Ghosts

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Chapter 14 – “Moving with the lights on”.

‘It’s being called pro-active feedback by some, a riot by others. The leader of the new group of protestors has stated bluntly that, “if you allow people to walk over you, you become less a human being and more-so a carpet”. The miners here are not just reacting to the attacks, but also to financial corruption as Military Police enquiries into bribery within the corridors of public office become more aggressive.’ The usual pause for effect occurred as Lynette de Cesare spoke.

‘The latest riots come as speculation that some as yet unnamed public officials were successfully offered bribes in order to smooth over applications for research and mining licences. Benedict Valon has called the latest reports as scandalous if true but warned that speculation may corrupt any investigations and asked for public calm to aid the Police in their enquiries.’

‘Lynette what has Henry Poole said on this issue?’

‘Henry Poole has once again used the term, “witch-hunt,” declaring that the media has waged a war against his Government colleagues, who he insists are all innocent. This witch-hunt, Poole declares is poisoning the public’s minds and attitudes towards parliaments, past, present and future, and without proof, without names, Henry Poole has called the allegations immoral and unethical, and also slanderous.’

‘Do we have any more names to give out, Lynette?’

‘As you are aware the only names, that we’ve stated are those announced publicly by the Police based on recent arrests for other allegations, however other news stations, and social media has long speculated the culprits but without evidence, it is hard to disagree with the Prime Minister’s statements…’

Angelo da Silva muted the holo-screen before turning his attention to the communication being relayed to him by nearby micro-satellites.

As the video-call came through to him, he sat back into the pilot’s chair aboard the ship. The face of Alison Wessex, the recruitment agent who sent him to his current sedate location appeared.

‘Are you in position?’ Alison Wessex asked with a pretty smile.

Disinterested in her chirpiness, Angelo gruffly replied, ‘I am at location Hollow Rocks, Black October region as requested. Your tracker will tell you that. We both know the ship is trackable. The area has been quiet so far. I’ve not come across any other ships and there’s little of interest here other than big rocks with dents in them.’

‘Patience, it’ll happen. My sources are sure of that. There has been an increase in attacks in this region. We are willing to risk wasting our time.’

‘Our time? You mean my time. What about the risk involved with my life?’

‘You can handle it. We both know that, just be patient. Trouble is bound to arrive soon. They won’t sneak up on you either. You will likely get the usual Dead warning. If it is the Dead attacking. A lot of pirate groups have cropped up around the systems and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the so-called Dead attacks aren’t their attacks at all - just my personal opinion, of course.’ Wessex’s statement matched da Silva’s own opinion.

‘The media will use Neon One and the Dead as story leaders if it suits them, a big bad name causes big bad fear. People dwell on that fear-mongering, and the news… Well, they feed off it, don’t they, Mr da Silva?’

‘Whoever, whatever, I can handle them. Right now, I got myself nothing to shoot at but rocks with dust. All-powerful asteroid husks!’

‘Patience is a virtue. They’ll be there. I assume that they don’t want you there. They may just be waiting to see if you are passing through or not.’

‘Engines are inert, I am not going anywhere for a long time.’

‘Angelo, they don’t know that. When they arrive, beat them down and get their ship logs. If possible board the ships and get some intel on the ship itself.’

‘Do you know how much that information is worth? The world and its Dead-killed wife want to know what those fools fly. Commander Zylinski at the base would love that information. Are you looking to sell my good work on?’

‘Not really. If you want the rights to it…’

‘I don’t give a toss who gets the information, nor the money. I have no need for money. I am not a mercenary; I’m just driven by desire. My talent brings money, it brings results. The money just keeps the torpedoes in the hangar for when I need them. What else is the money for?’

‘A nice house, nice furniture, nice clothes?’ Angelo da Silva knew as soon as she said the words that she was teasing him.

‘As I said, you can keep any payment should you sell any information on…’ Angelo stopped, thinking ahead for a few seconds. ‘I do insist Commander Zylinski gets a copy, either directly or via myself. It might be useful to my mission. It might help destroy those rust-buckets who attack innocent men, women and children.’

‘That is something I can raise with my client. It’s not something we raised as I know exactly what their mission report is for and it’s not about making money, far from it. This is being done at cost to my client, a rarity in itself considering my fees, and of course your own.’

‘Anything else?’

‘No, Angelo, if you’re happy with the mission specs, then I can leave you to it. I was just giving a quick comm’ to see if you had arrived. It’s always good to speak to contractors and recruits.’

‘It’s been a long time since someone called me a lowly recruit. Anyway, I need to prepare some more, you have my regards.’

Angelo da Silva didn’t wait for the call to be cleared before he walked off to the weapon bay and the hold of the ship. Almost half way across and in the direct middle of the provided ship’s upper main deck was a ladder leading down to the cargo bay. Angelo da Silva dropped swiftly downwards landing on the metal floor with a dull thud, years of dust dispersing under his feet.

With little care he moved over to the left side of the ship, ignoring large crates that attempted to block his way like a maze of forgotten wares that were probably well-past their sell-by-date.

He banged hard on a closed steel panel, shoulder height on the wall. The panel opened up its ten by six inch casing. The lights inside the panel were dim at first, but slowly brightened up enough for Angelo da Silva to read them.

The old ship still used old turret mountings and missile bays, something that would be a concern to a highly skilled pilot, unless the turrets mounted were to be state of the art. The only concern Angelo had had was to manually test the settings to ensure they would fire. Given the circumstances of his mission, he never doubted they would, and knowing the specs he knew the damage they could do. The bait had to seem to offer an easy catch or the fish would never bite.

A laser test simulated the laser fire, the turrets tracking an imaginary target and simulating an attack. With a happy grunt Angelo turned his attention to the missile bays. A rack of missiles and rockets lined each side of the bays, a conveyor belt of ammo ready to be dropped into the recess of the missile propulsion units.

Checking each missile was clear of obstruction, the best test he could do, he knew that in battle all he could wish for is that they fired. No other tests on bays this old could simulate a battle. A baptism of fire would await him.

Happy enough that they would work in principle, he picked up a dirty power lead loosely left near to the missile bay units. He plugged it into the square generator he brought from his old ship. The smart-bomb generator started to whirr as it readied itself for use.

Unable to prepare the item prior to jumping to his current destination as the instability of jumpgate dynamics affected the device, the time was essential to set it up.

Angelo knew the generator would work, what he couldn’t guarantee was that the hardware would connect to the ship’s weapon control computer. With the weapon bays checked, all he could now do was test the ship’s computers back up on deck.

He marched back upstairs to the cockpit and set the system to analyse for all connected weaponry. All turrets and bays showed up including his personal property. The modern holo-screen showed ready to fire buttons. Angelo da Silva smiled, switched the sound back on the news report and settled back into his chair ready for whatever may come along.

Amid the jet black-hued mineable rocks three fighters swept in and out of the large asteroids playing a game of dare and bravado as they flowed towards their unknown destination.
Shields blipped down then rose steadily back up as the crafts occasionally clipped the edges of the rocks, centimetres from danger. The ship shields bounced the fighters’ inches away from the rocks, all part of the game daredevils called ‘winging’.

An alarm beeped on Angelo da Silva’s computer command panel bringing up automatically the ship’s fight command screen. Angelo da Silva looked at the display. The radar indicated he had ten minutes to wait before he would know whether his new company were friendly or not.

The Dead would for certain announce an attack as they always did, he considered whilst checking over his weapons one last time. All weapons checked out fine. Angelo waited, his news holo-screen discussing a news story he had stopped listening to several minutes before.

The fighters weaved in-between the rocks the distance closing between them and Angelo da Silva, following the natural curvature of the asteroid belt as it bent away from Angelo’s ship. Swiftly the fighters pushed through the clusters, sending fragments cascading off the outer shell of the asteroids.

The visitors continued their game of dare onwards, en route for the far-reaching gate and beyond. Angelo da Silva relaxed as the ships left the system via the jumpgate, seemingly just fun-seeking pilots bored during a long journey through the systems.

Eighty-plus quiet minutes passed before anybody else arrived within the region. Four light cruisers moved into the area, approaching Angelo da Silva’s location.

Knowing that he was expecting inbound enemies and that the area might normally be deserted for days, even weeks on end in between mining trips, the pilot’s gut feeling told him they were not just passing through. He armed his weapons ready for a fight. Twenty-five minutes later the slow-moving cruisers announced themselves.

‘We are Dead.’

The pilot barely waited for them to declare their intentions. He started his ship’s engines, moved away from the approaching vessels, and aimed his turrets back at them. Laser pulses erupted out of the ship’s cannons missing the targeted enemy.

A further eruption finally hit the target, three short bursts lashing into shields. A further burst of laser fire missed the target but hit the vessel behind softly on its bow.

The Dead arrived within their optimal firing range and their short-range lasers started furiously battering Angelo da Silva’s ship. The shields held steady but slowly crept downwards. During gaps in the Dead firing the shields’ strengths intensified only to fail again once the next attack landed.

Angelo da Silva cursed under his breath knowing his structure would struggle unless he could even the odds. Knowing the ship’s varied weaponry suited long or close combat range assaults he could ill-afford to let the Dead cruisers keep hitting him from their optimal distance, knowing that they would just circle him from that range at optimal firing distance.

He considered the options of trying to outrun the Dead, knowing that this would depend on the engines of his enemies, or slowing down so that he could fight at close range, a highly-risky decision that would put his ship at the mercy of the enemy fire, closer range meaning higher hit accuracy.

His turrets missed once more. The rapid-fire rockets and time-delayed proximity missiles his ship had would be too short-range for the current targets, and his secret weapon needed them to be closer. His decision had been made for him.

He stopped his ship’s engines. The gap narrowed as his shields took a further pounding, the vultures reading his ship movement and spreading outwards to circle around him. Several of his laser bursts hit home, landing but not at optimal range, the damage caused being limited as the bursts were less pin-pointed.

He smiled seeing the enemy crafts had strayed within the range he wanted, but still within their own optimal distance - closer for him to hit them but still they were still as dangerous as ever. The Dead attacks tore down into his lower shield strength margins.

Proximity missiles erupted forth from Angelo da Silva’s ship like geysers out of the ground. A minute later several explosions rocked his own hull even as his proximity missiles detonated their payloads into his attackers. He took a quick look at his own ship status.

His shields had gone, and his ship structure was now being dented by the ever-consistent Dead. He anticipated two minutes until his shields would reactivate, assuming he only received negligible hits, and five minutes until his toughened ship would be torn apart from within should the shields fail to kick back in. Time was not on his side.

He unleashed a quick succession of rockets out of the rocket bay, thirty percent of which hit a nearby target, a small amount but enough to hit the light cruiser’s shields and hull. The shields dropped completely and wounds started to show as the pilot’s erratic flight-path told a tale.

Angelo smiled. He issued some more proximity missiles which struck home sending one of the Dead spiralling out of control. Unconcerned by death the pilot had refused to eject from his cruiser seconds before its crashing into an asteroid. Devoid of shields and pilot control, its fate was sealed.

The explosion tore chunks of rock off the asteroid. A ship down, the damage to Angelo da Silva’s vessel would ease up slightly, whether it would be enough only time would tell.

The proximity missiles had also dented two of the other Dead, impacting into their own composition enough for da Silva to take a gamble.

As they strayed close enough for his secret weapon, he activated the Smart-bomb. Taking a minute to generate its volley, the device sent out a devastating boom, a three-sixty degree barrage attack that hit everything orbiting it within fifty kilometres. The Dead ships were crushed by the attack; with already-low shields dropping instantly the weakened structures were crippled, buckling under the assault. With the external damage bending the Dead cruisers’ framework, two of the cruiser cockpit’s were breached, steel broken into pieces, and one cruiser’s strong front window cracked then shattered under the pressure of bending steel.

Angelo da Silva sent out several proximity missiles, which took down the last ship’s shields. The cruiser soon fell to the same fate as its deceased brethren as the smart-bomb issued off several more pulses. The Dead craft’s explosion shocked the asteroids nearby, divorced debris colliding softly with da Silva’s ship. He smiled a satisfied smile knowing that for now, his battles were over. Having not intercepted any outgoing S.O.S messages Angelo knew he had time to investigate the wreckages.

The hulls of the Dead lay dormant, waiting for Angelo da Silva to approach them. As his ship crawled slowly closer to the Dead wreckage with the most hull strength left, he analysed the ship for signs of life. None were registered. With a sigh, he slowed his ship to a full stop.

Torn in two, the wreckage’s cockpit had been rendered unsafe by the main window damage. The likelihood of death for the crew was to have been sent into the cold depths of space.
Angelo walked over to the dark green spacesuit nestled next to the sealed exit of his ship. Sealing himself into the suit he entered the vacuum of space leaving his own ship behind.

Moving slowly via a micro-engine on the suit he approached the broken glass of the derelict cockpit and carefully entered the ship. No bodies awaited him.

With deep breaths he moved to the cockpit seats and looked for hardware panels that he anticipated would store the electronics for the ship’s computer. After several minutes he found what he was looking for. With a hefty swing of his boot the panel opened. Angelo da Silva looked at the now-defunct components, illuminated by his suit’s flashlights.

He pulled out a circuit board, wires snapping under the pressure he put on them. Turning the board over in his hand he noticed a batch of manufacturer’s barcodes for the components. His suit contained a built in holdall for storing items, and Angelo made use of it by keeping hold of the electronic device. He continued his search.

Anything loosely left in the cockpit had by now been sucked out. Little else offered any clues as to why the Dead had attacked him, other than seeking to create their usual chaos.
Angelo searched the engine room, forcing the comatose doors to open manually, the hold of the ship offered little else but more electronics, several of which he took once more.

Taking a look at the missiles the ship’s weaponry offered reaffirmed what little he already knew. It was likely to be the Dead. Some of the weaponry hardware wasn’t just parts cherry-picked off destroyed vessels but seemed to be part of the ship design. Most importantly, it wasn’t the standard hardware that he understood the Dead used, it was updated, newer and most definitely manufactured and tailored to these Dead ships. With a search of the other ships, the results showed the same anomalies.

Returning to his own ship he knew his job was done. Anymore Dead ships entering the asteroid field would not find him there. His ship’s boosters announcing the beginning of his return home.

Docked up at the Faith Space, Station Angelo da Silva vacated the vessel, and took a look at the battered ship that Alison Wessex had loaned him. A mechanic covered in the usual stains of oil also looked at the ship, and then at the pilot.

‘Been in a spot of bother out there, have we matey?’

‘It was nothing that I didn’t handle.’

‘Someone has to repair that ship, you know? That’s going to cost a lot of money for sure.’

‘It won’t be my money,’ Angelo da Silva replied dryly. The mechanic just kept starring at the ship. Analysing the damage himself, Angelo spoke once more.

‘Ask Peter Lund to send any repair quotes to Alison Wessex. He’ll have her contact details already. Also, ask him to remove my personal equipment and return it to my personal ship. He will know what I mean. Tell him, the boom-boom boomed.’ The mechanic listened then smiled politely, having heard his boss mentioned by name.

Angelo da Silva took himself immediately off to see Alison Wessex, taking the next available shuttle down to the Halcyon Open Research Centre. Once he had arrived he wasted little time in visiting her, not bothering to rent a hotel room.

Upon entering the agent’s office, Alison Wessex greeted him with a positive grin, eager to hear how his adventures had gone.

Angelo da Silva advised her of the battle within the Hollow Rocks asteroid field in the Black October region. The agent showed little sign of surprise as Angelo informed her of the events. It was as if it was all expected, the attack and the resolution. Her face showed little emotion, a blank poker-face that surprisingly frustrated Angelo da Silva.

Ten minutes later, having told the agent that the battered ship she had loaned him was now awaiting extensive repairs in the Faith Space Station docking bay, Angelo handed over the hardware taken from the Dead ship before making his excuses and leaving.

On his way back up, Commander Zylinski contacted him and asked Angelo to meet him in his office on the orbiting space station.

‘Commander Zylinski, you wanted to see me?’ Angelo da Silva entered the private office without waiting for an answer, and sat down on the couch.

‘Some news has come in of further planned demonstrations from the miners. We are expecting huge support from the public. It seems that the situation is getting worse. We may have up to a thousand or more people out there,’ Zylinski spoke ponderously.

‘Some miners are threatening to barricade jumpgates and the docking routes to this station. We need answers, and we need them fast. Some sign of progress, positive PR, something, anything, to give people faith that we can handle the Dead. Anything to stop the protests from getting worse, as the politicians do not seem to be getting anywhere.’

‘A protest like that would leave them open to a Dead attack. Consider how difficult it would be for us to get defences out to incoming pirate attacks. They would be sitting ducks out there. Threatening publicly to do that would just give pirates the foresight they need to create system-wide panic and fear. The fools need to be told. They are only inconveniencing themselves, surely,’ Angelo da Silva advised forwarding something Zylinski had already considered.

‘Anyway, you’re asking for miracles. It’s a massive system out there covered in the deep black. Finding a Dead or any other terrorist base is almost impossible,’ da Silva’s words were said with honesty that the Commander would normally admire, except the words were again what he already knew.

‘So, what do we have?’

‘Very little, so far, I spent time getting attacked in the Black October region. The recruitment agent, Alison Wessex sent me there, as mentioned, as the Dead have been attacking independent miners in the Hollow Rocks asteroid field. Cruisers, warning to be the Dead, attacked me upon their arrival. No delay, just straight at my face. I dealt with it.’

‘Good, anything else to report?’

‘I boarded the ship sections that were stable, and found some electronic parts. Not much else was left to recover. The Dead don’t exactly travel stacked and with unresponsive ship computers, a few hard-drives and chipsets are all that was left. For what it’s worth, if we cannot access the drives, possibly our only option then is to find the manufacturers. Maybe, they can shed some light on the items. As for any other terrorist factions, I have nothing. That is a whole different issue. Neon One seem to be lost in the black, all others, you’re guess is as good as mine. They are like hermits, likely without a home to call their own.’

‘And that agent Alison Wessex, what about her and her clients?’

‘She said she needed a show of faith before she could reveal more. Have I shown faith, loyalty? I don’t know. Her clients will have to decide. Give her a day or so and I’ll chase her up. If I’m honest, I’m hitting brick walls here and I don’t like it. Given time, I’ll bust the Dead open…’

‘We don’t have time, I’m afraid. Not if we want to help the miners help themselves. They might, as you said, end up making themselves a big target.’

‘All I can say as a pilot is you should keep our boys out there flying, local and throughout the regions. Maybe send some of them on a tour of duty, belt to belt taking out what we can. One or two here and there isn’t much but…’

‘It all adds up,’ Zylinski finished da Silva’s sentence for him. ’I might have to release a statement concerning you taking down some Dead at this rate, even though it is just a drop in the ocean. How many Dead ‘rats do you think they have out there?’

‘Flying? Eighty or more, could be over a hundred? Maybe two ton. It’s all guesswork based on their former lives. I don’t believe the rumours that they have more now than ever, like several hundred. When we take one out it is a big blow, I tell you that much. What we have are splinter groups, and the Dead have far less than the Devil’s Militia did. The number of pilots could be double the number of flying steel though.’

‘What of the others’

‘As for other factions, like Neon One, that could be another fifty. Over a hundred? They keep adding stock. Who knows where their numbers end? Every time they raid a ship, they gain a ship. That never helps. Sometimes, they sell them, as you know, but most times the Dead destroy their targets. Neon One seems to keep them. They have some kind of hoarder’s desire to keep ships that they have reduced to buckets of rust. The Dead are more ruthless. Death or glory, and that attitude goes for their victims. Either beat the Dead in a dogfight or die. If the Dead wanted to expand their attacks, then by keeping and re-using stolen ships they could do so.’

‘Don’t give them any ideas. Sometimes, I wonder if the Dead are getting stronger than ever. Our pilot’s seem to think so, more organised and harder to hit.’

‘Commander Zylinski, if you want the truth, they got close to overwhelming me. Ok, so it wasn’t my ship, so I was at the mercy of the ship I was flying, but still, they toyed with me. It backfired but they could have taken me if they were serious.’

‘Same old Dead, is that what you’re declaring?’

‘Not the same Dead, same playful, chaotic attitude but better equipped, harder hitting. It takes a while to become guerrilla trained but they are being trained better. A new boss maybe or something, maybe they have a purpose. They attacked this base. They never attack bases. No, they have a purpose, and are training for it. Your pilots are right. I think all these attacks are deliberate, live training drills.’

Zylinski mentally took the words in ruefully.

‘You took out four of them on your own. It can’t be that bad?’

‘I would normally have taken out five without blinking. The provided ship is pretty beaten up. Ask Peter Lund.’

‘I will. Look, keep on with the mission. Quicker would be better, but let me know throughout the days. Something small to us might be something worthwhile releasing to the public. Valon asked you to contact him again. Have you done that?’

‘Not yet. It will be my next stop, I suppose, while I wait for that agent to get back to me with the Dead headquarters’ address.’

‘That’s not likely, Angelo.’

‘Sure, but it’d make my job a whole lot easier than looking for a needle in a haystack. All I know is the danger spots in the systems nearby. I need more than that.’

‘That’s your mission goal, isn’t it?’

‘Yes it is. I’ll find them.’

Alison Wessex read the email that she had received, speed reading it at first before doubling back and re-reading it. With surprise showing on her face she requested a comm’ channel with the email sender who was based in a laboratory within the Lillypad.

A man dressed in a white scientist’s lab coat answered the phone, smiling on the video-screen as he did so.

‘I wasn’t expecting a call so soon.’

‘Are you seriously linking that hardware to CEOL?’

‘Alison, I can only tell you what my team found out. The drives are still being checked. The lab analysed the barcodes, all the other hardware and it is CEOL hardware. It’s not got the usual “made by CEOL” branding on it, but we can trace the barcode back to their R and D labs and the hardware, it’s the same as any CEOL hardware you can get publicly, except better.’

‘Better?’

‘Better performance. The actual technical specs are higher. It’s a better CPU. And as far as I can tell it is next generation engineering that isn’t available yet. It does have tell-tale components that specifically prove it is CEOL current generation parts, but the whole unit as such is new and improved.’

‘So the Dead stole it?’

‘Or bought it? Maybe, who can say? Blueprints are easy to get hold of.’

‘CEOL blueprints?’

‘Corporate theft is common-place. I get so-called agencies offering me them all the time, all stolen, hacked off databases or physically stolen and reverse-engineered equipment.’

‘And you take them up on it?’

‘I cannot comment on that.’

‘Of course you can’t. So, the Dead are likely to have stolen the equipment?’

‘If it’s a one off, sure, a single component yes, a few of them, yes. If the Dead have armed all of their ships with this hardware then they haven’t stolen it. Following the recent CEOL product releases, following the current production curve, my team reckon that CEOL are not looking to release this for months at the earliest, end of the year maybe. I doubt they have stockpiled the parts; it’s not CEOL’s way. They would rather have huge advertising, an influx of demand and a dearth of stock to feed that demand. That keeps the price high as always, simple marketing. If the Dead have more than a dozen then I would assume that it’s been bought, manufactured via a stolen blueprint, or supplied. Maybe parts stolen, maybe, but it’s not going to be my first guess.’

‘Why would CEOL supply the Dead with hardware? How could they justify it?’

‘Listen, it’s not like they won’t get the parts elsewhere. Do the Dead kill? Of course the Dead kill. Do the parts aid that directly? Hypothetically, the Dead are going to do what they are going to do. Maybe this is just a beta-test for the hardware. Give it to the Dead and see how it functions. You’d have to have a contact with them. Can you see that Georgi Balev having one? He’s slimy but related to killers? I don’t see it. I’d figure it was blueprint theft or a stolen batch of prototypes.’

‘I’d imagine the Dead have stolen them too. It’d make sense that they have their bloodied hands on a few of them, stolen during transit.’

‘The Dead don’t leave the items in one piece. They destroy. They don’t take prisoners nor leave a ship around long enough for them to cherry-pick through the cargo.’

‘It’s a conundrum. Could CEOL have gifted them a few?’

‘Listen, before I go, trust me, it’s got to have been stolen or leaked direct from the R and D department, a single unit or two etc. Your merc’ only provided me with a few, possibly prototypes. That will most likely be the only ones they have. Now, if you find another one of those parts on another Dead ship, taken from a different battle, we will have a whole different problem.’

‘Do you know something, I might just see if my clients need us to look into that. If my contractor is asked to take out any more Dead, then maybe he can take another look.’

‘If the pilot lives that long!’

‘He will. His record is beyond perfect.’

‘Alison, it’s been a pleasure as always but my work in this lab won’t finish itself. I must go now. Goodbye.’

‘Sit down, my dear Angelo. Tell me, have you found any more news?’

‘Not yet, so far, I’m being pulled all over the place and it’s not helping me one bit. What’s this about, Valon?’

‘It’s Benedict to friends.’ Valon replied smiling softly. Angelo da Silva humoured the politician and smiled back weakly.

‘Are we friends now?’

‘Angelo, let’s not get side-tracked. I was made aware that you had visited the Black October region. There is not much there. Well, not much industry there, nor manufactured products there…’

‘It’s a niche-mineral sector. There are Dead there too,’ Angelo interrupted Valon with a cheeky grin.

‘Ill-fated pirates, I now understand?’

‘Yup.’

‘A fight is a fight to you, Angelo. To others, who are not as talented or as brave, the killed Dead is something to celebrate, less of them to kill innocent civilians. I understand that the region is something that CEOL wants to buy. Right now, they haven’t sent out any ships to mine the belts out there. Not directly. So, what claim do they have to that land?’ The politician’s words offered passive scorn yet his face showed calm tranquillity.

‘A burgeoning, cluster of independent, clever mining companies beat them to it. It’s not going to be the Wild, Wild West out there. I will not allow Balev or that Henry Poole to destroy the livelihoods of others. I one hundred percent refuse to back CEOL’s attempts to buy the region licence. Poole wants to make it a bidding war. I want to make it an acceptable fee with a review in place giving favouritism to those who discovered the wealth of the region. CEOL cannot just turn up like some Johnny-come-latelies and demand or buy the licence, allowing Poole to hold people to ransom at the benefit of CEOL,’ Valon added.

‘It’s not a concern for me.’ Angelo looked away from Valon, tired from his day’s travels.

‘Maybe, but it’ps my concern. Sorry, I don’t need much excuse to go ranting and letting off steam about those two fools. Your adventure was successful; you destroyed the Dead ships out there. Do you know why they are there?’

‘No. I assume you know?’

‘I have my personal beliefs. I am curious as to how true they are. They seem interested in protecting the region.’

‘You think that they have a base nearby?’

‘The thought occurred to me, yes. I checked to see the reports on the miners currently plying their trade there. They all pass checks, no red flags. It seems that they are good honest people seeking an advantage in a cruel world.’

‘Maybe the Dead mine there too?’

‘Do they even mine?’

‘All I know is I have taken out four cruisers and they were made of real metal firing real objects. Somebody mined that ore for the ammo and ship. They don’t exactly have cash to buy them, do they?’

‘How do you know that, Angelo?’ Somebody wealthy could be funding them. Some company might seem legitimate when it’s just a terrorist cover company. The world has always had money-launderers and charlatans.’

‘One last thing occurs to me. We have seen a rise in small factions of pirates. What if they are splinter-groups of the Dead? Neon One takes ships down and sells the goods and items off. That funds their agenda. What funds the Dead? What if they are using splinter-groups to fund themselves? They keep the evil and they don’t worry about the Dead becoming less feared.’

‘It’s yet another brilliant theory without evidence. If you can find any, Zylinski and I would be happy to see it. What if Neon One are that splinter group?’

‘I could see it, except Neon One seems too nice. However, if you believe Balev…’

‘I never believe Balev, Angelo.’

‘If you believe Balev, Neon One is attacking CEOL as their number one target. How does that connect them to the Dead? Balev thinks Neon One’s agenda is to piss off Balev. The Dead’s agenda is to piss off everyone.’

‘So you think they are separate?’

‘For now.’

‘Angelo, keep your options open. I just wanted to hear about your battle in Black October. I might need someone to go looking for a Dead base near there. Those ships can’t travel too far and it’s not exactly local to anywhere decent for pirates to refuel and repair ships.’

‘They might, just might, have a carrier ship out there. It’s a theory of mine…’

‘Ah, another one of your theories, you should go into politics. We could do with ideas people on our war on piracy, someone who has at least an idea, a theory!’

‘My theory for the record is that the Dead use a carrier ship or two and are floating about between zones, makes it harder to find them. A single base is another option but limits their attack range. And that range is getting bigger and bigger. They must be expanding to have more bases to refuel or I’m right and they are like gypsies under the stars.’

‘That might suit the Dead. How would we find them?’

‘Bases? Good luck with that one. Hidden on a moon somewhere, an island on an unused planetoid, a corrupt company station? If it’s a roving warship, which costs huge money to build or buy, then it’s going to be hidden in asteroid belts, again landed on a moon or something. Look where you haven’t looked.’

‘That’s a pretty large space to look in.’

‘How do you think I feel? That’s my mission. Zylinski can dumb it down, but he wants a head on a plate, or at least the co-ordinates of the head. Even the plate would do him. Right now, I am following every lead I have, and I have nothing.’

‘You have more than most. My intel on you, if I haven’t over-rated you, I think you’re the man we need. It’s a shame Poole is more concerned with the damn elections than this hunt of yours.’

‘The hunt would win you the election.’

‘A cynic would say that. My election battles are greater than that. For all his wrongs, people still believe in Poole. Why? I don’t know but he shines like a star. He is charming like the Devil.’

‘He’s just a polished turd.’

‘Hmmm, the thing is that he can get himself re-elected. CEOL have enough power to convince their staff that a vote for Poole is in their interests. Propaganda will be his weapon of choice, never under-estimate the power of propaganda.’

‘And your own propaganda is this hunt of mine?’

‘If it was, who wins? Everyone wins; you, me, Zylinski, the people, and CEOL’s pilots. We all win.’

‘So, I’m a pawn in your power-game.’

‘No. You’re a hunter seeking its prey. Anything else is just gravy.’

‘I’m hunting invisible prey.’

‘But you’re the right huntsman. You know how the Dead think. You know how they manoeuvre. Nobody else can find them. I have no doubt about that.’

‘Oh, that helps my mission loads,’ Angelo da Silva replied sarcastically.

‘On another note, Angelo, Zylinski has told me more of the battles we have had with the Dead attacking Faith. The tactics used by them, the bravado, the sheer arrogance and evil. You asked something to Zylinski. Are they adapting? Are they looking for something different? Something more?’

‘They are changing. Yes.’

‘Why attack this station? How does that change their agenda?’

‘How do you know that that wasn’t their long term agenda from the start? Suppose they wanted a home of their own. Forcing their way into Faith would make them a tough target to remove. It’d be a home.’

‘Do they even want a station, with the shops, a parliament, and TV stations?’

‘I’m not them so I don’t know. They do want to cause a lot of chaos. Destroying Faith would be a way to go. If they take it, they can create more ships, more mayhem. And not hide. They are more likely to want to make a statement. “We have destroyed the Faith Space Station. Who’s next?” It’d cause panic. People would leave the region in droves.’

‘Would the CEOL Corporation leave?’ Valon asked with curiosity.

‘Would they need to?’

‘If the threat of terrorism was that high surely Balev would leave the region for safer trade routes? It would threaten his profits to stay.’

‘There wouldn’t be anywhere else for CEOL to go to. I see things different. I’ll need to go get sleep; it’s been a long day for me. I’ll keep you and Zylinski informed. Good luck with Poole,’ Angelo declared standing up.

Several hours passed before Alison Wessex contacted da Silva again. Alison Wessex spoke calmly to Angelo da Silva, her video-screen showing da Silva as he rested aboard his personal ship.

‘My client and I have agreed upon the next stage of your mission. We need you to visit a region, once again within the Black October expanse. This time it’s at a previously unsettled area, titled BCX Mining Fields. Upon arrival there you will need to venture from the jumpgate towards the BCX Mining Fields’ moon. Nearby there are several asteroid fields.’

As Angelo nodded his confirmation, the agent continued. ‘You must scout each asteroid field. Our intelligence reports some unusual activity which we wish to record using remote camera drones. They are not likely to last long out there but we just expect that they last long enough in order to provide confirmation that our intel was correct.’ Angelo da Silva again nodded to show he understood.

‘We have several reasons for this. Firstly, we have to verify our source’s reliability, and secondly, the intel reveals something we believe to be of major concern to my clients.’

‘And what is this activity that has necessitated such espionage?’

‘You will know upon arrival. Our source states that only one belt is in use, the rocks a perfect hiding place. Find that belt and send the drones out. They will do the job for you. You don’t need to wait. The drones will capture and send the video back to us and we can then analyse the situation.’

‘Roger that. Get to asteroid belt, send out drones, and go home. Is there something you need to tell me, because that sounds too simple?’

‘At present no, it should be as simple as you put it.’

‘Anything else I should do, or be told?’

‘No, right now, that’s it. You can start the mission whenever you’re ready. I have asked for Peter Lund’s team to deliver the drones in the next hour. You may be best to use your own ship.’

‘That’s fine. Leave it with me. I’ll travel out tonight.’

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