path to their destination on the right.

All they had to do was get up to speed before the GalSpan warship could get to them.

“Destroyers breaking off from the main group.”

“Can the fighters contain them?”

“We have lost three already. The rest are doing their best, four destroyers inbound.”

She swore. “Wadjet to point. Get Thoth out of here, they are unarmed.”

The helmswoman turned to look at her. “I’m sure they’re shaking in their boots at us.”

She smirked. “We may be small, but we are mighty.”

* * *

“They are tiny. Squash them.” Lee grasped the overhead rail casually, wrapping around the whole of the bridge of the Black Drake. The Hornet was already nearly in range, and four destroyers were closing. “Get them in the way. Do not let them jump.”


“Bring us over top of the destroyers. The line is failing. We have to press.”

“Pressing, sir.”

Death in space was messy. Lee watched it unfold before him, the miner’s modified ships using their mining lasers to tear through the armor of the destroyers. The Thantos was in the throes of death before him, oxygen tanks detonating, blowing the seams of the destroyer out into space. Plates of metal of composite spun, burning red edges cooling in the void.

To date, Lee engaged in much more clandestine dealings. It invigorated him to be on a true battle line, out of the shadows, the blood of those who pledged fealty to the goals of GalSpan spilled in his cause. Or, at the least, were bought to its cause.

He reveled in it.

“Move us in position to intercept the transports.”


They banked port, pulling across the row of destroyers. He could see the three transports, accelerating, carrying thousands of miners who dared defy their betters. He sneered as he watched; who were they to challenge those wiser and more powerful than themselves? He determined to see them spilled into space and replaced with more complicit workers, ones which knew their place.

“Fighters approaching, sir.”

“Fire at will.”

A missile traced a path towards them, exploding with indifferent effect aft of the bridge. The ship which fired it pulled up, arcing up and away. Lee smiled as a salvo from the cannons drew a bead on it, tearing it apart. He wondered what that pilots last moments were like, as he realized his fate, doomed to be shredded in the cold black of space, and for such a pointless cause.

It was delightful.

* * *

“Deb!” Lou shouted as her BattleAxe disintegrated under heavy fire. He followed Chad in close to the rear of the ship, twin triangle nacelles of engines set to either side and below, in an inverted V.

“Don’t lose focus, Lou,” Chad said, voice steady. “Take starboard. Hit anything you can.”

“Okay.” He pulled that direction, then angled back in to get a better shot. He kept as close to the hull as he could, inside the range of the big guns. His mining laser cut a swath in the armor, glowing red and cooling fast. The ship tapered to a narrow cylinder, bridge at the front of it. He set his sight on it, trying to bore through the thick armor.

Vapor shot out in a geyser. The hole wasn’t large, but he was through. He gave a shout of excitement, the hull rushing up on him. He hauled back on the stick, thrusters firing with all their power. They slowed him just enough, bottom of his fighter hitting the bridge with a solid thunk which reverberated through the airframe, but did no damage.

He pushed the throttle forward, again clinging to the hull of the larger ship. The text of the ship’s name scrolled past, Black Drake in large black letters.

“Hey Chad, isn’t that freelancer named Drake?”

“Yeah, he is.”

“Odd coincidence.”

“No coincidence. That’s my brother’s ship,” Jack interjected

“You betrayed us?”

“Don’t worry about me, kid. We may be related, but we are nothing alike.”

“I hope you’re right, Drake.”

“Believe me, I hope so too. “

* * *

“They’re getting picked apart.”

“I see that, Goldie.” Jack keyed the comm from the conversation with the fighters. “Kara, how long until you’re clear?”

“Three minutes.”

“The Hornet is going to get there first.”

There was silence. “I know. The Dreadnaughts will give us cover.”

He watched them pulling closer to the Hornet, firing the occasional ranging shot, but still not near enough to draw a clear target. The bristling ship would have nearly a minute of being able to target the transports, even if they were approaching jump speeds; it was more than enough time for the massive cannons to destroy the transports.

That was to say nothing of the Black Drake, moments behind the Hornet. He was never optimistic about what was happening here, but he chalked that up to his cynical nature and gave the miners a chance.

At least some of them got away.

* * *

Chris Rutherford surveyed the battle from the spherical cockpit of his Havoc fighter. He had taken his squadron to a position above the solar plane, looking down on the ships, lights flashing between them as they set to destroy each other. Their orders were to keep the Hornet and Black Drake clear of enemy ships until they could engage the transports.

Here they sat, engines idle, hanging in space, watching, waiting. The trap was closing around the transports; there was no chance of them making the jump once the Hornet brought its guns to bear.

The time to act had come.

“Last chance to change your mind, gang.” Banshee Squadron was his pride; assembled from the best GalSpan employed, under his command. The Hornet was home to them, where they escorted GalSpan transports, protecting them from pirates. That employment came at a price.

The cost was too steep for him.

“We’re with you, boss.”

For them.

“Banshee squadron, engage the enemy.” He eased the throttle forward, quad engines responding. “Make sure those transports get clear at all costs.”

* * *


“I see it. I don’t understand it.” The broad-winger Havoc fighters were tearing into the Hornet from all directions. She was taking heavy damage; they knew her weak points and had no reason to expect the salvo of missiles launched from the small craft to be targeting her.

“Showing her main engines offline and several hull breaches.”

“Time to jump?”

“Two minutes thirty.”

She inhaled slowly through pursed lips. “We might make it,” she said under her breath.

“Fighters hailing us, ma’am.”

“Put them on.”

“Mining ship, this is Chris Rutherford of Banshee Squadron, requesting to join you.”

“This is somewhat sudden, Mister Rutherford.”

“I understand that. We haven’t had a lot of time, either.”

“Two minutes, ma’am.”

“I thought GalSpan treated people in your position fairly well.”

“Indeed. Some of us feel that shouldn’t come at the expense of others.”

“A noble notion.”

“We’d like to join you.”

“One minute thirty.”

She nodded at the helmsman. “You understand if I don’t trust you.”

“There’s no coming back from this. Either we come with you, or we die here.”

The Hornet was cracking, pieces of hull blowing off as oxygen and fuel detonated within.

“We are transmitting coordinates.”

“Ma’am, Black Drake is moving to block our path.”

So far their armor held against the peppering of shots which landed, but there it was, bleeding vapor from damage, but within the minute left, it would be dead ahead of them.

“Orders, ma’am?”

* * *


“I see it.” One thing about Lee; he was tenacious. He could never lose, either. He would put himself and his crew right there purely out of spite.

“I never liked losing, either, little brother,” he growled. A plume of vapor was shooting out from the helm of the ship, a crack in the armor.

“Goldie, we’re jumping.” He gripped the throttle, squeezing the lever on the side of it and shoving ti past the sublight stops. The engines spewed blue flame, slamming him back into the seat, control stick vibrating in his hand at the unmapped jump.

All it had to do was fly straight.


“Yeah, Goldie?”

“Hold fast.”

“You got it.” Klaxons blared, warning of the obstruction in their path.

* * *

Lee grinned. A few seconds more and they would be dead in the path of the transports, colliding at monumental speeds. It would be glorious.

A warning blared. “Collison imminent.”


“No, sir,” the terrified helmsperson stammered. “It’s…”

* * *

The briefest of detonations was visible, just a flash as the transport rushed past, clearing the buoy and the speed of light at the same time, quickly multiplying to many times the speed of light.

“We are clear, ma’am.”

“Thank you,” Kara said softly.




The hangar was a shambles of activity, miners and their families streaming to the waiting shuttles. Luther Lewis Junior- Lou, to most, LJ to his mom – watched from the back of the line, shuffling forward when the deck officer said to, after each shuttle load left. He stood behind his mom, each of them carrying a small bag that represented all their goods. The live of a miner didn’t afford much in the first place; less for families like theirs, Lou going into the mines after his father died, five years past. His mom was a cook, and she loved watching the miners eat, even if rations were meager.

“Never trust a skinny cook,” she would tell them, “so you can trust me.” Everyone called her Ma, everyone knew her, and she looked after everyone with an omnipresent smile. She worried, though, Lou knew, but rarely let it show. Losing a husband to the mines, and having a nineteen year old in them for half a decade was enough to worry anyone, but Ma tried not to let Lou see it.

She was worried now, though. She kept glancing back and up at Lou.

“It’ll be all right, LJ.” She patted his side- she hadn’t been able to reach his head for years.

“I know, Ma.” He looked around as soon as she faced forward again, itching to do something. She had eyes in the back of her head, he swore, because she turned around again.

“Let them do their jobs, LJ,” she said with a nod to the hustling pilots.

“It should be my job. I’m a pilot, too.”

“And a great one, but let the adults do what they need to. It’ll be all right.”

He shifted his bag in aggravation, fidgeting. He’d been flying the Hatchet mining ships for three years now, knew them inside and out, but he was benched why? Because he was too young. He saw his foreman across the hangar, with five other pilots. He knew where they were headed, to the lift that would take them to C deck, where the Hatchets were. BattleAxe, now, they called them. The mining lasers had been modified to fire in pulses, and they added thrusters to make them more maneuverable, able to take on GalSpan Havok fighters- hopefully. He had spent the better part of a month working on them, but now was in line instead of in the cockpit of his own ship.

He shifted the bag to his other shoulder, and watched the foreman- Red- making his way with the rest of the pilots toward the lifts. He tried to put it out of his mind, and looked back toward the front of the hangar, where the next shuttle was docking, massive doors sliding closed behind it. Lifters rolled along their tracks, loading the transports with gear and equipment, attended by their handlers. He shifted the bag again, suppressing a sneer at not even being able to do that. Just wait in line.

“Look out!” He looked up to see a lifter toppling over, spilling the contents of the crate it carried across the deck. He dropped the bag without a thought and sprinted towards the wreckage, bounding the the low gravity. Inside the crate were canisters, of what he didn’t know, but each one was larger than an man, and they were bouncing for the group of pilots.

Everything seemed to slow down around him, as is he was moving and everyone else was standing still. He could hear his mothers shout echoing, see the expressions on the other miners. He could see the canisters, six of them, scattering, tumbling. Three were harmless, two were headed straight for people, and one that could go either way. He timed his last bound as best he could, aiming for the canister about to smash the foreman.

He bunched his knees up, twisting in the air, and extending as he neared it, springing off it, sending it into wall. It redirected him into the other, smashing into it with his full weight on his shoulder. He followed it down to the cold deck, landing on his back and sliding along it.

He opened his eyes, wincing at the pain in his shoulder, looking up at the bearded face of Chad, the foreman. “Lou,” he said in his thick voice, “What are you doing?”

“Beats me, boss.”

“Are you hurt?” Chad extended a hand, pulling him to his feet.

“Nah, boss.”

“Good. Looks like I need a new wingman.” He nodded over Lou’s shoulder, to where the third canister had landed, square on another pilot’s leg. He was being attended to by a medic, who was setting his leg.

Lou swore. “I’m sorry, Whitey.”

He was up on his elbows, gritting his teeth. “No worries, mate. I got another.”

Chad put a hand on Lou’s shoulder. “What do you say, kid? Ready to fly?”

Ma had crossed most of the hangar, and stood a few meters away. She looked at him, a pregnant look, a look of understanding, yet a look only a mother can give. She only managed the slightest of nods, and Lou turned back to Chad before he could see the tears fill her eyes.

* * *

He didn’t feel nervous until he put his gloves on. They were cumbersome, like most of his flightsuit- GalSpan didn’t spend too much on suits for pilots. But that wasn’t it, exactly. He had spend the last weeks getting ready to go, embracing what they were doing and why, wanting to be more a part of it and now he was. It was no longer an abstract concept; a wish or aspiration. He was going to get into his cockpit and actually fight to defend his fellow miners.

“You’re ready, Lou,” Chad said, his voice deep and gentle as ever.

“Then why wasn’t I flying in the first place?” He turned from his locker and met Chad’s eyes, wide, dark and caring. Chad had been equal parts friend, father figure and brother in the last several years, and being told to stand down had stung.

“You know why, Lou. You are all Ma has. It’s not going to be easy out there.”

“I know.”

“Then saddle up.”

They made their way to the flight deck, to their BattleAxes. They were squat craft, yellow and gray. They cockpit was for, with a wireframe canopy the whole height of the nose. Beams extended to either side of the fuselage, stubby wings with engines mounted on them. They derived their nicknames from the thin, curved laser mounting which ran along the spine.

Lou crossed to his BattleAxe, ’03’ emblazoned on the side of the cockpit in worn block numerals. He bend down and grabbed the handle at the bottom of the canopy and lifted, controls lifting above it. Before he could take his seat, though, Chad’s voice rang out behind him.

“Listen up, everyone.” He stood near the bay doors, far enough away to regard each of them, standing by their ships. “I’m not one for speeches, but some things need to be said. We don’t know what’s going to happen out there, or what they’re going to throw at us. But I do know this: They have had their day. They have walked over us, profited from us, and watched us die for long enough. Our families are going to a new home, a better home, where we can all make a better life, and it’s our job to make sure they get there safe. Be ready for anything.” He stopped abruptly, as if searching for some perfect words to close the speech. Lou could see his adams apple work as emotion hit him, and he nodded again, as no words were forthcoming. “Let’s get to it.”

Lou slid into the seat, closing the canopy behind him. He thought back to his first time, the terrified feeling of the unrestricted view as he exited to the hangar. He was quickly used to it, able to easily see everything above and below and to either side.

He hoped it was of equal benefit in combat.

The bay doors opened, taking, it seemed an eternity. He gave a thumbs up in the direction of the control room at the far end of the hangar. The comm crackled as Chad spoke.

“Cat one, go for launch.” His ship, to Lou’s right, rocked back and then the catapult raced forward, shooting him through the doors.

“Cat two, go for launch.” Deb Towers, all the way to the left.

He took a deep breath, pressing himself back into the seat to minimize the impact. “Cat three, go for launch.” The hangar rushed by, and he was in space. He nosed down and right, forming up next to Chad, just in time to hear Jo Hill launch from cat four.

The final two pilots – O’Leary and ‘Pops’ Young- were shortly launched and joined them. The station receded behind them, asteroids growing larger before them. A new voice crackled over the comm.

“This is Kara Lansky. There are several French ships coming down the lane. I need you to intercept them and gauge their intentions. Jack Drake will give you further direction.”

“What do we need that freelancer for?” Lou said. He didn’t know Kara personally, just from the speeches her and her husband gave. They were the de facto leaders of the movement against GalSpan; they were miners, and he trusted them.

“Don’t get lippy, boy,” Cole said. “Kara knows what she’s doing.”

“Yes, sir.”

The French ships appeared, dead ahead of them.  “Spread out, between them and the station. “Safety off, but don’t fire unless they fire first.”

The French ships decelerated rapidly, coming to a full stop and simply hanging before them. Lou studied them with a weather eye; unsure of their presence or intent. The Hammerheads hung between the French ships and the freelancer’s ship. Lou angled his ship, circling as wide as he dared to get a better look at the ship bearing the mark Golden Drake. It was unremarkable, in normal circumstances. It would easily pass for a passenger ship in any port in the Empire, but here, it looked out of place, a flashy tourist among the dingy mining ships and bristling French dreadnaughts.

He worked his hands anxiously over the thumb trigger, bolted on to the joystick. His breath fogged the faceplate of his helmet, clouding his vision as he glanced between the French ships and the freelancer, uncomfortable with so much being out of the hands of the miners.

“So, it turns out, they’re here to help,” said Cole, startling Lou from his thoughts. “We are going to escort them to the station while final evac is taking place.”

“What brings them here?”

“Don’t know, but those are our orders. The bosses know what they’re doing.”

Lou banked to pull closer to the deep-green ships, flying underneath and along one, its hull broken only by thin seams and gun emplacements. The turrets were angular bubbles, with round barrels protruding from them. Set beside them were thick doors, folded halfway out to shield the windows of the turret.

Fore was the bridge, a semi-circular protrusion wrapping around the nose of the long warship. He could see figures moving within; and wondered what their thoughts were, if they were ordered here, or volunteered.

He released the breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding as they drew close to the station. He followed in formation in a lazy circle around the station as the French ships arrayed themselves between the lane exits and the remaining transports.

“Just relax, everybody,” Cole said. “Just a couple more hours and everyone is clear.”

It was too late. Lou’s throat felt tight as ship after ship appeared near the buoy marking the GalSpan lane. The final ship was massive, a sprawling ship, gleaming white in the silvery light reflected from the asteroids.

“We’re doomed,” he managed to stammer through constricted vocal cords.

The Flower Game

Lee Drake studied the pink water circling the drain, as he rubbed his hands together under the water, crimson liquid mingling with the clear water. He pursed his lips, attempting with some measure of success to hide his displeasure at being interrupted. He could hardly fault the aide; they all knew his game was not to be disturbed except in this most dire of circumstances. Nevertheless, a game interrupted was a game lost.

He sighed. “The shipyards? What is the extent of the damage?”

The young man was obviously uncomfortable. Most who spoke with him were – he was hardly a man who invited company or conversation. His graces, to be sure, were few, but his appearance itself was enough to put off most who would approach. His face was scarred extensively down the right side, pulled tight with white scar tissue. Doctors – indeed, his few superiors at GalSpan – had pressed for him to have that, and his other ailments, seen to with the any number of augmentations, but he steadfastly refused them all. He greatly preferred his facades, and those facades had facets. So the scars remained.

His physical appearance was the least of his aides concerns. He stared at Lee’s back, standing at rapt attention, and doing his level best not to allow his voice to tremble.

“Yes, sir. They destroyed the staging area for the Messier task force. It was a contract ship, but it unclear if it had been hijacked or if it was the actions of the contractors.”

Lee removed his hands from the bowl of the sink, inspecting them deliberately for any traces of blood. “Where is that ship now?”

“It jumped back in the lane. We found two other ships. There was no life aboard, but they jumped as well as soon as our patrol approached.”

“Were they identified?”

The aide paused again before replying. “One was a mining transport, from Messier. The other…”

“Out with it.”

“The other was the Golden Drake.”

“He wouldn’t dare.”

“If he found out about you, sir…”

Lee Drake whirled on a heel, cruel sneer amplified by the scars. “How would he find out? How would anyone, Carlson? The entire point to our little division is that we do not exist, so how would he find out?”

“I… I don’t know, sir. Just saying, if he did, it could turn him against us.”

“Perhaps. There are other forces at work, even on a husk like my brother.” He sighed and glanced at the huddled, trembling mass in the adjacent room. “Release a statement that there was an accident at the shipyards. Prepare my ship. We are going to Messier. And get the board online, we have much to do.” He shot another glance into the other room. “And clean that up, and send the family a note.”

He strode out past his aide, who looked with fresh horror at the form on the floor.

* * *

He abhorred times such as these; not times of crisis, which necessitated decisive action, but the times where the actions he took need be approved by those who fancied themselves his superiors. Superiors – the notion was laughable to Lee, he of more experience, knowledge and experience than people who accomplished nothing on their own; were born into positions of influence and privilege. He had made himself, clawing his way to his position by any means required.

He put on his best face – such as it was – and answered the call on the screen before him. He did not wait for any of the faces in the array to speak. They may be in possession of authority over him on their org chart, but he would be damned before they dominated a conversation which belonged to him.

“There was an attack on the Mars shipyards today. It was targeted specifically at the boom where we were staging the Messier Operation. An unoccupied mining shuttle was found outside the limits of the shipyards, and it is my belief they either hijacked or coerced the crew of a the contract ship Rose into assisting in their terrorist actions.”

“What actions are you taking?”

Lee suppressed a glare at the bulbous man who spoke. “The Hornet and my own ship are being mobilized as we speak, Lord Kemp. A show of force will bring them to heel; if not, a second task force will follow shortly and we will free Messier to be repopulated by more grateful employees.”

Kemp nodded, the self-satisfied look momentarily erased from his ample face.

“Are there any objections to this plan?” He knew there would be; better to pretend he cared.

It was the hatchet-faced Duchess Eugenie who spoke. “Don’t you perhaps think they may be anticipating your coming? It seems unlikely that they would take such aggressive action without knowing that retaliation would follow. Walking into a trap would not help the situation.”

“I certainly doubt they anticipate anything like the Hornet. It has flown three escort missions, and clearly is ready for more. A show of force is needed, otherwise others may follow suit.”

“Do what needs doing, then. But do it quietly and cleanly.”

His scarred face twisted into a cruel grin. “That is the only way I operate.” He ended the call and the screen went black. He loathed the bureaucracy, but it was the reality of the size of GalSpan. Feeding the figures at the top only the barest information made his job much simpler. Of course they anticipated retaliation; of course he accounted for that. If Jack was involved, it presented certain challenges – yet made things simpler. He never underestimated the genius of his brother, but he was prone to attachments and ideals. It had broken him before; it would made him weak now.

His ship was ready when he reached the hangar, and he settled in the rear of it, pulling up GalSpan’s files on the Messier Mines. The ship raised from the platform into the smoke-filled skies of Earth, out of the ruined atmosphere and set off for Mars.

* * *

Small ships swarmed the scene of the incident, from a distance resembling a swarm of glittering incests, collecting debris. Lee watched out the window of his ship as it moved in to dock. He was met there by the shipyard administrator, a tall woman with pitch-black hair and dark eyes, serious expression etched across her bold features.

“Mister Drake, good to have you visit our shipyards again.”

“Raza, isn’t it?”

“Kayla Raza, at your service.”

He shook her extended hand. “How did you allow this to happen?”

If his question made her nervous, she didn’t allow it to show. “It was certainly a flaw in our security. We should have anticipated the use of contract ships to breach our security. We have implemented new checks to prevent any more breaches.”

He nodded. “That does not answer the question of how you allowed such a breach.”

“What would you have me say, sir? I could offer excuses –  the security plan comes from corporate, blame the security team, but I won’t hide behind that. I take responsibility for my shipyards.”

“Very well. See that it does not happen again. I expect more attempts in the future. See that you tighten up your security. If you need more personnel, submit a requisition to me.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Now – why I am here. You received my requisition?”

“I did. We are proceeding as directed. The Hornet will be ready to depart with a full compliment within the day. Two carriers and a dozen destroyers are ready to depart at your command. Two additional carriers and four destroyers are returning from escort duty within the day, and we can resupply them within twelve hours if no repairs are needed.”

“Good. Expect it to be much more crowded in the near future.”


“I submitted a plan to corporate, which will need government approval, to construct larger ships due to the clearly increased risk to our security, and thus, the British economy.”

“Government approval? Is that a problem?”

“Not at all, most of the members of that committee are heavily invested in GalSpan. It is doubtful the Empress would even bother to read the proposal before approving it. She does as she is told. What I need – what GalSpan needs – are competent people in key positions.”

To her credit, she did not blink from his critical gaze. “You have one here, sir.”

“See that we do.”

* * *

Show of force was such a crude term, he mused. Any idiot could wield a gun – in fact, the idiot was likely the more threatening with it. Brash, unpredictable, apt to hurt anyone at random. A show of force could instill fear, which could certainly be useful, but was far from practical. Fear only kept people in order for so long – eventually, they chaffed, and rebelled, and would throw off the chains of fear.

The show he wanted was much more effective – certainly fear was an element, but not fear of reprisal. No, fear of the unknown, fear of the outside, was far more useful. Fear of what would happen if the system failed, those were the things they must fear. Then – then – they would stay loyal. Trapped by the wage system, indeed, but they wouldn’t care, because they would be loyal, and afraid of anything different.

But force still needed to be exercised. Those who fought back against the system so carefully put in place must be removed, set as a examples. Scanning the personnel files, it was easy to pick out who those agitators were – and the connection to Jack.

Kara Lansky – nee Meyers – had been in university the exact same years as his older brother. He had never met her, but he had only visited a handful of times. A lover, or just a friend? In a way, he knew they were one in the same to Jack – they shared a difficulty forming attachments to people. The difference was Jack craved that connection and attachment, while Lee gladly went without them. An idealistic woman from his past would be a siren song to Jack indeed.

But she was married now. Jesiah Lansky, a simple miner, with a history of not being particularly good at his job. At least, the list of disciplinary actions would suggest such. Reading them, Lee saw someone not incompetent, but idealistic and disillusioned.

Joesph Silverstein, director of operations. Most in GalSpan couldn’t fathom any of their managers or directors acting against them – but that’s why Lee existed. Silverstein was a career man, son of a mining family and came up through the ranks. What turned him, Lee could not surmise, but it hardly mattered. What mattered was the actions that were taken could not have happened without his knowledge or assistance, and he must answer for that.

“Sir?” the intercom addressed him from the cockpit. “Two hours to Messier.”

“Very good. All hands to stations. Prepare for action.”


He took a deep breath as the cabin lights went red, savoring the anticipation. Soon, he told himself, his fingers tingling. He wanted to move, wanted the experience. He would have it, soon. An additional captive or two carried off would keep the mining families in line. A cruel smile spread across his face as he put on his armor.

* * *

They dropped out of the lane at the edge of the Messier system. A gas giant loomed ahead of them, beyond the thick rim of asteroids. It was the densest belt yet found, a rich yield of raw materials. It was a shimmering ring stretching as far as the eye could see, curving out of sight into a silver crescent. On the far side was the one of the station complexes – four such were in the strategic points along the belt. There was housing, processing and shipping stations, all drab gray, and usually bustling with activity.

Lee regarded them coldly from the bridge of his ship. “Have you signaled them, commander?”

“Yes, sir,” his communications officer replied. “No answer.”

“Deploy the task force. Defensive formation. Be ready for anything.”

“Yes, sir.” He relayed the orders. “Sir, the Hornet for you.” Lee nodded, and the he put the call on the screen at the rear of the bridge.

Captain Beavan of the Hornet addressed him. “Sir, we show minimal life aboard the station and no ships anywhere.”

“None at all?” The station monitors had shown activity the day before- oxygen being consumed, waste treatment was nominal – all signs that the station was occupied normally. But maybe that was what he was meant to see.

“No, sir. There is plenty of interference from the belt, but if anything was moving, we would know about it.”

“Should we search the other stations, sir?”

“No. They’re not here.”

“Then where are they, sir?”

The Changing of the Guards

Jupiter loomed large behind the wide windows of Titan Station. The pub was empty for early afternoon, at least according to Greenwich Mean Time. For a station orbiting a gas giant, using that standard of time worked as well as any. For the residents of a station long abandoned by secular authorities, early afternoon was not an uncommon time to drink.

Jack Drake swirled the amber liquid over the ice in his glass, staring into it as if it contained any answers. The most pressing, he supposed, would be answered shortly.

“Hello, Jack.” Her voice was still soft and seductive, a decade and more later. Her red hair peeked out from under the hooded tunic. He tried to keep his eyes on his glass, and failed miserably, turning to her. Her lips were just as brilliant as always; red against the pale white of her face.

“Couldn’t stay away, could you?” he said as gruffly as he could manage.

“I just had to see you.” That impish grin was the same, too.

He took a hard swallow of the strong liquor. “Does he know you’re here?”

“Of course he does.” She turned serious, mouth a thin line, green eyes intense. All business, now. “He agreed you were our best chance for success.”

“Because I have nothing to lose?”

“Because you know the systems, Jack. You designed most of them.”

“I think they know that, too.”

“They seem to have paid you once or twice since then.”

He went silent, pursing his lips, returning his gaze to the bottom of his glass. “You’ve done your homework.”

She cast her eyes down at the bitter tone in his voice. “I’m sorry about Sarah. I know she meant a lot to you.”

He shrugged. “My luck with relationships.”

“At least I’m alive.”

Fire lit in his dark eyes as he turned again to her. “I’m very curious about your sources, Kara. And, frankly, I don’t care that you’re alive, or about whatever cause you’re invested in this time. Sarah died because I took a job I shouldn’t have. So if you have a job for me, give me the details.” He pulled the last of his drink down, biting his lip as it burned going down and glared at Kara. “And then we’ll see what the collateral damage is this time.”

She said nothing for a long moment. “Maybe this was a mistake.”

He made a gesture to the bartender. “Probably.” The bartender brought drinks to both of them. “I assume you still order the same thing?”

She lifted the glass to her lips. “Generally. Not as classy out in the mines.”

“It’s not very classy here, either.”

She glanced around the pub, surveying the motley collection of miscreants populating it. Her keen green eyes picked out the details of her surroundings. “Some of them are more classy than they let on.”

“To be sure. That’s the glory of Titan Station. Everyone is welcome.”

“Welcome might be going a little far. I know about the gangs that run this place.”

“You and the rest of the Empire.” He reached for the fresh glass set before him and shot a sidelong look at her. “Let’s get to it, then.”

* * *

A decade had come and gone since the last time Kara Lansky had set eyes upon Jack. Even those ten years seemed a lifetime, and in some ways, it had been a different life. They were young, full of hope and optimism, before the galaxy got to them. Life happened to everyone, she supposed, recalling the last time she had seen him.

She had just graduated, and she was offered a position in the Messier Mines. A brand new facility, state of the art – the opportunity of a lifetime. Jack had his opportunity as well, a research facility orbiting Jupiter, just opposite the orbit of the station in which they now sat. It was all rubble now. Vaccines, they told him. Just like they told her she would be overseeing the best mining operation in the galaxy.

He didn’t ask her not to go, and she returned the courtesy. In point of fact, neither of them said much. The bottle and the intense bed they shared said enough. She woke first, and was on the shuttle before he was awake.

The silence between them was the last honest thing she remembered. Now their conversation lapsed, the silence merely vaguely uncomfortable.

She broke it first. “How soon can you be ready?”

He rolled his bottom lip with his tongue, the way he always did when he was pondering a reply, or trying to suppress a scathing one. “Tonight. Not much to prepare, if your people are as good as you say.”

“They’ve worked at blowing up asteroids for years. They know their way around ordinance.”

“You know you’re making a mistake, right?”



“GalSpan has been less than pleased with our lack of production, so they dispatched a detachment to ‘motivate’ us.”

“Wait, you stopped production? Why?”

She ignored his incredulous look. “We had to prepare, Jack.”

“I thought you just wanted GalSpan off your back.”

“We do. Permanently.”

“They’ll come down on you like a whole solar system.”

“We’re counting on it. As I said, we’re prepared.”

He shook his head as he raised his glass to his lips. “I’m going to need another.”

“We should get moving, even if you don’t have much to get ready.”

“Fair enough.” He swallowed the last of his drink and stood. A brunette in a flight suit was walking into the pub as he did, and his hand went to the gun at his hip. He glanced around at the other patrons before she made her way to the man in orange armor.

“I thought you said everyone was welcome here,” Kara said as they walked out.

He shot a look back at the man she joined, trying to place where he recognized him from. “Never hurts to be too careful.” He pulled to the side as a blonde strode confidently past. “Steer clear of that one.”

Kara rolled her eyes at him.

“Not like that.”

They followed the corridor to the hangar in the bowels of the station, where the clunky yellow and black mining shuttle rested next to the sleek Golden Drake. Kara raised her fist and thumped on the ramp at the aft of the shuttle. It descended and two figures walked down it. Jack shot a glance from one to the other.

“How do you tell them apart?”

They were both short, raven-haired with dark skin and eyes. “I have this scar,” one of them pointed to her lower lip, where an albino patch decorated it. “I’m Dawn. She’s Kim.”

“Good to know. Let me see your equipment.” He followed them up into the ship, where three large crates rested. One of the twins- he still couldn’t tell which – pulled the lid off and removed a large disk with both hands, about chest wide.

“Nothing fancy, but it’ll get the job done.”

“Timed or remote?”

“Both. We want redundancy. Also has a deadman trigger- if it loses signal from the remote, like, say, we get killed, it detonates.”

“Kim, right?”

“You’re catching on.”

“Good work. Let’s get them in place. I’ll send you coordiantes for the rendezvous.” He walked back down the ramp, nodding at Kara as he passed.

“Welcome back, Jack,” the Golden Drake greeted him as he stepped aboard.

“Thanks, Goldie.”

“You seem agitated.”

“You’re only saying that because I am.”

“I’m saying that because your heart rate is up and you’re sweating.”

“Thanks, doc.” He slid into the pilot’s chair, in the cockpit at the highest point on the spine of the ship. The Golden Drake was wide, originally a small yacht, which he had spend years modifying. From above, it wore a resemblance to a wide, flat fish – a sunfish, or the like, round at the front, with a tapered aft section and two nacelles which folded into fuselage.

“So what’s wrong?”

He cycled up the engines and sighed. “Nothing. Just someone I never thought I’d see again.”

“It’s not like you have any real friends.”

“Thanks for that,” he replied wryly.

“I just meant, anyone who means something to you is going to make more of an impact.”

“Yeah, I know what you meant. Between her and Sarah…” he trailed off, unsure even how to finish his own thought. He shook his head sharply, clearing it as best he could. “What do we have for maintenance schedules on the Mars shipyards?”

“Coming up.”

The scrolled across the screen in front of him. “Nothing here works. Don’t they leave the yards anymore? Supply run or anything?”

“Contract ships, mostly. Why not just take me in? We’ve been there enough, they won’t notice until it’s too late.”

“Except I’d rather they didn’t notice me at all. I don’t want them coming for me when this goes sideways.”

“What makes you think it’s going to?”

“I don’t know that this will, specifically. But there are enough of these fringe organizations that would like to see GalSpan taken down a few notches that this could spark something.”

“You’ve always been good at starting things, Jack.”

He didn’t reply as the Golden Drake slipped out of the Titan Station docking bay and turned in the direction of Mars.

* * *

The Golden Drake hung in blank space, the Miner’s blocky ship off to starboard, the blinking buoy marking the safe route straight ahead.. They had been sitting there silently for a little more than an hour, waiting for the GalSpan supply ship to appear. In his profession, there was a lot of waiting. He still hated it. He fidgeted with the controls in front of him absently.


“What?” He still looked around for the disembodied voice whenever the ship talked to him.

“Stop it.”

“Sorry.” He turned his attention to his suit- checked the seals, pulled his helmet on and off again, double and triple checked the weapons mounted in the wrist cuffs, and sighed before staring back out into the blackness.

“Ship approaching,” Goldie told him.

“Showtime, folks,” he told the waiting miners in the other ship. The transport appeared, a large, boxy affair, slowing from the shipping lane to sublight speeds. Jack jammed the throttle forward, working in concert with Goldie to bring them in close an at the same speed.

“Jam them, Goldie.”

“Already done, Jack.”

“Knew I could count on you.” There was a sharp clang as hulls scarped against each other.

“They’re running,” Goldie informed him as both ships accelrated.

“Of course they are.” Four thuds were transmitted through the hull as the tethers found their marks. “Can you mate up the hatches? I don’t want to punch the hull.”

“On it.” More scraping as the cargo ship tried to vary speeds to shake the Drake off. “Hey, assholes, watch the finish!” he snapped as Goldie lined up the hatches.

“We’re in,” she said in her perpetually level voice.

He unstrapped, sliding his helmet on as he grabbed a rung on the ceiling and pulled himself across it, and then down into the lower deck. The lower hatch popped open, revealing the olive drab of the cargo ship. There wasn’t any security on it, just a simple lever, which he threw and pulled the hatch open, obscuring himself behind it. Predictably, one of the crew stood there with a small rifle.

“Come on,” he said, leveling his own weapon through the hatch, “They’re not paying you enough to die.”

There was hesitation in the young man’s eyes. “They’re not paying us much at all,” he said and lowered the weapon.

“Is there a rep on board?”

“Yeah, some mid-rank jerk.”

“I’m coming down. Anyone have a problem with that?”

“It’s just me and the captain, other than the rep.”

“Captain a big GalSpan fan?”

“He’s a fan of a paycheck. He’s my pop, incidentally, so I’d prefer you didn’t kill him.”

“We’ll take care of that. I’d like to avoid killing anyone.” He vaulted the open hatch and slid through. “Except that rep. Where is he?”

“Below, sleeping or drinking.”

“Endless opportunities with GalSpan, aren’t there?”

“Not for pops and me, it seems. We ferry their junk, and get just enough to scrape by. This way.” He gestured to a bank of four doors, two to each side of the short corridor. “Second starboard. It’s probably locked.”

“I’ll try to keep the damage to a minimum.” He stepped in front of the door and raised his fist to it, pounding on it. It slid open to reveal a thin man, pale skinned, wearing a black uniform emblazoned with the green open-ended star insignia of GalSpan. It hung loose on him, and despite the bravado with which he opened the door, the uniform looked like it was waiting for him to grow into it.

Jack almost felt bad for him.

“What is all the racket?” he snapped.

“Nothing to worry about,” Jack responded to his startled expression. He leveled his fist at the man’s chest, and a wide blue blade extended swiftly out, piercing the GalSpan rep’s chest and exiting his back. He gasped once and crumpled to his knees as the blade extinguished.

“Now-” he cut off as he turned to the young man, his rifle raised once again.

“Now you’ve done it,” he said. “They’ll pay when we turn you in, for sure. Probably give us the Lancaster route.”

“No, they won’t. Anyway, you’re not going to turn me in to them. You’re shaking.”

“Doesn’t mean you’ll turn me in, or pull that trigger. What was your name?”

“David Lane. What’s it to you?”

“David, be reasonable. How fairly has GalSpan treated you thus far?”

“Not the point.”

A second man appeared, square-jawed, face firm set. He placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Put the gun down, Davey. I don’t think he’s here for us.”

“Not if I can help it. Just need your ship for a bit.”

“I don’t know that I can let you do that, son.”

Jack sighed slightly. “Same question for you, then: how fairly has GalSpan treated you?”

“Not about that; it’s about the Rose here. She’s mine; mine and my boy’s.”

“Nevertheless, we’ll be needing your ship.” Kara’s voice was low and even as she pressed her pistol to the back of the captain’s head. “And we need it, if you help us or not.”

The old man sighed, and shrugged. “Never liked GalSpan much anyway.”

“Hey, me either,” said Kara as she holstered her pistol. “Now, we have some cargo to bring aboard.”

* * *

Soon, the small cargo ship had resumed its journey towards the shipyards. Jack and Kara stood in the small, square cockpit of the freighter. It was barely large enough for the two seats occupied by the Lane father/son duo.

Various vehicles buzzed about the shipyards, tugs and transports. Docking stations hung throughout, grids of various sizes scattered about like crude digital spiders, gray against the rust-red of Mars. Every ship owned by GalSpan passed through he shipyards at some point- commercial or military. Bulky freighters, much larger than the Rose, we docked- some clean and obviously new, others battered and old, in for repairs. Four giant orbs were teeming with workers, putting together new terraforming engines, which would turn a planet habitable over the next several decades.

“What… is that?” Kara asked, pointing at the ship docked by itself. It was massive, larger than any of the others, appearing almost as a giant, space-going manta, if slightly more squared-off.

“That? That’s the Hornet,” the elder Lane replied. “Too many pirates anymore. Trying to scare them off.”

“”I think they’re worried about more than just pirates…” David glanced wryly back at Jack and Kara.

“Let’s make sure they have a reason to worry,” Jack said. “We need buoy number fourteen, Mister Lane.”

“Shouldn’t we do something about the Hornet?” Kara asked.

Jack shook his head. “What we have back there won’t make a dent in that. Besides, that’s not what they’re sending after you. Yet.”


“You said you found out there is a task force coming to the mines. That means destroyers and troops. They don’t want to destroy their equipment; they want to make an example out of you and get new miners back to work. Then they’ll send that after you, and write off their losses. I hope you have a plan for dealing with that.” She said nothing in return. “Great. Well, one step at a time.”

They drew in close to the buoy – one large center beam, several hundred meters long, with smaller arms protruding off it. Moored on the arms were several ships- four personnel transports, and six destroyers.

“Bring us to the near end of the structure, if you please, underneath it.” Jack crouched and looked back into the cargo bay, where the twins were readying their deadly cargo, floating at shoulder level next to them. They nudged the crates up towards the ceiling before somersaulting, planting boots on the ceiling. One of them – he certainly couldn’t tell which when they were in identical spacesuits – opened the top hatch and slipped through, as the other twin fed the crates through.

“Keep it slow,” Jack advised him.

Kara was looking around nervously, craning her neck to try to get a better view as they worked their way down the buoy.

“Settle down, Kara.”

“What if someone notices us?”

“We’ll be able to get out before anything armed can get to us.” He left off the phrase hopefully.

She nodded and lapsed back into silence. There was no sound save for the light rustling of the air circulating, and the occasional noise as one of the twins shifted on top of the ship. The underside of the buoy scrolled by, panel after composite panel.

“What did you say your name was, son?” the elder Lane spoke softly.

Jack narrowed his eyes through the wide slit on his helmet. “Jack. Jack Drake.”

“Heard of you before.”

“I sure hope it was nice.”

“Depends, I guess. Heard you are pretty ruthless.”

“I don’t fly cargo, mister Lane. You don’t make it far in my business without being ruthless.”

The older man nodded slowly. “You haven’t asked my name, though. Asked the boy’s-” he inclined his head slightly, still not looking back at Jack- “But not mine. Is that to make it easier?”


“When you kill us.”

“Is there a particular reason I should?”

“It strikes me that we constitute what you might call a ‘loose end.’”

“Despite what you may have heard, Mister Lane, I’m not in the business of killing people unless I have a compelling reason to.”

The older Lane nodded and said nothing more.

“Incidentally, what’s your name?”


“You know,” Kara said, turning back to the fore of the ship, “We’re not just some run-of-the-mill pirates here. We’re here because of you.”

“Because of me?”

“Anyone like you, or like us, who GalSpan treats like slave, pays next to nothing and discards just as soon as your usefulness is worn out.”

“Here we go,” Jack rolled his eyes.

“Oh, knock it off. Some of us don’t just go into hiding when things don’t go as planned.”

“I’m not doing this with you right now.”

“Doing what, Jack? He thinks you are going to kill him. The least I can do is let him know why we’re here.”

“Won’t matter, the Hornet and everything else they have will be there after this little display.” Jack’s eyes didn’t leave the Lane duo, the younger fidgeting with controls uncomfortably, while the elder continued straight ahead. Jack sighed. “Fine, we’ll kill them.”


“Fine, I’ll kill them.”

“You’re not helping.”

“I got you this far.”

The end of the main structure was drawing near, and shortly the twins reappeared in the cargo bay. “We’re all set,” one of them said.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jack said to Paul. “I guess I’ll decide about killing you two later.”

Paul nodded and pushed the nose down, flipping the bulky craft in a downward U, back the way they came. Presently, they drew close to the Golden Drake and mining shuttle.

“Hey, weren’t there just the two ships?” Paul said. “Looks like GalSpan is sniffing around.”

Jack peered out, seeing twi small, sleek GalSpan patrol craft ahead of them, slowing as they closed in on the stationary ships. “Don’t get any ideas, Lane.”

He slipped below where Kara and the twins stood. “What now?” Kara asked.

“We have a little fun with them. Goldie, you there?”

“Waiting for you, Jack.”

“Can you get into that shuttle’s system?”

“all you have to do is ask.”

“Good, lay in a course for the Messier system and take it with you. We’ll meet you there.”

“Hey, your ships seem to be leaving without you,” Paul shouted from the cockpit.

“That’s the idea. Turns out we’ll need your services a little longer.”

There was some shuffling from the cockpit, and Paul soon appeared in the cargo bay as well. “It seems you’ll need all the help you can get.”

“Don’t talk to me; talk to her,” Jack said, nodding at Kara.

Paul turned to her. “Did you mean that, that you’re not just pirates? You’re actually trying to push back at GalSpan?”

“It would seem so.”

“Then anything my boy and I can do, we’re with you.”

“Good to have you with us, Mister Lane.” She reached out and shook his hand.

“What a touching scene,” Jack said. “But have you considered what you’re going to do now?”

“As a matter of fact, we have.” One of the twins raised the remote for the explosives and depressed the trigger. “Maybe you should stick around and find out.”

“Maybe I will. I have to collect my ship anyway.” He turned to the cockpit and shouted, “Davey! Messier system!”

The Rose shifted as it accelerated away from the exploding shipyards.

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Jonah Harrington stood and watched the interior airlock doors close. It seemed to do so in extreme slow motion, or as if time itself had slowed.

A single tear rolled down his cheek, tracing its watery path equally slowly. The weight of shame and despair showed its toll on his thin, weary face. Twenty-six years of life and he had fewer solutions as an adult than he had had as child, and he was done.

His uniform was smartly pressed- that much, at least, he could do right- and what few decorations he had been awarded were pinned to it.

Alarms blared, warning him of the imminent loss of pressure, but he ignored them. No one on the ship would save him if they heart, nor would he save himself. Even so, he knew the duty officer would see the warning from the conn, but by the time he or anyone else arrived, Jonah would be long gone, and that was for the best.

Memories washed over him in that endless moment. His childhood had been ostensibly idyllic, growing up in all the money and privilege New London had to offer. His father had lead a distinguished military career; his mother was the daughter of an Admiral. From a young age he was groomed for naval life.

For many, the signs were there that he was far from navy material, but their ambitions for him would not allow for that to be possible. So it was his passions were dismissed, scorned and ridiculed by his parents.

Not as if they were present enough to truly care. His father, the revered Rear Admiral, was eternally ‘away’, while his mother dutifully entertained- and saw that his sister, Sabrina, learned her station. He was raised by a parade of nannies and governesses. He got on famously with all of them- his mild disposition and affinity for the arts made him an easy child, and he was universally loved by the young women who attended to him.

This was, of course, unacceptable. When his father was around, any conversation consisted of jabs at his person and lack of signature masculine qualities. How did he expect to make it in the harsh black of space in the Navy?

He was twelve when his father told him a story that would change him- or rather, was a catalyst to him. It wasn’t told directly to Jonah, although it was most certainly directed at him.

His father spoke to their assembled guests after one of the famous Harrington dinner parties. It was a collection of New London’s VIPs. Drinks were served the adults, and the Admiral ‘graciously’ permitted Jonah to stay up, likely with the hope of toughening him up.

To his father- career man, brave, indomitable- there was nothing worse than a coward. He had served with one, he said as his sipped his sherry, the worst man he had shared a ship with. The man was utterly without spirit, jumping at shadows- even his own. God help a coward, he said, should they ever be boarded. He was high-born, son of an admiral (this was added with a significant look at Jonah), and boarded they were one night, between beacons, days away from anywhere. They mucked up the line, blew up an asteroid in the shipping lane, and they had to stop, or be spread over god knows how many light years.

Any soldier in history knows that the waiting is the worst part. For this man (if you can call him that), in his cowardice, it was a thousand times worse. White as a ghost, he was, trembling, sweating so bad his visor fogged. Like I said, high-born leftenant. He took a slow drink and shook his head as he swallowed. Lead a squad. They were nearest the breach when they came through. He froze; couldn’t even stammer an order. Squad was hacked to pieces, right in front of him.

“What happened to the bugger?” one of the guests asked.

That was the worst of it, in that Admiral’s estimation. He died with his squad, with men of action. A bastard like that shouldn’t die in battle.

Perhaps, Jonah though as the doors moved continued their infinitely slow march, my father will take pride in the fact that I died as a coward should. God knew he had pushed him to it.

He had hoped that his training would provide him with something that would make him the soldier and leader his father wanted him to be. If anything, it made him worse. He certainly didn’t fit there, with men and women who wanted to be there, who chose this life. They didn’t understand him- to them, he was a spoiled child who got there without earning anything. The worst part was that he had no defense for them- it was all true.

He tired, though, tried as hard as he could. He even stepped up, once. A training simulation through pirate territory, only the captain ‘died’ in the first assault. He managed to take command, as was his duty, even feeling briefly exhilarated at doing so. Maybe, maybe this is what I need, he thought.

The ship shook as magnetic tethers slammed into the hull. He ordered various squads to their positions, and allowed himself to enjoy the armored soldiers responding to his commands. They took their positions and the shaking stopped. He waited, and waited. There was a hum from directly over his head, and he looked up to see a glowing circle in the ceiling of the conn. The cutting torch burst through, and Jonah jumped out of the way the metal coupon dropped to the floor beside him. ‘Pirates’ poured in through the opening.

All the lights came on, and the simulation floor levelled and went still. The training Sargent strode over to Jonah, who snapped to attention.

“Congratulations, son. You’ve failed this exercise in record time. I’ve seen it done poorly, but you’re the first to not leave a squad to guard the conn. Where did you think they’d hit?” He held up a hand as Jonah tried to stammer an explanation. “No, son. I don’t want excuses. Excuses don’t matter. You’re dead, and so are your men.” He walked away shaking his head.

The doors were almost closed, and one tear had reached his chin, another falling along the same path. He continued to stare at the closing gap, hands folded behind him, wishing that this moment would end, like he wished nearly every other moment in his life would. The only difference was that this would be his final moment. He had gone from one terrible moment to another, each one worse and more damning than the last, but no longer. This time, it would all be over.

He had been on the Ardent since he- somehow- graduated training. Assigned as a leftenant, his career thus far did him no good. The men gave him only the respect they were required, and sometimes not even that. As always, he felt he deserved their scorn and so did nothing to rectify the situation. He kept to himself as best he could and just tried to stay out of the way.

This was both easy and impossible. There was nowhere to hide from the rest of the crew, but he had no friends, so no one spoke to him. He was constantly alone, but never away.

Their first action had come a week ago. They were patrolling a shipping lane between the GalSpan mines in the Messier system, when they detected the tell-tale signs of a pirate trap. The shipping lanes were marked with beacons that scanned for debris that would tear a ship travelling much faster than light apart. The carcass of a long decommissioned ship had been blown up in the lane, shrapnel spread across thousands of kilometers. The pulled to a stop near the debris field and scanned for the pirate ships.

There were two of them, closing rapidly. One stopped above the Ardent, the other off to port. The Ardent rotated to target the port ship; a bulky, deep-green affair, with a tall stern and sixteen apparent guns. The Ardent had twenty-four, and fire poured between the two.

Meanwhile, the ship above moved into position. Jonah felt the Ardent shake as the shells hit home, and then the deep, low rumble that signified the launch of missiles. Sortly after, there was a violent tremor as they found their mark, the ship above detonating. He stood in his armor with the squad he was to lead, just fore of the engines, trembling and sweating. His visor fogged and he recalled his father’s story. This only made his breathing heavier and more ragged. He felt the rhythmic thump thump thump as the cannons pounded fire out. He stood there and waited, waited and waited until he couldn’t take it anymore.

He knew the men were staring at him, he tried to look at their faces, but the distain that the visors did nothing to hide was too much to bear. “Hold position,” he said feebily. “Stay… I… uhh…” He couldn’t finish. He turned, and he ran. He didn’t even know where he was running to. He just had to be somewhere, anywhere, else. He found himself in his bunk, still fully clad in his armour and burst into tears, breaking down completely.

As he did, the ship shook violently, and pivoted sharply. They had taken a hit aft, but he didn’t even register anything. He just sat there and sobbed.

He found out after what had happened. They got both pirates ships, in the end, but they had taken a severe hit for of the engines, right where his abandoned squad was, killing all of them. The port engine was completely crippled. Repair crews worked night and day on it, trying to get them operational before critical systems gave out.

Jonah, for his part, found out that he could, in fact, be more reviled by the crew. He expected a dressing down from the captain, but the man just looked at him in disgust. Every crew member he passed looked on him with hatred and judgment. Corridors were a nightmare, the mess hall worse. He was beyond ashamed, and far past despair.

A week passed and there was no progress on the engine. Rescue vessels were a month away, and if they were lucky, life support would hold out that long. The crew muttered as Jonah walked past, making sure he knew he was to blame. He knew, certainly, had always been made acutely aware of his failures, and was uncertain as to any actual successes in his life.

But for the first time, he was certain of what he had to do. So it was he stood in the forward airlock, watching the doors finally seal themselves shut. In a final act of cowardice, he couldn’t even turn to look at the outer doors as they opened.

Calvin Moore, the chief engineer of the Ardent was on his thirty-eighth straight hour of working on the engine with no sleep. He had managed to get most of what he figured they would need to get underway again, but nothing was working. He was tethered under the boxy casing- most of which had been torn off- trying to get to a coolant line that would not stay connected, when something large slammed into the plating next to him.

“What the…” He said, jumping off and grabbing the tether. He steadied himself and looked at what it was. The body of Jonah Harrington, stripped by the rapid decompression, slid along what was left of the engine casing and off into space.

“Chief, what is it?” The duty officer said over the radio.


“I show all green up here, whatever you did. Should I fire it up?”

“Yeah, Jimmy.” He held tight as the engine rumbled above him. He gritted his teeth and hoped. Flames left from the rear of the engine, and it hummed to life. The chief looked past them to the corpse floating away in the distance and shook his head.

“Jimmy, tell the captain I’m coming in to get some sleep and that we can be underway within twelve hours.” He paused once more at the entrance to the airlock, and then put the occurrence out of his head.

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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.