This had to be the most boring job he had ever taken. Sure, the pay was good, more than good, excellent really, but the
work was mind-numbingly
boring. The Liberty Navy was performing some sort of advanced combat testing, which, by the way, they refused to give
any details on, and had hired Alex
McGugan and his partner, Dia Contez, to patrol the borders of Zone 21 for any potential spies. "Like its even nessecary,"
Alex grumbled to himself. Zone 21
was a veritable fortess, and any attempt to enter it was suicide. If a potential spy managed to avoid the sensors surrounding
the area, which would call in
wings of Liberty Defenders if they detected as much as a stray rock, they would still have to get through the minefield
which made even legitimate flights
into the Zone hazardous. Alex would have loved to see the casualty rate for people entering the field, but he that, like
everything else to do with this
area, those would be classified. Secrecy. Humpf. In the two years since he started Freelancing, Alex had grown to hate
secrecy. Many times, he had seen
deaths that could have been avoided had the LSF released sensitive information to the Freelancers it hired. Like Julie.
Alex clenched his fists tightly, then
let them go, along with the anger. It had only been recently that he had discovered the extent of the LSF's information
on Rogue movements in the Badlands.
As it turned out, they had known that the pirates had planned to attack the Liberty Navy's base in the badlands, and that
had been the reason for the
frenzied and poorly organized freelancer convoy had been sent out. To its death. Alex found that the anger he had just
let go had returned. The LSF knew they
were sending those freelancers to die. Julie to die. Alex had relived that moment time and time again in his dreams. The
cut off scream, the ball of flame
that incinerated his childhood friend... Alex had fought hard to find justice, had cut down dozens of squadrons, surpassing
most kill records of flyers that
had been in the business years longer than him. Other freelancers were shocked and impressed with the young man's skill,
but they never understood. Unlike
them, Alex didn't fight for money. He fought for revenge. And now he wasn't certain who he needed to fight. The Rogues
and Outcasts had always seemed a
likely target, but now, realizing that the LSF had sent them to their deaths, he wondered if they were the ones he should
seek vengance from. Alex shook his
head, brushing his dark hair out of his eyes, and glanced out his viewscreen. He could see Dia's ship cruising along beside
his own. Dia Contez had taken him
in after the ill-fated run to the badlands, and until recently, had supported his quest for revenge. But even she had
told him to tone it down of late. "Let
her go" she had said. Perhaps she was right. Maybe justice had been served.
Only a dozen metres away, Dia's thoughts were also troubled. This place was unpenatrable, probably the safest place in
Liberty, and yet the Liberty
Navy had seen it nessecary to have patrols running inside the clearing, in the centre of the minefield. What concerned
her even more was that they had been
hired to do it. The duo were qualified, no doubt about that, but the Navy had their own fighters, probably with pilots
equally skilled. Why wouldn't they get
their own people to patrol this area? As far as she could tell, this was the only section of Zone 21 that had Freelancers
patrolling it, although she hadn't
gotten a good look at the other areas. This disturbed her. Dia had heard rumors of unrest out near the border worlds,
and if the Liberty Navy was stretched
out so thin that Freelancers had to be hired to patrol Liberty's top-secret facilities, they could be inn serious trouble
if that unrest spread closer to the
core systems. Perhaps whatever equipment was being tested today would help. Dia could only hope. Admitably, she wasn't
exactly the shining example of a good
citizen, but Liberty had given her much over the years, and she would hate to see it collapse. Patriotism tended to run
pretty high in Liberty, and Dia was
no exception. As long as the Liberty Navy would pay her, she'd patrol this patch of space.
"They haven't detected us?" The man who had spoken looked curiously at the sensors officer. The officer gulped.
Kaspar Orillion was an impressive
looking man. Tall and muscular, he looked like he could crush a small man without effort, and yet he seemed to blend in
with the group of soft office staff
around him. The communications officer supposed that Orillion could blend in well with any group. He had heard rumors
of the man's exploits. Super-spy, man
with a hundred names - amongst them, the silent killer. Supressing a shiver was hard. If there was an impossible situation
in Sirius, Orillion was the man
sent in. The tech pushed the thoughts to the back of his mind, and answered the question.
"If they have, sir, they haven't shown any sign of it." An admiral off to the side beamed.
"I told you Orillion, this ship is the pinnacle of technology. Impossible to detect." Orillion looked impressed.
"This system could be invaluable for
covert operations. How many have you built so far?" The admiral let out a chuckle. "This is the only one. After
a bit of combat testing, we'll commission
more. And speaking of combat testing, I think its time. We've tested the cloaking device enough, time to see how she handles
a bit of a scrap." He nodded
towards one of the crew. "Initiate de-cloak."
Alex, being bored, began to tweak his ships systems. His custom modifications had saved his life more than once, and
both his Tigershark and Dia's
Razor had enough tunings that made the circuits virtually unrecognizable. After fiddling with his sensors a moment, he
noticed a hazy blob appearing on the
readout. A very large blob.
"Uh, Dia?" Alex's throat was suddenly dry. "Theres something out there. I have no clue what, but it's
huge." Dia frowned. She had grown to trust
Alex's jury-rigged machinery, and instinctivly flicked on her shields.
"Does its size match anything we kno..." Her voice faltered mid-sentence. The space in front of her suddenly
seemed to glow, shimmering in a way she
had never seen it before, lightning playing across...across what? Something that was there, but not there? She was about
to suggest that Alex get some
distance, when the Osiris came fully out of cloak, a massive battleship, bristling with weaponry. It opened fire. Both
FreeLancers, getting over their shock
rapidly, spun round, attempting to escape the massive vessel, only to see waves of Defenders uncloaking in a circle all
around the three combatants. A voice
came over the com.
"You stay here, Freelancer." The voice dripped with contempt. "You get the honour of seeing the latest
of Liberty's arsenal. Enjoy the show." On the
bridge of the Osiris, Orillion was stunned. "This is the combat test?!" The admiral who had been bragging earlier
gave the spy an odd look. "Of course. What,
you thought we'd test this on our own troops?" "No! But at least on computer controlled ships! Not civilians!"
The admiral shrugged. "This is far more
effective. Only the best." "But, but sir!" Orillion was stuttering, panicky. "You can't do this!"
The admiral's look grew cold, and a strange pink light
seemed to glow from his eyes. "Your objection was been noted. Now, please sit and enjoy the display. Now." Orillion
realized what was happening. He had heard
of this new threat, even reported it to his superiors. Now he saw why his report had been seemingly ignored. When the
admiral looked away, Orillion's hand
went to his pocket, where he thumbed a small switch on a personal communicator. He hadn't become Liberty's top agent for
nothing. Kaspar Orillion always had
a backup plan, and this one had been in place for weeks. He knew what he had to do. This new threat could not be allowed
to continue, and certainly could not
be allowed to control this battleship. The hand shifted to the small of his back, drawing out a small pistol he had hidden
there. All over the ship, crewman
loyal to Liberty, recruited by Orillion for a time such as this, sprung into action. Fighting burst out on all decks,
and somewhere, a homing beacon was
activated. Across space, a light began to flash on the sensor board of a Lane Hackers ship.
Bile rose up in Dia's throat. Now she knew why they had been the only Freelancers here. Fewer witnesses. Advanced combat
testing, she should have
known. She forced herself to remain calm. Logic. Against that monster, they had no chance. Against all of the fighters,
well, they still had no chance, but
at least they could take some out with them. She keyed her communicator, about to tell Alex to attack the fighters, when
she saw his Tigershark streak away
from her, pouring out laser fire into the ranks of the Liberty Defenders. She pulled about, and attacked.
Alex was furious. So the Navy decided that they would be perfect to use as target practice. They would learn that these
targets fight back. Throwing
the throttle to full, he arced away from the battleship, straight into the waiting fighters. He shunted all of his shield
energy forward, went into a spin
and held down on the trigger, spraying fire in a narrow cone through the enemy. Two patriots exploded, and Alex screamed
through the hole, looping around to
attack the rest from behind. More exploded under his guns. Suddenly, Alex's cockpit was filled with the electronic squeal
of target locks, dozens from every
angle. He swore, and rolled as hard to starboard as possible, lasers streaking through the spot he had occupied seconds
before. Missles still following, he
pulled out of the loop, angling straight up, releasing a flurry of shots into the belly of a Defender, shredding it. Alex
could hear pinging off his shields,
and felt himself being kicked around by the shrapnel as he passed through the wreckage. The two missles that were on his
tail exploded when they hit the
shrapnel, buffeting Alex with shockwaves. He quickly evened out his damaged shields, then pulled a swift immelman, putting
him into a head to head attack
with four defenders. He grimaced. Head to head, he could use his guns to their full potential, doing the most damage to
his enemy, but so could they. And
four to one odds were not in his favour. The defenders split into a line, spread so all could get an angle on him at once,
and giving them a shot even if he
manuevered. These weren't rookie pirates - these were skilled, trained killers. Alex smiled to himself. "I'm better."
He snapped off a missle towards the one
on the far right, then pulled a roll that looked as if it would smash him into a LSF patriot, but with centimeters to
spare, he flicked on his hovercoils,
kicking him away from the Liberty fighter faster than the enemy gunners could follow, and their shots burned through the
doomed patriot. Alex swung his
sights back over the four ships, just in time to see his missle impact the side of one, sending it in a spin. The pilot
managed to regain control of his
stricken craft, only to have it smash into his wingmate, killing both. Seeing this, the remaining two spread out a bit,
clearly trying to avoid a similar
fate. Alex took advantage of the weakness, rocketing between the two, only to kill his engines and hit the side mounted
thrusters he had mounted only days
earlier. The flying wing swung about it's axis, engines screaming, sweeping both defenders through the sights. Two missles
took both ships. Alex grinned,
glanced down at his sensor board, and the grin melted. It was nearly solid red, with more arriving every second.
Dia pulled out of the cloud of enemy fighters, certain on having vaped at least 3, plus maybe killing the shields on
another 4. Her own damage was
minimal, but there was no way this could continue. She considered making an escape run, and searched for a path through
the minefield. There. A crooked,
narrow corridor wound its way through the minefield, so small that you would have to be insane to fly through it. Or desperate.
She keyed the comm. "Alex! We
have to get out! I'm transmiting co-ords, go!" She highlighted the spot on her navmap, dragging it across the touchscreen
to the icon that showed Alex's comm
signal. Having transmited, she swung around, dodging more fighters, aiming for the narrow corridor. But someone was already
in it. Cursing, she slammed on
reverse thrusters, and nailed the rudder to swing about. Slammed into the seat by the G-forces, she only caught a glimpse
of the shapes flowing out of the
hole in the minefield, and she felt cold. Stilettos. Those ships were only used by pirates, most notably Outcasts. The
odds were already impossible, but with
squadron after squadron pouring from the gap, they could be trapped between the clashing of two powerful opponents. That
was not a place she intended to be.
Screaming away from the field, she approached the warship. Strange, she noted. It wasn't firing anymore. Didn't matter,
it just made it safer. She would use
it as a shield, keeping it between her and the fighting. Then the dormant guns blazed to life.
Back on the Orisis's bridge, Orillion wiped the sweat from his brow. All around, the bodies of the murderers, those who
had pointlessly tried to kill
the Freelancers, lay dead. Several of the bridge crew, loyal to him, looked slightly worse for wear, but would survive.
His comlink clicked.
"Sir! The ship is now under our control!" Orillion smiled.
"Excellent. Target those Liberty fighters. Fire."
Dia was stunned. She had prepared to be vaporised, but instead, the warship had opened fire on its own men! She wasn't
going to argue. Whoever was in
control of that ship was clearly working with the pirates, working together to systematically destroy the Navy pilots.
Alex's voice broke through the static
in her headphones.
"Dia! What the hell is going on?!" "I don't know, but whatever it is, I'd rather not get stuck in it!
Go!" Dia saw Alex launching through the
minefield, following the course she had made out, Dia following. Whoever was flying those Stilettos didn't seem to be
targeting them, but she didnt' want to
take chances. The goodwill of pirates can be fickle. She felt the scar that ran up her face aching, and a surge of hatred
passed through her, tempting her to
turn around. She had never told Alex how she came to get that scar, and never intended on doing so. It was bad enough
that he had his own vendetta, she
didn't need to give him any more incentive to attack superior forces. Those Stilettos might not even be Hessians, but
the ship in itself brought back too
many memories. The pair didn't need to get any more mixed up in this battle.
Alex slowly left the minefield, Dia's Dagger right behind him. Off in the distance, flashes of light were the only indicator
of the titanic battle
taking place. Slowly, he let his breath out, not even aware he had been holding it. Flying through minefields in scary
business, and he promptly swore not to
do it again anytime soon. I flicked the comm.
"Finally, we're clear. I thought we'd be toast when that battleship started firing."
"We're not out of trouble yet. We took out a fair few military ships back there. I have no doubt that our names
will appear on Liberty's wanted list,
if it isn't already."
"So what's the plan? Where'll we run?"
"I got a friend out in the sigma systems. Runs a bar, in a place called Freeport 7. It's remote, should be a good
place to hide out, let things cool
down. I'm sending waypoint Co-ords now." Sigma huh? Alex smiled. Nothing like a bit of borderworld flying to have
some fun. Should be a good place to tune up
my skills for when I return to civilization. He switched over power, saw the cruise charge to full, then hit the thrust.
"Freeport 7, here we come."