Ghosts

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Chapter 20 – “Bring me back to life”.

White metal shone under the shine of the nearest stars. The hauler, two hundred feet long, gleamed fresh and new, its pristine-white paintwork divided by three fine red lines curving along the frame from front to back. The words, “Edwards Haulage” were stencilled on the side of the ship in red block capitals.

The proudly-owned, well looked after ship drifted through the sparse system, having successfully collected ore earlier on from a contracted supplier, a small independent mining company named The Core Elements.

With a bay of cargo containers piled high with the unrefined ores, the craft travelled contentedly throughout its path. Within hours the hauler had reached its first jumpgate on its course to its destination, an industrial plant three jumps away.

The hauler’s face froze immediately as three unknown ships approached, ghosting towards him. Trying to stay calm, the pilot continued on his journey, tales grim and dark scarring his thoughts. His fears returned when the war cry was issued.

The request for help was sent immediately, a desperate plea from a desperate man; little response was received, only a face appearing on his comm’ screen repeating the evil greeting of an evil mind.

A missile blasted into the front of the ship, its brethren missing the ship and looping around and back at the target. The time-gap was just enough to help the shields return to normal before six more blasts rocked the ship as the missiles landed. The shields dropped heavily to halfway, leaving the pilot feeling fretfully ill, sick forming in his throat.

With sincerity the man pleaded several times for his life, all communications ignored by his huntsmen. Lasers buckled the hull of the ship, as they targeted the ship’s engines. It wasn’t long before the engines were disabled, the ship sealed in its fate. The pilot said a final prayer to his God, a tear rolling softly, slowly down his left cheek.

Heart of Oak hummed softly, data streams showing a detailed map of the local system. Marco Koivu rolled his finger across the screen showing an analysis of the asteroid belt. With precision he dragged the asteroid belt’s name down to a panel at the bottom of his holo-screen. A video-feed from a drone showed itself with immediacy. The man watched the footage, as the camera closed in on the vision of ships, each ship was itemised with detailed statistics.

The voice of Angelo da Silva talked over the footage; however the sound was soon muted in favour of Koivu’s own thoughts.

As the camera spun around the brilliant glare of the sun drenched the view, temporarily blinding the footage to sight. Seconds later, the return of sight revealed a particular shipyard, and its half-complete battleship. Marco Koivu watched on, calm and quiet, as the drone had eagerly recorded its findings.

With a jingle from the command-control system, the radar alerted the man of an incoming message. Half-tempted to ignore it, Marco Koivu paused, before considering that as it was an emergency signal it deserved his attention, if only for a second.

He walked over to the comm’ system and opened up the message.

‘Help me, please, someone help me! I am being attacked by the Dead… They are not responding… Help! I’m just in a hauler for God’s sake. I don’t want to die at their hands. Please…’ The message, disjointed and broken played instantly on Marco Koivu’s mind.

Marco looked at the star chart connected to the message and shook his head. Pausing for thought he looked down at his feet for several seconds, his right hand rubbing at his tense forehead, a migraine building up, its aura not yet revealed.

Walking back to the drone video footage, the man stopped the playback, turned away, opened up a communication stream and spoke as he walked through his ship.

‘Do it.’

The call ended swiftly, and the man looked up at the ship in front of him. Cursed menaced in the darkness. Lights turned on automatically within the room upon Marco entering. On his Holo-screen, he set about flicking a panel of buttons into the “on” position, and Heart of Oak prepared for Cursed’s exit.

Boarding Cursed and moving to the cockpit, Marco Koivu was soon strapped in with anti-grav’ holds, standing up in the middle of the cockpit, holo-screens surrounding him.
Cursed dropped downwards, ejected with gentleness out of Heart of Oak, lights a blur on its way down.

Boosters kicked into life sending Cursed forwards, soon reaching its top speed, blitzing out of the asteroid field leaving Heart of Oak behind, silent, stationary within the rocks, its cloak ready to activate.

The words, “Edwards Haulage” had been scarred deeply by the impact of another missile, the red text barely recognisable. The hauler waited, lost, sealed in its fate. The pilot, looked at a picture of his wife and kids, knowing he would never see them again, lost years breaking his heart further.

The pilot blinked back further tears as another thump pounded the steel. He had stopped looking at his shield levels, past caring about the armour damage. His thoughts had moved towards his loved ones, those he knew could never avenge the events, would never receive his body for burial, for a final moment of grieved closure.

His scruffy white hair showed age, a spiky beard hinted of a life alone hauling goods to and fro, the need for social smartness foregone for weeks alone in space, time that could never be given back to his family; his children who felt as if they had been fatherless for weeks, sometimes months, the man knew would soon be fatherless for ever-more.

The three Dead ships orbited around him, taunting and teasing the man’s soul. Knowing the fear, the sadness he would be suffering they deliberately delayed killing him, sending enough blows over to knock out his shields but not the one last shot to end it all. Shields reactivated, died, reactivated. Taunting, threatening, yet content to allow the hauler’s shields to rise, knowing the ship could not go anywhere with its engines incapacitated and its hull terminally damaged.

The man waited, as patient a man as there ever was, past caring. Minutes of the man’s life passed by, his moments spent staring into the confines of the ship, or at the numerous pictures in his cockpit that surrounded the dashboard. The numbness of his soul empty, his heart no longer beating fast - just slow, slow seemingly simultaneously arriving at the same instance as the rapping missiles echoing within the ship, the Dead amusing themselves with evil intentions.

As the pilot sat quiet, another tear drifted off his chin and landed onto the old jeans he wore, merging with the oil and food stains of a life spent in his own solitary travel confinement.
A laugh unheard in the hauler was communicated amongst the Dead, a declaration that their fun rested elsewhere. A single missile ripped out of a Dead missile launcher.

As the missile closed in, the Dead saw for the first time the mechanics of a ship uncloaking under the stars. Dark steel, sleek, as mean as it was sturdy, consumed their gaze, the tight, sharp, perfect edges a vision of architecture in itself. The missile slammed down into the unknown ship, the unintended target, blocking the missile’s path to its planned victim.

As the missile exploded, no words were said, just silence communicated between the Dead and the new guest as Cursed slammed itself intentionally into one of the Dead obliterating the shield of the Dead vessel.

Marco Koivu checked his own shield as his controlled anger raged. He targeted the shield-less Dead vessel, barrel-rolling Cursed to get a lock on the Dead’s hull. The Dead ship realising it was now in for a true fight, swung the hips of the ship around trying to avoid being targeted, his colleagues chasing after Cursed, which was uncaring of any locks on itself.

The locks all found their moment, and attached themselves. Two Dead ships launched their missiles, brown bodies with bright yellow tips, at Cursed. The missiles pounded home, barely affecting the vessel’s shield balance. A smile hit Marco Koivu’s face.

‘Best you got?’ Koivu communicated outwards causing a rage amongst the Dead.

Aboard the hauler, the pilot abruptly looked up from his desolation, aware suddenly of no further missiles hitting his ship. With optimism he dreamt the Dead had left, with sorrow, he considered he may already have died. He looked at his radar. He looked at his command systems, aware now of Cursed’s incursion.

Cursed’s lasers tore through the armour of the targeted Dead ship, its shields given no time to recover. For all the spinning and aerial ballet, the ship was permanently locked, unable to unjam the target-painter that Marco Koivu had employed.

Marco Koivu closed in on the Dead, the speed of Cursed far superior. At close-range a torpedo spun out of the vessel, allowing just enough time for Marco Koivu to turn his craft to the left, veering away from the explosion. There was little time given for the two remaining Dead to react as Cursed began targeting them in anger. They failed to escape the lock as Cursed approached them from the side.

More torpedoes propelled outwards, booming into a Dead ship obliterating the shields, followed up by blue and purple-hued laser fire that ripped straight through the cockpit glass of the Dead. Unable to escape its ill-fortune, the ship succumbed to its death, leaving a lone Dead craft.
Marco approached the ship knowing it would attempt to flee. More grey-steel coloured torpedoes, barrels twisting round the shell, were sent out, more blue and purple laser fire beamed outwards bolting towards the final Dead vessel.

Determined to make its escape, the ship tried everything to avoid the laser fire as it moved away towards the gate that was unseen and too distant a journey.

Marco Koivu counted to three as the final Dead exploded as two final torpedoes condemned it to its fate, hitting it from either flank.

Aboard the hauler, the pilot frantically checked his shields as they slowly activated back to life at five percent capacity. His ship’s warning lights blinked frantically the words “Hull Critical” as a red warning light continued flashing above him. Both warnings formed a sight the man had stopped focussing on ten minutes ago once the hull strength had reached a low of fifteen percent. To him it had seemed like hours. Emotions ravaged him, an optimism enveloping around him.

Aboard Cursed, Marco Koivu studied the hauler’s damage. Seeing that it had no engines and was in serious trouble of hull breach should its shield not activate to full before any further trouble occurred Marco made a decision.

Out of Cursed’s drone bay a fleet of repair drones journeyed over to the hauler, started to analyse the ship’s damage and organized the repair jobs from critical work downwards. As they did so, ship debris from one of the Dead slowly bounced into the hauler, blipping the shields down from five percent to two percent, rising back up to three. The Hauler pilot blinked damp eyes as he watched the ship’s status change slowly.

‘Hey, you got a name?’ Marco Koivu communicated over.

The man gulped, his eyes showing a thank you that words could not.

‘Alex. I’m Alex.’

‘You got a family, Alex?’

The man turned and looked at the pictures on his desktop. Looking back at the comm’ screen, the man was unable to answer, a tear forming once more. Welling up, he just nodded.

‘Let’s get you home.’

Halcyon’s water rolled casually back and forth lapping at the lower walls of the Lillypad’s floating surface. The hotel shone diligently under the warm sun, its tropical beams beating down with graceful warmth.

Marco Koivu crossed over the Lillypad’s bridge towards the hotel. Wearing just a black vest and black jeans his appearance clashed with those around him, all dressed formal, smart and clad in designer clothes.

The man entered the richly decorated hotel, its marble floor, bejewelled with shimmering stones, reflecting the lights. The air conditioned reception area offered a perfect respite from the heat outside, sweat glistening on those who had only just entered.

Marco Koivu ignored the receptionists, turned towards the lifts and entered one. The lift operator sent the busy lift up the floors, eventually reaching the upmost level of the hotel, the palatial suites. Vacating the lift, Marco Koivu smiled charmingly at the operator, walked slowly off towards the room he wanted, the hotel’s most important presidential suite, a night’s stay valued at several thousand pounds.

Two security guards stood outside. Black suits, shirts and ties, hid strong, muscled torsos, highly trained to protect their objective. Marco Koivu confronted them, words the least of his thoughts.

Before the men could react, Marco Koivu jumped up and into, then off the wall on the right, launching a hefty right foot at one of the security guard’s head. As Marco Koivu’s expensive trainer collided with the man, Marco reacted with cat like reflexes, landing in a crouching position on the floor, three feet away from the now incensed men.

Marco moved first. With swiftness he propelled several punches quick into the ribs of the nearest guard, followed up with a punch to the angry guard’s nose. Bone broke under the blow, blood flowing like a burst water-main. Marco sent the man six feet away with a monkey flip, the man landing with a heavy thud half-against the wall and the floor. Whiplash pained his neck and slowed his movements.

With only one man between him and the door, Marco Koivu sent a crescent kick swinging from his right hip outwards, his right foot once more hitting head. A left foot followed suit before a powerful roundhouse kick felled the man. With precision a pressure point blow to the neck rendered the man unconscious.

Behind him, the first guard attempted to grab Marco Koivu from behind. Marco Koivu was too swift, tilting his body out of the way, sending a chop into the man’s thick neck, a forearm further shattered the man’s nose again, before an elbow cracked against his temple.

Blood dripped heavily over the two men. With a fast kick the man was sent flying towards the hotel room door. Marco grabbed the man’s head propelling it soundly against the door several times, followed up with a knee to the ribs. A further forearm was issued to the side of the guard’s head as he tried to grapple unsuccessfully at Marco Koivu.

Hands moving with precision, Marco reached for the handcuffs nestling on the guard’s hips, lazily awaiting use. Koivu tiger-clawed at the arm of the guard. Gripping tight before quick hands moved, attaching the handcuffs to the guard’s wrist. Sure of what would happen next, the man attempted to keep his other arm at bay of Marco Koivu.

Spinning, around the torso of the colossal guard, Koivu faced the man’s back, sending a pointed knee deep into his spine. The man winced, still keeping his free arm at bay. Marco Koivu cared not, seeing the prone unconscious body slumped on the ground, Marco Koivu reached the handcuffs towards the figure, straining to drag the other guard with him.

The guard saw an opportunity and spun to grab at his assailant only to find Marco Koivu ready. A hand moved, blurring, pushing the guard’s free hand closer to his other. The handcuff clicked into place, Marco Koivu smiled at the man as he realised he had been outsmarted. An elbow caught him once more toppling him over.

Marco Koivu reached for the guard’s door key, used it on the door and entered the Presidential hotel room.

‘Who are you?’ Georgi Balev’s voice issued forth before his memory recalled a moment of history from lost depths.

‘Guards, Guards! Dammit! Get out of here!’

Marco Koivu walked slowly towards the man, whose desk was facing the doorway, a large, ornate window frame, draped with sunshine behind it.

Reaching across the rich mahogany desk, Marco Koivu pulled the man forwards, out of his chair and across the desk, dragging Balev roughly to the floor.

‘I know what you’re up to, Balev.’ Face to face, Balev could feel the rage inside Marco Koivu.

‘I know why you want the latest fields, and your ally.’

There was little reaction from Georgi Balev, infuriating Marco Koivu. With force, Marco flung the man towards a glass cabinet filled with trinkets, the glass shattering under the force.

‘Enough! End it now. I’m watching.’ Marco Koivu spoke, calmer, darker now.

Glaring at the man on the floor, turning around, Marco Koivu steamed out of the room and stepped over the guards before walking towards the lift. Entering the lift Marco spoke gruffly.’

‘Ground.’

The operator noticed the blood on his body, pressed the floor number and faced away from the man, relieved when the ground floor arrived.

The shipyard came into view, its guardians alerted to the presence of the incoming crafts. No words of warning were made, no demands for the trespassers to leave. No words were issued by either force. The six guardian ships, two light and four heavy fighters, readied themselves for battle. Drones, littering the space, orbited around their owners ships.

The shipyard drones continued their work, steadily making progress on the steel constructs dwarfing them. Welding metal plates and girders into position the drones made sure that the ships completion was imminent, the drones’ efficiency keen and fruitful.

The guardians evaluated the visitors, scrutinizing the threat. The unwelcome guests had turned towards the shipyards, separating into two groups.

The host ships ventured after them determined to block them off. Their plan failed as the faster visitor ships blazed a trail to their targets, attack drones chasing after them as they did so.
Without warning, the visitors sent waves of torpedoes directly at the shipyards, ignoring the approaching ships. The unprotected steel buckled under the force of the blows assaulting the half-constructed ship husks. All the efforts to create the battleships, made futile as the damage blasted through the hulls. The steel, still durable without life, attempted to hold firm, its natural form strong and resilient. The blows kept arriving.

The fourth and fifth wave of torpedoes landed home, leaving empty shells of the ships, lifeless, and now useless, un-repairable damage leaving them still-born.

The torpedoes didn’t stop. The shipyards own construction machinery and steel the next target to take the blows. With superior movement the hunters kept the guardians at bay, unable to target-lock the guests, infuriating the pilots. The construction yards soon were left beyond repair, complex technology destroyed within a storm of explosions.

The attack drones finally caught up with their targets, twenty lasers fired independently at the shields. The aggressors fought back, spinning their ships around and returning laser fire on the much smaller drones.

Rockets stung the shields, sent by the guardian ships, eager to destroy the attackers before they could find out why they had attacked. The shields held firm long enough for hunter fire to tear through the attack drones one by one. The drones exploded leaving the hunters alone with the angry guardians of the shipyard. The six guards fired their rockets, brown bodies ripping through space ready to unleash their yellow-tipped payload.

As the gap closed, target-locks hit the guardians. Unable to jam the tracking signals, the guardians spun off into pairs, assaulting the steel of the visitors. Laser fire swapped backwards and forwards across the shipyards, as the fighters all fired at will, bolts of differing colours impelling into the targets.

Shields blipped, dropped and rose, until the burden became too much for the advanced shield engineering systems that struggled to hold the shields together.

As the shields became over-powered missiles hit home, each blow stinging harder and harder until the fury twisted the frames of the ships, one by one becoming increasingly unstable in a tormented environment.

The structure of a guardian vessel was the first to fall, imploding with a vibrant explosion, and its metal propelled outwards dangerously close to those around it. Its wingman soon followed suit, a missile and laser combination draining the shield before seeping through the armour and hull of the craft.

Metal melted under the heat of a thermal-payload missile, exploding with malicious force, heat over-whelming the ship’s frame as the missile hit like a meteor thrashing into the earth. The heavy fighter hit directly into the nearby shipyard frame, colliding with the tower as the ship command computer failed. Directionless, the ship had no method to stop the impact.

The remaining three heavy fighters and the last light fighter tried valiantly to even the odds against the intruders, despite this effort the visitors’ shields failed to diminish long enough to impact the hull. The steel of the visitors hardier than normal, refused to give in.

Without warning, the second light fighter was caught up in a lattice-work of laser projectiles, unable to avoid enough damage, and with its shields down, the fighter succumbed to its doom.

The remaining three heavy fighters concentrated their fire on the weakest of the intruders hoping to take it down. With swiftness the ship took the damage long enough to allow his colleagues to assail the enemy. With his armour taking too much damage, he left the range of the enemies’ laser fire just as one more guardian pilot evacuated his ship. The remaining two ships tried unsuccessfully to escape the clutches of the attackers, and as their engines took deliberate precision-targeted damage, they were soon left with a choice.

‘Surrender or die. Five minutes and counting down,’ the voice echoed inside the ships.

The pilots of the visitors waited patiently for a reply, knowing the enemy were not going too far. One of the guests slipped like a ghost away towards the debris of the shipyards, scanning as it traversed along the inert metal. Closing in on the destroyed battleships dormant inside the construction yards, the ghost sent in a batch of scout drones, cutting through the walls and entering the interior of a nearby battleship.

As time drifted on, the ultimatum reached a critical point, and a final warning was declared.

With an angry, emotionless, cry of “We are Dead”, a ship self-exploded. The last guardian ship, left alone amidst the pack of wolves, chose differently.

A quick, quiet, solemn, ‘we surrender,’ was sufficient. Soon boarded, the craft was stripped bare of personnel to be taken back with the visiting guests. Once the scout drones had completed their inspections of the shipyards, the hunters vacated the region like ghosts fading into the darkness, taking the spoils of war with them.

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