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Hero at Large

Hero at Large

By Timothy Ellis

The Hunter Legacy, Book One

1Copyright © 2014 by Timothy Ellis

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and events are fictional and have no relationship to any real person, place or event. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely co-incidental.

The author has taken the liberty of using some recognizable names in a historical context or projected into the future as if such entities survive into the timeframe of this work of fiction. Such references are intended solely as a tribute to the entity so used and all such usage has an intended deep respect. The author has also deliberately chosen names for characters in tribute to the science fiction genre in all forms of media. Some may be obvious, others will not be. There is no implied connection, other than what the reader may make for themselves.

The author is Australian and the main characters in this book are of Australian origin. In Australia, we colour things slightly differently, so you may notice some of the spelling is different. Please do not be alarmed. If you do suffer any discomfort, please take it out on the nearest pirate.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any manner whatsoever without the written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles or reviews.

[][] Table of Contents

Table of Contents

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty One

Twenty Two

Twenty Three

Twenty Four

Twenty Five

Twenty Six

Twenty Seven

Twenty Eight

Twenty Nine

Thirty

Acknowledgements

A Message to my Readers

By Timothy Ellis

[] One

The bulkhead rushed at me. For a few seconds I was floating. An idle thought – bulkheads were not supposed to do that. It smashed into me. Or more correctly, I smashed into it. For a few seconds I hung there. My left side was on fire. The bulkhead moved away. For a few seconds more I hung there, arching slowly over backwards, uncontrollably in free fall. Gravity reasserted itself and I fell to the deck. I lay there in agony. Thankfulness for carpet on the deck did not come until later.

Awareness fled for a short time. I groaned. The health monitor on my PC had gone primary, and was flashing red all along my left side. I accepted the recommendation for pain relief. I immediately felt better, although there should have been an end to pain, not just a lessening. The PC display fritzed. That was bad. It meant head damage. The display still showed the left side of my head as red, where the left side of my body was now orange. It was difficult to think. I lay there for a bit longer.

The voice I listened to said, “Get. Up. Now.” I got up. Or rather I tried to. A sitting position was all I could manage. I forced myself to think. The PC continued to fritz every thirty seconds or so, which was distracting and a really bad sign.

What hit us? I accessed ship systems and brought up the ship health display. The entire cockpit area showed red. There were various colours dotted around the ship’s hull showing other damage, but the cockpit had taken the brunt of whatever it was. The cockpit?

“Uncle,” I screamed. Fear motivated me onto my feet and I rushed to the cockpit hatch. It refused to open. The status indicator showed no air on the other side. I zoomed in on the hull display and to my shock, saw the entire cockpit was destroyed. What could do that?

Logs,” said the voice.

I accessed the ship logs. “Missile hit to forward hull,” it said with a date and time stamp. Missile? Who would shoot at us?

Shoot. The word echoed through my thoughts for a moment. My brain hurt. I desperately needed to lie down. My vision was blurred by now and my head hurt worse than the migraine I’d had the year before, just before my exams. I eased myself into the nearest chair.

Shoot. Who?

Why?

Where?

Now?

I suddenly came fully awake. Someone had shot a missile at us. It had badly damaged the ship. My Uncle was most likely dead. I was next.

I brought up the external sensors and looked at what was around us. We were still very close to the jump point, but were not alone. Not far off, what looked like a Military Transport was drifting without power. Further away was wreckage, as if a ship had exploded. Movement caught my eye.

I centered the sensors on the moving ship and changed to direct sight, since it was within visual range. I triggered the ID search and it was identified as a Gladiator Heavy Privateer. The specs showed it to be a heavy fighter with cargo capacity. Ideal for small time trading that could take care of itself in a fight. Apparently ideal as a raider or pirate as well. As I watched, it swung around towards the jump point.

The jump point flared and another ship came through. This was a medium transport. As I watched, the Gladiator fired three missiles at the newcomer. Each one hit the ship in the same place. The hull ruptured with the third hit. I aimed the sensors at the ship and saw that the cockpit was gone there too. The ship lost power and began to drift.

The Gladiator came to a stop and extended two grav sleds, one each from her mid top section and mid bottom section. It started to move closer to the new arrival.

I got a grip on myself. What was happening was obvious. The ship intended salvaging the damaged ships. Prisoners? I didn’t think so. When you aim deliberately at where the crew is most likely to be, you don’t care about prisoners. So, I wasn’t going to be a prisoner. That would make me dead. Not a nice thought. What to do about it.

I was suddenly glad that before we left, Uncle had given me full access to all systems and had run through how they worked. The main cockpit controls were gone, all I had left was what I could access using my PC. Fortunately, my PC, while not an advanced one, could access all ship systems, and give me holographic controls if I needed them.

Alternatives? I began checking systems. Engines were good. I could move the ship. Life support was good. I wasn’t going to die gasping any time soon. Thrusters were damaged around the front area near the bridge, but were functional. The ship could move, but it wasn’t fast enough to escape a heavy fighter.

The Wanderer had guns. Not very good ones, but she could fight, in a fashion. But that was a heavy fighter out there.

Reminded, I checked on what it was doing. It had the freighter almost lined up with the top sled. I still had some time to act, but I needed to get on with it if I was going to.

I brought up the holographic combat systems. The guns were not active, so I deselected them. Next to the gun control was the missile launcher control. Wanderer carried a twenty shot missile launcher in the front end. Like the rest of the ship, it was old and limited. However, the missiles themselves were new. I selected the launcher but did not allow it to go live. The missile program selector popped up. Options appeared. Dumb fire, heat seeker, or image recognition? I’d never fired a missile before so dumb fire, which required very good aim, was out of the question. Heat seekers would take out the target’s engines, but that would still leave it capable of striking back. I needed a decisive blow. I selected image recognition. Another pop up asked for the primary target. I left that so as not to announce my intentions to the pilot of the Gladiator, and switched to secondary targeting. Ship systems popped up as potential targets. Engines, guns, missile launcher, cargo bay. Cockpit? Yes I thought. That would be appropriate. Why no cockpit option? I selected Override, and manually entered cockpit. It asked me to verify I wished to target the cockpit. Yes dammit, get on with it. Target selected, but not locked.

The medium transport was attached to the upper grav sled now. The Gladiator moved towards the Military Transport.

I checked on what the Wanderer was doing. We had come through the jump point slowly, so without engines, we had a slight drift, and due to the missile hit, there was also a slow roll at an odd angle. I started to calculate if the ship would roll into a good firing position. Everything went black for a bit before I jerked upright. Quick check, and yes I’d lost a couple of minutes. The Military Transport was almost in position on the bottom sled.

I checked Wanderer’s roll again. Some luck at last. The ship had rolled right around and was very close to being front on to the Gladiator. As I watched, the transport attached to the sled, and the Gladiator moved to come towards us.

We rolled on, the Gladiator became head on. I selected the Gladiator as primary target and set the missile launch system to live.

The Gladiator reacted immediately, speeding up and starting to turn. I sent three missiles towards it as fast as they could launch. I sat there and just watched.

The first missile hit the shields and exploded. As did the second. The third punched through and burst against the cockpit windows. There was a sharp flash as the air inside ignited for a brief moment and the Gladiator engines shut down and she began drifting.

A coms channel opened. A voice said “Nice shooting. Any chance you can tow us to the station? We don’t have a lot of life support left over here.” The voice came from the Military Transport.

A second channel opened. Another voice said “We could also use a tow. Our engines are fine but we no longer have a pilot.” This came from the medium freighter.

I closed my eyes for a moment. Thinking was becoming very difficult. A voice that I didn’t recognize as mine said “Yes, I have engine control and steering. Hold on while I sort out how.”

Two sets of ‘thank you’ followed.

The fritzing of my PC was down to fifteen seconds apart and made doing anything very difficult. My head felt like it was exploding. People depended on me. As much as I wanted to sleep, now was not a good time. I made an effort to stay awake.

Question. How do I take two ships in tow with one grav sled? The Gladiator still had them secured. How could I get them off it and tow them both? Did I need to? I checked for life signs on the Gladiator. None. Good, the pilot wouldn’t be complaining if I borrowed what was left of his ship. And with the two ships I needed to tow already being towed, all I had to do was tow the Gladiator. That made things easier. Or would do, if only my head didn’t hurt so much.

The ship’s AI was offline. Selecting online actually worked. I told the AI to stop all movement, followed by an instruction to orient the ship ready to take the Gladiator in tow.

I’d never towed anything before. I hunted around for towing commands and found the one that extended the grav sled, located under the ship. It slid out as it was supposed to do. I gave the AI instructions to bring the ship into position so the grav sled could grab the Gladiator. This took a few minutes but at last, the Gladiator was in range of the sled’s gravity generator and there was a clunking feel through the ship as the sled took the Gladiator in tow.

Navigation. Thinking was becoming impossible. I told the AI to plot a course to Sydney station, as fast as was possible with the weight we were towing. Slowly, we moved off and began to speed up.

I’d been told by Uncle that after the jump, Sydney station would be about an hour away. I checked our eta and it showed one hour, fifteen minutes. I opened a com channel to the other ships and informed them. The Military Transport was not happy, they would be on suit air by then, but at least they should make it.

I had the irresistible urge to lie down and did so. The health monitor was now blinking red around my head, showing the urgency with which I needed medical help. I turned it off. There was nothing I could do, and it was distracting me.

A coms channel opened. I jerked awake again. I hadn’t planned on falling asleep, but I had. Eta was down to ten minutes.

“Sydney Station to vessel identified as Wanderer. Please state your intentions.”

“Sydney station, this is Wanderer. We were attacked by a Gladiator fighter at the Nexus 618 jump point. I declare an emergency. My ship is damaged. I disabled the Gladiator and have taken it and two other vessels in tow. One of these has life support failure and requires immediate assistance. Request tugs for them. I am able to land myself, but not with ships in tow.”

“Understood Wanderer. Come to rest ten thousand meters off the station and wait for assistance.”

“Will do Sydney station.” I sighed with relief and gave the instruction to the AI. I called up an external view and watched as the station grew larger.

As we came to a stop, another com channel opened.

“Tug Fifteen to Wanderer. Please disengage your grav sled.”

I turned off the sled’s gravity generator, and watched as the tug took control of the Gladiator and drew it away. Four ships joined together turned and headed towards the station.

“Sydney station to Wanderer. Please follow the landing beacon to internal docking bay twelve.”

“Thank you Sydney station,” I replied. “Moving to docking bay twelve now.” This was something I could do. I’d practiced station landings on the simulator at home.

I activated navigation controls, and rotated the ship to follow the landing beacon at station docking speed. A short time later we were entering the landing bay itself, the landing struts went down and I gently set the ship down on the landing pad. The bay sealed behind the ship. Air and heat flowed into the bay.

I dragged myself to the airlock. When the outside showed as being fully aired up, I stepped into the airlock and cycled through to the outside. I stepped out into the cold air and started to limp down the stairs.

“Hey, it’s just a kid,” I heard from somewhere close by.

Third step from the bottom, I tripped and fell off the stairs.

[] Two

I was sitting in my command chair, in space.

No ship, no life support, no nothing.

Just me, in my chair, in space.

Space around me was not familiar.

As I looked around I saw no planets.

There were many asteroid fields.

In the distance, two gas giants.

A movement in front of me caught my eye.

A black dot had appeared at long range.

As I watched, another dot appeared.

Then another.

Then ten, a hundred, a thousand.

Space in front of me turned black.

I bolted upright in bed. It was the same dream I’d been having for years. The same one that followed every stressful event in my life. The Keepers back home said it was part of Prophesy, but would not explain it to me. Whatever was happening in the dream always left me terrified, and I had never figured out why.

For a few seconds I sat there, heart racing.

White. White room, white bed, white?

“Easy there,” said a voice. “No sudden movements in your condition.”

I turned towards the voice and saw more white. I shook my head in dismay and immediately regretted it.

“You are in the Sydney Station medical facility. Let’s have you lying down again please.”

“Hospital?” I said.

“Yes. Lie still. You are not fully healed yet.”

“Uncle?” I asked.

“He was killed instantly. I’m sorry.”

Tears filled my eyes.

“How long have I been here?”

“Five days,” came the reply.

Shock upped the tear flow. I’d known that Uncle was probably dead, but being told it so emphatically made me face what I’d been able to put aside on the ship. But five days? That meant the window for returning home was closed. I was stuck here, and alone. What was I going to do?

Grief and loneliness turned me over on to my left side and buried my face into the pillow to hide the tears. I groaned and rapidly turned back over and then on to my right side. I mashed my face into the pillow and let the tears flow. I was sixteen, my only accessible relative was dead, and I was one year away from seeing anyone else I knew. I cried myself to sleep.

***

I came to more normally, sliding up from the black of sleep into the light of awake. The room came into focus around me. It was mainly all white, but not completely. I sat up slowly, expecting pain, and felt very little. My head was clear.

My head was too clear. There was no computer display at all. What had happened to my PC?

“Ah good, you’re awake at last,” came the voice I’d heard previously. “How do you feel?”

“Better,” I said. “Where is my PC?” I asked.

“You had major head trauma, they had to take it out. Don’t worry. They will give you a new one as soon as you are ready. The doctor will be by soon and he will tell you about it. Ready for some breakfast?”

“Yes please. What have you got?”

“Muesli,” she said. I hated muesli. Of all the things that had to endure since its invention some six hundred years earlier, muesli had to be one of the least expected, and for me, the least liked of them all. In fact, it wasn’t just muesli, I hated breakfast.

“Any chance of something hot? What time is it anyway?”

“Afternoon. I’ll see what I can find for you.”

“Thanks,” I said as she walked off.

Lying in a hospital bed proved to be very boring. Especially with no PC. The room had no other entertainment facilities. So I had nothing to do but ponder events while I waited for some food. After a time, someone came by with a tray, and I ate mechanically without really tasting anything. Nature called suddenly and I slowly got out of bed and visited the bathroom with slow deliberate steps. Being upright again, I found my left side was still sore, but not so much as would stop me getting about. I limped into the bathroom and relieved myself. I then made the mistake of looking in the mirror. There was a stranger reflected back. Well, not so strange, but not what I was used to. The face looking back at me was no longer a kid anymore.

“Back in bed.” The voice of the nurse. “Doctor will be in to see you soon.”

I returned to bed, wincing a bit as I lay back down. Lying in bed was one thing, walking about seemed to be much different. The short excursion had left me feeling weak and sore.

The doctor turned up about an hour later. He walked up to the bed without a word and stood there with a blank look on his face. Obvious sign of using a PC. I waited for him to finish.

“Ah, Mr. Hunter, how do you feel?” he said abruptly as his eyes suddenly focused on me.

“Not too bad doc,” I said. “Where is my PC?”

“It had to come out I’m afraid. You sustained a major blow to the head that damaged it. By the time you were admitted, it had almost failed. We were able to access it enough to determine it was an obsolete juvenile model, and removal was the only thing we could do,” he said. “If it’s any consolation,” he went on, “you are well enough now to get the implant done, so you can have a new one very soon.”

“Yes please,” I responded. “As soon as possible isn’t soon enough. What happened to all the stuff I had on it?”

“I believe the techs managed to download everything off it, so once the new one is in, most of it can be uploaded again before you wake up. Before that happens though, the Facility Administrator wishes to speak to you. Then you have choices to make about what kind of PC you want to have.”

That thought echoed around in my head for a few seconds, and mutated into a “how will I pay for it” thought, followed by a “how do I pay for this” thought, which I voiced.

“Dr. Vincent will talk to you about that. Don’t worry about it. There is a lot you need to catch up on, and quite a few people who want to see you.”

He headed for the door, stopped, and turned before going out.

“You’re a Hero. Enjoy this quiet time while it lasts, because you won’t have much of it soon.” He grinned at me, and left.

***

I wore a very puzzled look for the next few hours. Hero? Me? What did I do? I’d survived a missile attack, killed someone, and woken up in a hospital. Hero? Why wasn’t I in trouble for whoever I killed? None of it made any sense, so I stewed over it all while I waited for more information.

Dr. Vincent turned up eventually, with another man in some sort of uniform.

“Mr. Hunter! Nice to meet you finally, you had us all very worried there for a while. I’m Dr. Vincent, Administrator here, and this is General Harriman, Commander of Sydney station.”

Both were tall thin men with grey hair. Both gave off an air of authority, but while Dr. Vincent wore a smile, General Harriman looked like he hadn’t smiled since he was a kid. Pure military by the look of him. We had some of his sort at home, but lacking a real military, they were mainly found in the militia forces which enforced Outback’s no access restrictions on all but five days of the year. Gaia did not need a military as such. We had a very stable society. Outback was our front door and kept people out. And in, as it happens.

I nodded at both men, not knowing what to say.

General Harriman nodded back and said “You are Jonathon Hunter, resident of Outback Orbital, registered crewman on the freighter Wanderer?”

I nodded again. That was not strictly true, as I was not a resident of Outback in any way, but Outback existed so everyone would think we were. And given Outback’s isolationist policy, those who travelled were by necessity resident on the orbital station.

He went on, “First let me say how sorry everyone is on the death of your Uncle. We only saw him once a year, but he had a good reputation here and we are very sorry for what happened to him. On that note, it was unfortunate and very timely, that you came through the jump point when you did. Unfortunate that it cost your Uncle his life, but fortunate that you had the guts to take on a very nasty individual who has caused a great deal of death and destruction around here for months now. I will send you details of who it was you took out for us, and you can read all about it after your new PC is installed. A lot of people here want to thank you. For now, we are providing security to see you remain undisturbed until the doctors allow you to leave. Once you are up and about again, make an appointment to come and see me and we can talk more. For now, I’ll leave you with the doctors.”

He held out his hand, and we shook. “Thank you Mr. Hunter, get well, and come and see me soon.” With that, he turned and left.

Dr. Vincent still had a goofy smile on his face as he watched the General depart. Then suddenly he was all business.

“You, Mr. Hunter, have been interesting, medically speaking. According to Outback Orbital, you are sixteen years old. Yet by the standard age test, you are eighteen. This does not fit with being a native of Outback. Care to explain this anomaly?”

This wasn’t one of the things we had prepared standard answers to, so I just gave him a blank look and hoped he would move on. He did.

“No? Well the standard age test says you are an adult, so we can go ahead with an adult PC implantation. Now as the General alluded to, you will not need to worry about the cost of the PC, its implantation, or in fact your entire stay here. All the medical facilities in this system have suffered loss of equipment and personnel from the attacks of the pirate you killed, and as thanks for your actions, we are jointly covering your medical costs. I see you are relieved, so I must assume that you do not have much in the way of medical cover back home, or available funds.”

He had that right. I had the basic cover for ship crews, which did not include replacement of PC’s.

He grinned at me. “I do not think you will be worrying about credits very much for the foreseeable future, we are not the only ones wanting to thank you.” That seemed a bit enigmatic, but I let it pass.

“So, young sir, your PC? What will you require or prefer?”

We talked over the various models available and I chose the top of the line PC that most pilots used, which gave the most flexibility for add-ons, including some military ones, if you could get hold of them. With the decision made, he put me back to sleep so the procedure could be carried out immediately.

[] Three

It was morning when I awoke. Apparently they had let me go into a normal sleep after the PC implantation. I sat up slowly, decided that was a bad idea, and sank back to my pillow.

Basic PC functions were available, and there was a big “Begin Configuration” question showing. This took me through a series of menus and questions where I confirmed data from my old PC, and added in information. I confirmed ‘Planet of Origin’ as Outback, and the discrepancy between Outback age and Standard age. This is quite common. Standard age is based on Earth time, but very few planets rotate the same as Earth. So ages were normally stored with both the home planet age and standard age. Two years difference was not normal for someone home planet aged sixteen, but no-one was supposed to know I was not actually born on Outback, and it did happen often enough to be nothing more than a curiosity.

There were a lot of new features and I skimmed through them without setting them up, figuring I’d have plenty of time later.

As I was coming to the end of things, a nurse appeared and told me I was being released into the charge of a Lieutenant, who was to take me to see the General. She took a last look at the bruising down my left side, advised me to take things easy for the next week or so as I continued to heal, and to come back if I had any problems. The bruising would start to go away after the pain subsided.

I limped into the bathroom, showered and changed back into my ship clothes, which had been cleaned. The nurse returned and led me to administration, where I signed the release forms and saw a zero in the amount to pay box. Everyone was very polite and happy I was back on my feet.

The paperwork complete, a young Lieutenant, only a few years older than me, took charge of me and led me out of the medical facility and along the main corridor to the lifts. He stabbed a level number and inserted a key card to override rejection of the level.

“Military levels must have clearance to gain entry,” he said. That made sense. No military was noted for allowing civilians to wander around.

He led me along what seemed a maze of corridors; me limping along a lot slower than my normal stride; he being patient with my lack of speed. Eventually we arrived at the General’s office. I took the opportunity to sit down and rest and really needed it. After a short wait, the receptionist told me to go in.

The General greeted me in a friendly way, and proceeded to offer me a place in the Australian sector, Military Cadet Corp. As unexpected as it was, it was also easy to say no. The “darkness” was coming, and I knew from my dreams, that when it did, I was not wearing a military uniform. At least, not a recognizable one. While I still did not understand my dreams, I’d had them all my life, and there had been some alluding to “Prophesy” when talking about them. As yet, I had no idea what that meant, but I did know joining the Australian sector military was not my future.

The recruitment speech over, he went over some details about the pirate I’d killed. Louis “The Pig” Santiago had been a failed military officer for one of the near Earth sector fleets. After being imprisoned, from where he promptly escaped, he formed his own pirate group. Over the years, they had been pushed further and further out along the spine, until three months ago, they started raiding the Australian sector. Being both a highly skilled combat pilot, and arrogant, he tended to hunt alone. No-one knew where his base was, or how many were in his group. All very interesting, but I hadn’t really met the guy, so couldn’t feel anything for him one way or another. Yes, I had killed him, but as the General put it, he had died of “Suicide by kid”, with no fault but his own.

On a darker note though, the General did go on to say that there had been some general death threats levelled in my direction, which was worrying, but difficult to take on. I was just a kid who got lucky, why would anyone threaten me? The General was concerned enough to offer me several military upgrades for my PC. Since he had no doubt that I would continue flying, he offered me the standard upgrades that all pilot cadets were given. I accepted gratefully. We went through the upload process, and a new menu appeared. I’d check it out later.

With a last warning to be careful, we shook hands, and I exited his office to find the same Lieutenant waiting for me. He escorted me to the lifts.

Once inside the lift, I stopped. Where was I going? As if to answer that, a reminder message popped up with a reservation at the Sydney station hotel. I hadn’t known I had a reservation. It must have been added while the PC was being installed. I accepted the routing offer, and my PC sent a level five request to the lift. When the doors opened, I limped out and set off towards the hotel. This part of the station was all retail shops, and while I definitely needed to go shopping, I also knew I couldn’t afford to. So I made my way as the routing guided me.

As I passed a side corridor, I was suddenly flung off my feet to land heavily on my left side.

Pain lanced through me once again and a groan escaped before I could help myself. A shadow fell over me and I looked up. Two men stood over me, both with guns pointed at me.

“Not much of a hero, is he? Just a kid,” said the tall one.

“Pint sized hero,” said the short one.

“Hero to zero,” added the tall one.

“Hero to some, target practice to others,” went on the short one. “What did the boss call him?”

“Hero at Large,” said tall. “Small hero if you ask me. Ex-hero. Now kid, you just lie there and let me put you out of your-”

Both of them went flying, to land down the passage a way. I turned my head around to look at them in amazement, lying there unmoving. That hurt, so I turned my head back to just looking up. Two figures appeared in my vision. I did a double take, and started wondering if I had brain damage again.

Standing over me was a girl. She was of average height, short dark hair, piecing blue eyes, dressed all in slinky black with a gun holster on her right thigh. Next to her was an exact double. I shook my head, and again regretted the movement. Two hands extended towards me. Not knowing which hand was real, and which was the illusion, I raised both hands figuring that one of them would be right. Both of my hands were taken and I was gently hauled upright.

I looked at them dumbly for a minute, looking back and forth between them.

“There really are two of you?” I asked

Both of them smiled identical smiles at me.

“Of course there is, silly,” said the left one. “We are twins. I’m Amanda, this is Aleesha. Sorry for the delay getting them off you, they had buddies we had to go through to get to you.”

“Buddies?” I wish I knew what was going on.

“We need to get you out of here,” said Aleesha. “Station security will be along before these bozos come to, and our responsibility is your safety, not their questions. It’s all on station cam anyway, so they don’t really need us.”

“You are headed to the hotel?” asked Amanda.

“Yes,” I replied. “I don’t know why, but I have a reservation there.”

“Lots for you to find out, so let’s get you there before anyone else has a go at you.”

The girls took station in front and behind me, and we headed off as a conga trio, me being the one not able to walk a straight line. No one else had a go at me. Not surprising though given my companions, since while they were not big, they gave off ‘tough’ vibes the same way the General had given off ‘authority’ vibes. I made a mental note never to get them upset at me.

[] Four

The lobby of the hotel was typical, not that I had any experience of such. I’d seen some photos of prominent chain hotels in some of the junk mail I got, and come to think of it, this was one of those featured. We approached the check-in counter, and the girls changed positions to protect me.

The clerk at the counter smiled at me. “You wish to check in sir?” he asked.

“I believe I have a reservation,” I said. “Jonathon Hunter.”

The clerk’s manner changed dramatically. “Welcome Mr. Hunter,” he purred. “Please come this way to the managers’ office so we can settle you in more comfortably.”

He indicated the way deferentially. I cast a glance at the girls. Amanda nodded to me, and immediately followed the clerk. Aleesha took up a position where she could see all the sight lines. I followed Amanda. ‘Cute arse’ I thought, momentarily distracted, and pulled my focus back as we entered a plush fitted office. The manager stood behind his desk as we entered, and Amanda took a position against the wall by the door.

“Mr. Hunter, welcome, welcome. Please sit down.” I sat. “Your suite will be ready momentarily.” My suite? “We hope you will remain as our guest for as long as you wish. Please do not concern yourself with the bill as it will be taken care of by the Hotels Association in appreciation of your wonderful public service.”

I looked at him. “Err,” I stammered.

“Mr. Hunter, no false modesty please. You have rid us of a plague that has cost all hotels in this sector a great deal, and we wish to give this small token of our appreciation.”

There was quiet knock on the door, and the clerk from before entered, crossed to the manager and handed him something. He exited immediately. The manager came to me, and said “Please send a code to this device, so you can enter your suite.” I did so, storing the code away in a code slot in the PC. “Thank you. You are in suite 12, Jason outside will escort you. I do so hope you enjoy your stay, and please let me know if there is anything we can do for you.” There was a slight emphasis on ‘anything’. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go there. I got up, and Amanda led me out, we fell into step behind Jason, and started off towards my room.

‘Suite 12’ was on the door. Jason said, “Sir, if you would pulse the door with your code, I will show you around.” I did so and the door popped open. Jason led us in. Amanda stopped me just inside the door, and proceeded to rapidly search the place. Returning, she again took up a position against the wall just beside the door.

The room we were in was tastefully decorated as a sitting room, with casual chairs facing a state of the art entertainment system. In another corner there was a desk. The room looked as if it doubled as a waiting room, office and a small theatre. On the other side of the room was another door.

Jason led us through to a short passage-way with three doors. The door on the left turned out to be a small kitchen. The door in the middle was a huge bedroom with its own full-sized bathroom. The door on the right led to a second identical bedroom.

Jason led us back to the kitchen. He stopped at what looked like a closet door, and opened it to reveal a cooling unit stocked with food and drinks. I must have looked surprised, as Jason quickly said, “This is all complementary. You may eat here if you like, or in the hotel restaurant. If you require a chef, let the duty manager know and one will be sent up for you.” I think I gaped. Amanda looked on impassively, but there was a twinkle in her eye that seemed to indicate some amusement at my expense.

“Thank you,” I stammered. “I really do not know what to say.”

“It is our pleasure sir. If you would follow me to the main bedroom?” We went into the middle room. Jason went up to the wardrobe, and pulled open a series of doors. Inside were my clothes from the Wanderer. “Your belongings were forwarded to us by the station staff, before your ship was sent over to the Shipyard for repair. We are sorry for your loss. Your Uncle’s belongings are also here. No one was quite sure what to do with them, so they have been packed and stored for you.” I sighed. An unpleasant chore for me to have to do soon. I would need to go through what was there and repack it for return home, whenever I could get them there.

I mumbled appreciation and we all headed back out into the sitting room. Jason went to the door, opened it and stood there for a moment looking at me. Then he said “Please let the staff know if there is any way we can help you sir. Enjoy your stay.” With that, he was off and the door closed behind him.

I sank into the nearest chair, feeling quite bewildered. I glanced around for Amanda, and once again found her plastered against the wall by the door. I looked at her. She looked at me. Our eyes locked. A slight smile crossed her face and was gone, but there was a twinkle in her eyes now. I gave in.

“Why are you attached to the wall like a limpet mine?” I asked.

“It’s my job,” she replied.

“Your job is being a limpet mine on my wall?” That finally made her laugh.

“Aleesha and I are your bodyguards. One of us will be near you at all times and the other will be out of sight but anyone trying to get to you will have to go through us first.”

“Why do I need bodyguards?”

“Duh!”

I thought about that. I’d been out in public for only minutes before being knocked to the ground and almost shot. If only for the stupidity of the thugs who did it, I might actually be dead. Maybe I should reconsider that last statement. I pondered it for a bit.

“Ok, you got me there. But do you really need to be plastered against the wall to guard me?”

“Regs.”

“Regs?”

“Regulations.”

“I know what regulations are, I just don’t know why they…” I ran out of steam suddenly. I took to looking at her again. She stared back.

“Will you please sit down!” I yelled at her. She jumped. Then she smiled fully, relaxed and took a chair that gave her a view of the door, while she could still face me.

“That’s better. Now give, why do I need bodyguards?”

“Duh!” she replied again.

“We’ve done that already,” I said, getting annoyed. “Will you please supply some actual information?”

“You haven’t read your emails have you.”

I sighed. I hadn’t. Since I wasn’t expecting any, it hadn’t occurred to me that checking was any sort of priority. In fact, I hadn’t yet setup the new PC with my email details.

“Ok, got me there too. I’ll do that shortly, but how about you give me the quick overview?”

She looked at me. I looked back at her. She shifted uncomfortably.

“The person you really want to talk to is my boss, sitreps are not my speed.”

I sighed again. “Just give me the speeded up version will ya?”

“Ok. Scumbag attacks ships. Boy gets attacked, boy fights back, kills scumbag. Boy saves girls and a lot of others. Girls assigned to bodyguard boy.” As speeded up versions go, that was speedy.

“So you were on one of the ships?”

“The Military Transport.”

“So you are military?”

“Ex-military. We are a mercenary company. The boss is the Colonel and will want to meet you, but for now we’ve been assigned to keep your arse in one piece until you’re ready to go it alone.”

“Why do I need bodyguards?”

“Duh!”

“Just tell me, hey?”

There was a definite twinkle in her eye and the hint of a smile.

“You have no idea who you took out, do you?” She looked at me for a time. “You took out one of the most wanted scumbags across human space. He has, had, a gang of serious muscle working for him, and they are going to want revenge on the person who took him out. That is you. Like it or not, you are number one on their hit parade. The local sector media has been calling you ‘hero’ but to them, you are the ‘hero at large’ and by all accounts they put a huge bounty on your head.”

I looked at her. She looked at me.

“Oh,” I said.

“The attempt on you today was the third we know about since you landed here. Station security got the other two attempts.”

“Oh,” I said.

She looked at me. I looked down. I took a moment to let that all sink in.

“So what’s the good news?” I eventually asked.

“Read your emails,” she said with a genuine smile. “I’m off to report in and scout the perimeter. One of us will always be close by you. Our contact details are on one of those emails, so read that first and make sure you can fire off a help alert if you need to.” She got up. “Oh, and the first thing you can do is enable the door for both of us, so we can set up our own codes for entry.” She hurried over to the door, opened it, gave me a quick smile, and left. The door closed with a thunk, and I was left alone, wondering what on Outback I had gotten myself into.

I sighed again. I let myself sink into the chair, and just sat there for a bit, trying not to think of anything. That was not a happening thing. Ok, work. I activated the room communications facilities, and threw my PC onto a wall screen. I found it easier to navigate and do things outside my head. I also activated the holographic controls, so the wall screen became fully interactive. Now I could wave my hands around instead of trying to do things in my head. First off, I connected to the hotel net and downloaded their guest PC facilities. I hunted around a bit before finding the door controls, and found how to set up for multi-person access. I needed to pulse them an authority. No can do without contact details. Next I looked for my email files from my old PC and found them in an archive instead of attached to the PC mail facility. A quick look at the mailer and the reason why was apparent. My old PC was so far out of date that very little on it was compatible with the new PC. My photos and files were there, and even if the format was out of date, they should still be usable. I’d have to try sometime, maybe setup a conversion routine. But first things first. Mail. I set up my email account, and linked it to Outback Orbital, which was where all my accounts were based, given that was my designated home. Mail started to download. And download. And continued to download.

I sat there watching the flow in sheer bewilderment. At 121 of 495, I shook myself and started paying attention to headers. “READ ME FIRST” caught my eye. I opened it and it was from a Colonel Smith. It was short and to the point, thanking me for saving their lives, and informing me that the Peck twins would be handling bodyguard duties for me for as long as they deemed I needed them. There was also a mention of a meeting being delayed by the need to get their ship repaired, and I would hear more at a later time.

The next email to catch my eye was from General Harriman. He had copied a number of media reports of my ‘heroic action’, which I played, wondering who this hero they were talking about actually was. He followed with a caution that the station had been receiving death threats about me ever since, and that station security had approved the Lieutenants Peck as official bodyguards for as long as I thought I needed them, or until Colonel Smith wanted them back. He included some of the death threats. There is nothing like a death threat to make your blood run cold, and I wished I hadn’t looked at them. He finished up by informing me the sector bounty on ‘The Pig’ had been paid into my Outback bank account, and he was passing on details to all other sectors, I could expect some other payments in due course.

There was a follow-up email down the list. He informed me that the Wanderer had been shifted to the Shipyard for repairs and that I could expect an email from the yard foreman about repairs and costs. As I was listed as an officer in the family company, I had been assigned as ship captain until I could return it to Outback Orbital. He went on to state that The Pig’s ship had been adjudicated to me as salvage, and it was also over at the yard being repaired. Ditto expect an email about repairs and costs from the yard foreman.

The next few emails to catch my attention were from various guilds. Each was inviting me to join the guild, upon which they would backdate my membership to when I left Outback, and be able to pay me bounties for my kill. I sent them each back an acceptance, and that I would be in touch in a day or so to complete the process.

All this mention of bounties made me realize I had no idea what had already been paid into my account. When I’d left Outback, I’d had almost nothing. That of course was normal for me, being my first trip in space after having completed my space courses. Being a student does not allow you to accumulate much. And I’d spent most of my funds over the years on my PC’s and simulators.

I opened up banking and entered my account details, which were stored in a secure slot in the data from my old PC. I also moved that data into a secure slot within the new PC, so it would be easier to find in future. Banking linked with the local branch of the family bank and updated my account information. I went rigid in sheer shock.

I needed a drink, so I went into the kitchen and found a beer. It went down in one long swallow. I got out another and took it back into the sitting room. This one I sipped for a while as I studied my account information. There were four transactions in there and a total of just less than fifty million credits. The first was from the Australian sector government, the second from the Sci-Fi sector, the third from the American sector and the last and by far the biggest, was from the Earth sector government. Each was listed as ‘accumulated bounties’.

I went looking through the email headings again and yes, there was an email notification of each payment and an email from each sector government advising of the payments. The details were slightly different for each, but they were all payments from each system in each sector that had been affected by the actions of The Pig and that had issued bounties for his capture or killing. I was finally getting an idea of who it was I’d killed in self-defense and what all the fuss was about.

[] Five

I was interrupted by a call. The caller ID said simply ‘Aleesha’, so I answered it. Her face appeared in the caller picture box and I knew that mine was appearing in hers. Wherever she was, there must be a cam nearby picking up her image, or I’d only be getting a face photo. But this was live. I knew she was also seeing a live image of me, since I had all the communication features of the room active.

“Are you ok?”

“Yes,” I replied, “Why are you asking?”

“Amanda asked you for door access before she left you two hours ago and neither of us have heard from you in that time.”

“Sorry about that. I’ve been reading my emails and I’ve had a shock. I’ve not seen your contact details.”

“They would have been on the email from Colonel Smith.”

“Hmmm, I didn’t notice them, but I guess I had other things on my mind. Hang on, while you are on, I’ll send you the access.” I located the door access I’d been looking at before, and sent her the door authorization. At the same time, I added her contact details in to my address book.

“Did you get that?” I asked.

“Yes thanks. I’ll be back shortly. Amanda is walking the perimeter and the Colonel is sending me off to do some shopping.”

“Can you send me Amanda’s contact details? Save me having to look them up or send a request to the Colonel.”

“Can do. See ya soon.” The channel closed. A ping came in with Amanda’s details which I also added in to my address book. I pinged Amanda asking her why I needed a bodyguard. “Duh!” came back with a smiley attached, so I sent her the door authorization. ‘Ta’ came back.

I realized I was starving, and the combination of shock and two beers on an empty stomach was making me light headed. I went into the kitchen looking for food. I found the makings of a ham salad sandwich and made myself two of them. There was also a selection of deserts and I chose an apricot crumble. Back in the sitting room, I sat back in my chair. An alert popped up from the hotel system asking if I wanted a tray to eat off. I answered yes, and watched astounded as a tray table came up from the side of the chair and positioned itself so I just needed to put the dishes down.

While I was eating, I kept on reading emails. A lot of them were junk and I deleted them as I went. Some of them were simply congratulation type messages from people I’d never heard from, redirected from station management. Then there was one from Outback Orbital management. It informed me that Sydney station had notified them of my ‘situation’. Their standing instructions, from the family company, were for the Wanderer to be returned to Outback if possible. Preferably with a full cargo. Even though they realized the cargo could not now be delivered, it was still requested. I was authorized to draw on the family company accounts to complete the order, and Outback Orbital would ensure the order was paid for on delivery. Well that gave me something to do, although the way things were, I was not sure it was wise anytime soon. Still, I did have to make some decisions about my future, and flying the Wanderer back to Outback was something that needed doing.

I was half way through the apricot crumble, and really enjoying it, when I came across an email from the owner of the medium freighter I had brought back in from the battle site. The text was a simple thank you and apology that they could not afford to pay me for saving them as the cost of fixing their ship was going to take everything they had. Attached to the email were three individual recorded messages. Mr. and Mrs. Hurndall both spoke their thanks and it was interesting to put faces on those who had been in the same situation I found myself in but had not been able to do anything as I had. The third was from their eight year old daughter, Suzy. As she spoke, I froze in place, spoon still in my mouth. She ended by saying “Would you like a kitten? Our cat Mitzi was saved too and she had kittens a few weeks ago and we would love it if you would like one.”

I sat there for a long time, spoon still in my mouth. At last I replied to their email, thanking them for their messages. I then did a recorded message for Suzy. I said I would be delighted to have a kitten, since I was a long way from home and my family and I’d love to have the company only a kitten can offer. I asked her to let me know when the kittens would be old enough. I would then arrange with her parents for us to meet up and play with them together. It was only after I sent it, I realized that I’d replied with my spoon in my hand.

I finished up my food and deposited the dishes in the kitchen sink. As I turned away, there was a strange sound and I turned back to find the dishes had vanished.

I got myself some juice, thinking alcohol wasn’t really a good idea, and went back to my emails. There were several requests for my bank drop account details so that bounties posted by clients could be paid to me. That reminded me I needed to set up a bank drop account. It is not a good idea giving out bank account details to strangers, and one of the innovations banks had come up with several hundred years before was the bank drop. Essentially it was a deposit only account linked to a primary account. Anyone could send the bank drop funds, which were immediately transferred to the linked account. The bank drop thus never had anything in it, so could not be hacked. That took me a little while setting up the bank request, and I fired it off. I flagged the bank drop request emails and the Guild emails for later attention.

Near the end of the emails, was a recorded message from a John Norbett. He had a ‘business’ proposition for me, should I be interested in following up the rest of the pirate network. If so, he would be happy to meet me next time I was in the Brisbane system. I sent back a text only non-committal reply. At this point, I had no real idea of what I was going to do, and tangling deliberately with the pirates seemed a fairly stupid idea. It was nice someone thought I had the skills to take them on, but I thought he was too enthusiastic and assuming I had skills beyond the dumb luck I had shown so far. For future reference, I filed an alert to ping me if I did visit the Brisbane system. Wouldn’t hurt to hear him out.

A ping message came in from Amanda, saying she was almost at the suite and not to be alarmed when the door opened. A minute or so later, and the door opened and in she came. She was loaded down with packages, and I gave her a hand with them into the second bedroom. My attempt to find out what was in them was politely rebuffed.

“Are you ready for dinner?” she asked me.

I realized the day had rushed past as I was engrossed in wading through my emails. And in spite of having eaten earlier, I was hungry again.

“What do you suggest?” I asked her.

“Let’s order room service,” she replied. “What do you fancy?”

“I could go for a steak and chips.”

“How do you like your steak?”

“Medium to well done. I don’t like it burnt, but I also don’t like it getting up off the plate.”

“Veggies or salad?”

“Salad.”

“Coming right up.” She busied herself with the room service menu while I went into my bathroom and freshened up. When I came out, she wasn’t there, but I could hear noises coming from the other bedroom.

“Isn’t Aleesha joining us?” I called.

“She’s on perimeter patrol, until she’s relieved later. We tossed for it, she lost. She’ll eat when she’s relieved. When you go to sleep, one of us will sleep in the sitting room in case anyone tries the door.”

She emerged from the bedroom and stood in the doorway with a smirk on her face as my jaw dropped. Instead of the black outfit, she was wearing a light dress in pale yellow, with a black belt cinched around her waist. Her legs were visible below the knees and she was barefoot. There was a slight bulge on the right thigh, where I guessed her sidearm was still located. I didn’t ask. I just quietly closed my mouth and waved towards a chair. She stepped lightly across the room and sank into the seat. For the first time I noticed she moved with the grace of a dancer.

“So,” I started, but without any idea where that was going.

“So,” she repeated back.

“How come the change of outfit?” I asked.

“Off duty,” she replied. “And I got ordered to ‘lighten up’. I talked to the Colonel while out and was told to stop being ‘so military for once’. I was on detached duty and should enjoy it for a change.”

“You don’t get…” I started.

“No, we don’t. Usually a bodyguard job requires distance from the client. Apparently you are different, but we don’t get to find out why for a while. The orders are to keep you safe, but enjoy the hotel while it is available.”

“Talking about safe, what happened with those men who attacked me this morning?”

“They are both fine, they were just stunned. It’s not permitted to carry anything except stunners on most stations, and the penalties for ignoring that rule are severe. Those two are in deep trouble. They were carrying slug throwers. Those things can do actual damage and station managements don’t like their stations being damaged. They are both locked away securely and they won’t be going anywhere for a good long time.”

“I didn’t even see them coming.”

“We know. We were watching you. You haven’t even thought about the software upgrades the General gave you this morning have you?”

“How did you know that?”

“We were told.”

“You are right, I forgot all about them.”

“Well you need to install them before we let you out that door again. One of them is a sensor package, which alerts you to nearby threats. The rest are combat protocols and weapons guidance, as much protection a non-military person can get legally.”

“Talking about tomorrow, I’ll need to go out. I need to visit a number of guilds and I have to do some shopping.”

She pondered for a minute. “No, we will get them to come here. I’ll ping the Colonel to get Alison to come by. She does our ‘personal assistant’ role when it’s needed on a job. She can organize times for them to visit. Also, I assume you want clothes, so we will get a tailor to visit and take your measurements. Then you can shop online. Anything you find there, I’m sure the tailor will be happy to make up for you. We also want to get you ‘kitted out’.”

“Kitted out?”

“Yes,” she said with a smile. “You’ll see.”

There came a series of beeps from the kitchen. Amanda sent me in to retrieve dinner, and when I came out carrying two trays, I found a dining table in the middle of the room with two chairs around it.

“What? No candle-light?” I asked.

She laughed and said, “Sorry no, this isn’t a date.”

We sat down to dinner and talked generalities while we ate. It was an enjoyable meal, and the first really comfortable moment since I’d found myself in hospital. We found deserts in the cooler and ate them in the easy chairs. Amanda cleared away the dishes, and, as I was listening to the clatter of dishes in the kitchen, I fell asleep.

[] Six

I woke up in a strange bed. For a moment I did not know where I was. Then the events of yesterday came back and I realized I was in the bedroom of the hotel. Not only that, I was naked. I sat up suddenly, and peeked under the sheet, and yes, nothing on down there.

A movement next to me startled me even more. Amanda was on the other side of the bed. As I looked, her eyes opened, and she smiled at me.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Err,” I replied, “What are we doing in the same bed? Ah, why am I naked?”

“Aleesha and I put you to bed last night. You fell asleep in the sitting room. We didn’t think sleeping in your clothes would be very comfortable. They went into the robe on clean cycle. You want the shower first?”

I shook my head and watched as she sat up, the sheet tumbling down to reveal a pair of small but perfectly shaped breasts. I felt fire flood into my groin and my face went bright red. She grinned at me, and threw the sheet back and stepped out of bed and headed for the bathroom. I got an excellent view of what can only be described as a ‘class arse’. Oddly though, she was still wearing the black belt around her waist.

“Oh my, a real water shower. Hey you, come and wash my back.”

I sat there, frozen in place, not knowing what to do.

“Hey, haven’t you seen a naked girl before? It’s no big deal. In the military you bunk and wash communally. Get in here!”

I obeyed the command in her voice, got out of bed and padded into the bathroom. She was already under the water flow. I stepped into the shower alcove and she turned and handed me the soap. She cast her eyes down for a few seconds only.

“Down boy,” she said quietly. “You really haven’t seen a girl naked before?”

“Yes,” I stammered, “But only once, before I left Outback.”

“Soap.”

I did as she asked and soaped her back, stopping at the black belt, which surprisingly was not wet, even under the full flow of the water. She put her hand out for the soap, finished washing herself, stepped out of the water flow, and went for a towel. I stood there under the water, watching her towel off. When she had replaced the towel on the rack, she went to an underwear dispenser, which produced a tiny top and briefs, which she slipped on. Between them, they only just covered the basics. With a grin, her belt suddenly expanded and in seconds, she was dressed in the slinky black outfit of yesterday. I stood there goggling at her. She laughed and headed out. I turned back to the water flow.

A moment later, I heard footsteps enter the bathroom again. I turned and saw Aleesha standing there. As I watched, her slinky black outfit flowed away to become just a black belt, and she stood there in the same underwear Amanda had just put on. They were quickly removed and she moved into the shower behind me.

“Soap,” she commanded. I handed her the soap and she proceeded to wash my back, except she didn’t stop at my waist, but kept going down to my feet. Once again I felt a rush of heat in various places.

“Swap,” was the next command. We swapped places, she handed me the soap and stood under the water flow.

“Back.” I soaped her back down to the belt and stopped. “Continue,” she said. So I kept on going down to her feet. She turned and grinned at me, holding out her hand for the soap. I gave it to her, and she finished washing herself then stepped out and repeated the drying, underwear and re-clothing Amanda had only recently done.

“Breakfast,” she said, and headed out.

I stood there. I could see in the mirror that I had a goofy look on my face. I thought about what I’d just seen. And yes, they were totally identical. I grinned. The grin faded as I saw the bruises all down my left side. With vision came awareness, and I felt a dull ache. I stepped back under the water flow and let the heat work on the ache. I lost track of time as I stood there.

“Oi!” came in from the sitting room.

I finished washing, dried myself off and sent the underwear dispenser the command for briefs and socks in my size. The briefs felt a little tight for some reason. I walked into the bedroom, and found my faded jeans and red t-shirt hanging in the robe, now looking clean and pressed. I put them on and headed out for breakfast.

The dining table was set for four, with a set of covered dishes in the center.

Amanda threw me a smirk and said “What were you up to in there?” Aleesha smiled as well.

“Bruises,” I said looking Amanda in the eye with a straight face.

“Ah.”

A knock came on the door. Aleesha moved to the door and opened it, admitting a tall blonde woman. She seemed a few years older than the twins. I pegged them as early twenties, and her as later twenties.

“This is Alison. She is our personal assistant operative, among other things.”

“Hi,” I said.

“Nice to meet you,” she replied. “Nice set of bruises,” she went on. “How far do they go?”

“All the way down,” chimed in Amanda, before I could answer. The grin on her face dared me to comment further.

“I see,” said Alison, and it was obvious she did.

“Did someone mention breakfast?” I asked.

“We have your favorite muesli,” said Aleesha. I shuddered. “Just kidding,” she added.

The four of us sat down to eat, and I helped myself to scrambled eggs and sausage. We sat there munching away for a time. I finished first, took my plate to the kitchen, and sat in my easy chair, where I called up my emails. More junk mail, several more congratulations, two more requests for a drop account, a request for an interview with a local news service, and one that stopped me cold.

‘YOUR DEAD FUKKA’ was the title. The rest of it was in the same vain, and demonstrated a lack of spelling as well as outright hatred. The others had looked toward me seeing my visible reaction.

“Death threat,” I said. “Who wants it?”

“Let me have it,” said Alison, “I’ll forward it on to Abigail to look into.” I sent her the email, and deleted it.

“That won’t be your last, I’m afraid,” said Amanda.

“May as well get used to them,” added Aleesha.

Alison turned to the twins. “Who’s on the perimeter? BA will be getting antsy about being relieved if someone doesn’t hurry up.”

The twins looked at each other for a few seconds, and Aleesha rose and was quickly out the door.

I turned to Amanda and said, “Amanda, how did you two work out who was going? You just looked at each other.”

Amanda and Alison were both shocked.

“How did you know I was Amanda?”

“How can you tell them apart?”

I stared at them both, they were actually serious.

“I don’t know. I just know.”

“That’s amazing. I’ve known them for years now and I still can’t tell them apart,” admitted Alison. “They are identical in every way. We treat them as a unit and never even try to figure out which is which. You can really tell?”

“Sure. You’re right, they are identical, but I still know. I have from the moment I met them.”

Alison’s eyes lost focus for a moment. “Tailor’s on the way,” she announced.

The breakfast dishes quickly found their way into the kitchen. There was a sound like a burp, and I assumed the remains of breakfast had disappeared into the bowels of the hotel to go where ever dirty dishes and left over food went.

Amanda took up her station against the wall by the door. Alison had it open just as a man arrived. He stepped in, identified himself as ‘the tailor’, and set to work with a scanner getting my dimensions. Before leaving, he sent me his contact details, assured me that all I needed to do was identify what I wanted and they would deliver it to me the next day, tailored to fit perfectly. He left.

A short time later, another man arrived, this time from the bank. He went through the procedure for identification to ensure I was who I said I was according to my records on Outback Orbital. All being in order, he pulsed me over my drop account details, and left. I stored these in a secure slot and added an extra code lock. Now I had a drop account, I went back to the requests for it, and sent short replies including the drop account trigger. All they would need to do was activate the trigger, which would take them to a bank interface and let them transfer funds to my drop account. It was exciting in a way, even if what was coming couldn’t possibly eclipse what had already gone in.

I had barely finished the emails, when someone else arrived, this time an older woman. She greeted me and announced she was Noreen West from the Traders Guild. Alison sat us down in the easy chairs and left us for the desk. Amanda was still glued to the wall by the door.

“What is the Traders Guild?” I asked.

Noreen looked me over for a few seconds, obviously deciding how to respond. “The Traders Guild is, at its core, a membership of trade ship owners and captains who originally came together to pool information and provide a central place for work to be advertised and sought. That’s its main function, but it also offers many other services, including protection, and products such as software upgrades and ship enhancements that do not need a shipyard to fit.”

“And your interest in me is …?”

“One of the services we offer is allowing members to post a bounty on those who pose a genuine threat to all traders. In some cases, the guild itself will often match these bounties to make them more attractive to bounty hunters or the more, shall we say ‘aggressive’, of our traders, in order that serious threats be removed. Sector governments do this in a general manner, but only when government interests are threatened. So some of their bounties are on the same people as ours, but more often the bounties are different. A good bounty hunter knows who is wanted by both the Traders Guild and the sector governments. I am here today to see if you wish to join our Guild. We are aware you are now captain of a small trade ship, so you fit our requirements for membership. And as the person who rid us of a particularly serious threat, we have made a determination that, at the moment your Uncle died – our condolences by the way – you became captain of your ship. Thus as a trader captain, you were eligible for membership at that moment. As a happy fluke, the paperwork was received by us at that time, and all we need is your authorization to activate you as a member from that time. This allows us to pay you the bounties due that small, but greatly appreciated, service you performed for all traders.” She smiled at me, and sat waiting for a response.

“I don’t yet know what I am going to do.”

“That does not matter. Membership requirements do not include evidence of active trading. Shall we proceed?”

“Ok.”

“Please give me access to your room coms.” This I did. She called up the relevant forms and had me complete the details, including my contact details and drop account trigger.

“Thank you Mr. Hunter. You will receive a notification of payment shortly. Should you decide to actively seek those on our bounty list, there is a notification service you can activate to be kept up to date. It was good to meet you.” With that, she left.

I checked emails, and there were already two emails from the Traders Guild. One was a notification of membership acceptance, giving contact links to various guild functions. The other made me sit down again suddenly as I was informed that ten million and change had been deposited to my account. I shook my head in disbelief.

Both Amanda and Alison looked at me with puzzled expressions.

“Credits,” I said. “I don’t need to worry about the cost of some clothes and whatever you meant by ‘kitted out’.”

“You need the same armour we all use, and appropriate weapons,” said Amanda.

“Coming later today,” said Alison.

As she said that, she once again moved to the door, and another person entered, this time from the Bounty Hunters Guild. This was not a man to mess with. He gave Amanda a quick appraising glance as he entered, and I saw she did the same thing. Apparently mutually satisfied, he moved to the indicated chair and sat. Obviously military I thought. The conversation went much the same as the previous one, with the exception that as a trader who had successfully terminated the subject of a bounty with the guild, I was entitled to the bounty regardless of joining the guild or not. The benefits of joining seemed obvious and then he was gone and I was once again looking at two emails. This time, obvious shock showed, as I read the figure of over twenty five million.

Alison went into the kitchen and came back with a glass of something, which burned my throat and made me choke.

“What was that?” I croaked.

“Brandy,” she replied.

“Ah. I don’t like it.” I put the glass down, and went for a bottle of spring water instead. The water did nothing for my throat, so I gulped down a glass of juice, and returned with the water.

Another obviously military person, this time female, turned up shortly after I had got a grip on myself. This time from the Mercenaries Guild.

“We are aware that you do not fit the profile for normal membership of the Mercenaries Guild, but we have a rule that anyone who is sponsored by a long time member of the guild can be admitted. Colonel Smith is a long time member in good standing and we are pleased to accept you on that recommendation. There is no requirement for you to work as a mercenary, but membership allows you to be employed by members of our guild. You may receive offers to join a mercenary outfit or job offers such as escort work. We understand you have some piloting and combat skills, and should you decide to use these skills, there is work available through our guild.”

The rest followed the previous visits and no sooner had she left, than again I had two emails and another five million in my account.

I returned to my chair and sighed deeply. Amanda looked on in amusement, Alison with interest.

“Any other guilds for me to join?” I announced to the room generally.

“Who’s for lunch?” asked Alison.

[] Seven

Lunch came out of the cooler as it had the previous day, but three people made a bigger dent on its stocks than one had. We had no sooner finished than hotel services turned up at the door. In quick time, the bed was made, the cleaning bots let loose on the bedroom and bathroom, and the dinner table vanished. As one set of hotel staff left, another arrived, and the kitchen was quickly restocked. I went back to emails while all this was happening. The junk mail was getting a little more specific by now, in the form of ‘did I want investment advice?’ and advertisements for things that only people with real credits could afford to buy. I wondered how my email address was being obtained, and how people knew I had credits to spend.

Not long after the hotel staff left, Alison announced that ‘the Tool man’ was on his way. I arched an eyebrow in her direction, and she smiled and said “You’ll see.”

By the time she had the door open, an enormous man was already shouldering his way in, followed by an equally large hover-container, and one of the smallest men I’d ever seen. The hover-container was parked in the center of the floor, settling with a very serious CLUNK. I looked around for Amanda and found her glued to the wall by the door again, and watched while the enormous man seemingly glued himself to the wall on the other side of the door. That didn’t leave a lot of wall showing. The one seemed to make the other redundant, but given the look of respect I’d seen pass from the man to Amanda, I was not too sure which was the greater threat. And I wasn’t too sure I wanted to find out. Alison was back at the desk, leaving me ‘alone’ with the small man.

“Jones,” he introduced himself as. “I understand you need ‘kitting out’?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but immediately pulled out a black belt which he passed to me. “Put this on.”

I did as I was told. It was too big, and sagged down my front, threatening to slide off completely. Before I could say anything, a pop-up requested access to install an operating system. I cast an eye toward Amanda, and she nodded at me. I authorized the download and install. Immediately after, the belt tightened comfortably around my waist. A new menu went active, and Mr. Jones talked me through the settings. Then we went through the standard structures supported by the ‘belt’. The first was a complete skin-tight covering from head to foot, and I had to raise each foot so it could seal underneath. Seeing was only possible via the PC. Breathing was only possible for a short time using an air supply stored within the composition of the suit, designed to keep you alive in an emergency, long enough to reach an alternative air supply in quick reach. Mr. Jones pointed out that this was an emergency coverage to protect in the event of explosive decompression. After a few moments, an air hose extended from the back looking for an air supply point. Before it could find one, I shut it down and it went back to being a belt. No point in finding out what happened if I ran out of air. I hoped I never would.

Amanda pulsed me over an add-on, and I loaded it and selected it, and suddenly I was wearing the exact same slinky black outfit she was. I looked down, and yes it had adapted to me being male and not female. I grinned at her. She grinned back.

Next was a more conventional space suit arrangement, with a full clear bubble around the head. It supplied a longer air supply on its own, and did not obscure the vision in any direction. Not keeping it on for long, I set it back to being a belt.

Under a sub menu, was a series of conventional clothes that it could emulate. In the female list, I found the yellow dress that Amanda had worn the previous evening. In the male menu, I found a grey business suit, selected a red shirt and emerald green bow tie and activated it. Instantly I was wearing the suit. A wolf whistle came from Amanda’s side of the room. I took that as sign of it looked well on me. Back to a belt.

After the suit, my jeans and t-shirt looked very inadequate. I looked towards Mr. Jones. “What’s next?” He pulled out a gun holster and strapped it onto my right thigh. Then a second one which went on my left thigh. As I watched, he pulled out six different guns and laid them out for inspection. Up against the far wall, he attached a target.

“Each is a different make of laser pistol. Each is selected because it has swappable modules so they can be turned from a stunner into a full laser or a dual function stunner-laser. This is important because most stations will not allow a full laser of any kind to be carried, but if you are boarded in space, or you find yourself in combat dirt-side or on some other ship or renegade station, a stunner will not be enough. Module change can be done in seconds, as can recharges. Let me see you pick up each gun and use it.”

As bidden, I picked up the first gun. Immediately a program went primary I hadn’t seen before. It startled me for a second, before I recognized I now had a target sight from the PC, showing exactly what the gun was pointed at. I looked at Amanda. “The General,” she said. I nodded. Obviously one of the military programs the General had given me but I had not yet gotten around to looking at. I felt the weight of the gun in my hand, held it up to eye level and sighted along it. It felt good. I aimed it at the target and pulled the trigger a few times. White spots lit up around the edges of the target to show where the shots had gone.

I replaced it, and did the same with each in turn. Each time I let go of a gun, the targeting program turned off. As soon as I touched the next gun, targeting came on again. Each gun felt different, but they all felt good to hold and shoot. However, I’d not had any shots hit the actual target yet.

Mr. Jones watched me closely. He sighed, obviously not happy.

“No,” he said, “they won’t do, not you.”

He put them away, and pulled out something larger. He handed it to me and watched me as I brought it up to eye line. It was slightly heavier, but perfectly balanced in my hand. Unlike the previous guns, instead of one exit aperture, it had six. I looked at him with raised eyebrows. He pulsed me an upgrade routine. The targeting changed slightly, became brighter and somehow more intense. I slipped it into the right holster, then drew it and traversed around the room. Targeting smoothly found all four people in the room and as I thought it, the gun settled on the large man by the door. He flinched. My finger twitched and the gun fired blanks. There was a series of rapid discharges before I could get my finger to ease up. I shifted to aim at the target and fired again. Hits lit up across it, including the central area. The gun felt completely perfect.

“Yes,” said Mr. Jones, “That fits who you are. This is a Gatling laser. You can set it for single fire and it will be as accurate as any other gun, or in other words, as accurate as the person who fires it, but its main operation is as a quick fire laser. Each bolt is not quite the power of a normal gun, but it delivers several to the same place while any other gun is preparing to fire again. Not a lot of people are suited to this, but I can see you are one of them. Let me see what you can do from the left side.”

I swapped the gun over to the left holster and repeated the exercise. A bit slower this time but the same results.

“Good,” he said. “You wear two of these, and only the truly stupid will take you on without hesitating. Even with only one, and some more appropriate attire, you will look like someone not to be messed with. This is good I think. Keep you alive longer, especially when your pretty friends are not around you. You will want the suit, two of the Gatling lasers and both holsters I would be thinking?” He looked at me for confirmation. I nodded. He asked for the belt and holsters back, and I removed them and handed them over.

“I will send them along in several hours, with the permits for carrying. Invoice with delivery, payment then, yes?”

“Yes,” I said, and meant it.

The big man returned to the hover-container, packed away everything, and the two of them left. Amanda came over from the door. Alison from the desk.

“Good choice I thought,” said Amanda. “Not my style, but he was right, that style of gun does suit you.”

“Why?” I asked.

She laughed. “I can’t tell you that, but it is definitely the right choice.”

Alison chimed in with “I agree. You have some time now before anything else is scheduled. Why don’t you start looking at clothes catalogues?”

I threw my PC to the coms unit again and brought up search mode on the flat screen with holographic hand controls. I limited the search to male clothing, on station. I definitely wanted new jeans, so started with them. My current jeans were standard jeans, lightened up in colour by long use. I wanted true blue denim jeans again. And there they were. There was even the stretch variety I preferred. I tagged them. Next I went looking for shirts. I found a series of short sleeve t-shirts with collars and tagged the colours I liked. That was what I mainly wore when I was not out and about. But I needed clothes portraying a higher image, that of a successful pilot and captain. I went for red casual long sleeve shirts, collared but not designed for neckties. On a whim, I also tagged the emerald green.

I needed new sleep ware as well, so I went looking for boxers, which were easy to find, and non-collared t-shirts, where I found some nice pale green ones, all of which I tagged.

Shoes next. I prefer low heel Velcro strap shoes, but have always found them difficult to find. Eventually I located a pair in my size in a pale green and white combination, and tagged them. Underwear and socks I didn’t need to worry about, as the auto dispensers did adequate underwear and I’d never felt the need for anything else.

What was I missing? Oh yes, jackets. I’d been wearing a battered old denim jacket for years now, and it was not up to standard, now I was something more than a student. I wasn’t sure exactly what more I was as yet, but having a lot of credits definitely made me more than I had been. It took a while, but finally I found the perfect jacket I’d always wanted, zip up the front, minor collar, and in just the right burnt red colour. It had optional epaulettes, which I would need if I was to present myself as a pilot or captain, since anyone with space skills wore appropriate badges for their skill level. I had the qualifications for able spacer in all four disciplines, and I’d been credited with being captain of the Wanderer and pilot of the fighter they had awarded me. So at the least, I’d wear pilot and captain badges. I’d need to follow that up some time soon.

I assembled the tagged list and sent it off to the tailor. It was quickly receipted with a tentative delivery of tomorrow afternoon.

I’d been ignoring emails again, so I spent some time on them. I had several inquiries from traders wondering if I was going to offer escort services, and I replied that at this point, I was unsure, but I would let them know if I did. I moved those in to my future action file.

That prompted me to go onto the Trader Guild’s site and look around. I started with my profile, and found my skills already listed, as was my Captaincy of Wanderer, and Pilot of a Gladiator Heavy Privateer. I tagged myself as ‘not looking for work’ to forestall any further inquiries for the time being. I browsed through the software list, and found an interface overlay for ships systems allowing for any ship to be searched for in the Trader Guild database for status and bounty, if any. I noted my own status was listed as being in good standing.

I did the same on the Bounty Hunters Guild and Mercenary Guild sites, tagging myself as not looking for work, and downloading their status and bounty overlays. On the Bounty Hunters site, I also found I was tagged as having a number of bounties out for my destruction. I was not required alive, just dead. I found an overlay that would pop up a warning if I encountered a ship which had accepted a mission under one of the bounties on me. Got to hand it to the BH Guild, they played things both ways. Perfectly happy to have bounties registered against members, but made sure members knew about it and had some warning if someone wanted to collect.

However, that put a damper on being a pilot and captain, as going back out into space looked decidedly unfriendly. I went back into the profile and added a comment to say I had no intention of firing on any BH Guild member unless fired on first, but I would consider anyone who attempted to collect on the bounties to be as much a pirate as the pirates that had placed the bounties. With a bit of luck, it would give some people pause. I went back into their software looking for an overlay tagging a ship where the known pilot was a guild member. I did the same for the other guilds in case one day it mattered to know a ship was a member of a guild.

Lastly, I went into the Traders Guild product sales site and ordered several pairs of both Pilot and small ship Captain badges.

“Why the long face?” asked Aleesha. I jumped. She stood next to me, chuckling. I hadn’t noticed she and Amanda had changed over. I looked around. Alison wasn’t in sight either. I looked up at her.

“Half a million in bounties on your head tends to do that to you,” I replied.

“Is that all?” she said. “They can’t be taking you seriously yet.”

“If that’s not taking me seriously, I hate to see what is.”

“Unfortunately, if you live long enough, you will. We’ll do anything we can to help you through this, but I hate to say that I don’t think you have yet grasped just how big a bulls-eye is painted on your arse. That’s why we want to get you tooled up and prepared, for when we can’t be with you. Sooner or later we’ll get a job and need to head on out. Of course, that won’t happen until our ship is repaired, so it won’t be happening tomorrow.”

“I appreciate it you know. In fact, I’m not really sure why you’re going to all this trouble.”

“You kidding? You saved us. If you hadn’t had the balls to take that shot, we would have been out of air long before they hauled our ship in anywhere. We were gone. We were all down to less than fifteen minutes suit air when we docked here, and we had used every source of air on the ship that the damage had left us. We lost our pilot, and the damage to the ship left us stranded and at that pirate’s mercy. He had none to offer. We were gone!”

I looked at her. “But I was only saving myself.”

She reached down and grabbed me by the shirt and hauled me out of my seat.

“Listen you! We know that. We also know your PC was fritzed, you had major head trauma, you passed out twice, and you still managed to kill that bastard and tow us all to safety. That makes you special; because most other people would have laid down and just died where they were. You saved yourself, and you saved us when you could have equally been selfish and just seen yourself to safety. We OWE you big time!”

And with that she kissed me full on the mouth for so long that when she pulled away, I flopped back on to the chair gasping for air. She flounced off. With what she was wearing, flouncing didn’t really work, but she carried it off anyway. I struggled to bring my breathing back under control.

[] Eight

Alison turned up again later in the afternoon while I was having a nap. She poked her head into the bedroom, saw I was awake and crooked a finger indicating I should follow her.

I rolled off the bed. In the sitting room, sat a parcel. On the outside was an invoice that for a moment startled me, until I remembered I had credit to spend. I opened the parcel. On the top was a box containing a suit belt. The invoice listed it at fifty thousand credits. I opened the box and put on the belt. It immediately tightened around my waist comfortably and I received a pop up asking to update my software, which I authorized.

I hunted down the menus looking for something to test the suit on and accidently hit the wrong option. I immediately stood there wearing a yellow dress over my clothes. Two women had immediate hysterics. I blushed, cancelled the option and it returned to a belt.

I turned back to the parcel and removed the two gun boxes. I did not see any holsters though. The invoice listed one gun at thirty thousand credits. There were definitely two guns. I pulled one of them out. Immediately, a holster appeared on my right thigh. I slotted the gun into the holster, and it fit perfectly. A pop up notified me the gun was setup in stunner mode. I pulled out the second gun and another holster appeared on my left thigh. I put the gun into it. Same pop up. Next I pulled out a pack of six charge packs. Immediately each holster sported three slots for the charge packs and I fitted each of them in a slot. A pop up informed me that charging was in progress.

Lastly, there were two small bolts, each in its own pouch. The pop up for those told me they were to change the gun from stunner to stun-laser and full laser with a diagram showing how. Seemed easy enough. What was odd was there was no feeling of wearing any weight at all. I’d expected to feel the weight of the guns dragging down on the belt, but I didn’t feel a thing. On a whim, I accessed suit control and selected the slinky black outfit the twins wore.

“That is seriously bad-arse.” Both women were staring at me. I struck a pose, hands resting on the grips of both guns.

“Yeah!” yelled Aleesha, suddenly grinning. Amanda poked her head around the outer door, grinned, gave me a thumb’s up, and left again.

At the bottom of the package was a charging unit designed for two guns and six charges. I plugged it into the power on the desk, and then plugged in each charge and both guns, noticing as I removed each that the holsters changed to provide somewhere for it to go, vanishing as each went into the charger. I changed back to a belt and made a note that I should first double check I had clothes on underneath.

A pinged message arrived from the Tool man, with a link to his drop account. I activated it and was taken to a bank site where I authorized payment of the invoice. Immediately I received an email with a copy of the invoice, and dozens of permits for carrying obvious weapons, seeming to cover most of known space. There was also an advice that my guild memberships had been updated with the permits. I sent him a thank you in reply, and an assurance that when I needed something again, I’d be in touch with him. He pinged back a thank you for my service and my custom. I pondered for a moment and wondered just how much of a discount I’d really been given, beyond a free gun.

“Are you up for a dinner guest?” asked Alison.

“Sure. Your boss?”

“No, our second pilot. He’s not much of a combat pilot. Pilot is actually his secondary, and he does the boring running around jobs that a real combat pilot baulks at. In his case, it saved his life, as our combat pilot was the only one of us killed. He’s wanted to meet you ever since we heard you had pulled through in the hospital. His name’s George.”

“By all means,” I said.

George turned up just before dinner. He was dressed in a brown overall. I couldn’t tell if it was a real overall or a suit. Dinner was pleasant. We talked about piloting and simulators, found we had an interest in strategic computer games that bored the ladies, and swapped game experiences. The ladies steered us back into more general topics. There was a warm camaraderie between Aleesha, Alison and George. It made me feel part of the group. I speculated maybe that was the whole idea. After dinner, we cleared away, and settled into easy chairs. I turned to George.

“Is that a suit you have on, or real clothes?” I asked.

“Suit of course, why do you ask?”

“I didn’t see that sort of overall on the clothing menu, so I wondered.”

“Ha, yes. I do a bit a dabbling in suit programming.”

“Just clothes?” I asked.

“What do you mean, just clothes?” he responded.

“Well it strikes me the suit would be really useful for camouflage, sort of like a chameleon effect. Blend you into the background. As long as you don’t move, you wouldn’t be seen.”

His jaw dropped. Then he grinned. “Brilliant!”

His eyes glazed for a very long minute, and suddenly he wasn’t there. Well he was, but he perfectly blended into his chair and the room behind. When he moved, he looked ridiculous, and we all burst out laughing. He joined in, as he waved his arms around.

“What did you do?” demanded Aleesha.

“I quickly wrote a new program to link my sensor package with the suit processor and had the suit match my background. It worked?”

“Totally,” I said. “It was that easy?”

“Only if you know the basic code behind the suit and the sensors, but otherwise, yes. Where did you get that idea?”

“I remember it from a really old flat screen movie I saw a couple of weeks ago.”

“How old?” asked Alison.

“2012,” I said. “The second of the original Sherlock Holmes movies.”

They looked at me.

“So I like old flat screen movies.”

“That’s not old, that’s ancient. Prefer full holographic myself,” said George.

“What else can you do with the suit?” I asked.

“What are you thinking of?” responded George.

“Well the suit does a proper space suit, so is it capable of doing other shapes than just clothes. Will it do animals or objects? I’m still thinking combat camouflage, but that would be a start, wouldn’t it?”

A slow grin spread across George’s face, and again he went glazed for a bit. Then he stood, and suddenly there was a gorilla.

Alison grinned, smacked him heavily on the arm and said “Now you’ve got your true self on display, yeah!”

We all laughed, including George. He turned to Alison, and then there was two of her, except one of them was stark naked.

“Oops.”

Alison started looking angry, and then her double was suddenly wearing the exact same clothes she was.

“That’s better,” she said.

George was suddenly himself again, back in the brown coverall. He looked at Alison. “Sorry about that. The suit was only generating a single overlay. When I got it to mimic a person, the sensors only gave the suit the data for the person. Since clothes are an add-on, I had to tell the suit to do two layers, where it was only programmed to do one. Um, it was also accessing memory and I wasn’t specific enough about which memory to use. Sorry.”

I bit my lip. The obvious question was – had that been an accurate representation of the naked Alison? But I figured she’d hit me if I asked.

“So it can do anything from memory? If you saw something in a movie, vid or hollo, you could reproduce it?”

“Oh boy, I gotta play around with that idea, I love it,” crowed George.

“Stick to the Gorilla, it’s more you,” said Alison.

George settled himself back in his chair and turned to me.

“By the way, I meant to ask you, you haven’t really looked at all the options on your PC yet, or at the software the General gave you, have you.” It was not a question.

“No, not really. How can you tell?”

“For a start, none of your social settings are available. The moment you set foot outside this hotel, there will be a lot women wanting to know your social status, so you better have it visible.”

“Social status?” This was something I’d not had on my old PC.

“Did you use single sites at home, looking for dates?”

I looked at him for a bit. “Sixteen at home, too young.” I could see the ladies were following all this, but keeping out of it.

“Ah. Sorry, didn’t realize. Well some years ago, someone brought out a social app that allows you to set up a social profile, which is accessible by anyone who has the app, allowing them to see the details you put public. So people can tell immediately what your partner status is, sexual preference and the like. It cut through all the unwelcome hitting on people that went on, and gave everyone a chance to see if an approach would actually be welcome, before attempting it. It was a major hit, and was subsequently bought and incorporated into PC’s. So it’s now normal practice for people to show a public profile. If you don’t want to use it, you can set it to ‘Don’t bother me’, but very few people do that.”

I’d missed something.

“Back up a bit, a lot of women wanting to know my social status?”

“Hey, why do you think we have you holed up in here? Apart from those wanting to kill you, the whole station knows about what you did, and like it or not, you’re a celebrity now. Women dig celebrities.” He grinned at me.

I looked around at Aleesha, she nodded. So did Alison. I shook my head. I’d never been popular with girls at home – just Sarah. I couldn’t imagine anyone being interested in me for defending myself. I shrugged that off.

“Ok, I’ll check the social settings. Anything else?”

“May as well check on anything you haven’t looked at yet, even if it doesn’t seem relevant. They always put useful stuff under seemingly non relevant menus.”

“I will.”

George stood, nodded to Alison who also stood, and said “We should be going. We’ll leave you to play with your new toys.”

There was a round of good byes and they left, leaving me with Aleesha. She settled herself in a chair covering the door and I left her to whatever she was up to with that glazed look on her face that meant she was only partially here. Sister talk, I speculated.

I dived into the bathroom, then the kitchen and sat back down in the sitting room with a bottle of water. I activated hollo controls, but didn’t use the screen this time, starting into the social menu.

The first submenu was the Public profile. Preferred name, home base, sex, partner status, sexual orientation. Easy answers. Social status? Drop down choice, ‘approachable’, ‘available’, (what was the difference?), ’actively looking’, ‘not looking’, ‘leave me alone’, and ‘approach at own risk’. I laughed. Hmmm, I set ‘not looking’. Show status? Yes. Public profile? Yes. I worked my way through the rest of the options, most of which I ignored.

The next submenu contained some very personal settings and I laughed again. So that was what George was trying to tell me. One of the settings was ‘suppress autonomic sexual reactions’. Thinking about first thing that morning, I turned it on. The next setting was ‘enable control of sexual activity’. I pondered that for a moment, and left it, not at all sure what it was talking about. I continued through the menus, turning a few things on, others off, and ignoring the rest.

When I’d completed the social menu, I went back to the suit menu. I wasn’t too happy with the belt around my waist. It didn’t take long to find an option that allowed the position of the belt to be set, and I selected ‘around hips’, followed by ‘integrate suit belt mode with pants’. I set those on and the belt loosened, slipped down and interweaved itself into my jeans as if it was a real belt. Another setting gave me a choice of belt buckle look. An option was called ‘wear suit in belt mode permanently’. The pop up help stated that when set to no, removing pants would also remove the belt. Set to yes, undoing the top button of the pants would detach the suit from pants and return it to default belt wear position. I remembered Amanda had been sleeping in the belt, so turned that on.

I kept going on other areas I’d not looked at so far, and then checked emails. Another pile waiting for me. I went into the settings and changed a few things, one of which left an unread inbox counter on my visual display at all times. Another setting turned on pop up warnings for urgent emails, or emails on my personal friends list. Having been reminded of that, I added Amanda, Aleesha, and Alison, and pinged Alison for George’s contacts. He immediately pinged them back to me, and I added him as well. The emails were mostly junk mail, but one was a notification of a minor bounty payment. Thirty thousand credits. I chuckled, that was minor indeed, given what I’d seen so far. I didn’t recognize the sender, but I sent off a thank you anyway. As I was doing that, an email came in from the local shipyard, notifying me that Wanderer’s repairs would be completed in two days’ time. No mention of how much though. I sent them a thank you and added I would let them know when I could get there, as I was still not recovered enough to get around anywhere yet. A reply came back immediately saying that was fine. They were happy to store the ship as long as I needed. Well that was something I did not need to worry about for a while, anyway.

A ping came in from George, asking if I’d looked at the General’s software yet. “Doing it now” I sent straight back. I had forgotten, again. The first one was a sensor package for the PC, and I activated it and set it to passive nearby scan. This would give me warning of any hand-held weapons within firing distance of me, and it integrated with the guild overlays to notify me of anyone likely to be trying to collect the bounty on me being nearby. It also seemed to sharpen my general awareness, although I could not pick why.

There was a set of pilot packages as well, stuff military combat pilots used to overlay on the systems of any ship they were flying, so they could set their personal preferences without needing to spend time on it. I went through these, and because of all the time I’d spent on simulators when younger, I was able to understand most of what was there. I set things the way I wanted them, especially what information I wanted displaying on the view screens and where. In combat, it was important to have information about what was going on quickly findable when you needed it. But since you needed to see what you were shooting at, it was not good to clutter up the display too much.

The most important of these was actual flying parameters. The basics of flying are thrust, pitch, roll and bank. Thrust is what engines produce to make you go forward, usually controlled with the left hand on a forward and back lever. Pitch covered moving the nose of the craft up or down, controlled by the joystick or control column, depending on the size of the ship, and used by the right hand. Roll controlled the way the sides of the craft, especially if it had wings, moved up or down relative to forward motion. It was usually controlled by the joystick and the right hand. Bank moved the nose left or right and this was done by foot pedals.

Most of this hadn’t changed in six hundred years, from the earliest flying machines. At least as far as talking about the basics was concerned. Early science fiction had replaced the joystick with flat touch panels, and while these were available, a true pilot preferred to ‘feel’ the movement of the ship, something a flat panel can’t provide.

But I had a problem. While it hurt to move my left arm, I could handle the thrust lever. But using the left pedal was going to be a problem. I thought about it for a bit, and then reversed roll and bank. I needed to turn left and right more than I needed to roll the ship, so I moved bank to the joystick and roll to the pedals. Now all this was set, I just had to pulse my overlays and preferences to the ship systems and it would be ready for me to use by the time I was strapped in.

Suddenly I yawned. Tiredness swept over me. The water bottle was empty and I didn’t remember drinking any of it. Aleesha looked as though she hadn’t moved, and I wondered for a moment what she was doing.

“Heading to bed,” I called across to her. She waved a hand without otherwise moving.

I went into the bedroom and dug out my boxers and sleep shirt. I contemplated running some hot water over my left side, and decided not to. I changed quickly into my sleepers, paying attention to how the suit unwove itself from my jeans into a belt around my hips, padded into the bathroom in bare feet, catered to bodily needs and let the mouth cleanser do its work, and slipped into the bed. In seconds I was asleep.

[] Nine

I was sitting in my command chair, in space.

Two identical women stood behind me.

No ship, no life support, no nothing.

Just me, in my chair, in space.

Space around me was not familiar.

As I looked around I saw no planets.

There were many asteroid fields.

In the distance, two gas giants.

A movement in front of me caught my eye.

A black dot had appeared at long range.

As I watched, another dot appeared.

Then another.

Then ten, a hundred, a thousand.

Space in front of me turned black.

I lurched upright in bed, terrified, covered in sweat. I called the lights on and sat there trembling. Amanda came awake beside me and also sat up. I was too upset to notice her nudity. She pulled me into a hug.

“Nightmare?” she asked eventually as she let me go.

“Yes. Always the same one. I’m flying along in space in just a chair, always the same system, and space in front of me turns black. I wake up terrified. I’ve been having the same dream since I was a kid. This one was different though. There were two women behind me this time. That’s the first time I’ve seen someone else in it.”

She looked at me strangely.

“What?” I said, deadpan.

“I’ve had a similar dream, had it recently in fact. I’m standing behind someone in a chair, in space, next to my sister, and space ahead of us turns black. The same dream?” She looked at me incredulously. “Hold on a sec, I’ll ask Aleesha if she has had it as well.” Her eyes went vacant for a moment. “Yes, she says she has had the same dream as well. Neither of us reacted to it like it was a nightmare though. What do you know that we don’t?”

“Prophesy,” I whispered. I’d always wondered if I got the nightmare because the Keepers had told me enough as a child to make it scary. Now I had to wonder. Could prophesy be real, and was I caught up in the middle of it?

“Spill it,” she demanded.

“Sorry, it’s just some daft stuff I got told as a child. End of the world stuff they tell you to get you to eat your greens.”

“Fun place, your home. Still, all three of us with the same dream? Ok, keep your secret, but if all three of us start having it at the same time, I’m going to want to know specifics.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

We lay back down, and I turned over on to my right side and tried to go back to sleep. This became somewhat harder to do, when I felt the shape of a naked girl pressed up against my back. Still, sleep did return.

An unknown time later, we were awoken by an explosion that rocked the entire station.

[] Ten

Amanda was out of bed, back into yesterday’s underwear and slinky outfit, and out the door, before my feet even hit the floor. I dressed as fast as I could and followed. I found her in front of the sitting room com unit, watching a hollo from the station news service, showing a group of three ships standing off at a long distance.

Amanda turned to me. “Pirates just lobbed a missile at the station. Minimal damage, but they claim they have a nuke and will fire it at us if their demands are not met. No idea what the demands are yet.”

We stood there watching for a few minutes, Amanda obviously in communication with the rest of her team.

A call notification popped up, from station management. I accepted it and threw it to the wall hollo. It was General Harriman.

“We have a serious situation,” he began. “The pirate group led by ‘The Pig’ has demanded you be handed over to them, along with his ship and those of their group we have in custody. That includes the two who had a go at you after you left my office. If their demands are not met, they say they will fire a nuke at the station. Missiles we can stand, but a nuke would cause serious damage. Unfortunately, the nearest military ships are the only remaining sector group, which are still at Brisbane after a fight over there yesterday. In hind sight, it would appear that was a setup to clear the way here. We don’t have many options.”

Do it.

You are serious?

Yes.

In my mind, but for me, that was part of normal conversation, even if I didn’t let on about it.

I stood there listening as Amanda had a three way conversation with the General and her Colonel, the General on the screen, the Colonel inside her head on her PC. It did not appear to be resolving anything, in spite me only getting half a conversation.

“How long have we got?” I asked.

“Two hours,” said the General.

“Is that enough time to get a fighter prepped, and the ship they want set up for towing?”

“The only fighter we have here is that ship, and it’s yours. It is fully repaired by the way, so it could be flown out with the people they want in the hold. Not sure I want to order a pilot to do that, and I can’t order you to submit to them.”

“Then we better just give them what they want,” I stated.

Amanda looked around in shock. Even the General seemed shaken. I grinned.

“We make it easy for them. Let them think I’m surrendering to them to save the station. However, if the ship is fully functional, I might be able to give them a nasty shock. Will need some ordinance, as I assume there wasn’t much left on board after the little rampage he had before he met me.”

“You can’t be serious,” said Amanda.

“Sure I am,” I replied. “I’ve never flown combat before but I’ve done enough simulator time to handle that ship and give them a run for their credits. That will assume a bit of luck on my part, and a lot of stupidity on theirs, but none of them have shown much intelligence so far, so I think I can count on at least some stupidity from them. What can go wrong?” I ended with a smug grin, the sort that is usually followed by the plan failing spectacularly.

“Let me get this straight,” began the General. “You are offering to fly the Gladiator out to them with the people they want on board, and engage them in combat on your own, with no prior combat experience other than your encounter last week?”

“Yes.”

“What will you need?”

“What is the missile capacity of the Gladiator and what’s it currently loaded with?”

“Twenty. It has six image recognitions still loaded. They are mid-range ones, as you saw last week, it takes three of them to collapse shields and do some damage.”

“What do you have on hand?”

“What do you want?”

I told him. “How long to get the ship ready?”

“We will run the time limit close, but I suggest we give them a media show to keep them occupied and convinced we are complying with their demands. We can show their people being loaded into the cargo hold, and make a big deal out of it being pressurized and life support being on. And it will take you a while to limp to the docking bay, and we can make sure they see some shots of you getting there.” He emphasized the word ‘limp’ and I took the hint.

“Ok, let’s do this.” I must admit, even to me that sounded of false bravado.

“Let me set up the media end of this, and I’ll be back to you when you should leave your room.” The General signed off.

Amanda stood looking at me, hands on hips. “Are you really up for this?”

“I think so. Besides, what other options are there?”

“What can we do?” I told her. She smiled, and called her boss back.

I pinged George with a request for his suit changing program, the one that used sensors for an image. He pulsed it back a few minutes later and I activated it and left it on standby.

I left my new guns where they were. They had the wrong image for what we were about to do, but I’d be regretting that choice if they managed to board me. But that wouldn’t be easy for them as the ships out there were also Gladiators, and they were not designed for docking in space.

I flopped down in a chair, and started thinking seriously. A short time later, the door opened and Aleesha, Alison and someone else came in.

Amanda indicated the newcomer. “This is BA.”

“Anne,” she said. “BA is a nickname we only really use in combat situations. Call me Anne.”

“Nice to meet you. You part of the escort?”

“That’s right,” said Amanda. “Alison will support you along. BA,” pause, “Anne will take point, and we will bring up the rear. We are going with guns out as if we expect you to be attacked at any moment. Of course, you might be, this might be a bluff to bring you out.”

“True. But that would show a lot more intelligence than this lot has shown so far,” I responded.

“All the same, we are not taking the chance. Is your suit on hair-trigger?”

I checked. It wasn’t. I changed the setting to fastest possible reaction to danger. Then gave her a thumb’s up.

We sat around watching the media coverage for a bit, and suddenly Amanda went still and announced,

“Show time.”

We formed up by the door. BA was going first. Alison and I were next, the twins bringing up the rear. BA had the door open and her gun through it a moment later, and we moved out behind her. I made an effort to limp as fast as I could, but the progress was deliberately really slow. We emerged out into the lobby. People standing there waiting called out “Good Luck”, and as we progressed through the station, many similar comments were made. Once out in the corridors, a station security team formed up on us as well, and it would have been a very stupid pirate to have taken us on. All the same, it was slow progress. When we finally arrived at the military hanger, the marine on duty waved us through, and the station security team took up position around the marine. We continued on into the bay holding the Gladiator.

I’d not taken the time to really look at a Gladiator before now. It was an ugly ship. Cockpit top front, with a small cargo hold underneath that could take half a dozen pallet sized cargo. Or in this case, a half dozen people, in zero comfort. Under the cargo hold were 4 guns, fixed in place to point forward. On the top behind the cockpit was a missile launcher. At the back it was all engines. Entrance was through the living quarters under the missile launcher. The door was open, and a set of stairs was pushed up against the ship there. It was bigger than a short range fighter, which didn’t need cargo space or living space, but in terms of offence specs, it was well matched to a standard heavy fighter. Hence it was referred to as a Heavy Privateer. On top and beneath the engine section, I knew there were two grav sleds. But they were stored internally when not in use and I could not see at a glance where they came out. The General was waiting at the bottom of the stairs.

“You can relax now ladies, no-one is getting in here.”

“If it’s all the same to you General, we will be staying on full alert until he’s out in space,” responded Amanda.

“Suit yourselves.” He turned to me. “All set?” I nodded. “You have thirty minutes left before you must lift off, that gives you time for a quick preflight, although the ship has already been prepped by one of our people. However, you will want to make a few interface changes I’m sure.” I nodded again.

I swiveled myself around the circle of ladies that had formed my protective detail. I looked each one in the eyes and nodded, and hauled myself laboriously up the ladder. It wasn’t really that difficult, but people were watching and the act wasn’t complete. Inside I found a marine, who helped me strap in and adjust the pilots chair to my dimensions. When that was done, he saluted me and left. The hatch made a clang sound as it closed and sealed.

This was it, I thought.

I pulsed my overlays and preferences specs to the flight computer and waited until a pop up stating successful integration appeared. I double checked the controls worked as I wanted them to by entering testing mode and working the joystick up, down, left and right and watching for my expected response from the ship. Correct so far. I pressed the right pedal, and the ship simulated rolling to the right. Good enough. I hoped I’d not need to roll left. I cancelled the testing mode. Next I went into engine tuning, and detuned the engine just enough that it ran like it wasn’t tuned properly by the techs. It would lower my speed a bit, but that didn’t matter to start with. Looking bad did matter. I checked the missile launcher and the order it would launch what. Good. Then I disabled visual coms and disconnected my harness.

“Gladiator five nine, this is Sydney station, what’s your status? We have three impatient ships waiting out there for you.”

“Ah yes, hi Sydney station, this is Gladiator nine five. I think I’ve found the on switch now. Should be good to go in a few minutes.” I intentionally gave the wrong call sign. The game had begun. I grinned to myself.

“We will pass that on Gladiator five nine.”

The last thing I had to do was change my suit. I stood up, selected full space suit and immediate connection to air. The suit formed around me instantly, forming a large clear bubble around my head, and I lifted my feet to let it seal underneath. Then I sat and strapped back in, and the suit connected to the chair. I checked that air was flowing through the pipes now connecting me to the air supply built into the chair, and that the chair was being fed properly from life support. I had no illusions about what was coming and it was not worth taking chances with details. I also checked on the cargo hold. Six unhappy men in there. I checked the seal on the door, and code locked it so that only I could open it. Didn’t want them coming through at the wrong moment. I didn’t know if they could, but I wasn’t taking the chance.

I sighed heavily. And did it again.

I accessed flight control, and triggered startup. All systems showed green. I was good to go.

I glanced out the cockpit side viewport. My send-off committee was standing just inside the hanger door. They saluted me, and I threw them something like a salute back. They quickly exited the hanger and the door sealed.

“Sydney station from Gladiator ninety nine, ready to depart. Still got air and a door.”

“Gladiator five nine from Sydney station, ready to depart copied. Stand by on the door.”

There was a short pause during which I started sweating inside the suit. I turned up the cooling. The door started to open. I kicked the landing thrusters a bit and the ship rose. A little wobble on the joystick and the ship swung away from the door and completely flattened a waste receptacle by the wall.

“Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, are you ok down there?”

“Gladiator fifty five to Sydney station, sure, why do you ask?”

“Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, you are cleared to depart. No traffic of any kind ahead of you.” I’m not sure who the reassurance was for.

At the moment, I was enjoying myself. This was my part of the show. The door was gone now, so I pushed in minimal thrusters. The ship moved out of the landing bay and into the flight path and I turned towards the external exit. I had barely enough speed to control the ship, but I had no intentions of making a fast exit. I made a show of wobbling badly as the ship exited the station and I continued straight on.

“Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, have you forgotten something?”

“Gladiator five to Sydney station, don’t think so.”

“Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, are you planning on landing any time soon?”

“Shit.” I grinned and selected landing gear retraction. The landing struts disappeared. I allowed my wobble to lessen a bit. I grinned again in anticipation of the next message. It might have been scripted but this was purely on the spur of the moment.

“Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, are you aware of where your reception committee is waiting?” My grin got bigger.

“Gladiator nineteen to Sydney station, am I going the wrong way?”

“Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, affirmative.”

“WILL YOU GET YOUR ARSE OVER HERE NOW SONNY OR WE WILL COME GET YOU AND YOU WILL NOT LIKE THAT.”

I let that slide without comment, but immediately made a course change, with a major wobble in it, into their general direction. I brought up the combat systems, but kept the weapons offline for now. I cancelled the engine detune and brought all other systems into combat readiness. I upped the speed to about half power. At this point, I was about fifty thousand meters from the pirates. A pop up warned me I was flying without shields. I knew that, but that was part of the game too.

At ten thousand meters, with the station well behind me now, I heard “good luck”. I wasn’t sure where it came from, but I was glad to hear it. At five thousand meters, I turned directly towards them, sighting on the leader. I didn’t have a target lock yet. I brought up shield control on the console and held my finger over the button.

At one thousand meters, the lead ship got a target lock on me and fired three missiles. My finger thumped the shields on button and they sprang up around the ship just before the first missile slammed into the front shield like a javelin aimed between my eyes. The ship shuddered and the second missile slammed into the same place. The shield almost went down. I held my breath, and at the last instant I pulled back on the stick. The third missile still slammed into the front shield and it went down, followed by a loud clang as the cargo bay door exploded inwards. Oops. That wasn’t the only damage though, as I could see a hairline crack form in the front view screen. I didn’t wait for it to go any further. I brought up weapons and immediately sent off six ‘fire and forget’ missiles, at the same time I pushed the throttle forward to the stops and the ship screamed over the lead ship. I immediately locked target on the cockpit of the second ship, and fired off three image recognition missiles. Then I threw the ship around to the right, not bothering to roll. Laser shots went past on my left, showing the third pilot had anticipated me going left instead of right. Logically, that was the wise choice as right handed pilots find it easier to turn left under stress. I brought up shield access again and quickly evened out all the shields, restoring some protection for my front section. I had less all round now, but at least I had some in front.

The front viewport was cracking rapidly now, but I didn’t have time to pay attention to it. I locked the third ship and sent three more IR’s after it. The lead ship was now coming up behind me, and I juked out of his line of fire, while I locked him and sent him three IR’s. By this time, the scanner was showing three red ships and a lot of orange dots representing missiles. A ship appeared in front of me and I pulled the gun trigger. Nothing happened. I glanced at the gun icons on the display and they were paled out. I activated them, and only two came up. I pulled the trigger and two laser blasts headed off into space. At least something worked down there. Lasers started hitting the rear shield and I juked again hard, trying to slide around enough to get a shot at another ship. At that point the ship behind me staggered and practically stopped. Its shields were out at the rear and down in most other parts and the rear section of the ship showed all red. A missile slammed into my front shield again, and I flipped the ship end for end and the next two slammed into the side. The ship shuddered but the shields held. I got a target lock on one of them and fired off another IR. I was running out of them.

Suddenly the front view screen exploded and I was showered with shrapnel although most of it went out. My suit held. I was still breathing although I was breathing heavily. One of the remaining ships, obviously thinking I was done, straightened up and aimed to come alongside me. As he did, a missile slammed into his side and three more went into his front view screen. The ship staggered, then slowed and started to drift. The third ship was off to the other side and I started a turn towards it. Then it too took a missile in the side and two into the front. Again, it stopped and started to drift. I figured the first hit on each ship was the ‘fire and forget’, and the others following were the IR’s. FF’s were slower heavy load missiles that packed a significant punch. But once fired, as the name implies you had no control over what they went after and where they hit. But I’d fired them off precisely, because to a fighter, they were a credible threat that could not be ignored, and thus would also be a major distraction for the pilots. Hard to know how many hit, but it looked like each ship got one or two of them, which is what I’d hoped.

I eased back on the throttle, turned gently around so I could see all three ships, and came to a stop. I took a deep breath, held it for a moment and released it. I took stock. No front view screen, just open to space. Four remaining missiles. The whole front of the ship showed red on the damage control screen. Thirty percent shields remaining, but slowly starting to rise again.

“Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, are you still with us?”

“Gladiator five nine to Sydney station, that’s an affirmative.” I grinned.

“Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, glad to hear it.” And he was too. I could hear it in his voice and there were shrieks of joy going on in the background.

I checked on life support. Nominal. I could see some surface damage around the cockpit, but nothing had impacted with any of the life support stuff. So while the ship was open to space, I was still in good shape.

[] Eleven

“Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, we show a ship coming through the jump point. Do you copy?”

“Gladiator five nine to Sydney station, I see it, thanks.”

I tagged it and ran it through the guild files. It immediately went red on my scanner, and information popped up showing there were twenty four outstanding bounties on the pilot. Then I noticed his name and froze. Loctan Santiago. Obviously a relative come to gloat at my demise.

I quickly checked the status of the other three ships. Two of them still had shields up, so I left mine up. One still had a weapons lock on me, so something was still working over there, even if the pilot wasn’t. I turned my coms off. I didn’t want to have to reply to anyone and wanted it to appear I didn’t have any. I sat and waited for him to come on. As luck would have it, I was almost pointed directly at him, and from his perspective, I looked like a wreck. Before he could get into range, I activated the suit program and hunted for a photo of a man in a spacesuit with blood all over him and a broken helmet. I fed that to the sensor input of the suit program and my suit changed to look like I’d been killed in the explosion even though I’d had a conventional suit on. I also let go of the controls, and let the ship go into a slight drift.

He came on at top speed, slowing as he came in range. I hung in the seat without moving, trying to look as much as possible like a corpse. He came to a stop not far away, well within point blank range. I watched as two grav sleds emerged. Immediately I got a lock on him and fired three IR’s at him. They crossed the distance in seconds, and blew through his cockpit. The ship shuddered and started tumbling backwards slowly.

I turned the coms back on. Immediately there was a worried voice.

“I say again, Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, are you alright.”

I couldn’t help it, some slang from a very old flat screen came to me and I replied “That’s a big ten four good buddy. Gladiator five nine is A-Okay.”

There were screams of delight coming through as the operator came back. “Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, copy that, I think. We thought you were a goner when we got the id on the ship that came through. Glad to see we were wrong. State your intensions.”

“Gladiator five nine has some housework to do out here, after which I’ll be right home.”

“Sydney station to Gladiator five nine, do you require assistance?”

“Negative Sydney station, Gladiator five nine has it all under control.” I think, I added to myself.

Ok, now to get this mess cleaned up. It took me a while to collect the two ships furthest away. I slid out the two grav sleds, and slowly moved each of the sleds next to a ship and turned on the gravity for that sled. Each ship was pulled into the sled, as was any debris nearby. Next came the last ship. Its sleds were out. I turned to bring one of my towed ships next to a sled, and cut the gravity. The ship slowly drifted over to the other sled, proving that gravity was on. I shifted again to bring the second sled near the other ship’s second sled, and repeated the transfer. I collected the third ship and returned to the fourth one. Being very careful to make sure it was attracted to the empty sled I finally had all four ships under tow. It certainly didn’t look pretty, but it seemed to be working.

I gently swung the ship around in the general direction of the station. But I wasn’t going there.

“Gladiator five nine to Sydney shipyard.” There was a long pause.

“Sydney shipyard to Gladiator five nine, state your intensions.”

“Gladiator five nine to Sydney shipyard, I have a damaged ship with four more damaged ships in tow. Request docking of all five ships pending adjudication. If adjudicated to me, I’ll need to discuss repair or disposal with you.”

“Sydney shipyard to Gladiator five nine, approval granted. Come to a stop two thousand meters off the shipyard and we will take your tows from you and bed them down. See you soon.”

I pushed the throttle up slowly, testing to see if the tows could stand the load. They did. Once I was near the shipyard, I stopped and listened to instructions to turn off each sled as the four ships were taken over by small tugs. Finally I was given a landing bay and I carefully made my way in, lowered the landing struts and gently touched down. While I waited for the bay to be sealed and aired up I removed the harness, went on to suit air only, and stood up. I made my way back into the small living space and popped the hatch. That didn’t matter, because the ship was already without air. I stood inside the entryway, connected the suit into the nearest air feed and waited. After a short time, the hatch opened and a set of stairs trundled in. Behind it was a group of people who looked familiar. The stairs slid into place, I cancelled the connection to ship air and stepped out on the top step. There was a shriek from below and I realized I was still looking like a corpse. With a big grin, I changed into the slinky black outfit, and with a sigh of relief breathed in a large breath of very cold air. I started down the stairs and sure enough, the gang was waiting for me. I was three steps from the bottom when I tripped and fell the rest of the way. This time though, four strong women caught me and stood me up on the ground.

I looked at them. They looked at me. Then we group hugged with me in the middle.

[] Twelve

I left the cold of the hanger area and my escorts assumed diamond formation around me, all of us dressed identically. We headed for the shipyard main office. I had pulled up a plan of the place, and then instead, activated navigation. An arrow on my visual display was showing me the way. After a bit of a hike, we eventually arrived at the right door. It opened ahead of us, and a rotund man stepped out with his hand extended. I took it.

“Welcome Mr. Hunter, welcome. I’m glad to see you came through that nastiness in one piece. Come in, take the load off.” We did and we did.

“Can I offer you something?”

“Water thanks.” The others declined.

“Coming right up.” Almost immediately, a tray appeared in a wall slot with a bottle of water. Alison passed it across. I took a long swig, paused then another.

“Mr. Hunter,” he started.

“Call me Jon,” I interrupted. “Mr. Hunter is my father.”

“Jon, Bob. Bob Derr. Lord and master of all you survey here, owner, designer, mechanic and general dogsbody. Lord high Pooh-Bah, if you will”. The others looked blank at the reference, but I smiled, having actually seen enough Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera to recognize a reference to The Mikado originating out of the 1800’s sometime. We didn’t bother to elaborate for anyone.

“So young Jon, what would you like done with these somewhat broken ships you have brought me?”

“Nothing for now. Four of them need to be adjudicated first. The one I was flying you can leave as it is for now, I’m not sure I want to keep it. I honestly do not understand why anyone flies a Gladiator.”

Bob laughed. “Yes, you are probably right at that. Basically, it’s the cheapest of the long range fighters available in these parts. It is the easiest to land anywhere since it doesn’t have anything sticking out, and it’s a good solid ship. But as you said, it would not be a real pilot’s first choice. That being said, it’s still the most common long range fighter in this end of space. The Talon is probably the most common short range fighter, much used by local militias, although it is technically a medium fighter where the Gladiator is a heavy.”

“Can you email me some alternatives? It’s looking like I’ll need a ship I can defend myself with, and the Gladiator just isn’t up to what I need. Do you do modifications here? What about custom builds?”

“I will certainly send you some alternatives. Assuming those ships become yours legally, and I see no reason why not, I’m happy to give each of them a trade-in value on a new ship. Actually, likely I will owe you if you trade-in all five. From a casual look, they seem to be in reasonable shape, except for cockpits and one engine. Yes, I do modifications, but only if I think they improve the ship. You have no idea what people want done to ships. If carried out, most would probably kill them quickly. And yes, I do build custom ships, although that tends to be the expensive way of doing things. As long as there’s a basic spec to base the ship on, like an existing hull, almost anything’s possible. In fact, I’m always on the lookout for a new class of ship that fills a hole in the market. In such things, I’ll collaborate with the design, and market the new ship. If that interests you young Jon, let me know.”

“I will. Um, I don’t know if anyone told you, but there was supposed to be a nuke on one of those ships. So be a bit careful until you know one way or the other.”

“We certainly will. Don’t need one of those going off unexpectedly.” He chuckled. “You did a good job with the cleanup, but I’ve got a salvage ship out cleaning up what you missed. If you’re interested, I’ll show you a few things about salvage, allowing you to completely clean a battle area. While a lot of it’s useless, there can be some useful saleable things recovered, and you save some idiot running without shields doing damage running over hull fragments they were not expecting. Mind you that does do me out of some potential business, but I’m a public spirited sort of person.”

“Thanks, I’ll take you up on that. Will you store any remaining ordinance on those ships, assuming I get them? I’ll need missiles, whatever I fly.” He nodded. “For now though, I need to be getting back to the station, some food and a nice long nap.”

We said our goodbyes and followed nav to the shuttle bay. It turned out to be a station shuttle with a marine pilot. On the way back to the station, the events of the morning came crashing down on me and I felt bone tired. I slumped in the seat and dozed for a bit. A jolt while docking brought me back to full attention and we filed out of the shuttle into the dock area. A huge crowd waited there clapping and cheering. I went bright red. Note to self, I need to find the override for that too.

“Mr. Hunter. Over here if you would, please.” The General appeared to be on a small podium on one side of the dock area. He beckoned me over, so I dutifully obliged. My escort took covering positions around us.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Jon Hunter, defender of the station!” The crowd went wild. My light red colouring turned a darker shade.

After giving the crowd a bit of time to show their appreciation, the General regained control.

“Jon, there is good news and bad news.” I groaned quietly, expecting it was really bad news and more bad news.

“Firstly, the bad news from your perspective is that in light of your outstanding display of combat-flying this morning, the Australian Sector Military Command has, effective immediately, commissioned you into the ranks of the sector military forces with the rank of Pilot Officer. Congratulations Pilot Officer Hunter.” The crowd cheered. Since I wasn’t wearing anything suitable to pin anything to, the suit not actually allowing anything to pin to it, he handed me two badges, which in some military forces would have signified a lieutenant junior grade. Then he handed me two more.

“The first of the good news is I can confirm that with your four kills this morning and the first one last week, you are officially an Ace.” The crowd cheered again, while I looked at the two badges shaped like the ace of clubs in my hand. I did not know they issued badges for that. I knew five kills was traditionally an ace, but I’d never heard of it being declared publically.

“The Sydney system is also awarding you the Meritorious Service medal for your defense of the station today. Congratulations.” More cheering. He went to pin the medal to my chest, stopped himself and handed it to me. He put his hand out and we shook. “Please say a few words for the crowds,” he added quietly so only I could hear.

I stepped forward and faced the crowd. “Thank you for your reception today. And for the good luck messages I got on my way out, which were most appreciated. I did what had to be done for the sake of the station, and I wish it hadn’t been necessary at all. Thank you.” I stepped back.

The General initiated another cheer and then requested the crowd disperse about their business.

“Can you meet me in my office tomorrow morning at oh nine hundred please. We will go over what your commission entails. And don’t worry. We are not going to turn you into a normal soldier. That would be a waste. For now, take the rest of the day to relax.” He patted me on the shoulder and headed off. I stood there looking dumbfounded.

Damn, I’d been drafted.

I turned to my protection detail. “Ladies, diamond formation please, it’s time to strut.” Amanda caught on immediately and grinned. I pulled up my medical monitor, upped the pain control to maximum, and the throbbing down my left side lessened to a dull ache.

We headed off towards the hotel, BA in the lead, a twin on each side of me, and Alison bringing up the rear. We strode along in formation in a good fast stride. People clapped as we went past. We were about half way back when we passed a computer store with a pad I hadn’t seen before in the window. I broke formation without warning, slid behind Aleesha and ducked in the door. Ten minutes later I was out again carrying a parcel. The store had given me an over generous discount and I’d countered by giving them back half that as a tip. We were both happy. My escort didn’t look happy, but we resumed formation and continued on to the hotel. At the front door, the manager was waiting.

“Welcome back Mr. Hunter. I have taken the liberty of sending a chef to your suite and she will have dinner for you whenever you would like. We hope you will enjoy this as a small token of appreciation from the hotel.”

I thanked him and we proceeded on to the suite. BA insisted on going in first. There was a pause, and “Clear” echoed out the door to us. We filed in, and I immediately sank into the nearest easy chair. I could see a small parcel on the desk.

Reluctantly, I dialed down the pain control, and the ache once more became a throb. As much as I wanted to leave it on full, I knew that doing so only invited further injury. As long as I could feel it, I wasn’t going to strain myself further. I changed the suit back to a belt. Old as they were, I felt more comfortable in my jeans, t-shirt and denim jacket.

I looked around for the others. BA was already gone. Something niggled at me, at the corner of memory, as if I should know something obvious, but was completely missing it. I idly wondered if somewhere there was the proverbial penny in the air, spinning silently, just waiting for the right connection to drop it.

“I’m off,” said Alison.

“Can you get George to drop by when he has some time? It looks like I’m going to need to develop my own suit wardrobe. As much as I like your outfit, it is not really me, or at least, it needs tweaking. I also have these things to add somehow.” I indicated the badges still in my hand, which I tossed onto the desk. Three landed and stayed, one bounced off, the medal landed with a loud clunk.

Alison changed back into the outfit I’d first seen her in. “Will do, should be seeing him soon. I’m glad you’re ok.” She pecked me on the cheek, and departed.

“You scared the hell out of us!” yelled Amanda.

“What did I do?” I acted the innocent, although I had a pretty good idea.

“Waiting for those first three missiles to actually hit you before attacking, for a start. We thought you were gone when we saw the front of your ship explode.”

“Calculated risk,” I said. “I knew they would attempt to do that, and I had to play dumb and let them. It wasn’t that big a risk as long as the third missile didn’t hit the cockpit area. And it didn’t, it took out the cargo bay doors and killed their own men. Ironically, what won the battle for me was when the front view screen finally disintegrated. They thought I’d taken another missile and it was all over. As soon as they slowed down, the missiles I’d pumped out after them caught up and killed them. The last one I had no choice at all with. I played dead, let him see a supposedly dead pilot and let him have it when he slid his grav sleds out, which showed he believed it was all over. Err, sorry about the look, I forgot to change it.”

“Damned right you’ll be sorry!” said Aleesha. She and Amanda did their silent commune routine. “I’m on perimeter, I’ll leave you to it.” She also pecked me on the cheek and quietly left.

Amanda came over to me, punched me hard on the right shoulder and kissed me full on the lips.

“You damned fool, don’t you ever do that again.”

“Which part?” I asked.

“Any of it,” she replied.

“No guarantees,” I said. She looked angry for a moment and then her expression softened.

“What did you go and buy?”

“A new pad. I used to have one at home until I broke it just before I left and didn’t have enough to buy a new one.”

“Why do you need a pad?”

“I prefer flat screen for a lot of things. Text emails, reading books, sorting through menus, that sort of thing. The holographic controls are good, but I prefer to feel it.”

“You really do like the old way of doing things? How is that? And how do you know so much about really old stuff? Don’t tell me you are a time traveler from the twenty first century who got stranded here.”

I laughed, thought about my collection of Doctor Who, decided that was really funny and laughed hard.

“Let’s just say, I had access to one of the best entertainment libraries there is, back home. I still have a lot of it with me. It was loaded in my old PC. I’ve been collecting many things, and when I like something, I tend to collect every series made of it, regardless of when it was made and what media it was made for.”

“Such as?”

“Do you recall the names of the first explorer ships that left Earth?” She nodded. “Galactica, Enterprise, Prometheus. Those names came out of the science fiction of the times. The series they came from have all been ported to each new technology and been redone and redone and redone, so that many different versions of them now exist, each designed for the technology of the time, or what fiction writers saw as the extension of technology of the time. I collect that stuff. Well, of the ones I like, anyway. Too many to collect everything.” I didn’t mention why my interest had started, that was too close to a truth we didn’t let on.

“So what were you watching before you left home?”

“Doctor Who.” I laughed. “A time travelling alien who kept picking people up from a planet or time and leaving them behind on another planet or different time.” She laughed with me.

A female head poked around the inner door wearing a chef’s hat. “Might I ask how many there will be for dinner and when you will be requiring it?”

Amanda went rigid. I could see immediately what was wrong. She hadn’t checked the suite when we came in. Then she realized that BA had.

“Anyone else back there?” she asked the chef.

“No, just me.”

“Hold on while I ask.” She went blank for a moment. “Six for seven.”

“Thank you. Would you care for a light lunch now?”

“Yes please,” I said.

The head disappeared. A whole chef reappeared shortly after with a tray of various pastries and another of desert servings. For the first time I watched as the table materialized in the center of the room, and the food deposited on it. The chef quietly vanished again. Amanda and I helped ourselves. I sat in an easy chair with a plate resting on the arm and started configuring my new pad between mouthfuls. The first thing I did was link the pad to my emails, and let them download there. Not wanting any sound, I cross-linked the pad’s sound back into my PC, so only I would hear whatever sound came from the pad. I went looking for, and found, an upgrade for the mail program allowing filtering and redirection. I set about making junk filters to remove the main junk I was getting repeatedly. After, I created a series of folders for specific topics. The first was for bank notifications so I had them all easily to hand in one place. I could have done this all on my PC mail program, but a pad was just so much easier for me. Maybe I was some sort of throwback to the twenty first century when pad usage had begun.

I looked up suddenly. “Six?” I said in Amanda’s direction.

“The boss is coming.” Ah. I could not see BA doing a dinner party, and I couldn’t figure who else it could be.

Having completed eating, Amanda headed for the door. “Swapping, back later,” she said as she swept out. Shortly after, Aleesha came in, helped herself to some food and seated herself exactly where Amanda had been. If I hadn’t been able to tell them apart and I hadn’t seen them swap over, I’d not have known they had. I helped myself to some deserts.

I started through the emails. The Bounty Hunters guild had sent me a profile update notification. I had a look at it and found a bronze Ace of Clubs icon, and my five kills listed. I was still listed as flying a Gladiator, but it was noted as being under repair. They really did keep up to date with members. I took a quick peek at the Traders guild and found the same icon showing, also on the Mercenaries guild. The latter had my rank with the Australian sector militia listed. Oddly, the status of that listing read ‘detached service’, whatever that meant.

I wasn’t expecting credits from this morning so soon, but there were a few more bounties from last week. Enough that under normal circumstances, it would be plenty to live on for a while, and indicative that the life of a bounty hunter could bring in a decent living, assuming one stayed alive.

That reminded me, finding out the bounties and information on that fourth pirate had taken too long. I needed to find a faster way of getting such information. I setup a search and sent it off.

I yawned. The pad blurred in my hand, and I felt myself nodding off.

Aleesha went tense and I jerked awake. “Delivery on way,” she said.

That made me more alert. I dragged myself out of the chair and headed to the door. As I opened it, ‘the tailor’ pushed in a small grav sled.

“Your new wardrobe sir.” He quickly unpacked the contents of the grav sled onto the chairs. I picked up jeans, shirt, jacket and shoes and headed to the bedroom to change. I emerged a few minutes later grinning. The clothes fit me perfectly, more so than I had ever had before.

Aleesha wolf whistled me. My grin got bigger.

“Yes,” said the tailor, “that will do nicely. Good choices, projects a certain casual power, if you don’t mind me saying.”

I went over to the desk. The package beckoned so I opened it and found pilot and captain badges. There was no invoice. I picked up the badges I’d been given earlier in the day, and put them all on to both epaulettes on the jacket. Rank on the shoulders, pilot, captain and kills near the neck. I added my guns to the ensemble to complete things.

“Casual becomes overt power,” he added. He pulsed me the invoice. I activated the drop trigger and transferred the credits to his account.

“Thank you sir. I hope I can be of service for you again soon.” With that, he steered the grav sled to the door, and vanished through it.

“Nice look,” said Aleesha.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m going to go have a nap, and a shower before dinner.”

“Enjoy.”

I gathered up all my new clothes, finding I had an extra of everything beyond what I had ordered, and headed into the bedroom. Everything being hung or placed away, I also hung the new clothes I was wearing, slipped into new boxers and sleep shirt, and slipped under the covers of the bed. I turned out the lights, and dropped straight off to sleep.

[] Thirteen

I woke a few hours later with a start. No nightmare, but maybe I dreamed something, as it was an abrupt transition from sleep to alert. I sat and groaned, feeling stiff and sore. I climbed out of bed, padded into the bathroom, stripped off and stood under the hot water for quite some time. Feeling a bit better, I toweled off, and dressed in clean briefs and socks from the dispenser, padded back into the bedroom where I put my new finery back on. I took a long look at myself in the mirror. My bruises had still not begun to fade yet, but there seemed to be less purple and more yellow than before. Yes, I did look like a pilot. I could hear voices out in the sitting room, so I walked out. Doing so felt really good.

There is nothing like new blue jeans and the jacket you always wanted to put a spring in your limp.

All eyes turned towards me. Amanda was back, and Aleesha was still here. Double trouble in the same place. I smiled to myself. George and Alison were here as well. I noticed they were all in casual civilian clothes for a change, and not any I’d seen in the suit list. Talking to Alison, and now interrupted, was a tall woman with greying hair, who exuded authority. She came towards me with a hand outstretched. We shook.

“Nice to meet you at last Mr. Hunter. I’m Annabelle Smith.” The penny in the air staggered a bit but kept on twirling.

“Likewise sir,” I responded.

“Please don’t call me sir. Annabelle is fine or if you want to get official, use Colonel. I don’t stand on ceremony though.”

“We just call her boss,” chimed in Amanda.

“How are you feeling?” asked Alison.

“Not good,” I replied. “Very stiff and sore actually, but I have to admit the new clothes improve things.”

“Would you care for a massage after dinner? I’m also the outfit’s medic, so I know a bit about injury massage,” said Alison.

“I’d like that, sure,” I replied. “Do you know reiki?”

“No, what’s that?”

“It’s a form of energy healing. If I only had an injury in one place, I’d be using it on myself. But being hurt all down one side is a bit much for one to cope with by yourself, unless you have a lot of time and patience, and I’ve not had either. I can’t say I’ve had much practice, but I’m happy to show you. Combining massage and reiki works well.”

“You’re on,” said Alison.

I sank into an easy chair, and everyone else settled somewhere too. The table in the middle of the floor was set for six I noticed.

“What did you think of the Gladiator to fly?” asked George.

“Not a lot. A brick on steroids I think I told Bob over at the shipyard.” We both laughed. “It’s an ok fighter, but a real pilot wouldn’t touch it unless there was no other option.”

“Why do you say that?” asked Annabelle.

“I’m not really sure,” I replied. “Just felt like the sort of ship you give cannon fodder.” Annabelle and George met glances and both nodded.

I went on, “I won’t be keeping the one I flew today. I’ll probably trade it in on something better. Maybe even get some custom changes done to whatever I decide on. If I get adjudicated the other four I brought in, then I’ll most likely trade all of them. Mind you, with the bounties I’ve been showered with, I certainly don’t need to worry about the price of anything I decide I want.” I smiled, although it was tinged with some remnants of shock still.

“Did you throw up at all?” asked Annabelle.

“No. Why would I?”

“It is very common for people making their first kill to vomit after.”

“I didn’t get any time to do that after my first kill, and then I was out for a fair while getting patched up, Besides, I never actually saw who I was fighting. It was all at long range.”

“Fair enough. With luck, you will never need to kill someone at close range.”

A white hatted head popped around the internal door, and Alison waved, then said “On that note, we should be seated for dinner.”

We all took a place at the table, and dinner began. It was the most enjoyable meal I had ever had. The food was superb, and the company just as good. We chatted about inconsequential things as if we were old friends. For all I knew, they probably were, despite being a military-style mercenary company. They were interested in where I came from and I was careful to tell them things only about Outback. They had heard about the planet’s isolationist policy and wondered why it was like that. I told them how the planet was originally settled by some spiritual groups that had suffered persecution in their past. They had left Earth looking for a place no one else wanted where they could be left in peace. Outback was right out on the end of the spine, one of the last habitable planets found by the exploration teams, was harsh with few decent living areas, and each group had chosen one such area to live in, away from the others. They chose an isolationist policy, and enforce it for all but five days each year, when they allow people to come and go. At the end of the five days, anyone not on the planet is forced to live on the Orbital station for the next year.

“Are you going back?” asked Annabelle.

“I can’t, the five days was up while I was out. I can go back to Outback Orbital, but I’ve nothing to do there. And getting there could prove difficult for a while anyway. I have a year before I can go.”

Dinner over, we moved to the easy chairs. Very quickly, dinner remains and table vanished, and a highly complemented chef left.

“So what do you intend to do?” asked Annabelle.

“I really don’t know yet. There hasn’t been time to make a choice. Although it seems the cosmos might have already chosen for me and I just have to figure out why that was made. Once I can understand it, I can embrace it. In the meantime,” I shrugged.

“Would you like to join our outfit?” I’d had an inkling this was coming.

“Thank you for the offer, but for now, no thank you. I would be happy to work with you though, should you think you need me for a job.”

“Is this anything about that prophesy you mentioned?” asked Amanda.

“What prophesy is this?” asked Annabelle.

“It’s hard to say. We have a group on Outback called the Keepers. Some say they keep the original documents of prophesy made some six hundred years ago before the exodus from Earth. It’s supposed to document some major challenge for human kind. There are apparently a series of pointers to when it will occur, which if tales are to be believed, have been cropping up in isolation for hundreds of years. When all of them occur together, apparently the darkness comes. No-one knows what they mean except the Keepers and they won’t tell anyone. They visited me when I was a small kid, after I had my first recurrence of the same nightmare. They told my parents it was one of the pointers. I’m not sure if I wake up terrified because of the nightmare or because of what they said about the nightmare. In any case, alone, it is not supposed to mean anything.”

“But you can’t shake the feeling that it is real, and you need to stand apart until your part in prophesy is revealed?”

“I’m not sure I would put it that way. Let’s just say I don’t want to get entangled too deeply with any organization that might stop me from going a different direction, should the cosmos suddenly want me to go. Besides, I’m only just legally eighteen. Back home, you don’t choose a life commitment until you’re twenty one. Before then you do what I have been doing – studying and trying out what interests me. Look how my first choice turned out,” I ended with a laugh.

“Boss, both Aleesha and I have both had the same dream. Not at the same time though,” said Amanda.

“Maybe that means the three of you are bound in some way. Could be why we all met the way we did the other day.”

There came a loud belch from George. “Pardon,” he said. “All too deep for me.” He said it with a smile.

“Can I borrow your suit definition program George? I want to make a change to the outfit you guys wear. I like the style, but not the colour and I need to add epaulettes and my badges. And since I did get drafted today, I’d better have suit options for military uniforms. Be damned if I am going to wear real uniforms though. I’m actually hoping I can get out of that.”

“You won’t need to,” said Annabelle. “The General discussed it with me, and he won’t be making you part of the normal military. Had you taken up my offer, he would have been fine with it. He’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”

“I’ll pulse you the program later,” said George. “Feel free to modify it, but let me have a copy when you’re done.”

“Thanks I will. There is probably a civilian market for the suit and as many variations of clothing as you can make up. Like guild software overlays. I have a few ideas in that direction too. Their information is great, but getting it takes too long. I want to see it on my HUD, that’s the heads-up display, without needing to request the data. Shouldn’t be too hard to figure that out, and if I do, should be a market for it.” The search I had sent off had come back empty-handed. I’d have to think about writing an overlay that accessed all three guilds’ information and presented it without needing to do a deliberate search. I made a note to remind me to do that.

“That’s a good way to think,” said Annabelle. “Bounties are not usually easy to get, and when the credits you have now dry up – and they will if you get yourself a custom ship – those do not come cheap. Then, anything that can bring in regular income is a good idea. Our last combat pilot had some ideas, but never followed them up.”

“Sorry I couldn’t help with that,” I said. “But you were already disabled when I came through the gate. And the first thing I knew anything was wrong was when I slammed into the bulkhead, and then got dumped on the deck.”

“Ouch,” mumbled George.

“Yes, hence my interesting coloration these days.” I managed a grin.

“What are your plans for tomorrow?” asked Amanda.

“Meeting with the General first thing. Then I want to look at ship specs. Maybe go back to the shipyard in the afternoon. I’ll see how I feel though.”

“I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Alison and the twins then. Good night all.”

With a chorus of “good night boss”, she left. George followed straight after. Aleesha also headed out, to check on BA and give her a meal break.

“The boss liked you,” said Alison.

“I like all of you,” I replied with a smile. The remaining two ladies smiled with me.

“Massage?” hinted Alison.

We moved into the bedroom, leaving Amanda to whatever she did when she was on guard duty. I got a pillow off the bed and placed it at the foot of the bed. Then got a towel from the bathroom and laid that down on the bed.

“Right hand please,” I said to Alison. She held it out. I slapped it hard.

“Ouch,” she cried out, “what was that for?”

“Can you feel heat on your hand?” I asked. She nodded. “That’s reiki. When you have a flow of healing energy going through your hands, they get hot.”

“That’s why. I’ve done massage on wounded team members and most of the time, my hands got hot. I never knew why.” I grinned at her.

“Back home, the Masters teach it. They have all these signs you are supposed to do with your hands, but I found it is simply the use of energy, with focused intent. You want to heal someone or help them heal, and that focuses your intent. You call upon reiki healing to flow through your hands, and it does. The flow varies from person to person. Some people flow reiki so powerfully that people get burns if they leave their hands on too long. I should point out that reiki is usually done with the clothes on. It’s not a hands-on thing. Probably because people might get burned. But I found it was useful with massage as long as you check how hot it is for the person.”

“When did you learn this?”

“When I was eight. But I haven’t used it much since then. Home is a very spiritual place actually. We get taught a lot of spiritual stuff early on, and then are allowed to choose what we practice.”

“So massage or reiki or both?”

“Both please.”

“Ok, strip down as far as you are comfortable with and let’s begin.”

I took off everything except my briefs and lay down on the towel, head at the bottom of the bed, pillow under my chest and chin. By the time I was ready, Alison had gone into the bathroom and returned with the hotel’s massage gel. She started on my upper back and neck, being very gentle on my bruised side and not so gentle on the other side. I could feel some heat coming though her hands and tried to guide her in how to focus the healing energy. She proceeded down my back, my arms, and down my back again. Then after a short pause, she pulled off my briefs and kept on going down. Once at my feet, I suggested she run her hands from my feet to my head and down again, to get the energy flow in my body going again. She did that a few times, then asked if I wanted to turn over. I did, although I went quite red in the face as I did so. I still hadn’t found that override. Another note to self to find it. Alison kept going on my front side, starting at my feet and doing each leg, then went carefully up my left side before doing the rest of my torso. She finished with my neck. I told her to dry her hands off, and do my whole head as well, which she did. I sat up on the side of the bed, and she sat down next to me.

“How do you feel now?” she asked me.

I felt a lot better, and told her so.

“Did you learn massage as well?” she asked.

“I did, but only light massage. They prefer not to teach kids the specialist massages until they grow up enough to know if they will really use them or not. It is part of the life path you select. If you go that way, then around eighteen, you get introduced to the other methods to see what aptitude you have. I chose space instead.”

“Show me what you can do,” she said.

She rose, pulled me off the bed, quickly stripped off her dress, top and briefs and lay down where I had been. I stared for a moment, closed my eyes, and asked for reiki energy to flow through my hands while I was doing the massage. I moved to her head and laid my right hand flat on the crown of her head.

“Can you feel the heat?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s quite hot.”

“I know. A few of the Masters wanted me to specialize in healing arts, but I was only looking at the stars. Is it too hot?”

“No, I can handle that.”

“Good.”

I gently massaged her head and neck, then coating my hands with gel, moved slowly down her back, over her butt and down each leg. I went back up both legs at the same time avoiding the inside of the thighs, and then kept going up with both hands spread wide to cover as much back as possible, stopping at her neck. Then slowly down again, making sure I didn’t miss anywhere. Up again slowly. Down and up again a few more times, quite rapidly. Then I stopped.

“How are you feeling?” I asked her.

“Wow.”

“That good?”

“Yes.”

“Want to turn over?” I asked somewhat huskily.

She turned. I tried very hard not to stare, but didn’t do very well at it. I got a grip, went back to the top of her head and this time gently massaged her face, down to her neck, shoulders, arms and down her sides, bypassing her breasts, to her stomach area. Then down to next to her pubic area, but not touching the hair. My hands slid around that area and down each leg to the feet. Then back up again the same way. A few fast up and backs completed the massage.

Just below the navel.

I moved my right hand to hover just below her naval. The energy turned cold. I turned my hand the other way, palm upwards and placed the back of my hand against her skin. Cold radiated upward away from my hand. I left it there until some warmth returned, then inverted the hand and concentrated on pushing some heat in.

Remove the weapons.

What sort are they?

301 blades, 15 points.

“Have you had an injury where I have my hand?” I asked her.

“Why yes. I got hit by a stray laser shot, back before the suits became available.”

“I thought so. You have a lot of etheric damage here. Do you understand that?”

“I think so. You mean we are more than just a body, we exist at higher levels as well? And you’re saying I was damaged at other levels than just the body?”

“Yes. Do you believe in reincarnation?”

“When you die you get born again in another body?”

“Yes. Any damage that you suffer can be taken into the next lives, and keep being brought forward for as long as it isn’t healed. You have a weak spot there. You have previous damage from three hundred and one blades and fifteen pointed weapons, mainly swords and spears I think, which shows they go back a long time. Would you like me to remove them?”

“You can do that?”

“I think so. If I wasn’t supposed to, I doubt I’d know about them. Let me try.”

I thought-addressed the one I ‘spoke’ with and asked for the weapons to be removed, and the wounds healed.

Done.

“How does that feel?”

“That’s incredible. I’ve always had some pain there that nothing would get rid of, and now it’s gone.”

I took my hand off her stomach and she quickly sat up, pulled me forward and kissed me. She jumped off the bed, threw the towel towards the bathroom, the pillow back up the top of the bed, pulled the covers back and climbed in. She looked pointedly at my groin.

“Are you using an override on that?”

“Yes.”

“Well turn it off and get in here!”

I did as she said.

[] Fourteen

I awoke the following morning feeling very content and peaceful. Alison was on one side of me, Amanda on the other.

I lay there for a bit wondering if I had died and gone to heaven.

I hoped though that heaven would not be as painful as it was here. My bruises still ached. I sighed quietly. I sat up and crawled down the middle of the bed on to the floor, padded into the bathroom and proceeded to give those bruises some hot treatment. After toweling off and putting on briefs and socks from the dispenser, I started out just as Amanda came in. As usual straight from bed, she was wearing only her belt, and I quickly turned back on what I’d turned off last night. We smiled at each other as we passed. Alison seemed to be still asleep. After dressing, I hung my night clothes up in the refresh part of the robe and headed out. Aleesha was in the sitting room, she bolted upright as I entered.

“You had a good night?” she enquired.

“Apparently so,” I responded with a smirk.

I sat down in an easy chair with my pad, and went through accumulated emails. I never did seem to keep up to date with them. There were several job offers to do escort work, which I politely declined for now. The sector and guild bounties seemed to have come in for yesterdays ‘work’. I noted them without paying any attention to how much. For the moment, credits were not a concern. The adjudication of the four ships had been made in my favour as well. Amanda appeared, and Aleesha disappeared.

“Breakfast?”

“I’m not hungry, you help yourself,” I responded. She did. I rarely did breakfast. For some reason I functioned better without it in the mornings. At times, even the thought of food after I got up was enough to make me feel queasy.

I brought up a simulation of a ship view field with a HUD overlay, randomly generated from current guild information. I zoomed it in and out a few times, looking at what was showing and how it was showing. Most of the ships were bracketed in blue, showing friendly status. A group of three were showing as red, meaning enemies. There was a set of grey dots which were missiles. It wasn’t really adequate. I checked each of the ships against the guild information and found two were bounty hunters, five were sector militia and the rest were traders. At least the ship icons showed what kind of ship each was, but knowing who they were could be critical. I took the opportunity to load the ship identification icons into my PC, so if I came across an icon I didn’t know, the PC would fill it in automatically. I looked further. One of the bounty hunters had a mission current, and his mark was in the system. That was useful to know. If you were the mark, some warning was a good idea, and the HUD should have changed him to a red, since he would have been an enemy to me. If the mark was someone else, it would be useful to know where to stay away from. Some missiles didn’t care who they hit, and stupid people fired the wrong ones sometimes. Better to stay away from a combat about to happen. But also from a salvage perspective, knowing there might be a couple of wrecks about to become available was newsworthy, as wrecks recovered equaled credits. I started making notes on the overlay I really wanted.

“Time to go. Tool up,” said Aleesha. She and Amanda had changed over again without me noticing. I had a habit of doing that, getting so engrossed in something that I didn’t notice what was going on around me. Could be fatal if I wasn’t careful. I checked the sensor package, it was on and functioning normally. I went over to the desk, and ‘tooled up’. No sign of Alison. We headed out the door, Aleesha ahead.

Just after we exited the main hotel door, Amanda took up position behind me. The three of us strode towards station management, not as fast as we had yesterday, but at a reasonable clip even though I still had an obvious limp. There were a few cautious glances our way, so I assumed we looked lethal. An Ensign met us at the lifts, and escorted us to the General’s office. We exchanged good mornings and I sat facing him across his desk. Amanda was glued beside the door again, and Aleesha was somewhere out in the general office area.

“How are you holding up after yesterday?” the General asked.

“Good,” I replied. “I got in a nap in the afternoon and we had a great meal in the evening.”

“We will be buying your five Gladiators from you. It’s quicker than building new ones, and the Talons we previously relied upon don’t seem to be able to handle the Gladiators too well, so there seems no point in buying more of them. We need some ships out there patrolling as soon as possible. I’ve sent offers to Bob Derr and we will deal through him. He is already working on them. I didn’t think you would mind.”

“Not at all. I don’t want them, I just told Bob to keep any ordinance left over for me.”

“Have you decided what you’ll get?”

“Not yet. I’ll have a look at the options after I leave you.”

“Right, let me know when you have a ship and are ready to work.”

“About the work General, what are you going to be asking of me?”

“Not what you think,” he said smiling. “In the short term, we will need you to fly some sector patrols. You will be given an Ident each time you do an official patrol for us, that will identify you to others as a militia ship. Might confuse a few people, but it is better that when working for us, you show to others as legitimate militia. Your rank does carry some weight.”

“We will send you a package about possible duties that may arise of a general nature. You have been placed on ‘detached service’, which means you don’t fit into anyone’s chain of command. You get your orders direct from me and no-one else. You can go where you want, when you want. I will be kept informed of where you are, and if you happen to be near a trouble spot, I will send you orders. You will be paid the going rate for the mission type and any bounties you can claim in the process.”

“For example, if you get a mission to patrol a system, you will get a nav map of where we want you to go. If you see anyone with a militia bounty on them, you are allowed to attack on sight. You can go after other bounties as well, as long as the mission is completed. You can interrupt a non-time sensitive mission if you need to rearm or repair, or if something unexpected crops-up. As long as you complete it in a reasonable fashion. If at any time you decide to stop flying a fighter, let me know, and we will adjust missions according to what you are flying. In any case, for the short term, you have a ‘pirate problem’, and there is not going to be much point in giving you missions you cannot complete because the pirates have not given up attacking you on sight. We will monitor that and send you any help we can. Are you going to go after them?”

“I hadn’t planned to. Retribution is not big on Outback. It is not the done thing.” I didn’t think he wanted to hear about karma so I stopped there. “I do plan to get a ship that has a lot better shielding and hits harder. Every time they keep attacking me, I want them to think harder if it’s really worth it or not. I’ve certainly got enough credits to buy something special, so I will do that.”

“Have you heard of the Centurion?”

“No.”

“Also a Bounty Hunter heavy fighter, but by all accounts it is a much better ship than the Gladiator. We don’t use them because they cost a lot more and it takes a really good pilot to get the best out of them.” That was interesting because it seemed to imply the average service pilot wasn’t so good, and that I was.

“I’ll have a look at it, thanks.”

“Uniforms. You are not required to wear a service uniform, but on missions for us, it would be a good idea.”

“I think I can do that easily enough. If you could have someone send me a full hollo of each type of uniform and when it’s worn, I’ll see about getting my suit to emulate it. That way if I need to look official, I can change my suit to the appropriate uniform temporarily. Likewise whenever I’m reporting to you or are in military areas.”

“That sounds good. I’ll make arrangements and have them pulsed to you. I’ll also send you a military add-on to your social settings. That way any officer can see your public record, and that will include the detached nature of your service, and a reference to me as your direct superior. That saves any officious officer from giving you orders and you needing to ignore them, which could get ugly.” I could see that. I definitely wasn’t taking orders from some officer who liked giving people orders. And I was junior enough that without something tangible from a senior officer, I would not be able to question the orders.

“Any questions, Pilot Officer?”

“No sir, at least not now. I may have later.” I paused. “Oh, do I salute and all that? I’ve no idea how.” He laughed.

“I’ll also have you sent the basic training manual. But since you only salute on receipt of orders, and I’m the only one giving you orders, it is not a requirement as far as I am concerned. By the way, what did you tell Colonel Smith?”

“I turned her down gently sir. But I made a point of saying I’d be happy to work with them if they thought they needed me.”

“That’s fine with me. Smith knows her job. If you work for her, let me know, so we don’t send you a mission that conflicts. She did mention the possibility to me. One of her requirements for joining her outfit is that everyone comes from a military background. You don’t of course, but the rule will stretch to someone who carries a military rank. She didn’t mention that?”

“No sir, she didn’t.” But it made sense.

“Very well then, off with you. Find yourself a ship so we can start using you.”

I was glad that was over, and quickly left his office. Amanda fell into step behind me and then Aleesha in front of me, and we proceeded out of ‘military country’.

“Home Jeeves,” I said to Aleesha.

She threw a strange look at me back over her shoulder, but didn’t break step. Once back at the hotel, we fell into our normal roles, Aleesha vanishing, Amanda looking blank in her chair, me engrossed in mine.

I looked up the Centurion. It was shaped more like an atmospheric craft with real wings. On each wing were hard points for three guns, for a total of six, where the Gladiator mounted four. It seemed to have two and a half decks. The top deck had the cockpit, living quarters a bit bigger than the Gladiator and a real airlock. The living space had a large single bed, a very small desk and chair, and a fresher unit just large enough to stand in. There was also a micro kitchen and small robe and storage unit. Very compact and not exactly inviting for long journeys. The half deck was below. There was a slot at the front and another at the back that could take various combat units and reload magazines for them. The slot at the back could also be loaded with a rear facing turret. That would be useful for putting off a bogie trying to get into your kill slot. The lower deck had a modest cargo bay at the front capable of taking a dozen pallets. The rest was engines and generators. Nice looking ship.

I noticed a link to download a simulation and did that. I activated it and immediately I got a hollo projection of the front section of the cockpit as if I was sitting in the pilot’s chair, including controls. Just like a real ship, I lifted it off, flew it out into space and gave the controls a workout to see what it could do. Very responsive, but a bit slower than I’d have liked. I loaded guns and missile launcher, and took it through a series of combat simulations against Gladiators. It performed very well, but against four hostiles, the shields took more of a beating than I felt was comfortable. I’d have to see what Bob could do.

“Food?” said Amanda, and I jumped clear out of the chair and fell back heavily on my left side. She laughed at me. I’d been so engrossed once again that I’d lost track of time. A quick glance at the pad showed stacked up emails again. I pinged Bob Derr requesting a meeting in the afternoon, and he pinged back that he’d have the shuttle over shortly. I got up and followed Amanda into the kitchen. We ate, she swapped with Aleesha, who ate while I attended to emails. We then headed over to the shuttle bay and thus to the shipyard and Bob’s office.

[] Fifteen

“Ah good, Jon, a boy left yesterday and a man returns today,” said Bob. I did not have a clue what he was talking about, except maybe it was the clothes. I nodded politely. “What have you decided?”

“The General suggested I look at the Centurion. I put the simulation through its paces.” He nodded. “It’s a nice ship, but a bit slow and under shielded for what I need.”

“Speed is a function of the engine chosen. Shielding is a function of the generator chosen. Both must be balanced by a power generator sufficient to run both at the same time, as well as other things such as life support and weapons. The standard ship carries what balances best. If you overdo one, you must under do another, and such choices have consequences.”

“Fine. That’s the standard spiel, what do you tell someone with credits to spend?” He grinned at me.

“Yon General has told me they will buy all five Gladiators from me, assuming I can successfully negotiate a deal with you. I know what they’ll pay, but not what you will take. However, on that basis, I know what you have to ‘spend’ without actually spending any credits, give or a take some good bargaining. Let us put aside for now your issues of speed and shielding, and talk fittings. The standard model comes clean without much of anything. Into it you must put a bed, guns, ordinance and sundry extras. What have you in mind?”

“Bed wise, I’ll go with the best available, one suited to bruises down one side.” That drew another smile.

“Guns wise,” I went on, “what do you recommend? I forgot to look at them.”

“How good a shot are you?” he asked.

“With a rifle, fairly good, not that I got much chance to practice at home. But as part of space preparation training, we did have to learn how to handle a variety of weapons.”

“There are several options. You can get a very fast rate of fire with low hitting value. These ‘streamer’ lasers are like a hose of water. You start the flow of shots which stream out, and you ‘walk’ it onto the target and hold it there. Very good for people who can’t shoot worth a damn. At the other extreme are pulse guns that shoot out a pulse at intervals dependent on the recharge rate. The more powerful the pulse, the slower they recharge and the better the aim needed to use them effectively. Between, you have variations of both extremes.”

“What was on the Gladiators?”

“Low end of the pulses. Relatively fast rate of fire, but not much damage caused with each pulse.”

“Explains why they rely mostly on IR missiles,” I suggested.

“Indeed. What would you prefer?”

“Do you have a simulation?”

He pinged me the trigger. I spent a bit of time on each gun, using them in mock combat and seeing the effect.

“I’ll go with the level ten pulses. They will be slower than most will expect, and hit harder than they expect, assuming I can get them to hit. If need be after I’ve tried them in combat, I can always change them up or down, or mix them up a bit, but for now, I think they will suit me.” One of the reasons why I’d gone for these was that if all six hit at the same place, they would cause hull damage, if not disable the ship in one go. Required being a good shot, but the simulation seemed to indicate that I could use them effectively.

“What are the options for rear turret?” I went on.

“You can fit a single, dual or quad mount on there. Depends on the purpose which one I would recommend.”

“I was thinking a primary purpose of being point defense, and a secondary of upsetting anyone getting comfortable in my kill slot.” Point defense is a weapon designed to kill missiles or any other object that might impact the hull, as far away as possible. They also needed to be quick firing and fast tracking. The kill slot is the position directly behind you, giving a straight shot up your tail pipe. The two objectives were not always compatible.

“For that, I recommend the quad turret and the heavy point defense lasers. The turret is fast tracking and the guns have a very rapid fire, although quite a low hit value. However, one shot will take out any missile, and a few dozen will scare off anyone behind you.”

“Done. What missile launch options are there?” I asked.

“There are two sorts of launchers. Re-loadable and not. In either twenty or fifty missile loads. The cheap end fire in the order they are loaded. The expensive end are fully selectable by missile type. The reloads for fighters are one shot, but are also twenty or fifty missile capacity. Most go for a twenty with no reload, and it’s about half and half as to being selectable or not. There is one other option. That’s the one hundred shot torpedo launcher. These are small very fast dumb file missiles on a one second re-fire that pack a wallop. Aimed well, they can do as much damage as your guns all hitting at once. Three hits in as many seconds can destroy a medium fighter. They are not often used, except by exceptional pilots with excellent aim.”

“What do you recommend for me?” I asked.

“For you, based on what I saw yesterday, and I took the liberty of playing the whole battle at slow speed, I would recommend a fifty capacity reloadable missile launcher and the torpedo launcher. You showed an ability to use missiles intelligently. That effectively gives you one hundred selectable missiles, and another hundred opportunity fast fire torpedoes. I would rig your joystick with two fire buttons to make selection even quicker. Missiles always require thought. Torpedoes require fast reaction times. I think you have them, and this combination will do well for you. Added to that, no-one will guess you carry so many, so you will surprise them if you find yourself in a situation where they think you are out.”

“Sounds good to me. Where does that leave us?”

“Severely over weaponed I am afraid.” He grinned.

“So these choices mean even less shielding and speed than standard?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he agreed.

“Why don’t we just make the hull bigger?” His mouth opened and closed again, followed by a smile that could only be called predatory.

“You and I, my friend, are going to get along famously! Why don’t we just make the hull bigger, he says. Why not indeed. We can, but there will be a cost. But then, cost is relative. Lengthening changes the dynamics, changes the balance of the thrusters, requires more engine power. But you wanted more engine power and more shielding. Length also is defined by what will fit in a standard landing berth, so maybe we need to tweak the width as well. Yes, yes, possibilities. Let me see what I can come up with, my young friend.”

He grinned at me. I grinned back.

“While you’re at it, I’d like a modification to the flight controls. The left hand thrust control, I’d like it changed so that it also has a left-right toggle switch at the base, always returning to neutral when no pressure is applied either way. I don’t like using foot pedals, and would rather control roll with my left hand. I don’t use it a lot, so the toggle needs to have reasonable pressure applied to work at all. The more pressure applied, the faster it works. In other words, it needs deliberate action to apply roll either way. Leave the foot pedals, but allow the usual ability to change things around.”

“An interesting modification. That can and will be done.”

“Anything else I should consider?” I asked.

“You might consider a decent AI.”

“AI?”

“Artificial Intelligence. In fact, that may be necessary, as the changes I will need to make, may make landing almost impossible to do manually. You should also consider a salvage droid, maintenance droid, cleaning bots and security droids.”

“What is the difference between a droid and bot?” I had an idea, but I wanted to hear it anyway.

“Intelligence mostly. A bot is programmed to do a task. It’s a dumb machine for repetitive tasks, like cleaning. A droid has a low level AI, or will take instruction from a high end AI. They are more versatile. And before you ask, a salvage droid takes out a grav sled and systematically collects everything it can, or whatever it is tasked to get. I’ve seen a salvage droid pack what you brought back on four sleds, onto a single sled. They are that good at doing the job! A maintenance droid will fix anything that breaks down, provided it has a specification and spare parts. This can be useful in a battle. With several you can be using something badly damaged within minutes again. Cleaning bots, well they keep your ship clean. Security droids are something you definitely should consider. When you no longer have a bodyguard, they can act as such. They also guard your ship, internally and externally. They can be independently controlled or under central control of a higher AI.”

An immediate thought came to mind about the security droids. Something to ponder when I got some.

“You have convinced me. Add what you think the ship will need.” I paused a moment. “Will the AI be moveable?”

“Yes, it could be easily moved from one ship to another. The best ones can control multiple ships. Secondary ships get a sort of clone version of the original, and when in range, they respond as one.”

“Good. I’ll leave you to figure out what is doable.”

“I love a good challenge,” he said. “I will be back to you as soon as the design work is complete.”

We said our goodbyes, and the three of us headed off home.

[] Sixteen

When did a hotel room become home I wondered, sitting back in my easy chair. That felt odd. I’d never really called my real home on Gaia, home. Outback was my official home, but it had never actually been home. And now home was a hotel room on a space station a year away from where I left? Was I that detached from what everyone else viewed as a normal home? What was normal? I needed to get a grip. Down that road was madness.

Three pulses came in from different service people. The first was about the service uniforms I needed. The second was the ‘basics manual’. I threw the manual onto my pad. The third was the military overlay for the social settings. I brought up what it was ‘showing’. The social seemed unchanged, although I noticed that a current stunner license was listed. I guess that was for station security to easily check if the guns I wore were licensed or not. I switched it over to military, and the display remained the same only with added information. This included my rank, service, superior officer and a status of ‘detached service’. Underneath was my medal, and my kill score. Interesting, but time wasting. I turned it off.

I realized with a start that I hadn’t had the suit program from George yet. I also remembered I hadn’t had any contact with Alison today.

I pinged Alison asking how she was and when she would be by. Then I pinged George. An auto-respond came back from both of them to the effect that they were out and would get back to me. Sounded like the Colonel had them on a mission of some kind.

I dived back into designing the HUD overlay. Time went by.

“Food?” said Amanda, and I jumped clear out of the chair and fell back heavily on my left side. Again. She completely cracked up.

“That doesn’t get old.” She laughed. I gave her ‘the look’. She laughed harder.

“Why don’t we go out? Is there a good Chinese on the station? Do you like Chinese?” I asked.

“Yes there is, and yes we do.”

“Who else is available?”

“Just us three. Everyone else is working.” Pause. “Let me rephrase that, everyone is working but the two of us can eat while we work, and where you go, we go. Who pays?”

“I do.”

She went blank for a moment.

“They have a table held for us. You want to change or go as we are?”

“Were you intending to change?”

“Nope, but we can if you want to.”

“I don’t want.”

“Then this way, kind sir”, she said, waving her arm towards the door. I stood, and she looped an arm around my arm, and off we went. Outside the hotel, Aleesha met up with us and looped an arm around my other arm, and the three of us walked arm in arm along the mall.

“No high kick steps or goose-stepping,” I said. They looked at me. “What? Where is your sense of humours? Haven’t you seen stage performers doing high kicks with their arms locked together, or old newsreels of goose-stepping soldiers?” Silence. “Oh for pete’s sake lighten up the two of you.”

I caught a quiet mumble from Amanda. “Weird,” she said. I pretended not to notice.

It did not take too long to get to the restaurant. We did draw some attention along the way. Identical twins with the local hero, all armed to the teeth. Who wouldn’t take notice? I tried very hard not to notice.

The manager met us at the door, effusive welcomes, and a round of applause by the patrons. I pretended not to notice.

We were led to a table in what appeared to be the exact center of the place. Three sixty degrees of stares. I pretended not to notice.

The waitress came over to our table. I noticed.

Short, cute, little black skirt, nice arse. I pretended not to notice.

Amanda hit me on the arm. I stifled a groan and pretended not to notice.

“Wine ladies?” I asked. Two identical shakes of the head. I motioned a negative to the waitress but she didn’t notice. She handed me the wine menu, and I politely handed it back. She apologized effusively and almost ran away.

The manager came over with three menus and neatly dropped our serviettes into our laps. I picked mine up and put it back on the table, folded into quarters. We asked for water, and I asked for a fork. All three of them looked at me. The manager walked off.

“A fork? In a Chinese restaurant?” demanded Aleesha. “Are you trying to insult them?”

“So I never mastered chop sticks. Shoot me.” A hand snaked downwards. “No, don’t shoot me. Just allow me the dignity of a fork.”

I opened up my menu and the girls did likewise. I scanned rapidly down the list. Everything looked good.

“Are we eating communal? Or being selfish?” That got another look. I laughed. “Are we sharing or eating our own plates?”

“Sharing,” they said together. “I hate eating plates, too gritty,” added Aleesha deadpan. We all laughed.

“What do you fancy?” I asked. Both of them smirked. “To eat!” I added hastily. I felt like we were rapidly losing control of the evening. On the other hand, maybe that was a good idea.

Our waitress came back to take our orders. She brought with her a tray with a bottle of water and three glasses, and a fork. She placed a glass beside each of us, the fork next to my chop sticks, and then poured water all over my hand as I held the glass for her. I pretended not to notice.

More apologies and a rapid mopping of water later and we had full glasses. Were we ready to order? We were.

“Can we have a Mongolian Beef please, and the Sweet and Sour Pork Authentic,” I requested.

“The Honey Prawns,” added Amanda.

“The Lemon Chicken,” added Aleesha.

“Large fried rice,” I added. “And the mixed entrée for three. And we will have them all in the middle of the table so we can share.”

She nodded and went blank, obviously pinging the order to the kitchen.

“Will that be all?” she said. Yes thanks we murmured. She did a sort of half bob, half bow, turned and walked straight into another server who was carrying a full load of food. There was a massive crash as waitress, server and food went down in a big mess of broken plates. I pretended not to notice.

With cleanup operations under way, I enquired about what the rest of the team were up to. Neither of the girls knew. Amanda then asked what I’d been up to all afternoon, so I told them about the overlay in detail, and continued to as we ate our entrée which had been brought by another server. As the dishes were being cleared away, I finally noticed the glazed look on both their faces, and it was obvious this had nothing to do with PC usage. I fell silent and pretended not to notice.

Fortunately, the main courses arrived. With them came a bottle of champagne and three glasses, and before we knew it we were having a toast. None of us really wanted alcohol, but it would have been discourteous to have refused.

We helped ourselves to wonderful food until we could not eat another mouthful. There was a fair bit left over.

The waitress came over to check if we wanted anything more.

“Can I have a ‘doggy bag’ for the leftovers please?” Everything around us stopped. All eyes settled on me.

“What?” I demanded. Silence. “Can you do the leftovers as take away?” I clarified. Smiles and a number of head shakes. The waitress went off with the dishes. There were no accidents this time.

“Did you know that sometimes you are really weird?” asked Amanda.

“I decided a long time ago to embrace my weirdness. I’m working on making ‘weird’ into an art form.” They both laughed.

A short time later, my ‘doggy bag’ came back. We got up to leave. We stopped by the pay station and the manager pinged me the bill. I looked at it. There was no mention of champagne and only three meals instead of five. I smiled at him and gave him a short formal bow of the head. I added a good sized tip on the total and triggered the drop account to make payment. Then I pinged the waitress and thanked her for her great service. She went white, which I pretended not to notice.

We had just gone out the door, when a threat warning popped up. My right hand went for my gun.

“You gunna git it now you summabish. You-” My gun was up and I pumped out 12 rounds before I could get my finger off the trigger. The man standing across the passage way was propelled back against the wall and crashed down to the floor, his gun skidding off down the passageway. I holstered my gun. There was a moment of stunned silence followed by applause.

“How many hit him?” I asked generally.

“Two,” said Aleesha.

“We got to work on that,” said Amanda. “Tomorrow we hit the firing range and the gym.”

“You forgot to blow the smoke off your gun barrel too,” added Aleesha.

“Damn,” I said. “Next time.” Both girls shook their heads in wonder and I grinned at them.

“That was a pretty good reaction time though. You beat both of us,” said Amanda.

“Everything I’ve ever read about bad guys said to never let them monologue. Besides, his accent was so bad I couldn’t have stood listening to any more of that. Are we done standing around here, or do we have to wait for security?”

“I just told them we were heading back to the hotel, they will be here momentarily but we don’t need to wait,” answered Aleesha.

We started walking away.

“Just as well I had the take away in my left hand. Would have been a waste of good food if I’d thrown the doggy bag at him instead.” They looked at me and the three of us cracked up. We linked arms and laughed our way home. When we got back, I found an email on my pad from the Mercenary Guild.

My profile had an addition. ‘Total one on one combats: 1’, followed by ‘Total wins: 1’.

[] Seventeen

I’d gone to sleep with Amanda and woke up with Aleesha.

Let me rephrase that. I’d gone to bed alone, and been joined by Amanda soon after. I’d been lying on my good side, and she pressed up behind me. I didn’t need to see her to know who it was. I slept soundly all night. When I woke, I was on my back, and Aleesha was lying next to me.

She pecked me on the cheek and vanished into the bathroom. I lay there, trying to figure out if I hurt any less this morning than I had last night. The jury was still out when “Oi” sounded dramatically from the bathroom. I got up and padded in. There was a naked back pointing at me, so I stripped off my sleepers and went in and started soaping. Once her back, and general environs, was done, she rinsed off, toweled off and was gone. I stood there under the water flow, cranked up the heat a little, and let hot water flow over my bruises. Definitely more yellow than any other colour now, but I continued to ache all the way down. I was still standing there when Amanda came in behind me and started soaping my back, and environs. When done, we swapped and I did hers, we both finished up, toweled off and got dressed. Amanda headed into the kitchen, I headed for my easy chair. She followed to hers shortly after with a plate of food.

She took a big mouthful and I asked with a smile, “Are we actually sleeping together? Or are you afraid of sleeping alone?”

She choked. “I’m not afraid of anything,” she responded forcefully. I raised my eyebrows to signify the need of a better answer. I must admit, I was starting to become confused.

“You’re confused,” she said. I nodded. “It’s about tomorrow.”

“Oh. Understood.” And I did. They could all be dead tomorrow. So they were getting as much comfort as possible while they could, without going the full distance of a constant orgy. I guess it was the same with Alison. It had been a case of ‘take love where you find it, for tomorrow might not come’. And that thought now had me worried about why I still hadn’t heard from her.

“Heard from Alison or George yet?” I asked. She shook her head.

I stuck my nose into my pad. I busied myself with the HUD overlay. Time passed. A pulse came in containing the suit programs. But no message of any kind.

“Got a pulse from George,” I said, “but no message of any kind”.

“That means they are ok, but still under operational security. Good sign. Knowing him, he did the pulse under cover of someone else’s message activity.”

We went back to what we were doing. I’d manipulated the overlay to do pretty much what I wanted. I’d set up a series of definitions for ship status each with its own colours. So instead of a blue or red designation, the display should now show a variety of colour representing real information about each ship. As well as that, key conditions, like ships with a bounty on them, and Bounty Hunters on the hunt not only displayed as orange, but a small summary as well. That included the number of bounties outstanding and total worth, and the kill total of the pilot. If I was going to take on a Bounty Hunter, I wanted some idea of how good he or she was before committing. The information was subjective of course, but everything helped. Until I was out in space again near a traffic flow, that was about all I could do. I’d coded it to use whatever information was available. So if I decided to release the overlay for sale, anyone who had access to one of the guilds information and/or official government information, could use the overlay and it would give them whatever information was available. Obviously the most information came from all sources, and that is what I would be using.

I turned then to the suit program, and started in on clothing modifications. I copied the slinky black number. First I changed the overall colour to a dull red. Then I tweaked the colour until I came to a dull red that was not too dull. Down the arms I put a single white stripe. I added two more. I went into the bathroom to look in the mirror and activated the suit. Yes, that was better. I tweaked the boots, aiming for a less than military look, while retaining strength. I considered the result. A little less slink I thought. I bulked up the shoulders and made my behind a bit less obvious. Next I added epaulettes. I scanned the badges and added them to the epaulettes. I liked it. I saved the design as my own uniform. It had a good padded leather look and feel. I set the suit back to a belt and went into the bedroom. I took a pair of jeans, shirt, jacket and shoes out of the robe, and scanned each of them. Then started a new design and built up a series of layers to make a full outfit. I went back to the other design, copied the epaulettes, saved them as a separate design, and added them to replace the blank ones on the jacket. I stripped down to my briefs, activated the design and went back to the mirror. It looked just like I was wearing my real clothes. Even the pockets were useable. I turned it back into a belt, and got dressed again. I had an offhand thought pop in and created another new design from my sleep wear.

Next, I started on the uniforms. Create from the images I’d been sent, extrapolate pockets, add epaulettes. That stopped me. I removed the epaulettes from the uniform I was working on, and overlaid the epaulette design. Better. I went back through all the designs and did the same. That way, if my badges changed, I only had to make one change and the rest would adapt automatically. I then modified the slinky black to make the same ‘bulking’ changes. The change was subtle, but I felt a little more comfortable with it. I didn’t know if I would need it again, but if I did, it was there. I also remembered to overlay the epaulettes. All done, I activated my custom red and went back to my chair.

Amanda looked up idly as I walked back in, looked away again, and did a double take.

“Nice. That suits you,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said. “It looks a bit bulky if activated over my jacket, but-”

“Some girls like that,” she finished with a smile. I grinned back.

“Food?” I asked. She nodded and we raided the kitchen.

After eating, I started into the military manual. Boring stuff but I needed to have read this at least once. Forgetting something was a better excuse than not having read it at all.

“Gym!” I jumped. Again! I think I needed to adjust my sensors to notify about approaching bodyguards. Actually, that was a good idea, and I upped the sensitivity on any approaching object, to trigger awareness of the approach but without actually doing a pop up. I tossed the pad gently on to the desk.

Amanda was suddenly wearing grey gym clothes, her gun strapped over the top. I went into the bedroom, stripped off my outer clothes, hunted the suit clothes menu for the gym outfit and selected it. I look down at it for a moment, frowned, and tweaked the colour to the same as my uniform and saved the new design. I walked out. She smiled and indicated my guns, and pointed deliberately to the bolts that changed the guns from stunner to laser. I put them on and followed her out the door.

A short time later, we arrived at the station gym. We had to check our guns at the door. I assumed however that Aleesha was prowling close by in case of trouble. Amanda led me over to an empty area of mats. She pulsed me some files.

“Those are martial arts programs. We will be going through what each can do, and then you can choose which to keep loaded all the time so that when you respond to a threat nearby, you do it without thinking, using the minimum force needed. A lot of it is automatic. The programs use your PC overrides to move you. All you need is an awareness.”

The following time was bizarre. She took me through many different ways of fighting, judging how well each suited my body and the way I moved. I had no real idea what I was doing, but in spite of that I was soon sweating and my left side was throbbing again. In the end, she settled on the best of them and I set them to activate if threatened. The others I filed in case of later need.

“What this does is give you decent response to any physical threat imposed by a person or group of people. You grasped enough of the basics to take on probably three and get away with it, but don’t push your luck any further than that until you have survived some real situations. The most important thing to remember is to incapacitate as fast as possible and then get the hell out of there. Don’t wait around to finish someone off, put them down and run.” I nodded. The same thing applied in space when you were outnumbered. Don’t stay still, don’t allow yourself to be distracted into fighting just one at a time. Always be mindful of where everyone else around you is, and which is the immediate threat. If you’re outnumbered and can run, run. False bravado can be fatal.

“I need to rest,” I said looking around for somewhere soft to sink into.

“Sorry, can’t stop now. Go wash up and we head straight out again.” I groaned and went into the men’s room, washed my face and neck, and limped heavily back. We collected our guns and left.

Not far away, we stopped at the Mercenary Guild gun range. She had me visit the men’s room there and change into my suit version of normal clothes. When I came out she led me to a firing range. First off was target shooting, first with the right hand, then the left. It did not take me long to get the right hand putting each burst of shots on target. The left took longer, wasn’t quite as accurate, but was sufficient to take someone down. I needed practice. My left arm was throbbing badly by now, but she wouldn’t let me stop.

From the firing range, we went to the assault courses. She put me through a series of courses with different types of environments. I took all the bad guys down, but found that not taking down civilians in the process was much harder. She worked me through them relentlessly. We used the stunners for all but the last range, where we changed the guns over to lasers, and I had the chance on a specially built range to see the difference, and get used to the subtly different handling. By the time she was satisfied, I was scoring around seventy five percent. She made a special point of reminding me to remove the bolts so the guns were stunners again before she took me back to the firing range and put me through an evaluation firing. Here I scored eighty five percent, in spite of barely being able to hold my left arm up by then.

Finally she sat me down, and I slumped into the chair, exhausted and hurting badly.

“You’ll do,” she said. “You need practice, but you have what it takes. Do you know why I pushed you so hard, injured as you are?” I had an inkling, but wanted to hear her say it. I shook my head and winced.

“The time you need these skills the most is when you’re badly wounded and the pain is bad enough even a medical package won’t dampen it. You need to be able to move and shoot when you can barely walk, and then if necessary achieve perfect aim when you have difficulty even holding the gun up. I know I hurt you, but you needed to experience it and understand it. Most people don’t get the chance to experience it until they are out in the field, and a mistake or lack of endurance will kill them.”

“I understand, thanks. Can we go home now?”

She nodded, helped me up, and I leaned on her heavily as I limped back to the hotel.

Along the way she said, “You need to practice everything until you obtain consistent ninety five percent scores, or repeated attempts don’t yield any higher, which will mean you found your level. The higher the better, and the more likely you will survive any situation. I’d also recommend you borrow some long guns and work with them. That’s a useful skill to have as well. While you may be a pilot, a Mercenary Pilot who can also shoot means he can drop into the middle of a firefight and cover a party while they escape. When the pilot and crew can’t shoot, casualties tend to be higher pulling out, and the main reason for pulling out is because casualties are already too high.” I nodded to all of it.

We arrived back at the hotel and I sank into my easy chair and just sat there. I didn’t have the energy to move, and moving hurt. Amanda went into the kitchen and came out with a glass.

“Drink this,” she commanded. I did as I was told. I handed the glass back and raised an eyebrow.

“High energy drink. You needed it. You want that left-over Chinese?” I nodded. She moved over to the desk and passed me my pad. I took my guns off and placed them on the floor by the chair.

More emails. A new update from the Mercenary Guild. I was now rated as proficient with small arms. I also noticed the bounties on me had gone up to a million. Amanda returned with a plate for me, and I set it on the arm of the chair and ate between messages. Bob had sent me a detailed email about what he thought was possible for modifying a Centurion. I replied saying ‘more speed’. The rest were what I wanted. The hull seemed basically the same although it looked like all the dimensions had expanded a bit. A few minutes later, he pinged me saying that if I wanted more speed he had to go up another level of power plant, and that would reduce the cargo bay down from twelve pallets to only four. I pinged back I could live with that trade-off. At best, if I tried to trade with this ship, I’d be limited to small amounts or courier work. I couldn’t see it being a problem. If I really decided to trade, I’d get a decent trade ship. I went back to the basics manual. And dozed off.

The ping woke me up. I jerked in the chair and groaned. It was Bob again, stating an email was on the way and did this meet my requirements? I pulled up the email and threw the ship design onto the main room hollo screen. Amanda perked up and came over to look. At first glance there was no real difference between this ship and a Centurion. To compare I threw up the standard Centurion as well, and differences became apparent immediately. The new ship was longer, wider, higher and considerably more heavily gunned. Its speed was a good third higher, and it had almost double the shield strength. A notation stated that a gun capacitor had been added to allow a buffer between energy reserves and gun usage so that even if other systems drew more heavily on the energy system, the guns could still keep firing longer than they normally would. All in all, a nice lethal looking ship. I grinned at Amanda. She grinned back, but I could tell she didn’t really know what I was grinning at and just reacting to me. She went back to whatever she was doing.

I dropped the display and returned to the pad. Next I looked at the pricing. The modifications doubled the price of the standard new ship, and the fittings, with full launchers and reloads, added another fifty percent. The standard Centurion was listed as forty percent dearer than the standard Gladiator. So roughly speaking, the new ship was worth about the same as five standard Gladiators. But the five Gladiators were all damaged. They also had much of their fittings still intact. So overall, they should be worth about a straight swap. I continued down the figures and found that Bob had arrived at the same answer and suggested it.

The math was doing my head in.

I pinged him “Do it.” He pinged me back a store to visit the following morning where I could select a bed. Bed. Yes, I needed bed. But what I really needed more than that was a hot spa. The hotel menu popped up with its amenities list. There was a private spa on this floor, currently vacant. Did I wish to book it? I did.

“Fancy a spa bath?” I said to Amanda. She grinned.

“When?”

“Now?”

“Let’s go.”

I fixed the location of the spa in my mind, moved the guns back to their chargers, and we headed directly there. Aleesha met us there with a grin on her face. I led them in, shut the door, and code locked it so we would not be interrupted. In a moment, the three of us stood in our underwear and belts, another moment and we were just in belts, and then all that was visible was three heads and a lot of bubbles. I relaxed in the heat and just sat back and let the warmth flow through me. I should have thought of this days ago.

[] Eighteen

I’d gone to bed with Aleesha, and woke up with Amanda. No, I’m not clarifying that again, think what you want.

After showers, breakfast and emails, or in my case, two of the three, Amanda and I headed out to the bed store.

“Why do we need to go to a bed store?”

“I need a bed.”

“You’re just up from a bed.”

“Yes, well I need to lie down again on different beds.”

“You don’t need a reputation for bed hopping.” I laughed.

We arrived at the store and I explained I needed to get a bed to be supplied to the shipyard for fitting to a new ship. They asked what kind, I said the kind that someone with bruising down the left side would find comfortable. I also said that credits were not a concern. I thought Bob had assumed I’d go for the most supportive bed I could find, and it would likely be on the high end of prices. If he hadn’t, I’d pay the difference. I spent the next hour bouncing around from one bed to the next. Amanda followed me around, also trying them out. I think it amused us both that the salesperson seemed to think we were a couple. Amanda even went to the stage of replying “Yes dear” a few times to my comments and then spoiling the effect by grinning.

At last, I settled on a bed type. Size? I consulted the specs for the new ship. Surprisingly, the living area was bigger, although with the extra dimensions of the ship, I shouldn’t have been surprised. It allowed a Queen sized bed, where I thought I’d be restricted to a long single. I ordered a Queen, and had them ping the invoice over to Bob. Before we had even left the store, he pinged back an ok for me, and instructions for the store.

I decided while we were out and about, it was high time I had some shopping therapy. I said as much to Amanda, she laughed. Over the next few hours we did the rounds of the shopping levels of the station, stopping at odd shops and checking things out. I found a few useful items which I had delivered to the hotel, found a travel sled that would hold all my finery and other personal stuff when I needed to move out of the hotel, also delivered, and we had an early lunch. We were just getting up to leave when suddenly Amanda went rigid. Her eyes glazed, then she turned and beckoned to me.

“Mission alert. We have to go to the hotel, pick up your laser bolts and get to our ship as fast as possible.”

I paid the bill for lunch and we left as fast as I could limp, which was admittedly a reasonable speed. The spa the night before had definitely helped. We dashed into the suite. I grabbed all the charge packs, and the two laser bolts, and added them to my belt. We rushed straight out.

[] Nineteen

The Merc’s Military Transport was at one of the external docking ports. The Colonel was waiting for us.

“You’re up Hunter. We need to be moving right now. Get to the cockpit and get us out of here.” I gulped.

“Follow me,” said Amanda and led the way for me. It was a lot larger ship than I’d been on so far. I was soon lost, but somehow we ended up in the cockpit above the lock, at the front of the ship. I looked out the sides and could see other ships docked next to us. I was going to have to back us out.

“Oh shit,” I said softly. I sat down in the pilot’s seat, adjusted it, strapped in and pulsed my overlays and preferences to the ship computer.

“Greetings Pilot, whom do I have the pleasure of working with?” said a voice.

I looked around, but Amanda was gone.

“I’m the ships AI. Call me Betty.”

“Hi Betty. I’m Jonathon Hunter.”

“You seem a bit young for a Pilot, if you don’t mind me saying.” I didn’t, I felt it.

“Only one available it seems.”

“HUNTER, GET US MOVING!” floated in from the hatch behind me.

“What prep needs doing?” I asked Betty, feeling more than a little stupid.

“All done young sir, ready to disconnect from the station.”

“What is the ship’s name?” I asked.

“Moose.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“I hope you’re not kidding me.” That did not get a reply. I opened a channel to the station.

“Sydney station from Moose, ready to undock,” I said.

“Moose from Sydney station, permission granted, priority clearance to jump point granted.”

“Sydney station from Moose, undocking this time.”

“Moose from Sydney station, undock understood.”

I put the channel on standby.

“Can you back us out of here?” I asked Betty. “If I do it, there will probably be paint loss.”

There was no reply. Unexpectedly, since I had no idea what to expect, there was a series of loud clunks from underneath me, and I practically wet myself. The docking clamps released. Power and water connections released. We were free and clear. The front thrusters fired gently and the ship started moving backwards. Meter by meter we reversed until at last we were well clear of the station and any other ship.

“Manual control please.”

The thrusters stopped and for a moment we hung there in space. I twirled us to point towards the jump point, and pushed the thrust forward to the stops. We slowly gained speed. This wasn’t a fighter, but all the same, it did have some legs. I looked for what else it had. The shielding seemed good, although I’d seen they were not much better than a fighter’s shields. There were no weapons of any kind. The ship could run if it had warning and enough time. But fighting was out of the question.

I brought up my HUD overlay. Instantly the HUD display sharpened, and some coloured ships stood out. I took some time to check out what I could see of the whole system. Down by the planet, there was a lot of civilian traffic, all in blue. Among them was an orange Bounty Hunter in orbit, not showing an active bounty hunt. He had six kills to his credit. There was a light stream of ships coming and going between the planet and the station. None of them were military, mostly freighters of some kind. But several showed up light orange with minor bounties on their heads, which surprised me. The asteroid belt had ships dotted around, presumably miners, and a small station. I focused back towards the jump point. There was nothing between us.

Steps came up behind me and I gingerly turned my head around to the right to see who. Colonel Smith stood there, looking at my HUD display.

“Your work?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, facing back forward, and reaching up with my right hand to rub my neck.

“Good work.” Pause. “Sorry to shanghai you like that, but Alison and George got themselves into a situation. They need evac urgently.”

“What’s the plan?” I asked.

“Go through the jump point at full speed. On the other side, turn for the Melbourne jump point, and keep on going. Ignore the traffic lane, go direct. The engines were replaced in the repair, so they should be able to take the punishment. At the Melbourne jump point, go straight through at full speed again, and make a straight course down to the planet. Ignore the traffic lanes again, go the fastest direct course you can plot. I filed a priority flight plan, so don’t even slacken off if someone challenges us. I want an orbit over the northern continent, but before we get that far, I’ll have specific co-ordinates for you to orbit over.”

“Yes sir,” I replied.

“Did you notify the General by any chance?” Hells donkeys, I hadn’t. “Don’t worry about it, I did. There will be a briefing after we jump into Nexus, so get us set and then come on down to the briefing room.”

I nodded, and she left.

“Did you get all the instructions?” I asked Betty.

“I did,” she, it, said.

“Do I need to be here right now?”

“No, you can fly the ship from anywhere. I am now linked to your PC, so you can talk to me with thoughts wherever you are.”

“Good, I’ll be back for the jump, but I need a toilet in a hurry.”

A plan of the ship popped up on a side screen, and I noted a fresher just behind the cockpit, unstrapped and went there. The one thing you should not do is pilot a ship with a full bladder, and stress seemed to have filled it pretty quickly. While I was there, I stripped off my outer clothes, and changed to my slinky red uniform. Back in my seat, I started viewing the displays, getting a feel for where things were.

As we approached the jump point, which was showing on the HUD as a shaded cone of space, I asked Betty if she was triggering the jump. There was a quick “affirmative” and I sat back and waited.

“Jump in thirty seconds.” I broadcast through the ship.

The ship ran into the shaded area, and we jumped. The effect was instantaneous, but felt as if it lasted longer. There were no side effects. There almost never were. Betty quickly put us on the fastest course to the Melbourne jump point. I checked for traffic. There was nothing near us.

The Nexus 618 system was uninhabited. In far out orbits were two gas giants. The rest of the system was made up of a series of asteroid rings. There was a mining base showing down in the third ring. No other traffic was visible. The thing that made Nexus 618 special was the nine jump points scattered around its edges.

Nexus 618 was the hub of the Australian sector. Its jump points led to the Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin systems. They all had at least one habitable planet and most had other smaller colonies. Beyond them were several other systems with colonies of some sort. There was also the jump point to Outback, which was technically part of the Australian sector, but which did not take part in the sector government. Did not take part in anything, actually. We did a little trade, but that was about it.

The last jump point was to the Bad Wolf system, an uninhabited system with only two jump points, linking the Australian sector with the Sci-Fi sector and the rest of human space. It was named after the ‘Wolf Comet’, a planetoid on an erratic comet trajectory around the system that included close flybys of both jump points.

I checked our course. We had several hours to the next jump point. The ship plan showed me the way to the briefing room and I headed down.

[] Twenty

I was the last one in. Everyone looked at me.

“For those who haven’t met him yet, this is Hunter, our temporary pilot. Introduce yourselves after.” The Colonel was all business.

“This is straight evac. Alison and George were on a routine advisory mission with a new client on Melbourne. All was fine until I received a priority request for evac. We do not know much at this point, other than there was an assassination attempt on the client which our team stopped, and that seems to have triggered a building seizure action by an unknown group. At last report, our team and the client were withdrawing up the building under heavy fire. The building itself is dirt-side in Melbourne’s capital city. Gravity there is point nine seven Earth normal, so shouldn’t affect the mission. The location is prime office high-rise, so we aim for minimum collateral damage and at all times be wary of uninvolved civilians in the line of fire – check your targets before firing. We will evac from the roof.”

“The Melbourne government has no idea what is going on, and has not yet been able to contain the situation on the ground. We have priority clearance all the way in, with approval for whatever action we deem necessary to retrieve our team and the client. We will bring out whoever is with the client if possible, but our team and the client are the priority. Hunter hasn’t done a drop mission before, someone help him through the drop ship prep.” Drop ship? “Questions?” Silence. “We have several hours to the jump point, and then likely several more hours to the RV. Get ready people.” With that, she left.

Amanda threw me a smile and followed her boss. The four I did not know came up and introduced themselves to me. Abigail was the Tech. Aline and Agatha were gunners. Alana was the Demolitions expert. There was a pattern developing, the penny wobbled a bit, but I couldn’t see it. That had to mean it was totally obvious. Abigail led me out.

“I accessed your HUD upgrade, nice work. Where did you learn to do that?” she asked.

“I didn’t learn it. I’ve been playing with computers and software since I was little. Always had a certain aptitude for it, I guess you could say.”

“Ever done any hacking?”

“No, not on the list of approved activities back home. We take that sort of thing seriously. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be interested, more a matter of no need before.”

She nodded approval. I got the feeling she was the general computer, coms and tech expert, by job, but was actually a proficient hacker. The latter was most likely her most useful asset for the team.

Down in the bowels of the ship, we entered a chamber with large doors on the floor. Above, suspended by a single pylon, was a Dropship about the same size as a heavy privateer. It was long and sleek, except for the bulbous belly area which was sealed by a large ramp. It had a turret on each side, each with two guns. At a glance, they looked like quick fire point defense lasers. From the door to the chamber, we walked a narrow walkway across to the open door on the side of the ship, and went in. A single corridor led forward to the cockpit, perched right in the nose. A hatch was open next to us and a downward ladder. The room below had seats along one side. Along the other side were a line of battle suits facing into the wall. The back wall looked like an armoury. The front wall was obviously the ramp. There was crash netting in several places. At the top of the ramp were gun positions but as yet, no guns.

“Your job is to get the team on the ground in one piece. The underside is reinforced, so it can take a thumping, but don’t make a habit of it, because it shakes up the team. Anything that distracts them going out, could be fatal. On the other hand, the team in one piece takes preference over the ship, but it would be better if you didn’t let it get to that.” I nodded.

We headed back up, then along to the cockpit. She pulsed me a coms upgrade.

“You will need this. In combat, we link PC coms. Anything spoken is heard by everyone. There is also a covert mode so someone can do the same without speaking. It has a limited range, but is more than adequate for most missions we do. There is a link from the Dropship to Moose, so I will be in contact the same way from above you.” I gathered she stayed behind topside.

“Do your ship prep now, then I’ll set up some simulations for you.”

I pulsed the flight computer with my ship overlays and preferences and tested the controls. The check list for prep took a little time, but was straightforward.

Next came simulations. My first experience of a drop was a recording of a previous mission, and it scared me silly. It was not called a drop incorrectly. The doors opened, the grav seal on the pylon turned off and the Dropship literally dropped out of the bottom of the ship, and continued falling into the atmosphere of a planet, and it wasn’t until it was through that control was taken up again. Although control seemed to be a loose description. Only a few hundred meters up from the ground, the ship suddenly began to defy gravity and then suddenly it was on the ground, with the ramp already down, without so much as a solid thump. The return trip was just a straight boost into orbit, letting the AI dock the Dropship back inside its hanger bay.

“Your turn to try one,” said Abigail.

A few minutes later the Dropship was on the ground all right, spread thinly across it in little pieces. Abigail laughed at me.

“Sorry,” she said, “that wasn’t fair. Most drop pilots get extensive training before even getting into a ship. Try it again, and this time pull out a lot earlier. Better we take a few minutes longer to get there, than end there permanently. On the other hand, don’t pull up too early or you make us a target to be taken out before we can land. Run it as many times as you need.”

By the time Betty reminded me of the impending jump, I was soaked in sweat, mentally and physically exhausted. But I’d got us down in one piece on the last three tries. I headed back to the cockpit of Moose.

The jump into Melbourne system was just the same as the last jump. I gave the crew a warning of the jump, and we went through hot. I put us on a direct course for the planet.

“What’s the fastest course to get us planet side?” I asked Betty. She showed me a curving course. It started us offline to the planet but cut fifteen minutes off the time. I shifted us around on to that course and locked it in.

“Hunter, why aren’t we pointed at the planet?” came up from below.

“Faster course this way. ETA ninety minutes,” I yelled back.

I sat back and tried to relax, but that wasn’t working. I went in to the fresher and washed the sweat off my face and neck. A scared face looked back at me in the mirror. I was so far outside my comfort zone with this it was a wonder I wasn’t freaking out. I went back to the cockpit, and tried meditating.

You have been ignoring this. You have been ignoring your spiritual work.

Yes, I had. I’d killed five times and had not done the release work that demanded.

Betty brought me out of the meditation. “Co-ordinates confirmed, adjusting course plot.”

I headed back down to the briefing room looking for Amanda. I found BA instead. She was cleaning a huge gun. I looked at it.

“Pulse rifle” she said.

“I wanted to ask a few questions, if you have a moment.”

“Shoot.”

“How effective are these suits?”

“You mean, how much fire can they protect you from?” I nodded. “They will take a number of shots from a handgun without problem as long as you are not getting hit rapidly and repeatedly. After a while, the suit will lose cohesion and a shot will take you out. They will take a shot from one of these babies as well, but only one at a time and you better make sure it’s a long time between them. Those of us heading out will be wearing armoured suits. You shouldn’t have to leave the cockpit, so you will have the Dropship acting as armour for you.”

“Who’s going out?”

“I am, Amanda and Aleesha. Aline and Agatha will be in the turrets. The Colonel and Alana will be on door guns. Abigail stays here so she can access everything we might need.”

“Thanks.” She nodded.

The briefing room filled up. I looked around. This was a group of professional soldiers, elite troops. What the hell was I doing here with them?

“No change in the data people. Suit up and take your positions.” Everyone left, but the Colonel turned to me. “Hunter, stay in the cockpit until our orbital position is confirmed. I want us directly above that building. When that is set, run for the Dropship, and prepare to drop on my mark. Unless I give you other instructions, you stay in the Dropship cockpit ready to move it at a moment’s notice. With luck, they will be waiting on the roof for us, and it’s a quick grab and run. If not, the situation becomes fluid and we play it as it comes at us.”

“Sir,” I responded.

We both left in different directions. On the way back, I stopped at a fresher and emptied my bladder, and washed my face again.

I still looked like a scared kid.

[] Twenty One

Back in the cockpit, I strapped in. I studied the HUD, checking on all ship activity around the planet. All of it was civilian, and there were no threats. I double checked our orbit point, and it was clear.

I’d seen a lot of flat screens and hollo’s of missions like this. I knew much of the mission speak, but who knew if it was what was actually used or just entertainment? I guess I’d find out. They would either understand me or they wouldn’t. Bit late now to find out your pilot spoke another language, but you get what you get when you take who is available with zero notice. I chuckled silently to myself.

“Combat Coms is now active, everyone check in.” Abigail through the PC. I waited until last and said my name like the others.

“Two minutes to orbit,” I said. It seemed like the expected thing to say at that point.

The planet was huge in the view screen now, blotting out the stars. I dragged my gaze away and concentrated on Betty’s course. We dropped into orbit precisely in position. Quick correction thrusters and we were in parking orbit.

“On station,” I said. “Heading for the Dropship now.”

I unbuckled, leapt out of the chair and ran for the Dropship bay. The walkway clanged as I ran across it. Inside, I closed the hatch and locked it.

“Hatch closed,” I said.

“Walkway detached,” said Abigail. After a pause, she went on, “Walkway clear.”

I sat in the pilot seat and quickly buckled up. I brought all systems up, and hovered my finger over the drop button on the console.

“Vacuum achieved. Doors opening.” Pause. “Clear to Drop.”

“DROP!”

I stabbed the button and we dropped cleanly out the bottom of the ship. A line from a very old flat screen came to mind.

“Express Elevator to Hell, Going DOWN!”

“Shut up Hunter.” It came from someone, but I couldn’t tell who.

“Shit, did I say that out loud? Sorry.” I went red in the face. Concentrate. Focus or we all die.

The Dropship was in the atmosphere now, and outside the ship was the fire of re-entry surrounding our shields. The view screen had darkened the moment it started. Even so, the flames were beautiful and for a moment I was mesmerized by them. Then we were through. I watched the decent rate closely. At fifty thousand meters, I started regaining control. The thrusters on the bottom of the ship fired and our descent slowed. ‘Slowed’ was relative, we were like a meteor streaking downward. At fifteen thousand meters, we shot past a civilian airliner. Not close enough to upset either of us, but a little close for comfort. I applied full breaking thrusters and we slowed faster now.

A city was underneath us. The target was a building top.

From this far up, it was like intending to land on the head of a pin.

“Five thousand meters,” I called out.

“Stand ready,” came from the Colonel.

Buildings were definable now, and coming up closer far too fast. Had I got the descent right or not?

No, I hadn’t. I knew it suddenly without any data.

“Hang on,” I yelled.

“Shit, don’t yell,” someone yelled back.

We were going just a bit too fast and at that speed, we would hit the top of the building hard enough to cave in the top few floors. Shit. Shit. Shit!

“Stop swearing Hunter.” Damn it, I’d verbalized again.

At the last moment, I threw us to the left and we kept on going past the upper floors of the building and came to a hover fifteen floors down. Immediately I set the ramp to come down and took us back up. I eased us gently over the top of the building, and dropped us on one side of the largest flat area. Three suited figures were out and running before I even touched us down. The whole area erupted in laser tracks. Return fire came from the turrets and the ramp.

“Hunter, get us up again.” I lifted us off and moved us away from the building out of small arms range.

“Where are our people Colonel?” I asked.

“Five floors down on the south side. They are pinned down,” she replied.

“Are they near windows?”

“Negative.”

“See if they can get to windows, if so, we can evac them from there.”

“Will do.” I don’t know if she believed me or not, but she hadn’t questioned it.

Target lock warning went off. I immediately took us up and away and got some speed up.

“Target lock on us. Gunners, we have an incoming bird,” I cried out.

A red dot was coming at us on the HUD. I got a lock on it.

“Target locked, strafing fire as we go past.”

I steadied us around on to a head on course. I had no intension of playing chicken, but head on gave us full guns on target. The missile warning tone sounded.

“Missile lock, take it out,” I shouted. Laser fire poured out in front of me from all sides and there was an explosion ahead of us. I pushed the thrust to maximum, and then juked us sideways and off the line of the other craft. Laser fire raked it as we went past and it exploded behind us. I eased up our speed and started heading back, mindful of buildings all around.

“Team is at the windows on the south side,” said the Colonel.

“Can you rig up something to catch them using the crash webbing?”

“Doing it.”

“Alison, do you hear me?” I said next.

“That you Hunter?”

“No, it’s the Easter Bunny, where do I collect your eggs?”

“Homing beacon on tach five.” I checked and there it was.

“Got you. Kill the windows, prepare to jump.”

“Say again, jump?”

“Affirmative, wait for my mark.”

“Colonel, are we ready to receive yet?”

“DO IT.”

“Doing it,” I parroted.

I pushed the drop ship around the building to the south side and then down past the marked window. Glass shattered its way out and started down towards the street.

“Everybody hang on, ninety degree shift in ten seconds.”

I ease the Dropship around and then stood it on its tail, rotating us to be flat to the building with the ramp about three meters below the window, and ‘landed’ us against the side of the building. My own position was above the window so I couldn’t see what was going on. My left foot throbbed in response to its misuse.

“Alison, jump now.”

There was a pause.

“All on board. Home team still out. Go,” said the Colonel.

I eased us away from the building, flattened us out again gently and floated us upwards.

“BA, where are you?” I asked.

“Two floors down from the roof. Beacon on tach four.”

“Got you. How far can you jump?”

“Thirty meters if we have to.”

I eased us into position about fifteen meters off the building with the ramp on the level with the windows.

“Colonel, incoming home team, clear for hot entry.”

“Clear.”

“In position BA, fifteen meter jump. Go when ready.”

There were a series of thumps behind and below me.

“All aboard, move us Hunter,” said the Colonel.

I closed the ramp, angled us upward, and punched in for speed. There was a little fire at us as we sped past the top of the building but it all missed behind us. At one thousand meters, I slowed us and went into a broad circle.

“Where too Colonel?”

“Sending you co-ordinates,” came the reply.

I checked where. Another building top.

“Friend or foe?” I asked.

“Should be friendly.” I assumed that meant if it was not, we were in deep shit.

I set a course and we quickly covered the distance. I dropped us neatly on the bull’s eye of the landing pad on the roof, and lowered the ramp. Someone came up behind me. A pair of arms wrapped themselves around me, chair and all. I felt a kiss on the top of my head.

“Thanks Jon,” said Alison. “That was incredible flying. I’ve never seen someone land on the side of a building before.”

“Well no-one told me it couldn’t be done.”

“You did it with style!” She pecked me on the cheek, let me go and headed off back and down.

While I was waiting, I listened to what was being spoken by the rest of the team, and kept checking both the local skies, the traffic around the planet, and via a link to Moose, the traffic in system. There were no threats showing up. Whoever had attacked us either didn’t have back-up, or had decided we were too tough to take on. Either way, I was glad of the break. At last, it sounded like the client had been safely delivered, and our team was on its way back. Some clanking noises drifted up to me, and I assumed our suited troops were back on board.

“Back to the ship, Hunter,” said the Colonel.

I raised the ramp, smoothly lifted us off, and set a course upward. When we were high enough up, I pushed the thrust fully forward and we rocketed up into the atmosphere, and through it. I started sweating again when I realized now I had to dock the Dropship back up into the hanger bay. A funny thought popped in that the Dropship did in fact ‘hang’ there so it was aptly named. I giggled and nearly lost it. Half humour, half terror I think. I got a grip again. I looked up the specs for the Dropship. Yes! Just next to the connect point on top, there was a cam. I activated it and threw the feed on to the HUD, out of the way, but where it was straight on for me to see easily. Shortly after, Moose came into sight ahead.

“Dropship to Moose, permission to dock.”

“Moose to Dropship, permission granted, welcome back.”

I eased the Dropship under the hanger opening, matching speeds with Moose. Then very gently I goosed the underside thrusters and we rose up into the hangar space. I kept my eyes glued to the topside cam view. Slow, slower, slight adjustments to get us fitting perfectly. A soft clang sound as we connected. The pylon took our weight and the doors began to close.

“Good job Hunter,” came from the Colonel right behind me and I startled. I’d been concentrating so hard I hadn’t detected her coming in.

“Join us in the mess as soon as you finish shut-down.” She turned and left without waiting for a reply.

While I shut down the Dropship’s systems, Abigail aired up the hangar space. I was still last one out though, and not knowing if I should or not, closed the hatch behind me. I was completely exhausted and my left foot was bothering me badly. My limp was worse than normal. I used the first fresher I found, then I walked into the briefing room and no one was there. I looked around in surprise for a moment before realizing I was in the wrong place. I had to look up the ship plan to find where the mess was. A mess heading to the mess. I started giggling again and walked into the door frame. Left side, of course. That was it. I had to sit down for a bit. I took a seat against the wall, and went straight to sleep.

“Wake up sleeping beauty!” roused me and I felt the soft brush of lips on mine. I opened my eyes to find Amanda in front of me.

“How long was I out?” I asked.

“Not long. When you didn’t come into the mess behind us, I went looking for where you had gotten to. Come along, you need some food.” I couldn’t argue that.

She led me to the mess and I got cheered in. I must have looked puzzled because they started laughing.

[] Twenty Two

Sometime later, I woke up in a bunk. I don’t remember eating; or anything that was said in the mess. I had a powerful need for the fresher and had to look up where I was and where the nearest one was. Should have guessed there was a full bathroom attached to the bunk room, but I was still groggy. Not enough sleep. Or too much? Checked. No, not enough. I did the needed and went looking for the mess. I needed something more to eat and a lot of water.

The mess was empty, but there was food and water, so I helped myself. I settled down at a table and chomped away for a time, gurgling down water in between bites. I started to feel human again. I racked my dishes, and headed for the cockpit. There was no one there either. Had I woken to a modern day Marie Celeste? I pulled up the life support system and checked for life signs. Ah, all in the briefing room, most likely debriefing I suspected.

I began checking what was around us. Nothing untoward showed. For the first time I noticed Melbourne had both an Orbital station and a jump point station. There was a steady traffic between the two, although I noticed no activity around the jump point. I guess things being the way they were with pirate activity, not a lot wanted to risk going out into Nexus. It must be playing havoc with interplanetary trade, I thought.

Heavy footsteps came in behind me. I turned and saw George.

“Great,” he said, “you’re up. Colonel wants us boosting for the jump point, and since you’re here, I can get my head down for a while. By the way, thanks for the pickup. That was some very impressive flying back there.” I made non-committal noises. “No seriously,” he went on, “I couldn’t have done half what you did. Given how old you are, and your lack of experience, some of us are beginning to think you are some sort of ‘pilot savant’.” He grinned at me and left before I could comment. Just as well he left, as I didn’t take that comment all too well. If I recalled properly, Savant was usually associated with low IQ and some limited brilliant ability. I definitely had a higher than average IQ and my piloting ability was good enough to miss hitting a building. I forgave him and went back to work.

I turned us towards the jump point and got us moving. I pushed us up to cruising speed and sat back to try and relax for a bit, while I had some alone time.

Releases.

Now was as good a time as any. At home, we believed that any negative event between two people showed the presence of karma between the two. The bigger the event, the worse the karma. We took karma seriously. One of the books surviving from the twenty first century was called “The Wisdom of the Ages, Accrued Karma”. The original book still exists in our main museum, but its digital copy was owned by almost everyone. It was required reading almost as soon as you could read. From it we learned how to release karma, and this was a very important part of our belief system. I’d been lax in letting it go so long, but I figured I had a good excuse. Excuses are not reasons however.

I closed my eyes, confident I would be alerted if anything needed my attention. I rested my hands on my thighs, palms down. Ordinarily, people meditate with their palms up, but I found while I meditate, reiki energy usually flowed, and so I had my palms resting on my legs as a means of using that healing energy. I slip into a meditative state really easily as most of us do, when trained from an early age. My breathing slowed, I allowed thoughts to slow and stop. About ten minutes later, I allowed thoughts to start again. I cast about for the name of the man who had killed my Uncle.

“I accept all karmic debt with Louis Santiago and release all karmic debt into the earth.” I stopped. I was in space, how could I release into the earth when there was none anywhere near me. Should I use Melbourne?

Use Mother Earth. She, who was home to you all before the dispersal, can still receive the energy of your release. No matter where you are.

I started again. “I accept all karmic debt with Louis Santiago, and release all karmic debt to Mother Earth for renewal into good energy, at all the levels, in all the bodies, in this lifetime and all lifetimes, across space, time and dimension, through all levels of dna, attached or not, and through my soul lineage and soul extensions, forgiving myself unconditionally and forgiving anyone else connected to this unconditionally, with healing to be given now.”

I started coughing. And kept coughing for several minutes. Physical release often comes with such a release statement. We were taught to just let it out however it manifested. For me, it was usually coughing.

I repeated the release for the other four pilots, even though I’d only known the name of one of them. Followed by releases for the three men who had tried to kill me on the station. The coughing became shorter as I went down the list.

A pop-up reminded me we were close to the jump point now, so I ended my meditation. I slowed the ship as we came near and manually jumped us.

“Thanks for the warning,” came wafting in from somewhere.

“Sorry,” I yelled back.

I turned us towards the Sydney jump point and eased us back up to cruising speed. I checked out what could be ‘seen’ of the Nexus system and there was no traffic of any kind. I went back to meditating.

Another pop-up alerted me to the approach of the Sydney jump point, and again, I slowed us for jump. This time though, I remembered to make an announcement. I pulled up the combat coms overlay and activated the link.

“This is your pilot speaking. We are preparing for jump. Please return your seat to its upright position, make sure your tray table is stowed and your luggage is securely under the seat in front of you. We ask that you turn off all hand held electronic devises and that your safety belt is fastened securely. Thank you.”

I won’t repeat what was said in reply.

We entered the jump zone and I triggered the jump.

A combat warning went off immediately. There was a Gladiator in red between the station and us. Fortunately it was not very close to us as if it had been patrolling back and forth and we got lucky. I spun the ship one hundred and eighty degrees, pushed the thrust forward to maximum, and got more unmentionable comments.

We were unarmed I thought, all we can do is run.

Unarmed my arse I thought. I grinned.

“Battle Stations,” I said. “We have a Pirate Gladiator in pursuit. I’m running but it will catch us. George, get up here NOW. Crew the Dropship and man all its guns. The rest of you, get to an airlock and if you see a missile, shoot the fucker.”

Our first problem was missiles. Our enemy potentially had twenty, and that was plenty to kill us. I doubted anyone would kill a missile with a pulse rifle, shooting from an airlock, but better to die trying than not try at all. I had to even up the odds.

George came running in and I unbuckled and leapt out of the seat.

“You have the ship,” I said. “Keep running as hard as you can. When he fires missiles, try your best to avoid them, but keep as much distance as you can because if he uses guns, we have no defense at all.”

“What are you doing?” he said to my retreating back as I ran for the Dropship hangar.

“Going to even up the odds. Abigail, can you jam his computer systems at all?”

“Never tried before. I’ll see what I can do,” she replied.

“I’m at the hatch, move the walkway and start opening the doors. We can’t wait to save the air.”

“Gotcha.”

The walkway started moving as I stepped off it, and I quickly slammed the hatch and locked it. I ran to the cockpit and started her up.

“Who’s on board the Dropship?” I asked.

“Aline, Agatha, Alana and myself,” answered the Colonel.

“Stand by for a missile attack. We must take those out before they can hit Moose. Brace yourselves, I may have to throw us around a lot out there. I’ll be lowering the ramp as soon as we are clear of the ship, so get on air now.”

“Understood. Do it.”

The doors locked open and I dropped us straight out. I lowered the ramp and quickly matched speed with Moose. The Dropship was faster, but not by much. I took us up and over the ship, and carefully hovered over the rear hull, not quite to the end. I took a deep breath and twirled us one hundred and eighty degrees, setting us down on the hull. I’d timed it almost right – we were sitting right on the end of the hull, overlooking the drives. Coming along behind us was the Gladiator. His icon on the HUD was showing bounties, so we were justified in taking him out if we could.

The missile lock tone sounded. “Heads up, missiles launched.”

Eight point defense guns opened up. The first three missiles all exploded well short of our shields. There was a pause and we had six more incoming. The defensive fire took out the first five. There was nothing I could do but sit there and watch. George took evasive action and the missile went past one side, suddenly exploding as it turned inward. The Gladiator pilot sent the next six off in slightly different trajectories. We got four, but two of them hit different shields. The next attempt went the same, four down, two hit. I checked on Moose’s shielding. It was holding, but only just. We had to hold the Gladiator off so it couldn’t use guns. I took a gamble that it was out of missiles, and lifted us off the back of Moose.

“Brace yourselves. I’m going to try and get you into position where you can continuously fire at his shields. Your guns can’t hurt his hull too much, but given time, we can shred the shields.”

“Stop talking and do it.”

I grinned. I pushed us up to full speed and head to head with an enemy. Like the last time, I wasn’t playing chicken. I waited until just before we reached what I thought was gun range for the Gladiator and threw us to the side. The gunners raked him as we went past. I turned as sharply as I could, and it was obvious right then I had a major advantage in maneuverability. I used it. He had tried the same thing, turning to bring his guns to bear, but I was turning inside him. One of our turrets was firing all the time while we went around in tight circles. Suddenly he broke out of the circle and I compensated and put us on his tail. Now all the guns were firing. I kept on his tail like I was glued on. He tried very hard to avoid our fire, but he couldn’t completely escape it no matter what he did. I kept an eye on the shields, watching as we slowly nibbled away at them. At last they went down. I put on as much speed as I could, came along the top side of the Gladiator, and landed on top of it.

I opened a channel to the Gladiator pilot. “Surrender or Die,” I said.

The reply was all expletives, so I took that as a ‘die’ answer.

I unbuckled, and ran to the ladder. I activated my suit into space suit mode, hunted through the suit menu and found a magnetic boots option and selected it. I extracted the air in the top section of the ship, opened the hatch over the ladder, slid down, and grabbed a pulse rifle from the rack. I ran down the ramp passed a startled Colonel and jumped down onto the Gladiator. My boots stuck to the hull. I walked around to the hatch. I selected continuous fire on the pulse rifle, aimed at the hatch and kept firing until the hatch was breached and there was an explosive decompression. I continued until there was a hole large enough for me to get in. Once I was inside, I connected up to the nearest air point, and peered into the cockpit.

The pilot was gone. Fragments from the door must have sliced through the pilot and decompression had exploded the body.

My guts heaved and I threw up. My suit adapted immediately, opening a small hole around my mouth. I doubled over, and emptied my stomach on to the deck. By the time the retching had stopped and the suit had resealed itself, my lips and mouth were freezing cold.

I heard “Pay up sucker!” From the background.

I looked around in the living area, found the clean-bot interface and gave them instructions to clean the cockpit area.

“Hunter, sitrep,” said the Colonel.

“I’m inside, the pilot is dead. It’s not a pretty sight. I’ve got the clean-bots working on it. The ship should be fine. There are some holes in the bed, but I was not planning on a nap so it won’t matter. The hatch is toast. I’m on ship air. I suggest George comes by and Betty can dock the Dropship. If George takes you back to the station, I’ll take the Gladiator to the shipyard and take a shuttle to the station. I’ll meet up with you there.”

“Approved.” She gave orders to George, who brought Moose to a stop directly above the Dropship. The ramp was raised, the Dropship rose away from the Gladiator, and slowly entered the hanger bay. The doors closed.

“How long will you be, Hunter?”

“Not sure. The bots look about half done. As soon as I can get into the seat, I’ll be along after you.”

“Good, don’t be too long.”

Moose accelerated away towards the station, and I checked on what the bots were doing. While I waited, I pulsed my overlays and preferences to the ship computer. It accepted them immediately. That bothered me as it was too easy. I added a code lock to my preferences so no ship of mine could be taken over by someone else so easily. When the bots finally finished, I climbed into the pilot’s seat, and set a course for the shipyard.

Nearing the shipyard, I called. “Hunter to shipyard.”

“Shipyard to Hunter. That you old son?”

I laughed. “Who else would it be wanting docking permission for a ship he doesn’t know the name of?”

“Too true. Dock in bay five, see you soon.”

Docking went smoothly. For the first time, I didn’t fall off the steps. Bob met me at the bottom.

“Another adjudication job I’m afraid. Not sure who it should be awarded to, though. I was part of a Mercenary outfit at the time, so it probably should go to them,” I said.

“Not a problem, I’ll send off the ‘paperwork’ immediately. What did you do to this one?”

“Just the hatch and bed. Oh, and the pilot. Everything else should be fine. Oh, one other thing.”

I told him what I wanted. He laughed and said he would get on to it. We parted and I headed to the shuttle bay to be taken over to the station.

They were waiting for me. They all looked angry. BA came forward and thrust her face right in front of mine.

“What in the name of tarnation did you think you were doing?” she yelled into my face. I flinched.

“First you start giving orders with no warning. That’s the Colonel’s job. Then you fly like a maniac so that your crew have to hang on like grim death to avoid being thrown out. THEN you jump off the damn ship and capture a fighter single handed. What sort of a damn fool stunt do you think that was? THAT’S MY JOB YOU PILLOCK!”

I stepped back from her in shock. Now that she wasn’t so close, I could see everyone else’s faces. They were all grinning.

BA grinned too. Then she stepped forward and hugged me. Everyone joined in.

As the hug broke up, I said “I feel like dinner.”

“Actually, it’s breakfast time,” said Amanda. We’d been gone all night. “You need your muesli.” I mimed gagging. Everyone laughed.

“Where’s the best place on the station for breakfast?” I asked. “I’m buying.”

“No,” said the Colonel. “I’m buying.”

She led us off, and we ate together as a team. Not my favourite meal of the day, but it was a good one all the same. While we were eating, an email came in from the Mercenary Guild, which I had now rigged for priority notifications. My kill score was now listed as six. I had several new notations on my profile. ‘Outstanding Dropship Pilot’ and ‘Proficient at ship boarding’. Colonel Smith caught my eye after I stopped looking glazed.

She winked at me.

[] Twenty Three

When we got back to the hotel after breakfast, I crashed. I’d no sooner stretched out on the bed than I was asleep. When I awoke, it was mid-afternoon. I was alone. I was still in my combat suit, so I changed it back to a belt, stripped off my briefs and went into the bathroom for a long hot shower. When I padded out in new briefs and socks, I found the clothes I’d left on Moose lying on the bed. I hung the jeans and shirt up to be cleaned, and put on new jeans and shirt, shoes and yesterday’s jacket, since it had my badges on it. I found Amanda in the sitting room, looking blank. I started toward her hoping to surprise her, but she looked at me before I got half way.

“Food?” I said.

“Get a snack, but we are all doing dinner in the hotel restaurant at seven,” she responded.

The makings of ham salad sandwiches were where I expected them to be and shortly after, I was sitting reading emails while munching away. It was the usual lot. More credits had gone into my account for the latest pirate. Which reminded me I needed to do a release. I stopped, did a mini meditation and the release right then. Amanda looked up as I started coughing but I gave her a thumbs up to say it was ok. I went back to emails. The Gladiator I had captured had been adjudicated to me. I pinged Bob to see if the project I’d asked for was on track. He pinged back that it was. I pinged the General’s aide to let the General know I was back from the Mercenary mission and there was another Gladiator available they could buy from Bob. Likely was they already knew, but it didn’t hurt to make sure. I got an acknowledgement back. I looked up the local badge maker on the station, and ordered another set of mine. Also the ribbon for my medal, so I could add it to appropriate ‘uniforms’, where a medal ribbon was expected, but the whole medal was not worn. I also ordered a medal case. The smallest held six, so that had to do. I figured my parents would love to see it, so I better keep it safe and sound to show them one day.

I looked up to see Amanda advancing towards me. I grinned at her. This time I wasn’t doing any jumping in surprise. She rolled her eyes at me.

“Civvies for dinner. You will be fine as you are. Give me a minute to wash up and change and we will head down. Everyone else is on the way already.”

I’d obviously lost some time again. What had been a bonus before exams was now proving to be tiresome. At this rate, I’d have to start setting alarms or I’d miss everything. I picked up a gun from the charger and added it to my right holster. Amanda came out wearing a very stylish outfit, somewhat marred by the gun on her thigh.

“Real clothes,” she admitted with a sly look.

“Fabulous,” I responded and offered her my arm. She took it, and we headed out.

The restaurant was filled to capacity when we arrived. The Colonel could be seen at a large round table, and we moved on over. She waved me to a spot at the table. I saw George was already opposite me, which must have taken creative place setting to achieve. There were eleven of us, so he should have been off center to me. The others arrived one or two at a time. I found Amanda on one side of me and Alison on the other. Aleesha was beside George, opposite Amanda. I gaped for a moment. Amanda and Aleesha were wearing different clothes!

Aleesha saw me looking and laughed. The rest joined in, so I did as well. It was a good start to a dinner party.

“How often do you two not wear the same thing?” I asked Amanda.

“Not often. Just special occasions like this one.”

“What’s the occasion?”

“New client. The one we rescued. She was so impressed with how Alison and George foiled the assassination attempt before anyone knew it was underway, and kept most of her party alive as they retreated up the building. Then, when all seemed lost, their miraculous, if terrifying, jump off the building to safety.”

Alison added “Apparently the media on Melbourne went wild over the footage of the rescue. Landing a ship on the side of the building has never been done before as far as anyone knows. And the wonder is that you didn’t break any glass at all. No one can work out how you did it.”

“Don’t look at me,” I said, “I’m just the pilot.” A chuckle went round the table.

“Our profile has increased a great deal. We are already receiving enquiries for our services. I’ve been putting off the media demands for interviews.” The Colonel was serious. I nodded. I didn’t want to be interviewed, and I figured I had too much attention already.

“It has leaked out that you flew the Dropship, so don’t be surprised if you get job offers out of it. Your escapades keep making headlines,” said Alison.

I winced. Everyone laughed.

“How did the ship pull up after the mission? Any damage?” I asked.

“None we can find. But the Shipyard has recalled Moose for some issue in the new engine they want to look for, and if need be, fix, before it actually becomes a problem. She is going in for the maintenance tomorrow first thing. So if you want to come over with us, you can check out the progress on your new ship.” I nodded. “Oh seven hundred then.” I nodded again.

“Does that mean I get out of flying her tomorrow, Annabelle?” asked George. I started at the familiarity, but then, it was a social occasion.

“No you do not,” she answered forcefully. George looked downcast until Aleesha hit him on the arm and he started grinning.

“When are we going to get a replacement pilot?” he went on.

“I have a job listing at the guild. There have been several applications, but no-one up to standard yet. Hopefully someone will turn up soon. In the meantime, if Jon is available, we will use him.”

“He better be,” said BA forcefully. She froze as everyone looked at her, then shrugged and started playing with her napkin.

“Depends when my ship is completed and what happens after that. The future is somewhat open-ended for me at this point,” I said.

“Why won’t you join us?” asked Alana.

“He has good reasons, and it isn’t because he doesn’t like us. So just leave it there,” said Annabelle.

“Actually, one of those reasons is to do with that pirate we encountered. Was he there by random chance, or did he know we were on our way back from Melbourne. Was he waiting for us, or was he waiting for me? Only one fighter suggests they considered us an easy target. Maybe they were just after me, or maybe it was all of us, because you escaped them once before and you have been protecting me since. Until this sorts itself, I’m a target. While danger is your business, there is acceptable risk, and there is stupidity, and for now, it looks like the more I fly with you, the more the latter will be the case.”

“Well said,” said George.

Alana nodded to me. As an explanation, it was nowhere near the whole one, but it seemed to be enough. I wasn’t sure how much they realized we had been lucky with that pirate – although luck for one often went with stupidity of the other. Had I been on the Gladiator, I’d have had the jump point staked out at point blank range, and taken us out before we could have reacted. He had to have been patrolling, and that seemed to indicate a lack of discipline. I’d take it if it meant surviving another day.

I flicked a glance at BA, and she nodded as well. I was turning back, when my eye caught the perfectly shaped pulse rifle sitting next to her cutlery. I’d never seen anyone do that with a napkin before. My eyes sought hers. She seemed to be daring me to say something along the lines of ‘tough guys don’t do origami’ but I was impressed and mouthed ‘nice’ to her with a nod. She nodded in reply.

All during this discussion, drinks had been served. The waiter came around taking our food selections. I again opted for the steak, chips and salad. It was a favourite of mine and I did tend to stick to the same food.

“How would you like your steak done sir?” I was asked.

“Medium to well done,” I said. “I don’t like it burnt, but I also don’t like it getting up off the plate.” It was my normal response.

The table erupted in laughter, with the exception of Amanda who had heard it before. The waiter gave me a look and moved on. Local conversations started up around the table. Alison leaned in close.

“I haven’t had a chance yet to thank you properly,” she said.

“No need. All in a day’s work, you know,” I said with a smile.

“Yeah right. For us maybe, but the way I heard it, you were not even asked to volunteer. You got shanghaied.” That stumped me for a moment. I hadn’t even noticed that, even though the Colonel had used that term.

“I’m a sucker for a damsel in distress,” I said.

Amanda laughed so hard everyone else stopped and looked at us. We didn’t bother explaining.

Alison leaned over even closer.

“Well this ‘damsel’ has a special thank you for her knight in shining armour in mind for later,” she whispered in my ear. And with that she leaned back and started talking to Abigail on her other side. I didn’t correct her that I’d been in dull red leather look at the time, and not shiny armour. But that was a thought. I pinged George to consider making up a medieval knight overlay for the suit. He glazed, chuckled and nodded to me.

Dishes started arriving and I dug into my food. As I ate, I watched the interplay going on around the table. This group were not only a team, they were good friends as well. I wondered how they were coping with losing their last pilot, if they were all this close. That however, was a question I was not going to ask. No point in reopening wounds.

I ordered desert. Chit-chat was going on around me and I participated as I could. Eventually the dishes were cleared away. A waiter appeared at my side again.

“Coffee sir?”

“Not unless you like cleaning up messes,” I said. A ripple of silence flowed out from the table as if I’d dropped a bombshell.

“What?” I said. “I loathe coffee. Even the smell of it makes me want to throw up.” Everyone looked at me as if I was nuts. Maybe I was.

“Tea sir?”

“No thanks. My parents made me make the tea when I was younger. One day I suddenly realized the reason I put five spoons of sugar in it was I really didn’t like the stuff.”

“Cocoa?”

“No thanks. I love chocolate, but I’m watching my waist line.” Amanda laughed so hard she fell out of her chair. BA had to help her up.

“I’m fine,” I said to the waiter.

“Did you know you are weird?” said Aline.

I looked at Amanda and raised my eyebrows at her with a smile.

“He knows. He embraced his weirdness and is now working on making it into an art form,” she said. The whole table laughed and I joined in with them.

As everyone was sipping their coffee, I pinged the manager to ask if the Colonel had asked for the bill yet. He pinged back in the negative. I told him to ignore any request from her and to send me the bill as soon as we were done.

The waiters did another round asking if we needed anything else and with a negative response from all, started clearing away coffee cups. The bill pinged in, I quickly scanned it, then trigged the payment interface, added a healthy tip and paid it.

“What did you just do?” demanded Annabelle.

“I fixed up the bill,” I replied. I held up a hand before she could protest. “It’s my pleasure too. I’ve always been credit-strapped and so was never able to do things for others. Well I recently came into a few credits, and since this is the first real time I could afford to do anything for others, and I might be dead tomorrow and not able to spend them, I’m enjoying being able to do so now. I really enjoyed tonight and it’s my way of saying thank you.”

“Group hug,” I said to cut off any further comment. Everyone gathered round and we hugged for a couple of minutes.

The Colonel said “Tomorrow is a free day for everyone except George, Amanda and Aleesha. You’re welcome to come over to the shipyard with us if you like, but by all means go do your own thing. I’ll ping you if the repairs take longer than expected.” I had a guess they would but didn’t voice it.

With that, they started drifting off.

Alison took me by the right arm, Amanda by the left. Aleesha came up behind me silently and goosed me. I jumped. They all laughed.

[] Twenty Four

“What next?” I asked. “The night is young, and so are we.”

“Night club?” suggested Alison. There was a mumble of agreement.

“Lead the way fair damsel,” I said, but she didn’t let go of my arm and it was Aleesha who led the way.

At the entrance to the night club, we had to surrender our guns.

“It’s ok,” said Amanda. “BA has the perimeter.”

We headed inside and found it was Disco night. Against all the odds, discos had survived for over six hundred years. It was one of those things no-one could explain. The DJ was still a disc jockey, even though there had not been a disc outside a museum in hundreds of years.

The floor was moderately covered with dancers all engaged in free form expression. The tempo wasn’t particularly fast but we joined them anyway. I found it a bit slow for my tastes. I pinged the DJ to ask if he took requests, and if so could I send him some files. A yes came back. I pulsed him three oldies but goodies, that I had stored in my old PC files. A little while later, on came ‘Sing Hallelujah’. The tempo was considerably faster and I started moving on the toes of my feet. There was a slight complaint from my left foot, but I was bouncing around so much that there was never much weight on it. The ladies started following my movements and soon the whole dance floor was moving rapidly and chaotically. The next song was ‘Baby Baby’ and by now I was really moving around the dance floor. No-one kept up with me, but that was ok because I needed space, as I was continually a split second away from being totally off balance. Immediately after came ‘Rhythm was a Dancer’. I moved into high gear and even got a three sixty spin in without falling over. Alison caught up with me as I began to tire. As the song ended, I stopped completely, beamed a smile around, flipped a wave at the DJ and limped off looking for somewhere to sit down. All I could find was a table with stools around it so I sat on one of those. The ladies joined me.

“What was that?” Amanda demanded loudly. “Let me guess, more twenty first century stuff?”

“Late 1980’s actually,” I said.

“And what the hell were you doing?” asked Aleesha.

“Dancing, I think. That’s what I did at home, anyway. No-one seemed to care back there.”

“I think the crowd liked the music,” said Alison. “I’ll get us some water,” she added and left.

I was suddenly aware of hits on my social profile, but with three lovelies around me, I wasn’t going to turn on looking mode. I didn’t need to.

The DJ pinged me to ask what else I had. I pulsed him several more, but didn’t go back on to the dance floor when they played. People liked them all the same. We sat there for a while sipping water, soaking in the music. Suddenly everyone started forming lines. I wasn’t familiar with this tune, but Amanda jumped up and pulled us all into a line. I quickly pinged the night club PC for the dance steps and it pulsed them back to me. I set them primary and off we went. Like most line dancing, I was very mechanical about the movements. Specific dance movements were not my thing, so I just let the overrides do the work. The song finished and we stayed on the floor. The DJ pinged me to ask if I had any line dances he didn’t know. I pulsed him two, with the dance step files. Several songs later, ‘the Bus Stop’ started playing. I set its dance steps to primary and started off, waving towards the DJ. Every one stopped and watched for a bit and then started joining in as they accessed the steps. By the time it stopped, I could tell some had cancelled the auto-steps and were dancing naturally, having picked it up easily. The DJ played it again immediately, and by the end, everyone had joined in. Next up was ‘Nutbush’. I set those steps to primary and started off. Some watched, others glazed and followed after me. Again, the DJ played it twice. At the end, I headed for the table again. I needed a drink. The ladies joined me.

“You are full of wonders,” said Amanda.

“He’s full of something alright,” said Aleesha grinning.

Alison just hung on my good arm.

We let a few go by and then went back out on to the dance floor for some slower stuff. Alison took my arms and we fast waltzed around the floor for a bit.

“Where did you learn to dance so well?” she asked in my ear.

“Required learning at lower school,” I replied into her ear.

I pinged the DJ for something slow and several songs later he obliged. Alison pulled in close and put her arms around my neck and mine went around her waist. We stayed like that until the end of the song and left the floor. Amanda and Aleesha turned up as well. I hadn’t seen where they were.

“Time to go?” asked Alison with a grin.

“I think so,” I agreed.

I flipped a sort of salute at the DJ, got one in return and we collected our guns from the front. It was a slow walk back to the hotel for us, or in my case, a slow limp. I had overdone it, but I hadn’t had so much fun in a long time. Sarah hadn’t been much for dancing.

Back in the hotel, there was a round of good nights. Amanda and Aleesha did their commune moment and Aleesha sat in the easy chair overlooking the door, while Amanda headed for the second bedroom with a knowing smirk. Alison led me into my bedroom and started tearing my clothes off.

[] Twenty Five

“RISE AND SHINE CAMPERS!” shocked us awake the next morning. Amanda went on in a more normal voice, “Thirty minutes to departure. Get your skates on.”

Alison and I hurried through shower and dressing, grabbed our guns, and the four of us ran for the ship. Well, ran wasn’t the right word for me, but ‘fast hobble’ wasn’t right either.

We had barely stepped on to the ship, when the hatch closed and the sounds of departure started. I headed up to the cockpit to watch George flying the ship. He backed it out without any problems and had us on our way to the shipyard.

When we arrived, instead of docking, George was given guidance into one of the major repair facilities, which enclosed the entire ship. When Moose was solidly resting on the base of the repair dock, a docking collar attached to the forward airlock and we made our way into the shipyard proper. Bob met us inside.

“What’s all this?” demanded the Colonel. “I was expecting an inspection team at an outside lock, not this.

Bob looked to me.

“I’m sorry Colonel, we got you here under false pretenses. I wasn’t happy that the last Gladiator got adjudicated to me since it was a team effort to take it. So I made a deal with Bob to trade it for some upgrades for Moose. Add some antlers, so to speak. I hope you will accept.”

She looked hard at me, obviously not happy, but not wanting to turn the offer down.

“What were you intending to do?” she said.

Bob replied, “Add four heavy point defense turrets, two up, two down, and a missile launcher forward. It will mean doing a lot of structural strengthening of the hull, as the ship wasn’t designed for this. It will also need a power upgrade and an AI upgrade to provide the military support in case the AI has to run the guns. The turrets will have four guns each, with manual or auto fire capability. They won’t let you take on anything major, but they should keep missiles from hitting you and they will hurt a fighter who takes you on. The launcher will be a fifty magazine with two refills, and allow selection of what you want to fire, if you load it with different types.”

The Colonel’s mouth opened and closed without saying anything.

“Just say yes,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “How long will it take?”

“About two days, maybe three. But you should plan on the third day having a test flight with live firings. Your gunners will need to update themselves to the latest protocols. I know what your Dropship carries, but these are a couple of levels more advanced than they are,” replied Bob.

“Which brings me to part two,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow.

“We want to put a torpedo launcher on the top of the Dropship. It will give the pilot thirty solid direct fire punches that could be used against anything that tries to interfere with a drop mission, and it would be useful in supporting a ground assault. Just needs a pilot with good aim. It won’t interfere with its primary role. It will need some hull strengthening too, and we did check that it would fit into the hanger bay. It will also give the Dropship a side role of a light support fighter should you need one again. As far as I can tell, this hasn’t been done before, although who knows why as its obviously needed. So it will surprise the hell out of whoever you use it against first.”

She smiled at that. And nodded.

“I’ll get on with it then Colonel. I’ll let you know when it’s all done and you can inspect it. Anyone who wants to see the lad’s new ship can follow me.” He went blank for a moment, presumably giving orders, and then strode off. I followed him, as did George.

“We’ll wait for you on the station, ping me when you’re on approach,” yelled Amanda after me. I waved in acknowledgement.

After a good walk, we came to a full build bay. My new ship lay there, seemingly complete. I held my breath for a few moments, and slowly let it out.

“She will be ready for you tomorrow, young Jon. We will be finishing the fitting out-today. You should go shopping for what else you’ll need. Any of the guilds will sell you the maps you need for the nav system. You will need linens for the bed and basic kitchen stuff, and if you plan to be eating aboard, you will need to think about food.”

“Where is Wanderer?” I asked.

“Not far, you want to see her?” replied Bob.

“Yes please.”

“This way then.” He headed off in a new direction. “Oh, by the way, what do you want to call your new ship? We need to register a name.” I thought for a moment.

“Is ‘Excalibur’ being used these days? That would be a good name for what is a new type of Heavy Privateer.”

“Good name,” said George. “I like it.”

Bob glazed over for several minutes as we continued to walk.

“It is not in use in the Australian sector registration. I’ve put in a request for it, subject to it not being used elsewhere. Even then, they may let you have it as a new type of ship regardless, as ship types have preference and it’s not often that the Australian sector puts out a new type or class of ship.”

We stopped at a landing bay.

“Here she is. I will leave you with her and see you tomorrow.” We bade goodbyes and he left.

I looked at Wanderer. She looked alone and rather small, sitting there in the landing bay. It had been less than two weeks since I’d walked aboard her for my first trip in space, and then she had been the largest and most impressive ship I’d seen. I sighed.

George followed me in. The cargo bay still had our trade goods sitting there. I’d completely forgotten we had deliverables. I wondered idly why I hadn’t heard from those taking delivery. We headed into the cockpit, now completely repaired. I sat down in the pilot’s seat and George sat in the jump seat behind. I swiveled round to face him.

“Just think,” I said, “if I’d been sitting in that seat you’re in when we came through the jump, we would all be dead.”

“Small mercies,” he answered. “Why weren’t you?”

“Uncle sent me to the cargo bay for some reason and I was on my way back. Be damned if I can remember why now though.”

“Is it just me or does the ship feel sad?” I looked at him. That showed a bit more perception than I had expected from George.

“It’s not you. The ship does feel sad.”

“What will happen to it?”

“It needs to go back to Outback Orbital. It belongs to the family company. I guess someone in the up and coming generation will get to fly it.”

“It won’t be you.” It was a statement, not a question.

“No, won’t be me. The cosmos seems to have other plans for me than to be a trader captain. I’ll probably tow her back after my ship is complete and run in, and the pirates let up on me. Which reminds me.”

I turned back to the console and started up the main computer. I downloaded the manifest and our purchase list, so I could follow up both. Then shut her down again. I was about to get up, when George stopped me.

“How are you getting on with the ladies?” he asked with a grin. “I gather you have something going on with Alison?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“Pretty much.” His grin got bigger. “You know the twins have the hot’s for you too, don’t you?”

I blushed. This time I did hunt down that override and turned it on. The blush vanished.

“They won’t act on it while they are still guarding you though. Professional code. They have been bending it pretty badly as it is, but they won’t break it.”

“How will that sit with Alison do you think?” I asked.

“She knows she only got a look-in because they couldn’t act. And as I think you know, in our line of work, the next job could be our last, so no one begrudges anyone a good bonk. She knows how the twins feel, and she shares that, so I doubt she will stop them if they decide to act on it before we pull out for our next job. Knowing those three, anything could happen, or nothing. But don’t you tell them I said that, or I’ll never hear the end of it!”

“I won’t. I’m still sorting out how I feel about them. It’s all so new for me. I had a friend back home, Sarah, and we made love the night before I left in case I didn’t come back, which I didn’t. We’d been friends since lower school, and then it got more personal, but we never did anything like share a shower together. It was her idea to take it further, almost as if she knew I’d not be back, and she wanted to remember me a special way, but neither of us really knew what we were doing. Back home we were both sixteen, so it was only just legal. I wasn’t exactly prepared for what has happened here. Other than Sarah, none of the girls paid much attention to me, so I had no expectations. I like all three of them, so it’s very confusing. What about you? Anything happening for you?”

“Not within the team. I know several of the girls like me a lot, but we won’t take it any further than barracks stuff. It’s not worth the risk. I don’t have any trouble finding company when I want some. We mercenary types usually don’t. I just put out a status of ‘available’ when I am looking, and they usually come to me. But that’s partly why I mentioned that to you. Having two very sexy ladies flirting with you but not going any further can be frustrating and I was trying to tell you how to relieve that. As I think you found out, the twins will give you space if you bring someone home with you. Not that I think you will while we are still around. Will we be off first, or you?”

“I don’t know. I’ll be testing the new ship tomorrow, and if that goes ok, I’ll try a test flight somewhere. The pirates are zero for six in three engagements so far. Assuming they are sick of me, then where I go from there is anyone’s guess.”

“Will you let me fly her sometime? I’m not a fighter pilot, but it would be fun to have a go.”

“Sure, let’s see how things go.”

With that, we got up, closed up Wanderer, and headed for the shipyard’s shuttle dock.

[] Twenty Six

I pinged Amanda as were on approach to the station and she met us at the station’s shuttle dock. George went off on his own, and Amanda and I headed for some shopping therapy. I found I needed a woman’s touch when it came to selecting bed ‘stuff’. She wasn’t much use with kitchen stuff, but she knew what Moose carried so was able to point things out for me. I needed another travel sled to be able to carry it all. We stopped off at the Traders Guild so I could get maps for the Australian sector and the adjoining Sci-Fi and American sectors, in case I went there any time soon. We eventually found our way back to the hotel.

The first thing I did was contact the consignees for Wanderer’s cargo. As it turned out, none of them had heard of what had happened and had not expected delivery on any particular date. I cannot say I understood this. However, arrangements were made to pick up the consignments from the shipyard, and I emailed Bob the details so collection could be made.

The next thing I did was look up the purchase list. Most of it was easily obtainable. A few were not. For the first time, I went onto the local exchange market and checked out prices and availability. While I wasn’t yet ready to buy, I wanted to know what I was doing, and if anything was not available. It seemed that Wanderer was how Gaia received specialty goods which we couldn’t make ourselves, and covered this by purchases for Outback Orbital which consumed the bulk of the space. Wanderer also took back the latest in books, hollo’s, music and other entertainment.

I also checked on the price of space-worthy containers. It occurred to me I was in a position to supply a lot more than Outback normally could afford to buy, and while most of it would not get down to the planet for a year, at least it would be on the Orbital waiting, regardless of what I was doing at that time. While I hoped to get back to Outback and Gaia in a year’s time, who knew what tomorrow was going to bring?

However, there was no point in doing anything until I could safely get Wanderer and a cargo to Outback. At the moment, that was problematical at best. Hopefully the new ship would prove to be the difference in convincing the pirates to leave me alone. A part of me didn’t think so, but I could only hope. The alternative wasn’t something I wanted to think about.

Emails took up time as usual. We had a light lunch and went to the Mercenary Guild gun range again. Amanda showed me where to borrow some long guns and I spent some time trying them out. After some practice, I was tested at various ranges. It was a good start and once again I scored in the late seventies. We took several of the assault courses and I had a minor improvement over the previous scores. All I really needed was practice. I needed to schedule some time most days in order to get better scores. That depended on what I was doing, and I didn’t know that yet.

Back at the hotel late in the afternoon, I finally went into the bedroom. It had been cleaned, but on the bedside table I found a little pile of buttons. When I looked at the shirt hanging on the cleaner section of the robe, I found it had none. It seemed Alison really had torn my clothes off last night, quite literally. I had a good chuckle, put shirt and buttons in a hotel bag for mending, hung it outside the suite door, and pinged hotel services to collect it.

Thinking about the hotel, it occurred to me that I’d taken advantage of the hotel for long enough, probably too long. Given that I expected to have my own ship to sleep on the next evening, I pinged the hotel to expect me to check out in the morning. I let Amanda know that as well. Having made the decision, I packed both travel sleds, leaving out only a shirt for the next day. This included my Uncle’s gear, but I was not ready for looking at any of it yet, I just packed it.

Dinner was a quiet affair in the suite. Alison and Aleesha turned up together. I started by telling them their bodyguard duties would formally end in the morning, once they delivered me to my ship, freeing them up for whatever next job the Colonel organized for them. I didn’t know what I would be doing after that, beyond a test flight, but assuming I was around and they were free, I wanted to see all of them again as much as possible as I valued our friendship. I know they considered themselves under some obligation to me still, but I tried to dispel that, and move us on to being good friends instead. We already were, but there was still a ‘client’ barrier there, which I wanted to remove. They took it well, maybe they even anticipated it. The rest of dinner was all small talk and just enjoying good company.

After clearing away, I was surprised when Alison took Amanda’s normal chair and went blank the way Amanda and Aleesha normally did. I looked from her to the twins. They looked at me with identical grins. They both left the sitting room, leaving me wondering what was going on. But not for long. An “Oi” sounded and so I headed into the bedroom to see what they were up to.

Both of them were standing beside the bed. I stopped just inside the door. Amanda motioned me to close it. I did. Then as I watched, both of their suits, in exquisite slow motion, rolled back into their normal belts, leaving them in just their skimpy underwear. They both did something unexpected then. They took their belts off. Both together, they slid their tops off and then their briefs, leaving them standing in front of me in identical nakedness. I’d seen them like this before, but this was really different, much more provocative. A pop-up asked me if I really wanted the override and I answered it with a no. Immediately, my jeans started getting tighter. Moving both together, the twins came over to me, pulled me over to the bed, and slowly took my clothes off. At that point, all restraint ended.

[] Twenty Seven

I was sitting in my command chair, in space.

No ship, no life support, no nothing.

Just me, in my chair, in space.

Two identical women stood behind me.

Another woman stood behind them.

Space around me was not familiar.

As I looked around I saw no planets.

There were many asteroid fields.

In the distance, two gas giants.

A movement in front of me caught my eye.

A black dot had appeared at long range.

As I watched, another dot appeared.

Then another.

Then ten, a hundred, a thousand.

Space in front of me turned black.

The three of us bolted upright in bed at the same time.

For the first time I’d gone to bed with both of the twins.

For the first time, I’d woken up with both of the twins.

I looked at them, they looked at me. I could see it in their eyes.

For the first time, all three of us had experienced the same dream at the same time.

I thumped back down onto my pillow, a very real sense of dread casting a pall over me.

“Did we-” started Amanda.

“Yes,” I broke in.

“The same dream?” asked Aleesha.

“How many behind the chair?” I asked.

“Three,” they both replied.

“Alison,” we all said together.

As if at the mention of her name, Alison poked her head around the corner.

“What just happened?” she asked. “I felt very scared all of a sudden, with no reason why.” She came in.

“All three of us just had the same dream. And you were in it with us,” I answered.

“What does it mean?” All three of them said it together.

“I don’t know. But I think all of you need to plan on going home with me in a year’s time. If anyone knows why we are having the same dream, the Keepers will. And this time I see them, they will be giving me some answers.” I meant that too.

“Why can’t we go see them now?” asked Alison.

“Outback is isolationist. For only five days each year, people can come and go from the planet. That window closed while I was in the hospital. Anyone who tried to go there now would be shot down. There are no exceptions. And they ignore all attempts to communicate. Those of us who don’t make it back in time, have to live on the Orbital, or find somewhere else.” It was the truth, just not the whole truth.

“Oh.” That did sort of sum things up.

“So what do we do?” asked Aleesha

“Shower,” said Amanda and we all laughed.

We went through our shower routine. Amanda, Aleesha and then Alison sharing it with me. I felt like something was coming to an end as I stood there alone letting the water flow over my lessening bruises. The pall of the dream was still over me and I had a strong pull to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head and stay there all day.

A ping came in to say the shuttle was approaching the station. I reluctantly left the shower, dressed and retrieved my mended shirt from the outside door of the suite, placing it in the travel sled, ready to go.

The ladies finished breakfast while I checked emails. As they were finishing, I put both guns and extras on, put the chargers in a grav sled, and we set out for the shuttle dock. The sleds followed along behind me. The four of us must have made an imposing sight striding along, because people stopped to watch us pass. At the dock, we boarded the shuttle and the pilot took us across to the shipyard.

Bob met us and showed the way to a landing bay.

“Behold, Excalibur,” said Bob, a little over-dramatic.

I stopped and looked, taking in the sleek lines, wings and guns. She was a beautiful thing to behold. Talking of which, I turned to the ladies arrayed around me.

“Thank you,” I said to all of them. “You taught me to walk. Time for me to see if I can fly on my own.”

I kissed and hugged each of them in turn.

“I’ll ping you when I’m back at the station. This might be a short test flight, might take all day, or I might get to Outback and back before I see you again. We’ll have to wait and see.”

I smiled at them, turned to Bob, nodded, and walked to the underside of the ship and began a complete walk around, using a check list Bob pulsed me. Completed, we started up the stairs.

I paused at the top, looking back to the entrance to the bay, but the ladies had left. Part of me began to feel lonely. I turned and went inside the airlock, Bob followed, and we cycled through into the living area. Bob showed me through the entire ship. Most of it was cramped, barely more than access ways for repairs. A very tight access-way led into the cargo hold below the cockpit. It was larger than I expected, but still would only take a limited amount of cargo. Part of its space was taken up by a strange looking droid and several grav sleds. There were also a half dozen other deactivated droids.

“Salvage Droid,” said Bob, pointing to the one by the sleds. “And your security droids,” he said, pointing to the others.

In the power room, there was another droid, also not active. “Repair Droid,” he said. We found another one in the engine room. And yet another in the shield generator room. ‘Room’ in each case was something of an overstatement. The machinery itself delineated functional areas, and the space between for access and repair was loosely called a room.

Back on the top deck, we went into the rear turret. There was a seat and controls for a gunner, but it was set up for computer control. It would have a great view once in space, and could swivel to cover most of the space around the ship, except for down through the ship itself. As long as a missile was coming in from above, to the sides or behind, the turret could fire at it. It was up to me as the pilot to turn the ship to make sure it could reach anything coming from below.

The living space looked comfortable, and was about the size of a standard hotel room. As well as the bed, there was a reasonable sized desk with a full communications and entertainment system. Behind the desk hung a wall sized flat screen. There was also a mini kitchen, with cooler, storage space and basic cooking and cleaning facilities. The fresher was large enough for two people to shower, and had a conventional ship toilet and wash basin. The robe contained the standard hanging, storage and cleaning facilities.

The cockpit was our last stop. I sat down in the pilot’s seat and adjusted it to fit me, including the harness. Bob had pulled out a jump seat partly behind me. He indicated the control console in front of me.

Flowing around the pilot seat was a console allowing all ships functions to be positioned where the pilot wanted them. All up it was the size of a large corner workstation. The walls on all three sides were view screens, which doubled as both windows and displays. There was no real visual line between where the control surface ended and the view screens began, although there had to be.

Bob indicated a prominent button. I pressed it and the ship came to life. The view screens came on, showing their default settings. The ship computer pulsed me its interface system, and I pulsed back my overlays and preferences. I started with the HUD, arranging it the way I wanted it around all three screens. I moved on to the console, moving things to where I wanted them. Then I started going through the ship menus one at a time, checking everything, testing everything, bringing up systems and making sure they worked as they should. Bob sat beside me patiently.

When I’d finally finished with the menus, I brought up a simulation system and took the ship for a simulated test flight. I was delighted with it. And said so to Bob. He smiled.

“One last thing,” he said. “AI online”.

“AI is online. What is my designation?” A pleasant sounding female voice came from the general direction of the console.

“Your name is Jane,” I said.

“Thank you. How do I address you?”

“You call me Jonathon or Jon.”

“Welcome to Excalibur, Jonathon.”

Jane pulsed me yet another interface. I took the time to go through it, and reviewed all its settings. I turned on the options for Jane to control all droids on board directly. The interface options were extensive. When I was finished, I turned to Bob with a happy smile on my face.

“Well my boy, what do you think?” he asked.

“I think I’m going to be very happy with her,” I replied.

“Ready to take formal delivery?”

“Yes, subject to a successful test flight of course,” I responded.

He chuckled. “Of course. Would you like lunch before your flight?” he asked.

I thought about it for a minute. I agreed with him and he led the way out. At the bottom of the stairs, I called the two travel sleds over and guided them up the stairs and into the living area, where I locked them down until I was ready to unpack things. Then I left the ship and code locked it shut.

We enjoyed a light meal in Bob’s office, and completed the ‘paperwork’. I deeded the five Gladiator’s over to him formally in payment. We shook hands as I left his office. I walked back to the landing bay feeling quite strange, as if everything was about to change. I stopped and took another look at my ship from the ground, then walked up the stairs to the airlock, and cycled through. I went straight into the cockpit and strapped myself in. I brought all ships systems online.

“Excalibur to Shipyard, ready for test flight.”

“Shipyard to Excalibur, standby.” I could see the stairs disappearing out of the landing bay door. The indicator showing air levels outside diminishing to nothing and the outer door started to open. I gave the ship enough lift to hover above the ground and raised the landing struts. Slowly, I turned her to face out the exit doorway.

“Shipyard to Excalibur, you are cleared for exit and test flight. Good luck.”

I double checked the distance between the ends of the wings and the walls on each side. There was not a lot a room. I gave her a minimal amount of forward motion and slowly the ship slid out of the bay and into open space. Once clear, I pushed the speed up and put some distance between me and the Shipyard.

Once well away, I pushed the thrust lever all the way forward and the ship leapt forward. I made some changes to the inertial dampers so that I could almost not notice the acceleration, but leaving enough feeling so I could feel the ship. Feeling was necessary for good control. She went to top speed very quickly and it was well past that of a normal fighter top speed – about a third higher than the Gladiator. I was impressed. I brought the thrust back down to nothing, and let the ship come to a stop. I set the shields up to full, and the safeties for when she was landed and where I wanted shields to come on and off automatically when landing or taking off, so as not to damage landing bays. The power indicators showed more than double that of a normal fighter. I set the turret to a primary mode of missile defense and a secondary mode of protecting the ship from any attacker in the rear.

I brought up the weapon systems. There were two buttons on the top of the joystick. The right one I assigned to the torpedo launcher, the left one to the missile launcher. I assigned missile selection to a side button, and checked the load in the launcher. It showed fifty missiles, twenty were Friend or Foe and the other thirty were Image Recognition’s. Likewise, the reload had the same. I selected FF. If I needed to get missiles off in a hurry, I wanted something not needing a lock before going out.

Next I brought up the gun selector. I assigned quick select options for all six guns, for four guns and for two guns, the latter two in case I wanted to reduce hitting power for some reason. I also set up quick select options for all the guns firing at once, or all the guns firing one at a time in sequence. The first would give me maximum firepower at one pull of the trigger, with a delay between firings. The second would give me a faster rate of fire, with no delays, but less damage potential. All firing together was good for ships with full shielding, while the Gatling gun effect of the second option would be good for missiles coming towards me, or for a ship I found difficult to hit.

The next adjustment was for the angle of fire for each gun. I set the guns to all fire at once, and pulled the trigger. Six pulses of red launched forth at equal spaces apart, and continued off into the distance. That wasn’t what I wanted. At best, aimed at fighters, only two or three would hit at any time. I adjusted each of them so that they all were aimed at a spot two hundred meters in front of the ship. I pressed the trigger and six red pulses appeared to become one pulse two hundred meters ahead and then separated off into the distance. In effect, I was setting the guns up for maximum hitting potential at a short range. Further out, some might hit, even if my aim was off. But I was banking on being a reasonable shot at close range. At longer ranges, I’d be pumping out missiles. Missiles cost credits to use, where guns were effectively free, but for the moment, credits were less important than staying alive. The other thing I hoped to demonstrate if forced to it was that I was going to pack a wallop for anyone who came close.

Having set up everything, I put the ship through its paces, turning, rolling, looping, and for a while, just enjoyed the sensations of flying.

The last thing to test was the jump drive. If I was going to do that, I may as well go somewhere. But first, I needed to send some messages. I headed back to the Shipyard, and pinged Bob that I was happy with the ship and was going to test the jump drive. If all went well, I’d head to Outback. I needed to prove I could get there, before risking taking Wanderer and a cargo there. He responded with a ‘good luck’. I next headed for Sydney station. As I did a slow fly by, I pinged the General’s aide that I was off to Outback on a test flight. I also pinged the same to Amanda. I got an acknowledgement back from the General’s aide, and another ‘good luck’ from Amanda.

With the decision to go, and knowing my luck so far, I took the precaution of setting my suit into full space suit mode, had it plug into the seats air supply and double checked that the seat air supply was full, and being fed by life support. It all checked out.

With that I brought up the nav map, selected the jump point into Nexus 618 so it was targeted in the HUD, brought her round on course and pushed her speed to maximum.

“Jane, can you trigger the jump please?” I asked.

“Affirmative”.

As the jump point approached rapidly, I felt excited about finally being free to come and go as I wanted to.

Without slackening speed, we jumped.

[] Twenty Eight

It was the speed that saved me.

I knew immediately I was in big trouble. I sped past a double line of ships, all pointing toward the jump point, and within seconds, behind me.

In those seconds, as I flashed past each, it fired its guns at me, missing, and fired its first missile at me. By the time I’d passed the last ships in line, I already had a dozen missiles coming after me, and a dozen more just being launched. The rear turret opened up, even before I was aware they were there.

“Shit a brick, you have got to be kidding me!” I yelled.

“Order not understood,” said Jane.

“Keep the missiles off me,” I yelled.

I had seconds to think. Were they ‘stupid’, ‘STUPID’ or ‘Thank you for being so stupid’?” I had to act on one of them. I chose.

I held the thrust at full, gaining space away from the ships themselves, which for now, were a lesser threat. Lesser in that they couldn’t actually catch me to shoot at me directly. That left their missiles, which were a major immediate threat.

In the seconds I’d taken to think, the turret had taken out most of the first launch and was now working on the second. The third was still out of range. I waited to see what the lead missile would do. I could take a couple of hits if need be. I couldn’t take many of them at once, even with my stronger shields.

A first one sailed past the turret, and instead of hitting me in the rear, it flew along my right side. As it came alongside the cockpit, it turned. I pushed the stick to the left, and the missile slammed into my right side shield. A few seconds later, I repeated this on the left side.

“YES!” I yelled. “Thank you for being so stupid!” The missiles were IR’s targeting the cockpit. No imagination in this bunch at all.

I checked distances to the nearest ships. I had time. Missiles coming up on my right again, I swerved left as hard as I could and held the turn. The missiles tried to come with me and overshot.

The thing about turning in circles, is that two main factors define how tight you can turn. The first is the maneuvering thrusters. The more maneuverable you are, the better your turn. The second was speed. The faster you are going, the wider is your turn. So for missiles, being faster and less maneuverable, their turning circle was not as tight as mine.

I’d learnt this one from a very old computer game. Fly the fastest, tightest circle you could and let everything try to intercept you. In the meantime, you took advantage of what progressively crossed your sights.

The turret continued to pick off missiles at a fast rate. Now that I didn’t have ships immediately behind me, I started pumping out FF missiles as fast as I could, while taking pot shots at missiles coming past my nose. Some got through – that couldn’t be helped – and I kept one eye on my shields. The ships were nearly up to me now and no longer bunched, but strung out in a loose line by pilot reaction, or lack of it, and individual speed. They were still launching missiles.

I came half way around the next turn and lined up with the lead ship. This time I was playing ‘chicken’. I waited as the range came down. Head to head, I gave him four torpedoes and he exploded. I shot up and over the debris, lined up the second ship and gave it a full salvo from my front guns. It went red all down the middle of the ship and just stopped dead. I threw the ship around it, and lined up the third. Guns not ready, I gave it four torpedoes as well. One missed.

I went down the ragged line of ships firing guns or torpedoes at each, as I could. My flying had been totally erratic, but all the same, I took hits, and some of the missiles got through. I staggered off the end of the line and went back into a defensive circle. Five ships tried to match my turn and we started circling one another.

Six ships and several dozen missiles did the dance of death. Time honoured since the invention of the first biplane fighters in the early 1900’s.

By now I only had IR’s left in the launcher. I kept targeting the nearest ship with guns or torpedoes and sending several missiles at a time after each. They did the same for me. I had speed and a turret on my side. They had a slightly smaller turn circle on theirs. And they were still aiming for my cockpit, which most of the missiles could not now get at unless I pulled out of the circle.

Craaack! A shield had gone down and that was a hull breach along the left side. I evened up the shields, but they were getting low. The hits kept coming though.

Four enemy ships left. I had no idea where the other one was, but who cared? There were only four red dots surrounding me now, and only six orange missile dots. Four, two, none. The turret fell silent. They were out of missiles!

I targeted the nearest ship and hauled my ship out of the circle at it. It wasn’t quite head to head, but it was close to it. At three hundred meters I fired my guns at him, and turned for the next nearest enemy. It was pulling in behind me and the turret was doing its best to keep it out of my kill slot. I sent the last two IR’s at it as I twisted away, and then called for Jane to reload.

The third ship appeared in front of me and I gave it six torpedoes of which only three hit. The fourth ship was behind it, and firing at me as I turned.

My ship staggered as a full gun salvo took down the left side shield. The end part of the left wing came off. The shield stayed down. Suddenly it was sluggish to turn left, so I had to compensate by turning around all the way from the right instead. More fire hit me in the rear and the turret went silent, my speed fell, but the shield came back up.

Two enemy ships left. All of us showed major damage.

The missile launcher came back online, reloaded. I fired off six quick FF’s and continued to try to get behind the other two ships. I got a deflection shot on one of them and hit with two of the guns. The ship staggered and I waited to see if it would blow. It didn’t.

My moment of inattention cost me. There was another huge hit in the rear and I lost speed completely. No main thrust, no thrusters. I still had power though. I sent off another six FF’s.

Not being able to do anything else, I watched them chase the last remaining enemy ship. He was damaged enough that they were a real threat, and seeing as I was not going anywhere, he tried to deal with the threat, but his guns missed. The six closed in on him. At the last moment, he ejected. The first missile hit and the ship staggered but held together. The rest of the missiles went dormant.

“I took the liberty of deactivating the remaining missiles. I thought you may want what was left of the ship, rather than destroying it,” said Jane.

“Thanks,” I said. “You were correct.”

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’d survived. I wasn’t sure how.

“What’s the main damage Jane? Systems check please.”

“The engine is destroyed. Power plant is at fifty percent and under repair. Shields are at twenty percent and under repair. Rear turret repairable but a low priority. Left wing badly damaged. Two guns destroyed. Most other systems under nominal, but acceptable. Life support fully functional, there is no need for a full suit.”

“Is the Salvage Droid operational?”

“Yes. It has two sleds available for use, plus the two the ship is equipped with. If need be, it can also be used to tow us home.”

“Are there any ships left in any way operational?”

“Five. Two with cockpits destroyed, but most else in good shape. Two took lots of hull damage, but systems are repairable. One is not significantly damaged.”

“Would you be able to download in to each of those ships and take control of their systems from any existing AI?”

“I will make the attempts.” There was a minute’s silence. “Three did not have an active AI. They are now an extension of myself. One has extensive computer damage and cannot be controlled. One had an active AI and it has agreed to your ownership and will take my commands.”

“Get them to all come here, close by. Choose the best one for towing Excalibur and get us on its grav sled. Have the Salvage Droid clean up the entire area and get everything on sleds.”

“By your command.”

“Are you kidding me? Where did you hear that one?”

“Since coming online after the ship was built, I have been finding out about my owner, and determined you have a fondness for old flat screen series. This reference seemed appropriate.”

I grinned. “Hmmm, I wonder if getting the smartest AI available was really a good thing to do.”

“Is that a rhetorical question or do you really want an answer?”

“Work to do,” I said by way of answer.

There was a grinding noise as the cargo bay door opened. I presumed it wasn’t in too good a shape. As I watched, the Salvage Droid jetted out and started to work.

A channel opened. “Are you going to leave me out here?”

“Me too. I don’t have a lot of suit air left.”

I looked at the scanner. There were three grey dots representing ejected pilots. I closed the channel.

“Jane, is there air supplies in the cargo bay?”

“Yes, enough for six people without needing special arrangements.”

“Have the Salvage Droid retrieve the ejected pilots, take them into the cargo hold, connect them to air, and see that they cannot move. Without harming them, of course.”

“Confirmed,” she said. I shook my head as the connection to yet another reference was made. As I watched, the SD changed course.

I opened the channel again. “Attention ejected pilots. My Salvage Droid will retrieve each of you in turn, and connect you to air in my cargo bay. Please do not attempt anything. My AI will be monitoring you and at the first sign of anything hostile from you, one of my security droids will shoot you. If you are armed, toss any weapons you carry before the SD takes you in tow. If my AI detects a weapon of any kind on you, you will be shot.” I closed the channel so I didn’t have to listen to replies.

“Jane, I don’t really want to shoot them, but make sure they are not armed before they enter the ship.”

“Will do.”

There was nothing much else I could do for now. I got up and stretched. I changed my suit back to a belt, but left it on hair trigger response to danger. The ship was air tight, and for now, I seemed to be safe. I was not going anywhere in a hurry, so safe was a relative term, until I could get moving again. I went into the living area, and freshened up. I had water on board, but no food. I made a mental note to always carry food, even if it was a test flight. I went back to the pilot’s seat and monitored the cleanup operation. The SD was efficient.

Over the next few hours, one of the other ships was brought close and Excalibur attached to a grav sled. The ship that couldn’t be controlled was placed on Excalibur’s lower sled. Above on the other sled went the ship that had agreed to my ownership. The grav sleds of both of those ships were filled and overfilled. Likewise was one of the still functional ship’s grav sled, and it and the other ship took station behind us. Then as I watched, a grav sled became a gigantic pile of ship parts and hull fragments, as the SD cleaned up the entire area of battle. While I waited, I did the releases for the nine pilots who had not survived the fight, and for the three in the cargo bay. Once cleanup was complete, the SD took the load and attached itself to the sled of the last ship in the line.

Finally, I gave Jane the command to take us back to the shipyard. The lead ship took the load slowly and we started moving towards the jump point, with the other two ships following behind. I was amazed at how far away from the jump point the fight had gone.

“Jane, can we jump like this?”

“Yes. Records show that as long as everything is connected, the entire mass jumps as a single object. There has not yet been any quantification of maximum size or shape that will go through a jump point as a single mass.”

That was a relief. I’d had sudden visions of getting to the other side of the jump with less than half of what we started with.

Eventually, we jumped.

“Excalibur to Sydney Shipyard. You there Bob?”

“Shipyard to Excalibur, you’re back earlier than I expect…HOLY SHIT! What have you done to my new ship?”

“I’m afraid I dinged it a bit.”

“Dinged it? That has to be a record! Brand new ship goes out on its test flight and comes back in the middle of a scrap heap.” There was a pause. “Are you all right Jon?”

“I’m fine. Six damaged ships coming in, plus the wreckage of six more.”

“Sydney Station to Excalibur. Sitrep please.”

“Excalibur to Sydney Station. Excalibur twelve, Pirates zero. Sending the General the battle records now. I’ll need a security detail waiting at the shipyard. I have three pilots to turn over to whoever wants them.”

I pulsed all the battle recordings and data to the General’s aide. I hadn’t looked at them yet. I hadn’t had any time for details of who had been waiting for me. Which brought me up cold. How had they known I was coming? They had been lined up waiting for me. On a hunch, I checked my Mercenary Guild profile. Near the bottom was the notation ‘Test flight to Nexus 618’. I sighed.

”Sydney Station to Excalibur, you are ordered to report to the General’s office as soon as you are back aboard the station.”

“Will do,” I replied.

More than an hour later, we came to a stop close by the shipyard. Tugs took away the other ships and the load the SD was pulling. The SD returned to the cargo bay. Excalibur was released by its tower, which Jane landed in its designated repair bay. Another tug took Excalibur to a repair bay.

Once the bay was sealed and aired up, a set of stairs wheeled in with a squad of Marines behind. I opened the Cargo Bay door, and the Marines took charge of the three pilots. Once they had been marched out, I cycled through the airlock and met Bob at the bottom of the stairs.

“Well my boy, you have indeed made the record books. The last recorded brand new ship brought back as a wreck within twelve hours of leaving the yard was one hundred and twelve years ago, and that was down in the American sector. There also hasn’t been a pilot make twelve kills on a solo flight, and make it back unhurt, in the last two hundred years. You amaze me lad, how did you do it?”

“I guess I ate my greens when I was told to as a kid.” I grinned at him. “Actually, it was a lot of luck, a lot of stupidity, and a tactic from a very old flat screen space combat game which got me through.”

“What do you want me to do now?” asked Bob.

“Repair Excalibur. I went through a lot of missiles, so replace those. Leave the other ships for now. Just inventory everything that is useable from the ships and the wreckage. I’m going to do some more thinking about ships. Excalibur couldn’t have performed better, but they threw over two hundred missiles at me. Without the turret I’d have been dead meat within a minute of jumping. If it’s going to be like this on a regular basis, then I’m flying too small a ship. I’ll keep Excalibur. The General will doubtless want me patrolling as soon as possible, but I’m going to completely rethink everything.” I paused for a moment. “Is there a tiny turret of any sort available? What I really need is point defense right above the cockpit for when you are going head to head. Until you get in gun range, missiles are the serious threat, and the pirates use them more than guns. I really need a forward pointing turret to take out what is coming at me. In fact, point defense is the single most important requirement for staying in one piece.”

Bob thought for a bit. “I think I know what you are referring to. Most turrets are designed for manual firing, with AI override secondary. What you want is a pure AI controlled turret. With no need for a person, it should be a fraction of the size. I know where I can get some specs. The rear turret looks like it needs replacing anyway. What say instead of replacing it, I put two AI only turrets in its place, top and bottom, and one just behind the cockpit pointing forward. For that matter, I could put another one underneath pointing forward as well. That would give you sixteen point defense guns, capable of firing at four different targets at the same time.”

“That sounds great. Would there be any room at the back for anything else?”

“What else are you thinking about?”

“I had to wait before firing missiles today. I was going flat out to stay ahead of them, making missile firing risky until I turned. What I could have used was another missile launcher in the tail, firing FF’s straight behind me. Granted, no fighter is ever supposed to go up against twelve to one odds. But I didn’t get the chance to avoid those odds today, and next time could be more of the same. I need to be firing on them even when I’m running away. I don’t mind if putting a launcher in the middle of the rear pushes the two turrets higher and lower. I guess the main issue will be power.”

“I’ll run some simulations and see. But it sounds doable to me. Okay. No problems, leave it with me. I’ll let you know how the repairs go, probably a couple of days. I know you’re good for the credits, so we’ll haggle after you decide what you want to do next. Shuttle will take you back to the station as soon as you like.”

Bob headed off, while I went back up the stairs, opened my travel sleds, and made sure everything I needed for a hotel was in one of them. I sent it to the bottom of the stairs, cycled through the airlock myself and code-locked the hatch.

Travel sled following after me, I headed for the Shuttle bay. Once on board, I pinged the General’s aide to say I was on my way, and asked if I could drop off at the hotel, or did he want me to go straight there. I made a reservation at the station hotel for a smaller suite than I’d had before. I pinged Amanda I was on my way to the station and available for whoever was free for dinner. Then I took out my pad and spent the time in flight checking mail. Before docking, my Mercenary Guild profile had been amended to eighteen kills, and my location to ‘Sydney station pending repairs’. I was going to have to stop that.

[] Twenty Nine

I was given the go ahead to drop off at the hotel before I docked, as well as instructions for a dress uniform. Something must be going on if everyone was dressing up.

Amanda met me at the shuttle dock. We hugged and left immediately.

“How was your test flight?” she asked as we headed off towards the hotel.

“Good. Really good in fact. She is a nice ship. Had a few little problems though, so she’s getting a bit of work done. Hopefully it won’t take long.” She accepted this without further comment, so I guess she hadn’t heard anything.

At the hotel, I repeated my request for a smaller suite, checked in and was taken to the same suite as before. I sighed as I walked in. This time, like it or not, I was paying the bill when I checked out.

I quickly unpacked. Then took off my outer clothes and hung them to be cleaned. I went into the bathroom and freshened up, before changing the suit into a dress uniform. Guns back on and I was ready to go.

Amanda wolf whistled me as I came into the sitting room. “I love a man in uniform,” she said with a grin. I waved her off and went into the kitchen for a quick snack. And back to the bathroom for a teeth clean.

A ping came in from the General’s aide advising me he was ready for me, so we left immediately for his office. As we arrived, we were directed to a conference room instead. We walked in to find a large gathering of people.

On the right, standing to attention, were a dozen or so officers I had not seen before. On the left, was the crew of Moose. Amanda joined her team. In front of me was the General, and he waved me forward until I stood before him.

“Pilot Officer Hunter. For the outstanding work of destroying twelve pirate fighters in a single engagement, you are hereby promoted to Flight Officer. Congratulations.”

He handed me my new rank insignia and gold coloured Ace badges. I held each of them separately as I scanned them with my PC, and added them to my suit epaulettes file. As soon as I saved the changes, the new insignia appeared on my shoulders. There was a round of applause, and I ended up shaking everyone’s hands.

“Well done Jon,” said the General, after all the thankyous were done. “Intelligence suggests the main strength of the local pirate forces has now been taken out. So with luck, that will end most of the pirate attacks. You have done us a great service. We hope they will now rethink basing themselves in the Australian sector and will move somewhere else. Once your ship is repaired, we will get you out patrolling. Let me know when you complete your run to Outback, and I’ll send you some orders.” With that, he left the room.

“So, just how big of a ‘bit’ is this work being done to your ship?” asked Amanda.

“A pretty big bit actually. I had to be towed in. I’ll tell you about it later.” Her look said I’d better.

“We still need a pilot Jon,” said the Colonel. “You are still our first choice.”

“Thanks Colonel. I appreciate the offer, but nothing has really changed.”

“I know,” she replied. “But I had to offer it again, just in case.” I nodded in response.

“You pinged something about dinner?” said Amanda.

“I did. It’s on me for whoever wants to come, including the officers here today if they would like. I’m easy about where. Someone make a reservation and ensure I get there.” The Colonel nodded.

“In the meantime, I need two volunteers for a dangerous mission.”

“How dangerous?” asked Aleesha.

“Not very, I just thought it sounded better that way. I need to intimidate someone at the Mercenaries Guild, so some bad-arse company would be appreciated.” There were grins all round at this. “Anyone want to come, follow me. I’ll see the rest of you at dinner.”

I headed out, with Amanda and Aleesha behind me in triangle formation.

We were walking past the station’s food hall, and glancing in as we walked past, I did a double take and stopped dead. Both the girls walked straight into me, and we almost fell over.

There was a Mutant Ninja Turtle at the pizza counter. I gaped at it for a moment. It looked up, waved to us, and took its pizza off to a table. I grinned and started off again.

At the Mercenaries Guild, I went straight in the door without slowing down and stopped half way to the counter, hands on both my guns. The clerk looked up.

“Who do I see about my whereabouts being constantly updated on my profile?” I bellowed.

The clerk fainted.

“What did I say?” I asked generally.

“It was how you said it,” said Amanda.

“It was how you looked as you said it,” said Aleesha.

“Huh?” I said.

The manager came out and stopped when he saw the clerk on the floor.

“What seems to be the problem?” he asked.

We crossed the rest of the way to the counter.

“The problem is that my profile is being constantly updated with my movements and I keep finding pirates waiting for me everywhere I go. Why is the guild trying to get me killed?” He gulped and took a step back.

“It is Guild policy to keep profiles as up to date as possible. The details are only for members to access. I do not understand how pirates could be accessing your profile,” he said.

“Then you probably have at least one pirate as a member,” said Aleesha.

“Or you have a staff member or member feeding details to them,” said Amanda. She gestured towards the still unmoving clerk.

“I’ll start an investigation immediately,” said the manager.

“That won’t help me much now. I want my whereabouts excluded from my profile, permanently,” I demanded.

“The best I can do, young sir, is stop it being updated. As it will currently show you as here, what say we leave it that way? If anyone asks why it seems to not be up to date, we will have someone to investigate. Will that suit you?” he asked.

“I think that will do. If you track down a link to the pirates, I want to know immediately.” He nodded. “If I find out that there has been a cover up, you will find out what I’m like in a bad mood. And since Colonel Smith’s team was endangered along with me, I think I can find a few others, who do ‘bad moods’ better than I do, to take some action.”

The manager went pale, but recovered quickly to say, “By the way, congratulations on your promotion.” I nodded thanks.

There was some quick action at the counter computer by the manager, and he bade me check my profile. It was now updated with my new rank, Ace badge and a status of ‘Sydney system’. I thanked him, and we left.

“What are you like when you’re in a bad mood?” asked Aleesha.

“You don’t want to find out.”

“Yes we do!” they both said together, and the three of us laughed.

“Ok, put it this way. My last bad mood was when I jumped out of the Dropship and blew the hatch on that attacking Gladiator. It didn’t last very long, but then, neither did the person who gave it to me.”

“Ah,” said Aleesha with a grin. “One day maybe we will see if you give BA a run for her credits. Her bad moods are legendary.”

“You never did tell me what BA stood for.”

“Bad Attitude,” they said together. That penny in the air almost dropped. There was something so familiar, but I just couldn’t get it. The penny went on spinning.

“Ah, that figures,” I said with a grin. A thought popped in. “She hasn’t ever had a Mohawk has she?”

“Not that we know about, why do you ask?” responded Aleesha.

“Just one of those odd thoughts that pop in for no apparent reason. Anyone for a spa?” Two grins were the answer, and we started back to the hotel.

An hour or so soaking in the spa did me a world of good. I hadn’t realized I was so tense from the day’s events. We moved from the spa to the bedroom and we each had a massage. Neither of the girls were that good at giving one, but I felt better after mine. I tried to teach them a bit more, as I massaged each of them.

The ping from the Colonel came in as we were showering, giving a location and time for dinner. It also stated ‘regimental formal’ for dress code. I set my suit for my dress uniform again, and watched as the girls changed into a more formal variation of their normal slinky outfit.

Dressed to the nines and armed to the teeth, we left the hotel, drawing a lot of curious looks.

Dinner was in a large room with tables at one end and a bar at the other. About half of the Moose crew was already there and a smattering of officers. We started mixing and those I did not know introduced themselves. I filed names and occupations away in my PC, but didn’t remember any of them. Names were not my strong point. I relied on my PC to look people up when I needed to know who they were.

George came in wearing a black suit including black top hat and tails. Aleesha gave him a wolf whistle and several of us applauded. This caught the Colonel’s attention and he received a very dark look. George hurried out again and came back a few minutes later in regimental formal. He hurried over to us.

“Nice suit,” said Amanda.

“Thanks,” He said. “I guess I looked out of place.”

“No more than usual,” said Aleesha. We all grinned.

“Where did you get the Ninja Turtle idea from?” I asked George.

“There was a remake a few years ago, and I watched it again the other night. I was thinking over what you said and scanned one them. I felt like pizza today and put them together. Seeing the three of you doing a fall down act, was worth it!” He laughed. We laughed with him.

“I’ve got some other good ideas, but what I really need is a challenge. What can you suggest?”

“Jake the Peg,” I said deadpan.

“Who?” he responded. I looked around and no-one seemed to know the reference.

“You said you wanted a challenge.” I laughed. “Its true blue Aussie, that’s the only hint you’re getting. Excuse me a minute.”

I’d seen Bob come in, so I went over to greet him.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him.

“I got an invite from the General himself, couldn’t turn that down. It’s been a long time since I had a decent night out, so I was happy to come.”

“How far did you get with the redesign?” I asked.

“All done, just needs a couple of days to complete. There was room on the central half deck for the rear-facing missile launcher and a refill, once the existing turret was removed. Bit tight fitting it around the engine outputs, but it worked. Do you want the same mix of missiles in it?”

“No, all FF’s please. When I fire them, I will be running, all I need is some chaos behind me to slow up pursuit.”

“Will do then. By the way, there will now be three fire buttons on the top of the joystick. Left will be the forward launcher, middle will be torpedoes and right will be the rear launcher.”

“Sounds fine to me,” I agreed.

At that moment the General entered and the room fell silent.

“Thank you all for coming,” he said. “It’s a tradition here to hold a dinner party when one of the station’s officers is promoted, and while young Jon here is not strictly a station officer, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.” There was general laughter. “It’s also not usual to have a mixture of service and mercenaries, but in this case, it seems appropriate, and quite novel. This is quite informal, in a formal sort of way. I’m assured the waiting staff will be around to each of you shortly for your meal choices and that dinner will not be long. Enjoy yourselves.”

There was general applause and everyone went back to their conversations. George had joined us. He asked about the damage my ship had taken, and we talked about the new upgrades. I encouraged him to do the training for combat pilot. He already had the basics. He just needed time in a combat simulator. At that moment, the Colonel joined us and I suggested she get a proper simulator for Moose so George could train while en-route to missions. She raised an eyebrow to Bob, he raised an eyebrow to me, I grinned, and he assured her it could be fitted before the current upgrade was complete the next day. She nodded. I suggested to Bob it included a full military combat package, and the best Dropship training package available. Bob went blank for a moment sending instructions.

The waiters turned out to be military. One arrived at our group at that moment, and we made our choices. We continued to socialize until dinner arrived and we found our names on the tables. I had been placed to the left of the General, with the Colonel to his right.

Main course came and went, and conversation stilled as everyone ate. In the break, waiting for deserts to arrive, I caught the Colonel’s eye and she looked over to me.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” I said. “How come all your team except for George has a first name starting in ‘A’.” She laughed.

“Actually, we all have a first name starting with ‘A’. George is actually ‘Alain George Murdock’.”

The penny dropped.

Smith, Peck, BA, Murdock, A. Finally I understood what had been nagging at me. It was a very old reference and I hadn’t watched the series since I was a kid. I grinned hugely.

“What’s so funny?” asked the Colonel.

“Nothing. With all the A’s, you don’t call yourselves the ‘A-Team’ do you?” I asked.

“Not specifically, no. But we are the first team for a much larger unit than you have seen so far,” she replied.

“Ah,” I said as if that was significant, even though it wasn’t. “What’s with George then?”

“He has a French mother and a British father. Apparently he has always hated his French name.” We both laughed.

The General turned to me.

“Jon, where did you learn to fly like you do? I reviewed your fight and I have never seen such tactics used before.” Silence rippled out, and it seemed everyone was suddenly looking at me. “Was that something you were taught on Outback?”

“No, not really,” I said. “I went through the basic pilot courses, as well as all the ship certifications. When we decide to train for space, we get a solid grounding in everything to do with space travel, so if we do get stuck out here, we have plenty of options as far as getting work with commercial traders.”

“But that doesn’t explain what you did today,” stated the Colonel. The General nodded, as did a fair number of others.

“It’s sort of a family thing. At least one in every generation of Hunter’s takes on the responsibility of Outback’s trading, like my Uncle did. And in about fifty percent of generations, one of us gets drawn into some sort of war. It is less often these days than it used to be, so the percentage has been dropping. But when someone in the family chooses space, we are trained for everything. In my case, it was suggested to my parents early on that, if I started getting any interest in space, I should be encouraged. I guess it showed up in my early school tests or something. Where most kids were out playing, I was building my own simulators and computers able to play the really old flat screen games of centuries ago.” I took a long breath, but no-one spoke.

“So you could say I started training myself in space combat from an early age. Computers and games were about the only thing I was ever really good at, and instead of trying to get my attention on to other things, my parents encouraged me. The tactics I used today came from a game first played in the late 1900’s, when computers were completely new. I love the old stuff. Games, music, flat movies, the original science fiction in all its forms. I collect a lot of it, through all its remakes and technology updates down the last six hundred odd years. All I do now is adapt ideas from wherever and whenever, to whatever situation I find myself in. So far, it’s worked.”

“That’s amazing!” said the General. “Perhaps for those who haven’t heard of the battle today, would you care to run through the highlights?”

I quickly gave a sum up of what had happened.

“The extra speed I insisted on having in the new ship saved me,” I finished up. “No doubt about that. But the other thing was stupidity. I’d have run their end of the fight a lot differently than they did. Anyone who studies tactics would see what they did wrong.” There was another set of nods.

“It’s good to see you are thinking that way. Pilots who can look further than their kill count are rare.” There was general laughter to that, and I laughed with them.

Desert saved me from commenting further. While everyone was having coffee, I got up and headed over to where Alison was sitting. She rose and we moved away from the tables.

“What have you been up to lately?” I asked her.

“The Colonel has had me very busy. In fact, I need to rush off again very soon. I doubt I’ll catch up with you again tonight, but I should be able to drop past in the morning before we head over to the shipyard for Moose testing. You will be coming over with us?”

“Most likely. I need to talk to Bob about a new ship,” I said.

“Another one?” she asked.

“Yes, what I’m in now feels too small for what’s being thrown at me. For the moment, I doubt the Pirates can mount much of a force against me, but give them some time, and I could have anything at all come at me. I’d feel better having heavier shielding and more firepower. That means a bigger ship. I need to do some research tonight if I’m going to talk to Bob tomorrow.”

With that, we said goodbyes, and she went back to her table, drained her coffee cup and left. Others were also leaving now, so I headed over to Amanda and Aleesha to find out what they were doing.

“We’ll be along to your suite in a while. Wait up for us,” said Amanda with a grin. I agreed I would, and they left.

The General came over. “When do you expect to be flying again?” he asked.

“Couple of days I think, sir. For Excalibur. I’m having a couple of modifications done as well as repairing damage. As soon as she’s ready, I will poke my nose into Nexus again. If it doesn’t get bloodied, I’ll run Wanderer to Outback as fast as I can. Once there, I’m free for any orders you may have. I’ll need to be back here a week or two after that, as I hope my new ship will be ready by then.”

“New ship?”

“Yes, something bigger. It really was sheer dumb luck and stupidity that saved me today. I don’t want to be in that position again. A fighter can’t cut it against those odds normally. Since I have the credits to do better, I will. That may change my mission profile some, but if I can do what I’m thinking of, I’ll still be able to do the fighter patrols you were talking about.”

“Keep me up to date with your movements then. We’ll aim for you going operational around three days from now, starting at Outback Orbital. I’ll get the Intel people working on where needs some attention. We have two patrols for the whole sector, so we need more. Those ships you brought in today would be useful too.”

“I’ll be talking to Bob tomorrow. Assuming they are adjudicated to me, I will see what I can use in the new ship, if anything. You’re welcome to anything left that is useful to you. Most of these ones are more beat up than the last ones, and may not be salvageable. Talk to Bob anyway. Once we have the new ship design sorted, he will know what’s needed from the wrecks, and what you will need to make them useful.”

“I’ll have someone get on to that. Well, I have work to do before turning in, so take care, Flight Officer. I’ll make sure I’m kept up to date with your movements.” With that, he turned and left. I did too.

I was soon back at the hotel, where I changed into jeans and t-shirt. My pad was overflowing with emails as usual. One of them caught my eye, and being a hollo, I threw it to the room coms. The man who appeared looked like an older corporate type in a very plush looking office.

“Mr. Hunter. I’m John Norbett. Congratulations on surviving today. My sources tell me you were vastly outnumbered and still prevailed. That is impressive.”

“Pirate groups in general, and this group in particular, have been a major problem for me for many years. In my last message to you, I merely said I had a proposal for you. I understand you have not yet been able to get to Brisbane, so I am taking the opportunity to be more forthcoming.”

“I need someone like yourself to hunt down the main pirates in this region of space. I have a list of names, and I have sources that can give you reasonable intel as to where they can be found. I have bounties on all of them, substantial ones, and as a gesture of goodwill, I am paying you for the ones you removed from my list today.” I toggled pause.

I checked the banking emails, and yes, there was a payment from John Norbett. A quite large one, in fact. I toggled run.

“The situation in this sector has become intolerable for many of us in business here, and I head a syndicate that wants the problem dealt with. We have been looking for suitable people, and believe you are one such.”

“I am aware that you are part of the sector military now, and I also know that you have flexibility few military people get. I believe our interests, military interests and your interests are the same here. All we need is your agreement to participate.”

“You may believe the main threat has now been eliminated. I can assure you this is not the case. My information suggests that if you do not go looking for them immediately, they will regroup and come back at you even more strongly than they have so far. I can help you help yourself.”

“Please let me know if you are interested.”

I thought about it for a while. Being attacked was one thing. Going looking for them was another. It was not the Gaia way. Down that road was revenge. Revenge always made karma worse. I had enough trouble with my karma, doing the self-defense killing I had been forced to do already.

I sent him a polite reply saying that at this time, I was unable to help, but I would keep him in mind if things changed. In hindsight, I’d wish I hadn’t said that.

[] Thirty

I went to bed with Amanda and Aleesha. It took a while before sleep happened.

I was woken up early by Alison, and it was somewhat later before we got up.

After showering, I dressed in real clothes. While Alison was eating breakfast, I pinged Bob to say I was coming over with the Moose crew, and could we discuss ship options then? He pinged back it was fine for him.

I asked Alison if she knew when they were going to the shipyard. She responded that she didn’t know, but they were on a short leash pending a ping to leave in a hurry.

On a whim of a half-thought-out idea, I pinged the ‘Tool man’ and made an order. He pinged me back an invoice and I made payment.

I settled down in my easy chair and threw my ship search onto the coms hollo. I was looking for a ship that was large enough to carry shielding that could handle being attacked by a dozen fighters comfortably, and had the defenses to make them wary of doing so. At the same time, I wanted cargo space for more than just a single Salvage Droid.

Alison pecked me on the cheek and left me to it.

The trouble with civilian ships was that they were all underpowered to run the shields and weapons I wanted. The trouble with military ships available to civilians was they were too slow. Yes, I was military, but as far as buying a ship, I was still considered a civilian. Anyone who wasn’t a government was considered a civilian where military hardware was concerned.

I flicked though ship designs until one caught my eye. The Centaur. Nominally a Corvette, she was larger than normal for that class of the smallest of capital ships. Crew of forty, comprising a Captain, three officers and thirty-six crew. It included a hanger for three fighters. Its shielding was what I needed, but had the wrong mix of guns. It also had the speed of a snail and the maneuverability of a cow wearing lead boots. But it had sleek lines and offered possibilities. It would depend on what Bob could do with it.

The ping came in to gather at the shuttle dock. I realized I had lost half the morning already. I tooled up and headed out. On the way through reception, I picked up my package from the ‘Tool man’ and took it with me.

I was not quite last to the shuttle.

Last one in was a pirate in full Eighteenth Century regalia including eye patch and parrot. I burst out laughing and soon the whole shuttle was laughing as well.

“Morning George,” I said. “Morning Jon,” he replied. “Squawk,” went the parrot.

When we arrived at the shipyard, Moose was at an external dock. I followed everyone there, and after a few hugs, watched them troop on board. When the hatch closed, I moved to an observation port and watched Moose undock and move away. Then I headed for Bob’s office.

He motioned me to a chair and said, “You want to watch their testing?” I nodded. A channel opened and gave my PC a feed from the station’s external sensors. I left it running as a small box, so I could monitor it.

“So my lad, what do you want to do next?” Bob asked.

“Are you familiar with the Centaur?” I asked.

“British military Corvette?” I nodded. “Nice all round ship, but not what I would expect to interest you.”

“I want something that can be pounded on by a dozen fighters without having to worry about a three missile salvo being a killer. I want something that has some serious point defense, and can punch a hole in a fighter in all directions at the same time. I want to be able to fight, trade, run passengers or a team of Mercenaries. In short, I want a multi-purpose ship that kicks arse and takes prisoners.”

“Well, the Centaur will certainly give you some of that. But it won’t behave like a fighter will.”

“Why not?” He blinked as if that should be obvious to me. “As I understand it, maneuverability is a factor of thrusters. Speed is a factor of power plant and engines. Thrusters tend to get the leftover engine thrust. To get her to go faster means upgrading power and engines. To make her as nimble as a fighter, needs more thrusters being fed from their own engine.”

He gaped at me.

“Why can’t we use power plants and engines from the fighters I brought in yesterday to augment the normal systems? Give thrusters their own dedicated engine. Put in a bigger engine to give fighter speed. Bigger or daisy-chained power plants to power it all.”

His eyes were wide and that predatory look was back on his face.

“Where would you get the extra space from?” he asked.

“There is crew space for thirty six. I’d only need space for twelve. There would be a proportional reduction in mess and bathroom facilities. Half the size of the existing Brig. That also reduces the requirements for food storage and life support.” He nodded. “I want to retain the docking for three fighters, but one of them needs to be Excalibur. The other two are most likely to be Dropship’s or fast scouts, so it should be doable. It would need a standard freighter dock on the front of the cargo bay, so I can dock to stations the same way medium freighters do, and be able to roll in and out standard containers.” He nodded again. “I’d want to carry four SD’s and a full squad of security droids. And all the maintenance and system monitoring would need to be done by droids. The Captain’s suite is where I’d live. The three officer’s cabins would need their own bathrooms, for passenger use.”

“I’ll see what I can do. What about armaments?”

“I’d leave the side turrets, but have them rigged as fighter killers. If I ever go up against a capital ship, I’ll have to rely on torpedoes rather than guns. I’d want four point defense turrets on top and another four underneath. All the turrets with manual controls on the bridge if there is room, but mostly they will be run by Jane.”

“Jane?”

“My AI on Excalibur. She will run both ships.” He nodded. “Then the same missile setup as Excalibur. Missile launcher and torpedo launcher in front, missile launcher in the rear somewhere. As many reloads as she will fit in. I see she has eight guns in the nose, although how they hit anything is beyond me. Use the same guns I have now, but I want them firing at least twice as fast. With fighter speed and maneuverability, those guns will become lethal to fighters, instead of just useful for capital ships. If you can double the speed of firing for Excalibur as well, I’d appreciate that.”

“You realize this will cost a pretty credit?”

He wasn’t joking. The Centaur in standard configuration came in around the one hundred and fifty million mark.

“Take what you can use from the fighters I brought in yesterday, as soon as they are adjudicated, and sell the rest to the General for whatever they are worth, or he will pay. I gather he is desperate for more fighters for the sector militia, so haggle until it hurts him.” We both smiled. “Anything left over that you normally buy, make me an offer and we can put it towards the cost. In the scheme of things it won’t be a lot, but I’ve got twelve more sets of bounties coming in at the moment, so between ships and bounties, I think I can cover this, even if it doesn’t leave me much left over.”

“I’ll do some designs immediately and let you know what I can do, and a ballpark figure as soon as I can,” Bob said.

“Great. Is Excalibur somewhere I can access?” I asked.

“Bay twelve. The hull work has mostly been done. Do you really need to go inside?”

“No, actually I wanted to get one of my security droids and talk to Jane.”

“You can talk to me anywhere,” said Jane unexpectedly, in my head. “Even though I’m here, I can still talk to you over on the station.”

“That’s fine,” said Bob. “I’ll get right to it and let you get on with your day”. He turned to his computer and I left his office. I started towards bay twelve.

“Jane, can you get one of the security droids operational please. Take complete control of it and have it meet me at the bay door, armed and ready for bodyguard duties.”

“Confirmed.”

A short time later I was at the door to the bay. I could see Excalibur had a new wing, and the rear turret had been removed. The installation of the new turrets had not been completed yet.

The droid was standing waiting for me. It was like a stereotypical robotic representation of a human skeleton. I took a new belt out of the package I’d brought with me and secured it around the waist of the droid.

“Jane, how would you like a body?” I asked her.

“You mean a human look-alike body? Why would I want one of those?”

“I’d like the droid to blend in. Can you use the belt to create a realistic body using George’s programs?”

There was a pause. As I watched, the belt expanded to form a female human shape, about the same size as the twins. The face was blank, like a store dummy.

“Give it the same uniform I wear, the red slinky, as I call it.” The droid changed. “Now, can you model a face and have it imitate life?” The face became that of an attractive adult woman in her twenties, with collar length mousy brown hair, pale skin and blue eyes.

“Great!” I got two more of the guns I used out of the parcel and gave them to the Jane droid one at a time. A holster formed for each one and she slotted them in. The recharges and laser bolts followed. The droid was also carrying a laser rifle, so I had her make her suit form a holster for it on the droid’s back.

“Ok,” I said. “Let’s see how you do. Come along.”

We headed towards the shuttle dock. On the way, I told her what to do whenever I had company in the hotel or on board ship, and how to act when I was in public.

As we reached the dock area, a ping came in from the Colonel saying they had completed testing and were leaving for a job somewhere in the American sector. She expected they would be back in a week or two’s time. I pinged back a good luck farewell.

I threw the feed of the station’s sensors on to a view screen, and watched Moose heading for the jump point.

There went my friends.

For over a week, they had been almost family, filling a void I had not really felt.

Moose Jumped.

Now I felt that void inside me. I was finally alone.

People still wanted to kill me. I still hurt all down my left side.

But things were looking up. My bruises were fading. The upgraded fighter was due in the next day or so, and my new ship hopefully within several weeks. There was a kitten on its way, things to do and orders soon to carry out.

But for right now, there was just empty space around the jump point.

I stood there.

Watching the empty space.

For a long time.

Jonathon Hunter

will return

in

Hunted Hero Hunting

[] Acknowledgements

A big thank you must go to Helen Ellis, without whose encouragement and editing skills, this book would never have been completed.

I also wish to thank all the writers of science fiction that I have read, watched or played over the years.

In particular, I wish to thank the writers and programmers of the Computer Games; Wing Commander 1 through 5 and Privateer 1 and 2; and the Egosoft games, X2 The Threat, X3 Terran Conflict and X3 Albion Prelude which gave me the combat experience needed for a novel of this kind.

Also thanks to Egosoft for allowing me to use photos of their games to make the original cover for this novel.

[] A Message to my Readers

I’ve had a lot of fun writing this novel, and it was written with being the first in a series in mind. It’s been a long time in the making, having rattled around in my mind for many years, before I finally sat down to write it. There is a lot of story to come and I invite you to come along for the full journey with me.

If you have enjoyed this novel, I hope you will take the time to leave a review. All reviews are greatly appreciated, as they help assist purchasing decisions by other readers. Sales and reviews will help me to focus on the next book in the series, which impacts how fast the next installment is released.

Please join me on the series Facebook Page:

https://www.facebook.com/TheHunterLegacy

You are welcome to discuss the series on the Facebook Group:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/TheHunterLegacyUniverse/

If you would like to be kept informed of new eBooks, updates and information from The Hunter Legacy universe, join the mailing list at http://eepurl.com/bqMgVz. Please be aware that some of the online mail providers block author release emails, so if you can, please use an email address which is not webmail based.

If you would like to be part of release events on Facebook, and receive an invitation to the event before the next book is released,

please friend https://www.facebook.com/russell.ellis.31586. This is the fastest way of finding out a new book is about to be released, but you need to be a Facebook friend to be invited to an event.

The Egosoft website is at: http://egosoft.com

Thank you.

[] By Timothy Ellis

The Hunter Legacy

 

.I. Destiny

Snark books co-authored with Elspeth Anders

Short Stories


Hero at Large

Jonathon Hunter has evoked the wrath of 27th century pirates. With his twin sexy bodyguards, Jonathon seeks to come to grips with station life in a suddenly hostile universe. Celebrity, gratitude, sudden attacks, and a mysterious prophecy are more than most 18 year old's can handle. A reluctant hero, Jonathon is on a journey, seemingly out of his time, but always in time. Meet Jon Hunter as he starts a 2 year journey to prophecy, with his AI sidekick, and mostly female mercenary team. This is a rollicking coming of age story, of life in space, fighter and ground combat action, and surviving the consequences of surviving. Hero at Large begins a 2 year serial story over 12 Novels, 1 Novella, and 1 Christmas story, with a Companion book. This is Life in Space (Opera), with Military Sci-Fi in space and on the ground, a Spiritual under-theme with a supernatural overtone, with cats. If you are looking for purely military sci-fi, books 3,4,5, half of 7, half of 9, 12, and 13 will suit you. The Hunter Legacy series : Part One: 1. Hero at Large 2. Hunted Hero Hunting 3. Send in the Hero 4. Make or Break the Hero 5. Hail the Hero End of Part 1 6. Burnside's Killer (An Interlude Novella between Parts 1 & 2) Part Two: 7. Hire a Hero 7.5 Jane's Christmas (A short story) 8. Hero to the Rescue 9. Hero at the Gates End of Part 2 10 The Long Road to Gaia (An Interlude novel between Parts 2 & 3) Part Three 11. Home is where the Hero is 12. Hero in Darkness 13. Hero to the End Also: The Hero's Companion AI Destiny series. 1. Admiral Jane 2. Queen Jane 3. Snark's Quest 4. *forthcoming* 5. *forthcoming* 6. *forthcoming*

  • ISBN: 9781370361809
  • Author: Timothy Ellis
  • Published: 2017-09-19 15:35:21
  • Words: 66997
Hero at Large Hero at Large