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IRON FIVE

DOGS OF WAR

 

AN EARTHFRONT NOVEL

Written by Seon Stronghold

 

PROLOGUE

 

 

Through the cockpit viewscreen, Earth appeared as beautiful as ever and like always, Captain Kelly Winterfield marveled at it. Docked at the International Space Station for four hours now, he was sitting in the dim pilot’s cabin of The Legacy II, preparing for departure.

The station controller’s voice crackled over the comm. “Legacy Two, you’re good for auto and cleared for undocking.”

“Legacy Two, copies clearance on full guidance...” Kelly responded.

The ship lurched as the powerful arms holding it in place disengaged. Manipulating the controls with experienced nudges this way and that, Kelly turned the freighter a full one hundred and eighty degrees until the view of the planet gradually changed to the white shell of the sprawling space complex.

The International Space Station was an old one, the very first. Unlike its newer counterparts, it was the only station in the galaxy with this design. A patchwork from additions and upgrades over hundreds of years, cylindrical arms ten miles long extended horizontally from its bustling core and harbored thousands of ships of varying sizes, linking them to its interior by way of retractable bridges.

The Legacy II drifted from the wharf-like structure and ten minutes later, when the computer indicated that they were safely beyond the outer edges of Earth’s junk rings, Kelly took full control of his ship and ignited its thrusters.

Seven minutes later, he came out of Hyper Light and the coppery-colored curve of Venus came into view. His destination was a Military facility, five hundred feet above the base of Mount Danu. In all his time delivering for Earthfront, he had never been to this port; had never even heard of it. Whatever the cargo in his hold was, it must have been something big because only very-high-level clearance could get him surface-side on Venus. According to his agent, all he needed to do was pick up the shipment, deliver it, make no inspections and not stick his nose into it.

Whatever it was, he had an uneasy feeling about the whole deal and just wanted to get there, drop the shipment and get Earth-side in time to catch a shuttle home. Today was his daughter’s birthday. She was, in her own words, officially ten and he knew she would never let it go if he missed her big celebration.

Do you really have to go out this time?

His wife had tried to convince him to stay, but this job was important and the credits it would earn him would set them good. His daughter would have a better future and he and Laura would finally be able to go on that honeymoon vacation they always wanted. After all, a Light-Class Space Trucker made barely enough credits to cover the cost of living on Earth, but this time they would be able to make the move to Pluto or Charon. Life on the Border Worlds was easily affordable and less stressful than mid-system planetary hubs. His trucking business would flourish out there too. Haulers were always in high demand on the outer edges of Sol.

The cockpit beeped three times, alerting him of his proximity to atmospheric entry.

Venus and Mercury, unlike Mars, Jupiter’s moons, Saturn and Neptune’s moons and Pluto and Charon, were nothing more than mining planets. The space stations orbiting Venus numbered only two but Kelly would not be docking in space on this trip. His hauler was one of a few types of interstellar Light-Classers that could make the transition from space to atmosphere and back.

At twenty thousand kilometers from entry, The Legacy II slowed rapidly, covering the remaining distance in twenty minutes before burning through atmosphere. As the ship transitioned into Venusian airspace, Kelly found, though nothing like Earth, that there was a unique beauty about this hostile world.

Sulfuric clouds, twenty kilometers thick, spread planet wide below him and lightning lit up the vast blanket in periodic displays of spectacular bursts. A few miles away and even as far as the horizon, massive barges hung miles above the surface, transporting precious ore to waiting cargo ships in vacuum but they soon disappeared and the acidic cloud cover enveloped his ship, blotting out the bright yellow sky above. The cockpit shook with turbulent winds and bucked its way through the density of the mid atmospheric storm. Beneath the perpetual cover, life on this planet existed in near darkness by day and utter blackness by night.

Kelly broke free of the haze after what seemed like ages and the ship’s external lights automatically woke, illuminating huge wisps of sulfuric acid, drifting lazily along their paths. At twenty thousand feet above ground level, the lights of the mountain base came into view and the communications module crackled to life.

“Legacy Two, this is Outpost Three Command. Give link up and pilot ident, over.”

“Captain Kelly Winterfield of Legacy Two, Venus bound from Earth.” He read the identification codes on his thigh board and waited for confirmation.

“Welcome to Venus Captain.”

The Legacy vibrated and shook as the outpost’s tracking system took control, directing the hauler to a docking bay built into the side of the mountain.

The first thing Kelly noticed as his ship glided smoothly toward the hangar was the grunge built up along the outer walls of the base. Eversteel was immune to sulfuric acid but grimy deposits, collected over time, gave a disgusting appearance and covered it like a mossy shell.

The winds had also picked up. Fifty-five miles per hour to be exact but the base’s auto guidance system kept the ride stable, and when he finally entered the complex, the shaking of the cockpit ceased.

********

 

Fifty minutes later, Kelly stretched his cramped muscles and leaned against the headrest of his seat. This would be over soon. In the next three hours, he’d be back on Earth with his family and five hundred million credits richer.

The communications console lit up.

“Legacy Two…shipment has been received, you have clearance for startup.”

Kelly responded “Legacy Two copies clearance for startup.”

He jumped back into the pilot’s seat, strapped in and ran through the sequence that would ready his ship for the trip home and as he hit the ignition switch, violent streaks of gunfire lit up the massive hangar outside his viewscreen.

An out of control wrecking ball thumped within, as Kelly’s heart slammed against his chest. Tracer rounds shredded men and women in mechanized suits and mercilessly blew apart ships and armored vehicles. The Legacy II lifted gracefully from the landing pad, glided its way through the cavernous space and into the strong gusts outside. Without the station’s auto guidance system to keep the ship stable, Kelly had to rely on natural reflexes honed by years of experience; nothing he couldn’t handle.

The scene before him was unreal. A lone, military grade, walking battle tank tore the place apart as an unmarked transport ship nearby loaded cargo into its hold…his cargo.

Heart hammering, hands trembling, head swimming, Kelly sent a distress signal to Earth and adjusted his angle of ascent, then rocketed skyward wanting nothing more than to escape the madness below. He never saw the four missiles streaking toward him. Then in a bright flash of fiery debris, the last thing he felt was horror.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FACT

 

Kedenians were among the first to leave for the stars. Originally, they settled on Nema, a Goldilocks planet in a system five light-years from Earth and after fifty years of disputes known as The Splinter Wars, Earthfront expelled the rogue clan, banishing them into unknown space.

Twelve years later, the Kedenian warlord Amir Kedeni and his supporters stumbled across a rich, desert planet eight thousand light years from Earth…and time passed.

As humanity colonized many systems throughout the Milky Way, large corporations, governments, and various organizations rose to rule it all. Earthfront, the leading authority in most of our Galactic Domain, is the largest governing body in existence. Yet as peace reigns throughout known space, Keden, it seems, would forever be a hostile world to Earthfront.

 

 

CHAPTER 1 - IRON FIVE

 

 

My MAV is part of a five-man team on patrol across this barren Kedenian dunescape. I am Alpha Dog, call sign Huski. On my right, is Dachshund and Pitbull and to my left, Akita and Terrier; names chosen by us based on what breed of dog we have on our respective home planets, it is one of the worthwhile things we all have in common.

MAV’s are the most widely used gear when it comes to military operations, Mechanized Armored Vehicles; walking tanks so to speak, and just like the rest of the team, mine is a Light-Class Mecha.

We are Legs Dangling at forty feet above Artificial Ground Level and heading east at seventy miles per hour. My Heads-Up-Display shows me the sandy terrain and all its contours as they intersect with the computer’s generated lines. These lines keep us clear of obstacles but below dune peaks and off enemy radar. Our mission is simple. Patrol the Outlands and report any anomalies, lifeforms and or threats. We are to remain on our side of the fence. For no reason, are we to go beyond the digital and imaginary lines, which separate us from the locals. At no point are we to go weapons hot unless fired upon and some more blah, blah, blah. Personally, this being an unfriendly world and all, I think this is bullshit, but it’s our mission according to SysDef, the System Defense Administration; our Diplomatic Relations Bureau stationed on this rock, eight thousand light-years from Earth.

Our Unit is here to assist these slackers because these weekend soldiers wouldn’t know what to do if the Local Guerillas stood on the borderlines and stared them down, let alone declared a full-scaled attack. The only solace these pushovers have is the fact that the Kedenians know the repercussions of such an act but as history has taught us so very often; it only takes one maniac to take the plunge.

So here we are, servants of SysDef for the time being however, we don’t take orders from them. Our directives come from General, Alexander ‘Hawk’ Madison; one of the many heads of Earthfront Galactic, the military might and arm of our home planet spread out across the Milky Way. Our real mission, as far as our General is concerned, is to confirm that an Earth Based contingent of rebels is here along with their leader and if they are, we are to eliminate them. According to our most recent intelligence report, a few months ago, someone attacked an Earthfront military base on Venus and all of the evidence links our targets to the crime.

Another chill runs through my body as my combat suit, the mechanical and biological link to the machine, cools my skin with filtered air. My communication module lights up.

“Iron Five…one bar to lights out, Link and rep live, over.”

Our unit is Iron Five. One bar to lights out means one hour till sunset. Link and rep live means to contact base and report what is happening. The voice in my ear is feminine yet devoid of femininity. Her name is Mirana O’Canon and she is a genuine hard-assed, straight-laced, battle-axe woman who kicks butt and takes no prisoners.

How in the galaxy can a woman be so unwomanly?

I respond “…Huski to base, nothing but sand and rock out here. We’re runnin’ one bar after lights out before headin’ back, over.”

“Roger that Captain, squawk on ret.”

The com goes dead.

Squawk on return is standard procedure when dealing with Earth-based military installations. If the pilot of any craft does not provide the proper codes when returning to, or approaching a base, the 550 millimeter auto-cannons placed around the Station would go active. These bad boys are the most feared armor killers out there, and as any pilot would tell you, respecting them is always a healthy decision to make.

“Alpha…” my Com flashes again. It’s Pitbull on our secure channel “…Keds Roving patrols on scan, seven clicks south.”

“Okay Bull, mark ‘em…” They would show up on my scanners at three kilometers but Bull’s MAV is equipped with heavy sensors and detectors that enable him to see a lot further than any of us. He is our very early warning system and because he has traded most of his heavy weapons for extra eyes and ears, we keep him well protected. “…do we cross paths?”

“I’ve marked ‘em but they’re not gonna cross us…they’re bugging south…”

“Okay maintain course…going dark in two.”

According to my Heads-Up-Display, it is 16:55 Kedenian time, which means that in two minutes; this Solar System’s dimming sun would end Keden’s ten-hour daylight time. By the looks of it, tonight is going to be a bit clearer than usual and unless our readings are wrong, there won’t be another sand storm for at least two days.

“Okay fellas, going dark.” I throttle down, bring my engine to hover and descend until the thud of machine meeting ground shakes the cockpit. The MAV’s Automatic Balancing System keeps me from toppling over and the rest of my team fall in beside me. Mentally, I hit a digital key on my visor and watch, as we all become rippling reflections of our surroundings.

When we go dark, our stealth capabilities truly come to life. Reflective Regeneration Technology allows our MAVs to blend in to our surroundings while Bull’s jamming equipment keeps us off radar and other sensor systems. I half-consciously check the Neural in the lower right corner of my screen. The Neural Link is a virtual indicator that monitors the team’s individual movements, locations and life forces. We feel it, taste it, hear and see it. Even now, I can feel the life of the men under my command; a sensation that is often strange, bordering on invasive even though it has become natural over time.

“Dogs you’re all a go…” I wait for my check

“Alpha you’re good”

Terrier confirms that my camouflage has engaged.

“Okay let’s make this as clean as possible…” I turn my head toward Pitbull and the outline of his cloaked MAV shows up on my visor; all its info and stats readily available at my command “…Bull, you know what to do. Hound, you’re on guard duty tonight.”

“Roger that Alpha.”

Dachshund’s German accent is still very strong, even after all these years away from home. His job on this run is to guard Pitbull as he scans and jams our enemies. His position is one that’s close enough to Bull to provide protection but near enough to us to come in guns blazing if needed. He is the right man for the job, as he has proven so often before.

 

**********

 

I approach the digital lines that divide Earthfront and Kedenian law. There is a feeling of satisfaction in our defiance as my MAV crosses it. The Dune Desert is behind me, all of its massive sand banks in our wake; I give the signal and we come to a stop at the edge of a cliff.

The drop is two hundred and eighty six feet, according to my reading, and spreads out as far as the eye can see, one broad, flat, dirt and rock landscape. The view is captivating. Ten miles into the distance a city sprawls; a colossal, manmade mountain made of buildings and endless lights, wide and low on each end and rising to a peak near the center. Above it, one of this planet’s two spaceports shines like a large star in the brown sky and every so often, shuttles, like little fireflies, travel to and fro.

The drop-off in front of us could be a problem. Even with our camouflage engaged.

“Terri…I thought you said this was the best route?”

“It is Alpha. It’s the most direct...”

I turn my attention toward the expanse of land beyond our position “Bull…you in position?”

There’s a flicker of static before I hear him “Dug in and watching, over.”

“Hound...?”

“All set…”

“Okay boys, on go and fly.” I do a split second systems check “Ready…” we move closer to the edge “…set…” I push the accelerator and the gears in my machine whine “…go!”

The three of us take a two-step run, jump from the cliff and free-fall with our thrusters cold. My head swims in the sensation of the plunge and we kill the stealth. We’ll show up on every radar system within a hundred miles. My altimeter counts down in a frenzy of numbers and now, with a hundred feet to go…

“…fly!”

I ask my MAV for full power. Every heat detector in the vicinity would see us, but this slows the drop. With gritted teeth, the Sol Combustion engine jolts me into a million shudders. Our rate of descent goes from fifty-two feet per second, to nine feet per second and then I shut the thrusters down, go engines-cold and brace for impact.

Enemy radar and sensors would report our five seconds of madness as a glitch; at least I hope so. We reactivate our camouflage.

“Let’s move.” I give the command, with frantic fists pounding against my chest, and we begin our run toward the City.

 

 

CHAPTER 2 - DUNAN

 

 

DZ087 is one of numerous Districted Zones located along Dunan’s eastern edge. Entirely the opposite of its western counterparts, it is a rough and sordid zone where seedy taverns, rundown towns and derelict infrastructures make up a dangerous and unfriendly environment. As we approach, I notice parts of its tall, perimeter wall lying scattered on the ground in some places, while in others it no longer exists. The place looks as though a nuke hit it. Buildings that would have once been architecturally pleasing to the eyes are now rundown, empty, broken, or rubble.

My MAV steps over the vandalized fence and I give the word to deactivate our camouflage. Now that we are close enough to the city, we won’t need it. Too many signals and too much equipment now run interference on our behalf. We would be no more than the usual traffic.

Our destination is down a main road and then off through a dark and usually deserted side street. So far, the folks we’ve passed have hardly acknowledged our presence. Everyone seems to be somewhere else, either in mind or body. There is a feeling of emptiness here, a lack of openness and freedom. The only thing I can think of is desolation. It is in their walk, their demeanor…their eyes.

In the dark sky, void of any clouds as usual, the stars sparkle few and far apart; this is a result of Keden’s dusty atmosphere and unlike back home, there is no moon. A few Air and Magnatech Vehicles parked beside derelict structures catch my eye and questionable figures enter and exit questionable buildings however, our mission has nothing to do with whatever is going on here, so we continue along.

My secure com lights up “Alpha…?”

“Terri…”

“How do we know that there are no spies here?”

“We don’t. This is where we’re gonna have to take our chances but I doubt we’ll have that problem in this part of town.”

I don’t worry about anyone reporting our presence to the local authorities because there are way too many illegal activities going on in this one locale for anyone to be so stupid. No one in his or her right mind would dare bring the law here and as we get to the end of the street and turn onto another wide road, everything changes. It’s a lot livelier here. The glows of dull yellow street lights and neon signs everywhere, reveal many of the district’s citizens going about their nightly lives, from street-side substance dealers, to vendors, to buyers, to prostitutes, all driven by a common denominator; credits.

We come to a halt outside a well-aged tavern. Like most manmade structures on this planet, it is made of metal, stripped of its yellow paint. The guards at the front entrance seem a bit uneasy. I guess I would be too if three Earthfront Mecha came and stood less than thirty feet away with guns and missile pods pointed in my direction, but they hold their positions, admirable in a way, their guns futile at the ready.

“Bull…how’s the weather?”

Static hits me “…All clear Alpha…”

“Hound…?”

“Ready and waiting…”

“Terri, Akita, if anything goes wrong, do what you have to do.”

“…Will do boss.” Akita’s voice is steady. He knows, just like the rest of us what the risks and potential consequences of coming here entail.

I power down my MAV and hit the release switch. The dashboard in front of me hisses, as the pressurized air around is expelled, and slides downward. The legs of the machine crouch, lowering the cockpit to the ground. My harness tightens for a second, then goes loose and I unclip it.

“Be careful Alpha…eyes open.”

I won’t reply but Terri knows I acknowledge his concern.

The air here is warm and dry but my Combat Suit filters it in and allows me to breathe cool and moist oxygen. My visor tells me that the temperature is a nice 32 degrees Celsius and I say nice, because the daytime temp is usually anything around 60.

I climb out of my seat and down the built-in-ladder in front of my Mecha. Three new guards joint the two at the door and as I walk toward them, the sound of my MAV resealing itself ripples through the far recesses of my mind until it becomes another distant background noise.

I get to the door of the tavern and one of the guards step between it and me “Who are you and what is your business here Earther?”

His gravelly voice is like the rest of all who come from, or live too long on this planet. ‘It’s because of the dust and sand’ According to those who are qualified to know these things. ‘Gets into the throat and lungs and over time, the human body adapts.’

“I am death to my enemies, but I am here to see Toros, my friend.” I keep eye contact and though he defiantly returns my gaze, I see a flicker of uncertainty.

“Wait here.” He leaves me with the other four guards and goes through the door.

Two minutes and some pass before he returns and makes way for me to enter. His colleagues seem on edge but they are of no concern. As a matter of fact, I think that the two MAV’s facing us have placed a healthy bit of fear in them; exactly what I was hoping.

The guard I spoke to eyes me suspiciously but motions for me to enter through the slanted steel doors. I go without hesitation and the world around me changes from openly wild, street-side life, to controlled and nice…an almost cozy indoor getaway. The bar is dusty and hot but lively. Its yellow lights cast a dull glow across the large room. I recall from memory the exits and windows in my immediate view; on these hostile worlds, it has become second nature over time to do so.

The big bartender looks like ex Kedar; Kedenian Special forces, and two men not far from him seem to be trading something unholy. Then there is the person sitting at a corner table with two prostitutes, a Kedenian tradesman by the look of his clothing. Tradesmen on this planet are often leathery skinned because of their extensive time in the sun. Their clothes are always long and made of patchwork that covers most of their bodies including heads and faces.

“Hello there…”

I turn toward the soft voice. A woman dressed in a very short, formfitting jumper and rugged high heels is standing next to me. She takes advantage of my silence.

“You look lost hun…” Eying me like a piece of meat.

“Sorry, but I’m here on business.”

“Sorry indeed…”

Like many Kedenian women her face is rough and chiseled yet very attractive and her hair, bleached and damaged, a result of the harsh weather.

“You’re here to see Toros. I’m here to take you to him.”

She looks at me as though I were a strange thing that made her curious. I realize now that she isn’t a prostitute and remove my helmet, attach it to the magnetic clip on my waist and follow the slinky woman through the crowd and into a hallway.

The Digital Optics covering my eyes like contact lenses, Digital Eyes, or Dees as we call them, take over and feeds me second by second digital, visual information about my surroundings. They tell me what I want to know, when I choose to want it, but nothing ever prepares me for the air. It hits me like an invisible wall of stale warmth that smells like old carpets. I hate it but have no choice in the matter; no one in the known galaxy takes kindly to people in masks and helmets, especially Earthers in masks and helmets. We walk a few steps and turn through another metal door. It opens up into a large, dimly lit room made up of split-levels where women and men of many races mingle and mix.

As I tread the velvety floor, a blue haired Kedenian woman nearby looks my way and smiles but I continue on, passing what looks like a local miner and a Rokan Woman uncomfortably embraced in a purple-lit booth. I have never been to the Roka but I know what the folks there look like. Prolonged exposure to the atmospheres on the twin planets, Roka and Rokus tend to give the skin a light-purple hue. The darker the skin, the darker the hue, in my book however, purple is purple no matter how you look at it.

My escort guides me through the mingling crowd, past two guards, through another hallway, two more guards, and now an unusually broad door stands before us. With a knock, she opens it and we step into a large office where finally, I see the man I have come to find.

“Welcome my friend!” He is falsely excited to see me but it is never a problem, because I am also falsely happy to be here. The semicircular and windowless room smells of Cuban Cigars. How in the galaxy did he get Cuban Cigars?

“How are you Toros?” I shake his rough hand and look into the square, chiseled, hairless face as I take a seat by his desk. My escort stands between us waiting.

“Elna…drinks!” He says it as though there is a celebration to be had, then watches her slyly as she walks away. “…Very nice girl…been with my establishment from the beginning.”

His voice is rough and deep…way too much dust I always say.

“You’ve been hiding her. I’ve never met her before…”

“My friend…” he gives me a broad smile “…I have more than one places of business on Keden; surely you know this?”

“You must treat her like gold then? Good help is hard to find no matter what planet you’re on…” I indulge the meaningless conversation for the moment.

“Not on Darion…” He grins, reminiscing “The service there is always excellent…you ever been to Darion, Earther?”

“No, but I know of it…” I have never been to the planet of cities, but I have seen it on flybys and walked through it virtually many times.

“…Beautiful place my friend…” Toros shifts his hulking frame and the chair beneath him protests loudly. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you Earther. I was beginning to think that you’d left us here on this damned rock for good.”

“I’m here because I need information…”

“Ah…as always, straight to the point…” His mouthful of bright white teeth flashes a broad grin.

I relax in my chair and accept my drink now that Elna has returned. Toros waits for her to leave again and after the door closes behind her, he continues. “What kind of information do you seek my friend?”

It is Kedenian custom to not ask, but for the host to present a drink of their choice to a guest. I take a sip of the blue-ish green cocktail and it is good. “What is this drink?”

He leans heavily into his big, black, leather chair. “Pine fruit, water pears and the best Kedenian Fermentia you can find. It is good, no?”

I sip it again and nod my approval. Fermentia is Keden’s version of wine and ranks in the top ten for fine wines that the Galaxy has to offer.

“I hear that a small Deepcore fleet has landed on Keden…” I search his face for any sign of acknowledgement, but there is none “Do you know where they are based?” but I see his crooked mind working; the well-oiled gears of it turning at full steam.

“You’ve been coming to me for a long time now Earther…” He plays with his glass “…and I’ve always given you whatever you ask, you know this. You pay well and that is what it’s all about, no? What you ask now though, puts me in a difficult position. Do me, and you, a favor my friend and leave this one alone.”

He’s getting shifty so I cut him off.

“Name your price.”

It is as though I said nothing.

“These guys, they don’t play nice. They’ll find me and end me, you must understand this Earther.”

“I thought you were well protected here…thought this was your domain?”

“Domain…? Earther, to these people, there is no domain they cannot reach; they’ll just send their assassins or bomb everything. They have spies…everywhere, and government connections. You have no idea what you’re getting into.”

“Who said I was getting into anything? I just asked a question.”

Toros places his drink on the desk and looks at me. The fear in this man’s eyes says it all. Deepcore is obviously bigger and more dangerous here than on Earth. A burst of static hits my ear. “Alpha…?”

It’s Pitbull

“…I just hacked into Toros’ logs and it appears that he has ties to Deepcore. There was a transaction of fifty million Kedenian Credits two days ago to Toros for services rendered…sending to you…now.”

The info appears across my Digital Eyes. Now I know why the Kedenian opposite me is avoiding the question.

Toros is still rambling. “…and I’m not stupid Earther. You don’t care if I get ended by these men. All you want is…wait a minute. You wouldn’t be asking about them if you weren’t planning some sort of raid…” His words trail off as the truth registers.

I wish it wouldn’t

“…or a hit…this is a hit. You’re going after them on Kedenian soil…” He looks away from me in thought “…yes, you’re not here under instruction from your base. As far as I know, you are not even supposed to be here. This is some kind of unauthorized operation and you don’t care what happens to me when it’s done…”

“I’ll double the credits Toros, and give you protection.”

“Protection…? Ha!”

I don’t like the look in his eyes.

“…I’m sorry Earther. I can’t let you this time…bad for business, you understand, no?”

The room seems to be getting a bit too small. I hate to do this but Toros has now become a liability…no, a threat. He shifts suddenly so I draw my handgun and point it toward his face.

“Don’t do this Toros. All I asked was where, are, they? Please my friend, I won’t mention you, I swear.”

“Friend...? Ha!” His face contorts in anger “That will not stop them from knowing that it was me. No one tolerates a rodent. I’ll be eaten alive.”

“Last time Toros. Where...?”

“You’ll never make it out of here alive Earther.”

I refuse to answer. The situation has gotten out of control. Inside, I recoil at the thought of what I am about to do. I wish it were different but now I have no choice.

“Please Earther…” The bulky, bald headed Kedenian is on the edge of panic “…do not do this...you have no idea…” and as he draws his hidden gun and shouts for help, I squeeze the trigger on my Tex’s Fifty-eight. The ‘Hand Cannon’ as is nicknamed, lets loose its bullet with a heavy thud and I move as what was Toros’ head explodes into an expanding pulp.

“I’m sorry old friend.”

I reattach my helmet just as the door bursts open and slam the butt of my gun into the face that appears. The big man cries out but regains his footing and lunges toward me. I shift my weight and use his own to throw him over the desk of his fallen boss.

Another thug comes crashing through the door and my Fifty-eight puts him back through it. I need to get out of this hallway; it is a death chamber the longer I wait. I fire into the first man now rising from behind the desk and begin my run, then slow to a walk beside the metal door separating my corridor from the commingling on the other side. Pushing the button to open it is either going to give me freedom or death but I’m almost out of time; everyone in the building would have heard those shots.

The door flies open and after a quick glance, I run through the now empty space and stop once more near the hallway on the other side. No one is here either. I don’t like this, it’s too easy but I have to get out.

“Alpha…” Terri’s is in my ear “…keep coming to us.”

I suck in deep breaths of purified air, and take the passageway in long strides with my heart clawing its way out my chest. Deep breaths and a well-trained, steady mind keeps me calm and thinking straight. The door to the bar and lounge is now within reach.

BOOM Rrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

The initial blast hits me like a thunderclap and I open the door in time to see the front end of the tavern disintegrate.

“Alpha, come on!”

Akita’s MAV stands like the Grim Reaper, gun whirling and tearing up everything moving or not and I run for it, putting a hole into the chest of another guard. I don’t know for sure, but it appears as though every customer that I left in here is now holding a weapon.

While I push my legs for more speed, My MAV is already opening by mental command and bullets whiz nearby as I run up the ladder.

“Alpha…” It’s Bull’s voice “…heavy armor in-bound on your six. I make two Rhinos.”

Terrier is on the air now, “Yeah we’ve got company. I got em on scope. Huski let’s go!”

I strap into my seat and wake my MAV’s sleeping systems. Everything comes online instantly and we turn to leave the half-leveled building. Now I know for sure that Toros had dealings with Deepcore. Rhinos are the heavy Mecha of Deepcore’s operations; heavy Mecha class war machines that could level a city block in a matter of seconds. This is fast turning into a ‘not-good’ situation.

“Okay boys, look alive, weapons hot, Bull get on it.”

I activate both missile launcher pods and hear the whir as my Auto Cannon turns to lock onto my digital targets. We go back the way we came and as we come out onto the deserted main road near the broken perimeter walls, the ground in front of us and the edges of the building nearby tear up with gunfire.

“Bull, do you have them?” I hope to God his answer is yes.

“Got ‘em boss…”

“Disable the bastards. Hound, hold your position.”

“Holding” he replies

I imagine Pitbull siting in his cockpit and targeting our enemies. His two hundred and twenty pound frame, taking up his entire seat is a perfect match to the monster, Long Ranged Railgun mounted above his MAV.

Bullets twang off our armor and my missile alert systems are going mad. I hear the sound a split second before the wall to my left explodes and chunks of metal and Evercrete slam into my armor, but there is no critical damage. According to my scope, the Rhinos are a hundred and twenty three meters out and closing. My warning system shrieks as it detects their missile lock again but in a bright flash…ONE…TWO! Both heavy Mecha go down, their legs, blown out at the joints. Bull’s long-range assault has done its job and now, my targeting computer alerts me.

“Alpha…” Terri’s voice “…I got lock…”

“Hold!” I reply

I need to make contact so I think it, and see the module appear in the upper left of my virtual Head’s up Display. I select it with another thought that activates my MAV’s auto-frequency-find and it scans until I have the right one.

“Rhino squad…you have engaged Earthfront military in unauthorized combat. Stand down or we will kill you. You have five seconds to comply.” Eying the time on my digital screen, I wait as the milliseconds change the seconds that will eventually bring the moment of destruction. There is static on the air.

“Earthfront dogs…” his breathing is heavy and his voice like a loud whisper “…you are the ones who will meet death…”

His hoarse voice and labored breathing makes his words heavy and in them, is the sound of finality. I look at our crippled enemies and take in the shattered scene of old buildings and the empty street behind them. One of the Rhino’s, using what’s left of his destroyed hydraulic legs, rolls over and brings his missile launchers to bear. My warning systems light up…I have no choice.

“Fire…!”

I mentally select how many missiles I need and my finger squeezes the trigger on my control. Four of them leave me. The cockpit shudders. Their trails of grey and black smoke joining those from Terri’s MAV creates an eerie sight as the missiles track their prey. Two seconds, One second, Impact. The fallen Rhinos flare up in a brilliant flash followed by a wicked thunder and a raging dust cloud that expands rapidly outward. It is over. What is left of them is nothing more than superheated metal, melted into clumps of hard waste. The ground where they lay is now a small crater. Their debris, just more broken pieces added to the picture of this forsaken place; we turn to head back to base, I try to push Toros from my mind.

I can’t.

The time on my HUD is 17:35.

 

 

CHAPTER 3 - FRIENDS AND FOES

 

 

We fly into base at 17:58. The massive complex is a waste of space if you ask me. Ten miles into the Dune Desert, most of it is buried below ground. I doubt that the folks stationed here take up even half of it. Lights outline the base’s circular metal dome. Windows at varying levels appear as electric-blue lines from this distance; giving the structure an eerie glow. This architecture reminds me of how far away from home I am.

“Base Control…” I read the code on my visor and then “…Iron Five on approach, over…”

“Iron Five, you are cleared for entry. Touch down on zero seven.” A digital line materializes on my navigation screen. It will lead us to Landing Pad seven. The voice this time is that of a young lady. I have no idea who she is though. Many new recruits and interns often get shipped out here from time to time and as they come…they go.

Lucky bastards

My team and I have been here for four months. Four months of crap. This rock is nothing more than a routine-filled life of boredom, as far as I am concerned, and this is the tenth time they have shipped us out here; I can’t wait to leave it behind again.

I drop toward the landing pad four hundred meters ahead. My thrusters cry as they compensate for the loss of thrust versus gravity. In my peripherals, Akita and Hound are right with me. Bull and Terri would be behind them. I switch my engines to hover and slide the throttle back, reducing power until my altimeter reads ten feet above immediate ground level. We all kill the upward thrusts almost at the same time and our MAVs touch down with a series of heavy thuds.

“Iron Five. Proceed to wash down. Welcome home.”

She sounds so young. Why don’t these kids stay at home and enjoy their youth? But then I think of the Battle Axe who runs the base and I am suddenly more grateful for the new voice.

The landing pad; large, circular and made of dense metal is red and brown and covered with constantly shifting dust. The winds out here read at a good seventy miles per hour but our forty ton Walking Battle Tanks hold steady. While we walk, I do a thorough systems check. This is standard procedure and it will take about five minutes as my team approaches the wide opening of the outer hanger.

I follow the lines glowing on the ground ahead of me with my brain feeling the tingle of millions of microscopic neural electrical jolts. Mind and computer, linked together in a dance of pulses and waves; this stuff never ceases to amaze me. We continue, through the hangar opening and to a large chamber that seals us inside with a giant Eversteel door. Locked in now, the five of us are subjected to powerful streams of super-heated and compressed water and gas that hit our armour under extreme pressure; scrubbing us clean of dust, parasites and any other dangers that might have been picked up on the outside. I complete the systems check as every few seconds, jets of water and whatnot slam into the narrow strip of cockpit glass around me.

After our time in decontamination, we go through another set of hangar doors and stand the MAV’s in their designated spaces. Each assigned space has the Earthfront E logo, and uniquely coloured lines along their edges representing rank, indicate who goes where. I log the final reading from one of the sensors on my HUD, then power down my engine and hit the release switch. A moment passes as the cockpit lights come on and my visor switches from external to normal view, showing what is really around me. Then the front section of my MAV slides downward and I climb out.

As my feet touch the metal floor of our docking bay, I remove my helmet and blink. There is a slight jab behind my eyes as the Digital Eyes adjusts to the brightly lit space and I join Bull and Akita while they wait for the rest of the team.

Standing lifelessly nearby, my MAV towers above us; its black skin casting dull reflections of lights around. I remember the first time I saw it, and the joy I felt knowing that it was mine. With its two cylindrical missile pods hanging off short pylons on both sides, and the Tex Auto-cannon mounted above and behind the cockpit, it still makes me feel insignificant.

Designed by famous weapons specialist, Gregory Tex, son of the great, General Ganton Tex, the Tex’s Auto-cannon is our military’s most widely used projectile weapon. It is also the Crown Jewel of Tex Contractors back on Earth.

Across the gunmetal-grey hanger, with its Eversteel floor almost reflective, small sky fighters, space shuttles, armored tanks and a few other Light Mecha class machines fill the manmade cavern. There is also a SysDef Starship here.

Our MAV Carrier, the Mirage, is here too. Originally built as a small black-ops Starship with a fully fitted weapons system of its own; she’s perfect for vacuum warfare. The sleek and attractive spacecraft had been refitted to transport up to six MAVs after being assigned to us. Its primary function; to take us from space to any planet’s surface and back without having to use a spaceport.

“Time to eat…” Hound says as he approaches.

“The Pitbull agrees. Nothing else to do anyways so let’s…”

I have no reason to disagree with them so we all follow Bull and Hound out of the hanger and to the Mess hall.

“That was a good run guys…”

“Good run? Alpha, unless you forgot, we got no leads...”

I turn toward Terri, his black wavy hair a mess after its time in his helmet. “Of course we did…” They all look at me, puzzled “…we know for sure that the fleet is somewhere on this planet.”

“But how do we know where..?” Akita jumps in.

“We’ll pay another friend of mine a visit...”

“At the rate we’re going…” Terri again “…you’ll be out of friends by day after tomorrow. I’m thinking of unfriending you right now as a matter of fact.”

We all laugh and walk toward a glass doorway that slides into the wall.

“Captain..!”

We turn toward the voice.

Damn, it’s her.

 

********

 

“Sit, Captain!”

She’s all business. We are in her office, or prison cell, depending on how you look at it. All these enclosed metal rooms are basically the same to me, differentiated only by color and furniture. Hers is light blue with an L-shaped, blue-metal desk, two white-cushioned metal chairs, and a hidden shelving system.

I try to read her for any signs of what is to come but there are none. She’s good. We sit in silence for a while. I know she is assessing me, maybe even trying to make me nervous; she should know better. Her red hair is in a tight bun today. Her eyes are livid as they scan the documents before her. There is an undercurrent there, an anger kept well in check, if I am not mistaken. On the other hand, she has what I like to call ‘an unattractive, attractive face’. Even with the worn effects of Kedenian weather and the broad, painfully looking deep scar running from the middle of her forehead, down her left eye and to her lower jaw, something appealing still exists.

A Certificate case hanging on the wall behind her reveals that I need a shave. The stubble on my face, along with my black crew cut hair makes me look a bit older than I am, but then again, that could just be the reflective glass being negative; like its owner.

“Captain Richard Victor Gant…” She says it without looking at me, snapping me from my daze, her attention rooted to a sheet of digital paper as she slides it across the metal desk. I haven’t heard my name face to face in a very long time; so much so, that now I do; it seems foreign, especially coming from her. For the past few years, it has been Captain, Alpha or Huski. She must be really pissed off.

“…gives you the right to think…” Her voice registers again “…that you have the authority to carry out an unauthorized Op in my jurisdiction, on my watch?” She is looking at me now, eyes furious but her demeanour composed.

“I don’t understand. I don’t know anything about an Op...” The images on the translucent paper are those of three MAV’s standing in place while an unseen attacker blows the crap out of two Rhinos. Outside of the current circumstances, it looks pretty cool on paper.

“I don’t know what you are doing here or why you were sent, but I know one thing…this is my base. Your briefings and debriefings might be to General Hawk but everyone who is a part of my base is subject to the rules and regulations of my base…” She pauses, for some kind of effect I guess “…therefore, you are to remain on my base for the duration of your stay. You and your team no longer have access to the hanger bay…”

“You can’t do th…”

She raises her voice “…and I order you…” Volume down and voice stern again “…to cease and desist whatever operation you are currently carrying out until further notice! Do I make myself clear?”

“Commander you don’t…”

Loud again “I will have you and your squad court marshalled!” Calm once more “Now do, I, make, myself, clear?”

I return her gaze “Crystal clear, Ma’am.”

Her eyes move away from mine “You are dismissed.”

I stand and walk away without hesitation. We have been back and forth in arguments ever since my first time here but this time, this one could be a problem. I quickly push her out of my mind. We have a job to do, and we need to get out of here.

 

********

 

A half hour later, I am in my cell…room…quarters…whatever it is and thinking about our current predicament. I will have to discuss it with the guys when we get together in the Mess. I don`t trust talking on coms in this place. There is a knock on my door.

“It’s open…”

The steel door slides aside to reveal the oval opening, and who I see standing there catches me off guard, but I don’t show it. I stand and deliver an over exaggerated salute, and try hard to not show my surprise…or is it interest…doesn’t matter.

“Captain..?”

Her voice is steady. She is carrying a file and obviously not in a good mood. Her manner has not changed since we last spoke. So why is she here?

“Commander…” I acknowledge her.

“I have great news…” She has not even spoken a full sentence and already her lips drip with fury “…the boots you wipe have cleared you for duty.” Her composure is failing. She throws the file and it lands on the mattress next to me.

I look at it, sit up and open the shiny case.

“When your Op is completed, you are cleared to leave this planet forthwith. Good day Captain.”

Her head is held high and her back, straight as a ruler. I continue to read what is before me and she turns to leave.

“Commander…” I can’t help it and this is ridiculous the more I think about it, but she continues walking. “Mirana!” She stops and turns her head slightly “Wait. Please.”

She turns her face away from me and toward the door but does not move. “Captain, you will address me with the necessary respect re…”

“Then court-martial me, but before you do, tell me, what is your problem?” I wait but get no response, so I get off the bed and continue. “This makes no sense. This is the tenth time I’ve been stationed here and for whatever reason, of which I have no idea, you have shown me nothing less than unwarranted hostility.”

“What is my problem…unwarranted hostility?” The words slither from her lips like poisoned silk. She re-seals the door and turns to me now “…okay, you want to talk? Let’s talk.” Her eyes glare like shiny hornets “…you…full of yourself, pompous sonofabitch and answerable to no one…”

I’ve never heard her like this before and now her cheeks blossom red…I’ve never seen this either

“Yes that’s you. Every time your unit is stationed here, you undermine my authority. You treat the regulations of my base as though they are beneath you; Unwarranted hostility?” She begins to walk away.

“This is pointless…” I move toward her.

“Yes, it is pointless.” She puts a hand to open the door. I hold her arm and she stops.

“I didn’t mean this conversation is pointless. I meant this…” I gesture to the space between us “…this hate between us.”

She retaliates

Shit!

I move just in time as she swings into me but I was not expecting it. Her manoeuvre does not hit true yet my body is still slammed against the cabin wall. She is good. I mean, I am a fully trained soldier and yet her technique against me was flawless.

“You don’t ever touch me Captain!” Glaring, she holds me in place. I think about what is happening. The tension between us had been building for some time now. I always knew she hated me and that eventually our clash would come but damn, how was I to know it would happen like this? Her eyes bore into mine and I take in the intensity on her face. Her anger, hair like fire, lips like…I don’t know but they are nice. I also see her scars up close for the first time. She has obviously seen battle, or maybe the wrong side of a past relationship who knows…why the hell do I care? I shift my weight, all one hundred and eighty five pounds of it and redirect hers. She releases her hold and I drive her slender frame to the spot where she previously pinned me.

“We’re adults Commander.” I release her now.

“Assaulting a Commander of any SysDef or Earthfront installation is punishable by…”

I back away. “I’m not what you think…”

She takes a deep breath “What difference does it make Captain?” Her emotions betray her now. Anger and frustration in her eyes and voice spill out.

“It’s not easy doing this job. You should know how it is when your directives don’t come from your immediate superior. You have no idea what my job entails so don’t judge me based on it.”

“And what? Are we supposed to be friends? Does your secretive occupation of whatever ungodly acts you do, give you the right to make me look like a fool on my own base? You obviously can’t see past your objectives.”

She’s cold and I find it difficult to digest. “And you can?” I ask the question without thought.

“I know how to follow orders, but I also know when to show respect and common courtesy.”

“I couldn’t give privileged informa…”

”It’s not so privileged now is it?” She’s loud again. Her eyes lock on to mine, as if boring through me…this is awkward. With her voice regular again “You did not have the decency to let me, the base Commander, know what you were about to do…”

“I had no choice. You know this. You know how this job works? You know how the Chain of command works. You above many should know what comes with taking orders.”

“You just don’t get it…”

I cut her off “No, you obviously don’t get it...” I’m annoyed now but she continues as though I said nothing.

“After you foolishly do what you come here to do, and you and your little squad leave, the Kedenians become more hostile toward us. They don’t see us any different from you. No Captain, you don’t get it. We’re the ones who have to clean up your shit.”

She turns on her heels to leave. I don’t think I need to say this but maybe I do…who knows?

“I’m sorry.”

“For what? It makes no difference. You come, you leave, and we pay the price.” The door opens again.

“So why can’t we put this behind us and start over…move on?”

I don’t even know why I’m continuing this. Maybe I do but I don’t think so. I’m confused now as she stops outside of the porthole.

“I have moved on, just as I always do. I suggest you do the same.” She turns and disappears down the corridor, her boots echoing on the metal floor and the door closes. I want to turn my attention to the folder on my bed, I want to scream, I want to go after her, I think of Toros…I think of her again, I need to get this mission done but for the moment, I can’t do anything. What the hell is happening to me?

 

********

 

I open my eyes. My Dees tell me that it’s 4:31 am. My first thoughts are of her. This annoys me and I wish, for a moment, that there was some sort of pill for forgetfulness. Well there are pills for that but not in the way I want. I eventually forget her and remember my dream. It was of life back on Earth; I have not been home in such a long time. I wonder how much has changed. But these thoughts won’t help me now; there are more important things to deal with today. I gotta get up and down to my team. We have a lot of work to do. If we want to catch that fleet, we have to be quick and decisive about it. I push her out of my mind again.

 

The Mess Hall is not too crowded. The team and I have been discussing our strategy for our next run. We’ll be heading out in a few hours, when the sun is at its hottest. This way we should meet few, if any, local patrols. In a way, I am not looking forward to this trip. I just know it is going to be one of those drawn out and tedious ones but if all goes according to plan, we should be at our destination by late afternoon and back in good enough time.

My next contact is a Kedenian who I met during my fourth attachment here; a narcotics and weapons dealer who gives me information for credits. He is not a problem because no dealer in their right mind would risk being exposed as a snitch or worse, having an Earthfront Battalion storming their happy little world. Hopefully, he won’t be spooked by my last meeting with one of his associates.

“Okay guys, we’ll be mobile in a few hours so I’ll let you get back to your free time.”

“Thank you Alpha.” Akita jumps up and without looking back, hurries away.

“What’s up with him?” I turn to Terri.

“The usual. She’s young this time, blue-blonde and hypnotized by the Akita.”

I laugh “It’s the same thing everywhere we go. This is what now, seventy-something?”

“I`ve lost count.” Hound joins in.

Terrier slides out from the table “Well I’m going to go back to my room to get some air time with the folks back home. The link up is gonna be good today.”

“Do your thing Terri…” I watch him leave and think of his mother. She was like a mother to me after my parents died. I’ve known them a long time. “…and hey…” He turns to me. His face is older but his eyes…his eyes are still those intense brown ones belonging to that kid I grew up with. “…Tell them I said hello.”

“No problem Cap.”

“I’m gonna head to the lounge and see if I can get as lucky as Akita. See ya later guys.” Pitbull disappears and Hound and I remain seated.

“We need vacations.”

I look at Hound before answering. The big German swings both boot clad feet onto the table and leans back fearlessly in the narrow chair.

“Tell me about it.”

He sighs “When this is over, why don’t we put in for some time off? We’ve been on the prowl for so long, I can’t remember what life outside of my job feels like.”

“Sounds like a great Idea. I’ll talk to the Hawk when this is over. I know Terri wants to go home. I also want to see Earth again.”

Hound laughs “Terri? He’s already had time off. He’s the only one who has.”

“Yeah but that was different. His mother was sick so that doesn’t…”

“He spent a month with her Alpha. Way longer than needed. You know it, I know it. He got lucky and we’re on his side about it, but at the same time, we don’t like being overlooked either.”

“Okay you’re right, I must admit, but that was six months ago…”

“Six months…” He cuts in again “…a year, yesterday…doesn’t matter. All I’m saying is that I too, would like some R and R. Sometimes I wish my mom would get sick.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll see what I can do. Pitbull keeps talking about Creus…”

“The Island planet?”

“Yep…”

“That’d be fun”

“I can only imagine. I’ve never been there.”

“Seriously Cap? I’ve been there a few times…nothing but tropical air and seas and islands everywhere; just awesome.”

“Yeah? Well what about you Hound? Where’d you like to go?”

“Well, Akita has been telling me about Eroi Three…”

I should have known. “The Red moon?”

“Yep…sounds like a blast…been thinking of it for some time now. He says that whenever, if ever, we get off this beat for long enough, he’d show me around there.”

“Yeah that’s Akita for you. Travel a thousand light years for easy women. It’s the perfect place for him.”

We both laugh and I remember meeting Hound for the first time. We were both young recruits in the Flight Academy on Rouna, the paradise planet. We had just landed and after a small scuffle over seats in the transport, our hostilities became very evident in everything we did.

“Cap…I’m gonna go talk to the mechanics for a while. Keep myself busy so I don’t fall asleep.”

He drags both large feet off the shiny table between us. Then, standing to his full six feet five, walks away; blonde hair hanging a few inches below his crown and shifting with his walk.

“See you in a bit Hound.”

During our days at the training facility, I had grown to hate everything about Hound, just as much as he did about me, right down to his beady blue eyes and our rivalry had sprouted a separation in the camp, much to the disgust of our commanders. I remember him tracking me hard in his training MAV as I tried to get into a firing position to take him down. We had been viciously going at it for a good ten minutes and then as I out maneuvered and bested him, my MAV went critical and slammed into the ground. It was Hound who dragged me from the twisted heap of metal and wires and burning debris. The man had carried me a seemingly safe distance before the explosion threw him, and put us both out of commission for almost six months.

It was in the infirmary, on those two neighbouring beds that we had gotten to know each other, and we have been brothers ever since.

The sounds of three female voices break my train of thought. They walk past nearby and one of them flashes me a cute smile. I look at the few folks around. I have no Idea who most of these people are. All nameless faces in a place far away from home, but I have my unit…and my unit is all that matters.

I notice the time. There is absolutely nothing to do in this place and so I get up and walk back to my room.

“Captain…”

God please, not again.

“Commander…” I acknowledge her with a salute.

She hands me a file containing a few sheets of digital paper “These may be of some value.”

I take them from her, not sure what to make of her sudden friendliness “What are these?” I look at the first sheet.

“We are not the slackers you take us for. You’ll find that we are more resourceful than you think.”

I must admit, she is a beautiful woman in spite of the scars. Her red hair is still pulled into a tight bun with apparent military precision and her uniform, as crisp as ever.

“Why are you doing this?”

I’m not bothered by her for the moment. The thoughts and feelings from of our fight amazingly remain at bay.

“Because duty comes before personal issue. Good luck Captain.” She walks past me and continues until out of sight down the narrow corridor. I am still in shock but quickly regain my senses. That was bullshit and she knows it. At least I would like to think so. Duty indeed.

The file reveals information about a small fleet of ships that had entered Kedenian airspace a few days ago. I continue toward my quarters.

Maybe she was right after all. If I had let her know of our mission, Toros would still be alive and Iron Five would have been on that well deserved vacation.

One of the sheets of digital paper shows a map of Keden and a possible location for the unauthorized fleet. The image shows an unusually large concentration of heat signatures in a valley four thousand miles from here. I enter my room and barely register the door closing behind me. This spot on the map has got to be where they are based. They have obviously masked their position with some form of camouflage, so all the drones see are these red splotches. But I don’t get it. Why did she help us?

 

********

 

It is 10:45am and I am in my MAV doing a systems check. The rest of my team is doing the same as technicians and electronics specialists run around beneath us prepping our gear for departure. My communications console comes alive.

“Iron Five…” I know the voice, it’s the Battle Axe “…ten minutes to departure.”

“Alpha copies ten minutes. Ready and waiting...”

We walk toward the outer doors of the huge hangar. I look around the cockpit before switching to the virtual display on my visor. I have always been a believer in checking any computer system manually before digitally.

“Captain…” It’s her again “…drones have spotted three Heavy Mecha…Rhinos to be exact and four Light Booster Tanks so approach with caution.”

“Will do Commander...”

We pass through the outer lock and then the protective doors of the outer hangar and take up positions on a sand swept landing pad. “Base…Iron Five is ready for launch.” I give my engine a little power and wait.

A flash of static hits me “Iron Five, your launch is a go.”

I increase power and the MAV fights gravity as we lift off. The sand and dust filled winds read at sixty six miles per hour, making visibility very limited but we push upward nonetheless. At two thousand feet, I give the signal and we level out, then check the uploaded flight path and hit the throttle. The vents of my thrusters shift, pushing me into my cushioned seat. My heart thumps heavily in my chest and we shoot forward. The acceleration is hypnotic. Within thirty seconds, we are pushing a little over a thousand miles per hour and should be where we want to be in about three and a half hours.

 

 

CHAPTER 4 - KEDEN

 

 

The landscape below us is drastically uneven. Deep fissures spreading out in random directions look like gnarled fingers between massive sand dunes. These shifting mountains, in some areas, as close to us as seven hundred feet. The winds at our altitude are seventy miles per hour but rogue gusts register every now and again at a hundred or more. This is a treacherous location so I maintain our two thousand feet above Immediate-ground-level flight path.

“Captain…” It’s the Commander. I haven’t heard from her since we left base three and some hours ago. “Link and rep live, over?”

“Huski to base, we’re alone out here. Thirty minutes to contact.”

“We’re tracking you but the weather is getting worse…signal interference is heavy.”

“Roger that.” I focus on the ground below as we speed by. My Sol engine is a remarkable piece of work. We, as a race, have come a very long way.

The year is now 878 TE and according to history, mankind came across Sol-technology in the year 2035 AD. I remember learning this in History class and wishing for it to end so I could go meet Rachel Sommers.

I wonder what became of her.

A scientist by the name of Doctor Lorenz Olivius created the first ever successful miniature replica of the sun, by igniting it within a vessel that mimicked the vacuum of space. The applications were, as one can imagine, limitless. Within fifteen years of its dawn, the Sol Combustion engine had allowed mankind to go beyond their limitations and finally reach for the stars. This breakthrough had then led to one hundred years of galactic searching and mapping and development. Then in 2150 AD our ancestors left Earth in massive Starship fleets for new homes and in doing so, a new era was born; the era of The Exodus.

“Alpha…ten minutes to contact.”

“Okay Bull, let’s get to five on deck.”

I pull the throttles back, extend all speed brakes and feel my stomach reach up my throat as my MAV slows rapidly and drops to five hundred feet. We fly past the end of the wicked looking fissures and tall dunes, and cross over a terrain covered with boulders; I kill the throttle and switch the engine to hover. The machine vibrates through the transition and we descend to a few feet above an enormous flat stone and drop to the rough surface, dislodging and kicking up rocks with a quaking thud; we immediately go dark.

“Bull…?” I wait

“All clear for one mile. Their warning systems don’t reach this far…got nothing else on scan.”

“Okay let’s move!”

I switch from flight to ground commands and hit the throttle. My MAV takes the uneven, rocky surface with ease, as we get closer to what could be another successful run, or our last mission.

“Alpha…” Its Pitbull again “…I’m picking up interference of some sort. Not sure what it is but I think we should be careful here.”

We are standing on the edge of another flat rock face. I step off, a mere five-foot drop, and onto the dusty ground of yet more desert. On either side of me are high, wind carved dunes made of hardened dust and sand. The valley is wide for maneuvering but still small enough to make us sitting ducks. I come to a stop and check my scanners; there’s nothing, but I don’t like the feeling in my gut…and if I am feeling it, and Bull feels it, then by experience, we need to be cautious.

“Bull, how’s the weather?”

“Sunny…but something doesn’t seem right boss.”

Bull hardly ever calls me boss. He is worried.

“Okay. Look alive, boys…weapons hot…”

I focus on my weapons module and make the mental command. My cannons come online with a whir. An uneasy stillness in the air puts me on guard. It could just be a case of nerves but after a few years in this business, I have learnt that the jitters often precede a real event.

We continue our trek until the valley lies behind and another one appears ahead and below. According to the co-ordinates, this should be the place but all that is here are generators and large transformers.

“Alpha…”

The base commander on our open channel interrupts Bull. “Iron Five…we’ve got four Light Booster Tanks and an unknown transport approaching Dunan from the south west. Drone Surveillance just picked them up. They’re two hours out.”

“They’re runnin’. Bull, give me another scan.”

“There’s nothing but that weird interference boss.”

“Let’s fly then. We gotta catch those bastards”

I deactivate my stealth and barely notice as everyone else ripples into sight.

Bull comes over my com again “Alpha, these generators are the same heat signatures on the map…so was this a decoy?”

Reality hits me like a hammer. They knew we would come.

“No…” My warning systems light up. “…it’s a trap!”

My virtual cockpit goes wild. Alerts of missile launches and gunlocks assault my senses like a wildfire.

“Evasive…go, go, go, go!”

I switch to flight mode and drive my throttle all the way. My computer sends me flashes of tracking information and I almost feel the three missiles that approach. My MAV shakes violently with the sudden discharge of power, but I hold it steady as G-forces pin me to the seat while I accelerate upward.

What type of missiles are they?

The computer sends the answer with a barely noticeable sting. Another mental command sends hundreds of chaff spitting from the back of my machine with thousands of miniature vibrations that shiver the armor around me; but the first heat seeker is already here and hits close. The impact shakes me but my systems do not read critical.

Thank God.

Rising high into the air, a forty-ton bat out of hell, my Sol engine screams with the effort as I try to locate our unseen enemies. There are three of them.

“I’ve found those Heavies!” I shout it to the others.

“Roger, three Rhinos, northern hill top.” Hound comes across calm and collective and he already has one locked.

I swing around and fly toward the Heavy Mecha that is tracking me; he is already on the move and my systems warn of another missile lock. It leaves his launcher but I am within firing range. They might have more armor and heavier firepower but we’ve got speed and agility. I wait, hear my gun lock onto its target, and open fire.

My bullets shred into the oncoming missile and it explodes in a vicious flash of white as I quickly close the distance. With another squeeze of the trigger my Auto-cannon spits with a flurry of fiery streaks.

The view around me, with my altimeter counting down 500FT, 425FT, 350FT, 275FT in less than three seconds, shakes and shifts on the outer edges of my vision. The smoke and lights of my cannon-fire leads me toward my target as he tries to turn in my direction; I guess they thought we would have been dead on the first launch.

My gunfire rakes a trail of superheated dents and penetrations across the ground and the Rhino in my sights. Dust and sparks erupt where my target stands and my pulse, amplified, beats wildly in my ear. I have to get high again, so I jam my throttle to full power, angle my thruster vents and brace myself as I launch back into the sky. The engine howls with the effort, and the pressure of the maneuver squeezes me beyond comfort, but its fly or die, as every digital module goes blinking red again.

My heart hammers madly as all around, bullets slice the air and I hear, almost feel, a few ping off my armor. Smoke trails crisscross the battlefield. Explosions light up the sky and another missile comes toward me from below but it goes wide and detonates well away; I see that Bull is alive and working his magic.

“Good work Bull…”

I push over and return to the ground. The Rhino is in the air now. My systems alert me of the incoming enemy, but I am faster. At seven hundred feet, my targeting computer locks on to the rising Mecha and I squeeze the trigger twice. Eight missiles leave my launchers. The cockpit shakes with it and their smoke-trails, like black and grey spider webs, fill my vision. Gunfire slams into my armor. I activate the auto-coolant system; it will stop the overheating, and while I fight to clear the space between us, my visor adjusts in a millisecond as the Rhino explodes.

I got him.

My computer shouts its complaints into my senses as I roll over and force the engine to sustain the current power. I have to get down from here; I am an open target.

The other two Rhinos are busy and this provides the perfect opportunity to strike. I shove my MAV into a shallow dive and get a target lock just as another of our enemies ignite in a magnificent flash of fire and expanding energy.

“Got that son-of-a-bitch…” It’s Bull. His long-range rail gun has hit true and Akita’s barrage of missiles finishes the job.

There is one Heavy left. I see his smoke trailing from a damaged hull. He’s in the air and heading south.

“I got-im…” Terri comes over the com as his missiles trace a deadly arc through the sky. The explosion thunders through the valley as what looks to be eight warheads detonate in the distance; this fight is over.

“Iron Five…?” Our Base Commander is not as composed as before.

“Still standing...” I respond and adjust power, descending slowly. My MAV is a bit damaged but I keep my nerves in check “…where are they?”

“Seven hundred miles out, and a half hour to the city...”

I touch down “Guys…status?”

“Terri here…”

“Akita, good to go…”

“A few scratches but Hound is okay…”

“Pitbull is alive and kicking…”

I am relieved. My computer tells me that all is well except a minor armor breach; that first missile had almost gotten me. “Okay let’s go!”

“Alpha, we’ve got half hour to cover seven hundred miles…”

Bull is right, but we have to try. I push the throttle forward and lift into the air once more.

“Iron Five, you’ve got twenty nine minutes…”

“Copy twenty nine minutes…we’re going for it.” The ground falls away as we push toward our targets “Bull, get me locked on. I need a flight path.” My tracking system finds our prey through Pitbull’s sensors and gives me an intercept route. Our engines scream. The ground below becomes a blur and the speed indicator soon reads a thousand miles per hour and climbing.

At this rate, we will be cutting it close. My virtual map, courtesy SysDef’s Drone surveillance, shows our escapees gunning it across the desert.

“Bull, can you get a shot?”

“Already on it and locking one now...”

“Take it when you have it. Let’s try and slow ‘em down.”

I glance toward Pitbull’s MAV and the long-range Rail gun lights up. Blue and white arcs of electricity ripple over its split rail and launch soundlessly; the highly charged projectile traveling at nearly light speed should be hitting its mark right now. No sooner than I think this, the display shows one of the Booster Tanks, as part of it disintegrates and then the entire thing falls to the desert floor.

“Good hit…”

“Iron Five, Base is picking up heavy activity just outside of Dunan. You’ve got multiple hostiles about to launch, get out of there.”

“Alpha…” Bull’s rail gun does not fire the next charge “…I’ve got em on my scan too; about twenty missile tanks and a heavy launcher.”

These Deepcore people must be high profile. Missile tanks were one thing, but a heavy launcher. They launch Hunters, Cruise missiles and ICBM’s.

“Okay guys bug out. Let’s get deck-side.”

I turn hard and drop to two hundred feet. Outrunning a Hunter missile is difficult in the air so we will be better off getting on foot and going dark till it passes but my systems remain calm. All I am receiving is an enemy lock threat; I know when I am beaten.

“Base…?”

“Go ahead Captain…”

“I need to know where that entourage is headed.”

Static hits me “…on it.”

With time against us, the ground rushes by at a thousand, eight hundred miles per hour; we must get to our ship.

 

********

 

My team and I rip pass Dunan. The sprawling city lies thirty kilometers off to my right while directly ahead; our base awaits us some fifteen away. I reduce power and jam my emergency brakes to full extension. The large rectangular slats would rise up and out at different angles and immediately cut most of my forward momentum. The powerful displacement of energy from this maneuver jolts me violently as my MAV slows hard. Then we descend without much thought.

“Huski to Base Control…” I read the code on my visor “…Iron-Five on approach, over.”

“Iron Five. You’re cleared for entry, touch down on Pad Zero Five.”

We drop to the red-dusted, metallic landing zone and almost run our MAV’s to the hangar. After decontamination we are all docked and grabbing gear from our quarters while large machines load the MAV’s onboard our Starship. With gear in hand, I head out and down the corridor. My helmet, attached to my waist hits my leg with every stride and as I pass Mirana’s office…

“Captain…”

I stop and turn to see her approaching. She’s all business-as-usual. “…what are you doing here? The briefing has been uploaded to your system…we have…”

“I’m trying to get to my ship is what I’m doing.”

She raises an eyebrow “Captain, there are shorter ways to your ship. That Deepcore fleet launched a half hour ago.”

What in the galaxy is wrong with this woman? I take a deep breath “I gotta go…”

“Then Go.”

“You stopped me…”

“Captain…” Her voice is steady “…if you lose these rebels, all of our efforts would have been for nothing.”

‘Our efforts’…What the hell did she do to be a part of this?

I wait in the silence. Of all the women in the galaxy, why does this one get under my skin? She open’s her office door and closes it. I hate not having the last word. Why do I even bother? I begin to move again until the cavernous hanger finally comes into view.

 

********

 

“Alpha, the weather’s about to get really nasty, we’ve got about twenty minutes before everything goes to dust.”

I’m strapping the X shaped harness across my chest after sitting in one of the rear seats of the cockpit when Terri informs me of this.

“Okay we’re a go.” I give the order and he rolls us out of the hangar and toward one of the launching pads outside. As we transition from within the base to the open air of Keden, I notice that the weather is a bit worse than when we had just arrived. Red and brown dust whips past the windshield of our Starship, with winds reading from sixty to seventy-five miles per hour. Thanks to Magnetic Technology however, it’ll take a bit more than this to make our liftoff a problem.

“Base…Iron Five has window, all is a go, over.”

Terrier is our Starship Pilot. I’m the communications officer and Bull is our Co-pilot and weapons specialist. Akita and Hound are the engineers who make sure that all the mechanical aspects of this bird run problem free.

“Iron Five, Base copies your window. You are cleared for launch…”

She sounds no different from the norm but the channel stays open. I choose to ignore it.

The cockpit shakes as Terri begins our lift off. The Ship leaves the pad and the sensation of our thrusters counteracting the planet winds makes my head drift a little. I check the uploaded information concerning our Deepcore buddies. They went off world forty-eight minutes ago in a ship named Deep six. What type of ship though? The Intel doesn’t say.

“Good luck Iron Five…”

Pitbull and Terrier turn and look at each other. I am sure we are all thinking the same thing.

Since when has she ever cared if we had good or bad luck?

The Base and ground are no longer visible. High altitude dust and sand obscures it all, so I relax and let the G-forces glue me to my seat. I feel the ship angle more steeply. Everything outside of my window is becoming distant and shrinking further behind.

I smile to myself. We are leaving this Rock.

She’s back there. Who cares? I do, and I hate the confusion of it.

The air clears now. A few flat clouds rocket by and disappear behind us. The sky becomes darker. Our engines rumble and the sound of it grows deep, and deeper as we rise. It seems lodged somewhere in the back of my head and echoes throughout my mind. Then the sky grows black and Keden’s spaceport is now visible in the distance. A huge disk shaped station with lights moving around it; and then it is gone.

We are about to go to Hyper Light and I want to make contact again, but why? What reason is there? I want to think of a plausible one yet it eludes me. I force her from my mind and let these thoughts fade away as we enter the vacuum of space.

“Iron five…”

I listen to Mirana’s voice with mixed feelings. Maybe I am a bit embarrassed by our fight…or a lot disappointed that we didn’t fix it. I hate feeling confused.

“…you are now out of our airspace and hand over to Starport Command is now in effect. Link and Rep live, over…”

Starport Command is the communications deck on any local Starport. While space stations are the access points to and from planet surfaces, Starports are the stations that launch travelers from solar system to solar system. Each inhabited or utilized solar system has one Starport or more depending on its population and, or, purpose. This system, K-1, has a single Starport along with three inhabited planets, five mining worlds and an F1-III class sun, which simply means a Yellow-White Giant.

Why is she on comms?

“Iron Five is good to go and copies hand over to Starport Command…”

I hate having to talk to her…no I don’t.

“Switching on next transmission…”

The com stays open. I wish she would say something. My hand slides across the digital tab that would disconnect us from Keden.

“Come back in one piece…

For some unknown reason, I am annoyed at her for these words. Why didn’t she say this to my face? My finger hits the key and we all listen to the new sounds of K-1 space traffic control.

“After all the thousands of years that men and women have co-existed, we’re still baffled by them.”

Terrier’s smiling face beams in my direction and I can’t help but add a groaning grin to this awkward moment. “Shut up and drive.”

Everyone’s laughter hits me at once while Terri works his magic, and in a moment, we clip our helmets in place and the familiar tug on my senses takes control as we accelerate to Hyper Light speed, and punch through the fabric of space at eighty three point three-three-three times the speed of light.

 

********

 

Engines on any standard spacecraft all come equipped with an Eon Drive. The Eon Drive is just a larger and more amped up version of the original Sol Combustion Engine, the difference being the scale of the output when it comes to power. As we all know, Sol Combustion powers our galaxy, from the smallest of planetary machines to the massive Jump Gates on any Starport.

 

The lights of stars in the distance are blurs, and two hours and some minutes later, we come out of Hyper Light and rocket toward the massive outline of K-1’s lone Starport.

I always hate this part of the trip. As soon as Terri engages our braking system, we hit a cushioned, invisible wall. Everything slows down so rapidly that no one in existence has ever been able to resist throwing up the first few times, except infants for some long-winded reason.

This effect, known as a Bio-Magnetic Reaction, happens because of Magnatech, or Magnetic Technology. Magnetic Technology is the reason we don’t go careening off into space like in the old days. Gone are those historical days of tedious calculations and intersecting an object or planet’s trajectory at just the right time. Through Magnetics, powered by Sol Combustion, we are able to maneuver in space, speed up and slow down, change course on a whim and more.

Weapons used in space also rely on Magnatech. Missiles, being the most widely used in vacuum, use Magnetic Technology to track targets. However, as great as this breakthrough was and is, it’s the, getting used to it, that makes it rough on the human body.

Two billion miles from Keden, I select the communications module “K-1 Traffic Control…Captain Richard Gant of the UNA Mirage requesting docking.”

UNA…The United Northern Alliance, is home to Earthfront Galactic and me…but is it still my home? I feel disconnected.

“UNA Mirage…” The voice is male, and professional “…Docking request acknowledged, cleared for entry, you have Guidance on link. Welcome Captain Gant.”

I check the linkup and Terri sets us on autopilot in order for the Station’s Magnetic Guidance system to pull us safely in. There is a slight jolt as the ship goes from manual command to auto. In all my time of space travel I still haven’t gotten over the fascination of all this.

“Now to catch these bastards…”

“We’ll find them Cap…”

Terri’s visor hides his expression but I imagine the look of determination on his face; I know him well enough.

Outside the ship, the awesome picture that hangs there is astounding, as the massive complex appears to slide closer. The monstrous, flat, half-disk-shape, made from Immix; a Kedenian bluish metal, reflects the solar system’s sunlight with a shiny azure glare.

“This Port reminds me of those in the Glebe System.”

Pitbull’s words pull me away from outside.

“Your home system…” Hound responds.

“Yeah…”

Terri chimes in “Paiz right?”

“Yep and thanks to you guys, I haven’t been home in over four years.”

“Welcome to the club, my brother.” I jump in.

“I knew a girl on Paiz…” Akita thrown in his own, as usual “There are some truly beautiful women in that system too...”

We all laugh and chant him about this until the conversation fizzles off and we each go back to our own thoughts. Stars and spiral Galaxies millions of light years away display the vastness of space beyond us, but what I see directly outside is also just as spectacular. Thousands of windows in perfect lines, like rows of colored lights set against the black expanse of deep space, glimmer. A movement draws my attention; a monster Hauler, floating slowly away from one of three very large rectangular docking bays below us. Opening up into the nothingness of space, they are the entrances and exits for thousands of ships on a daily basis. This hauler, moving past us now, is a Titan a few hundred times our size. Pitbull had told me that he once worked on a freighter. As for me, I have never done time on an Ore Ship but I have heard many a story from the people that do. Theirs is a life of just as much adventure as any military pilot.

The com breaks my train of thought. “UNA Mirage…you are cleared for Docking bay T-seventeen, enjoy your time with us.”

I give the required reply and let the smooth sailing of the Autopilot take us in. I think of the thousands of ships docked here; some leaving, some just arriving, others parked indefinitely, and owned by those who make this port their home. In reality, we are just another droplet in the galactic bucket.

Looking out my window, I wonder about our Deepcore friends. Where are they? When is their jump? Where are they going? If we lose them now…Mirana’s words replay in my ear “All of our efforts would have been for nothing.” Why do those words sting me?

“Alpha…?”

I turn toward Terri

“…we’ll get em…”

It’s as if he’s read my mind.

“Yeah…” It’s Hound now “…Let’s get on deck, snoop around, and catch our prey.”

“Leave the snooping around to me and Akita.” With a raised palm I quiet their disappointment “…we’ll get more done, and done quietly if it’s just two of us.”

“Okay Cap…I have no problems with that.”

“I knew you wouldn’t Hound. You could go have some fun and wait for us. More than likely, they’re not gonna be making a jump within the next twelve hours.”

The lights from the Starport Jump Gate flash. Out in the distance, one of its colossal, two mile-long cylinders, separated from the complex but connected via powerful magnetics, undulates with blue energy and in about a minute, a light exits the mouth of the monstrous barrel and disappears into space.

 

Jump Gates use Sol Technology on a scale much larger than any other mechanism in galactic use. The power this one generates is equivalent to a class V sun and sends a starship to any other solar system along its targeting trajectory at the speed of eighty three point three-three-three light years per hour.

I’ve asked a million times about the calculations and how they came up with this number, but the mathematics concerning it has always been way above my head, and like I’ve often said after asking every time…I don’t care, as long as it keeps working.

What we have to do now is no easy task. We need to get to a travel desk in the terminal first and figure out how to get the information we need from an agent even though it will be against policy. In these times, nothing beats a face to face. It is never safe to work the system via computer when it involves breaking the rules.

The rippling energy from the Jump Gate grips my attention again. I know all too well, what being shot out of it is like and the strange part about the entire ordeal is that you don’t feel a thing after the initial jolt.

It will be about twenty minutes before another jump takes place, as the Gate has to recharge and recalibrate for the next destination. As far as I know, this jump point only sends you to one of three systems, the trick will be finding out which of them our targets intend to visit.

 

 

FACT

 

 

In the past, the idea of jumping from one solar system to another had always been a fascination of men. Could we build a Starship with the ability to do it without the aid of a Jump Gate? The problem however, was never just the inability to outfit a ship with an Eon Drive capable of eighty three point three-three-three light years per hour, but was also navigating the area between systems.

Known as The Verge, these unchartered areas of space are often rife with anomalies and obstacles that could prove catastrophic if disturbed.

Like projectiles that are launched by weapons in vacuum, anything shot into space, be it by collision or expulsion, becomes a possible doomsday missile for space craft, stations, or if big enough, even planets. Without the Jump Gates and their computer-generated trajectories, we would all be shooting through space blindly and without any way of knowing what was in our paths; imagine the chaos.

 

 

CHAPTER 5 - DESTINATION SOLACE

 

 

After leaving the ship behind, we walk through one of the terminal’s many corridors. The brightly lit walkway is wide and through its large windows, the expanse of deep space looms. Stars flicker against the inky blackness and billions of light-years away, three spiral galaxies complete the portrait. So much, so vast, but on the inside, the human traffic here is sparse. The reason comes as no surprises, as this terminal used primarily for military and government business, unlike the more populated areas on the other side of the station. The Freight and civilian terminals constantly buzz with hectic workers, tourists, business folk and anyone else with enough credits to burn.

Our ship is in a private, air-locked hangar and after docking, I made sure to acquire the usual security code, ensuring its safety from any unwanted guests. As any military pilot would tell you, pirates don’t just steel civilian ships and cargo. Selling military grade parts can be an even more lucrative business if you have the right connections.

Stepping out onto a wide sidewalk that runs along a busy street, we go over our plans before splitting up. Bull, Terri and Hound head off to find us proper lodging, while Akita and I continue toward the departures terminal to look for answers. We all agree to meet back at an obscure bar and grill; should be about an hour or so.

This Starport, while different in shape from most, reminds me of many others throughout my travels. The monolithic, manmade, floating-in-vacuum city, complete with vehicles, streets, housing, hotels, businesses and whatever else it takes to make the clockwork run smoothly, has an appeal unlike that of any planet surface. Like all Starports, the lower you go, the more industrial and mechanical it will become while the higher, the more open and touristy. The sidewalk and street where we stand is also a part of the terminal; a wide and long circular link that connects the three ports of entry. Each of these docking bays and terminals in their entirety is as, or maybe even larger, than the city of Dunan.

Angry voices fill the air as two cab drivers hang out of their respective windows cursing. I see that stealing each other’s passengers remains a popular sport, and as the debacle escalates to what might become a physical confrontation, we move on. Traffic here is just as busy as I expected. K1 is a popular system. Many corporation and government envoys and agents come to do business with its wealthy planets while tourists show up for all sorts of reasons. It is also a well-known pirate hub. K1’s laws allow for off-the-book transactions that might appear questionable elsewhere, making it the perfect breeding ground for illegal substance dealers and the like, to thrive in relative safety.

Then there are the freighters, heavy haulers that make hundreds of millions in credits on each run. Finding our Deepcore agents here would be like looking for a needle in space; a daunting task.

As Akita and I walk on, I take comfort with the weight of my Fifty-eight, tucked away near my waist. I can change it from single action to semi-auto with the flip of a switch. I hope that I won’t have to use it. As for the rest of the team, every man has his preference when it comes to a sidearm, except Pitbull. Even with his dual guns, he rarely ever uses them. His fists and raw power often gets the job done.

Entering the departures terminal, we take our time here and move carefully through the bustle.

“Okay…” I turn to Akita “…let’s do our thing.”

Standing in the busy open space as the sea of people moves around us, we search for our target. In all the years of humankind looking to the stars for extraterrestrial life, it is amazing to see that the only inhabitants of space as we know it, turned out to be just us.

“Right there…” Akita nods toward his quarry.

His gaze leads me to an attractive travel agent behind a desk with a fast moving line, and we walk casually toward it. Akita follows two people behind me. If my efforts are unsuccessful, then he is all we have left. My fingers slide across the edge of the Credits card in my pocket. Bribery is not my forte' but if it comes to it…

The line moves steadily. This tells me that she is efficient. Her stance is strong and well balanced; shoulders squared, back straight; she is methodical. Eyes focused, her reaction time is fast and she speaks with confidence…a trained thinker. This might be a bit more challenging that I thought.

I forget the travel agent and search our surroundings. I wouldn’t know a Deepcore agent even if I saw one. They could be standing right next to me and I’d have no clue. All we have is the name of a ship, but this is good enough for me; I arrive at the desk.

“Welcome to K-1…”

Her brilliant smile lightens my mood

“…and how may I help you?”

She has a nice voice. Her eyes sparkle and her hair is perfect; another clockwork clone in my book. I pass my fingertips across the scanner on the flat of her desk and wait.

“Hi…” I return the smile; I hope it is radiant enough “…I am in need of your help.” She shifts her head slightly in acknowledgment and I continue, “I’m not booking a jump as yet. I am an Earthfront agent in need of information…” I wait, but she says nothing “…a ship docked here not long ago. I need to know where this ship is going, when it’s set to jump and who’s on it. Can you do this for me please?”

“Captain Gant. I’m sorry…” It’s as if she had the answer at the ready before I decided to ask the question “…but it is against our regulations and laws to give information of this nature to anyone without the proper authorizations.”

I absorb her smile, almost robotic.

“I understand, but its Earthfront business. We are tracking known criminals and this information would go a long way to ensure…”

“I am sorry Captain Gant, but it is against policy…”

I slide the credits card across to her but keep my fingers on it.

“Twenty-five thousand Creds, all I need is the destination, crew and time of launch.”

She doesn’t even look at the pre-programmed card. “Captain, if that would be all, I kindly ask that you please step out of the line.”

This is over. I know when I’ve hit a brick wall so I nod courteously and move away; it is up to Akita now. I take a walk and then sit in a plush chair at a distance.

“She’s by the book…”

“Don’t worry Cap…I’ve got this…”

Even on coms, I can recognize his intensions. He is next in line and I wait…

 

“Welcome to K-1, how may I help you?”

“Hi…” Akita’s voice, but he doesn’t give his fingers to the scan “…I was standing in line, thinking about whatever it was I was thinking, and then I saw you. And I decided that unless you have your next meal with me, I’m not leaving this terminal.”

There is no sign of amusement on her face “You don’t remember what you were thinking before you saw me?”

She’s not buying it.

“How could I…what is there to remember after seeing you?”

I don’t believe it; she’s smiling.

“You’re good…” She says “…I’ll give you that. But I can’t.”

“I don’t mean you any disrespect. Please, I hope you didn’t take my compliment this way…”

“No, it’s not that. I can take a compliment…but I’m already spoken for.”

“You’re married?”

“No, I’m engaged.”

“What’s your name?” Akita plows on.

“Why do you want to know?”

“A beautiful girl such as you must have a beautiful name. I must know it.” and as Akita waits for her answer, he yet again, mystifies me.

“Riara…” she says it softly.

“I was right…” Akita continues without missing a beat as another smile lights her face “…seriously, when do you get off work?”

“I don’t even know you?”

“How could you, if you don’t get to know me?”

“You don’t even know me?”

I think she is at a loss for words now.

“I know, that the lights O’ Galactic, astronomical the more, I bespeak you visit mine, and to yours invite, that I explore.”

What the hell was that? Was that poetry? When did Akita start quoting poetry?

“I get off in two hours…coffee and sandwiches, nothing else.”

“Coffee and Sandwiches…that’s more than gold as long as it’s with you.”

“I’ll meet you at The Vienna. It’s a café not far from here. If you are the kind of person you appear to be, you should be able to find it.”

“What do I appear to be?”

“I’ll let you know if we meet again.”

I remain seated and after Akita walks away and out the main doors, I follow.

********

 

I stretch my hand and a sticker-covered yellow taxi, hovers to a stop in front of me…thing looks like a flying ad-board.

“Gascloud Nine…”

The driver, no more than eighteen, sticks a wild looking head of lime green hair out the window “Eighty creds man!”

I get in and in a moment, we’re off. I’ve left Akita at the café to do his thing. With a little more than luck, we will have the information we need and be on our way in good time. How he does it, I wish I knew. It’s some kind of natural gift, I guess, or maybe it’s his eyes, green and bold, or the hair, shoulder length, shiny-black and straight. It couldn’t be his build because we all have that. Whatever it is, he has more of it than the rest of us.

I am on my way to meet up with the team. Until word from Akita, we are stuck here so I might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

“You know what I love about our job?” Is what he told me before I left him at the café “…Even though we’re always on the go, we can still find time to enjoy the finer things life has to offer.”

I looked at him and saw nothing more than the anticipation of having yet another woman to add to his trophy wall. It is the same with him every time. He had given me that sly grin of his and I couldn’t help but laugh; what else could I have done?

 

********

 

It has been six hours since I left Akita at that café, but I received his message a half hour ago and now, I’m in the cockpit of the Mirage with Holoscreens up, and information about Deepcore streaming across them. I wonder what Mirana is doing. I wonder if she’s wondering about me. I can contact her, but as much as I want to, I don’t. What would I say? It is times like these I wish I had Akita’s gift with the opposite sex. Of all the people I have ever known, none could win the heart of a woman as easily as he, the difference between us however, is that he does not know how to keep it.

The onboard system alerts me that the airlock is now open. One of the Holoscreens shows Pitbull, Hound and Terri on their way up and as usual, when we make port for more than four hours, Akita is not with them.

The door of the cockpit cabin slides open.

“Brought a little something for you Cap…” Terri hands me a bag full of Kedenian chocolates. I smile and pop a Pine fruit Mocha in my mouth.

“I forgot how great these taste.”

“I know you and chocolates bro…I got your back, but you still owe me.”

Terri’s laughter instantly transports me back to a time when the most urgent thing in our lives was getting home on time so our parents wouldn’t go ballistic.

“Hey Cap…” Terri again “…you remember the mochas we stole from Colin Simpson?”

I grin with the memory “Yeah, he cried and blamed his brother while we ate them all on the roof of his house, how could I forget.”

“You were a bad influence on me you know that?”

“And now the roles are reversed so we’re even.” I pop another chocolate in my mouth and savor the smooth sensation of it, gliding like honey-coated happiness along my tongue.

“Cap…no eating before the jump…”

“Yeah, yeah...” I put the bag of goodies away.

Shortly after eating, I had left the team at the bar and couldn’t bring myself to indulge in the usual pleasures of making port. Not even with Nilani, the very beautiful and interested Hostess offering her services.

What is wrong with me?

“Where’s Akita?”

“At the hotel with his newest victim, Riara…” Pitbull deliberately bends the name for added effect “Said he’d book us out when they’re finished.”

“Well he’d better be finished soon, ‘cause time’s running out.”

We all get to work. Preparing the flight systems for launch would take five minutes but in forty-five, we are going to have to get moving in order to secure our holding slot. The volume of traffic passing through this Starport has every ship making a jump, lined up in the queue three hours before launch.

I wish I had contacted Mirana. Once we leave this system, communication will become difficult. An underlying current drives the urge to hear her before we leave, but duty…or is it fear? I prefer duty. Duty forces my attention back to the task in front of us, and then the door opens, Akita stands there smiling; it is time to go.

 

********

 

Deep six is due for launch in two hours and forty minutes. Their destination is Solace Five; an industrial ice planet in the Solace system roughly two hundred light years away. They are a crew of four, made up of a Commander Pierce Larson, Captain Juno Gallagar, Sergeant Mark Riley and Captain Janet Barlow, and quite conveniently, Riara has booked our jump right after theirs.

I cannot help but be awed by Akita’s achievements, and just like the rest of the crew, what I want to know, is how he did it.

The Mirage’s engines are online and awaiting our command. In a few minutes, the outer airlock would disengage and we will be on our way to the Jump Gate. I look around the cockpit. These are all good men and even more…great friends…brothers, and after six years together, I could not have asked for a better unit.

“So Akita, you know what we all are thinking, spill?” Terri asks the question before I do and Akita gives the usual grin and then tells about his time at the café. How he talked her into showing him around the station. Their common interests and the like, their spark of chemistry, according to him, and her willingness to spend some quality time at the hotel.

“I thought she was engaged?” I just remember this fact.

“Not anymore.”

Akita burns a hole in my mind yet again. How the hell does a stranger get a beautiful, intelligent woman to hook up with him and break off an engagement in less than twenty-four hours?

“I offered her a better life.”

“What life? When are you going to see her again?”

“When we get back to Keden…”

“What makes you think we’re going back to Keden?”

I should not have asked this. They all look at me with funny eyes and Pitbull jumps in.

“Two words Alpha…Mirana O’Canon...”

I ignore their smart-ass grins “Okay let’s say we do go back to Keden, are you saying that you’re giving up your life of womanizing for this girl?”

“Yep…”

Everyone reacts to this with individual expressions of “not-this-again” and while I thumb through the virtual keys in front of me…Well forgive us, but, I gotta see this to believe it. It’s not exactly the first time we’ve heard this declaration.”

“Believe me Alpha, I mean it this time…”

“What was the poetry thing about?”

It’s what I’ve wanted to ask ever since he recited it. It turns out that it was from a book he saw on her side of the desk.

“Poetry is a hobby”

None of us believed him. What’s interesting about Riara though, is not that she gave Akita her private com-code, but the fact the he gave her his. This relationship will definitely be an interesting one to watch.

We put on our helmets after the laughter fades and as our flight suits seal them in place, the ship shudders when the artificial gravity outside is replaced by vacuum. The conversation dies. The main lights in the cockpit go out and all that remain are those from our Holoscreens.

With gentle touches and jolts, Terri and the Semi-Autopilot, guide us out of the small hangar and into the tunnel system of the Starport. Ships of all classes bearing various flags and emblems representing nationalities, corporations, alliances and the like, fill the spaces in their respective hangars. Some behind sealed airlocks and others either docking or leaving. One ship, an imperial transport vessel making port not too far away, boasts the symbol of the Raiku Dynasty across its hull. The red and black Starship, labeled Raiku IV, belongs to one of the few known empires in the galaxy, if memory serves me correctly, about fifty or so thousand light years from earth.

Through my window, the dense Eversteel floor of this monstrous, manmade chamber glows with thousands of well-lighted grooves. Five hundred feet below us, it slides by as our computer system, now on full autopilot, guides us via Digital Magnetics; a computer generated magnetic field that enables our ship’s AI to work in unison with that of the Starport.

According to our flight data, we’ll be arriving in Solace via the Starport Argos and by the calculations on my HUD; our time in hyperspace will be two hours and forty-two minutes.

 

Based on our history books, Hyperspace in the movies of old was as simple as hitting a few buttons and strapping into your seat. If only it was that simple. Unlike Hyper Light, the forces at eighty three point three-three-three Light Years per hour are so astronomical, that no human body would be able to survive it without Magnatech. Every flight suit uses Magnetic Technology to keep the wearer in gravimetric stasis. In other words, no one is ever conscious during time in hyperspace, be it for a few seconds or many hours.

My com alerts me of an incoming transmission.

“Starship Mirage…K1 traffic control has you in sync for launch in forty minutes; stand by for guidance on link.”

“Starship Mirage copies stand by.”

No one ever gets accustomed to the anticipation of the jump. Although you don’t feel the trip, that initial jolt as you enter the slipstream of hyperspace always gets you. Outside, as we exit the docking bay, the expanse of deep space fills my vision yet again. Most of the complex and its many bright windows lie behind us and the Jump Gate, even though it reads four miles away, still looms above us like a monstrous cylindrical mountain. Blue, red and white electrical surges arc and split along the surface of the gate, giving the appearance of an oversized Rail gun. Now that I think of it, I guess that’s what it is in actuality. This is an interesting revelation because if it is indeed a giant rail, that would make us, the destructive projectile.

Our cockpit lights up in dim flashes as the highly charged currents ripple more and more rapidly across the barrel of the Gate. Then without a sound, it spits our Deepcore targets from its mouth in a flash of light, and they are gone. My com crackles to life.

“Starship Mirage you’re cleared for taxi. Twenty minutes to jump.”

My heart gives me that unusually large thump. “Mirage copies twenty to jump. We’re ready for taxi, all is a go.”

“Control acknowledges copy, stand by for loading.”

The world around us glides by like a dream as our ship is ferried toward the Jump Gate. The ride is flawlessly smooth. The station is no longer visible from our windows and as always before any jump to another system, I often wish there was another way.

“Here we go…”

None of us responds to Akita. The looming structure before us has our minds in its hold. The red lights that line it in some areas, the monstrous yellow K1 painted on its base, the undulating energies that crawl along its surface, the giant opening that awaits us as we begin the loading sequence; it just never gets old. Were it not for the cooling system in my suit, I know without a doubt that I would be sweating rivers right now. Goose bumps rise and fall across my flesh even though I try hard to remain calm. The gate gradually changes from vertical to horizontal as the Magnetics alter the ship’s angle of approach. In actuality, we are the ones who are changing angle. Slowly, eventually, we get to the open rectangular chamber and slide sideways into place; The groan of the gate’s giant mechanized doors fill my ear as they begin to move and then our ship finally comes to a stop.

As the massive doors seal themselves shut, darkness envelops us. My eyes adjust to the computer lit cockpit. All is quiet. Every man at this point would be preparing, in his own mind, for the sensations to come; so why am I thinking of Mirana?

“Mirage…Control has you ready for launch to Solace via Argus, rep live.”

I look toward Terrier and he gives me a thumb’s up sign. I respond.

“Control…Mirage is ready for launch, all systems are a go.”

I make the extra effort to keep the nerves out of my voice.

“Control copies all systems are a go. Jump is initiated…twenty seconds.”

The com goes dead. Here we go. There is no turning back even if we wanted to. The silence is mentally deafening. I imagine the crazy arcs of electricity that run up and down on the outer skin of this cannon. There is no countdown to zero, just the fact that at some point within the next twenty seconds, we will be in hyperspace.

A hammer slams into my chest. I think it’s my heart but it’s not. The sudden movement catches me off guard and the ship pushes me further into my seat. A single strand of blue electricity surges through the tunnel ahead, lighting up the cockpit in a brief flash.

“…BLAM!”

It’s the last sound I hear as the sensation of being electrocuted grips and twists the insides of my stomach, and everything goes black.