The stars beckoned him, called out, winking as if to get his attention. Far out, the Liberty badlands flashed with the
occasional burst of lightning, and, Alex could imagine, the lasers from Rogue fighters, battling the Liberty military. In
his minds eye, he could see the ships dodging back and forth, dueling for the ultimate prize, survival. In these scenarios,
the Liberty ships always were losing badly, until the arrival of a hero, always himself. Alex could see the battle unfolding,
the pirates fleeing before his oncoming wrath. He swung his sights over a slow moving cargo mule, probably loaded with cardimine.
Alex allowed a sneer of contempt cross his face, laughing at the pitiful attempts the pilot made to evade. Alex's finger tightened
up on the trigger, sending a pair of missles launching towards the doomed ship...when a hand waved in front of his face.
"Hello? Manhattan to Alex? Anybody home?" Alex shook his head, clearing it. He looked up to see the cocky grin
of his friend, Julie. Her blue eyes twinkled merrily as she asked, "Good dream?"
"Yeah", Alex replied sheepishly."I wasn't sleeping." Julie chuckled, "No, you were just daydreaming.
Again. You should really pay attention to the clock. Bill is gonna be pissed." She looked at the confused expression
on Alex's face and sighed. "Work? You should have been there five minutes ago." Alex eyes shot down to his watch,
proving Julie's point. Swearing under his breath, he promptly ran off. Julie watched him go, then shook her head slowly. She
glanced towards the viewport that had so captivated Alex's expression, a resigned look on her face. Both friends had wanted
to be pilots for as long as they could remember, freelancers commanding their own ships. Some people their age already were
doing so, but Julie and Alex didn't have the money. Well, there was the money that both had been saving up from part time
jobs, but it didn't amount to much. The hope was for both to find a cheap ship, used but good. Unfortunatly, quality forces
prices, and those were prices neither could afford. Sighing, Julie headed off to the residence section of the station, resigning
herself to the boredom that was her life.
Julie's prediction turned out to be true. Alex's boss, Bill Haywood, was not happy with his employee for his lateness.
After a suitable lecture (Which, Alex thought, took more time than him being late did), Alex was sent off to the repair section
of the shop. As he threaded his way through the piles of broken equipment, Alex knew full well he shouldn't jeapordize his
job here. It was a great thing for a seventeen year old, especially one intending to be a freelancer. The equipment shop didn't
exactly pay good, and the boss was a jerk, but it gave Alex a familiarity with the equipment that many didn't. He could proudly
fix nearly anything, and even make things better. Not that it mattered. Guaranteed, todays work would amount to nothing more
than a few blown relays, maybe some meteor damage. Nothing interesting was ever his job. The more senior mechanics always
took those jobs, eager to break the monotony. Pulling on his gloves, Alex glanced down at the worklist for today. Yep, first
thing on the list was a blown relay for an older model patriot. Sighing, he got to work.
On her way back to the sleeping quarters she shared with her family, Julie had the urge to swing past the docking bay.
Not an unusual thing, Fort Bush tended to have lots of interesting people going through it. And, with those interesting people,
came fascinating ships. Julie had seen many pass through, some more memorable than others. Once or twice, she had seen some
high ranking LSF men passing through, suspiciously looking at anyone who came near. Typical intelligence officers. Julie sweared,
as much as Alex refused to believe it, that she had once seen a woman pass through with a breathing mask that screamed Outcast.
She knew it was unlikely, what with the bounty on the head of any Outcast, but she wanted to believe it.
Julie scanned the docking bay. Not much today, just a few freighters, a startracker off in the corner and it looked like
an escort flight of Liberty light fighters. Nothing caught her eye. But what - something in the corner. It was perfect. Julie
jogged towards the ship, staring in awe at the laser burns across the hull. A few passerbys looked at her strangly, not understanding
her fascination. It was a Rhino. A design from Pittsburgh Drive Systems, the Rhino was the choice for small businesses all
throughout Liberty space. Small, strong, and with a large cargo bay, it was perfect for freelancing. This one was clearly
an older model, looking to be maybe a R-54, maybe even a '52. Lasers had burned score marks all over the hull, blowing holes
through the steel armour in places. Moving around it, a massive hole became visible through the side of the cargo bay, and
nasty looking burns all across the engines. The hover coils that normally parked a ship a metre or so off the ground clearly
didn't work, and the ship was resting heavily on the hull itself. It was battered, beaten, and, to Julie's eyes, beautiful.
It was exactly the kind of ship she wanted.
"Yeah, damn rogues. Hit me hard." Julie spun to see the speaker. The man who greeted her looked to be in about
the same condition as his ship. The blond hair just covered a very bloody bandage around the mans head, his left arm in a
sling, and most noticable, a large metal brace all over his right leg. "They took out one of the trade lanes between
here and Norfolk. Four of the bastards. Took my shield down, blew my engines, did the delicate surgery you see now, and left
me for dead. I just managed to limp back with my thrusters." He looked depressed, staring dejectedly at his crippled
ship.Julie nodded sympathetically. "How bad were you hurt?" The pilot chuckled. "Aww, nothing too bad. Except
for the damn leg." With a nod towards the brace on his leg, he added "Shrapnel all through the knee. Its done. I
guess I'm out of the flight business." Julie tried to hide her enthusiasim. "So, you'll be selling your ship, right?
Umm...how much were you thinking you'd get for it?" THe pilot smiled. " This old beast? I'd be lucky to get five
hundred credits for scrap. You interested? Cause I want to get rid of it, I'll give it to you for 350." "Sold."
The pilot's grin spread wider. "Then consider yourself the proud owner of one slightly used Rhino".
Over in the equipment shop, something else had gathered Alex's attention. A pilot was haggling with Bill, not an uncommon
occurence, but the ship beside him was. An old tigershark, more rust than paint, and the paint seemed to have been added simply
to cover the poor patch job done to the hull. Alex let his gaze travel over the vessel, a flying wing with a bubble canopy
on top and a massive bulge along the back for the engines. Thoughts shot quickly through the young mechanic's mind. The tigershark
may be old, but it's a reliable design. As much as the fighter was battered, it's hull was solid. With a few weeks, and a
few parts, it could be made to pack a decent punch. Alex slipped silently near to hear. From what he could make out, the pilot
was trying to get rid of the ship as surplus, and what the man wanted was deemed too much by Bill. Alex strained to hear the
price..."Are you trying to cheat me Haywood?! Seven hundred isn't much. Its a good ship!" Alex could feel his heart
leap. Seven hundred wasn't much. He could afford that, plus a little to fix it with. He broke in.
"How about 650?" Bill turned to glare at him. "Ignore my mechanic, he isn't the one paying here."
"No, no." Alex smiled. "I said I'm willing to pay 650." If looks could kill, Alex would have been struck
down by lightning. The pilot laughed. "All yours, son. Pleasure doing business with ya." A quick transfer of the
credits, and the man left Alex alone with his boss.
"The hell was that?!" A new light shone in Alex's eyes. "I just bought a ship. My own ship. I'm going to
fix it up, then I'm out of here. Gone." That news took a moment to sink in. Bill snarled "You're insolent. You're
"No I'm not. I quit." Alex tossed aside his toolbelt, then climbed the ladder into the old tigershark. He slid
open the hatch with a screech, then crawled inside, closing the door behind. The screech was louder inside. I gotta fix that.
Alex allowed a smile to cross his face at the thought. He was going to fix something on his ship. Alex snaked his way up to
the cockpit, cramped inside the small seat. A flick of a few switches brought the main systems online, as well as numerous
red lights. Shields...well, none. Makes it simpler, Alex thought. Weapons were only at half power, and only the port engine
was giving power. Nonetheless, the hovercoils still worked, and were enough to move him out of the shop, through the cargo
elevator, and into the docking bay. Alex set down gently beside a battered Rhino freighter, powered down, and, with one last
glance over this ship, pulled himself out.
"Not bad. Not bad at all. Hows mine?" Alex spun to see Julie leaning against the light freighter.
"Jules? Thats, I mean, it's...yours?" Julie chuckled.
"Yep. Just bought it."
"Same. So I guess we both have a ship now." Alex's grin spread from ear to ear. "Now with a little bit
of repair, we can officially call ourselves freelancers." The possibilities were endless.
"Alright, how about now?", Alex called out. He heard the whine from the Rhino's power generators, trying to
start themselves. A cough burst forth, and the generators leveled out to a constant thrum.
"Alright! We have power!" The old freighter shuddered, then pulled itself off the ground. It leveled off about
a meter from the decking. Looking through the narrow corridor, Alex could see Julie, turned around in the pilots seat, giving
him a thumbs up. He made his way towards the cockpit. A look around made him proud. During the last week, he had worked like
mad to repair both vessels. THe debris within the Rhino had been cleared away, fresh patches covered up the numerous hull
breach, and, best of all, all of the cockpit indicator lights were green. It was ready to fly. Through the windshield, he
could see his own fighter, an old tigershark, floating above the deck. The flying wing had been cleaned, all of the rust cleared
away, with a fresh coat of grey paint covering it. He had managed to repair most systems, and replaced the others with scraps.
The result was a sturdy vessel, with shields more powerful than would be expected. Combined with the four Justice Mk.II cannons
he mounted, it was a lethal craft. Not as fast as most, but it could take a beating. The duo was ready to fly. Only problem
being, they spent almost every cent they had on these ships. All that was left was enough money to refuel.
The pair of friends walked away from their ships, neither being able to resist looking back to admire their work. They
were ready to go, just needing a job. And, as it was in every starport in Sirius, the one place for work was the bar. Fort
Bush was no different. Walking in, they could see people all around, Bounty Hunters discussed with suspicious looking freelancers,
LSF agents glared at Junkers, who, in turn, stared with intrest at the intelligence agent's sidearms. Alex and Julie slid
in beside a couple of the LSF agents.
"Hi. You hiring?" The leader of the group, a Leutenant, looked back at Alex with disdain.
"I may be, but not children. I require freelancers to have their own ships." Julie smiled.
"Excellent, because we do. A freighter and a fighter." The shock was visible on the man's face. Clearly, he
was more familiar with older, more experienced, freelancers. Alex thought to himself. I'll just have to show him our potential.
"In which case," said the agent, "I may have a positition open. One quick job, simple freight and escort
duty. Pay is 1100 credits, with potential for bonuses." 1100 credits? For a simple transport duty? Alex was confused.
Something was being held back.But thats an aweful lot of money... The Leutenant saw the look on the young freelancer's face,
"I know, Its a risky mission, but you won't be alone. I can't tell you anymore, this is a classified mission. Interested?"
Julie and Alex exchanged looks. Each knew what the other was thinking. Alex nodded. "
"Excellent." replied the LSF agent. "Meet in the industrial section of the station, tommorow at 0600. Room
b18. Don't be late." The conversation was clearly over.Alex and Julie headed off, getting ready for the morning.
Alex surveyed the room before him. It was dominated by a large table in the centre of the room, pilots seated all around
it, Alex and Julie were clearly the youngest in the room. Most did not speak, spending their time evaluating those in the
room, as if mentally deciding who would be the hardest to kill. Most here were battle hardened, experienced fighters. Even
those whose flight suit insignia showed a freighter looked tough. Almost all looked like they should be serving time in Texas
rather than fighting for the LSF. All the attention shifted to the man that entered, who Alex recognized as the Leutenant
that hired him.
"Settle down everyone. I am, if you didn't know, Leutenant Shauffer, with the LSF. All of you are here to do a job.
I cannot stress enough how essential it is that you maintain complete secrecy here. This may not be pretty." The man
paused, as if to let that sink in. "As you may know, the badlands are a serious security threat to the New York system.
Liberty Rogues have taken up residence there, possibly with several large bases. Word is, they now have Outcast backup. I
don't need to point out what kind of damage they could do to shipping." Alex could fully understand. The Outcasts were
an infamous pirate group, survivors of the lost sleeper ship, Hispania. After having settled on a strange plantet, they soon
found themselves changed, genetically modified by the plants of their new world. This yielded greater lifespans, increased
instincts, reflexes, and, most important, a dependancy on the grasses of Malta, the drug cardimine. They believed themselves
abandoned by the more prosperous houses, so they made it their duty to spread tbe cardimine addiction across Sirius, and killing
those who refused to succumb. As a result, none were more feared, for both the equipment, and the insane skill which they
piloted with. Stauffer continued.
"We have made an attempt to hurt the Rogues in their safehaven. In the badlands itself, we have built a small base,
victory class. It is loaded with an entire wing of Liberty Defenders and their pilots. Its a crack unit, one proven time again
in battle. They have been wreaking havoc on the pirate activites in the area." Unsuprising. Alex was amazed at the size
of the force. An entire wing of defenders? Thats a full 72 ships, or six squadrons of 12. Of elites, Alex had to remind himself.
Few forces could match that.
"However, they do have a weakness. They're running low on supplies. Thats where you come in. The 1100 credits is
for transport the supplies the base needs to run, I can't rule out the possibility of Rogue attack, so I've been authorized
to add a 200 credit bonus for every Rogue shot down. Get in, drop off your supplies, then get the hell out. Payment on delivery."
The room was silent.
"So lets see if I understand this right." The speaker was a fighter pilot off in the corner, a blond woman who
would have been attractive if it weren't for the scar that ran from the top of her lip, through her left eye, and dissapearing
into her hair. "You want us to load up with supplies, fly through one of the most dangerous places in Liberty, probably
fight off pirates at every turn, then park ourselves in a base, situated in the centre off an asteroid field?" Stauffer
nodded. The pilot smiled. "Sounds fun." Alex swallowed. It sounded hard. But he was game. He wanted to prove himself.
I can do this.
"No more questions? Well then, you should find the cargo already loaded. Good luck and godspeed."
Alex was nervous. Leaving the dock the first time, he manipulated his controls very carefully. Don't want to screw this
up. He looked back to the station where he grew up, breathed out a long breath, then goosed the thruser, pulling up in line
beside the convoy leader, the battle scarred woman from the briefing.
"Sab-" Alex's voice cracked, and he quickly coughed to cover it up. "Saber six is in formation."
"Confirmed. Prepare to go to cruise in 5." Alex flipped the safety off, then counted. A few metres away, he
could see Julie in the Rhino doing the same.
"Mark." Alex flipped the switch for the cruise engines, happy to see that his custom modifications allowed it
to charge faster. He pulled ahead of the formation, then trimmed the throttle a little to pull in behind the leader, Sabre
one. An impressive convoy followed. Alex counted 24 freighters of various makes, escorted by 16 fighters. Most were standard
liberty ships, patriots, startrackers and the like, dotted with a few heavy fighters, and the razor flown by sabre one. Even
with such an impressive array of ships, they avoided the tradelanes. No one wanted to increase their chances of even coming
near pirates. Regardless of the escort, a couple squadrons of Rogues could slaughter the slower moving cargo haulers.
Fortunatly enough, the trip out was uneventful. No one came close enough to even register on the sensors. It was an easy
run, and Alex began to relax. Not so hard after all. Then they entered the badlands. The easy mission suddenly became very,
very hard. And it wasn't even any pirates. No, the badlands were dangerous enough on their own. Asteroids and wrecks littered
the path, and the dust clouds obscured both vision and sensors. You couldn't see the obstacles until they were on you. After
one of the escorts slammed headlong into a wrecked CSV, the convoy had to go to standard drives, abandoning cruise. It would
be less likely to impact things, but the journey was slower. And every moment delayed was another moment for the pirates you
attack. Lightning crisscrossed through the field, battering Alex's shields. Damn. How do the rogues justify a base here? It
was dangerous enough simply being in the area. But they continued.
Finally, the LSF base came into view. Smoke drifted from holes blown unevenly into the armour. Molten metal had congealed
into strange formations, spreading bits of station - and, Alex noticed with a shudder, crew - all throughout space. The station
was dead, the clear victim of torpedo bombers. The calm voice of Sabre one came through the comm.
"Station is down, I repeat, station is down. Freighters, move out along our entry vector. Escorts, form up. Be on
the lookout for an attack." Alex most certainly was on the lookout. He was panicky, frightened out of his wits by the
destruction wreaked onto the station. The young freelancer stared constantly at the screen from his sensors. Here again, his
skills as a mechanic proved useful. Alex had tweaked his sensor unit to detect threats from five percent farther away, which
gave him the first glimpse of the enemy. The unit was covered in red dots converging on their position. Including an entire
squadron of Outcasts heading straight for the freighters. Twenty four freighters. Twelve Outcasts. They could wipe them out
in one pass!
"Saber six to freighter convoy, roll out, NOW! One, we have inbound Outcast and Rogue fighters, at least four squadrons."
The freighters were confused. Some, insistent on following the more senior pilots orders, stayed on their course. Others acted
fast, splitting in all directions. Even Sabre one followed the order, diving and spinning through a twist designed to lose
a missle lock. None to soon. The Outcasts screamed out of the clouds, firing missles and unleashing a constant stream of lasers.
The freighters, loaded with supplies, moved slow, making easy targets for the more experienced gunners. Lasers burned through
shields, and missles found their mark. All of those who stubornly followed Sabre ones orders flared out of existance, 13 dead
in total. The Rogues in their wake weren't as effective, but still deadly. They targeted those that had split, ripping them
to shreds. Only 3 freighters remained, and none of the escorts had fired a shot. Time to change that. The escorts rocketed
towards the incoming rogues, firing. Alex saw a bloodhound in his guns, swung his targeting sensors over it, and fired. The
fighter's shields held the first few blasts, but the Bloodhound was manufactuered for quantity, and its performance suffered.
Alex's first salvo ate through the shields, and the next 4 shots intersected straight at the canopy. They burned through,
killing the pilot instantly. Alex made a quick roll to port, avoiding the dead vessel, then pulled up around around, viewing
the battlefield. It was not good. Only one freighter remained, Julie, and six escorts. Alex saw one run for its life, but
the fleeing vessel was torn to shreds easily. Not good. The comm lit up.
"I got one on my tail! I can't shake him!" Alex recognized Julies voice. Dammit, not while I'm flying. He pulled
his fighter around, screaming straight for Julie. Her Rhino had no more shields, but she was juking back and forth in a way
that was making her pursuer have a very hard time getting a good shot. Alex's quick shots grazed the Outcast's shields, but
only served to warn him of the impending danger. The outcast pilot droped a mine, then fired on Julie. Alex had to roll quick
to port, then stomped on his right rudder pedal, swinging him around to get the outcast in his sights. He was just in time
to see the blasts penetrate the stricken Rhino's cargo bay...straight into the tanks of H-fuel stored inside. The explosion
turned the small freighter into an everexpanding fireball, ripping through its killer. The pirate didn't even have time to
manuever before his ship was engulfed. Instinct drove Alex, pulling up hard to avoid his own death. Anger gripped him, and
he swung around, straight for the centre of the dogfight. A bloodhound streaked past. Alex flipped himself onto his starboard
wing, pulling up hard to bring himself behing the Rogue starfighter. He could feel the inertia pushing him into his seat,
making it hard to control, but he fought it off with brute force. he unleashed a salvo into the enemies rear, impacting the
shields before they collapsed. His next shot lanced into the doomed ships engines, detonating them. The bloodhound burst into
a massive fireball, and Alex could feel shrapnel bouncing harmlessly on his shields. Alex reversed his engines, dove, then
hammered the thrusters, coming down on top of another Outcast. The pirate was busy attacking one of the few remaining sabre
fighters, and clearly didn't notice the tigershark's approach. Lasers played across Alex's rear shields, and shunted all power
from the fron to them. He was looking the the Outcast fighter from the top, offering the biggest profile. The shot was an
easy one. Alex's lasers sycthed through the pirate vessel, cutting it across the centre. It's pilot rolled to evade him, but
that compounded the damage, ripping the fighter to pieces, leaving Alex to deal with the ship on his tail. He reversed his
thrust, ignoring the alarm bells ringing from the stress he was adding to the spaceframe. His ship stopped dead, and his pursuer
shot past him, straight into the path of Alex's lasers. It exploded. He glanced at his sensors, then fear gripped his heart.
Only one other ship remained of the convoy, Sabre one. She ripped through a following vessel, then spun.
"Six, this is one. I'm lead, you are my wing. Copy?" Alex responded by swinging up, to the right and rear of
one's razor. She slammed the thrusters, zipping into the asteroid field, following an insane course in and out of the worst
spots, evading and pirate tails. Alex mimicked her manuevers, barely avoiding being destroyed. The rogues fell behind, unwilling
to pursue, while a pair of outcasts gave chase. They were good, avoiding the same rocks, yet mangaging to still get in several
shots. Alex swung to starboard to avoid ramming a particularly large asteroid - straight into a path of lasers. One of the
outcasts had predicted his manuever, and had shot into the open space where she predicted Alex would be. Her lasers found
their mark, burning through the young freelancers shields, scoring long burn marks along the frame. The armour held. Alex
broke away from One, attempting an even crazier course to shake his pursuer. The outcasts split, the other following Sabre
one. She shunted all power from her guns to the cruise engines, charging them fast enough to almost instantly leap forward.
As she had expected, a cruise disrupter followed in her wake. But Sabre one was ready. She killed her engines, then slammed
the rudder to the left as hard as possible. Her nose swung around, leaving her in the same flight path, but facing backwards.
Transfering energy back to her guns, she blew through the outcast's shields, then fired a missle straight into the suprised
pilot's face. It burst into a massive fireball.
Alex wasn't having as much luck with his opponent. No matter what he did, the outcast pilot refused to be shaken. Suddenly,
one of the energy storms that proliferated the badlands sent a burst of lightning his way. It impacted directly, killing his
shields and knocking his engines offline. The beeping of an enemy target lock got faster in his ears, almost becoming a solid
tone. He prepared for nothingness. He wasn't completely disapointed. Nothing happened. No lasers, no missles. He wasn't dead.
Scanners were out, but a visual check showed Sabre one scream past. A grin spread wide on Alex's face. He was going to live.
He punched the engine restart button and was greeted by a roar as they came back online. He pulled up beside Sabre one, and
they screamed out of the badlands.
"Nice flying kid. Looks like you have some potential. Names Dia Contez."
"Alex McGugan. And Dia - thanks."
Alex looked up at the four ships marked on the side of his Tigershark. Even though the cargo hadn't been delivered, Stauffer
had been true to his word. Alex had been paid 200 creds for each kill. Enough to make repairs, even to upgrade his guns. Julie
was gone. All those in the convoy were gone. But Alex lived. He had outflown all others, doing greater than he could have
been asked to. He also gained a new business partner. Dia had taken him under her wing, training him as her wingman. He didn't
mind - they made a good team, and they were very good at taking out pirates. Alex glanced through the same viewport he had
only weeks before. In his minds eye, he could see the pirates swarming the badlands, ready for anyone foolish enough to enter.
Well, call him a fool, but Alex was ready. He was going back. And the pirates would pay.