[AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

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Olterin
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Olterin » Wed, 16. Jan 19, 19:52

Right here, until the end. Would also not mind watching an X4 playthrough ;)
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Thu, 17. Jan 19, 13:55

Thanks fellas. On that note does anyone know of a good video editing suite that is easily accessible and intuitive... ideally for an old geezer who doesn't learn as fast as he used to? These days learning new things feels a bit like: :headbang:
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Triaxx2 » Fri, 18. Jan 19, 22:07

Depends on what you want from one. It's been my experience that video-editing and intuitive don't go together in the slightest. I use VSDC which is free (my most important qualification) and use it mostly to sew my videos together into one piece if I have to break the recording in bits which I attempt to avoid because it messes with the size something awful.

Also, awesome chapter. Still not a Chinmou fan, but good character development.
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Neil Clayton » Fri, 8. Feb 19, 05:52

Please, yes, I am still reading as well and hoping for more. :)

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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Mon, 11. Feb 19, 07:23

Thanks Neil,
that helps keep me going.
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by tcario » Mon, 11. Feb 19, 17:02

Scion,

Please do continue! I have been a silent (until now, anyway) reader for a long time and enjoy your story immensely.

Tony

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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Mon, 11. Feb 19, 18:38

Thanks, Tony.
That's good to hear.

You should all know that I'm working on the next chapter and have a good deal planned out beyond it, in broad strokes anyway. Thing is: the devil is in the details, you know? And the details can throw a mean curve ball from time to time.

Much love, folks.
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Triaxx2 » Wed, 13. Feb 19, 04:01

Captain's Log: Ea't s'Quid

Two messages arrived almost simultaneously. From Brother, that Drake was now a Yaki Lord. One more title for the Huruk'tar. And from Sister, that Lord Rhonkar wished me to pass on his congratulations on Drake's official recognition as a Yaki Lord. No surprise at either message. Nor at them arriving so close together. Of course Lord Rhonkar would have his own amongst the Yaki. One did not remain on top of the Split families without knowing ones enemies as well if not better than one's own allies. As for being confirmed a Yaki Lord, there had been no doubt. Either Drake would join them, or there would have been no Yaki left to disagree. Man does not sit on that many missiles without influence.
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by jimlpearce » Mon, 4. Mar 19, 15:47

I'm most certainly still here. In fact, since I last posted I've reread the entirety of both threads. In some ways I hope this journey never ends. It's crazy to think that since Drake first stole that discoverer I have lived in three different countries, worked in three different career fields, earned a degree and got married to name but a few things... Plus more directly related I started writing myself. Doesn't time fly?

Coming back to this story has also brought me back to X3 after many years away. I've also started up Jim's X4 PC fund in the hope of having a decent rig by the end of the year.

Anyway.. I digress. Looking forward eagerly to the next chapter.
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Triaxx2 » Tue, 5. Mar 19, 01:40

Honestly I just need a GPU upgrade. :D
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Zaitsev » Tue, 30. Apr 19, 02:08

*wanders in, noodle Scion and go back to hibernation*
I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of how awesome I am :D

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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Olterin » Sun, 19. May 19, 11:36

*Wanders in, unpacks fresh pool noodle, applies said pool noodle to Scion, and goes back to patiently waiting*
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Wed, 29. May 19, 11:08

More soon.
:)
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Sun, 2. Jun 19, 07:09

Previous Chapter

90. Strange Reflections

~The wash and sigh of surf on shore.
The high, keening cry of something that is not quite a seagull.
Drapery flutters and snaps in a steady breeze.
The soothing sound of blues sung to guitar and piano.
Ice settles in a glass.~


Well...

Puff! Puff!

... the brochures were right. This place really is a bloody paradise. Durin' the day the ocean is this color that... hell, it's not really just one color. It's like somebody took every shade of blue and green that ever was and let 'em all go to a social mixer together. It looks like nothin' I've ever seen before. Hayla keeps tellin' me it's called 'turquoise' but I've seen turquoise and this ain't that. The water is so bleedin' clean and clear that it looks like the entire ocean, from horizon to horizon, is just this giant, glitterin' jewel that keeps changin'... not its shape but, I guess, it's texture; rollin' and ripplin' and shinin' under the cleanest, bluest sky you've ever seen... or, at least, that I've ever seen.

It's a little weird, though. I don't know if it's just that this planet is a little bigger'n Argon Prime or a consequence of how much time I've spent on a starship recently but I keep gettin' dizzy whenever I look at the horizon. It's not bad, just a little vertigo every time I look out at that spot where the water meets the sky. Like I said, it's not bad. Hell, I've spent most of the past week lyin' down anyway.

I've found myself just sittin' here and starin' up into this sky until somebody comes by and demands my attention for somethin' or other. It's quiet here. I mean it's frakkin' loud. I never realized how loud the ocean could be. But it's kind of this soft loud. You know? Hell, everythin' is soft. The sand is soft. The air is soft. The grass is soft. The furniture is soft. The clothes are soft. And even though it's so loud you can't hear yourself think the sound of the surf is soft... and so damn soothin' that I just keep fallin' asleep with that azure-blue sky in my eyes. It's a peaceful, dreamy sleep too. It's like I'm travellin' to the sound of the waves. Of course the sun isn't soft. The sun is bleedin' nasty, in fact. I mean it feels good; warm and pleasant and makes me wanna just fall asleep. But with my complexion it's really goddamn easy to get burned. So I've had to make a point of usin' the sunscreen and stayin' in the shade. But yeah, this really is a place where you can forget all your troubles... you know, if they'd frakkin' let you, anyway.

~A dog barks in the distance. Even at range the monster sounds like a cannon being fired. Immediately afterward a pair of human voices, one male the other female, begin shouting in alarm and indignation.~

Yeah. Heh heh heh. Right. I brought Max with me and he's been findin' all sorts of ways to entertain himself. Apparently kickin' sand on people is just great fun. He comes barrelin' down the beach at full throttle and then skids to halt, sprayin' sand all over anybody he thinks is an easy target. Then, while they're all sputterin' and spittin', still tryin' ta figure out what the hell just happened, he'll bark at 'em like he's askin', "are we havin' fun yet?" before pullin' a one-eighty and tearin' back off the way he came... usually while kickin' even more sand on his victims. Son of a bitch has even taken to waitin' for just the right moment. I've seen him crouched down in the weeds watchin' a pair of sunbathers, waitin' for 'em to finish latherin' on the suntan oil and lay down to close their eyes. Yeah. It apparently makes us two legged critters do all sorts of entertainin' things. You know, like chase him around screamin' death threats.

Ha-ha heh.

Yeah. Seldon has already promised to shoot him the next time he does it. If I'm not mistaken she's made that threat at least five times now. Dal, on the other hand, just laughs. In fact I'm pretty sure he's decided not to hate me based solely on the fact that he likes my dog. Hayla, meanwhile, has promised to make a rug out of the mutt the next time he messes with her and I'm pretty sure she wasn't kiddin'. Apparently the dog thought so too cos he hasn't messed with her since and, whenever she's around, he goes out of his way to play nice; ears down and lickin' her fingers, that kind of thing.

*sigh*

Yeah.

Hayla. She keeps lookin' at me. You know? When she thinks I won't notice? And the look in her eyes keeps remindin' me of just how sad and empty I feel not knowin' where Gin is.

********

It was not the smartest way to land on a planet. A sane pilot in sane circumstances would minimize the stress on both plane and passengers by adopting a shallow entry angle, allowing the atmosphere to gradually slow the craft via a long, slow conversion of velocity to heat as the ship glided toward the planet's horizon. Montalaar, however, was an occupied world belonging to the Argon Federation and, considering both her intentions and the fact that Montalaar possessed both stationary and mobile planetary defenses AND the fact that she and Legion were flying a Terran-made scout ship, they'd decided that it would not be prudent to attract any attention. So, in the interest of appearing to any watchful sensor or technician as just another piece of random space debris, they'd approached the planet from behind one of her moons. They cut nearly all power while still well over three hundred thousand kilometers from the upper surface of the planet's atmosphere. Then they let the ship simply fall, albeit on a carefully chosen path that would put them directly over an uninhabited mountain range less than an hour's travel from their destination, namely a satellite installation of the Dragonsfyre Institute. After roughly thirty hours of gravity assisted acceleration, including a slingshot around the planet's larger moon, they hit Montalaar's upper atmosphere at roughly eleven thousand meters per second on a very steep trajectory. She suspected that sprinting face first into a concrete wall would have actually been a gentler experience.

The sudden change in vector and velocity subjected the tiny ship and her occupants to such extreme G-forces that both she and Captain Adam Davidson had to be strapped in and seated facing the rear of the ship so that the restraints didn't harm them despite the ship's inertial dampeners being powered up as much as possible. As they hit the burn Anderson began screaming almost immediately only to stop several seconds later. A glance to the side informed Gin that at the very least he'd lost consciousness.

Of course the blood spilling from his nose tickled the darker side of her humour. 'We're gathered here today, she thought as she turned back to the rear of the ship, to celebrate the passing of a murderer, rapist, and hypocrite...' The thought was bitter, cold and acid within her mind; a stark contrast to the blazing heat on the other side of the tiny vessel's hull. She closed her eyes and clenched her teeth as the Rapier shook and rattled and heated up around her. The ship was just then bucking so hard that, if not for her mouthguard she'd likely be chattering her own teeth to splinters. She didn't really expect him to die. Anderson was an officer in the USC, an astronaut in excellent health who had been trained and conditioned for years to endure all manner of situations. But as the ship bucked and rattled around her she was distinctly aware that a single mechanical failure or miscalculation could make these her last moments. Which, oddly enough, made thinking of Anderson's death amusing. Which, in turn, made her hate herself.

She thought of Drake then. It came out of nowhere. It was the thought of his smile and the look in his eyes when he'd just woken up. It was the way his arms felt around her and the pure male insistence of his affection; that yearning, driving push to get ever closer, ever deeper, ever hotter until he finally exploded and all that power was released...

She flinched.

...into a synthetic body; a machine completely incapable of returning the simple, primal lust of human coupling.

A sudden terrible ache ripped through her. She'd never told him. It would wound him terribly if he ever found out. But she always had to fake it. It wasn't his fault. She simply couldn't feel the heat and drive that other women did. Which meant there was a distance between them that could never be crossed, a coolness that never warmed, an ache that could never be soothed, an emptiness that could never be filled. In her private thoughts she thought of it as 'making love by remote', as if her body was a puppet connected to her mind by strings. And yet, with the prospect of fiery annihilation roaring just several meters away, she thought she'd give just about anything to feel his arms around her again.

********

Rafi looked up just in time to miss the ball. Ali was a good throw too so the hard little ball smacked him in the eye hard enough to knock him down. A moment later he was lying in the dust staring up into the blue sky. It was spring in the Gaeda pass. The air was crisp. The sun was warm. And the air smelled of new life. The high peaks on either side of the valley were slabs of reaching stone, still draped in snow and ice. The winds from the north blew clouds of that snow from the ridges, creating clouds of snow. And far beyond them was the strange sight that had distracted Rafi from his friend just as Ali threw the knakka ball.

"Rafi!" Ali skidded up beside him and Rafi felt the other boys hands on his chest. "Rafi! Are you okay?! I'm sorry! I didn't mean..!"

Rafi pointed. "Ali! Look!"

Ali looked. A ball of fire was streaking down from the heavens, growing larger and larger in the sky. Both boys stared in silence. Rafi grabbed his friend's shoulder and used it to pull himself up. Then they simply stared, side by side in gaping silence, as the fireball grew larger and larger until it punched through the swirling clouds above them. Rafi thought it was a meteorite and that it was going to crash down into the lake at the bottom of the hill.

Then there was a really loud BANG! It was so loud that it felt as if the world had just punched him. It seemed to echo off the very sky. The mirror-smooth surface of the water erupted in a tremendous splash. It wasn't the roughly ring-shaped eruption of something hitting the water and sinking, however. Instead it tore across the entire length of the three kilometer mountain lake like a wound. To Rafi it sounded as if the sky itself was screaming. Then, an instant later, the fireball vanished beyond the trees at the far end of the lake. It all happened so fast that the twin walls of rushing water were still crashing back to the water's surface as silence descended upon the valley again. On the far side of the lake there was a hole in the tree line. Around that hole a number of trees were on fire. That strange roar lingered in the air, sounding as if it were echoing off both the mountains and the sky.

Rafi turned to look at Ali. Ali looked at Rafi. For a moment the two boys stared at each other with identical expressions. Their eyes were wide. Their mouths were gaping. An instant later they leapt to their feet and took off sprinting back toward town, leaving the knakka ball forgotten in the weeds as they screamed for their parents with all the strength in their lungs.

********

Gin grimaced as she looked up from the shield indicator. It was an angry, blinking red as it informed her that, just then, their shield capacitors had barely 8% charge. The rapier had literally skimmed the surface of the lake, riding the shield across the water like a surfer on a board, before climbing just high enough to smash through the tops of the tall pines at the lake's edge.

"Okay, Legion!" she shouted, feeling oddly breathless. "That was a little too close!"

The landscape was screaming by at over fifteen hundred kilometers per hour as the plane skimmed the treetops. Legion was flying, of course. Even with her synthetic reflexes Gin would have been incapable of navigating the turns and elevation changes that Legion was making. In less time than it would have taken her to blink a small hunting cabin appeared on a distant ridge and then vanished behind her right shoulder leaving Gin to pick the old man gaping at them out of her memory. An instant later they were flying through a rocky canyon, then over a jagged ridge, then surfing over an ocean of trees as they descended into a fertile green valley. All the while Legion kept them just meters above the trees as hills and ridges and mountains hurtled by on either side of the tiny ship.

Gin blinked and shook her head. She wouldn't have believed it possible but the relative speed was actually making her just a little bit dizzy. When she opened her eyes she turned to look at the man still seated in the copilot's chair. Anderson was very pale with bright red streaks of blood flowing toward his hairline from his eyes, nose, and mouth. He wasn't breathing and a quick adjustment of her optic receptors let her know that his heart had stopped beating. She sighed and looked back out at the landscape speeding by. She hadn't liked him. He was a scumbag who'd tried to not only murder her but also the only friends she had in the entire Universe. When she'd looked into his past she'd found an abusive, dominating asshole who took what he wanted regardless of who it hurt. Yet being responsible for his death left the same old emptiness in her heart.

"ETA five mizura," Legion informed her.

'Right,' she thought and looked back to the landscape screaming by around them. 'No rest for the wicked.'

********

So... yeah. We're on vacation. And by 'we' I mean, well, everybody except me and Ea't. Riiight. So I've actually decided to purchase property here. It looks like it's gonna cost roughly a hundred million credits and that's without the cost of all the legal bull-shit that I have to contend with. Fortunately I have a very good and at least reasonably corrupt lawyer. That fellow Seldon found back on Argon Prime is chargin' me a small fortune but he does seem to be both good at his job and understand that I bloody well expect to get what I pay for. He's on top of that clusterfrak back on Argon Prime from when Ricky and Sal escaped and it looks like he'll be able to keep my cost under fifty million credits which, all said and done, really is a pittance considerin' the possible ramifications of an armed deployment on Argon Prime. Now he's dealin' with all the madness that was and apparently is involved in, well, yours truly, a man unfairly accused of piracy and a known associate of a certain Split that the Boron consider a war criminal, purchasin' property on a planet in the Boron Queendom.

Heh heh heh.

But yeah, we should soon have a permanent vacation home on a world called Paradise... and it is gorgeous. In addition to the resort buildings... yeah, this place used to be a resort. But, in addition to the main compound I'm also purchasin' the island it's on and the two islands nearby, nearly a hundred thousand square kilometers of 'Paradise'... although I don't get the rights to any of the ocean and the Boron government will be pretty much up my ass involvin' anythin' that could affect the water. But either way I'll have beaches, jungle, lagoons... hell I'll even have my own volcano. Which means we'll soon have a company owned resort that will be made available to any of my people who want to take advantage of it when they're on leave. It'll include seriously discounted food, accomodations, etc. They won't even pay wholesale. It'll just be a part of the company wide 'benefits package' that every one of my employees gets. That way all my people will have a place to come and relax without needin' to worry about travel costs and the like... or terran assholes tryin' to kill 'em.

Ugh. Yeah. I've had Legion workin' with my marines lookin' at the security situation on Nova Somnia. We've had to fire a lot of people and imprison or execute a few more. The entire station had been thoroughly infiltrated by both the Wakiya and Huritas. I mean they also turned up dozens of other racketeerin' rings, smugglin' operations, thefts and a couple cases of extortion. I'd pretend to be indignant and upset but that'd be a bit hypocritical, wouldn't it? Not to mention we are in Yaki space. But, yeah, it's bein' handled. Both security and surveillance is bein' increased on all'a my stations and the no-fly zone around the Alpha Complex is bein' enforced with-ah, what do they call it? Extreme prejudice? Which basically means that you better have a damn good reason for flyin' near that complex, and be willin' to cough it up real fast, or my pilots will slag your ass. It's caused a couple hiccups in my ongoin' peace efforts with the other clans but frak 'em. They want to send their pilots to recon my complex and then get indignant when I defend my interests?

Yeah.

Oh, that reminds me. Both Tasha and Kao t'Kt want to set up a planetside camp for trainin' marines. Not sure how well that'd go over with the Boron so I'm prolly gonna have to look into findin' property on a planet somewhere for 'em to set up shop but it's a good idea. So over the next few months I should be able to start puttin' together... hell, I guess you'd call it an army. Well not in front of the marines. They seem to take that shit personally.

But yeah. On the whole the people in my life seem to be... err... well, less stressed anyway. Seldon has stopped scarin' the shit out of me every time she looks my way. I swear she's been remindin' me more n' more of Rana. It's that dead level stare that looks right through you, ya'know? Hell, now that I think about it, it's even more scary when Seldon does it. Rana just looked blank, you know? I mean you got the impression that she was thinkin' about skinnin' you alive but... well, it seemed like a distant threat, you know? But Seldon? Seldon grins and, I dunno why but, seein' that auger-like glare combined with that mile wide grin of hers is just... well it's frakkin' scary.

Right. Well over the last few days I've heard her laughin' and seen her holdin' hands with my grizzled old crew chief. Yeah. Beats me. I mean Seldon is... well, callin' her a looker wouldn't exactly be... err... inaccurate? Cornell, on the other hand, is-uhm. Not. I mean I'm not exactly the best judge of male... err... beauty? Aesthetics? Frak if I know. But he looks a bit like somebody smacked him in the face with a fryin' pan. I mean he's got this big, flat, square face with a jaw like a steam shovel and these wild, thick eyebrows over a pair a black eyes that look like... well, lookin' him in the eye I always feel a bit like he's starin' at my death. On the upside he's been relaxed these last few days too. Yesterday he even smiled at me. Or maybe he was just smilin' when his eyes happened to fall on me. But he didn't stop smilin' when he saw me and, well, I'm gonna mark that down as progress and choose to feel good about it.

********

Small arms fire ripped through the bulkhead a hand's breadth above her head. Shrapnel peppered the top and side of her helmet. She ducked and lunged behind cover. Shoulder to bulkhead, panting inside her helmet; the stock of her rifle hit her shoulder. Staying low she leaned around cover to mark the shadows in the fog. The scope found her eye. The red dot found the silhouette of the closest shadow. Her right index finger squeezed the trigger.

Muzzle flashes lit up the dark. The silhouette fell and its mates froze. More muzzle flashes lit up the fog as they reacted. The rifle trembled in her hands. The bulkhead was torn to shreds around her. The second silhouette staggered and fell into the fog. The third lunged for cover. Her crosshair found and tracked him. More flashes lit up the dark and twenty meters away the silhouette staggered, spun and disappeared in the fog.

While staying low she emerged from cover and advanced on the enemy. One eye stayed behind the scope. The other was open and alert for movement in the fog. Her aim was level, steady, and true. Her armor traced a pair of silhouettes before they emerged from the fog. Muzzle flashes erupted at both end of the corridor. One of the silhouettes fell. Then the other. Her feet moved beneath her and she glided forward.

Then she reached the first of her downed enemies. An icy bolt of shock tore through her even before her mind accepted what her eyes were saying. She shuddered as she stared down at the man at her feet. It was Eddie Rodriguez. His eyes were open. Blood was pooling on his faceplate below his mouth. He was staring at her boots.

"Nuh!" she gasped.

Her eyes found the man behind him. It was Jim Everan. She could barely see his face through the blood on his face shield.

"No!" she gasped. "No-no-no!"

Another muzzle flash in the dark. More shadows in the fog. She dropped into a crouch as the rifle stock found her shoulder.

"No-no! Please no!"

The scope found her eye. The red dot found her targets. Muzzle flashes in the dark. They were just silhouettes but she knew who they were. She saw their faces in light of the muzzle flashes. Avin Pierce collapsed as her rifle cut him down.

"NO!"

A degree to the right and Jak Randall fell behind Pierce.

"NOOO!"

Her feet were moving forward. Her aim was steady and true. The corridor glided past her as she advanced. Another shadow. She took aim and fired, dropping Dav Gilharno. Another moving shadow. Another burst of rifle fire and Rik Salek dropped to the deck.

She was screaming as her feet carried her forward. More and more of her people appeared in the fog and she watched, a passenger in her own mind, as her own rifle cut them down one by one until she turned the last corner. The computer core was just ahead, with only one more shadow between her and it. She took aim and squeezed the trigger. In the muzzle flash she saw Aaron Slamer staring back at her. His normally affable face was white with shock and pain. Inside her own mind she wailed with grief.

"Hey, bitch!" The voice came from behind her.

She turned and saw the muzzle flash.

Too late.

She felt a series of taps as if someone were jabbing her breastbone with a strong, hard finger. The world tumbled away as she fell backwards. The deck plates punched in her in the back.

She couldn't move.

She couldn't breathe.

A shadow appeared above her.

The woman staring down at her wore the same face she saw in the mirror every day. "Frackin' A, bitch," the woman curled a contemptuous lip at her. "Just die already." The rifle in the woman's hands was pointed at her face. There was another muzzle flash.

"Nuh-hah!" She gasped. It was a weak and pitiful denial.

Her breath was ragged and harsh in her throat. She was trembling. Her eyes were open but nothing she saw made any sense. Her heart felt like it was trying to escape from her chest. Her left hand reached for the wound between her breasts while her right touched her face. Both came away dry. There was no blood.

Then she heard a strange sound. It was a deep, mournful keening that she immediately associated with whales. She blinked and lifted her eyes but couldn't understand what they were telling her. Stars glittered in an indigo field above and a vast blue plane stretched out beneath it. It rippled with silvery, cyan-blue undulations. She heard that keening again and blinked. A soft breeze caressed the side of her face. It felt like cool velvet.

Her breath was still sandpaper in her throat and she realized that she was not quite cold. Her skin felt gritty, sticky, and cool. She blinked and tried to digest her surroundings. There was a collection of strange but pleasant smells. Fresh green vegetation mixed with salt air and just the hint of a fishy scent. Then she realized that she was listening to a huge, booming wash that sighed from all the way left of her to all the way right. She gasped deeply and sighed.

It was the surf.

She was on a beach.

The stars were above her because she was planetside. The blue planes were the deep indigo sky and shining ocean. She was on a Boron world with a name that meant Paradise.

She was on vacation.

Which meant that she was safe.

Her people were safe.

No one was trying to kill her or anyone she cared about.

With that understanding something ripped through her. It was as deep and violent as heartbreak. A wracking sob shook her so violently that she could have been having a seizure. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders and rocked with the latest in a series of recent emotional storms.

"Oh frak me!" she cursed and sniffed.

She knew what it was. She'd read the psychological pamphlets the corpsmen had passed out back in the Argon navy. Her mind was processing trauma. The dreams were her subconscious sorting out the things her waking mind could not. She understood it. She understood that she needed to just ride it out and not fight or resist it.

"Right," she sniffed and spat into the sand. "Cos gettin' shot at in real life isn't bad enough." Now I've just got to let it happen while I'm dreamin' too.

Another wave of grief and anger ripped through the middle of her. It burned in her eyes and spilled out onto her cheeks.

"Uugh!" she groaned and flopped back onto the towel beneath her. She wiped her eyes with the heels of her palms. "Oh frak me," she said again.

Then a quick series of soft footsteps padded up beside her. She opened her eyes and saw a large shaggy shadow block the silver glow of one of the planet's three moons. There was a brief, instinctual burst of fear. Then the monster dipped its head and sniffed her.

"Oh!" she sighed, recoiling from the thing's wet nose as the monster's scent triggered recognition. "Hey Max," she said and cupped the big dog's chops.

Max answered her with a soft, nasal whine and began to lick the tears from her cheeks. For some reason this caused her entire body to go rigid. An instant later she felt another wave of emotion rip through her. More tears spilled onto her cheeks.

"Oh frak me," she whispered. "Yeah," she said and patted the dog's shoulder. "Yeah, I love you too, buddy."

The dog huffed and then flopped down on the towel beside her. He was wet from swimming in the ocean and stank the way only a wet dog can. Sand stuck to his fur and scratched her bare skin. He was panting a hot humid stench onto her face. It was obvious from the smell of his breath that he'd recently killed and eaten something.

"Shit, boy," she scoffed and sat up. "Drake just lets you wander?"

The dog leaned against her. He was looking at her face with a happy expression that made her feel like smiling. And despite his smell and the sand in his fur the heavy, meaty warmth of him felt good as he leaned against her. With that realization she felt another wave of stupid tears. For a moment she just let them rip through her. Grief and pain and helplessness tumbled over each other inside her until she heard a keening growl tear through her throat. She heard Max whine at her and turned to put her arms around him. The dog immediately licked her face again.

For a time she just sat there with her arms around the dog. She listened to the boom and wash of the surf and savored the gentle caress of the breeze. Max's steady panting was almost impossibly reassuring and, after a time, she found herself appreciating the beauty around her. The moonlight painted the world silver. It caressed the ridges and peaks of the islands pressing up out of the ocean. It picked out the rolling peaks of the waves that were literally aglow with luminescent algae. Nightbirds sang in the jungle behind her and she saw something huge leap up and out of the water before slowly falling to send silver spray into the night nearly a kilometer out to sea. She couldn't see much more than a length of shining meat in the dark but even so she got the sense of something innocent and fearless at play.

After a while the reality of her own safety began to dispel the terror of her latest nightmare. As her mind touched the memory of it she shuddered and Max immediately turned and licked her lips. She recoiled but quickly pat the dog. She'd never really been around dogs before. She thought it strange that she could be both comforted and disgusted by the same behavior. Max glanced at her, panting happily. Then his ears twitched and he looked out into the jungle. She thumped his chest and pet the side of his neck.

"Yeah," she told him. "I'm glad you found us, bud." She trembled again. Then she frowned. 'Us,' she'd said. "Frak me," she scoffed and shook her head. Max looked at her curiously. "That little shit really is my frakking family now, isn't he?'[/i]

Max tilted his head in an attempt to make sense of the absurd woman beside him. She grunted and pet his head. The thing out in the water flopped in the waves. She turned to watch it and sighed.

"Frak me," she said again. "What the hell am I gonna do?"

It was obvious that something had to give. Including the Brimstone she'd been on one hundred and thirteen boarding ops for Drake. She'd killed heaven only knew how many people for him. Originally she'd claimed to be doing it for the money but that no longer held any water. Between her salary and the bounties Drake used to pay back when she was boarding ships and the money Slamer left her she was now what they called 'independently wealthy' even by outer-space standards. She had enough money to do just about anything she wanted. If so inclined she could retire right now and never need to work another day in her life.

"Cos that just sounds sooo exciting," she grumped.

Max licked her cheek again and she pet him absently. Above her the stars were shining beyond streaks of cloud gilded with brilliant silver in the moonlight. She took a breath and sighed. She thought of Chinomu and the image that sprung to mind was of the woman lying in the spreading ruby-black pool of her own blood, her dismembered arm laying on the deck a few meters away; dying and fighting with every breath to save her little sister from Drake's wrath.

Tasha took a breath and sighed with a shake of her head. Out at sea the giant whale-thing splashed and sprayed water into the moonlight. It was slowly moving away from her.

"What a frakking mess," she said.

********

Yellow. Not sunshine and daisy yellow. More an ocher tinted by a hazy reddish-brown. Like bad urine stained by blood. That was the color Ericka Chinomu thought of whenever she contemplated her experience. Yellow. Like bad pee.

The painkillers were clouding her mind the same way they dulled her senses. It was hard to think, hard to see through the haze, hard to know what to do. Little sister was in one of Drakhar's brigs somewhere, assuming the little shit had kept his word and not executed her already. Eri hadn't been told either way and couldn't think through the details without getting lost in the fog. Her concentration was so diffused that she kept finding herself staring out into space, as if awaking from a dream, or gazing mindlessly at the video feed the nurses kept turning on "for her". She found it all infuriating... when she wasn't staring out into space.

Yesterday she'd decided to face the pain, considering it a small price to pay for mental clarity. She would endure her body's rebellion in order to think, to see, to find a way forward. It took less than one hour after the morphine was cut off for her to regret the decision. The pain was like nothing she could have imagined. It was a hellscape. It was horizons of fire, shattered landscapes and sundered earth. It was a roiling sky torn by endless lightning roaring thunder at the world in the voices of all the gods that ever were. There was no thinking through it. There was no working around it. There was no ignoring it to put her mind to task. Her body was broken. Her torso hideously deformed by the loss of her smart hand and the arm and shoulder that once led to it. In place of that hand were now scorched nerves screaming as if she really was, right that moment, on fire.

Yet even so it took one nurse to finally get through to her and usher Eri out of her own way. It was the sound of the woman's voice. When she spoke to Eri the woman used a certain tone. It was tired and put-upon, weary and straining under the need for patience and compassion that was never reciprocated. It was a tone Eri recognized. It was the exact same tone of voice that Eri had heard out of her own mouth time and time again growing up. It was the way she herself had sounded whenever she'd had to explain to her mother that "no" the woman couldn't have another drink, that she just needed to just lie the frak down until the room stopped spinning and her stomach settled, that "no" Eri wouldn't go to the store and fetch another bottle for her, and "no" she couldn't have the keys to the car because... she'd get herself killed. Hearing that particular tone from a stranger's mouth was, impossibly, even more offensive than the severed nerve endings screaming that her arm and shoulder were not only still attached to her body but were also right that moment covered in napalm and searing her flesh to the bone.

So she'd relented. She accepted the morphine drip and the noise and visual distraction of the idiot box on the wall. She stared out into space while the part of her psyche that had always stepped forth to drive her to take the next step, achieve the next goal, overcome the next challenge wailed and wept in the back of her mind, claiming that if she didn't get the frack up, didn't climb out of this goddamn bed right bloody well now then the universe itself was going to unravel. Her sister would be executed. She would be executed. Drakhar would amass enough power to move against the Sol system his nukes and his starships and all the savagery and stupidity required to use them... while she sat stupefied, staring at a children's show about colored bears with rainbow powers.

But at least the pain was distant.

She scoffed in disgust. Then rolled her eyes at the pitiful gratitude that surfaced in spite of her disgust. The pain was a throbbing, itching ache. It was awful and insistent and nearly impossible to ignore but it was not hellfire screaming across the sky. It wasn't the end of the world in her flesh, wracking her torn muscles with spasms until her spine and ribs felt as if they would shatter while the fire and pressure climbed into her head so that it felt like her eyes were about to explode with the volcanic pressure of her next heartbeat. Even so she found herself constantly writhing to find a position, any position, that would offer some sort of relief from the constantly throbbing and endlessly itching ache.

There wasn't one.

And it was exhausting. Hour after hour after hour of the relentless, throbbing drum where her arm and shoulder used to be and the screaming, shooting pains that insisted her left arm was in agony despite the fact that it had likely been incinerated days ago. Logically she knew the arm wasn't there any longer. Logically she knew that what she was experiencing was called 'phantom pain' and that it was the result of her brain and nervous system trying to send signals to and receive signals from an arm that was no longer there, a hand that was no longer there, fingers and a thumb that no longer there, a palm that were no longer there. A massive part of herself was simply gone and it's ghosts refused to accept it.

From a purely objective standpoint it was an amazing experience. This injury had already revealed so much about herself that she'd never been aware of before. She'd never realized, for instance, how vain she was. It wasn't until she was standing in front of the mirror, gazing upon her newly shattered body, that that particular aspect of her psyche was revealed in tragic fashion. Staring at her reflection she'd felt as if she was falling. She simply ended shortly above her left breast. Her left clavicle and scapula had been surgically removed to prevent further damage by spasming muscles. So on her left side her body had only her ribs to give it shape. Instead of the curving mountain and graceful column of her left arm the line of her bandaged torso moved directly to her neck. The very sight of her offended some deep, instinctual sensibility. In other words she was revolting. After the shock the injury to her newly revealed vanity left her weeping for nearly an hour.

It seemed she was constantly being reminded of how much she'd been lessened by the loss of her arm. Everything she did reminded her of it. Everything from breathing to expressing annoyance caused pain. She couldn't even shrug any longer, not really. Her right shoulder moved but there was nothing on the left side to do it with... and it hurt. Her brain didn't know those muscles were gone and it tried to recruit them. She couldn't roll the kinks out of her neck or flex the muscles in her back to crack her spine and trying caused horrific pain. She couldn't even crack the fingers in her left hand to dispel tension. Yet her brain kept trying to send signals to that hand to try… and it hurt.

Constantly.

Everything she tried to do, from picking up a glass of water to scratching her nose to wiping her ass, all tried to recruit nerves and muscles and skeletal components that just weren't there any longer... and it caused some kind of confusion in her brain and body that ached and itched and trembled until she was ready to scream with pain and frustration. It was wearing her down like nothing she'd ever experienced before. She'd begun hearing this pathetic whimper escape her throat when her willpower wore thin. It was a weak, mewling sound accompanied by burning tears that made the skin around her eyes sticky. It was the sound of powerlessness and despair and it horrified her. The idea of any one she knew hearing that particular sound escape her was all it took for her to refuse any visitors.

Then it was explained to her that, because of the nature of her injury, it was not possible to graft a cloned arm back to her nervous system. At least not immediately. There were many evasions after that. She'd ask questions expecting definitive answers and got possibles and maybes and bull-shit in return. "In time, perhaps." "You never know." "Who can say?" Especially when she'd asked about flying again. She was given a load of sugary, encouraging advice that all seemed to boil down to 'stay positive and focus on what's right in front of you'. She'd been watching her doctor's eyes, however. It was a woman, middle aged, confident, with dark skin and eyes. She'd been looking Eri right in the face and Eri admired her for that at least. She'd been speaking and the words that came out of her mouth were all about how it was impossible to say for certain and how the human will was capable of overcoming even the most impossible of odds. She'd even pointed out Eri's legendary confrontation with a Shrike not so long ago. Yet Eri'd seen the apology in the woman's eyes.

It wasn't long after that that she'd started screaming at people for practically no reason.

********

Thing is, even with me bein' on vacation and watchin' my people relax... Hayla is in heaven, for instance. Yesterday I saw her at the center of... I don't even know what to call it. There must have been twenty people at work keepin' her happy. She was gettin' a massage, havin' her nails done, sunbathin' with some young musclehead wavin' a fan at her, sippin' from a glass with fruit and a little umbrella in it... and when she saw me she just lit up as bright as the bloody sun overhead.

So yeah.

I feel like a good son today and you'd be amazed at how far that goes to ease my troubled soul.

Unfortunately not everybody is that happy and even here on what will soon become my own private island on a peaceful Boron world in an ecosystem without any predators... at least until we brought Max ashore... yeah, even here I'm still workin'. Like: all the time. My comm is linked to my tenjin which is landed on just the other side of the complex. The tenjin is in constant communication with Predator which is in high orbit overhead. The Predator is, in turn, talkin' to the satellites in the sector which are in touch with the rest of my network. Which means that every time somebody needs instructions on how to wipe their own ass... I get a call.

*sigh*

I guess this is what I get for shootin' people who make mistakes.

Right. So despite the fact that I've spent most of the past wozura in nothin' but a bathin' suit I've actually managed to get quite a bit done... although the majority of that was about as excitin' as watchin' a silent movie while wearin' a blindfold. You know I totally forgot just how annoyin' all this bloody administrative crap could be. Do you know how tedious it is just to set up basic tender service for three bloody frigates?! I mean you'd think that a LOGISTICIAN of all people would be able to handle that kinda shit without needin' me to hold his hand, right?

Uh-huh.

I have to tell each and every goddamn one of 'em to go here, load that, go there, unload that... cos they're imbeciles! Right? I mean good bloody god! I tell yah. I can't wait to start sortin' this crap out for my new Shuri. Bloody hell. I miss havin' a CAG. Mine is currently on the Endless feelin' sorry for herself. I mean what's the big deal anyway?! She's got another arm! And it's not like she was flyin' a fighter anymore anyway!

...

Shit.

I was waitin' for someone of the female persuasion to swat me. None did. Which got me thinkin' about Gin again and... yeah.

I don't really mean any of that about Chinomu. She wouldn't believe me if I said so but I actually do understand what she's goin' through. Her family is dead. She's alone except for one person that she feels responsible for. She's also lost a part of her body and, with it, a fair amount of competence. The rifle her sister used fired slugs at such high velocity that a percentage of the material was superheated into plasma. Which means Chinomu got hit by a ballistic weapon wrapped up in a superheated cloud of charged particles. And, no, I'm not really that smart. I just know this stuff cos it was explained it to me by the doc who wanted me to appreciate the gravity of her injuries and, I'm pretty sure, feel guilty for puttin' the woman in harm's way. Cos... yeah. I mean I obviously made her do that.

*sigh*

I tell yah.

Anyway, the bottom line is that when that shot hit Chinomu not only did she lose the arm she lost much of the nervous tissue that would have let the doctors attach a cloned arm to her. The lightnin' from the plasma apparently fried her circuits or somethin'. So there are other options for givin' her an arm again but, well, apparently there will be quite a bit of physical therapy involved and, from what they tell me, she'll probably never be as good behind the stick as she was.

From what they tell me she's not handlin' that bit of news very gracefully.

********

Luis Charles Feret, Lucifer to his enemies and Lu to his friends, was feeling better. His joints and recently broken bones still ached but the chief medical officer aboard the Necromancer, a cranky old cuss named Compton, informed him that, "that's what happens when a body is starved, dehydrated and beat to hell and back for weeks at a time." The old bastard then lit a cigarette and blew smoke in his face all while watching him with what Lu thought of as 'clinical amusement'. "Don't worry," the old guy reassured him with acid sympathy, "a few weeks of eating right and getting enough fluids in you and you'll be ready to run off and get yourself killed in any way you want."

Lu shook his head at the thought. He'd briefly wondered how long the man had worked as a military doctor. He suspected the answer would be given in decades. There was a certain grumpiness that seemed unique to military surgeons. Not all of them developed it but he'd rarely run into its like in the civilian sector. Once, but it was in a Catholic nurse working on Regulus 4, a planet famous for both its jungles and its infighting. He supposed it was just what happened to a person who made their living patching up people who would regularly end up back on their operating tables.

A moment later the lift came to a halt. The lift doors opened and he found himself staring out into a strange compartment. The first thing that struck him was the surreal contrast between the stark, ominous lines of a Split warship and the modern human medical center that had recently been built within it. For a moment the contrast was so surreal that he could only stand and stare. Then a pair of nurses stepped onto the lift and stared at him, obviously wondering if the befuddled fool intended to hold them up. Lu promptly smiled, dipped his head and got out of their way by stepping into the lobby of the ship's hospital.

He'd been here before, of course. Back then it hadn't bothered trying to accomodate the more delicate sensibilities of human beings, however. Once again Lu found himself stunned by the whirlwind that followed Drake around. On Earth the man would be barely twenty years old, not even old enough to legally buy a beer in many places. And yet, in his wake, worlds were born and destroyed. All around him Lu saw people living their lives. Nurses, doctors, and patients of all shapes, sizes, ages and genders. A crewman with a work related injury to his hand, a pair of young men laughing with the strained intensity of soldiers determined to get back to their squads, a mother herding several small children while completing her check out with the duty nurse. Once again Lu could only marvel at the reality around him. Drake was a force of nature, a singularity pulling lives into his orbit just as the several hundred million black holes gathered the galaxy around them.

He briefly wondered how many people like him had ever lived. Nathan R Gunne was surely one of them. Of course so was Adolf Hitler. Unique people who were, as a consequence of genetics, celestial alignment, magnetic forces or by some power human beings could only guess at, capable of shaping the world around them through the sheer force of their wills.

Lu sighed through his nose, shook his head and stepped toward the nurse's duty station. He was still several paces away when the nurse looked up. "Can I help you?" she asked.

Just then a hatch door opened twenty meters down the corridor to his left. Through it was in an instant, feral roar. "GET AAAOWT!"

A harried looking nurse ducked through the hatch just as what looked like a tray of hospital food crashed into the bulkhead behind her. Lu took a breath and sighed. He heard both the heartbreak and the despair in that scream. It was a tone he was unfortunately familiar with. He turned and met the eye of the nurse behind the desk. "Nevermind," he said. "I know where I'm going."

"Oh," the woman replied, "you mean her." The tone of that last word spoke volumes.

Lu nodded and turned away. "Aye," he said to himself, "that I do."

As he approached the hatch and harried looking nurse he saw the woman attempting to reason with her patient. Even from ten meters away he could hear the calm, patient and endlessly put-upon tones of a professional nurse.

"I said GET OUT!" Chinomu screamed again and a moment later something else crashed against the wall beside the hatch. Lu heard lots of small things skitter and roll across the hard deck.

As he stepped up the nurse was backing away from the room with an expression of pure incredulity on her face. Her hospital whites were decorated with what looked like peas and carrots. He smoothly stepped aside as she nearly collided with him. The nurse looked up and glared at him. She was absolutely livid. Lu promptly stepped back to get out of her way. For a moment he was sure she was about to give him a dose of the frustration Chinomu had inspired. Instead she forcibly regained her composure, looked him up and down and then forced a sharp, brittle smile across her face.

"Commander Chinomu doesn't want any visitors," the nurse informed him through that glassy smile.

Lu nodded and smiled at her. "Well," he said warmly, "she's getting one anyway."

The nurse arched an eyebrow and her look became appraising. "Your funeral," she said.

Lu smiled at her. "We'll see," he said.

The nurse sighed and shook her head. "Good luck," she said and started away.

Lu took a breath and turned toward the hatch. His smile vanished and his eyes narrowed. He palmed the door controls and the hatch opened. Before it was fully recessed into the bulkhead he heard the angry snarl from across the compartment. "I said...!"

"Oh I heard you," Lu cut her off. He didn't raise his voice but after a lifetime in the military he was quite capable of speaking so that he was heard. "I suspect they heard you on the Necromancer."

Ericka Chinomu blinked and met his eyes. In that instant she looked more fragile than he'd ever seen her. Her body was hideously incomplete. She was pale, bruised and haggard. There were deep, purple bags below her eyes and her hand, held out between them as if to ward him away, was shaking. Worst of all was the look in her eyes. What he saw there could only be described as 'desolation.' The instant she recognized him she looked away and he heard the stifled sob that escaped her.

Lu stepped into the compartment and closed the hatch behind him. Then he busied himself with inspecting her surroundings while she tried to compose herself. It was a small room made for only one bed. There was a small head directly to his left with a sink, toilet and enclosed shower with a stool and handrails for the infirm to use while bathing. Across from the head, on the bulkhead to his right, was what looked like Chinomu's lunch. The tray and utensils along with the bulk of the meal lay on the deck at his feet. He nodded to himself as she sniffed angrily at him from across the room.

"Come to see the freak?" she demanded.

Lu sighed and gave her a look that was simultaneously amused, incredulous and just a touch impatient. She didn't see any of it. She was deliberately not looking at him by staring at video monitor that was always present in human hospital rooms. "Self pity," he informed her, "is a bad look on you."

"Sorry to disappoint you," she replied acidly.

"Wow," he said while stepping over her lunch. "You're really in it, huh? Dug that hole and hopped right in."

"Go away," she hissed.

He sat down in the chair beside her bed and stared at the side of her face. "Make me," he said, making sure she heard the mirth in his voice.

THAT got her attention. Her head came around so fast that sweaty, unwashed locks of hair whipped her cheek and neck. Her mouth was open and her eyes were full of black hate. He smiled gently and her anger shattered like glass. Tears immediately spilled from her eyes and she turned away to sob into her pillow. Lu nodded, put his feet up on the side of her bed, and waited.

After several moments she sniffed. "I hate you," she informed him.

Lu nodded. "I know," he told her gently.

A moment later she turned and met his eye. Her mouth was open but nothing came out of it. Her cheeks were shiny with tears. He held her eye and imagined that he could hear her screaming in utter silence within her mind. He couldn't tell her but he knew exactly how that felt; to be screaming endlessly while the world carried on without hearing.

He smiled at her. He understood. Her arm was gone and with it she'd likely never again be the pilot she'd worked so hard to be. Her career in the USC was gone because some low-life in a position of political authority used her as a scapegoat to cover up some heinous act that she'd never even been privy to. Her family was dead but for her baby sister and the girl was, right then, in the brig of a man the entire Sol system thought of as one of their greatest enemies. Even worse was that the girl, who Lu had once heard Chinomu call 'little bird', was now a dead-eyed killer for the Wakiya, something he suspected Chinomu felt personally responsible for.

His own experience of her told him that she needed to act. She needed to act, to do something to bully the universe into straightening up, flying right and toeing the goddamned line. Yet here she was lying in a hospital bed, hopped up on painkillers, forced to remain still while everyone she cared about made stupid choices, fracked up their lives and put the people around them in harm's way. It was all just too much and the woman wanted to break but couldn't. She couldn't because that's not who she was and no matter what the girl in Drake's brig now believed Ericka Chinomu really was all the girl had left and not even death would cause this woman to fail her. So Lu held her eye, pursed his lips, and nodded.

'Yeah,' he thought, staring into her screaming eyes, 'I hear you.'

Chinomu bared her teeth and started to shake. The tears spilled over her cheeks and she looked away in a desperate, futile attempt to hide them. Lu nodded and said nothing but did not look away. He felt the shudder in the center of his own mind and briefly thought he could hear his own voice screaming from the depths of himself. He shuddered ever so slightly but kept his attention on the woman in front of him; a woman who was simultaneously one of his most gifted and most troublesome students, a woman who was, like himself, lost and so very far from the home that had condemned and cast them out. He'd be here when she was ready.

He could do that much at least.

********
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Scion Drakhar
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Re: [AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II

Post by Scion Drakhar » Sun, 2. Jun 19, 07:10

You know I still can't believe that she took that bullet for me. I mean I've watched the video feed until I got sick of lookin' at it and I just can't believe she did it. And once she's back on her feet I have absolutely no idea what I'm gonna do with her. I mean on the one hand I-ah I kinda owe her... uhh... I wanna say one but, honestly, considerin' the day Gil tried to board the Necromancer I'm gonna have to go with two. At this point I owe her two.

Which sucks.

Cos I don't like her.

Lu keeps tellin' me that likin' somebody really isn't all that important. Thane said somethin' similar. And yeah! I get it. I do. You don't have to enjoy someone in order to recognize that they're solid, dependable and a great frakkin' ally. And likin' somebody doesn't mean they won't stab you in the back the instant it suits 'em. Just look at Gil. But the truth is I don't know that Chinomu IS my ally. I mean it's crazy, right? She goes head to head with Gil's Shrike and then takes a bullet to save my life and I've got the gall to doubt her intentions.

But I do.

I always have.

I just don't trust her.

Also, I'm pretty sure that she will NEV-VER let me live that bullet down... even though she took it because she underestimated me.

*sigh*

Yeah.

Lu keeps tellin' me that bein' underestimated is a good thing, an opportunity but, I gotta tell ya, there are times when it just feels bloody offensive. Either way, I'm gonna have to keep an eye on her in the future. She's been loyal so far but her little sister just introduced herself and brought the news that their entire family has been dead for several years and... well, shit. If that ain't a wild card I don't know what the hell is.

********

Yomi sat cross-legged in the middle of her cell, chewed on her lower lip... and scowled. The cell was horrifically monotonous. The walls were white and nearly without feature. The lights were just a little too bright and were never dimmed. The cell was small and, although it provided for its guest's every simple need all of those features withdrew into the walls when not in use. There was a cot, a toilet, a sink and shower stall but unless she was actively engaged with them they all folded up into the bulkheads, leaving all of the two and half by three meter cell completely free of clutter and, by extension, completely free of distraction.

She thought she'd been in the cell for about a week but couldn't be certain. The lights were always on and, since she'd been jailed, she hadn't seen a single face. The only indication of time passing was her meals. She suspected they arrived every eight hours or so but knew better than to rely upon them to tell time. It would be too easy to alter their frequency to manipulate her perceptions. Although, at this point, she didn't think that was the case. If there was any time sensitive information Drakhar's people could have gleaned from her it was now useless. As far as she could tell she'd simply been thrown in a cell and left to go mad in isolation.

In such an environment the mind was its own worst enemy. She was diligent about keeping a routine. She used the space for calisthenics and meditated when there was nothing else to do. It helped... for a while. The more time passed, however, the more certain unknowns began to wear on her. There were questions her mind kept asking that she had no answers for and there were others that had answers she didn't want to face.

Eri...

During her meditations Yomi could slow her heart rate to less than twenty beats per minute. She could enter a mental stillness so complete that she simply became a part of her environment, open and attuned to every sound and smell around her. Yet during her stay in this horrific little cell she'd been tormented by the moment she squeezed the trigger. She'd had him in her sights, lined up in the crosshair and dead to rights. At least... she thought she did. Turns out the fool she'd seen bouncing a ball while talking on his comm was an illusion, a bit of theater for her benefit; hers and possibly Eri's as well. She'd seen the real man a split second later.

In her mind's eye she witnessed that moment over and over again. It would intrude upon her meditations and cause her heart to race: Eri throwing herself in front of the rifle at that last possible instant. The muzzle flash. Then sister, tumbling away in a cloud of fire and pink steam while the truth was revealed. The fool was gone. Instead Drakhar, the wolf, stared back at her from beyond the scope, a rippling force-field and a wall of crystalline hyperglass now spider-webbed with cracks. A TRAP!

The moments after were filled with the fire and fury of shock and the whirlwind of confusion as she began an adrenaline fueled attempt to flee the scene and disappear back into the shadows. But that first instant was silent and so still that it felt like she was watching a movie in slow motion: sister falling over the rail with dumb shock on her face and the target staring back from beyond the rippling force field and cracked hyperglass wall. Then he was moving.

She still didn't understand it. He knew she was there. He'd laid the trap and knew the shot had been fired. She'd seen the intelligence and cold fury in his eyes. Yet Drakhar left his fortress, stepped out from behind the force field and hyperglass to run right out into the line of fire. Yomi'd still had one eye behind the scope. Her crosshair followed him, seemingly of its own volition. Another squeeze of the trigger and her mission would have been complete.

But Eri was falling. It was nearly three stories to the ground and Drakhar was racing toward her. Yomi kept returning to that instant, over and over again, and simply staring at it. She'd had him dead to rights. But sister was falling... and the target was trying to save her.

She sighed and bowed her head. This was a ruthless pirate, a warlord who was responsible for dozens, if not hundreds of missing vessels throughout the commonwealth, a rogue element with a nuclear arsenal accountable to no authority but his own who attacked the Sol system and slaughtered her people to the tune of eleven thousand members of the space command dead or missing.

At the same time he ran out into the open, rushed up several cargo containers like an acrobat and leapt out into the air like a clay pigeon... to catch the sister Yomi had just shot...

... and killed?

"Uuuugh!" she snarled with frustration and shook her head. She didn't know. Once again she didn't know where Eri was or even if she was alive or dead. There was only the featureless white walls and incessant lighting for company and they offered no answers.

********

Right, so anyway, after a few days of hammerin' out the kinks and makin' sure all my idiots knew where to go and what to do and weren't gonna get confused by one instruction or another I've finally got my rapid response fleet up and runnin'. Which means Ea't's now got three fast attack frigates, a heavy-transport tender slash salvage ship and fifty four fighters to... well, to do whatever I want him to and prolly a whole lot that I don't. But mostly he's in charge of turnin' anyone stupid enough to piss me off into space fireworks. So far he's crushed nearly two dozen wings of pirate guild fighters, about a dozen corvettes, a few frigates and even a galleon that I couldn't be bothered to leave the beach to steal. So... I think he's enjoyin' himself. I invited him to visit Paradise with us and-ah the look he gave me was-umm... well, if I didn't know better I'd say he was constipated. Then he told me 'no' in that terrifyin' high pitch the Split use when they're not botherin' to put us puny humans at ease.

Which reminds me. Durin' Ea't's adventures in pirate smashin' I noticed that we were goin' through silkworm missiles faster'n I was producin' 'em. So I went and plugged three more missile factories into the Alpha Complex. That, in turn, required another large ore mine and a large cattle ranch / cahoona bakery loop. Yeah I don't know why Ea't lookin' constipated reminded me o'that but it did. So-ah... yeah. And, in turn, thinkin' about that buildin' now has me thinkin' about the next few factories I plan to plug into the war machine. I'm very soon gonna have my own personal Shur. On the upside that means I'll be able to jump a full sized carrier in and drop as many as sixty fighters on whoever I want made dead. On the downside that's gonna mean upkeep and both 25mj shields and heavy weapons for those things can be difficult to source. Now I already produce the shields but I think I'm gonna build some PRGs and HEPTs.

Right. So tomorrow I'm headin' back to the fleet where I expect to be busy makin' the Paranid feel all warm and cozy so I can get hold of their majaglit and space jewelry factories so I can build my own advsats and, if I make 'em really like me, mebbe I can even buy a few hornet missile factories. Personally I prefer swarms but those hornets are quick, agile and pack a decent punch so who knows. After that, well, I'm thinkin' it may be time to hunt down Huritas and, dependin' on how a certain meetin' goes in the near future we may be goin' to war in earnest. But we'll see.

Oh that reminds me. Tasha still has a few days of R&R left and I've been informed that Dal is gonna stay with her for the rest of it. By Tasha. And she had that look in her eye when she said it. You know: that dangerous look women get when you're not quite sure if they're plannin' on slicin' you up into chum? Yeah. That one. Soooo... needless to say I didn't argue with her.

Damn. I miss Gin. Don't know why thinkin' about Seldon's death glare made me think of her any more'n I know why Ea't's constipation made me think about silkworm missiles but-ah... yeah. There you go.

Ah frak it. I'm gonna go for a swim.

********

Infiltration took most of the afternoon and evening. Legion landed the rapier in a thick pine forest roughly ten kilometers from the Dragonsfyre Institute's satellite facility. From there Gin made her way on foot. It was relatively easy going. There was little to no underbrush because of the pines. The pine needles made the soil too acidic and the thick canopy blocked too much sunlight for much else to grow. So it was just the occasional swath of fern and grass covered meadows amidst the towering trees. The terrain was rough and broken amid jagged ridges of granite and basalt thrusting up through the sparse topsoil and fields of boulders and rough scree that littered the valleys, but Gin found such obstacles easy to manage. She could leap up low cliffs and run across the tops of boulders to cross stony fields that would present bone breaking obstacles to normal people. Even so it wasn't until shortly after sunset when she finally reached the compound.

The facility itself was comprised of nearly a dozen buildings spread out over several square kilometers. Her target was the facility's server which was housed beneath the largest and most central structure, which also happened to have the most security. She waited until after midnight, when she expected the majority of the facility's staff to retire for the night. During that time she and Legion mapped patrols and identified the compound's security measures. There wasn't as much as she would have expected from a facility working on military projects and she guessed that they were relying upon anonymity and isolation to protect their secrets. 'Sometimes the best security is to simply not attract attention,' she thought.

So it was a simple matter to get inside. She just found a dark spot in an unobserved area and leapt over the fence. Then she made her way to a shadowy corner of the five story office building that Legion guided her to. From there it was a little more difficult because of cameras and interior security features. But between her inherent abilities, Legion's recruitment of several overhead satellites and the use of several pieces of kit that she'd 'borrowed' from the marine arms locker on the Necromancer and she was able to get in without much trouble. In less than an hour she convinced the biometric lock outside the facility server that she had the right to be there and, by shortly after midnight, she'd uploaded Legion's worm. After that it was just a matter of waiting for him to search the network for anything of interest and copy the files to her PDA.

The server room was loud and artificially cooled. The air was run through several additional filters and the walls were twenty centimeter thick sandwiches of foam and hyperalloys. Which meant it was completely cut off from the rest of the building and Gin couldn't see or hear or sense anyone moving out in the corridors. She intended to pick a dark corner out of view of the door to wait for Legion to finish his search but she never got the chance. She heard the door open and when she looked up a young woman in a lab coat was staring her right in the eye.

For a moment the pair of them simply stared at each other. Gin was stood by the access terminal for the network and the woman stood in the open door. For that moment time stopped. The woman had fiery red hair and green eyes. There was a quality to her that Gin both admired and pitied. It was an idealistic naïveté that shown in her eyes and afforded her with a moralistic clarity. Gin recognized it instantly. She'd once seen it in the mirror.

~'Before I was murdered.'~

An instant later the woman turned and reached for something on the wall. The light switch was mounted side by side with the intercom upon which was a big red button that would have alerted security. Gin never found out which one of them the woman was reaching for. Before she could find out her hands took the option away for good. One moment the young woman was reaching for the wall. The next she was a twitching tower of meat collapsing into the corridor.

For a moment Gin couldn't move. She didn't remember deciding to act. For half a heartbeat she even thought she was throwing out a hand to tell the woman to stop. Now one of her throwing knives was sticking out of the back of the woman's head.

~'A perfect throw.'~

The thought sounded like someone else's voice. It was calm and cool and objective. It was right, too. The blade had pierced the back of the woman's head just above the spinal cord. An instant later the threat was a doll with her strings cut.

Blood was leaking from the wound to gather in a dimple of the woman's collar. The twitching was already subsiding. Gin shuddered. It was the precursor to strong emotion and the buffer built into the base of her skull should have stopped it from reaching her muscles.

~'I didn't mean to...' she thought and knew it for a frakking lie. She did mean to. She absolutely did. Once she'd walked around with the same beautiful and stupid light in her eyes that she'd just snuffed out in this woman's. She'd been just as morally pure, just as self righteous... and just as naïve.

~'And now I'm a killer.'~

She trembled again.

"Gin," Legion spoke up through the radio in her ear. His use of her first name was louder than any scream or bellow. "You must exfiltrate now. Doctor Salanger's biometrics were being monitored by the facility. A security team has been dispatched to your location."

Gin was in motion before Legion finished speaking. She stopped only to rip the knife from the back of...

~'Doctor Salanger's'~

... the woman's head. Less than a second later she was twenty meters down the corridor, sliding under a security door that was lowering from the ceiling. By then flashers were flickering near the lid and a klaxon began ripping into the air farther up in the building.

"Shit!" she cursed. "Shit! Shit! SHIT!"

********

Seldon still had her arms wrapped around Max's neck when Dal walked up. She knew it was him even though he was downwind and in her blind spot. She recognized the sound of his breathing. Dal was a big guy and tended to sound like a steam engine when he'd been exerting himself.

"How was your run?" she asked as he collapsed onto the sand beside her.

"Good," he panted, "good. The air is nice and clean here."

"A little thicker than we're used to, though."

"Yeah," he agreed. "But it's a rich thick. Lots of green. Lots of..." he inhaled deeply and waved at the ocean, "...oxygen from the sea."

"Gonna suck to go back, huh?"

Dal shrugged. "Meh," he grunted.

"You know," she said not realizing what she was about to say until she'd heard it out loud, "you don't have to."

She wasn't looking at him but she felt him turn and look at the side of her face. "Huh," he grunted.

She sighed into Max's shoulder and stared at the moonlight on glittering across luminescent waves.

"You have another nightmare?" he asked.

She thought about cracking a joke but didn't. There was something about the moment that made the idea seem cheap and unworthy. Instead she just nodded. "Yep."

For a few moments they sat beside each other and listened to the waves and big dog's panting.

"You know," Dal began, "it's not my place to tell you how to live your life but," he sighed heavily, "his war doesn't need to be your war."

"His war?" she echoed him.

"You know what I mean," he told her.

She straightened up and looked at him. "No," she said, "actually I don't."

He turned and met her eye. For a moment he just stared at her. Then he sighed and ran a hand over the bristle of his flat-top. "Tasha," he said gently, "I think that young man has been in one war or another for as long as he's been drawing breath."

She felt her brow knit together and waited. Behind him the moonlight was a silver road across the waves.

Dal took a breath to steady himself and went on. "I'd just hate to see you get all used up fighting his wars for him."

Seldon put her arms back around Max and set her chin in the crook of her elbow. For some reason she thought of Mary Anne O'Riordan, the one-time merc who used to jump out of perfectly good spaceships to go and steal other spaceships for an employer who was now a Yaki clan leader.

She felt her eyes narrow.

Right then she had the means to retire. She could spend the rest of her life on a beach just like this one doing nothing more than getting drunk, laid and fat if wanted. The thought had been going through her mind quite a bit lately. Yet every time it did there was a question, like an echo or maybe a counterpoint. "Would that really be enough for me?"

The answer was constant and immediate: ~'Oh hell no.'~

She squinted at the ocean and listened to the waves.

~'So what do I want?'~

She thought of Mary Anne O'Riordan again, a woman standing on the bridge of a capital ship, a queen among the Yaki and a legend in her own right. At which point Seldon blinked and screwed her face into a decidedly incredulous expression. The idea of that much responsibility was nearly enough to make her laugh into Max's neck.

~'You have GOT to be kidding me.'~

She didn't want Drake's job! She couldn't do what Drake did! Managing multiple fleets?! Multiple stations?! Dozens of businesses all at the same time?! Just the thought of it made her head feel swimmy.

~'But I could steal ships, couldn't I?'~

The thought was so smooth and clear that it was like looking at a dance floor made of glass. She suddenly realized that it was easy to see herself beside Drake and Mary Anne and Thane... and Ea't s'Quid.

~'One of the legends...'~ her mind whispered.

She blinked.

Was that really what she wanted?

Just then Max barked and leapt to his feet. It was so sudden that he nearly dragged her off the towel as he rocketed off down the beach. She lifted her gaze and watched the dog gallop toward something in the waves to her right. She looked past him just in time to see a man straighten up out of the water. Even in the darkness with the moons behind him she recognized Drake silhouette instantly. A moment later Max was splashing around in the waves beside his master. A mizura or so later Drake was walking up towards her and Dal while Max ran around him in circles, barking happily.

"You know," she called to Drake and heard the accusation in her voice, "he killed and ate something a little while ago."

"Oh yeah?" Drake sounded amused. He was following the dog with his gaze and she could see his grin flash in the moonlight.

"I'm pretty sure, yeah."

"How do you know?" he asked her.

"You can smell it on his breath," she told him.

"Good boy!" he said and shook the big dog's scruff affectionately.

Seldon made a disgusted noise in her throat but couldn't keep the smirk off her face.

A moment later Drake stepped up to her and Dal. With his physique and pale skin the moonlight and near pitch-black shadows transformed Drake into a work of art; not a man but an exaggerated representation of a man, like a sculpture in marble carved by an overzealous artist. His muscles rippled, chiseled in silver and bold strokes of charcoal. She could feel his grin even in the darkness. "Gorgeous night, right?"

"Ayep," Dal said and she heard the not quite spoken resentment in his tone. To her ear he sounded small and petty. It was obvious he didn't want Drake around.

~'Well too bad,'~ she thought.

She felt Drake's eyes on her the same way she knew he was grinning.

"How you feelin'?" he asked her.

Dal sighed. It was soft but she both heard and understood it. He didn't believe Drake actually gave a damn.

"I'm good," she said.

Dal snorted and this time Drake glanced his way. She saw one of his eyes narrow in the moonlight. The other was lost in shadow. Max, however, barked at Dal so loudly that all of them jumped. Dal looked at the dog, obviously stunned. Drake smirked and shook the big dog's scruff. Then he turned back to her.

"Well," he said and glanced at Dal before holding her eye, "you take as much time as you need."

She nodded. "How 'bout you?" she asked him. Both men blinked and looked at her. "How are you holding up?"

Drake glanced at Dal, who looked up and met his eye. Drake was smiling and it was hard to tell over the roar of the surf but after a moment he seemed to sigh. "Honestly?" he began.

"Preferably," she told him which made him blink and chuckle.

A moment later the smile slipped off his face. "The truth is I feel like I'm losin' her, Tasha."

"Oh, Drake..."

He shook his head.

"You know she loves you..."

"I know she's gone," he told her far too quickly. "And when I think of her it's like... I don't know." He shook his head, "... like she's in a tunnel far away and the light is fadin'." He chuckled then and shook his head. "Melodramatic, right?"

Seldon climbed to her feet and before she bothered to think about it she gave the kid a hug. He was stiff for a moment before awkwardly patting the bare skin between her shoulder blades. He smelled warm and youthful and healthy. He also smelled like the ocean... and wet dog. She stepped back and looked him in the eye. He was smiling but it was almost as awkward as his pitiful excuse for a hug. Then she slugged him right in the meaty part of his right pectoral. She didn't hit him hard enough to hurt him, just hard enough to get him chuckling and shaking his head.

"Alright," he said, obviously preparing to make his exit. Just then they all heard the echoing roar of an approaching supersonic vessel. Dal stood up beside her and all three heads turned to follow the sound. A moment later they watched as a pinprick of light descended toward the compound and slowly resolved itself into an argon heavy fighter.

"Nova raider," Dal stated. Neither she nor Drake were foolish enough to contradict him.

A moment later it descended, orbited the compound at nearly a kilometer distance and slowly came in to land. "Well," Drake said, "I think that's my cue." He turned and smiled at them. "You two enjoy the..."

"Who is that?" she cut him off.

Drake paused and met her eye. Then he chuckled and tried to wave it away.

"What?" she demanded.

He met her eye and groaned.

"Drake I'm gonna slug you again," she told him, "and this time it's gonna hurt."

He immediately gave her a sideways glance while wearing the expression he reserved exclusively for her. She'd even started thinking of it as his 'Seldon's-being-crazy-again' face. "You have gotten entirely too comfortable doing that, I think."

"Here-here," Dal grunted and Seldon promptly slugged him instead.

"Oof!" Dal grunted.

Drake chuckled. At which point Seldon's finger came up toward Drake's nose and the boy threw up his hands.

"Alright! Alright! Sheesh. It's too bloody late for a fight. Look it's nothin'."

"Define: 'nothing'," she instructed him.

He shrugged and looked at Max who immediately bounced around happily. "It's nothin'!" Drake said again. "It's the argon military."

Seldon wasn't sure if she was having an outer body experience. She could swear that she actually watched herself tilt her head at Drake the same way the dog did when the mutt didn't understand something. After a beat or two she shook her head and gaped at the boy, who was, by then, shoving Max's chops back and forth to rile the dog up. "Drake...!"

He glanced at her.

She held his eye and waited.

He shrugged. ~'What?'~

"What do they WANT?!"

For some reason Dal was chuckling.

She turned her glare on him. "You got something to say?"

"Oh no," he laughed and threw up his hands. "Not a thing."

When she looked back at Drake the kid was smirking. "Oh! I get it!" Seldon grinned. "You're pulling my chain." She nodded. "Uh-huh. Okay." The sound her fist made as it connected with Drake's chest was both meaty and stinging. She even made sure to twist her fist at the last instant so that her knuckles dug into the meat of the boy's chest. The way his jaw dropped and mouth gaped was instantly satisfying.

"AAH-OW!" he wailed and staggered away from her.

She grinned at him with smug satisfaction.

"Goddamn it, Seldon!" He gaped at her. "You know I'm your boss, right?"

"Uh-huh," she grunted. "Go ahead and fire me then."

He gave her a slightly hangdog look as he massaged his chest. "That frakkin' hurt, woman."

"Good," she told him. "Maybe you'll think twice before messin' with me in the future. Now out with it, boy. What does the Argon Space Command want with us?"

"What do you think they want?" he growled at her.

"If I KNEW I wouldn't be asking you, now would I?!"

"They want me to use my ships and people to win the damn war for 'em so they don't have to risk theirs!" He glared at her. "What else would they want?" With that he clicked his tongue at Max. "Come on, boy!" Then he started making his way back to the compound. He sent one angry glare back over his shoulder at her while continuing to massage his chest.

"Shit," she cursed heavily.

"Ayuh," Dal agreed.

"We're about to officially join the war."

"You think?"

"Oh yeah," Seldon grunted.

"What makes you so sure?"

"Cos they've contacted him before about joining as a freelancer and he ignored 'em. Now they're sending a representative here?"

Dal stared at her for a moment. "You're saying he invited 'em?"

"Well somebody did," she told him, "and if not Drake..."

He nodded. For a moment he stood beside her and they both watched in silence as Drake and his enormous dog made their way back to the compound. Finally he grunted and echoed her.

"Shit."

********

"Final approach, L.C.," Lieutenant Adler informed him.

Lieutenant Commander Jaym Halter looked up from the datapad he'd been studying. After a moment he nodded. "Copy that," he replied and began double-checking the five point safety restraint system that he'd fastened just before they hit the planet's atmosphere just twenty mizura past. He didn't expect any problems with the landing, just as he didn't expect any issues with the safety restraints. It was just procedure and he found procedure comforting. At the moment he felt he needed a little comforting.

As part of the Strategic Defense Initiative Lieutenant Commander Halter was frequently responsible for making contact with and assessing potential freelancers and privateers for the war effort. This particular duty subjected him to a diverse array of people and situations. Most of the time he simply interviewed lone pilots and inspected their ships to ascertain their usefulness. Sometimes he met with the captains and crews of larger vessels such as corvettes. Every once in a while he'd recruit frigates but, by that point, he was usually dealing with private navies owned by corporations... and those folks just did not volunteer to let the Argon military make use of their assets. Never had he been contacted by someone like the man he was on his way to meet and L.C. Halter genuinely did not know what to make of it. Halter had spent the last several days reviewing all of the intelligence the Argon military could place in his hands regarding Drakhar and, after reviewing it, he was even more apprehensive than he'd been at the start.

On paper Drakhar was a remarkably successful businessman. On paper his company was an efficient and eminently legitimate outfit. In Argon Federation space Drakhar Enterprises operated primarily as teamsters and freighters moving cargo and making deliveries not only throughout Argon Federation territory but also amongst the Teladi, the Split and the Boron, although they seemed to be somewhat at odds with the Paranid. Argon corporations and small business that did business with them almost universally considered them capable and reliable. Drakhar Enterprises maintained a law enforcement license and had a reputation for ruthlessly protecting their assets which, consequently, tended to make shipping safer for everyone else in the sector once the criminal element had been disposed of. Which was good for everyone.

Right?

Halter frowned. 'Right,' he thought, 'unless it's a case of the lion driving the jackals away.'

Halter felt the growing presence of gravity through the ship's hull. It was strange to be planetside again. He'd spent so much time in space that he wasn't accustomed to all the great many influences of being so close to a massive celestial body. He took a breath and tried to steady himself. Stepping off the ship would subject him to an onslaught of sensory experiences. Planetary gravity was just the beginning. There would also be vertigo from an unfamiliar horizon, nausea and, of course, raw sensory overload from countless unidentifiable sights, sounds, smells and sensations. It was bad enough returning to Montalaar where he'd grown up. Landing on alien worlds always required enduring some form of acute discomfort during a period of adjustment that could last anywhere from a few days to mazura or even jazura* to fully acclimatize one's nervous system. Fortunately Lieutenant Commander Halter didn't expect to be here for more than a day or two at most.

Of course, who could say? He suspected Drakhar and his company would not conform to any known norms. The man himself was very young. Yet if Halter's intelligence was correct the young man had already raised and then lost an empire and seemed well on his way toward establishing another. SigInt indicated that, after being nearly annihilated by Terran forces, Drakhar had not only allied himself with the Yaki but had just recently established himself as a Clan Leader and warlord so formidable that he'd completely upset the balance of power within the clans. Another report suggested that despite the man's previous attacks upon Families T'kr and Njy Patriarch Rhonkar, in an unprecedented act of forgiveness, had not only pardoned Drakhar but had even bestowed the title 'Honoured Strong Arm of Rhonkar' upon him, something practically unheard of for the non-Split. And, if those two facts weren't enough to make Halter feel lightheaded, there were some fairly strong indications that Drakhar and his mercenaries were, not too long ago, the same group that had been sensationalized by the media as the 'Phantoms of the Trade Lanes'; a band of pirates so skilled at boarding and capturing ships that they could make entire passenger liners, casinos, and even military vessels disappear without a trace.

Halter sighed and shook his head. He could feel the ship's landing gear extending and knew that he'd be on the ground in several mizura. The thought of meeting with this young man, of standing before him and meeting his gaze, caused an uncharacteristic jolt of adrenaline to freeze his guts. It wasn't the scuttlebutt itself or even the nature of the rumors. Despite the old saw about grains of truth at the heart of every story Halter knew that ghost stories were everywhere and had a tendency to grow and multiply. Yet the reports he was reading were written by trained intelligence officers and they still had a tendency to read like bad fiction. Halter wanted to dismiss the lot of it and may even have done so had it not been for the video footage. Most of it was like snapshots of sasquatch or video clips showing the ghost of Elvis. A lot of extremely long range images taken with bad cameras of subjects so blurry that they could have been just about anything. But there were two that made the hair on his neck stand up.

The first was like the sasquatch shots in that it was both blurry and taken at extreme long range. It had been logged by an Argon agent established on the Military Outpost in Merchant's Haven, ostensibly to monitor the pirate activity around Gaian Star, who apparently purchased the footage from a Teladi trader. After a few seconds of watching it Halter had nearly thrown it away but a one-line message in the report instructed him to watch it to the end. Curiosity got the better of him and now Halter wasn't sure if he shouldn't have chucked it anyway. He suspected his sleep was going to suffer for the choice he made.

The footage itself looked like it was recorded with a camera that had been salvaged from at least one wreck and then re-used without so much as a quality inspection. It showed a battle underway roughly fifty kilometers away in a reddish brown, semi-nebulous Boron sector called Faded Dreams; identifiable because of all the wrecked ships floating just outside the trade lane. The image was even further degraded by what Halter now knew to the be prolific use of ion weaponry. In the video it looked like an angry white cloud was attacking a Yokohama-class battle frigate with bolts of lightning.

From the very first moments of the footage the outcome was a foregone conclusion. As soon as it began there were several explosions that, when played frame by frame, appeared to be clusters of swarm missiles destroying small ships, presumably the Yokohama's fighter escort. After that the footage was just twenty sezura of watching the Yokohama, a ship that had since been identified as the USCSS Hirohito, buck and twist as it tried and failed to turn and face her attacker. It actually reminded Halter of the wildlife documentaries he always found himself watching when in the grips of insomnia; the kind that showed a wild eyed water buffalo desperately trying to escape from the lion on its back. The Hirohito was simply never able to come about and bring its M/AM launchers to bear on its attacker. That angry white cloud was always above and behind it... like a lion with its teeth in her neck.

After about twenty sezura the white cloud suddenly broke off. It was in this instant that the attacking ship was identifiable. The lightning stopped and the angry white cloud vanished. In that instant a griffin sentinel could be seen speeding away from the Yokohama. The techs back at HQ insisted that the ship was the DESS Predator, Drakhar's personal attack vessel. They also estimated that in the moments after she stopped firing the Predator's vector included a velocity of well over 300ms, a speed that would have been acceptable in many M5's, downright impressive in any M4 and unheard of in anything larger than that. She was out of the Yokohama's gun range before the Hirohito could even put her in the crosshairs. The Hirohito came about to pursue even then Halter had the impression that the fight, the real fight, had already been lost. A short time later the Yokohama cut her engines and came to a stop. At which point the griffin smoothly came about and took up station alongside her.

Even without the report or the speculations from the "experts" Halter knew what he'd just witnessed. Up until now boarding an enemy ship required was an extremely dangerous endeavour involving a complicated dance with a lot of moving parts. The best ops he'd witnessed always involved at least two ships. One would suppress the target's shields while the other delivered the marines. Marines needed to be either fired at the target in boarding pods or simply leapt from the airlocks of a ship in close proximity to the target. Once in contact with the enemy they needed to cut their way through the target's hull before the enemy shields boiled their eyeballs in the sockets. The casualty rate in such operations was extreme. The boarding party often ended up getting cooked by the target's shields or disintegrated by friendly fire while ally ships worked to keep the shields suppressed. Once inside the enemy ship they could be killed by the defending crew or hardened defenses. Then, not counting the overt dangers, there was no guarantee of success. Even if the marines weren't blasted out of the sky on approach they were often unable to breach the hull. Even if everything else went right there were computer cores out there that had been too cleverly defended and the marines would be unable to take control which would often necessitate scuttling the ship. In other words it was an extremely hazardous and often unsuccessful operation. Which meant that what this footage showed was an evolution in piracy.

'Explains the bloody name, at any rate,' Halter shook his head. 'What arrogance. The bastard doesn't even try to hide what he is.

From a truly objective point of view it was remarkable. The Predator was a nearly perfect realization of purpose. It was designed to hunt, board and capture other ships. Ion weaponry suppressed a target's shields without risking damage to the ship itself. Split transporter tech allowed marines to be beamed directly onto the target without the risk of sending them through space. Which meant a competent crew could take a ship virtually without any damage... and Halter suspected that, with regard to boarding and capturing space faring vessels, the crew of the Predator could redefine what competence meant.

It was enough to make Halter's skin crawl. Drakhar was not only brazenly engaged in and refining piracy he was completely unashamed of it. 'The Predator,' he thought again, unable to keep the disgust at bay.

There was another video that was, amazingly, even more disturbing than the capture of the Yokohama. Where the footage of the Predator reminded him of pictures of sasquatch and Elvis sightings this one was nearly pristine. It even had an audio track. It was, in fact, high definition security footage from the Stock Exchange in Argon Prime. In it Drakhar confronted and, at least officially, "arrested" a banker named Beni Goleman. In the video Goleman and his massive bodyguard, one Karl Blancato, had just exited the lift onto the station's hangar deck where they were stopped by a man wearing an astronaut's flight suit.

The audio was just as clear and high definition as the image quality. Which meant Halter could hear every decibel of Goleman's shrieks as the man repeatedly ordered his bodyguard to kill the man in their way. That man was apparently Drakhar Jerigan, owner and CEO of the Drakhar Enterprises corporation and the man Halter was on his way to meet. In the video Drakhar appeared relaxed. He was a lean, athletic fellow roughly 180cm tall and weighing maybe 80kg. In the video his hair was long and loosely pulled into a ponytail. He was wearing an eye patch over his left eye and one of the most unsettling smiles Halter had ever seen.

As he watched it was obvious to L.C. Halter that Blancato didn't take either his boss, Goleman, or the fellow blocking his path very seriously. Even without the incident report in front of him one look at Drakhar's relaxed stance and easy smile would have told Halter that Karl Blancato was making a mistake. Sure, Blancato was a big man, nearly 190cm tall and weighing well over a hundred kilos. He was also very obviously armed. Whatever he'd been packing had distorted the lines of Blancato's suit.

Looking at Drakhar, however, Halter found himself thinking about a certain uncomfortable truth that he'd been made aware of in basic. For most people, and Halter had to admit that he was one of them, violence was something out of the ordinary. As such it was shocking, even horrifying, and the majority of normal, law-abiding citizens found it terrifying. When confronted with real violence most people recoiled away from it, put their heads down and cowered until the threat was gone. There were some people, however, for whom violence was as natural as taking a piss. For whatever reason these people had been conditioned by or exposed to enough violence to have become comfortable with it. Drakhar's easy grin, a grin that only grew broader and more amused as Beni Goleman urged his giant bodyguard to kill him, stated quite clearly that he was such a person.

A moment or two later Halter was proven correct. In the feed Blancato finally rolled his eyes and shrugged before turning back to the threat he'd failed to recognize. There was a moment when he seemed to be mildly annoyed by Drakhar's insolence but even then, at what proved to be the very last moments of Karl Blancato's life, Halter suspected that he never realized how much danger he was in or how dramatically he'd misjudged the situation. When the big man reached for the weapon under his arm he did so in a relaxed, almost bored manner. Unfortunately for him this was all the justification Drakhar, who possessed a law enforcement license, needed to defend himself.

What happened next went by so quickly that it was over before the shock had time to set in. It happened so quickly, in fact, that Halter had to rewind and rewatch the feed frame by frame to see what had actually transpired and, even then, it required a fair amount of inference. From what he could tell Drakhar leapt forward and stopped Blancato from drawing his weapon with his left hand while striking the big man's nose twice in quick succession. The first blow was a downward strike high on the bridge of Blancato's nose. This blow didn't seem to provoke much of a reaction but did stun the enormous bodyguard. It was followed immediately, however, by a quick, thrusting punch that snapped the big man's head back like a speed bag. A moment later Drakhar released Blancato's arm and stepped back to watch as the larger man toppled over backward like a felled tree.

The whole exchange, from Karl Blancato starting to reach for his weapon to the big man drumming his heels on the deck plates took less than two sezura. After which Beni Goleman found himself face to face with Drakhar who was smiling easily at him over the bleeding and violently thrashing corpse of Karl Blancato. According to the official report Drakhar defended himself and then "arrested" Goleman in connection to an otherwise unreported theft and the local police closed the case. Halter found it interesting, however, that Goleman resigned from the bank several weeks later and has since been in the "employ" of the Drakhar Enterprises corporation. He couldn't help but wonder what kind of health benefits Mr. Goleman was enjoying in his new position.

Halter took a breath as the ship slowed and began to descend toward the landing platform. His job was to assess whether or not Drakhar would be an asset to the war effort or more trouble than he was worth. So far he didn't know what to think. His suburban, upper middle class upbringing had instilled values in him that insisted this man should be arrested, tried and executed for piracy and mass murder. He found it impossible not to see a villain in the reports before him; a pirate and blackguard willing to do anything to further his own goals and heaven help anyone who got in his way. Yet he was neither so young nor so naïve to believe the world gave a damn about his ideals and the fact was that if Drakhar had even a fraction of the weapons and allies HQ suspected him of having then he could be invaluable.

The landing gear groaned under the weight of the ship and Halter began unfastening his safety restraints. A moment later the pneumatics hissed and the forward section of the hull opened as a ramp extended down to the landing pad. The instant the ship shared its atmosphere with the planet outside Lieutenant Commander Jaym Halter found his nose and mouth filled with the tastes and scents of an alien world. He groaned, desperately hoping he wouldn't have an allergic reaction to anything he'd just inhaled.

He was on his feet by then and stepping toward the hatch when he was suddenly confronted by something completely out of any paradigm he'd constructed on his journey to the surface. He'd heard a quick scrabble of claws on metal and then, inexplicably, Lieutenant Commander Jaym Halter suddenly found himself face to face with the largest canine he'd ever seen. The thing was massive, longer than he was tall with a deep chest, narrow midsection, long, bushy tail and thick ropes of muscles wrapping every limb. Its eyes were bright blue, full of intense curiosity and leveled directly at him. Then he heard a voice.

"Max!" The dog's ears twitched toward the source of the voice. "Hey! C'mon mutt! Get outta there. Let that man by."

The dog's mouth opened and a long tongue fell out of it. It was a broad doggy grin but Halter couldn't help notice the thing's teeth. Then the monster barked, just once but it was so loud in the confined space that it left him momentarily dazed. By the time he'd blinked and swallowed to clear his head the thing was gone.

"Shit, LC," Lieutenant Adler asked over the radio, "you alright?"

"I think I may need a new pair of small clothes, Adler," Halter told him, "but I'll live."

"Sorry about that, sir," Adler told him, "I wasn't expecting..."

"Neither was I," Halter said.

"Hey, sir," Adler said, "just a heads-up. I don't think it will matter much but there is a shit load of security around here. Most of it's invisible but I clocked nearly a dozen guys on our approach and sensors are telling me that they are packing some serious gear."

"The man does own a private military, Lieutenant," Halter said. "That is, in fact, why we are here."

"Yeah," Adler replied, "I'd still consider it a personal favor if you didn't give these guys a reason to start shooting at us."

"Copy that," Halter said and stepped to the top of the ramp. At the bottom of that ramp were two armed men in matte-black combat armor. They were facing each other so that Halter would have to walk between them to leave the ship. The face shields in their helmets were completely opaque and slightly reflective. Beyond them, perhaps five meters across the non-skid, the monster was enthusiastically watching him from beside a young man in a bathing suit. As Halter, whose ears were still ringing, made his way down the ramp he watched the dog and the man for a few moments. The dog was so large that the man seemed almost child-sized beside it. In addition the monster's gaze was so steady that Halter felt like he was being studied.

When he reached the foot of the ramp the monster looked up at the man. Halter followed its gaze and realized then that it was Drakhar. His hair had been cropped short and he wasn't wearing an eyepatch but this was definitely the same man that met Beni Goleman on the Argon Prime Stock Exchange. 'Of course it's Drakhar,' he chided himself. The giant dog had thrown him completely off stride. As he met the man's gaze Drakhar showed him a warm, easy smile. It was the exact same expression he'd been wearing before... and after... killing Karl Blancato.

"Greetings, Lieutenant Commander," Drakhar hailed him and his voice was a surprisingly powerful baritone that was easily heard over the breeze and nearby surf. It had a rich, pleasant timbre and a touch more gravel than Halter would have expected.

"Master Drakhar, I presume," Halter returned the hail, grateful that his voice, at least, was steady. His heart was still fluttering like a bird trying to escape its cage.

Drakhar continued to smile at him. It was not an entirely friendly expression. There was something about it that was just a touch too sly for Jaym to feel comfortable with it. Looking at that grin made him feel like Drakhar knew some secret about him that he found amusing. "Sorry about the mutt," the billionaire said. "We're tryin' to teach him manners but he is still a puppy..."

"A puppy?!" Halter was shocked. "Surely you mean a puppy at heart? That animal is not going to grow any larger... is he?"

The other man showed him that unsettling grin again. Halter was close enough to see the sand sticking to the man's feet and ankles. "'Fraid so, L.C.," Drakhar said and bared his teeth at the dog who immediately barked at him. Even in the open that sound was thunderous. Drakhar laughed and turned to face Halter again. "He's only about a jazura old," Drakhar informed him. "I'm told I can expect him to put on another thirty or forty kilos by the time he's done filling out."

"Bloody hell!" Halter couldn't imagine. The creature was already enormous. Standing flat footed on all fours the monster was eye level with his solar plexus. On its hind legs the thing towered above its master.

Drakhar laughed and looked at the beast. He held up a hand and gave the dog a mildly dangerous look. The animal's hindquarters promptly dropped to the sand and it proceeded to watch its master happily. Drakhar's expression grew warm and affectionate and he patted the huge dog's shoulder before turning toward his guest and extending his hand.

Halter took it and was, again, mildly surprised. Drakhar's grip was firm and strong without being offensive. It was so firm, in fact, that Halter suspected the other man might be dramatically stronger than he was. Yet there was no rudeness or bullying in the handshake. "Please," Drakhar said and gestured to one of the nearer buildings, "walk with me."

A moment later the two men were walking side by side toward a beautiful construction that appeared to have been grown in place. It could have been glass or sculpted stone but wasn't and boasted an abundance of water features that were complete with living creatures swimming in the pools. The air was soft and smelled of clean breezes and ocean spray. The moonlight was enchanting and it suddenly occurred to Halter that he could not only breathe easily but was also very comfortable.

Drakhar showed him that wolfish grin again. "I'm afraid I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow," he stated. "If I'd known you were coming I'd have prepared a better welcome."

"It's the nature of the beast, I'm afraid," Halter lied easily. "The war rages on. Lives are lost every day. My itinerary is just one more in a long list of casualties." The truth was that he'd stepped up the arrival on purpose to throw Drakhar off guard. Judging by the amusement in the younger man's eye he suspected he'd both wasted the effort and missed out on what would have likely been a very enjoyable meal.

Drakhar's mirth was obvious as they approached a four story villa. They stepped through a curtain of liquid that left them both clean and dry on the other side and then through a transparent door that retracted into the walls. There was no metal or glass in it and the way it moved and folded made Halter think of an eye opening. A moment later they were "inside" the building but, to Halter, it felt like stepping into a sandy lagoon within an open cave. The dog bolted past them and up a staircase that Halter was sure had literally been grown out of the walls and floor.

"Never could get comfortable with Boron tech," Halter admitted. "It's all alive," he explained. "Every bit of it. Even their starships."

Drakhar nodded. "Aye," he said, "except when you dry their ships out they smell like ammonia and rotting seaweed."

"I did not know that," Halter confessed.

Drakhar turned and looked him in the eye. His expression was unreadable. "It also kills them," he stated.

"Drying them out?"

Drakhar nodded. "The fluid the Boron crew swims through?"

Halter nodded.

"It acts like blood to the ship," Drakhar explained. "And the Boron are like cells floatin' around inside it. The whole thing, Boron included, is put together like a single organism."

Halter nodded. "I did not know that either," he admitted while simultaneously finding himself curious about how Drakhar knew such a thing.

The younger man showed him that not-quite-friendly grin again and ushered him up the stairs. Several moments later Halter found himself seated comfortably at a table that appeared to be made of crystals that had been grown into shape and then polished smoother than glass. Immediately after being seated he found himself responding to inquiries from what he could only think of as 'waitstaff', grudgingly agreeing to water in order to shoo the smiling young woman away from him. By the time that was done Drakhar had found himself a bathrobe that Halter suspected was worth more than his yearly salary and thrown it around his shoulders. He was cinching the silk belt around his waist as he stepped back up to the table. The big dog had settled down nearby on something that was either a carpet or a bed of moss and was busy gnawing on something between his paws with contented snarls. Halter still couldn't quite believe the size of the animal. Looking at the beast his mind kept trying to decide if he was having a fever dream or not.

Drakhar stepped up to the table across from him and Halter looked up to meet the younger man's gaze. The man's eyes were blue, clear and steady. There was much in them that reminded Halter of the beast chewing on its bone nearby. "So," Drakhar said, "would you like to discuss business now or would you prefer to rest and get to it in the morning?"

"I'm afraid time is a luxury that I do not possess, Master Drakhar..."

"'Drake'" the other man interjected, "please. Call me Drake."

"Alright, Drake," Halter replied. "As I was saying..."

Just then the smiling young woman returned to the table with a black bottle in a bucket of ice and several glasses. Just behind her was another woman with a cigar box and crystal ashtray. The two women then went about arranging the items in front of their master while Drakhar watched Halter. His eyes were steady, searching and amused. After a moment the women inquired if there would be anything else and Drakhar politely dismissed them.

"As I was saying," Halter continued, "I'd like to just get to it."

"By all means," the other man said and took a seat before collecting a cigar from the ashtray. One of the women had already snipped the end off it so Drakhar simply lifted to his lips and puffed it alight while Halter watched. He then lifted a glass of amber liquid to his lips and sipped it. He even closed his eyes to savor the drink. When he opened them he met Lieutenant Commander Halter's gaze. "Scotch," he explained. "Would you like some?"

"I'm afraid that I'm on duty," Lieutenant Commander Halter explained, "and must decline."

Drakhar arched an eyebrow ever so slightly and continued to smile at him.

"As you know," Halter went on, "I work for the Strategic Defense Initiative. My job is to assess prospective freelancers for their potential value to the war effort. Normally we'd itemize the assets you'd be willing to provide us, interview the personnel you'd be willing to put at our disposal and generally get a sense of what you have that we can make use of."

"Normally?"

"Well," Halter confessed, "you are not the normal volunteer are you, Drake?"

That grin again. "I suppose not."

"Right," Halter nodded. "So instead of all that I'm simply going to ask you: what can you do for us, Drake?"

********

Gin went up instead of making for the door. The security wasn't expecting it and she was able to get out onto the roof of the building without being seen. From the top of a five story building she was able to leap over the compound's outer fence and vanish into the dark before anyone knew what happened. From there it was just a matter of a 10k run back to the rapier, a distance that she could cover in less than five mizura, even in the dark and over rough terrain. With her eyesight and physical abilities it's almost effortless. Which meant her mind was able to wander... and it did.

She kept seeing the young doctor's face. Legion called her Doctor Salanger. Gin just knew the woman was young, pretty and had the light of certainty in her eyes. She also knew the woman was dead, a pile of cooling meat on the floor.

~'Because of me,'~ she thought, once again confronted with the strangeness of it all. She hadn't meant to throw that knife. She hadn't decided to throw that knife. One moment the woman was alive and well. Gin could have subdued and restrained her almost effortlessly. But a burst of fear through her amygdala and a split second later there was a knife sprouting from the woman's skull. ~'Frak me.'~

On the one hand she understood that even a tenth of a second could have been the difference between killing one person and killing twenty. At the same time if that knife had hit the wall in between Salanger's hand and the intercom the woman would have recoiled just long enough for Gin to take her down. It was an unnecessary death.

~'But that's not why you're upset, is it?'~

She nearly missed a step, which likely would have been painful at over seventy kilometer per hour. After a moment she jogged to a stop. She was out in the open, on top of a small, treeless rise. It was a stupid place to stop and she knew she should have kept moving. But...

...it was a true thought.

~'That's not why I'm upset. I'm upset because she reminded me of me,'~ she admitted. ~'I saw the same stupid self-righteousness in her eyes that got me killed, the same stupid belief in the way things should be.'~

She took a breath and listened to the wind in the trees around her her. An instant later she staggered and started to fall down the rocky hill in front of her. An instant after that she heard the singing discharge of the shot that just hit her. Her back was on fire. Her clothes were burning. She tucked and rolled, using both the ground and her momentum to smother the flames. The shot hit her square between the shoulder blades just behind her heart. If she'd still been human she'd already be dead.

At the bottom of the hill she hit the ground running. She ducked and wove and ran for the trees. She was nearly there when another eruption of pain knocked her off balance. This time the shot hit her in the lower right flank. She snarled as she staggered behind the cover of the tall pines.

~'Stupid!'! she cursed herself. "Legion!" she barked over the radio. "I'm coming in hot! You better warm the ship up cos we're going to need to go." ~'Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!'~

The shot had come from a high ridge several hundred meters behind her. With the forest now between her and the shooter she was safe. With luck they'd never even get another look at her.

The stand of trees broke into another rough clearing. The ground was littered with stones and boulders of all size from the crumbling ridges around her. The forest was still between her and the shooter so she expected to cross the clearing and be lost in the shadows in just a second or so. So she was shocked when another shot hit her low on her right flank. She'd been running full speed across the tops of the larger boulders when it hit. She missed her footing and fell, sprawling into the stones and boulders of the field. She immediately threw herself up against one of the larger boulders for cover but her mind was reeling.

She glanced past the boulder at the ridge line looming above and behind the forest. The first shot had come from lower down and farther back. That position was now concealed by the trees she'd just run through. The second shot had come from the right. The difference between those two points was hundreds of meters, the better part of a kilometer.

"Great," she snarled. "Multiple snipers." Which meant there could be more.

She growled low in her throat, gathered her feet underneath her and then leapt toward the treeline. She stepped off a single large boulder and then rolled in mid air. A shot ripped through the air a hand's breadth under her belly. An instant later she was in the trees again. If she was right the shooter was over three hundred meters away shooting at a target moving at over twenty meters per second. Which meant whoever they were... they were damn good shots.

She made a point of staying low and keeping the trees between her and the ridge line as she sprinted toward the hollow ahead. She was less than five hundred meters from the fold in the terrain that would allow her to drop down into the tiny valley and out of any shot the shooters on the ridge might have. Trees and boulders rushed by around her. Four hundred meters. She ran through a small ravine and leapt a creek at its base. Three hundred meters. She started up the far side of the creek bed when she heard the sound of footsteps in the forest to her right. Just as she turned her head to look the footsteps became a skid across the needles. In her mind's eye she saw a shooter raising a weapon from the kneeling position. She hit the dirt just as a four round burst blasted pieces off a granite boulder to her left.

She rolled and threw herself against the base of a three hundred foot pine to her right. As she did she heard the footsteps again. She heard their pace and the change in vector; nearly fifty meters away and moving uphill to cut her off. Too fast.

Way too fast.

"What the frak?" She ducked and ran back into the creek bed. The footsteps stopped uphill and she leapt under a berm the creek had undermined. Another four round burst killed a family of ferns behind her. Gin ducked and sprinted along the shallow creek. The footsteps paced her uphill. Whoever it was moved as fast as she did.

~'Wrong,'~ the objective part of her mind informed her. ~'They're faster than you.'~

After that there was no thought. She ran. The shooter paced her, moving to keep her cut off from her ship. Gin was already off course, moving south. The shooter was getting closer, moving downhill to get a clean shot. It suddenly occurred to her that running wasn't going to work. She wasn't going to be able to outpace her adversary.

A moment later she felt the air sizzle behind her and a younger pine exploded off to her right. She ducked to stay even lower and then threw herself under another burm. The shooter was moving fast down the hill from above her right shoulder. Gin splashed and threw herself against the berm while drawing her weapon. An instant later her pursuer stepped into the creek behind her. Gin saw a woman's legs in the moonlight, aimed and squeezed off three shots. Two of them hit and her attacker snarled and fell backward into the water.

Gin didn't wait to see if she'd killed her enemy. Instead she threw herself into the climb, putting the creek and her enemy behind her. She'd just mounted the hill when another four round burst ripped the night apart. Two of those bursts hit her. One hit her leg. The other hit her right flank again. She fell forward, putting the hill between her and the shooter behind her, but tumbled and rolled. She hit a tree, then a boulder, then another tree before she rolled to a stop at the bottom of the hill. When she looked up her enemy was at the top of the hill taking aim.

She didn't fire.

After a moment Gin got her feet under her and stood. At the top of the hill the shooter lowered her rifle and Gin got a good look at her face.

"What the frak...?" she breathed. The other woman was fair skinned and had shoulder length dark hair. Twin azure gems flashed in the moonlight. It was a face Gin knew intimately. It was the same one she saw in the mirror every time she looked at one.

The other woman was fifty meters up the hill and the wind was hissing through the trees. Yet Gin heard her clearly. "Are you my clone?" she demanded. "Did that asshole frakking clone me?!"

"Your clone?" Gin breathed.

The other woman blinked. An instant later the two of them stared at each other with identical horror in their eyes. An instant after that the other woman snarled and raised the weapon in her hands again. Just then the hillside where she was standing erupted in a series of explosions. Pine trees and boulders shattered. A moment later Gin was running through air that was filled with falling earth, pine needles and splinters of wood.

"I am ten degrees to your left, Commander Ookami," Legion informed her. "The starboard side hatch is open. I suggest you hurry. Reinforcements are incoming and this vessel lacks the shielding or firepower to withstand them."

Less than five sezura later Gin leapt off the top of a low ridge to sail three meters through the air. As she landed in the tiny hold of the rapier Legion closed the hatch behind her.

"I suggest you take hold of something," he informed her.

As she took his advice she felt the tiny scout ship adjust its vector and boost to maximum velocity. She was thrown toward the ship's aft by both the thrust and the gravity of the world Legion was putting behind them. From the cockpit she could see Anderson. His eyes were open. From within a raccoon's mask painted with his own blood, and the bloody whites of his eyes, his irises seemed very bright. To Gin it looked like those dead eyes were filled with silent accusation.












* Measurements of time:
Sezura: The smallest unit of time – it corresponds to approximately 1.7 Earth seconds.
Mizura: 96 Sezuras (163.2 Seconds = 2.72 Minutes)
Stazura: 96 Mizuras (15667.2 Seconds = 261.12 Minutes = 4.352 Hours)
Tazura: 7 Stazuras (109670. 4 Seconds = 1827.84 Minutes = 30.464 Hours = 1.27 Days)
Wozura: 7 Tazuras (= 8.89 Days)
Mazura: 7 Wozuras (= 62.23 Days)
Jazura: 8 Mazuras = 56 Wozuras = 392 Tazuras (= 497.84 Days = 1.36 Years)
A Pirate's Story.pdf(KIA) by _Zap _ From Nothing.PDF(complete) by _Zap _ Prodigal Son(active) Original Thread, Prodigal Son_PDF

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