Ghosts

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Chapter 17 – “Within the Dust Clouds”.

Angelo da Silva walked slowly, contemplatively up the steps towards the VIP floor, taking in the décor as he moved.

Security approached him casually, checked his personal ID and sent him over to the far corner of the floor. A man decked out in a scruffy green hooded top, rested lazily on a white leather couch. A woman to his left, short silver dress leaving little to Angelo’s imagination stood up as the pilot approached. Tanned legs stepping her away, she refused to look at the pilot as she passed him, silver heels soon to be dancing away on the VIP dance floor.

Angelo sat down slowly, refusing to wait for the man to acknowledge him. The man smiled to himself as he watched the military man do so.

‘Angelo, it’s good to see the pilot who has done such good work for us.’ The awkward silence was broken by Angelo da Silva’s host.

‘Is it?’

‘Yes. Drink?’ The man offered up an expensive bottle of spiced rum. Angelo declined, unwilling to let his poor judgment let him down again that night.

‘So you know me. Shouldn’t I know you?’

‘I’m Marco Koivu. Nobody knows me.’

‘Not even that woman over there?’

‘Not even her.’

‘And Alison Wessex, does she not know you?’

‘Angelo, she knows me more than most, and is closer than most.’

‘How do you know her?’

‘On a basic level, I am her client, she provides pilots.’

‘Like me?’

‘Few are like you, but yes.’

‘Who do you work for?’ Angelo asked looking directly at the man.

The reply was instant and instinctive.

‘I work for Neon One,’ the man’s unashamed answer took Angelo da Silva by surprise.

‘You do?’

‘Yes.’

‘Does Alison Wessex know that?’

‘Yes. She too works for Neon One. It’s not really a major issue.’

‘It’s not an issue to you, maybe.’

‘You need to know more about Neon One before you comment, Angelo.’

‘You kill people. What is there to know?’

‘The military and you kill people, how would it differ?’

‘We defend people and kill those in the wrong.’

‘Neon One does not kill. The media stories tell Balev’s lies. You would think different if you knew of his story.’

‘Balev’s story?’

‘Mr da Silva, Balev’s tale is a long one that to him you do not need to know. We only target other pirates and CEOL. And we aim to not kill. It happens, but ships are unstable. We have all heard of one-hit kills. The right shot can doom an unshielded ship.’

‘And Balev?’

‘CEOL deserve what they get.’

‘I have seen a lot of CEOL pilots who would disagree.’

‘The people don’t deserve it, but we fight a war. We look after the survivors.’

‘A war? What war?’

‘I speak of the war between Balev and me.’

‘You are the head of Neon One? And you two are warring factions?’

‘Yes. It’s a long tale I will not tell. We hunt his products down and distribute them to those that need them.’

‘Sounds like piracy and smuggling?’

‘I have a pilot that I would like to take you on a final mission. He will show you what we smuggle, as you phrased it.’

‘Now I know what you are, why would I bother? Why wouldn’t I just call the military in?’

‘You want the Dead.’

‘Do I?’

‘Of course you do. I know about you.’

‘Did Benedict Valon know of Alison Wessex’s ties to Neon One?’

‘Did the shadow Prime Minister know that she and I worked for a suspected terrorist group? What do you think, Angelo?’ Marco Koivu responded. Before Angelo could reply a voice spoke first.

‘I have known Benedict for a long time, Angelo, so the answer is yes,’ the voice spoke confidently, catching Angelo by surprise. He turned around to see the orange dress and Alison Wessex behind him.

‘How long have you been there?’

‘I have been here long enough to know that you should have seen me. I’m surprised you didn’t.’

‘So you and Benedict Valon are connected to Neon One?’ Angelo da Silva said to Wessex.

‘Valon? Are you kidding me? He’d rather shoot himself. It’d kill his political career. And his morals. He is as honourable as a man can be.’

Alison Wessex smiled enthusiastically.

‘So, how do you know him?’

‘I know him now via his need for pilots. Also, politically, the saying “keep your friends close and your enemies even closer,” comes to mind. He turns a blind eye.’

‘Interesting, I’m sure Zylinski would like to know of this connection. Valon has neither mentioned it nor seemed to care if I found anything out about Neon One.’

‘It’s not worth mentioning, he gained little by reporting me, as my involvement is detached, I offer legitimate contracts,’ Alison Wessex said sitting down next to Angelo, keeping his “enemy” closer.

‘Once you do our mission, you will understand more,’ Marco Koivu stated simply.

‘You are curious to see where this goes, aren’t you?’ Wessex challenged.

‘By this, I assume you mean the missions?’ Angelo asked cheekily, withholding a chuckle.

‘Both?’ Alison replied, the turn of conversation confusing Marco Koivu.

‘So, are you in?’ Marco Koivu stated as a gap grew in the conversation.

‘I will delay contacting Zylinski or Valon regarding this, for forty-eight hours. After that I will have no option but to alert Zylinski and let him decide on appropriate actions. That goes for you too, Wessex.’

‘Wessex? Surnames? Surely, we are on better terms that that.’

‘They are always your terms.’

Ignoring the comments, Marco Koivu replied with a simple response.

‘Good man.’

Angelo had a thought. Deciding to raise it he asked the question.

‘Did you do the attacks in the Natione region?’

’No, that is too far away. And, you’d know if it were us, we’d have stayed alive, all of us, ‘cos of our steel,’ Marco Koivu spoke bluntly.

‘So Neon One, what is the big deal?’ Angelo enquired; unconvinced he would get an answer.

‘Listen, we are the bad guys, we are pirates, we are attacking haulers, and in circumstances, the wingmen. Our technology is improving so that we no longer need to cause as much pain or threat to those we attack. The pilots of the freighters we attack, some harm has to be done to the structure of the ship to get the pilot to give in to our will.’ Angelo watched Alison Wessex as she spoke, pushing her silken hair to one side.

‘As I said, we are not trying to harm anyone in the ships, and our new technology is taking us down that route,’ Alison Wessex spoke calmly.

‘Just like beauty and the beast. Yes, we are ugly but our friends, proud people demanding wares, they are beautiful people in need of help in desperate times. It is a sad but romantic story to us, our ideals and morals are sacrificed to help other souls, when our Government have gone missing. We also never aim to kill. Disable engines and guns only,’ Marco Koivu added looking past Angelo into the distance beyond, towards the VIP dance floor in the smoky club.

‘So, you won’t deny your actions?’

‘Deny? What’s there to deny?’ Marco Koivu rolled back confidently.

‘We are Neon One. We make sacrifices for others. You will see that, Angelo,’ Alison Wessex placed a hand on da Silva’s thigh as she spoke. The pilot said nothing.

‘So, how did you know about the shipyard? You knew it was there, didn’t you?’

‘I did. I have amazing technology, and an even better network.’

‘Human or satellite?’

‘Both.’

‘So, your network told you of the shipyard?’

‘And a billion other things - Neon One are bigger than you believe us to be.’

‘If I asked you to tell me how many ships you have, you wouldn’t tell me, would you?’

‘No.’

‘I assumed not. If we needed to raid you we would then know what was required. So, Wessex works for you, Neon One, who don’t kill, and hate Georgi Balev more than Benedict Valon does. Is that all I can know?’

‘Did you want more?’

‘I kind of did, yes.’

‘You can find out more when you meet my pilot, Drake Black. If you are so eager to get this over with in forty-eight hours, we can get you flying under his care whenever you want. I had him take a journey over here this morning. He is ready to go.’

‘I need an hour to report in and pack light.’

’Make it two if you want. Drake isn’t going anywhere without you.

‘I better not regret this.’

‘You better not mention it to Zylinski when you report in, for now at least.’

‘I thought you never kill?’

‘We don’t, normally. I’ve had to make sacrifices before though.’

‘Well, don’t worry yourself. I am not interested in calling in support until I need it. Tell your pilot that I need an hour. Alison can send me his ship ID and I’ll meet him in the docking bays.’ Realising that he wouldn’t get anymore information from the pair, Angelo da Silva stood up and walked back towards the lower floor of the club.

The woman in the orange dress smiled once more a wicked smile.

Drake Black lazed in the chair of the ship, eyes closed. He had spent the last twenty or so minutes taking a hefty power nap, hoping to become more alert for the tough flight ahead of him.

The ship, an old tormented freighter named the Stargazer, had seen better days, and as with all ships that had been lucky to last over twenty years, laser marks had scorched down the steel, rockets and missiles had impacted deep and hard on the metal, leaving craters blemishing the hull. The ship’s survivability throughout the years had always relied on its pilot and its mechanics.
Inside the ship’s cockpit, the steel and leather chairs showed their age; old brown leather cracked and torn, but usable.

With the ship already stripped bare of unnecessary amenities and items, the main furniture was the Copperhead steel plate layers that added reinforcement to the ship’s armour.

Kicking himself out of his slumber, Drake Black, sat upright in the chair, stretched the long drawn-out stretch of a pilot, and then flicked the ship’s command systems online and ran through the routine pre-flight system checks.

A voice echoed inside the ship, emanating from the entrance hatch.

‘Drake Black?’

‘In the cockpit,’ Drake shouted back down the ship, his voice barely audible back at the entrance.

‘The name’s Peter Lund, I oversee the docking bays. Just doing a personal visit,’ Lund announced as he finally found the cockpit.

‘You always do that?’

‘When possible, it’s been a busy period for us, and I’m trying to re-assure a lot of the pilots that the sector is now safe.’

‘What would make you say that?’

‘Commander Zylinski!’ Joked Lund, as he checked his own personal data-device.

‘This ship’s a bit battered. It’s seen a lot of wear and tear over the years,’ Lund enquired politely.

‘Still flies, it’s still fast and sturdy, and it’ll survive.’

‘With that plating, it wouldn’t surprise me.’

‘So, how can I help you?’

‘As I said, I’m just meeting a few pilots, telling you all to fly safe and that we are doing everything we can to ease your troubles.’

‘It’s a tough place out there, but this ship and I are used to it,’ Drake Black replied earnestly.

‘Well good luck out there. You can leave whenever you’re ready. Just do the usual stuff for clearance to leave and you’ll be fine,’ Peter Lund said taking a swift look around the cockpit of the ship whilst he had a chance.

‘Good, I am waiting for an Angelo da Silva to arrive and a few of my own crew. If you see anyone of that name, send them my way!’

‘I’ll be sure to do that! Take care.’

Angelo da Silva strapped himself into the leather passenger seat and awaited the ship to undock. He didn’t have to wait long for the first sirens to sound, signalling the craft’s departure.

‘This won’t be a long flight, a few hours or so.’

‘Where are we off to?’ Angelo da Silva enquired passively checking the ship’s readouts.

‘I’m under orders to not say, sorry Angelo.’

‘I hear that, wouldn’t want the bad military pilot tell anyone that you’re coming, would we?’

‘I’d say that it is not like that... But it is!’ Drake Black replied with humour.

I assume we cannot talk about the cargo we are hauling?’

‘We can; it’s big, heavy, in-demand and something we all need during our life.’

‘I know it all now. Is that all we can say?’

‘It’s Neon One, it’s hot. I don’t deny it. Also, that would tell you nothing you never knew. I’ve been flying steelwork for decades, since I was twelve, mostly for Neon One and the likes. I smuggle, I trade pew-pew shots with those in my way and I get home. I do this for a reason, one you will find out upon our arrival, along with our cargo’s specifics.’

‘That will do. You said that you trade fire? Marco Koivu kinda said different.’

‘And so he should have! Angelo, we try not to firefight. It wastes time, and lives, sometimes our own lives. Get through the barricades and get home. Break through and jump. Return. Repeat and rinse.’

‘That steel plating better work then.’

‘It normally does. You would have figured the ship out as soon as I spoke, “hello”, Angelo?’

‘Your approach to that gate would have been more relaxed if you had made it yesterday. A fleet of Dead took down two military fighters last night. It’s been reinforced with extra bodies, metal bodies.’

‘What? No, Marco would have known.’

‘He thinks you can get through. He trusts you. Military minds learn to trust their support. They have to.’

‘Are we talking carriers?’

‘Like I’d know what they have set up. I’m not privy to that information. I’m not an active officer.’

‘Well, well. I need to consider this.’

‘Listen, for what it’s worth, it can’t be carriers. Your Marco Koivu would never expect you to get past them, nobody could.’

‘Six large heavy fighters are coming into sight.’

‘Looks like Iron Fist heavy fighters. They don’t want people passing without checks,’ Angelo da Silva replied. ‘You can expect fast hits and loads of them.’

‘Do you have any idea how we can get past them?’

‘Normally, I’d say pirates deserve what they get. As I’m on-board… The only answers I can give are turn back or go on.’

‘If we turn away, they are gonna know something is wrong. I might as well just try to get as close before the hits pummel us.’

‘Brave move, I’d consider surrendering now!’ Angelo da Silva joked.

‘I don’t surrender. I’ve been in worse positions. The mail will always find a way through.’

‘You’ve faced Iron Fist heavies before?’

‘Angelo, I’ve faced everything before, I just tend not to ask the pilots what ships they’re using whilst they’re firing at me. Hold fast, we are gonna gradually speed up and then, well, we are going to force our way through before they announce themselves.’

‘You do this every day?’

‘I fly more than once a day sometimes, yes.’

‘I have a new respect for pirates. I know what those ships are packing and it’s gonna start coming in hard and fast. You could always respond and sweet talk them through the checks?’

‘We cannot provide the response they seek with the cargo we ship. The tech they have can disprove our responses that fast.’

The incoming ID check communications were delayed in arriving. When they did arrive the ship had passed the first fighter.

‘We are two-hundred kilometres from the jump. Angelo, can you communicate with the military. Maybe, get us past them without fire?’

The ship rocked sideways as a rocket impacted into the stern.

‘Not lucky enough. That’s the warning shot.’

‘They will target the boosters. Don’t let them.’

‘I won’t have a choice. I’m just gonna run it as they gun it.’

‘That was the last warning. Everything this point onwards will be to take us down.’

Further rocket fire pounded the shields taking them down half-strength as the fighters targeted the ship. Several nearby haulers whose ID checked out attempted to take a wide berth of the firefight. Drake Black sent his ship their way, steering the vessel hard left almost doing a ninety degree turn. The shields dropped completely just as the civilian crafts moved into the path of the Military Iron Fists and Drake.

Withholding fire, the Iron Fist leader demanded the civilian crafts move out of the way. Confused and fearful, the disorganised civilians moved initially like fish out of water, giving Drake’s ship shields just enough time to reactivate before the Iron Fist ships sent their personal welcome out once more.

The shields soon dropped once again as the line of sight cleared. The armour followed, the beating it took more than enough to break through the additional steel plating, causing hull damage.
Drake barely blinked as the alarms kicked in. “We’ll make it,” he thought privately.

‘We’ll make it,’ he decided to say out aloud as further rockets slammed home.

‘Have you got repair drones to send out?’

‘Nope.’

‘Are you joking?’

‘I have never needed them. We normally don’t need them for this type of job,’ Drake replied bluntly, barrel-rolling his ship right then banking it.

‘How do you figure that?’ Angelo calmly asked, surprised at Drake’s response.

‘We’re still alive, aren’t we?’

‘Punch in the gate codes, we’re set to go universal!’ Drake ordered quickly. A glance at the hull strength told the tale of the battle.

“Twenty five percent hull left. We’re critical. Jump you bastard, jump!” he thought trying to hide his fear of death.

“Twenty percent hull…Ten kilometres,” Drake thought again before screaming out,

‘Activate the gate, Angelo!’

‘I’ve already done it,’ da Silva replied once more as calm as ever.

The last rocket slammed home taking a further chunk of cosmetic damage off the hauler just prior to the jumpgate activating.

The gate took hold of the freighter and blasted it forwards through the gate’s elongated framework. The speed sent the ship hurtling forwards out of further harm’s reach to the usually unprotected next gate within the network.

‘We are safe now,’ Drake grinned still anxious.

‘What about them?’ Angelo spoke strikingly looking at the radar.

A panic hit Drake Black as he turned to look down at the screen to see an empty solar system. A further glance back at Angelo da Silva hinted of a naughty smile waiting to blossom.

‘Did you just smile then?’

‘I rarely smile,’ replied da Silva keeping a mischievous straight face.

‘That doesn’t answer my question.’

Angelo da Silva burst out laughing sending an infectious laugh out to his company.
Drake Black turned his attention to his ship’s comm’ system. Trying not to laugh a relieved laugh, he spoke with a chirpy smile.

‘You will be glad to know that we have pushed through the gate. Our destination is now clear and we will arrive in three hours. Thank the Gods the MP’s don’t guard both gate’s. As for the ship, don’t ask and I won’t tell. Just get repairing what I send over once the analysis systems verify the damage.’

‘How are the repairs going?’ Angelo da Silva spoke, awaking from a quick sleep.

‘Awake are we? We are lucky to be alive I guess but the interior is looking better. We will make it.’

‘Do you know if there are any pirates or military forces in our way?’ da Silva asked with curiosity.

‘No military where we are heading. And pirates roam wherever they feel like.’

‘Is that what you do? Roam?’

‘We, Neon One, have an organised structure. We are not just bandits following ships like lost puppies chasing scraps of bread. We go where the strategy decides.’

‘Whose strategy do you follow?’

‘Junior Willenhall normally, but over-all, well, you have met the man.’

‘The mysterious Marco Koivu?’

‘Yes, and trust me he is as mysterious to Junior Willenhall and I as he is to you.’

‘And Alison Wessex? Where does she fit in to this structure?’

‘She looks pretty, talks educated and hires legit pilots to do the things we need done legit. We cannot always get past the military with goods. Sometimes, we need those with good standings to get docked up. Not everything we buy or sell is illegally obtained. We have people to feed, stations to run and research projects constantly on the go.’

‘I’d ask about the research but that’s need to know, right?’

‘Not even I know what Marco is planning?’

‘Planning, Drake?’

‘Planning makes it sound so devious and evil.’

‘You are deemed terrorists,’ jested Angelo da Silva.

‘I suppose, anyway I don’t know what he plans, short-term, long-term. I just send ships to docking bays.’

‘Pretty well I see. You piloted perfect earlier on. This Alison Wessex, is she directly Neon One? How has that escaped the military?’

‘She does no wrong. She isn’t flying ships, nor hiring people who explode good people’s ships. She isn’t money-laundering, nothing like that. There is little to arrest her for. If we hadn’t told you about her, nobody would know her ties to us. And her ties to Marco Koivu go way back.’

‘I find her intriguing. She plays innocent and professional.’

‘It’s all play.’

‘I figured that. A shrewd woman that one, and trusting her seems like hard work.’

‘You can trust her. You can trust Neon One.’

‘Can I trust Koivu?’

‘Angelo, you’d need to ask someone who knows him better.’

‘Like Alison Wessex?’

‘If you get to know her better, maybe.’

‘Would I want to?’

‘Only you can decide on whom to trust,’ Drake Black spoke softly, clicking a few buttons on his control system.

‘I assume Marco Koivu keeps his nose clean and does nothing himself?’

‘I wouldn’t say that. Rumours are that he has a record as long as this ship. But, rumours are always shrouded in murkiness! He isn’t short of ways to get past security when needed. What he does, he does for Neon One, and what we do isn’t all planned evil.’

Drake sent the ship off towards a station that was slowly looming larger in the cockpit window.

‘We are almost there, Angelo.’

‘So, I will soon find out what evils you ship.’

‘I suppose so. It will be a let-down for you.’

‘I’m hoping so, Drake Black. I and Zylinski are both hoping so!’

‘This is a medical centre?’ da Silva added upon analysing the station records.

‘Yes,’ Drake Black replied casually.

‘So, the goods we are dropping off are…?’

‘Medicine.’

‘That’s not deliciously evil.’

‘Far from it, Angelo.’

‘I don’t get it. What are you getting out of this?’

‘We get paid a modest fee to cover costs.’

‘But that is not illegal.’

‘The hospital and others like it are under-funded. Some of them are over-crowded and over-looked, especially ones like this that are out of Halcyon’s political range and therefore not funded by the Government. The independent traders, miners, colonists near here need this hospital, so it’s run by a charity.’

‘What charity?’

‘Neon One.’

‘Neon One is a pirate group, terrorists.’

‘If you ask Poole then yes. It all depends on who you ask.’ The blank look on Angelo da Silva’s face made Drake Black consider what he told the military man.

‘We don’t do evil. This hospital would close without supplies. We steal off CEOL and supply here and there. When we get cargo-scanned the military take aim at us, so we run. We wouldn’t have to if CEOL lowered prices or the Government aided us. We do what we have to do, like Devil’s advocates. When the Dead come calling who looks after the survivors? You? Zylinski? Poole? Valon? Balev?’

‘Marco Koivu?’ asked da Silva nonchalantly.

‘Junior Willenhall does. Marco Koivu runs Neon One, as in the terrorist element of Neon One.’

‘So, you admit you do have the evil intent?’

‘Someone has to get their hands dirty. He is a gardener; he plays with manure so that things can grow.’

‘A nice analogy. Would Balev like it?’

‘Balev doesn’t care about his own people. He wants power. He is already rich; he just wants more and more control of Halcyon.’

‘He won’t get it.’

‘He thinks he will. Koivu arranges for the goods to be gained. He will come across items that he can sell on, some things that are not charitable.’

‘So, Neon One just attacks CEOL? Why?’

‘Angelo, you’d have to ask Marco. He knows Balev well and dislikes him.’

‘Balev’s hard to like. How does he know him?’

‘Mysterious Marco Koivu, remember? I have no idea, Angelo. Ask Alison Wessex, she might know.’

‘I might have to do that. You said that you come across items that Marco Koivu can sell on, like technology or hardware?’

‘Of course; CEOL make a huge range of items, hundreds, even thousands of items. We get haulers with intermediary items, like chipsets, or minerals, metal, etc., and we get finished products like medicine, household goods, weaponry, ship components, all sorts of junk and diamonds in the rough. We sell what we don’t use. We also manufacture our own items, so ingredients, minerals and steel come in nice and handy.’

‘Just a thought, you said that you come upon hardware or technology of CEOL’s and you sell it. The Dead had unreleased CEOL hardware on their ships. That Neon One statement you issued, it was me that opened up that can of worms for Alison Wessex.’

‘I didn’t know about Alison Wessex and any missions you did. I know you did some but I know no more. Junior just said I need to collect a man, bring him over and make a political point of showing what we do. Wait, are you insinuating that we released the items to the Dead and blamed CEOL?’

‘Not you, but Marco Koivu the mysterious. If he has an issue with Balev, it’s one way to make people hate Balev.’

‘The loss of life... He wouldn’t.’

‘You said it yourself; he gets his hands dirty so others don’t have to. He doesn’t seem too daunted by Neon One’s actions, nor repentant.’

‘What’s to repent? We do good.’

‘You do good, Drake Black. But what drives him and to what lengths will he go to reach his goal?’

‘I can’t believe you’d think he would sell the Dead weaponry and technology that would make them kill more innocents.’

‘I have only just met the man. Remember, I act on behalf of the military. I have to think like that, and ask the question.’

Drake Black shook his head.

‘I understand what you are saying but, wow… I just can’t agree.’

‘I pray that you’re right. Charity or terrorists, either you or Balev is right. There is no grey area with this one.’

Balev sat cross-legged evaluating how to discuss his thoughts with Henry Poole.

‘How is the election going?’

‘Good, good,’ the reply from Poole showed little confidence.

‘Honestly?’

‘Georgi, what do you want me to say?’

‘That it is bad? Honesty is the best policy.’

‘Okay then, it is going bad.’

‘Politics; who’d want a part in that drama?’

‘I do, I suppose. It’s those damn protests. The miners are killing me off. Slowly but surely, these elections are getting harder to fight for. Bloody Valon just has to side with them and shout about his bloody tax plans and people seem to side with him.’

‘Fight fire with fire.’

‘How? Agree to his tax? You would love that! How am I supposed to stop the Dead, Neon One and all those damned sods without funding? I can’t just shift the budget about. It is not that simple.’

‘Why not?’

‘Why not? Where do I cut funds from?’

‘Education, transport, anywhere.’

‘Do you think that I’ve not looked at it? The budgets are as tight as you are! We cannot spare anything else. A tax raise makes sense.’

‘At our expense!’ Balev said negatively.

‘Not always. There may be others to tax or amendments to current taxes.’

‘Good man, the people of course need CEOL and our products.’

‘It is do or die time for this party. If we don’t spin this we might as well as admit defeat. I need some way to make Benedict Valon look like a liar or a fool. People need to stop trusting him.’

‘Trust is only given by fools. You seek the enlightened; they are the key factor, those sitting on the fence, those who may say “Valon” but will be persuaded with knowledge. The lemmings have already jumped off the cliff, Henry.’

‘Those I seek are as hard to find as the Dead.’

‘Are the Dead hard to find?’

‘I assume they are, Georgi.’

‘Tell me, how many staff have you lost?’

‘To this investigation? This misunderstanding has cost me at least ten now. Nobody too major, one or two I will miss, the rest are just faces, background noise.’

‘They were positive energy, none-the-less.’

‘Of course, but we can replace people. The trust, the votes, they are the loss. Valon knew what he was doing supporting this campaign against alleged corruption.’

‘He has done well from it, hasn’t he?’

‘He’s no better. They are no better. We are the guilty but it’s all original sin. I shall push on.’

‘And contracts will still change hands?’

‘Of course, even if they win, it will still happen. The greed itself is the sole arbiter of who is guilty, not the people, nor Valon. Flash the cash and all people dash.’

‘That they do, Henry. We still have cash to flash ourselves, which will not change.’

‘The cash is there even if we are forced to curb investigations into unknown regions, if our exploring has to stop?’

‘If we fund excursions we would not be willing to pay for the contracts. You know that, Henry. We should not pay extra for our own funded, hard work. And we won’t pay extra. Even Valon knows that. It’d be a free-for-all like Earth’s Gold-rush era. The strongest would kill all. We would have to defend territory, it’d be a war.’

‘And if it happens?’

‘We are preparing for that.’

‘How so, Georgi?’

‘I cannot say. Will you let it happen?’

‘Of course not. It would lead to mercenary rule. The pirates would own the land. Paid killers for hire would blossom. I can’t allow that.’

‘Ethically?’

‘If I was in power, Georgi, I’d look a joke.’

‘If you were not in power?’

‘I couldn’t make that decision, so it’s a moot point, my friend.’

‘Power is everything in life, isn’t it?’

‘Some would disagree, Georgi.’

‘Henry, those that disagree will never have the power.’

‘And Neon One, would they disagree?’

‘They have power.’

‘And you want that power taken off them?’

‘Of course.’

‘And, Georgi, who would you like it given to, yourself?’

‘Yes, I want their power.’

‘How would that work?’

‘In my favour, of course. I would make more and become richer. I could pay for more contracts and control more sectors. And I could make CEOL larger, greater.’

Henry Poole gave this some thought.

‘I suppose you would employ more people, giving strength to the economy.’

‘Neon One takes away that strength. They do nothing positive out there.’

‘They are pirates after all.’

‘You must win the election, Poole. It is for the people’s sake.’

‘Your people?’

‘I employ a vast amount. They are waiting for the election. They know who CEOL support.’

‘If they vote for us, we can have a good chance to win.’

‘If they don’t vote for you their jobs are on the line. I cannot afford for Valon to win and I cannot stomach my people making it happen.’

The room went quiet. Georgi eventually broke the silence, rising out of his executive chair.

‘Henry, can I get you another brandy?’

‘Amir, what quotes do we have so far?’ Lynette de Cesare requested, looking concerned at a news story she had written.

‘We have a couple from Prime Minister Poole,’ Amir Rai replied back keenly.

‘Did he say anything of interest?’

‘I guess so. It may be worth using, it shows his anger, his mood-swings.’

‘And that is good because?’ questioned Lynette de Cesare casually.

‘It’s news?’

‘How often can we keep saying we have protests, and Poole is defensive and angry? We could do with a whole lot more than that. I want something controversial.’

‘From Poole?’

‘Yes, from Poole.’

‘He’s too clever, too slippery to say foolish stuff.’

‘After all of his political years, he may seem that way but he is not. Look between the lines.’

‘You mean twist his words, Lynette?’

‘No, his words are already twisted. So, what has upset him this time?’

‘What hasn’t? He basically, just went on the offensive denouncing the shadow Government of not being trustworthy…’

‘Coming from a scandal-hit party, that’s funny!’

‘Yes, and he has called for the election to be fought on principles and facts, most of all on promises that can be backed up.’

‘I bet he did.’

‘He did make some sense in saying that the Anti-Piracy tax would be unsustainable and would cause small mining companies, haulage firms and security firms to go bankrupt, all at the expense of the Government, accusing Zylinski and Benedict Valon to “admit their collusion, to admit that this is all being done for military benefit”. It was a bold statement.’

‘For military benefit? What does he mean…? And no, I know what he means. I refer to the whole accusation. If he cannot substantiate it, he is heading into dangerous ground.’

‘Lynette, how can he not back it up? Common sense would tell us that having more ships benefits the military.’

‘Yes, but Poole is disagreeing against the notion that to increase the military might, the people need to pay for that military might. And he is right, but it’s a catch-twenty-two situation. Who else will pay? It’s a tax, after all. He is ridiculing the tax and Valon, however to say that Valon and Zylinski are in collusion together to get more ships is just silly.’

‘To a degree, it’s true.’

‘In full, it’s true, but Zylinski needs ships to protect the people. Poole isn’t paying for them out of his own pocket. He is just saying “keep fighting because nothing else can and should be done to help”; he hasn’t offered anything to believe that his party will do anything. No alternative taxes, nothing. At least, Valon is offering an option,’ Lynette de Cesare responded dourly.

‘What Poole said today was that Valon’s tax is a false dawn, an option that even if it were to come to fruition, which is unlikely, would not change the balance of play in the war. It is change for change’s sake. He did argue that the extra ships would do nothing in the more dangerous zones, that all Zylinski’s new ships would do is protect the already protected, offering up the attack on the Faith Space Station as an example of where the new might be based and how little it is needed in comparison to the stations that we have seen torn apart by the pirate factions out there. Is he wrong? Politically, probably not, some might see his rant as truth in its purest form,’ Amir offered the words up, playing Devil’s advocate.

‘Damn politics.’

‘Would you vote for Poole?’

‘Amir, I wouldn’t want to vote for either party but Poole is not my favourite. Poole is fighting back though. This might not be as closed an election as Valon believes. Once the scandal blows over, and it might be soon if Poole works his magic, he will have a fighting chance. Some people fear change and will vote against it, against Valon, against his proposals, and most of all, those directly affected by the tax might suddenly have a change of heart.’

‘You mean CEOL’s argument of the bigger companies may need to let staff go to fund taxes?’ responded Amir.

‘Yes. Georgi Balev and his doom-bringers may turn out to be wise prophets of doom and with their words they might turn out to be powerful game-changers.’

‘Those damn big corporations!’

‘Remember that you work for one of those damn big corps’, Amir. Regardless of Poole’s statement on the promises of Benedict Valon and the execution of that tax, and considering that Valon and his tax might present itself to be ill-fated, what else is on the table? A starving man will eat a rat rather than starve to death.’

Commander Zylinski looked out of his office window at the sight of ships floating slowly down towards the docking bays. The curved glass office window contoured around the studiously decorated office.

The Commander heaved out a deep sigh as a star caught his attention, bright and demanding attention. Zylinski stared transfixed by the star, seemingly frozen in time.

A knock at the door interrupted the Commander’s thoughts, shaking him back to current times.

A gravelly voice spoke, tiredness dragging the words out.

‘Commander Zylinski, you wanted to see me in person?’

‘Angelo, come in. We need to discuss your emails.’

Angelo da Silva took a slouched seat on the sofa, lazing back into the seating.

‘Tell me what happened in the club? What did the contact have to say?’

‘He said everything that I put in the email, basically. We can now say that Alison Wessex, that darn agent of Valon’s, is connected heavily to Neon One. I met someone advising he directly is in charge of running the group, a Marco Koivu. How much truth I have been told is, between you and me, something we can only guess at. I’d take it all with a pinch of salt. They could be manipulating me to get the military on their side.’

Zylinski considered the comments.

‘I won’t be easy to fool. I’m as naturally distrusting as are you,’ the Commander replied firmly.

Angelo watched the older man, turn to face the star-lit window.

‘Taking that we are distrusting soldiers, trained to analyse first before deciding, I want you to know that, although I would not trust the pretty smile of Wessex and the contact, Marco Koivu, as far as I could throw them, I spoke to a pilot, Drake Black, who seemed as genuine as people come.’

‘What do we know about Wessex and this Koivu?’

‘He’s a tricky bloke, doesn’t say much, and seemed moody, grouchy and keen to keep out of the limelight. He seemed cocky enough, despite all of that, like he knows more than he lets on, a General in a battle that knows where the end game is heading.’

‘He’s a pirate, Neon One are pirates, and we need to consider that as the most important fact. We cannot assume any less, despite the latter part of your email, and that Drake Black bloke you spoke of.’

‘I have met a lot of people, and a lot of pirates, and I’ve seen those that think they are doing what is right, even though it is wrong.’

‘There are those who are blinkered - and then there are those that are brainwashed.’

‘With the Devil’s Militia some of them had Stockholm Syndrome. There were points during my investigation that I too felt like I could see their argument, see why they fought.’

‘They were evil killers.’

‘And that is why Stockholm syndrome is so scary. Wessex, tried to seduce me in the club, prior to meeting up with Marco Koivu.’

‘Did it work?’ Zylinski kept a professional demeanour as he asked the question confusing Angelo da Silva.

Deciding that the question had to have been asked out of professional curiosity, Angelo replied positively.

‘Not much. She is persuasive. Do you think she might have been trying to distract me, prior to meeting up with the Neon One bloke?’

‘It’s hard for me to know. I wouldn’t put it past a pirate faction to try to lure you to their side. I’m not sure what good they would think it would do them.’

‘I cannot decide myself. I was there, yet I still found her interest genuine. Maybe, she was using a double-edged sword, hooking me in, whilst knowing it would distract me?’

‘From what we know of those two, which is not much, I am not too sure. Anybody who knows you, Angelo, would understand that it would fail as a distraction. You would become too wary, putting your back against the wall. They will be too clever for that. They’d know it would make you suspicious. I’d have to say that she was just genuinely intrigued by you.’

‘That would make her even more dangerous.’ The grimace from Angelo da Silva lightened Zylinski’s mood.

‘Really? Is she that bad looking?’ Zylinski joked back.

‘Not at all.’

‘Ah, there’s the rub. You like her?’

‘Sir, I’m professional. Liking her or not, it cannot lead anywhere. Any involvement would compromise my ethics, and my mission. She is a pirate.’

‘A dangerous femme fatale?’

‘I am presuming so.’

‘Best move is to avoid her, Angelo. For now.’

‘For now?’

‘We know we have an inside connection to Neon One.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘It’s an option. Besides that, what you emailed about Wessex and Koivu declaring Neon One as a good cause doing bad things for that good cause, how true do you think that is?’

‘Only God knows. I really don’t trust Marco Koivu.’

‘Nor Alison Wessex apparently,’ teased Zylinski, letting off some steam at da Silva’s expense.

‘That bloke has another agenda, what it is, I don’t know. Nobody is that casual about their piracy without a reason.’

‘He could just see his methods as part of the means to an end, a good end for the people.’

‘His people or just people in the sector?’

‘He may see them as one and the same. It sounds like he thinks he is doing right.’

‘By doing wrong? I refuse to trust him.’

‘This mission, you said you blitzed a blockade, ran for the gate and successfully jumped. Once clear, you made it to a hospital to drop off your illegal wares, stolen medicine, and repair the ship.’

‘We didn’t repair the ship, we left it there to be repaired and got a second craft, faster, lighter and with legit ID, back. They had prepared that much for my benefit, I think. It got me home quick.’

‘What if the, soon to be, repaired ship was there to export other illegal goods back, such as drugs or something?’

‘It’s an option I had not considered. The pilot they used, Drake Black, was genuine, He was likable, talkative and most of all seemed honest. I would trust him.’

‘Why, Angelo?’

‘I can’t say why, Commander. Gut instinct?’

‘Ok, so you trust one of them. Doesn’t change who they are and what they have done?’

‘I know. It’s not the pilots I doubt. It is Marco Koivu and Wessex. I was also told directly by Marco Koivu that he does the dirty work. The pilot may be innocent enough, other than smuggling stolen wares, but it does not mean for a minute that Neon One is guiltless. Balev thinks they are as bad as the Dead.’

‘After the meeting with them, do you agree with Balev, Angelo? Honestly?’

‘To be truthful, I don’t know. The methods of the Dead are so obvious and in your face, they are evil, we can see that. Neon One seems to be more strategic, organised, and this strange fellow is running it with a hidden agenda and a drive that is disconcerting.’

‘I had a brief meeting with someone of that name and your description sounds exactly like the man I met within the docking bays. At the time, I knew he was more than he pretended but I never expected this. I might contact Wessex directly. I’d like to meet with him.’

‘It wouldn’t do you any good. He will see you as the enemy.’

‘Why?’

‘I’d believe that it’s because we assume that he is our enemy?’

‘And this talk backs that up. I might try though. All he can do is say “no”. It’s worth asking the question.’

‘At least try, Commander.’

‘Is there anything else we should know, Angelo?’

‘Other than Neon One saying they are never looking to kill? Not much.’

‘Balev disagrees with that one.’

‘Yes, I know. There was a thinly veiled threat that Neon One’s new technology means they won’t need to kill or fire at ships. Not sure if it was meant as a threat or a boast but the people will see it as a threat. I wasn’t told anything else. I never asked as I knew they wouldn’t tell,’ warned da Silva indifferently, seeing a similar reaction on the Commander’s face.

‘If the Dead, Neon One and all the bloody rest of them all stopped firing, and found an alternative method to their ends the universe would be a much better place. I heard news of technology that may well prove their statement. Hostages or no hostages, it’d save people the fear of imminent death from their ships’ exploding.’

‘I may need to speak to Balev. I doubt he will talk. What else then, Commander?’

‘We wait, Angelo da Silva. We wait. Let’s see if Neon One wants to talk to either you or even better, myself. We are closing in on answers but the information on the Dead we are seeking is still out there and looking to be found. Away you go, Angelo. Good day.’

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