The Outcast

Chapter 1


The small screen door slide open, and I said: "Forgive me, Sister, for I have sinned. It's...it's been several years since my last confession."

"Go on, Ishtar is listening," came her voice from the other side of the netting.

Outside the confessional abode, outside the church itself, I could hear the day winding to an end for the Archaen Astroid Mining Colony.
Factory whistles signaled the end of the workday. The smell of incense filled the air, a covering odor against an industrial smog. Even more
distant was the aroma of cooking shale'rooms for the End Day meal. I pursed my lips and took a breath.

"I... I killed a woman in self defense," I said.

"If you were protecting yourself, then there is no sin in that."

"I know, its just that... she didn't have to die, and yet... perhaps it was best that she did."

There was a long silence, only the sound of her breathing, the sound of my heart beating. Finally, she answered.

"I'm listening," she said with a practiced voice. I took another breath.

"It all began yesterday. I had just committed myself to a good cause, a secret one. One that that promised to make
the stars a safer place. It was the beginning of a new life... one that would make a difference."

______________________________________________________________________


[STARSHIP DESIGNATION--CLASSIFIED.
100 MILES OFF THE ARCHAEN
BORDER - SHOULDER OF THE EMPTY NESS
ASTROID MINING REGION.]

"You input the final set of ciphers and... there you have it!"

Julie Bruchard presses the 'Enter' button on the console and the monitor screen froze. A message window appeared.

[PROCESSING DATA]

Followed by another.

[...SYSTEM ON-LINE]

Only to be replaced by the previous. A cycle ensued, and the alternating messages repeated themselves. Lieutenant Marcus Octavius
raised an eyebrow and turned to her.

"Impressive. How'd you do it?"

The Archaen stretched out both her arms, interlaced her fingers and cracked all her knuckles.

"I inputed the mathematical equivalent of having peanutbutter stuck to the roof of your mouth," she said with mischievous pride.

Marcus's brow creased. "I... don't follow?"

"It's a program paradox. Once the computer has a hold of problem the solution eludes it setting up a viscous cycle. Sort of like
spinning on your wheels."

The Traqian shook his head repeatedly. "No, no I mean... what the hell is 'peanutbutter'?"

Julie grinned, smiled, and laughed. It was a charming sound and Marcus raised his brow again. "You know, you're cute when you're confused,"
she said patting his arm.

"Who's confused?"

"How's everything going?" The voice came from behind them. The two instantly rose, snapped to attention and faced the man who was the
source of the question. "Sir!" they chipped in unison.

Master Assassin-Guardian Victor Drake stood leaning in a casual pose against the doorway of the Tactical Room. His arms were folded across his
muscular chest. He was tall, six foot four, with a prize fighter's build, military cut blonde hair, and ice blue eyes. His Warsaw was strapped across his back,
Sabersaw to his side, and a Torpedo blaster holstered to his right thigh. He stood up straight and stepped forward two exact paces into the room.

"At ease," he clipped.

The two relaxed, legs shoulder length apart, arms casually held behind their backs. A pregnant pause followed, growing, until Julie realized he was
waiting for either of them to speak.

"Um, sir... Marcus and I were just exchanging hacker techniques, sir."

Victor nodded. "Sounds interesting. Carry on." He began to turn until Marcus spoke up. "Sir, um... how..how long were you standing there?"

Victor turned back, with a slight grin playing across his face. That was the question he wanted to hear. "Long enough," he answered. The
Traqian nodded, and a faint hue flushed his cheeks, Julie's as well. They had been caught flat footed and Marcus mentally kicked himself. He
had been checking the reflection in the monitor from time to time, but the Archaen 'Sin-Guardian had appeared like a ghost.

"In the future I suggest you two notbecome so deeply focused on what you're doing. If I'd been an enemy, you'd both be
grinning at daises by now," Their Joint-Commander's retorted was ice cold and serious.

"Sir, yes sir!" they issued as one.

"As you were then." Victor turned for the door.

"Sir!" Julie called out. "Sir, I was wondering I if I might have a word with you?"

The 'Sin-Guardian called over his shoulder as he walked out. "I'm on my way to the Alpha Deck, Commander, walk with me." Julie turned to Marcus.

"Talk some more over dinner?"

"You're on," he said.

She nodded with a warm smile, and raced out the door. She passed a trio of Istata Sisters carrying medical supplies down the long corridor before
meeting up with her CO and falling into step.

"Sir, I was wondering if I could discuss my roommate arrangement?" Without breaking stide Victor's eyes cut towards her. "Problem?" he asked.

"Sir, you could say. The rest of us are all paired off with a Traqian roommate. Everyone, that is, except me."

"You're with Caressa Wolfe," answered the 'Sin-Guardian.

"Yes sir, and... well, I'll just come out and say it. She's a Outcast, sir. I've heard it from several reliable sources that
years ago she... she tried to assassinate a member of the Royal Family."

Victor stopped, crossed his arms and grinned sarcastically. "Really?! you don't say." The young officer pursed her lips.

"All right, maybe it's all hearsay, sir, but... she has been in exile from the Empire for years, that much is true."

"And you feel uncomfortable with that?" asked her commander. Julie simply lowered her eyes and nodded.

"Sir, I... I just think she'd be better off with a Traqian."

"A Traqian, huh. You know I don't I could think of a better way to still make her feel like an Outcast. Do you?" Victor waited for
an answer. There was none. "No? The it's time we welcomed her back into the fold, Julie, and you're just the person to do it."

"But... why me, sir?"

"Because you're a woman."

The Archaen was shocked. "But that's...that's sexist, sir!"

"So what?" The assassin shrugged. "Fact is, Caressa needs a friend, and you're it."

"Sir, this isn't fair," protested the Tactical Officer.

"Tough! If you don't like the way I run things around here, you know where the airlock is."

The 'Sin-Guardian began to walk away. Julie only need a few moments to think it over. She was a member of the elite 'Unit" now, and
no challenge was too great, or small. She snapped to attention and called,

"Sir, I won't not disappoint you!"

The 'Sin-Guardian stopped, and glanced over his shoulder meeting the young officer's eyes. "Good, that's what I wanted to hear. Try not to
stay up too late, Commander. The Colonel's training session starts early tomorrow."

"Aye that, sir."

Crossing her palms to her chest she courtly bowed before about facing in a military manner. Victor watched her head off in the direction
of her quarters before he turned and continued on towards the Alpha Deck. His thoughts, were heavy and concern.

______________________________________________________________________


A knock came to the door.

"It's open, Victor," said the voice on the other side.

The panel slide open and Victor Drake stood in the doorway. He looked in, impressed by what he saw. Colonel Cato Pompei
of the Commonwealth of Independent Interstellar States laid with his feet perched on the end of his bed. One arm was outstretched
before him, the other was carefully held behind his back. He was doing one handed push ups.

"482, 483, 484 ...what's up, Victor?"

The 'Sin-Guardian walked in. "How'd you know it was me?". The Colonel looked up in mid-push, stopped and grinned.

"You're the only one I know who could approach my door without making a sound."

Victor inclined his head with approval. Inwardly he was more impressed. It was the first time he could remember anyone ever using his
own skills against him. The Colonel continued his push-ups.

"If you got a minute Colonel, I was considering re-fitting the layout of some of the operation rooms. The consoles and chairs are
faced away from the doors..."

"...So the operator backs are to them if someone walks in." finished the Colonel.

"Exactly."

"Yeah, I thought about that myself. Sounds like a good idea, let's do it... 497, 498, 499...500."

Finished, the Traqian stood up, picked up a towel off his bed, and dabbed the back of his neck. He had hardly broken a sweat. He was a tall man,
two inches shorter than Victor, with a similar build, thick, black hair cut just above his ears, and hard blue eyes.

"I also have the memory chips for tomorrow's training session. Thought you'd might want to go over it," continued the Archaen The Colonel began
putting on his uniform jacket.

"I would. Tell you what, have you eaten yet?"

"Not lately"

"Good. Let's head for the messhall and go over the program."

The Traqian put on his weapons belt, grabbed his uniform cap, and together with his Joint-Commander headed for the door.

______________________________________________________________________


"Is anyone sitting here?"

The troops at the mess table paused in their conversation. Some of the Traqian men did double takes. The woman standing before them
with a food tray in her hand was quite attractive. Suddenly, their Archaen counter-parts drew quiet. A tight tension cut the air. Some of the
Traqians looked around, mildly confused, wondering what was the matter.

Drake surveyed the scene from across the aisle where he sat with Colonel Pompei. Also with them were their two First Officers, Lieutenant
Julius Grasius of the CIIS, and Commander Remmer Jordan of the Archaen fleet. Cato looked up, tracking Victor's gaze.

"Problem?" he asked.

"Let's hope not," replied the 'Sin-Guardian. Lt. Comm. Peter Rhodes, the Archaen Dream-medic, stood up from the other table.

"You may have my seat, miss. I've suddenly lost my appetite."

Pushing his tray aside, he walked out of the room.

"Aye that, me as well." That from Zach Miller, the Archaen demolition's expert. One by one the Archaen troops rose and filed out, their evening
meals undone, turkish coffee mugs still steaming. Only Lt. Comm. Juliet Bruchard remain among the Archaens. She was sitting next to Marcus Octavius
struggling with her thoughts.

"Caressa... you... you can sit with me," she said.

The standing woman's face was tranquil and calm. Only a slight flaring was visible around her nostrils, but to an Archaen Dreamer, such emotional
display was the equivalent of a scream. Caressa took a deep breath and the quivering suddenly stopped.

"Thank you, Julie," she said and took her seat. The tension held as the Traqians and the two Archaens continued to eat in and uneasy silence. Finally,

"Ishtar! Where are my manners?!"

Julie slapped her face in mocked surprised befroe introducing Caressa to the rest of the crew. Her part was a bit overacted, thought Victor,
but it had the desired effect. Lively conversation broke out and the normal sounds of eating returned to the hall. The dinner meal carried on.

______________________________________________________________________


"And that was how Caressa Wolfe was introduced to the troops of the Unit." I adjusted my form on the cushion of the
Confessional Abode.

"The next day I had to read Lt. Comm. Bruchard's report on how she died."

The Sister spoke from the other side of the screen. "But... I thought you said youkilled her?"

"What?... Oh... oh no, not her. No, Caressa was a victim in all this. Sorry, I guess I should explain. This is what happened."

______________________________________________________________________


"...New Asgard! You're kidding? All this time you've been studying magic on New Asgard?"

Julie and Caressa walked down the corridor together. Caressa simply nodded her reply. Her features, an emotionless contrast,
to her roommates.

"Carrie, I've never heard of any Dreamer studying magic before. This is unprecedented!"

"As far as I know, I'm the first" Her brows arched in a Dreamer's smile. They stopped before their cabin door. A wicked smile grew on Julie's face
as she searched for her key-card.

"Oh, I'd give anything to have shore leave there. When I was a teenager I had the biggest crush on this Asgardian elf..."

She found the key and ran it across the locking panel on the doorjamb; the door slide open. Julie walked in, raised her arms above her
head and stretched.

"Anyway... uh, that's the spot!... his name was Gynt,...or Mynt? or something like that. He was sixty four
with the body of nineteen..."

Julie stopped. She turned around and saw Caressa wasn't behind her. The Dream-Mystic was still standing in the threshold of the doorway,
eyes casting about the room in a suspicions way.

"Carrie... something wrong?" asked Julie.

Their eyes met and the Dreamer nodded. "Someone's been in our room."

A chill ran down the Tactical Officer's spine. Slowly she turned around and surveyed their quarters. Her side of the room was slightly
disheveled but only because she hadn't stowed away her stuff yet. Caressa's side was as neat as a pin. Suddenly, Julie spotted something,
on the farthest wall opposite the door. In the center was a large, round xallocite porthole through which she could see the distant stars.
As a joke she had hung a wooden picture frame around it, but now, attached to the center of the glass was something new. A round metal
disk about as wide as her palm. Below it was a note. Julie stepped closer. Words were written in large Archaic script.

[IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU'RE DEAD!]

"RUN!" Julie charged for the door. An audible click went off behind her. Her feet left the ground and she slammed into Caressa as
the room bleached pure white behind them, exploding with an earsplitting sound. The concussion wave threw the women across the corridor
and crushed them into the retaining bulkhead. Caressa's ribs cracked with a loud, sickening sound as Julie's body rammed into hers.
The two fell to the floor. Julie was semi-conscious, having her collision with the bulkhead cushioned by Caressa's body helped. Her instincts
kicked in, jolting her to full consciousness by pure adrenaline alone. There was a painful tugging on her hair, and an ice cold temperature
on her skin. The sound of air rushing past her ears grew stronger - strong enough to draw her body back towards the portal of her doorway.
The explosion had shattered the outter bulkhead of her cabin wall. She was now being sucked into the vacuum of space.

She fought against the pressure current and glanced back over her shoulder. Her thoughts were nearly scattered with panic, but she
knew something was wrong. The door to her cabin should have been closed. In the event of a breech all portals were automatically sealed,
but her's wasn't. Instantly, she saw the reason why. A stool had wedged itself between the doorjamb and the sliding door. The opening wasn't
much, but enough to allow the great void of space to continue sucking air through the gaping maw that used to be her outer cabin wall, and
he outer corridor as well.

She slide back several feet then stopped. The floor, devoid of any handholds, was smooth steel, but the grips of her boots had dug in,
halting her. She began to crawl sideways against the suction current, desperately looking for a place to anchor herself. The air grated
into her like icy shrapnel. The floor was like frozen to the touch, and her hands and arms were quickly growing numb and swollen.
Capillaries froze on her nose and ears. She was growing tired, yet somehow she began to move.

Suddenly, she caught movement in the peripheral of her vision and turned. Caressa's body rolled onto her side and began to slide towards
the door, lifting and raising like some great majestic aircraft. Julie turned her body, braced her legs with all her remaining strength and lunged.
The two women crashed in mid-air and rolled to a jolting, painful halt against the steel wall to the left of their cabin door. Julie's remaining air
was knocked out of her lungs. Caressa was limp and heavy in her arms. She fought with her waning strength to hold her, thinking that perhaps
her added weight would be enough to anchor them down. It wasn't. Quickly the Tactical Officer's strength began to turn sluggish, and her body
moved as if pulled by a thousand puppet strings, haltingly, towards the door's ravenous hole. Her vision tunneled, went black, re-focussed.
She knew then that she was going to ...

...A light hit her face - nearly blinding, then turned, and the helmet it belonged to regarded the door. Thick, insulated boots detached their
magnetic clamps to the steel floor and kicked the wedged stool through the doorway. The cabin door slammed shut and Julie's ears popped
with the sudden change in air pressure. She collapsed to the ground. The figure in the spacesuit knelt to her side and dimmed its helmet light.
It was Marcus. Julie tried to speak, but her lips were dry and cracked.

"Don't talk, just breath," said his voice filtered through the helmet's external speakers. He produced a small air canister and breathing mask
from a storage pocket on his right thigh, placed it on Julie's face and depressed the pressure button. The Archaen began to inhale thick lungfuls
of air.

"Steady, not so fast, Julie!"

The Lieutenant nodded, and took long, controlled breaths. Marcus moved over to look at Caressa. Her left arm was bent at an uncomfortable
angle. Her nose was profusely bleeding.

"bah-o-mmm...," said a horse voice behind him. Marcus turned. Julie was trying to speak. Her teeth were chattering in the cold, and long trails
of frosty mist trailed from her mouth.

"S-s-s-...some....w-w-wwwooooooon.. t-t-t-tried ta k-k-killl...." Marcus nodded. There was no need to finish, he got the message.

"Looks like they were partially successful," he answered. He looked back at Caressa.

"I think she's dead."

______________________________________________________________________