Tionisla Rising Part 1

Editor's note: We used James's diary verbatim for this account, since it tells the story better than it could be rewritten, and preserves the confusion he felt when he came around, not knowing who he was or where he was.

8th January 3265

  Today has not started well. In fact, the unpleasant start of the day is what has prompted me to start this journal. I have bad amnesia, I am stranded in a hot, stinking jungle with only the wreckage of an Asp I presume I was commanding at the time. There is no sign of my copilot. I am keeping a diary in case this happens again so next time I can at least figure out where I am. The only thing I know for sure is the date, since my antique clockwork wristwatch tells me that. The last thing I remember is leaving a space station - although I can't remember where. It must have been on New Year's Eve because I can remember something about a significant quantity of rather nasty beer being consumed. I came around about five hours ago, with a splitting headache. I was still strapped into my seat in complete darkness. After groping around and releasing myself from my harness, I managed to pull out my Maglite. I shone it around the bridge and it didn't look good. The shape of the cabin was deformed, and there was debris everywhere. I also noticed that my left arm was hurting and swollen, and I was covered in blood. I think I've got a broken bone in my forearm. The first thing I did was stagger over to the first-aid cabinet and get a painkiller and an emergency splint to try and stop my arm from getting worse. I then went to the weapons locker and picked up a small hand plasma pistol just in case I needed to defend myself...

  Once the painkiller had taken hold, I left the bridge. The corridor to the living quarters was a mess, partially crushed with daylight coming in through a large gash in the top of the hull. I wrenched open the door to my quarters, and stared at myself in the mirror. The reason for my headache and amnesia became apparent. Something had hit me on the head quite hard, and my hair was a matted mess of dried blood. I didn't look very good at all. At least I found out my name at this stage. I wear a dogtag all the time, probably something to do with my past military activity. It simply says "CDR JAMES K WINSTON" and a serial number. Looking around the rest of the room, I saw that at least my berth was intact, so I have somewhere to sleep tonight. I decided to leave the ship at this stage and try to find out where I had come down. I exited the ship through the aft airlock, past the drive section. I saw that the drive core had broken free of its mountings and had collided with the shield generator deck, presumably during the impact. At least the waste containers didn't appear to be breached since the waste products of the reactor are highly radioactive. There was nothing left of the aft airlock. I just left the ship through the hole where it used to be. I decided to climb on top of the ship to get some sort of vantage point.

  From the top of the wreckage I could see the path which the ship had taken whilst it crashed. A large swathe had been cut through the forest, leaving a muddy path scattered with pulverized timber. That means that the ship must have been moving quite quickly when it collided with the terrain. The ship's top hull was covered in dirt and debris, so my assumption at this moment is that the ship must have rolled inverted on the ground at some point. The damage on the top hull seems to certainly indicate this. I decided to examine the rest of the top hull, and found some deep score marks which look suspiciously like strikes from a laser weapon. So to add to my problems, someone was trying to kill me as well. I decided to walk along the impact path of the ship, since it was cleared of jungle and much easier to hike along. I climbed down off the ship, being careful not to hit my left arm on anything, and jumped down onto the churned up ground. It wasn't really a pleasant walk - the damp, heavy soil stuck to my boots and made walking slow and tiring. After about half an hour's walking over what must have been only about 0.5 km, I came to a shallow river. Just beyond the river, I could see where the ship had first impacted the ground. The trees here were scorched, presumably from interacting with the still live shields. This posed a question. Why would I have crashed with the shields still operative? If it were simple pilot error, surely my copilot would have noticed this? I sat down by the river and contemplated my future. I decided to at least wash the blood out of my hair - it might make my immediate future a little less uncomfortable at least. I decided that tomorrow I will try and see if the ship' s battery is still any good, and if so, see if I can at least start the FDR and find out where I am and what happened. I will also search for any sign that my copilot went looking for rescue, but I have a nasty feeling he thought I was dead and left me where I was. I trudged back to the ship as darkness started to fall.

  It's been a bad day. Maybe with a night's sleep, I can do something about figuring out what happened. If I can sleep. This place is as hot and humid as a gorilla's armpit.

9th January 3265

  Not surprisingly, I had a very disturbed night's sleep. But as I make my journal entry, at least I have had some success! The ship's battery is fully charged and the FDR worked, so I've found out mostly what happened, but the big question still stands - where did my copilot go? At least I found out who my copilot is. The FDR really jogged my memory. I now know that I had just hired a new copilot, and it was his first mission with me. My previous copilot was Pam Gilmour, who left to buy her own Saker Mk III and go her own way after working with me for quite some time. I had to hire a complete stranger who had never been in space before. He seemed competent enough from his sim training anyway, despite being from Earth and only 19 years old. His name is Martin Nguyen, and I have his pilot certificate ID so at least I can find the bastard and give him some serious grief on the end of a 4MW beam laser for leaving me in this wreck and going and getting his own miserable life saved! Typical Earthling. Arrrgh!

   Enough of my ranting. The FDR was very interesting. It shows we left the Sol system three weeks ago, bound for the frontier. We arrived at La Soeur du Dan Ham station in the Riedquat system with surprisingly no pirate attacks on the way in. I remember now why I went there - every year, myself and a bunch of bounty-hunter friends get together and lie about our exploits the previous year just prior to getting very badly drunk on whatever the local lethal alcoholic brew is. It must have been a very good party, because the internal cameras on the ship show myself, Martin and a bunch of buddies entering the ship and collapsing in various festering heaps all around the ship along with a group of rather nice looking female pilots who were also slightly the worse for wear.

   My friends left, leaving myself and Martin. We undocked from La Soeur du Dan Ham station and hyperspaced to Tionisla. The whole trip was uneventful until we were well within the atmosphere of New California. I flicked between the cameras that the FDR records, and saw trouble on the horizon once we were quite close to Manchester. Whoever attacked us has some guts. The police usually protect areas this close to a surface spaceport, even in systems like Tionisla. We were at an altitude of only 500 meters above the jungle, and the scanner recording on the FDR showed the normal ship movements around a spaceport... quite nicely blanketing the fact that five Sidewinders were closing from the 7 o'clock position. I watched them on the rear-view camera recording. They were closing fast. All of a sudden, all hell broke loose as they opened fire. The ship started manoevering rapidly. I switched the FDR to show the bridge camera view at the time. It showed me with my hands and feet full of the manual control system trying to put on an evasive manoever. Martin was being completely useless and was panicking. Pat did a really good job of running the weapons in a conflict and as a team had helped us stay alive, and no doubt we would have prevailed had we'd still been together...but with my new copilot... well, some further education was needed. Evidently the simulator training didn't do everything. It was obvious with my copilot's panic that all I could do was evade. Then the FDR showed that the main thrusters took a direct hit and very shortly afterwards, the Asp pancaked inverted onto the forest and the recording abruptly ended. The whole fight lasted less than ten seconds.

   I checked the radar mapper records which were stored on the FDR. It showed that the Sidewinders did not have hyperdrives. They were kitted out as carrier-launched vehicles, and extremely deadly. I also found my handheld GPS. It means I can never get lost on a populated planet. It showed that we had crashed only three k's from the outskirts of Manchester Starport. Even through this jungle, I can make that distance. For the first time in my life, I felt really alone and far from home. I felt as though I needed to spend a good holiday at home. The trouble was that my homeland is Nirvana in the Phekda system, some 95 light years away, and I'm without a working ship for the first time in seven years.

   I decided to remain on the ship one more night because it had been raining for the past ten hours and it was showing no sign of letting up. My cabin was at least dry, despite the water pouring into the corridor through the breached upper hull. Tomorrow I will get to the city and get fixed up , and take a space-liner trip back to my hometown, and visit my brother's shipyard to try and get a replacement for the Asp.

10th January 3265

   It's been a long day. I write my diary from a hotel room, and I have had a startling revelation. I think I must be too trusting.

   It started off early this morning. At least the 26 hour daily cycle of this planet helped me get through the jungle during daylight hours. I first grabbed my old backpack I used for hiking on Nirvana when I was a teenager. I filled it with a couple of changes of clothing, the fire axe from the bridge to hack through the undergrowth, my shotgun that had given me such sterling service a few years ago (you never know what's trying to eat you in these places) and the hand pistol I use for self defence, plus plenty of ammunition for the shotgun. I pulled on my pair of Federal Navy hiking boots that I bough from a surplus store from someone on the BBS at Eta Cassiopiea. However, I had run out of painkillers, and my left arm was in a great deal of pain. My priority was to get to a doctor as soon as I reached civilization. I then started to hack my way through the jungle. It was very unpleasant. The humidity was unbearable as the sunlight beat down on the rain-soaked forest. Stinging insects attacked me from all angles, and I was soon soaked through. The temperature had reached an unbearable 40 degreess Celcius. After about two hours of hacking through the jungle, I came to a large, grassy clearing. My GPS showed me still two kays from Manchester. It had been slow going. At least the clearing was a bit of a relief from hacking through the jungle. Or at least I thought.

   I walked out into the clearing. After a few paces, and without warning, the ground suddenly caved in despatching me into a festering mixture of mud and water. What I had thought was ground was just a thick carpet of grass-like aquatic plants. With horror, I now felt something snakelike wrap its way around my leg. Moving like a gazelle in crocodile season, I scrambled to escape the muddy lake and get the hideous creature off me. I then sat panting on the edge of the quagmire assessing what my immediate future was. I decided that skirting the clearing would be the best bet, but it still wasn't easy. The rain sodden soil was often knee deep, and it kept sucking my boots off. It brought back the worst memories of working on the family farm when I had to spend days in these sort of conditions. The "clearing" which I had initially expected to cross in a few minutes took nearly an hour to cross. I felt and looked like something the cat had dragged in.

   My second humiliation came scant minutes later, but at the time I thought I really was dead. Finally away from the festering lake, I trudged through the forest. I was walking down what looked like some sort of animal track, which at least made my passage much easier. Then suddenly I felt something grab my ankle. Within an instant I found myself hanging upside down from a rope trap. Taking in my new inverted position, with my head dangling nearly two meters from the ground, I wondered what to do next. I noticed that I had dropped my fireaxe. The trap was very effective.

   Two hours later, I was starting to get rather depressed with my situation. I had exhausted myself trying to undo the piece of synthetic rope that firmly gripped my left ankle. I couldn't slip out of my boot. I bitterly thought how easily the mud could get my boots off, but when I really wanted them off, they were well and truly stuck. Just then an angry shout pierced the forest and my thoughts.

"Aww hot damn. Look at that! We've caught another friggin' biologist. What a waste of a trap!" shouted a man's voice.

   Two women and two men came stumping angrily through the undergrowth towards me, all dressed in hunting camouflage. The front man stared at me angrily. He looked as if he could bite the heads off a dozen chickens and still be angry.

"You lot are always here, setting my traps off while you ponce on down from your Federally funded luxury cruisers looking for your bleedin' frogs! Next time I'm gonna leave you up here for a week to teach you a lesson!" he snarled at me.

   I felt utterly pathetic, swinging gently from my left foot staring at the man's angry face. A piece of wet dirt fell off my shirt and rolled down my face, just to complete the picture.

"Look, I'm not a biologist. I'm a pilot. I was shot down and crashed a couple of miles away," I said plaintively. I hoped that he would understand my position at least. He seemed to calm down a bit.

"Cut him down" he said quietly.

   One of the women hacked the rope off while the others stopped me from crashing two meters onto my head. I sat on the ground and nursed my ankle. I'm surprised it didn't cut the bloodflow completely off.

"Look I'm sorry about your trap," I apologised.
"OK, don't worry. You look as if you need to go to the hospital with that arm," said the hunter. He had calmed down quite a bit fortunately.

   We walked to their small tracked vehicle, and took off down a narrow road. I sat quietly in the back, still nursing my foot and feeling a bit sorry for myself.

"I see you found the lake," said one of the women, laughing. I just grunted in response. I didn't really feel like talking about it much. I then felt I was being rather antisocial.
"Oh I'm Jim Winston, by the way. Thanks for rescuing me"
"OK sure, we pick up a lot of basket-cases like you in the forest". The woman intoduced herself, and then introduced me to the other hunters.

   They turned out to be a family - her sister, husband and brother-in-law. Unfortunately, I have a bad memory for names and can't remember who the all are. They were all in business capturing luxury furs and meats - a trade illegal through much of the galaxy, but anything goes on the frontier. I gave them my own potted life history to pass the time. They seemed quite intrigued - I don't think they've met many people from off-world. They certainly hadn't seen my copilot when I gave them a description.

   I was dropped off at the hospital. Fortunately, they let me get cleaned up and changed before seeing the doctor. The doctor applied a quick-heal splint on my left arm, which had a fractured bone as I suspected. It would be another couple of days before the device could have it fully healed. The doc also examined my head injury. It was at this stage, things became clearer about the events after being shot down.

"You shouldn't be picking fistfights - they'll get you in trouble" he said unexpectedly.
"Uhhh? I told you, I got hurt when my Asp crashed"
"Your injuries are not consistent with a collision. You have been hit across the head with a piece of wood. Evidently you tried to deflect the blow with your forearm and that' s why it's broken."
"How did you work that out?"
"Well the splinters I pulled out of you were a dead giveaway as to the weapon used against you. You were very lucky. If your arm hadn't got in the way, your skull would have been pulverized".

   The treacherous, cheating bastard. My copilot had tried to kill me. I suspect he used the cricket bat I got as a soevenir when I was in the Sol system.

   The full scale of Nguyen's treachery became apparent when I checked into a hotel room and got down to making my insurance claim for my wrecked Asp. The insurance system rejected it. Claim already in progress. I snarled angriliy. Not only had he tried to kill me, but he was trying to steal my insurance, and probably my credit too. I decided to go immediately to the office of the insurance company and sort it out personally. I got down there suspecting fully what the story would be. I gave my details to the geeky looking clerk sitting behind the desk. He looked at me very suspiciously.

"Look, I am Commander Winston. Check my id." I was very insistent. I showed him my military dogtag. I gave him my id.
"Well it's very strange. Commander Winston came with his copilot and all the details yesterday and saw me personally", said the clerk.

   Evidently, Nguyen had not been able to break into my accounts via the computer system and went to pull the wool over this clerk's eyes to try and get the claim rolling.

"Did you check his id?"

   The clerk sheepishly admitted that he'd only quickly glanced at it, and not run it. I made him run mine, just to prove a point. Of course it all checked out fine.

"Did this person look anything like this?" I said.

   I then pulled out the FDR and showed a still-frame image of Nguyen staggering into the bridge after our night of drunkenness a few days previously. The clerk confirmed that it was my backstabbing ex-copilot who had visited him only hours previously. I felt like dragging the clerk over the desk and giving him a good hiding for not properly checking my ex-copilot's id. I would have had I been Nguyen's age, but being a few years older than that had at least taught me some sense in dealing with people you're trying to get information out of. The clerk revealed that the salvagers were coming out tomorrow. And my ex-copilot will be there. The clerk restarted the claim with my correct id, so at least I could get out of this place and make plans for what I'm going to do when I get my hands on Nguyen. As I was leaving, the clerk said a few more things.

"You know, he was quite personable and genuine...I really didn't suspect..."
"Yeah, genuine enough to smack me over the head and give me a genuine broken arm and a bad headache," I responded quietly.
"You' re not going to cause any trouble tomorrow...are you?" pleaded the clerk.
"Of course I won't".

   And he's a gullible fool if he believes that. I am now extremely tired. I will decide what to do with Nguyen tomorrow. My only worry is if all the Sidewinder people turn up with him.

11th January 3265

After the last couple of days exhaustion, I slept rather well last night, and was refreshed for the confrontation to come! I now sit here, putting together my journal on my last night in Manchester. It has been a successful day. I got ready early, and equipped myself with a small Ingrams hand pistol. I set it to a medium setting, so I could conserve power and take him alive if I did need to open fire. I then checked that the power pack was charged - I was fully expecting all the Sidewinder friends of his to appear. I also packed a quick-lock capture system so I could easily take him prisoner. I wanted him alive - I had questions I wanted answering.

   I got to the office, and sat in a quiet corner. The clerk was the same person who had served me the day before. He looked pretty worried too, I think he got a glimpse of the quick-lock which is not the most compact of restraining devices. I waited about two hours. The office was a quiet place - very rarely do people have problems making claims or arranging insurance online, so only one person came in, who went off with a salvage operator a few minutes later. Eventually, Nguyen walked through the door. Alone! There was no wonder that he conned the clerk. Instead of the impoverished looking crewmember I had picked up in the Sol system, he was now well dressed and bristled with confidence. Every bit the Asp commander despite his age.

"Hi, I'm Commander Winston, is salvage in yet?" he asked the clerk.

   To the clerk's credit, he didn't let on that I was getting up and quietly walking up behind Nguyen.

"Hello Martin", I said calmly.

   Nguyen spun around in astonishment, and emitted a strangled and suprised noise. It wasn't surprising to me he sounded strangled because my hands were now around his neck, pushing him up against the wall. I had made a mistake, I should have locked him down without any niceties, because he wriggled free and ran for it. I wrenched out my pistol and fired a quick volley. However, I'm not a very good shot with hand-weapons, and I missed him, leaving a few scorch marks on the wall. I ran after him in hot pursuit as we burst outside. Unfortunately, months at a time in deep space had taken its toll on my general fitness level, and after about a minute he had started to pull away from me. I fired a few more shots at him as I ran, and out of pure chance I just got him a glancing blow. It didn't stun him, but the pain flooding through him made him shout out and he lost his footing. I quickly caught up and tackled him to the ground as he tried to continue running away. I slammed the quick -lock into his back, and with a loud crack it wrapped him around the arms and midriff with a thin layer of tough polymer, at the same time injecting a sedative into his bloodstream. He soon stopped struggling.

   I dragged him to his feet. The sedative was in full effect now, so I had to support him as we walked with him semi-concious back to my hotel room. I thankfully anchored the quick-lock to the climate control system, and tied up his legs and put a product that has been produced for over a millenia over his mouth...a piece of duct tape. I decided to fill in the time while the quick-lock sedative wore off Nguyen's system by booking myself onto a spaceliner flight to Phekda. A quick search revealed that a large cruiser left once a month, direct to Phekda via Sol, and takeoff was tomorrow from Manchester Starport. I booked myself on, at the phenomenal cost of 3,250 credits for a seat in steerage. The trip was going to take over a month, most of it in hyperspace with the stopoff at Mars High in the Sol system. Of course, it would only seem like about eight days due to the time compression effect of travelling through witch-space. It would have seemed like less if they fitted these things with stardreamers. Unfortunately, with the flight leaving tomorrow, this didn't give me time to mail off a note to my brother that I was coming since the liner would actually overtake the mail which took numerous stops before it got to Phekda. I also notified the police, who by now were aware of my downed Asp. I sent them a copy of the FDR records, and they agreed to pick Nguyen up later in the evening on charges of piracy and attempted murder - capital charges on a frontier system like Tionisla.

   A little later a groan in the corner of the room told me that the sedative was wearing off Nguyen. I went over to him, and pulled the duct tape off his mouth.

"I'm sorry," he simply said.

  I was now so furious that I had passed the point where you shout or commit bodily damage to someone. I was in that calm oasis of rage that is like the calm wind filled with birdsong after the passage of a particularly violent thunderstorm, my fury only betrayed by the brittleness of my speech and the vein that always seems to pulsate in my neck when I am particularly angry. I decided to start with the friendly approach.

"OK Martin, Why?" I said quietly. I was now having a little difficulty controlling my fury.
"Sorry, I can't tell you," he said. His voice was about an octave higher than it normally was, indicating that he was extremely nervous. I could sense that it wouldn't take much to get him to spill his guts out with the full story.
"OK Martin, here's a deal for you. The police are going to pick you up in four hours or so. The punishment for piracy and murder in this system is death, and the Judicator here doesn't mess around."

  I paused to let this tidbit of information sink in. He was looking nervous. I knew at this point that he wasn't a professional pirate. I suspected that some piracy ring had hired the naive teenager to do their dirty work.

"Now if you tell me truth, I will ask the Judicator to commute your sentence. You won't die if you tell me the truth. If I later find out you are lying, you will die by my hand. Do we have a deal?"

  I smiled mirthlessly at Nguyen. I could see he was facing some internal turmoil. I suspect that he was thinking about the consequences of betraying his Sidewinder friends.

"I can't," said Nguyen nervously. Evidently he feared these people more than being executed on a frontier planet. He didn't sound very sure of himself though.
"To help you tell the truth," I continued, pulling out my Ingrams pistol and setting it to the maximum level I could get without stunning or killing him, "I will refrain from shooting you with this on its maximum pain setting if you begin to talk." I experimentally pointed the pistol at him so he would get the point.
"I'm sorry, I can't," he said.

  I think he actually believed that I wouldn't use the gun on him. He was wrong. Half a second later he screamed in pain as the bolt hit him square in the chest. My fury had finally receeded back to the violent thunderstom stage.

"Tell me all the details NOW or I'll shoot you with this thing till the police arrive!" I shouted at the top of my voice. This was enough to get him to teeter over the edge and start fearing me more than the Sidewinder people. I continued in a calm, but angry voice.
"Do not mess with me, Martin, because I shall make you wish you had never been born. And by the way, they use the electric chair here. Very barbaric and painful." I added the final little fact to make sure he was well over the edge and not even considering silence on the matter.
"OK, I'll tell you!" he squeaked. I was beginning to get some sort of perverse enjoyment from the interrogation.
"Carry on. Now tell it from the start. From the time we first met on Gorby."

   Nguyen then explained in detail the events that had brought us here. It turned out that he had always dreamed of owning his own spacecraft, and had left Earth on his ninteenth birthday to look for a crew position at Gorbachev space station. Gorby Station as it is known by most people, is where most crew recruiting occurs in the Sol system. He rented a bulletin board space and waited. He was then approached by who I have been calling the Sidewinder people. To put it simply, they made an offer he couldn't resist. His own Mamba plus 10,000 credits for stealing an identity. My identity. The pirate group would get my credit rating, currently standing at 87,500 credits, and the insurance payoff for my Asp. It was the pirate group who had guided me to Nguyen when they detected me viewing the crew hiring bulletin board. The self- styled group's name were the "Sirius Templar". They were a group of pirates who had been successfully raiding people's identites in this style for long enough to afford a Panther Clipper equipped to carry the Sidewinders within its hull. An impressive ship, indeed.

   His story revealed that I have got too complacent in recent times. The Sirius Templar had followed us from Sol, just outside of my short-range scan. I would have seen them easily on the system scan, but I hadn't checked.

   I put my pistol away. Nguyen looked relieved. I thanked him for the information and swivelled around to the small computer terminal with the intention of seeing if I could track down the Sirius Templar. I only found a couple of references, but unfortunately no id on the Clipper. The Federal police were currently offering 80,000 credits for evidence of their destruction, so they were obviously a group taken very seriously. My thoughts were interrupted by Nguyen sobbing in the background. I turned around and he looked at me. I think he was embarrassed that he had let himself go like this.

"I'm just going to die anyway," he moaned quietly when he saw me looking at him.
"No, the Judicator will commute a death penalty if the victim requests it, so don't worry" I said. Living on the frontier, I had a reasonable handle on crime and punishment on the Edge.
"No, the Templar will kill me! I've betrayed them!"
"They won't know. Besides - by the time you get out of jail, I will have nailed them myself," I said.

   He revealed that he feared that they would kill him in jail. However, the Tionisla prison system is very secure. I tried to reassure him. However, the Templar had assured him that if he failed in his mission and did not return to the Templar's ship to take on a new mission, he would not live to regret it.

   I filled in the time waiting for the police by checking my insurance. My wrecked ship had been recovered, and the credits had arrived on my credit rating. Attached was a three-d picture of the wreckage. It looked a sorry state. I prepared a message to the Judicator requesting that Nguyen not be executed and sent it. I showed Nguyen so that he would see that I was indeed honorable. The police arrived a short time afterwards, and removed Nguyen without fuss.

I now know what my next mission will be.

12th January 3265.

  I left the hotel, then got on the shuttle to the spaceliner at Manchester Starport. I have decided that I'm not going to keep a journal entry of each day on the spaceliner unless anything interesting happens. It is usually extremely dull travelling this way.

15th February 3265.

   I was right. The spaceliner trip was the most boring journey in space I have ever experienced. Looking back on it, it was a welcome relief. The ancient Chinese had a curse. "May you live in interesting times" it said, and I had certainly been living in interesting times, so a few days of sheer boredom was in fact quite welcome. The shuttle dropped me off in my home town of Newtown on Nirvana. It felt good to be home. The air was pleasantly warm. The sun was high in the sky, and Phekda 6 was just setting. Despite the system being in a generally anarchic state, Newtown is a pleasant place to live. You had to be on your guard around any off-worlders who landed here because they were usually murderous pirates, but the townsfolk are quite welcoming despite this. I decided to walk the short distance to my brother's business, so before I disembarked I changed into some lighter clothing and slung my backpack over my shoulders. I walked the two k's across the Newtown Central Park towards his ship sales yard. My plan was to spend some time at home before finding yet another copilot and resuming my normal life. I decided as I walked across the park that this time I would find someone from Nirvana to be my copilot.

   I got to my brother's sales office and strolled inside. "DAMON WINSTON, CERTIFIED NEW ROSSYTH SPACECRAFT SALES & REPAIRS", read the genuine brass sign on the door. I couldn't find Damon though. I dropped my backpack in one of the rooms, then walked through to the rear of the office and into the shipyard itself . A line of five new Saker Mk III's were lined up, and behind that, the used spacecraft lot. I assumed that Damon must have been out with a customer. Little did I realise that this was the prelude to yet more interesting times.

   To kill time, I decided to look around the used ship lot. I took a long hard look at an Asp parked there. I sure wanted one again - my last one had served me very well. I walked along the first line, past two Cobra Mk III's, the hulking hull of a Lion Trader, then a Viper with its entrance ramp extended. I surmised that Damon must have been in there. I thought I would leave him until he had finished wheeling and dealing, and continued to check out the Asp. It was a well used, but beautiful ship. The data plate showed that it was of Lance and Ferman manufacture, built on Tyne shipyards in the Wolf 359 system in 3199. My old one had been a Hawker, built in Jovian Heights shipyard in the Sol system two years before this date.

   I noticed that Damon was still nowhere to be seen. I thought it couldn't take that long to flog an old Viper, so I thought I would see what was happening. I entered the Viper, noticing the interior lighting was switched on. I walked back to the equipment deck, and was brought up short by a burst of gunfire that missed me by millimeters. Adrenaline pumping, I scrambled for cover behind the crew compartment door.

   A couple of seconds later, the equipment deck door started to open. I realised that I had foolishly left my own weapon in my backpack, and now someone was trying to kill me again. I got up, and sidled towards the equipment bay door, pausing to detach an access cover to use as a weapon. The door finally opened fully, and I brought the access cover back, ready to swing at my foe. I then saw who it was.

"Jim?" said Damon, in a surprised voice, his head cautiously peering around the doorframe from the equipment room. I lowered the access cover.
"Y-e-e-s?" I answered slowly.
"Oh am I pleased to see you!" He grabbed hold of me and hugged me for dear life. This was very unusual behaviour. I didn't know him to express wild bursts of emotion.

   I am his "little brother", and he always treated me as a little brother, but now instead of the self-confident type who was always trying to mother me (which is the reason I left Nirvana when I was 17 years old - to get some time away from Damon ruling my life), he had thrown himself emotionally onto me. I decided it would be best not to ask at this moment about buying the Asp on his lot.

"Look, we'll go back to the office. Tell me what's up" I said.

   I was deeply concerned, and it turned out that I had a good reason to be concerned. I quickly glanced into the equipment room of the Viper to see three dead bodies lying there!

"I don't know what I'm going to do!" he wailed on the way to the office. He sat me in front of a computer and pulled up a bulletin board listing from the Barnard's Star system.

I read it with astonishment.


   I was astounded. That was serious money. Someone wanted him very badly, and alive. I looked at Damon.

"Three of them have come so far," he said.

   That explained the dead bodies that he was putting in the Viper. I continued to read, horrified. Of course, I had seen my name on death lists before, but I was an accomplished combat pilot and it didn't really worry me that some two-bit pirate was after me. In any case, all they ever offered for me was a couple of thousand. Never 100,000 credits! I was suprised that every bounty hunter in the galaxy wasn't breaking the door down. The other trouble is that Damon hasn't got a clue how to fly a spaceship, despite the fact he's sold them for five years. He long ago hired a professional pilot to supervise test flights. I followed a link to a news item. It seems like Damon had done nothing more than sell a run-out Clipper to a group in exchange for the very Asp I was ogling only fifteen minutes earlier. They had packed the Clipper full of explosives and used it to take out a Mafia boss named Sioul Maldaeno. However, they had missed him, but killed his entire family. The explosion had laid waste to a large proportion of the small terraformed planet it was detonated on. Maldaeno was understandably annoyed and had decided that Damon was at least partially responsible. We have to get out of here, I thought to myself.

"What happened to your head?" asked Damon quite suddenly.

   In all the drama, I had forgotten about Nguyen's treachery. It was only two weeks earlier in real-time that he had tried to kill me with a cricket bat. The doctor hadn't really done anything about my head since it was a superficial wound, and the bruise clearly showed through my short military haircut.

"It's a long story. I'll tell you when we get out of this place" I said. "We'll take the Asp".
"We have to leave now! In short order, every bounty hunter in the galaxy will be coming here!" I explained. "Every minute we spend here is a minute closer till things get really ugly", I added somewhat unnecessarily.
"Where are we going?"
"First, Alioth. You need to learn how to be a weapons officer and copilot. Then we'll go to Riedquat to get you really well trained."

   For once in my life, I was not being bossed around by him. He seemed to have accepted that I had a lot more experience with dealing with the dregs of humanity than he did. He transferred the title of the Asp into my name and put my profile in so that I could open it up.

"How much did you give for it?" I asked, trying to gauge how good the ship was.
"It was a straight swap."

I was astonished. This must be some Asp.

"Oh the Clipper was very run-out", he explained, when he saw the look on my face.
"But even the scrap value of the duralium in a Clipper is worth more than my old Asp!" I stated incredulously.

   We came to the Asp. I opened it up and went inside, pausing to drop my backpack just inside of the entrance.

"Get some kit and a survival pack, I'll check the ship out", I said to Damon. "Oh and take this."

   I handed him my Ingrams pistol from my backpack, and set it to full power. I decided to check out the equipment first. I walked down the short corridor, pausing to peer into the crew quarters. There was not a lot of difference from my old ship - a small room with two bunks. An Asp is a very functional ship, not a luxury cruiser. As I entered the equipment deck, it was clear why it had traded for a run-out Clipper. It was decked out like a true fighter. I walked down the metal walkway, examining the banks of shield generators. There were sixteen in total. My old Asp only had 12 - that's all I could fit and still have room for fuel. Looking through the mesh flooring of the walkway, I could see an energy booster unit and the core of a Teledyne LaserSystems 4MW beam laser, linked to a cooling array. I continued into the drive section, where it became apparent why so many shield generators could fit in the ship. The drive system was half the size of the Class III military drive fitted to my old machine. I looked at the dataplate on it, and the spec was impressive. It was a brand new type of Class 3 drive out of New Rossyth, half the size of current military units. They cost a great deal of money, so were rarely seen. The prime-mover unit that powers the ship's thrusters was installed underneath, also manufactured by New Rossyth. I powered up the drive engineering panel to check it all out. The internal tanks were full, so at least we could make a quick start, but we didn't have any additional fuel for hyperspace. We had space for 11 tonnes of fuel.

   I came out of the equipment room door just as Damon came on board with the last load of supplies.

"I can almost see why you did the swap", I said with a smile.
"Did you go to the lower equipment deck, under the laser?"
"Let me show you"

   I closed up the ship. The sun was low in the sky, as evening drew in. I followed Damon into the lower equipment deck, and my mouth literally fell agape at what I saw next. Now I understood the exchange that Damon had made! Here was a piece of equipment I had only seen in a very wealthy man's ship. A fighter launcher! It contained four, small robotic craft. These craft are charged up by the impulse reactor, and can be launched and fight for approximately 10 minutes in space (depending on how much manoevering they have to do), or 5 minutes in a standard atmosphere. They contain a 1MW quickfire pulse laser. Standard procedure was to manually control one from a remote control station, with a number of others following as automatic wingmen. They are extremely manoeverable, and despite the small laser, deadly in the right hands.

"They are controlled from the copilot station. Oh and you'll like the bridge" he said.

   We went up to the bridge. It was time to leave before any more bounty hunters turned up. We were relatively safe so long as they didn't spot us leaving. The bridge is a bit of a pompous term to use for the cockpit of an Asp. It is very cramped, and this one was no exception. With everything powered off, it was also rather uninspiring. The external view blinds were open, and the setting sun shone through the windows. However, usually the Asp is flown on cameras, with the real windows closed up. I closed up the windows, and strapped myself in. Damon awkwardly put on his harness. I was pleased to find that my seat had the full set of helitype manual controls installed - I prefered to fly on manual. Some ships only had a single stick system which I disliked intensely - it gave too much control to the computer. Then I powered up the instrumentation, and I'm glad I had strapped myself in, otherwise I would have fallen out of my seat.

   My old Asp had the standard display - a high quality, holographic projection. It stretched to 120 degrees of view horizontally, and 45 degrees of view vertically, switchable between any of eight outside views. However, the display on this Asp knocked that into a cocked hat. When it powered on, all of a sudden I found myself, Damon, the controls and the instrument panel seemingly floating ten meters off the ground. I released my shoulder harness and pulled myself forward in the seat. I could look between my knees and see the ground. I had heard about the 360 degree view systems, but I had never had the chance to experience them. It was simply incredible.

"Good, eh?" said Damon.

   I nodded silently. I had fallen in love with this machine. I clipped the shoulder harnesses back in, then powered up the rest of the instrumentation and put the impulse drive online.

"OK, first stop, the spaceport. Need some military fuel."

   I gently raised the lift lever and felt a slight rumble as the bottom thruster engaged, raising nearly 150 tonnes of Asp of the pad. The view of the world shrinking away on the viewsystem was incredible. I "ruddered" the ship around in the direction of the starport, and obtained landing permission, then rolled on a little thrust. The ship responded nicely. I couldn't wait to depart for space to give it a real run. A minute later, we touched down on pad 2 of Newtown Spacedock. "Welcome to Newtown. The landing fee of 1.5 credits has been deducted. Enjoy your stay" came a voice over the comm.

   We picked up fuel, then departed into the night. I thoroughly enjoyed the takeoff and departure, as I wound on full power and we were pressed into our seats. We soon reached orbit. I instructed the autopilot to get us into a stable orbit so I could show Damon the wonders of space. I also wanted some time to look at Nirvana with this view system.

   I turned off the G-generators, and we were now weightless. As we orbited for a while, I watched the day/ night terminator come up in awe. I had never seen it like this before. I also realized how tired I had become. Since I didn't really have a copilot, I decided to call it a night, and docked with the space station. We should be safe here for tonight at least. And for the first time in my life, I think I have actually gained Damon's respect.

7th April, 3265.

   Finally, Damon is trained to my satisfaction. I finally feel more confident that we will make it to Riedquat alive. We left Alioth nine days ago according to the chronometer, but it was only minutes in hyperspace. We were tested as a team for the first time today, as we entered the AC+9o3888 system, headed for Fort Diamond for military fuel. My suspicions were first aroused as we exited hyperspace in a flash of blue light. Very near our exit point, there was a fresh hyperspace entry cloud, just like ours. I was curious about it.

"Damon, see that entry cloud?"
"Target the hyperspace analyser on it, let's see who came in so close to us."

   Damon targetted the analyser. It showed something with a mass of 134 tonnes arrived only fifteen minutes ago. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but I was concerned.

"Bring up the long range scanner", I requested.

   The scanner showed numerous ships in the system. However, 18840 k's away was a ship showing no relative movement to us.

"OK, battlestations," I said.

   Damon was breaking into a cold sweat. He realised that this command meant that he was going to enter battle for the first time in his life. He selected and prepared the fighter launcher for action, and I switched the console mode to combat mode, and disabled the safety on the trigger for the 4MW beam laser. I gently rolled on the power, and watched the unidentified ship appear on the short-range scanner. The auto-targetter set an aiming reticule over the ship. It was a Harrier.

Bing! "Incoming message", said the ship's computer.

"Accept!" I said to bring the other commander online.
"I am Commander Winston, pass your message." I said, rather formally.
"Hand him over, and there will be no trouble" said the unidentified voice at the other end in a thick accent that was common around Federation systems.
"Hand who over?"
"Don't play dumb with me, Commander. We know you have Damon L Winston on board. He is a wanted man. Hand him over or else we will destroy your vessel!"

   I noticed that Damon was crosschecking the id on the other ship to find who we were up against. Harrier VH -5578 registered to Commander K Zetlik, rating Competent. Co-pilot; Not registered. Criminal record: piracy and murder. Bounty: 400 CR. I flicked my gaze up to the radar mapper output quickly. Less shielding than us, and we could get some credits for this.

"Unable", I said simply, and flicked the comm offline.
"Engage!" I shouted.

   Damon grabbed the interceptor controls and launched the tiny ships. I rolled on the power, and pointed the Asp straight at the enemy craft, and pulled the laser trigger. The Harrier opened fire at the same time. We scored several direct hits on each other. I could hear the sound of the shield generators absorbing the tremendous energy of the enemy's 4MW beam laser.

"Shields seventy percent" said the computer in a calm voice.

   As I brought the Asp around, I saw the four interceptors come around behind the Harrier in a tight arrow formation. They all opened fire simultaneously, striking the hull of the enemy's ship. The radar mapper showed that his shields were depleted.

"He's taking hull damage, keep on the guns!" I shouted.

   The Harrier had turned around and opened fire on us again. I had made a mistake, and had been distracted whilst watching my brother's progress with the interceptors. The Harrier had us right in his sights. "Caution, shields depleted. Systems damage.", warned the computer, utterly calmly as the Harrier's beam laser tore its way into our hull.

   Pumped with adrenaline, I wheeled the Asp around to face the Harrier, and opened fire. Simultaneously, the interceptors screamed down from the Harrier's "above" direction, and the enemy ship's drive exploded with a blinding white flash, its nuclear reaction no longer contained.

"Message from the Elite Federation: The bounty for this kill is four hundred credits."

   Damon slumped back in his seat, drenched in sweat. I watched the interceptors return to their launcher.

"Four", he said simply.
"That's the fourth one."

   He meant the fourth bounty hunter who had come to collect on him. They must have spent some time tracking us down. I swore quietly under my breath. We should not have taken on any damage, they were inferior pilots in an inferior ship. I had made a bad mistake by being distracted in the heat of the battle. I requested a damage report. Immediately, the console displayed a schematic of the Asp, and the computer began reading out the damage, highlighting the areas on the display.

"Hull section seven breached, hull section three, light damage. Upper hull number three longeron separated. Combat computer inoperative. Autopilot servo actuators destroyed. Laser cooling booster, inoperative. Report ends"

   Damn. I didn't really care much about the useless combat computer, and I could fly fine without the autopilot. However, the laser cooling booster was an essential piece of equipment. Hull section three was right over the equipment deck, and it would mean I would have to wear an awkward EVA suit to check out the damage and see if we could patch it up.

   I left Damon to hold the fort whilst I suited up and checked up the LCB. At least in microgravity it wasn't hard to get around, and once I was in the equipment section, I propelled myself gently towards the LCB. I held onto something solid, and looked towards the penetrated hull. I could see exactly how the laser strike had come through the ship. It had broken through the top of the hull, through a structural longeron, a walkway, and had finally dissipated in the LCB's power supply. Gobs of recently solidified metal floated around the equipment deck from the melted power supply, occasionally colliding with other parts of the ship. I didn't have a spare power supply to hand. It would have to wait until we docked.

   Back on the bridge, I aimed the ship back towards Fort Diamond, and manually calculated the speeds and deceleration points, then rolled on the power.

"Well, I hope we don't get attacked again, the LCB's toast until we get to Fort Diamond."

   I wondered how Damon would take it after his first combat experience. He just grunted in agreement. I had expected more of a reaction, but thinking back, I can remember how my first combat experience had physically and emotionally drained me. I then punched up the stardreamer to pass the time.

10th April, 3265.

   We had spent the last couple of days with the stardreamer running. Fortunately, we were not bothered by pirates or bounty hunters for the rest of the journey. The ship was repaired and we took on fuel, passing the time mostly in one of the bars on Fort Diamond orbital station. I also spent some time searching the bulletin boards. Damon's name didn't show up on any of them, which was a relief. Perhaps as we went further south in the galaxy we would get further away from the bounty hunters. I wondered to myself what had happened to the shipyard in Damon's absence. Hopefully my father would have figured out something was wrong and taken care of it. It didn't really matter to Damon, there was no way he could safely return to Newtown anyway. It probably wouldn't be prudent for me to return either, since the word had probably got out that he left with me.

   The next piece of research I did was on the Sirius Templar. The only new news it turned up was a small newspaper report from the 36 Ophiuchi system where they had apparently assinated a company executive who had just arrived in the system. I wasn't really surprised I couldn't find much on them, piracy was so rife in many parts of the galaxy that it had become commonplace. It probably only showed up because of the proximity of 36 Ophiuchi system to the safe Federation and Imperial worlds. I knew I needed to formulate a plan to find them. Perhaps my friends at Riedquat could help me - I had been away from the bounty hunter's grapevine for far too long.

[Editors note. Winston's diary for the next few weeks only contains his itinery, since nothing of significance occurred until he reached the Quince system. His routing took him from Fort Diamond, to M. Gorbachev (Sol), Thompson High (36 Ophiuchi), Richardson Base (Liabefa), and finally into the Quince system destined for Simpson Town. Winston's diary continues.]

20th May, 3265.

   Chronologically, today is my 29th birthday, but due to my time spent in hyperspace, I am just under 27 years old in real- time. Piracy and murder seemed to be my birthday present. The last two days have been spent fighting our way from our entry point to Simpson Town. Damon has become much more proficient at handling the interceptors in during this time, and has discovered an intense dislike to being jerked out of the stardreamer. This is not very surprising. I don't know anyone who has really got used to being jerked awake when the stardreamer kicks off. It feels like being woken up by having a cubic meter of iced coffee dumped on you.

   The excitement began straight away. I had barely had time to set the navigation computer to bring us to Simpson Town, when the computer picked up the energy spikes of four ships powering up their weapons systems. I swore loudly.

"This time we run!" I yelled.

   I rolled on full power, and the Asp's structure creaked under the acceleration. The flight deck inertial dampers hummed loudly, as they protected us from being crushed flat by 22 g's of acceleration. Even with this aid, we were experiencing nearly 4 g's acting on our bodies. I could now see the approaching ships on our scanner. Two Sidewinders, a Cobra I and a Cobra Mk III. Part of staying alive in frontier systems is knowing when to run, and this was definitely a good time to run. The ships were coming in from the opposite direction, so at least they would overshoot us and hopefully be unable to catch up. To remain in formation with the Cobra Mk I, they would not be able to accelerate at the same rate as we could, and that meant that we could stay alive one more day.

"Launch the interceptors, target a Sidewinder, do not hit the Cobra Mk I!" I yelled.

   Our energy was much better focused on the Sidewinders, since these were the only ships faster than the Asp. If we could not make a quick kill, we could at least break up their formation if they went after us since only the Sidewinders were the only ships actually faster than us. I decided I would try and do some damage to the Cobra Mk III since it was the most dangerous ship, and it may have been able to catch us up if we were slowed down by anything else on the way in. If we could damage the Cobra III and one or both of the Sidewinders, they'd be less tempted to break formation with the Cobra I and go after us.

   The interceptors raced out of the hull. This time I didn't make the mistake of watching them. I could see the ships breaking their tight formations. The Sidewinders had started to accelerate, and the Cobra III was coming straight at us. The Mk I pulled up. As the ships came into combat range, the auto-targetter highlighted all four ships. I selected the Cobra III. Radar mapper idents quickly appeared on all the targets. Unsurprisingly, all the ships were armed to the teeth.

"Incoming missile, bearing three two zero mark three five", said the computer.

   I quickly shifted my view upwards and to the left towards the Cobra I. I could see an insignificant-looking glint which was the missile detaching from the ship. The first weapons had been launched! Damon quickly stabbed the ECM. Nothing happened for agonizing seconds, then the missile detonated. Light poured forth from the Cobra III and our ship, as we both opened fire. The sound level on the bridge grew with the combined sound of the inertial damper and the shield generators as they both absorbed the tremendous amount of energy being unleashed. The Cobra Mk I also opened fire on us. Our shields were rapidly draining. Collision seemed inevitable as the Mk III hurtled towards us. We were playing a deep space game of chicken. I knew I couldn't let off the power, and I didn't want to change course since this would slow our escape. I flinched just as I believed collision to be certain, and in that instant, the Cobra disintegrated. Wreckage pounded into the hull of the Asp making a deafening noise as the broken duralium struck the shields and vapourized in blinding blue flashes. It was very spectacular on the 360 view system.

"Caution, Shields depleted."

   I glanced at the scanner. There was a lot of clutter, but the Mk I was clearly visible above us. I looked up at the ship as we raced past in the opposite direction. It was out of laser range and I didn't want to let off the main thrusters to go in for the kill since our shields were out. I looked back at the scanner and could see the interceptors in echelon formation, returning to the ship. There was no sign of the Sidewinders.

"They turned tail and ran, I inflicted hull damage on both of them, but one of the interceptors lost a bottom thruster" said Damon, exitedly.
"Well the three is toast. The Mark One seems to be running away also. Damage report."
"Shields depleted. No damage. Report ends."

   That was a relief. The shields would charge up over the next hour or so. Long range scanners showed nothing in the vicinity, so we were safe. I set the autopilot to take us towards our destination.

"Message from the Elite Federation. The bounty for the kill is 750 credits."

   A good bounty, too. Most pirates don't fetch that much - they generally don't live long enough. I hadn't yet told Damon that the battles we had got ourselves into were easy ones. When you reached a Dangerous or above rating, the normal run-of-the-mill pirates tend to start avoiding you, regardless of the cargo you carry as bait. You start running into the protection racketeers, bounty hunter killers and other undesirables. In many anarchic systems, pirates who have hit the money or have combat skills cruise around looking for bounty hunters to take revenge on. Others look for us because we hurt their illicit trade. In some systems, you can no longer make a living because you have got a reputation, and all pirates worth anything know to give you a wide berth. This had already begun to happen to me in Riedquat, and I was relocating to Tionisla when the Sirius Templar cut my plans short.

21st May, 3265.

   I felt the iced coffee feeling pour over me as the Stardreamer performed its emergency wake up call. I looked over at my brother, who groaned. I rapidly shifted my scan over the console. Right on the edge was a large, white blip indicating something very large had come into range in a threatening manner. I hoped it was just an asteroid on collision course, but when I glanced up at what was coming, I realized that trouble was afoot again. This time, in the shape of an Imperial Explorer.

"Incoming message."
Before I could say anything, the other commander spoke - a female voice loaded with threat.
"This is Commander Kamov. Surrender or die."

   The transmission ended without giving me a chance to respond. My best guess is that they were after Damon. While they were still out of firing range, we got as much information as possible. Commander M Kamov, rating Average. Record: Unlawful discharge of a weapon, failure to pay fine. Bounty 50CR. Rating Average? She must be in the money to afford a ship like that. The radar mapper showed it to be mostly cargo space with not many more shield generators than we had. That would amost certainly provide insufficient shield coverage. However, the radar mapper was picking up something very dense in the core of the ship - probably a plasma accelerator. If it hit us we would be dead. It was trivially easy to remain outside of the weapons range of the Explorer.

   Damon launched the interceptors, and flew them up close behind the Explorer and started harrassing it. I felt I must have been missing something. I was missing something - four somethings to be precise, shaped horribly like Eagle long- range fighters. It seems as though the group knew about our interceptors, and had deliberately got us to use them on the Explorer. They had now been out for at least five minutes, so their remaining power was limited. As I watched to see what the Explorer would do next, the sound of lasers hitting our hull almost wrenched me from my seat.

   It took me several seconds to find them. They had streaked off and split formation. The small size of the attackers meant I couldn't really see them - all I could see was the targetter box. I swung the Asp around. Damon had broken off pursuit of the Explorer.

"Just pick a target and kill! Fast!" I yelled.

   I nearly twisted the powergrip off in an attempt to get full thrust. I kicked the ship into a sidestep manoever and spun it around to pick up the nearest target. Eagles might be fast and small, but they are very vulnerable to a 4MW beam laser. My laser hit one, and it disappeared in a flash of light. In the confusion of the attacks I had now unfortunately drifted into weapons range of the Explorer.

"Incoming missile, bearing zero seven six mark negative two five".

   The ECM was triggered. Nothing happened. This was quickly turning into a bad situation. I spun the ship around to try and shoot the missile, but the NN-550 was very fast. It struck the lower hull square on.

"Shields 32 percent. Incoming missile, bearing one one seven mark negative seven zero".

   I spun the ship on its axis and simultaneously pushed the nose down to try to get the missle, but once again, I was too late. With a deafening explosion, the second missile struck the hull.

"Caution, shields depleted, hull breached".

   I could barely hear the computer over the sounds of our dying ship. Then out of the corner of my eye, I could see a blinding blue plasma charge bearing down on us from the Explorer. I desperately wound on the power. The ship wasn't responding correctly to my control inputs, but at least we were accelerating, and managed to pass the Explorer as it ponderously turned to try and shoot us down. I looked for the three Eagles that remained. I saw a bright flash as an Eagle closed in on one of the interceptors and destroyed it. The interceptor that had been following it collided with the Eagle, mortally wounding both small ships without actually destroying them.

"I'm out!" yelled Damon. He was returning the interceptors back to the ship. Or the two of them that still remained, at any rate.

   I looked at the scanner to try and get my situational awareness back, but the scanner was blank. I swivelled my head around, looking for the remaining attackers. I saw the two Eagles bearing down in formation, coming to finish us off.

"I'm not ready to die!" I yelled angrily to nobody in particular, and hauled back on the stick to attack the incoming Eagles.

   I opened fire. I was surprised at my own accuracy, as my laser cut both Eagles down in less than five seconds.

"What the hell are you doing!" yelled Damon as I reversed course and headed straight for the Explorer. "Remember what you said about running away!" he shouted.

   However, I was now in a berserker rage and could barely hear his words. I came up behind the Explorer and targeted its engine nacelles with my laser, and opened fire. The Explorer's shields blossomed as they deflected the energy, but just before the beam laser overheated, it depleted the shields of my nemesis. I saw a tiny speck - presumably the escape capsule - leave the Explorer just before it disappeared in a white hot ball of flame, sending fragments of glowing alloy radiating out into space. One or two pieces of the wreckage clanked against our hull.

   The damage report was not pretty. The computer reeled of an expensive list of repairs that we needed to make.

"Hull sections twelve through fifteen compromised. Structural crossmember seven and eight separated. Avionics bay two and three destroyed. Radar mapper inoperative. Scanner inoperative. Shield generators six through nine destroyed. Number one main thruster destroyed. Left manoevering thrusters destroyed. Autopilot inoperative. Electrical generators one and two destroyed. Accelerations exceeding four gee not recommended due to structural crossmember damage."

   Great. So not only were we facing a big repair bill, we were potentially a sitting duck with reduced shields. No wonder the ship was not handling right - no left thrusters meant we couldn't turn correctly or perform a right slide, and losing a main thruster meant we had asymmetric thrust to add to our problems. We had also lost both generators so we were now relying on the battery for electricity. We had to get to port within 30 hours or we would lose all our remaining electrical systems, which would make us into nothing more than an expensive asteroid. Fortunately, we were only ten hours away from landing at Simpson Town. The rest of the trip passed slowly. I was quite relieved to encounter no other ships. However, landing at Simpson Town was quite a handful. I had no autopilot to help me out , and I had lost some thrusters. We landed somewhat heavily but in one piece. I was so tired and frankly relieved to be still alive, I hardly noticed when the message arrived.

"Message from the Elite Federation: Congratulations on achieving the combat rank of Deadly."

4th June, 3265.

   We docked at La Soeur Du Dan Ham on Riedquat. Much to my relief, we only encountered a few minor skirmishes on our stop off in Tionisla, where all my troubles had begun in the first place. The pirates still avoided me in the Riedquat system. The first thing we did was to go to the "World's End" Bar. I needed a few stiff drinks. I also needed to see some of my bounty hunter friends. Riedquat is well known for its bars and alcohol. Almost 800 years ago, when the first practical hyperdrives had been developed, adventurous members of the various nation states that existed on Earth at the time went on deep space exploration missions, often starting colonies on habitable planets in far flung systems. Riedquat was colonized initially by a group called the "English", a nation notable for its affection for good beer. To poke fun at one of their near neighbours at Leesti, settled by a group known as the "French", they named the planet "Waterloo". The French had apparently been famous to losing a battle of that very name. An additional poke at Leesti was made when they named Reidquat Station "La Soeur du Dan Ham". Apparently it was a joke about the rotund form of the governor of Leesti's sister. I explained this to my brother, so he could better understand the attitude of some of the locals.

   We walked into the bar. I was quite surprised to see the surviving four commanders from my combat class were all at a group by the bar. They all looked astonished to see me. Oh no, I thought, another nasty surprise seems to be brewing.

"Commander James Winston?" said the barman, in surprise.
"Hi guys...what's up?" I asked cautiously.

   It turned out they were all there to mourn my death! Our combat class had been a tight knit group. We started at originally thirty members and were now down to five. Each time we heard one of our members had died in combat, we held a ceremony in their honour. Afterwards, we would drown our sorrows at World's End. They were just about to start. They hadn't seen me since January, when I announced I was going to pick off pirates in Tionisla. Commander Mischa, one of my four comrades-in-arms, had discovered the wreckage of my ship in an orbital junk yard two weeks ago and had assumed the worst. I introduced them to my brother. The four commanders were Commander Joan Mischa (Dangerous), Commander Jean-Claude DuGalle (Dangerous), Commander Yves LaRoche (Deadly) and Commander Mike Baxter ( Dangerous). And of course, the barman who had always been there, Paul Miterrand. I then told them of the whole sorry affair, starting with the treachery of Nguyen right up to our arrival at Simpson Town.

"Look, since we are all here, why don't we celebrate my reaching Deadly rating!" I announced.

   This resulted in this day's diary being updated a day late, because I don't remember a lot after this.

5th June, 3265

   I woke up with one of the worst hangovers I have had in a long time. It was dark all around, and somewhat uncomfortable. I dragged myself up in the darkness. I could some dull movement in the room. After finding out how to get some lights, I discovered that we had all spent the night in the bar, and basically had crashed where we had passed out from an excess of alcohol.

   A few hours later, when we had all mostly recovered, we were sitting in the small central-station cafeteria, trying to coax our appetites awake.

"I have a plan that will make us a good amount of money, and improve our ratings," I said.

   Bounty hunters are mostly interested in those two things. My friends looked much more awake now. I pulled out my computer and read out the entry about the Sirius Templar. It had actually been updated to say 80,000 credits per capital ship, or 500,000 credits if we took out the base as well! So there was more than one unit operating.

"Miterrand was talking about those guys last week," said Mike, quite suddenly. I didn't expect a barman to have heard i of them. "He was talking about them being the new threat to bounty hunters", he continued.

We all went to Miterrand's to find out what he knew.

"Ah yes, the Sirius Templar", he said, when we asked him.

   I pressed him for details. He had picked up quite a bit from passing bounty hunters. From his information, they were not based in Sirius as you might have thought from their name, but from a base in a system called Edurce, way out on the Edge. They had apparently taken over Peter's Terminal in that system. A formidible group that had approximately three dozen Clipper class craft operating in the same configuration as my attackers, plus a planetary defence and security system that had already claimed the lives of a number of bounty hunters who had tried to hit the jackpot by taking the entire group out. They operated by extracting a protection fee from pirates in a number of systems, and in return, they destroyed bounty hunters. I thought about this. The bounty from eliminating this group would be handsome. However, to get through their defences would be a very risky proposition. We talked amongst ourselves for about an hour, but it seemed that there was a marked unwillingness to actually take on their headquarters. Not surprising, after Miterrand had told us of the torture they had inflicted on any outsiders they found in their system.

   But then Damon had come up with the master stroke. It surprised us all, coming from a rookie co-pilot.

"Mafia." he said.
"Mafia. The Templar operate Clippers. Remember what those people who bought the Clipper from my yard did with it? We disguise a Clipper as one of theirs, load it with nuclear explosives, and we can obliterate their entire base and probably most of their equipment too."

   There was one snag. All of us put together could no way afford a Clipper to sacrifice to the cause. But then we almost simultaneously all came to the solution.

"We hijack one of theirs!" I said.

   We now needed a detailed plan. We could net at least half a million credits between us if we could take out their base on a busy day, and eliminate a menace to our kind.

© 1998 Dylan Smith.

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