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H2O (what would have become my second book - major WIP)

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Lord Xalys
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Praise the Fallen


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« on: May 21, 2007, 07:24:37 pm »

@ Tau Worlock: I was planning to put some more of Kaelin's teachings in the book, but hadn't thought up any yet. Wink  Glad you like the beginning! By the way, for those of you that know their music, the line 'where the river takes you, will in time be revealed' is from VNV Nation's song 'Arena'. The music of my favorite band is always inspiring. Smiley 

The part where Arya reviews her surroundings are indeed a bit heavy on the astronomical terms, but I felt it necessary to do it like this for two reasons. First off, it will let everyone that takes a book on the subject (the constellation of Orion) see exactly what it's about. As for that, maybe looking it up isn't that bad; the pics shot of the Orion nebulae are exquisite. Smiley  Secondly, it is also Arya's analytical nature that makes this part as it reads. She sees the beauty of it, but also looks upon it with the mind of a highly educated naval officer.

As for the xenos, it is exactly the idea for now that they seem such horrific adversaries (still, remember the fighter that was consumed by the Galinor's detonation... they CAN be killed). It will not remain this way though. Perhaps you are familiar with the space-sims Freespace: The Great War and Freespace 2. My xenos are somewhat reminiscent of the Shivans in those games, who at first seem indestructible because of their advanced tech and powerful weaponry. It takes an alliance between erstwhile sworn enemies and a score of researches to catch up with the Shivans, but the odds improve with every breakthrough. That is what I want here as well: there has first to be a lot of adapting, learning and researching to even the playfield with these xenos! After all, there's no fun fighting against an enemy with equal techs from the start... Wink

Kudos to you for finding the inspiration for the Sargasso scene! Cheesy  The Sargasso itself was based on the Hoth asteroid field (Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back), and I had glimpses of TIE fighters chasing the Falcon through the field as well when writing it. I do so love Star Wars. Wink

Anyway,  below you can find the chapters 4-6. Remember that 6 is not completed yet; it's where I left off...



[4]

   The homebase of VX-9 resembled a classic childhood spinner if you looked at it from a distance. The flattened dome, which was approximately three hundred and twenty metres in diameter and a hundred and sixty metres high, contained living quarters and recreational facilities for the pilots, technicians, and engineers that made up the squadron and its supporting personnel.
   Underneath that dome resided the beating heart of Avalon, so to speak: two circular hangars which could house a maximum of forty-eight ships. A pylon in the centre that ran through both hangars was fitted with a total of sixteen rotating gravitic beam projectors, eight in each hangar. The GPB’s could quickly select craft out of the circular line-up and drag them by two’s onto the elevators that would prep them for launch in the eight hangar bays which were a level higher. On full alert status, Avalon's automated launch-and-recovery system could scramble all forty-eight potentially available ships in slightly less then six minutes.   
   Since the Mages were a combination of already experienced fighter and bomber pilots selected from other active squadrons, VX-9 boasted twelve standard F-214A space superiority fighters, eight FB-218E fighter-bombers and four B-226C light bombers, all for training and active duty. The other twenty-four ‘slots’ in the hangar bays were periodically filled with experimental craft and modified existing models  which were to be tested by the Mages, though some slots aboard Avalon were reserved for personal craft.
   Underneath the hangars then resided Avalon’s powerplant; an inertial confinement fusion reactor utilizing twenty-four particle beam accelerators and minuscule pellets of fuel, housed in a downward tapering conical structure at the bottom of the station. Hence Avalon’s close resemblance to a spinner, which seemingly spun forever in a geostationary orbit around Amphitrite, against the starry backdrop of outer space.
   Six minutes after Admiral Graham’s ‘social call’, the two F-214 pilots asked Avalon Control for permission to dock in Bay 3. After Control had cleared them, Dax en Rachel took back on their gas until they had lined up with the hangar bay entrance and the two bay doors had opened. The pilots then powered down their ships and were gently pulled into B3 by two Ayani GravTech MK33 gravity manipulators.   
   TCN personnel commonly used the term ‘gravitic beam projector’, or GBP, for these devices which doubled as a catapult for launching fighter craft in recollection of the steam catapults onboard 20th and 21st century aircraft carriers back on Old Earth. As the two fighters entered the bay and were put down by the GBP’s on the elevator that would carry them to Hangar 2, the two armoured doors of B3 silently closed.
   A few moments later the two fighters descended into Hangar 2 and were once more picked up by the GBP’s from the elevator platform, after which the craft were rotated until they had reached their appointed slots in the circular hangar. The pair of F-214’s was gently put down in slots 7 and 8 and the GBP’s disengaged.
   
   The canopy of Dax’s fighter opened and the pilot stretched his arms. He climbed out of the cramped cockpit and set foot on the hangar floor. Dax smiled as he saw Rachel taking off her helmet, revealing the long blond hairs underneath. His wingmate shook her head in an attempt to fashion her hair a little. She saw Dax looking at her and smiled back.
   Although most of the new additions to the Mages were sure of it that Dax and Rachel had a thing together and shared a bed on a regular basis, the two had actually only slept with each other once. It was back in their years at the Academy, in those hazy summer days on Jupiter, that the two young recruits had succumbed to each other’s attraction once. After a long night of dancing at the Slipstream with his classmates, Dax had found himself in the soft bed of the searing Rachel Burns.
   While it had been a night of passion beyond their imagination, it hadn’t sparked an amorous relationship. They had both drank too much that evening, causing the remaining barriers between them to dissolve. But Dax had held back in the end. Rachel had been heartbroken, that he knew. And although Dax Ryder loved Rachel Burns more than she might know, he hadn’t gone through with it. It were memories of another woman that had caused Dax to back off; a woman which Rachel had never known. A woman with eyes so enchanting that Dax‘s dreams were still haunted by them…
   Dax quickly cleared his head of the alluring mirage in his mind and walked over to his wingmate. He offered Rachel his hand, which she accepted with a radiant smile.
   “Well, thank you, sir,” she commented. “I must say, you are a charming winner.”
   Dax laughed and looked the blonde in the eyes.
   “That’s quite a difference from the last time I beat you, Pyro. I actually recall you almost breaking my nose right then and there.”
   Rachel defiantly looked back, eyes twinkling.
   “A good girl knows when she has to swallow her pride.”
  Dax raised an eyebrow. “Really? Since when are you a good girl, Rachel?”
   Before the blonde could respond, the voice of Admiral Graham resounded through Hangar 2:
   “Will Lieutenant Burns report to the Admiral’s quarters in two minutes for debriefing? And will Lieutenant Ryder do the same in twelve minutes?”
   Although the announcement sounded casual enough, the hangar personnel knew that Avalon’s top guns had gotten into trouble again. Underneath a B-226 that was serviced on the other side of the hangar, a couple of mechanics laughed under their breath and whispered to each other.
   
   “Don’t you have anything better to do than acting like a couple of old hags?” a new voice suddenly reprimanded the mechanics. They looked up in surprise and saw Captain Sean Ferguson, commander of the Sentinel-class frigate Scimitar, standing next to the bomber.
   “No, sir. I… I mean yes, sir,” one of the mechanics stammered. Ferguson, his red hair contrasting with his as always impeccably ironed navy blue uniform, eyed them intently.
   “Back to work, you two. Everyone gets into trouble sooner or later. Those two just manage to do it a little more often than most people.”
   Ferguson couldn’t hide a grin, causing the mechanics to relax. He then walked over to slot 7, where Dax and Rachel were disagreeing about something as usual. Dax was the first to notice their long-time friend and smiled.
   “Hey, Sean. Checking up on the real ships, are you?”
   “Very funny, Dax. The Scimitar could relegate every one of these little tin cans to scrap, you know that.”
   Dax exchanged a smirk with Rachel.
   “Sure, Sean,” he replied tactically. “Sure.”
   Everyone knew that Sean Ferguson was very proud of his ship and his command thereof. It was also no secret that this textbook example of a doing-it-by-the-manual naval officer had a mild dislike for pilots of the Navy’s numerous fighters and bombers; ships which he considered ‘lesser craft’. Rachel and Dax were exempted from that opinion most of the time, as Ferguson respected them far too much as both pilots and friends. But there were days that Sean just felt the need to fool around with them:
   “You flyboys and -girls are all the same; toying around with those fighters without a care in the world, while you disdain the capital ships that carry the brunt of the action. Just don’t expect me to scrape your remains of an asteroid anytime soon,” Sean stated.
   Dax and Rachel saluted mockingly. “Duly noted, sir,” Rachel added, “We’ll refrain from ‘roid-pooling in the near future.”
   Ferguson sighed and shook his head. “You two are impossible.” I’m afraid I feel obliged to buy you a drink tonight at the Moonlight. Say 0900 hours?” He grinned at his friends.
   Dax and Rachel nodded, smiling.
   “Nine o’clock it is then,” Sean stated. “I suggest you go and see Graham now, before that devious mind of his comes up with some really annoying chores for the both of you.”
   “Thanks, Sean,” Rachel answered whilst turning towards the elevator. “I’ll see you boys tonight. Ciao.”
   The slender blonde walked up to the elevator, showing off her assets as usual, and waved at the two guys with a knowing smile just before the elevator doors closed.
   
   “She’s hot,” a voice coming from slot 6 said.
   “We know,” Dax and Sean replied simultaneously.
   Chris Roberts, Dax’s life-long comrade and Sean’s eternal nail-to-the-coffin, emerged from behind a missile rack with the trademark sly grin on his face and walked over to slot 7.
   “I really should ask her out again one of these days,” Chris prompted.
   The other two men looked at each other and burst into laughter.
   “Why would you do that?” Sean asked. “Remember the last time you asked to date her? She slapped you in the face.”
  “He’s right, Chris,” Dax said, grinning. “Rachel hates your guts. There is no way she would ever go out with you. She’d have you arrested on the spot to back up her previous threats.”
   “Maybe I’m just too much for her to handle,” Chris offered.
   “Yeah, right,” Dax replied. “I’d rather say it’s the other way around. We don’t call her Pyro for nothing, you know.”
   Chris sighed. “Ah well, her loss I guess. That does leave me open to all the other eligible bachelorettes on Avalon. Perhaps one of them recognizes true male passion when they see it.”
   “I think I’m going to be sick,” Sean mumbled.
   “Anyway, I’m going to the surface tonight,” Chris said, ignoring Ferguson’s remark. “Maybe I can get my hands on some sweet transport deals. After all, it’s mating season for the gossamer squids. And you know how badly people are willing to pay top credit just to have one of those things in their aquariums.”
   “You do know that if the Scimitar’s scanners pick up illegal goods onboard the Equinox, I’ll personally blow that miserable duck-taped crate of yours out of existence, right?” Sean reminded Chris.
   “You’ll have to catch me first then, captain,” the freelance trader smirked. And that in itself would be a first.”
   Seeing how Ferguson was about to smack Chris for reminding him that he had never been able to catch the freelancer red-handed with questionable goods in his cargo bay, Dax decided to intervene:
   “Well, I guess I’m off to Graham then for my debriefing. Sean, care to walk with me? Chris, happy hunting on the surface. Just don’t get your engines clogged again by those thermal amoeba, okay?”
   “I won’t,” Chris answered. “I’d hate to spend another entire day prying those sticky bastards out of my thrusters like last time. See you later, Ace.” He bowed and smiled at Sean. “Captain.”
   The freelance transporter walked over to the other side of the hangar, where he began a friendly chat with a female mechanic working on one of the F-214’s. Seeing this, Sean Ferguson shook his head and followed Dax, who was already waiting for him at the elevator. As the elevator doors closed, the captain of the Scimitar uttered a muffled growl of discontent.
   
   “That guy seems to try and get on my nerves every time we meet.”
   Dax looked at his five year older friend who had become a cadet at the Academy four years before him. “Something at which he’s very good, you’ll have to admit,” the fighter pilot replied with a grin.
   “Well, how would you like it if you had an unblemished service record in the TCN of seven years active duty, which was marred only by a single semi-legitimate smuggler with an attitude?”
   Dax laughed at Sean’s obvious frustration. To him, Chris Roberts had always been a friend, albeit one with a knack for making shady deals. Sean Ferguson on the other hand considered Chris primarily as a criminal. But there was something the TCN career officer would never admit: despite never have been able to catch Roberts red-handed, Ferguson admired the freelancer’s resourcefulness. Dax knew that.
   “I think you need to unwind, Sean,” Dax said while stepping out of the elevator. They had arrived at the floor where Graham had his office. “I’ll see you tonight at 9 in the Moonlight. Don’t be late.”
   Sean smiled. “I won’t. Now you go in there and try not to annoy the admiral too much, you hear? He is still in a good mood. Don’t spoil that with some misplaced sarcasm.”
   Dax saluted. “Understood, sir. Until tonight then. And I remembered what you said; the first round is on you.”
   “Oh, that he remembered. Typical,” Sean mumbled. Then he walked out the corridor, leaving Dax standing alone before Graham’s office. The testpilot knocked.
   
   “Come in,” the admiral’s baritone voice answered.
   Dax opened the door just in time to see Rachel Burns get up from her chair, brush past him and walking out of Graham’s office with a wink. She closed the door and Dax turned towards the admiral.
   “If I were any younger, I’d gotten her into bed years ago,” Graham dryly commented before Dax could say anything. He sat down in his black leather chair and eyed his best pilot with his right eyebrow raised.
   “Luckily for her you are almost two times her age and married to the Navy,” Dax replied as he sat down himself. “You wouldn’t have survived it anyway. Rachel has some sort of prolonged sexual prime, which is lethal to the average unprepared man.”
   Admiral Marcus Graham warily shook his head and became a little more serious. “I’ve never understood why she won’t date anyone here on Avalon. It’s almost like she’s waiting for someone to make the first move.”
   He looked at the man in front of him. “Why don’t you two begin something together, Dax? She likes you, I can see that. Everyone can.”
   The nature of the relationship between Dax and Rachel remained a mystery on the station to this day, and the admiral was genuinely concerned about all his pilots’ happiness. But he knew he was entering dangerous terrain by asking Dax this.
   As to affirm that, Dax’s facial expression changed almost instantly. His smile disappeared and the grey-blue eyes seemed to dim, as painful memories resurfaced.
   “You know why, admiral.” His voice sounded like it came from afar.
   Graham sighed. “Yes, sorry, I know. But son, there will come a time when you’ve got to let go. You can’t mourn forever.”
   “Perhaps, but I still can’t find peace, however many years have passed. Not like this. You know they couldn’t find her remains. I’ve never been able to say goodbye.”
   For a couple of minutes, both men said nothing. Then Dax looked at his superior. “Let’s drop the subject for now, shall we? I’m here for my debriefing, so by all means give me one. We can discuss my private life later on.”
   Graham nodded, slightly disappointed that Dax hadn’t given in. Like he said; it could wait. But not for much longer. He had to prepare him soon, or this whole situation could turn into a very ugly mess.
   The admiral cleared his mind and reached for some datasheets. “Okay, as for today’s flight…”
 

[5]

   Dax entered the Moonlight Lounge the exact moment Broken Wings started to play. His mood improved at once and the test-pilot smiled. He didn’t know for sure, but he guessed Stevie had put the classic record on for a distinct reason. Dax walked over to the centre of the Lounge, to the bar counter. As soon as Steve Mitchell, barkeeper of the Moonlight Lounge, caught his eye, both men smiled at each other.
   “Good evening, lieutenant,” Steve greeted Dax.
   “And a good evening to you too, Stevie. Thanks for the musical uplift.”
   The imposing black man on the other side of the counter smiled broadly. “I reckon Miss Burns picked the right track to begin with then.”
   Dax raised an eyebrow and looked around the Lounge. At one of the four-person tables he saw Rachel Burns raise his glass to him. Dax laughed and gave his friend a thumbs-up. He turned to the bartender again:
   “Could I have a GC, Steve? And you can put the drinks form Miss. Burns’ table on my tab.”
   “Sure thing, sir. One GC coming right up. But Captain Ferguson insisted on paying for all drinks, so it’ll all be on his tab tonight.”
   Dax grinned while Stevie poured him his beer like the expert he was and gave it to the lieutenant. “Cheers, sir.”
   The pilot smiled faintly, took a sip of his beer and nodded appreciatively. “Indeed, Stevie. Cheers. Catch you later.” He then headed for the table his friends had claimed earlier on.
   
   The Moonlight Lounge was the social hub of Avalon, so to speak. It occupied a significant part of the dome’s recreational section and provided much needed relaxation in the hustle and bustle of Avalon. On a station that was entirely devoted to rigorous training, constant engineering and technical challenges, the ambiance of the Moonlight Lounge was a haven for Avalon’s inhabitants.
   The Lounge’s circular floor plan was divided in four quadrants, two of which contained a couple of oval four-person tables and one section with two-person tables. The fourth quadrant sported a long couch lining the arced wall, separated by three tables with bar stools. The same type of bar stools surrounded Steve Mitchell’s domain: the circular bar counter which housed the most exotic beers available in Terran Covenant space. The tables, chairs and stools were all made of polished dark teak, while the furniture contrasted with its medium dark blue cushions. The area in front of the couch was occupied by a small dance floor. Diffuse light shone down on a couple dancing to the beat of Velcro Fly, from the object that had given the Lounge its name; a two metre in diameter accurate replica of Luna, Earth’s Moon.
   
   Dax loved everything about the Moonlight Lounge; the ambiance, the 20th century ‘eighties and nineties’ music, the beer and whisky… Ever since Avalon had become his ‘home away from home’, the Lounge had functioned as his weekend retraite. It was the appointed place to chill out from a stressful week in the Navy.
   He walked over to Rachel Burns and pointed to the chair next to her.
   “Is this seat taken, miss?”
   The beautiful blonde smiled and gestured.
   “By all means, sir, sit down.”
   Dax winked and sat down. He nodded towards the man sitting opposite to him. “Good evening, captain. And salut.”
   Sean Ferguson heaved his glass of metaxa with a smile. “Same to you, my friend. Glad you could join us.”
   “Evenings here on which you decided to pay for the drinks can be counted on one hand, Sean,” Dax replied with a wicked smile, “I wouldn’t want to miss such an occasion.”
   Sean shook his head in mocked dismay.  “Thanks, I guess.”
   Dax grinned and ticked the glass of his friend with his own. “Cheers, mate.”
   
   The next four hours were spent in a considerable better mood than in the one Dax had been in during and right after his debriefing with Graham. The three friends and colleagues drank, talked, laughed and eventually even danced their way through the night. While the latter part had proven to be a little difficult for Sean at first, since Rachel wouldn’t let go of Dax, the captain had finally managed to get the attention of a female officer sitting at a table all by herself. Sean had gathered his courage and had asked her to dance. The smile she had shown him in response had been so dazzling that she had led him to the dance floor, rather than the other way around. 
   It was not until two in the morning, and another dance in the arms of the lovely Rachel Burns that Dax suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to get out of the Moonlight Lounge as fast as he could. He freed himself from Rachel’s embrace, kissed her lightly on the cheek and wheeled around. Distraught and confused, the blonde watched Dax pace out of the Lounge in a hurry until he had left.
   Dax practically ran through the corridors, people eyeing him all the way to the place he was heading for. For the second time that day he entered the circular hangar and took the elevator down to the second level. Then with large passes he walked over to Slot 7, to his fighter. Dax opened the canopy of the F-214, got in, and did a fast pre-flight check while the canopy automatically closed again. As was to be expected at this hour, Flight Control was deserted. Only Avalon’s mainframe was still active in order to scan for unexpected arrivals and departures. Luckily, Dax had a trick up his sleeve to bypass that.
   After typing in Admiral Graham’s personal launch code, the hangar came alive. A GBP locked in place and lifted the craft out of the slot, while the ‘clear area’-alarm sounded and the hangar doors began to slide open. Only moments later the gravitic power of the GBP controllably flung the F-214 out of the hangar, into space. When he was clear of Avalon’s defensive perimeter of SD platforms, Dax levelled out his fighter and headed for the Sargasso.
   
   In his quarters, Marcus Graham was already in front of his window to watch the tiny fighter grow even smaller against the backdrop of space. Rachel Burns, who had awoken him, stood beside him, as did Sean Ferguson. The admiral stared out of the window with mixed feelings of sadness and acceptance, until the F-214 could no longer be discerned from the asteroids of the Sargasso.
   “Now that was a flagrant disregard for correct launch protocol,” Sean remarked dryly. Although he was right, of course, the look he got form Graham made him almost promptly stand to attention.
    “I don’t get it,” Rachel muttered. “Why did he suddenly take off like that? It’s like he is desperately trying to get away from something.”
   “Trying is the correct word,” Graham replied. “He is trying to run, but he cannot hide from it. Not forever, and he knows that.”
   “It would seem as if you know a great deal more of this matter than we do, admiral,” Sean commented.
   The subtle hint didn’t go unnoticed. Graham looked at both the lieutenant and captain for a while, after which he turned back to stare out of his window. “Yes. I do know more of this. Maybe it is time you should as well, even if some of it is already common knowledge.”
   “No more riddles, please, Admiral,” Rachel pressed. “We want to know what’s got Dax so spooked. Is this related to his other sudden mood swings? Walking away when someone is talking to him, not paying attention during manoeuvring class, those kinds of things.”
   
   Graham nodded. “It is. Sit down you two. Dax maybe reprimand me for this later, but the situation calls for you to understand.” He waited a few seconds, before he spoke again: “How much do you know about Dax’s first girlfriend?”
   Rachel looked at her superior in amazement. “Dax has never had a girlfriend,” she stated firmly.
   Graham shook his head. “Wrong. I know that’s what he told you, but it’s not true. He had a girlfriend, before he entered the Academy. ”
   “What has become of this girl then?” Sean asked, although he had a strong feeling the answer wouldn’t like him one bit.
   The admiral sighed and the man they all looked up to suddenly seemed ten years older. “She died. Or at least, that was the official statement the Navy let out. In truth, they never found her body.” Again, Graham eyed his officers and then reached into his memories again.
   “A little more then eight years ago, when Dax was about to head off to Jupiter for the start of his naval training, he was about to leave behind the girl which he had dated and lived together with for over three years. Kyra Zane was considered one of the, if not the most beautiful girl on Luna. She was slender, lithe, with hair as black as the darkest night and eyes…” Graham’s voice trailed off for a moment, recalling an image. “Her eyes were unlike anything I’ve ever seen; a deep purple that shone like pure amethyst. It was a colour neither her father or mother, nor indeed any man or woman possessed and no one knew how it came to be that Kyra was gifted with those hauntingly beautiful eyes.”
   Marcus Graham shook his head. “No, that colour didn’t run in the family,” he spoke softly as only to himself.
   
   “Anyway,” he continued on a normal tone, “Kyra was heartbroken when Dax decided to try and become a fighter pilot. After all, who wouldn’t be? If you have come to love one another as deeply in a span of only three years as they did, you would immediately understand. But Dax was determined to let his dream come true. It was both his fierce pride and a very strong sense of duty that blinded him to the pleas of his girlfriend. Just before he left for Jupiter, Dax told Kyra that he loved her more than life, but that this was something he had to do. It was his dream, he told her; his destiny. Kyra ultimately resigned to the fact that her boyfriend would go to Jupiter, but she did it with pain in her heart.”
   The admiral paused for a few seconds and then continued his story: “Just before Dax left, he promised Kyra that he would come back for her on shore leave at first chance. Their goodbye was awkward and full of conflicting emotions; Kyra was undoubtedly proud of Dax, but after three years of living together she dreaded the idea of him being away for months at a time, two planets further than where she was. And the training would surely not be without risks. It would be okay, Dax tried to reassure her. They would see each other again soon. And they both truly believed that.”
   Graham sighed once more. “It was not to be. To try and console his daughter, Kyra’s father, who owned a small transport company in Umbrium City, decided to take her and the rest of the family on a trip he’d been saving money for. He thought that two weeks at the renowned beaches of Venera in the neutral Vega system should get Kyra’s mind of things. So three days after Dax had left for the Academy, the Zane family, consisting of father, mother, Kyra and her two little brothers, boarded the luxury liner Adrastos on its sixth voayge.”
   The admiral let that last word hang in the air for a few moments, until he saw its implications dawn on the faces of his listeners.
   
   “The Adrastos,” Sean Ferguson repeated evenly, his face grimacing as he recalled the tale behind that cursed name. “My God.”
   There was probably none who didn’t know that story. The luxury liner Adrastos had been the pride and flagship of the Neutron Star Lines, which had offered a wide range of voyages beyond the Sol system at the time. The gigantic ship had been commissioned in 2648 and could accommodate 9.000 passengers in her comfortable quarters, ferrying them to her often exotic destination with speed and grace. The name of the ship was Ancient Greek in origin and translated roughly to ‘Inevitable’; NSL had picked that decorative adverb with the idea in mind that the Adrastos stood as a guarantee for the safest travel imaginable. Ultimately however, it proved to suffer as much from the effects of hubris as the name Titanic had done over 700 years earlier.
   
   For on her sixth voyage outbound, the Adrastos fell prey to the most daring and brutal Corsair raid in three decades. Thanks to constant NSL commercials on InfoNet, the exact arrival time of the liner had been made known to more than half the universe. Consequentially, as the ship entered the Vega system through its primary jumpgate that fateful day, the Adrastos was ambushed by a Corsair hunting pack. Led by the infamous Korano, a pirate captain whose pack already boasted a staggering body count, the Corsairs had descended on the hapless liner.
   The first shots from the pirates had disabled the engines and destroyed the com-array, leaving the enormous vessel floating helplessly in space. Then they had boarded the liner in full force; three assault transports filled to the bulkheads with cutthroats, professional killers and other assorted scum. The Corsairs had spread throughout the ship, threatening the passengers at gunpoint and demanding all valuables to be handed over. In the meantime Korano had gained access to the safe in the captain’s quarters, wherein some of the passengers had chosen to place their priceless possessions.
   It was then that the Adrastos’s captain had decided to mount a counter-attack. By pressing a button underneath his desk, the ship’s security officers had known it was the time to act. They had burst forth from their hideouts and started to systematically eliminate every Corsair on the ship. Fierce fire-fights had broken out across the decks of the Adrastos, the death toll on either side mounting by the minute.
   In the captain’s quarters, Korano had been furious about the sudden opposition. First, he had shot the captain, after which he had instructed his murderous band to give no quarter; not to the security personnel, nor to the passengers. So it had been then that the Corsairs had started to shoot everyone they encountered but their own on sight. It hadn’t been for long until the corridors of the Adrastos had been littered indiscriminately with the bodies of Corsairs, armed NSL officers, business men, women, children…
   When Korano had finally decided that they had enough loot and called the withdrawal, he had ordered one final atrocity. As the Corsairs returned back to their transports with their booty, the sprinklers and other hazard control systems onboard were disabled and fires had been started everywhere on the liner. The assault transports detached from their now burning prey and assembled a few clicks away, waiting. Then the Adrastos’s lifeboats had begun to launch from the doomed ship.
   Using the lifeboats for target practice, the Corsairs had blown the survivors of the inferno inside the liner to dust as they vainly attempted their flight into space. Only two of the lifeboats had managed to reach the jumpgate, escaping to the comparable safety of hyperspace. The seventy-two people that made it back to TCN-held space would be the only ones left of the 9.000 passengers to recount of the horrific fate which had befallen the Adrastos.
   
   When after three days a TCN cruiser and a salvage vessel from Neutron Star Lines had jumped in-system to Vega to inspect the remains of the liner, no one could have been prepared for what they found. The Adrastos was slowly spinning along her dorsal axis, set in motion by gases escaping into space. She had looked like a wounded animal, a TCN officer would describe it later during an interview for HyperNews. But this animal had not been merely wounded; it was dead. The TCN marines who had boarded the ship concluded as such, finding the once proud flagship as a charred, lifeless husk filled with bodies.
   “Among the dead were Kyra’s parents and kid brothers,” Graham told his shocked officers. “Kyra herself however was nowhere to be found. As you know, a DNA sample is taken from every TCN citizen at birth and stored for registration purposes, so all visually unidentifiable bodies onboard the Adrastos could be given a name in the end. Kyra’s name wasn’t on that list. The only conclusion that could be made was that the girl had either been in one of the destroyed lifeboats, or had perished in the fires so that no physical remains could be found.” The admiral paused for a while, allowing Rachel and Sean to grasp the enormity of the disaster.
   
   “As you can imagine,” Graham continued, “Dax was devastated when he heard what had happened to the Adrastos. He had lost the love of his life and with no body remaining he could not even properly say goodbye. Furthermore, far worse, he felt that he was to blame for Kyra’s death. After all, he reasoned, the Zane family might not have taken that particular voyage with the Adrastos, if he hadn’t gone away to the Academy and left Kyra behind.”
   “But they might have done it anyway,” Rachel interjected. “He can’t possibly hold himself responsible for that!”
   “All too true,” Graham replied. “But he did it anyway. Guilt can be a very persistent inner demon, you must understand. For Dax, there was no doubt about it: Kyra’s death was his fault. And he has lived with that thought for over eight years now, fostering it with the passing of each day. The only thing that keeps his mind of the subject is flying.”
   The admiral eyed his listeners intently, especially Rachel. “Flying has always been Dax his lifelong dream. In pursuing it, he lost the woman he loved. Therefore he feels that he owes it to her memory to put maximum effort in his flying skills, day after day. He will always try to be the best, for he won’t let himself be anything less. And for that terrible price the Mages got the best fighter pilot in the Navy.”
   
   Sean Ferguson slowly nodded his head. “It all makes sense now; that inhuman drive to excel, those ice-cold manoeuvres bordering on suicide. All of it because of Kyra’s ghost haunting him.”
   Rachel shook his head. “It also explains the distant looks and sudden run-offs. I guess ghosts can get a little too close sometimes.”
   Sean looked at the admiral. “How is it that you know so much about Kyra Zane and the rest of Dax his personal life, admiral, if you don’t mind me asking?”
   Graham shrugged. “A lot of it is in his personal file of course, but I’ve also had quite a few talks with him myself. I want al my pilots to perform to their limits, but they must first know for themselves what those limits are. Furthermore, I’ve been to Luna several times to check up on you two before you entered the Academy.” He motioned to Rachel, who looked surprised. The admiral smiled.   
   “I’ve been monitoring your progress since the first time I heard about two promising young hotshots, each of them scaring the living daylights out of people on their own lunar hemisphere. I was right in guessing that you’d both join the Academy, although I had my worries concerning Dax’s background.”
   “And you don’t have those worries anymore?” Sean wanted to know. “His condition still isn’t exactly stable.”
   The admiral sighed. “I know. But I still have the feeling that it will all turn around in the near future. Dax knows that he’ll have to confront his misplaced guilt and put it to rest soon. He’s showing progress.”
   
   “Progress??” Rachel suddenly exclaimed. “He just bolted out of the Moonlight Lounge and used your personal launch code to escape into space with a billion-credit fighter! With all due respect, sir, but I wouldn’t want to call that progress!”
   Graham looked at the angered lieutenant. There was now something is his eyes, a knowing. Both officers saw it.
   “You have reason to believe Dax will be confronted soon, don’t you admiral?” Sean observed, his eyes somewhat narrowed.
   Their superior turned to stare out of his window and nodded in affirmation.  “I have heard things. But they are only vague rumours, so I’d like to keep them for myself for the time being, while I check out where they are based upon. I hope you will forgive me for keeping you in the dark about this one.”
   Sean and Rachel looked at each other for a while.  Then they both nodded themselves. “I guess we have heard enough news for now,” Rachel stated, though she was still not entirely satisfied. She had noticed that the admiral hadn’t fully answered Sean’s question about his information where it concerned Kyra Zane. But now was not the moment to be too inquisitive; her best friend was out there in the Sargasso, struggling with his emotions while flying under influence in the most dangerous asteroid belt in TCN space. She walked to the door.
 
   “If you were thinking of going after him, don’t bother,” Graham said. “He’ll be in Nebraska by now, and he’s the only one that knows his way in those tunnels.”
   “Nebraska??” Sean stated incredulously. “Are you telling us that Dax is hiding in the Sargasso’s biggest ‘roid?”
   The admiral shrugged. “He does that from time to time, just because he knows that no one would be crazy enough to follow him in.”
   “I’ll go anyway,” Rachel insisted. “He needs me.”
   Graham shook his head. “He wants to be alone out there. It’s the only place where he can truly have privacy. Besides, he’ll probably make contact in a minute or so to apologize for ‘borrowing’ that fighter.”
   
   As if the admiral had been gifted with foresight, the com on his desk suddenly crackled to life: “Ryder to Avalon. Come in Avalon. Admiral, are you there?” Dax’s voice sounded.
   Graham swiftly reached for the com. “I’m hear, Dax. Are you alright? Sean and Rachel are here with me.”
   There was only static on the other side of the link for a few seconds. “You told them?” he asked.
   “I did,” the admiral answered. “Hope you don’t mind.”
   A short, forced laugh sounded. “I should have told them sooner. I guess I owe you then, admiral,” the wry reply came. “Anyway, there is something I have to tell you.”
   “It can wait, Dax,” Rachel quickly said, still concerned for his safety. “Why don’t you get back here first? Then you can tell us all about it.”
   Dax snorted. “Just because I can’t cope with my past sometimes, doesn’t mean that I’m any less capable. Admiral, you need to see this.”
   “But I…” Rachel started, and then went silent. Getting scolded by her friend in that way left her more than a little hurt. Graham saw it but knew he couldn’t do anything about it right now. “What is it then, Dax?”
   
   “I found a shipwreck here in Nebraska,” the pilot told. “It looks pretty torn apart, so I can imagine it either slammed into the ‘roid or got messed up beforehand. It must have been here for some years, but since it lies in a cavern instead of one of the tunnels, I found it only just now.”
   “A shipwreck in the Sargasso isn’t exactly a hot item, Dax,” Graham carefully tried.
   “With all due respect, sir, but this one is. I made an instant positive identification; no mistake possible. It’s a Curia-class diplomatic transport.”
   “A Curia?” the admiral repeated, puzzled. “An old Senate transport? How can that be? Those things were taken out of production almost a decade ago. I know nothing about a high-level diplomatic mission gone awry here at that time, certainly not one where it involved the crash of a senatorial ship.”
   “Oh, but it gets even better,” Dax added. His voice had a grim lining to it now. “I can read the name beneath the port cockpit window. It says Chryselefantine.”
   A deathly silence fell over Graham’s quarters. About two minutes later the admiral spoke again: “Are you sure? Are you really, really sure?”
   “You have my word,” Dax spoke evenly. “The Chryselefantine rests here, or at least what’s left of it.”
   Graham looked at the clock on his wall; it was half past three in the morning. He thought the matter over for not more then a split-second before he decided. “Sound the alarm,” he announced, looking at Sean. “It could probably wait until morning, but we’re not taking any chances with this. I want a ROSS ready in ten minutes, captain. Make it so.”
   “Yes, sir,” Ferguson nodded. He knew when Graham’s orders were indisputable.
   
   “Dismissed,” Graham said, motioning absently towards the door. Rachel and Sean left at once, leaving the admiral alone in his quarters. This had proven to be quite an eventful night so far. Avalon’s commander let his thoughts momentarily drift back to Sean’s question about Kyra Zane; how did the admiral know so much about her? Graham smiled faintly; best not let any of them know just yet. After all, they were just only rumours. But still…
   The admiral supposed that Rachel and Sean knew what had happened to Korano and his murderous band of pirates after the brutal assault on the Adrastos. One by one, they had been killed; all of them. The ones that were known by the authorities, the ones that were not and eventually even Korano himself had been found executed in cold blood. Quick, clean and untraceable. The kills had been heralded throughout TCN space as justice being served. Those tales had surfaced almost simultaneously with her appearance on the galactic stage.
   Graham grinned. Dawn. That’s how they called her. One name to describe the emergence of the most enigmatic and intangible bounty hunter alive. A bounty hunter, they said, whose eyes were fate incarnate. Eyes that were cold, hard, deep, amethystine purple.
 

[6]

   As Rachel headed for the Sargasso in her F-214, escorting the Remotely Operated Salvage Ship or ROSS, she recalled how Dax had reacted to her well-intended plea when they had listened to him in Graham’s quarters just then. Rachel wondered if he had realized how his scolding had made her feel. She couldn’t bear the thought that something might happen to her friend out there when he was mentally torturing himself, like the admiral had told them he did every day. 
   Rachel Burns still cared deeply for Dax Ryder, that much was certain. She knew it and she resented her own weakness. Why could she just not let it go? It was pretty obvious that Dax merely saw her as a colleague and a good friend, nothing beyond. And even that wasn’t like in the old days at the Academy anymore.
   Rachel remembered those days well, for they had been filled with hopes and promises for the future. She and Dax had been much closer then, spending most of their time together. They had followed classes sitting next to each other all the time, studying hard to become the best together. In their spare time they had been nigh inseparable as well; visiting every one of Jupiter’s enormous floating cities, swimming in the warm artificial sea inside Athens, running laps around the Academy’s Central Garden, dancing for hours on end in the Slipstream, reading countless fantasy and classic sci-fi novels… everything.
   And ultimately, of course, Rachel had fallen in love with the enigmatic pilot. For years, she had tried to be as seductive as possible, hoping that Dax would feel the same. But all that had changed after that one night.
 
   It had been in the summer of their fourth year at the Academy, after an especially wild party in the Slipstream, when Dax and she had finally succumbed to the effects of their intimate lifestyle and ended up in bed with each other. Rachel shivered involuntarily as she remembered the feeling of Dax’s fingers, lips and tongue trailing all over her body. That night had been incredible, forever etched in her mind. But as they had awoken the next morning, Dax had felt incredibly guilty. He hadn’t been able to tell Rachel why, but it was obvious that something had made him regret their passionate night together enormously.
   From that point onwards, her relationship with Dax had changed considerably. No more spending nearly every waking minute with each other, no more intimate conversations in the Central Garden or intense dancing in the Slipstream. Were they scarce before that night, the instances on which Dax acted strangely towards her and others alike increased tenfold afterwards. It had been if his past had come back to haunt him with a vengeance. And never had Dax been seemingly able to explain to her or any of their friends what phantom chased him so relentlessly.
   
   Until now. Now she knew what Dax had been hiding those years at the Academy: Kyra Zane. He had apparently succeeded in controlling his feelings of guilt the first years, but after the night with Rachel they had resurfaced stronger then ever. All because of that long lost love.
   The F-214 and the bulky ROSS it accompanied had entered the Sargasso and were now steadily making their way towards Nebraska, the field’s largest asteroid. It must have been Dax’s safehold since they were both first stationed here, Rachel realised. She should have guessed as much this morning when he had navigated the tunnels of that giant rock so effortlessly.
   She shook her head sadly; she couldn’t even begin to imagine how it must feel to hear that the one you love most has been killed and that the body could not be found. How could Dax ever find peace that way? Rachel could no longer be angry with him. Her feelings of self pity disappeared and were replaced by a profound sense of compassion for her best friend.
   Determined to help Dax as much as was in her power when they were back on Avalon, Rachel kicked her fighter in maximum gear. The ROSS she was escorting did its best to put up with the tempo, but since Pyro had to clear its path of small asteroids anyway that wasn’t exactly necessary. Finally, the way to Nebraska was clear and Rachel hailed her wingmate:
   
   “Ace, Pyro here. I brought a ROSS with me. We’ll have a look at your find now. Are you there? Over.”
   It remained silent for a while, after which Rachel’s com crackled and Dax’s voice sounded out of the speakers:
   “Pyro, this is Ace. Thanks for the quick response.” It went quiet for a few moments again.
   In the meantime Rachel spotted Dax’s F-214. The fighter, so tiny in comparison to Nebraska, waited in front of a frighteningly dark entrance in the huge rock. The pilot involuntarily swallowed at the prospect of entering the gaping maw. Then, the com crackled again.
   “I owe you an apology, Rachel. Sorry for my outburst. I over-reacted; I couldn’t blame you for anything. At any rate, you would be the one that I should be grateful for most of all. It was always your presence that kept me from falling apart all these years. I’ve never properly thanked you for that. Now I finally will: thank you, my friend. Thank you so much for not giving up on me.” He laughed. “Hear me talk! Getting all sentimental and stuff. I’m getting mushy even before my midlife crisis.”
   Although the words spilled out of the haunted pilot like a waterfall, Rachel absorbed the underlying meanings syllable for syllable. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes as she realized that her connection with Dax had never been entirely severed. She decelerated until her fighter had come to a complete stop next to that of Dax.
   
   “Apology accepted, hotshot,” Rachel answered, making sure that emotion didn’t choke her voice. “Now show me that wreck of yours. If it really is the ship you told us about, you might yet become the one that solved the greatest mystery of the past dozen years.”
   Dax laughter sounded relieved as he realised that he and Rachel were back on track together again. “That would be something, wouldn’t it? Now you just follow me in. Follow my every move and don’t get all impulsive on me, okay? Nebraska is a dangerous place for those that don’t know there way around.”
   “Will do, Ace,” Rachel acknowledged. “Take the lead, I’m right behind you.”
   Dax swerved his F-214 around and gently headed for the ‘roid’s entrance. “Then hold on to your seatbelts, miss. You’re in for something else.”
   Rachel steered her fighter towards the entrance as well, matched speed with Dax and allowed herself to be led into the darkness of Nebraska. A quick glance on her HUD assured her that the ROSS was following her fighter in its wake.
   “Turn on your floodlights, Rachel. I haven’t installed ceiling-lighting in here yet,” Dax joked, but with a clear hint of insistency. Navigating Nebraska’s winding corridors was already difficult enough. Flying in the pitch-black wouldn’t exactly help.
   The pilots turned on their lighting and the trailing ROSS followed suit. Five bright white beams now illuminated the way, casting eerie shadows on the ancient tunnel walls.
« Last Edit: May 21, 2007, 08:58:47 pm by Lord Xalys » Report Spam   Logged



"She pulled down her hood, freeing her auburn hair to the wind that had picked up in the last few minutes. Her emerald green eyes saw everything and nothing at once, making her infinitely sad for a fraction of time. And Ava cried." - H.G. Pape
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