Episode: The Pilot
Primary author: Insomniac By Choice
Revisionist: Mild Guy

Kalo-Kalo Echer Colony
Mon Chas Star System
1020 Local Standard Time
24-09-14 Galactic Federation Standard Date

On the first day of spring, as the faint red sun staked its path through the cool gray sky of mid-morning, a soot-stained child darted from a burning building toward one that would soon catch fire. Pillars of oily smoke filled the sky from the ruined town, mushrooming when they reached the thinning air miles above, just below the belly of the starship, metallic and tickish, that sat ominously in low atmosphere, sucking life out of the land below.

Amid the roar of flames and grumble of collapsing roofs, what used to be a small rural township on an unimportant colony burned now — everything seemed to be burning — but there were some structures that fire had not yet touched and some that fire could ruin no more. A boy, small and thin, perhaps age seven, ducked under remnants of the fallen archway to the entrance of a small general store. His black hair was mixed with soot, and his dark brown skin was covered in ash; he was hard to spot even for those looking for him, and probably this was why he was still able to run when no one else could. Eighteen hours ago the raid had started, and the boy hadn't seen another Human or otherwise civilized creature alive for at least ten.

Parties of Space Pirates hurried from structure to structure, checking to see if there was anything worthwhile left to take, setting fire to it if not – setting fire to it if so, as well. They chittered and screeched at one another constantly. They had been wary in the beginning, or at least careful; no longer. They felt they had nothing to fear anymore.

From under cover, the boy watched a group of six come out of the apartments he'd just been in. They may have been tracking him specifically, but he hoped they were just being thorough. He should have moved more quickly to get inside, perhaps out of a window then. Either way they would come his way next, and the animal part of his brain, unevolved and often admonished, raced to think of the best way to survive: blend in and hope for imperceptiveness or flee and pray for their disinterest?

He had heard of Space Pirates before, but never paid attention to the lessons, the safety holovids, the emergency instructions. He lived in the Middle, not the Outer Rim. And the odds of Pirates attacking any one colony were so miniscule anyway so as not to be even considered; his father had told him so many times. His father had once been a Galactic Federation official once and would know.

Then the boy had watched them eat his father. And his mother. And younger sister. Meanwhile he had hidden in the crawlspace below the kitchen and been too terrified to breathe, much less scream or cry. When the Pirates finally set fire to his family's home, he'd waited till he was more afraid of the fire than the Pirates, and almost been cooked alive. That might have been preferable, from hindsight's vantage, but the boy was too distracted now for retrospect.

The Pirates had no distractions now, and although he was sure he wouldn't be able to see himself from where they were, they stared straight at him. He didn't move, his chest rose not at all nor his eyes even to blink, and his skin was as hard as the stone and cold as metal around him. Even so, the group of Pirates came toward the store and formed a semicircle around him, and it was too late to run anywhere — if ever he'd had time. He saw their yellow eyes focus down on him, almost glowing in the dim light with lusty hunger.

The boy had smelled nothing but smoke and ash for hours, but he could smell them well now: rotten meat and bile, sewage and decay. His nostrils filled with the end of all things.

They would take their time. They would enjoy him, savor him as their last fresh meal of the raid, and they would have no pity, nor consider it. He'd seen them pull the babies out of mothers to eat the children first and watch the mothers witness it. No, the Pirates would not be moved by his cries. They would not balk at his tears.

One monstrous alien, larger and sturdier than the rest, came forward, reptilian and insectile all at once. On its head, the orange crest of a chieftain flared flush with excitement, and its serrated beak opened wide as it pushed aside a bit of rubble on the stair steps, moving to take hold of the boy's thigh in a clawed grasp. Seeing nothing else to do, the boy vainly covered his face, for he wanted to see nothing else that was to happen.

Then — out of nowhere — the Pirate's claw was gone. As it paused to examine the new development, its crested head disappeared as well, and the Pirate fell onto the ground, dead and gone but for the twitching, with no capacity for self-examination.

The other Pirates quickly forgot about the boy and began looking around at the shattered windows and still-standing roofs to see who had ambushed them, but it was too late and too sudden for them to do anything now. Bullets and pulse blasts came from everywhere it seemed, punching through their carapaces; they went down, writhing, screaming and firing their weapons, but inflicting no harm on anyone but themselves.

The boy uncovered his head, miraculously also unharmed. He looked around at what had just happened, unable to believe it had in fact happened and was not simply the product of his wishful imagination playing out in extreme detail for his last moments. But the fantasy continued, and he stood, sleepwalking toward – he hoped – his deliverance. Out from the nearby buildings walked the royal blue, twice-a-Human-tall powered exoskeletons of six Galactic Policemen and the camouflaged half suits of two guildsman bounty hunters with yellow-class striped shoulders. The boy couldn't see them immediately, but four more Policemen held their positions on the roofs and behind the walls of surrounding buildings: twenty-four in all of the group in the area.

While the others stopped and began to re-survey the situation, one Policeman walked up to the boy from out of the ruined café next door.

"Are you OK?" the Galactic Policeman asked the boy. The boy turned and saw the Policeman was wearing not a crest on his head but a prominent insignia instead; the man in the powered suit came closer and knelt, bringing the insignia closer to the boy's face. "Are you injured?" the Policeman asked again when the boy made no response. This time the child shook his head for no, but stared yet at the symbol that stared back at him: a third eye all-seeing, with three bars over it.

"Have you seen anyone else nearby, any Pirates, any survivors?"

The boy shook his head.

"Alright, sit tight champ. We're going to take care of you," the same Policeman said, and that was the last thing the boy heard out of them for a very long time.

1030 Local Standard Time
24-09-14 Galactic Federation Standard Date
GFP Team Rama-8

"What about you two; are you OK?" Lieutenant Rappett asked the two bounty hunters present through their internal communication. They were standing with him inside the ruined store and looked fine; still he had to ask. His visor's Heads Up Display told him none of the Policemen had been injured, but the independent contractors from the Reconstituted Knotts Guild were on their own comms system and couldn't integrate.

"We're fine, Lieutenant," the guildsman in the shorter of the two armors said first, poking at part of the roof that had fallen in through the ceiling. His artificial stalk eyes swiveled to better look at the debris. Normally Rappett would have had white-class hunters helping him at every auxiliary position, but he was lucky to get even yellows in times like these. The guildsman Tlaco spoke also for his fellow named Gergin, some sort of tentacled non-Human that Rappett hadn't heard of before. Both had some experience doing military work prior, but like many things, they worried him now.

"That's good."

Rappett checked the time. A transport ship should have contacted him 15 minutes earlier to let them know where a pick-up was going to happen. On a raid colony, that failure boded less-than-well.

"The pilot is late," Rappett confirmed for those who may not have been sure. "Our Good Mister White should be back any moment now, but until then sit tight and keep guard. Staff Sergeant Li will work on finding out where our ride is or where we can find another lift, in any case. Li?"

Li acknowledged it, and busied himself in attempting a hail, but had no good news to speak immediately. The others began to mill about the inside the colony store, an oddity for many, and talk they had been putting off spilled out.

"What kind of government does, well, did this back-hole place have, anyway?" Specialist Isof said, staring down at the few and meager supplies strewn about the floor.

"The fiefdom was either a democracy or an oligarchy," Medic Spc. Freel said. "I never can remember or tell the difference, except one pays better taxes and the other is less wont to try not paying. And to be honest, I don't know which is worse."

"Well I ain't seen something worse than this here since Yurusaga," Spc. Isof said, walking over to inspect an aisle that was still upright. "You know, I never thought I'd see something worse than sand-mad Xigs fighting tax-evasion charges. But cousin, these Pirates, they're it."

Isof picked up a small bag of chewing seeds and tossed them to Sergeant Lasque. Lasque caught them and unhooked the lower part of his helmet to try a few before tossing them back to Isof.

"Last three engagements the fleet has been on out this way have been Space Pirates, haven't they?" Lasque said, prefacing the spit of a husk.

"Something like that," Isof said.

"My sources tell me the main fleet was supposed to hit the homeplanet Zebes soon, if they haven't already," Tlaco the bounty hunter said, poking a finger at some livestock feed. The finger went through the bag and a fine grain began to fall out onto the floor. One of the two artificial eyes swung low from the helmet to follow it. "Wonder why the Federation finally decided to give a crap about the Rim Bugs. If you ask me, they're doing us a favor every time they wipe out colonists."

"I was born on a colony myself, Outer Rim," Sgt. Miercoles said.

"I apologize, sergeant. I didn't realize—" Tlaco started.

"Don't worry. As I was saying, I'm from the Rim, so I know you're probably right," Miercoles said. "Sgt. Lasque, pass some of those vittles over Tlaco's way, would you?"

Lasque did, but the yellow-class bounty hunter threw them back.

"Thank you, but I can't take off my helmet in this atmosphere," Tlaco said.

"Oh that's right; Skinnies can't handle this much CO2. My apologies," Miercoles said. "Funny, I never met a Skinny bounty hunter who made it as far as yellow. You must be something of a prodigy."

"Growing up, I always did want to be a bounty hunter," Specialist Tronie said, reaching for one of the surviving bottles of a domestic brew stand that had turned over onto the floor. "You fellas were always pitching endorsements, throwing cash around. Picking up the cutest girls in the neighborhood as you liked. I mean the white-class bounty hunters, of course."

"Of course," Tlaco said, humorously.

"They're far between and few, but it's times like these I do wish you white-class space boys hadn't gone and killed all each other," Tronie said. "We sure could use more of their caliber about now."

"Someone else may have had a something with do to that," Gergin growled through his suit's digital-translator, and the conversation tapered off until a powered exoskeleton with a white stripe down the middle of the helmet came sprinting back to the main group.

"In case you were interested, the Pirates are in a fine mood," the new arrival said. A vent on his neck leaked brow-sweat. "They've stopped looting entirely and are starting to dig in. Literally. These here were the last I saw walking around. I think they're making tunnels. I don't know what's spooked them."

"Yeah, well, didn't you hear?" Tlaco said, laughing. "The Federation contracted 'The Guildslayer' for this job. We're the ones who ought to be digging to protect ourselves if we can't get back from our recon before he arrives."

"The Red Death? That's impossible," Lespen the white class bounty hunter said, holstering his modified pistol in favor of a regulation rifle like the rest. "He just had a job in the Central Planets a week ago. Some cush sponsorship appearance worth 500 million Yire. The going rate on this hot mess was 200-kay per Pirate." Lespen reconsidered. "Well, for me it was."

"Dropped him everything second saw a posting on it Network and here came straight," Gergin said. The others expected Gergin to follow it with a joke, but the jest didn't come. The twenty-one Policemen and other two bounty hunters quietly checked the Integrated Media Network for verification. The Lattice's rumor logs confirmed it.

"I can't imagine wasting that much money to come out and kill a bunch of bugs," Tlaco said.

The lieutenant shrugged.

"Some folk aren't too fond of Pirates," Rappett said. He pointed at the boy. "That one's going to make one hell of a Policeman someday, don't you think?"

But the boy wasn't looking at Rappett; he was looking up through the hole in the roof at something.

Seeing a flash above, as one the rest looked up to focus on the source. The telescopic section of their HUDs showed the Space Pirate command ship, a speck hanging in low atmosphere, but tilting toward the ground where it had been parallel before. All over its outer hull it seemed covered with boils that burst, though with small explosions rather than pus, and now it fell in what appeared to be slow motion as they looked on from so great a distance.

"Shit." Rappett said. "Call me a pessimist, but sergeant, does that trajectory look like it's going to come our way at all?"

"Yeah," SSgt. Li said. "In about five minutes it might well behoove us to be about ten klicks south. Twelve if we can't get good cover."

Everyone was ready.

"Mr. White," Rappett said, turning toward Lespen, "any suggestions on a route where there aren't likely to be many Pirates?"

"I haven't found one yet. I'll send you the route where I saw the least, though."

"OK. If Pirates are on our way, let's hope they're more bothered watching their ride home crash into the ground next to them than they are of us. I would be, but the intricacies of Space Pirate psychology escape me. Watch yourselves; no one else can. And someone be sure to grab the boy."

It was Tlaco who did, and they poured out of the general store and ran, chewing up meters in each step. No one panicked or said anything betraying worry, but they all kept glancing at the screen in their Heads Up Display showing the steady progress of the ship toward earth, the path along the dotted line that brought its many thousands of tons closer to them. As the twenty-one Policemen and three bounty hunters ran, they laid down bursts of fire at spots Lespen had scouted and marked as holding Pirates. Sometimes it appeared they hit nothing, but every so often shots from the surrounding buildings or what looked like solid ground came out at them. They didn't slow. Their armor stopped most everything, and they didn't have time to stop for anyone that got knocked down and couldn't get up to run again.

The lieutenant turned his HUD to a live view and saw the ship burning white hot at the front, pieces breaking up behind it.

And of course he knew it couldn't be real, just like he knew when he told people about it later, none of them would believe him because his brain didn't believe the yarn his eyes spun for him now.

There was a tall, sleek, powered exoskeleton standing on the top of the hull, also burning white hot, but apparently unaffected. Rappett couldn't figure out what the figure was doing, until he saw a smaller vessel — an escape pod — dart away from the main ship. The exoskeleton fired a pulse from its sole arm cannon and the pod exploded. The figure ran back and forth between both sides of the ship, and the Lieutenant knew some of the emergency craft must have gotten away, but he didn't see any of them with his own eyes.

Finally, just before the ship was about to smack the ground with all tremendous thunder of apocalyptic mass and acceleration, the figure went running and leapt off the top of the ship — into empty air, it appeared.

But an escape shuttle soon appeared near the falling exoskeleton and just when it looked like the shuttle would pass by the powered suit, leaving it to fall helplessly to the ground, the exoskeleton began moving along with the ship and Rappett saw its lonely hand had grabbed onto the shuttle's wing and kept hold.

That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen, Rappett either thought or muttered, but before he could linger on the sight, Rappett turned back to the command ship, now taking the tops off of some of the buildings they'd passed minutes before.

"Take cover!" Rappett ordered, and everyone immediately did, most going straight for a nearby ditch; the rest lay on the ground near building walls, shielding the vital part of their suits as well as possible. The bounty hunter Tlaco put the native boy in culvert and he and two other Policemen curled their suits around the entrance to further protect his body with their armor.

The far-off rumble only slightly preceded the roar and rush of wind and sound that blew off the top of a building beside them. Dust and debris went soaring overhead, thick as a haboob on a dead planet. Then the rain of wood, stone and steel began to fall and the lieutenant gave a second look to the armored cocoon they'd tried to make for the boy. Rappett couldn't see him, and thought that was a good sign.

Rappett began to take survey of their losses. There were still sixteen electronically active suits; he hailed them all to manually report their status. He hoped at least one of the inactives had just had some part of their comms system blown off and were otherwise all right. Three of the active suits had corpses inside; five had lost a limb or more.

His call to the bounty hunters went about like he'd expected. Lespen was alive and well, Gergin had a hole through his chest, but medical gel and his own anatomy were ensuring he could be set right.

"Tlaco's dead, lieutenant," Sgt. Miercoles said, pulling the never-again-to-be-animated bounty hunter's body off the culvert's entrance. The boy looked dead, too, but Miercoles assured Rappett the child was all right, poking a foot in the boy's ribs to demonstrate. The boy groaned audibly, but didn't complain.

Of the twenty-three people he'd brought planetside with him, he had eleven still capable of defending themselves under normal circumstances, maybe fourteen if they were defending themselves to the death. Whatever progress Li had made getting a pilot, Rappett didn't know. Li didn't have much going on below the waist at the moment and his suit had him completely out of it on anesthetics. MSpc. Freel said Li would be loopy for a few hours, anyway, so trying to wake him wouldn't do much. Rappett swallowed a mouthful of spit and gave the order to consolidate and work on some barricades.

Twenty minutes later Lespen and Spc. Nircap set Gergin on the ground next to the others who'd need further treatment, the last of those who couldn't walk himself. Then they both joined the makeshift slit trench, scanning the streets and rubble for any Pirates that might be retreating – or even advancing – their way. The fog of dirt and filth continued to whip through the air. Rappett had more able-bodied people placed facing where they'd come from than where they'd been running toward; the white-class bounty hunter had said he couldn't be sure but had a hunch the Pirates had skimmed the city's outskirts and the ship's direction held most of the danger.

A minute or so passed and Lespen asked if the Lieutenant wouldn't mind having a private conversation for a moment. Rappett considered denying the request, but acquiesced as courtesy. Lespen had been a solid professional so far.

"What's your business?" Rappett said.

"Did you see what happened to their ship to make it crash?"

"Why does it matter?" Rappett said.

"Because I took this mission under the impression that we were doing a recon job for Bug habits and tactics," Lespen said. "It wasn't in the official contract, you know, but that was understood. We come in, we poke around, we go home and make a report. Zebes prep."

"Maybe it still is," Rappett said, trying to sound unperturbed.

"If that's the case, why did your damn Feds shoot the raid ship down from space and put us in this mess?"

"It wasn't the Federation," Rappett said, "it was—"

But before Rappett could say it, a swarm of ten Space Pirates burst out of the smoke, running toward the trench and Policemen.

"North! North! Fire, fire, fire!" Rappett ordered, and everyone opened up, using burst fire to knock down the Pirates assaulting their position. The first ten were knocked down, but more soon showed up, and Rappett shifted the Policemen in the rear to helping hold the front. It wasn't enough. Pirates appeared at their flanks in the dozens and — continued to run past? Rappett swung around to look at where they were going, watching for any to double back, but they didn't. It was if they were fleeing from something.

As he turned back north, something came walking up the middle of the street, dust still swirling in front of him to obscure the sliver of electromagnetic spectrum most Policemen's eyes could interpret unaided, but he re-entered their vision when lit up by the occasional pulse blast and followed a quarter-second later by the sound and reverberation.

Ssscha-whoosh whoosh whoosh.

Then the dust parted for a moment completely and Rappett saw him clearly for just a moment, sauntering down the middle of the goddamned street like there wasn't anyone else on the whole of the planet except for him and the things he was killing, killing without but a portion of his concentration or effort. The figure's suit was solid gold but for the silver-green cannon on the right arm that dared you not to notice it, and helmet and chest that seemed bleeding blood red. Crisscrossing his body were the leather straps of numerous disposable packs, including one slung low around his waist playing host to two pistols, ammo and first aid.

The figure's cannon arm jerked from point to point at speeds unfollowable by eye naked while his other arm, fully formed till and through the fingers, carried a pulse rifle that tracked back and forth before him steady like a metronome. The Policemen had stopped firing but Pirates continued to fall around them.

Bounty hunters topped out at white class, officially, and so did this one. But only one bounty hunter got to call himself "gold class" and convince other people to use it.

The boy, who had reawakened and come over to their position just in time for this, spoke again for the first time in what seemed like hours.

"Who is that?"

"Samus fucking Aran," Lespen the white-class bounty hunter spat, still unable to stop the words from releasing themselves from his tongue, or keep the awe from his tone.

The smoke collapsed over the image again, as quickly as it had appeared, and the Policemen split another few minutes switching between their infra and ultra-v visors while listening extra close to the chirps, charges and screeches ever-approaching behind the veil of dust.

When at last the infamous bounty hunter emerged from the airy colloid debris field in the street — tall unperturbed, unwary (seeming) — Rappett didn't know what to say or do. His unit, what remained of it, trained their guns tensely on the strange armored suit they had to pretend not to recognize, that nonetheless they all did, and could have sketched from memory.

The bounty hunter — Samus — stopped a few dozen meters from them all and his cannon arm twitched between each location the Policemen stood at, even those well-hidden. Rappett wondered who had the drop on whom.

A faint high-pitch squeal was in the lieutenant's ear for hardly a moment, then entered a voice full and clear, but tonelessly mechanical, and faintly childlike.

"Lt. Argyle Rappett," Samus said, inside of their own Comsat system, already where a bounty hunter should have had to ask permission to be.


"I am about to access your auxiliaries' recon info. In return, I'm giving you what I have so far. Is that overly troublesome for you?"

"No, that's fine." But already Rappett had a map covering it seemed half the planet showing where Pirates were and were dead or dying.

"I trust you have nothing more pressing for me than clearing the immediate area, sir," Samus said. Even in voxcoder, the tone was unmistakable. "Wonderful. I've hailed a ship for you because I understand you've been looking for a ride out of this zone. I'll rendezvous with your squad or otherwise contact your command for further instructions in 0500 hours, then?"

"Sure," Rappett blurted.

"Wonderful." He holstered his rifle and swung some med pacs their way. "It is always a pleasure to serve the Federation and professionals such as yourself, sir. "

Samus turned, as if to disappear back into the smoke again, but stopped and turned back.

"Boy," he said, point at the colonist. He dropped his arm, apparently remembering the situation. "Lt. Rappett, may I borrow your charge? It will take only a moment."

Rappett looked down at the boy, but already he was climbing out of the ditch and walking toward the bounty hunter, compelled as though hearing a piper. When the boy got close, Aran dropped to one knee and placed a giant hand on the child's shoulder. After about 30 seconds, he shook the boy violently, punctuating something, then released him and the boy returned to the ditch as Samus stood and sprinted away, a ghost.

When the boy slid back down into the ditch, Rappett wanted to ask what Samus had said, but restrained himself. Lespen, apparently, could not.

"Hey, kid," the white-class guildsman said. "What did Aran tell you?"

The boy's face scrunched up as he tried not to remember but to figure it out.

"He said I was free to do whatever I want now. But," he mouthed wordless things, before going on, "but if I ever forget that the Space Pirates are the ones who did this and he finds me again, he'll kill me. Because I owe remembering to everyone else. Who died here and can't."

Lespen grunted and asked nothing more. The boy turned to Rappett.

"He also said the transport should get here in 28 minutes."

Far off, the sound of a pulse cannon echoed.

Sure enough, a small carrier transport landed not far from their location and Rappett and his surviving men, more than he'd have expected from the aftermath they were leaving, climbed aboard, along with the colony boy and powered exoskeletons of the dead they'd recovered, including the yellow class bounty hunter.

"You're late," Rappett growled at the pilot as he made his way into the cockpit.

"I just wanted to more make the arrival action-packed," the pilot replied without looking back at the lieutenant. "No one likes a boring start to things, right?"

Wearing a gargantuan helmet that plugged directly into its spine, the pilot was a lipless, reptilian species of some sort Rappett didn't recognize, so he wasn't sure how to take the comment, but it looked like the pilot was smiling with self-satisfaction and Rappett had to stop himself from punching their only ticket out of there.

"You weren't worth the wait. Just get my people out of here."

The pilot smiled again, or maybe its face was just impassive, and the ship started up, lifting off of the ground.

"We'll get back to Camp Striker, soon," the pilot said as they began to zoom over the landscape.

"They put a base camp here on this pissant little outpost? What in the three goddesses for?"

"The hell if I know. They pay me to pick up little vaginas who get themselves in over their labia majora. Does that make sense in human biology? I've been studying."

"Yes, yes, well done," Rappett lied. "So you have no idea?"

"Well, what I heard, and this is just camp talk I pieced together from rumor, supposition, and fantasy, Zebes went spectacularly poorly, and they want to understand how the Bugs dig down before they give invading another go."

"Why don't they just blow it up from space? Or ram something big into it really, really fast."

"Ah, but rampant speculation is that the Pirates have their hands on something oh-so-pretty and nice that we dear Feds would like to have ourselves. And blowing it all to the twelve hells would be an awful damn shame. And waste."

"So we're all about to load up and go to Zebes, then?"

"If by 'we' you mean that fellow that just now wrecked a Pirate raid ship single-handed and managed to get hold of me through a total comms blackout, then ya, 'we're' going to Zebes."

"They're outsourcing a failed Policemen job to a fucking bounty hunter?"

"According to my completely unfounded inside sources, yep."

"What makes him so special?"

Then the pilot laughed and laughed and laughed.

"All I did was watch your visor feed over someone else's shoulder, and you're asking me that? Seriously?"

Rappett looked out the back window, but already the world was curving too far away.

1845 Galactic Federation Standard Time
09-10-14 Galactic Federation Standard Date
Galactic Federation Forward Base 'STRIKER'

Kero Lespen moved the flaps aside and walked in to the tent. Bunks and storage lockers for guildsmen bounty hunters lined the walls, and in the corner an ancient, pitiable communication panel buzzed with decrepitude, but no one else was milling about inside at the moment. In the center of the temporary facility, Gergin was still floating in the fluids of a vertical recovery tank, naked even of skin, flesh and four limbs on his left side.

Despite being of the same guild-system, as a white Lespen hadn't known the yellow-class bounty hunter before this job, and just a few years ago wouldn't have cared what happened to the Vozod after this mission. But there were no other ReKnotts Guild auxiliaries at the camp now, and it wasn't a few years ago. Gergin should have been removed days earlier for better medical care. The RKG should have personally taken him off-planet instead of waiting for room on a Galactic Policemen transport ship. But "should" wasn't "is" anymore. It was Samus Aran's galaxy now; they just lived in it.

Lespen sat down on a stool beside the almost prehistoric med equipment that allowed the aquatic Vozod bounty hunter to breathe while the four tentacles that had been crushed to pulp ten days before continued to reform in the nutrient-rich bath — without the benefit of suitable anesthetic. The outline that the limbs were to eventually grow back into within the plastic cast could only occasionally be seen in the dim light of the shared auxiliary tent. Gergin's nervous system hadn't yet fully blossomed into its endings, otherwise he'd be screaming instead of asleep.

"Why are you doing here, ivory swine?" the translator beside the tank read suddenly. Lespen looked up to see one of Gergin's gigantic eyes roll open to stare at him.

"I wanted to check and see if the Vozod were as weak as their slippery women hark tell," Lespen said, running his hand through locks of his pale white hair. An almost translucent eyelid briefly hid one of the white-class Human's sky blue eyes in a wink as a smile quickly journeyed across the chiseled chin. "Crying for your spawn mother yet, eh?"

"What is today?" Gergin asked on his display.

"It's 09-10-14: The ninth day of the tenth month of the year 2014 of the history of the cosmos."

"I'm sick, not stupid, albino rich man," Gergin said. He rotated his body flush with Lespen. "Feeling starting to come back yet. Tomorrow, day after will be for sure. You bring pistol with then. Ha."

Lespen laughed, too, knowing as Gergin did that it wasn't entirely a joke.

"You may end up envying Tlaco yet."

"Already do. When if I smell as bad as him, throw me off the planet too though finally. Nicely, huh?"

Lespen laughed and nodded, not entirely sure what that meant, and not wanting to know.

"But of speaking," Gergin's translator wrote out, "what of the Devil in Red?"

Lespen shifted uncomfortably. In the corner of the bounty hunter tent the comms viewscreen whined at a high pitch.

"Well, interesting news, anyway. I can't say I'm fond of Samus or Policemen," Lespen started, "but the one thing I agree with both of them on is hating the other."


"So, if you're a Policeman, you can only put up with so much from a space boy, no matter what his reputation. When our 'gold class' hunter came back to re-supply at the armory last week, a Policeman finally asked why Samus had bothered to come to Kalo-Kalo Echer when so many professionals were here already who could've done the work better."

"Police guy joked?" Gergin asked.

"Not that he realized. So, the Policeman was in his exoskeleton, had six more behind him in theirs. Samus was just passing by in his own suit, but stopped."


"Yeah. The Guildslayer stopped, looked back over his shoulder but didn't say anything at first. The backup Policemen start to find other places to be. 'My contract is to kill Pirates,' Samus says, in that weird girly-machine voice. And then, 'And I am going to kill every last one of them.' Policemen don't say anything else and Samus went on, but they laughed about it for a couple days because that was the last anyone has heard of Aran, and some figured the Pirates finally got him. Others said he went house to house killing anything with yellow eyes, that the Policemen and other hunters didn't even have to mop up, just gather up and care for the very few survivors there were. I don't know which yet."

"Did you ever get talk at Policemen that way? Before it all, I mean," Gergin said.

"No. Maybe the Guilds United used to, years ago," Lespen amended, "but even a decade ago when I started, you had to know your place around Feds and Policemen."

"You were good very," Gergin said. "I remember."

"Do you?"

"Yes. The holovids. It is why that I am here." Gergin turned his big eyes to where his left tentacles should have been before the translator began to type out another response. "I mean as a bounty hunter. The one who put me here died by the Pirates, I hope."

"We both do," the Human concurred.

The tentflap rustled opened and Lespen stood up to see who was walking in. But he should have known already.

"Good evening, gentlemen," Samus Aran said uncannily, horribly, walking directly to the tank but stopping about four meters away from them. His suit was absent the leather add-ons now, but they'd been replaced with soot, dirt, and sticky-stains of uncertain source. "I hope you are recovering well, R'edg Gergin. But then, hope on its own rarely accomplishes much, does it?"

The "thank you," that had appeared on the translator screen quickly disappeared.

"Kero Lespen, it was an honor to work with you on Zero Day," Samus said, turning attention but not posture to the Human. "I am always impressed with the performance of white-class bounty hunters when our aims aren't cross."

Lespen said nothing.

"So, you can imagine my embarrassment," Samus continued, "having to ask you to leave now while I receive a private communication here."

"What? That's stupid. This is the shared guildsman tent. You're an independent! You don't have permission to be here, much less force anyone else out."

"I agree. I am absolutely mortified by the entire affair but," Samus shrugged and turned his left palm face down, "such are my orders." A small hologram appeared in mid-air from the back of Samus's hand stating just that, with a verified encryption seal confirming it. "I would not be opposed to you going to challenge the base commander on my behalf regarding this missive — if you were so inclined, of course."

Lespen stared at Samus and felt the anger bubbling up as the present moment mixed with memories of reports of the Guildslayer, and the white-class bounty hunters who weren't hunters or just weren't anymore.

"One day, you'll get what's coming to you, Aran," Lespen spat, but his feet carried him past the armored bounty hunter and out of the tent.

Samus waited a moment then approached the tank until he was touching the controls. The hand began to furiously type until an intravenous tube found its way to an external port.

"Now, we can't move you, R'edg Gergin, but we can make you leave for a moment," Samus said, connecting the tube to the underside of his palm after he stopped typing. A clear fluid began to flow from the suit toward the Vozod, but before he could pull the tube out of his body, the sedative painkillers reached him and his remaining four tentacles went limp again. His eyes drooped and stayed only slightly open, but there was no more sight in them.

Samus said nothing more, at least that his suit spoke aloud, and he moved to the corner to interface with a viewscreen made to look like it was already half-junked, but in reality encrypted and hyper-objectivized for nigh-instantaneous long distance communication.

Samus sat down in front of it, and the screen lit up. The bounty hunter uploaded all of the information his suit had mapped during his time in the planet's tunnels. Supposedly this was to be important, as important as cleaning up the colony, but no reason had been given yet. The data zoomed to its prearranged destination, and almost immediately came a reply.

"So you like to kill Pirates, huh?" a Federation intermediary — Human — said under the scrambled audio-visual message. "Ever heard of a planet called Zebes?"

There was a long silence, and it seemed like the legendary bounty hunter was offended.

"I'm listening," Samus said instead.

"Of course you are," the intermediary said. "Let me start at the beginning."

~See You Next Mission~

Everything is a cycle. The end of something is a beginning of another. The beginning of something is a repeat of something before. So it goes.

But to know where you're going, first you have to know where you've been. So, where are you?

Next Episode: Green, part one