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

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Lord Xalys
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Favorite Genre: Hard Sci-Fi, Space Opera, Fantasy
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Praise the Fallen


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« on: May 17, 2007, 04:19:24 pm »

I have something big for you guys and girls... For those of you that don't know it, I actually managed to publish my first book, Ankh,  in a limited fashion (55 of them). After Ankh, which was written in Dutch, I started working on the sequel. This never worked out unfortunately, and only some drafts remain. Instead I wanted to explore my love for sci-fi more, and started on my grand idea of a science fiction trilogy: H2O. With the world underwater as the setting, some three centuries in the future, I wrote a lot of it (again in Dutch). Still, it didn't feel right for some reason. After a while I took the leap and translated H2O into English. The idea had first been to have volume I be primarily underwater, volume II both underwater as on land (increasing to semi-epic scale) and finally volume III on both those terrains as well as in space (increasing to epic scale). But as I was working, I sensed a longing for skipping all the way to volume III and get straight to the spaceborne part... sigh. I don't know how I did it, but I put the 'old' H2O on hold and started anew and fresh with a true sci-fi in space. I still called it H2O, primarily for nostalgic reasons. It is still a major WIP, and I expect it to be full of mistakes and faults (both in grammar and logic). I haven't looked at the document for over a year now, so it is as much a new thing for me to read. I would appreciate it if you would take the time to read some of it, and help me with the errors. Perhaps you can even make me pick it up again...

EDIT: below are chapters 1-3. Chapters 4-6 (which is only partially completed) will follow later on. If there are weird breaks between paragraphs, that is because I have it in a Word file with special layout. I tried to break it up a little for better reading. Wink

LX



H2O

Awakenings

[Project 0422312, Volume 1]

 
 
[1]

How does one define eternity?

To be perfectly honest with you, I do not know.

For eternity is a concept as enigmatic, controversial and utterly incomprehensible as time itself. Sought after by many, found by none. A lingering dream in the hearts of men.
Even for a being like me, ancient beyond reckoning and imparted with knowledge that spans eons, eternity is nigh intangible. Sure, for someone as yourself, with a basic lifespan of no more then 130 Terran years, I would seem exactly that: everlasting.

But even I am subject to entropy.

Just as the almighty Zeus himself, father of god and man alike, was ultimately subject to the Graeae weaving the thread of his existence, entropy steers my path. Or as you like to call it, fate.

But do not let this make you complacent. The arrow of time may guide our way onwards through the dark, it does not take away your responsibility towards the universe. Some things are predestined, I agree with you fully, but not everything. Not nearly everything even, not by a long shot. That too is entropy.
Therefore I urge you to make up your own minds. Think for yourselves and help shape your own fate. Doing so, you will shape the fate of the universe as well. Everything is possible with sufficient will.

And for those moments where it seems that you are a mere spectator as your life goes by, remember this: where the river takes you, will in time be revealed.

With warmest regards to all of you,

Kaelin

 
“Where the river takes me, will in time be revealed.”
   Captain Arya Tanith spoke the old maxim out loud and sighed. The way she saw it, Kaelin’s Reflections Upon Existence was a work of pure art. The wisdom speaking from his words had inspired countless generations, capable of lighting up their day with just a few sentences. 
   Being a Transcendent of the Old Days, originating from Earth itself, Kaelin had seen to it that he did not alienate himself from his former kin after his evolution. Instead he had chosen to stay in the vicinity of mankind, passing on lessons and experiences to his people as he saw fit, while his now incorporeal conscience explored the furthest interstellar reaches.     
   Reading the plaque on her desk had become a daily ritual for Arya. She read it when she got up early in the morning and read it again when she went to bed late at night. While she had all four volumes of Reflections upon existence standing proudly on her bookshelf, it was the passage from Volume III engraved in the glass-plated titanium plaque that appealed to her the most. It soothed her mind, calmed her thoughts.
   And God knows I need a little bolstering of the soul from time to time out here, Arya thought as she gazed through the large panoramic window pane of her quarters. She took in the splendid sight of the beautiful stellar phenomena, feeling a familiar humbling sensation. I am but a drop of water in an eternal ocean of stars.
   The constellation of Orion harboured a stunning collection of colourful nebulae. Dominating this area of space was M42, the famous Orion Nebula surrounding Theta Orionis in what is called Orion’s Sword. A vast expanse of primarily hydrogen, which caused it to emit a beautiful rose red glow, M42 had lit up the night sky on Earth since the dawn of life.
   Just above it was NGC1975. Being a blue emission nebula, and one of the brightest of its kind at that, it complemented M42’s colour brilliantly with its cobalt blue shine.
   Going upwards from the Sword is the single most famous part of Orion: the Belt. Here the three stars Alnitak, Anilam and Mintaka have captured people’s imagination for ages.
Known to science in the Bayer designation as Zeta, Epsilon and Delta Orionis, this threesome of bright stars constituted the belt of the Great Hunter Orion.

   Arya now looked towards Alnitak, or The Girdle as it was translated from Arabic. Only a few light years away from her current position, it was the star that had given the space around her its name; the since the year 2583 populated Zeta Orionis system.
   Alnitak harboured a couple of nebulae as well. One of them, NGC 2024, was also known as the Christmas Tree, Tank Track or Flame Nebula by some, due to the prominent dark dust that branched through the orange-magenta gas cloud.
   However, it was nearby B33’s popular name that people in all the inhabited systems knew: the Horse Nebula. It was a dark nebula, a starlight-obscuring cloud of dust looking strikingly similar to a Terran horse’s head. The large gaseous haze around it, IC 434, radiated the warm ruby red of ionized hydrogen.
   The Great Nebula, the Horse Nebula and the Flame Nebula; each a part of an immense stellar nursery only 1.500 light years from mankind’s own cradle, Sol. Arya sighed. Orion was truly a visually stunning delivery room for newborn stars.
   And that was why the Terran Covenant had constructed a Golem II research station here two and a half years ago; to observe the creation of new suns in the nebula complex.
   Or at least that was what Arya had been told during briefing.
   Judging by the steadily increasing starship traffic to and from the station over the last few weeks, especially that of military nature, the redhead captain of the Solarion had a gut feeling that analyzing spectral emissions and taking high-res holopics of protostars were not the only things scientists on Research Station 128 did.
   No, there was more going on there.
   Arya had not been assigned here to ask questions though. She was used to work on a strictly need-to-know basis, which was annoying at times, but simply part of the job. She would just have to concentrate on the mission at hand.
   If only she could shake that uncomfortable feeling of suspiciousness constantly recurring in the back of her head.
   Arya forced the thought back into her subconsciousness and turned away from the vista outside. She took a last glance at the inscribed plaque on her desk, musing on Kaelin’s words of wisdom. Then she walked to the door and left her quarters.
   
   On her way to the bridge she was saluted by several crewmembers that had already been working since 0500, the people that were responsible for keeping her ship in perfect working order.
   The TCN Solarion was a Cerberus-class frigate, designed to patrol sparsely populated sectors and deal with the more common threats of the civilized universe, namely pirates and smugglers. It boasted eight fast-tracking heavy argon ion lasers, or HAIL’s for short, and a small complement of missiles. Topping that off with a squadron of F-214 fighters, the Solarion could hold its own even against a full-size Corsair hunting pack with escorts.
   The past few weeks had been quiet though, with only the occasional rum-runner or arms-dealer trying to sneak past Covenant Navy attention. Those encounters had been dealt with accordingly, ending with captured petty criminals in the Solarion’s brig in most instances and small expanding clouds of space debris after the odd shoot-out.
   Arya Tanith had been the commanding officer of the Solarion for three years now, and she had become quite attached to her ship. She loved the sensation of speed she got when the frigate entered pursuit so much, that she had the inertial dampers tuned down a little. This caused the ship to compensate less for swift accelerations, which translated into more G’s and thus a stronger gravitational pull experienced by the crew.
   So far she hadn’t received any complaints about her tinkering with the dampers, and Arya was convinced that most of the men and women under her command were secretly speed junkies just like herself.
   
   She had reached the bridge now and entered her access code. The door slid open and she stepped into the command centre of the Solarion.
   “Captain on the bridge,” her second-in-command, David Reskin, announced. He saluted, as did the other personnel present. Arya smiled and returned the salute.
   “At ease, commander. Good morning, people. I hope everybody is well rested, since we’ve got another adrenaline-filled day ahead of us.”
   All around the bridge officers and ensigns were grinning; they knew Captain Tanith was fed up with guard duty in this system, since nothing ever happened.
   Arya nodded, now smiling faintly. “Tactical, I’d like a status update of our situation, please.”
   “Long-range sensors are tracking three system-bound convoys, ma’am,” a young female ensign replied on behalf of Tactical. “Two of them consist mainly of gas miners and accompanying tankers, the third is a military convoy heading for the research station. I have just uploaded the new data to your chair.”
   Arya frowned. A set of military ships that was not on their list of expected arrivals for today. That was yet another convoy Navy Command had ‘forgotten’ to mention this week. This whole cloak-and-dagger stuff was starting to get on her nerves.
   “Navigation, what is our current heading?” Arya asked.
   “Heading 346-003, captain,” a Nav officer answered. “We’re making the usual elliptic around the station, standard intra-sector patrol procedure.”
   The captain nodded approvingly and turned to her second-in-command. “Mr. Reskin, have the other two frigates reported in yet to go over today’s duty roster?”
   “The Galinor has already taken up orbit around the gate,” the commander replied. “Captain Borstal is closely monitoring incoming traffic bound for the station and will relay any new contacts he identifies.”
   Arya nodded again. Knowing Clivus Borstal, nothing would come through that gate without him knowing every detail about the ship and her crew, down to its captain’s favourite colour. Borstal was her superior officer on this assignment, something Arya was very pleased with. She had already served with the senior captain on several missions, which were successfully completed mainly thanks to Borstal’s excellent leadership.
   “As for the Parandras,” Reskin continued. “Captain Dahlgren was just on the com before you came in. I gave him the flight schedules for those inbound gas mining convoys. He should be holding his position five clicks from the Kessler lane to the Christmas Tree, waiting for the first convoy to arrive.”
   This time Arya chuckled. She knew how much Erick Dahlgren hated nebula guard duty. Babysitting those tubs which the Covenant called Borealis-class gas miners was considered the worst assignment on any given day. She could know, since it had been the Solarion’s turn yesterday.
   
   Nebula, gate and station guard duty. Those were the three tasks laid out for the trio of Cerberus-class frigates patrolling the Alnitak system. Navy Command had deemed more patrol ships unnecessary, as Sol was only a few jumps away and therefore reinforcements could be called in reasonably fast.
   Besides, nothing ever happened out here. Period.
   In the meantime both Mining Convoy 3201 and 3202 had arrived, jumping in-system just four minutes from each other. While the Parandras escorted the gas miners through the Kessler Lane to the Flame Nebula, Arya turned her attention to the tactical sensor display on her captain’s chair.
   As expected, captain Borstal had already sent her full details on the two mining convoys. She didn’t bother to read them; when you’d seen one Borealis, you’d seen them all. No, Arya was much more interested in the inbound military ships. Perhaps this time the Galinor’s enhanced sensor banks could tell her more about their cargo then on previous occasions.
   The ETA timer on her display reached zero. Arya looked out of the window, expecting to see the convoy coming through Zeta Orionis system’s only jumpgate right on schedule. You could bet a year’s salary on it; Navy ships were never late.
   But nothing happened.
   Something started to tingle in the back of Arya’s head. She waited for ten minutes until she reached for the com on her left armrest and contacted the Galinor, in the meantime ordering the pilot at the helm to bring the Solarion closer to the other frigate.
   “Galinor, this is the Solarion. Do you have any idea what’s keeping Navy Convoy 837? ETA expired ten minutes ago.”
   “Negative Solarion,” Clivus Borstal replied. “I don’t know where they are. That convoy should have been here by now. Standby, I’ll try and contact Command about the delay.”
   
   But before her superior could do so, the hyperspace interstice contained by the jumpgate swirled to life and spat out Navy Convoy 837… or what was left of it.
   Of the sixteen ships that should have made up the convoy, only three came through the gate; two F-214 fighters and a Minerva-class science vessel. The latter had an enormous plume of smoke trailing it, while both escort fighters had deuterium gas leaking out of their fuel tanks like there was no tomorrow.
   The tingling in Arya’s head turned into a set of ringing mental alarm bells. She inhaled sharply and decided to trust her instincts.
   “Tactical, charge weapons and line up the HAIL’s with the convoy’s approach vector,” she commanded. “Helm, bring us hard to port.”
   “Captain, what are you doing?” Commander Reskin looked at her inquisitively as the Solarion started to manoeuvre.
   Arya turned towards her second-in-command. “Trust me, David, I know what I’m doing.”
   As to affirm that statement, the com crackled:
   “Mayday, mayday! This is Lieutenant Ross of the Terran Covenant Navy science vessel Danube, requesting immediate assistance! Our convoy has been ambushed and we are being followed. They can be here any second now! Please assist!”
   It sounded like a young man, in his early twenties maybe, his voice unmistakably lined with terror. Something had scared the living daylights out of him.
   “Calm down, son,” Arya heard Captain Borstal say. “Who attacked your convoy? Corsairs?”
   “No, no! They weren’t Terran! I… I’ve never seen such ships before. Send out all of your fighters, please! They are coming!”
   “We don’t have anything on our sensors, son,” Borstal answered. “There is nothing coming through that gate anytime soon, I assure you. Relax, everything will be alright.”
   “No, you don’t understand!” The voice sounded frantic now. “They don’t use the gate. They came out of nowhere and blasted my whole convoy to pieces in seconds! I beg you, call for reinforcements! PLEASE!”
   Arya just wanted to respond herself, but it was already too late.   
   They had arrived.

   Just like Ross had said, they didn’t come through the jumpgate. Arya watched dumbstruck as three hyperspace interstices opened to the starboard side of the Danube.
   A trio of small, arrowhead-shaped ships with jet black hulls jumped in-system. They were hardly visible against the backdrop of deep, dark space. Only Alnitak’s bright presence and the star-light reflected by the nearby nebulae gave the craft an outline. Still even then they seemed to absorb the light, leaving only shadows in their wake.
   At first glance the ships, which were only marginally larger than F-214 fighters, looked sleek and unarmed. But then they opened up, which was the only way to describe what happened.
   All three ships had their arrowhead bow split open, followed by the extension of a short meter-wide muzzle. Respectively on top of and underneath the two bow-parts a set of gun-like emitters and two launch tubes were raised and lowered from their hidden compartments. Additional thrusters were revealed.
   With their concealed weaponry now geared for combat, the trio of fighters turned their attention towards Navy Convoy 837.
   Arya could not even shout a warning over the com, so sudden and ferocious was their assault.
   One of the fighters made a quick turn and lined up its bow with the Danube, after which it shot a beam of blinding aquamarine light straight through the science vessel’s hull.
   Mere seconds later the aft section of the ship ruptured and the Danube exploded in a spectacular fashion, showering the immediate vicinity with flaming hot debris. One of the crippled escort fighters was caught in the blast and torn apart by the shockwave.
   Lieutenant Ross could only scream but once.
   The intense particle stream had actually passed clean through the Danube’s fusion reactor, punching holes the size of a tank hatch in the 650mm thick anti-radiation armour on both entry and exit. The beam caused the still unused deuterium fuel to fuse on the spot, exerting an enormous amount of heat and pressure on the already heavily damaged reactor. Critical level was reached in milliseconds, setting off the ship like an oversized H-bomb.
   The second F-214 fighter which had escorted the now late TCN Danube had veered off just in time and, unlike its wingman, had avoided the blast.
   The pilot had only postponed the inevitable though, as the black xeno fighter that had destroyed the science vessel burst forward and fired its main cannon again. Although the energy output was much lower this time, the aquamarine beam was still powerful enough to turn the Terran fighter into a blooming fireball.
   
   After that, all hell broke lose.
   Both the Galinor and the Solarion launched their full complement of F-214 fighters, which soon outnumbered the black aggressors eight to one. Then, out of the blue, the two frigates suddenly lost all communications with their fighters, as well as with the Parandras and Station 128. 
   The lead alien ship, which had destroyed the Danube, broke formation and altered course towards the Kessler lane, leaving his two wingmen to deal with the F-214’s. The odds in Terran favour were suddenly improved to twelve to one.
   He is going for Dahlgren, Arya suddenly realised. And with the com down there is nothing I can do to warn him.
   Mistaking the departing xeno’s course of action for fear, all twenty-four F-214 fighters joined formation and headed for a full frontal attack on the two remaining black craft. It was an impressive display of what turned out to be good old classic Terran arrogance.
   The aggressors dealt with this attitude accordingly; one of the craft fired its beam cannon twice in rapid succession, vaporizing two F-214’s in the blink of an eye. After that, two missiles streaked from its ventral launch tubes, split up, found their targets and annihilated three Terran fighters each in spherical bursts of searing white energy.
   The other ship did not fire its main cannon, but instead let loose a flurry of incandescent energy pulses from its two dorsal guns. Where the salvo’s of sapphire blue energy hit the hull of an F-214, the armour plating disintegrated in bright flashes of light.
   The fighter pilots frantically tried to evade the withering fusillade, but to no avail. From her vantage point on the bridge of the Solarion, Captain Arya Tanith watched with growing horror as thousands of microscopic explosions on their hulls ripped the F-214’s apart, one by one.
   With its fighter screen now gone, Clivus Borstal’s Galinor became the focal point of attention for the xeno fighters.
   “Sir, communications with both the Parandras and Station 128 are being jammed,” Arya told Borstal over the secure ship-to-ship intercom. “It looks like we’re on our own.”
   “So it seems, captain,” her superior replied, his voice sounding grim but determined. “Keep our link open, we’ll do this together. Those xeno’s are going to pay dearly for what they’ve done.” 
   On the bridge of his beloved ship, the aging frigate captain drew upon the experience of all his 57 years of service. His orders were brief, clear and executed to the letter. The HAIL turrets on the Galinor swivelled in the direction of the two rapidly closing alien fighters. The cannons on the Solarion were already trying to come to grips with the enemy, thanks to Arya’s hunch that had proven to be terribly right.
   “Fire at will!” Borstal commanded over the open intercom channel.
   “They’re to fast, sir,” Arya heard one of the Galinor’s gunners reply. “We can’t get a lock!”
   “I don’t give a damn!” Borstal countered. “I want those murdering bastards blasted to pieces! FIRE!”
   Salvo upon salvo of HAIL fire from both frigates darted towards the two black fighters, who evaded the blue-green laser beams with almost contemptuous ease. Although the beams themselves travelled with the speed of light, the turrets that housed the cannons could not be aimed fast enough to actually use that advantage.
   Then one of the Solarion’s salvos’s found its mark, seemingly hitting one of the xeno fighters dead on. But the argon ion laser beam came to an abrupt halt half a metre from the black ship, the otherwise destructive energy dissipating in a kaleidoscope of shimmering colours.
   Arya caught her breath. They’ve got shields! What are they, some kind of new Ayani Yakuza ships??     
   The aliens continued to dodge the Terran crossfire until they came within firing range of the Galinor and Solarion. They each targeted one of the two frigates and both let rip with their beam cannons, obliterating the offending HAIL turrets in a matter of seconds. The Terran capital ships were now almost completely defenceless.
   
   But Clivus Borstal had one more ace up his sleeve.
   “Unload all missile banks!” he commanded over the com.
   A swarm of heat-seeking missiles streaked forward from the launchers of the Solarionand Galinor, dozens of missiles racing towards the xeno’s in search of their heat signatures. But the two bright explosions both frigate captains had expected from the detonations of all those warheads did not come.
   Instead, the black fighters danced.
   They banked, rolled, dodged and evaded the incoming missiles in extreme-G manoeuvres that would kill a human pilot with ease. The only missile that came too close to one of the alien ships was casually destroyed by a small point-defence beam darting from its aft section.
   Dear Lord, what are these things?! Arya thought bewildered. They parry everything we throw at them!
   A couple of minutes later, the frigates conceded defeat. With their F-214’s gone, the HAIL turrets destroyed and missile banks depleted, they had no more weapons left to defend themselves. The two black fighters abruptly came to a halt, lining up their beam cannons with the seemingly doomed frigates. Both crews waited for the inevitable killing blow.
   Nothing happened. The tension aboard the frigates steadily became almost unbearable.
   “Solarion, this is Borstal,” the captain of the Galinor suddenly spoke through the secure com. “These bastards are playing with us! If we act now, there is still a chance for one of us to survive. Otherwise we will all die out here.”
   Arya’s superior audibly inhaled. “I want you to leave this system at once. We will cover your retreat.”
   “But sir, you don’t have any weapons!” Arya protested. “With all due respect, but what in God’s name could you possibly do to stop these monsters?!”
   “I have a fully functional fusion reactor left and a crew that is willing to give their lives,” Borstal stated ominously. “We may not be able to stop them, but a thermonuclear blast at point-blank range will sure as hell surprise them enough for you to make your escape.”
   “Sir!” Arya exclaimed as it dawned on her what Borstal intended to do. The only possible event capable of triggering a nuclear blast was the detonation of the Galinor’s fusion reactor.
   “Arya, please!” Borstal’s voice had a tone of masked desperation in it. “One of us has to get word out about what happened here! You know as well as I do that Dahlgren and his crew are already dead. And the research station is lost as well; there is nothing we can do to save it.”
   “But sir…” Arya feebly tried once more, knowing in her heart how this all would end.
   “Arya, this incursion is only the beginning. My instinct tells me that whatever it is that was being researched on Station 128 other than newborn stars has been the cause of this. I fear that they have awoken a slumbering beast. Maybe we can put it back to sleep again, if we act fast.” 
   Borstel sighed. He knew he had to be brief; the xeno’s could hack the secured link to the Solarion any time now. He also knew what had to be done. Still, it was a painful goodbye.
   “I’ve known you long enough now to know what you are capable of, and I’m sure that you have a role yet to play in all of this. When I disconnect, turn tail and go straight for that jumpgate. Don’t look back, don’t be a wise ass. Your time for heroics will come, I promise, but today it’s my turn.”
   Arya could here the captain of the Galinor almost laugh about his own morbid sense of irony, right before he spoke his final words:
   “Captain Tanith, it has been an honour and a pleasure serving with you. Now get the hell out of here, that’s an order. Borstal out.” 
   The secure ship-to-ship link was severed. Arya swallowed hard and proceeded to give her orders to the dazed personnel on the bridge:
   “Helm, I want this ship turned 180 degrees around and on our way to the jumpgate in half a minute. Lock on to Betelgeuze’s gate beacon, we should be safe there. Engineering, get me all available power out of that damn reactor and reroute it to the engines. Move it people!”
   
   The officers on the bridge were shaken out of their apathy, realizing what situation they were in. The pilots at the dual helm, two young men in their late twenties focussed on the job at hand; one of them already plotting their escape vector while the other turned the helm hard to starboard. Slowly the Solarion came about, pivoting on the spot, the rumble of the fusion engines and ion manoeuvring thrusters reverberating through the entire ship.
   As soon as the frigate had turned half-circle, the engines engaged at full power. The Solarion accelerated as fast as she could, trying to put as much distance as possible between herself and the doomed frigate it left behind. One of the two black fighters turned around and began to give chase, while his companion let loose an aquamarine beam on Borstal’s ship.
   Then the fusion reactor onboard the Galinor self-destructed, turning the ship into a miniature supernova and consuming the still firing xeno ship in the immense expanding fireball.
   With several tonnes of He3 and deuterium fuel more than the Danube had carried when it exploded, the Cerberus-class frigate detonated with such intensity that the Solarion’s aft sensor array was temporarily blinded by the flash.
   Having another one of her peculiar moments of clairvoyance, Arya yelled the ‘full stop’ command after sensing the oncoming shockwave just before it struck. Not two seconds later it hit, crashing into the engine section like a breaker at sea and proceeding to shove the frigate towards the jumpgate in a not so gentle manner.
   With its engines shut down to prevent further damage, the battered light frigate now rode the wave-front like a surfer. The jumpgate that would lead them to Betelgeuse, the red supergiant which was only four hundred light years from Sol, drew ever closer on the main view-screen of the Solarion’s bridge, beckoning.
   
   They were no more than eight clicks from the gate, when suddenly a series of loud thuds could be felt. Even with the aft sensor array still showing nothing but static, Arya knew that their pursuer was still right on their tail and was now firing energy pulses from its secondary cannons into the frigate’s engine section.
   The status display in her captain’s chair now had icons flashing red uninterrupted as the engines were systematically being shot to pieces.
   Then, another warning sign lit up: missile launch.
   “Incoming missile!” the Tactical officer shouted. Everybody on the bridge braced for impact, but looked at the main screen in wonder as a bulky silver missile streaked overhead towards the gate.
   As the proximity sensors on the jumpgate detected the Solarion and recognized its transponder signal, the vortex swirled open. The enemy missile almost went through the space-time rift, but detonated soundlessly just centimetres in front of it. Instantly the grey-blue interstice changed appearance, swirling erratically and repeatedly bulging out of the confines of the jumpgate.
   “What the hell is happening?!” Arya demanded.
   “The transponder signal of Betelgeuse’s beacon is gone, captain!” her Navigation officer replied, his voice laced with fear and utter confusion. “Our astrogation computer can’t cope with the input it is getting now.”
   The last three words were accompanied by an ominous rumbling noise, caused by a muffled explosion in the Solarion’s bow. The Navigation officer promptly cursed, after which his voice lost the frightened edge and had it replaced with grim resignation.
   “God help us, we just lost our main sensor suite. All communications are down and both the hyperspace beacon-locator and transmitter are fried.” He eyed his Captain. “Ma’am, if we go through that gate, we have no way of getting out.” 
   Realizing what was about to happen, but knowing that the ship couldn’t be turned around in time, Arya Tanith’s eyes grew wide with terror. The black xeno fighter shot overhead, performed a looping behind the gate and fired its devastating cannon one last time.
   The last thing she saw before the Solarion was sucked into hyperspace without hope of returning was the blinding aquamarine beam piercing the bridge’s armour plating, driving the searing hot energy straight into the command centre.
   Then the universe turned black.
 
- The following preliminary report has been drafted by the onboard-AI of Recon Probe TCN-118-ERIC and has been classified Majestic-12; TCN Supreme Commander and High Command eyes only (Dr. Daniel Kazak, TCI Mars) -

To:                 TCN High Command, Terra, Sol system
From:             TCN Recon Probe RP-118-ERIC, RS 128, Alnitak system
Date:               21-06-2645, Terran Standard Time
Objective:   Recon of Alnitak system due to loss of communications        

Dear Sirs,

I have finished my reconnaissance mission of the Alnitak system as ordered. Preliminary findings are disturbing. Research Station 128 has been reduced to Swiss cheese; cauterized big holes through-and-through caused by an unknown energy weapon cover the entire station. Research labs seem to have been the prime targets. 
   Artificial atmosphere was lost during the attack, coinciding with station-wide local pressure losses and station personnel being sucked out of the impact holes. So far I have identified 357 registered personnel members drifting in space around the station as corpsicles and 64 bodies still inside the station. The remaining 32 that are as yet unaccounted for are presumed dead as well, probably killed instantly in the attack and leaving no visible traces.
   I find these numbers somewhat puzzling, as far more personnel has been found outside the station than those inside and missing combined. It almost seems as if the attacker(s) deliberately went about in such a fashion that the majority of people onboard RS 128 died a slow death by freezing and running out of oxygen in the vacuum of local space.
   As for the ships currently on location at the time; all have been destroyed, except for one. The Cerberus-class frigate Galinor apparently suffered a fusion reactor detonation, similar to the Minerva-class science vessel Danube. From both vessels there has only been found minor debris that was used for identification. The remains of NavCon 827, to which the Danube was attached, has been found at both the Betelgeuze and Alnitak jumpgates. The cause of this is unknown, although I suspect that NavCon 827 was ambushed at Betelgeuze by the unknown attackers. Apparently the Danube made it to the gate, after which the unknown hostiles finished the job at Alnitak. 
   I have discovered the Cerberus-class frigate Parandras floating at the end of the system’s only Kessler lane, near the Flame Nebula. It is in a similar state as RS 128; being littered with impact holes caused by an unknown energy weapon. The extensive burn marks on the outside however appear to be the result of large explosions, probably those of the Borealis-class deuterium mining vessels belonging to MinCon 3201 and MinCon 3202. Most bodies have not been found; they were probably consumed by the exploding miners.
   As for the TCN Solarion, the third of the Cerberus-class frigates assigned to guard RS 128 and the rest of the system’s assets, I am at a complete loss. There is no trace to be found of the ship in either the Alnitak system or anywhere else. If the Solarion did escape the attack and made it to the gate, something must have gone horribly wrong during their jump. About the whereabouts of this ship can only be guessed, and I find the only possibility forwarded by my own logical circuits - that the Solarion is lost in hyperspace - unsatisfactory.

Signed,
ERIC

 - Although I am aware of the curiosity that RP-118’s often display and the effects that their inquisitive nature sometimes can have on their judgemental capabilities, I have no doubt that ERIC has seen what he reports. The threat posed by these unknown attackers is frightening to say the least. I advise a full quarantine of the Alnitak jumpgate, and an indefinite travel prohibition to the Zeta Orionis system (Dr. Daniel Kazak, TCI Mars) -



[2]

The Sargasso asteroid belt around the planet Amphitrite, three days later…

   Beep…
   Beep…
   Beep…

   The young navigator who was on duty at this unholy time of day had stumbled out of his bunk an hour ago, thinking that his mood couldn’t possibly get any worse then it already was.
   He had thought wrong.
   This is just bloody unbelievable, the man said to himself as he walked, teeth grinding, through the corridor that led to the bridge.
   First some upstart lieutenant decides I should begin my shift at 0400 for a change. And like that isn’t bad enough, some probably completely trivial part of this ship starts beeping like there’s no tomorrow. And not quietly, no sir, but every second loud as hell over the damn intercom!
   The navigator again shoved another, in his opinion way to slow moving, automatic door aside. In the meantime he reached for the comlink in the breast pocket of his uniform. He flicked the activation switch in one fluid motion.
   “Billy, Davis here. Have you found out where that damn noise is coming from yet? Over.”
   The static coming from the device gave way to the voice of his clearly irritated fellow navigator;
   “No, damn it, I haven’t! Are you not listening? It could come from anywhere! There are a dozen places on this tub where an alarm is hooked up to the intercom. One of them probably just short-circuited. Over.”
   Davis swore inwardly. Short-circuit? This mission was far too important to be screwed over by faulty wiring!
   “I thought those bastards from Maintenance had double-checked everything before we left dock?! Those guys get paid better than both of us together, so I’d expect them to do a decent job for their money!”
   A stifled laugh was audible over the comlink.
   “Ah, well, there’s always a bigger fish, eh? OK, I’m at the escape pods now. Everything looks alright here. I’ll just…”
   Billy’s voice died away in an instant and Davis frowned.
   “Just what? Billy? What’s wrong? Billy!”
   Judging by the sound that he heard over the com his colleague was inhaling sharply.
   “One of the pods is missing.”
   His voice was a mix of unbelief and grimness.
   “It is what??” Davis exclaimed, baffled. Billy must have seen wrong.
   Meanwhile he had rounded the last corner and he punched in his access code on the keypad next to the bridge door.
   “I said,” his mate repeated, “there is a pod missing. Ejected.”
   The bridge door slid open and Davis entered the cockpit. Billy again said something, but his friend wasn’t listening anymore.
   He now stood in the cockpit, petrified, and took in the horrific sight that was unfolding before his eyes.
   The autopilot was activated and both pilots lay slumped in their chairs. A dark crimson stained the places where their throats had been slit. Davis, whose heart was now skipping beats at an alarming rate, followed a small trickle of blood across the back of one of the chairs. The drops fell upon the device that had caused the continuous beeping.
   His eyes now widened in terror, Davis stared powerless at the timer which relentlessly finished its work. He felt the bile rising in his throat and tasted it in his mouth as he saw their intended destination slowly fill the bridge window: a beautiful, sapphire-blue planet with a solid looking anthracite ring around it.
   No, please God, no!, his last thought was. Not while we are so close!

00.00.02
00.00.01
00.00.00


   The bomb exploded with such devastating force that the entire bow of the ship vaporized in an instant, Davis disappearing along with it in the all-consuming heat.
   Billy, who was still in the craft’s midsection and wore his closed environmental suit, was just able to register the explosion. Because of the sudden loss of pressure all over the ship, the artificial atmosphere disappeared into the cold vacuum of space in a split second. 
   The question Billy wanted to ask himself about who had done this and why, only made it halfway along his neural pathways. Along with the air, he was pulled out of the wrecked ship, hitting his helmeted head hard against a torn bulkhead on his way out. He blacked out before his thought had been properly formulated.
   Slowly, the twisted, almost unrecognizable wreckage now spun around its lateral axis, heading towards the asteroid belt around the blue planet they had been heading for.
   Half an hour later and several kilometres further, Billy regained consciousness and found himself helplessly floating through space without any chance for rescue.
   He screamed in terror until his air supply was depleted.
 

[3]

   The Sargasso asteroid belt around the planet Amphitrite, twelve years after the Alnitak Incident…

   “If you’ve never seen the Sargasso asteroid belt before, you should try imagining a twenty kilometre-wide string of rocks that range in size from basketballs to near-planetissimals. Now think of a big, blue planet and drape the rocky string around it. Add a considerable dose of momentum and spin to the asteroids and voilá: you’ve got the Sargasso. And yes, that name was picked for a reason, people.”

- Admiral Marcus Graham -


   Rachel remembered the briefing that admiral Graham had given her when she was first transferred to Amphitrite, now three years ago, like she had heard it yesterday. And of course she and her fellow colleagues had silently chuckled afterwards. After all, they were the Covenant’s finest pilots, right? And after all those years of training and service in the Navy surely there was no environment left in the universe that they couldn’t handle.
   Now, three decades after that first briefing, every hotshot pilot present that day had either come to respect the asteroid belt with almost religious fervour or had been killed in a short moment of carelessness by the murderous dance of solid rock that is the Sargasso.
   Those who survived their initial trials became members of the Terran Covenant Navy’s elite test-squadron, VX-9. Since its inception the squadron had been based here on Amphitrite, which was essentially a planet-wide ocean under naval supervision. For twenty years now, VX-9 had been responsible for testing the Navy’s prototype fighters and bombers, as well as evaluating new technologies for naval purposes.
   Being a test-pilot required both skill and courage, traits which the members of VX-9 had in abundance. Renowned for their astounding feats of piloting and seeming wizardry in flying their highly unpredictable craft, they had been aptly nicknamed the Mages. Only the best pilots in the entire Covenant were considered for active duty with the Mages, where they would be pitted not only against themselves, but also against each other, their machines… and of course the Sargasso.
   But only the real top guns, the best of the best, dared to venture deep into the treacherous asteroid belt and afford themselves to be casual about it afterwards. VX-9 had two of such mavericks, and they made damn sure the rest of their outfit remembered that. 
   
   Lieutenant Rachel Burns, callsign Pyro, had graduated with honours from the Naval Academy on Jupiter and had been selected for service with the Mages almost the minute she had set foot outside the Graduation Chamber on Athens, the capital city of the Sol system’s largest gas giant. The beautiful 1.72m tall, 28 year-old blonde had seduced both her instructors and the guys in the class of 2654; with her looks and passionate flying-style, she was fully capable of relentless dogfights during the day and taking up the spotlight position afterwards at the Slipstream, the number-one dance club on Athens.
   Like every other callsign given to one of the Mages, Rachel’s was a reflection of both her personality and Admiral Graham’s first impression of the new pilot. During her new class’s introductory briefing on Amphitrite with Marcus Graham, the sly naval veteran had eyed her appreciatively and he had smiled broadly when Rachel had bluntly asked him if basic squadron training with the Mages included live-fire exercise.
   “Yes it does, miss.” Graham had answered, laughing.  “And with you blazing around up there, things are bound to get extremely flammable.”   
   From that point onwards, ‘Pyro’ seemed quite ideally suited for Lieutenant Burns.
   Rachel let her mind momentarily return back to the present. Still maintaining a steady speed after today’s Sargasso-run on course back towards Avalon, VX-9’s home base orbiting Amphitrite’s equator, she looked out into space through her reinforced polycarbonate canopy. At her two, with just half a click between them, a second modified F-214 cruised homewards. The pilot of the other fighter turned his head towards her, nodded and saluted. Rachel couldn’t help smiling.
   
   Although she had known him from the very beginning at the Academy and they had flown side-by-side ever since, Dax Ryder still remained something of an enigma to Rachel. He was undoubtedly the very best pilot ever to fly with the Mages, renowned for his breathtaking manoeuvres that had become part of VX-9’s history. But other than some wannabe-Mages had done before their premature deaths in the Sargasso, Dax never gloated or bragged about his piloting skills. On the contrary; he considered his talent to be a gift that had been given to him for a reason.
   Consequently, Dax Ryder always flew his ships to the limits of their – and his – abilities. And while that caused people who didn’t know him well enough to think of him as a pusher and a careerist, others like Rachel Burns knew fully well that he was no more cocky or arrogant than any other given fighter-pilot.
   But one thing did set Dax Ryder apart from those others: his burning desire to fly and be one with his craft and deep space as he flew to his fullest potential. Why that urge was so overwhelming, Dax had never really told Rachel. Although the two confided a great deal in each other, which was the consequence of being wingmates and long-time friends, some secrets still remained.
   Rachel glanced at Dax’s modified fighter and exhaled the draw of breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding in.
   Secrets remaining on both sides…
   
   Suddenly, Rachel’s comlink crackled to life, bringing her out of her reverie.
   “Hey Pyro,” Dax’s voice sounded playfully, “wanna race me home?”
   The blonde grinned. If there was something that could incite admiral Graham to lay down the law upon her and Dax once again, it would be another expression of their never-ending friendly rivalry.
   Rachel’s grin widened; the temptation was too great nonetheless.
   “Are you sure you wanna get beaten again, hotshot?” she answered mischievous into the com.
   Dax’s laughter filled her cockpit.
   “I accept that challenge, Pyro. Last time you just got lucky, hon.”
   “Sure, Ace,” Rachel replied mockingly. “Well, in that case… show me what you’ve got.”
   “Alrighty then. See that rock over there at your eleven? The one shaped like Graham’s nose?”
   “Striking resemblance,” Rachel laughed. “OK, full throttle when we pass it. 3.2 clicks to go.”
   “Got it. See you in Bay 3, Burns.”
   “Eat my exhaust plasma, Ryder.”
   
   The two Mare Ingenii Industries F-214 fighters Dax en Rachel were flying had been equipped with thrust-vectoring nozzles, which the two testpilots had shown greatly enhanced the Navy’s foremost fighter’s already celebrated manoeuvrability. Almost simultaneously the two craft gracefully swung around the appointed asteroid and were kicked into maximum gear. The double fusion engines engaged and four blinding jets of intensely hot plasma shot out from the modified nozzles, driving the two craft forwards through the outer rings of the Sargasso at increasingly dangerous speeds.
   To survive in the Sargasso, pilots are supposed to have lightning-fast reflexes, a cool head on their shoulders and of course a ship in which they can make the most out of those skills. Dax and Rachel banked, pitched and rolled through the last few clicks of the Sargasso’s outer ring with almost contemptuous ease, thereby putting up a display that had soon drawn the attention of Avalon’s long-range optical sensors.
   Although both F-214’s evaded numerous fast-spinning little ‘roids, Rachel made her statement by rolling 90° clockwise and streaking through the rapidly narrowing gap between two condominium-sized rocks that were on a collision course with each other.
   Looking backwards once to see the giant asteroids slam into each other with brute force, thereby creating several new swirling chunks of rock, Rachel already smiled about her impending victory. She looked around for a sign of Dax’s fighter, but both her Heads-Up Display and local space showed up empty.
   She was just about to hail him on the com, when Dax’s F-214 shot full-speed out of the biggest ‘roid in the outer belt. Every one of the Mages knew that Nebraska, as they had dubbed the huge rock after a commonly heard remark by newbie pilots in the Sargasso, had a tunnel system inside. But Rachel had never thought someone would actually enter Nebraska, let alone be able navigate those dark corridors. Streaking past her ship and out of the belt on his way to victory, Dax proved her wrong.
   
   Almost the instant both ships had cleared the belt, an expected familiar voice boomed through their comsystem:
   “Ryder! Burns! Get your butts back over here, NOW! How many times do I have to tell you; you don’t own those craft, the tax payers do! Those things are bloody expensive, dammit! If you two are not back in Hangar 2 in ten minutes, I’ll personally blast your sorry asses to kingdom come with the nearest SD platform!”
   Rachel tried to stifle a laugh, as Dax no doubt also did. Whilst admiral Marcus Graham could be very ‘persuasive’ and brash when trying to get more funding for his squadron from the big shots at Navy Command, the pilots that served under him knew that they could get away with quite a lot, providing they didn’t push him to far. As could be expected, the lieutenants Ryder and Burns tested Graham’s limits at a daily basis.
   “What’s wrong, admiral?” Rachel heard Dax ask their superior. “We thought you wanted a test run?” His played innocence was unmistaken.
   “A test run, yes,” Graham replied, “not running the gauntlet through purgatory! If there is but one scratch on that ship’s paint job, Ryder, I’ll see to it that you spend this weekend’s shore leave repainting the entire squadron’s fighter complement!”
   Rachel wanted to say something, but the admiral had already anticipated that:
   “One sassy comment from you, Miss Burns, and you can keep him company by polishing and waxing every bomber on Avalon! So don’t start, please. I want you both up here for debriefing in seven minutes, so I suggest you two get moving. Graham out.”
   The com went silent for a while, after which Dax gave his remark:
   “Well, that didn’t go so bad.”
   “I actually doubt it that Graham would ever allow you to redecorate our fighters. We all know that you’re a lousy painter,” Rachel commented.
   “Thanks, Pyro. Glad to hear I’m appreciated around here.”
   “Just kidding, Ace, you know that. Let’s get back home, shall we?”
« Last Edit: May 17, 2007, 04:41:05 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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« Reply #1 on: May 17, 2007, 07:19:09 pm »

Very impressive.  The story is vibrant and descriptive.  The characters all have depth and substance.  It's a really well written piece of story telling, even in the infant state that it's in.

My one question I might have... when the aliens attack the station in your opening chapter, you mention the alien ships making extreme-G maneuvers that would kill a human pilot.  In the absense of gravity, would evasive maneuvers have the same effect on the human body as a fighter flying within an atmosphere?  I realise that directional thrust of a craft could have an effect on the body, but provided a pilto was properly restrained, wouldn't a zero-G enviroment prevent some of the severity of your organs being moved about?

Perhaps it's been too many years since I took physics...just looking for some clarity.  Smiley

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« Reply #2 on: May 17, 2007, 08:56:54 pm »

I'm impressed, well done.
I didn't see any spelling or grammar errors, and it looks like it has a good plot.
Can't see any weird breaks, so must have copied fine.
How long till chapters 4 through 6 arrive?
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I will be out of the country - and away from internet - for the next 2-3 weeks.

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A story of a thousand words starts with a single thought.
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« Reply #3 on: May 17, 2007, 10:37:52 pm »

@ArchonSilderax: Well, as far as I know extreme G's are still troublesome in zero-G conditions. Yes, there is no gravity outside the ship, but if that fighter were to, for example, come from max speed to a dead stop after which it does a 180 and speeds off again, that's bound to crush the pilot in some way. Smiley  That's why you have 'inertial dampening' in several sci-fi works, to compensate for those high G and acceleration thingies. I think you're right in assuming proper restrainment and zero-G can relieve some of the stress on the body, but my idea was to have those black fighters pull such insane stunts that no human could survive it even with restrainment and ID. Anyway, thanks for the comments! I'm very curious about what you all think of H2O so far! Cheesy

@jazen: Thanks! Cheesy  I'm off to Eindhoven tomorrow for the VNV Nation concert coming Saturday, so I'll be back next week. I'll post the rest on Monday then. Wink

LX
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"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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« Reply #4 on: May 19, 2007, 09:38:31 am »

Once more I have to say congratulation, you are an excellent writer. Hats of to you.

On to the story itself. I like Kaelin’s ‘Reflections Upon Existence’ we only see a small part but it is very good, it also makes a good opening as it is addressed to the reader, whether they are within the story or reading it. It also raises enough questions to get me interested.

The next bit with the description of the Orion system was nice but you where a bit heavy handed with names and technical terms that somebody who does not know a lot about this kind of thing could have lost interested there.

The fight with the xeno reads well but I am not entirely happy with the set up. if the xeno are so powerful then the humans are doomed, so if you want to write a war between the two then tone down the xenos power or it will be totally one sided.

The Sargasso scene reads well as well but I had flashed of the Falcon and X-wings pop into my mind while reading that.

I eagerly await more.
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« Reply #5 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.
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« Reply #6 on: May 22, 2007, 07:51:54 pm »

It's looking really, really good. I'm loving the story and the sci-fi world you've set up, even though it wouldn't be my personal choice. I really don't have much to criticise. There are some little grammatical hiccups here and there, but nothing which is terribly upsetting. I can go through them all if you really want me to, but they really aren't critical.
I'm looking forward to more of this already Smiley
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« Reply #7 on: May 22, 2007, 10:23:38 pm »

@Bakerman: PM sent. Wink  Thx for the kind words!

Well, of course I'd like to have yet some more reactions on H2O in its present state, but it already seems I may have found an incentive to finally continue the story... Cheesy

Everyone in favor of me picking up H2O where I left off, speak up! Cool

LX
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« Reply #8 on: May 23, 2007, 01:07:59 pm »

Please, continue.
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I will be out of the country - and away from internet - for the next 2-3 weeks.

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« Reply #9 on: May 23, 2007, 05:28:45 pm »

Xalys Xalys Xalys! Oi oi oi!

(That means yes Wink)
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« Reply #10 on: May 23, 2007, 08:59:00 pm »

Your second post is just as solid as your first.  Great stuff!

By all means, keep going.  You've certainly grabbed my attention...  Smiley

J.
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« Reply #11 on: May 24, 2007, 06:58:33 pm »

Quick question: how long was the process of writing all this? From conception to the product we see here? I'm curious, as I reckon SaC's taken far too long - over a year to do a prologue I like.
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« Reply #12 on: May 25, 2007, 12:22:47 am »

Well, from conception to what you see above I'd say it took about 6 months. Still, I can be quite fast when I have something in mind; the xeno attack on the Solarion for example was conceived and written in two days...

LX
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« Reply #13 on: May 26, 2007, 01:27:23 pm »

Quote
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.
Should the en be and?

Any way looks good, since Kyra’s body has not been found I have to suspect that she is still alive. How or why I don’t know but the plot possibilities are interesting.
And do write more, please.
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« Reply #14 on: May 27, 2007, 12:50:25 pm »

Lol, 'en' is Dutch for 'and'... Grin  I'll wait a while for the corrections, as Bakerman has offered to check the whole lot. Would be a shame to double check. Wink

As for Kyra, well, she might yet be alive. Who knows? Roll Eyes

I've started with chapter 6 again, but I've noticed that I need to get back in the story again first. Anyway, there is still hope for H2O!

LX
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« Reply #15 on: May 28, 2007, 01:19:23 pm »

then I will do my best to be patient. Is there a release date for the rewrite or is that still an unknown?
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« Reply #16 on: May 29, 2007, 03:45:28 pm »

Quite an unknown I'm afraid, as I've never worked with release dates before. Wink  I'm usually more in the habit of writing on the fly: I have to feel good, be somewhat inspired and then that which forms in my mind shall be written. Smiley  The last week the opening scene of the Demonology book (for which the Demonology article is background fluff) has been forming in my mind, so it's very probable that you'll see that first. Bakerman will do his best with the H2O check, but I urged him to be patient and not rush anything. It's kind enough already that someone wants to check the manuscript!

LX
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« Reply #17 on: May 30, 2007, 09:38:48 am »

ok, have fun writing. I would offer to proof read but I can not spell so I would not be able to do much. Sad
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« Reply #18 on: June 02, 2007, 04:12:00 pm »

I was two-thirds of the way through PMing you with the corrections for chapter one, when my computer died. I suspec power failure, but nothing else in the house was affected. Anyway, I took the chance (an opportunist, me!) to ask whether you want me to PM the corrections (what I planned to do originally) or post them here (and let all share in the wisdom Wink).
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« Reply #19 on: June 03, 2007, 10:37:20 am »

In that case be my guest and share your wisdom with the rest of the asylum. Wink

LX
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