The industrial might of New Rossyth could not be understated. The vast landscape was covered in valley's of factories and hangers. Kilometers after kilometer, the shipbuilding powerhouse of the Alliance churned its gears in full motion.
I studied my reflection from behind the thick glass viewport as the machinery raged in the distance. The crimson jacket I wore felt nice. Padded with reinforced leather and Eleu Thermal fabric, the coat felt surprisingly warm in the coolness of the room. It did little to cover the gorged metal in my left arm though.
My left hand squeezed into a fist and the person opposite the window clenched his right. I studied myself. No blemish or contusion marked my plain, serious face. From just beneath the collar of the shirt underneath my jacket, I could make out the beginning of the thin scar, traveling from shoulder to sternum: a parting gift from an old slave driver from long ago. My eyes shot back up. Glistening orbs, filled with fiery confidence of overcoming a lifetime of struggle, glared back.
Staring deeper into the storm I recalled the pain.
The journey of escaping the Empire’s clutches, working from the ground up as a lowly ship mechanic, to serving as a fighter-ship pilot. Spending three years of my life liberating Nagnatae from the oppressive Federation, to forging allegiances with the third parties and the Alliance.
Making my small name heard amongst those who needed someone of my “specialty.”
Times had been tough for a good long while, but I’d always found a way to press on.
The feeling of pride overwhelmed me and I stood a little taller, watching the flames flicker off the glowing, half-assembled anaconda, it’s yellowish superheated skeleton steaming in the brisk morning air.
The thin door behind me hummed as it opened and I turned my head slightly as the heavy-set man walked into the dark conference room.
Euphrates Watson. Alliance political figure head, ex-military, and businessman. He was a no-nonsense sort of figure. Cleanly shaven every time I’d ever seen him, and always wearing the same white suit that would press into his stomach so that it rose slightly, enough for one to barely witness the black gemmed studded belt that kept his rose pants from slipping off his waist.
The giant of a man thundered in and swiftly yanked a metal chair out from underneath the table’s edge with a thick arm. His aid, a thin, young female secretary, fashioned in a similar suit of color, followed in.
I popped my jacket as I pivoted to face him.
“Commander Ma.” He nodded briskly
“Mr. Watson.” I tilted my head respectfully.
Watson sat, the chair groaning underneath him. He waved me over with his hand and I walked away from the glass to stand at the end of the table. The woman remained upright besides Euphrates.
He crossed his fingers on the table in front of him. “How was your trip to Panca?” He asked. "Is the system, Apoyot, doing well?"
“Well, getting there was easy, being there and getting out, not so much…” I replied, in a jokingly despondent way.
An eyebrow raised. He looked at me questioningly. “How so?”
Transparent eyes matched up to his blue. “The system is in tatters.” I responded in all seriousness. “Apoyot C 1 has been invaded by the Empire. That’s the reason why your communications with the planet’s officials have gone dry.”
The large man leaned forward, his lips growing tight with concern. “Can you describe what you saw on Panca Commander?”
I nodded and collectively strode to the end of the room where a flat screen rested against a wall. Picking up an old fashioned remote, I turned on the screen, and began clicking through a series of images, flickering past the planet’s surface from high orbit, to my landing zone on the northern hemisphere.
“I first landed ten kilometers away from an isolated settlement near the north pole of Panca, on the 14th of January-“ I started to look at my wrist then looked to the clock on the wall instead. “-at 6:47 AM, Standard Alliance Time. I initially chose this spot due to communications and air travel being incredibly sparse.” I pointed to a frozen settlement. “Using the data that I hacked from the private transmissions array connected to the settlement, I cloaked the Phantom's
ship ID by using a re-fashioned signature that the imperial army uses for transportation ships. It was older code but it checked out.”
I clicked the remote.
“The process took about a full day to complete. Afterwards, I took this route to cross the sea that separates the pole from the main continent, to where the target cities on Apoyot C 1 are located.” I tapped a finger to where the continent bordered the ocean. “I flew the Taipan for this portion of the trip, due to the fighter’s low profile on scanners. Thanks to the Phantom’s
stealth capabilities, the Fer de Lance was able to slip away after I’d departed the north pole and it was stationed in a very low orbit. Over the course of the next few days, I city-hopped using the Taipan.”
The woman tilted her head quizzically. “How did you land in each of the cities?”
The corners of my lips turned as I smirked at the woman. “I jumped miss. From three kilometers high. Each time.”
“Three kilometers? Seems a bit low for entry. Did anyone open fire when they heard or saw your ship?” Watson, without missing a beat, asked.
“No sir. The Taipan isn’t obnoxious like the Condor and GU.”
Watson made a face. “…Would you, care to clarify as to why that is?”
“Certainly Sir. The Federation’s Condor has amplified heat signatures. It would betray its location to even the most rudimentary of imperial scanners. As for the Empire, the GU is an engine with a ship frame built around it. It’s exceptionally loud. Also, the ugly white and blue is a dead giveaway to any spotters. Anyways, in comparison, the Taipan better than anything the Feds or Imps have to offer. It's quieter, tougher, and colder.”
I took a breath. “Regarding the height, the gravity of Panca is fifty percent more than a standard G. If I had jumped from a normal height, say, five to six kilometers, then due to the slight increased acceleration of gravity, I would’ve either been falling too fast to safely deploy my glider, or been too high to have any reliable way of making it to the surface quickly. That’s why I chose to jump as low as I did.”
The screen in front of us changed to an overview of the last major city I’d been in, moments before I jumped out of the cockpit of the Taipan. Stilled, burning wreckage could be seen in the high definition photograph. Frozen smokestacks rose from pockets in the opaque blankets that overlapped the city in its veil of fog, mist, and misery.
“Here is the last city I slipped into. This photo was taken on the 18th. After listening in to communications in the prior city I’d been to, it seemed like the Empire had focused most of its resources here. Something about being repelled several times to capture the city.”
The screen changed pictures, this time showing the skyscraper that I’d formerly taken refuge from the rain, and later, recorded the voices and events occurring around me.
“From this building, I spent the next two days continuing to gather information, high above the conflicts erupting over the city. I took a majority of my recordings here. To summarize my findings, here’s what I discovered: The system of Apoyot was in control by the Empire, before it was liberated some time ago by a unified effort of the independent parties that govern the system today. Roughly two months ago, the Federation covertly attacked the peaceful world, in hopes of gaining a foothold for their own personal, fruitless gains against the Empire. This, as I recall, was around the same time the Alliance began having communication problems with their representatives on the planet, correct?”
The rolls on Euphrates neck jiggled as he nodded, his eyes slowly narrowing.
“Well, the Empire must’ve caught wind of this, and, as they do with so many other things, they too became involved.”
I held up a hand gesturing to the screen as a visualized recording of soldiers and escaping refugees ran from building to building, freedom fighters and rebels attempting to protect their home through any means necessary, and the hundreds of imperial drones scouring the cityscape for enemy targets.
“From what I found, I caught multiple imperial personnel discussing how the Federation had previously left the moment the Empire dropped in. It seemed rather strange for to the imperial soliders. Upon some personal evaluation of mine in the time I had sitting there, I came to the conclusion that this was a tact by the Federation to escape the spotlight of what they were doing in Apoyot. It could’ve gone so far as to blame the Empire in a sort of, propaganda move. The Empire, perhaps realizing this, but already knee deep in the problem, had little choice but to try and quell the defenders as quickly as possible, choosing to send in as many combat drones as they could to quench the resistance. I reckon they would’ve labeled it as a, peacekeeping endeavor somehow. Maybe they’d say something along the lines of ‘we’re striving to reclaim the system we formally, once dictated, controlled, whatever. In any case-,” I thumbed the button on the remote again. A photograph of two men cowering beneath a ditch in the road was shown “-the innocent people of Panca are on their last leg defending their home. The Federal insertion did a severe number on the planet’s personal defenses and moral. The Empire arriving only worsened things.”
My thumb clicked the remote one last time, showing the final intense moments on that last day between the rebels and the Imperial soldiers on the avenue.
“That ends my presentation. I have taken several recordings, but for time purposes, I wanted to ask you if you wanted to see them now or take them for later review?” I held up a thick metal card, containing all the data and information that my Sound-Discrimination and my other various recording devices had seen.
Euphrates held up a hand. “No, I’ve heard enough for right now.”
"Very well sir." I slid the rectangular drive across the table to and the secretary caught it.
Watson put a hand up to his face, scratching the stubble that crew beneath his lip.
“How far away is Apoyot?” He turned to his secretary.
“Roughly One-hundred and fifty light years Euphrates.”
I raised an eyebrow at the woman using his first name.
“What kind of resources do we have to spare? I want to intervene, but not make it an obvious conflict between factions. Just something to help our equally independent benefactors. How much time did it seem like Apoyot had until it fell?” The man’s cheeks wobbled as he turned to face me.
“The imps mentioned something about receiving aid in the form of a ship. What was being transported I haven’t the faintest but based on what it sounded like from the imperials point of view, it was going to be big. Probably be coming in a big imperial ship too. I’d wager once it landed, Apoyot would have days, if not hours, to fall.”
“Did the imperial describe the vessel in some way? Perhaps a shape? An ID would be better-“
I looked down and tapped my temple. To Watson I probably looked like I was simply trying to recall a memory. In reality, I was surfing my own archive of memories. The implants in my eyes, which record everything I see, and have seen for the prior five years, began flickering scenes in my retina. Neural connections running from cones of my eye shot information back and forth between my brain, spontaneously replaying visions of what I’d witnessed hours ago. The moment I heard the soldiers mentioning the ship, I tapped two fingers to the side of my head, and the recording momentarily play out.
-orrow at 3 Standard Imperial Time. It’ll be in a dark red ship from what Master Yerfield told, hopef-
The whole thing had taken less than three seconds.
“The ship is a dark red, and someone by the name of ‘Master Yerfield’ will be in charge of its arrival. It’s arriving today, at 3, standard Imperial Time. Which means…” I glanced at the clock on the wall displaying the local time. “You have about eight hours to act, and an extra to make the trip there, Sir.”
Mr. Watson smiled for the first time. “Nine hours total? Give or take? No way I could prep a task force in time to get there. No, but perhaps I could send for someone else… You have any idea where this ship might be landing at?”
“Most likely the city I was stationed in at the time I heard the message relayed. Urobeat. The soldiers specially mentioned that the ship was supposed to make landing there, by 3, their time.”
He nodded approvingly. “Excellent. Send for Daves, Rebecca. Tell him the same information that Vitu here told us, and that we’ll need a… thorough, examination of what’s on board that ship.”
“Of course.” Rebecca left the conference room.
Euphrates began shoveling the papers in front of him.
“You don’t need an army to stop the imperials sir. It’s the drones that are the real proble-
“Was there any response to your arrival planet-side?” Mr. Watson interrupted. “At all? Did anyone including the people who resided there ever see you?”
I hesitated by the suddenness. “No sir… Not at first.”
“At first?” Euphrates face darkened.
“Well, leaving was a bit difficult, but it wasn’t -“
“Answer my question Commander. Don’t try to lie either, I’ve been watching you scratch that left arm of yours this entire time.”
A momentary amount of anger raced through my gut, as I realized what the consequences might be if the Alliance was caught red-handed sending a spy into Empire space.
“…Yes.” I replied hotly. “During my escape from the world, two eagles managed to lock onto me and track me through the atmosphere. I wound up shooting them both down.”
“I made sure it was done as anonymously and clandestinely as possible.” I quickly spoke. “If there were any military scanners that’d been surveying the area, then either the encryptions protecting my ship were successful, or the imperials did not care, which is something I highly doubt. In any manner of speaking, no mounted response was made. After I’d landed, my ship’s AI took control of the Fer de Lance for the remaining of the journey back to Alioth and flew us back carefully.”
Euphrates shook his head annoyed. “Vitu, I thought I said I wanted this done with as much secrecy as possible.”
“They had drones in every corner of the city, sir. I was shot, injured, and unable to get out on my own.”
A final tap of the papers in front of him and he neatly stacked the organized paper into a dark green folder he’d brought along. The man raised his eyes without lifting his head, peering across the table to me.
“You’re not getting paid.”
My eyes went wide with outrage, but before I could utter a sound he continued.
“Not until I can verify if the Empire knows about you. If they do, then your work with us will most likely be finished. If not… You’ll get your pay. But the board will decide if your worth keeping around…”
He stood up. “Thank you, Commander. Your assistance today is most valued. I’m going to be a bit busy with this problem of ours in Apoyot and making sure that none of the Empire knows about you. I’ll let you know if I find any more work for you.”
Before he left, he turned his shoulder to me. “Stick around too. Turner’s World has a lot of beautiful places to visit. There’s also a festival occurring in Garden City, if you’re interested in those sorts of things.”
I nodded. “I’ll check it out. Thank you, Mr. Watson.”
I’m most definitely not going to check it out.
“Of course.” He nodded, and without another word, thundered out the door, leaving me alone to once again quietly contemplate the world around me as the shipyards outside continued their merciless onslaught of production.
Two days later…
tumbled slowly as it orbited high over Turner’s World. Every few minutes the planet would disappear, replaced by the thick milky way, only to reappear shortly thereafter. This endless cycle propagated as I silently repaired the mechanisms on my wrist.
“Wrist, mount, power, functions, at, twenty, percent, capability, Commander, Vitu. You, have, lost, two, percent, since, you, started, yesterday.”
“Thanks TK…” I mumbled. It was incredibly hard for me to work on the filaments that formed the inner workings of my left arm. Despite my skill in engineering and mechanisms, this was a skill far beyond my capabilities.
Originally, I’d planned on getting it fixed by one of the mechanics at Selene Jean’s base in the system Kuk, but my plans changed after my incursion with Euphrates.
Being a few thousand down on credits does NOT help, especially after all the repairs that it took to fix up the Taipan…
When I had docked at the shipyard in Turner’s World, the ship mechanics that had grounded my Fer de Lance had taken one good look at the Taipan that laid within and simply laughed. Not only did they charge me triple the price for the stock vehicle, but they’d doubled the price for restocking on heatsinks since the last time I’d landed.
Short on credits, I was going to have to wait for the Alliance to pay me before I could make any serious repairs to my arm.
Damn incompetent fools… charging me so much just for one stinking fighter… Bastards don’t even deserve their jo-
“Ow!” My cursing was cut short as I accidentally jammed the micro needle into the nervous systems that connected my hand to my arm. My hand spasmed, fingers splaying open.
“Warning, you, have, triggered, an, auto, matic, response, from, your, nervous, system.”
Piece of shit engineering…
“I noticed that, thank you T9…”
Through a box near the table, Arctano’s personal avatar appeared. His holographic face stoic as he spoke.
“Vitu, apologies disturbing you. You have an urgent call from Euphrates Watson, official party member of the Alioth Independents.”
“Great, put him on the phone.” I muttered angrily.
Arctano disappeared and was replaced by a sound transmission scale.
“Ah, Vitu! Glad you were available, got another job for you-.”
“Does it involve me getting paid?”
“Pai- what? No, listen. I just got word from my agent. The dark red ship those imperials were talking about? It was a Cutter. Turns out it was carrying a lot of chemical explosives. Missiles, mines, ticking-time bombs, you name it. But it’s not your typical simple chemical compound stuff, you know, the stuff that kills you by suffocation or paralyzing you… No, this stuff is different. From a superficial scan, the chemicals are not only bio-degradable, and non-toxic; it’s meant
to be ingested.”
I thought to myself. [/i] The Empire has a history of doing shady things, but nothing like chemical warfare. If anybody ever caught wind of this, the repercussions would be on a massive scale…[/i]
“Uh, yeah that’s cool. Did you find the deliverer? A ‘return-address?’”
I could hear the sarcasm in Euphrates’ voice. “Yeah, and they included an extra little stamp just in case.”
He paused. “Vitu, there was no captain. No mention of this Master Yen or whatever his name was and no security measures protecting the ship. No one was on the ship at all. Not even an AI. After my agent interdicted the Cutter, she said that she heard a small boom somewhere in the lower floors, but she didn’t find anything. What she did discover however, was that the ship on a collision course for Apoyot. She had to splice where it came from.”
Watson paused for a moment. “Thomdril. In HR 8631.”
An unusual feeling overcame me at that moment. Something that I would never feel again, but never forget. It felt like in that second, all the blood had rushed away from my fingers and out my head. My stomach felt heavy, and my lower extremities quivered as a shiver ran down my back. It was all over in a hair-breath, but it had left me shaken.
“Thomdril… Isn’t that an earth-like in Delaine’s territory?”
“It is Commander.”
There was an awkward lull. I could hear him panting over the phone.
“Listen,” he began. “I’m not telling you you have to go there to check things out, but, if you wanted to, not only would it be a big help, but it’d look really good in the eyes of the other officiates. Plus, if you do this successfully, and this time, WITHOUT, INCIDENT, then we’ll pay you double for you trouble, along with what we already owe you.”
My heart skipped a beat. At least five-hundred credits had just been set on the table in front of me. The unsettling feeling that I’d felt moments prior, the dangers of invading a pirate lords’ domain, the stories, the horrors that awaited, flickered, as the greed and desire to fix my name in the Alliance community replaced it. It didn’t matter to me if it was pirates. I’d been dodging all the major powers so well. The Federation was always a step too late, and the Empire was too stuck up to think twice about a spy crawling up their backsides.
Hell, even the Alliance underestimates me.
It didn’t matter who was who. I’d always gotten away. Always succeeded in my mission. And this time, I would punctually, make it a point to be perfect. Invading psychopath’s territory would be no problem.
Plus… I’d always wanted to pirate a pirate.
Without another thought, I nodded to myself and told Euphrates those last famous words.
“It’ll be no problem. I have little connection to authority down there. I’ll get the job done easily.”
The call ended.
No question pending my future success came to mind. Not when I entered my private room and viewed the vastness of the pirate-infested space, not when I entered the coordinates for the system smack dab in the middle of Archon’s territory, and not once during the next seventy-two hours as Arctano silently flew me to the heart of hell.
Never once did I doubt myself.