Ghosts

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Chapter 12 – “Burning the midnight oil”.

‘Approaching ships, please identify yourselves?’

‘Repeat, approaching crafts identify your ships?’

‘This is CEOL Wing command ship HXZ-Five-Five-One-One. If we do not receive a response from you we will have no option but to open fire in order to protect CEOL assets.’

The wing leader looked at the unknown ships statuses on his screen.

‘They neither look, nor sound like the Dead. Do we attack?’ a voice questioned from a co-pilot.

‘Negative. Let us see what their end game is. If they open fire, then we will raise hell. All wingmen hold your position. We will see if they are friendly. We have no jurisdiction to simply attack. We have warned them, and the odds are stacked against them, two large cargo freighters compared to our four fighter escort ships. I cannot see how they would attack. They seem not to have missiles bays and nothing in their cargo bays, lots of room but no major cargo crates. They may just be an ignorant crew on their way home from a trade run. Let them be for now.’

‘And those lasers would be like pencils against us. I agree, let them, be for now,’ another voice piped in.

Fifteen minutes passed as the fleet continued on their journey.

‘They are still approaching us. It does not look like they are looking to change course. Heading directly for us,’ the co-pilot announced monitoring the approaching haulers.
The wing leader compared hull strengths and mass mathematically in his head before realising a game of chicken could go either way.

‘All ships change course five degrees right. Let us not play any silly games.’

Five minutes more passed, as the ships got to within fifteen minutes time distance of each other.

‘They are matching our heading and moving towards us. As far as I can see it, there are no factories, ship carriers, mining facilities or gates under their heading. I know of no bases at that point.’

‘Thanks, me neither,’ the wing leader replied.

‘Is it worth sending one last warning?’

‘I think so. In five minutes. From then we will be within missile range. If they do not divert we will warn them a minute later and fire a warning shot. That will sort them out.’

As the ships closed in, the wing leader considered the Dead attacks within the region.

‘We’d know if they were Dead, right?’

‘Yer, they’d have announced it. The Dead are not exactly ninja’s. They are more like a Police raid. A scream of “Police, get down,” combined with a wallop through the door. This doesn’t seem like the Dead.’

‘Nor any pirate faction I know of. Head on collisions aren’t well known around here,’ the wing leader evaluated his options. ‘A few minutes down the line and we can warn them, then we fire. Hold fast.’

‘Wait. Do you see what I see?’

‘Looks like several cargo pods have been ejected. Where are they heading?’

‘They’re heading towards us, Sir. Do we shoot?’

‘At cargo pods? Are you mad? They are too small to have any sufficient bombs in them. Nothing that small could get through these shields never mind the hulls.’

‘The ships have not slowed down. That is a sign that it is not a bomb threat. They would keep their distance.’

Deep within the incoming cargo pods, a dim whirring noise jolted into life.

‘All ships get ready to fire on the incoming ships.’

In a frustrated, moody tone, the wing commander communicated his warning to the approaching haulers for what would be the final time. ‘Once again, this is CEOL Wing command ship HXZ-Five-Five-One-One. I do not know what games you are playing, but you are heavily out-numbered. We have kindly altered our flight-path to avoid any confrontation however; you re-directed your ships towards us. I am in no mood for silly games. If we do not receive a response from you, we will have no opportunity to open fire in order to protect CEOL assets. This will result in the destruction of your own assets and potentially your lives. This is your final warning. You have one minute to change direction and to respond.’

‘That should do it, Sir.’

‘Close enough for missile fire now. All ships prepare to fire. Wait for my direct order.’

‘No response has been received. I have no option to open fire.’ As the man gave a few seconds extra in the anticipation of a reply, the cargo containers whirring reached a peak.

‘My display is going strange... Heck, the screens have just shut down.’

‘I got nothing either,’ the co-pilot replied. ‘This doesn’t look good.’

‘All wingmen open fire on approaching ships. Take no prisoners.’ The order failed to send.

‘What’s happening? We can’t communicate to anyone, Commander?’

The sound of system engines deactivating and engines switching off stung the atmosphere within the fighter.

The wing commander bit his lips as he tapped at the screen. ‘All computer systems are unresponsive. Remember, they can destroy us but it would take a long time. Whatever is happening, I have a feeling we aren’t going to die.’

‘I’ll kill you if we do!’ The co-pilot joked back nervously.

As the ship lolled onwards, motion propelling it forwards despite the lack of engine speed, a further ten minutes passed.

‘Who’d have thought we’d be sitting ducks out here.’

‘Commander, can you see them boarding us?’

‘Boarding crafts? Maybe? Pick a position and get a gun ready just in case. What else can we do?’

‘Sing about green bottles on walls?’

They walked over to the ship entrance door and waited. The sound of the computer system kicked back in. The men dashed twenty feet back over to the cockpit as the cockpit window blinds dropped downwards, normally only used to reduce the glare from solar flares.

‘Houston, we have a problem.’ The co-pilot banged at an illuminated translucent keyboard.

‘The system’s back on but nobody is home. I cannot get in. it is just denying me access every time I log in. They’ve taken over control of the ship.’

‘Remotely? I have not heard of that happening. Well, I never. This is a new tactic. If I wasn’t in danger, I’d be impressed.’

‘Well, with the cockpit blinds still down we cannot see anything out the views. Clever move, all we can do is sit and w…’

‘This is a friendly message from Neon One to CEOL ships. This is your new Captain speaking. At this point in time, we have total control of your ships. We will now escort them to our base where we will advise you to depart the craft. We will not harm you but I warn you that any hostile actions made by yourselves once docked will result in trouble for all of you. Estimated arrival at our destination will be four hours time. We will arrange for you to be dropped off at your choice of destinations as soon as we can. This has been directly caused as a result of specific CEOL comments, and Georgi Balev who has spread anti-Neon One lies wherever he could. No food will be served on this flight. If you have rations available, use them. We at Neon One wish you have a nice, trouble-free voyage.’

The docking bay alarms rang out as the ships all docked up one by one. The first ships to land were the CEOL escort fighters and the freighters they had been protecting. Engineers, pilots and station crew surrounded the first ship as it was readied for opening.

A warning message was sent to advise the crew to drop their weapons and come out peacefully. The door opened quickly, and in a Mexican standoff both parties remained in place. Eventually the ship pilots moved into a position to see out of the ship door. The sight that they saw confirmed their fears. Slowly they dropped their weapons and moved out of the door with their hands in the air.

They were led to a second ship, a medical craft were they were left within the limits of a dining room, food and drink available for them. The crew waited before eating.

Armed guards stood outside the room keeping them from making any unwanted moves. The other CEOL ships suffered the same treatment and once all the personnel were stuck in the room, a solitary armed guard marched in, asked them if they had any personal belongings on their CEOL ships that were essential, arranged for the items to be collected and returned, before the room door was locked in place sealing the troops permanently unless the pilot re-opened the door.

‘We are now going to leave this place and head back to a medical base where we will leave you with sufficient funds to get you to whatever destination you choose. Before you decide to do anything silly before or upon arrival, please be warned. We could have, and some might say we still can, kill you. Upon arrival security will not be interested in any tall tales you might want to tell until we have left the station. That is guaranteed. The food is untainted, help yourself. If we wanted you killed, you’d have known by now. Our enemies are not you but your employer. The journey will not take long.’

A cup was thrown at the speakers lodged into one corner of the dining room and profanities spat with venom. The engines started up, life purring with a mechanical lion’s roar.

‘Reports are coming in that several ships have been hijacked by pirates. The unknown attackers have used viral technology to take control of the ships externally and ordered them to dock at pirate bases throughout the region. The pilots of the ships have been left totally unharmed, however the ships and cargo have not been returned,’ the voice spoke softly at the camera.

‘Do we know anything about the attackers or those attacked?’

‘So far, unverified reports have emerged stating that the attacked ships were all CEOL or escorted by CEOL ships. Until, further news comes in this won’t be confirmed by CEOL. Benedict Valon, Henry Poole and Georgi Balev will most assuredly issue statements, the latter in an as always bold move as the unconfirmed reports have started to affect the share prices for CEOL.’ Lynette took in a deep breath of air.

‘Investors fear a backlash of pirate assaults and consequently market prices for the stocks have already dropped ten points before rising six as they reached a balance. The latest stock rise was a saving grace for Balev and came amidst unrelated financial reports from other mining corporations that are floated on the stock exchange. These financial reports have shown that the price of minable ores, gases and minerals have risen dramatically due to the cost and dangers in supplying the products. The number of destroyed property, whether that be ship or station, also has led to replacement products and supplies being needed causing a higher than expected demand in mineable commodities.’

‘Lynette, you said that you have not heard of any deaths or injuries from these attacks. Basing an assumption on the recent Dead attacks, can we positively rule out that these were planned attacks from the Dead?’

‘We can never just assume that it isn’t any pirate faction until one by one they rule themselves out. The nature of this is that most of these types of attacks are done by either militant groups who have stated their agenda or by organisations that have no public communication and would not say anything one way or another.’

‘Georgi Balev has spoken of his concern that Neon One is specifically targeting CEOL ships. Would this seem to be a Neon One attack? Could it be them and not the Dead this time around?’

‘Tactically this does not seem like a Dead attack. The Dead are bullish in their attacks, forewarning those in danger right before they fire. The time they give before attacking is not enough to escape the danger but it is enough time to cause fear. That is their main goal - fear and chaos. Neon One is not known for those types of attacks.’ Lynette took another deep breath before smiling softly.

‘They aim to do as little damage as they take the ships for their own use whenever possible, either as parts or in a similar mould to ancient sea-fairing pirates, to add ships to a fleet, expanding the possible attack circumference in order to keep the circle of their faction’s pirate-life moving.’

‘This would seem then like a Neon One attack, would it not, Lynette?’

‘The only thing that changes is the size of the circle. Strategically based on several expert opinions, and this cannot be verified, the slick, casual, painless style of this attack would seem to be something that Neon One would prefer. The attackers gained distanced control and thus removed any chance of danger of retaliation.’

‘Something that even CEOL owner Balev would prefer.’

‘Yes, and this limited injuries and the loss of life, their own and of course their targets. One pilot stated that a fire-fight upon exiting the ship would have been futile as the ship was heavily guarded and left little expectation of survival. The option of a thrust of a dagger to cause painful wounds would always be ignored by those in power at Neon One, much preferring rather to not fight when possible. It is something that some terrorist organisations would desire as it garners good devotion and ultimately makes the risk of death less. Some see Neon One as Robin Hood figures, other see them as evil as the Dead. It is important to remember that it remains to be seen if anyone will claim the rights to this attack.’ Lynette felt tense as she spoke, not knowing the reason why, before the moment passed allowing her to continue.

‘It has been rumoured that Georgi Balev has requested a meeting with Prime Minister Henry Poole, inviting, some would consider surprisingly, Benedict Valon. The meeting is scheduled for later this evening. Both political parties have agreed to meet Balev in a closed, casual meeting, however it seems that the CEOL man will be adamant that a change is required, and something must be done sooner than later. A lot has been talked about, and I’m sure that Georgi Balev will not be the only company owner who is saying, “less talk, more action”, a statement used recently in protest made by miners, traders, and logistical service suppliers who have seen stations, ships, supplies all destroyed in recent weeks.’

‘The increase in attacks was considered to be just from the Dead. Now, we may be seeing Neon One increase raids. Other groups too seem to be growing in number. Could we be seeing more organised terrorism, Lynette, not just one group but several factions all colluding together to create as much damage as possible?’

‘It is a well-mentioned theory, one that seems to ignore the differences in style between the Dead and Neon One. Morally, the two seem to have differing beliefs and ethics. However, that does not disprove the theory. Those who speculate this theory do so basing this on the strategically altered and technically more structured method of attacks by the Dead, as dangerous as ever but more calculating.’

‘How have the Dead strategies of attack changed over the last few months, Lynette?’

‘They seem to be limiting their own losses. They were always a cut and thrust group of fanatics who laid down their lives in an endless procession of suicidal assaults. The Dead are renowned for sacrificing their own lives in head-on collisions, targeting enemies stronger than them for, one might say, fun. The challenge of dog-fighting to the death inspires them.’ Lynette paused for further questions before continuing.

‘This gladiatorial approach has brought fear to those piloting ships, knowing that the enemy not just has no fear, nor fear of death but they actively willed it on, was actively seeking to die in that fight. A lot of the fear of the Dead comes from this suicidal death-wish that cannot be fought when attacked. Soldiers for the local stations cannot easily fight this chaotic mind-set,’ Lynette de Cesare said sympathetically.

‘However, recently this has changed. The Dead have slipped away from fights when faced with weaker odds. They are distancing themselves more from the enemy, taking sniper shots rather than getting close. It seems they are circling the enemy more, orbiting them taking a gradual, slow approach to the kill rather than being a pack of wolves charging in with no care for the odds.’

‘We have seen witness statements confirming this, Lynette.’

‘The Dead no longer seem to be seeking a quick kill at any expense and also show tactics never used before by the Dead. The theory being shouted is that someone is giving them tactical plans, organisation in order to keep them fighting. A fighter still alive is a fighter who can do more damage in the long-term.’

‘This is something Balev has stated before, Lynette. That the real threat is that of Neon One, that they are the cerebral force that quietly, efficiently punishes those they tactically seek out.’

‘That is the real concern for some experts - that the changes mean that the Dead are getting stronger in numbers and political sway. Is Neon One the brain behind the Dead’s rise? Is it a quid-pro-quo situation, the mind of Neon One and the muscle of the Dead? And the other smaller factions are they part of this evolution?’

With time constraints the media studio closed out the news story leaving the reporter still with undisclosed reports. Confident though with the coverage, Lynette de Cesare smiled a more relaxed smile.

Angelo da Silva read the email, a communication from someone named Alison Wessex who had informed him that Benedict Valon wanted to introduce them as part of his investigation.

Invited to visit her office on Halcyon’s Open Research Centre, Angelo fired back an email agreeing to do so. Once the shuttle had departed he researched the woman, using military systems to see what information he could find.

Very little was known criminally about the woman, a clean record, a few minor honours for her research aboard the Lillypad’s research centre, and a recent move into being a recruitment agent for local public and private companies. The agent specialised in biological, physics, aeronautical and astro-geological recruitment and little seemed to forewarn why the agent sought him out. Even her minor recruitment roles of programming and engineering indicated minute information. Pilots were sought after however, yet da Silva doubted that she would need a pilot of his calibre, nor a soldier. Other sources of pilots where available and they were far easier to attract than Angelo.

The only reasons he was going to visit her was the investigation he had been sent on by Commander Zylinski, and an obscure message that she was aware of the mission and might be able to help. Knowing that all the pre-arranged informants or viable options had been given to him, her name missing, the email had caught Angelo da Silva’s curiosity.

It was dark down on Old Eden by the time Angela da Silva landed on the Open Research Centre. The floating station nicknamed the Lillypad was split into three sections.

The first section was the hotel, residential and docking point with above and underwater access points for ships researching under the ocean, the second was the engineering centre for ship modifications, repair, and ship and component sales. Finally, the largest portion of the Lillypad was the laboratory centres, publicly and privately hired labs, barracks, office suites and a large library. Viewing galleries hugged the southern perimeter of the Lillypad in a wave formation mimicking the water beneath it.

The Lillypad was a tri-level station, the roof of which had been converted into a garden in its own right, a wildlife habitation facility heavily researched by the experts aboard the base. It had initially been established as a non-native garden, filled with plants and fauna taken from other more established planets, the experiment being to see the results of their introduction to the alien life and fauna that currently existed on Old Eden.

Angelo da Silva stepped out of the shuttle into a clean white open courtyard with seats nestling around the twenty foot high, white walls. A towering blue glass building shot upwards beyond the far side of the courtyard walls. A hundred feet high, the glass hotel offered high quality, expensive rooms for those wealthy enough to reside there, normally executives, ministers, and diplomats.

Angelo da Silva headed in that direction to a pre-booked hotel room. The glass tubular bridge that swept over the waters in-between the docking port and the hotel glistened in the strong Old Eden moonlight.

Upon arriving at his room, he sent a message to the agent who had contacted him and took himself off to bed, the comfortable pillows wasted on the pilot used to ship quarters and a simple monastery lifestyle.

A shower and breakfast the next day led the way for the pilot to tour the main areas of the station. Being a pilot his first stop was the nearest one, the engineering centre. A lot of ships were being repaired or sold, and the latter peeked da Silva’s curiosity as he sought through the ships proffered for sale. Knowing that his own personal ship, a heavy fighter stored permanently aboard the Faith Space Station was a far superior craft he was soon heading out on to the peaceful gardens of the station.

An hour and a half later Angelo da Silva strolled back through the white wide corridors, past rows of laboratories, securely sealed off, nicknamed locally as “the Devil’s Advocates”, and into a commercial office zone, known simply as “Beggar’s Row” sarcastically at the wealthy office owners as well as a slight on those with the silvery tongues who worked within.

The long, expensively decorated corridor ambled southwards as exclusive office led onto exclusive office. The pilot counted twenty five, peeking at the door signs as he went past trying to figure out what room he needed.

A woman, blonde-hair curly and scruffily loose moved down the corridor towards him, the only person Angelo da Silva had seen outside of the offices. Her long black skirt flowed behind her as she walked, a cerise silk blouse brought colour to her expensive ensemble, and to the pure white hallway. Angelo da Silva was surprised when she spoke.

‘Alison Wessex, employment agent. That was good timing. If you would follow me Mr da Silva we can discuss my email?’

‘Ok, lead the way,’ da Silva replied not asking how she knew who he was.

The door shut behind them in an office thirty foot wide. A view of the outside garden stole the gaze away from the glass desk that sat in from of the glass panelling. The visitor was asked to sit down. The host lent back against the desk, a foot from the seated pilot.

‘First things first, a lot of details you want to know, I cannot tell you. I know people that can tell you but loyalty is a fine thing. We have need of a man of your skill-set, someone who can pilot a craft like only you can, the rare exception. There is a desire to keep my sources, my clients’ names quiet, despite your current investigations, which I personally will not comment on for now. Other than the email I sent, of course, which was provided to me by my clients.’

‘I’m not looking for work. I am wealthy enough spiritually and financially to happily leave the office right now. I am not interested in work.’ The pilot’s words caused the agent to smile, standing up she moved around to the rear of the desk.

‘I am not offering work, as such. My clients have information regarding your investigation. For reasons that may become apparent further down the line, they need to see a show of respect, of loyalty before they can engage you face to face with answers.’

‘And I would do this because?’

‘Because, my lovely Mr da Silva, the information you seek is obtainable by us, quickly. Any other way and it might take months, years. Please, don’t be offended when I mention this, but you know how hard undercover work can get. I can save you from that.’

‘Zylinski nor his associates never mentioned you.’

‘I am not directly connected to them. This will be clear later on, I promise you that. I was told of your investigation by mutual contact.’

Alison Wessex reached down and pressed a button built into her desk. The view out of the window disappeared as the window tinted itself black. Pressing on a holographic keyboard, she spoke softly.

‘Before my clients can discuss further details with you they ask for a show of faith. They will pay for the faith shown; your usual fee, or at least the one you last charged the military, two hundred thousand each for all three missions, and let me assure you that they do not normally do so. They would like you to take a look at this map chart.’

‘It’s a map. What next.’

‘This is Hollow Rocks, a minable asteroid belt in the distant Black October region. Not much mining is done there. It is no longer supported by any corporations, however CEOL have applied for a licence for the belt. This is based on new surveys done recently that show several asteroids have shown traces of valuable minerals, in particular the rare and now desired Neilodinium, that were un-mined and under-valued previously.’

‘That is not something that affects my own mission, but please continue talking.’

‘Angelo, the belt has become busy with miners, traders and freighters however recently Dead attacks have arisen. My client wants you to mine there awaiting a Dead attack. We will provide a fully defensive ship with exceptional firepower. Your own ship might scare them off. A pilot of your skill would not be troubled. Our problem is that we need the Dead ships analysed.’

‘The Dead ships? Not the rocks. You want the Dead ships analysed? Why?’

‘We need to know where they get their equipment from.’

’So, you think they are packing heat from another source? You watch the news too much. That Lynette de Cesare can’t be right. The Dead and Neon One are two different breeds of ‘rats; that much I’m certain of.’

The agent smiled pink lips as she pressed some more details on the keyboard. These are the areas where we expect the attack to occur. If you fancy it, it’ll be a nice easy bit of fun and lucrative whichever way you look at it.’

‘I will demand answers more than the fee which you can donate to the monastery. You obviously know which monastery. Send me the job details,’ Angelo stood up to leave. As he walked to the door, the agent spoke out sincerely.

‘The ship is aboard Faith as we speak. Info is already waiting to be emailed over to you. Enjoy the hunting.’

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