The steady, rhythmic drip of water from some unseen leak was the only sound to accompany his labored breathing. The Inquisitors had never asked a single question. They were no less thorough in their interrogation methods, however. He hurt in places he never thought could feel such agony and actually relished the chance to simply lie upon the cool, damp floor of his cell. As he floated in and out of consciousness, he became aware that he was no longer alone.
He could never be sure who was real and who wasn't. The psychotropic drugs they'd been administering to him made his reality more fluid than normal. Somehow he knew this was no figment of his imagination. Count Josef Stuller stood looking down at him. He thought it appropriate, as the Count had looked down on him for most of his life. Ever since they attended the same Imperial academy as children, the condescending bastard had always felt himself the better of the two.
They were the fiercest rivals, always trying to come out ahead of the other. Scholastic studies, competitive sports, even with girls, they always fought to be the best. Had things been different, they could have been the closest of friends, but the Count's station demanded he hold himself apart from common rabble.
Count Stuller's father had arranged a marriage for his son. His wife-to-be was a stunningly attractive woman with grace and poise. She was far too good for the snobbish son of a noble. She was the daughter of a knight, which put her beyond his reach, yet somehow she fell for him while watching him compete against her betrothed.
They consummated their relationship and soon were madly in love. She agreed to elope with him even though she knew her family would disown her. It was the gravest of insults and the Count could neither forgive not forget it. Like a festering wound, it grew within his chest until it became all-consuming.
Now, his time of retribution was at hand. The Count smiled down at him and spoke to him for the first time in decades. "You're going to die here, Garrick. Alone and forgotten, all you ever were will simply cease to exist. No one will remember you" .
The Count turned on his heels and left the cell then, leaving the man alone. He was glad for this, as he didn't want to bear the shame of letting the Count see the tears falling from his eyes.
- - - -
Ryan found his father less than an hour later. He had to struggle to help him don the spare Remlok spacesuit, then carry most of his weight as they made their way to the service hatch where he'd parked the SRV. He wasn't worried about running into more security. The trio of bodies along the way explained his lack of concern. Right now, the only thing he was worried about was whether or not he could get his father the medical attention he needed in time.
He exited the airlock, then helped his father aboard before climbing in himself and cycling the life support system and repressurizing the cabin. He powered up the six-wheeled rover immediately switching to stealth mode, then crept away from the facility as gently as he could. He nearly made it beyond the perimeter when he caught sight of a drone closing on them from the left. 'So much for a quiet getaway,' he thought as he dropped out of stealth mode and activated the turret. The plasma repeater quickly built up a charge.
He activated the auto drive and concentrated on the turret. Drawing a bead, he quickly dispatched the drone. It had to be a spotter drone as it made no attempt to evade or counterattack. That meant he'd likely have more company soon, and this time it would be an armed response. Wasting no time, Ryan released auto drive and gunned the motor of the SRV. As soon as his shields returned from stealth mode, he directed all power to the drive system.
Running flat out in low gravity wasn't an easy thing to do. It was easy to end up airborne with even the smallest amount of uneven terrain. Ryan had experienced this firsthand while exploring as well as during his time in Special Services with the Inquisition.
That experience served him well. He didn't have time to spare for a running battle with his pursuers. His father didn't have time. He needed to get to his ship, and that was still five kilometers from where he was. He kept the SRV steady by using small bursts from the stability thrusters, avoiding the worst terrain whenever possible. He'd scouted the best route he could find while driving towards the Imperial compound.
It wasn't long before his scanners picked up two rovers trying to catch up with him. He had a large lead by then and even with the home ground advantage, Ryan managed to reach the spot where he'd landed the modified Imperial Eagle he had flown here. Engaging the docking procedure, he took a few moments to check on his father.
To his surprise, his father was watching him, had apparently been doing so for quite a while. "Who taught you how to drive?" He asked jokingly. His voice was strained.
"My dad," Ryan replied , unable to suppress a smile. "You think you can get into the ship?"
" I can bloody well fly if it gets me off this rock. " replied his injured father as he struggled to stand even in the low gravity of the small world.
Ryan was just finishing strapping his father into the fighter's single sleeping rack when he felt the ship shudder under a volley of fire. He leaped into the cockpit seat and engaged the ship for flight. The cockpit seat retracted into the living space when the pilot needed to sleep, eat, or use the other onboard facilities. When in flight mode, the seat slid forward into the cockpit allowing him to control the ship.
Ryan saw two SRV's outside firing on the ship. The shields were holding for now but a third rover was approaching. No need for a preflight check since he'd left the ship idling on standby. He lifted the ship no more than five meters before punching the main drive to full throttle. He'd have liked to show the rovers how foolish it was to fire on a starship, but time wasn't his ally now. As soon as he reached the minimum safe distance, he engaged the 'super-cruise' as the ship climbed the gravity well.
'Just a few more seconds' he thought. That was when his ship skewed hard to the left. Someone had hit him with a Frame Shift interdiction! He disengaged the drive, bringing the the Eagle around to face whoever had hit him. It was too risky to fight it this close to the planet's surface. An Imperial Courier was flying straight towards him with gun ports open.
The Imperial Courier was almost as maneuverable as a standard Imperial Eagle and nearly as fast. It had heavier weapon mounts and shields, but the hull lacked the same level of military reinforcement. Ryan wasn't sure if the Courier was modified or not but felt comfortable taking one on in his heavily modified Eagle.
His comm system crackled to life as the Courier broadcast a narrow beam signal to his ship. The voice of Count Josef Stuller came through. "There will be no quarter asked for or given. You will die here Elders".
Ryan didn't bother wasting time talking. He shunted reserve power from ship systems to propulsion in an effort to play to his strength. He wasn't going to outshoot the Count. He had to be able to outmaneuver him. They were closing nose-to-nose, not an ideal opening position. He had to get by fast.
He hit the boosters and sent the Eagle into a barrel roll. He only took a few hits to his shields before they were past, each trying to circle around for a better position.
His comm system crackles with another incoming signal and he shut the system off. He wasn't in the mood for taunts. They circled and fought for position. Despite his efforts, Ryan couldn't get a better position. The Count was good, real good, and every second it took meant reinforcements could be on the way.
An alert caught his attention. He glanced at the HUD and saw the 'low altitude' and 'impact' warning lights flashing. His altimeter showed seven hundred and eighty meters. He wasn't used to fighting this close to the surface of a planet and the gravity was slowly bringing them close to the ground.
That gave him an idea. Instead of trying to gain altitude he suddenly dipped the nose of his ship and plummeted for the ground. The Count finished his loop and flew after him. Ryan leveled out, allowing momentum to carry him even closer to the surface before using his thrusters to level out just below fifty meters from the surface. He raced towards some broken hills he'd noted from orbit and shot into a ravine. The Count attempted to match his maneuver, but the less agile Courier struggled with the tight space, forcing him to reduce speed.
Ryan's Eagle hit a long straight canyon and he dropped even lower, now mere meters above the surface. His wake created a dust storm from the fines scattered across the ground. Then he disengaged his flight assist and put full power to the lower thrusters, pushing his ship up and clear of the cloud of dust, and then spun the ship to face towards the entrance of the long canyon.
The Count brought his Courier out of the last turn before entering the canyon and hit the cloud of dust. The metallic flakes occluded his sensors and for a moment he couldn't even be sure he'd leveled out. The dust made an audible roar as it scraped along his canopy, robbing him of sight and sound at the same time. He hit the retro thrusters and lifted the nose of the Courier, bringing him directly into the line of fire of the Eagle.
That was what Ryan had been waiting for. He'd gotten a lock on the Count's ship as soon as he'd made the turn. As his opponent's ship slowed down he opened fire with both beam lasers and the medium rotary multi gun, spinning to keep himself lined up. The sustained fire stripped what little shields the Count had left before ripping into the hull. The corrosive rounds shredded the Courier's internal systems and sent the doomed craft into a slow arc that would smash it into the surface.
The escape pod blasted free of the Courier's upper hull. Ryan locked his targeting system on the small object with his finger poised on the trigger that would end the threat of the Count, as well as his life. He glanced at the monitor that showed his father lying in the cot in the rear of the Eagle. Just then his father looked up to the camera and he was staring into his father's eyes.
The same eyes that had watched over Ryan as a child, had watched him grow into the man he'd become in no small part because of the lessons a father had passed on to his son. The eyes that had stared at Count Josef Stuller across the Circle of Equals, a dueling circle in an archaic ritual where two Imperials of even different social levels could settle matters of honor.
The Count had aimed to kill his father that day but had found an opponent with both skill and the will to defeat him. Instead of dying in that circle, he'd been left with a scar and his life; a life he'd wasted on petty revenge. Ryan's father had shown mercy.
Maybe in hindsight Ryan thought that it wasn't the right choice, but it hadn't been his to make. Now, it was. He looked back to the targeting computer...
- - - -
Ryan's Imperial Eagle returned to Federation space in just over twenty minutes. He'd already worked out the flight path and calculated the fuel use so he wouldn't have to waste any time scooping. The fight had used more than he'd planned for but he still had almost six percent reserves left when he touched down at the medical facility. The emergency response team was waiting for them, and rushed his father off to surgery. He left the ship for the authorities to deal with and rushed inside to await his father's fate. He hadn't realized how much the battle had taken out of him. In moments, he was asleep in the waiting room chair.
- - - -
It was several hours until the doctor woke him up to tell him the news. His father had lost too much blood and had died in the operating room. He'd never regained consciousness. He went on with the sympathy and empty platitudes as he was trained, but Ryan had stopped listening. How could he face his family? How was he going to be able to tell them he'd failed. 'If only I'd spared the Count's life', he thought miserably. 'Karma always gets its due'.
Something made him stop for a moment. He HAD spared the Count. Even now, the authorities were taking his escape capsule from the Eagle's cargo hold. This wasn't real. This was just...
Ryan woke with a start. He was slumped over in the chair of the waiting room. The doctor was just now approaching him. "Mr. Elders? Your father is in recovery now. He lost a lot of blood, but he's a strong, healthy man. He's going to make a full recovery."
"Can I see him, doctor?"
" Briefly, but he needs his rest. " came the reply. Ryan was beside his father after gowning up for the recovery ward.
His father smiled weakly as he approached. "Thanks for getting me out of there. It was nothing like they said in the brochures."
He couldn't believe his father was actually making jokes. "Well, I was in the area and thought, what the heck." He couldn't believe he was making jokes, either. "How you feeling, dad?"
" Better than Count Stuller, I'd imagine. " he replied soberly. "Is he...?"
"He's alive. Someone once taught me the value of human life, fortunately for him. "
My father smiled. "Who was this wise man?"
"The same man who taught me how to drive."
- - - -
"Count Josef Stuller's trial concluded today on Achenar, where he was found guilty on all counts. A panel of judges deliberated for no more than an hour before reaching the unanimous decision."
"Most damning was the testimonials from the inquisitors who he'd tricked into believing the victim was a wanted terrorist. Mr. Garrick Elders was an upstanding citizen with no criminal record. He was rescued by an undisclosed Imperial task force."
"Under Imperial law, Count Stuller's sentence was carried out immediately following his trial. The unanimous decision allowed for the harshest penalty to be levied against him, despite a plea for leniency from Mr. Elders. Count Josef Stuller was executed by firing squad immediately following a news brief after the trial. His assets and title have been awarded to the victim of the crime. Count Elders will assume his new title in the next few days."
" For ICN, this is Mira Graphett reporting. "
Author's Note: I lost my father eight months ago following a lengthy illness. While writing this short story, there were times that I could almost feel my father standing next to me and reading along. This story is for you, dad.