December 21st 2012
In the Nul system, Grady Monk passed the time waiting for his contact by watching its only star. Scientists said it was a pulsating star. Didn’t look like it was pulsating to him. He checked his clock again. He was giving this guy ten more minutes then he was gonna move on to the next buyer. Grady Monk doesn’t wait for clients. He saw movement outside the ship in the corner of his eye.
About damn time, he thought and turned. His eyes widened.
Grady Monk’s ship disappeared in the definition of pulsating explosion.
* * * * *
Onboard the Gemini, Darrow sat across from Penny. He was finally getting the opportunity to talk.
“You could be in a lot of trouble, lieutenant,” he said, “your rather long-winded monologue explained your reasons for illegally accessing Archive files but it doesn’t change the fact that you illegally accessing classified data.”
The door opened. Admiral Showalter was there. He did not look amused. Penny and Darrow saluted. Showalter stepped in the room, he looked at Darrow.
“Care to explain why you’re harassing my pilot?”
“Sir, Lieutenant Ayala accessed…”
“Cassandra Project files. I know. I talked to your superior, son.” Showalter said, his voice calm and deliberate. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Three months ago. We started noticing attempts to crack the Archive for lab notes regarding Cassandra and traced them back to the former project leader’s grandson, Warden.” Darrow cued the screen. Warden Mahony popped up, the same guy from the Phoenix. “The Advocacy placed Warden on a watch list. Three weeks ago he vanished. So when Lt. Ayala ‘accessed’ the project files, we were concerned of a security compromise.”
“Well, she wasn’t working for this kid.” Showalter looked at Penny. She shook her head. “So the matter’s resolved.”
* * * * *
Four systems away in Banu territory, the matter was far from resolved. Cal was trying to figure out how to ambush the crew of the Phoenix when some hired hands showed up. Now instead of Sasha, Trunk, and Mahony, he had six more guns to deal with.
Cal couldn’t hear if they were going to sell it or use it. Regardless, this thing could not get out. Now he only needed a plan of how to pull that off. Starting a firefight in here sounded like a bad idea. All it would take is one wild shot to clip the bomb and the room, maybe the whole settlement, would be nothing more than a pool of goo.
Cal still had the P52 beacon wired to the Phoenix’s position so his best play was to get it in space and vaporize it. He wasn’t terribly optimistic about pitting a Cutlass against the Constellation but it’s better than trying to slug it out down here. Besides, he was better with wings than fists.
Sasha talked quietly to the mercs then walked over to Mahony who was loading the rest of the Cassandra Project canisters into the bomb.
“Are you done? We need to get this thing loaded.”
“Yeah, couple minutes.” He muttered as he carefully wired the canisters to the firing mechanism. Sasha turned to the mercs.
“Once we get this outside, get to your positions along our route. You think someone’s following us, even paying too much attention to us, I want to know immediately.” She turned to Trunk, “You pay them?”
“Yeah, all set.”
Cal slowly backed away. He wanted to get out there before the mercs did and retraced his steps back to the ventilation shaft. By the time he got outside, they were loading the covered bomb onto a tray of anti-grav buffers. Sasha nodded to the thugs who dispersed into the crowd. Cal memorized their faces and ducked away.
Sasha and Trunk kept guarded while Mahony pushed the bomb through the narrow streets of the Banu settlement. None of the pedestrians paid them any mind. Cal kept pace and watched from a distance, making sure to avoid any of the mercs posted to flush out tails. These mercs were good because Cal didn’t see a single one.
Only when they loaded the bomb into the cargo bay of the Phoenix, did Cal break off and run back to the Cutlass. He dropped into the pilot’s seat and heated up the engines. A quick scan and the P52 beacon plotted the Phoenix on his scope.
Cal let them get some distance before he followed. They were heading back to the jump-point. Cal had a decision to make. Undoubtedly, they’ve worked out a way to get the bomb past the Customs scans but Cal could comm ahead to detain them and get the bomb.
Downside, he wouldn’t get the buyer, if there was one. He weighed it. Not worth the risk. The longer this thing was out there, the more opportunities something could surprise Cal. He was tired of being surprised.
“UEE Customs Station Charlie, Ferron System. This is Lt. Cal Mason, UEE Navy, SysID#5847DDC. I am tracking a dangerous weapon about to enter your system on a Constellation-class ship, possible designation Phoenix. Please separate and detain all vessels matching this description and forward this message onto Lieutenant Penelope Ayala, UEES Gemini.” He outlined everything he had seen as a separate attachment and sent the message ahead to the relay station.
That should settle it. He doubted the Phoenix would try and start a fight. Unfortunately, as he continued flying, that ‘doubt’ turned to ‘they might’ then ‘most likely.’ There’s no way they’d let themselves get caught with a doomsday device. Now Cal was convinced he put a lot of Customs agents at risk. He kicked the throttle into full-burn and punched through the jump-point.
On the other side, it was chaos. Ships tumbled through space without power. The Customs Station was in lockdown. Someone set off an EMP charge. A big one. Ships were taking advantage of the disabled security and racing through the jump-point while the few Customs and Police ships that had power scrambled to maintain order. It was the perfect cover for the Phoenix to slip through.
Cal found the Phoenix’s bearing on his radar and went after them. By the time it came within sight, there were only a handful of ships in their flight lane. Cal started priming his weapons. He’d need to hit them hard and fast, knock out as much of their defensive capabilities as possible if he wanted to stand a-
Laser fire flared past the cockpit. Cal veered away instinctively. A Marauder blasted past him and looped around for another pass. On his scans, the Phoenix raised shields. That’s when it hit him.
Back in the lab, when Sasha said, “get to your positions along our route.” She didn’t mean the settlement. She meant in space.
“Cal, you stupid son of a-” More incoming fire from the Phoenix. Cal rolled the ship out of the way. Suddenly, he got a comm from Phoenix.
“Identify yourself.” It was her.
“Take a guess.” Cal said. The marauder fell in behind him and opened fire with its guns. Cal swung his turret and returned fire.
“You need to stop.” There was a long pause.
“Go home, Mason.”
“After seeing what that bomb can do…” Cal said. His system buzzed from a missile lock. He cut direction and dropped countermeasures. “You know I can’t do that.”
“You’re not this person.” Cal blurted out hoping she hadn’t closed the channel. “You’re carrying something that could wipe out millions, possibly billions. I know you’ve got a bone to pick with the UEE and I get it, I do, but this is too much and I think you know it.”
The marauder tagged him with an IR marker. A spread of missiles streaked from the rocket pod and acquired. The turret on the Phoenix swung around and hammered some shots too.
The merc in the marauder was good but not great. It was the two ships fighting in tandem that was the problem. Cal broke off pursuit of the Phoenix and veered away, pulling the line of missiles with him. The marauder pursued. The Phoenix didn’t, its engines flashed and it raced away.
Cal kicked the suicide brakes, which cut the engines and flipped the Cutlass completely around without losing his momentum. Cal opened up with his lasers at the incoming missiles. He managed to blast six of the eight before he had to flip back and gun it.
The marauder unleashed its full arsenal on Cal. He clipped the last two missiles but the Cutlass took a slew of hits as well. Shields managed to hold.
Free of the missiles, Cal was ready to tangle.
The marauder lasted four minutes.
Based on the Phoenix’s bearing, they were headed for the jump-point into Croshaw. He saw their signal flicker and disappear. They were through.
Cal redirected all available power to the engines. The cutlass burst after them.
* * * * *
Darrow sent off his incident report and awaited orders from his superiors. Penny stared at the ceiling, bored out of her mind. The door slid open. A young ensign poked his head in.
“Communication for Lt. Ayala,” the nervous ensign glanced at Darrow and paused, “It’s from Cal, ma’am.”
Ten minutes later, Penny was in front of Showalter, replaying Cal’s message about the Phoenix, the bomb, everything. Showalter stared ahead. His eyes narrowed as he listened but his face was otherwise inscrutable, as usual. Darrow was by the door.
“They’re going for Earth.” Showalter said after a protracted silence.
“You don’t think they’ll try and sell it.” Penny said.
“Twenty to one that kid’s gonna finish was his nut of a grandpa started.” Showalter buzzed the bridge. “Spin up the engines. We’re changing course.”
* * * * *
Croshaw system was quiet. It was an average day on almost all of the planets. People went to work. Kids went to school. There were four active jump-points in the system, one went to the Sol System and Earth, the second went to the Nul System an unclaimed system due to the variable star at its center, the third went to Davien System…
Cal exited the fourth jump-point from Ferron. It took his radar a second to reacquire the Phoenix. It was on course for Nul. Cal kept up his pursuit, weaving around the general traffic in the system.
Cal caught sight of a Constellation in the distance. He burned to close the distance. It was the Phoenix alright.
His systems went nuts. A General Emergency Warning was being blasted on all channels. Something about…
Oh no. Cal thought. He looked up.
Black Talon emerged from the Nul jump-point followed by dozens of Vanduul fighters. They immediately started attacking the Customs Agents. A Vanduul flagship and the rest of the clan battleships appeared shortly after. Local cops and pilots suddenly turned to defend the system.
The Phoenix flew past the waves of Vanduul and disappeared inside the flagship. Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place. The Phoenix didn’t hire the Vanduul to hit the system. The Vanduul hired them to build a weapon. This wasn’t Mahony’s revenge, this was an organized Vanduul strike into the heart of their enemy.
The flagship opened fire with its weapons. Its fighters clashed with the paltry human resistance. Cal hopped on the general comm to organize the pilots and plunged right into the brawl.
Pilots from both sides danced around each other, hunting for that killshot. Lasers burned through the void. Space became littered with debris and wreckage. Frantic chatter filled the channels. It was war. The Vanduul flagship altered its course toward the Sol system, toward Earth.
Cal finished off the Vanduul fighter he’d been tangling with then assessed the situation. In short, it wasn’t going well. The Vanduul had more experience, were more ruthless. The police and scattered military personnel were doing some damage but as the Vanduul dispatched more and more civilians. Cal knew the tide would decidedly and lethally shift against them. Even if they managed to destroy the fighters, they were powerless against the larger Vanduul ships.
Then he saw salvation…
The Gemini. The beautiful Gemini appeared through the Ferron jump-point. Cal guessed they got his message. Seven wings of fighters launched from the deck.
“We thought you were dead.” Penny said over comms.
“Come on, Penny” Cal replied.
“Well, when Grandpa gets ahold of you, you might wish you were.”
“Great to see you, Penny.”
“You too.” Penny said. “Shall we?”
They dove into the fight.
The Vanduul flagship turned its weapons on the Gemini. Deck cannons exchanged massive beams of destruction across the vacuum. Shields flared up, keeping the shots at bay. Smaller ships were incinerated in the crossfire.
Cal and Penny fought side by side like they always did. He saw the Phoenix blast off from the flagship. It weaved its way through the battle, heading back to Ferron.
His shields flared up. Cal looked up. Black Talon and a bunch of friends were bearing down on them.
“Look who’s back.” Cal said.
“Let’s get him.” Penny replied. Cal and Penny peeled off from their respective battles and moved to intercept Black Talon. They could see local pilots try to engage Black Talon but they were no match for the Vanduul ace.
Cal opened fire on Black Talon who danced around the shots. Penny tried to fill in the gaps but Black Talon was too nimble.
They were suddenly dodging blasts and rockets from dozens of raiders. Cal could barely keep sight of Black Talon as he spiraled through space, his shields taking multiple hits from multiple directions. Penny peeled off and twisted with a couple raiders.
* * * * *
Aboard the Phoenix, Sasha watched the empty space ahead. Her expression weary. Trunk was in the turret. He watched the desperate battle envelope the entire system with a similar countenance. He climbed down the ladder and joined his half-sister in the cockpit.
“They’re getting torn up out there.” He said after a long pause.
“It’s not our problem.” Sasha said quietly. It didn’t sound convincing.
“Technically…” Trunk started to say but paused.
“I don’t know. We did the job and got paid. So technically, our responsibility to them is done now. We can do what we want.”
They sat in silence.
“I’m just saying…” Trunk said.
* * * * *
Back in the brawl, some of the shields on the Vanduul flagship had failed. Explosions dotted along the side of the ship. The Gemini was taking its fair share of hits. One of the main guns had been blasted clean off causing munitions explosions below deck that punched the hull out like blisters. The other Vanduul battleships were specifically targeting the engines. The massive UEE carrier was starting to slow down.
Cal set his sights on the flagship. The bomb must still be there. Would make sense. That’s the most secure place considering and it’s the only thing gunning for the Sol jump-point. He guessed it would be able to jump in a matter of minutes.
“Penny, cover me.”
“What are you doing now?”
“You probably don’t want to know.” Cal flipped his ship around Black Talon’s fire and flashed toward the flagship. Black Talon started to come after him but Penny tied him up, giving Cal a headstart.
He heard Penny curse over comms. He looked back. She was hit. One of her engines was out. Black Talon and the Vanduul fighters circled to finish her off. Cal glanced back to flagship closing on the jump-point.
It was one or the other.
As Cal reached for the retro thrusters, something swooped past his ship toward Penny. Laser blasts annihilated the Vanduul Scythes before they could strike. Black Talon broke away to avoid the fire.
It was the Phoenix.
“Good Luck, Mason.” Was all that came over the comms before the Phoenix fired its engines and took off. Penny got her engine back online and burned away to safety.
Cal refocused on the flagship and got his game-face on. He ran through the layout of the ship from when he was on it. He visualized the landing bay. Deep, cavernous but plenty of room to maneuver. The flagship vanished into the jump-point.
Laser blasts streaked past him from behind. Black Talon was back on his tail. Cal hit his afterburners. The Cutlass launched toward the jump-point and disappeared with Black Talon right on his tail.
Space turned into a smear. The auto-pilot kicked in and started reducing his ship to a safe speed. Cal disabled it and kept the throttle down. He’d been through the Croshaw/Sol jump-point dozens of times. He only had about five minutes before they came out the other side.
Something smashed his wing. The flagship slowly passed flickering in and out of view. The Cutlass’ frame groaned as it twisted. Cal pulled ahead of the flagship. On a wing and a prayer, he cut the afterburners and spun the ship. Suddenly he was scooped inside the landing bay. He scanned the flight deck below. Baffled Vanduul fired small arms and yelled at him.
He made a complete pass through the flight deck but didn’t-
There. Mechanics were rigging the bomb onto a Vanduul bomber. Cal swung the Cutlass around. Black Talon suddenly came into view, bearing down. Cal tried to not let it distract him. He focused on his target. He knew he wouldn’t get another shot at this.
Black Talon charged him, weapons blazing. Cal fired.
* * * * *
It was quiet in Sol. Reinforcements amassed at the jump-point. The front of the Vanduul flagship pierced the jump-point. All the UEE Naval ships heated up their guns. But they didn’t fire.
Only the front half of the Vanduul flagship tumbled out of the jump-point, the back half was gone. That’s when Cal’s Cutlass emerged from the landing bay. It had also been hit by the Cassandra gas. He immediately ejected. The momentum flung him toward the line of Navy guns. He twisted around to watch the Vanduul flagship turn to a molecular goo in zero-g. The cutlass too. It was shame. He started to like that ship.
Now that the adrenaline had subsided, he felt a sharp pain in his leg. Felt broken.
He sighed and waved for the cavalry to pick him up.
* * * * *
Cal stepped back onto the Gemini to thunderous applause. Kerney, the giant pit mechanic, swooped him in a big bear hug. Penny waited with her hands on her hips and a grin. Cal saluted her. She nodded.
The pilots and crew patted him on the back as he limped across the deck. The crowd parted and he was face to face with Admiral Showalter. Cal stood at attention and saluted.
Showalter glared at him for several moments.
“We buried you, Mason.”
“I’m sorry I screwed that up, sir.” Cal tried not to smile. That was the fourth funeral they’ve apparently had for him. “I’ll try to stay dead next time.”
Showalter shook his head and walked away.
Cal spent the next two weeks in Medical with his leg in a cast. He tried looking for any reports of Sasha or the Phoenix. The ship was found abandoned near Terra. She had disappeared.
Four days later, he started to get that itch again, that itch that came from being grounded too long…
The Nul System. Scavengers picked through the drifting pieces of a hauling ship. Tags said it belonged to some dreg named Grady Monk. Most of it was scrap but creds were creds. Times were tough. The radar started pulsing from new contact. The scavenger ran a scan but couldn’t get an ID. She looked out the cockpit. A Vanduul Scythe raced past. The scavenger jumped with a yelp. It didn’t turn or attack, it burned back toward Vanduul territory.
Before it disappeared into the void, she noticed that one of its wings looked like it was dipped in Black.