A column of smoke poured from the hull of the severely damaged bloodhound light fighter. The flames that enveloped the ship, combined with the poor handling clearly indicated the craft was on its last legs. The pilot struggled with the controls but with a wing and tail blown off control was difficult. It wasn't long before the craft flew into a Badlands asteroid, exploding in a fireball, the pilot screaming as he came closer to his doom.
For many kilometres, the wreckage and part-chassis of destroyed fighters lay strewn. For some unlucky pilots whose ships were merely crippled and were drifting without power, their voices could be heard on all pirate channels, the pitiful pleas for help from the injured or dying falling on deaf ears.
This was the New York system, Liberty space, Sirius sector.
This was the ending for those brave enough to fight in space and be on the losing side. Today, a fleet of cadets from West Point Academy had virtually annihilated a task force of Liberty Rogue fighters. Some of the Rogues were veterans of many years, struggling to eke an existence in the harsh environment of Sirius. There was no hope for those that were weak. The abundance of natural resources enabled population expansion and technological advancements in parallel. The automobiles of the 21st century had been replaced with starships, fighters, freighters and transports. Everyone had one. It was said, some very wealthy people had access to gunboats, cruisers and battleships, but this was as yet unproven.
The side-effect of such fertile conditions? Life was cheap. Humans had expanded farther into the Sirius sector than ever before at a rate that had staggered even the scientists at reknowned places like Cambridge Research Station.
Three Rogue ships had survived the skirmish with the West Point cadets. They limped back at cruise to Beaumont Base in Texas, the nearest friendly base beyond range of Liberty patrols, via a jump hole. It was a despondent, subdued journey. No-one spoke of the earlier conflict. Nothing was necessary. The Rogues had become complacent, they lost ground today to the next generation of Liberty defenders and at the same time, lost most of their seasoned and experienced pilots.
The pilots docked at the station, met with a hundred disappointed faces. Some sobbing could be heard from the crowd. One man stepped forwards. He wore a dark grey single-piece uniform, a small tube that ran the length of his left shoulder to a breather at his nose hissed at regular intervals. The three pilots climbed down from their cockpits and removed their helmets watching him. They looked tired, weary.
"You are all that remain?" asked the man. He was in his late-thirties, dark hair, slightly greying at the temples. A man of medium-build but in good shape, he radiated authority, purpose and power. Everyone listened quietly as he spoke.
"Yes, we had over thirty fighters. We managed to destroy at least a dozen before another wing of fighters came out of nowhere. We were flanked and before we could respond were caught in a cross-fire. We had no chance!" said one of the pilots. He wiped some blood from his forehead, a result of some equipment coming loose and striking his helmet heavily during the fight.
The man shook his head in disbelief. He turned his attention back to the pilots, his frown increasing in intensity. The pilots felt very small indeed.
"This was meant to be a lesson. A lesson that would teach the Liberty military and police not to venture into the Badlands ever again. How is it, a group of green, untrained cadets were able to take down some of our finest? Men with families that no longer have the means to support themselves," the man was shouting now, his rage almost tangible. He waved his hand behind him. "You see these people? The men vaporised in space feed them no longer and they have to survive by scraping a life amongst the debris fields once more!"
The pilots stepped back in fear.
"We did all we could. They had, experts with them. Surely not all were mere cadets - they flew like aces! Please! We were slaughtered out there. Even our equipment was inferior..!" Suddenly the man stopped in his tracks. He looked down slowly, eyes wide open. A hole had appeared in his chest, a blackened, charred ring was sizzling - a result of a high-energy blast. He looked up and managed to gasp once, then fell to his back sightless eyes staring accusingly at the other two pilots, who looked away.
The man in the grey uniform sheathed his gun smoothly and hissed. "Excuses. Get rid of him."
Some men walked forwards and dragged the body away, then the man turned to face the crowd and raised his voice high, so all could hear.
"You have grown soft! Compared to life in the Border Worlds, this is nothing! The Liberty bastards are trampling all over you and this is your response? Weak! You are all weak!"
One of the two pilots seemed as if he was about to speak but was restrained by the other, who clamped a hand onto his shoulder shaking his head.
"You know who I am. I represent the Outcasts. And when I make my report to the Don he will not be pleased. He will not be pleased that the Junkers and Rogues of Liberty are lapdogs and bullseyes. We must find a way to get your part of space back. Then we will make the people of Liberty and those who oppose us, pay. Be it by death, or other. Mark my words. This is not the end by any means. We Outcasts will help you. In fact, we have already started helping you. Now. Get back to work. We have a long journey ahead of us!".
The man stalked away to his ship, light gleaming from it's dark hull and the deadly weapons mounted on it. A reflection of it's owner.
Several months later
The alarm went off. As always the noise was deafening, especially for those still in deep slumber. A naked arm pushed forth from the covers, trying to find the offending clock in a lazy attempt to turn it off. As usual, the clock was at the far side of the bedside table, 'just' beyond reach forcing more of an effort. A lock of long, hazel-coloured hair fell onto the covers as the girl stretched reaching for the clock and turned the alarm off.
She fell back to the bed, a spray of hair now surrounding her head. She was in her early twenties, her green eyes blinked as she struggled to focus in the dim light.
"Blinds," she said aloud sleepily. The voice recognition computer activated the shutters at the opposite end of the room. The girl smiled as she saw the impressive view emerge. In high orbit above Planet Hiran, Sigma-19, her room aboard the Luxury Liner Hawaii was one of the finest views of the system. She shivered and leaned up, wrapping the sheet around her.
"Climate dry, twenty degrees!" she ordered. Almost immediately a gust of warm air enveloped her, the vents around her room changing the temperature accordingly.
It had been a rough night, she thought to herself trying to remember what happened. She smiled as the fog of sleep lifted, then raised her hand to her mouth as she remembered something.
"Voice Call, room one-one-four-six!" she demanded. A soft beeping began from the speaker near her bed. Moments later another sleepy voice responded, this one male.
"By Kusari hells. What time do you call this? Who's on the line please?" he asked. He had an oriental accent, the soft burr was clear though the voice was tired.
"Hi Kenji. It's Tanya. Wake up!" said the girl. She was already rising, the sheet wrapped around her making the journey from bed to bathroom a complicated task. "Do you know what day it is today?" she asked, eventually dropping the sheet having tripped for the second time. Her build was athletic, legs toned, slim waist. She lithely stepped across the cold floor to the bathroom and undressed entering the shower.
"Uh, Tanya. Is that water I hear?" asked Kenji curiously. He was one of the finest pilots she had met. Hailing from a clan based in Kusari space, his family for generations had been one of the leading bounty hunter groups in Sirius. His flight style was clean, precise and efficient. He also had a great sense of humour buried deep within a strong sense of tradition and a big soul. Tanya loved him like a brother.
"Yes!" she shouted back. The water was cold initially but warmed up quickly. "I don't have a lot of time," she shrieked as she dropped the soap. "Anyway, we're heading out to Omicron Theta today. Have you been there before? I hear that corsairs fly there freely, along with other pirates and freelancers who trade illegal goods!" The water stopped, and warm air was blasted into the cubicle.
"Uh, what? Theta? Yes. I have been there," shouted Kenji over the noise from the dryer. "But only when I was much younger! It is dangerous. In fact, all the border worlds are dangerous. They are not patrolled by any major force. We are lucky to be on the Hawaii in one piece, given our last encounter with those damned Outcasts."
Tanya grimaced for a moment, the dryer turned off and she stepped out feeling refreshed. She walked over naked to a wardrobe and pulled out some underwear and a jumpsuit.
"Those 'damned' Outcasts are human like us, you know," she said. There was a pause before her friend replied in a tone she had never heard before.
"No way, Tanya. They're monsters. You hear the stories of what they do to captured pilots? They torture them. Put out eyes. Dismember limbs. Monsters."
Tanya looked annoyed as she zipped up her suit, then walked over to a full-length mirror briefly before tying her hair back as she did so.
"Listen," she began. "The Outcasts are just like us. They are just forced to exist differently. If the big corporations and militaries would accept them as another legitimate territory, we could open trade with them and have no more wars."
"Tanya. You are going native, my dear. We have been here for one month and already you know how they think. Our families would think the worst of us, especially if they found out how much research you were doing about the Outcasts," he joked.
"See you on the flight deck, Kenji," said Tanya smiling. She put on a pair of light flying shoes and grabbed her cap from a hook near the door.
"Lights off!" she said and stepped out into the corridor, the door closing behind her with a soft hiss.
Luxury Liner Hawaii was an incredible piece of technology. It was built and managed by Orbital Spa and Cruise, a company that took paying customers, for a huge fee, the length and breadth of Sirius to dangerous yet exciting, beautiful and mysterious places. The Sigma-19 system was the most impressive and reknowned of locations. Naturally, the passengers would require escorts through dangerous territory, the escorts by nature were some of the most accomplished pilots in Sirius.
Tanya and Kenji were members of wealthy families. Noble houses who felt that the best training a Sirius pilot could get, would be to fly in the most dangerous territories available. It was risky, especially for those families who did not have many children and could little afford the risk. Others decided any risk was worth it. Trustworthy pilots were rare these days, many 'escorts' had turned on their paymasters demanding extortionate sums or be blasted into oblivion. Many were slain even if the funds were transferred.
Tanya loved spaceflight. She had long grown accustomed in her twenty-three standard years of life to the rigours of jump gate travel, combat and patrols. Her Banshee light fighter, dubbed, "Athena" was her favourite ship by far, although she yearned to fly a Very Heavy Fighter one day. It was incredibly agile, could mount powerful guns and best of all, looked great. She walked to a viewing gallery that overlooked the main hangar. She watched in fascination as dozens of ships, shuttles, and freighters docked and undocked. Loading and unloading their cargo. Repairs were being done by highly advanced maintenance robots in one area, sparks flying everywhere. She watched as one fighter docked. It wasn't one she recognised, a sleek dark shape that had a double wing connected by two stabilisers.
'Sabre, Sabre, Sabre' a voice whispered in her mind. She shook her head as a bright light suddenly flashed behind her eyes. Damn, these headaches were getting worse, she told herself.
Her curiosity aroused, Tanya headed for the lift but distracted by the hangar, wasn't watching where she was going and bumped into someone.
"Oh! I'm sorry," she apologised. The man before her held her gaze. His dark eyes penetrated her own almost staring into her soul. She shivered. The man was in his mid-twenties, light brown hair and wore some strange tattoos across his cheeks, three maroon parallel lines across each cheek moving downwards. He wore a dark-grey uniform, but said nothing, his face impassive.
"No problem," he said. His accent was slightly Hispanic. Alarm bells rang in her mind. "I must be on my way," he nodded and tried to walk past her but she partially blocked his way. He looked down at her. "Can I help you, miss? I am in a hurry." She paused.
"No, sorry." Tanya stepped aside and smiled, then watched as the man hurried away. He entered a lift, then turned around. His head was slightly lowered, a slight frown appearing as the doors closed. She saw a glimpse of a tube coming forth from his left shoulder, then he was gone.
"Who was that?" asked Kenji from behind her. She turned grinning, ran over and hugged him tightly. "Whoa whoa! What did I do to deserve this?" he asked surprised.
"Nothing!" replied Tanya letting him go.
"So. Er. Who was he? You know him?" he asked again.
"I don't know. I think I've seen him before, but never met him. Know what I mean?" she asked distracted. Kenji pondered that for a moment.
"No, not really. You ok?" he asked, now concerned at his friend's lack of focus. "We should hurry, or we'll miss the briefing. I don't want to be late this time, or it's boring vanguard patrol duty again," he sighed. Tanya nodded.
"You're right. Let's go. Last there buys the coffee!" she laughed. As they ran to the lift, she saw the Hispanic man in the hangar, walking towards the ship that had just docked. Two other similar men stepped out, one passed over a package. The other stood on the ramp speaking. As if he was psychic, the tattooed man looked up at the gallery, catching Tanya's eyes. Then, the doors closed and he was gone again, for the second time.
Tanya didn't feel curiosity this time, she felt an overwhelming feeling of dread.
The briefing room was huge, with seating for over three hundred people. It was currently half-full, with the upper tiers of seats empty.
A large projection of the Hawaii was revolving in the centre. Commandant Sears, a veteran in his mid-fifties of over a hundred battles and several duels was standing by a podium. The Hawaii disappeared replaced with an image of Sigma-19. A number of white lines indicated the patrol routes, red were known hostiles, white were neutrals or unknowns and green were friendly. One green line that stretched from the Hawaii to the trade lane that eventually docked with Sigma-13 was almost lost amongst a maze of red and white lines. Tanya was dismayed to see there were more red, than white.
"People. Our journey today is simple. We are making for Omicron Theta. To get there, we must travel to Sigma-17, then through a cloud near Planet Kurile where we dock to re-supply, then continue to Omicron Theta. Our final destination is Freeport 9." Images flashed quickly in sync with the briefing, showing patrols and further routes.
"The journey should take no more than two hours, if all is well. On your screens you will find your wing designations, your flight leaders and patrol routes. Know this, the Outcasts have been increasing their activity over the last week. It's rumoured that a large fleet of Corsair ships are readying themselves for a strike somewhere in the Border Worlds. Right now, we do not know where or when this will happen, but both groups are not happy with our presence here. Stay sharp, stay alive. Take-off at 0900 hours. Dismissed."
Tanya reviewed her assignment, then grinned.
"Yes!" she said cheerfully to Kenji sitting next to her. She chewed her pen in thought, then spoke again. "I'm near the front doing forward recon. How about you?"
Kenji looked glum. His usually cheerful expression was dulled, dark eyes brooding and unhappy.
"Vanguard. At the back. Again," he sighed. Tanya tried to look serious.
"It's a serious job, Kenji," she said trying to stifle a smile.
"Hey, it's not funny. This is the third time. How come you get to fly all the good stuff?" he asked ruefully, but secretly happy he wasn't chosen. Recon was easily the most dangerous of all duties. For some strange reason, Tanya loved throwing herself into danger.
"Live for the moment," was her reply. She winked. "And let's face it. Life is way too short to worry about stuff like that.." she stopped suddenly grimacing in pain. Another headache came, along with another word. "Malta, Malta, Malta".
"You ok, Tanya?" asked a concerned Kenji. She blinked then took a few deep breaths.
"Yeah. Just tired I guess. Been getting these headaches recently. Well, we should get prepped. See you later. Bring my coffee, you rogue!" she laughed. Kenji mock bowed.
They got up and left. Behind them, another pilot watched them leave. His attention had only caught at the mention of one word: rogue.