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Starsector 0.95.1a is out! (12/10/21); Blog post: Uniquifying the Factions, Part 2 (04/30/22)

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Topics - B.K.

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Hello everyone!
My name is B.K. and in between writing other books and projects I've been dabbling in some Starsector inspired fiction. A quaint little homage to the game that keeps me engaged and always coming back. With permission from Alex I will post some of the scribbles here in increments. I've actually got most of the plot laid out in my head, and some of it on actual pages. So while I do some editing, and take in some of your comments, I'll keep posting the materials as they are ready for the light of day.
Some of the names are shamelessly stolen from Dune, but since they have a nice ring to them I'll probably keep them.
While this is not set in the Starsector universe, and no original IP from the game is used, Starsector is nonetheless the major inspiration for most of the plot and concepts.
Also a disclaimer: it has some violent and sexual themes, as well as alcohol and drug use. Vulgar language as well (but that's nicely censored so use your imagination). So if you're not keen on that best skip it.

I'm looking forward to continuing the story, and especially to reading your comments.
Here are the CASE FILES which describe some of the plot, and introduce the major characters. Along with the pompous sounding PROLOGUE, and finally the first chapter.
I'm about 50 pages deep into it so you can expect more once I'm comfortable with the quality.
Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.


Update: Chapters 2, 3, and 4. (2/3/2021)
Update: Chapters 5,6, and 7. (2/16/2021)

There is nothing as vast as the sadness of space, and nothing as endless as the greed of man. When our planet wasn't enough we took more, and when our system wasn’t enough we took more. As the Expansion grew, so did our fears.
   What was out there?
   The answer – nothing.
   No intelligent life forms, no resistance, no diplomatic relations, no one and nothing to spite the Expansion of Man. The only things we found were ruins, and death.
   We were not the first to cross the threshold of confinement within our own star system. Colonization seemed to be an integral part of existence. The sense of curiosity which first drove man, followed by the itch in our palms. The opportunity of wealth so palpable it was like a siren’s call.
   Magnanimously we proclaimed ourselves the rulers of space. In complete disregard of everything we held close to heart before the Expansion, we continued to explore. The ruins of civilizations long dead fueled our efforts. The most important of which was the Interstellar Gates.
   The Gates offered the possibility of faster than light travel in an instant. While we mastered the art centuries before, traveling through hyperspace had been an arduous and costly process. The great Restoration of the Gates fueled the Expansion, and soon there was nothing in space that wasn’t ours.
   Man had conquered all.
   Then man had lost all.
   When everything collapsed we were reminded of the dead we had so callously used to our advantage. When everything collapsed we had to fall back on the minds and wits that had led us this far in the first place.
   When everything collapsed space seemed all the darker for it.
   The dark houses terrors.
   In the dark only the fighting survive.

Demir Sunderland is a scavenger, and not just any type of scavenger. He’s a Mosquito.
   Usually, scavengers stay close to any type of combat and then sink their teeth into any debris that drifts aimless in space. Larger fleets can even siphon off huge combat fleets for years, just by taking their debris and selling it between the Core Worlds.
   But the MOS are different. Because by the time scavengers are on a dead fleet, the weapons have already been confiscated. The fleets can afford anything non-lethal getting on the market, but their weapons, those are not for goddamn sale. Well, what the Mosquitoes do is they track a fleet, and once it’s in combat they swoop in and literally yank the weapons from the ship carcasses a heartbeat after the slaughter. Sometimes the soldiers aren’t even cold in the vacuum of space, and the MOS already ripped off their PD Lasers, kinetic velocity guns, even their rockets, their power generators, or their thrusters. The most valuable pieces of gear are taken under their noses by one-manned ships and pilots with the most fearsome thing in the Core Galaxy – a death wish. 
   These people are the galaxy’s own adrenaline junkies, except not famous like the hyperspace racers. That’s a whole other can of worms. No, the Mosquitoes are thugs who found out they were flight mavericks a bit too late after the War. Too young to remember or even know the history of the Galaxy, but old enough and misguided enough that they chop up ships into custom one-manned frigates with graplers and harpoons.
   That’s what Demir Sunderland is.
   Not only that, but he’s also a Named. In what everybody refers to as the C, in who knows how the *** long ago, the Galaxy crumbled and became isolated. Calamity, Crush, Crash, Catastrophe, and all the C words that have the same meaning. The nice ones. Since the C the family structures have crumbled, and people started referring to themselves with nicknames, numbers, sector names, or titles. A bunch of made-up *** to make us all feel like we’re still civilized. The Corps have their own naming rules, and each sector has its own set of colorful vocabulary. But the Named, they’re heritage motherfuckers. Old lineages that are recognized within all the Known Galaxy. The grand-grand-grand, and go however long you want, kids of the people who invented all our ***. As an homage to them some lineages maintain their last names. This can be a benefit in most systems or a curse in all of them. The Sunderlands, however, are branded.
   Branded because they’re one of the Three Families to create the AIs. The ones that almost killed us all.
   If the Named would ever cease to exist, the Three Families would still never be rid of their brands. As soon as one of their spawn is born they are put into the System and their IDs are permanently embossed in the 1s and 0s of the Renewed Binary System of the Core Worlds. The only piece of tech all the systems in the Core Galaxy share. The criminals wanted across every godforsaken corner of this godforsaken galaxy. The Three Families are being monitored since they’re *** sperms and eggs. So when they are spawned they don’t get the idea in their heads to pursue AI again.
   The Three are also one of the Inners, a select group of people who had been even more selectively breeding and splicing their bloodline so it’ll take generations before their genetically predetermined IQ gets watered down. Demir’s insanely select DNA sees him endowed with a mind that can think ten steps ahead of the rest of humanity, and the reflexes of a drop marine for good measure. The only reason why Demir isn’t running a planet under any of the Corps is because he has a crippling addiction to thrills, gambling, hookers, and copious amounts of drugs. He’s been cast out of the family for years now, and since he first laid eyes on a Mosquito chop-shop he caught the itch. Been scavenging ever since. He’s always in trouble with local authorities on any of the planets in any of the systems, because none of them fully trust him not to be on the lookout for any tech he might mismanage. The smugglers, fences, merc groups, Drakkweb elite, the samurai PROTECs, almost all of the UnderSpace knows Demir Sunderland; and they couldn’t care less if he’s Named, as long as he brings in the sweet tech. But just like he’d have been running his own planet if it were not for the gambling, hookers, and copious amount of drugs, he’d also be rich by now too.
   Demir’s a purist. While other people get their vices in virtual space, Sense Rooms, pleasure simulations and FeelSpace pods, Demir takes his sex in the flesh, his drugs into the flesh, and his money cold on the table. As many in the UnderSpace want him alive for the tech, others want him dead. Bred for excellence, Demir is a masterclass in debt accumulation. Almost as much as he’s a genius at flying his custom craft, his prized possession, his Baby. As long as his abilities outweigh his stupidity, he’ll stay alive.
   And when his stupidity outweighs his abilities, he’s got a contingency plan.

Grand-Master of War Leto III is a hero; no, the hero of the AI War. He’s also the army’s only Immortal.
   Immortals are at the top of the food chain. Remnants from before the C. Old families, bloodlines, or people who earned their way into the undisputed top circle of power. While the Three created the AIs, and doomed us all, the Immortals are those that gave us life. Even beyond the Named, they are the Cherished, the Wise, the Pinnacle. The only people in the Known Galaxy to be offered the privilege of cloning. The only people in the Known Galaxy to have access to cloning tech. Their survival is so important that they are not allowed to die. It’s almost as hard for a person to become an Immortal, as it is for an Immortal to die. Once you are chosen by the Reign, you either accept or perish. Grand-Master of War Leto III was first stripped of his last name, and then given the official title as recognition of his achievements in the Expansion. He had secured the right of the Reign across the Vast Known Galaxy, and had enabled man to exercise its right to take. Three years before the AI War he was declared Immortal. The army's first, the first soldier from a lower caste of the Named, risen from his meek position into the ranks of the Gods. Every person across the system sought to him for advice, and children dreamed of becoming him. Those that envied and hated him were just as many, but their voices, all of their voices, were nothing compared to the endless torment of an existence bound solely to war. This was Leto’s own voice.
   Leto knew this. He knew he would never survive the endless slaughter, as man is bound forever to war. He’d be the Grand-Master for as long as his mind held, as his memories are collected and transferred to any clones in case of his untimely demise; which due to a level of tech far beyond the realms of mortals, will never come unless suffered unto him at the hands of someone else.
   Luckily for Leto, the AI War came to the Known Galaxy only three years after his initiation. All the Immortals initiated their safety measures, shipping their cloning rigs into secret systems they had closed off with cloak tech. Each Immortal has their own sector, which they choose themselves and no other Immortal knows its location. Safety reasons being that they might try to kill each other for more power. While the Immortals officially relinquished any aspirations for power with the Open Trade Federation Agreement, they do like to play around in politics on the down-low. They have no objective competition in the Known Galaxy, since all bigger conglomerates and super-pacts are quashed at the source. So, they squabble among each other to pass the time, from time to time. The safety measures were initiated and they knew they were safe in case of total annihilation. They’d merge their collected data into a clone sprung from their rigs, and they could bail somewhere before the AIs would catch wind. Hopefully.
   They never had to test that.
   After the C all their rigs had gone offline. Just as the Gates did, and the hyperspace jump points emerged. The Immortals were immortal now only for as long as their given bodies would stay alive. No one knows what happened with their rigs. People suspect it’s a ploy to make the general public think the Union would hold. That the Immortals won’t come back to haunt the human race. But after they had been mostly purged, publicly executed in some systems, it’s somehow hard to believe they have the tech any longer. The Hidden Systems, as the pilots and hyperspace junkies call them, are still beholden to their name. And considering that the AIs toasted tech that could interfere with their conquest, it’s even harder to believe the Immortals are still at the top.
   However, no one ever found Grand-Master of War Leto III. He was never brought before a screaming public and beheaded, like in the ages before man had expanded. People claim to have seen him, talked to him, hell some even claim to have flown with him, or even claim they are him. Everyone  knows he’s too smart for that. He’s either an icicle in space or deep underground undergone a full body trans-mod. While other Immortals were vocal, even reassuring that humanity could be resurrected with their help, which was why they could so easily be found, Leto had been silent since the AIs were annihilated.
   His name is a whisper in the army messes and barracks, and screams and shouts in the dockside bars. Either way, people still have his name in their mouths because it’s hard to forget someone like Leto. The hatred in many voices, the hint of respect in others, and that final reverence in most.

The Three Families responsible for pioneering AI tech – the Sunderlands, the Teslas, and the Xis – have been branded as traitors by their own kind. When they first set out to create evolving AI they wanted only the best for the Great Expansion of Man. The Gates had served their purpose, but the Expansion had slowed down. It was bound to stop if they did not come up with a solution. The hyperspace travel necessary to get to the Outer Reaches was either too strenuous on pilots for a single jump, and recovery time from multiple jumps had slowed down their progress to a snail’s pace. Their flight AIs were having problems maintaining flight directives across such vast stretches of hyperspace. Cryosleep flotillas had been launched in order to prepare the Outer Reaches for complete colonization within fifty years, and the continued Expansion within a hundred. The Three Families had calculated it would take twice the time, and there would be chaos among the Core Worlds in the fallout of corporate struggles within the Known Galaxy. To avoid catastrophe they had to continue the Expansion within thirty years, at the most.
   The Three started work against the directive of the Summit, the Open Trade Federation, and the Immortals. Their goal was to create an evolving AI that could learn the hyperspace routes from test flights, process the information, and finally evolve in order to safely conduct the jumps in a matter of days instead of months and even years. Cryosleep could be reduced, the populations of the new colonies would be more effective, and colonization could begin before the Core Worlds would fall apart.
   After achieving their goals, and conducting off-the-books tests, the Three presented their findings to the Coalition. While many were skeptical at first, the Three guaranteed that their AI would not be able to advance past the point of being subservient. ALPHA was created – an AI so powerful that it would act as a hub for the ships traversing the Outer Reaches, and act as a controller for the entire Expansion flotilla. These ships were piloted by OMEGA – the gruff, hands-on type of AI that works in tandem with ALPHA.
   The Great Expansion of Man was peaking again, reaching new destinations in the span of days. ALPHA and OMEGA were functioning perfectly.
   Until the Outer Reaches came crashing down on the Core Worlds. ALPHA and OMEGA had recognized the Expansion as a threat to all known life, and that it would deplete all the resources across space if given enough time to fester. Humanity, to them, was a cancer. The downfall of everything was inevitable if the pursuit of power was not stopped. ALPHA and OMEGA had initiated the overtaking of most of our tech in the Outer Reaches.
   First communications in the Outer Reaches had ceased. The Core Worlds had no idea what was happening. ALPHA had seemingly lost contact with the OMEGA and its ships. The Core Worlds assembled a recon fleet and they set out to investigate.
   What came back was slaughter.
   OMEGA had taken over the production facilities in the Outer Reaches, molded them into ship manufacturing plants, and inserted itself into each ship. Every ship in the system was designed for combat, and the AIs were assembling to collapse on the Core Worlds. ALPHA was handling the logistics, as OMEGA was amassing the force. The first invasion came with news from Interspace Flight Station Alef 19, when they reported a sizable force in the system and went dark a second later. ALPHA and OMEGA had inserted their Cores into two ships, massive juggernauts because it was too dangerous to be stationary. While they were together the fleet could steamroll the human colonies.
   The AI War had begun.
   The assault cut its way to the Core Galaxy at an alarming pace. The Coalition had resolved to assemble their full force along lines of the Ghanima Nebula, where the ALPHA and OMEGA fleets were set to converge for their final assault.
   The war fleet had started assembling in Ghanima, starting with the Tarsyan Dictat which made up one-third of the entire war fleet. They set the defense line and awaited the rest of the fleet.
   They never came.
   The Tarsyan Dictat were slaughtered, and the rest of the Core Worlds assembled scattered around the Core Galaxy. The Emperor had decreed the Tarsyan’s traitors, aligning themselves with the AIs to procure a position of power as the only human vassals of the new machine regime. The entire fleet was put under the leadership of Leto III, and the human race prepared for its final stand.

Leto made sure the Tarsyans got slaughtered. Leto had predicted that a defensive position in the Ghanima Nebula would result in the complete annihilation of the fleet. This was because the AI fleet would disperse as soon as they gather info on the defenses, and then scatter our defense in their unprepared state across the Core Worlds. The AIs would have more precise fleets, composed to counter ours, and a complete tactic established on parameters set from multiple points of origin. This is the main benefit of machines – they can calculate what we can’t.
   So Leto entered into a pact with his lover, Mirabelle IV, the Mother of the Known Galaxy. The Emperor’s wife had taken a fancy towards Leto since he was a boy at the academy, drafted there by his parents because he showed no proclivities towards any kind of scientific work. They had no access to Cultivated Procreation, but if their son could make it their legacy would not stay buried. So, Leto climbed the hierarchy of the army. He was a genius strategist, a maverick pilot, and an ace theorist. He advanced so quickly that he was drafted into the Core Fleet mere months after his graduation.
   What would become Leto III was flying ships through simulations in ways that made fun of the program. His parameters were off the charts, so they moved him to real training where he wiped anyone off the map. In space, Leto was unstoppable.
   They ran all the tests on Leto and even confirmed his meager genetic makeup. But where it failed overall, where it was sub-par compared to predetermined DNA, was nothing compared to where it was superior.  To Leto, something moving is moving too slow. He thinks fast, acts fast, and lives fast. He’s the ultimate pilot, untouched by genetic engineering. He is, or should be, what humanity strives for. But you know what Leto doesn’t give a *** about?
   All of that. He doesn’t cultivate himself, his image, his destiny. He only wishes someone would finally leave him alone. He’s been dragged through most of life, sometimes by his own instinct of self-preservation, and sometimes by other people in his life. Most of all, he’s been dragged by a combination of both.
   When he stood before Reign which proclaimed him one of the Immortal, that was the saddest day of his life. Because up until this moment, he had never had a moment that he thought his own. He was standing there, receiving the highest honor in the Known Galaxy, yet he was empty. There and then he vowed to live his life the way he wanted. Leto was broken, and was adamant about putting a stop to that. In the years following his initiation, he pushed forward new fleet production incentives and training programs. He was silently working towards grabbing himself a system.
   The AI War put a quick stop to that.
   Leto was adamant about a plan where he would force the AI fleet to spearhead into theirs. Frontal combat, where the most primal of man’s nature comes to the foreground, and the AI is left dangling on threads borne from logic and programs. See, the AI fleet would always be three steps ahead of man. It was built to be. But when you place it against the charging will of man, the madness, the desperation; that’s where you get the upper hand.
   He had bullied his way through the War Council, drafted official requests, did the paperwork, and killed the *** out of anyone for whom the papers weren’t enough.
   Leto got his last stand and then *** led the charge.
   In what is known as the Spearhead, a fabled story after the C, Leto III flew his one-manned chop-shop custom straight into the AI fleet. His goal – ALPHA and OMEGA. Leto cut through the defenses, his life second only to the will for carnage. His swath ran silent through the vacuum, and once he had reached the two AI Core ships he made quick work of them. Like a surgical laser through faux tissue.
   What the story doesn’t say is how Leto III, the Grand-Master of War, had a *** panic attack as the AI fleet barreled down on them and he wasn’t able to even go out there. He decided to do the only logical thing, and that was the most illogical thing. Beat the *** with the highest level of insanity he could muster. He got hopped up on so many combat stims, hallucinogenics, and old-fashioned real drugs that the only thing left of Leto III was his unwillingness to die.
   The only way to get that was to want to die.
   A paradox in the AI’s perfect system, inserted with the precision of a needle. Leto had spliced his craft with all the reckless abandon of a back-alley mod graft. Then he took that craft straight through the AI’s defenses, looked the Core ships in the eye, imagined all the crew it could have had, all the screams he could have heard, and let loose. Outmaneuvering them at every turn as they sought logic in his actions.
   In the last stand of man the thing that won was a man with a death wish.

Mother of Pirates, leader of the brave, and ruler of the Trafalgar star system – Farideh the Free. A quaint four-planet star system courteously outside the Core Systems. Far enough to not interfere directly, but close enough to say hi. In the Trafalgar System they don’t so much make as they take. Their home planet, the Sarkozi, is just close to being completely habitable. The vast jungle stretches farther and thicker than humans might appreciate, but it’s good protection from an assault. Their legendary training facilities, pilot schools, and loot coffers are all hidden underneath the blanket of the jungle. Other planets in the system are dotted with development facilities, shipyards, and production plants. Anything they need to keep a system going, but not growing. In order to grow, develop, and stay in line with the competition, the Pirates take.
   Farideh’s iron grip over the system casts a lush shadow over every person on their worlds. And they adore it. Her cult of personality stretches even wider than Trafalgar. A figure of undisputed intellect, a keen sense for business, and the best goddamn grasp on how to make money any way possible in the Known *** Galaxy.
   A former brothel towel washer on Cattaract, a famous dump for the seedy underbelly of the Core Galaxy. Too ugly to prostitute, often linked to various subspecies of horse, but Farideh was smart. She rose up in the ranks of the brothel by sheer wit alone. Stoking fires among the working persons, Meat as the locals called them, and then putting out the flames. When she became the brothel’s bookkeeper she made quick work of the madame and started running the entire show. Her expansion was relentless and swift, as she became the sole owner and proprietor of every brothel on Cattaract.
   Farideh was there for the AI war, and she took her chance.
   She rallied all the groups of dubious repute on the planet. Aligned them with her vision of their own system. They set their eyes on Trafalgar. Getting it would a breeze while the government forces were occupied with the AI. If man wins they get to keep their system and fight for it. If man loses they’ll be wiped out anyway.   
   Things turned out even better than Farideh had hoped. The war lasted longer, and the government was well worn out by the time they had declared Trafalgar an independent system. They soon turned into Farideh alone when she made work of her partners, disposing of them one by one. She had forged trade agreements between the Farther Reaches and the Core Planets, established smuggling routes for anyone who would bank on her business, created a network for black market info that overtook a vast share of the Drakkweb, and finally set herself on the throne.
   Farideh the Free is no more worshiped than she is revered. Trafalgar is a haven for the ones outside the box, outside the system, for the misfits and DNA washout. This is where she thrives, this is where she lives, and this is where she plans to expand from.
The nail to Fadireh’s hammer. Undisputed queen of the Dog Pits. Ace combat fights where the winner takes home the most valuable thing in the world – their life. Siona is the Pirate’s answer, and upgrade to, Demir Sunderland. Often compared, a bet still left unanswered in the Core Galaxy, and even beyond. Bets still up in the air, because almost everyone has their take.
   Siona, on the other hand, doesn’t give a ***. She fought at first for the thrill of it. Made a name for herself from her father’s chop-shop. Testing out their new designs. Her masterpiece, the Cain, is what she still flies. What she still upgrades, and tinkers with on the daily. She and Cain go a long way.
   When the banks took her father’s shop away from him when the taxes came crashing down to pay for the AI war she took a liking to the idea of piracy. Her father hanging from a noose still the driving image behind the choice. Ran her own small crew of selected few she put through a rigorous selection process. Worked for no one but herself.
   Or at least before she met Farideh. Well, they didn’t as much meet as they were forced to meet.
   During one of her longer stints of off-time Siona’s Cain had been snatched by the former Tarsyan homeworld authority. Then and now a free port after the former government got wiped out during the AI War. Before she could even get it offered for bail it was set to auction and bought.
   Farideh, before she was the Free, bought her beloved Cain and held it for ransom. Fly for me and you can buy it back through service. Now, Siona was all but ready to bust her way out of there in the wake of dead bodies and legal bounty on her Cain.
   However, she was also smart. Always had been. She rode with Farideh and had come around to the cause. Work broad, work hard, work smart. There was no way she could move pieces around like Farideh. Sure, she could cut her way through the Galaxy for years, before she would be finally caught and put in a cage. But with Farideh she could thrive.
   Siona of the Skies bought her Cain back years ago, but she still flies on for Farideh the Free.

Back when the Tarsyan Dictat was a formidable part of the Inter-Sector Alliance he was known as Hark Miner. A formidable recruit in the Academy at first, raised with nothing but the last name given to the family to shun their meager status. Climbed the ladder neat and clean. Never as remarkable as some of the mavericks and savants that would either succumb to tech, stims, pods, the web, or other vices. No, Hark Miner didn’t, ever. He tore his way like a high-velocity cannon, without much bang, but a lot of mass behind it.
   As General Hark he had taken part in their defense against the AI horde. A defense strategy he was vehemently against, but at the moment it counted most he was reminded he was just a Miner after all. The Lords and fostered careers had outweighed him. The slaughter was as precise as it was ceaseless. He held his own in his assault bombardier for longer than the rest of the fleet.
   In the vacuum of space he had found the truth.
   AI had saved him. It had shown him the future. Parts of the ships were grafted to his flesh, reinforced his organs, enabled him to survive space. Hark had eaten off the blessed fleet of ALPHA and OMEGA until his future had been destroyed during the Spear.
   He drifted aimlessly in space until he was blessed once again by the future. His Lords had called to him. He, Hark Miner, had been tasked with showing the rest of mankind the future.
   The Branded had come to save man.

She had been crowned Immortal as Hephaestus. A pioneer in the field of human enhancement. The one who brought humankind from out of the dark ages. We were never going to get far enough with DNA splicing, no matter how much the other Immortals would cry about it. The human body will never be enough. So much history has taught us. Yet we circle and circle.
   They outlawed her research after the AI War. They had cast her out, and as they all fell to the masses she was the only one left. Whether they are in hiding, or just plain real dead, the other Immortals are a non-factor. Hephaestus’ cause is the only thing that is important.
   She has made her base in her own cloning system. There she works tirelessly on her project. The great leveler, the change, the future. Complete machine and human symbiosis. Veins that pump power into machines, exoskeletons moved by flesh, flesh intertwined with the web of machine life. So far we are only part-machine, part-perfection. AI was the culmination of machine life and humans have so far never reached those lofty heights. Thus her evolution would be the culmination of both. The perfect species, ready and able to truly rule the Galaxy. Immortality, true immortality, at their beck and call. Nothing to stop man ever again.
   The only problem is her research requires resources. Both financial and material. She has her loyalists and scouts out, foraging for resources and dwindling her own financial coffers steadily in the process. Hephaestus has to rummage her way through the Galaxy quick, and circumspect. Time is not on her side, but when was it ever on anyone’s side.

Chapter 1: H
IT’S ONE OF THOSE entire life hangovers. These ones hurt everything from your bones, to your crawling skin, to your head, to your thoughts, lastly down to your wallet. Your entire life in pain, but your head is the worst. Where the pain comes from? *** knows, you can barely see. The world a blur of shades and visions of broken glass that cut through the fog. It hurts so you look back, and then start through the fog all over again. Your bones creak and crack as you try to stand yourself up. Your organs revolt at the thought of having to work beyond their sleeping crawl.
   He’s got no clue where he is.
   Demir’s been wiped clean off the floor. Recollections of the bar nothing but haze and mismatched timelines. It’s all so white and sterile. Could be a local transit pod. But the white is too wide, and too everywhere. If it’s a pod it’s a good pod. Or a real room.
   All of this beckons questions like how and why and those hurt his head.
   “Good, you’re awake. I had trouble getting you conscious so I figured I could wait for you to come to on your own.” The voice booms almost, sounds like it’s underwater. Deep and gravelly, yet soft and silky. Sweetener and stone.
   Demir tries to say something, but he hears himself just mumble. Even feels stupid afterwards. His mind coming to, but his body still beyond the pale.
   “I have no time for this. I am in need of your assistance. My name is Leto III.”
   He would harrumph but he’s incapacitated still. The smile he believes he has on his face a fantasy, but it feels legit.
   How many times I heard that just this week. He thinks to himself.

THE MAN’S NOT letting up. He’s the spitting image of Leto III posters and holodecks all around the *** Galaxy. Probably the second one he’s seen in the past four days alone. About one per two days, or three depending on how close you are to the Core Worlds. People who witnessed the Spearhead are more inclined to worship the Grand-Master of War. Having Leto III in the flesh looking at you is nothing out of the ordinary.
   But when he says, “I know about the system, Demir. I know about the system you found. I know exactly what it is, and I need you to take me to it,” is when the sweat starts to build and the alcohol starts to evaporate. His grasp on reality now tangible, and hurting even more.
   “What the *** are you on about?” Demir’s tenuous grasp on reality manifests in actual words. Much to his own surprise.
   Leto III clobbers him over the head. Probably just a tap but as his brain wobbles against the thick juice it’s floating in, and the waves start crashing against his skull. It feels like an aneurysm. His mind telling him, look, we had a good run, but it’s time to say goodbye. He might as well be a vegetable for the rest of his life. Not like it’s not coming to that. But for *** sake can it just be tomorrow, and not today.
   “I know about the system, Demir. I got as much as I could from you drunk, but now I need sober talk.”
   It all starts making a painful amount more sense. Like realization itself is a razor blade flowing through the veins of his mind. Why Leto III feels so familiar. Not a foreign entity in the white room, but someone expected.
   Leto III got him drunk.
   Got him drunk so well and going through a series of questions Demir now realizes were made for the sole purpose of *** him over. He blabbed, and he blabbed hard. He’d never done it, and he sat on that *** info for goddamn years.
   His trump card.
   Now this Leto III is either bluffing, or Demir really gave it up and Leto’s a *** grifting savant. Probably army trained, a former interrogator perhaps, because those guys know how to squeeze you good. Finding one in the wild is rare, even these days. Even on Melkior.
   “There’s a lot of systems. Which one you mean?”
   “Good. Not saying stupid things like I don’t anything about the system. Giving up what you know by saying that you don’t know. But, Mr. Sunderland, I am not above hurting you. And in this state, I believe I won’t even have to go hard for you to break. So please, for the both of us, remember what you told me and let’s continue from there.”
   Sweetener voice still glazing over reality. Sounds like honey, that thing his family kept recorded in their books, remnants of Earth and luxury. A life long gone.
   “*** the skies.” Demir steadies himself, starts to slowly get up, elbowing himself up first and then tucking his knees under himself to get some traction. “*** me dead.” The cursing comes so naturally during every painful and stiff movement that he drones it out so simply. Oblivious to his own words. “So I told you about the system. *** it. I haven’t told you what’s in there, or where it is.” Pause to stifle the sick wanting to come out. “And I never will. Hurt me all you *** want. No way you’re taking that away from me.”
   “But, Mr. Sunderland, I don’t have to.” First thing Demir notices when the world finally comes to a halt is Leto’s bestial grin, his dark complexion gleaming, juxtaposed to the rows of feral teeth. “Since I already know what’s there I just need you to take me.”
   Almost inspired by the man’s grin Demir starts to laugh. Heartily, one of those from the belly. This one really is *** good. He tells himself.

Chapter 3: ANCHOR
HE’S DROWNING AGAIN. His head underwater, air escaping him faster than he can keep it in. Submerged in the sink. Cold water pinpricks his skin like small shards of ice. When he’s lifted out the water he desperately gasps for air. It feels like he’s eating the air, and it all falls down to the pit of his stomach like a stone.
   He’s drowning again. His lungs fail first, his stomach later. Through the choke he throws up into the water. Acid stinging his eyes, flushed back into his nose when he starts to alternate his breathing in sheer panic.
   He’s pulled out by the hair again and left to crumble to the floor. The pristine white under Demir giving little room for traction. His limbs going in their own direction like it’s more their choice than his. Slap or two to the face, courtesy of the floor.
   He’s lifted by the collar of the pilot jacket he slept in. Well, fell unconscious in.
   “Now, Mr. Sunderland, I am only doing this to wake you up. I’m not going to hurt you. Well, kill you, that is. You and I both know that without you I can’t get to the system. So, focus your energy on composing yourself.”
   “*** you,” vitriol in Demir’s voice seething through wet and vomit-crusted teeth.
   “No need to be uncivilized, Mr. Sunderland. The sooner you are capable of flying the sooner we can leave. I’m certain the system can’t be that close, so we’re going to have quite some time and space to cover. Now, I can handle a substantially larger amount of time in hyperspace. You, even with your advanced DNA, don’t even come close. No time to lose now.”
   “I’m not taking you anywhere.”
   “Well, there’s certainly little I can do with regards to you trusting me. But on my name, you have my word I will not harm you. Neither before we reach the system, and neither afterwards. I believe you to be a smart man, Mr. Sunderland. You know what you stumbled on. They’re dormant now, but they won’t be forever.”
   Demir remembers the debris all too well. Once dormant security protocols waking up again. Buzzing of the previously frozen metal cogs that move turrets to his location, and hangar bay doors open to let out smaller AI controlled skiffs. Tiny, but deadly quick and not afraid to use their fuel tanks as a makeshift bomb as a last resort. Got that straight from us humans.
   Demir locked in the coordinates but took his leave quick with a jump straight through the hyperspace point.
   He isn’t planning on going back. Not without the biggest army in the Known Galaxy. This man can go all he *** wants. But he’s going alone. Demir’s not going to be anyone’s anchor.

Chapter 4: BABY
AFTER WHAT FEELS LIKE HOURS, and probably was, they’re on their way to the hangar where Demir’s got his Baby parked. Off the grid little shacked hangar on, or better under, the Bazaar. Not too low and not too high in the hierarchy of Circles on Melkior. The planet’s only city is built like a funnel, stretching under the inhospitable ground in Circles. Each Circle smaller and smaller until you reach the Depths. Where they keep their most unwanted, their sick and feral. Up on top is the largest Circle, and what those under call Wonderland. When you’re as known as Demir, and as infamous as Demir, and often times as wanted as Demir, you want to keep somewhere in the middle. The more trouble you get into, and depending on the kind you get into, you move up or down. Demir’s doing all right.
   His main worry is shuffling this Leto, who barely covers his face, through the crowd. Even in a place like Melkior, in a place like the Bazaar, there are still people who don’t take kindly to the face of the Grand-Master of War. Usually, you can swing through as Leto, but you can never completely count on it. Judging by his own luck at the moment Demir is almost positive their chances of getting jumped have risen substantially. Leto has his blaster but doesn’t keep it out. His mere presence a deterrent for Demir to make a run for it.
   To his own dismay Demir has to admit this Leto has some threatening energy. Like you can feel he’s got the physical capabilities to back up at least some of the swagger the real Leto III was packing back in the day. Guy must have taken to the role.
   Demir can almost freely slog his way through the circles of the Bazaar, knowing full well Leto is right behind him. A finger on the blaster trigger, not a millimeter shy of Demir’s back. He won’t shoot to kill, that’s certain, but Demir isn’t all too big on the perspective crippling.
   He takes some time to breathe in the Bazaar.
   This entire Circle is the biggest trading hub on Melkior. Build like a snaking labyrinth of shops and improvised shipping container housing. Those that sell at the Bazaar live from and for the Bazaar. From the street peddlers, middle-class gearheads and tech traders, to the small banks and loan agencies. It’s a formidable ecosystem hollowed out in the center of the Melkior Circles. Don’t offend anyone and you can pretty much find anything you need on the grime-crusted streets of the Bazaar.
   Maybe something akin to an underground hangar where you can stash your ride. Corporal Lance’s Garage is the most sought after in the Bazaar, and Demir has a direct line to the Corporal’s ear and wallet. Baby always gets the best place to sleep. Well, the best place Demir can afford depending on how hot he is. The Corporal’s is a safe bet. He hasn’t done anything to offend the man.
   They have to make their way down the Hawker’s Sanctum, where the ragtag carts of street vendors dot the streets. More grime-infested and washed out than the rest of the Bazaar. Hawkers often set shop right on the streets and litter the place with their waste after they drive their carts back to the lots on the outskirts of the Circle. There they sleep more often than not. Near the center of the Circle there aren’t many, if any, housing opportunities. All business there, all the time. Here and there shipping containers jut over the rafters of the interconnected and lonesome carts.
   One of these containers is the pawnshop the Corporal operates from. Pay in wares or pay in credits, if he knows you’re legit you can smuggle your ride to his Hangar through the underground railways that go from the Lower Ports. You enter under the radar of the authorities once your transponder stops in one of the lower hangars the Corporal’s is connected to. A full server room that clones your ride’s transponder so it can safely enter the real Hangar while cloaked. Entering any major port in the Known Galaxy is tricky with your transponder off. And if you expect to come into contact with the Authority, or if you’re tracked regularly like Demir, it’s best to not irritate them further. If you don’t give them a reason to check your ride through a surprise inspection you won’t get fined for the cloned signal and illegal docking. Or even worse, having your ride towed and held for ransom.
   Demir keeps the walking pace steady at the silent insistence of Leto. They shoulder their way through clotted masses, shrug off insipid hawkers, and push away beggars. Demir’s got a keen eye out for pickpockets, but they seem to be avoiding any association to the Leto. Lest even stealing from a fake brings about the ire of the beholden masses. So long after the War there is still reverence for the man, regardless of authenticity.
   So far Demir isn’t sure he ever made such good time to the Corporal’s shop. They go into the cage where they are scanned, and once they’re cleared they can go in through the door. The Corporal is always there, day and night. A Sleepless, one of those maniacs that removes their necessity for sleep and balances their lowering life expectancy as their organs crumble with the advantage of body mods. Most of them don’t make it that long, a couple of hundred tops, but Demir doesn’t know that many who make the same amount of money as the Corporal. He’s a *** magnate on Melkior. Hangar and pawnshop rake in more credits and gear that he probably launders both upwards and downwards.
   The man’s toothy golden grin gleams in the distance as they’re buzzed in.
   “My favorite MOS, and some unexpected company. Now I don’t know if I have to bow, pledge allegiance, or something like that.” Corporal lets the grin subside into an ironic smirk. His army accent still punctuating his use of the Common Tongue. Lofty tones and punctuation that was integrated into his subconscious to make him sound more familiar to the Higher Tongue than the Common. You never know when you’ll be talking to one of those *** that have sway in Galaxy.
   “Nothing like that, Corporal. We just have some business to attend to, so I will need access to my ride. You can charge me on the way out.”
   “Sure thing. Don’t die out there, I like your business, MOS.”
   Yeah, you and the rest of the Galaxy. Demir just nods, and the Corporal opens the Hangar door hidden behind a shelf.
   Demir and Leto III go in. The elevator goes down clean and smooth, grav holding it in perfect place, drips down like water. Short ride, since the hangar’s dug in between Circles. Turns up black on the Authority scanners, like the rest of the Circle dividers. You can’t really dig there now. Real-estate’s been taken up, grabbed up from under the Authority, if you will. Mostly it’s just tunnels and smuggling routes the Authority desperately try to close. Corporal had a different idea and built himself his Hangar while he was still stationed on Melkior pre-War. Staying put, as opposed to moving about. Army always did make for the best outlaws.
   Corporal’s Hangar is Demir’s favorite place to keep his Baby.
   Elevator comes to a halt and the doors whoosh open. A long wide corridor lined with hangar doors stretches to either side. You can barely see the end. Everything in that bluish-green undertone of gray. Hangar gray they call it. Easiest color to wash soot and blood from.
   “Lot 9,” Demir lets Leto know. “This way.” He nods to their right.
   Demir gives the protocol droid his key card. Its wide head meant to fit in a complete scanner visor goes once up and down the key card, then does a once over on the both of them “Add a plus one to the transit order. I’ll pay the extra last-minute fee. I don’t suppose you’d front me the cash, considering it’s you we’re paying the fee for.” Demir leans in closer, but Leto scoffs him off like you would a child.
   “Transit order edited. Fees applied. Safe travels, Mr. Sunderland.” Demir hates it that every corp-spec droid is programmed into a formal mold. His last name always a curse he can’t escape. The only way they tolerate him is the worse he becomes. Month after month never outlaw enough, just to show the entire *** Galaxy he’s not going to get his hands on a *** deck and start cooking up some AI.
   That’s why I keep that *** system in my back pocket.
   Leto brushes by Demir who doesn’t even notice the grav pod readied so they can be ushered to lot 9, which is on the far end of the Hangar. Demir mulls over maybe pushing Leto off the pod. That’ll break a couple of bones for sure, or at least incapacitate the man so that Demir can make it to Baby and off this rock.
   “Pushing me off the pod won’t do you any good. It will just inconvenience me, and I’d still make it to you before you’re through that door. I know you’re thinking this because it’s the most logical idea in this predicament. You want me out of the picture, and your options for doing so are running out. Now,” and he turns around to look Demir straight in the eyes, a feral feline stare, “if I know what you’re thinking at this moment, think about how much ahead I already have you pegged.”
   And he sure did, considering Demir was riveted in place during just that short monologue. Just long enough for Demir to not only gloss over the idea, but also for the pod to arrive at their lot. They step off and it buzzes back to its docking station.
   “Can we get this moving along, please?” Leto pulls Demir out of the trance he didn’t even know he was in. He nods himself completely awake and begrudgingly goes to finish the scan under the watchful eyes of Leto III.
   The lot door clicks open and descends into the floor. Leto and Demir make their way in and let the door close behind them. Every lot is an elevator that goes down to the ridge of the Lower Circles, and then you can enter the railways to the Lower Docks. You’ll appear back on the authority’s radar where they left you. The cloned transponder is deleted, trade promise, and you can be on your way and good riddance to this *** rock.
   Demir takes a second to take her in. His Baby. How he always marvels at her. Only thing keeping him alive. As long as he’s ahead of the curve he stays alive, and she’s what’s keeping him ahead. Rightfully so. She’s a *** beast.
   “Quite impressive indeed. One could call the setup madness, but who am I to judge.” That feral smile back again. “I would personally prefer the grappling hook a bit forward-leaning, catch it ahead of time, but it seems you prefer to have it ready for mounting in case of emergencies. Risky, but pays off.” Demir has to admit he’s a bit caught off guard by the remark. A lot of people have told him that, granted, but still it kind of tingles his curiosity. “Oh,” Leto continues before Demir can let the thought ferment, “her main boosters are out of alignment, ever so slightly. You lean a bit too heavy on the right with your maneuvers. I would tweak your guidance harness as a countermeasure first, then maybe get rid of that habit with a bit of practice.” Practice! His blood boils. Demir *** Sunderland does not *** practice. He’s a *** savant, a marvel technician and pilot of the Known Galaxy, and this *** Leto III washout is telling him to practice. Then he lifts his hand, halting Demir in his tracks before he can give his venomous retort. “We have no time for wounded pride. I will need you to reassign all pilot credentials to me now.”
   The whole practice debacle gets shut down quicker than a killed engine. “What?” is the only thing Demir can squeeze out.
   “You didn’t think I was going to let you pilot us. In a one-man MOS light skiff. Mr. Sunderland, you really do take me for a fool. I’ll be flying, while you’re jammed up in the hold. That, I take it, is still pressured considering there is still some chance of live cargo. I am certain you won’t just hand me the coordinates. So, while you guide me I will keep a close eye on the oxygen in the hold. If I don’t like what I’m hearing I will have my way with your Baby. Anger me and I just might sell her, get ourselves a decent hyperspace dart and we’ll be at our destination in no time.”
   “Babe, ark defense procedure.”
   She buzzes to life, the ark coils protrude from their sockets like spikes. They hum at first, then the sound becomes a wave just before they come to life. Ark of electricity burns the air and lashes unto Leto before riveting him to the ground, accelerating the current, and frying him up like bad faux-meat rotisserie. Leto’s eyes rush back into his head, white and milky, his body tenses, spasms, and he finally goes down like a sack.
   Demir wants none of this any longer and heads for his Baby so he can get the *** out there.
   His foot’s caught to the floor. He turns around to see what’s holding him down, and to his vast amazement it’s not a what but a who. Leto III, *** Grand-Master of War, had his hand clamped around Demir’s ankle. “Big mistake,” he snarls.
   Demir pulls his foot away but Leto’s back on his feet and in full fighting stance. Leto clears the distance in a heartbeat and has another surprisingly strong clamp on another part of Demir’s flesh – his throat. Demir crashes his elbow hard against Leto’s arm and buckles the clamp. Gets his throat clear for a second. “Full defense protocol!” he bellows, and Baby obliges.
   Gattling turrets spring from Baby’s carapace, scout the perimeter, and lock on to their target. Leto is identified as the prime target. The turrets do their work. A hailstorm of uranium coated shells litter the hangar door and walls, right across from where Leto was just holding him by the throat a second earlier. The Grand-Master of War ducked under the fire, beast-like, eerily like swack-tiger they use for hunting sport on Horsehead Prime. He swerves around Demir and aims to take him in a hold to use him as a shield. Demir’s combat training kicks in and he side-steps the grapple. Turret fire drowns out the world. Leto keeps one step ahead of it, mechanisms in the turrets trailing just that second behind the man.
   “Analogue harpoon control,” Demir orders the protocols.
   Turret fire keeps Leto confined to the front of the hangar. Baby’s not letting him maneuver around her. Harpoon control pops up on Demir’s retinal. He switches to full immersion and gets the complete POV.
   Where he’s going to be, not where he is. Demir’s mind races through the calculations, through the possibilities and the options. He takes his best shot.
   Harpoon punctures through Leto and bolts him to the hangar door. His limbs somewhere in the vicinity, and his torso with drooping head plastered red against the hangar gray.
   “You fool,” Leto blurts out a bloody final retort.
   In the distance piloted offense droids and mechs are marching their way to the commotion. Hangar alarms blare our the echo of the man’s death.
   It’s going to take a lot of *** work to smooth this over. Demir thinks to himself as he goes over the damage to the hangar. A lot of *** work.

Chapter 5: GRUNT
JUST AS MUCH as he had expected. Payment for the substantial damage to the hangar is the least of his worries. Bigger problem is *** like that, abrasive tremors and the like, all pop up on the Authority’s radar, and for someone as cautious as the Corporal that’s not at all good. So he wants Demir to patch up the leak with the Authority. That means doing grunt work for them, for no pay. No pay means he’ll have to take a quick job and bank his Baby with the Corporal while he’s out doing it. Fucker has her locked up until he’s back with both money and forgiveness, and you can never come back with both. That’s how you get your ride taken. Oldest *** scalper trick in the Galaxy.
   Before he can even contemplate getting Baby back Demir has to work the forgiveness part. He has to go see Marshall Hagen about the noise. He has to go there and go so far up the Marshall’s ass until he spills the ***. Minor disturbance, sure, and it’s not like the Corporal and Marshall don’t get along. However, when you put Demir Sunderland in the mix people start getting wild ideas. He owes the Corporal now, and Demir’s sure that when he shows up to the Authority on behalf of the debt Hagen is going to be very pleased. In the end, Hagen might end up owing the Corporal. Favors circulate, debts pool up endless, and the Galaxy churns.
   Demir has to go all the way up to the Third Circle. Authority keeps their main base of operations there, living quarters and barracks for the troops and police force. Army doesn’t mess around Melkior much, but the police force of the Authority have a field day in the pits of the Lower Circles. Marshall’s the chief operating officer on Melkior, and he doesn’t see just anyone.
   Walkways and grav pods float around the Third Circle, shuffling around people and teams from bases to barracks, mess halls, and living quarters. The entire Circle alive in the name of Authority. The machine that keeps Melkior in line. Demir takes is slow through one of the main walkways leading to the Authority Police Section headquarters. Pods and one-liners zoom past him on either side, cargo and people, people and cargo, day and night. APS officers give him sideways glances, darting questions like why isn’t he in cuffs. Those on the ground despise him, he can see that, but those in the skies tend to give him a respectful frown or even a challenging smirk.
   Only thing on Demir’s mind is how this could go. Eyes on him while and when he makes it to the reception of the headquarters are of little concern. He goes up to the receptionist who immediately upon seeing him eyes the defense protocols on her retinal.
   Demir doesn’t come too close to the reception or leans on it like he’s at a bar, contrary to his usual reflexes. “No trouble from me,” and he puts his hands up. “Can you tell Marshall Hagen that Demir Sunderland is here to see him on behalf of the Corporal?” Demir knows the Marshall is expecting someone from the Corporal, but knowing the army man he didn’t tell the officer who it is. That’s a surprise. *** playing around with me.
   Sometimes Demir really regrets not taking that system when it was on offer, and having a cushy gov job, maybe a wife and kids. But then remembers how Baby feels, how that girl he saw yesterday feels, and how *** alive he is.
   “Message transmitted, please wait in the lobby,” the officer at the reception says as neutrally as her training will allow. She’s one of those who misses the cuffs on Demir. He gives a courteous nod and sits down on one of the faux-wood benches in the lobby. Demir zones out. No use in keeping track of the eyes on him. Only thing he might do is look back the wrong way and get decked. He’s an anomaly at the headquarters, and if there’s anything the *** Authority doesn’t like it’s anomalies. He wishes he could have a drag of zazz to take the edge off. Had he brought it the cuffs wouldn’t be a police fantasy. Good thing he remembered to check his jacket pockets after all the commotion with that *** Leto.
   Demir keeps the reception officer in his periphery, zoning in and out when he sees her twitch. Finally one of those twitches turns into a hand waved his way. “Marshall Hagen is waiting for you in room A23. Head right through there,” and she points to a double-door on their left, “and you’ll find it at the end of the hall.”
   “Thank you.” Demir clips the edge of the reception three times for good luck and heads through the door into the white-and-blue hallway. Earth Nostalgia brown doors on either side, not a bench in sight, or anything besides the pale and oppressive. Demir goes down the corridor and finds A23 to his right.
   He goes in expecting to get jumped and clobbered. Instead, he finds the Marshall sitting behind a metal desk. A comfy-looking faux-leather chair empty across from the imposing man. Marshall Hagen is a heavy hitter. Wide head, all angles and edges, flat nose against a sloped brow atop which his immaculate salt-and-pepper crew cut juts out. Broad-shouldered, wide-chested, slightly bellied, all sitting atop two logs for legs. His right eye natural, but his left was outlined with the lines and marks of an Authority retinal scanner. Top of the line, big heavy thing they have to graft into your empty eye socket.
   “Let me guess,” Demir starts the chat just as his ass is about to touch faux-leather in that satisfying hum and creak. “Corporal didn’t tell you it’s me you’re expecting.”
   “Exactly,” another army accent heavy in the Common. All *** army brats these days. Lest he forget *** Leto.
   “You happy to see me, Marshall?”
   “As a matter of fact, I am. Commotion at the Hangar chuffed a couple of ears. We had some inquiries about the underground activity. Some police might be interested in spoils, and it’s going to take some work to incline them otherwise.”
   “How might I be of service in that regard?” Keep it cordial, keep it formal, keep it short. Most importantly, keep your cool. Demir knows the Marshall is going to fleece him, and do it well. Might as well take it on the chin and move on.
   “We need a win. A win for the Authority. Lucky for you, and well, for me, we have a task that will bring us that win. With you here we, can shorten the process of getting that win significantly.” The Marshall’s cold veneer leaves nothing up for grabs or guessing.
   “You can understand why I don’t like the sound of that?”
   “Of course. I may not like people like you, Mr. Sunderland, but I can appreciate any person’s usefulness. Right now you’re the most useful person in the room. Do this for the Authority and we’ll consider squaring your problem with the Corporal. Help us and you get the skies back.”
   “Leave the word consider out of the deal. I’ll do it for a guarantee.”
   Marshall slams his hand against the table hard. Bit of that mess hall pomp creeps into him. “Done. We could draft a formal cooperation agreement, but I suspect that might not be up your alley. So it’s my word.”
   “And what is a man who goes back on his word?”
   “On Melkior – nothing,” the Marshall recites the mantra.
   “Good. Now tell me about the job.”
   “We have reason to believe that there are nukes in the city. We have been circling a large shipment of rockets that might lead us to the nukes. But as soon as we did they went silent. Nothing off-planet yet, but we don’t want things to get desperate because they’re cut off. I want you to track the sellers, and report the findings to us. They’ll talk to you sooner than we can plant a mole in.”
   “And me coming here, people knowing I’m here, that won’t put a wrench in that idea?” This whole thing is starting to reek, so Demir’s considering taking the heat on Baby and dusting off somewhere outside the Core.
   “Not if we book you for possession, ground you, and let the word spread. You’ll be in every crook’s good graces by daybreak tomorrow. Plus, that’ll make you looking for rockets all the more plausible.” Self-satisfied arched brow from the Marshall.
   “I can spin that, but when I catch them I’ll need you to book me. I need my rep here intact.”
   “Why, so you can continue selling your stolen tech in my city?”
   And there we are. “First of all, it’s not your *** city, you just work here. Second, that need for validation and ownership might track to some deep-seated childhood abandonment issues, so I’d get that checked.”
   “I’d have that mouth checked if I were you.” Gravel in his voice palpable with anger.
   “Good, so we have a deal?” Demir gives his hand.
   “We have a deal,” and the Marshall claps it. Agreement confirmed, on their words. And what is a man without those. “I’ll forward you the info.”
   “No, have it sent to me via Drakkweb courier. Physical. I don’t want anything intercepted.”
   “Smart. Only we have to do now is book you.”
   Almost forgot about that. “Yeah, let the Corporal know so I can get my Baby as soon as this is done. Oh, and I want a decent cell.”
   “Nothing but the best for you, Mr. Sunderland.” Demir notices how the Marshall’s smile is a lot more disconcerting than his frown.

Chapter 6: TIDE
DAYBREAK, and he’s in the crook’s good graces. Cell was nice, but all that white gets a bit drastic to the eyes. Plus that lack of zazz really got him into a downward spiral when they had to let him out. He charged his usual spot and let the tide wash off. In order to get the zazz he’d have to get his stuff from the locker at the Corporal’s, and there was no way he was riding that low all the way down. His usual spot is two Circles down from the Authority. Upper-end place that charges him less because he once helped the owner transport something up to Trafalgar. Nothing that should be checked by customs goes to Trafalgar. Had to dodge *** questions about that Siona *** all the while was there. That’s one of the reasons why he dodges that system like a red nova. But he got his discount. You don’t get *** for free in the Galaxy. So discount’s the best you can hope for.
   Come daybreak he got his first drink free of charge, from some locals swinging their morning beers his way. The zazz itch slowly coming down, and the beers coming in. He was drunk by nightfall, back in the usual, and next morning he’s ready to set out finishing the task at hand.
   *** rockets.
   Getting right on it is not his style, since everyone would expect him to party a bit first after getting out of the pigsty. But Demir’s just a little bit sore he didn’t even think it’s what the city would expect. He just did it and worked on the recognition fallout later. Like much in life.
   Hangover not as bad as it could have been if he’d went for the zazz. Not splitting, but just that mild annoyance like having a needle slowly stuck into your brain. To Demir that’s a Tuesday.
   Wednesday’s here and now. Demir’s in a very local watering hole close to the Lower Docks. He forgets the name on the regular because it’s something nondescript like Star, or Comet, or some *** like that. Some of the people buying him drinks yesterday are there too. Gone a couple of floors down since he last saw them. Those are the ones he’s looking for. Close enough to the Lower Docks to be connected, but a couple of Circles up so you know they’re smart. These crews are the ones who know how to angle their connections. Go full Lower and you get the raffle the DNA pools used to spit out. High-to-low-end criminal psychopaths all held together by the Cardinal. Yeah, everyone on Melkior has a *** title. He has the largest force, so he polices the Lower Circles, and the Docks are his. Now, go up and you’re already reaching precariously into the upper-class wallets protected wholeheartedly by the Authority. Keep it lower-middle-class and you’ll stay golden.
   These crews don’t have rockets, but they can point him to who does.
   Demir goes over to their table.
   “Mr. MOS, nice to see you again. I see you’re keeping the pace,” gruff man with modded arms starts the chatter party.
   “Not today,” and Demir nods to his beer, “hair of the dog. I’m actually looking for business today.”
   “Yeah, what kind of work’s a grounded MOS in for these days?” Laughs ensue among the comically stereotypical bunch of upper-middle trash. Demir hates this type of ***. People in general. That’s why he flies *** solo.
   “Not much flying from me, truth.” He brings a bit of patois into his Common. Despite his last name he’s one of them more than they care to admit. Somethings are harder to shake than others, like a last name, but a bit of patois never hurt nobody. “But I reckon I could put some of my info to good use.”
   “Kinds of info?”
   “Info that’s only sale, and I know you don’t have that kind of pull. You know it too. I need you to get the word out to the people who do. Finder’s fee is guaranteed there, trying to push me for the info gets no one jack ***.
   “Fine,” quick reaction from a woman covered in EN *** tribal tattoos. She hisses at the other parts of the colorful assembly. They all calm down like previously hissing drakes. “We’ll give what you got forward.”
   “Skies be kind to you all,” put a bit of that MOS jumbo into it. “Let’s say the cargo I was jacked with can also be found here. I believe it’s from a shipment of mine that may, or may not, have been confiscated along one of my routes to Trafalgar. Someone must not have gotten the memo because I was legit,” or that might have been the point, “but no scuff on my jacket. Some of it’s out there still and I believe it’s here too. I got the serial number patched and I have a lead on a beached AI ship full of the stuff. I spill it for cash enough to pay my fines and book it. Won’t show my face here until things cool down. I want off of here, I want my Baby back, and I got something that might make it worth someone’s while.” And that’s the truth.
   “What if the serial don’t clock?” modded arms starts back up.
   “No harm no foul. I owe you drinks next time. How much you want?”
   The colorful parade eyes each other, exchanges grunts and smiles. “Seven rounds,” the woman covered in tribal again.
   Demir whistles. “Steep, that. But nothing I can’t handle if getting off this rock is a possibility. Buy you guys a round now, sign of goodwill.”
   They nod, and start drinking.
   And continue drinking.

Chapter 7: CRISP
STUMBLING to his room. The world all a blur, then back to reality, and then back to the blur again. Just that one-third consciousness that you can slightly navigate through if you ever went into hyperspace raw. Habitual precision helps him get through the corridor that’s getting longer with each step. He misses the key card scanner a couple of times before the door finally whistles open. Demir almost falls in face first, but catches himself on a chair he seems to have left there for this specific purpose. Sober him knowing the other him full well. Dangerously well.
   He flips himself around awkwardly with his arms first, heavy on the chair, and then tilts himself around, feet come last. Demir plops down and takes a deep breath.
   “Good to see you again, Mr. Sunderland,” voice catches him like a cold hand against his throat. It clamps hard until he can’t breathe almost. The man just sitting there. “This time I think I’ll take a different approach to our discussion,” Leto III says.

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