FOURTH QUADRANT - TAUREAN SECTOR
There shouldn't have been any life-forms out in the Taurean Sector. The old planet Palisades collapsed on itself after the asteroid Turikolagos slammed into it, shattering the core. Yet the heads-up display showed three enemy Star Fighters on his six, three little blue triangles hovering behind his Pyroglider icon. Yet the Negative Nancy never made a peep.
The Orbital Ridgerunner pilot punched his Vocomm and heard nothing but static over the line.
"Open your line," he growled. "I command, acknowledge and report!" Still static. "Request permission to pass!" Nothing. "Request permission to blow your asses to Nifielheim?" A squelch came over his headset. About time, a response!
"Permission denied," a gravely voice finally answered over the speaker.
"Saints and blind priests! Either change your Codex or I'm gonna start with my Blasters!"
"Request permission for Identification?"
No response. The Orbiter Ridgerunner pilot blew a heavy sigh. They were probably spies, since they were not broadcasting their Codex and his Star Fighter picked up that they were on another frequency, yet still able to make contact due to a dual band. Sudden dread hit the pilot like a pallet of bricks. They had to be agents of the Representative Sphere, his employer. But if he had assassins on his ass, what law did he break that they wanted him dead? Whatever - he had to shake these guys.
"Permission to speak?"
"Granted," came the reply.
"This is Ahuri Bashlure, Mercenary Captain of Junk Killer Unit of the Representative Sphere, Badge Number 021340301..."
"We know who you are Captain," said a second warm voice. "No need for the formalities."
"Why are you riding my ass?"
"Waiting for orders, Sir."
"You're not in my Squadron."
"You're right, Sir."
"Saints and blind priests!" Ahuri growled under his breath. He had definitely pissed someone off and he wish he had some word of warning. Or maybe he was set up. Why else get sent on a scouting mission to some newly-created asteroid belt? Ahuri hated scouting and collecting Intel. His main love was blowing stuff up - no matter what it was: other Star Fighters, Star Ships, Space Carriers... If it had propulsion systems and/or shot some kind of laser or plasma round, it was getting sent to to the frozen wastes of Neifielheim! "Hey," Ahuri said, dropping all formal communication practices. "Who's wanting me blasted beyond the stars?" No answer. That wasn't a good enough response.
Ahuri punched his propulsion to eleven and slammed into warp speed, leaving those pawns of the Federation in stardust. He rocketed out into the nearby quadrant, Third and set his Orbital Ridgerunner on auto-direct, heading for his homeworld of Shandirseria. Once he docked into the Bay, he was going to rip some heads. What in the galaxy those thunder-headed morons at the Sphere were thinking? Suddenly his Vocomm crackled to life.
"Relay, Relay, Relay, this is the Starship Ventura," a voice cried, "Report, we are flying underpowered. Position 5245 Mithuna Sector. Oxy Canisters exploded and CO filling fast! Require immediate assistance, over." Ahuri quickly dialed in.
"Ahuri Bashlure, Badge Number 021340301, over," he said, "I don't see you. I need a lock-in!"
"Our Positioning Transmitters are down! These are the approximate coordinates we have!" Ahuri eyed the screen, scanning the dark space of the heads-up display.
"Hold a while longer, Ventura - I'm trying to find your frequency to navigate by!"
"Relay, Ahuri Bashlure, our Coils are losing juice at a rapid clip!" Ahuri banged the side of his cockpit.
"Blind priests, it just gets better!" he snapped and dialed in the numbers on his Sun Navigator. "All right, I'm locking in your last coordinates. I'll have to power down or I'll pass you by."
"Please hurry!" Ahuri quickly shut off auto-direct and suddenly the inky warp of stars came to a dead stop and the nose of his Orbital Ridgerunner faced a massive darkened Star Ship made of black and red steel with blue panel windows. The ship just hovered in the middle of space, hanging by invisible threads.
"Saints!" Ahuri cried, "I nearly crashed into you!"
"Beam us up quickly!"
"I'm a Star Fighter; I don't have the means." Ahuri turned on his homing transmitter, releasing his distress signal. "I've sent a Relay in a Deca-mile radius. Someone should be on their way." Static came over the line and Ahuri got worried. Those Nauts were losing air because their Oxy Canisters were damaged. What if they all choked to death? Ahuri wasn't waiting around for emergency fliers.
Manuvering his Ridgerunner around to the starship's docking bay and backing in, Ahuri powered down and ejected once inside.
He walked down the dimly lit corridors of titanium walls and floors, with buzzing violet plate lights that gave off a soft hue. He flipped up his skull-mask visor to get a better view and the ship seemed too quiet, too empty for a Space Carrier. There should have been workers, Cleaners, Junkers, Breakers, Dynarunners, Argonauts - people of all classes and jobs busy working, doing something to keep the Star Ship running. Ahuri felt slightly dizzy - the air was quite thin from the Oxy Canisters going out. For whatever reason there was no sign of life on the Star Carrier.
Ahuri rapped on the titanium walls as he walked past them, hearing metallic thunks. He sighed partly in relief, partly in frustration, since the hallway had no hidden compartments which meant he didn't have to deal with security systems, a job he was seriously bad at disarming, though he found thrill in destroying.
He thought about his Squadron, the Prime Metallo of the Shield Technology Guardian Corps, the defensive arm of the Representative Sphere. His crew of five were a ragtag group of skilled Winger Jockeys and also had a number of side hustles that made them unsuitable for the regular Collective Clan Corps.
is co-pilot, a Linejacker named Haure had mad skills in hacking into any system, no security too tough, even the government-owned Brains. She was known as the number one threat in the galaxy and only because the Representative Sphere agreed to pay her 200 million Drachs a cycle, she stuck around. Ahuri missed her dearly after his promotion from mere Winger Jockey to Sargent Winger, then head of the Merc Squadron after the War of the Senditisa started.
Ahuri's first crew got blown to bits, a bunch of green thunder-headed rookies straight out of Starflight school. His second crew was no better, then even when the famed Starfighter Jockey Wings Tiranjii helped train the next batch, the third crew suffered heavy losses. The only survivor was Tiranjii and he quit, unable to accept how a strong pilot with a commanding yet easy attitude that made all the Junior Wingers willing to die for him kept losing fighters. After the fourth crew quit mid-battle, his fifth crew got captured and thrown in prison, the sixth crew refused to work with Ahuri, citing bad luck, though there was no such thing.
Lastly, Head Commander Larrison asked Ahuri if he wanted anyone to join his team, since they were unable to recruit anyone. Ahuri asked for his best friend and told her if she knew anyone willing to work with such an unlucky Merc or had a death wish, sign them up as well. Before Ahuri was about to clock out and get back to the war, he had four more crew members with Haure that either didn't care or wanted a challenge.
Ahuri sighed. He had no way of contacting them since he took his current mission. The Prime Metallo were sent out on a courier and protect mission, keeping space pirates away from the Space Carriers of Lindsey Tactical Software and Sundowner Implementations, the main contractors to the Representative Sphere. If anything happened to them, the Sphere would surely collaspe and pure anarchy would result...
"By Kilaphanis!" Ahuri gasped as he came to a dead stop once he approached the boarding bay and found it completely empty - raided down to the shelves. The sliding doors that led to the galley were broken open, glass scattered all over the floor and the dimly pulsing lights above the door flickered, close to burning out. Pushing through the shattered door, bodies in uniforms littered the floor, some unconscious from the lack of air and others blasted into with plasma rounds.
Stepping over a charred body, Ahuri made his way to the bridge where he heard the soft pings of computer chimes and the racket of radio chatter. He froze at the doorway, stunned to find that even the Wingers that made the distress call were dead, boreholes smoking through their heads and fluids leaking and staining their black and red uniforms. So it most likely wasn't a mechanical failure like he assumed - the Ventura was blindsided and ravaged for everything of value.
Ahuri approached the pilot's board and flipped switches and toggled dials, searching for their last broadcast and what could serve as clues. Picking up a fallen set of headphones, Ahuri put one to his ear and listened in.
"Relay, Ventura," called a voice from afar in the static, "This is Junker Locuza attempting rescue. Come in Ventura, we have you on lock-in." The message was repeated after several beeps, in attempt to signal the auto-detect system to respond back in the case the pilots were dead and no one else were able to operate the control board.
"Too late for that," another guttural voice called from behind. Ahuri stiffened and his hand immediately went for his waist where he kept his pen holster. "All right, Spacer, put them up!" Ahuri dropped the headset and raised his hands. "Turn it around - slowly!"
Ahuri grunted and took a half step around, facing a Spacer wearing a heavily armored gold suit with black plate metal boots and a large black gauntlet on the right arm that had various switches. A white-gold helmet with silver spiral horns covered their head that had a glowing blue headset that had a green visor. In their free hand, the Spacer pointed a glowing violet steel Plasma Rifle that hummed slightly.
"Blind priests, I was called up to rescue these thunders," Ahuri protested. "I don't care what in Nifelheim you do."
"I don't believe you!"
"Honest on my word by my god Kilaphanis, may she strike me down!"
"I don't care for your gods."
"Then what spittin' shock, Spacer?" The enemy spacer thumbed a switch and the plasma rifle gave a high whine.
"By my Visascanner, your uniform shows that you work for the Sphere," the Spacer growled. "You must die!"
"Wait, hold on!" Ahuri quickly waved his hands frantically. "I'm not sure if they think that highly of me. Check this Spacer - they had assassins on my ass before I boosted over here! Jack into my Data Logs and see for yourself!"
The enemy spacer touched a button on the gauntlet, releasing two fiber optic cables with copper spikes. One cable jammed into the communications port on Ahuri's gauntlet, the other into his data pack holstered onto his shoulder.
The machinery quickly overloaded when the Spacer overrode his operating systems and Ahuri suddenly had data appearing on his side of the screen visor that indicated that the Spacer was from the Konkojr Collective.
"Hey, if the Sphere finds out you're whacking on of their guys - namely me - you might start a war your peoples can't finish!" Ahuri protested. Sudden rocket fire slammed into the side of the ship and the system warning alert system wailed. Ahuri yanked out the commcables and struck the receiver button on the command board, quickly pulling up the Transcall. The screen on the other side came up as a wall of noise and heavy static crackled over the speakers. "What the flying shock, you thunder-headed space monkeys?" Ahuri screamed.
"We have commands to destroy the Ventura," a flat voice replied.
"Who are you? Why aren't you online? Why only transmit via Vox?"
"We do not communicate with criminals."
"What?" The prompter shut off and more heavy shudders rocked the ship. Ahuri whirled around, facing the mysterious horned spacer that held its plasma rifle in hand. "Well, either help me or get blasted to the stars!" he shouted and rushed back for the docking bay.
Hurrying down the dimly lit corridors, Ahuri heard another blast and debri fell over his head. He heard another explosion and the stink of rocket fuel permeated the hall.
"Blast it, priests!" Ahuri growled. "My only ticket out of here and I'm about to die in this tub!" He turned on his heel to face the mysterious Spacer standing in the hall, plasma rifle sheathed over its back.
"If you try to stay and fight, you'll lose energy and eventually your breath," it said. Ahuri glanced at the Spacer and noticed it wore no tanks.
"What are you, some kind of Nanoroid?" he asked.
"Come with me if you wish for answers," it said instead, ignoring the question. Ahuri followed after the strange Spacer, making no hesitation about his decision.
They took off down the hall on the other side and the Spacer blasted a nearby sidewall, revealing a room full of escape pods and light Star Scouters. The Spacer used its cables to override the operation sequence, forcing the Scouter to run the Spacer's program. The lightweight Space Jet whined to life and its doors opened. Ahuri quickly took a seat in the rear while the Spacer took over the pilot's chair.
Ahuri watched in awe as the Spacer maneuvered with ease, jacking into the system and flipping switches, dials, and levers, casting no glance at all the heads-up-display's data stream had to offer. Once the cockpit's shell closed, the boosters roared and the Spacer ejected Ventura's emergency docks, shooting off like a star away from the three Starfighters that were blasting lasers and plasma into the Star Carrier's side.
"Thanks to Kilaphanis may her name be praised!" Ahuri said in relief as the Spacer deftly handled the craft through floating space junk and rocky planetary debris. "Might I ask, why save me?"
"I am under orders to keep you alive until sentencing," replied the Spacer.
"Well, at least give me a name of your benefactor?" There was no reply. "Your name then?" Still no answer. "Well, tell me something! Why would anyone give a flying supernova about me? I do my thing, bust up stuff, get paid! I'm nothing more than a puppet to the State!" Ahuri folded his arms across his chest, fuming when the mysterious Spacer said no more.
It didn't make any sense that something as complex as an android would come from the Konkojr Collective. The race of Aventitans had advanced combat skill and supreme metalworking ability, but they abhorred advanced technology, the very thing that was embraced by the Representve Sphere.
The Aventitans had a great society and their advanced science nearly took over the entire planet, but political corruption ate away at the militant government and the whole Aventitan race, as well as all the friendly nations that in the Protectorate, caused a nuclear winter against the rising Directorate of the Representative Sphere.
Soundly defeated by the technology they helped create, the Aventitians swore off modern marvels and returned to a martial society, albeit without advanced weaponry. The Representative Sphere took off where the Aventitans left, vastly consuming resources and dominating nearly the entire world at large.
The former Protectorate members that were still alive joined forces with the Aventitans, also having grown weary of the arms race and became a powerful group dedicated to overthrowing the Sphere and reaching world peace.
While the Sphere took off for the stars and conquering other worlds with its iron fist, it left its hated rival be, neglecting that such a backwards society with no highly-advanced technology was worth its effort to destroy. The Sphere had other problems to deal with: destroying anarchist groupings that dared to overthrow the Sphere's law.
"Captain Bashlure," a voice called to him, pulling him out of his thoughts as he snapped to attention.
"What is it?" he grunted.
"We're almost at our destination," replied the Spacer.
"Yeah, wake me up when we touch down."
"Are you not worried about sentencing?"
"Look, I'm the damn best Merc Sarge in the Sphere," Ahuri argued. "I'm good at killing and blowing stuff up! Everyone is afraid of me and that's why nobody messes with me!"
"I just reviewed your files," the Spacer continued when Ahuri leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "Why would a defender of the Sphere's law let go of so many enemy non-combatants?" Ahuri opened an eye, glaring at the helmeted head of the Spacer in front of him. "By Sphere law, any enemy of the Sphere is to be destroyed, including the ones that aided the original target for elimination."
"Look, it's not my thing whacking women and children and families!" Ahuri spat as his eyes snapped open.
"Also your records state you have yet to bring in one head of anyone declared enemy by the Sphere. All combatants were declared killed in action."
"Hey, heads float on in space," Ahuri replied, rolling his eyes. "What more proof do you need?"
"Your secret records says otherwise." Ahuri sat up with a start, clenching his hands as he grew incensed.
"How did you access them?" he shouted, "Nobody can crack them open - besides, I had the best damn Linejacker the Sphere ever feared encrypt that data and she was hired by the Sphere after she brought down their entire Brain in one keystroke!"
"It's not your Data Logs I peered into," the Spacer said flatly. "I could see - in your aura, your heart, your mind - all the things you've done and felt guilty over, they're there in your memories, in your very being." Ahuri clutched the sides of his seat as he ground his teeth while the Spacer went on. "You wiped their memories clean with that modified Phased Cranium Sterilizer. You had it crafted into a laser pen pistol that also doubles as a plasma sword." Ahuri felt the color drain from his face. "Deep down you know you're no killer. You'd rather destroy that criminal part of those wanted by the Sphere, believing there are inherent goodness in others."
"Why kill me because of that?" Ahuri moaned. "The Sphere got what they wanted - a dead criminal - and also gained a productive member of society! What more could anyone ask for?"
"The Sphere wants collateral - a physical count of their influence upon the stars. They want sacrifice, a tribute ..." Ahuri sighed heavily and slumped back in his seat, overwhelmed. It wasn't like he ordered the criminals to do what he wanted them to do. All he told them was that they didn't have to do whatever it was the Sphere found offensive and to go on their way to find enlightenment and be a better force for all. Was that such a terrible thing?
"So, I gather I must've done something wrong along the way," Ahuri said after several long moments of silence between them. "Did someone I wipe out do some grave injustice to your government?"
"So like the Sphere, you kill the criminal and his controller?"
"What about everyone else related to the criminal?"
"That as well."
"But why destroy the whole crew of the Ventura?"
"They stole from us and we merely took back what did not belong to them." Ahuri grew unsettled as he said nothing more, fighting the sick feeling roiling in his guts. He searched his mind frantically to whomever it was he Erased and gave new orders. There were so many people, so many Erasures that there was no telling what he did wrong, who had the wrong command put in and just started destroying everything in sight due to the wrong command being implanted. Ahuri reached for his pen holster and withdrew his weapon.
The Eraser Pointer was his trusted weapon and everyone in the galaxy knew about it. The feared dog of the Representative Sphere, sent to destroy for them, put the fear of becoming nothing more than a useless shell in the hearts of men, women, and children that dared to defect the Sphere's influence. Anyone that crossed the legendary fighter's path was doomed to come back a puppet for the Directorate. So went the stories and legends - so very far from the truth.
It couldn't be helped - he had to create a story that made himself seem macho. At his core, Ahuri was utilitarian. He loved to help others and wanted everyone happy, which made him happy. Ahuri also loved breaking things and taking them apart to see how they worked, also he improved on machines to make work easier. Who would believe the most feared Star Fighter owned by the Sphere was a softhearted Junker with Mecha Breaker tenancies?
Ahuri clutched his Eraser Pointer. It made sense to send an android assassin after him since they were immune to the ultraviolet blast of the Phased Cranium Sterilizer since they had no organic parts like cyborgs, which still had a brain. The best he had were using his laser pistol setting or the plasma sword add-on, but they were only meant to slice through the medium-thickness of standard Starfighter armor, tough alien hide and other types of flesh and bone if need be. Suddenly the realization hit Ahuri hard and fast.
"By Kilaphanis, save me!" he cried. "The Sphere wants my Eraser Pointer to control everyone in the galaxy!"
"Yes, they do," affirmed the android Spacer.
"But so does the Konkojr Collective!" Ahuri yelped.
"We fear the Sphere may war against us - a battle we may never win since they have added the planet Dormico under their Directorate arm."
"I never heard of Dormico..."
"Dormico is a Terran-like planet, inhabited by former Terrans that left their homeworld after destroying it due to endless wars and mismanagement of resources. After nearly fifty-thousand years of futility, their United Nations and Worlds have finally done what it was designed to do: establish peace on their planet. Now with the nearly milleneia-old dream of a new world order in hand, they have brokered a treaty with the Sphere, wishing to update their technology after learning the harsh lessons from their failed attempt at Terra."
"I've read up on Terra. That place was a backwater wasteland run by backwards people that can never get along!" Ahuri shuddered. "The Terrans were quick to make deals and break them once they found something better they either stole or cause a war to get. I'd never want to deal with those barbarians, even their descendants!"
"The Sphere has agreed to give them the ultimate weapon the Dormicons so desire to have: your Eraser Pointer. Though their space program has long been shuttered due to their sinking their monies into weapons and national defense systems, they needed a new tool to better control their soldiers and not clamp down on anarchy." Ahuri bit his fist and looked away, feeling shame strike him hard and fast.
"I'm no different than what the Dormicons were planning," he thought as he fought to keep down the wave of nausea that threatened to come up. "There Sphere used me to shut up the suffering people that wanted to rebel against them. If word ever got out of a successful revolt, the Sphere would collapse!"
"What is it?" Ahuri said thinly.
"Do you feel guilty for being used by your employer?"
"Maybe," he grumbled.
"Is the thought of erasing the minds of innocents that dared to ask for better conditions and yet treated as potential rebels making you uncomfortable?"
"You may find redemption."
"Right that," Ahuri murmured. "Quite possibly in the next lifetime." He held his head between his knees, trying to catch his breath.
"We will be soon touching down in the Badlands. I hope your Flight Suit has a heater."
"I'll take my punishment," Ahuri mumbled.
Ahuri felt a jolt around him and glanced up when he found the Scouter entered the pull of the his home planet Shandirseria. He watched in awe as the Star Craft punched through the gaseous clouds and quickly strapped in as the android Spacer flipped switches and levers, activating the scouter's shields and maximizing its boosters.
They began their rocketing descent into the stratosphere and ice quickly formed around the craft. The boosters abruptly burned out and Ahrui shut his eyes, praying silently as they sharply fell into the atmosphere. After nearly fainting, the boosters roared to life and the bang jarred Ahuri back to consciousness. He saw the ice melt away and quickly burn around them as they jettisoned closer for the surface.
First a speck of white against blue, then it grew larger and wider and suddenly the large landmass came into view. The mass became a patchwork of roads and buildings and Ahuri felt himself floating out of his skull as everything flashed red. That accursed android was maneuvering the Scouter too fast and he was sure his brains were going to leak out of his ears.
The thudding in his head turned louder, banging, pounding against the scream of the rockets blasting behind him. Then silence overcame Ahuri with darkness.