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Renew

(Renew, Book 1)

Prologue – Deep Field Patrol, 4930 Stellar Era

 

Markus Tarver remembered the second time he died.

 

In reality, death was nothing like in the movies. There were no meaningful revelations. No flashes of early life. No thoughts of mother, friends, loves, or home.

 

Just cold and a slowly decreasing field of vision. Markus was very cold.

 

Reaching down and touching his leg, Markus felt the warm stickiness of blood. Strapped into his seat while his cockpit spun around and around in space, he could see debris flash through that narrowing field of vision. Like clockwork, every two seconds a piece of mangled metal that he could only assume was the nose and engine of Blake 7, his Sprite-class deep space fighter, passed in front of him. The hypnotic repetition of the vision made him want to close his eyes for good and sleep. His wounds were grievous, and he knew he was dying. Again.

 

In reality, death was nothing like in the movies. But in reality, this wasn’t technically death at all. Philosophers, those spoiled scions of Eastern Shores industrialists who had either flunked or thrown the entrance examinations to the military, could argue whether this constituted death or not, just as worthlessly as they could argue about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

 

Was it death if the brain survived, even as the body died? Frankly, Markus thought wearily, did it matter? Drifting through space, alone and cold, his death felt real enough, even if he had faced it before and knew what was to come.

 

The pain subsided as drugs were injected automatically into his bloodstream by his flight suit. As they hit his system, Markus felt himself relax. His pulse dropped, and his breathing became shallow. Soon it would be over. Soon the stasis system in his ruined fighter would shut his body down, preserving the precious, irreplaceable brain.

 

Soon he would be Renewed.

 

 

Earth – Imperial District of Kormet, 4910 Stellar Era

 

“And 1000 years ago, the only survivors from the ruined Earth left behind the devastation, eventually colonizing the second planet of the Baldr system, a planet we would eventually come also to know as Earth, our home … Markus … Markus Tarver,” exclaimed the gray-haired history teacher, peering up over her glasses at the boy, “Am I interrupting something important?”

Markus’ gut tightened up as he felt the electric jolt of her gaze. “Sorry, ma’am,” he stuttered.

Making a point to look directly in his eye, she continued, “And our play will celebrate the Auswanderung, as you present to your families the story of the voyage of the Original Families right in our school auditorium.”

Barely-stifled groans murmured from around the class. Founders Day might be the most important national holiday next to the Emperor’s birthday, but it was a day to be celebrated with parties, friends, and food, not school plays. Even the children remember the disaster of last year’s play, and none of them wanted to be part of a repeat.

Besides, Markus’ parents had their annual neighborhood party for Founders Day. While adults drank brown beverages and talked louder and acted less mature than the children, the kids played in a theme park constructed for the party at an expense greater than most people’s annual salaries. Last year’s theme had been a zoo. The year before had been the epic “Day on the Moon,” complete with low gravity simulators. Giving up this year’s “Mountains and Oceans” party for a school play was intolerable.

“The first act will show our ancestors fleeing the original Earth as the armies of the East and West unleashed biological war upon the population, forcing the lucky few survivors to flee for previously scouted potential colonies – Baldr and Veles. Martin, you and Heidi will play the roles of …. MARKUS TARVER CUT THAT OUT NOW!”

As the note in Markus’ hand fell short of the desk where he had been attempting to place it, he shrank in his seat.

“Markus, why will you not pay attention to your lessons?”

Markus didn’t answer, but he knew. The Tarver name carried his family. The best restaurants suddenly had tables. Meals tabs were waved away with a smile and a handshake from the proprietor. New and exotic luxury vehicles appeared with stunning regularity in the driveway before they were even available to the general public. Markus was a Tarver, and he fully knew that one day these privileges would be his. It was his birthright, as genetically wired as the color of his hair. Lessons and plays had no lasting worth compared to this.

Did his parents need multiplication tables – and plays! – to secure expensive presents from local dignitaries? Did they need grammar tests to be appointed to advisory boards at all the top companies? What was the point of rote learning when his name meant that others would always provide for him?

Markus knew he was a Tarver, and he knew that a Tarver would succeed. Losing a holiday to a play would not change that inevitability.

“Young man, shame on you. I know who you are – and who you family is. My father fought and died with your grandfather at Fyris Wolds. Your grandfather was one of the greatest heroes our planet has known, and you need to begin to live up to that. It is your name and your heritage. Act like it.”

Markus shuffled his feet at his desk, annoyed at the hectoring. Johannes Tarver was his grandfather, so what did it matter to Mrs. Hoeneff? Johannes’ blood flowed through his veins, not hers. Johannes’ death reflected glory on his family, not hers. Markus’ last name alone made him more important than some teacher, as the complimentary new skimmer in his father’s driveway proved.

Earth Orbit, Fyris Wolds defensive perimeter, 4893 Stellar Era

The green expanse of Folkvangr slid past the bottom edge of the bridge viewport display, beneath a haze of metallic shimmering. The debris was nearly thick enough to create a new inner ring, thought Grand Admiral Johannes Tarver. The dark husks of ships that had sent many young men, friend and enemy, to their deaths stretched to the limits of vision. Larger pieces could be avoided; smaller pieces tasked the shields and armor of the INS Admiral Kuiper, Tarver’s flagship and command. And pride.

The Western Rebellion had raged for nearly a year, after decades of smoldering below the surface like the embers of an old fire. But it seemed much longer.

It was such a pointless war, Johannes Tarver thought. Why the trinket peddlers of the West would abandon the wealth and precision central planning of the East, only to scrounge by on their own, was something he could not comprehend. How anyone could think that the brilliant economists and bureaucrats of the Imperial Government knew less than some shopkeeper was beyond him. The East had brought culture, wealth, technology, and predictability to those backwards folk. Making and selling things, military goods notwithstanding, was too low a caste to even consider as a proper vocation. The East had glittering cities; the West had wilderness, factories, and squalor. To abandon the gifts that the East freely bestowed, let alone to openly rebel, was boggling. Obedience was a small price to pay for affluence.

The Westerners had sneered at this mindset ever since the original inhabitants first spread across the continent. They sneered as if they were the higher castes. But sneering wasn’t enough; not even content with their anarchistic, backwards ways, secretive defiance had finally become open war.

Even from orbit, the differences between the two coasts were visible. The eastern part of the continent was alight with the glow of active megacities, whereas the western part was dark with nothing but woodlands, small settlements, and a few chaotic larger towns that only a Westerner would call a city without using large amounts of sarcasm. Waves that could be seen originating off the eastern coast traveled uninterrupted around the globe to smash onto the shores of the west. Organization became chaos. Johannes found that concept metaphoric.

As Johannes Tarver cast a glance at the nearby spotlight of Fyris Wolds, the earth’s only major moon, his concentration was rudely snapped back to three bright points of light that were being automatically enhanced by the display’s artificial intelligence. They were, he knew too well, the rebel ships that had decimated the Imperial task force Tarver had sent to deal with them. The Kuiper was the only line of defense left between the enemy and the East’s capital city, but she was a formidable one.

The Imperial District of Kormet. The name brought to mind a level of grandeur that the city not only lived up to but actually surpassed. It was the center of culture, economics, higher learning, government, and central planning. It was the brightest spot of the East, the Earth, and as far as Tarver was concerned, the whole universe. Let any Raiders who differ come argue their case in futility, he frequently thought.

But now Kormet was on his mind for another reason. His family was there, safe from the war, they had assumed. The idea of the rebels breaking through Imperial perimeters and actually bombing the city was inconceivable. Damage on this scale or even the threat of such could lead to an armistice on the West’s terms.

Unless Tarver could stop them, unless the Kuiper could hold her own, the war might just be lost.

“Sir, we are receiving a hail from the Vengeance,” yelled a young communications ensign over the commotion of a bridge readying for battle. The words had barely left the sailor’s mouth before he realized his mistake.

“FROM THE WHAT???” screamed Johannes, his eyes shooting murderous glances at the unfortunate ensign.

“Sorry, sir. From the Admiral Lukas.” The ensign’s eyes stayed steadfastly on the floor.

The ensign would be dealt with later, thought Tarver. If they survived. The Vengeance, like every other ship in the so-called Free Western Navy, was a hijacked Imperial craft. To call her by any name but her proper one was sacrilege and insubordination bordering on treason. Especially her. Especially the Admiral Lukas.

It had been a mistake to put Westerner crews together, Tarver had always thought. Sure, it had improved the moral on other ships by not having those sub-standard malcontents interspersed, but this had always left the ships crewed by Westerners vulnerable. Even though the top officers on those ships had typically been Eastern, and loyal political commissars, or politruks, were interspersed throughout the ranks, mutiny was always a possibility. Just no one foresaw mutiny on such a wide and coordinated scale. A full third of the Imperial Navy had been lost in minutes. The Lukas had been Tarver’s first command, which made it perhaps the worst salt in the wound. The second of the Kacper class, she was a powerful adversary, even in Western hands. One on one, she was near the equal of the Kuiper. And she was flanked by two Lundi-class gunships, the Admiral Krister and the Admiral Hammerich, their new pirate names be damned.

“Sir,” the ensign repeated, “the Lukas is demanding our surrender.” The ensign had learned his lesson fast. Promising. “What do you want to do?”

“Put me on. Kuiper actual to the INS Admiral Lukas,” Tarver stated, accentuating the last three words. “To whom am I speaking?”

“Johannes? Why, good to hear from you, Admiral. It’s been a few years. But I believe we are called the Vengeance now.”

Johannes Tarver, the legendary Admiral, faced an unfamiliar sensation. He prided himself on always being in control of situations. The voice sounded vaguely familiar to him, but not knowing left him with an uncomfortable tingling. “You have the advantage here. Do I know you?”

“I’m hurt, Admiral. Or should I say ‘Captain’?”

Son of a bitch, Tarver swore away from the microphone as the realization dawned on him. Nijenhuis. His old Executive Officer from his days on the Lukas. And one hell of a tactician. The one man who could command the ship as well as himself. He was a man of honor. Hell, he could have been Eastern as far as Tarver was concerned, and that was a compliment he rarely paid to the Westerners.

“Figured it out yet, Captain?”

“Kees Nijenhuis. I always thought you deserved a command. I never thought you’d steal one. You had real career promise in the Imperial Navy.”

“Thanks for that,” came the reply, a bit of swagger showing through, even on an audio connection, “but we’re here to negotiate your surrender rather than my prospects in a defeated force. One battlecruiser against a battlecruiser plus the gunships Liberator and Revenge.” Tarver’s jaw clenched at the deliberate use of the rebel names.

“You don’t stand a chance.” Nijenhuis sighed, “It doesn’t have to end like this. You’re a fair and honorable man, something I rarely saw in your Eastern ilk. Stand down, and we will spare you.” Tarver thought he detected a resigned but sad tone. He and Kees had been close at one point, nearly brothers. Such were the bonds of service.

“And what of Kormet?” replied Tarver.

“Military and political targets are fair game. But we’ll spare population centers where we can. On that you have my word.”

Allowing the bombing of the capital was the price of cowardly surrender? Tarver could barely believe the insolence from someone he had actually considered a friend. “Unacceptable,” came the response through gritted teeth.

“Really?” chuckled Nijenhuis. “And this is coming from you? What was that joke you told to put down those drunken civil engineer when we were out on shore leave in Bremech? ‘The military makes men. You make targets.’ Your Eastern engineers sure made plenty of juicy targets for my Western men. The question is whether your ship needs to be one, too. Is your crew willing to pay the price your pride demands, Captain?

Seething inside at the implied insult, Johannes Tarver looked over at his Chief Pilot. He had one chance. Clicking off the microphone, he fired off, “Helm, how close can you get us to the Krister?”

“Inside their firing solutions, sir,” was the prompt reply.

“Do we have the shields to get there?” Tarver asked over his other shoulder.

Schmalz, the Engineering Officer, glanced at his screens. “Barely, sir. We’ll take hull damage, but we can minimize effects to crucial systems.”

“Ready all systems. Divert weapons energy to shields; we won’t need guns right now. Concentrate on protecting the reactor and propulsion. Get us between the Krister and Lukas. They’ll have a hard time firing at us without hitting their own ship. We’ll pay them back for every scratch on our hull when we get there.” A pause. Then, voice booming with pride, “We do this for the Emperor. For the Imperium. And for our honor. Go on my command.”

“Sir!” shouted the bridge, almost in unison. It was a long shot, but it was their only play. Johannes had proved himself in battle so many times that the crew trusted him by reflex.

Tarver clicked the microphone switch. “I’m sorry, Kees. It’s not going to happen. This ends here and now.”

“You disappoint me, Admiral. I can’t honestly say I’m shocked, but I hate that it has come to this.”

Tarver raised his arm to signal the go-ahead. “As do I, my former friend. As do I.”

The crew could feel the inertial dampeners struggle to keep up with the thrust coming from the Kuiper’s engines. Without dampeners, the acceleration forces would make them meat puddles on the back wall of the bridge. Coffee and water sloshed in mugs as the ship accelerated toward the enemy.

The Westerners had expected the move; Johannes Tarver had not built his reputation by surrendering.

“They are powering weapons, sir,” Schmalz shouted. “INCOMING!”

The Kuiper’s shields lit up like the Northern Lights as laser fire from the three enemy ships concentrated on the bridge and other key areas. Relativistic rounds, small masses the size of ball bearings fired at near light speed by the rail guns on the gunships, penetrated the shields, drilling small, precise holes completely through the shuddering battlecruiser. Luckily, the guns’ rate of fire was low, or they would not survive the onslaught.

Tarver heard a muffled scream and jerked his head toward the source. A relativistic round had found the bridge. Shields would maintain atmosphere and hull integrity, but the Weapons Officer was not so lucky. Tarver watch him fall, in what seemed like slow motion. The precise 1cm hole in his chest matched the one in his workstation. Neither would make it. A good man, Tarver thought. Recently married. Sent him whiskey glasses as a present, he thought to himself without really knowing why. And now killed by ingrate savages. Such a stupid, pointless war.

Tarver pulled up damage control screens on his personal heads up display. Shields were holding off the laser barrage, but red lights were blinking where the relativistic rounds had hit. Several compartments were venting atmosphere as the shields struggled to keep up with combined tasks of stopping incoming laser fire and holding the Kuiper together. Already, life support chips in the sailors’ uniforms had informed the central computer of twenty injured and five dead. And laser fire continued to rake the shields.

Dozens of bright lights appeared in front of the ship. Missiles. The entire bridge crew held their breaths as the Assistant Weapons Officer, given a battlefield promotion automatically by the ship’s computer to his recently deceased boss’ job, counted down the time until impact.

“Three…two…BRACE!”

Even with inertial dampeners on full power, the impact of the missiles on the shields caused the ship to shudder. The mugs that had previously been sloshing now flew forward from the desks where they had been set. Technology doesn’t completely overrule the laws of physics, mused Tarver to himself, as a brown coffee stain appeared on his uniform. It was the least of his worries at present. He would happily scrub the stain out if they actually survived the battle.

“Shields down. Laser damage!” shouted someone behind Tarver as electrical explosions marred the previously gleaming bridge. “Shields back online in three.” Tarver’s display flashed red in new areas as the extent of the damage became apparent. More casualty reports blinked. Tarver shut down the feed; there would be time to mourn later, if anyone survived to do the mourning.

“Helm, get us into position. We can’t take much more.”

“Ten seconds, sir,” came the response.

More relativistic rounds pinged into the ship. Lasers played off the shields. And then quiet. They had made it. The Krister was too close to fire its brutal rail guns, and the other ships could not fire without risking hitting their ally. The Westerners were maneuvering to counter, but the Kuiper had bought itself time to level the odds.

“Give me weapons status, Mister …” Tarver paused, realizing with a bit of embarrassment that he did not know the name of the replacement officer. Johannes had prided himself on his attention to detail and his memory.

“Siebert, sir. Power diversion is complete. Shields are at minimum, and you have full weapons.”

“We’ll target the gunships. Mister Siebert, please remove the Admiral Hammerich from my space.”

“Gladly, sir,” grinned the new Weapons Officer. “A, B, and D turrets are targeting the Hammerich. C turret can only target the Krister, though even her shields should have no problem dealing with that. Missiles are in the air.”

Tarver felt the pulsating thrum of power conduits under his feet as the laser turrets began to fire. Already, the Krister was attempting to gain separation, and the other two enemy ships began to flank the Kuiper. It was only a matter of time until they succeeded and could open fire once again. His ship could not survive that. The Lukas still kept up laser fire, though the shields were dealing with it at the moment.

“Helm, keep us as close as you can to the Krister and between her and the Hammerich. Prioritize our shields facing the Lukas. She’s the current threat.”

“Roger, sir,” came the reply, not missing one beat of confident competence under the strain of battle.

Neither gunship was designed for close-in brawling with an armored battlecruiser. They were artillery platforms, made for sniping from safe behind the front lines. Speed, stealth, and firepower were the trademarks of such a ship, not armor and shielding. And their weapons had been neutralized by the Kuiper’s opening gambit.

“Their shields are down. Hull penetration on the Hammerich, sir,” shouted Siebert. “Their weapons are offline.”

“Let’s finish this round. Target the central reactor.”

“Yes, sir. Missiles away.”

The bridge crew watched ten missiles home in on the stricken ship as laser fire flashed back and forth. Close-in weapons systems aboard the Hammerich fired in desperate defense, taking out half. But it wasn’t enough. The bridge holoscreen aboard the Kuiper flickered as automatic controls attempted to deal with the primal brightness of a fleet plasma reactor exploding in space. A cheer went up among the crew as the shockwave rattled the Kuiper. One down.

The Admiral Lukas moved away from the Kuiper, taking shelter in the scattered ruins of the Hammerich and slowly moving away from the battle and toward Kormet. It was decision time. To pursue meant exposing the ship to the brutal fire of the remaining gunship. To stay behind meant leaving Kormet unprotected. It was a masterful move by the enemy.

Tarver glanced over at his Executive Officer, Kurtis Mayer. “What’s your analysis, Kurtis? We can’t stay here forever. If we move, both ships can target us. If we stay, the Lukas can finish her mission unmolested.”

“Sir, we have shields enough to hold off both ships, but only if we divert power away from weapons. Given the damage we have sustained to shield emitters, we can’t both fight and survive. At best, we can take out one ship, but the other will survive. The moment they penetrate our shields, they will be targeting our reactor and missile magazines.”

Tarver was silent as he pondered this for a moment. “Helm, how long has it been since you’ve plotted a ballistic trajectory?”

Mayer raised an eyebrow and looked over quizzically as the helmsman responded, “A long time, sir, but I was good at it. “

“What are you thinking, Johannes?” asked Mayer.

“An ancient myth,” responded Tarver, “from the time when mankind could barely fly. Something called a ‘kamikaze.’ I suspect the stories are simply legends, but the tactic holds: if you can’t deliver the killing blow, be the killing blow.”

Heads on the bridge turned in unison, expressions somewhere between shock and acceptance on the faces. It would be a suicide run. To some degree, they had understood the possibility of not surviving this battle, but this was something different.

“Weapons Officer, can you take down the engines on the Lukas, even temporarily?”

Siebert tapped some buttons on his holodisplay. “If we concentrate fire on her engine pods, we could knock her engines offline. But it would only be for maybe ten minutes.”

“That’s all we need. Fire when you are ready.”

“Johannes, can you tell me what you are thinking?” asked Mayer.

Tarver looked at his XO, his faced resigned and grim. “Kurtis, prepare for general evacuation. All personnel who are not involved in engineering and weapons should be at their designated pods. Everyone else will be there shortly.”

Mayer knew better than to question an order. He hit a red alarm button on his workstation and calmly repeated Tarver’s evacuation order to the crew. The bridge crew, however, remained at their stations.

Tarver turned to them in exasperation. “I gave you all a direct order. I need Helm, Weapons, and the XO. Everyone else get to your pods.”

The young communications ensign broke the silence. “Sir, with all due respect, the battle is not yet over. We are staying by your side.” Heads nodded.

Maybe he had underestimated the ensign, Tarver thought. Courage in the face of mortal danger outweighs a verbal slip. Tarver was proud of his crew; it was a pity that few would likely survive the next few minutes. “Very well, Ensign Hoeneff. Very well.”

“Sir, the Lukas’ engines are offline,” came an excited shout from the Weapons Officer. “She’s drifting.”

“Helm, plot a ballistic intercept course. Once we hit a velocity of 0.3, shut off the engines.”

“Sir?”

“Do it. We’re going to lose the engines anyhow.”

“Yes, sir. Engaging full throttle.”

“Weapons, concentrate all fire on the Krister. Take her down. XO, give us the minimal shields needed to protect the reactor. Provide as much power to weapons as you can.”

The bridge deck of the Kuiper thrummed as the engines engaged, spinning the ship onto an intercept course with the Lukas and accelerating. It was a feeling that Tarver liked. He would miss it.

Status reports of escape pods leaving the ship blinked on Tarver’s display. Good. Other, less promising, reports coincided with the shuddering impact of relativistic rounds from the Krister and lasers from the Lukas. The Imperial flagship was taking mortal damage. Not that it mattered at this point.

A sudden rocking of the ship hit the bridge. Tarver looked over at Mayer, who responded, “That’s the engines. We’re adrift.”

“Helm, are we on course for intercept?”

“Sir, if the Lukas doesn’t restart her engines, yes. Minor corrections can be handled by the maneuvering reactor thrusters.”

“Weapons, what’s our status?”

“Three turrets down, sir,” replied Siebert. “Missiles loaded. Our last turret is taking fire.”

Tarver looked down at a damage control screen that was mostly red. Almost every compartment other than the bridge and the reactor had taken severe damage. This short battle had reduced the pride of the navy to a drifting hulk, but the hulk still had a battle to win.

“Fire all missiles at the Krister.”

“Done, sir…missiles on track…multiple hits…She’s exploding.”

A muted cheer went up. It was now one on one. On the holoscreen, the Lukas grew larger and larger, the closing steady and inevitable. All in all, things turned out as well as could be expected, Tarver thought. Half the crew survived, the capital – and his family – was safe, and the strongest taskforce of the rebel navy had been laid to waste. The war might even be won. His death was a small price to pay for that, he admitted to himself.

————

From the ground, a bright flash was plainly visible. Few knew that it was the reactors of two battlecruisers exploding simultaneously due to a high-speed collision. The historical significance of that flash would not be known to the masses for weeks, though the tsunami created by the falling debris would wipe out coastal Western cities much sooner, effectively decapitating the resistance.

The Western Rebellion, of The War of Secession as it was known in the West, was over.

Earth – Imperial District of Kormet, 4917 Stellar Era

Markus Tarver broke down the left wing toward the goal, wetness of the grass a black-green blur to his eyes. The sun had finally come out, and the clear blue sky seemed to energize the players. The pace of play had increased to a frenzy as the clock ticked down. Markus’ stomach tightened in time with the clock. At this late stage, he knew that any mistake could be disastrous. He would brag about how he worked well under pressure, but in his more reflective moments, he wondered if he really enjoyed the sensation. He would not be the weak link.

Out of the corner of his vision, Markus watched the ball dance at his feet as he deftly sidestepped a defender. The skidding of the defender’s cleats on the grass released a damp aroma of earth and grass. Down by a goal in the District Championships with only minutes remaining, there would be few more chances. Yet he could taste the win. He was confident in what he needed to do.

As two more opponents broke toward him, Markus saw the blur of a teammate streaking down the middle of the field. Hans briefly raised his hand, asking for the cross. Hans was open; it was a reasonable play. But he could not get the image out of his mind about the last time he crossed to Hans, who sent the ball soaring out of bounds. Not again, Markus swore to himself. He would not be the weak link.

Instead, Markus shifted the ball to his favored right foot. In his mind, he saw what he needed to do. Visualize…visualize…shoot. Aiming at the gap between the closing defenders, he ripped off a rocket of a shot and watched with growing dismay. Wide. A groan broke out from one half of the audience and a cheer from the other. Markus felt the blood rush to his face as the red mist descended. He was the weak link.

Hans slid down on his knees, a grimace on his face and accusing eyes aimed at Markus. The worst part, Markus thought, was that Hans was right. The final minutes of the gamed ticked down to a loss.

As the team marched dejectedly to the locker room, Markus heard a booming voice yell, “TARVER! Get over here!”

Though he had never felt so small in his life, Markus continued walking, ignoring his coach and the dark stares of his teammates. A few moments later, the sound of labored breathing let him know that his coach had caught up. A meaty hand grabbed his arm, spinning him around. Markus knew that a crowd was watching, and the red mist returned, washing over him. Screw this hack of a coach, he thought. Let’s see his fat ass do better.

“What the hell was that, Tarver? Didn’t you see Hans to your right?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t you see that he was clear?”

“Of course.”

“Don’t you have the ball skills to execute a simple cross to him?”

Markus stopped and simply stared in response to such a ludicrous question. There were limits to how much humiliation he would tolerate.

The coach returned the stare. “So why didn’t you? Did a Raider steal your brain? That’s the only excuse I can think of here.”

Neither spoke for what seemed like hours. Finally Markus looked his coach in the eyes and said, “I didn’t trust him.”

“What? You’re a good winger. Darn good. But Hans is our best striker. He’s being recruited by the Imperial Military Academy. And YOU didn’t trust HIM?”

“No, Sir, I did not.”

“Dare I ask why, son?”

“He’s not me, sir.”

Markus saw the coach’s eye roll, as his voice pitched up a partial octave. “What?”

“Sir, I trust myself to do what needs to be done. I had a shot, so I took it. Bringing someone else into the play seemed a pointless risk. How many crosses did Hans not score on?”

The coach stood, momentarily agape. “But Hans was open. You weren’t. You took a low percentage shot when a near guaranteed thing was available. That doesn’t make sense. That’s not playing smart.”

“I guess you don’t understand, sir.”

“I don’t have to understand, Tarver,” responded the coach. “Here’s the deal. By law, you must participate in a sport. And you need to play well if you want to be considered for the Academy. But I don’t have to let you play on my team.”

A shocked look slowly crossed Markus’ face and he fumbled for a proper response. This was slipping away from him rapidly. “But sir, you know I’m your best winger.”

“You are,” admitted the coach. “You have great skills. But you can’t play on a team. More relevant, you can’t play on MY team. We’re supposed to be a team. However, you refuse to sacrifice your chance for personal glory in order to give the team a better chance. You simply don’t understand that you are not alone out there. We got lucky getting to the finals this year, but we can’t count on luck. Frankly, I’d rather have a mediocre player who plays with heart than a prima donna like yourself.”

Markus’ face darkened as the reality of the situation hit him. He kicked at the grass, sighed. The smell of shorn grass, which used to exhilarate him, now seemed associated with failure and humiliation. He said, “But I played as hard as I could.” Realizing he was fighting a losing battle, he added, “So what do I do?”

“Report Monday to Coach Lingster.”

Annoyance turned to anger. “Lingster? That’s…that’s Outdoor Education.”

“Correct.”

“You can’t do that to me, sir. Outdoor Ed is for Westerners. It’s not a proper sport. It’s embarrassing.”

The coach sighed, “I don’t really care. You’ll be out of my hair, and maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two. Plus, you’ll get to spend quality time with your favorite person – yourself.”

Chuckling at his own joke, the coach turned and walked away. “Monday. Lingster. Be there, my little soon-to-be Western boy.”

———-

In retrospect, Markus thought that the move to Outdoor Ed was, in spite of the lower-caste Western connotations, the best thing that had happened to him. Spending hours in fresh air pushing himself to exhaustion caused his body to strengthen. More unexpected was how it made him feel inside, especially the rock climbing. Finding new routes up rock faces while leaping from handhold to handhold was exhilarating. And the rush of rappelling back down after a hard climb was unmatched. Finishing the day around a fire with his fellow climbers and some illicit beers – or something a bit more illicit – was the crowning glory. For the first time in his life, Markus had true friends, people with whom he shared adventures and trust.

Markus Tarver was happy.

———-

The afternoon looked promising for a late climb as Markus headed to the school’s gym. Underneath painfully lapis lazuli skies, the early afternoon sun was shining off the spires of central Kormet in the distance. He would have just enough time to climb a short but technical local route with some friends and return for dinner. They had already headed out to the site, but Markus had decided to finish some school work first. Markus could already feel the sensation of rocks under his fingertips. The excitement of an upcoming adventure always made him jittery.

The previous night, Markus had sat in his room, undertaking his pre-climb customary gear check. The soft friction of the climbing ropes and the mineral smell of machining oil on the mechanical bits never failed to raise his anticipation levels and frequently left him too excited to sleep. He felt like a child the night before a big party. The vid screen flickered in the background, providing more white noise than entertainment. Another gladiator series, Markus sighed. He still couldn’t believe that people found it entertaining to watch two grown men attempt to kill each other brutally with the sole reward being the promise of Renew for the victor. Markus could not believe how many people would take such a mortal risk to grasp at the opportunity for temporary immortality. It was silly and annoying, but he was not about to interrupt his ritual in order to change the station. Markus expected that such low-brown “entertainment” would appeal to Westerners or other uneducated lower castes, and he was always shocked at how many of his schoolmates watched the show religiously. It seemed beneath them as representatives of Kormet’s elite.

As the doors to the empty locker room swung open, a bright red light began a staccato flashing, snapping Markus out of the pleasant daydreams. A split second later, a siren screamed alongside an automated voice announcing an emergency lockdown. Raiders.

Markus knew about the Raiders. Everyone on the planet did. They had been a scourge in the past but had disappeared a few decades ago, only to return recently with a vengeance not long after the invention of the Renew system. According to common knowledge, Raiders kidnapped and enslaved people, who were placed under the control of some sort of alien hive mind. No one outside of the top levels of the government, people assumed, knew who the Raiders actually were, but their savagery was notorious enough to spawn everything from blockbuster movies to nursery rhymes. That last one always confused Markus; why did parents insist on singing creepy songs to their young children?

When the Raiders come

It’s you they’ll find

And you will no longer

Control your mind

When you do return

As from the grave

You will only

Be their slave.

With every raid, a few dozen people disappeared. They were never seen again by friends and relatives, but military intelligence somehow knew about the alien hive mind and the mental enslavement, or “linking” as it was more commonly referred to. No one knew what sort of intelligence assets the government had in place to know this, but no serious scientists doubted it.

It was assumed that the Raiders needed the slave labor for something they could not do. Theories abounded, from them not being able to survive in an earth-like atmosphere to them not having opposable thumbs.

Stranger still, though Raider ships had been sighted, the Raiders themselves never have been, at least verifiably. Of course, occasional rural cranks, usually under the influence of one or more intoxicating substances, have alleged to have met – and been medically probed by – the Raiders, but few outside of the tabloid journals believed those stories.

People considered capture by the Raiders a fate worse than death, but to date the Imperial Navy seemed powerless to stop them. Sure, some Raider ships would be intercepted and destroyed, the peculiar wreckage paraded before cameras, but there always seemed to be more that would slip through. Their end-game was a mystery. Why did they raid, and why had they returned? Some speculated that it had something to do with the new Renew system that promised near immortality to a golden few. Perhaps the Raiders jealous of the technology, trying to steal it, or was it simply a coincidence?

Raids were more and more considered a fact of life, but raids this close to Kormet were exceedingly rare. Did it symbolize a stepping up of the Raiders’ plans, Markus wondered.

As the all-clear sounded, Markus breathed a sigh of relief and turned on the newscasts to hear the official accounts of the raid.

“… and initial reports put the number of casualties of the latest Raider incursion at nine,” the broadcast said. “This raid of the Kormet suburbs is unprecedented, and we will have the Minister of Defense giving a statement soon. And now reports are coming in on the victims. Three were students on a day trip.”

Markus’ blood froze. No, it couldn’t be, he thought.

“We have been given their names. Justin Kiene, Friedrich Pannier, and Deert Steinbatz are the first confirmed victims of this latest raid. Details on the other six will be forthcoming.”

There was more to the report, but Markus didn’t hear it. He swooned and fell to his knees, unable to stand. Justin, Friedrich, and Deert – his three climbing friends. Markus should have been with them. He couldn’t breathe. His ears rang.

A buzzing in his pocket caught his attention. It was a call from his parents, obviously worried about him. They could wait. His three best friends had just been taken from him, and they faced a fate he couldn’t begin to imagine. The three friends who stood by him and helped him discover himself during his tumultuous past six months after being kicked off the team were gone. Somehow, Markus vowed, he would avenge this.

Earth Orbit, Outer Rings Patrol, 4930 Stellar Era

Markus Tarver loved the feel of the Sprite-class fighter he flew. Fast, nimble, and armed is not a bad way to fly through space, he thought. Three years of flying for the Blake’s Vindicators squadron had given him an appreciation for solo space flight, as opposed to crowded and ungainly capital ships. Even the musky smell of the cockpit, a mixture of leather and the day-old flight suits, was one that snapped back memories for retired pilots.

“OK, Vindicators,” the radio crackled with the friendly voice of the squadron commander, “let’s pay attention here. We’ll be out of range of the Stumpe’s sensors for about a half hour while we’re in the ring. Keep your eyes open and your guns ready, you misfits.”

Markus grinned in spite of himself; though any potential combat was immensely dangerous, no Raiders had been spotted in this sector for a year. Gerhard Andersonne, as Blake 1, liked to consider himself an actual squadron commander. He acted like it and definitely deserved it, and in other circumstances, he would have been. Even his call sign – Swagger – fit, as did his appearance. Tall and lanky with thinning hair and the façade of a kindly country doctor in historical stories, he could be serious one moment and cracking a mischievous smile the next. His squadron loved him, as did the women. Though not classically handsome and, according to his own claims, not able to talk well to women, he was nonetheless popular with the opposite gender.

But the Imperial Navy was no ordinary circumstance, and here the Politruks ran squadrons to avoid the mutinous behavior of the civil war.

Markus keyed his mic. “Won’t Stulli miss us?” Randolph Stulli was a decent pilot, but in typical Politruk fashion his real skills ran toward control and oppression. Though Markus was not privy to how it came to be assigned to Stulli, his call sign, Ruler, had a double meaning in that it didn’t just refer to his ramrod bearing. Flying an electronic warfare craft in the squadron was poor cover for his real job. Every air wing had someone like Stulli. Every pilot hated it. Even if it were not for their history of mutual distaste, Markus would still resent and despise him.

“Dear god, Markus,” chimed in his wingman, Henk Fleuren. “You’re lucky we’re on private band. Are you *trying* to have your family arrested? ‘Dissent and disappear’ isn’t just a joke slogan, even for Tarvers.”

Markus let the friendly slight about his family’s assumed immunity slide. Such was the banter of long missions in space. “We’re just lucky that he lets Swagger run tactical, while he sits in his cushy Blixt far behind us sipping tea and thinking up ways to keep our thoughts pure.”

“Can it, Splap,” came the retort from Andersonne. God, Markus hated that call sign and what it stood for. Even when used in a good-natured sense, it still felt like a slap to the face to him. “This is dangerous, even for you. Plus, your feelings aside, he’s as good a pilot as I am, and even you have to admit that his skills with electronic warfare have saved our butts – and yours once as a nugget – a few times. And unlike you, he actually had to work to get where he is.”

Markus couldn’t really argue the point, the additional jab at his lineage notwithstanding, but as he couldn’t stand that political prick Stulli either, he decided his best course of action was to simply close his mouth. Andersonne and Fleuren were right; talking openly about the government or its agents in derogatory terms was dangerous. Whole families had disappeared to “reeducation camps” for less. And at least Stulli was somewhat useful. Most politruks were simply incompetent but politically-connected scions. The vague irony didn’t escape Markus. But for a few different choices on the sports field, that might have been him. In retrospect, it still amazed him that being booted to Outdoor Ed, an activity he had considered Western and therefore below his station in life, had actually created positive ripple of effect in his life years later.

Time in space was hard to judge. Perspectives didn’t change, and velocity was meaningless in the referenceless deep black. Comfortable silence passed for what could have been an hour or five minutes until the radio crackled to life with the voice of Randolph Stulli. “Blake’s Vindicators. Be advised the Stumpe is tracking multiple bogies inbound toward your sector. Negative IFF. Type unknown. Assume Raiders. Jammers are on. They’ll be on you in five minutes at current speeds. They don’t appear to have seen you yet, so keep to your side of the rings. Suggest you relocate behind some of the larger rocks. You’ll have a chance to jump them when they emerge. The Shutter is steaming toward your position but will not be in range in time to launch support.”

Tarver could hear the tension in Andersonne’s voice as he replied. “Roger, Ruler. We’ll relocate and hold position. Tell us if we need to move – or fall back.” A pause, then, “You heard him, gentlemen. Let’s get ready.”

Five long, tense minutes later, two strange ships emerged from the rings. The waiting was worse than the action, Markus believed. He felt the tension in his body relax as he finalized his pre-engagement preparations. It was an almost out-of-body experience to be seeing the enemy for the first time. Markus realized that these craft were like nothing in the Imperial Navy. Unlike the sleek fighters or bulbous carriers that filled his days, these ships were flattened and wide, almost reminiscent of the stingrays in the ocean. Tarver heard his radio burst to life. “Blake 1 to Stumpe, two Raider scouts sighted. What are your orders?”

“Vindicators, you are weapons free. Good hunting, boys. Ruler has your back.”

Markus saw the glare of the Hall Effect thrusters on Andersonne’s ship lighting and quickly reached down for his own throttle. No words were necessary; the squadron had trained and trained again for this type of scenario. It was instinct and muscle memory at this point. Markus and Henk would take out the trailing scout while Baier and Endel went after the lead, leaving Andersonne and three others to help corral any runaways. Meanwhile, Stulli would be jamming communications and scanners on the scouts, hopefully keeping them mute and blind. It was as automatic as breathing to Blake’s Vindicators.

As Markus turned to an intercept course with his target, he saw a glint off the enemy ship. Christ, he though, their cockpit is clear glass. In his mind, a plan came together. He could cement his place in military lore. He quickly calculated if there were any way to get close enough to the canopy to get a picture of the Raider pilot. Such a photo would be intelligence gold, as even their physical form was unknown. No Raider had been photographed, let alone captured. Of such things are careers and legends made. That suited Markus properly. Killing Raiders, though satisfying, could wait.

Henk and Markus streaked toward their target, who made no attempt at evasion. He (?) was either oblivious or reckless; either suited Markus. The mottled gray metal skin glistened in the light reflected off of Earth’s rings. It was a small ship, with maybe room for two pilots, assuming that they were human sized. The clear glass forward window beckoned with the possibility of visual contact.

Markus snapped back to real time as a fiery red explosion lit his cockpit. He felt the shock wave impinge on the hollow metal monocoque of his fighter. The equal and opposite reaction both weathervaned his craft and created an eerie moan as the energy resonated in the hull. No buzzers rang, so it wasn’t a friendly. The other scout was down, he thought. The squadron would be converging, so there was no time to lose.

Alerted by the destruction of his lead, the remaining Raider scout turned a quick 180 degree turn, facing Markus and Henk head on. This is it, Markus thought, the chance to do what no one else had. Adjusting his flight path to take him above the scout, he flipped inverted and keyed his mic. “Henk, stay clear. This one’s mine.”

“Gotcha, Splap. Your kill,” came the reply as Blake 8 backed off slightly.

Markus had to force himself to release his white knuckle grip as he firewalled his throttle. This was crazy, he thought, even by his standards. The only way to capture a photograph was with his gun camera as he fired. And to get any resolution, he’d have to be close. Dangerously close.

His cockpit lit up by the near misses of incoming fire, Markus heard his radio click but ignored it. He was nearly there. A hit pierced his prismatic shielding and sizzled across the ship’s forward armor, leaving a black streak down the nosecone and across the squadron insignia. Markus involuntarily cringed at how close the shot was to the unarmored cockpit canopy. Combat was suddenly real to him, and he could feel his nerves.

“Um, Splap,” asked Henk, “are you having missile problems?”

He didn’t reply. If they knew what he was planning, they’d down the scout just to stop what they’d see as a suicide run.

A more urgent and strident voice chimed in. “Lieutenant Tarver, fire your missile or clear the path for someone else.” It was Stulli. His usual tone conveyed disapproval, and this tone was harsher. He definitely would not allow this tactic, had he known.

Almost there, he thought. The enemy cockpit was perfectly positioned for a photo. It would work. Only a few seconds. His shielding and armor were holding. It would work; a promotion would be nice.

Suddenly, the scout exploded in a flash of yellows and reds that Markus could see, even through closed eyes. “Damn it,” he swore.

“Splash one. Sorry, Splap,” came the call from Andersonne, the anger in his voice atypical for his usually easy-going personality. “You had your chance. What the hell were you playing at? I was half wondering if they had linked you or something.”

“Damn it, Swagger,” Markus replied. “I had a chance to get photographs of the Raider pilots.”

“You…wait, you *what*?”

“Did you notice that the cockpit was clear? I was going for a close-in shot so that the gun camera would get shots of the pilot. I had the perfect vector.”

Markus heard Andersonne attempt to stifle a laugh. “Okay, you’ve got brass ones. We’ll give you that. Hell, maybe we should call *you* Swagger. But the damage to your ship aside, question 1: are you nuts? Question 2: why didn’t you tell me?”

The furious voice of Randolph Stulli interrupted the conversation. “Lieutenant Tarver, you are to report to me as soon as you return to the Shutter.”

Markus keyed his mic one last time. He was already in trouble, so did it matter if the hole were a bit deeper? “Question asked, question answered, Swagger?”

A sigh, friendly yet exasperated. Markus could almost picture him, helmet notwithstanding, trying to run his hand through his hair in frustration. “You’re an idiot, Splap. Enjoy the brig.”

Earth – Imperial District of Kormet, 4919 Stellar Era

The backyard was ready, Markus decided. With his parents away, having a party was an obvious idea to celebrate the last year in local school and his acceptance to the Academy. It was perfect. His house was sheltered from the street, allowing for plenty of parking without alerting the local authorities.

His one concern, procuring alcohol, was solved easily when he discovered that the liquor store that had catered his parents’ recent anniversary party still had an open tab. It had simply been a matter of convincing them on the phone that he was his father. Given the money they had made off the last party, the owners were hardly fast to challenge the fiction. Even better, his parents might not notice the extra charges on their tab. Or so he hoped.

As darkness set and guests began to arrive, Markus surveyed the scene like some ancient duke looking over his domain. From a master balcony set atop white pillars, he could view his mother’s green garden, a hectare of hedgerow passages leading to fish-filled ponds, flower beds exploding with color, and private meditation retreats. Music played from speakers hidden in the planters, and soft lighting automatically turned on. His father’s pride and joy, a bright red sports skimmer, was parked in the private cul-de-sac.

Life was good. And as he noticed the shapely figure of Katrina Simon making her way through the crowds, he decided that life had just gotten that much better. If he was honest with himself, her potential attendance was one of the main drivers for having the party.

Walking down to the patio, he greeted her group. “Katrina and Ernst, thanks for coming. I was hoping you’d make it.” Damn, he thought, was he being too needy? He had to play it cool.

“Nice party, Tarver,” replied Ernst. Being addressed by his last name was a bit grating, especially coming from such a self-centered douche, but he didn’t want to show annoyance. “Where are the drinks?”

“Around back. Help yourself.”

As Ernst headed off, Katrina turned to Markus. “Hi, Markus. I hope you don’t mind that Ernst brought some friends.”

“Not a problem,” Tarver replied honestly. Hopefully the friends would keep Ernst occupied.

After an awkward silence, Katrina smiled beguilingly, “Well, aren’t you going to be a gentleman and offer to show me around?”

What confidence Tarver had gained in sports and academics suddenly evaporated, and he felt like a small child caught in a spotlight. Worse, he began to blush and stammer. Markus felt as if a particularly incompetent surgeon had taken a laser scalpel to the outer cortex of his brain.

“Yeah, um, it would be…um, the garden is nice.” God, he sounded like such a tool. And he made a potentially bad choice. Was that too forward? And he didn’t know anything about gardens and didn’t care. Hopefully she wouldn’t ask many questions.

A smile, for the win. “The garden would be lovely.”

As Markus turned toward the back gardens, he felt an arm slip around his. His blushing deepened, and the embarrassment over that only served to set off a vicious cycle. He was mortified and overjoyed at the same time, and it confused him. There he was, in a beautiful garden with Katrina Simon on his arm, yet he could not seem to find the right gear mentally. Adoration and awkwardness swirled in his head. Life was good, but he was having trouble reveling in it. It confused him to no end.

About a half hour later, just as Markus was beginning to loosen up and enjoy the moment, flashing lights appeared in the driveway. Markus turned to see four police skimmers stop, the occupants fanning out and grabbing guests. How did the police find out about the party? He had been so careful.

“Will Markus Tarver please make himself known?” boomed a voice from a loudspeaker. Markus tentatively raised his hand and walked toward the drive. His guest, both friends and people he had hoped to impress, were lined up and restrained by police officers. His mind swam. Was he going to be arrested, which could eliminate him from going to the Academy? How would he explain this to his parents? His mind racing in panic, he still could not come up with any explanation that he thought would satisfy the law enforcement officers. He decided to fake confidence that he certainly did not feel.

“Sir, I am Markus,” he said, moving forward slowly. His legs felt like they were moving through molasses. “What’s the problem here, officer?”

“Son,” said the elder officer, “you and your guests are in a world of hurt. Do you realize what the penalty is for the possession of an intoxicating substance by a minor is? Or for distributing such substances?”

“Sir, no I do not.” It was a lie. Markus knew how bad the situation was. Expulsion from school, a ban from the Academy, and months of hard labor in a penal camp. Basically, a future ruined all for one night and one bad decision.

“Well, you are lucky for one thing. The good citizen who reported this party made a deal.” Wait…he was reported by someone? Who? The question was barely on his mind before he noticed Ernst smirking at him and doffing an imaginary cap. Son of a bitch! That jealous bastard had seen him talking to Katrina and decided to take revenge.

“None of your guests are to be prosecuted.” Markus’ heart leapt at these words, and he looked up with a hopeful glance. Maybe it wouldn’t be bad. “However, you will be prosecuted on their behalf.”

Markus felt as if some giant were standing on his chest. His vision narrowed. He couldn’t breathe. Katrina looked over at him with a sad expression. He would be facing a summer in a penal camp, followed by an uncertain future in spite of his family connections. This couldn’t be happening to him, Markus thought; he was a Tarver. In desperation, he tried to think of any avenue of escape from this predicament, but none came to his panicked mind.

As Markus was lead, handcuffed, to one of the police skimmers, his guests were dispersed by the remaining officers. Katrina yelled that she would help to clean up the mess left by the departing party-goers.

As Markus was being seated into the back of the patrol car, Ernst walked by with his friends and said, “Always interesting, Tarver. See you Monday. Oh wait…I won’t. Heh, I hope you’ve been scanned for Renew, because your parents are going to kill you!” Markus’ view was Ernst’s smirking face retreating through the rear window of the police cruiser.

———-

The patrol skimmer pulled out of the Tarver estate, neighbors standing and gawking. They seemed to be driving especially slowly, just to allow the neighbors to catch a view of the young Tarver scion being hauled off to jail. The stubble-headed and stubble-faced patrolman seemed to be enjoying himself, and he hummed a little ditty that Markus had heard in movies about conscripted soldiers. It was something about a boat, a pub, a cowardly officer, and a patient woman. Markus could see the smile on the officer’s face reflected in the skimmer’s windshield. It was humiliating.

Markus sat in the back seat of the skimmer, trying to formulate a plan, but he saw no way out. Obviously, his parents would know. It was well beyond such trivialities. He would have to throw himself on the mercy of the court, but he knew that the courts were under political pressure to act impartial and to throw the book at some rich kids. Several years ago, a public apology and a private exchange of cash would have made the problem disappear. Markus had been caught at the wrong time.

His upscale neighborhood in the suburbs of Kormet breezed by in a glare of flashing red lights. Flashing red lights seemed to be associated with the lowest points of his life – now and during the raid when his friends had been kidnapped. Markus felt his future shrinking with each kilometer he traveled toward the central police station. His parents would be recalled to town in shame to bail him out and hire an attorney who could hopefully work a bit of magic.

As the skimmer turned onto the main autobahn into the city, Markus heard the radio crackle. The incoming call was not audible to Markus, but its effect on the senior patrolman was clear as the mountain sky in winter. The skimmer slowed to a crawl and pulled off onto an emergency shoulder.

“Sir, can you please repeat,” the senior patrolman said. He quickly turned and scowled at Markus, day-old salt and pepper stubble catching the red flashing lights of the skimmer. His eyes locked on Markus’. “But sir…yes sir, I understand it’s your decision, but…no, frankly I DON’T understand…no sir I obviously don’t mean to question your decisions…yes sir.”

The senior officer’s eyes blasted fire as he handed the microphone to Markus. “He wants to talk to you, you rank-pulling little piece of shit.”

Markus tentatively picked up the microphone. “This is Markus Tarver.”

“Son,” came the reply, “you don’t know me, but I know you. I served with your grandfather aboard the Admiral Kuiper during the Battle of Fyris Wolds. He is simply the greatest man I’ve ever known, and I literally owe him my life.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Please be quiet, son.” The voice continued, “Boys will be boys, and by God no grandson of Johannes Tarver is going to miss out on the Academy over boys-will-be-boys hijinks.”

Markus’ heart leapt and again he stated to say thank you, but he stopped the words before they came out. Best not to interrupt, he decided.

“So here is the deal. You are to be released with a written warning for excess noise, and there will be no charges against yourself or your guests. Any references to the possession and distribution of illegal intoxicants will disappear. I owe your grandfather that much, but I consider the debt settled. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir!” replied Markus, barely willing to believe this turn of events. The Tarver name had come through, again. “I promise that you won’t have any more problems with me.”

“I believe you son. Now one final thing. You can probably guess that Patrolman Schmidt is obviously not very pleased with my decision. He’d much rather see you in a penal colony. You can try asking him for a ride home, but I’d suggest you find your own way.”

Markus hopped out of the skimmer and, as the patrolmen began to pull away, saluted them in a manner that would have landed him in the brig if he had been in the military. The vehicle slowed momentarily, as if the driver were having second thoughts about a course of action, and then sped off into the distance.

Markus began to jog back in the direction of his house, hoping to get there and clean up before any of the servants reported for work in the morning. And maybe see Katrina. It was good to be a Tarver.

Earth – Imperial Military Academy, 4920 Stellar Era

The Imperial Military Academy. Markus Tarver let the name roll off his tongue. Being accepted was heady. Few were, and those who made it through were all but guaranteed top careers. On one hand, he had never doubted that he would one day walk these illustrious halls. His life seemed aimed at this point since birth. But after setbacks in school ranging from being kicked off his team to legal problems, his confidence had begun to waver. In spite of the butterflies in his stomach, it only seemed natural for a Tarver to be here.

This part of Kormet was only accessible to students, professors, and a few guests, typically speakers on leave from the Fleet. Walking through the gates was a sign that one had arrived in life and was poised for great things.

Arriving at an orientation meeting for First Year students – there were no typical class names, as the founders believed that learning was a lifelong process – Markus looked around for friendly faces. Quite a few of his graduating class from his home town were attending, but they were nowhere to be seen in the jumbled sea of moving bodies.

Markus spied an empty seat and sat down, listening to the voices murmuring around him in a white noise of excitement. Then, exactly at 0900, the Commanding Admiral of the Academy took to the stage and approached the gleaming metal dais. Markus took note of the multitude of medals lining the crisp navy blue dress uniform. That could have been his grandfather, had things gone differently. And it would be him at some point in the future; of this he was sure.

Immediately the thousands of voices quieted. Heads turned in unison toward the man in the impressive uniform.

“Greetings,” thundered the voice of Commanding Admiral Baecker. “Be proud. Today is the first day of your lives as successes. Successes in battle, successes in leadership, and successes in life. Should you graduate, and some of you will not, you will go on to glory, leading our Fleet against our enemies, both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. You will be the first and only line between the scourge of the Raiders,” at this, Markus’ attention perked up, “and our citizens.

“I don’t care if you are from the East or the West, from the nicest neighborhoods of Kormet or a subsistence rainforest farm near Gandvik. Son of a trinket peddler or daughter of a Senator. What I care about is shaping you into the officers that will lead this fleet to victory against the greatest scourge we have known since the Western Rebellion.”

“In three years, the best of you who have not washed out will be in flight school for fighters or capital ships with the Fleet Air Wing, training in ground combat with the Fleet Marines, or learning the dark intelligence skills.

“How far you go is up to you. Names don’t matter here. Families don’t matter here. What matters here is talent, perseverance, dedication, and sacrifice. Within your grasp is honor, fame, glory, service, and even Renew.

“Huzzah!”

“HUZZAH!” responded the room in unison.

As the Admiral cleared the room, the cacophony of conversations resumed. “Can you believe that shit?” asked one person at Markus’ table.

Markus looked over in amazement at the insubordination so casually and publicly displayed. The speaker caught the expression and turned directly to Markus. “He said that names don’t matter and that families don’t matter. You don’t actually buy that, do you?”

Before Markus could even formulate an answer, the cadet continued, “It’s like my Fourth Year Mentor, Randolph Stulli, says, if your last name is Schuler or Freyer or Tarver, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done or how what you are capable of. Talent? Perseverance? Dedication? Sacrifice? Bullshit. Try ‘family connections’ or ‘daddy’s club buddy’.”

As Markus’ face flashed red with anger, one of the cadet’s friends quickly elbowed him in the side and pointed, surreptitiously he thought, at the name badge on Markus’ uniform. Rather than being embarrassed, the cadet chuckled and said, “And there’s our proof. Gentlemen, I told you Ensign Stulli was correct about famous names. At our table, we are graced with none other than the great Markus Tarver.

“We’ve heard of you, Tarver,” he continued with disdain. “Your legend precedes you. You blew it in your team’s championship and were kicked off. You somehow magically avoided serious punishment when your little drinking party was raided. What a charmed life you lead.

“Why it’s a pleasure to meet you, m’lord,” the cadet added with a mocking curtsy. “I do hope we wind up in the same unit. You can be our lucky charm, since nothing bad can happen to you. Why even the Raiders will quake in fear of your family connections.”

The cadet turned away, grinning to his friends. Markus knew that he should simply let it slide, that in spite of his family’s name and connections, he had truly made it there on his own merits. Still, the accusation and the still-raw scars of losing his closest friends to Raiders burned, and he couldn’t let it go.

The roundhouse punch cost Markus a sprained wrist and a near record number of demerits, but the sound of the cadet’s jaw breaking made it worthwhile.

——-

Raids hit an all-time record during the autumn of 4920. On an almost weekly basis, people were lost. The Imperial Government went so far as to start a public safety campaign under the banner of, “Think…Don’t Get Linked,” providing tips about how to avoid becoming a victim. The news holovid roll-calls of the missing provided pretty strong evidence that it wasn’t working, and the phrase became an ironic punchline for many jokes.

Grumblings about the inabilities of a very expensive home defense fleet to stop the raids turned into a few public protests. The protesters were, naturally, detained and punished, but more cropped up. Luckily, the autumn of 4920 appeared to be an outlier, and the number of raids quickly slowed. Whether it was due to better work by the fleet or some other factor was not known, not that people really cared. They were safe again, after all.

——-

On board a deep-space carrier, a man in an impeccably tailored gray suit walked up to an Admiral whose uniform was missing a name badge. The hum of electronics, along with privacy-enhancing white noise generators and the most advanced counter-surveillance systems available, filled the room. Holovid screens showed updates in real time from across the fleet.

“Kris, do you think we pushed our luck a bit there?” asked the Admiral.

“Are you worried about flying too close to the sun and melting the wax holding the feathers to your wings, Gregor?”

“Be serious. I’m worried about creating too much of a pushback from the civilians. The numbers taken were too high.”

The man in gray flashed a smile, “I’m a civilian.”

“You know what I mean, Kris. The raids on Kormet were simply reckless.”

Black eyes gleamed. “Don’t worry. My people took care of the protests. In the end, they inadvertently helped your procurement cause. Your people just need to keep the supply lines open and the product supplied.”

“If the public, including – mind you – most of the military, ever learned what we are doing…”

The man in the gray suit waved his hand dismissively. “The public is irrelevant, Gregor. Just give them enough freedom and baubles to keep them entertained, and one can rule them from the shadows. And let’s be honest. If they knew, they wouldn’t care so long as they got to participate.”

“I hope you are right, Kris.”

“Of course I am. Have you been paying attention? The Emperor is a mere figurehead, and not even the Premier would stand against us.”

Earth – Imperial Military Academy, 4923 Stellar Era

As was ritual at the end of every school term, the instructors and administration of the Academy met with the commanders of various units to negotiate the next career steps of graduates. Those who had excelled were fought over by the commanders of the most prestigious units, who were given a certain amount of chits to use in an auction process. The bluffing and gamesmanship were almost casino-like, as rivals tried to trick each other into wasting chits on the wrong candidates.

Each graduating Cadet was given individual consideration, a two minute period of time in which their futures would be determined. Those cadets who floundered when their name was called were cast off into administrative positions in the Fleet to spend their careers behind desks, pushing papers. It was lowly work but still better than being some private-sector trinket peddler or bauble manufacturer in the West.

Sitting around the ancient burnished oval table, wooden in the tradition of the Fleet, were the two dozen people who could make or break the careers of every graduate. Folders opened and closed, and displays updated.

“Gentlemen, and now we come to the matter of Markus Tarver,” stated Commanding Admiral Baecker. “Are we agreed that he should graduate?”

Papers shuffled and were double-checked. Sips of coffee or something stronger were taken; regulations were relaxed in this room. Nods were unanimous from each instructor.

“And what of next steps? Are there bids?”

“None from Capital Ships,” replied an elderly and obese Admiral, resplendent in the medals and ribbons won in various campaigns against the Raiders.

“Nor Marines,” came a quick response. “Unimpressive in try-outs. He wouldn’t last a day.”

“Intelligence?” asked the Commanding Admiral. His query was met with a raised eyebrow and a smile.

“Fighters?” he asked with no expectations. Usually most commands were interested, or none were.

“We bid one chit,” came the reply. Eyebrows raised around the table.

“Really?” asked the Capital Ships Admiral, somewhere between annoyed, amused, and intrigued. “Are you having us on, or do you know something we don’t?”

“Indeed, Pieter,” added the Intelligence Admiral, placing his hands behind his head as he slouched slightly in his chair. “One doesn’t need access to our intelligence services to know that he’s been nothing but trouble. Ignoring his juvenile record, conveniently expunged mind you, he has received demerits for fighting, including a fight that sent a Cadet to the hospital, running an unauthorized business leading rock climbing tours, possession of illicit intoxicants, and a general inability to follow simple rules. What could you possible see in him, other than a very quick way to lose a precious fighter to the Raiders?” A pause. “His instructors are here, in case you don’t believe me,” he added with a smile.

Pieter Daams, commander of the Fighter Air Wing also let crack a slight smile. “Did you see his scores on the standardized reflex test? He scored in the top 1% on both the planned course and the improvisation course. It’s been several classes since anyone did so well on both. Those kind of reflexes make great fighter pilots.”

The Capital Ships Admiral shot a sour look at his comrade. “None of which makes any difference, should he decide not to follow his squadron commander’s orders. Don’t come crying to us for more fighters, if you are going to recruit reckless pilots.”

Admiral Daams’ eyes narrowed. “Nor do we need more ships for your fleet, Admiral. You know that my fighters have done more against the Raiders than those barges you command could dream of. The Raiders simply avoid you, leaving us to do the dirty work.”

“GENTLEMEN,” thundered the Commanding Admiral. “Can we please keep on task here? The matter is the future of Markus Tarver. The Fighter Air Wing wants him. God help them, they get him. Who is our next cadet?”

Earth – Imperial Military Flight School, 4924 Stellar Era

The rows of fighters and bombers lined up like the daggers of a giant assassin on the expansive white steelcrete of the spaceport’s apron caught Markus Tarver’s eye as he stepped off of the military transport. Flight school. This was it – his dream, his future, his path. A roar made him turn his head, and he saw a squadron of Shrikes fly overhead, the boom of their atmospheric engines ricocheting off of metal hangers. The multiple tones of thrust exhaust, aerodynamic effects, and powerplant whining created an almost musical minor chord. Veterans could tell the make, speed, and configuration of a fighter just from the sound. The metallic birds of prey represented everything Tarver wanted – power, status, and the chance of glory that he could earn by himself.

“Whoa,” said another ensign, sounding unsure of himself. “Shrikes don’t go much farther than the rings on their own, and these guys look pretty beat up. Something’s up.”

“They’re missing one, too,” said another ensign. “There are only seven birds. And two others look like they are barely flying. They’ve had it tough, that’s for sure.”

“Are we sure we still want to be here?” responded the first ensign, Alex Bornemann, with a nervous half laugh.

The other ensign shot back a smile. “Don’t worry. I’ve seen your so-called skills. I doubt they’ll let you fly anything more powerful than a school bus.”

“Blow me.”

“No, seriously. On the bright side, you’ll not be a major target.”

“You’re such a …”

“STOW IT!” came a booming voice. “AT ATTENTION!”

The ensigns jumped as one into formation as their commanding officer strode forward with an athletic gait. Dressed in a green flight suit with Lieutenant stripes on the shoulder, he walked directly up to the two ensigns who had been speaking, nose to nose, and stared at them, wordlessly, for a full minute. His wiry 6’ 2” frame towered over the unfortunate ensign.

“Ensign Bornemann, did I just hear cowardice from you?”

No reply came from the singled-out ensign, other than a solitary drop of sweat rolling down his face.

“Ensign Bornemann, let me repeat myself. Did I just hear cowardice from you? Did I just hear you state that you did not care to fight the enemy?”

“Sir, that was just a nervous joke, sir,” Ensign Bornemann finally said.

The entire trainee group stared intently forward at nothing, desperate not to make the situation worse or draw the commander’s ire at themselves.

“I don’t find cowardice funny, Ensign. Do you find it funny, Ensign?” The rank came out with a sneer. The commander’s slicked-back brown hair barely moved, even as his face contorted with anger.

Bornemann was cornered, and Markus felt bad for him. There was no answer that wouldn’t involve digging the hole he was in deeper.

“Sir, I apologize for my behavior, sir.”

“That’s fine, Ensign. That’s fine. Of course, you don’t need to apologize to me.” Bornemann looked puzzled as the commander continued. “Apologize to your parents for wasting their time on you. Apologize to your future children for being stuck with a father who is a failure. Apologize to the taxpayers who spent their money trying to give you an education.”

“Sir?” responded Bornemann, flushing red in the face.

“Your friend was correct, Ensign. About the best you will ever do is driving a school bus. You will never fly fighters so long as I breathe. You’re gone. Pack your bags, Ensign.”

“Sir, but I …”

“WAS I UNCLEAR, ENSIGN? Perhaps you could tell me which word is confusing you so that I can explain it better.”

Bornemann, defeated, stiffly saluted, turned, and walked back to the transport. As he disappeared from sight, the rest of the trainees stood silent and still. The commander turned his attention back to the group.

“I am Lieutenant Randolph Stulli, and I will be your commanding officer for flight school. Those of you who make it will be the best. But many of you will not make it. You can say I’m unfair. You can hate me. I don’t care. My job is to ensure that anyone who passes has what it takes to fight for our planet. I have no interest in saving your feelings just to have you – or worse, your squadronmate – killed by a Raider because you don’t have the chops to be in the cockpit. Is that clear?”

“Sir, yes sir!” responded the ensigns in unison.

“Good. You are dismissed. Report to the housing office to be assigned lodging. Ensign Tarver, please stay behind.”

As the others left, Markus assumed a relaxed stance. Stulli glared at him. “Ensign, I believe you are still at attention.”

Markus quickly reassumed attention and stood silently.

Stulli paced around for a moment and then quickly turned back to face Markus. “Your grandfather cannot help you here, Ensign Tarver. Yes, I know who you are. What,” he smirked, “do you want to break my jaw like you did to one of my cadets back at the academy?”

Markus’ jaw dropped slightly. So that was how he knew that name, he thought. The prick was as insufferable as he had assumed.

“I want to make something perfectly clear, Mister Tarver. You might have had it easy until now. But that ends here. You might have been able to pull rank with provincial cops and even with the Academy administration. But now you’re mine. And I will take it as a personal goal to make you quit and run back to your sheltered life.”

Markus stared straight ahead. “Sir, I will not quit, sir.”

“That remains to be seen, Ensign.”

———-

Markus walked briskly back to the housing office, joining the tail end of his training unit’s line as they entered the sterile bureaucracy of the lobby of the housing office. It looked like the designer of the offices of a power utility and a discount doctor had taken the worst aspects of each to make this monstrosity. Utilitarian design with all the joy of a funeral, the military was not known for putting much thought into anything that did not fight. Back at home, he and his friends had mocked such offices as the demesnes of the dead enders. But now the occupants held the petty power of assigning housing to the pilots. Markus jogged over to the barracks to find that he was assigned the bunk nearest the latrines. He couldn’t be sure if it was an intentional slight by the bureaucrats, an order from Stulli, or simply the bad luck of being at the end of the line. Bad luck or bad attitude, it did not matter; either way, it literally and figuratively smelled. Coming from a house that was cleaned several times per day by a staff, Markus fumed to himself. It was no way for a Tarver to live.

Though military discipline kept the other ensigns from openly questioning him about his private conversation, Markus could feel their curiosity fighting against their training.

“Okay, pay up, gents,” laughed a lanky, dark-haired ensign with a slight westcountry accent. “The good lad is still with us.”

“You were betting on whether or not I’d get dismissed from flight school?” responded Markus. It was beyond annoying. Even at the Academy, that sort of cheek was rare. Markus looked at the Ensign’s name badge. Fleuren. Henk Fleuren, he remembered from the squadron roster. With a name like that, he was undoubtedly Western, which explained quite a bit. Westerners had always been less well bred. That they were part of the same Empire was simply a joke.

“Entertainment is entertainment,” he replied with gesture of his arms that indicated surrender. “We get it where we can in the military.”

“You’re Western, aren’t you?”

“As the setting sun. From outside of Gandvik.”

“I’m surprised, then. I would have thought that your idea of entertainment involved books with more pictures than words.”

Henk walked over to Markus, who tensed up. A few squadron members stepped back, not sure if a fight was about to break out. Instead, Henk slapped him on the back and laughed heartily before throwing an arm over his shoulder.

“Heh, well played for an Eastern pretty boy. I think we’ll get along just fine.”

Markus smiled and cocked an eyebrow. “You really think I’m pretty?”

“Jesus wept. Well, if you weren’t already as self-absorbed and narcissistic as the legends let on, I guess you are now.”

———-

The Kestrel-class trainers were a joy to fly. Doubling as short range interceptors for the Imperial Navy, they were nimble, fast, and potentially well-armed.

Even after several months of flight school, Markus couldn’t help but grin every time he rolled down the steelcrete runway, taking off and retracting the wings that the trainer used at low speeds for takeoff and landing. He was still amazed that chucking these fighters around the defensive perimeter could actually be a paying career. It was like rock climbing taken to a whole new level with the physics of Newtonian spaceflight replacing the technique of finding handholds in the rock.

Within minutes, the two-seat craft was in the upper atmosphere. Markus rolled the trainer inverted and looked back at the planet. A huge storm was brewing in the middle of the ocean, white swirling clouds warning of the typhoon that would eventually strike the southern coast. When he was seated at a desk on the ground, he sometimes thought he could still feel phantom g-forces pushing him into the chair. He actively missed flying when he wasn’t in the cockpit.

Flying was coming naturally to Markus. His time spent climbing rock faces led to a sense of balance and economy of motion that translated well to the rapid maneuvering of space combat training. In the first two weeks, several pilots had washed out, either from motion sickness that the doctors couldn’t cure or the severe claustrophobia that often affected people who realize that the only thing between them and the cold hard vacuum of the deep black was a thin cockpit window and an emergency flight suit designed more to save the pilot’s brain than his body. Renew was a bitch that way; sometimes it was cheaper and easier to let your body die.

Flying was, paradoxically, both the loneliest thing one could do and also one of the most social. Pilots had hours to themselves in the cockpit, but the shared banter between them served to bond them as closely as brothers. Having a private band amongst squadron members that was short-enough range to prevent snooping by the always-paranoid fleet intelligence apparatchiks was a godsend. Markus knew that what was an innocent joke between comrades could easily be twisted into something bad by the wrong ears. There were enough stories about military tribunals railroading people for a poorly-worded joke to keep everyone cautious when on the common band.

Hearing a tetchy command from Stulli, Markus resumed normal orientation and peered at his ten o’clock. Henk had taken up position there, with Markus acting as his wingman for the maneuvering exercises.

“Gentlemen,” came Stulli’s voice over the radio, “When we pass Engemann Station, you will be breaking into fours and practicing the Heller Weave that you were briefed on. We’ll then proceed to live fire exercises.”

Markus flipped his radio to private band and signaled Henk. “So this sister of yours…”

“Jesus, Markus, shouldn’t your attention be on flying? I regret mentioning her. No, you hooligans will never meet her; I’m not even going to show you a photo. She’s off limits, you swine.” came the exasperated reply.

“My attention is fine. Some of us find straight and level easy,” fired back Markus, hearing a faint chuckling in return. “I’m beginning to think that she got the looks AND the dexterity in the family. What does that leave you with?”

“A certain world-weary charm and an inordinate ability to attract obnoxious morons into my life.”

“It’s a gift,” laughed Markus, “but did you ever stop to think that the common factor with all those morons is you?”

“I’m cursed. I was obviously bad in a past life.”

“Jesus, Henk. Reincarnation? We can joke in the barracks, but mocking state religion on a military band is a pretty serious offense. And the fact that we’re friends doesn’t help you with Stulli one bit.”

“Meh, we’re on private band, and you’re nuts if you think they haven’t bugged the barracks, especially where we untrustworthy Westerners are involved. I’m sure Military Intelligence has better things to do than to listen in on pilot banter.”

“Nonetheless, I’ll be too busy dating your sister to visit you in the brig.”

“Gentlemen,” interrupted Randolph Stulli over the common band, “We’re at our practice area. Prepare to … belay that one moment.”

Almost immediately, Markus saw red warning lights begin flashing in cockpit as an alert siren wailed. It was something he had experienced in the simulators and had one meaning.

“Raider inbound. This is not a drill,” came Stulli’s voice, sounding strained. “We have incoming cover, so turn around and head back to the base now.”

Action, though Markus. Payback for Justin, Friedrich, and Deert. Finally. But the coward Stulli was going to make them tuck tail and run. That was typical of him. “Sir, it’s twelve on one. He’s only a scout. We’ve got live weapons. Let us take him.”

“Negative, Tarver. You have your orders.”

Markus knew there was a fine line between insubordination and interpreting orders in a convenient way. A very fine line. But with the base behind them and the enemy to the left, he saw an opening. As the squadron peeled off to the right, Markus rolled left into a slow u-turn, bringing him briefly head-on with the incoming enemy.

“Tarver, what are you doing?” shouted Stulli.

“Returning to base, Sir.”

Suddenly the controls went slack and unresponsive. Markus groaned as the override light flashed, meaning that a ground controller had taken over the flight of his craft. It was typically only used on rookies who froze up or couldn’t stick a carrier landing, and to have it done to you was among the worst humiliations in flight school. It also took around five seconds to come fully online, meaning that Markus’ ship was stuck lazily drifting in front of the rapidly-closing enemy craft.

“Shit!” shouted Markus, as the first energy beam passed 10 meters over his cockpit, followed quickly by a second burst directly under. He felt his pulse skyrocket and massive amounts of adrenalin hit his blood. There was nothing worse in his mind than the claustrophobia of a fight-or-flight reflex in a cramped cockpit when you can’t fight back. “Give me back controls, damn it! He’s got me bracketed.”

“Damn you, Tarver,” came the response. “Squadron, continue back to base. I’ve got a lost lamb I need to rescue from the big, bad wolf.”

Stulli’s ship flipped quickly end over end, pointing back at the brewing fight as the main Hall Effect thrusters fired at military power, slingshotting him toward the attacker. Stulli’s main guns fired, though at a range where they were more likely to deter than harm.

The enemy saw the threat and recognized that he was fighting one handicapped ship and one dangerous one. A few final energy bursts came Markus’s way, scarring the skin of his trainer but doing no real damage, as the enemy turned to face the incoming Stulli.

As Markus’ locked-out craft passed Stulli’s Shrike, he could see the intense incoming fire aimed at the commander. Prismatic shielding on his ship took care of most of it at that range, causing the beams to refract away in a rainbow’s worth of color. The effect made Stulli look to be glowing red and almost demonic. In the distance but closing rapidly were the combat air patrol Sprite-class fighters.

The radio crackled. “Renegade One to the Shrike. Your nuggets are clear, even the wayward one. Leave this to us.”

“Roger,” replied Stulli. “Redhawk One acknowledges. Bugging out.”

Markus watched on his scanner as Stulli turned and burned. “Wait, SHIT! Hit. Cockpit integrity failing.” Markus’ pulse quickened as the automated “EJECT EJECT EJECT” warning came over the radio link before it went dead and the dot representing Stulli’s fighter on Markus’ scanner blinked out.

“Renegade One to base, Redhawk One is down. Repeat, Redhawk One is down. Pilot status unknown. Send in the search and rescue bird. We’ll take care of the shooter and cover SAR efforts.”

Markus watched the scanner as the Renegade squadron quickly closed on the enemy. The Raider made valiant efforts to shake the pursuers, but he was outnumbered six to one. In the end, all he did was to delay the inevitable, and soon enough the dot representing him blinked off too.

———

The mood back in the briefing room was somber, and Markus could feel the icy stares of his fellow pilots aimed at him. No word had arrived yet on Randolph Stulli’s condition, and the squadron feared the worst. Their first brush with a real enemy had left the pilots shaken, and nervous energy flowed through the room.

Finally, Henk broke the silence. “Markus, what in the name of all that is holy were you thinking?” Heads nodded at the question.

“Heading back to base.”

“Cut the bullshit, Markus. You know full well that the procedure is to turn away from the enemy unless engaging. Plus, you’re my wingman, so you are supposed to be covering me. You left me exposed.”

“But I thought …”

Henk shook his head in frustration and cut off the answer. “Again, stop bullshitting us. Or worse, yourself. You knew exactly what you were doing.”

“And now our CO is dead or nearly so!” exclaimed Ensign Greiner.

Henk turned his increasing anger toward the interruption. “Stow it, Carl. You’re not helping.”

“We’re all thinking it, Henk.” Nods appeared from the rest of the squadron while Markus stared silently at the desk in front of him. “I’m just the one who will say it.”

“Again, not helping.”

“Christ, Fleuren. So he’s your wingman during training. Why are you always so insistent on protecting him? Can’t the famous grandson speak for himself? So, Tarver? Will you speak?”

“Carl…”

“Stop it, Henk. Just stop it. You’ve done nothing but defend him since the moment you met. First it was for him pulling strings to get here. Then it was for his antics in flight and on the ground. Just let it go for a moment.”

Henk started to respond and then just threw up his hands in surrender. He sat down with a mutter. Markus lifted his head and looked at the group.

“Yeah, I messed up. I don’t know why I turned left. Honestly, I don’t. Sure, I’m anxious to get out there and defend our world, but aren’t we all? You know I don’t care much for our CO for reasons that go back to the Academy, but I wouldn’t wish him harm. I am truly, truly sorry about what happened. But if they hadn’t taken control of my bird, I would have been able to make the turn back to base without incident.”

Henk had never seen his friend so vulnerable, but even he cringed at the closing argument.

“See, there you go again, Tarver,” exploded Carl Greiner. “You’re passing the blame.” Markus started to interrupt but thought better. “Your bird was the only one they threw the override control on. Yours. Just yours. And that’s because you disobeyed a direct order so you could make a stab for glory. ‘Markus Tarver Saves the World from Raider’. You could see the headline in your mind. Seriously, what is it with you? Are you so anxious to prove that you are your grandfather’s kin?”

Before Markus could respond, the door to the briefing room was thrown open, and Colonel Stampfer, the training wing commander, entered. The Colonel looked preoccupied and he strode to the podium. The room stood at attention.

“At ease, gentlemen. I have some good news and some bad news. The SAR bird recovered Lt. Stulli’s capsule. He will survive.”

The room collectively took a breath.

“However, he was seriously injured and will have to undergo Renew. He’ll be good as new soon, but in the meantime, I’ll be taking over as your commander for the rest of primary training.”

——-

A group calling itself “Loved Ones of the Linked” took to the streets of Kormet. Banging cooking pots and yelling over loudspeakers, they demanded action to stop the raids and find the victims. Illegally protesting the loss of their relatives to Raider incursions, they marched for nearly an hour before stern-looking men in plain clothes took the leaders into custody.

The national and local news stations failed to mention that a protest even happened.

The bodies of the protest leaders were never found.

Earth – Kormet Military Hospital, 4924 Stellar Era

The squadron went to visit Lt. Stulli in the military hospital. The sight of their former commanding officer lying unconscious in the sterile white environment with all manner of tubes and wires connected to him was a sobering reminder to them of the dangers of space combat.

The doctor, a short man with an impish manner, walked into the room with an attractive female medical student in tow. Markus looked over at her, and she met his gaze with a strangely familiar smile as the doctor began to speak.

“I am Doctor Franz. Mr. Stulli took to the Renew process quite well, and there were no serious complications. He will be unconscious for at least another week, and then there will be a month or two of physical therapy, as his brain begins to rewire itself to the new body. He should be flying again in a few months, if all goes well.”

A subdued cheer went up from the pilots crowded around the bed as they patted each other on the back. “Obviously, he will be receiving the best care the military can provide, as is the case for all pilots injured in the line of duty. Speaking as the father of a pilot, I want you to know how seriously I take that. I’m sure you all have noticed that I have with me a medical student from the local training hospital. She took an interest in this case, for reasons known to one of you, and she has been assigned on a temporary basis to help me with the case. I will let her introduce herself.”

The attractive young brunette in a pristine white labcoat smiled at the group. “My name is Amanda, and it’s a pleasure to meet all of you. My brother speaks highly of you all.”

Puzzled looks were exchanged between the pilots as Amanda continued, “I recognize some of you. In fact,” she said, looking directly at Markus, “you must be the Markus Tarver I heard so much about.”

Markus’ jaw dropped at that.

“You’re taller than I expected,” she said with a growing smile. “And you seem to be at a loss for words, which I also have come to understand is a rarity.”

Doctor Franz smiled the disarming paternal smile that all doctors seem to be taught. “I think it’s time you stop teasing your brother’s comrades, Miss Fleuren.”

The squadron members looked at each other and then to Henk. In their surprise, no one could get a word out. Henk shrank into himself like a scared turtle.

“Now, I have to go check on another patient. However, I will let Miss Fleuren fill you in on what your CO is going through and what to expect. She is being trained as a Renew specialist under my tutelage, and if her brother is half the pilot that she is a doctor, your squadron will always be victorious.”

Amanda cleared her throat and shuffled her feet slightly as Doctor Franz left the room, medical datapad in hand. Looking around at the pilots, she started, “I’m sure you all have heard of Renew in the news. Like they say, it’s a system that allows us to prevent death among top leaders of our country and highly-trained military specialists, such as yourselves.”

Nods all around.

“Right, but you probably have never been briefed on how the system itself works. Normally, it’s not for public consumption, but as you guys will be getting scanned for Renew at some point, you’ve been cleared.”

“Oh, we know how it works. It’s pretty common knowledge,” replied one of the pilots.

“You do realize that there is a big difference between reality and popular movies, don’t you?” responded Amanda, her smile not cracking.

“Sis, we’re pilots. You can’t tell us anything we don’t already know,” Henk added to chuckles.

“Really? I’m pretty sure I could tell them stories about you that they would love to hear?”

“Point made, sis. Re-educate us on our immortality.”

“Gladly. But you know you’re not actually immortal, right?”

“But we get a new body.”

“Yes, but your brains are original. And they age. You might avoid some diseases, but you can’t avoid eventual death or degradations of the brain. I’m sorry to burst the bubble that fiction has built up. But anyhow Renew starts with a scan. The scan determines you bone structure, organ structure, and body shape. When an accident or sickness happens that requires you to undergo Renew, a new skeleton is printed out of bio-ceramics. I’m honestly unclear on the technical specifics, but it has something to do with phased-array laser systems. Please don’t ask me more. When finished and cured, it is identical to your previous skeleton in all ways. It will even heal naturally should you break a bone. This is all consistent with what you have probably heard.

“Once the skeleton is ready, the internal organs are added.”

“These are printed, too?” asked one of the pilots. Common portrayals showed the finished body rising from a tank of fluid, ready for the brain to be added.

“Great question. Actually, no,” responded Amanda. “They are grown in vats.”

“Vats?” The squadron stared at each other at the admission that their society’s proudest medical advancement required such barbaric methods. Markus felt a sour note in his stomach to think that he might face such a crude rebirth, should the need arise. That did not fit with everything he thought he knew about Renew. The assumption amongst the masses was that the entire body was simply printed out.

“It turned out that internal organs were far too complex to print. Growing them from stem cells was more efficient. We actually have multiple lines of each organ, one for every blood type and major immune system rejection. By this point, we can Renew over 99.7% of the population. Really, only a small number of people with genetic issues that cause chronic organ rejection cannot undergo the process.”

“Are you sure about that? “ asked Carl Greiner. “I mean, vats. I’m not buying it. Tell me this is some sort of joke.”

Amanda turned to Greiner and simply stared for a few seconds. Markus nearly felt sorry for him. “Do you think I don’t know what I’m talking about? Maybe pilots can sleep through class, but doctors cannot.”

“But our brains are original, right?” asked Markus, attempting to break the tension.

“Unfortunately for you, Markus, that’s correct. You can’t apply for a normal one,” laughed Henk.

Amanda chuckled, “As I said before, yes. Henk’s right, Markus. Well, at least about the first part.”

“And no asking for upgrades on other bits, Markus. There are no secrets in military showers,” fired Henk while wagging his pinky.

“Right, Henk. Pure class. Thanks for lowering the bar as usual,” said Amanda, blushing.

“Glad to help, sis. To be fair, most of these guys were thinking the same thing. If I hadn’t cut them off at the pass, we’d have an entire squadron intentionally being shot down just for the Renew upgrades.”

“And, thanks for that Henk. I’m so proud to be related to you at times like this.” Amanda shook he head in faux frustration, the brunette pony tail whipping from side to side. “Anyhooooow…at this point, the brain is transplanted into the new body, and an artificial blood-brain barrier encases it. This is the most critical time. The body is jump started, so to speak, and we watch to ensure both that the brain is properly controlling the body and that the body is providing nutrients to the brain. We stimulate the brain stem area to promote these connections, and by the time the patient wakes up, only minimal therapy is needed.”

“What about the muscles and skin?”

“Those are grown in place on the body. We take starter cultures of both and inject them with a retrovirus containing the patient’s own RNA. This creates muscles and skin that match what the patient will expect. For instance, if you had olive skin, you’ll have olive skin. You really do come out like how you were, but, well ‘renewed.’

“Really, it’s that simple. Well, not simple in fact, but simple in concept. Well, not…oh, you understand what I mean.”

Dr. Franz poke his head back in the door. “Gentlemen, you have been approved for scanning while you are here. If you’ll follow me, we’ll save you a trip and get you started.”

The group filed out of the door of Raldolph Stulli’s hospital room and followed the doctor down the white hallway. Uniformed doctors and nurses rushed by speaking in urgent, hushed tones. Visitors, both crying and stoic, wandered the hallway, looking for their loved ones; the lucky ones smiled slightly with shamed relief that all had turned out well.

Arriving via elevator in a medical suite on the top floor, the group was greeted with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Kormet. Plush chairs formed a waiting area, while an attractive receptionist perched behind a desk. The sun was high in the sky, and the view was breathtaking. Fresh coffee was waiting for the group, and the aroma hit Markus’ nose the moment the door opened.

“Penthouse with a view,” noted Markus. “This is seriously prime real estate for a medical scanning office.”

Dr. Franz smiled. “You can imagine how resource-intensive Renew is. It’s only available to the elite, military or political, or to the few who can afford to pay for it. These people expect the best, and we strive to deliver.”

The pilots were led one by one to be scanned. When it was Markus’ turn, he stripped down to his underwear and walked onto a raised platform in the scanning room. A large offset metal arm dropped down from the ceiling. Attached to a hub above Markus’ head, it began to rotate around him, creating a slight humming noise as it did. After three full rotations, it sped up dramatically, circling him ten more times. With no warning, the system beeped, and the arm stopped and retracted into the roof.

“You are done, Ensign. Painless, wasn’t it?”

Markus smiled as he reached for his clothes and headed for the door back to the changing room. Dr. Franz waved goodbye and said, “Welcome to your planet’s elite, Markus.”

———

The mood among the pilots was boisterous as they left the hospital. Not only was their commanding officer recovering, but they had been granted their first taste of the privileges of rank.

Henk turned toward the group. “Should we be celebrating with a drink, gentlemen? We’ve been granted liberty for the night, and we’re in Kormet.”

“I know a great dive bar right around the corner,” responded Markus. “They’ve got all sorts of unique ales on tap and great music.”

“A Tarver who knows what a dive bar is? My, will wonders never cease? Sometimes I think that my wingman is actually a real live boy.”

“Henk, I’m only your wingman because I’m the only pilot good enough to cover for your incompetence.”

“Seriously, what color is the sky on the world you’re living on, Marky?”

“The same as on the world where I already told your sister we’d be going here,” replied Markus as they walked up to the door to the darkly lit bar.

Henk peered in and saw Amanda already sitting at a table. Her frilly drink, more at home at a beach cabana at a high-end resort than the faux-dive hipster setting, stood out from the dark ales other customers were consuming. The bartender glanced up at the group and then over at the drink that he had obviously been convinced against his will to make. His grimace told Markus all he needed to know. In the background, a band warmed up. Metal tables and chairs, all seemingly hand welded by an untrained orangutan, were scattered around. Posters advertising past shows decorated the walls.

“You asshole. Come on, it’s my sister. I have higher hopes for her than someone like you. And how did you get her number?”

“None of your business, and don’t worry,” Markus smiled. “If that’s really what she drinks, I’ll be too humiliated to be seen at cool bars with her. But I was right, you know?”

“About what?”

“She did get the looks in the family.”

Henk sighed, his face faux-pained. “Oh, god. Anyone but you, Markus. Seriously, anyone but you.”

“Friends…comrades…brothers-in-law?”

Henk just shook his head and walked over to the table where his sister was sitting. Amanda stood up and gave him a hug, her 5’ 6” frame coming up to his nose. She smiled at the rest of the pilots as they sat.

As a round of ale arrived, everyone raised a glass. “To the Redhawks,” said Markus.

“REDHAWKS!” replied the group.

“And special guest,” Markus added, clinking his glass with Amanda’s as the band launched into its first song. The lead singer screeched lyrics above the din, the tribal tattoos on his face contorted by the effort. The thrashing off-key music seemed out of place in the capital city, but suddenly there was a group of people up near the stage, dancing ferociously, if it could truly be called “dancing.”

“Avant-garde punk revival?” asked Henk, his face in a grimace.

“Hey, I’ve heard of these guys,” yelled Carl Greiner over the noise. “’Kill the Conspiracy.’ Protest punk is how I think they refer to their sound. They’ve been arrested for hooliganism at least three times. Supposedly they played a song called ‘Raiders Brainwashed my Emperor.’”

Henk spat out his beer in a wide mist of foam. “Christ, you could be arrested for merely saying that. And they played it in public?”

“Yeah,” Carl responded. “Rumor has it that the lead singer, if you want to call it singing, is actually related to Premier Schneider.

”Or maybe he’s a Tarver,” he added, glaring daggers at Markus.

“Markus has fewer tribal tattoos covering his face,” jested Henk.

Amanda sensed the tension and leaned over to talk to Markus over the din. “Do you actually like this music?”

“Oh, yes. In fact I used to play in a similar band back home,” he responded. “It’s some of the best music around.”

Amanda just stared at him for a moment, head tilted in disbelief like a dog learning a new command. Slowly, a smile crept out on Markus’ face.

“You’re having me on, aren’t you?”

“Yup.”

“So you don’t actually like this music?”

“Oh, god no. I suggested it only to see the look on your brother‘s face. It’s not exactly the jangly music he likes. I figured he needed a little torturing.”

“Good, so you won’t mind if I leave?”

“Only if I can take you to dinner.”

“That would be a scosh less painful. And only a scosh, Mister Cocky. Let’s get out of here.”

Markus and Amanda rose and mouthed goodbyes to the group. As he helped her with her coat, Markus grinned widely at Henk, who simply mouthed back over the din, “You suck.”

———

Several weeks later, Randolph Stulli awoke with a start. Reflexively reaching for his fighter’s controls, he was stunned to find himself in a white room rather than a cramped cockpit. Breathing rapidly, he tried to make sense of where he was. The burning brightness light made him his eyes water with pain,

“You’re safe, Randolph,” came a dulcet voice from his left.

He rolled quickly to his left.

“You’re safe, Randolph,” said the voice again. “You’re in the Military Hospital of Kormet. You have been Renewed. Your eyes will adjust to the light soon. Be patient. You haven’t used them before.”

Randolph calmed down as his eyes began to focus on the shape standing next to his bed.

“I’m dead.”

“No, you’re quite alive,” the blurry shape laughed gently. “Your fighter was shot down, but you were rescued. The Renew process went well. Welcome back to the land of the living. You might want to thank the good taxpayers for the ten million credits it cost to put you back together. By the way, my name is Amanda. I’ll be caring for you over the next few months.”

———

Randolph and Amanda spent the next two months together for hours each day as she put him through the physical and mental therapy required post-Renew. Gradually, he let his hard exterior crack and opened up; she seemed to bring the best out of him.

During the long therapy sessions, there was little to take his mind off the pain other than talking. She talked about the wilds of the West and family vacations camping in the woods. Her stories about Henk were enough fodder to guarantee a career-worth of ribbing from his colleagues, should the stories be spread.

His upbringing in the solidly middle-class Kormet suburb of Lagren seemed boring in comparison. Growing up the son of an office supply manufacturer, he had been teased about being a “paper peddler’s son” by the children of military men and local politicians. Until now, he had never admitted to anyone how the sting of this shame was what drove him into the military and to succeed, but he felt safe with Amanda. He talked about his dreams and how he couldn’t wait to get back into the cockpit.

One afternoon, Amanda walked in carrying two cups of tea and sat down on the edge of his bed before handing him one.

“What did I do to deserve tea?” he asked, smiling.

“This is your last day here, Randolph. Tomorrow you head back to your unit.”

Randolph looked pensive, so Amanda probed. “What is it?”

He smiled sadly. “I’ll miss this.”

“I’ll miss you too, Randolph,” she smiled back. “You’ve been good company. My last patient was a politician who thought I was his servant.”

“That sounds horrible.”

“I’ll tell you a secret. Whenever I was working with him, I suddenly lost all my skills at injecting him with needles. I have no idea how that happened, but it sure seemed to hurt!”

Randolph smiled for real. “You’re evil!”

Amanda enjoyed seeing him smile. It had been rare over the past months, and from what she heard from Henk, even rarer normally. “Only when evil is called for. There’s nothing like an accidentally bumped syringe to teach someone manners. Now don’t make this sad. I’ll see you around, since you’re still my brother’s commanding officer for another two years.”

“Amanda,” Randolph said, inhaling deeply. “I need to tell you something. You’ve made these last months bearable. Really, you saved me. After all that happened and looking forward at what I would have to go through, falling into depression would have been easy.”

“You’re welcome, Randolph.”

“I love you, Amanda.”

“Oh god, Randolph.” The look on her face said more than words could. She didn’t feel it back.

“Never mind…stupid…stupid…stupid…”

Amanda seemed to be searching for what to say. “You’re a nice guy, and what you’re feeling is natural. Patients routinely fall in love with their doctors and nurses. It happens. But it’s not real love. Besides, I’m seeing someone. We met while he was visiting you.”

Randolph felt a sickness in his gut. No, it couldn’t be.

“Markus Tarver. I think he’s one of your, um what do you call them, ‘nuggets.’ We’ve been together for a month now.”

The red mist descended on Randolph Stulli, blocking off all his senses. Markus Tarver with his angel, his savior. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair. If she would waste herself with that miscreant, maybe she was no better than him.

She was scum.

Amanda had never seen anything like it and didn’t understand the reason. In the space of seconds, Randolph’s face transitioned from soft love to hard hatred. Amanda had always laughed at superstitious ancients who believed in demonic possession, but now she understood what they had seen. His face turned red and contorted, with veins popping in his forehead and neck. He couldn’t even look at her as he shouted, “GET OUT OF MY ROOM! NOW!”

As Amanda reeled out of the room in confusion, her medical scanner began beeping. Looking down, she saw the code for a VIP in the Renew system. Unusually, there was also a security lockdown on the wing. Glancing down the hallway, she saw an entire platoon of Imperial Guards marching around the corner, their matte-black battle armor standing out from the white jackets of the doctors running alongside two stretchers like battling pieces on a chessboard.

Even from that distance, Amanda recognized the prone figure of Emperor Jorg IV. Red lights on the medical sensors on his stretcher showed him to be dead. So the Emperor was the one being renewed, though Amanda. The security makes sense now, she thought.

The other figure’s green light sensors indicated that he was alive. Why he was being sent to the Renew facility was strange. Live patients were cared for in the emergency ward several floors below.

Amanda stepped back as the black figures rushed by, not breaking stride. A sheet had been placed over the Emperor’s head by the attendants as they walked, but she plainly saw the other figure as he was wheeled by. Most visible were the tribal tattoos on unconscious man’s face.

——-

Flipping through channels on the vid that night while she cooked dinner, Amanda left the national news station on. She hoped to catch some news about the Emperor.

Tragedy hit Premier Schneider’s family today, as the half brother of the Premier died in an aviation accident. An avid stunt aviator, Gustav Schneider’s skimmer crashed over the ocean after engine failure. Investigators are still searching for his body.”

Amanda felt goose bumps on her arms as she pictured the tattooed face in the emergency Renew facility. Something didn’t add up, but she wasn’t sure what it was.

Earth – Central Mountain Region, 4925 Stellar Era

Markus Tarver died the first time on leave, climbing a rock face.

“You’ve seriously never been rock climbing, Henk?”

“Markus, why are you insistent that every Westerner does this crazy nonsense? You Easterners are hilarious in your stereotypes. Do we think all of you drink your tea with a pinky lifted?”

“Classless heathen.”

Markus smiled as he set up the auto-belay system.

“Why don’t you start by explaining what that gizmo is?”

“It’s you ‘keep from plummeting to your death due to your lack of coordination’ device, Henk. It’s a belayer that plays out a safety rope that stops climbers from falling.”

“So how does it know if I’m going to die?”

“Sensors in your gear to determine when it needed to deploy. It’s so much more reliable than human belayers, and there has never been a reported death on a climb where one was used. Even you can figure this out, Henk.”

Markus had never told anyone before, but this was one of his prized possessions. His parents had refused to buy him something so associated with lower classes and Westerners, so he had run an illicit business during his academy days teaching climbing in order to pay for it. Markus’ parent had disapproved of his hobbies and had effectively cut him off from the family. But to him the simple device stood for freedom, adventure, and working to earn something. It was the first major purchase he had made with his own money.

“Now what,” asked Henk, who was looking up the 50m vertical face of the wall. His leg twitched like an antique sewing machine in nervous anticipation.

“Now we climb. I’ve given you the easy route. Your first handhold is maybe a foot above your head. Grab it with your left hand. Then look above it for your right hand.”

“This is easy?”

“Oh, quit whining and grab the handholds.”

Henk gripped the rough 2cm granite outcropping with his left hand, reaching out with his right hand for a finger pocket. His right foot blindly groped for leverage.

“And don’t look down,” added Markus.

“Yeah, thanks for that. Now I can’t help BUT look down. You’d think that flying would make me used to heights, wouldn’t you?”

Before Henk knew it, he was halfway up the face. He looked over and saw Markus scurrying up a narrow crack, his technique so fluid that it almost looked like he was being lifted up.

“You’re just a regular little monkey, aren’t you?” asked Henk. “You’re just a blur of hands.”

“Why do you think your sister loves me,” Markus laughed.

Henk slipped, and the auto-belay taughtened the rope, stopping him from falling. A slight scream escaped his mouth.

“You know you suck, right?”

Markus guffawed. “Seriously? You’re going with that? Keep leading with that chin, buddy.”

“One more crack, and I’ll make sure your call sign comes from this trip. ‘Monkey Markus’ has a ring. I’m sure Greiner will go for it.”

“That insufferable twat?”

Chuckling, Henk pulled himself onto the ledge at the top of the face. Markus had already consumed half a meal bar and was sitting with a smug smile on his face, seemingly unaffected by the physical effort of the climb.

“What’s next? Do we head back down?”

“Nope, we head up the next route to the top. We’ll abseil down the back side and bivvy there for the night. I sent a rover earlier with our kit. It should have already arrived. Tents, campfire, food and ale. What else is there?”

“A massive overhang, by the looks of it,” Henk said, glancing at their next route. “And maybe a hangover.”

“Not a problem. Worst case scenario, I’ll go ahead and pull you up. Could a wingman do any less, you gumby?”

Henk had to admit that he was having fun, in spite of his fear of heights. He hooked back into the auto-belay and started up the upper face. About halfway up the next section, Markus turned to him with a mysterious smile. Puzzled, Henk watched as Markus pushed a button on his harness and held it for several sections. The harness beeped in protested warning, and the emergency release activated.

“What the hell are you doing, Markus?”

“Free climbing. This route is pretty easy, all things considered. I’ve dialed it.”

“Why would you do that?” asked Henk, his heart racing in sympathetic fear.

“Because it forces you to focus completely. There’s nothing like it to teach you how to fly.”

“Are you sure that’s the phrasing you want to use right now?”

“Heh, good catch,” Markus said, shifting to a new grip and leaping a foot up. “You know what I mean. The calm and focus under pressure that I learn here make me a better pilot. The amount of data and physical inputs you have to process in the chair can be overwhelming. If I can focus free climbing, I can focus in the cockpit in a Raider scrum.”

“Jesus, you’re cocky. You’ll understand if I simply take your word for it, right?”

With his left hand and foot planted, Markus sprung to his right, reaching for a large jug grip. He felt the slightest hesitation in his leg as he began the move, and in what seemed like slow motion, he watched with disbelief as his hand began to slip off the rock. Markus let out a surprised yelp and began to fall.

Oh Christ, this can’t be happening to me, he thought. I’ve worked so hard to get where I am, and I’m finally happy. That was the last thought Markus Tarver had, as he saw the granite rocks rising rapidly toward him.

——-

Henk’s heart sank as his friend fell down to the ledge where they had just been eating. Hitting the edge, Markus’ back snapped, his limp body helicoptering off of the wall as he plummeted the additional fifty meters. Henk could only stare as his friend’s body hit the ground with a …

Earth – Kormet Military Hospital, 4925 Stellar Era

“A splap?” asked Peter Trenn, he and the rest of the squadron listening intently as Henk recounted the story. To most of them, it felt like they had just been at this hospital. In one year, two of their colleagues had gone through the Renew procedure there.

“A splap. Like the man who ate a string that came out tied up, I shit you knot. It’s the only word I can use to describe it.”

Markus awoke to the sound of raucous laughter as the pain medicine wore off. “Hey, guys. Thanks for coming to see me.”

“Hey, Markus. Sorry it’s taken us a bit to get here, but we were out on maneuvers for a week. How are you feeling?” asked Henk.

“No worries, and surprisingly good. But what’s so funny?”

“Ah, my uncoordinated friend. Trenn hadn’t heard the whole story of your rapid descent.”

“A splap,” chuckled Trenn.

“Splap?” asked Markus.

“The only way I can describe the sound you made when you hit. The way you were tumbling, you’re lucky you landed legs first. With a splap, to reiterate. Your head was fine, so Renew was easy. In a way, you’re lucky Lt. Stulli went through the procedure. If he hadn’t, we might not have been scanned.”

“Great, I’m not going to live this down, am I?”

“Oh, it gets worse. Remember when I told you that your call sign would come from that trip?”

Markus swallowed, fearing where this was going. He said nothing.

Henk patted his head. “Hey, look on the bright side. At least it’s not ‘Monkey.’”

“Monkey?” asked Carl Greiner, raising an eyebrow.

Earth – Imperial Military Flight School, 4925 Stellar Era

Within a few weeks, Markus had recovered enough to return to his squadron. Returning to the barracks, he became increasingly excited to get back into the cockpit. He didn’t realize how much he missed flying until he was forced to spend weeks in a hospital bed.

As he walked through the door, he saw the rest of his squadronmates sitting in the common area. The atmosphere in the room was somber. It was quieter than the deep forest where he camped and climbed. The fact that there was no music or video playing instantly told him that something was wrong. All the heads turned to face him.

“Hi, Markus. Take a seat, will you,” said Henk, his usually cheery demeanor more subdued than normal.

Markus slowly eased himself into an overstuffed chair.

“Okay, would you mind telling me what’s going on?”

“Consider this an intervention, Markus.”

Markus grew angry. He had wasted enough time in the hospital and had little patience for this nonsense. He needed to be back in the cockpit flying. He started to rise.

Henk simply stared at him until he sat back down again.

“The squadron wants to come to an understanding with you.”

“On what,” asked Markus, genuinely puzzled. His comrades should be happy that he was returning, but their reaction was puzzlingly the opposite.

“On your behavior. Markus, you nearly killed yourself by taken a stupid risk. I was there, and believe me, it was horrible. The climb down, oh and thank you for falling BEFORE teaching me how to lower myself with the auto-belay, by the way, well the climb down was one of the worst experiences in my life.”

Markus had never seen Henk this emotional. He was choked up, and the words were hard for him to get out. Supportive hands patted his shoulders.

“Your harness’ emergency systems alerted the rescue team, and they were on you before I got down. I had no idea if you were alive, in pain, or even Renewable. The idea that I would have to explain to your parents and to my sister what happened was killing me. And all for a cheap thrill. Damn it, you really are a selfish bastard, Markus.”

Markus’ head subconsciously lowered a bit in shame. He felt the blood rush to his cheeks.

“Markus, we get it. You’ve lived a charmed life. Every time you come close to disaster, somehow you turn it around. Hand on heart, I understand why you feel invincible. I do. But your recklessness nearly got Lt. Stulli killed. Then it nearly got you killed. I’m worried that I’m next, and I’m worried that I won’t be as lucky.”

“So what are you saying, Henk?”

“I’m saying that I don’t trust you to be my wingman, Markus.”

“Seriously?” Markus asked, angrily. “I get that you’re pissed at me. I put you in a bad situation. I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry, but you’ll do it again. And again. That’s just who you are, Markus. You can’t change that. It’s as much your DNA as is your eye color.”

“Fine, I’ll team up with someone else.”

Markus looked around the room. The body language of crossed arms and shaking heads told him all that he needed to know. No one in the squadron trusted him.

Markus Tarver packed his rucksack and left the barracks.

———

A weekly Fifth Day tradition, Markus and Amanda had cooked dinner together. The smell of simmering sauce and red wine filled the small kitchen of Amanda’s apartment.

“What happened between you and my brother?” asked Amanda crossly.

Markus glanced up from stirring the sauce. “What do you mean?”

“In the last two weeks, you two have not spoken. You are best friends, and I swear you couldn’t make it through five minutes of foreplay without calling him. When I ask him about what’s going on, he just grunts. Also, the patch on your uniform has changed from ‘Redhawks’ to ‘Tridents.’”

“He led a coup and kicked me out of the squadron. Thanks to him, no one trusted me to fly with them.”

Amanda looked shocked at the revelation.

“How dare he do that!”

Markus simply shook his head, eyes glistening and shoulders slumped. She had never seen him like this.

“No, don’t say that. Actually…he was right,” Markus sighed quietly.

“Right?”

“Yeah. I’ve had nothing but time to think about this. I’ve always been reckless and always been lucky. It’s true. I’d take stupid risks and always – always – walk away scot free.”

Amanda reached over and put a hand on his shoulder. He kept pacing.

“But it’s more than that. I always assumed that I would be a success because of my last name. I’m a Tarver, so I’m fated to succeed. But that’s not the case. My father, and to a much larger degree my grandfather, succeeded because they stood up and made themselves successes. My grandfather didn’t even have a family name to rely on; his father was a farmer.

“No, Henk actually did me the biggest favor a friend, if he still considers me one, can do. He woke me up. It’s time I become a man and work for what I want, rather than wait for it to fall in my lap. If I’m going to be the man you deserve, I have to make this change. It’s time to stop taking stupid risks and to think about the consequences of my actions. If I don’t, I’m simply going to hurt the people around me; Henk was right about that, too. I can’t stand Randolph Stulli, but I felt horrible about what happened to him. If something happened to Henk, or worse to you, I would never forgive myself. First I was a brat. Next I was an ass. Then I was a danger.

“This ends now.”

Amanda didn’t know what to say, so she simply held him as he cried.

Earth – Engemann Station Cislunar Orbital Practice Area, 4927 Stellar Era

The last exercises of primary flight training involved a single-elimination tournament. All eight squadrons were put into matches against each other in mock combat. Low-power beam weapons simulated fire without causing damage, and sensors on each fighter recorded hits. Controllers back in Engemann Station could remotely shut down individual systems on each fighter to simulate battle damage from the hits. It was as close to real combat as you could get without encountering Raiders.

The winners advanced to the next round, and the losers did not. Much like real combat, no second chances were given. Historically, the pilots of the winning squadron had their choice of assignments, so the stakes were high in spite of the fact that all the participants would graduate. Three years of flight training came down to one make-or-break tournament. Off the record, the commanding officers were rumored to bet a month’s salary on the outcome. Gambling was, of course, illegal by edict of the Emperor. It was also common.

Markus’ squadron had scraped by the Blackhawk squadron in the initial round, with only Bruno Walter surviving the skirmish. The second round against the Saints had gone better, with half the squadron surviving, including Markus and his lead, Matthias “Rabbit” Sigi. They had each been credited with a kill each both rounds.

Back on the station, the pilots watched the remaining fight in the Round of Four between the Redhawks and the Shadows. Gathered in the Pilots’ Briefing Room, they saw the battle in real time on a large holoprojection. Depending on their loyalties, the pilots hooted or groaned as they saw Carl Greiner’s Redhawk sneak up on the six o’clock of a lone Shadow. After a few busts of laser fire, two thrusters were considered destroyed, sending the fighter into a tumbling spin. Seconds later, Greiner was credited with another kill.

The battle was one-sided, and it wasn’t long before an aide took an antique wooden plaque hand-painted with the Redhawks logo and placed it next to a similar one that said “Tridents” on the leaderboard. The finals were set.

“We’re up, gentlemen,” said Rabbit. “This is the big one.”

Markus and the rest of the Tridents walked toward the hanger. Their Kestrels had been refueled and checked over during the interval. Markus’ was still noticeable from the battle scars it had gained in the skirmish against the Raider. Originally, leaving Markus with the scarred fighter had been meant as a punishment from Command. However, the damage had become a sort of talisman to the squadron, and they made a superstitious habit of touching it with their palms before each mission.

The Trident pilots ran through their preflight procedures, flight crews scurrying around the trainers to ensure that everything was ready for mock combat. Pilots and crew satisfied, the craft were towed by robotic tugs into position in the launch bay. Klaxons blared, and the air was pumped out of the bay. Once vacated, the eerie silence of vacuum followed, and the outer doors opened. One after another, the Kestrels lit their main thrusters and slowly proceeded out into space.

“Four flights of three,” came Rabbit’s voice over the radio. “Splap and Spanner, form up on my wing.”

Suddenly the common band chirped. “Long time, no see, Splap. I’m happy that your call sign stuck.”

Markus smiled. He hadn’t seen much of Henk since changing squadrons, but he did miss the banter of long missions. “I understand I’m supposed to call you ‘Beeper’ now.”

“You know the rule. You’ll hate the name, but if you complain, it gets worse.”

“So how did you get saddled with it?”

“There was a fuel truck backing up, making a beeping noise to warn people. I was jogging with headphones in and didn’t hear it. I nearly got Splapped. Oh, ‘Splap’ is also a verb now. A pretty useful verb, if I do say so. Maybe it will become an adjective soon.”

“Funny. Now I’ll make it my mission to take you out,” Markus laughed.

“You can try, Splap. You can try.”

The teams organized themselves on opposite sides of the combat area, a 500km x 500km x 100km section of medium orbit, bisected on the narrow axis by Earth’s main rings. To win, a team either had to dispatch all of the opposing fighters or do a certain amount of damage to a recon satellite located near the other team’s starting point.

“Badger,” came Rabbit’s voice over the radio, “your flight is on goaltending duty. Tank right, Casper left, I’m middle. Tally-ho, gentlemen.”

Markus watched Badger’s three fighters take up defensive positions around their recon satellite. The planes weaved around the target erratically to ensure that any attacking enemy would not have an easy shot. The other two flights broke left and right, and Rabbit’s group accelerated toward the center.

Within minutes, Casper was calling for help. “Six bogies coming at us. We can’t hold this position.”

“Negative, Casper,” responded Rabbit. “Hold your position. We’re inbound. See if you can distract them so that they don’t see us coming through the rings.”

“Roger. Just make it fast.”

Markus and the other two fighters turned toward their embattled squadronmates. They cleared the rings within ten kilometers of the combat, closing rapidly. As Rabbit called for weapons free, Markus fired at the nearest enemy. Noticing the fire, the Redhawk and its wingman turned toward Markus. Incoming fire lit up their shields but did no simulated damage.

“Split Alpha 1,” came the order. Spanner rolled right and Markus left, leaving Rabbit to go straight. The oncoming Redhawks recognized the opening gambit and turned to focus on the isolated Spanner.

“Reform on me, Splap.”

“Rabbit, I can get him with a low-speed yoyo.”

“Negative, Splap. We’re going to do as we trained. On me.”

Markus grumbled but obeyed, positioning himself on Rabbit’s right rear. The duo continued to turn, slowly closing the angle on the trailing Redhawk. Markus noticed the large painted 4 on the tail, signifying that it was Henk. He grinned to himself as the angle narrowed.

Suddenly, his shields lit up with fire from an unseen opponent. Rabbit saw it too. “It’s a trap. Break left.”

Markus’ Kestrel spun around toward the source of the fire, and he lit the thrusters as he returned fire. He streaked past the oncoming enemy, both fighters quickly flipping back toward each other. Markus saw the 7 on the tail: Greiner.

It was an even battle, with each pilot attempting to aim at their opponent while simultaneously sideslipping to avoid incoming fire. Without incoming aid to tip the balance, these one-on-one duels typically lasted until one pilot made a mistake. Neither had help incoming, and neither wanted to lose, especially to the other.

“Give it up, Greiner,” grunted Markus, struggling against the g-forces.

“You’re a hack, Splap,” came the terse reply. “I’m going to enjoy this.”

For the next minute, the two fighters circled each other, like wary warriors. Suddenly, Markus felt his controls go slack, and the “Override” light flashed. Unable to maintain the tight turning, he quickly fell prey to Carl Greiner’s fire. Within seconds, every system was simulating damage. He was out of the fight.

“SHIT!” Markus screamed, pounding the cockpit.

“Oops,” crackled a voice over the private band. “Did I do that?”

“STULLI! What the hell was that?”

“I believe the protocol is to say, ‘what the hell was that, SIR,’” came the response.

“What did you do?”

“I hit the override button. Really, I thought you knew that.”

Markus felt the red mist descend. “Why did you do that?”

“Because I could, Tarver. Because I wanted to. Because you killed me once. Your team was poised to win, and I put a thumb on the scale.”

Shaking with rage, Markus thumbed the microphone switch. “You won’t get away with this.”

“Command won’t change the results of the battle.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about, Stulli.”

“Are you threatening a superior officer, Ensign Tarver?” chuckled Randolph Stulli.

“You know I am.”

———

As the victorious Redhawks headed to their celebration back on the surface and the losing Tridents to drown their sorrows, Randolph Stulli received a priority message on his communicator. ‘Report to Room 201A’ was all it said.

Randolph swallowed hard. Floor 2 was usually strictly off-limits. It was Fleet Intelligence’s demesne. Whereas typical intelligence agencies focused on outside threats, Fleet Intelligence was paranoid about internal ones; it was a reaction to the unforeseen mutiny of the West.

Careers typically ended after officers received cryptic messages from this group. Randolph silently wondered if he had pushed too far. It was possible that Johannes Tarver still had admirers among this group.

Arriving on the second floor, a door to a long, nondescript hallway opened automatically. Lights in the floor marked the path to room 201A. His pulse echoing in his ears, Randolph arrived at his destination. Feeling like a condemned man asking for a blindfold, he straightened his flight suit and knocked on the door. It silently opened, allowing him entry. He swallowed hard and entered.

The room was dimly lit, and there was a D-shaped conference table in the middle. Six people, five of whom were in civilian clothing, were sitting around the curved section.

“Sit.” It was not a suggestion.

Randolph quickly slid out the only free chair and sat down. He was on the flat side of the D, facing the six strangers. He kept his bearing ruler straight.

“Do you recognize me,” asked the only person in military uniform. Strangely, it was more of a statement than a question.

Randolph looked him over. He was an Admiral; that was obvious from the slashes on his jacket’s epaulettes. However, many of the copious medals on his chest were unknown to Randolph. Even stranger, there was no name on the jacket.

“Sir, I do not, sir.”

“Are you sure? Not even remotely?” he quizzed.

“Sir, no, sir.”

“Do you recognize the others?”

“Sir, I do not, sir.”

“Honest answers, Lieutenant. For purposed of discussion, let’s say that I am Admiral Ziols. What I am is head of Fleet Intelligence for the Empire. As such, I report only to Premier Schneider, not to traditional military channels. To regular military channels, I am a ghost. That is why you never heard of me.

“Do you know why you are here, Lieutenant? “

Randolph’s stomach churned. ‘Ziols,’ once a common family name, had fallen extinct and was now typically the traditional working name of spooks. “Sir, no I do not, sir.”

The Admiral frowned. “Guess, Lieutenant.”

“Sir, I am to be punished for influencing the outcome of the Primary Flight Training final exam by shutting down Ensign Tarver’s fighter during the battle, sir.”

The Admiral glared at him. So it was true.

“At ease before you stroke out, Lieutenant. So why did you do it?”

“Because he deserved it.”

“A simple answer. Was it really that simple?”

“Permission to speak freely?”

“Granted,” the Admiral waved, dismissively.

Randolph felt that he had nothing to lose.

“He’s an entitled asshole, sir.”

“So you took it upon yourself to do what you thought needed to be done to remedy this,” the Admiral glowered.

“Yes, I did. If that was wrong, so be it. I can live with the consequences. I know that Johannes Tarver and his kin are protected.”

Suddenly, the Admiral’s expression changed. He was…grinning.

“Lieutenant, are you implying that I suck Johannes Tarver’s cock?”

Randolph couldn’t think of an answer that would not make the situation worse and simply froze. Finally, one of the civilians spoke up. He was a tall man in an impeccably tailored gray suit that he wore open-collared with no tie.

“The Admiral is simply toying with you, Lieutenant. You are not in trouble, and the name ‘Tarver’ means nothing to us here. In fact, we applaud your initiative. Right or wrong, you decided what needed to be done, and you did it. The question is, would you continue to do the same?”

Randolph breathed deeply. For the first time in an hour, his future did not seem to include a dank prison cell.

“I’m not sure I understand, Mister…I didn’t catch your name.”

“No, you didn’t.” the stranger answered flatly. “But to answer your first question, are you willing to do what needs to be done to keep your fleet pure from unseemly influences?”

“I think I proved that.”

“Yes, you did,” answered the Admiral. “And therefore, I would like to welcome you to Fleet Intelligence.”

“I do have one request,” added Randolph, his confidence growing.

“What is it, son?”

“Let me pick where Henk and Markus wind up.”

“Done.”

———

In the end, both teams wound up in the same bar in Kormet, with the Tridents buying a round to celebrate the victorious Redhawks and the Redhawks reciprocating the gesture. Both teams mixed, with excited gesticulations replaying the day’s battles amid cheers and groans and not a small amount of disagreement on the roles of luck and skill. All the pilots had received their wings, and the ups and downs of the tournament were being viewed in a better light, perhaps with the help of copious amounts of alcohol.

Markus looked up to see Carl Greiner and Henk Fleuren walking toward him. Markus stopped his diatribe with Gerrit Siewert of the Redhawks mid-sentence with a quizzical look on his face.

“Gentlemen.”

“That is ‘Lieutenant Gentleman’ to you, sir,” slurred Henk. “Oh, Siewert, you died well today.” Henk drunkenly bowed to Gerrit, tipping an imaginary hat.

“And you, Tarver,” added Greiner. “I got you in the end.”

Tarver clenched his jaw. “With a bit of deus ex machine.”

“Stop, Markus,” replied Greiner, his posture softening. “I know what Stulli did. Actually, I wanted to congratulate you on a good fight. You probably had me. More important than this, you obeyed your lead and fought as a team. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m impressed. I watched you over all the battles, and you’re not who you were two years ago.”

Markus looked at Carl, trying to see if there was sarcasm behind the comment.

Henk, struggling to put coherent sentences together by this point in the night, put his arm around Markus’ neck. “What our esteemed colleague…excuse me, ‘LIEUTENANT esteemed colleague’ ummm ‘esteemed lieutenant colleague’ ah shit, Greiner, is trying to say is that based on today, we’d be proud to fly with you again.”

“I underestimated you, Markus,” Greiner said, holding out his hand.

“Honestly? It was because of what you did,” responded Markus, shaking it. “But I believe that I still owe you an ale.”

Earth – Imperial Air Base Kormet, 4927 Stellar Era

The airbase was a mixture of pride and precision. Fighters and ground craft were perfectly centered in their spots on the paddock, and not a spot of rust or corrosion was seen on the buildings. Even the flawless blue sky seemed precise. Workers in bright multi-colored outfits that quickly told others what job they performed scurried in almost insect-like organized chaos, with the pilots in their flight suits as the obvious lords of the demesne.

Markus beamed internally and externally. Fighters. The sound was legendary, rolling around his head. Fighters, fighters, fighters. Looking back at his life to date, the path to this point seemed clear and predestined. He felt like some had had guided him to this point. Even what had appeared as setbacks at the time, such as getting pulled from his team and sent to Outdoor Ed, played a role. He was giddy with excitement and looked from sight to sight like a child with attention deficit disorder.

Henk, on the other hand, appeared calm. And in need of riling up.

“I told you we’d be brothers-in-law, Henk,” said Markus, as the two pilots strode across the steelcrete apron, helmets under their arms. “It happened just like the old gypsy lady claimed it would.”

“I still don’t understand what my sister sees in you. I blame the clean mountain air back west for her accepting your proposal. Honestly, I would have been happier with you marrying the old gypsy woman.”

The trip back to Henk’s homestead had been magical. He had spent a week of leave alone with Amanda hiking the rugged back woods of the western Tyranena Plateau. He had even managed to sneak a visit to her home to seek her father’s permission to ask her hand in marriage. After Amanda had drifted off to noisy sleep in their lightweight hiking tent, Markus had quietly jogged to an RTV that he had hidden near the campsite earlier in the visit. The battered antique had seen better days but could reliably handle the rough tracks of the rugged terrain.

Fortified against the chill by a heavy pullover and against the nerves by a dram or two of grappesque, a local fire water that was, for some reason, considered a delicacy by Westerners, he had knocked on her father’s door late in the night. As a light in an upper bedroom turned on in response to the knocking, Markus belatedly realized the flaw in his plan. Amanda’s father, a local prosecutor, was an intimidating figure. And Markus was slightly drunk.

But in the end, it was easier than he had dreaded. Amanda’s parents welcomed him to the family with a hug, coffee, and some of the cookies that Amanda’s mother always seem to have around, fresh baked. There was a reason Amanda’s cousins had traditionally referred to her mother as “Aunt Have-Some-More.”

Everything had culminated in Markus on one knee in a meadow outside of Gandvik. As the coupled walked through knee-high grass toward their camp on the edge of a distant tree line, Markus dropped to one knee. The green boughs of the trees slowly churned in the wind as he spoke.

“Of course I’ll marry you,” she had said through tears. “As if you had any doubts, you cocky fool.”

Markus had chuckled, his own tears coming. “Doubts? I had loads. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would wind up so lucky.”

They had spent that night camping in the meadow, laughing and making love until dawn before hiking back to the homestead to announce the happy news to everyone.

Henk had taken it as anticipated. “Seriously? Mrs. Splap?” he had said, before promptly kneeing Markus in the groin. Amanda’s parents had simply beamed.

Markus groaned and fell to the red brick ground and curled himself into a ball. “Christ, no more.”

“Wakey wakey there, Markus,” said Henk, snapping him back to the present with a smack of the helmet. “Are you with us?”

“Yeah, Beeper. I’m just dreaming about life in our new squadron.”

“You mean life with my sister?”

“Yup.”

“Fuck you. There has to be an ancient curse involved or something.”

Markus and Henk continued the verbal jabbing as they strode toward their new squadron’s quarters. Situated off of a taxiway near the base’s main runway, the quarters consisted of two barracks, a ready room, and a recreation room. Boisterous noise erupted from open windows in the recreation room. Henk threw open the door, and both entered.

“Well if it isn’t FNG1 and FNG2,” yelled one pilot with barely a glance, engrossed as he was in a tabletop game that simulated local sports.

“FNG?” mouthed Henk to Markus.

“A hint,” replied another pilot, seeing the confusion. “The phrase involves the words ‘New Guy.’”

“Be nice to the nuggets, MH,” laughed a third pilot, who walked toward the two. Markus and Henk noticed the circles on his epaulettes and realized that he was the commanding officer. The rank seemed contraindicated by his relaxed demeanor. A relaxed posture fit perfectly with his easy movements and slightly receding hairline that he seemed compelled to run his hand through. Medical treatments to fix such minor blemishes were cheap and common; refusing them was a sign of either supreme indifference or supreme confidence.

However, as one they snapped to attention.

“Oh, at ease. I’m Gerhard Andersonne, or you can call me ‘Swagger.’ I’m assuming the name is ironic.”

“Only someone with true swagger would say that!” shouted someone in the back of the room.

Andersonne chuckled as he tossed a look over his shoulder and brushed his hair back with his hand, yelling, “Stow it.”

“Welcome, gentlemen, to VFA-137, aka Blake’s Vindicators. Don’t let the reputation fool you. My esteemed colleagues are some of the best stick men…laugh and you get a demerit, MH…in the service.”

“Sir, wasn’t laughing, sir. At your legendary stick skills, I mean, sir,” came the reply. Gerhard rolled his eyes with a smile and said, “See what I put up with?”

Markus and Henk made themselves at home, meeting the pilots and exchanging pleasantries. The recreation room was like a metal, sterile university party facility, with tables for card and dice games, refrigerators, plenty of seating, and even more video screens, mostly turned to local sports.

Eventually, the two made their way over to the pilot known as “MH.” The markings on his jumpsuit marked him as the squadron’s second in command.

“Henk and Markus, or should I say ‘Splap’ and ‘Beeper’? I’m Sten Oetjen.”

“I have to ask,” said Henk, “what does ‘MH’ stand for?”

A choir of voices chimed in, all yelling variations of “tell them!”

“Or I will! And I’ll make it worse,” came a voice from the crowd.

Oetjen sighed, not quite meeting their eyes. “It means ‘Micro-Helen.’”

Markus turned to Henk, confusion written large on his face. He was sure there was a joke somewhere at Oetjen’s expense, but he was embarrassed to admit to the squadron that he did not understand. Instead, he mouthed toward Henk, “Micro-Helen?”

Henk turned back to Sten. “What my esteemed colleague is so subtly trying to ask me is what that means. If he had studied his classics rather than partying, he would recognize that Helen was a legendary beauty from old Earth. But I have to admit, even I am puzzled by the ‘Micro’ part.”

Swagger walked up, placing his hands on Sten’s shoulders, much to the younger pilot’s embarrassment. “Let me explain it. You see, young master Beeper is indeed correct. ‘Helen’ refers to a beauty of Earth legend. It was said that her face could launch a thousand ships. Now, Mister Oetjen here is not quite so lucky. He was originally called ‘Milli-Helen,’ one thousandth of a Helen in engineering lingo, in so much as his face might launch a single ship, usually containing a young lady trying to escape him.”

“Really happened!” came a cry and more laughs.

Sten groaned and started to turn away. Swagger held him in place, a large grin poorly concealed.

“But we decided that was too generous. So we changed the meaning to ‘Micro-Helen,’ or one millionth of a Helen, in so much as his face looks like it was hit by a ship.”

As MH blushed, Henk belly-laughed, “God, Splap got lucky with his name. My dear brother-in-law could have been Nano-Hawking or Pico-Usdan. But, having bunked with him, ‘PU’ might be appropriate.”

Markus simply shot Henk a withering look. Swagger smiled, running a hand through his thinning hair.

“I think you two will fit in fine here.”

“Thanks, Swagger,” responded Markus. “But I have to ask, what did you mean by the crack about the squadron’s reputation?”

An awkward silence fell on the room. Pilots tried unsuccessfully not to turn and stare. An almost unnatural silence fell on the room.

“Really?” asked Swagger. His expression made it clear that he was not sure if Markus was joking of serious.

Markus and Henk exchanged confused expressions.

“Welcome to the ass-end of fleet,” yelled one of the pilots.

“Pardon?” replied Markus, still confused.

“We’re the dregs of Fleet, the unwanteds of fighter squadrons. We’re the undesirables that the stiff suits in command like to pretend don’t exist. So what did you do such that we earned your company?”

Markus reeled. Flying fighters was a prestige position. The whole concept of a squadron full of misfits seemed antithetical to him. Stulli; it had to be him. Markus and Henk had the scores to have been the subject of bidding wars between squadrons. A sense of guilt creeped into his consciousness; had his juvenile antics with Stulli had the unanticipated consequence of sabotaging Henk’s career? Had the flapping butterfly wing of small comments and minor insubordinations led to the hurricane of a posting of irrelevance?

“Chins up, lads,” said Swagger, smiling. “You’re starting to make us feel insecure about ourselves.”

“No offense, chief,” said Henk. “Markus simply has an unnaturally high opinion of himself.”

“The grandson of Johannes might well have cause,” replied Swagger. “Yes, Markus, we know who you are. But before you get defensive, it’s irrelevant. You will neither be treated better nor treated worse because of it. We go by merit here, not lineage. Maybe it’s because of the squadron’s reputation, but we’ve become brothers here. Eastern or western. Every single pilot in our little family would die for his comrades. I don’t care if it’s a drunken punch-up in New Gent or battle with the Raiders. We stick together. If you truly understand that and live it, you’ll get along just fine here.”

“BLAKE’S VINDICATORS!” came the simultaneous cheer.

“Blake’s Vindicators,” replied Henk and Markus, smiling.

“Stow your gear, gentlemen. We’ve got a busy day ahead of us. Ships up in one hour.”

Earth – Engemann Station Cislunar Orbital Practice Area, 4928 Stellar Era

“Form up on me,” came the call from Swagger. “Let’s end this practice the proper way. We’ll be doing combat landings. I want this sharp. Anyone who is waved off is paying off the squadron’s bar tab.”

“I’m not sure anyone other than Splap could afford that,” replied Henk.

“Just for that, I might shoot out one of your engines,” snarked Markus.

“I could still put in a smoother landing than you.”

The INS Admiral Shutter appeared over the horizon of the moon. Looking like an ungainly sea creature with a landing structure appendage running the entire ventral side, the Shutter was as deadly as it was ugly. Designed in the school of form following function, it was nearly a kilometer long with antennae, weapon mounts, and other bulges giving it the appearance of a warty gray squash that the reflected light of the moon could do nothing to improve. But it was a warty gray squash armed with close-in point defense weapons, relativistic cannon, “planet buster” torpedoes, and over a dozen squadrons of fighters, bombers, and ancillary craft. It did not need to be pretty with that level of armaments. Nothing could come within one AU of the Shutter without being seen and, if necessary, destroyed. And it was also to be the squadron’s home for deep field patrol.

The other ships in the carrier group came into view as the squadron made the approach to the rear landing deck. Picket ships, combat air patrol, electronic warfare patrols, and numerous supply craft transiting from both the moon and the Earth to resupply the fleet created a sense of small insects buzzing around a hive.

By reflex, the squadron lined up on Swagger. Rather than utilizing the landing airlocks, this was to be a practice combat landing, with the higher speeds increasing the danger. Additionally, the hard vacuum of the flight deck during combat landings meant that any rescue would be delayed. During the first practice attempt a few weeks prior, two fighters had collided when the leader dug a landing skid into the deck, causing the plane to spin and rapidly slow. Both pilots survived with minor injuries, but the long scar in the deck served as a warning to others. Scuttlebutt had it that the Chief of the Boat had left it there for that very reason.

Markus was nervous, not only for the danger, but for the fact that watching rookies land was a sport for senior pilots. They would place bets with each other as they watched the live feed on internal video systems. Retired pilots, if they were honest, usually cited this activity as one of the things they missed the most.

Markus took his position fifty meters behind Henk, his lead. Offset to the right, he could see the blinking landing lights on the Shutter as the two fighters made a graceful right-hand turn to line up with the deck. Ahead of them, Swagger and MH had just set down. The next two planes were aiming for spots twenty meters abaft of the lead two. Like animals on a large boat in old myths, the squadron landed two by two. As the final fighters settled down and the robotic tugs began to move the fighters to their airlocks, everyone began to breathe normally.

The tugs dragged the fighters through airlocks into the paddock. Popping the cockpits open, the pilots descended down ladders provided by the ground crew.

“Nice landing, gentlemen,” said Swagger as he ran his hand through his thinning hair, his posture in his usual casual slouch. “Looks like the bar tab stands. Go find your quarters and get some rack time. You’ve earned it.”

Henk turned to Markus, asking, “Dinner?”

“I saw fresh supplies coming in. Might as well take advantage.”

Henk and Markus turned left, personalized video screen guiding them to the mess hall as their comrades headed off to their quarters. Grabbing trays, they filled up plates from the various offerings.

“What in all that is holy is this?” asked Markus, turning over a gelatinous dish with the serving spoon.

“Niewefisch,” replied Henk, raising an eyebrow..

“And that’s seriously supposed to mean something to me?”

“It’s quite popular out West. It’s a staple in Gandvik.”

“Which is why the phrase, ‘Hey, let’s go try that new Gandvikian place for dinner’ has been uttered, oh, nearly once.”

“You’d better get used to it. Amanda adores niewefisch. Try some. It’s quite tasty.”

Markus turned a slight shade of grayish green as the odor hit him. “Really?”

“I’m sure she’ll insist on serving it with toast for appetizers during the wedding.”

“There’s nothing appetizing about this.”

“It’s not too late to call the wedding off, then,” Henk said, grinning slyly.

“Okay, I’m calling your bluff. Let’s see you eat it.”

Henk started to lift the ladle and then set it back down. “Yeah, you got me. It’s vile stuff. I think it’s pretty much served to tourists as a practical joke.”

“Asshole. You almost had me eating this.”

“Love you, too.”

——-

Reporting to the ready room the next morning, the standard jocularity was cut short by the entrance of a uniformed visitor. The crossed circles on his apaulets indicated the rank of colonel. Unusually, he carried neither unit insignia nor name badge. That was rare and usually augured badly.

The pilots jumped to attention but with the near ESP of squadron mates tried to figure out the purpose of this unusual visit.

“Stand easy,” said the visitor, as the pilots moved their arms behind themselves. “For the purposes of this discussion, you can call me Colonel Muller. What we discuss here has been classified, and discussing it outside this room can and will be considered treason.”

The pilots badly wanted to look at each other, but they had enough discipline to maintain their posture.

“Let me cut to the quick. Recent advances in technology have resulted in electronic countermeasures that we have reason to believe can blind Raiders to our squadrons. We have had recent successes in the deep fields against Raider probes. Properly done, these measures mean that our success rate against Raiders has neared 95%.”

Despite themselves, the pilots gasped. Outside of attacks on Earth, the Raiders were notorious for hit-and-run tactics, usually picking off isolated vehicles. Few, if any, survived these encounters. To turn this around was nothing short of miraculous. Privately, they had been worried about their first trip to the “big black,” as the deep fields were called. It felt like they had been diagnosed with a fatal disease, only to have a second opinion clear the record.

“You are free to celebrate, gentlemen,” said the Colonel, his thin lips in an approximation of a smile that scared more than reassured. “It is, indeed, a big deal. We are in the process of rolling this advancement out to all the squadrons, but you will be one of the first. Questions?”

“Sir, what does this entail?” asked Andersonne. To those who knew him, his urge to run his hand through his hair was obvious, but he was military enough to control it.

“Ah, Captain Andersonne, or should I say ‘Swagger’? I’m glad you asked, as this does affect you. The countermeasures have been added to Blixt-class electronic warfare planes. You will have a new squadron member. A guardian angel, so to speak,” the colonel said, again with the forced smile of the thin lips.

The door in the rear of the briefing room opened. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the awkward 2m frame and slicked-back hair. Impossible, he thought.

The colonel smiled, for real or as close to it as he was capable. “Let me introduce your new squadronmate, Captain Randolph Stulli.”

Markus and Henk simply stood still, cringing internally. Markus was truly puzzled. Was this revenge? Coincidence? Or something more sinister.

Stulli slowly strolled past the squadron, as if inspecting them. Slowing down as he passed Markus, he let the tiniest of smiles cross his lips.

“This is going to be fun,” he sneered. Leaning closer and whispering, he added, “And if anything should happen to you under my care, god forbid, I’ll be sure to deliver the news to Amanda personally.”

——-

Back in the squadron’s quarters, all attention was turned to Markus. Word of his history with the squadron’s newest member, who was giving private quarters just to reinforce his special status, had spread like wildfire since the introduction, and the questions were flying. Appealing for calm amid his own confusion, Markus turned to the questioners.

“What in the name of all that is holy is going on, Markus?”

“About the new technology?”

“Don’t be thick. About the new member of our squadron. Obviously, you two have a history.”

“He was my original instructor in flight training with Henk, prior to me getting bounced. And he also bricked my bird during graduation exercises as payback for the fact that the nurse he fell in love with is engaged to me.”

“But what did he say to you just then?”

“As far as I can tell, it was a death threat.”

“Be serious, Markus.”

“I am. Deadly so.”

“Does it have anything to do with the missing Sprite?”

Markus looked puzzled. “What are you talking about?”

“A Sprite on patrol went missing. The official story is a battle loss to Raiders, but scuttlebutt has it that no bogies were spotted. The squadron is in isolation.”

At a loss for words, Markus paused.

Henk then spoke up. “I don’t think Markus is exaggerating. I’ve known Stulli as long as anyone has, and I don’t trust him. He’s a manipulator. While he’s as good a stick man as just about anyone here, I’m not convinced he’s playing for our team. Something is not adding up; he’s got another game going on. We just have to be careful and try to figure out what it is.”

——-

Randolph Stulli opened the door to his quarters to find the unnamed Admiral waiting patiently for him. Randolph jumped to attention, mind racing to remember if he had any contraband that could get him into trouble. He stood to attention, quickly snapping off a salute that was waved away.

“Did introductions go well?”

“Was it your idea to put me in Tarver’s squadron, sir,” asked Stulli tetchily. “By the way, should I still call you ‘Admiral Ziols’?”

The admiral simply smiled. His poker face is amazing, Randolph thought.

“You have an understated sense of humor, sir.”

Randolph knew that the admiral was trying to get under his skin, and his frustration at not being able to mask his own emotions only made things worse. He knew that he was simply a pawn in a larger game, and until he reached sufficient rank to drive his own agenda, he had to play along.

“Do you still want a meritocracy, or should we simply let scions with famous names run things, son? Do you still believe in protecting our society from those who would tear it apart?”

“You know my answer. And I heard from my family. Their Renew scans have been done. Thank you for that, sir.”

“It’s a perk of your new status, son. Enjoy it. You’ve earned it. Just keep doing your job. And your sister should Renew well from her accident injuries.”

“I appreciate it. By the way,” Randolph added, “was that colonel one of yours?”

With the smile of an alpha predator, the unnamed admiral stood and walked out, exiting the quarters before Randolph Stulli could even snap back to attention.

——-

Admiral “Ziols” passed two guards who stopped the uninvited from entering the demesne of Fleet Intelligence. Turning the corner, he stepped through an open door into a large room full of interactive holoscreens. The hyperactivity of the screens seemed contraindicated by the relative passivity of the one occupant.

“How is our plaything, Gregor?” asked a tall man in civilian attire. His gray suit and open collar seemed out of place in the metal confines of the room. It was the least ship-like area onboard, as all pipes and conduits had been removed for security reasons, but it was still blatantly military. Some designs never changed.

“Still onside, Kris. As far as he is concerned, he is doing the right thing. He is convinced that this is still all about Markus Tarver and his ilk.”

“So long as he doesn’t learn the truth,” Gregor said, the sentence simply trailing off.

“There is enough cognitive dissonance in that son of a paper peddler to keep him from asking too many questions.”

“Does he know you think of him that way?”

“His kind never does.”

“Well, our worst case scenario is a lost Blixt. It’s always a tragedy when we lose pilots to the Raiders, isn’t it?”

Kris chuckled and straightened his suitcoat. “While I don’t think many people in his squadron would miss him, who would actually pull the trigger? Not even Tarver hates him that much.”

“We simply need to be creative. IFF systems malfunction, don’t they? Send him off alone and paint him as a Raider. Slag him at long distance.”

“Remind me to stay on your good side, Gregor.”

“On the bright side, Kris, you’ll never know if you aren’t. Until it’s too late, that is. And some things can’t be Renewed.”

“It disturbs me that I never know if you are joking.”

“I never joke.”

Deep Field Patrol, 4929 Stellar Era

Blake’s Vindicators headed into the asteroid belt, breaking into flights of two. Markus stayed glued to Henk’s wing as the pair dodged the slowly moving rocks. Their job was to protect the squadron’s right flank.

“Anything on the scope, Ruler?” came a radio message from Andersonne.

The response, delayed six seconds by the distance the Blixt electronic warfare craft stayed behind the fighters, came back negative.

“Keep alert anyhow, gents,” said Swagger. Markus could almost picture him trying to run his hand through his hair, even with a helmet in the way.

“At least Stulli is with us, instead of on one of his mysterious missions,” replied Markus through the flight’s band. Or at least Markus hoped it could only be heard by the fighters.

“Meaning what?” asked Sten Kemp.

“You ever notice that he’s not with the squadron much, especially when we are on near-Earth patrol?”

“I always assumed he was simply anti-social,” added Henk.

“That was my thought, too. Or maybe that it had something to do with his bad blood with me. Or maybe that he had decided that on-ship duties were below him. But there’s more.”

“Meaning what, Markus?”

“Meaning he’s up to something. During some of the periods when he has been missing from squadron duties on-ship, I checked the flight deck.”

Markus could hear, even through the silence, the interest of his comrades. He knew them well enough to know that they’d be all over him if they thought he was joking around.

“Continue…” said Swagger.

“And his Blixt was gone.”

“It was probably in maintenance,” countered Kemp.

“That was my first thought, too. So I checked, and it wasn’t. Then I had some drinks with the flight control folks and tricked one of them into admitting that he has been flying solo missions.”

“So he’s flying solo missions, Splap,” retorted Kemp. “We all know he’s intelligence.”

“Aren’t you curious what the dates of his last two confirmed missions are?”

“I suppose you’re going to tell us,” added Henk.

“The third and twelfth days of our patrol. We headed off for the deep black on the fifteenth.”

“Are those dates supposed to mean something to us,” asked an increasingly perturbed Kemp.

“Those are…,” hesitated Henk. “Wait, those are both dates of Raider attacks on Earth.”

“And the penny drops.”

“So what does that mean?” asked Swagger. “Is Stulli an agent of the Raiders? Is he linked?”

“I have no idea what it means. But it’s strange.”

“Well, you have us all freaked out now. You’re talking about the guy who is supposed to be covering our asses potentially being in cahoots with the Raiders.”

The squadron passed most of the next hour in silence. Each pilot had the same thought running through his head: what was Stulli playing at? Eventually, nerves settled, and the patrol returned to normal.

“What are your plans for the wedding?” came a question from Henk over a private band.

“My parents obviously want it large,” he replied. Markus knew that his engagement to someone they perceived as below his station was killing them, and they would attempt to civilize the event as much as possible.

“Well, thank god for the tradition that the groom’s family pays.”

“Yeah, I can’t wait to have my father’s sycophants lining up to congratulate us,” Markus said.

“I can hear you rolling your eyes all the way from here, buddy. My sister is a saint to put up with your family. Frankly, I don’t know how you do it.”

Neither did he, if Markus were honest with himself. It was almost distasteful the way that people seeking favors would approach the family at all occasions. Markus could barely go to the market back home without someone approaching him with a disgusting familiarity. What used to enthrall him as a youngster disgusted him as he came to know the whys and hows.

“Did she tell you?”

“What?”

“We’re planning to move out West by your family once we get married.”

After a startled pause, Henk responded, “You can’t be serious. The stereotype of the Eastern scion is moving to the boondocks. Are you going to retire to a comfortable career of trinket peddling? Wait, wait. This is too good. Switching to common band. Gents, I have great news!”

“This better be important, Beeper,” said Swagger.

“Oh, but it is. The great Markus Tarver is a secret westerner. Not only does he bed ‘em and wed ‘em, but he’s going to become one.”

“I meant ‘militarily important,’ Beeper,” Swagger responded, annoyed but also chuckling. “But this *is* good. Is he going to peddle trinkets?”

“I already made that joke, skipper. Plus, it’s a bit racist when you do.”

“’Western’ isn’t a race, Beeper. It’s a disability.”

“I can’t argue the point, skip. I was born on the wrong side of the range. But we’re focusing on the wrong …”

“INCOMING!” came the cry from Stulli, delayed by the six second transmission time.

The tactical screens in the Sprites lit up with a squadron of inbound Raiders. Within seconds, the icon for one friendly had started blinking.

“Skipper’s down!” came a cry.

“Negative rescue,” responded Randolph Stulli. “He’s gone.”

Shit, thought Markus. They slagged Swagger. He had barely processed that when Henk’s fighter began to spin uncontrollably.

“I’m out,” Henk yelled on the common band.

Somehow the inbound Raiders hadn’t seen Markus. He quickly put an asteroid between himself and the fight.

“What are you doing, Tarver?” came the query from Stulli.

Ignoring him, Markus turned parallel to the incoming enemies. Hall Effect thrusters blazing, he quickly flanked their left side. Yawing to the left, he saw three Raiders regrouping behind a large asteroid.

Letting loose three of his four missile, Markus spun to face the rest of the fleet. Three explosions marked his missiles hitting home as he rapidly closed on the exposed rear of the enemy advance.

Seeing a flight of two friendlies, Markus quickly yelled for them to form up on him. The remaining seven Raiders were locked in a firefight with the remnants of Blake’s Vindicators, prismatic shields on both sides blazing under laser fire.

“Break alpha five,” yelled Markus to his two ad-hoc wingmen. They rolled left as he rolled right, opening fire and catching the enemies between the Scylla of the main squadron and the Charybdis of this emerging group.

Within seconds, the enemy broke ranks in confusion and fell to the bidirectional fire.

“Well done,” came Swagger’s cry over the radio.

“Glad to avenge your untimely death, skip,” Markus responded.

“Glory hog!” added Henk.

The post-action adrenaline was broken by an inbound call from Peter Krieg, the Airgroup Commander on the Shutter. “Not well done, actually. You lost two fighters to a hidden enemy. If you were fighting real enemies rather than drones we had staged, I’d be writing letters home to two families. ‘Gosh, I’m sorry your sons died, but at least they died talking about wedding dresses.’ By the way, well done, Tarver. Flanking the enemy and hitting them while their shields were focused on the rest of your squadron was risky, but it worked. Not bad for a Westerner wannabe. Come back home, and we’ll debrief in full.”

——-

Back in a pilots’ briefing room on the Shutter, the pilots snapped to attending as Commander Krieg entered the room and strode to the podium. On the short side and a tad scrawny with a scruffy beard, he still commanded respect due to his service record fighting the Raiders. Krieg had saved four members of his squadron by single-handedly fighting back an attack that had destroyed two fighters and disabled four. Known as the Hero of Bremen Gap, a title that he personally never used and was known to despise, his modesty and prowess made him a legend and a hero to the pilots who flew under him. No one else aboard the Shutter could get away with growing a beard, but not a single Admiral would care to raise the issue with Krieg.

Never one to soften a blow, Krieg began his debriefing minus any puffing up of egos.

“Gentlemen, I give you a 70% for that exercise. Let’s review. The bad first. Stulli, your warning was late. You lost two fighters before they had a chance. You need to improve you scans to pick up powered-down enemies. We’ll be hitting you with harder and harder situations, so you can either sulk or improve.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Markus could see Stulli’s face flush red and his jaw clench at both the reprimand and the failure. He could tell that Stulli had rarely been talked to in such a way, and he enjoyed it a bit.

“Andersonne, you never had a chance. But your team is sloppy and lacks focus discipline. That’s on you as their leader. I know these patrols are boring, but you guys need to stay sharp if you are going to live. Save the banter for the bar.

“Tarver, well played. You recovered from the surprise and analyzed the situation quickly and correctly. I’m promoting you to lead. Fleuren will fly wingman. No offense to you, Henk. But Markus is flying better right now.

“Gentlemen, you are dismissed. Get some chow and some rack time, because tomorrow we do the same thing.”

The pilots stood as one as Commander Krieg left the room. Markus couldn’t help but notice Randolph glaring at him.

——-

Back in the Intelligence section, the man in the tailored gray suit turned from the audio database holoscreen and turned to his companion.

“I have to hand it to you, Gregor. Occasionally you military types are pure gold.”

“It’s amazing that they think the private bands are actually private, Kris.”

“Could Stulli listen in?”

“If we allow it. But this is one of our closer-guarded secrets, so we rarely give that sort of access to those outside the circle. More people involved means more chances of leaks. And a leak would end the intelligence we gather.”

“It’s elegant. Any traitors will hang themselves, and we can deal with any potential problems in other areas. I can’t believe they don’t realize that switching to a private band simply grabs our attention. Simpletons.”

Gregor’s smile diminished. “Don’t get cocky, Kris. One of those ‘simpletons’ started putting the pieces together.”

“Maybe the Raiders can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.”

——-

“Wingman? So how’s my brother taking it?” asked Amanda over the video link. Even in the deep fields, the subspace tightband transmissions allowed instantaneous communications. Unfortunately, as useful as they would be for patrols, the size and power requirements of these systems made them viable only on capital ships.

“I think he’s still too shocked about our other news to even notice,” Markus responded.

Amanda looked like she wanted to punch Markus in the gut. “You told him, you idiot?”

“How could I not,” Markus replied, smiling. “He’s so cute when he thinks he’s being a good influence on me.”

“Be serious, Markus. You know how competitive he is, especially with you. You might be best friends, but he still wants to beat you.”

“I know, but he’s taking it well. Honestly, it’s like he feels he needs to protect me now that we’re almost family.”

“Well, someone needs to, Markus.”

“I’ll be safe.”

“You’d better be. Come home safe to me, Markus.”

“I promise I will. I love you, Amanda.”

“I love you more, Markus. Go kick some Raider ass. Oh, and tell Randolph I say hello,” Amanda said, a twinkle in her eye.

“Seriously not funny. Luckily I love you enough that I’ll let that pass,” Markus replied, smiling.

——-

“So do you ever think about what you’re going to do after this, Markus?” crackled a familiar voice over the private band. Markus looked to his right and caught a glimpse of Henk’s fighter, slowly weaving behind him. The patrol had been going on for six hours already with another two left to fly.

“After flying? Man, what could live up to this, Henk? Is there anything better than being in the cockpit? I mean, even boring patrols like this are better than most any other job. Besides, we still have several years of our stint left.”

“But you know that eventually they take your bird away from you, right? Are you considering a career in the deep black?”

“Amanda would kill me,” Markus chuckled.

“No,” Henk corrected, “Amanda would leave you and marry Ruler.”

“I’m not arguing the point, but she would have to kill me first.”

“Touché, Splap.”

“Seriously though, I would like to do something else. If I can’t be flying fighters, I don’t want to be away on patrol. And a desk job back on the ground seems painfully dull.”

“No paper pushing for Markus Tarver. Check.”

“I’d like to start something. It’s funny, but when I was a kid, being handed things for free seemed like the best thing in the world. But now I want to create something myself.”

“I’m with you. It’s a truism that we fighter pilots are hard to employ, because we are used to working for ourselves most of the time. We might have commanders back on the base or the ship giving orders, but when things go down, it’s up to us and our squadron mates to get things done. We’re self-sufficient and self-directed. It would be hard to join a bureaucracy.”

“So what are you thinking?”

“You know they’ve just liberalized alcohol laws, right? Now small companies can brew and distill for consumption in the local area. So what about throwing all our vices into one great company? Coffee roasting for a coffee bar and a distillery and brewery for a great bar.”

“I’ve had your coffee back on leave. It’s pretty good. I guess we’re lucky that your ancestors from the Auswanderung thought to bring along coffee beans from the old Earth.

“That sounds intriguing. Let’s start thinking more seriously about how to train on distilling and brewing so that we can launch something like this when we muster out. Where should we do it?”

“Amanda tells me that Gandvik has a growing ‘localvore’ culture. Maybe on the outskirts by the university.”

“It’s a beautiful area. And suspiciously close to the ski slopes.”

“It’s a sacrifice I’d make, Markus.”

“It’s a deal, Henk. Partners?”

“Partners.”

Deep Field Patrol, 4930 Stellar Era

Three years of patrols and practice had made Blake’s Vindicators a squadron of veterans. Replays of their missions, training and otherwise, made frequent rounds of the video nets. Their willingness to innovate, in spite of constant complaints by Randolph Stulli, made them a sort of folk heroes. Nuggets about the Shutter came to them for advice. Blake’s Vindicators patches were sought after souvenirs. Gerhard Andersonne never had to buy himself a drink, and in spite of not being considered classically handsome, he was always the center of attention among female crewmembers, no matter what fraternization regulations said. Andersonne’s nervous habit of running his hand through his hair even became a sort of affectation among newer pilots.

All in all, the members of Blake’s Vindicators were enjoying their patrol and reveled in their newfound status as the flight wing’s bad boys. To them, they were merely doing what came naturally, and they thought that flying and fighting to the regulations would be more likely to get them killed than using their intuition.

Within a month, their Deep Field tour of the system’s Kuiper belt would be over, meaning six months on-planet, flying orbital patrols around Earth and Freya and sleeping in their own beds much of the time. Markus and Henk were planning to take lessons on distilling and brewing in their free time, and Gerhard was dropping continuous hints about joining the company when it launched. Most of the rest of the squadron offered to be taste testers.

It was a good time to be an Avenger.

Four of the Vindicators were sitting in their cockpits in the launch tubes as part of the quick response force. It was considered the dullest possible duty and was dreaded by all participants. Sitting in the cockpit in a dark launch tube for four hours while not going anywhere was about as boring as it got. Until red lights began blinking, that is.

“Is this another drill, Swagger?” asked Markus.

“Not that I’ve been briefed on. Fire up, and we launch in 10 seconds.”

“So long as we can keep the universe safe from simulations,” snarked Henk as he was pressed back into his seat by the launch forces.

As the four quick response fighters pulled into a right echelon formation, with Swagger and MH leading Markus and Henk, Randolph Stulli’s voice broke the silence.

“We’re looking at an enemy force of unknown strength centered on the planetoid at 150 mark 22. We also see what appears to be a larger ship in the belt with fighter support. Signals are degraded due to the high amount of iron dust, so it could be nothing or it could be an entire invasion force.”

“Thanks for that clarification, Ruler.”

“Stow it, Fleuren,” replied Andersonne.

“Sorry, skip. Just grouchy at the number of drills we’ve been running.”

“They do not appear to be moving to attack,” responded Stulli, ignoring the chatter. “Recommend you hold position and wait for support. The combat patrol will be on you in five mikes.”

“Any supporting fire?”

“Negative other than point defense. The dust is causing havoc with targeting systems. It’s a great place to hide.”

“Can’t take a risk that they’re hiding something large there that could ruin the Shutter’s day. We’re going to scout it out, Ruler. Swagger out.”

Hall Effect thruster blazing, the four fighters turned toward the threat, breaking into two flights of two fighters each.

Aboard the INS Admiral Shutter, activity that seemed like chaos to an untrained observer broke out, as pilots jogged to their fighters and other crews went to their battle stations. Every corridor seemed like rush hour in a major metropolis. Those few with no jobs during battle or fighter operations made their way to common areas to watch the events play out on holoscreens.

Without even needing to coordinate, Henk and Markus split off, heading for the planetoid’s faint terminator line to the right, as Swagger and MH headed left.

Within seconds, MH called out, “Flight controls are getting sluggish. I’ve got some fault.”

“Confirming…,” replied flight control. “Telemetry is showing us the same thing. Get out of there.”

“I can’t leave Swagger.”

“You have to leave him. You’ve become a liability. You can’t yaw properly.”

“How the hell can this happen?” yelled MH, turning away from the upcoming fight.

“Preliminary telemetry is showing that your yaw reactor thrusters have a disconnected line. Potentially it was loose when you set off, and it came free.”

“That sounds like sabotage.”

“Bring her home. We’ll deal with the causes when your crew has a chance to look things over.”

“Get out of here, MH,” came the final word from Andersonne. Oetjen’s Blake 2 slowly and stutteringly turned toward home and limped away.

“Should we reform on Swagger?” asked Henk.

“Negative,” responded Markus. “We continue and try to catch them in a pincher.”

“He’s alone, Markus.”

“He’s fine.”

As Andersonne rounded the far side of the planetoid, his distress beacon blared. On Henk and Markus’ tactical screens, a red flashing square appeared in his last known position.

Tactical control from the Shutter interrupted any thoughts. “Swagger’s down. Telemetry showed missile fire. There was an ejection. Condition unknown. Launching search and recovery.”

“Shit,” said Markus. “Henk, this is getting real.”

“Should we wait for support?”

“Negative. We know the Raiders target ejected pilots. We need to get to Swagger first. He’d do it for us.”

“OK, Markus. Let’s do it.”

The Sprites shook as they went to war emergency thrust. It was a race to the ejection capsule, if one even survived combat. It was never a sure thing, and every second counted if the capsule’s integrity had been broken.

Markus and Henk rounded the planetoid with a periapsis of only two kilometers above the surface, relying on surprise to catch any Raiders off guard. Lining up with the estimated location of Swagger’s ejection capsule, the two heard the whining siren signaling missile lock.

“Raiders have you locked!” came a cry from Stulli, sounding genuinely concerned.

Contra-breaking, Markus and Henk split directions and fired countermeasures. Henk breathed easily as his missile lock indicator died. And then a bright light to his left caught his attention. The explosion was right where Markus’ fighter had been. Shit!

——-

Markus Tarver died the second time on patrol, fighting Raiders.

 

Markus Tarver remembered the second time he died.

 

In reality, death was nothing like in the movies. There were no meaningful revelations. No flashes of early life. No thoughts of mother, friends, loves, or home.

 

Just cold and a slowly decreasing field of vision. Markus was very cold.

 

Reaching down and touching his leg, Markus felt the warm stickiness of blood. Strapped into his seat while his cockpit spun around and around in space, he could see debris flash through that narrowing field of vision. Like clockwork, every two seconds a piece of mangled metal that he could only assume was the nose and engine of Blake 7, his Sprite-class deep space fighter, passed in front of him. The hypnotic repetition of the vision made him want to close his eyes for good and sleep. His wounds were grievous, and he knew he was dying. Again.

 

In reality, death was nothing like in the movies. But in reality, this wasn’t technically death at all. Philosophers, those spoiled scions of Eastern Shores industrialists who had either flunked or thrown the entrance examinations to the military, could argue whether this constituted death or not, just as worthlessly as they could argue about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

 

Was it death if the brain survived, even as the body died? Frankly, Markus thought wearily, did it matter? Drifting through space, alone and cold, his death felt real enough, even if he had faced it before and knew what was to come.

 

The pain subsided as drugs were injected automatically into his bloodstream by his flight suit. As they hit his system, Markus felt himself relax. Soon it would be over. Soon the stasis system in his ruined fighter would shut his body down, preserving the precious, irreplaceable brain.

 

Soon he would be Renewed.

Earth – Imperial District of Kormet, 4930 Stellar Era

Markus Tarver awoke with a start. Reflexively reaching for his fighter’s controls, he was stunned to find himself in a white room rather than a cramped cockpit. Breathing rapidly, he tried to make sense of where he was. The burning brightness light made him his eyes water with pain.

Think, think, he told himself. You were in your fighter. You were locked on by a Raider.

You died. You were Renewed.

No, Renew wasn’t easier the second time, he thought to himself. It might even be worse. He was still confused and full of adrenaline. His body still stung with the rawness of new flesh. Intellectually, he knew that his brain was rewiring itself to his new body and getting used to the minute differences that even Renew could not overcome. But it was still hard, and what made it harder was knowing the pain that lay ahead.

Amanda, where was she, he thought. Still blind, he tried to thrash around to get the attention of anyone there. What felt like gigantic movements to him in his current state were, he knew, barely ripples.

Amanda!

Markus felt more than heard movement to his left and rolled his head. Amanda, it must be her.

But the voice was lower, masculine.

“Welcome back to the land of the living, Markus.”

A familiar voice. A friend. Henk, he realized after a pause.

“Henk…,” Markus said slowly. “Amanda…?”

“She’s not here. Just rest, buddy. We’ll talk later. The other guys want to see you, too.”

——-

Two funerals were held the next week. Gerhard Andersonne’s body had not been recovered, and he was declared killed by enemy action. After the destruction of Markus’ fighter, Henk had been forced to cover the search and rescue process for both pilots. Markus’ beacon showed Renew viability, so he was the priority. By the time the rapid response fighters had driven off the Raider ambush, Swagger’s capsule was nowhere to be found.

As the military bugler sounded out his last note, an empty casket was lowered into the ground. The grave was surrounded by squadron members in dress uniform, family, friends, and more than a few unaccompanied women who stared daggers at each other. Even Randolph Stulli was crying. It was a testament to Andersonne’s character that over four hundred people showed up in the rain to bid him farewell.

Squadron pilots simply stared at each other at a loss. Swagger had been the heart and soul of Blake’s Vindicators. No one could picture anyone else in Blake 1, and no one wanted to be the person who tried to fill those shoes.

Markus looked over at Henk with eyes that seemed to stare off to the horizon. He felt as much pain as any other pilot at losing the man who was like a big brother to all of them. But he and Henk had lost so much more.

Henk slowly walked over to Markus and helped him stand.

“It’s time, buddy,” was all Henk said.

Markus felt like he was walking to his own execution as he slowly limped toward the black car that would take him to the chartered skimmer to Gandvik. Henk helped him into a rear seat and then got in himself on the other side. Markus knew that Henk’s parents in the front seat were looking back at him with concern, but he couldn’t bring himself to look them in the eyes.

Markus’ world had turned black, and the hardest part was yet to come.

Amanda was buried at the family compound. Her death in a skimmer accident had come within hours of his own, Markus had been told. No other details had been forthcoming, though the police had implied that an intoxicated high-ranking member of the government had been the other driver.

The painfully blue skies mocked him.

Like quantum entanglement of two photons, the lovers had both been struck down nearly simultaneously. But even if Amanda had been approved for Renew, her body had been charred beyond all recognition or recovery. Only DNA scanning by the Imperial medical examiner had provided the evidence of her identity. She was gone for good.

And Markus felt empty.

The kind words from friends and family that were spoken at the ceremony and in private were nothing but platitudes and generalities to Markus. To him they were nothing but meaningless gestures from friends who didn’t know what to say and acquaintances who didn’t know him well enough to say anything meaningful. Markus’ own parents had not bothered to travel from Kormet, sending instead a stand-in.

No one, not even Henk, knew what to say to Markus to help him through this, so they gave him space to grieve. The military offered him a month of bereavement leave, which he spent living at the Fleuren compound. His days were solitary hikes and climbs, and his nights were spent alone, occasionally even camping out during his hikes. Even the meals seemed solitary, though Henk’s family gathered with Markus every night. He was alone, even in company.

The cold ground of his lean-to shelter strangely invigorated him. Each day, his senses seemed to return more and more to normal from the haze where they had been. Colors seemed brighter, touches more sensitive, and sounds more distinct.

By the end of his month in Gandvik, Markus finally felt that a corner had been turned. His jocularity slowly returned, especially during video conservations with Henk, who had returned to active duty. The continued antics of the squadron, in spite of the loss of their squadron – and emotional – leader helped him to sense a return to normalcy. Sten Oetjen had begun to step into the very large shoes that Gerhard Andersonne had left.

Markus joined in conversations around the dinner table and began seeking out more social activities. A fiery rage still burned deep down, a desire to seek revenge against those, Raider and native, who had killed two of his closest friends. While revenge against the system that allowed the murderer of his fiancé to escape anonymous and unpunished would have to wait, he began to look forward to returning to patrol. The anticipation reminded him of the night before a climb, all those years ago in school.

At least the Raiders could pay in blood.

Asteroid Field Patrol – 4930 Stellar Era

 

The pilots’ briefing drew to a close, with MH as the new Blake 1 wishing everyone good hunting. With one exception, the pilots warmly welcomed Markus back for his first mission since the double catastrophes. Randolph Stulli, on the other hand, simply smirked. That response confused Markus.

On the way to the fighter deck, the crew stopped to touch a shrine dedicated to those lost in action. A fresh black armband with a Blake’s Vindicators patch represented Gerhard Andersonne. Markus wiped his eyes as he passed and was sure that the other pilots did, too.

After launching from the catapult tubes of the INS Admiral Shutter, the squadron formed up on MH. Blake’s Vindicators would be patrolling the asteroid field, which in reality was the remains of a planet torn apart by gravitational forces after centuries of mining. Contrary to popular belief, asteroid fields were not obstacle courses where ships had to quickly dodge large numbers of rocks. In reality, the individual components of the field were separated by a thousand kilometers on average. In the vastness of the deep black, even asteroid fields were sparse. Markus was sure he could fly through the entire field blindfolded without risking crashing. However, the rocks that were there made great hiding spots for Raiders, which made the patrols necessary.

“Splap and Beeper, you’re up,” came the call from MH. Though he was every bit as qualified to front the squadron as Swagger, the pilots still missed the latter’s soft humor and intangible leadership skills. Where Swagger had led with a smile, MH was more by-the-book in his style. Adjusting was taking the squadron time.

“What’s the plan, skip?” asked Henk.

“You two check out the planetoid at 120 mark 73, distance 0.2 AU. I’ve marked it on your tac screen. It’s large enough to be hiding something, so Ruler wants it checked out. We’ll continue our patrol as defined before.”

“Ah, checking out the ruins of Freya. What Ruler wants, Ruler demands,” replied Henk.

“Stow it, Fleuren.”

“We’re on it, MH,” added Markus. “See you guys in a few hours.”

Randolph Stulli’s voice chimed in, “Ruler will reposition to support both operations. Renegades one through four will be launching to cover me.”

With a simple acknowledgement, Markus and Henk spun to face their new objective. Hall Effect thrusters burning, they rapidly separated from the squadron until even the Shutter was invisible to the naked eye.

“You’ve aged, Markus,” said Henk over a private band.

“It’s been a shitty month. But what specifically are you talking about?”

“We’ve gotten to the point where I’m the one baiting Stulli, and you’re defusing the situation.”

Markus smiled silently. In spite of the pain it caused him to be around someone who reminded him of his fiancé, Markus was glad to have Henk around. His irreverence and wit could always lighten the mood, even if he occasionally crossed the line into the improper. Henk had always joked that the little part of the brain that tells most people, “maybe you shouldn’t say that,” had been surgically removed, possibly by Raiders.

As the duo neared their target planetoid, they broke in opposite directions and turned on the scanners that were standard payloads for asteroid patrols. UV, infrared, metal, radiation, microvibration, and visible light were all scanned thousands of times per second over tens of thousands of square kilometers of surface each minute.

“Another day, another false alarm,” sighed Henk. “I’m beginning to think that the Raiders are simply an excuse to send us on long, pointless runs.”

Markus felt the same degree of boredom and routine but didn’t bother to answer. His fighter crossed the terminator line, and his scanner began beeping.

“Are you picking this up, Henk?”

“Nothing here. What do you have?”

“Radiation and metal. Nothing on the light spectrums.”

“Uranium in the asteroid? They do mine out here for that reason.”

“Negative. Wrong radioisotopes. I’m going to see if I can narrow it down.”

Henk sounded worried. “Wait for me. Could it be a missile battery or Raider weapon system of some sort?”

“Output’s too low. If it’s manmade, it’s powered down. My scanner barely noticed it above the noise. It’s also not painting us, or we would have picked it up sooner.”

Markus rolled his Sprite and headed for the area of the surface where the readings seemed to originate from. The mission was suddenly getting interesting. He felt his pulse pick up slightly. Henk rounded the planetoid from the other direction and headed for Markus.

“Negative visual, Henk. If something’s here, it’s buried.”

Henk pulled into formation ten kilometers abaft of Markus, adding his scanners in an attempt to triangulate the anomaly’s position. The two fighters slowly cruised about a hundred meters over the surface.

“Link to my scanner, Markus. Let’s find this thing. If nothing else, it’ll be an interesting story when we…MARKUS, BREAK!”

By reflex, Markus put his fighter into a roll and had scanned the instruments before the words finished leaving Henk’s mouth. His body in full fight-or-flight mode, he braced for incoming fire, but none came. After a few seconds, he realized there was no tone indicating that enemy systems had locked onto his fighter. He took a deep breath, allowing the oxygen he drew into his lungs to calm his body.

“Not cool, Henk. What the hell.”

After a pause, Henk responded.

“Markus,” he said in the Western drawl that Markus only heard when Henk was , “look behind you.”

Markus spun his fighter around. At first he was confused what Henk was so excited about. And then he saw it.

His thrusters had been impinging on the surface and had moved something. What had looked like regolith and rock was in fact something else. Markus stared at a metallic cylinder sticking out of the surface. The surface itself looks strange and crumpled.

“Is that…”

“Yup, camouflage tenting,” said Henk. “What the hell is that?”

“No idea. But let me try something.”

Markus lowered his Sprite over the mysterious cylinder. Turning his thrusters toward the surface, he went to full power. Henk looked on as the tenting caught fire and was blown away by the exhaust..

“Holy fucking shit, Markus.”

Markus spun his fighter around. On the surface was the dull grey metal body of what appeared to be a patrol craft of some sort. Toward the rear of its stingray-shaped body were two cylindrical thrusters, one of which had been the originally exposed part.

Markus and Henk knew every craft in the Navy’s arsenal. Even secret craft typically conformed to known design philosophies and used common components.

This craft did neither. And its marking did not match known Navy markings. It was similar to but much larger than something that both had seen once before on patrol.

“She’s a Raider,” said Markus after a few seconds of disbelief. “Intelligence, based on the large number of antennae. She’s likely been collecting signals intelligence from Earth and also snooping on fleet movements.”

“Let’s call it in.”

“Let’s check her out.”

“Are you kidding me, Markus?”

“How can you not, Henk? We’re wearing exposure suits. We can land on the planetoid and walk right in. I even see an airlock that looks human-sized.”

“Markus, we have no idea what’s waiting for us. Raiders could still be aboard. We don’t know what sort of life support they need to survive.”

“We have guns,” fired back Markus.

“We don’t know how their mind control system works. Some scientists think it’s viral. Just by entering their craft, you could be exposed.”

“If my flight suit can help me survive in hard vacuum, it can help me survive that.”

“So you could expose the entire crew of the Shutter. Or it could be based on radio waves, so the suit won’t help. Markus, this is huge. But let the experts do their job. The Shutter can be here in a few hours with trained recovery crews.”

“This is too big, Henk. This is the break our entire planet has been wanting.”

“Don’t do it, Markus.”

“They killed Swagger. They killed me. Would you shoot me down for trying?”

“Of course not, but what …”

“Thanks, I’ll keep in radio contact.”

“I’m calling it in, Markus.”

“Do what you have to do. Just watch out for anyone coming to shoo us away.”

Markus knew Henk well enough to know he was fuming as he slowly lowered his fighter to the surface, carefully sideslipping close to the alien craft’s airlock. Setting down into a small cloud of dust that flew out ballistically from under the thrusters, Markus slid open his cockpit and lowered himself to the planetoid’s surface. In the partial gravity, he landed with less of a thud than he had anticipated.

“Damnit, Markus. Don’t do this. I can’t help you once you enter that bird. You know they’ll consider you contaminated if not linked.”

Markus ignored this and pushed what he hoped was the proper button on the airlock. He nearly jumped out of his skin as the door silently opened. A dark compartment was on the other side of the door.

Stepping into the airlock compartment, Markus looked at the controls. Strangely, though the words were in a foreign language, they used nearly the same alphabet. Some words on the panel even appeared similar to his native Earth Standard, a language that evolved from an ancient language known as “German.”

Pressing a button, Markus felt the floor shudder slightly as the outer door slid shut. An increasing hiss told him that the airlock was filling with whatever atmosphere was native.

“I’m taking off my helmet,” said Markus.

“Seriously, why? Goddamn it, Markus, we’re back to your reckless days of free climbing,” responded Henk.

“Call it intuition.”

“Markus, cover is inbound. Ruler and the Renegades will be here in fifteen.”

“Then you know that I have to do this now. Here goes.”

Markus twisted his collar lock, unsnapping his helmet. With a hiss, the atmospheres mingled. Markus breathed tentatively.

He survived.

“Atmosphere is breathable, Henk.”

“Shit, you’re contaminated. Markus, I can’t trust what you say now.”

“I haven’t changed, Henk. There’s no mind control on me.”

“What would you say if you were mind controlled?”

“Fair point. But trust me.”

“I can’t, Markus. We know that the Raiders are able to exert mind control over their victims. How do we know this isn’t a trap?”

“Because it isn’t. Look, even if you won’t believe me, listen to what I’m saying. I’m in the main companionway. Lighting is dim, and the ship appears to be powered down. I’m assuming life support is off-line, but there’s still enough air.”

“Markus…”

“Damnit, Henk, just listen to me. This is important. As far as we know, I’m the first person to report back from one of these ships. We need this intelligence.”

There was no reply from Henk, which Markus knew was a sign that his friend did not see the point in arguing.

“This is strange,” Markus continued. “The hallways, doors, and hardware seem to be the proper size for typical humans. The ship layout actually appears similar to what we would do. She’s military and not all that different, outside of the small details. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that she’s built by and for humans. I’m heading forward toward what I assume will be the bridge.”

Markus walked down the hallway. Though the craft was alien, nothing seemed particularly foreign. Markings were in a strange language, but he intuitively knew what they meant nonetheless. As he approached the end of the hallway, he manually forced the doors open. Dim emergency lighting turned on, illuminating the bridge stations.

“It’s a standard bridge. There’s a raised seat for the captain, what appears to be the pilot’s station, and a tactical station. Maybe an intelligence station. The seats fit me fine. It’s strange. The Raiders must be similar to us physically.”

Henk listened to his friend but could be sure that what he heard was the truth. There was still every chance that Markus had been mind-controlled and was simply reporting back what the Raiders wanted him to say.

“There’s a room off the bridge. If I’m right, it’s the Captain’s ready room. I’m heading there now.”

“Markus, you should know that the Renegades are inbound. They will be in range in ten. Stulli’s not far behind. The rest of Blake’s Vindicators won’t be here in time to make a difference. I can’t predict how anyone will react.”

“Thanks for the heads-up, Henk. I know you’re in a difficult spot, but none of this is your fault.”

Henk sighed. “I doubt Stulli or his bosses will spend much time pondering the finer points.”

“Henk, I’m entering the room. It does appear to be a ready room. Holy shit, Henk, I see a picture frame on the desk.”

Henk’s heart beat in double time at this. No one had ever seen a confirmed Raider before.

The next message from Markus came in the slow voice that Henk recognized as Markus being at a loss. “Mother of fucking god.”

“What is it, Markus?”

“They…they’re human.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Henk, the picture on the captain’s desk. It’s of him and, I think, his wife. And they are human The raiders are fucking human.”

“Is he a drone?”

“No. The office is decorated, and there are multiple pictures around. He’s human. And he’s not linked.”

“What are you saying, Markus?”

“It’s all a lie, Henk. The Raiders are human. That means that the whole drone or linked thing has to be a lie, too.”

Henk’s mind reeled. Either everything the planet had been told about Raiders was some sort of lie. Or it was true, and therefore his best friend was under their spell. Neither option appealed to him.

“Um, Henk…there’s a file on the desk. I can read part of the title.”

“What does it say,” Henk asked, his heart in his throat.

“Project Renew.”

——-

In the cockpit of his Blixt, Randolph Stulli listened to Markus and Henk on their private band as he sped toward the planetoid. There was a thrilling novelty to being able to snoop in on conversation. He’d have to thank Admiral Ziols for trusting him so much. Randolph had always wondered what other pilots thought of him, and now he would find out.

Randolph had been briefed recently on the truth behind the Raider initiative, or at least as close to the truth as he would get from the mysterious civilian in the gray suit. The scope of the scam had astounded him, but in the end he not only understood the need, but he wholeheartedly agreed with it. Civilization could only flourish when fear and misdirection combined with absolute control. Anything less was anarchy and decay. The fact that the scam fed the Renew program was simply a bonus.

However, Markus’ recklessness could have presented a problem had Randolph not been there to deal with it. In the end, it would be simple. He was now an enemy combatant. The pilots from Renegade squadron would believe that and would follow orders. Blake’s Vindicators might be an issue, but they were too far out to do anything about it.

He listened in on the two in amusement. In minutes, at least one would be dead. Randolph’s only regret is that it would not be by his hand. Suddenly, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Markus had found a file dealing with Renew on the Raider ship. On a real Raider ship, he corrected himself. The situation had the potential to spiral out of control.

So be it, he thought to himself. They both would have to be eliminated. Henk was as worthless as his whore sister, anyhow.

——-

“What does it say, Markus?”

“I don’t read Raider, Henk. Jesus, give me a second.”

“You don’t have one. The Renegades will be here in five minutes. Grab the file. We can figure it out later.”

“You know they won’t let me within an AU of the Shutter. Wait, Henk. I found a table of names here with what appears to be DNA data. Three names and a DNA synopsis per row. The middle column has a lot of repeats. Most refer to someone named ‘Ziols.’ Wait a second…here are some with Stulli’s name.

“I have no idea what the column markers are, but I recognize some of these names in the first column.”

Henk had rarely felt fear in the cockpit, even in combat. But he began to feel it now. Something didn’t feel right.

“Here’s one you’d recognize. Emperor Jorg’s name is in one row. Hey, Henk, remember Amanda’s story about the day Stulli lost his shit?”

“How could I forget?”

“Didn’t she talk about Emperor Jorg being wheeled into the Renew wing? And then she mentioned someone else.”

“Yeah, the Premier’s brother. The rabble rousing rock star. He was still alive. But he was declared lost in an accident at sea. We always thought that was stupid or careless reporting or maybe the media covering for a drug overdose.”

A pause. “So why’s his name next to Jorg’s on the chart?”

“What?”

“His name is next to the Emperor’s, along with that Ziols person. Holy Christ, Henk. You don’t think that means what I think it means, do you?”

“It doesn’t make any sense, Henk. Schneider’s brother died. He wasn’t Renewed.”

“No, but Emperor Jorg was. Henk, if they are lying about Raiders, why do we assume that they are telling the truth about Renew?”

“We’ve seen the vats, Markus.”

“We’ve seen vats, Henk. Not the same thing. What if Renew doesn’t really work as advertised?”

“Are you talking about harvesting people?”

“I am. We can grow skin. That’s easy. We’ve done it for centuries to help burn victims. But suddenly we have a secret process not seen by the public whereby we can grow organs? Think, Henk.”

“Markus, take it and leave. You have to bug out now. We’ll figure out how to play this once you’re flying.

“Henk, oh shit shit shit shit shit. Oh shit, Henk.”

“What is it?”

“My name is here. And Stulli’s is next to mine.”

Henk stopped breathing. He felt the muscles at the back of his skull tighten into a sort of stress migraine. No. It’s not possible.

“Who’s name is in the third column, Markus?” Henk asked slowly. Time seemed to stop as he waited for a response.

“Amanda Fleuren.”

Henk’s blood ran cold as he began to understand the implications of what Markus had said. It couldn’t be true. It had to be a Raider trick. Henk’s rational mind told him to believe Markus, but the emotional mind told him that Markus was mind controlled and simply trying to trick him into making a mistake.

——-

It was too much. Markus had uncovered far more than anyone could have anticipated. Obviously, the Raiders had covert assets in place that were feeding them intelligence.

Randolph Stulli switched over to the frequency for the inbound Renegades and keyed his mic.

“Renegades, this is Ruler. On my authority, you are to open fire on the two Sprites orbiting the planetoid ahead. You are weapons free.”

Renegade One responded hesitantly, “Are we understanding correctly that you are ordering us to fire upon our own birds?”

“Did you not understand me, Renegade One?”

“I’m merely asking for confirmation.”

“You have your confirmation, and you will not contradict me in public again, Captain. The Sprites are not ours anymore. Lieutenants Tarver and Fleuren have been taken over by Raiders. They are to be considered hostile.”

“Roger. Renegade flight understands and confirms. Weapons hot and free, lads.”

“Sir,” cam a protestation from Renegade Three, “are we really going to take out Henk and Markus? I mean, can’t we simply force them down and cover them until the Shutter arrives?”

“We have our orders, Cam. If Markus and Henk are lost to the Raiders, we have to assume that they will be attempting to infect us. We don’t know how their mind control systems work, so we have to assume the worst. I don’t like this any more than you do, but this is what we have to do.”

Thrusters flared as the Renegades made their final turn toward the planetoid.

——-

Markus was sprinting through the main corridor of the Raider ship when a call came in from Henk.

“We have company, Markus. The Renegades are inbound. They’ll be within range in under three minutes.”

“I’ll be airborne in two. Just be ready to fight our way out.”

“And then what? Where will we go? We’d be pariahs.”

“What’s your alternative?” Markus replied, breathing heavily in the thin atmosphere, as he jumped through a hatchway.

“Talk reason to them.”

“They won’t listen. You know Stulli’s involved in this somehow. He can’t let us survive.”

“You might be right, Markus, but if we can convince the Renegades to hold position until the Shutter arrives…”

“The Shutter will also shoot them out of the black. You know they’d be considered compromised.”

“It’s our only move.”

“We can try to run. Buy time.”

“Okay, fair enough. The Renegades are pawns in this. They’re being manipulated by Stulli. We shoot to disable only.”

Markus clamped back on his helmet and cycled the airlock. The machinery seemed to be running in slow time as he mentally counted down the time until the inbound squadron would arrive. After what seemed like minutes but was closer to fifteen seconds, the white door slid open, exposing the airlock to hard vacuum.

On the radio, he could hear Henk pleading with the Renegades to hold position until the issue could be sorted. His entreaties were met with silence.

Markus ran the meters to his fighter in seconds and, taking advantage of the low gravity, jumped directly up to the fuselage and slid himself into the cockpit. Engines were firing before the canopy even closed.

“30 seconds, Markus.”

“I’m up. Form up on my wing. And Henk…”

“What?”

“Thanks for everything. I mean it. I wouldn’t trade a single experience for the world.”

“Back at ya, Markus.”

“Let’s do this for Amanda.”

“Roger. For Amanda.”

Markus and Henk turned as one toward the inbound squadron. Henk swore he heard a very faint “I’m sorry.”

——-

“Focus fire on designated target Markus Tarver,” said Randolph Stulli to the Renegade squadron. In each fighter’s holodisplay, Tarver’s fighter was highlighted.

The bright light of energy weapons shot from the squadron’s Sprite-class fighters toward the rapidly juking enemies. Hits created a rainbow sheen on Tarver’s fighter. Even at this range, the drain on his shields must be enormous.

“Why aren’t they firing back, Skip?” asked Renegade 3.

“I don’t get it, Cam. Something’s not right.”

“Sir, they are turning to run around the backside of the planetoid. Should we split?”

“Affirmative. Just be careful. Something’s wrong.”

As Markus and Henk disappeared behind the horizon, Captain Fritz Kucklick looked as half of his Renegade squadron broke off to round the planetoid the other direction.

——-

“Well that bought us minutes,” said Henk, somewhat snippily.

“Should we set down?”

“I’m not seeing much of an option. How are your shields?”

“25% and recharging. That was brutal.”

“Aw, crap, Markus. They’re here. Central horizon ahead.”

“They split. Smart move. I would have done the same.”

“Now what?”

“Let’s charge them and see if we can disable a few while they are split. Maybe we can work our way out of here.”

“Roger, Markus.”

Markus and Henk put their thrusters to full military power and turned toward the oncoming fighters.

This time, the fire went both directions.

——-

“Skipper, Renegade Three. We’re taking fire.”

Kucklick was hardly surprised. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and his squadron had fired first.

“Hang in there. We’ll be there in three mics. See if you can bottle them up.”

“Roger sir. It’s strange, though. They seem to be trying to target our reactor thrusters.”

Knocking out the reactor thrusters would cripple a ships ability to maneuver without stopping it from limping back to the Shutter. And it was much less effective than just shooting at center mass and trying to destroy a target. Stranger and stranger. Kucklick wasn’t one to look for conspiracies, but Henk and Markus were acting more like concerned friends than brainwashed enemies.

“SIR!” came a panicked call.

“Report.”

“There’s, um, something.”

“That’s helpful,” Kucklick snapped, annoyed at the lack of discipline. “Can you be a bit more specific.”

“No, sir. Our weapons are bouncing off of some anomaly. It’s not showing up on sensors. But it’s stopping our weapons dead.”

Stranger and stranger, Kucklick thought.

——-

Markus assumed the end was near. His shields were taking multiple hits and were draining rapidly. He considered ejecting.

Suddenly, the hissing of prismatic shields under fire stopped. The incoming fire – and his return fire – was being dispersed several klicks ahead of him.

“Henk, are you seeing this?”

“Are you serious right now, Markus? Am I seeing the enemy fire that was hitting us suddenly stopping short? Really?”

Markus smiled at his friend’s sarcasm. It was the way he dealt with stress.

“So you did notice.”

Henk was about to respond when the anomaly in front of him began to shimmer. What had been empty space suddenly filled with a large ship. While smaller than the Shutter, it was nonetheless large. Flattened and wide, like a stingray, it sat directly between Markus and Henk and their attackers. Defense cannon turrets emerged from surface and began to engage the Renegades with just enough force to push them back without really threatening their safety. As the two watched, doors opened in the rear of the ship. A foreign style of landing lights blinked on.

Mouths agape, they almost didn’t notice the radio crackle.

“Misters Tarver and Fleuren. You are cleared to land. We can hold these guys at bay, but you have more friends about to round the horizon on your tail.”

“Markus, do you know anything about this,” yelled Henk.

“No, I swear. But this looks better than the option.”

“They’re…Raiders,” Henk responded, floundering. “How do we know it’s not a trap. Damnit, Markus, how do I know that you aren’t part of this. That you aren’t linked because of your time on the derelict? That you’re not one of them now?”

“Henk, you can stare down the Renegades, if you think it’s safer. I know what I’m doing.”

Markus turned toward the landing bay and fired thrusters. Henk swore to himself, paused, and then followed his friend. There wasn’t really a choice.

——-

“What is happening?” yelled Markus Stulli to the Renegades.

“Sir, a Raider ship appeared in front of us.”

“Damn it, take out those fighters.”

“Cannot comply, sir,” came the response. “We have what looks like an escort carrier in our way. They’re firing enough to force us back without really trying to shoot us down, but we have no firing solution on the targets.”

“Where is Renegade One and his flight?”

“Not in range yet. Um, sir?”

Stulli fumed at the incompetence. How could one squadron not be able to take out two fighters? “What is it?”

“Sir, they’ve landed.”

“WHAT? Landed where?”

“On the Raider vessel, sir. Um, sir?”

Stulli could hardly believe what he was hearing and did not bother to answer.

“Sir, the enemy vessel has disappeared.”

“Disappeared?”

“Yes, sir. She’s gone.”

Randolph’s mind ran at hyper speed. The Raiders knew about Renew. Markus and Henk escaped with the proof. And they escaped on a Raider ship. He knew that someone, or more likely more than one person, would pay heavily for this. And all evidence pointed at the likelihood that this person would be him. A conspiracy that could hide the Renew project’s truth and also murder the brother of a Premier wouldn’t think twice about a mere pilot/operative. Unless he played the game very well and got more than one lucky break, Randolph Stulli knew that he would disappear, only to feed the insatiable need for organs for the growing popularity of the Renew project.

——-

Markus and Henk sat in their cockpits staring at each other. Sensors indicated a breathable atmosphere in the landing bay, so they removed their helmets and slid back their canopies.

“Markus, are you still you?” Henk asked, tentatively.

“Henk, are you still a Western hick?”

Markus smiled, and Henk started laughing.

“Question asked, question answered. So the Raider mind control isn’t real?”

“No it isn’t, you idiots,” answered a strangely familiar voice. Markus and Henk looked ahead to see two people striding toward them. The one on the left, who had spoken, was tall and lanky and was running his hand through his thinning hair. He also had a giant grin on his face.

“It’s great to see you two,” said Gerhard Andersonne. “There’s a lot to explain, I know. But first let me introduce our host, Captain Bertie Morris of the Free Navy Ship Bunyip.

From Renew, Book 2

 

Henk Fleuren had both dreaded and anticipated this day. But as he felt his shuttle lower itself onto the landing pad on neutral ground, any doubts evaporated. His purpose coalesced in his mind, and he felt a calm fall over him. The nightmares would soon be over; he would soon have vengeance.

Though there was zero visibility through the settling sand that had been stirred up by the landing thrusters, sensors picked up the enemy shuttle setting down simultaneously.

Henk unclenched his hands from the armrests and stood up. Taking three breaths to ready himself, he punched the button on the shuttle door. Servo motors whined as the ramp dropped down with a thunk.

It was time.

Henk started down the steps, the yellow sun burning his eyes as it reflected off the white sand of the basin. The swirling winds created short-lived dust devils that danced across the crater floor. The enemy had been stupid to propose such a location as neutral ground; while Henk could not see the snipers he had sent days earlier to position themselves on the rim, he knew they were there. If a dishonorable enemy had been expecting honor, well that was his mistake. There could be no truce in this war.

The door of the enemy shuttle began to open. Henk could see little in the interior gloom, but soon a shape emerged at the top of the steps. He smiled tightly as the man stepped down into the snipers’ kill zone.

The man retracted his flight visor and looked directly at Henk.

“Hello, Henk. It’s been quite some time,” the man said.

“Hello, Markus,” Henk responded. “Yes, it has.”

Author’s Notes

 

Thanks for reading this. I wrote this book on a challenge to myself. It’s something that I always wanted to do, so once a story came to me, I jumped at it. I can only hope that it was enjoyable to you to read.

 

First, I’d like to thank my wife Amy for putting up with me as I wrote this story and bounced ideas off of her.

 

I’d also like to thank Jeff “Bertie” Morris for both inspiring me to give this a shot and for being a great amateur editor. If you haven’t read his books and short stories, please check them out. I highly recommend Ezembe.

 

Next, I’d like to thank my friends in Vistage in Chicago and at MPS in the Netherlands for letting me steal their names. Hopefully no one was offended; I know that Kees was excited, if anything. If anything, Jerry “Swagger” Anderson (yes, that’s his real nickname) should be proud.

 

Finally, I’d like to that you for reading this. I enjoyed writing it, so I hope you enjoyed reading it. If you did, let me know. I’ve sketched out two more parts to bring this story to its conclusion. If people want to read it, I’ll write it.

Renew by Craig Shields Page 122


Renew

  • ISBN: 9780997407303
  • Author: Craig Shields
  • Published: 2016-03-11 19:05:09
  • Words: 38414
Renew Renew