Ghosts

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Chapter 5 – “Twist”.

Lynette de Cesare read over the quotes from a recent CEOL report issued less than a half-hour before.

‘Did they actually say that? Accusing Neon One of being behind the Majority of CEOL’s pirate attacks? Wow, contrary to the fact that the Dead are the major pirates in the region, causing, I’d guess at around, seventy percent of the death and mayhem.’

It would seem so, my dearest Amir. Think about the larger story, though, and the “why’s”. Why accuse Neon One of this? Why only now? Why moan about this when there are protests and Government upheavals ongoing that threaten to swing the balance of tax laws one way or another?’

‘Good point. They may just be showing naivety, anger and petulance?’

‘Not likely an act of naivety from Georgi Balev, the multi-billionaire? What if it’s a deliberate attack on Neon One and it is for a strategic reason?’ Lynette de Cesare asked Amir to consider. Her assistant did so.

‘So, based on that hypothesis, CEOL would be looking to kill off Neon One at the expense of the Dead? It’s not an ideal solution, surely?’ Amir queried back.

‘The Dead would still be a threat, but not according to the CEOL statement. Look into all the CEOL ships that have been declared as attacked by pirates. We will know who attacked them by the reports of any Dead war-cry,’ Lynette de Cesare requested abruptly.

‘I want names, pilot reports, feedback, loss figures, ship records etc. Split the team in two, one half on the Government story and the other on this one. The Government story has stalled so we can split the teams for a day or so. This CEOL statement is leading somewhere, I can feel it. You work on this one too.’

‘A good journo’ follows their instinct,’ Amir praised smiling.

Lynette de Cesare failed to smile back.

‘Journo? Did you just call me a “journo”?’ she chided.

‘Certainly not, I said…’ Amir stopped to think through a mental dictionary.

‘Very little rhymes with “journo”, Amir. Ok, off you go, we all have lots and lots of fun work to do,’ Lynette de Cesare stated with a grin.

‘Junior Willenhall.’

‘Drake Black,’

The two men glared at each other.

‘Those codes sucked. Docking became tough as the Challoner docking security got excitable.’

‘You got in, and out, job done, Drake.’

‘That’s the job done, as asked. We need to talk,’ Drake Black said quietly.

‘Yeah, okay, follow me, Drake.’

Junior led the way on-board the newly docked hauler, recently piloted by Drake.

The cockpit emptied as Junior requested for privacy.

‘What’s up, Drake?’

‘You know, what’s up, CEOL. The news, those liars are gonna make us public enemy number one,’ Drake Black answered sourly.

‘Is that gonna change anything?’ Junior replied playing Devil’s advocate.

‘It means that we will be shot at by everyone. Bad PR is as much an enemy as CEOL.’

‘We are deemed “pirates”. Come on, we are the bad guys to some. However, I suppose that you are right. How will things change?’

Drake looked at Junior Willenhall as if he had lost his mind.

‘Let me know your thoughts,’ Junior pleaded.

‘Okay, it means the public will fight to defend CEOL ships when possible, rather than staying out of the fight. It makes us more likely to lose battles, and ships.’

‘If only the truth was known, Drake. What would you do if you were me?’

‘Assassinate Georgi Balev! Jokes aside, fight fire with fire.’

‘Too soon, Drake, it’s too soon.’

‘What makes you say that, Junior?’

‘Politics.’

‘I don’t do no damn politics.’

‘You’re a pirate, a terrorist to some, crusading against Balev. That’s politics.’

‘Ok, well, explain it then.’

‘Drake, CEOL are caught up in the Government’s internal battle, their twisting and turning. If Poole wins, CEOL win. If Poole should lose, CEOL lose, taxes are raised, and Balev rants like an angry spoilt child, spitting his dummy out. We’ll look good in comparison. We’ll soon have the sympathy vote.’

‘So, we don’t respond?’

‘Not verbally, Drake. We will pay them in kind!’

‘Will it be in a blaze of gory glory?’

‘No deaths, remember. We are not the Dead!’

Drake Black shook his head in accord.

‘Thank the Gods we aren’t.’

‘Drake, it’s gonna be different soon. We have to play the long game. Let politicians do our job for us for once,’ Junior Willenhall said patiently, seeing the disagreement in Drake’s eyes.

‘Drake, trust me, you are a man of action, a fiery, passionate leader. I am a political leader. Leave strategy to me and trust most of all in my own superiors. We will then leave the action to you.’

‘Ok, ok, you’re a good man. I leave it to your skills,’ Drake agreed slapping Junior Willenhall on the back.

‘Neon One depends on you, Junior,’ he added enthusiastically.

‘Junior, you had better come see this. We got incoming,’ a voice spoke into Junior Willenhall’s earpiece.

‘What’s up? Tell me, I’m on my way to the command centre now.’

‘Two of the haulers have returned with extra gear, two aggressive CEOL fighters to be more accurate. They must have followed them and are now caning them with lasers.’

‘How close to base?’ Junior asked with concern.

‘Too far to see us, but…’

‘Tell them to turn away and lead the CEOL ships away from the base. They must not get close enough to know our location.’

‘But Sir, our haulers aren’t gonna hold out…’

Drake tapped Junior on the shoulder before darting off out of the hauler.

‘Risk the ships. The base security comes first. Get Drake in the air in a fighter with three wingmen. Attack them out of our range. Destroy them fast!’

Junior jogged along a narrow steel corridor illuminated by simple flame torches. He eventually reached a large circular door, eight feet in diameter. The door spun sideways revealing the base’s communication room. A large window overlooked the exterior asteroid belt, behind several computer terminals.

Missiles rocked the side of one of the haulers as the two CEOL light fighters orbited around it. Its shields dropped leaving the armour as its last source of defence before the hull would risk implosion. Sweat glistened on a weary face. A short scruffy, ashen beard spread upwards towards tired, wrinkled eyes. As he shifted his ship to avoid further damage, the man was white with fear, his stomach struggling to settle down as adrenaline boiled inside his husky frame.

‘Where is the support, dammit? I can’t hold out much longer,’ he bellowed to the pirate base communication staff.

‘Same here, we need you guys or we will need to bale!’ the other hauler added desperately.

‘Roger that. Drake is on his way. Hold fast!’ the voice from the base replied.

Both hauler pilots’ spirits rose when they heard the name.

‘Drake!’ thanked back a warm reply. ‘Thank the gods!’ the bearded mouth muttered more confidently. A blast of a laser scarred the side of the hauler warning him that he wasn’t yet safe and that the battle still dragged on. He spun the craft left and right hoping that the CEOL fighters’ laser targeting computers would lose track of his craft with asteroids blocking their analysis software.

Four heavy assault fighters roared out of the docking bays leaving the pirate base behind. It wasn’t long before they had caught up with the two endangered haulers. The CEOL fighters slashed onwards at the vessels, no longer oblivious of the new escort crafts. With great suddenness, empty rocket and missile bays demanded the time of the CEOL squad leader as a voice spoke through his speakers. Just three words dominated his mind.

‘Stay or fight?’ his mind deliberated.

His contemplations staggered about taking a seemingly endless amount of time.

His ship jolted aggressively as it was sent a foot wide of its target path by impacting torpedoes.

‘Stay or fight?’ his mind asked once more. A glance at his shields followed a sturdy questioning of the chasing pack of steel Neon One hounds howling as they hunted.
He targeted the weaknesses of the closest hauler, a cloud of smoke billowed out of a severely wounded port side wall.

‘There,’ he whispered to himself. His lasers tore into the metal. He smiled as a bearded face croaked defiantly, ‘Kill me then! Go on, do it, see what happens!’ on his view-screen.
He locked on to the hauler, readied his turrets.

‘Pirate leader? You got a name you want to keep?’ he queried as he hailed all the Neon One ships. His ship warned violently of rockets being targeted onto his and his colleague’s engines.

‘Stay or fight!’ his colleague demanded urgently thinking the same, shields dropping like rain in a thunderstorm.

‘My name’s Drake. How’s the flying going?’ the pleasant reply chuckled back on screen.

‘We have ourselves a stalemate here, Drake. You got us beaten, but that hauler’s doomed. We go our way, you go yours. You win this one and keep two no-longer shiny metal ships. No point losing lives.’

‘Done deal. Leave, don’t return. I appreciate the diplomacy. Others forget how powerful it is. And for your life, don’t forget I let you live. Come back and you’re a doomed soul. This fight happened by the Ellipse asteroid field, not here. I have your ID, I can find you and I can destroy you. Falsify that report and you keep breathing. Any reports show for here, and we’ll know, and you won’t see us coming. Your life is worth so much more.’

‘As long as we leave safe, I don’t care. It’s only a job, Drake.’

‘Take care on your journeys, not everyone would let you walk. We are not the Dead. They would have neither mercy nor reasoning.’

The Neon One heavies sped past the CEOL ships, catching up with the much slower, damaged haulers whose pilots breathed a sigh of relief at the outcome. Radio reports were pinged around the Neon One pilots and by the time Drake had finished and checked for the CEOL crafts they were long gone. Drake ensured the haulers got home safe before docking himself and meeting up with Junior Willenhall.

Junior had the look of an anger-management class drop-out. He roared at Drake leaving him no uncertainty as to what upset him.

‘You let them go! You crazy man, you… I can’t believe you.’

‘I made a judgement call. It makes sense.’

‘Not to me, Drake.’

‘Give me some slack here. Listen, we aren’t killers. What was I supposed to do? Shoot first, ask questions later? Let one of ours die or be sent adrift in his life-pod? Nope. Not on my watch. I did what I could. The haulers led them as far away as they could, deep into that asteroid belt. If they come back hunting, we will have to deal with it. Blame the haulers for bringing the Devil to our doorstep. Anyway, if he wanted to report us he will do it. We would have to take prisoners, cos if we dropped them off at a neutral base, they’d still report us! They’d be twice as angry and would come packing much more heat when they return. I bought us an “if they return” and you know it.’

‘Dammit, I know that you’re right. But, this will come back to haunt us, you, more than anyone if this base is compromised.’

‘Junior, we’ll survive anything that’s chucked at us. And that’s on the unlikely assumption that the CEOL guy talks, and they send in the raiders, along with a carrier craft. It costs a lot to start a raid on a base so far from home, in guerrilla turf, our guerrilla turf, and our asteroid field.’

‘Look, we have to up our game, Drake, this cannot happen again. They still don’t know our location, but we were lucky this time. Let this be the last time.’

‘Agreed, you spread the word, Junior, and I’ll back you up with my voice. I still stand with my decision though.’

‘I’ll let it lie. What’s done is done.’

Henry Poole sat down on the black leather armchair, a glass of expensive whiskey in his right hand. His other hand rested calmly face down, flat on the chair’s wide hand-rest. He watched the other man as he stood in front of the gold-emblazed mirror that spread widely across the wall. Georgi Balev straightened his tie, fixed the rose in his lapel, and admired himself within the reflection. With a smug grin, he forced himself to look away.

‘I feel old. I look old,’ Balev’s voice broke the silence.

‘My good friend, Georgi, you should try being me!’

‘Be a politician? Never! It’s a fool’s game, hunting fool’s gold, being a fool trusting other fools, all ready to leave a man betrayed.’

‘You can trust me.’

‘Henry Poole, I don’t trust my wife, my son and my own closest staff. Trust itself is a fool’s game. I refuse to trust. I instead, give an agreement. That agreement is a contract. Legally or illegally, a contract is a contract and whereupon a breach of said contract will cause a need for recompense. I get that no matter what. I always get what I want. I don’t trust you. You may choose to trust me. I expect you to fail me. People do. Politicians always do. Today’s promise to me is tomorrow’s political scandal…’

‘We have enough of them already,’ Henry Poole cut short Balev as he spoke, much to Balev’s anger.

‘Never interrupt me, never again. My time is precious, like that of a civilisation under a dying sun. CEOL is a vital force in this system. And beyond that we are growing every day. We have power.’ Poole failed to react.

‘We don’t really need this pathetic government, and it’s becoming hard to justify supporting the scandal-seekers. The world is vicious out there. My ships are attacked daily, people die daily. And what do you fools do for us, for all the corporate taxes, for my employees’ taxes?’

‘The Government do enough.’

‘They do nothing to protect them. The Government send military ships out that protect just the local bases and jumpgates of importance. Asteroid fields, gas clouds, ice fields all hidden behind unprotected gates. The miners are targets, unprotected and risking their lives, couriers the same, freighters, well, the haulers are easy-pickings. I can only provide so much support as it costs too much. I risk it all.’

‘We all do.’

‘This new Anti-Piracy Tax leads me to believe the Government fund the pirates who bring my company down. The more they attack, the more people cry for this new tax. But, how many fighters will the military provide compared to the amount the tax makes us lose? Where will our money go? One thing CEOL don’t make for profit is fighters. CEOL buy from elsewhere, at a reduced fee. We have never needed to build them ourselves.’

‘It’s Valon’s proposal and not mine. You should ask him.’

‘My understanding is the contract will go to Christian Cristobal‘s Wychhaven Industries. Do you know how much they charge for military, admin, and support vessels? More than we pay for ours. Primary line fighters will be at a premium and the contract will ensure the public get a token show of ships but none of which will be where we, CEOL, and the mining industry, those facing the risk, the public, want them.’

‘Again, it’s not my proposal.’

’As I said, I just don’t like you, the government. I can’t trust you. And you ask for more money. I will find the funds by cutting back elsewhere, less replacement fighters on the frontline. Once a ‘rat takes a fighter out, I then should trust you to use the Anti-Piracy Tax fleet to do the job.’ Balev stopped talking, sipped at a whiskey, and waited for Henry Poole to talk. He smiled inside as he watched Poole decide if he had finished talking.

Eventually, once the full rant sank in, Poole spoke. ‘I concur; the tax is an audacious attempt at media-manipulation, fooling the public, without making the system safer. The Government would make a profit too, if my advisors are right.’

‘So, we have an understanding. On this issue we have an alliance against Valon’s tax?’

‘Of course we have an understanding, Georgi, of course. And what do we do with Neon One?’

‘We crush them. My team say that they outnumber my fighters two to one. Not odds I like. I expect the Government to back us up.’

‘They’re allegedly more technologically advanced, maybe better than Wychhaven Industries.’

‘Wychhaven are over-priced, average fraudsters. Ours are better.’ Balev stopped, considering the next set of words he would speak. ‘For me, and the company’s sake,’ he decided, before approaching the sitting politician and adding his next line. ‘Neon One outguns us all. What I would do for their research division…’ he looked strongly into Poole’s eyes leaving little room to misinterpret his words.

‘And what do you want done with the Dead?’

‘They are just chaos warriors, no rules, no pride, and no style. Their weapons are weak but they incite violent fear. People panic and that panic consumes them, destroys them before the Dead have to do anything. They kill to keep their legend dreaded. Their numbers don’t grow as who wants to die? They have a death pact, a desire to rule at all costs, insane people with no rules, less to fear than the sane with a brain, so to speak. Go, make plans and tell me the options for taking them down. We ally against the tax and Neon One. And, one last thing I will make this public in twenty-four hours.’

After, Henry Poole had left Georgi Balev poured another large whisky and smiled.

Brown eyes lapped up the attention around her as the camera recorded her message.

‘Reports of an attack in the Natione region have come through, with CEOL owner Georgi Balev stating that Neon One, a piracy group, have attacked and destroyed two haulers in the region, killing several CEOL crew on-board the crafts.’

‘Do we know how many have died and have we been given any names, Lynette?’

‘Names and numbers of the deceased are as yet unknown and the families of those that died are being notified. The black boxes have yet to be identified and decoded but this is yet another worrying sign of the rising violence in the region.’ Lynette ran her hands through her hair, pushing it away from her face.

‘This all ties in with another story, one that Georgi Balev, who if you recall has already spoken of his discontent surrounding the recently proposed Anti-Piracy Tax, has publicly announced that he has spoken to the Prime Minister, Henry Poole and that both he and CEOL are seeking the withdrawal of Governmental support for the Tax.’

‘Has this been formally declared, Lynette?’

‘Due to recent political disgraces, Henry Poole has not yet announced any plans publicly but CEOL have said themselves openly that Balev is in no doubt certain that Poole will side with him and push for the proposed tax’s abolition. In Balev’s words, “We are in agreement and with the same certainty I can relieve my worried staff that once this shameful tax on companies is removed, they can relax sure that their jobs are safer from redundancy. This is a win for the people,” Balev had said.’

‘Lynette, to quote Balev, “this is a win for the people”. Do the people agree with that statement?’

‘Not truly. The proposal is still awaiting a decision so nothing has changed. The staff know that job security is a great thing but risking their lives for CEOL’s profit-line leaves them still unsafe from piracy. Something the tax promised to stop. From both sides it’s all brave words, all offering a brave new world but not a world that either side can deem a guarantee of physical safety for those true heroes, the workers and pilots.’

‘And Valon, the tax’s biggest supporter, rival to the political throne held by Henry Poole, how is he reacting to this?’

‘Valon has said that he resented the lack of support from Poole. He said, “I now know that this Government has lost its way. First we proposed the tax during public outrage, they accepted its merits. And now, CEOL owner, Georgi Balev, a businessman with profits on his mind complains, and the Government backtracks. People’s lives are at risk from piracy. Every single day”. Strong words which he followed up with an even stronger statement.’ Lynette paused, taking a deep, calming breath.

‘Valon added to his statement saying, “I personally, have lost family to it. I will, not stop until piracy is stopped itself. The people need help. We are in a position at a cost to the public to help. If Balev doesn’t like it, then that is tough. I have no sympathy. He is not, and will never be the one who calls the shots. The people do. The people in this region have been asked, companies small and large have answered the question. The general consensus is, yes, we want the tax. The people have spoken.” Valon is aggressive in his desires to see the proposal go through and the tax may swing the public elections.’

‘And this all offends Georgi Balev, who will now look at his options, surely.’

‘Yes, CEOL employ a staggering amount of voters and if Balev can get them to vote for Henry Poole, it could be decisive in the elections. If Balev can bring that vote Poole’s way, I honestly think it would change things, and it would be the difference maker.’

‘And with news on the scandal due in several hours barring an extension of the current media restraints, we all know that Henry Poole needs as much to go in his favour as possible, Lynette. Thanks for your time.’

Junior marched into the canteen, venom shelling out of his eyes. Drake, busy making a coffee, sensed the sudden hush in the room as people reacted to Junior’s mood. The words issued out of Junior’s mouth were incoherent with the exception of several swear words driven by hate.

‘Drake, come over here, if you would.’

“Let it go already,” Drake thought referring to his and Junior’s previous talk.

Junior pressed at the fifty-inch holo-screen television in order to turn the volume up. The picture flickered as the receiver struggled to pick up the signal from the nearest satellite. Heads turned to see what Junior was doing. It took several seconds before people realised his anger was vented elsewhere. Relieved, Drake was happy to see Junior facing the screen.
He approached the angry man.

‘I take it you haven’t seen this?’

‘No, I haven’t had a chance to see it, Junior. What’s up?’

‘Bloody Balev is accusing us of killing in Natione. Apparently, we nailed two CEOL ships, killing the survival pods. Lies, none of our pilots would do that.’

‘We always let live. Let me check the ship fleet and see who’s there.’ Drake knew the answer; he also knew his colleague had already checked.

‘No-one was there. No fighters. Not even a hauler. No black-op trader, nothing. Whether undercover of the stars or loud and proud Neon One, we had no ships there. It’s Dead country. We avoid Dead. You know that.’

‘So, the media got mixed up?’

‘Balev used our name.’

‘Ah, so he hates us more than Dead?’

‘Scumbag thinks so.’

‘Is he lying or confused, do you reckon?’

‘Lying, he deliberately said it.’

‘Ooh, are we getting on CEOL’s nerves?’

‘I bloody plan to. Watch it and come to my quarters in fifteen minutes. I need to calm down. Bring me a coffee, tea-boy.’

‘Sure thing, Junior,’ Drake replied glad that Junior was less angry than before.

Junior walked away and out of the room leaving Drake to stare at the screen in front of him. The atmosphere buzzed all around him as staff giggled and joked about, food trays emptying as pilots returned hungry from flights ranging from light local patrols to long-term journeys headed for distant systems.

With their cares in the world relieved from returning home or repairs finished, Drake envied their lives compared to his and Junior’s, they had short-term concerns and no great responsibility once they arrived back home or completed a shift. No need to strategize, no need to hide from the BS of running an organisation, pit a fleet of ships against a sea of CEOL, military or Dead pirates, and against nervous trigger-fingers.

For the brief second that his eyes flicked off the screen he contemplated whether he would change positions. He knew the answer as soon as his focus returned upon hearing the word CEOL once again spoken on the continuing news report.

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