Ghosts

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Chapter 6 – “Hate”.

‘Radar shows two ships nearby, victims, victims, victims!’ a crackly voice declared through speakers as four ships tore through the depths of space.

The voices crackled back and forth, conversations echoing in the confines of damaged small fighters. Fast on the move but old and defaced, the paintwork blistered from numerous fights. Where standard jet-black paintwork once was, dereliction and graffiti had been born. The fighters, all of differing origin, and design were testament to a life past caring about others opinions and emotions other than one; fear. Their owners of varying ethnicity all shared that same common motto, edged on the side of one of the ships, blasted deep into the metal hull of the craft with precision laser fire. “To hate is to cause fear”.

‘Incoming…’

‘Victims!’ the penultimate sentence was spoken. The victims and attackers all awaited the final voice.

‘We are Dead,’ the voice screeched menacingly to all in the area. The “victims” were in range.

Two Neon One heavy long-range fighters continued their journey unsure whether to turn and fight or run.

‘Roger that,’ the second pilot reacted to the order from the first. Engines stopped, spun back into life as reverse thrusters revolved the crafts around. As they did so the Dead fighters tore past them sending laser shelling at the Neon One ship hulls. Shields flickered briefly but not enough to threaten their owners.

‘Let’s tame these fools.’

‘Roger that!’

Two of the Dead ships spun round for a return run whilst the others orbited around the heavies waiting for target locks to kick in before launching missiles.

‘Fools!’

‘Yup!’ The second Neon One pilot agreed.

‘Mines?’

‘It’d be rude not to.’

The pilots activated a temporary shield boost, magnifying their shields’ power at the expense of a surge in their ships’ power cores. As the Dead light fighters hurtled at them sending more laser bolts their way, the Neon One fighters clicked a button each on their command control screen. With a whirr of mechanics proximity mines shuffled into position soon to be sent out in the coldness of space from the back of the Neon One heavies.

Set on a three second delay the gap would be just enough to get far enough away before they activated. More importantly, it would be perfect timing for the Dead to connect with the mines. No chance to escape, any re-direction of the ship would be too slow to avoid the magnetic attraction of the mines.

Behind the heavies, the damage was done, each mine caused fatal trauma to the enemy ships, which slowly succumbed to their doom. Explosive renderings of the destruction of the Dead ships was displayed via the Neon One heavies’ rear cameras.

‘Did you see the first one go? He had no chance. Lucky his life-pod stayed intact. Thought they never used them? Anyway, you go collect them both and I’ll polish off the last two fighters.’

‘Sure… Wait…’

Two Dead rockets connected with the Dead life-pods. The life signs inside ceased as the pod’s shields failed and hull imploded.

‘We are Dead!’ screeched out once more.

‘They took out their own?’

‘Well, if you never heard, they are Dead!’

‘Ha-ha.’ The laugh came across several seconds later as a second fire-fight broke out between the two factions.

Still attempting to orbit the heavy fighters the remaining rapid Dead fighters whipped rockets at the steel in front of them. Lasers pulsed out projectiles from both crafts, the Dead attackers having a far greater percentage of hit ratios. More agile, they danced under the stars, twirling inside and out of rapid laser fire, enjoying the game of cat and mouse; for once the role they played was of the hunted. They teased and ran the show, frustrating the Neon One pilots, unable to get a target lock to send out missiles of their own. Minutes ran by so fast as the pilots became lost in the combat.

Too slow to run, too slow to catch the fighters, the Neon One ships had two opportunities; user-error or a lucky shot. The quicker Dead ships stung at their shields like bees swarming around their prey. In small doses the Neon One shields dropped as every sting was counted. With tactically slow, deliberate precision they started to overwhelm the far superior shields, hull and gunnery of their enemies.

The Neon One pilots casual swagger soon drained away, washed away with the sweat of battle. Aching muscles tired, as G-forces pulled at the pilots of both sides.
A laser pulse struck onto the closer of the two Dead ships but as soon as it hit, the ship had spun wildly and unpredictably away leaving more frustration behind as follow-up laser bolts flew into empty space.

Always cocky, always aggressive but even more so, the Dead ships starting taunting their prey, sending personal messages via video to the Neon One crafts promising to destroy their life pods.

‘Bring it!’ replied one of the Neon One pilots, tired of the games. He wiped sweat off his forehead with a tired forearm.

The Dead craft dashed closer, just enough to fly past across the flight-path of the heavy fighter.

“Just do it again,” the Neon One pilot thought as an idea hit him. “Just once more”.

He decided to force the issue.

‘Fancy flying doesn’t win wars, pal. I can swat you like a fly, just watch!’ he sent the message by video-feed to both Dead ships. The bait was set. The gullible Dead pilot, eager to disprove the notion dashed once more across the flight-path of the heavy fighter. A finger twitched just once. A click on a digital display set forth the man’s plan.
Seeing the enemy movement, within a split-second blink, the word “Torpedo” flashed on and off. It wasn’t the word that caught his attention or the fact that his shield died instantly, with his Copperhead steel hull taking a beating. His eyes saw a flash of explosive orange in front of him. Dead fighter parts bounced off his ship as the destroyed Dead shell fell apart.

‘Torpedoes away?’

‘I sent them away, yes! He fell for it, typical vanity of the Dead pilots.’

‘The last ship is running. We won’t catch him. Good thing too as you’re looking a bit pasty-faced there. Feeling a bit under the weather?’

‘Yes, my ships got the flu.’

‘It’s got the flu and no shields by the look of it. Let’s get onto the destination; it’s not far away now. Funny that those Dead ships attacked us here though, it’s not their territory.’

‘True that. This is too civilised a territory for them. One or two military heavy battleships, carriers etc. too many here for them. So, why are they so far out of home territory?’

‘Are they out for supplies?’

‘Possibly, maybe the rat has had to look further afield for cheese?’

‘I’m going to radio it through for safety. You never know if Junior might need to know.’

‘Your shields are looking better now!’

‘Don’t I know it?’

‘Lucky it’s Copperhead bulkheads. Any less and you’d be a corpse. That Dead would’ve hit you then ran.’

‘Again, don’t I know it? It had to be done. We were struggling there.’

Stuck in deep space, a woman in an oil-stained ox-blood red boiler suit climbed down a metal ladder, wrench in hand. Rusted pipes creaked angrily far underneath the main mining rig’s main decks. With a gruff bellow the woman reached the bottom and started whacking at the pipes.

‘Will you shut up? It’s two-thirty in the morning and some people are trying to get some bloody sleep.’

The woman wandered along a narrow three foot wide crevice. With boiling hot pipes either side of her body she ensured she never scolded herself on them as she passed.

With sleepy eyes and dawdling slowly the engineer reached a large steel wheel, red paint fading away with age and wear. She turned it as far as she could with the drained energy levels of a person ordered out of bed to fix a pipeline. She stumbled over to a pressure gage, squinted to read the dial, and watched, patiently waiting as it slowly moved down from a red warning level to a more acceptable rank.

With fatigued muscles she leant against the only bare wall she could find as the pressure level dropped. Several minutes passed. The dial crept down like a shadow in darkness. Her eyes blinked wearily. She yawned, and with a final glance at the gage decided it was enough to allow her to get back to bed. She reached the ladder, arm stretched upwards to haul her up. She started the thirty foot climb upwards.

Outside the mining rig, a precision laser continued its deep ore drilling, rocks blasted from an asteroid falling into a large metallic funnel and then into the rig ready for refinement and processing. Inside the mining rig engineers slept or worked, shift patterns draining their daily energy. The monotonous snoring sound in the bunker room was interrupted by a screech hacked into the local communication mainframe.

‘We are Dead!’

Several ships flung themselves at the mining rig with anger, a hatred of all life. Rockets were fired with haste sending explosions within the base.

Deep down in the depths of the rig, a wrench dropped down to the steel of the ground followed by the female body of an engineer. Fire exploded inside the area. Pipes unhinged pumped steam through the breaks.

‘We are Dead!’ the communication repeated.

Peter Lund looked at the news report, grimacing at the story unfolding. The news had spread like wildfire, a mining base targeted and almost destroyed by a pirate attack that left numerous killed and hundreds wounded in dire need of medical care. The damage done to the mining colony had decimated the production of the base and left the operation closed indefinitely.

Shipping replacement, experienced staff would be difficult, if not impossible, Lund considered. As an experienced worker he knew the dangers but it’s always a tougher decision to make when a pirate attack is one of the dangers, even more so when it concerns the Dead.

Staff would not want to go to just make the repairs at the colony, never mind replacing those long-term resident workers who ran the whole operation. The miners would want to get home, leaving behind a desolate, bruised mining base unable to function. The mining companies involved knew it.

With concern for lives, and for corporate figures, the Miners Guild and the Independent Miners’ Union had decided to start venting their anger. With a singular statement showing support for both the employees and the employers, the two groups had combined bile to make a public statement. Angry, just shy of being nasty and venomous they turned their anger away from the Dead who created the boiling hatred to those they felt allowed it to happen, the Government.

Tensions rang out as the miners spoke of all the events that had alarmed them; despair, rage, and passion overwhelmed them as their spokespersons answered the media’s questions. The last question most caught Peter Lund’s attention. The answer was simple, and given swiftly. ‘We would like Henry Poole to resign.’

An undulating flow of steel and contoured glass swept around the Faith Space Station’s surface. Outrigger struts supported a vast array of shimmering solar panels, turning twenty percent of the station’s body structure into a giant power source. Deep within the curves levels of floors separated each distinct region, the basement level beckoning visitors on-board, its warm embrace protected by strong energy fields keeping the vacuum of space out.

Dark-blue fritted-glass split the structures into pieces. Behind the glass a population of thirty-thousand people lived out their days, a procession of visitors and locals all across the interior.

Near the subterranean vaults, one long glass panel hid the control room of the station’s Military Police and the docking permission team. The normally jovial office atmosphere erupted swiftly as the continuous security sector-sweep threw up unexpected results.

‘We have got incoming ships, Sir. Not answering to hailing frequencies. I’ve tried several times for several minutes, nothing. And, we aren’t talking about just a small handful.’

‘What do you mean by, “we aren’t talking about just a small handful,” then?’

‘I mean this looks bad.’

‘The Dead?’

‘How am I meant to know? They aren’t responding! E.T.A three minutes,’ a stressed reply hit back, which was quickly followed by an apologetic hand wave.

‘Get Commander Zylinski up here ASAP.’

The call was made. Commander Zylinski arrived without delay, steel walkways leading him out of his personal quarters to the control room.

‘That looks like a war fleet,’ Commander Zylinski said peering over Alex Morgan, the duty traffic controller’s shoulder at the screen in front of him.

‘There are too many new ships for the Dead, and too far out for Neon One too. And some of that kit looks way too new and undamaged. They might be friendly but I doubt it,’ Zylinski spoke aloud as several other screens busily switched between the approaching vessels, showing readouts of the anatomy of the heavily-armed vessels.

‘Looks like those ships are both Dead-quality, old, battered crap and the new frigates. There are a few heavy battleships out there too. I don’t think they’re here for no damn hugs either.’

A war cry echoed within the station, hacked through the communication networks.

‘They’re attacking, Sir. Torpedoes have been launched. Countdown sixty seconds and counting.’

Torpedoes pounded home two hundred feet to the side of the base, mildly shaking the walls they hit. Sirens screamed out across the base as worrying as they were piercing to all on-board. Fire raced out from damaged electronics within the walls, broken bones ached as those caught in the afterbirth of a sudden war fell or were flung wildly to one side.

A reign of more torpedoes sent a minute beforehand boomed mightily into their target blitzing the base panelling that separated the people inside from the harshness of space. The torpedo-launching ships sped closer and closer to being within range of using their laser, particle and bullet turrets.

A hailstorm of turret fire bled away from large steel casings, spat this time from the station’s defences outwards. A ship exploded in a fury, pressure-seals unable to contain an internal fire. A silent scream was lost in the battle, its owner having forgone an escape life-pod in place of a suicidal pride. The ship explosion shook nearby fighter frigates whose shields dropped a level and arose again as the sudden war took its first life.

Seven Dead light fighters whipped around the Faith Space Station, attacking any local ships that were frantically waiting to dock. A large, heavy battleship arrived into view, approaching close enough to attack the station. On-board Faith sirens continued to ring out a warning to those considering leaving.

Engineers, pilots, Military Police all teamed up to help move ships into the docking bays, panicked traders and haulers all needing room with little safe room to spare on the docking levels. A high level decision was made to sacrifice safety in place of getting all as possible docked and out of the Dead-brought harm’s way. As every military fighter was launched out of the hangar the space left behind was utilised for landing traders.

’How are those Dead ‘rat ships attacking us? This isn’t their local territory, Commander?’ Alex Morgan said staring in disbelief.

‘It is now! Who cares why and how? Concentrate on the here and now. They are here, now, and we have to take them out. Give me everything you can, people. Keep the cannons online and firing. Call in the nearest big ships to attack, if any are close to home, and get Lund to get our pilots up soaring ASAP,’ Commander Zylinski ordered defiantly.

‘Aye, aye Commander.’

Inside the base the sound of thudding missiles, rocket and laser fire unsettled the residents. Children’s cries were drowned out by the sounds of the to and fro of warfare. The clang of metal, slow and mechanical hinted at concentrated fire, as the station’s cannons fought back, laser projectiles being formed and hurled venomously at the aggressors.

The cannons that lined numerously along the sides of the station slowly tracked the far more agile foe, anticipating where the enemy would be a full five seconds in advance and hurling their bullets forwards. Having zigzagged and serpentined through the darkness with efficient blistering speed the agile Dead fighters where rarely in place to succumb to the superior firepower of the cannons of the ships.

The experience of the Dead pilots showed as they targeted specific segments of the base. First to fall were the two huge satellite dishes embedded on top of the base. Smaller dishes survived the first three waves of attack until a pile-driver shot from the heavy battleship brought silence to the masses on-board.

‘Our communications are down, Commander.’

‘We just have to pray the fighters take them down soon. I have engineers taking a look at the relays but it’s going to be useless without the dishes. We got one spare but that’s inside and good luck getting a repair team willing to go out there. I’d bloody do it if I could,’ Zylinski declared defiantly. ‘How’s the shields?’ he added.

‘Not too convincing, they’re whimpering online then off.’

A rocket blistered into a Dead fighter taking its shields down. One of the station’s cannons tore through it like paper, offering scant sympathy for the pilot whose fate was sealed without his life-pod.

The heavy battleship, slow and thuggish crept closer and closer, its damage potential growing ever-powerful as it did so.

‘Those cannons can’t track the faster ships. Get them on the heavy battleship. I want it gone next.’

‘But Commander, we have got no communications to tell the weapons engineer to change targets.’

‘You better run then, hadn’t you, so move!’ Zylinski ordered with frustration. He re-considered how he delivered his order after the frightened crewmember had gone. His thoughts soon reverted to more keen matters.

The base shook as large rockets impacted into the station’s hull. ‘Shields are down again and they’re targeting the shield relay control bay.’

‘Hang in there!’ Zylinski found himself praying.

A second Dead craft imploded, submitting to a relentless barrage from both the lucky-shots of the cannons and two military fighters.

‘Sixteen of us, five little Dead fleas and the big dog they rode in on,’ muttered Zylinski.

‘Commander?’

‘Oh, nothing, I was just talking to myself about the options.’

‘The heavy battleship’s looking to take our cannons out.’

‘It looks that way, one cannon at a time.’ Zylinski peered over the shoulder of the operator.

‘Wait… Did I see right?’

‘The cannons are now targeting the heavy battleship. Looks like the message got through.’

‘Good man. Will make it up to my team once this is over,’ Zylinski mumbled quietly.

‘The shields on the battleship are dropping quickly, Sir’.

‘Good. I can only just call upon the Gods that the heavy fighters go for the battleship then!’

‘Several cannons are down. It’s going to be a close call. If we lose anymore cannons we have a problem. All our fighters are scrambled and none have fallen. It looks like we have damage to some but not enough hull structure damage to cause a problem.’

‘Those Dead would kill our life-pods. Not on my watch!’ bellowed a suddenly angry Zylinski forgetting his professional nervousness.

‘Looking like that heavy battleship is going into its hull.’

‘And some of ours are taking it down further,’ an extra over-excited voice exclaimed.

‘Experienced military trained pilots.’

‘Sir, another Dead ship gone and… And another with it, the first explosion took it out along with one of our fighters slamming a rocket into it.’

‘Three Dead fighters destroyed and that heavy battleship, which is on life support. Come on… Take him out…’

‘More station cannons have gone dow….’ the operator stopped realising that it may not matter.

‘Heavy battleship’s gone,’ Zylinski spoke aloud excitedly without realising he’d said it.

“Thank the Gods it’s gone,” he thought showing signs of stress. ‘Take them fighters out, boys!’ he said more calmly.

‘Sir, they’re retreating.’

‘Cowards,’ a voice in the background labelled loudly.

‘Not Cowards, not the Dead. They are many things, cowards is not one of them. They’re being clever. We better not attempt to chase them down. They are looking for a re-match, best to stay alive for when that happens,’ Zylinski replied. Can we find a way to get our fighters down into the docks?’

‘Doubtful. I’ll get Lund to check on the docking bays. He’s on duty, as always. He was awoken when they first attacked.’

‘Okay, tell him to get a shuttle up in the air and to relay to the fighters the following orders. We will get the four fastest civilian crafts leaving via the nearest jumpgates, the Baines and Warwick gates, and to have the heavies escort the four civilians at a time to them. Once they return, tell the weakest heavy to drop into the docking bays, and, to carry on until I say stop. One by one we will have the pilots back home. I assume the Dead are done for today. But we can’t be certain. I want that new satellite dish up ASAP and the cannons back online, priority one. Once you’ve relayed those messages in person, you’re off duty. You and the team have done us all proud today. Tell the nearest Officer you see out there to get the next shift up here immediately, not negotiable. I will cover for you until then,’ ordered Zylinski. The man followed up on the order.

The quiet of the other current residents of the room would have been declaration of shock if not for the noise of the two angry faction leaders. Poole grinned as he contemplated an answer. In front of him a display registered an answer given to him by a staff member sitting beside him. He chose to ignore it.

‘And blame belongs to me alone, on my political party’s side alone? Can one presume that there is nothing done wrong on your side? Art thou holier than I?’

‘Are you about to play the Original Sin card, Henry? Or is my political enemy suddenly my friend, only when it suits them most?’

‘It’s a simple question, Valon. You can answer it. Can’t you?’

‘We also made mistakes. We are all culpable for our actions. However…’ Valon paused for effect. ‘Only those in truest power can be responsible for their inactions.’

‘I do not know of what you mean?’

‘The military are at you’re behest. They answer to you. You answer to the public. And you have put the needs of business ahead of those of the public. Your inactions led us here today. To judge all based on the attack on this station by one faction, the Dead.’

‘My party is not to blame!’ Henry Poole lost his temper shouting his answer back. His raised voice resulted in an equal response from Valon.

‘Then who is?’ Valon’s fist shook angrily as he stood up.

‘The Dead.’ The softness in Poole’s voice showed a timidity not known for him.

‘And you have done what exactly in order to stop them growing in power?’ challenged Valon like a legal pro seeing weakness.

‘The tax is wrong. It is unjustified.’

‘Dead attacks on our base are unjustified. We cannot allow it to happen again. That attack may not be a one-off assault.’ Valon failed to realise the effect the words he spoke would have, forgetting the TV news cameras, and more importantly the public watching the footage from those cameras. In that brief moment it was if he was the only one who failed to remember, the silence in the room lost to him alone as the red mist consumed him.

‘Such scaremongering does not help the public, does it, Mr Valon.’

‘It… It doesn’t help to hide from the truth. We must face facts. We are in a position of weakness, from where we can only seek to find strength not just in the short term but for the long term. We can and must build on this tragedy, this shock attack and find a future free from piracy.’

‘This future is it at the expense of conglomerates, those who employ the majority of our people?’

‘Yes, at the expense of everyone, for civil liberty, freedom, and human rights. How else do we resolve a problem over such a large area? The Dead have the whole region within to hide. We, the people of good nature and virtue, we cannot hide. We are unable to hide, nor flee, we are sitting targets. We need better ways to defend ourselves and better methods to forewarn our military of attacks so they can pre-empt, and intercept threats before they get within range of the bases they protect. We must help the military help us.’

‘You talk of the Dead, but Neon One is worse!’

‘Can you justify that statement? When did Neon One attack this station? When? I talk of piracy, I talk also of all piracy, past, present, and future. We must help our military not blame them like you and your party have done.’

The debate roared on as ferocious as ever, neither side giving an inch in a stand-off that continued without agreement for another hour until the parliament chambers emptied for the day. Henry Poole breathed a sigh of relief as he left for his office. Valon stayed behind for several minutes discussing the situation angrily with his advisers.

Lynette de Cesare replied as accurately as she could, repeating a statement that she had rehearsed time and again that day in front of a mirror.

‘The story is one of selfishness, greed and scandal. Those involved are all senators, all high-ranking, all accused of taking money for profit, “donated” by wealthy investors such as CEOL, deemed guilty in the eyes of their own. The story has been building for several weeks, and us, the media, were asked, more-so forced by legal requests, into keeping the topic off-screen. We can only now tell the tale.’ A silence of a second told her to continue talking.

‘Over the last three years, Government officials have taken fees from CEOL amongst others under the pretence of being “Political Advisors” to the corporations. As illegal as this was, for a public-funded employee to also take payment from the private sector is illegal under section twenty-one of the Civil Service and Government Employee Act, these individuals have been doing this not just once but for a period beyond legal recklessness and naivety. The fees total up to several million pounds, paid into private accounts, my own understanding and this is subject to change, estimates the payments at fourteen million pounds,’ Lynette spoke the words looking beyond the camera at Amir Rai as he mouthed the financial figures to her.

This tale gets more involved as the same politicians were all involved in the controlled opening of mineable asteroid and gas belts where over time, an estimated half a billion pounds-worth of minerals could be obtained by certain companies, one of which is CEOL. The senators all had the power to veto the opening, due to safety issues on-board the gas and asteroid mining stations or due to proximity to certain pirate factions, such as Neon One, the Dead and smaller factions like Absolve whose links to the Dead make them political pawns and threats to the more recently opened mines. They are threats also as proved so destructively recently to the Faith Space Station, which was just attacked savagely by the Dead as previously reported. I will be discussing that later on today once Parliament closes and we get responses from Poole and Valon on an incredibly heated debate which shows little desire to thaw.’ Lynette de Cesare waited several seconds.

‘Several senators have resigned prior to an investigation, and Parliament have announced some complaints will be looked into including those with more senior power, though at present we are still awaiting to hear if they are to be spoken to by Police.’

‘Lynette, can we release names now?’

‘The names are all known, and available, and all names can now be revealed here on this chart, showing the terms in political office and the terms they served as Political Advisors to corporations. During this scandal, it has been announced that the use of Government funds was invested in researching certain gas belts, such as the mineral-rich Yurey-Ricci belt in the Natione region. Under current law, whoever finds and scans the mineral reserves first can apply for a licence to control and mine the reserves, or to contract it out. The Government also actively seeks out new mineable regions, and contracts for these regions go to the highest bidder.’

‘I see, so who mapped this Yurey-Ricci region?’

‘This particular region was found and consequently researched with Governmental funds, as are so many others, and so far since opening and the introduction to CEOL, who bid and won the contract from the Government, the estimated mineral deposits account for point-five percent of all CEOL extracted minerals. This is more than any other CEOL controlled mineral reserve. The licence fees paid to the Government including the fees gifted to Political Advisors, is far less than the value of the research done, and importantly the amount mined.’

‘I hear that this has caused a lot of upset amongst the people?’

‘Yes, some say that this has been technically leased to CEOL at cost to the Government, to the public, something Henry Poole denies and he has called it “a subjective subject”. Poole has stated he will release a more thorough statement on this story later this week when his advisors can give a prepared statement. Poole’s political rival, Valon has called this time-wasting, and more aggressively, “scrambling for time to let the issue die down”. Valon has warned he will not let this question be unanswered as the public want answers. We still await the answers to all the questions. In the meanwhile the questions we do have keep adding up and we all await Poole’s counter statements.’

‘Such a beautiful day on Halcyon, I trust that I catch you well and calm,’ charming as always, Poole’s over-politeness made Zylinski smile.

‘Yes, well, I’ve had calmer moments.’

‘Commander, haven’t we all. It’s been a long week for me too.’

‘A week in politics is an awfully long time.’

‘Commander, it is, yet, I do look forward to having a few more weeks, nigh months, even years in front of me. What news do you bring?’

Zylinski had discussed the speculation with a concerned Peter Lund the night before, amongst others. He decided to make a rare joke, one he knew was probably not funny to his intended victim.

‘Well, I’ve not been asked to arrest you yet, Henry. It’s still early though.’

‘Of course it is!’ Henry Poole replied with a lilting guffaw as he laughed off the joke.

‘It’s a witch-hunt you know. They’ll be chucking me in the Halcyon waters soon enough to see if I float. Apparently, I will.’

‘They couldn’t kill you if they tried. Politicians are bullet-proof, untouchable.’

‘Water isn’t the same as bullets. I will respond to their suggestions. Later today, in fact; I aim to leave it a little while to let it simmer and then settle like sand shifting back to where it was.’

“Or, like a snake fleeing back to the grass”, Zylinski thought.

‘They have a point, Henry. You should acknowledge that much.’

‘I will. The people always have a point. They elect me, us, and we make the decisions, Commander, for them.’

‘For the record, on the tax, I stand with Valon, more now than ever.’

‘I expect you do. A child in a toy store won’t turn down free toys from the manufacturer, even if the store-owner tells him personally that they will break in a week.’ Poole’s use of the term “him” sang out like an opera singer. “The store-owner tells him personally”. Him. Zylinski realised that he himself was him in the reference. Zylinski considered whether it was Henry Poole’s way of being condescending or just being snarky. Either way, Zylinski had seen Poole’s type before and knew the words were of no matter to him. What mattered were the voters.

‘You’re losing the people, Poole. I am not saying that to upset you, nor to be mischievous. Just consider it the Layman’s opinion.’

‘Considered, but my good man, I always am right, and I know that I am winning the election. It’s all up and down. Today, I’m hunted, tomorrow, a hero. Always the same, a week in politics as we agreed is a very long time.’

‘So, you won’t resign?’

‘Who wants me to?’

‘The miners want you to resign?’

‘Commander, Filip, they are just venting frustration. The attack on the mining rig - it is a CEOL contracted mining facility with a research lab on it. It’ll be back operational soon enough and with new technology that makes eyes water.’

‘Have you spoken to CEOL?’

‘Yes, of course, I am always talking to them. Georgi is a dear friend. I like Balev. He tells it true and straight.’

“To you maybe,” fumed a silent Zylinski.

‘Ok, so as Commander of the local fleet, what do I do now? I cannot support the base with extra ships without weakening somewhere else. Has Balev agreed to supply new ships to the mining base?’

‘I do not know what Georgi has planned. I cannot ask him that.’

‘To be blunt, I don’t believe you,’ Zylinski reacted with swiftness, a glint of annoyance in his eyes.

‘I’m not lying.’

‘A politician always lies.’

‘Only when it hides our shame,’ Henry Poole watched as a gold-hued transport shuttle dropped down from the scorching blue sky towards the landing bay of the Halcyon planetary facility.

‘I love it here, Filip. When my time is up, today, tomorrow, in a political week’s time, I plan to retire here. CEOL are building a few apartments on the Lillypad, just over there.’ Zylinski followed the man’s finger, his eyes focussing on a newly started building site, lost amongst the glorious white steel and glass Lillypad, curving contours circling within the water’s surrounding.

‘How many apartments are being built?’

‘They are building twenty-seven to begin with.’

‘It is easy for CEOL to get planning permission for that with a dear friend as Prime Minister. Sadly, a dear friend of mine, Dr Sally Falles is struggling to get permission to start an underwater population survey. A project that would help us understand how much life is directly underneath the Halcyon grounds. We had to build here but we never cared what was nearby.’

‘That was nobody’s fault. It was the only option to build a base.’

‘Maybe it was the only option. However, Georgi isn’t concerned with protocol and red-tape is he?’

‘Are you another person who hates Georgi? What did that poor man do to be so unloved?’ Henry Pool smiled a soft smile to show he was teasing the Commander.

‘Dr Sally Falles? I’ll see to it that my office acts on it as of tomorrow. Although, you can call it a favour, you can also consider it a thank you for helping the people of the Faith Station during the attack. This is not something people may know, but I do care for the people’s lives. What kind of man would I be to say otherwise?’

Henry Poole followed his statement up, watching the water’s ebb and flow once more, by saying the sentence Commander Zylinski had already considered, ‘It would also help my Government if we had some positive coverage and this Dr Sally Falles’ project may be promising from that angle. The people need fresh upbeat news too, happy news; happy people are happy constituents.’

Henry Poole turned around and smiled a cosmetic smile, no doubt paid by the public funds to a high-class dentist.

‘Of course you would think that, Henry. Those richest, who make others unhappy, are always happy.’

‘Oh, so cynical, in jest I trust! I have enough enemies. You want new ships? I can try to find the funds, but I cannot promise anything. I assume CEOL will send ships over to the attacked mining station, after all, even a cynic would know this. A bad businessman fails to look after his investment.’

‘Where were the troops when they needed them most?’ Zylinski lashed out. He soon retracted his statement. ‘The Dead have never shown any interest in that region of space, nor the Faith Space Station. Other than junkyard dogs selling their garbage and ill-gotten wares, we have been clear of them for as long as I’ve known. Until recent times. They are closing in, Henry. They will come back stronger.’

‘I know. It’s like this witch-hunt and me. One day they will close in for the kill and I’ll have no escape plan. The Dead are just chaotic. They’ll launch an attack, throw everything at it and just get crushed by an overwhelming defence. The Devil’s Militia tragically fell when attacking a superior number. They too were a menace. They destroyed all in their path and now, pfff,’ Poole waved his hand in a dramatic show of emphasis. ‘No more,’ he added.

‘I believe the Dead to be more powerful.’

‘Why would you believe that?’

‘They knew what they were doing. It’s as if they had a leader who was there, back then…’

‘Hmm, back when the Devil’s Militia attacked? They waltzed in. We were unready but now, Filip...’

‘No, now is different. They waltzed in as you put it with a recon party. They were suicide attackers looking to see what damage they could do. Several satellites dishes, communications lost and damage to base defences, cannons destroyed, and most of all fear. If that was a small group I dread to know what the main party would do to us. As acting Commander it’s my duty to warn you of this. We are in trouble. Our ships are so spread out awaiting pirate attacks on small mining, research colonies or defending the jumpgates, we have limited resources at home. I can’t call the capital ships home. They are needed out there to protect the gates and bases. Be aware of that. It’s your job to know and to do something about it. So, yes, this child in a toy store won’t turn down free toys from the manufacturer, even if the store-owner tells me personally that they will break in a week.’

‘I understand, Commander. You put it so succinctly, how could I not? You seek ships, Valon offers them. Rightly or wrongly, an army is built with public money. I won’t allow that tax to go through. If a company wants ships they should buy them.’

‘That’s funny, that’s not what your friend thinks.’

‘I could of course be giving a political answer, a lie. There are little options but I think the tax isn’t one of them.’

‘And so you would like me to do what?’

‘Find and eliminate the threat before they attack us. Valon has also asked you to find them. We agree on that issue. Take Neon One, the Dead out first, offensive foot forward. Send in the tanks, not the tax. I like that saying, I may use that. Commander, it’s been a very long day, and we all have work to do and sleep to get. If you would be so kind, I need some time to consider our wonderful talk.’

Zylinski ignored the man’s wonderful smile and marched off to his room in preparation for a short night’s sleep, and an early shuttle back to the pressure-cooker that was his control room.
The following day broke through Zylinski’s windows, a strong sunlight peeking through the blinds alerting him to the morning sun. With a long shower and a check on the news channels, Zylinski opened up a stack of emails, as soon as he had read the first he was left with three new emails all appearing at once.

‘Oh, it’s going to be one of those days,’ he exclaimed with tiredness, packing his equipment up before a knock at his door signalled it was time for a very early breakfast. Having pre-ordered breakfast the night before, he was reminded of the early starts to his shift. Four A.M, every day, he knew it was a Commander’s job to do so - first to enter, last to leave. For once, he only took several breakfast rolls, unwilling to try anything heavier, a nervous stomach draining his hunger. Washed down with a coffee he was soon off again, a pre-arranged shuttle ready to take him back up to the station leaving the glamour, sun and warm relaxing breeze of Halcyon behind for a cluttered, artificially illuminated workspace. He sighed.

Once seated in the shuttle he started back on his emails, tinkering with replies as was his duty. One email was from Henry Poole. He ignored replying to that one and sped through a daily report from Peter Lund and his crew down on the docking bays. He was soon left with one from Angelo da Silva, the Officer he had sent off to find the bearings of the pirates in the region.

“Off to find Neon One. I have a contact that can help. So far, no news to give but will be back in touch tomorrow with more news.”

Zylinski fired back a quick, polite response and then started his workload of reading through statistical data. The usual junk, but he knew he had to analyse all the information. Jumpgates needed monitoring, especially now that the Dead had shown their face in local space.

He clenched his teeth as he scowled. A report in front of him showed a larger influx of ships passing through the Challoner system jumpgate. Was it a statistical anomaly, new traders, new miners, new pirates? He sent a quick email over to request that the stats be checked over. He wanted more data, preferably more border checks by the local Military Police battleships. A few more ID codes would clear some of the anomaly up.

The steady propulsion of the shuttle combined with the stress of the attack, an early rise and heavy reading left him tired. He closed his eyes before awaking six hours later to a news report on the shuttle’s large and only holo-screen.

‘Oh, the fools are at it again.’

The news report discussed two early responses to the miners’ publicized complaints the night before. Calm and assured, Henry Poole had shown little sympathy at all, seemingly in Zylinski’s eyes labelling the miners’ fears as irrelevant and over-eager. Refusing to step down, even stating that he would instead “step up”, Poole left little room to misinterpret his meanings. Zylinski listened to the report unable to believe how it was that the two Governing parties could be so selfish. Neither side showed emotion, just a desire for political greed. The more people-friendly Unity party, once deemed the safe vote for the workers found themselves wanting as Benedict Valon lashed out at Poole showing little stability but most of all failing to show remorse or sorrow. The media had their daily news story and it would be one that ran and ran like an Olympic runner.

Zylinski tried not to laugh as a tiny scrolling headline showing breaking news reported of an agreement between Poole’s in-power Conservative Solar Republic and Dr Sally Falles’ Ocean Conservation Research department based at the University of Halcyon. The agreement was to allow a new survey to be done on the effect of the Halcyon base on the ocean life underneath it. The reason Zylinski chuckled was the irony; a spin story aimed at taking some heat off Henry Poole’s party had failed. It wouldn’t even get a look never mind a full moment of glory.

Zylinski fired off an email to his friend congratulating her of the success of getting the go-ahead. Zylinski laughed as he saw Henry Poole’s face appear on screen next to his unflattering quotes. “So organised, so charming, so what went wrong for both parties?” the voice on the news spoke cautiously repeating the story’s main points once more.

‘My day just got better, I just seen the news,’ the Commander submitted to Peter Lund in response to a further positive update on the docking bay damage from the recent attack.

As responses bled in from the Miners’ Guild and the United Mining Group, the people and the powers employing the people, the news story sped along with a sturdy pace. In Zylinski’s eyes it was like a who’s who of reaction’s, a list of names, of political spin doctors, campaigners, workers and ex-leaders all willing to side with their personal side. As a military man, he found himself increasingly surprised at the poor responses from those in power which lead to where the story was reaching.

In Zylinski’s opinion, a well-trained high-ranking Military Officer would never use such unprofessional means, vocal shows of force, and attempts at swaying public perception which ultimately were doomed. The public wanted a show of faith, re-assurance, mostly a hand on the shoulder to say they, the Government, were with the people and thinking of them.
What they got was an ever-escalating war of words, and no answers on what can stop the piracy raids as they seek to create fear and chaos.

A thought occurred; left unattended it sprang like a sneaky ninja jumping at Zylinski’s innocent political sobriety; was it all deliberate? A ruse aimed at more distractions from the truth.
The Government had little ships to offer and little answers as to how to get some out under the stars. That would explain Poole’s side but not Valon. His plan was ready, a tax to bring new defences in. So why would he mess up?

He didn’t mess up and Zylinski realised it. By forcing the issue, getting under Poole’s skin, and acting aggressively, the tax becomes more relevant and not less. It becomes more news-worthy, raising the issue further.

By giving the public what they think they wanted of a politician, calming down and being more “professional” towards Poole, the issue then becomes less important. Simply, one side agrees and the other doesn’t, electoral voting is soon, and simple minds forget during the election vote and pick the one who appeals the most.

By allowing the topic to roar on, it labels both sides as inept, with the one saving grace for Valon, his tax, it could ultimately win the election, but that would be later on and until Poole finds a solution, it makes sense to let the issue burn the midnight oil for as long as Valon can allow. Keep it current news until the Election Day itself. He wanted it to be the main reason not to vote for Henry Poole.

“Politicians always lie. It was sometimes so subtle you’d never know, or as blatant as needed. Politicians always lie, especially to the public,” decided Zylinski quietly to himself.

Peter Lund relaxed on a low, long crate, taking a break from roaming the stairwells in-between docking bays. Despite the sound of sirens signalling the arrival and departure of ships large and small, Lund felt drowsy, long shifts and little sleep since the Dead attacked the base had left him drained. As his eyes shut off for second a familiar voice spoke to him suddenly and unexpectedly.

‘Peter Lund, the chief, no, the king of the docking bays,’ the female spoke.

Lund opened sleepy eyes and eventually focussed upwards on a face peering down at him.

‘Lynette de Cesare. Am I on television?’

‘No, sweetie, you’re not being filmed.’

‘Then I won’t bother sitting up.’

‘That’s fine. You must be so, so tired, Peter, all the work going on. It’s appreciated, you know. People have told me. Nobody bothers to lie to the press, even off camera. Well, some people do but they are found out eventually. The public have nothing too lie about. People are positively glowing about your crew down here. But then, you’re not the target for the anger doing the rounds are you? I see that it’s been busy for all the workers down here too. Lots of repairs going on. Broken ships to fix for when the Dead return.’

‘If they return?’ corrected Peter Lund deciding to sit up. He rubbed an oily hand across his tired eyes.

‘Why wouldn’t they? They sent a message to the media saying they would.’

‘They did? Huh, funny nobody told me about that.’

‘Zylinski would know, came through earlier this afternoon. They have threatened to keep attacking. Our news station received a message. Several others did too. I have no reason to not assume that Zylinski had a copy. It wasn’t poetic and certainly wasn’t a love letter that’s for sure. They didn’t give a time. They said, bluntly, “We are Dead. We will be back. We hate. We will kill. We are Dead”. Maybe he felt there was no need to concern people. It would have that effect. Word would spread if Zylinski spoke of it. People have big gossiping mouths apparently.’

‘The media have the most to say. Hey, I have never said anything, okay? Not covering my back, but surely if it’s being kept quiet for the people’s sake, you can’t start quoting me and my sleepy-headed words when you approach me out the blue.’

‘Peter, what do you take me for? I am the best. No offence, but if I wanted quotes, or gossip, rumours and secrets, I wouldn’t go to you. Not when the whole world on the station has a scandal or two, rival parties, an upcoming fiery election, a Commander of a watch struggling to keep his ships in one position long enough for them to be relevant defenders when a battle ensues. I was just looking to corroborate some information, off the record stuff.’

‘What off the record stuff?’

‘I just came down here to check on my ship. It was ordered to be moved so we could get arriving vessels safe during the Dead attack. I have no problem with that. Who would? The people are safe. I left it in the hands of you, your staff, and my senior help, Amir. I just wanted to see where it was. It does allow me to take a look-see at the state of play down here, the humane side of the story. It’s what I’m known for. I side with the people. The Government have enough defenders, lawyers, PR staff, and political advisors; plenty of them. As for the people, who defends them? I at least can raise awareness, let them know their opinions are known by the independent media and that someone cares. Other than the public, who has it roughest right now on the Faith station? Poole? Valon? Zylinski? No.’

‘No?’

‘No, of course not, Zylinski is close, but he isn’t the man flying against the Dead. He is comfy indoors. As I can’t get to the pilots, I can only go to the next group. The engineers, repair squads, fire-fighters, and the docking crew who work twenty-four-seven to get this base operational again and to do all that whilst dealing with the everyday work that their jobs entail. You know the pressure cooker situation down here more than most upstairs,’ Lynette de Cesare spoke trying to re-assure Peter Lund of her honest intentions.

Lund had no intention of giving her an honest answer if he thought she could use it to harm him or his team. Despite that, he took a second to look into her brown eyes. Ever-beautiful and always fascinating, Peter found himself warming to her more and more as they talked. He knew that he most likely shouldn’t trust her but found himself willing to despite himself.

‘How are the ships?’

‘The repair stations are over there, hangar bays fifty to seventy. Take a look at the efforts of my crew for yourself.’

‘Are all of them Zylinski’s ships?’

‘Mostly civilians in for basic repairs,’ white-lied Lund knowing several damaged fighters were still out patrolling waiting for a designated repair spot to open up.

‘When the Dead came charging in, they ignored the civilians and went for the base. It was the target for once. They wanted to save ammo for the assault and for Zylinski’s flyers when they launched.’

‘So, the flyboys are out flying?’

‘All are flying but two. Those pretty browns can go take a look for themselves at the ships over there. The bottleneck has gone, the jumpgates busy with fleeing ships and all’s getting back to normal.’

‘Fleeing ships?’

‘I trust my words will be taken off the record? Of course, fleeing ships, would you stay around when you have a family to get to? For once you’d fancy yourself safer in deep space than here right now. If the Dead are here, are coming back here, as you stated, then I know where I’d rather be, running a trade ship through gates from here to home as fast as I could.’

‘The Dead are only a small part of the larger piracy problem. Neon One and the lesser acknowledged groups, who although small are dangerous, the so-called Solar Raiders, the Shiji Spec-Ops, the Bulldogs, and the rest. They still exist lurking in that deep black out there waiting for the fleeing trade ships behind gates far away from here.’

‘I know. But are they killing everything in sight like the Dead? Publicly, everyone but the Dead agreed years ago to stand by the code and conduct of war, terrorism with morals. Why kill everything in sight? A life pod cannot harm you but the pilot can return with more goods in a new ship. Killing the pilots off makes life tougher in the long-run. Same reason kidnapping for a ransom has died off. Scaring pilots just means they don’t return. Auto-piloted ships would just become mainstream. Goods sent elsewhere. Nobody wants that.’

‘No pilots, no ransom, no goods, no loot to sell, no point in piracy?’ Lynette spoke considering his words.

‘There are a few political factions out to make a point but their levels of extremism are still shy of the Dead’s chaos. The Dead don’t want the loot. Most of the other factions have an agenda but they need money to fund it. It’s hard to find cold-blooded murderers, morally-challenged evil.’

‘The Dead find evil people.’

‘Funny that, isn’t it, Miss de Cesare? How do they find the scum of the earth, all the time?’

‘On the record, off the record, I doubt even Zylinski knows that answer?’ Lynette de Cesare noted mentally.

‘Zylinski fights them off. They’re prepared for fighting them, just not this close to home.’

‘Are they able to do that and keep the miners and traders happy?’

‘It’s a fine balance. You can quote me on this, but I have one hundred percent trust in my Commander. And so should you.’

‘I’m not going to quote you. That would be unfair. I may come back later on if things persist on escalating though. You can or cannot give me a quote then. That would be fair to you,’ Lynette de Cesare smiled a pretty smile that made Lund uncomfortable. Not sure how to respond, he felt suddenly intimidated by the woman’s good looks, occupation and intelligence, uncertain as to her intentions. Keen to make a professional impression and to keep a civil rapport with her he knew he should make an excuse to get back to work, already having ignored several ships arriving. He made his apology and departed, not sure whether to look back at the beauty behind him or to flee like she was the Dead.

Lynette watched him leave, smiling her usual smile. She wandered down to the repair bays, taking Lund up on the offer to visit and see for herself what ships were being repaired. “All civilians, or corporate”, her memory reminded her.

Whilst there she received a call from Amir Rai alerting her to a sudden miners’ protest outside the Government headquarters on Faith. She cursed her luck being so far down in the docking bays and needing to get to the opposite side of a huge space station, but she knew Amir would meet her there and have a story for her to read through on camera. Other than that, she’d accepted that she’d have to be late to the party.

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