The Price of the Elite

(c) 2000 - 2003 Simon Challands

Chapter 1 - Discovery and Consequences

     Heat. And cold. One for the day, one for the night, and wind, near constant wind, whipping up scouring sandstorms. An atmosphere thin enough for severe temperature extremes and thick enough to blow the sand.
     Get lost in that and you were dead. The man with the tatters of cloth drawn over his face felt he was dead, but if he was back in his room, or anywhere else in the village, his life would already be over. For the sake of vague rumours he had fled, ill-equipped, into the desert, fleeing for his life in panic. His stolen beast of burden was already buried in the sand, far behind him, and now his turn had arrived.
     His compass pointed vaguely north, wavering uncertainly in his unsteady hand and the weak magnetic field. He cursed the thing as best as he could with a parched, dust-clogged mouth, wishing for the sophisticated electronic device he had spurned in fear of it being used to track him. As if that would matter now.
     Despite the lack of a certain direction, and with the certainty that he was probably nowhere near his course, he stumbled on for a few steps more until his exhausted legs collapsed beneath him. The sand gave way beneath his hands as the man tried to push himself back to his feet; he was left sprawled on the ground.
     Eventually the sand covered him.
     Two bulky creatures crested a dune and started to make their cautious way down it. The storm had abated, and the evening's sun was glowing through the dust. On each creature two squat humanoid forms were mounted; one of them halted its beast and peered into the sunset, a hand sheltering its eyes. The figure clucked at its beast. It started forward again and slid down a little way before suddenly stumbling, bellowing and sending its passengers crashing down onto the sand.
     The second beast stopped nearby. The figures jumped down to help their companions to their feet, but as they were doing so one of them caught a glimpse of something just up the slope, where the creature had tripped. The humanoid scrambled up the side of the dune, then jumped in alarm. The others came up after it.
     A booted foot stuck out of the ground, on the end of a leg covered in tattered cloth. For some time they eyed it in disgust, and started chattering urgently. Eventually a decision was reached, and they began to extricate the corpse.
     A tall, lean body, by their standards, roughly clothed, clutching a primitive compass in one hand. A bag had been slung around one shoulder but it was empty of anything of interest. Around the neck, and somewhat caught up in the ragged beard, was a thin chain which disappeared into his rags. One of the group carefully pulled it out, and barked sharply. From the wince on the face of another it could be guessed that this was a curse of some kind.
     Hanging from the chain was a yellow-coloured metal disc, about an inch across, with a pair of holes in rim, clogged with sand. On the front was engraved a logo, a pair of wings on an inverted triangle, with five characters across the middle. Someone asked a question; the reply was snapped, leaving the questioner looking frightened.
     The being who had discovered the disc grabbed the chain in both hands and pulled sharply, snapping it. The disc slid off, and was pocketed somewhere in squat creature's clothes. It spoke again, ordering the others. They slid back down to their beasts, and hauling themselves up they quickly set off back the way they had come.
     The body was left where they had found it, undiscovered by anything else other than the few tiny forms of life that lived around. Eventually another set of bones graced the desert.
     They travelled with haste through the evening and the early part of the night, their beasts sure-footed in the pitch darkness and they themselves sure of their direction. When they stopped it was only to rummage around in their packs for some food, which they ate on the move.
     After several hours a tiny moon rose, casting a feeble glow over the desiccated landscape. In the distance, in their direction of travel, the horizon could now be seen to be made of jagged hills; there was a far away rushing sigh, sometimes louder, sometimes almost silent.
     The hills were stark rocks thrusting out of the desert like the wreck of a mountain, a random jumble of small peaks and rough, narrow canyons. The noise was occasionally clearer now, whenever they passed a gorge sloping down in a certain direction, a low rumble, a long sigh, fading out before repeating. The sound of an unseen ocean.
     The beasts and their riders picked their careful way through the valleys, walls of shattered rock towering above them and often casting them into impenetrable shadow. Guidance of the beasts was unnecessary - they knew their path well, and their snuffling suggested they were following a trail of scent.
     One final passageway opened out onto a flat area which ended in a drop, beyond which was the ocean. From the cliff face above them lights shone. The riders jumped to the ground, leading their mounts towards the hillside.
     Two rough walls, invisible against the natural background until they were up close, met at the point they headed for, the right hand one passing behind the left, allowing someone to slip between them. Passing into this gap, and turning sharply around the end of the left wall, they walked through an open iron gateway and into the narrow flat of land between the wall and the cliff above them. Cave openings led into the cliff, many of them clearly of artificial construction, or at the least opened out by unnatural means. One of the four riders led the two beasts to stable in one of the caves; when it rejoined them they all made for another tunnel.
     Gloomy lamps cast a dim light over the rough cavern. The floor had been crudely levelled, although a couple of tracks had been worn smooth by the frequent tramp of feet. These tracks led to stairs, one set to the left of the entrance and one to the right, both illuminated with the same lamps. The four climbed up the right hand steps, which curved slightly away from the outside wall.
     A long landing stretched away at the top of the stairs, running parallel to the cliff face. Doors set in alcoves lined either side, some of the openings covered only in cloth hangings, whilst a few sported sheet metal on hinges. It was to one of the latter, at the far end of the landing, that they passed.
     Besides this door there was a rectangular niche in the rock, around which wave patterns had been carefully carved, and in which lay a plain iron rod. That this doorway was of some importance was further apparent by its construction. Instead of the roughly hacked alcoves they had already passed this one was a neatly formed arch, adorned by parallel grooves climbing up the sides and over the top. The metal of the door itself was smooth and unmarked by rust patches.
     The being who had discovered the pendant removed the rod from the niche and struck the door once, straight in its centre, producing a dull clang that spoke of solid but not very thick metal. The rod was carefully replaced.
     All four stood silently, although two of them seemed to be fidgeting nervously. With a flick of its hand the first one gestured to the others to stand still.
     With no apparent cue another one of them removed the rod, struck the door, then set the bar back in its niche. Again they waited. A third strike and wait. When the last one hit, it hit four times and barked a single word, and held onto the rod.
     Apparently that was the final requirement, for the door immediately opened inwards into a large room, exactly in the cliff face, for the opposite wall held windows that looked out into the night, the view beyond drowned out by the unexpectedly bright lights. One side of the room rose a little in three small terraces, the centre was occupied by a large stone slab of a table. Across from the table the far end of the room had been partitioned off.
     The creature who had opened the door for them, a member of their own race, was dressed in plain but tidy cloth, and had a hand held out expectantly. The iron rod was passed over to it, and they conversed with it for a while, at one time bringing out the pendant to illustrate a point. The one who had been waiting in the room, a guard or gatekeeper, pointed at the curtained off area and departed, gently closing the door behind him.
     Behind the curtains there were ragged piles of cloth and animal skins in a small room with no window. Pottery containers of food and water stood neatly in one corner, into the other they tossed their packs. There was a switch from which a pair of wires lead up to the light in the ceiling; one of them flicked the switch, plunging the room into darkness whilst the rest settled down to sleep on the heaps of cloth.
     Their sleep was disturbed by shouting from the other side of the partition. Instead of the night's darkness the curtain was bright with natural light, enough of which passed through it for them to see easily. With sighs and yawns they slowly hauled themselves out of sleep and pushed themselves to their feet, helping themselves to the food and water from the pottery bowls.
     In the main room early morning sunlight was pouring through the window, and already the air was hot. The horizon over the sea met the sky in indistinct haze, shimmering nervously.
     A group of half a dozen was waiting for the freshly awakened, awaiting their appearance, standing between the window uprights out of the sun. When the curtain was pushed back they clapped their hands briefly and retired to the tiers. The four took up positions around the table.
     Everyone present in the room spoke briefly, then the metal rod from the niche outside the door was placed in the middle of the table. Each member of the group which had discovered the corpse spoke at length, in turn, uninterrupted by anyone else. When they had finished the pendant was brought forward and placed on the table, in front of the rod.
     One after another the half dozen came down from the tiers to examine the disc, some just looking at it, others picking it up and shaking it about. They retired back to their standing places, to further discussion. Voices rose and fell for some while, and at times several were raised in heated argument. The shadows moved slowly across the room.
     The debate was broken by a sharp cry. All turned to look at the one who had spoken it. The crier pointed at two of the assembly, one of those on the tiers and the one who had removed the disc from the body. They clapped in acknowledgement, and immediately departed the room.
     These two met again outside, in the gap between the walls. The discoverer was leading two of the beasts they had been using the previous day, one tethered to the other by a long rope. The second was loaded with baggage; they scrambled up onto the first.
     Instead of returning to the desert they turned left, at first picking their way through the tumbled hills, but gradually descending towards sea level. Before long they were down on a wide beach, and the animals lumbered up into a steady trot.
     This pace was kept up solidly, despite the burning heat. The broken rocks on their left remained a barrier to the interior, on the right the ocean heaved, wavetops flashing in the sun as it followed its path around in the sky.
     With the sun now straight ahead, and the temperature nearing its peak, both animals and riders were starting to feel the strain. They halted, and all drank from the ocean near at hand, an unwise idea for a human being but a sound one for creatures able to deal with the salinity.
     After they had refreshed themselves they left the open beach and took shelter from the sun in the rocks, eating provisions from the packs on the second animal. They rested only shortly before continuing.
     For several days this routine was repeated, always travelling during the day despite the easy path of the beach and the cool of the night, whilst the sea on their right and the hills on their left marched onwards. At length the rocky heights began to loose their definition, merging into a more undulating countryside. Sparse vegetation covered them and insect-like creatures began to buzz around, irritating both beast and rider.
     After a day's journey away from the rocks the coast started to curve away to the right, to the east. Stopping only to fill skin bottles from the sea, they left it behind and passed up a shallow valley that continued in their direction.
     The valley was straight, and gradually rose away from the shore. Stunted bushes were all over it, but not so close together so as to impede progress. Occasionally small creatures scuttled out of the way of the travellers into the shade and protection of these dry, spiky plants.
     At last the valley opened onto a plateau, overlooking both the now distant sea and desert. The sea shone as a silvery gleam, but a blur in the desert marked another sandstorm. Ahead the plants looked greener; there was another shimmer near the horizon.
     Sunset found them only a short way advanced on the plateau. Without the shelter of the rocks in which to sleep they erected small earth-coloured tents, becoming almost invisible as darkness fell. When it did there was still a dim glow in the air ahead of them.
     The next morning they began in a different fashion than before, walking instead of trotting. One of the pair removed a pair of optical binoculars from a pack and constantly scanned the barren scene whilst the other guided their mounts.
     They progressed, though. The ground sloped very slightly downwards ahead of them, affording something of a view in their direction of travel, now revealing the glimmer to be a large lake. As they closed on it a large cluster of buildings on the shore became apparent, around them were fields, their browned crops not that distinguishable from the surrounding land.
     A couple of miles from the buildings the humanoid with the binoculars barked suddenly. Its startled companion pulled the beasts to a halt, asking urgent questions. The binoculars were passed over. Emerging from the town, and rapidly closing on them, were small dust clouds, flung up from the wheels of a group of vehicles.

Chapter 2 - Passing the Burden

     Standing to pull a curtain across the narrow slit of a window, Sura Elleran dropped back onto a chair to continue watching the video without the sunlight glaring on the screen hanging on the wall. The lounge appeared tatty to an outsider, a threadbare carpet on the floor, covered in dust, plain and battered furniture standing here and there, but luxuries were uncommon here.
     Sura knew Qudira well, and had no illusions about the attractiveness of the place. The desert she lived on the edge of covered vast areas of this continent; the others were much the same. Patches of jungle, a relic of a more fertile past, were scattered across the higher latitudes, and where they climbed the Farbreak Mountain range were replaced with a more open, temperate climate. There the spectacular landscape of the mountains was enhanced by the exotic flora, and during the brief stable period in the planet's political history a much-welcomed tourist trade had began to emerge.
     Now the world was officially listed as being in a state of anarchy. Communities were mostly isolated, contact between them usually consisted of raids for supplies. Many of the desert settlements were originally mining towns, but most of the industry had left or been destroyed within a hundred years of them being up.
     There was also indigenous intelligent life present, a primitive humanoid form. Understandably resentful of the impact of humanity on their homeworld, but fearful of it as well, they kept to themselves most of the time. Occasionally they were known to attack lone travellers or to try to play one settlement off against another, less frequently they turned up to barter for goods in return for their mildly infamous "nasty juice". The humans mostly ignored them, more concerned with the problems caused by others of their own species.
     Not a welcoming place to the outsider, and the large number of pirate craft that hung around the system, safe from police interference, was a further deterrent to sensible people.
     Knowing all of this, and living in the middle of it, made little difference to Sura. Her town was the largest for some distance, and well enough able to defend itself against attacks by others. The people in it looked after each other - a result of no particular virtue of theirs but a necessity of survival. They were also as self- sufficient as anyone on Qudira could be, fortunately located on the shores of a lake at the desert's edge. Life inside was reasonably safe, and it was home.
     The video flickered and went dead, and the hum from the other electrical equipment died out. Sura swore under her breath. She rose in annoyance, and ducked through to the small kitchen area. A fridge held a jug of cold water; she poured herself a glass and drank it before it had a chance to warm up. Returning the jug to the fridge, she ventured outside.
     The heat of the sun was uncomfortable at this time of day, but it was a discomfort she was used to and capable of ignoring. The house was a simple single story building of sand-like stone, rising about six feet above the ground and with another couple beneath it. A metal ladder clung to the wall near the door, shaded for most of the day by the south facing wall. Sura climbed the ladder to her roof, hoping to see what was wrong with the solar generator unit that sat there.
     As soon as she gained the roof she could see the problem. Somehow the solar panel had stopped tracking the sun, and was pointing away from it, in the shade. Without it generating she had been unknowingly draining the battery intended for night use. The roof reflected the heat back from it, and spending any time on it was unpleasant. Sura hoped that whatever was wrong with the unit was simple enough for her to repair, and quickly. It did not take her long to locate the cause of the problem; the casing of the gearing had broken and half of it was hanging loose from the other. The bottom half had filled with sand blown from the desert, clogging the machinery.
     She assumed that if the sand was cleared out it might work again. The casing could wait until later, in the mean time it could be temporarily tied in place with some string. When she took hold of the metal it was almost burning hot, and grimacing in pain at it she yanked hard with both hands. The metal stayed put, but Sura's hand slipped and caught the teeth of a wheel. She yelped and grabbed the injured hand with her other one. The skin had been torn and the wound was bleeding slowly.
     As she made her way across the roof back to the ladder a movement in the distance caught her attention, several patrol vehicles tearing out from the town. In response to raiders? Her stomach turned with an accustomed knot of fear, quickly ignored.
     Descending the ladder with the use of only one hand did not prove difficult, and she was soon back indoors. Locking the door behind her she rinsed her injured hand and dressed the cut. She tossed the discarded dressing wrapper into a bin and sat down in her office, intent on finding out what was happening.
     The terminal screen was dark. Of course, the power was out. Sura shook her head in disgust at her memory. Abandoning that idea, she helped herself to another drink and returned to her lounge. Throwing the curtain back to provide light, she picked up a half-finished book and tried to settle down, but she only managed to read a couple of pages before dropping it back down. Not knowing the situation was, she decided, worse than venturing outside. There was no sound of any trouble and no alarms had been sounded, after all. Her life was based around keeping track of everything that was going on.
     Sitting in a cupboard was a jumble of a toolkit, containing various things useful and otherwise. On top of the pile was a heavy mallet, and somewhere in its midst she found a chisel.
     Outside things were the same as ever, quiet, but most people stayed indoors out of the heat. With her good hand Sura pushed the tools up onto the roof, then climbed up to retrieve them. The injury was not serious, and she was able to hold the chisel despite it as she placed the tool under the damaged casing. After several strikes of the mallet the chisel was through. She wrenched it around, widening the hole, until sand started trickling out.
     To her satisfaction it poured through when she pulled the chisel out, gradually revealing the machinery inside. Sura blew into it a few times to clear any remaining dust from the wheels. Lying on the roof next to generator was a crank that could be used to manually turn the panel. She slid it onto its bolt and pushed. Slowly at first, the gears began to turn, and the panel shuddered round. Squinting at the sun to judge the angle she continued to turn it until it was facing the sun, although it was pointing too low. Another bolt adjusted the elevation until it was facing square on.
     For a few minutes nothing happened, and Sura waited, starting to grow impatient. At last there was a hum as the motors started up, tracking the sun of its own accord. Cheering to herself, Sura started back to the ladder, but suddenly paused, looking around. In the success of repairing the generator she had forgotten the patrol. There was no sign of it, although there was still a wisp of dust in the air in the direction it had gone. It might be out of sight, or it might have stopped. Sura shook her head and went back indoors.
     The terminal was now working, sitting on standby mode. As she sat down in front of it the screen came on, presenting the familiar custom setup. A light touch brought up a list of names, one of which she selected by tapping it. The message "Ringing" flashed on the screen.
     It was answered by an untidy-looking middle-aged man, his hair cut only so as to keep it out of his eyes, and a messy, bushy beard hiding the rest of his face. A couple of other people were sat at a table behind him, clearly arguing.
     "Hey, Scruffy!" Sura called out to the man before he had a chance to speak. "Is there something going on?"
     "What do you mean?" he snapped back at her.
     "I saw a patrol go out about fifteen minutes ago," she said. "I want to know what's up."
     The man rolled his eyes. "Poking your nose in, again," he muttered.
     "Come on, not much happens around here that isn't useful to me."
     "So? Why should I care less about that?"
     "No reason. Let's put it down to our wonderful friendship."
     "Getting you to leave me alone would be a better motive," the man replied sourly. "A couple of Gerijkls were spotted heading this way."
     The man was trying to wind her up, Sura thought. The Gerijkls, the indigenous inhabitants of Qudira, refused to attempt to talk to anyone other than one person unless the circumstances were extremely unusual, and that person was Sura, apparently because she was the first person who spoke to them after their previous contact died. Sometimes they would announce their intentions to someone else, which usually only consisted of an order for Sura to come to them.
     "I would have thought you would be letting me know straight away," Sura said in exasperation.
     "Why?" the man grunted. "Two of them isn't enough for a trade party. Don't know if there's any point in talking to them yet, do we?"
     Sura waited for a second, calming herself down, before replying. The man always irritated her, and he seemed to enjoy it, as if he thought of it as some kind of game, or a petty revenge for ignoring his advances. A quick hint of a grimace crossed her face. He was ugly, untidy, unpleasant, and quite a bit older than her, but an important person in the town, which he seemed to think made him desirable.
     "I'm sure I'll be seeing them when they arrive," she guessed, smiling sweetly, sarcastically, at him. "If you ask nicely I might even tell you what they say. Goodbye." Sura gratefully closed the communication, and pausing only to put on a wide-brimmed sun hat ambled outside.
     Still in the distance, something was moving, the patrol returning, this time travelling quite slowly. As they drew closer she could see two large beasts with them. So, it was the Gerijkls, and as she had been informed it was obviously not a trading party. Sura frowned in confusion. This was atypical behaviour for them. Did they just want to talk about something? On the rare occasions they did that it was usually at the same time they traded, an obvious attempt at trying to show themselves to be honest in what they were saying.
     Sura waited in the shade of a building as they approached. Two beasts, two of the small humanoids on the first of them, beings that always unkindly reminded her of childhood fairytales of goblins. The beasts were jittery with the noise of the patrol vehicles' engines, and the lead Gerijkl was attempting to shoo them off. The drivers ignored it and kept in close convoy until they had passed the gates in the dirt wall that surrounded the landward side of the town.
     Most of the patrol left them at this point, but one car, a jeep with a roof-mounted pulse laser that was kept pointed on the visitors, continued to follow them. They started to turn towards the centre of the town, but Sura stepped out of the shade and hailed them.
     "Looking for me?" she called out. The edgy beasts jumped a little at the unexpected noise, and the jeep stopped in a puff of dust.
     "They demanded to see you," the jeep's gunner called out. "No explanation, just orders, the cheeky little sods."
     "You're the soul of diplomacy," Sura shouted back. "No wonder you've never left the planet."
     "It's the only flaw in my character," he replied cheerfully. "A place like this suits me. We'll be off now?"
     "Right." The gunner waved to her as the vehicle sped off towards the town centre.
     The Gerijkls dismounted and lead their mounts over to Sura. She recognised one of them, more smartly dressed than most of them, and with a vicious scar crossing his serrated landscape of his wrinkled skin. Whatever his role amongst his own people to have given him that mark, he served as a translator when they had dealings with humans.
     The other was tall by their standards, and was standing ill at ease in the strange surroundings, watching its companion. Judging their gender or position by looks alone was a skill Sura did not possess, and she knew she would have to wait until introductions were made before they knew anything.
     "Sura Elleran," the translator greeted her formally.
     "Injit Nah," she replied.
     Both parties stood silently, watching each other, trying to guess at an alien species' body language. Sura knew she wasn't hiding her curiosity, although whether they recognised that or not was unknown. In her turn she thought the second one was nervous, which might be due simply to being in the presence of the race who had taken over their planet and ruined much of it with their fighting. Injit Nah was completely unreadable.
     Sura broke the silence. "Come with me, please," she asked, but Injit Nah held up his hands and crossed them over, a sign she had learned to mean meant disagreement.
     "Private discussion," he declared.
     "My house?"
     She walked off without saying another word, knowing that they would follow her, and that they disliked unnecessary discussion. At the house they tethered their mounts to the ladder and followed her inside. Sura tossed her hat out of the way and showed them through to the lounge.
     As usual the Gerijkl refused a seat, or any form of refreshments. Out of vague sense of deference to their ways Sura also stood, facing them across a table.
     "This is Palkrk Mah," Injit Nah stated, pointing with both hands at his companion. "He discovered an object in the desert."
     Expecting them to explain the entire story at once was futile. To Sura the Gerijkl's habit of telling a small part of the story and then discussing that, before moving on to the rest, was extremely frustrating, but they refused to proceed any other way. It was a small wonder that they talk to us at all, she mused.
     "A human object, I assume?" she asked.
     Injit Nah's face twisted as he spoke flatly. "Of course. If it was not it would not be your concern."
     "How did he find it?" Sura replied, trying to put the reproach behind her.
     Injit Nah spoke to Palkrk Mah in his own language, and translated the response as it came.
     "We were in the desert. One of the faraghs tripped over something. It was a human corpse, not dead for very many days. Around its neck was a chain with a pendant on, and on that pendant was a symbol of significance."
     A flash of pain crossed Sura's mind. Lost, dead, in the desert. Knowing that you were going to die, and helpless to prevent it? She had known people who had left the town, and never returned, and were never seen or heard from again. This world could be a harsh one, even without mankind's interference. Nature proved itself the greatest predator the universe over.
     "What kind of person was it?" she asked, with a hint of pity in her voice.
     "Please elaborate."
     "Could you describe the appearance?"
     "Dressed in rags, such as some of you seem to at your smaller habitations. Hair all over the face, like the human Gerring." Her unpleasant contact in the town hall. "I do not know if it was the effect of death or the natural state, but the skin was coarser than most of your race's, but not as much as ours. The chest was flat, unlike you."
     "Yes, thank you. He was a man, then." Sura cringed inwardly as she felt a hint of embarrassment. It wasn't much of a ribald comment in the first place, and in any case was just a meaningless observation.
     "If that is what the description means," Injit Nah said, oblivious to her brief distraction. He continued with the short narrative. "We brought the pendant back, and decided that it was best passed on to another human, lest it cause us trouble." When Injit Nah spoke again it was to Palkrk Mah. He reached into a pocket and removed the disc, laying it down on the table.
     A small gold-coloured metal disc, with some markings on it. Sura picked it up, angling the circle to catch the light. And gasped.
     "Oh, shit," she breathed.
     "It is of significance?" Injit Nah asked.
     "Very definitely so!" Seeing the pattern on its surface made it seem unreal, like a drop from a different universe intruding into reality. Sura was holding something in her hand that almost certainly meant the wider galaxy had, for whatever reason, noticed Qudira. Or at least one small but very important part of it had.
     "The emblem of an Elite pilot." She shook her head. "And no longer with that pilot." The body it had been found on was probably not the original owner. Theft? It hardly seemed likely. The Elite were not to be trifled with that easily. Proof from a bounty hunter of a prized kill? Then why had it ended up on a corpse in the desert?
     "I don't know whether to thank you or swear at you for this," Sura said quietly, all the while staring at the disc in her hand. "Something like this does not go missing without a reason, and someone is going to want to know what happened to it."
     "Then we are well rid of it," Injit Nah replied. "Throw it in the desert for all it matters to us. We will not take it back."
     At that remark something went in Sura. "This is the symbol of dedicated, and lethal, people!" she shouted at them. "Whether they are good or bad, we're now going to be caught in the middle of it!" The wretched goblins! This might be what's required to tip the precariously balanced scales over into ruin! Safe from their neighbours at the moment, any outside interference could be the spark in the powder that drives them to charge.
     Sura did not even notice when the two Gerijkls left. She just stood in her house, watching the pendant and wondering what it might bring.

Chapter 3 - Uncertainty

     The disc had been tucked away in a draw, and although out of sight was certainly not out of mind. Sura had examined it closely for signs of ownership, but had found none. She was certain that there were electronics inside it, and the pair of holes was probably a socket of some description, but she owned nothing that fitted them.
     What to do with it? Whenever she had heard of Elite rated pilots they were spoken of as legends, invincible cruisers in Witchspace, but she was not naïve enough to take the stories at face value. They were still bound by the same laws of nature as everyone else, after all.
     More certain were the rumours that nothing happened to them by chance, or at least any throw of the dice that could possibly be under their control. Those who lived the same dangerous life in any other fashion did not live long enough to make it that high. Yet something had clearly gone wrong for one of them, somehow. And if that was due to deliberate action on someone else's part then they were powerful, and dangerous.
     Why not forget about it? Throw it away, in the desert, in the lake, and that would be the end of the story? Unless some of the electronics in it enabled it to be tracked. Paranoid, Sura thought. Why hasn't anyone come for it yet, then? Perhaps they didn't know how to track it, at the moment. Even if they could, why not just leave it somewhere where it could be picked up and taken away without bothering her?
     That would all depend on who might want it, and why. If anyone did. All the Elite rating measured was someone's talent at killing, in the depths of space, irrespective of why. The passing of those whose business was death was seldom mourned, but were the most likely ones to have a high combat rating. Was the previous owner of the pendant such a person, and their obvious downfall a cause of celebration?
     Pirates seldom lived long enough achieve the greatest of fighting accolades. Several bounty hunters had. You needed to have an experienced hand on the laser trigger in that business. A number of trader- combateers, those in search of high profit with high risk were known to be Elite. And others, too. Space was too dangerous a place for those who strayed away from the very narrow safe routes to live long without some battle skill.
     A noise nagged at the edge of Sura's mind. In her reverie she at first ignored it, but it sounded again, and jerked her back to her room. The door chime. With a head full of her worried musings she stiffened in alarm, then shook the thought of someone unpleasant being at the door out of her head. She was working herself into a panic, and there was no need. Not yet?
     Fighting off her irrational reluctance she answered the door, letting loose a relieved laugh at the sight of Janice Yvre, a friend who usually came round several times a week.
     Janice looked curiously at Sura. "Something up?" she asked.
     "No! Why do you ask?" Sura replied, trying to calm down a little, and succeeding with the reality of talking to a friend instead of wondering about legendary killers.
     "You just look like you've seen a ghost, or something," Janice shrugged. "Never mind," she added, seeing Sura glare at her. "Are you going to let me in?"
     "Sorry. Of course, come in."
     Janice made her own way into the lounge, with Sura going into the kitchen to find some drinks.
     "What do you want?" she called through to her friend.
     "Oh, just some fruit juice, whatever you've got."
     Easily done. Sura poured herself one, too. She picked them up to carry them through to the other room, but on a sudden thought put them back down, looking thoughtfully at a small bottle on a shelf. Taking the bottle, she pulled its stopper free and added a couple of drops of the Qudiran "nasty juice" to her drink. It tasted foul, and was potently alcoholic, and drinking it was probably completely pointless.
     As she was carrying the drinks through Sura started talking, everyday nattering of little importance. Yet she must have sounded a bit too eager to gossip, for Janice suddenly interrupted their conversation.
     "You seem to be unusually excited by all of this," she noted curiously. She sniffed the air, then her hand whipped out and grabbed Sura's glass. "Thought so!" she exclaimed, ignoring the protests coming from her friend as she took a sip of the remaining drink. "Why are you drinking that stuff?"
     "It's been a stressful day, that's all."
     Janice looked pointedly at the wall clock. "Day? Early afternoon. Anyway, I thought you were going to be taking the whole day easy."
     "I was, but a couple of Gerijkls showed up."
     "Nothing of much importance."
     "It doesn't sound like it," Janice replied sarcastically, rolling Sura's glass between her fingers meaningfully. Sura snatched it back off her.
     "A little supply problem, that's all," she lied. "There's less of this coming in." To emphasise her point she drained the glass empty.
     "Suit yourself," Janice replied, abandoning her quest to probe the cause of her friend's ill ease. "You know where to find me if you need someone to talk to, though."
     "Thanks," Sura muttered. Now she was certain that she could not go on doing nothing, not if it kept her distracted like this. And neither could she go on making excuses and lies without quickly having to make more to cover up the earlier lies. The town's people worked together in most things, and keeping things quiet in such a community was impossible. They helped each other out because they helped themselves that way, but there were some who would abandon that principle if they saw a large chance of personal gain. Normally there wasn't anything in the town worth such a betrayal.
     "Look," she said, quickly. "I'll be gone for a little while. Can you get Geoff to cover for me?"
     "Wait a second!" Janice exclaimed, looking at Sura in astonishment. "Going where?"
     "To the station. There's a person I need to see about the lack of 'juice." There. Said and done, and committed now. Her hurried explanation seemed weak, and she was not surprised when Janice looked even more confused.
     "I didn't think you've ever been off-world," she pointed out to Sura.
     "I haven't, and I've been putting it off. It's about time I met one or two people in the flesh."
     It was not much longer before she managed to persuade Janice to leave, answering the rest of her queries with "I'll tell you when I get back." Now what? By Qudiran standards Sura was fairly wealthy, making money from organising some planet to orbit trade. Life in her home town offered little to spend money on, and it could build up with a bit of care. The cost of a shuttle to the single orbiting Coriolis station would not set her back much. There were no ships landed in the town, but one could be called from the station easily enough.
     How long would she be there? It was true that she had contacts in orbit, and it was her hope that they might be able to provide her with the information she needed to pass the burden into the right hands, at the very least. One night away at the most, with any luck. She gathered together a few things and chucked them into a bag, then reluctantly took out a small hand weapon from a locked and hidden draw. Sura ordered the shuttle, and tried to wait for its arrival.
     Transport craft weren't plentiful in the Qudira system, and it would be a few impatient hours before one arrived. During that time Sura realised that the Council would want to know why the Gerijkls had visited; she left the same story she had told Janice with them, mildly surprised that they hadn't already contacted her about it. If they were busy, and typically disorganised, they might not have found the time yet. She hoped to be away before anyone started becoming too curious.
     The town's landing pad was simply a bare concrete area with a few decrepit warehouses on its perimeter. Sura had been automatically notified of the shuttle's approach, and was waiting at the pad when it landed. Squinting into the sky, she eventually noticed the sun reflecting off a small object, gradually growing clearer as it descended.
     The Worm class landing craft touched down in a puff of dust, and sat there, skulking in the heat. With a shrug Sura walked towards it, trying to disguise her mild nervousness at leaving the ground for the first time in her life.
     When she was within fifteen feet of the small vessel a door near the front of the small craft slid open, although it still left her with quite a step up into it. Placing her left foot onto the edge of the step, she drew a breath and pushed herself into the craft.
     Inside it was cool, cold to her way of feeling. Ahead of her a window with a slot beneath it looked into the cockpit. Inside was a mess. One of the two seats was unoccupied by anything other than discarded food and drink containers, in the other slouched a fat, scaly creature, watching her with apparent dull disinterest.
     "You Sura Elleran?" it slurred at her.
     "Yes," she replied, tentatively.
     "Got any ID?"
     "None of your business," Sura announced firmly.
     "Can't take you without ID."
     "No offence meant, but as first impressions go yours isn't one to inspire trust. Look outside. There's no- one else waiting. You'll get paid."
     The creature grunted. "Pay up front, then."
     "Then get out."
     "No. And if I do you're guaranteed to get nothing."
     The pilot mumbled to itself for several minutes. Sura could not catch the words, or was even certain that there was any coherent meaning in the noises it was making. She was instinctively distrustful of anything she didn't know well. That was what life on Qudira taught you to be, and the anxiety brought on by what she was about to do added to it. If the pilot was pragmatic enough to see that she posed no danger, and satisfied that it would get its money, then she would soon be on her way into orbit. She expected it would be.
     At last the pilot seemed to reach a decision. "OK," it grumbled. "But I'm not letting you off my ship until I've got my money. And don't expect me to help you if there's any trouble. If someone's after you they can have you."
     Suspicious bastard. Then again, she hadn't helped to make the pilot have any other view about her. Another door, to her right, opened, providing access to a small cabin.
     The cabin was claustrophobic, with no external windows and a slightly unpleasant smell. The only furniture were two rows of three bare seats, belts dangling from them, and the ever-present mess. Faded posters decorated the walls, advertising this or that or announcing unread lists of regulations. A blank screen was set flush with the front wall, a row of buttons beneath it. Hints of lettering were present on the buttons, but they had long ago been rubbed away past legibility.
     The pilot's voice came tinny through a speaker somewhere near the ceiling. "Strap yourself in," it ordered her. Without waiting for any sign of compliance the ship began to vibrate. Sura quickly brushed the rubbish off the cleanest-looking seat and pulled the belts over her. They locked at her front, just in time as the Worm left the ground with a sickening lurch.
     The first few minutes of the flight were disquieting, the ship vibrating and rocking about unpredictably. Desire of the ground assailed her, or at least desire of not being locked in a shaking box with no view of anything outside. The acceleration pulled the belts against her, digging into her side and shoulder.
     "Pilot!" she yelled. There was no reply.
     Gradually the bucking passage of the ship ceased. Sura fumbled with the catch on the seat belts. It remained locked down.
     "No..." she breathed, the fright of the initial flight being replaced by a new panic. A deliberate retaliation for her unpleasant manner with the pilot? The belt catch appeared to contain purely mechanical components; the pilot could hardly have deliberately locked it from the cockpit. Other facts and rumours crept insidiously into her mind. People went missing in systems such as Qudira. The security of her home had sheltered her from the worst of the place, and the worst was often found in space. Step into a ship, find yourself captured in it, without any effort from your captor. Then what? Whatever fate anyone foolish enough to step into such a trap deserved, she thought. Slavery, or worse.
     Once again she yanked at the catch, and this time it gave. She nearly sobbed in relief as she shook the belts free from her body. Just a stiff mechanism, hardly surprising considering the general state of the vessel. For some moments Sura did nothing, only breathed deeply, calming herself down, trying to refrain from listening to the quiet voice telling her that she was still trapped, on the spacecraft.
     With the movement eased she stood, massaging the shoulder where the belt had bit her with her opposite hand. There was little to explore in the unkempt cabin. The faded and tattered posters were uninteresting, and if the monitor worked then there were no instructions on how to coax it into life. Sura tried a few of the buttons, at random.
     To her surprise the screen came lit up. The camera appeared to be mounted on the hull - part of it occupied the bottom of the picture, although where on the ship this was was unclear. Apart from a piece of duralium the view was empty, dark space. They had left the atmosphere, at least.
     More random button pressing revealed a rear-facing vista. Sura watched it in awe. The ship had angled away from the vertical relative to its take-off point, and the vast curve of the planet, edged by an atmospheric blur, stook out starkly from the inkiness behind. The sweep of continents was, in places, partially obscured by dust storms and weak cloud formations. A darker smudge may have been the sign of the rare areas of forest.
     Sura had, of course, seen pictures and videos of her home world, but knowing the view was taken from the point where you were standing was a different matter altogether. Her concerns faded away slightly, replaced by a different one. That of a window from which to view the planet with her own eyes, without electronics intervening.
     Gradually the view changed. The edge of the disc started to curve more sharply, and to sink off the bottom of the camera's view. Whatever buttons she pressed she was unable to find anything other than the fore and aft scenes, and now these provided nothing of interest.
     The ship flew on, and Sura waited impatiently. She had brought nothing with her with which to pass the time; that had not been foremost on her mind when she had gathered together a few things for the excursion off world.
     The artificial gravity systems of the Worm were, at best, rudimentary - that had already been proven by the rough ascent, unless the pilot had been deliberately discomforting her, and could not completely disguise course and speed changes. When the ship suddenly swung through ninety degrees she felt it, and the floor of the cabin seemed to have changed angle from flat to slightly inclined. The monitor was sitting on rear view, and the stars were gently spinning. She changed it to the forward view.
     Ahead was a massive metal wall, a square facet over half a mile wide with a yawning metal opening in front of it. Small lights and flashes winked nearby from external mooring buoys and a couple of other small shuttles. Passing in and out of the corners of the screen was a battered hulk of a freighter with a utilitarian Orbit Shuttle docked to it, for whatever reason performing some task outside the Coriolis station.
     The vast, yawning entrance drew closer. Why bother staying aligned with it? It was easily big enough to swallow the Worm many times over, and judging by the way the angle constantly wobbled it was not an easy task for the slovenly pilot and its battered ship.
     Closer to the docking bay. The space station now filled the entire screen, vast, and solid. The lack of anything outside the field of view made it appear like the surface of weird planet, covered in artificial constructions, and Sura's ground-born mind could not dispel the feeling that they were poised over such a surface, and at any moment they would lose control and plummet towards it. Yet of course they did not. Massive as it was for an artificial construction the station's own natural gravitational field was still insignificant.
     With a sudden, unpleasant shudder the Worm was grasped by something and wrenched around into a perfectly match with the station. Only a second or two later the screen distorted into a break pattern as the front of the ship hit the station's protective field and passed through.
     Inside the movement was smooth, now it had been perfectly adjusted by the station's traffic guidance systems. Not far past the ingress point huge clamps descended from the floor and ceiling and took hold of the small ship, pulling it further in. They carried the vessel through a massive doorway and eased it towards the floor, touching them down next to a transparent tube that disappeared out of sight through a wall.
     Secured in the station, the cabin door slid open. Eager to leave the squalid vessel, Sura jumped to her feet and left the room. The outer door was still shut fast.
     "Time to pay," sneered the pilot.
     Sura dug out her credit confirmation slip and keyed in the figures for the payment. She slid it through the slot into the cockpit.
     The pilot picked up the thin card and stared at it, mumbling randomly.
     "Come on," Sura snapped.
     The pilot slowly pushed the slip back through to Sura. "Be nice and add another fifty credits to that," it said, gurgling unpleasantly in poor humour.
     She was not surprised. There was no way off the ship without the pilot opening the door, and she was cynical enough to guess the pilot would probably not be averse to dumping her in space to rid itself of her. Threaten the creature? No. Pay, and deal with it later. With a show of bad grace she added the fifty credits and handed the slip back.
     To her relief the pilot slotted it into his computer and returned it. The door slid open.
     "It's been a pleasure," it mocked as she stepped out into the tunnel.
     "It will be," she replied without looking back.

Chapter 4 - Qudira Coriolis

     The station was a confusing complex. Apprehension once again assailed Sura. To her mind it was cold and mostly gloomy, the artificial lighting that shone from thousands of lamps casting shadows in unnatural places. Once she had eventually found her way into the open the vast size of the station's interior was overwhelming. Walls, covered in splotches of light, rose on all sides and curved around to meet in the ceiling half a mile overhead, and the whole was covered in moving specks of life. And this was only a minor station orbiting an unimportant world. Here, at last, the influence of the famous Galactic Cooperative of Worlds finally had meaning, instead of just being a name to the planet-bound.
     Close up, shorn of the mantle of distance, the view was far less impressive. The port area was heavily used, by all sorts of people, and their constant passage had taken off whatever sheen may have been present when the station had been commissioned. Rubbish lay where it had been discarded and the buildings were dirty and unwelcoming. Many of them were simply warehouses, blank, characterless walls lining the streets.
     Packed between and around the warehouses and extending out into town were bars, bazaars, brothels, fighting dens, and all the other establishments that arose in places that valued the exploitation of vice over restraint and decency. Some were garishly lit with neon signs, others skulked behind dark doorways.
     People, and a huge variety of them, were everywhere. And such a variety of people as Sura had never seen before, from hundreds of worlds, some striding along confidently, some standing around talking loudly and openly, and some trying to keep themselves to themselves as much as possible and hurrying to their destinations as quickly as they could.
     At many corners armed police stood, watching the scene impassively. The Cooperative nominally controlled the station, and GalCop kept the peace in this part of town. In such a system as Qudira their jurisdiction extended little further than the docking facilities and immediate surround.
     All this Sura tried to take in without staring about mawkishly like the newcomer she was. Don't draw attention to yourself. This place was a free-for-all. It was not home, don't expect anyone to give a damn about you.
     She edged herself carefully through the milling masses towards a row of waiting taxis. Her contact on the station was based somewhere near the port, but she did not want to try to find her way through on foot. The streets and closely-packed buildings had the feeling of a maze, populated with all sorts of dangers.
     The small, automated car took the address she gave it without question, flashing up the fare above the payment slot. Once she slid her credit slip into the slot the taxi rose gently and pirouetted around and away from the towering hangars and control centres of the docks. As she glided over buildings Sura watched the people below disperse, spreading themselves thinner over the city. When it set her down, the taxi landed on a quiet road. Only a few people were walking along it, but out of sight of the police many were openly carrying sidearms.
     Sura hurried glanced along the rows of buildings, looking for a familiar number. When she found it it was on a nondescript door with "Ardith Trade" written above it in faint letters. The door opened to her touch, and led into a short, narrow corridor ending in a steep stairway, covered in threadbare carpet.
     At the top of the stairs a tiny landing and another door were all to be seen. The door was lettered with the same text as the one from the street, and was nearly as faded. There was no sign of an intercom, and Sura paused for a moment, wondering whether or not to knock, before shrugging and pushing the door open.
     Parts of the office were familiar, seen on the screen of a commlink, but the perspective was different, and opened up by the surroundings. It was as devoid of trappings as most things were in Qudira, but unlike much of what she had so far seen of orbital life it was tidy, papers neatly filed and computer equipment arranged in an orderly fashion on clean desks.
     She was also greeted by a startled exclamation from a man whose back was turned to her. When he had heard her come in he snapped something unpleasant at the intrusion, span around in his seat, and bit of a further rebuke in surprise.
     "How are you doing?" Sura asked before he could recover himself. She saw him groping for something to reply with, and moved on, preventing him from voicing his surprise.
     "Thought I'd better look you up." It was surprisingly rewarding, seeing the man speechless, robbed of the voice he usually used to work through tedious details at tedious length.
     "Great to see you," he managed to say eventually. Sura caught herself. She had been expecting a more predictable "what" or "why", but despite the surprise, which had clearly had an effect, he wasn't going to be hit by it for too long. She hadn't had much of an opportunity to know anything about any side of the man that wasn't directly connected to the business they had together. Yet in her judgement, as far as she was in any position to judge, he was the most trustworthy of the people she dealt with.
     When he stood her control of the situation slid a little further; he was significantly taller than her, and bulkier, and appeared tense and almost poised for action. Don't back away Sura told herself. The man relaxed, placing a small gun on the desk. She hadn't even noticed he had been holding it.
     "People bursting in can mean danger here," he pointed out. It sounded more like a warning than an admittance of a fright.
     "Lock your door, then," Sura said lightly.
     "Because trouble might walk through it." There was a flicker of curiosity on the man's face. Did he know she was bringing possible trouble? He was surely wondering why she was here, but perhaps he thought she was just trying to use a bit of surprise to put him off-balance for negotiating the transaction of a Juice delivery. It did not matter what he thought, since there was no cause for them to be playing around each other.
     "Let's get to the point, Alex," she said. "I might be right about trouble. Here." She pulled the disc out of a pocket, and held it clenched in her fist. Alex Ardith was watching and waiting curiously, but letting her move this along at the pace she wanted.
     Sura was watching Alex's face closely as she unfurled her fingers, revealing the small gold or brass coloured pendant. His expression twitched involuntarily at the sight.
     "It turned up, more or less, on my doorstep," Sura explained tersely.
     "I don't want to know why!" Alex exclaimed, suddenly frightened. She knew he was more familiar with the ebb and flow of life in space, and therefore his reaction was alarming, suggesting that what she had dismissed as paranoid worries may not have been so unfounded after all.
     "Steady on!" Sura said, partially to herself; Alex's fright had reached her and made her react in kind.
     "Whatever it's ended up with you for, I'm not having anything to do with it," he stated. Sura noticed his hands twitching, fiddling nervously and aimlessly.
     "Too dangerous?" she asked, trying to sound calm, and failing slightly. Alex seemed oblivious of that. "That's why I haven't given it up, or thrown it away. Shall I leave it here?"
     The twitching hands had, in their seemingly random movement, wandered over to the desk and grasped the pistol. They jerked upwards, pointing.
     "Just get out, now."
     Shoot me, and you're left with two burdens, Sura thought, but the reality of having the weapon pointed at her kicked her feet into action, and she started to back away.
     "Alex!" she exclaimed, still edging towards the door.
     "I've said go, and that's it." He waved the gun, shooing her out.
     "What the hell am I supposed to do?" Sura said. Frustration, desperation. No other leads, and no other contacts she would go within a mile of with the pendant. "I don't know what to do with it!" she cried at last, pleading, abandoning the pose of control.
     Alex grimaced and he gripped the gun harder, knuckles clenched around it. Finally, he broke. "Ask someone who knows!"
     "I don't understand!"
     "A pilot, independent combateer, someone like that. Now get out!" He started moving towards her, quickly, and she fled from him.
     Outside, the street was still quiet. Sura leant against a wall, shaking slightly after her unsuccessful encounter with Alex Ardith. She was tempted, oh so tempted, to fling the pendant down the street and return to the surface as quickly as possible, but the fear gnawing at her mind had been increased tenfold by the meeting. She was scared of keeping it, and scared of letting it go. Whatever was to be done, it couldn't be done here. Almost unconsciously she tucked the disc into an inside pocket and ambled down the street in the hopeful direction of the spaceport or a taxi.
     There was a taxi call point at the end of the road, and within minutes one of the small autovehicles had landed by her. The journey back to the port area was short, too short. The immediate situation of sitting down, simply moving from one place to another, and not having to decide anything now was relative bliss, and the docks looming up ahead were viewed with the enthusiasm of the approach to a black hole. She told the taxi to abandon its present destination and take a tour around the station instead.
     Buildings slipped idly by. Sura half-watched them, submerged in her thoughts. One struck her all of a sudden - she had been intending to see if Alex could do anything about the unpleasant shuttle pilot. It seemed to her now an almost harmless incident, but it set her to cursing herself, the pilot, the world where people could get away with doing what the hell they wanted to whoever they wanted to.
     The taxi was passing over sparsely lit streets now. Many of the buildings were battered, and carried the marks of temporary repairs. The significance of this passed her by for a minute, until she suddenly realised that there was no weather here, and it would take more than simple neglect to disfigure constructions to that extent. She turned away from the depressing sight as the taxi moved away from them
     Below the ground was brighter, shining green under arrays of lamps where neatly marked fields grew crops for the station. Now Sura looked, seeing a fertility she had never witnessed on her native world, yet present here in an artificial construction floating in inhospitability of the vacuum. In truth the view was dull, neat lines of plants with humans and machinery scattered amongst them, and using space that in more prosperous stations would probably be occupied by recreational areas.
     In a short time the taxi was back over the depressed accommodation quarters, and Sura ordered it back to the port. As it flew slowly over one street, near the docks, there was a sudden flash of light and a bang, and a glimpse of running figures, but the cause was hidden from view as the vehicle drifted over the buildings on the side. She shuddered.
     The taxi set her down in the same place she had boarded one before meeting Alex Ardith. She ambled back towards the docks, hoping to find, and quickly, a transport to take her back to the surface. The pendant would be left in some corner on the station, hidden in a pile of litter; abandoning it would probably be less dangerous than hanging onto it.
     Near the entrance to the docks a bar fronted the street, but unlike most of the other ones in the vicinity it didn't suffer from loud, unpleasant music pouring out of the door and windows. Sura changed her course and went in, desiring to relax before trying to find a journey home.
     The bar's interior was filled with simple tables scattered randomly across the floor, and a plain counter at the back. People of all sorts of species were sitting, drinking or talking quietly, with none of the rowdiness that might be expected in such a place. Sura picked her way through the tables across the dirty floor to buy a drink, then found an empty table to sit at.
     The nearest customers glanced without much interest at her when she sat down, the rest ignored her. She glumly slipped at her glass, paying as little attention to everyone else as they had to her. Her foray to the station had, she realised, been a pointless spur of the moment waste of time. She had no idea what she had hoped to accomplish, other than a vague idea that the situation would be easier to resolve in space. It would have been, she decided, had she any idea of where to go.
     A sound opposite her brought her back to the present - a chair being pulled back. Sura looked up to see a man in his late twenties, unshaven, with ragged hair, about to sit down.
     "Go away," she snapped. The man grunted and sat down anyway, depositing a glass on the table with a heavy blow.
     "I said go away," Sura repeated.
     "This is the least busy table in here," he pointed out. "So I'll sit here. I'll sit where I like."
     The bag Sura had brought with her was sitting under the table, by her feet. She carefully reached into it and felt around until she found the gun. The man didn't appear to notice.
     "What's up with you, anyway?" he asked her.
     "Mind your own business," she snarled.
     "Charming, like the rest of this hell-hole of system," he grumbled. He picked up his glass, drained it, and stomped back to the bar.
     The encounter left Sura in a worse mood than before. The intrusion of a lout was the last thing she wanted now, and she quickly set about finishing her drink. Before she reached the end, though, he was back with a new, full glass.
     "Can't you take a hint and get lost?" she said.
     "Probably not, otherwise I would have taken the hints not to come anywhere near this pathetic excuse of a world."
     "My world, thank you," she said angrily. Her right hand was still holding onto the gun, and there was a bit of a temptation to pull the trigger and blast this nuisance out of the way. Such murder was not something she would really stoop to, but the thought that the man was easily removable was comforting and frightening. Frightening that she would even consider it. To her surprise the man drew back a little at the revelation she was native to Qudira. He drunk off half of his new glass.
     Sura barked a sneering laugh at him. "What's your problem with that?"
     Considering his reaction to her previous statement she didn't expect a reply, but perhaps the extra shot of alcohol had changed his mind.
     "It's nearly killed me, and cost me most of what I had, so sorry if I don't think much of anyone who lives here," he stated. The glass went back down on the table, and the man was staring straight at Sura as he spoke.
     She shook her head at him. "What are you talking about?" she replied.
     "All those bastard pirates who live in places like this," he retorted. He spat on the table, towards Sura. She pulled a face and leaned back out of the way. It occurred to her that he was regarding everyone here as another potential pirate, and that for whatever reason he was either too annoyed or drunk to care about insulting them to their face. The implication itself was insulting to Sura.
     "You've not a clue about Qudira," she snarled at him.
     "You what?" he said scornfully. "I've a clue about the realities. I lost my ship, and nearly my life, here. That says all that needs to be said. Just enough credits left to get myself a second-hand wreck to get out of here as soon as possible, and I've no intention of coming back. This place and everyone in it can go to hell. You included."
     Sura was staring past the man during his rant, her attention caught by a movement in the street outside. There was a group of half a dozen people, peering into every door of every building, working their way towards them. They reminded her of something seen in a casual glance earlier. The bang she had witnessed from the taxi. Suddenly she saw something she had missed earlier, that the explosion had taken place in the same road as Ardith's office. She started shaking, her hand gripping the gun tighter than before.
     "You said you've got a ship?" she said nervously.
     The man caught her change in mood. "A second hand wreck," he replied. His scornful expression seemed to have vanished, and he was watching her curiously. That lasted a brief second before being replaced by astonishment. Sura was resting a small gun on the table, pointing straight at him.
     "Get up and take me to it. Out of here by the back door, and quiet," she ordered. She was shaking badly, and so was her voice, but the man with the ship was in no mood to call her bluff either.
     "You're crazy!" he pointed out as he slowly stood up. "All right, follow me," he said, moving towards the back of the bar.
     Sura slung her bag onto her shoulder with her spare hand, and hid her pistol between it and her body, still pointing outwards. Still no-one else in the bar appeared to be watching. The group outside were walking across the street, towards them.
     There was a shout outside and two of the group barged in, yelling at everyone to stay put. A beam of laser light flashed across the room, scoring a deep mark in the wall at the back. There was little reaction from most of the occupants, but Sura and her prisoner were right by the back door. She pushed him towards it and stumbled through herself.
     They were in a small storeroom, with crates of bottles and barrels stacked randomly around it. Sura's prisoner took one look at her, then shoved a pile of drinks over so they clattered down and blocked the door they had just entered through.
     "Get a move on!" Sura screamed at him as the door moved then jammed against the debris piled in front of it. The man looked around the store. At its back there was another door with an electronic control panel embedded in the wall. He hit the panel and the exit slid open.
     They were in the main port complex, thronging with people. The man tried to sprint away into the crowd, but Sura stayed with him. He glanced over his shoulder at her and swore.
     "You're not losing me!" she yelled back to him.
     "That's not your only problem. Your friends are back there!"
     They both ran. The disorganised station allowed them into the ship berths without much of an effort to stop them - just a brief "Wait!" from a customs officer who shrugged and turned back to his job when they ignored him. Their was a distant commotion from some of the police in the area, but they were too far away to interfere.
     The man led Sura through to a wall with dozens of lift shafts in it, heading up to the various docking levels. Both of them ran to the nearest. Inside the man paused.
     "Hurry up!" Sura ordered him.
     "Look, I've only just got this ship, I'm not even sure where it's berthed," he shouted back in her face. "You'll have to be patient!" He dug into his pocket and removed a card, glanced at it, then hammered the lift's panel. Seen through the glass-fronted lift car, six people shoved themselves clear of the crowd and sprinted towards them. A couple of laser shots flew out, one hitting the lift and melting a hole in its wall. Sura yelled at the pilot. He yelled back. The lift started to move.
     More shots. The glass exploded, showing the two occupants with sparkling shards, but then the lift passed through an opening in the ceiling into temporary safety.
     They came to a halt on a walkway that encircled a large, open hangar, criss-crossed with other walkways stretching throughout the void. In some of the gaps between these passages ships hung motionless in the space. Sura looked at them in fascination, but her hand was still holding her gun, and it was still pointed at her pilot. He looked scornfully at it.
     "You could have tried firing back," he suggested. "It never even occurred to you, did it? You had me for an idiot." He turned his back on Sura and walked away, ignoring Sura as she followed him.
     She knew he was right, and her chances of escape this way were vanishing as a result. She pointed the gun, but her natural self-control restrained her from pulling the trigger - she had not done that when there was immediate panic and danger, and she certainly couldn't now. The cold metal world around her, everything strange, and her stood in it, uncertain, unknowing, and useless.
     "Bastard!" she screamed at the man, and shot him. He crashed to the floor with a yelp of surprise and pain, a smoking hole in his jacket.
     "It's not going on enough power to kill, but I can keep hurting you," Sura shouted back, waving the gun at him, "so get up!"
     The man climbed back to his feet, wincing in pain and feeling around his back to the point where he had been burned. As he turned his head to see Sura his look was venomous.
     "I was right about the people here," he growled through gritted teeth, then turned back and carried on walking.
     They continued along the walkway bordering the hanger to the nearest corner. So far there was no sign of pursuit - the people chasing them would need to check every hangar and every floor, which gave them some time. Nobody suspicious could be seen on the walkway levels above or below them.
     Around the corner they took the second passage stretching out into the main hangar void. There were numerous exit points along its length, airlocks that sometimes had short tubes attached between them and a docked ship. The pilot stopped outside one that connected to a small wedge-shaped vessel, laser scars marking its surface and corrosion pitting some parts of its hull.
     "What a piece of junk!" Sura exclaimed. Its owner just grunted in reply and slid the card into a slot next to the airlock. It opened.
     The ship appeared to be orientated vertically to them - the tube attached to a hatch on its top surface. With Sura watching him the pilot stepped into the ship, caught hold of a bar, and swung himself through ninety degrees. Sura watched in amazement at his manoeuvres in the suddenly zero gravity environment just a few feet away from her. The appearance of the battered vessel was disquieting, and the prospect of entering its dark and weightless interior even more so. She hesitated, once again on the verge of running away, when out of the corner of her eye she saw a distant lift door open, spilling figures into the hanger. She darted forward into the waiting Gecko fighter.

Chapter 5 - Spaceborne

     As Sura plunged through the hatch her stomach churned within her and she went careering through, completely out of control. The zero-gravity interior had caught her completely unprepared, if it was possible to prepare herself for an experience she had never encountered before, and she paid the price for it as her body crashed into the opposite wall. The pilot, hidden just out of sight in the shadows, leapt forward and smashed a fist into the side of her head, leaving her already muddled senses utterly confused in a pit of dark and sickness.
     The pilot grabbed Sura's shoulders and pushed her towards the exit, but this act threw him off his balance, and he crashed back into a bulkhead as Sura's semi-conscious form hit the ceiling. He swore loudly at his clumsiness and started to try again, but tensed and stopped at a sound outside the ship. There were footsteps and voices from somewhere nearby, and he wasted no time guessing about who they belonged to as he abandoned Sura and moved into the body of the ship.
     Sura's mind and body were reeling. Pain exploded through her head and her side was sore, and she felt sick, utterly disorientated. One leg seemed to be pinned to something, and somehow dragged her down without moving her. Only she had no sense of down, or any other direction other than one of darkness and one of light. The leg was somewhere in the light
     With flailing arms she managed to catch hold of something, and pulled herself towards this reference point, dragging her heavy leg suddenly free. The ship she had seen - the ship she had entered, and the confusion she had felt, before that bastard had hit her - that was where she was, although the fact that inside it there was no noticeable gravity, unlike on the station walkway, had not registered with her.
     Then she heard the people outside. Once again, the significance of this did not immediately hit her; the voices and rapidly approaching footsteps were just background noise to the part of her that was vaguely thinking, but something about them caused a flutter of panic in her even amidst the turmoil of her current state.
     The voices were cut off suddenly, along with the light. Scant seconds later the shocks of objects hitting the hull rang out from near by to her, but they quickly stopped. Her right hand was still clinging to something, something that seemed to twist in her loose grip, although the the way other areas of her body that had been touching walls moved showed her that it was she who was twisting. The direction changed suddenly, swinging her around against a solid wall, knocking her breath out of her and tearing her hand away from its grip.
     Sura curled up as she was thrown about in the confined and black space. Most of the movements were not severe, but came from unexpected directions and she met the invisible walls anyhow. The nightmarish flinging occupied all of Sura's world, so that she was unaware of time, other than the fact that it had been going on for too long, and could not end soon enough.
     The wild ride calmed down, the ship now just making small twitches, and a gradual pressure in one direction suggesting either a slight roll or acceleration. Once Sura had forced her feet against a flat surface that the ship's motion made feel like "down" some of the nausea dispersed, although she was also having to push her arms up against something to maintain the position against any movement she might make.
     Sura hung there, helpless. She was dimly aware that all she was doing was blundering from one bad situation, brought down on herself, to the next, but her mind was screaming that down with anger, pain, and fear, and leaving her wanting to lash out and run away at the same time. She had no idea how to do either. Running away was impossible - there was nowhere to go, now that the ship had, she guessed, left the station. It was certainly going somewhere, but that concern had not yet crossed her mind. The pilot was still on the ship, but in the dark weightlessness she did not have a clue about how to get to him.
     The people who had chased them were simply shadowy figures, too vague to be a direct focus for Sura's current state of mind. Other faces crossed her imagination, people she silently cursed for her situation. The pilot of this ship. Alex Ardith. The pilot of the shuttle that had brought her here. Injit Nah. None of them really responsible for her situation, but easy targets for blame.
     Calmed down, or at least with the edge removed from her fury, Sura started to feel her way around the compartment. It seemed much smaller than she had thought, barely more than a large cupboard. There was a large, flat, recessed surface, probably a door, although she could find no way of opening it. Not a single light blinked to suggest a control. Did she even want to open it? One surface must be the hatch that now closed the entrance she had come through, and was all that stood between her and the vacuum.
     She froze in her aimless searching by a noise - mechanical motion of some kind. It was quickly repeated, nearer, louder. Light flashed into the room from behind Sura. Dazzled by the sudden brightness she was unable to react before hands caught hold of her and threw her through the doorway.
     There was another blow against a wall, and arms and legs sprawling against hard surfaces, then something else grabbed her and slammed her against a hard surface. It was a second before she realised that she was not pinned to a wall, but, judging from what else she could see of the room she was in, lying on a floor. Not far away a chair was sat in front of shimmering control panels and display screens. She tried to struggle to her feet but collapsed in a wave of dizziness.
     When the pilot strode in a second later Sura cringed back in panic, completely at the mercy of an enraged stranger. Still dazzled by the light, she could see little more than his silhouette towering above her.
     "Hah!" he spat at her. "Not so cocky now, eh?" He spat on her again, a sticky gob of mucus catching the side of her face. Sura seemed too paralysed to wipe it off.
     "Look at the little bitch, cowering in the corner," he sneered. "And soon freezing in space." The outline stepped forward and reached down towards her, as Sura tried to press her back through the wall. When the hands were nearly close enough to grab her she snatched out at them and tried to throw the man off balance, but only succeeded in jerking him slightly forward.
     Her assailant simply grunted and twisted his arms to grab Sura's wrists. He heaved her to her feet and started to manhandle her, ignoring her feeble struggles, back the way he had come. Sura could do nothing more than panic and struggle, all thought gone now. Did he mean it? He meant it! Death, cold, vacuum, grasping and tearing the life out of her, and no escape! To die, die die! She was back in the entrance airlock; the pilot wrenched her free of him and darted out.
     She tried to fling herself after him, but she had no experience in zero gravity and just sent herself spinning against the wall. The door closed, leaving her back where she was, in the dark, only now with the mind-numbingly terrifying prospect of being hurled out into space. Stunned by recent events, Sura simply curled up and waited.
     The pilot collapsed in the bridge chair, and for a moment he thought of nothing except recovering his breath and calming his mood. He needed to think, and for the moment there were no pressing issues demanding instant decisions and reactions. The Coriolis station still spun nearby, but there was no unusual sign of activity, and in this galactic backwater they would likely as not pay no attention to the Gecko drifting along nearby.
     The peace was probably not permanent - the pilot was well aware of that. The crazy women was still sitting in the airlock, where he should have left her, instead of dragging her out for no good reason. Someone was chasing her, and the man had no idea why. Without knowing that he was in no position to judge what their reactions would be. They had seen her enter the ship, but would they pursue the vessel? Did they want her alive or dead? Would he get a chance to negotiate, or just be blasted apart? The idea of combat in this vessel was not appealing. It had been cheap, and looked badly maintained even before you took into account its original design limitations.
     The weapons that had been fired at them in their flight through the station could have killed them, that was certain. The fact that they had not been hit said nothing - they may have not been intended to be hit, or they may have been lucky. With that he had found the answer to his first problem. Escape this place, and sort the woman out later. Despite his anger with her, and the current perilous situation, he had no appetite for cold-blooded murder, and was not about to carry out his threat spacing her.
     It took him a few moments to find his way into the ship's navigation system using the unfamiliar controls, but before long the main display changed to show neighbouring systems. At the moment they were just named points; time could be spent later configuring it to provide coded summaries of each one. The pilot rapidly scanned through them, calling up further information sheets in turn.
     Somewhere fairly safe, but not too inquisitive - he had no doubt that he was carrying a fugitive, and had no desire to face GalCop about her, as well as whoever was chasing her. The few various worlds in range offered little - some too dangerous, others run by paranoid governments who would scrutinize every detail of every ship passing through their territory, if they had the capabilities. He had arrived at Qudira from the industrial power of Inines, not too dangerous a system but not one he cared to venture back to at the moment. Bierle? Run by a confederacy of various corporate powers and old nation states, not too heavily infested with the pirates he held ultimately responsible for his current dilemma, and the type of place that didn't look too closely into your business unless you were making a nuisance of yourself. It would do.
     In more organised systems various space and traffic control centres would carefully order every move of a ship preparing to go into Witchspace, but the only response from Qudira Orbital Control when he requested a jump path was "Fine. See ya." Still, following procedure even without someone insisting on it was wise, and no great chore. The computers should know how to approach the jump better than he did, and he was quite content to leave them to it.
     He did up his seat straps, and waited. The ship sat there, apparently doing nothing, whilst its drive started purely internal actions. A countdown timer appeared - fifteen seconds to jump, and escape from this god- forsaken place.
     Five seconds. The radio came to life. "You are ordered to hold position and abort jump procedures. Failure to comply will result in immediate hostile action."
     Shit! Too late to comply, even if he had any intention of doing so. Whatever had happened to him had all the signs of illegal action in any case. Failure to obey such an order would have no impact on his legal status. Let them go to hell!
     Then the twisting, distorting sensations of hyperspace entry, amplified twentyfold beyond his normal experience, before calm and the tunnel. The pilot unbuckled his harness with shaking hands. Was this going to happen every time this wretched craft jumped? The distortions were normally mildly unpleasant, but he was used to it, but never before had it felt so severe, the mark of a hull with a poor C-holding capability. Nothing to do about it but endure, and keep jumping to a minimum. You got what you paid for when it came to ships.
     He was safe for a while now. Even if there was anyone capable of tracing his jump no ship had followed him straight in to Witchspace, so there was little chance of them copying his route exactly. His egress point would likely as not be quite distant from that of any pursuers.
     Nothing to do now. In Witchspace, the ship was out of control, locked on target until it returned to the normal universe. Time to sort out that woman, and find out what the hell was really going on.

Chapter 6 - Explanations and First Encounters

     The pilot unbuckled himself, stretching to relieve the aches the jump had left in his muscles. He hoped his passenger had suffered worse, left floating in a zero-G environment whilst the transit occurred. Steeling himself, for he was tempted to leave her locked away for the duration of the journey, he moved to leave the bridge. A though crossed his mind; he paused to rummage around in some lockers behind his seat until he found a small sidearm.
     When he reached the door to the ship's entrance lock he pressed the button to activate it, and stepped back quickly, onto a part of the floor where the Gecko's dubious artificial gravity wouldn't cause him any surprises.
     The door opened to reveal a scene of misery. Bruises were starting to show on her face, along with numerous small cuts, and a few gobs of vomit drifted slowly around. The pilot grimaced in revulsion at the sight, and the smell. He had no pity for the cause - everything that happened to her was deserved, and that it had messed up his ship only made him angry. She seemed to be conscious, but paid no heed to him. Then something else caught his eye - a small metallic flash, as something drifting in the detritus caught the light from the open doorway. Some of the woman‘s other possessions were also scattered around the small room, but they were immediately identifiable, and ordinary. This other object appeared to be some sort of jewellery or ornament; he could just make out that something was engraved on its surface, but what was unclear.
     ”Out you come,• the pilot ordered the semi-comatose woman. She still ignored him, too caught up in her own misery. He tried pointing his pistol at her. She was facing his way, but didn‘t react, even if she had seen it. Messed hair covered her face, and he couldn‘t see if she had her eyes open. Setting it to minimum power, he fired the pistol over the woman‘s head. A couple of sparks flashed from the point of impact on the far wall.
     There was a twitch of limbs, and a hand pushed some of the hair away. A few indecipherable words escaped the stained mouth, and she tried to twist around again. With an muttered curse at her the pilot returned to the cockpit, realising that his passenger wasn‘t going to be able to move herself in zero gravity.
     A quick touch of the controls fired the underside manoeuvring thruster into action, and the Gecko started to accelerate upwards relative to itself. In the gravity-controlled parts of the ship the movement was not noticeable, but it provided a little force in the entrance area.
     He returned to find the woman slumped on what was now the floor. She raised her head to stare at him with bleary eyes.
     ”Get out of there,• he ordered, his fist clenched about his gun. When she stayed where she was the pilot muttered a curse. He jabbed his firearm in her direction, then waved it aside.
     "Sod you," he complained. "You can't stay there forever, and you owe me some answers. If I'm not getting any I'll lock you in there for the rest of the journey, and turn you over to the first person who asks. So come on, get up!"
     Arms pushed her body up. A grimace, then a look of surprise as she moved easily in the low gravity. She slowly gained her feet. Her feet shuffled along the floor, one hand pressed against the wall to try to keep herself steady in the unfamiliar environment. The pilot backed away and returned the gun towards her, but as she left the confines of the airlock and entered the part of the ship where more obscure physics produced weight she stumbled and sank to her knees.
     Once again she was forced to struggle upwards, but this time she needed no prompting from the man, gritting her teeth and staring defiantly at him. They stood a few feet apart, the pilot standing tensely, the woman leaning against the wall, each watching the other cautiously and suspiciously.
     "Fine," the man said at last. "That's enough pushing around. I don't give a damn about what you're involved in, because I don't want anything to do with it. Anyone who chases me for you can have you. If no- one does, you get off this ship as soon as we dock and never come anywhere near me again."
     "What about the explanation you were after?" the woman snarled sarcastically.
     The pilot shrugged that away. "Changed my mind. I really don't want to know." He took a couple of steps back and jammed a door panel with his free hand. There was a grind and screech of metal before a door suddenly jerked open. Beyond were the ship's living quarters, a dingy room that had certainly seen better days. The bare metal walls were smoke-stained in places, and the bunks simply shelves without any mattresses. A couple of lockers stood in the far wall, one with its door hanging open. In a few places bare wires protuded, probably where entertainment equipment had been ripped out. Another door, presumably leading to a bathroom, was shut tight. It all looked like it should smell as bad as it appeared, but at least the air scrubbers and filters seemed to be doing a good job.
     "Stay in there," the pilot ordered. The woman took her weight off the wall and walked through the door without another glance towards her prisoner who was now her captor.
     With her out of the way, the pilot returned to the bridge. finally taking time to examine the ship's controls in some detail. Designed as a single pilot craft, it didn't take him long to assess that the primary systems, at least, were fairly standard, enough for him to handle in normal circumstances without too much specific knowledge of this vessel. But these were not normal circumstances. Hostile encounters in space were depressingly common, even in his limited experience - they were what had, in his mind, ultimately led him to this mess, after all. Personal, face to face confrontations were less so, though, at least if you did your best to keep out of trouble when on station or planet.
     Finally his curiosity once again got the better of him, as he remebered that most of the woman's possessions were still in the airlock. He didn't want to ask her, and he suspected would have no intention of telling the truth, if she said anything, but with a bit of luck she had brought some clues with her. It made sense to him to get at least a glimmer of an idea about what was going on, if it could be done without revealing that he might have learned something.
     The upward thrust was still active; the airlock interior had settled down, and it was an unpleasant, messed up sight. Most of the objects lying lightly on the floor were immediately identifiable - the gun she had threatened him with, a small bag, lying flat, most of its contents already shaken out, and a few miscellaneous cards. There was also the thing that had caught his attention earlier, caught in a corner.
     It was about two inches across, metallic, somewhere between bronze and gold in colour, with a couple of holes in one edge, with a fine chain dangling from it. There was no sign of any engraving on the face he could see; perhaps it was lying face down. Since it was spattered with the general detritus filling the small space the pilot reached out gingerly with the gun he still carried to hook the chain with the barrel. Holding it carefully in the low G he retreated to the bridge to examine it more closely.
     On the bridge he dropped the pendant to the floor before he fetched a cup of water from a drinks dispenser to rinse off the mess quickly. Then he picked it up, and looked at it closely for the first time. A blank face; he flipped it over, and dropped it in surprise. Etched into the surface was a sign every spacer knew, but few ever carried, wings on an inverted triangle, a winged helm between them, and a word screaming trouble across the pattern - "ELITE".
     This was what he had been pushed into? As if Qudira wasn't bad enough! An entanglement with Elite rated combateers would spell more than the mere loss of a ship, and they would find out soon enough who he was, and what he was now carrying. The Elite were few and far between, but not so far that they didn't hear about everything that happened to one of their members. As such, rumour had it, they formed loose clans, some preying on anyone, some wiping out those who preyed on anyone, and often there was fierce hatred between these clans. No matter that, any Elite pilot had friends somewhere, people who would aid or avenge them.
     It seemed unlikely that the woman now safely locked away was such a person. He stooped to recover the pendant from the floor. Here was the evidence, though, sitting in the palm of his hand, shining dully in the bridge lights. The pilot considered the thought that he had never knowingly met an Elite rated pilot, and therefore had no idea what they would be like. With a starship as your weapon, you could be as physically and socially impressive, or otherwise, as you wanted, and it would make no difference. But you had to be brave to be Elite, and able to take instant and direct action in moments of crisis, that much was obvious, and his prisoner did not appear to be that type.
     The pilot stepped up, turning to leave the bridge. He was still shaken, and guessed the woman was as well, but the adrenalin surge has died down. Perhaps it was time to get answers now.
     He had only taken a couple of paces before the whooping of a klaxon from behind him chased him back to the commander's chair. The scanner ellipse was no longer empty, with a strong club now superimposed on it. Warning flashed on the screen - "THARGOID CRAFT IN AREA".
     "Shit," was all he could utter, for here was something way beyond his ability to deal with. The screen showed the octagonal vessel stabilising after hyperspace exit, a cloud dispersing into space from around it. "Shit." It was beyond coincidence.
     The black disc was half-silhouetted against the sun, no lights shining of its own. It turned, ponderously at first, then started approaching. The pilot killed the constant upward thrust and forced his small craft to leap forward, away from the menace, hoping to outrun the larger vessel. The hyperdrive wouldn't be able to function for a while, and would be less than useless. The Thargoid could follow him in, catch him in mid- jump.
     The Gecko shuddered as it took an impact on the rear shields. Blasts came in quick succession; the screens dropped a noticeable amount with each one. The pilot wrenched the ship onto a new course, but soon the blasts were hitting again. He hurled the craft into wild evasive manoeuvres, each one allowing the larger and infinitely more powerful vessel to close on him. Two smaller markings appeared on the scanner, and the rate of hits increased.
     Armed only with a single pulse laser, he was no match for what he was facing. He turned towards one of the smaller targets, eventually heading towards it with the less injured forward screens. A few seconds more of incoming fire and it was down, but a small pentagonal craft was in his sights. He desperately fired the laser, and it disintegrated in a few shots.
     The scanner remained mercifully clear of any further Thargons, their mothership either being short supplied or seeing no need to waste them on such an easy target, and the pilot was all but dead. The Gecko's shields had failed, and the emergency energy reserves were nearly out.
     Space in front of the Gecko distorted, twisting itself into the shape of a new vessel, a cloud forming around it. Then a second later it flashed into solid shape, the evil-looking snake's head of a Cobra Mk III. Other blips appeared on the scanner. The Cobra quickly came to life, shooting straight over the Gecko towards the Thargoid in a heavy stream of military laser fire. The laser battering from the Thargoid ceased. The small mark of the other Thargon vanished.
     Shaking so badly he was hardly able to, he turned around to see the Thargoid under an onslaught. Two Cobra Mk IIIs and two Fer-de-Lance Lightspeeders were hammering at the alien vessel. In a seeming miracle of foresight one of the Fer-de-Lances smoothly twisted out of the way fire was returned, barely glancing on its shields. A short-range missile from the other Fer-de-Lance blew a huge explosion from the corner of the enemy, and pushed beyond endurance it vanished into hyperspace.
     The pilot jabbed at the comms, hailing at his impossible rescuers. They formed up in formation in front of him, then accelerated off into space.

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