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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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Messages - B.K.

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1
So this is where I'm at right now.

After the time skip everything is going to get a lot more corporate, all the while being a lot more pirate-y, and mysterious on the side. The biggest thing to consider right now, is the economy.

Therefore, I am trying to construct a full inter-system web of Unions.
Unions, like we know today. Only transferred into the Galaxy that has festered in my brain.

In a decentralized Galaxy there is no minimum wage, since there is no centralized government. In order to get a minimum wage wherever you might be in the Galaxy, and let alone benefits afterwards, the laborers have to form Unions. There are Unions for everything, and I quite literally mean - everything.
However, there are the most profitable Unions: The Public Transport Union, Truckers Union, Farmers Union, Delivery People's Union, University Grants and Fees Market, Celebrity Speculation Market, Pornstars Union, Fabrics Fabricator's Market, Real-drug Manufacturers, etc.
Demir wants - no - needs a piece of those in order to further his plan.

Now, what I want to do is flesh them out within the economic parameters in the Galaxy. Considering the Galaxy is fractured, there are factions vying for control. And control in the economic sense, means a hold over the taxes paid on every transaction. Since these Unions, and their members, have sectioned themselves off from the internal economic structure of any system - unless it's in-house, a whole other thing - they are paid as freelance workers. Now, in the new Galaxy order, Unions make sure this freelance contract is worth the minimum wage, at least. They also factor in experience and tenure for advanced contract. These are also demanded, sometimes, by the Unions. A person who has worked needs to be compensated for the experience, that's rule number 1. You pay top-credit  for what you want, and the Unions make sure of that. The Unions also make sure you get benefits. Possibilities for internal contracts with the company assigned, fixed income, overtime - all of that is possible through the Unions.
Work, just like the rest of the Galaxy, is decentralized.

So, I want to give each of these Unions and interesting scene. Set them up, make them matter. At least in the narrative sense. But also somewhat in the economic sense. Because they will matter later on. I want to make them characters worth the time to read about.
That's taking some time.
A lot of time.

I'm still putting things together.
Just brainstorming.
So, yeah, just an update.

Hope to get this down. Comments welcome. Thread open.


See you in the skies...

2
Chapter 57: HEPHESTUS

Spoiler
“COMPLETE COMM SILENCE?” Hephestus asks her First Daughter, Thalia, who is rightfully concerned. While Hephestus originally had concerns herself about the Cardinal, and his transformation into her First Son, he proved an admirable follower of her vision. He led the Sons more amicably towards her wishes than she had anticipated, and was devoted beyond compare. Thalia was the one who suggested the Cardinal in the first place. Considering his past, proclivity for devotion, devious nature, let alone his lust for power, it was more than a perfect fit. Therefore, the silence now looming over their endeavor bears heavily on Thalia’s shoulders.
   “Yes, Mother. We have not been able to reach the First Son, or the rest of the fleet for days. Even our tracer protocols can’t pinpoint their location, and our hacker outriders have had no success in breaking through the comm defenses.” Thalia averts her head in disgrace. “Mother, someone has usurped the operation. We have to expect the worst.”
   “You believe the Sons have been taken over by an external force.” Her First Daughter nods. “Are you certain they have not been eradicated?”
   “No, Mother. We have traced chatter and sightings of the Sons through SIN. They are out there. Only, we are in the dark. And as it would seem the rest of the Galaxy is as well. The Sons are in hiding, and something is afoot. We can send more outriders, Mother. I can man a reconnaissance team. We can,” and Thalia pauses for a brief moment, judging her own words, “I can make this right.”
   “No need, child. You have done well. Sullying your hands with this matter now will only prove a trivial effort in the grand scheme of things. However, it requires my solemn contemplation at the moment. Please, leave me,” Hephestus orders, and Thalia obliges with a courtly bow before leaving.
   Hephestus leaves her chambers and enters the adjacent research laboratory. Her machines and paraphernalia calm the soul. However, she does not indulge. Instead going into a hidden room behind one of the large antimatter-gauge rigs that opens like an ancient secret bookcase from the stories of ancient times Hephestus coveted so as a child.
   There she finds her atrocity exhibition.
   All of her experiments, from the very first failure all the way down to the most recent. Suspended in perpetual agony within the unlife vats that formerly housed her own clones. Hephestus started with herself first. More things than human, her own lifeless bodies unto which she grafted and grafted until they fell apart, withered, died in soundless toil and misery. Her own faces staring back at her with milky eyes, the mirrored reflections of what could and could not be. Other atrocities are much more expressive, caught in the moment of utter contempt for life as she had grafted upon them with her technology. Men, women, children, others, grafted beyond recognition, kept within the tanks of unlife. Seething hatred in their eyes. Muzzled cries in their throats. Insane devotion in poise and grace, just floating in the colorless liquid. Some she knows by name, just by seeing their faces, and others she has forgotten completely. Left to the rot of times long forgotten, just like the stories Hephestus coveted so as a child.
   Hephestus sits down on a solitary chair in the middle of the seemingly borderless space. Vats receding into the darkness from all angles. She finds she thinks best on failure when surrounded by failure. Endless potential is paved by the dead.
   “The Cardinal proved useful. Even more so than expected,” Hephestus speaks to the dead, and herself. “Indeed he did.”
   When presented with the option of surpassing his mortal limitations, a spark of godly aspiration fueled the Cardinal to become her First Son. A man so unfathomably devoted to what he cannot understand was a blessing. The Sons brought in more faithful, more credits, and her research was being proven and disproven outside of the laboratory time and again. Experiments truly unfolding in the wild of the Galaxy. The culmination of lifetimes of research within these borders, but now in the hands of maniacs and zealots. All driven to the brink of insanity by the promise of something more, as humans are wont to do. One cannot exactly choose the lambs for the culling, Hephestus knows. However, the usefulness of the Sons and the Cardinal far outweighed the possible drawbacks.
   “The drives have yet to be completed. Yet to be perfected. The grafts have yet to be stabilized. Nothing is close to being as it is required.” She stops for a moment to breathe in the odorless death around her. “Indeed it isn’t.”
   Having all the time in the world could never make up for the fact that all the time in the world was never truly enough. Hephestus was almost morbidly aware of the fact that without the capabilities of traveling beyond the Outer Reaches humanity will choke itself out. Tech development will regress into a state of perpetual interplanetary warfare, and petty conflicts will envelop the entire Known Galaxy. Petty conflicts, regress instead of the pursuit of progress, and ultimately the nature of human savagery when faced with more despicable human savagery, will lead to humanity’s ultimate demise. Once we had placed our future in the hands of AI, and came out all the worse for it. If we were to survive, as a species, we had to evolve.
   “The path towards a brighter future is paved with the bones of those who have failed to dream. And across such bones we must trample.” Hephestus looked at her datapad, the one she carried with her at all times. The override codes for all her Sons, ready to be activated. But having all the time in the world did allow you to succumb to the fact that sometimes you could take all the time in the world to let what you have created run its course. “Indeed we must.”
[close]

3
Now, I've been slacking off hard. But my writing isn't really getting there. I'm busy with other obligations, so I'm just writing the narrative as it comes. Just to have it set in stone. It's basically like expanded notes at first. That way I polish up the chapters later. And trust me, they need a Masamune katana level of polishing.
So, I'm going to channel my inner Oda, once more, and give a spoiler.
I think this is decent enough, to at least give a taste. See who's where, and wonder why.
When I have three chapters they'll go up.
I am a lazy ***, after all.


Spoiler
“Then how will we ever be able to battle the AIs, Demir? How, if nothing is good enough?”
      *** me dead. Like talking to a lost child. “If there’s anything I believe you’re capable of, it’s adapting. I don’t know anyone better at it than you. So, let me just say this - shut up and do your *** part,” Demir recites. “Learn from your own words, Leto. Back then you thought you would be the one schooling me, then there we are.”
       A ruckus from the entrance interrupts their poignant dialogue. The person Demir has actually been wanting to see finally arrives.
       He walks in with a breeze at his back. Unbuttoned calico shirt revealing a set of EN-religious beads entwined in curly chest hair. Slicked, dark curly locks molten with light, tied back into a ponytail so tight his face might droop a good three fingers if he ever let it loose. Bushy eyebrows over never-sleeping eyes, bags dark as soot under them bespoke to his profession. His face as angular as his shoulders and knotted arms. Each line accentuated by dark hairs, and on his face a three-day-shadow he most assuredly cultivates at precise millimeter length. The belt buckle that keeps his shirt from slipping out the faux-leather pants shines almost as bright as his swamp-brown eyes. Graft-lines run across his forehead, from his temples to the center, the rest snaking close to his ears like a riverbank to his neck, cascading under his shirt, expanding unseen into the rest of his body.
       “Jesus de Monte Cristo,” Demir steps down from his barstool and welcomes the man with open arms. Jesus prefers to be called with a hard H instead of the J, as is becoming of his Latino-suavee swagger.
       Jesus hugs Demir with a fervor only called for with close friends or lost lovers. A man of passion, always was, always will be. “Mr. SIN, in my neck of the Galaxy. You have a drink, yes? Anything to eat, yes?” The Latino-suavee patios in his Common is so thick your knife would get stuck.
       “We can take care of ourselves, thank you, Jesus. Have a seat.” Demir then ushers Jesus to the tall barstool on Leto’s left, while Demir sits on his right.
       “Am I interrupting something?” Jesus asks, almost bewildered that he’s not closest to Demir, when he was the one to ask the man down for a parley. Instead he’s sitting next to, what in his eyes, is just another Leto.
       “No worries, Jesus. I would never disrespect you so. Leto  here is someone I consider my equal, and even more than that were it not for the fact that he’s a stupid ***. But let’s not dwell on that for now. Come on, let’s celebrate.” Demir downs his tequila and almost by decree Leto downs his. Demir orders another round, knowing full well that Jesus drinks only the finest suavee spirit. Their drinks arrive in record time, even for a pleasure colony bar. Demir knows his tip will be generous, but he still feels like he’s undercutting them. “A toast. To our thing!” He proclaims loudly, for the entire bar to hear. He raises his glass, clinks it hard against Leto’s and Jesus’, like they know what they’re even toasting to. That’s why Demir loves bars, because what you know doesn’t even *** matter. Salute to the end of the Galaxy, the death of all and everything, as long as you’re paying for it, everyone will toast.
       “To our thing!” Jesus joins in with his hearty baritone, and they all down their drink. Demir’s surprised that Lato knows to do that during such occasions. He learned at least a bit.
       Jesus scoffs. “This will not do. It’s barbaric to sit at the bar when you’re more than two people. I’ll go get us a table.” He slides off the stool and is swallowed up by the swell of patrons.
[close]

4
Fan Media & Fiction / Re: Starsector Let's Play series: Pirate Captain
« on: April 28, 2022, 10:44:22 AM »
Really good, I have to say.
I've been watching it from Part 1 since you put up the post.
You got me hooked because you have a really calming voice. Plus, great gameplay from an experienced player.


One thing that would be interesting is seeing you do a series for new players.
It's always interesting to see how seasoned players introduce the game to new ones.
Always a cool new perspective.

Keep it up!


P.S. Just remembered. Great zoom in techniques. Subtle, and really help if you want to stop and check stats.

5
Some day™

“The path towards a brighter future is paved with the bones of those who have failed to dream. And across such bones we must trample.” Hephestus looks at her datapad, the one she carries with her at all times. The override codes for all her Sons, ready to be activated. But having all the time in the world does allow you to succumb to the fact that sometimes you can take all the time in the world to let what you have created run its course. “Indeed we must.”

6
Things are heating up. ***'s about get toasted like a paper bag fire prank. Sadly I'm a bit stuck because the coming chapter deals with Hephestus, spoiler. I know where I'm going with her, what to do next and how to fit her in. But I hate the way the introductory chapter keeps coming out. So I keep deleting it and starting over. That will continue until I'm either satisfied or burned out.
Either way, this is war, and all is fair in love and war.

Chapter 54: GLASS
Spoiler
SO THIS IS HOW IT FEELS. Farideh thinks to herself. And when she looks around her she knows that’s exactly what being rich feels like. Strike Force were in Westernais far sooner than expected, and with a gas freighter loaded no less. Restocked fully with fuel for any combat scenario, with the addition of two graft-tanks that supply enough for a tactical retreat to the nearest Xing outpost, Farideh would presume. Soon enough Strike Force was using their gravitational-propulsion drives to save on fuel, and went about securing the sector. Mere hours later and the mining equipment came in through the point, escorted by a fully armed Xing-Tech defensive armada. Once they were all set up the escort retreated to secure the exfiltration routes to the Xing-Tech homework, Farideh knows.
   The precision of Xing’s mining gear and workers was immaculate. Farideh’s own foreman and miners protested the exchange of control at first, but when they engaged in civil discourse with the all-work-no-play Xing superiors, they changed their minds somewhat quickly compared to the usual stubbornness miners across the Known Galaxy are famed for. It all ran like well-tuned, honed, and expertly crafted MOS skiff. You could measure your pulse by the mining gear intervals. It was like music, not even man-made, but that computer-generated binary code crap without a heart or soul.
   First the drills were completed. Pillars of raw metallic power, hovering over Armitage III like a waiting meteorite, spikes that would pierce it to its core. The drills use a combination of grav and hydraulics. Faridhe’s crew erected the support structure. Beams hovering over the planet in zero-g, stabilized by grav fields and pylons. Xing brought the ends and the plating, so the support structure could land on Armitage III without getting burnt to sludge.
   Then they started drilling. Farideh was glad she didn’t have any sound feed, but she did think of the people who did. Miners needed to have a sound feed at all times, and foremen learned to hear the drill movements through soil and stone. Any mismatched click, creek, or crack, and they had to stop the operation. Armitage III proved again to be more precarious than any other mining operation so far, since the sound transmission pods couldn’t get anywhere near the planet without frying. They had to be plated too, but still due to their small size they were at risk. So the Xing foreman settled for lag, and puckered his ears like a swindler on a crowded thoroughfare. Regular updates were issued, along with a progress bar that popped up on Farideh’s retinal display. Right there in the top right corner, where she placed it, a reminder of what was going on that mimicked the diminishing length of her nails as she watched on. The higher the percentage, the shorter the nails.
   Unlike with the previous endeavor, this one goes uncharacteristically smooth. Not even a call from the foreman. Just Farideh tuning in to her own live feed every now and then, in between checking Strike Force’s routes, which also turned out to be as brilliant as she expected.
   It all made Farideh’s mouth water at the prospect of getting the Sons tech out of that damned planet, only to remember that what they got wasn’t hers to tend to. The riches weren’t hers to reap, even if she did sow them. And finally when they excavated the Sons worms, put them in shielded containers floating about on grav buoys, a bitter taste coated Farideh’s mouth. She couldn’t warm to the Sons tech being pulled out of the planet like tapeworms, pinched by mining pincers and tugged at with precision, slowly inching outwards like a delicate hap-shack shrapnel removal in a back-alley mod-chop. She couldn’t warm to the tech being loaded into the containers by floating pincers and pulleys. She couldn’t feel a thing besides the bitter taste.
   Because none of it was hers.
   And she wanted it all. She worked for it all.
   The promise of wealth and security for her people just taken away like that, exchanged for scraps on the credit, enough for Trafalgar to get by and stay just the way it was. Like Farideh never stepped up against the Sons, managed her operation without flaws, and amassed a fortune for her people that would echo throughout the Galaxy.
   All gone because in the end she made the same mistake she always does - believing that the few can take on the many. That Siona and her fleet, that Trafalgar and the will of its people, was enough to go against a force as present, dominating, and daunting as Xing-Tech.
   It’s not even the Sons. Those have proven to be as incapable to the same degree as they are zealous. No, it’s Xing she despises. Ever more so with every passing hour the miners take to dismantle and haul the gear to their stations. Ever more so with every circle Strike Force makes around the system.
   Bubbling, steaming, and bursting. Farideh thinks of Siona, but only for long enough as to not puke what little she ate. In bursts of images she sees her friend vented, shot, beaten, strangled, left to die in the unkind vestiges of space. In the skies death never comes quickly, and every image is a burst of chills and body retching for Farideh. She knows that Siona is ready to die, that her right-hand woman is nothing if not aware of what Farideh has to do. None of that makes anything any easier.
   And the payoff makes it all the less worthwhile.
   So the miners haul everything away, tuck everything into neat containers, arranged in sections of a flotilla bound for Yao-Tzu. It’s almost like none of this ever happened. Farideh wonders why the Sons haven’t engaged, or why any scavenging crew haven’t been hovering around, waiting for any debris that might come their way. Westernais fell to a silence after Farideh and her people cut through the Sons, and the noise of war never came back like thunderous revenge.
   It all ends with a whimper, a sad little retreat devoid of glory for anyone whose name isn’t Xing XVI. “ETA until departure?” Farideh puts the call in for the Strike Force commander.
   “Within the hour,” the muffled and filtered voice answers, disguised for the sake of anonymity. “Strike Force will escort the mining convoy to the Arcadia system. Xing forces will continue the escort, and Strike Force will be assigned to Trafalgar until the blockade is lifted. I suggest preparing a stealth route for our approach. Over and out.” The commander cuts line with a degree of urgency that lets Farideh know that he either doesn't respect her time more than he does his, or that he’s hiding something. Either way, for the first time in a long time, Farideh doesn’t give a ***.
   If Mutemba is pompous and stupid enough to keep up the blockade, despite no answer from Farideh, she will gladly watch as Strike Force cut him down. She’ll *** on his bloated, frozen corpse just to warm it up so she can *** down his throat for good measure. But she knows Mutemba well enough to comprehend the fact that he lifted the blockade, and did away with Siona the moment there was no value in it. Farideh’s plan may have gone to ***, but so did Mutemba’s, and that will have to be solace enough for today.
   Within the hour the entire convoy is assembled. Strike Force spearhead the convoy, with the mining gear and Sons tech right behind them. Farideh and her forces head up the rear, ready to break off once they reach Arcadia. Strike Force will peel off and escort the Trafalgar forces to barrel down on the supposed blockade. With or without Mutemba being there Strike Force is due to depart once the contract is completed. Xing also made it very clear that Farideh will be given a time limit to transport the remaining Sons stockpile to Yao-Tzu, lest Xing-Tech have to blockade Trafalgar to the point where Farideh will not be able to bust through. Even less so without Siona. One mistake and you’re dead to the Galaxy, alive or not.
   Two transponder signals approach from hyperspace. Strike Force goes on high alert. Defensive formations are up in a flash, weapons are charged, and the perimeter secured. They also leave Farideh to tend to her own defenses. If she and her forces perish during a contract it would tarnish Xing’s reputation, but not ruin it. The Galaxy is all ears, unless you plug them with credits.
   When the signals come in closer the frequency changes to a white-flag signal. Farideh even recognizes one of them, and her heart skips a beat before it almost stoops for a second or three.
   “Stand down!” she blurts over the open comms, tearing the commander’s eardrum probably asunder. Piercing it like a needle. “Stand down! That’s an order and I don’t give a *** who you think you take those from.”
   “Not from you,” the commander retorts, distorted and awry. “Our orders are to secure the shipment and aid in the elimination of the blockade. Securing the shipment takes priority.”
   “It’s Siona’s transponder. Don’t *** fire until we can verify. If it’s someone else piloting her skiff they deserve nothing but death, regardless of their message.”
   “And what about the second beacon? The ID is scrambled. It could be anyone.”
   “It’s still a white-flag beacon. Stand down. We verify first, shoot later,” Farideh lets the commander know that regardless of his *** orders he can tow the line or get lost. Her tone makes it amicably evident that she will *** die before she lets the *** shoot a single bullet Siona’s way.
   Siona Cain comes in through the point, followed by Dominus.
   Nothing in the Galaxy makes any *** sense anymore.
   “Honored Xing employees and contracted mercenaries,” a voice too *** familiar for comfort starts, straight from Dominus. “Your line to Xing-Tech will be severed momentarily. Both the open and coded lines, as well as surveillance malware. Complete blackout. Your current engagement is postponed until further notice. Please, remain calm. No harm will come to you,” Demir Sunderland lets them all know, like they’re his prisoners now, despite being outnumbered about thirty-to-one. Maybe thirty-to-two, since Siona hasn’t even said a word, and Farideh has no *** clue what her role in all this is. “And Leto, please dock on Farideh’s frigate. We need to talk.”
   The only thing Farideh feels is tired. Even too tired to clock Sunderland upside his head for that time in Daffodil. She lets the fatigue fester deep down, so it can swallow her whole later on when she succumbs. For now she starts a call to Siona’s coded line.
   It clicks to life and her friend answers.
   Farideh cries in silence.
[close]

Chapter 55: XVI
Spoiler
IT TAKES LESS THAN A MINUTE for Xing XVI to clutter Demir’s comms. Demir can’t even dock without incessant beeping at first, then pop-ups on his retinal second, and only after he shuts down his open comms does he get a moment of peace to maneuver Baby close to the docking pods.
   Then Demir’s coded line starts buzzing up a storm, and he knows it’s not Jolene. “Xing, what can I do for you?” The breezy tone in Demir’s voice comes out naturally, barely ever taking into consideration the aspects of the current situation he’s in. More often than not that same tone awarded him with a blaster to the face, or a knee to the groin. But being the head of SIN has its perks, one of them being that people don’t *** with anymore. Even those that don’t know his official position, like Xing. It’s enough to know you don’t mess with a high-ranking operative.
   “You can tell me what the *** SIN is doing meddling in my operation.” To buckle a man such as Xing XVI, renowned for his composure, puts a smile on Demir’s face. Like when you manage to irk a stoic family member into losing their ***. That little childish spite nugget which makes you giggle.
   “SIN is commandeering Strike Force and your cargo.”
   “You will back the ***…”
   “Listen well, Xing,” Demir cuts him off immediately. “SIN is commandeering Strike Force and your cargo. All it takes is one call, and Xing-Tech’s contracts with SIN will be terminated on the spot. Not only that, but I have the authority to open up all counter-offers. So, Xing, let me make this clear - the only sound I want to hear after this is the line closing. Are we understood?”
   The line is cut shortly after.
   Demir knows Xing’s not going to go against SIN. Not with the counter-offers threat Demir put on the table. SIN keeps earning regularly from its top players through counter-offer suppression. Big names pay big bucks to keep any info about big plays majorly suppressed. A magnate like Xing XVI shells out mondo credits to make sure Xing-Tech doesn’t start leaking to SIN. While SIN thrives on corporate espionage, the patent wars, and general greed, the contingency plans Demir has set in place shell in almost as much as the open contracts. Xing-Tech is one of SIN’s biggest earners, but not in open contracts, rather in counter-offer suppression. Open them up to the scrutiny of SIN informants and they’ll fall behind the curve they so desperately want to stay ahead of.
   No, Xing’s not going to cross Demir. Not yet, at least.
   And Demir’s fine with that. He puts it in the back of his mind for now, and focuses on the task at hand. He has to make it through a meeting with people who have failed together miserably once before, and he has to convince them that they won’t this time.
[close]

Chapter 56: FIRE
Spoiler
“YOU COULDN’T JUST STAY DEAD, could you?” Siona let’s Demir know her preference as to his well-being immediately, as expected.
   “Looks like you couldn’t get your numbers up without some serious mods,” Demir retorts through a malicious grin.
   “I will break you in *** half.”
   “I will break you both, eat you, and *** you out if you don’t stop.” And Farideh takes the win. Unlike the jibes between Siona and Demir, she means it. Meanwhile Leto just sits there with his arms crossed, sulking in his minimalist uniform adorned in black. “Even I can’t believe I’m going to say this,” Farideh sighs. “But Sunderlands seems to be on top of this ***, so he might as well tell us why he’s here.”
   “A good start would be how the *** you got me out.” Siona pinpoints her own interest like churning gravel through her teeth.
   “I have opted to support Mutemba and his brother in their coup, as well as providing financial aid during the rebuilding of Kurrekesh. In exchange Mutemba set Siona free, and lifted the blockade.”
   “There’s no way that’s all you got,” Siona’s fury continues unabated. Probably due to the fact that Demir makes it all sound so matter-of-fact, like it was nothing, cost him nothing. He’s gotten a bit too used to it, having the upper-hand.
   “How would you even be in a position to finance all that. Flying around as Dominus could never net you that much capital. What's your angle here, Sunderland?” Farideh leads the conversation to a more neutral tone and territory. Everyone has their angles.
   “If I said the finer details of my plan are nothing you should concern yourselves with, would you leave it at that?”
   “No,” Leto pushes in. The evident scorn he has for Demir outweighs the glint in his eye. He’s happy to see me. Demir thinks to himself, glad he shares some of the same sentiment. Although the circumstances could have been better.
   “I run SIN together with my protege Jolene.” Farideh almost chokes on air. “We decided to back Mutemba and Osakwe due to the necessities of our future endeavors. I will not disclose those, or my larger plan. At least not now. Any good plan needs to ferment alone, under the strict supervision of as little people as possible. So don’t even try to force that out of me, or even worse, beg for it.” Siona scoffs, while Farideh’s inner mind-gears turn about in fervor. “I’m here to discuss Xing-Tech, the Sons, and the future of Trafalgar.”
   “Like you would have any say in our future.” Siona’s rancor is unabated, and getting more tedious with every utterance.
   Demir takes a deep breath. “I can have enough forces piling down on you to smother you whole under the weight of your own ambition. After that I cancel all contracts on Trafalgar and beyond, as well as opening up a large bounty to any counter-offers. Then I choke you to death by buying out the stockpile on the cheap from what’s left of your people, and sell it at a premium in order to get ahead of the curve. Even Xing couldn’t catch up to me then. And when I want to be done, when I want that tidy little red bow on top of the cake I made, I eat it all by bombarding Trafalgar off the *** map. So let me make one thing clear, Siona, the only place you get to talk trash to me is in the skies. Here, you’re even less than my ***.”
   Siona bursts from her seat and unleashes a devastating right hook straight to Demir’s face. He ducks under it, hooks his arm around her neck and pushes Siona to the floor. He’s quicker, deadlier, and better than ever before. For years he managed to get his numbers up by training his body, honing every muscle until he didn’t need mods to keep ahead of the MOS flock. Siona doesn’t go down easily. She pushes herself off the floor and goes in for a staggering uppercut. Demir takes a step back but she’s on him like grav sickness. A metal elbow darts towards him like a precision harpoon, and he’s barely able to dodge enough so he only gets grazed across the cheek. Before Demir can retreat Siona reels him in with her grip around his shirt, and bashes him in the side with a haymaker. Not a blow that breaks Demir’s ribs thanks to a quick drop of his arm for protection. Metal catches the meaty pulp around the elbow, causing minimal damage. Siona’s off balance enough that Demir introduces his open palm to the ***’s chin. Her head tilts back and she staggers. Demir kicks her in the gut. Siona catches his leg before he can retreat, her fingers like vices around his flesh and bone. She goes in for the jab, and Demir has to use both hands to fend it off, holding on for dear life. In an awkward dance Demir bounces on one leg, and Siona tries to hold her balance with both arms clenched in the battle.
   A staggering force breaks them apart.
   Leto stands between them, holding them both by one arm each, like a parent in between two insubordinate children. Demir’s on his knees as soon as Leto gives a little twist. Siona follows when Leto kicks the hollow of her knee out. “If you don’t stop I’ll break your arm in so many places you will need a new one,” he tells Demir with the same enthusiasm as if he just proclaimed water is his favorite drink. “And if you don’t stop I will pull that arm out straight from your body,” Leto lets Siona know too. “If you die from shock, or bleeding, I will smash Demir’s head in. That will make you even.”
   Leto twists Demir’s arm just enough to cause searing pain. “Okay! Okay!” Demir croaks.
   “Siona?” Leto asks, all the while pulling heavily on her arm, and pushing her away with his foot. The *** doesn’t relent. Seems almost like she’s going to break her teeth from grinding them.
   Another pull, stronger this time. “Fine! Let me the *** go.”
   Leto releases both MOS from his ferocious hold.
   Demir feels like he can walk again. His legs buckled the more Leto held on to him, and his vision blurred from the pain. That wasn’t just a hold. Leto targeted his pressure point, amplified the pain, and made sure Demir couldn’t retaliate.
   That’s the Grand-Master of War for you. He thinks to himself before sitting back down, considering he has never experienced Leto’s capabilities on his own body before. Siona sulks a bit more before she also takes her seat. During the whole exchange Farideh didn’t even blink, let alone move.
   “Now that that’s over, can we continue?” Farideh puts them all back on track. She doesn’t continue until both Demir and Siona give an affirmative nod. “Good. Let’s start with the task at hand. Sunderland, you *** Xing over, and I want to know why. Are you gunning for the Sons tech?”
   “Personally, no. SIN has no vested interest in tech in the physical sense. My interest here is to make sure Xing doesn’t get his hands on it. When I found out you were selling both the legit Sons tech and the stockpile to Xing, I had to make sure that didn't happen. Plus, that fell in perfectly with my vested interest in Kurrekesh.”
   “How the *** did you get that info in real-time?” Farideh lets her inner Siona out.
   “I make it my business to be everywhere and nowhere. SIN didn’t become the top information pipeline in the Galaxy by being tardy, Farideh. First whiff of that transaction and I was on my way to Mutemba. Jolene, my protege, and I made quick work of that so we could ensure the legit tech doesn’t fall into the hands of Xing-Tech.” Demir keeps Leto in his peripheral view, just to gauge his disposition towards his current employer. Nothing from the Grand-Master, as expected, but Demir suspects he could go either way depending on the validity of the arguments. “You see, the Sons tech can’t fall into the hands of a singular entity. You’re aware of that as much as I am, Farideh. Considering your position at the time, most people would have done the same. Stand and fight alone, and you risk getting steamrolled. Sell and you destabilize the entire Galaxy, but your people get a fighting chance. Now, Leto,” Demir addresses him directly. The Grand-Master’s piercing black eyes pointed now directly at him. “I know you better than to think you’re not aware that Xing needs to be stopped.” Leto nods. “Up until this point SIN has functioned as an information brokerage, but the time has come for direct interventions. While the Galaxy is busy adjusting to the presence of the Sons, Xing has been buying up and consolidating smaller companies under the Xing-Tech umbrella. He’s effectively tripled the company's input and output, and is overtaking the entire tech market at a staggering pace. Xing-Tech’s cork on the counter-offers from SIN assure the continued upwards momentum. If he got his hands on legit Sons tech it’d be only a matter of time before Xing buys out even Charkul and Hanzo. A monopoly over the entire tech market and R&D. Sorry,” Demir chuckles to himself. Long discussions with Jolene have made him more talkative in an explanatory fashion he isn’t quite used to with other people. “Long-***-story short. Give Xing the Sons tech and he’ll control all tech in the Galaxy.”
   “So what is your suggestion on how we stop that?” Leto finally gives Demir the time of day.
   “The SIN Black Market Auctionhouse.”
   “Don’t make me regret this, Sunderland.” Farideh spews.
   “We curb Xing-Tech’s monopoly by putting the Trafalgar stockpile, and legit Sons tech, up for auction. I would establish the SIN BMA and instead of open market premiums Trafalgar could sell the whole thing for a much more reasonable tax. Xing-Tech would be barred from the auction, and we could rig some of the bids in favor of their competition. Flatten the curve, so that later I can run them entirely into the ground.”
   A collective whitening of faces from the entire crowd. Murky looks of disbelief.
   “What do you mean, run them into the ground?” Farideh finally asks.
   “I did mention that SIN is making more direct interventions now. I’m also consolidating power, and one of the main competitions out there is Xing-Tech. We cannot abide by conglomerates any longer. It’s time for a change, across the entire Galaxy.” Demir looks Leto direct in the eyes now. “If we don’t evolve and improve, we’ll crumble. In short, again, *** needs to burn, and I’ll burn it all down.”
   Siona starts laughing maniacally.
[close]

7
Three chapters coming up... Since I am, after all, a lazy ***.

8
Here we are. A year and 160 pages later, and I'm still a lazy ***.

***'s flying skywards, and I'm just here in the middle of the storm having a beer. I write where it takes me, consider the options, start, delete it, start over, and then at some point it's good enough for actual reading.
Thank you all for reading! If you have any questions, suggestions, comments, criticisms of style and substance, you want to tell me how much of a pretentious git I am, or maybe tell me where you see the narrative going, any issues, ideas, or general tomfoolery, feel free to post it here or send me a message if you're shy.
It feels like I'm talking to myself here, which I do in real life too. Join the fun. I don't bite.
Cheers!

Chapter 50: LEGIT TECH
Spoiler
EVERY-***-THING that could be late is late. The defense forces are not in yet, and her troops are laying the mining groundwork with their asses *** exposed to any scrappers wandering the skies. Remnants of Siona’s men are pushing the defense perimeter wide, stretching it out to bearable viability. At least Trafalgar’s mining division is in, with the added support of some freelancers that happened to be on-planet. But that’s all wamba-*** compared to the numbers they need to amass in order to defend the *** operation in the first place.
   And among all that *** flying skywards, among all the stress that’s building up inside of Farideh’s veins, pulsating with unadulterated fury, Siona’s not picking up her comms.
   This might be because her Cain suffered more damage than Siona had initially thought. But that doesn’t account for the fact that Siona’s own coded line should be working if she’s conscious. Which might mean that she’s unconscious, and her Cain is stealthed. So if she bit the grav, and is drifting about hyperspace or some derelict sector between Westernais and Trafalgar, there’s practically no way to find her until she comes to. Neither scenario is anything close to good.
   However, it’s the missing backup that’s actually grating at Farideh worse than a dentist graft. Farideh notices a habit she picked up during her time in the field - grating and scraping her teeth. Every time she notices it she is reminded of the dentist, and even worse, of the brothel. The monthly check-ups the lady would have her girls go through, and if there was any tooth decay because of drug use, or simple neglect, she would have the dentist operate on them without anesthesia. The only thing worse than the sounds of precision grinders and grafts weeding away at teeth was the screams.
   At this point Farideh might even wish she was back there, and not here. Watchful eyes pinned to the screens, watching every move of the mining division as they assemble the massive drills that will bore through the glassed shell of Armitage III, to enable their shielded worms to slip through and secure their precious bounty. Larger mining freighters send out drones to scout ahead, scan the planet thoroughly so they can plan their assault on its innards.
   Farideh switches one of her monitors to a drone POV. If it were up to her she’d be piloting that thing way faster than the professional miners. Since she isn’t a professional miner she squashes her complaint and immerses herself in the slow drone of the engine as the POV comes ever so closer to the planet. The glassed surface looks almost serene, silent and deadly, slick with congealed mass of soil and nuclear waste.
   Then the footage fizzes, shocks of static mutter the screen, and the feed cuts off. On her second monitor overlooking the entire operation Farideh can see all the drones malfunctioning and dying out, drifting away from the gas giant to become space debris.
   “Status report!” she blares out over the comms connected to the foreman.
   “Ms. Farideh, the planet is fusing more hydrogen. The nuclear emissions are staggering. It’s melting away our shields. I’ve never seen anything like it. It must be the discarded Sons tech. We can’t get close, it’ll melt away our drills and worms,” the foreman explains in a deceptively cool tone, with a hint of something that Farideh can only judge to be admiration. A sense of awe at the planet protecting itself, or even the Sons tech still foiling their plans.
   “Are the worms inside still intact? Is the tech legit?”
   “It is, but the emissions surrounding the entire planet are skyrocketing. We’ll need major shielding if we even want to get close to this thing, let alone mine it.”
   “Prepare the drills, and prepare the worms. I’ll find a way.” And Farideh has to do so fast, if she doesn’t want her forces to be annihilated when the inevitable invasion happens.
   Still no sign of backup, and still no *** peep from Siona.
   Farideh tries her comms one more time, to no avail. “***!” she curses at everyone and everything.
   Her coded line signals an incoming call. Jitters run across her spine, expecting it to be Siona. On the other side it’s only Mutemba. “I’m kind of busy. So if it’s not a sitrep on my backup or Siona, don’t bother, Mutemba,” she brushes him off.
   “It’s about both.” Mutemba’s matter-of-fact tone is nothing if not grating in these kinds of situations. Farideh has never seen him lose composure, and she wishes she did. If nothing else than to make her own current lack thereof feel acceptable.
   “Come on. Spill it.”
   “They won’t be coming, Farideh.”
   The inside of her frigate feels as cold as space, with about the same amount of oxygen. “What the *** do you mean?”
   Mutemba takes a deep breath and sighs. “I would say I’m sorry, Farideh, but I have my own people to support.” The shivers grow colder, and the air tighter inside her lungs. “I have taken Siona hostage, and have blockaded the rest of your troops from leaving Trafalgar. You’re on your own.”
   “Why?” It feels and sounds like a cry, and not so much a question. Farideh is growing tired, so tired from all this. The day feels like more than a year, like she’s aged through desperation.
   “In order to free Siona and lift the blockade I will need to be granted access to the Trafalgar stockpile. All the Sons tech in exchange for your precious right-hand woman, and the backup you need to complete your operation.” Farideh had the stockpile vault coded to her DNA. She’s the only one with access. Nothing goes in or out without her approval. Just like a MOS skiff. It can be overridden with the appropriate codes. Mutemba set foot in there only once, so he’s well aware of the riches that are guarded inside the vault.
   “Why? Why are you doing this? You’re one of us, Mutemba.” Farideh appeals to his sense of loyalty. Mutemba has that in spades. She’s seen it, she knows it. All of her is baffled by his betrayal.
   “Before I was one of you, I was a member of the royal family of Kurrekesh, and I still am. My people need me now, Farideh. I’m needed back home, and for that I need financial backing. Your incessant hoarding of the Sons tech has given me no alternative. Such is the price of war, Farideh. I will await your call.”
   Mutemba cuts the line and Farideh is left to sift through what's left of herself.
   I can’t hand it over. I just can’t. There’s no way Trafalgar would survive if they lose the stockpile. They would be crippled financially. The entire operation against the Sons would crumble, and the entire system would have to live off of scraps they could forage by going back to basic piracy. Let alone all the enemies they would make. Farideh feels like she’s about to puke. There has to be a way out of this. He stomach rumbles in protest. Her throat chokes on itself, like she’s swallowing her Adam’s apple. Farideh falls to the floor and retches out a week’s worth of fully and half-digested food. Acid tears through her throat, coats her mouth in vile contempt. Another onslaught and basically everything she’s eaten up to that point is on the floor, reeking of digestive fluids and faux-meat. I have to do something. She doesn’t have enough forces to pile on Mutemba and get Siona back. Let alone the fact that he might just vent Siona out of spite, and be gone a second later. She’d be chasing him around the *** Galaxy just out of revenge. And by the skies I would do it. Farideh can’t see a thing through the tears bubbling over her eyes, and the drool from her mouth layers itself over her hands now plastered in filth on the floor. It’s cold, so cold, all so cold. She wants to drop and lay down in the warm puke, be one with something of her own making that isn’t disaster. Something. I need something.
   Farideh pulls herself up by the main control panel, smearing the detritus of her stomach over the controls, causing warnings and beeps to go off. Input controls keep asking her if she’s sure about the various orders she’s issuing by virtue of the phlegm alone.
   It’s cold, so cold, all so cold.
   I have to move. At least mentally. So Farideh does what she does best, and considers the possibilities. All she needs is a lifeline. She needs Siona back. The backbone of her assault cannot falter, fail, or die. She needs a way to get her back without risking the stockpile.
   That’s where the problem lies. There’s no *** way to do that.
   More possibilities, more options. Every faction in the skies-be-damned Galaxy comes into her mind, moving in front of her one by one like picture frames.
   Farideh needs help, and after cleaning herself up, washing away the puke, drenching herself under a scolding shower until her skin is bright-red, she knows who to call. “Koren,” she puts the call through to her secretary.
   “Yes, Ms. Farideh.”
   “Get Xing-Tech on the line. And by that I mean Xing-him-***-self. I don’t care where he is, what he’s doing, or what time of *** day it is. I want him on the line right-***-now, and you can quote me if you need to. Give him the coded protocol.”
   “Y… Yes, Ms. Farideh.” Caught aback, but still on target. Koren cuts the line.
   Moments later her coded line buzzes, and well enough Xing XVI is on the other side. “Ms. Farideh. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
   “No time to waste. I need Strike Force in the Westernais system ASAP. I don’t care if you deny they’re yours, I don’t give a *** about discretion, I just need them here. I also need your best worm shields and drill extensions. Mining gear, all of it. We got a nuclear-glass-fuckfest going on. I’ll send you the planet scan.” Farideh just barrages Xing, barely even stopping, just blabbering everything out she needs to.
   “Ms. Farideh, that is a costly request.” Xing’s languid, lethargic tone cuts deep. “Considering Trafalgar has turned its back on Xing-Tech these past years, I must say it is also an outlandish request. I must ask what you offer in return. We are no longer friends, after all.”
   “I’m sitting on legit Sons tech. Unfried, usable, dissectible, and ready to be examined. It’s in the bowels of Armitage III, under the nuclear-glass coating the entire planet, fusing hydrogen, and raising the temperature along with the emissions. Help me punch through, help me protect the operation, and the tech is yours at market value.”
   “You would make me pay for something I help excavate. Now, Ms. Farideh, you jest.”
   “Don’t play poor with me, Xing. Trafalgar can’t afford handing out freebies. Xing-Tech is sitting on enough cash that market value is well below what you’re able to spend. Think about it, Xing. Legit Sons tech to put you well ahead of the curve, at a fraction of the price it would cost you if you went through the open market premiums.”
   Xing pauses for a second or three. “More, Ms. Farideh.”
   This is what Farideh feared, and is now coming to pass. “I’ll open the Trafalgar stockpile. Everything you want at market value as well, no premiums. Now get me Strike Force and the damned mining equipment.”
   Another pause, only shorter this time. “They will be in Westernais momentarily, Ms. Farideh. It’s a pleasure doing business with you.”
[close]

Chapter 51: XING
Spoiler
EVERY DAY LETO FINDS HIMSELF spending more time in Xing’s bed than his own. In a way he reminds Leto of Mirabelle. It is his overwhelming power, his staggering force. Power that turns to lust, just like it did with Mirabella, so long ago. He is inevitably drawn to the man, spiritually and physically. The circumspect machinations behind Xing’s ever-focused eyes, the hidden grandeur of his ideals and ideas, all congealing into an unstoppable force that would inevitably swallow the Galaxy. Leto is painfully aware that Xing XVI will never back down from his aspirations to create the most advanced civilization known to Man, mimicking the very foundation on which the Reign had exiled Hephestus. The never-ending pursuit for improvement, no matter the cost. Deep down Leto knows that at one point or another, Xing will have to be stopped. His belief that AI can still be governed, used, exploited for the benefit of mankind; that technology can become one with Man, is his ultimate downfall. A zealot at heart, much to Leto’s dismay as he finds himself much akin to the alien-like man, Xing XVI will remain nothing but a tool for Leto’s own ultimate goal. Meanwhile, Leto seeks to enjoy his body and soul, with a hefty dose of apprehension. At times like these, laying in Xing’s bed while the tech magnate goes about his business, and Leto just lounging in the most lavish of accommodations Xing-Tech’s homeworld Yao-Tzu has to offer, he thinks of Demir. The man had a taste for pleasure that Leto himself thought he had rebuked. Now, he feels even closer to his lost compatriot.
   At least he knows that Demir Sunderland is still alive, somewhere in the Galaxy, doing skies know what. His only hope is that Demir will remain alive for them to finally come together again, and continue down the same path as they once did.
   “I have had the most marvelous conversation with Farideh the Free,” Xing busts back into the bedroom with an elated swagger. “You are needed in the Westernais system.”
   Xing is not a man for pillow talk. Neither is Leto. Power bequests power. Just like their sex, the rest of their relationship is much the in the same vain. “Immediately?” Leto asks.
   “Yes. Assemble the Strike Force. There will be a convoy of mining equipment to escort to Westernais as well. You are to follow Farideh’s orders. As of today, and for the duration of the contract, you are under her employment.”
   “Might I ask why?”
   “In exchange for your services and mine she will offer up the Trafalgar stockpile, along with her new acquisition from Armitage III. Seems like Ms. Farideh has finally acquired Sons tech we can actually use. A marvel, finally within our grasp.” Xing muses to himself more than talking to Leto. The devious machinations in his head are his sole concern. “Now, I understand that you and Ms. Farideh have history.” Xing pauses to focus on Leto’s reaction, and is content with continuing when he receives none. “So I would suggest you keep your identity secret. Highly suggest. You are there to keep the mining operation safe, and escort the cargo back to Yao-Tzu once the contract is fulfilled. Nothing more, nothing less. I will handle the rest of the Trafalgar stockpile personally once this sordid affair is over and done with. Are we understood?”
   “We are.” Leto gets dressed and puts out the call to the rest of the Strike Force.
   “All pertinent information will be routed to you momentarily,” Xing lets him know when he’s almost out the door.
   Leto exits without another word.
[close]

Chapter 52: FIRST SON
Spoiler
“WE WILL RAIN FIRE AND FURY upon them!” The First Son of Hephestus declares. “Trafalgar forces have surrounded our fallen brothers in Westernais. Three of our own are caged in this un-life, as their failsafes could not grant them absolution. Therefore, we must be the ones to free them. We must be the ones to avenge them. We assemble our entire force, and we barrel down on the Trafalgar smut. Bury them in their own tech and corpses. They must not get their filthy, unworthy hands on our most precious secrets. On that which makes us all Sons of Hephestus!” A collective boom echoes through the main audience chamber of their capital cruiser, the Sons’ main battle ship, the Olympus.
   “Pathetic,” an unnatural growl slithers from the end of the assembled Sons faithful. The clot of men-made-machine turn to face the verbal assailant.
   The Branded strides towards the First Son as the faithful part to give way. “Who dares question the First Son?” It recognizes the voice of the man formerly known as the Cardinal. Weak and timid, still hiding behind his prattle. It will make quick work of him.
   “You are weak. Pathetic. Unfit to lead,” it continues. Onlookers left aghast at the accusations.
   “Guards!” The First Son orders.
   Mouths are still left agape when the guards can barely take a step forward before the Branded has his clawed fingers around the First Son’s throat. “I said you are weak. Pathetic. Unfit to lead.” The Branded thrusts his free hand into the hollow of the First Son’s neck, and pulls. It separates the head from the torso. A winding circuit-fused spine with wires dangling like weeds is pulled out the First Son along with the dissected head like a bauble on top. Blood and machine-matter drip and coat everything around the violent display. The Branded lets the head fall to the ground, slop in rivulets of gore and tech. It turns to the assembled faithful, the crowd beckoning answers, riveted in place by awe and fear.
   “The weak have no place in the Galaxy,” the Branded addresses the faithful. In a display of triumph it crushes the severed head underfoot. Sickening cracks and creaks of bone and metal scream. Unparalleled violence bestowed upon those that are not worthy of its Lords. “The First Son has led you astray. The Sons of Hephestus cower throughout the Galaxy, ambushing convoys, digging for ore and minerals, stealing and sabotaging, losing to the likes of the fleshbags that still keep the forces of the Sons at bay. Like fools you run amok, unassembled, dispersed, weak and futile. For years the Sons have waged guerilla warfare on the fleshbangs, keeping your precious technology secret at all costs. There is no success in futility. There is no advancement in secrecy. And there is no vengeance in the shadows. I am here to lead the Sons to glory. I am the Branded, beholden to the lord Hephestus. Her prime creation. And I am here to bring you war!”
   The faithful are entranced by the words of the Branded. Its machine body, not even half-man. The pinnacle of technology, fused to the human consciousness. The faithful are willing to believe there is still a man inside the machine. The Branded is the bringer of revolution sent down by their lord Hephestus herself. They all cheer and celebrate, declaring open war on the entire Known Galaxy. For fleshbags such as these it only takes a few choice words, a severed head, and declaration. They follow, like they always did, washed away by the trance of combat.
   In the name of my Lords, they will all suffer.
[close]

Chapter 53: GINZEGO
Spoiler
STILL NO ANSWER FROM FARIDEH. Mutemba issues orders to gain as much info as he can from SIN. He wants to know everything about the excavation on Armitage III. Circumspect, by all means, since he doesn’t want that info leaking from his side if SIN is as of yet unaware of the operation.
   Considering Farideh’s predicament, Mutemba is uncertain why she hasn’t offered the stockpile yet. To be certain, it is not something he expected to receive lightly. However, he did expect it by now. Farideh’s cunning, planning, and scheming provide her with no way out of this bind. She can never make up for the reputation her crew imposes on the Galaxy without Siona. And she can’t keep the mining operation safe without her backup. There isn’t enough money to pay off mercenaries. And Mutemba is doubly sure she would not offer the stockpile in exchange for services.
   Just in case, Mutemba goes to the hold to have a word with Siona. Her anger has bubbled the cauldron over to the extent that she’ll blurt out any information he wants as long as he pushes her. The anger that woman can exude sometimes awes Mutemba. A vile, foulmouthed, and blabbering woman at the worst of times, and cold, calculated at best.
   Mutemba finds Siona pacing about her makeshift cell. A reddish hue all across her face, looking almost like she’s about to fume out her ears. Her grafted metal arms, punctuated with decking-ports at regular intervals, hang useless and awry at her sides, swaying about like curtains as she walks. From what Mutemba remembers Siona had them grafted to bring her numbers up. She uses a fully modded skiff with decking-stations and an immersive grav-sim cockpit. Both her cortical-stack and her arms are fully decked into her skiff, and she has a synergy rate that far outshines the rest of the Galaxy. Deadly as she is, her position in the Trafalgar forces is of unparalleled importance. She will do anything to be the best, and she will do anything for Farideh. Mutemba’s vivacious plotting depends on that fact, among others.
   “You still refuse to eat,” he addresses the captive Siona, barking around like a chained mongrel. Her long braid, adorned with scraps of metal that hold it in place, drapes around her neck like a scarf. “I can offer you some liquid sustenance, considering your arms are incapacitated at the moment.”
   “The only thing I’m going to eat is the skin off your face and the brain from your skull. Traitor.”
   As expected from one of the most foul-mouthed people Mutemba has ever witnessed in a position of power such as Siona of the Skies holds. Although he respects her tenacity, which got her that position in the first place. “You know as well as I do that will never happen. As soon as Farideh fulfills her end of the bargain you will be free to leave, and I will be on my way to Kurrekesh. In all honesty I don’t believe we will ever see each other again.”
   “Do you even know me, Mutemba? After all these years. Do you really think I won’t find a way to *** you. I can wait decades, eons even, but my time will come, and so will yours,” Siona snarls vile contempt at him. Disregarding actuality and embracing fantasy, as she is inclined to do when faced with overwhelming odds. Fantasy as sustenance, escapism as nourishment, and the wild machinations of both keeping Siona sane.
   “I respect you, Siona, but I do not fear you.”
   “I don’t give a *** about your respect, or your fear.”
“Then you can hope Farideh completes her end of the bargain and you’ll be out of here to live out your wild fantasies in no time.” For a second time Mutemba mentioned the bargain, keeping the actual details of said bargain in the backdrop of their conversation, hidden behind the looming question so Siona will finally take the bait and start blabbing what Mutemba actually wants to know. Her veiled threats will continue interspersed through the exchange, of that much he is certain, but as long as she tells him what he wants to know he will gladly take it on the chin.
Siona harrumphs. “A bargain. What could you possibly need that Farideh hasn’t already given you?” Finally she sits down on the bench in her cell, her metal arms dangling to the sides, lethargically draping over the bench. A sad sight, to an extent.
   “She will hand over the Trafalgar stockpile in exchange for your freedom and the blockade against her backup forces lifted. A fair trade, considering the cards I hold in my hand.” Mutemba puffs his chest out, shows Siona exactly where she stands to push her further over the edge. She may even tell him about some of the stealth routes Trafalgar has, so he can expand his blockade, maybe the odd contract that slipped his grasp, or even more about the stockpile itself. Mutemba has only seen it once.
   Instead, Siona erupts into a raucous laugh. Her head tilted back, open-mouth and scathing, thunderous. A laugh so awry because of her dangling arms, unpunctuated by a smack on the thigh, or even a hold over her open mouth. Just the undulation of her voice, like gravel churned through warm water. An eruption in his face. Mutemba wants nothing more than to vent the ***.
   “Skies-be-damned, this is precious. ***, I can’t even brush my tears. *** your food, get me a napkin. This is *** priceless.” The fury has transitioned, complexions reversed as Mutemba now stands reddish in front of a relaxed Siona draped over the bench. “If you think Farideh will turn the stockpile over to you, for nothing, not a single credit, you’re out of your mind. After all this time you still don’t know what makes her tick. Let me tell you something, Mutemba,” and she leans awkwardly forward, forgetting she can't hold herself straight with her arms, and then just leans back against the wall again. “While you’re here blockading her backup and keeping me hostage, Farideh probably brokered a deal to finish the mining, get what she wants, and will pile down on you on her way back. Now, you can kill me and draw her anger even more, until she doesn’t stop. Until you’re dead and Kurrekesh burned to the ground. Or you can leave me behind, stop the blockade and tuck your tail between your legs like the turncoat you are. She’ll sell the entire stockpile before she lets it go for free. She’ll put Trafalgar and its safety above everything else. My life, her life, any life. You just *** yourself, Mutemba. Your only move left is to tuck and run. Let me go, and leave with the forces you still have before Farideh-the-***-Free takes everything away from you, leaves you alive to watch as she pillages and rapes everyone and everything you hold dear. Makes you witness the horror as she razes it all to the ground, plows your people through, and erases Kurrekesh from the *** map. I would tell you to go *** yourself, but you already did. Now get the *** out of here and leave me the *** alone. Let me know if you’re going to kill me. I’ll take a nap until then.” Siona lays down on the bench, lets her arms fall to the sides, one dangling from her torso, as if dead already.
   Mutemba controls his fury. Surprised at how Siona managed to turn the tides on him. He has to give her some credit, she has managed to tickle a nerve. Her unscrupulous words have the ring of truth to them, but Mutemba knows a different truth. Farideh would never risk selling the stockpile and the legit Sons tech to any one faction, lest they overtake the entire Galaxy, and thus risk the very foundation of Trafalgar’s place therein. There’s not enough time to auction it all off, so selling it all in one go is the only option. The entire plan for the stockpile was to open it up to the entire Galaxy, making sure no repeat buyers overwhelm the others. While Trafalgar reaps the rewards, the rest of the Known Galaxy can have their ***-measuring contest, as Farideh put it. Committing to a move as desperate as selling it all to one faction is nothing if not folly. Like giving your worst enemy your only weapon. No, Siona can prod all she wants. But as long as Mutemba remains neutral in the conflict, as long as he uses the stockpile for Kurrekesh alone, which he promised, Farideh will succumb. Skies-be-damned, if Trafalgar had the money he would sell the stockpile right back to them. Not even bothering to transport the entire thing off-planet in the first place. He hopes Farideh might even come up with a loan, pay him off for the worth of the Sons tech, and they can each be on their way.
   He leaves Siona to her nap, and heads back to the control room.
   “General Ginzego,” warrant officer Miles addresses Mutemba over comms. “There’s a vessel requesting docking permission.”
   “What? Who is it?” Who even knows where the blockade is, and that there even is a blockade. Let alone that he’s in charge of it. Could it be one of Farideh’s messengers? A safety measure for the stockpile exchange.
   “A SIN operative, requesting a face-to-face meeting with the general. He mentioned you by name, general Ginzego.” SIN, this far out, and face-to-face meeting no less. Highly unusual barely cuts it. Mutemba’s intrigued, to say the least.
   “Has he declared himself?”
   “The man said to call him Daffodil, sir.” Holy ***. Mutemba thinks to himself, through a wide grin. If his assumption is correct, then the meeting will be more than interesting.
   “Allow docking, and escort the man to my chambers.”
   “Yes, sir.”
   Mutemba instead makes his way to his private quarters, and awaits the arrival of the SIN operative with gusto. It takes a while for them to dock and be escorted up, but once they are finally there Mutemba can only gawk, even though he expected him, at Demir Sunderland walking into his quarters. The man stands before Mutemba, considerably less ragged than when they last met. And behind him stands a little mouse of a girl, with piercing green eyes.
   “Before you even start with Mr. Sunderland, aren’t you dead?” Sunderland does a comical impression of Mutemba’s voice. His outward appearance might have changed, but he is still the same brattish, egocentric flyboy. “Or, Mr. Sunderland, what an unexpected visit. To what do I owe the pleasure? Just spare me. You know who I am, and this is Jolene.” The little mouse croaks a meek little hello. She keeps looking directly at Mutemba, with those emerald eyes that are both magnificent, electric, and also fiendishly feline. In her hands she holds a datapad in a clutched grip, like she’s holding on to it for dear life. “I’m here to discuss your prisoner, one Siona of the Skies,” Demir say’s her name with a visible frown on his face, as if he just ate something sour.
   “Please, have a seat,” and Mutemba gestures to the chairs in front of his desk.
   Demir and Jolene both take their seats. “Will you allow me to handle the flow of conversation, general Mutemba?” Mutemba nods to affirm his willingness, albeit much to his inner disdain. “I have kept my finger on the pulse of Kurrekesh for a while now. Your older brother, Abdu, has come right into his tyrannous streak, hasn’t he?” The words sting. The truth never stops hurting. That is why Mutemba has turned on his closest allies, and even friends. “He’s put all the system’s populace into labor slavery. Everything is dedicated solely to the production of the war fleet. While people die of hunger, the factories keep churning out ships, and the academies flyboys. Only the military can live off of their wages, but the factories run on dead bodies. Quite the militarist, and he’s got his eyes on neighboring systems and consulate planets near Kurrekesh itself. You’re backing your younger brother in exile, Osakwe. He’s popular with the working class, has a penchant for pacifist policies, and wants to establish a form of eco-proletarianism on Kurrekesh and the entire system. But for that you need serious capital. Something which you have little chances of getting from any supporting factions considering Abdu burned a lot of bridges. Well, let’s be honest, all bridges. They have little faith in Osakwe, considering the shared DNA, last name and all that.”
   “Mr. Sunderland, do you have to narrate my homeworld’s sordid state to me in detail?” Mutemba grows weary of Sunderland’s antics and cuts him off. “Please, you are here for a reason, so out with it.”
   “First of all, you will release Siona and lift the blockade. Farideh will never forgive you, but she won’t chase till the end of the Known Galaxy. Second, I will back you. I will finance the coup, and support Osakwe. I will also grant loans during the rebuilding of Kurrekesh, and the establishment of that eco-proletariat society. That was actually Jolene’s idea.” Sunderland nods to the little mouse.
   “Ye… Yes,” she stutters. “The data has shown that a successful eco-proletariat society would be beneficial for the long-term stability of the entire Known Galaxy.” Jolene swallows her spit in an audible gulp. “It would prove the viability of an eco-state, showcasing that stability and economic prosperity can be built on a politicians-for-the-people basis, and on the foundational principles of the working and academic classes in tandem. It would minimize corruption, bolster inter-system self-sufficiency, and there is even the possibility of slowing down the tech-race and patent wars.”
   “Go on,” Sunderland encourages her.
   “However, that outcome hinges on the first ten years of Kurrekesh being a resounding success. Ten years is a meager amount of time compared to other societies that require much less upkeep, and the return rate of established commerce allows for a time period of up to a hundred. Kurrekesh will need a lot more money than your original predictions might have established so far.”
   “I will sponsor that money. All of it. Under very specific conditions.” Sunderland gives Mutemba time to ponder.
   “I will hear you out, Mr. Sunderland. But first answer me one thing.” Sunderland nods. “When you say I, you mean to tell me that you run SIN.”
   “Jolene and I run SIN.”
   “Please, go on.” The choice doesn’t take Mutemba long.
   “The terms you, and by association Osakwe and Kurrekesh, have to fulfill to earn my sponsorship are as follows.” Sunderland pauses, and Mutemba truly can’t tell if it’s for dramatic effect or to just catch his breath. “Considering Kurrekesh will become the mecca of terraforming tech-development, as well as the shift into hydroponic farming, it will be exporting high-value commodities across the Known Galaxy. We will integrate that into the SIN pipeline. I want a firm hold on all the data, and I do mean all of the system’s commerce flow. That, of course, entails lucrative contracts for your operatives. Second condition is that Kurrekesh continues its military training programs and maintains a confident defensive fleet. This will not interfere with the development of the bustling society, if done correctly. Kurrekesh has to be able to establish allies and treaties through military stability as well. The last condition, and this is the most important one.” The pause here is for dramatic effect. “Kurrekesh will accept and support the independence of the Outer Reaches when the time comes.” Mutemba’s heart almost stops. “I will not leave without a clear yes or no, right now.”
   It feels like he’s choking on his rushing blood. Mutemba laughs to himself, hushed and grim, barely audible by anyone but him. He stands up. “As general of the Kurrekesh army, and king Osakwe’s closest advisor, I accept your offer on behalf of the Mutemba line.”
   Sunderland scoffs. “You didn’t have to make it that formal.”
[close]

9
Years later.
The Galaxy is on fire.
It is rising.
On the horizon... War.

Chapter 43: BACK THAT WAY
Spoiler
IT’S BEEN MORE THAN A WHILE since Demir had last been on Anudorah. The entire planet is stuck in time. Come back a year, two, three later and it’s still the same dump it was back then. Muddy, damp, congealed in poverty and perseverance. People against nature, people against people, in endless repetition. The only things that stand still in time are the planet Anudorah itself, and Fromaroundtheway’s cabin in the middle of nowhere. Aroundtheway, on the other hand, is about one-third through her battle with old age. Instead of her usual imposing figure she cuts a much leaner image, as well as having a sickly glow to her. There’s a tube running from her left nostril to something on her back which is kept hidden under her massive winter coat. Demir takes one gander and he knows it’s a lung vent-and-filtration system. Hundreds of years in the vicinity of residual Quyah fumes must have taken their toll. Modding or even replacing her lungs completely risks mod sickness, and Aroundtheway isn’t one to bow out to some sickness at the end of her rope. She’ll tough it out for another hundred easily if she takes better care of herself. Demir knows it.
   Demir can help her with that. That’s why he’s on this shithole in the first place. Some things you just have to handle personally. It’s a matter of respect. Truth is, Aroundtheway was, and probably even still is, one of the few people Demir hasn’t *** off to the point where she wants nothing to do with him. She’s always been solid, so Demir has to do her a solid and do this in person.
   Without her usual grace-despite-her-size, Aroundtheway pushes herself off her chair and greets Demir with her motherly swagger. “All this time and not even a message. I have to hear it in whispers around the Galaxy that you’re probably dead.” She embraces Demir in her arms that seem impervious to her physical ailments.
   When Demir first took to the shadows, the Galaxy declared him a fugitive from the Authority. True enough. Then when he didn’t return, he was jailed; somewhere no one will ever find him, the Galaxy said. Then he lost a fight to Siona, and got his Baby taken in the Pits. The *** has at least some grace to keep her mouth shut about that. But Demir knows, even though he hardly wants to admit it, Siona would never cop to a win she didn’t deserve. After he lost to Siona, and the Galaxy was tired of waiting for Demir Sunderland to make a return, he was just pronounced dead. And Demir Sunderland stays dead even now. At least dead to the Galaxy. Demir makes sure he stays dead by crushing every little hushed whisper in every little dark corner of every little wretched hive of scum and villainy across the entire *** Galaxy. Once dead, still dead.
   “I feel fine,” Demir lets her know, hoping to see a chuckle in response.
   “I can see that,” Aroundtheway says through a weak smile. “You’ve also improved your fashion sense, I have to say. Only thing left is that dirty old jacket.”
   To a MOS, the only thing that you keep outside of your skiff as a trophy of your craft, are the jackets. The MOS are just another elitist club of people who have to be better than each other. Represent everywhere they go. All of them hoard some kind of sentimental ***, knick-knacks, trophies, scars and viscous memories. Most of them keep that *** in their skiffs, to remind themselves of victories from long ago. Their history emblazoned within their hidey-holes in their skiffs where they feel mightiest. For the rest, so they see how mighty they are, they wear the leather. Demir has had his jacket for what feels like forever now, wearing it comfortably over a black business-shirt with hidden buttons. He has a cropped tie, black with a red pinstripe on the side. Suit pants and business shoes all in minimalist future-perfect fashion fit for the stock markets. Even Demir’s hair is nicely cropped into a pomp, and he’s clean shaven. He wears what he does with pride. A man all about business now, but he could still *** you up in the skies.
   “So, what’s your business with me? It’s been far too long, and you haven’t given me any down payment for the skinny. So, you’re here only out of my curiosity.” Sure, Demir didn’t give her any prior proposition, just a quick note that they had to talk, is all. You don’t just come to Fromaroundtheway with that meager ***. Demir being Demir, in her good graces and all, along with the whole being dead part, he gets a shot.
   “I’m here to buy you out, Aroundtheway. It’s time.”
   Aroundtheway gets back to her chair, wearily sits down, huffs a mean slimy one, and finally relaxes. “You're going to have to tell me more than that, Demir. You can start by telling me who that frightened little mouse is?” She points to Jolene who just stands meekly in a corner, riveted to her datapad. “No more Letos, I see.”
   “That’s Jolene, she’s my protege.” Jolene then greets Aroundtheway with a mousey little hi, and retreats back into the world of her datapad.
   And a protege is what he needed when Demir first started out. As with any new business, it started shaky. Demir’s inherent Sunderland genetics made him a *** natural at it too, but his unrelenting voice of hatred didn’t let him follow those bestial bussines senses to their full potential. Demir chose to hire someone as a consultant, and thought it best to simply get someone fresh, new, hungry, and build them up. He went scouting at the Academy of Economic Science on Pluto. A whole tiny planet devoted solely to the perfecting of economic science, doing so by pumping out one rich *** too confident in their own skills at a time. Always a good judge of potential and character, Demir took to the task uncharacteristically studiously. Rich *** after rich *** just didn’t fit the bill. He even went to classes to see the students in action. At one such class one the macroeconomics of the decentralized Galaxy-wide trade accords, he noticed Jolene Parton of the music industry’s biggest name - the Partons. Well, he noticed her for all the wrong reasons. She rarely spoke, if ever, visibly shaken when talking in front of multiple people. Her grades were *** too, just above passing. They’ll let her through because she’s a Parton, but they’ll never refer her anywhere. That’s how the Academy makes sure the undesirables can only work for their respective rich parents and not ruin the rest of the Galaxy. Demir was intrigued enough to go talk to her in person. A formal interview, if you will. Being alone with Jolene showed Demir exactly why she was failing. Jolene Parton had the business acumen that could rival that of any Sunderland, and the business strategies of a dragoon serpent - scorched earth. Her tactics were devastating, hostile, and burned bridges to make ceaseless amounts of cash. She had the moral compass of an AI and the human understanding of a nihilist poet. This meek girl was a bomb, and if let loose on the Galaxy anywhere outside her comfy music industry bubble, she would devastate. The Academy couldn’t let that happen, so they cut her possibilities. Demir gave her the opportunity to realize all her potential, and she took it without a second thought. He knew that he needed her as much as she needed him.
   So, it’s actually Demir and Jolene running the Syndicate Information Network. SIN might be Demir’s second Baby, but Jolene really makes it work. While he supplies the crazy ideas that she’s too pragmatic to think of, she fuels his innate Sunderland biology for him to reach new heights. When he’s off balance, she’s on point. When she’s proposing fire and mayhem, he shows her the human side of the coin. Balance in all things.
   “Jolene’s the reason I’m here to buy you out, and not push you out. She was going to slowly buy out your men, bleed you dry until you can’t make the cut for the Quyah mining. You’d have to outsource the work for less payout, fall behind the curve on the information pipeline as well, and when you’re far enough behind my men would take over somewhat hostile. I owed you a solid, so we’re talking good money for you, and safety for your men down the line. It’s a good deal, Aroundtheway. Have a listen.” The old woman gets somewhat lost in her contemplation, the once-sharp eyes a bit milky. There’s a spark there still, buried underneath the grime clotted over her eyes, and the age wilting her brain. Silent, but deadly.
   “You’re a little ***,” she scoffs at Jolene who pays her no mind. “If you’d come a year sooner I’d smack you for talking that trash.”
   “You would have still listened, out of curiosity.”
   Aroundtheway chuckles, then chokes and has to cough through the pain. “All right, give me the skinny. Stop trying to get me wet and do the deed. I haven’t got all day.”
   “Your end is, you step down, and drop from the scene. Now, I know your general sense of deviousness might tickle you from time to time. Maybe you just come back, do a little side-hustle on the sly. That’s why I’m saying this first.” Demir steps in closer, in case she fakes her hearing is askew too. “You’re gone. I make your men whole for anything they are owed, and I offer them new contracts under SIN. We integrate them into the network.”
   Aroundtheway’s eyes widen, born again. Her toothy grin, and sweaty jiggle of her double chin, are both back. “So you’re the *** bastard.”
   “I work for SIN, sure.”
   “No, no. You run it. You don’t wear a shirt and *** tie just to fly for someone else. You run SIN. That’s why you’re dead.”
   “The payout for you isn’t a one-time deal either,” Demir just continues. “I figured a better way to settle that for you. Instead of buying your land, I would lease it. Base value of the land, plus the Quyah mining contracts, plus your regular info revenue, and we cut that to a solid percentage for regular payouts, you sit comfortably in the seven digits. Regular paychecks for you from the lease, and a five percent cut from the earnings off the SIN pipeline your men haul in. You could upgrade your health plan, finally. Live out the *** hundreds of years you could still have on the clock any way you want. Your men would be safe, and under even more lucrative contracts, and you’d be well out that way.” Demir gestures to the door, the moldy rug still covering it flapping in the winter breeze.
   The old woman retreats back into her thoughts. “Ten percent.”
   “Six.”
   “I’ll think a day or two on six.”
   “Only way I’m out that door is with a yes or a no, Aroundtheway.”
   “Seven percent.”
   “Done.” Demir and Aroundtheway shake on that. “Jolene will let you know the final stages, since we’re making this a legit purchase through our shells. Contracts to sign and all that ***. I’ll want you out soon, sorry. We’re going to renovate a bit, secure the place from any Quyah residue. Let your men know, and my representatives will be here once you’re done.”
   A silence bubbles between them.
   “You’ve become efficient, deadly in business even, just like in your skiff out there in the skies.” Aroundtheway cuts the silence in half. “Did you cook this up when you were last here?” Aroundtheway grumbles and rasps, decides to take a drink to cool off her searing throat.
   “First stages, yeah.”
   “*** myself there, didn’t I?”
   “Kind of.”
   “Well, at least it’s you. Be off then now, I have some work to do.”
   “One more thing. If you ever tell anyone I was here, what I do, or any mention of me, any friendship we might have considered between us is null and void. Same goes for the ferryman, and any of your ilk. It’s one of the three rules. Any good business, especially our business, must still pride itself on our discretion. Are we understood?”
   “We are,” Aroundtheway lets him know, clear-eyed and in the moment. The most honest truth.
[close]

Chapter 44: THREE RULES
Spoiler
“I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY you need to do this in person?” Jolene’s apprehensive about the whole thing. Her discerning eyes green like emeralds and a permanent worried frown upon her face. A bomb that can’t explode. She needs Demir to go through with her plans, and do the heavy lifting. But she also needs to see that there are other aspects to SIN. That there’s still some grime left to clean out, always. That there’s more to running an information network so vast its reach is about sixty percent of the *** drakkweb. Jolene needs to see that there’s some business you just have to do in person.
   While Demir disregards her for a bit she tidies up her auburn hair into a tighter knot. “You’ll see why. That’s homework for today,” he lets her know.
   “Don’t treat me like I’m a kid,” Jolene hisses at him.
   “You are a kid. This is part of growing up. So just follow me and be quiet like you always are when it’s more than just me in the room.”
   “You know I’m not good with crowds.” She almost squirms into herself.
   “I know. You’re getting better at it. Sure. But in this case I just need you to watch and take notes. Okay?”
   “Fine,” Jolene concedes, with a childlike undertone of ire in her voice.
   They make their way down the dimmed corridor to the hotel room. Two guards usher them into the spacious suite. The temporary home of Velimir Zapatinov. The two guards follow them in, and secure the door.
   Velimir is sitting on a faux-kashmir covered settee, and motions for Demir and Jolene to take a seat on the sofa across. A table between them is lined with treats and real-food that only people with a vast amount of cash, such as the Zapatinov clan, can indulge in. Jolene prefers to stand behind the sofa, so Demir lounges gracefully on the whole thing instead. He takes up the space like he owns it, the mere air someone breathes next to him is worth his time in credits. A lot of them.
   “It is an honor, Mr. Sunderland,” Velimir courts Demir in his Slav-jank Common.
   “What are the three rules, Velimir?” Demir puts the sturdy, hairy man off balance. His bear-like arms almost slipping from his meaty thighs. Locks of blond curly hair dancing about like in static, while Velimir grasps at straws.
   “Excuse me, Mr. Sunderland, what do you mean?”
   “Simple question - what are the three rules? Jolene will help you,” Demir looks at Jolene who’s pretending not to notice him. Stuck in her world of data, logistics, and numbers, far removed from human kind. Her safe place, where she crawls into like a slug. “Come on Jolene, tell us the three rules.” Still pretending not to notice him. “Jolene.” Demir takes a more sturdy tone. “The three rules.”
   “You never saw me. No r***. No kids,” Jolene finally answers in her soft, warm, meek little voice. But still strong enough so that everyone can hear her. Like a hush that travels on the wind.
   “That’s right. You never saw me. No r***. And no kids.” Demir puts some pomp on it. He doesn’t get to do this often, so why not do it right. “So imagine my surprise when I learned that you were pulling a side-hustle.” Velimir retreats gingerly into the settee, just to put himself on the defensive. He puffs his chest out, sits up straight, ready to fight back. “Fresh organs from the natives on your mining colonies. Even the miners are in on it. Those who can’t survive any other way, at least. The ones that can’t work are sold for scraps like cattle, so their families can eat. Miners and natives, pumping out minerals and ore, as well as human produce. Not only that, but you’re doing selective breeding and selling off the kids, or just the good parts when the situation dictates. Fresh as can be. Am I on the right track here, Velimir?” The man says nothing. Instead he just grimaces like an angry dog at Demir. “To top off that selection platter of human rights abuse, you also have a meat tax on the natives. The prettiest ones get shipped out to brothels. You pump enough info from all those pipelines to keep SIN happy, and cover up your earnings by washing it through the mining. Now that’s actually a *** good tactic. Jolene was the one who caught it.” Velimir’s seething facade of anger and venom leave Jolene undeterred in her world inside the datapad. “So, that’s two out of three broken. Better yet, those are the two ones I really like the most. You say you saw me and I just make you disappear. But the ***, and the kids, those I take personally.” Demir leans in a bit, closes some of that distance between him and Velimir. “Just tell me, are you smart enough to know you can’t escape this? You won’t try some Spearhead-type *** and go for one last round with the devil?”
   “I will not,” Velimir hisses out.
   “Good. Now, I gave your family two propositions, just so you know where you stand in all this. First one was - they stay behind you, cross me, and I buy them all out and burn the rest while I kill you here and now. Second one - they take a financial hit by restructuring the business you were running, all that on their own dime, and sell you out to me. Anything I do with you is at my discretion.” Demir lets Velimir feel the betrayal. Lets him seep through with anguish and desperation. “They took the second, of course.”
   “Are you going to kill me?” Velimir has that one last question in him.
   “Worse. I’ll ship you out to Tzekovia V. Let the natives and the miners know who you are, what you look like, and just air-package you to a random location on the planet. Either nature will get you, or the people will. You will try to survive, of course, simply because you’re incapable of letting go. Accepting defeat. If you fight, it’s up to the people to pass judgment. Or if you actually do register that it’s over, you succumb to the elements. It’s a good show, a good final act. For me to watch at least. And please be aware that I will be watching. I have high hopes for you. But either way, you get ***. So, the two gentlemen here will escort you out. They will also make sure nothing happens to you before you land on Tzekovia. I would wish you the best of luck, but I don’t like to lie.”
   Demir stands up, and heads out the door with Jolene at his heels.
   “What the *** was that?” she hisses at him once they’re out.
   “He had it coming.”
   “*** that. I don’t give a *** about that scum. Why did you put me on the spot like that?” Demir loves Jolene’s ruthless true side. The pinnacle of ego, and the twisted machinations in her mind to actually make so much revolve around her that she ends up being the only thing that matters. “You said I was supposed to keep quiet and just watch.”
   “I did that to show you that you can get out of that *** bubble you live in, and perform on the spot and under pressure. You did well. Now remember that feeling, that overcoming, and use it more often. We’re spiraling into the final phase here, Jolene. You need to be here now, and on the spot more often.” Demir stops for a second and looks Jolene in the eyes. The sea within looking back at him, clear as the day he first met her. “If there’s anything I believe you’re capable of, it’s adapting. I don’t know anyone better at it than you. So, let me just say this - shut up and do your *** part.”
[close]

Chapter 45: RESTRUCTURE
Spoiler
“WE NEED TO FOCUS ON MINER outreach. The Zapatinov name needs to come off, and we put SIN front and center. The Zapatinov’s shells can take the brunt of expansion to the Outer Reaches, and we form a one-to-one pipeline. From there we can expand to the Calligon Nebula, and Zapatinov can retake full control under our terms.” Jolene has it all under control. All of the *** Velimir left behind can be ironed out in less than a *** year.
   “How *** are we on the reputation side?” That’s Demir's main concern.
   “Not great, not terrible.”
   When Demir took over the Syndicate he had to weed out the families first. With promises of independence for minor factions, a completely decentralized open market, and an approach to contracts that valued loyalty and rewarded it handsomely, Demir greased enough palms to rise to the top. The first year was the toughest. Demir just couldn’t get SIN off the ground fast enough. The returns were low, and the investment potential was running out. Jolene wasn’t on board yet. But Demir had his moment of clarity when he went on a bender. He spent the nights with the dregs of three planets. Shithole planet, basic colony planet, and rich planet. The dregs were always the same, just in better clothing the better their surroundings became. But those people knew a lot of *** about a lot of ***. Demir started contracting info from prostitutes, beggars, peddlers, street cleaners, and even junkies at first. The open information market SIN he put out into the drakkweb was flourishing. Every little bit of info, even as little as where someone took a ***, was worth enough that if it pings in the database the credits get transferred to your open-WEB credits account. *** a big banker, earn more money. See a politician visiting his side-piece, and that’s bank right there. These small threads of info would expand into the database, combine with others, form a spider web of info that could be traced, repurposed, threaded together, exploited, or sold. Connect all those small threads, basic locations, sightings, who’s talking to who, where and maybe why, with all the info you get from your big player contracts, and you can formulate a chain of events that cascades all throughout SIN. Demir’s people all got repeat contracts if they wanted it, even earned a solid credit score, maybe even moved on. Dregs became people, and people always want more. The information kept flowing, and it hasn’t stopped. Then Demir expanded to students in academies all around the Galaxy. Whatever project you’re working on, whatever new is coming out of tech, economy, mining, inter-planetary politics, you name it, and SIN wants to know. Demir was pumping more money through SIN than he could effectively use by himself. When Jolene came on they started the second phase with corporate acquisition, and drakkweb takeover. SIN is now the most dominant information trade hub on the drakkweb. At sixty percent and rising. Demir needs it to be at least seventy before SIN can effectively shoulder the weight of the final phase. And he already has to make some major moves, as well as Jolene having to come out of her shell.
   “We need that fence with the miners mended ASAP. They’re the bread and butter for the final phase.” Demir thinks for a bit about Jolene’s plan. Mulls over the details, like stirring a good drink with ice. Just to smell it once more. 
   “I know, that’s why I’m on it.”
   “Good. I want you to select the internal investigation committee. We want it out there that Zapatinov is being held accountable. Let them take the brunt of the public outcry. Do the investigation right. Vent some dead weight. If Zapatinov want to keep any of them on payroll, or make them whole, that's up to them. SIN doesn’t dish out a dime.”
   “That’s going to eat time out of the proposed schedule. I would advise burning Zapatinov for settlement money, keeping the investigation on the down-low, and clearing things up with the miners through incentive-based contracts.” And that’s Jolene. Brutal, efficient, and clearly lacking in human understanding.
   “Sure. The miners will turn around and forget all the human rights abuse once they see the incentive-based contracts. However, when the mortality rate, drug abuse, suicide rate, and work accidents spike like a torn grav coating, we’ll all be eating ***.” Demir has to set her straight. That’s the harmony of their relationship. A balance in all things. They always push and pull, until they arrive at the best possible outcome.
   “That might coincide badly with the rest of the timeline.” Jolene puts her chin in her hand, and takes a gander at her datapad, then types in some projections. “Yes, if we eat the time it takes to finish the investigation, but relate that to projected employee satisfaction, we have a longer but more stable timeline.”
   “Don’t always look at the most efficient picture, Jolene. Always factor in the human element, even if it’s just a calculation, and not gut instinct.”
   “*** your gut instinct.”
That brings a smile to Demir’s face. When she talks back, quips and prods, like a normal human being. “That’s what you need to develop. An instinct, a gut feeling. For now, keep plugging in numbers for human factors. Yeah, SIN runs on those.”
[close]

Chapter 46: RESIN
Spoiler
FARIDEH TOOK TO THE COMBAT logistics like a miner to tar. First she started planning the patrol routes, the ambushes, the scouting routes, and the overall fleet production and cadet training. With a free hand to dip into the Trafalgar credits stockpile, at first it was a simple matter of dishing out the most cash for the best products. Put the elite of the Trafalgar forces on each side of the defensive and offensive lines. Smaller forces, but deadlier. Mighty expensive too. But they were enough to wedge themselves deep into the Sons’ operation, and start stockpiling their tech and debris. When the rest of the fleet caught up with the elites, Farideh had to stretch out the budget a lot more. New cadets were graduating and she had to put them into rotation and on retainer. Plus, the ship production was slowing down since there were effectively more ships than pilots back then. Farideh had to balance it out, and not waste money on retainers for no-fliers.
   That was when Farideh took a more hands-on approach to the whole effort. It was also the first time she had to make a choice that would inevitably cost more lives with each rotation. She put the new cadets directly into the major assault squads as backup. They were ordered to keep outside the main perimeter, and only engage if any of the main squad got canned. Many of them never made it into the main squad, and died on the sidelines. The ones that did make it were so high on the street cred, and their reputation in the skies, that they excelled. Farideh slowly, but regularly and measuredly, weeded out the weak, and put all her money behind the best. Top squads with top tech and the maddest MOS pilots in the Known Galaxy. That’s where all the major money goes, while the defensive infrastructure costs only a third of the MOS fleet to maintain.
   The hands-on approach also meant that Farideh was in on a lot of the raids. She had her people make her a control-center frigate. It’s hardwired, bolted, and shielded for hyperspace. She can maintain herself in hyperspace for weeks without needing to exit. It’s a lot easier on her body, since Farideh never took to enhancements too much. She’s contemplating installing a cortical stack, like Siona has for her Cain, but that’s a decision for another time. Farideh hasn’t given her craft a name yet, and Siona keeps bugging her about that. Every craft needs a name. It’s like with swords in those ancient stories. Your craft needs a name. But that’s also a decision for another time. She has gotten quite used to the frigate, and even to hyperspace. The sensation of time congealed around you, and the vastness of it all, the danger of storms looming in the distance. A flicker of light at first, then a gust that registers on your environmental sensors; it comes to life and warns of possible danger as the storms build and dissipate. Farideh bolted to her chair, eyes riveted to the screens and the live feed, all the crafts at her disposal, and a sector map holo-display, with touch-focus optics, so she can scribble orders, move her forces around the battlefield like a puppeteer. She just changed the way she thinks. Instead of focusing solely on the long-haul, years and even decades in advance, Farideh used that thread-weaving capability on a second-to-second, minute-to-minute basis. Now, she’s more out in the field than back on Trafalgar. Mutemba has been named chief operating officer while she’s gone. He’s the perfect pick, a natural at it, and it also lets him scratch that itch of running his own system he didn’t get when his brother took over Kurrekesh.
   Farideh still hasn’t thought of a name for her frigate, but she’s well on her way to a skirmish they have planned for a Sons drop in the Wasternais system. She had to spend a pretty *** penny on getting that info from SIN. The Sons are starting an ore mining operation on Armitage III, a *** gas giant. Back when humanity used AIs, gas giants could be harvested for all their deposits. Minerals from up top, and ore from down low. Now, however, only the Sons are able to withstand the torturous heat and oxigen deprivation, even through their high-grade mining tech. Sure, you can put a human in a high-grade, top-of-the-line, shielded ore-worm vehicle. Emissions from a gas giant make it almost impossible to remotely pilot anything down there. Then you put that human on a gas giant like Armitage III, and they come back after mining about three to five percent of the ore-worm’s total storage before they collapse. Heat, air pressure, gravity, time, all of those things we thought we could control, move the forces around us the way we wanted, shield ourselves from it, but it always finds a way inside our bodies. The Sons, however, and their illusive man-machine-hybrid tech, lets them dig for the full storage. They jump on gas giants like real worms on cadavers, excavate and drill for a solid couple of days, then disappear into their mining cruisers and off into the unknown vestiges of hyperspace.
   SIN gave Farideh the exclusive skinny on the Armitage dig. Farideh also got hold of some advanced-cloaking resin for Siona’s main force. A batch of older tech Xing had already tested out, and now they’re using newer models, like Xing always does. The old ones are good for a month or two before they are cracked, so Farideh can place Siona in the center of the action. Cain is fully cloaked and riveted to an asteroid in the belt not even six clicks from Armitage III. The rest of the force is dispersed out of transponder range, clocked for good measure, and awaiting Farideh’s call. Siona will pin down the mining defense force, while her main assault team swoops in to disperse the jump point guards. Once Farideh enters the system proper they can collapse on all of them, and hopefully leave any ore-worms for them to farm after the sector has been canvassed. Either way, anything they get from the defense force will do just fine. For now.
   Xing, Hanzo, Charkul, and even minor tech companies like Zen and Maggnuss, are trying to decipher the Sons’ tech. Well, what they can from the scraps they get at least. Anything Trafalgar leaves behind. Seems like the eons old expression, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, well and truly alive in this day and age. Trafalgar is hogging the best Sons tech in the entire Galaxy. Just like Farideh planned. She has Siona on the biggest targets, and SIN on payroll with hundreds of contracts for her people. The only people getting in the way of Trafalgar’s dominance are the Strike Force, and Dominus. Being a MOS in the past couple of years meant a total shift from shouting your name across the entire Galaxy and pinning your score on every carcass floating in the skies, to harboring private contracts for major players under the guise of anonymous skiffs and cloaked transponders. Only Siona is still flying her Cain more ravenously than ever. Rest of the MOS don’t want to get jumped in the middle of a fuel run in deep hyperspace. Neither Fardieh nor SIN know who’s heading the Strike Force, but their tech screams Xing, although they deny it. They know even less about Dominus, a solo flier who shreds through everything, but has no rhyme or reason to his targets. Like he just wakes up in the morning, flies, kills until he’s satisfied, and then goes back home, wherever that may be. Siona, the leader of the Strike Force, and Dominus have the highest charting numbers in all the Galaxy. Farideh tried to get a bead on the two not under her employ to broker a collaboration, but Mutemba got nowhere even remotely close to smelling the leather of their jackets. The only thing Farideh is still content about as far as those two forces are concerned is the fact that they let her have the tech. They’re not scavenging. Strike Force shoots only to kill, and Dominus, well, she has no clue about Dominus.
   Farideh’s wondering if any of them will turn up. Dominus has a hand in getting their filthy fingers on skinny, even exclusive ones. And Strike Force might sniff out the Sons mining operation by themselves. Whoever designed their scouting routes is annoyingly *** good.
   But those are contingencies she’ll employ if the time comes. For now Farideh lets herself be enveloped by the crushing congealed mass of space and time, and gives herself to hyperspace.
[close]

Chapter 47: INC.
Spoiler
TRAFALGAR HAS TO START selling the Sons tech stockpile, and do so soon. Not strictly just to maintain the assault efforts, but for Mutemba to have peace of mind going forward. Trafalgar’s two current major sources of income are SIN and contracts with mining companies operating in the Outer Reaches. Mutemba took to SIN like grav sickness. He has Trafalgar’s operatives under some of the most lucrative SIN contracts across the entire Galaxy, raking in credits day in, day out. With the Outer Reaches expanding their mining colonies and operations, Trafalgar provides even more security for passing fleets through their system. At a steep premium, no less, that the companies are more than willing to pay, considering the substantial threat from the Sons.
   However, that’s only loose change compared to the stockpile of Sons tech that Farideh insists they keep hoarding. Mere supplementary income when Mutemba considers the vast riches Trafalgar could attain if she would just step off her *** vindictive high horse and just sell the damn lot. Farideh may not be stupid, as she’s waiting for a piece of legit, unfried, useable Sons tech to enter their collection, but revenge is a sweet fruit. Bitter to everyone involved, but to the person holding the grudge it’s more than enough sustenance.
   Mutemba’s desk is piled high with holodecks for the dispatch and reclaiming of scouts, contracts to be fulfilled for SIN, and countless orders for protective details from for the Outer Reaches.
   Still, not enough.
   So much work, for so little pay.
Mutemba issues orders for the main protective detail to retreat closer to Trafalgar, and handle the bulk OR convoys. He doubles the Trafalgar base defensive detail by bolstering the ranks with fresh pilots. Cuts the cost of their home defense to make up for the spending on the OR contracts.
Back to zero.
   Then Mutemba issues orders for his own information scouts to expand to the Core World. They need to focus on the corporate warfare that’s waging between the main factions left from the old regime, instead of wasting time and money on scouring the Known Galaxy for smidgeons of info on the Sons. That cuts the transportation and maintenance cost of the SIN operation considerably. Mutemba then has to funnel that money into Siona’s skies-damned kill squad, and the offensive against the Sons.
   Back to zero.
   With nothing to spend again, Mutemba requests freelance mining contracts in the Outer Reaches at base value, no premiums, to get some traction with the Trafalgar workforce at least, and bolster the earning. He can then spend the excess on supply costs for general commodities across Trafalgar.
   And back to zero again.
   Mutemba is funneling money from empty spaces into vast voids and back again into nothingness. Every single credit moved, earned, and stolen, is a credit spent in order to move, earn, and steal more credits. A perpetual zero-sum game where in the end the only loser is Mutemba himself. He doesn’t give two *** about the entire Known Galaxy participating in the same zero-sum game of corporate warfare, power struggle, anarchy reign, and public disobedience. The game might have been going on for what feels like eons, but it’s gotten only louder and uglier with the emergence of the Sons. Like those bastards just pulled the covers off of the entire detritus-ridden corpse of the Galaxy’s own moral fibers and inner workings.
The only thing that Mutemba knows is that there has to be a loser in the end. Not a winner. No one ever won anything after the C, but many have lost. If there’s anything Mutemba Ginzego isn’t going to be, it’s a loser.
   He has something far too valuable at stake for him to just lose.
   Day in, day out, just like his operatives, he spends shuffling credits from nothing into nothing. Playing for the zero-sum win, while Farideh is out in the field, amassing riches beyond compare and just letting the potential rot away. The worth of the tech is still rising, but Mutemba knows all too well the inevitable downturn is around the corner. Farideh may be waiting for that elusive, and in all probability unlikely, day that Trafalgar will get their hands on some legit Sons tech. However, Mutemba isn’t.
He spends his days getting back to zero.
   Day in, day out.
   But he’s not stupid either.
   “Mutemba!” a direct link to his comms chimes in, pulls him out of the daily grind. Farideh on the end of the line, shouting. “I need all available protection details in the Westernais system ASAP. Cancel any OR runs, and put your people on SIN contracts double-time.” She sounds entranced, almost scared, but deviously ecstatic.
   “Are you certain?” he asks her.
   “We got it. Mutemba, we got it.” Then he realizes exactly why Farideh sounds out of her mind. “Siona’s on her way back through the stealth routes. Her Cain got pretty busted up, so prepare a docking bay and make sure she’s up and running ASAP too. I need her back here.”
   “I will make the arrangements.”
   Farideh cuts the line.
   There might be a winner after all. Mutemba thinks to himself, and goes about moving credits from nowhere into nothing so Farideh can secure the Westernais system. The protective detail should be out before Siona even arrives.
   Sadly, there have to be losers for someone to win.
[close]

Chapter 48: ARMITAGE III
Spoiler
FARIDEH CAN STILL HARDLY BELIEVE IT. A legit piece of Sons tech, right there for the taking. Only problem is that it’s hidden behind layers and layers of the glassed surface on Armitage III.
   The problem with Sons tech is that it fries. From what Farideh could gather when listening to all the tech-jumbo spewed on all sides, is that the Sons tech is intricately connected that if a piece falls out of the system it’s immediately fried to the point of being unusable. Hook a turret from one of their ships and it won’t fire. It’s just dead metal, same as with their thrusters, shields, main decks, hyperspace jump modules, all the way down to the Sons bodies themselves. Not a single Son of Hephestus has ever been caught alive. When in danger they can just call it quits and fry their tech, so no one can ever know how they do what they do. They’re so fanatical that they’re even hooked up to kill switches other members have access to. The entire Sons of Hephestus operation is interwoven to the point where nothing that comes off or out of them can be hooked up and used. Deciphering such tech takes ages, eons even. While buyers are lining up to even get a whiff of something smelling of the Sons, a legit piece of tech, usable and decipherable, has yet to come on the market.
   Good thing Farideh is looking directly at her lifeline.
   The *** underestimated the wrath of a gas giant. When Siona and her squad cut through the defense line around the mining cruisers the Sons had to retreat and scuttle the ore-worms. The one that hit the kill switch started the cascade that ended being a blessing in disguise. Hydrogen started fusing all over Armitage III, and when the ore-worm popped under the pressure and heat it started a chain reaction that mimicked that of a nuclear payload. They glassed the entire surface of the planet, and the rest of the ore-worms remain stuck underneath. Unable to initiate the self-destruct, the pilots have died from radiation. True death, bodily death, but no fried tech. Their scanners are still picking up the signals. All they have to do is dig through the dead planet, through the nuclear waste, best the fallout, and dig out the prize of all prizes. The chatter across SIN is going to spread like a chain-beam. Every force worth their weight in ships will be on them. First the Sons, then the rest. Farideh has one day, tops, to secure the sector, and then finish the dig before she gets piled on from all sides. The full force can retreat to Trafalgar through their stealth routes, but they can’t fight their way through an entire Sons fleet. She has to do this, and she has to do it quickly.
   The only thing she needs is Siona back before *** flies skywards. Her mere presence is more than enough as a deterrent for any would-be big player. Her people are already securing the perimeter. The main force is on its way. Siona too.
   From all the sweat beading across her body Farideh feels like she’s down there on Armitage III, under the pressure of the nuclear fallout. Her fingertips slide over the decks she’s issuing orders from, each stroke leaving a remnant behind, like the stroke of a pen. Farideh’s shaking, her body contorting, writhing into itself and then out, cold and hot.
   Armitage III has become the most important planet in the Known Galaxy within a matter of hours, and she’s right there, sitting on top of the biggest credit stockpile known to man.
[close]

Chapter 49: REPAIRS
Spoiler
“COME ON CAIN, DON’T FAIL ME NOW,” Siona tells her beloved skiff. The *** blast from the goddamn Sons’ nuclear payload hit her out of nowhere. She was piling on the remnants of the defensive fleet gearing up for their skies-be-damned transverse jump, and then it hit. Shockwave scrambling all of her controls, leaving her dead in the skies, tumbling into the debris field left behind by the carnage her pilots wrought on the enemy. Cain took a beating harder than any dogfight. Her thrusters barely got her into hyperspace, and the autopilot in conservation mode seems to have the hiccups. It’s like she’s in a chair, nudging herself forward one little thrust at a time.
   “Siona, come in,” the comms ring on her personal coded line. “We have a mobile repair dock at the ready in the Horsehead Nebula.” It’s Mutemba right on time to save the day. Halfway to Trafalgar, if she finishes the repairs on Cain there she can be back in Westernais in no time.
   “Mutemba, always on point. I’ll be docking in five. Have a bay ready. Won’t stay long.”
   “Roger.”
   Siona switches the autopilot off and manually nudges Cain along to the Horsehead Nebula jump point. Her skiff barely makes it through, the vortex of time and space pulls it apart almost. Siona’s used to cutting it close, but it never gets easier.
   The vast stretches of the Horsehead Nebula wash over Siona with an aura of calm. Star-clouds in the distance, a murk that seems like milk spilled over a black table paint the distant horizon, dotted in places with small planets. Asteroid belts dance their gravitational dance, and just a few clicks from the jump point Siona can see the repair dock. A hulking mass of metal limbs stretching and clawing from the carapace that reminds Siona of Trafalgar spyders, floating seamlessly against the darkness of space. Two main hangars for skiffs of light to medium size, connected together with bridges and grav docks. Sequences of rails, pulleys, cranes, welders, small insect-like manned repair crafts, all at the ready. All she has to do is dock her Cain without splattering against the hull. Sometimes Siona does regret not having an auto-docking protocol installed. But she manages to thread Cain through the bridges and into a grav dock.
   Then comes the hard part, the part Siona always dreads - removing the cortical link. Siona had a cortical stack installed when the Sons and any other would-be emperor of the skies started *** on her numbers. Raw talent, a lifetime of work, and even *** training - which she also begrudgingly had to go through - aren’t enough when tech just gives you an instant advantage. Siona had to overclock her capabilities way beyond mods and stims, and the cortical stack is the way to go. It’s something Xing-Tech developed to counter the Sons. A direct neural link between a pilot and their craft. It’s like being inside her Cain. Information flows faster, and you no longer face retinal lag, or even input lag. Actions that had once taken almost a second can now be halved. Siona is able to pull off maneuvers she only had envisioned in her head before. After a couple of months of adjustment, mental and physical, her numbers skyrocketed to the top of *** Galaxy. No one ever ***, or will ever *** with Siona of the Skies.
   But taking the thing out, pulling the cord from the stack, well, that never gets easier. It feels like removing spinal fluid without anesthesia. The physical sensation is akin to that of an ice bath, with the added flare of sitting on razors. First the chill runs through her spine, then her legs and ass fall asleep, prickling and pricking with the fury of a thousand needles, and it takes at least a second before she can move her arms. The sync between her arms and her mind has to kick in again. And that’s just half of it. The second part is the mental strain. Worse than being pulled violently out of a dream. A monstrous pull of information that is sucked out of her mind and consciousness, just pulled from her, and she’s transported from her Cain back to her Cain, like between worlds. First drowning, then being pulled out into a world that is all ablaze with reality. When her mind and body are aligned she can breathe, she can see clearly, and she can speak.
   Siona lets the docking protocols handle her Cain, and exits out the hatch when it’s hooked up to the main hangar. Artificial zero-grav lets her fly through the slim tube, and into the hangar where Mutemba is waiting for her with a continent of his men. Around them skiffs are being handled by the delicate man-operated machinery. The noise of the hangar calms her nerves, bringing her back into the fold of reality completely. “Now this is a stroke of genius, Mutemba. This little stunt of yours, while dangerous, which I appreciate, will halve my *** waiting time. I can be back in Westernais before the day is over.”
   “Sadly, that won’t be an option, Siona,” Mutemba tells her in his flaccid, matter-of-fact tone.
   “What the *** are you on about?”
   Mutemba’s men point their blasters at her. Two goons come in from the sides and clip her arms with disabling rods. Blasters come in closer, barely a finger span away from her *** face. “Siona, just do me one favor.” Mutemba stops for a second, lets her get an actual, real grasp on the situation. “Be a good *** prisoner, and shut the *** up.”
[close]


11
And here we are.
A seven chapter drop. From 36 to 42. Just a bit over 30 pages in writing. I sat down, channeled my inner Eiichiro Oda, and pulled a full One Piece. This is the end of the first part of the series. I can put a great turning point here and call this saga closed.
Keeping with the Oda style a time skip comes next. In these chapters I managed to pull off a lore dump with some transverse jumping, and a cheeky little Sun Tzu quote at the very end. After the time skip we'll have some new stories for all the main characters, along with some new and familiar faces. I have parts of the story all laid out in my head, so I'll see where it takes me. Maybe it will happen soon, and I put something to paper. However, always remember that I am, after all, a lazy ***.
Cheers and thanks for reading!


Chapter 36: IN MOTION
Spoiler
IF THERE’S ANYTHING Siona hates more than people groveling, it’s meetings. One could not be farther removed from the other, but both leave a distinct cadaver taste in her mouth. The boredom and tedium of both are nothing to chuckle at either. And Siona knows how both of them end - with a bullet to the head. A real bullet in the former, and fictional one for herself in the latter case. But a final meeting is the least she has to attend if the operation is about to be set in motion. Farideh wants her here, and it gives her enough delight that Sunderland doesn’t, so that will make it more bearable.
   Siona zones out during the introduction part where Farideh, Sunderland, Mutemba, and Salvatore - the head of Farideh’s armed forces - exchange operational banter and wave their dicks and clits around to show who’s doing more, who knows more, and who gets more. All the while the Leto stands unmoving like a mountain behind Sunderland, seemingly lost in thought just like her. Siona knows that he’s all eyes and ears. It’s a strange sensation to Siona, seeing the Leto like that, or in general. Unlike other washouts who wear the face and frame, this one has an aura to him. That veneer of confidence, that quick twitch of his muscles and languid precision of his movements. She doesn’t feel the same when she sees Sunderland, but when she sees the Leto she wants to fly against him. Face him in the Pits. Skiff versus skiff, MOS versus MOS, because Sunderland might be her confirmed adversary in the Known Galaxy, but the Leto feels more like a MOS than the rich washed-up flyboy.
   Once they’re all finally finished doling out the menial tasks and coordinating minute details the major part of the operation, the *** operation itself, can be planned out. And not a skies-damned moment too soon.
   “Let’s go over the meeting with the Authority first,” Farideh kicks it off. “I will initiate contact with Superior Auburn. Mutemba has confirmed that he is the main contact for the Cardinal. With me initiating the contact the legitimacy of the meeting will be established. Any objections?” A collective nod from the whole crew, Siona included. “Any questions?”
   “One thing came to mind,” Sunderland moves in quick and deadly. “I want to be present during that conversation.”
   “And why is that?” Siona can guess from Farideh’s tone that she’s snarling on the inside. The boss is good at keeping her professional demeanor, but her outbursts have gone up quite a bit since Melkior and all this *** started flying about.
   “Because of your incessant fuckery, and my own safety. You’ve been poking your nose in my business to the point where I can’t be so sure you’re not going to *** me over. Just hand me to the Authority and offer to take down the Syndicate yourself. Sure, it will take you longer, and it will be messier, but Trafalgar would reap all the spoils. Who’s to say that in the end you won’t just end up a double-crossing ***. All I want is some reassurance. I’ll listen in, that’s all.”
   “You think offending me at this stage is going to do you any favors?” A real snarl from Farideh now. Even Siona’s caught a bit off guard. Sunderland was keeping low and nice, close to the ground for the entirety of his stay on Trafalgar. Siona even saw him once, docile and compliant. She’s just about sure now that it was all a show. Just about sure.
   “We’ve offended and berated each other since the day we set foot on the Galaxy stage. You, me, Siona, Trafalgar, the Authority, the Syndicate, and every other *** out there. The time for pleasantries is over, Farideh. I will take every precaution so you don’t *** me over. Is that clear?”
   “As will I, Sunderland. You can listen in. But in return your Leto won’t be present at the meeting with the Authority.”
   “That’s a big ask with little return value for me.”
   “Siona will also not be present at the meeting.” And that bucks Siona out of her chair. She wants to object, and do so loudly, but she isn’t one to not learn from her previous mistakes. “The request will be to meet with Superior Auburn himself. That’s a tall order in of itself. It is paramount that we appear genuine, and conduct ourselves as such during the meeting. The only parties present will be the Superior, Sunderland and myself, as well as the Cardinal and the nukes. Siona will be flying her skiff for protection, and if your Leto is competent enough he can be on call from your,” and Farideh scoffs, “Baby. Both armed forces, Authority and ours, will be within shooting range, but respectfully so. We need to play this right. So while you, Sunderland, are busy thinking of ways I might *** you over, I’m actually taking this seriously.” That has to sting. To Siona’s delight.
   Sunderland takes a moment to himself, nods at nothing in particular, and then gives that slight apologetic nod. “Indeed. A change in tone is in order. I accept.”
“Good. We will conduct the meeting in the Daffodil system.”
   Perfect move. Siona thinks to herself. The Daffodil system was a thriving jungle biome system with two green planets. A wildlife resort for hunters. After the C the sun blew and took both the planets with it. Now it’s nothing but a pile of asteroids moved about by residual gravity wells and swelling. The movement of the asteroids provides perfect cover and minimizes the ambush potential. Plus, Daffodil is nicely balanced in terms of arrival time between Trafalgar and Saturn, where the Authority has their headquarters. Neither can enter the system before the meeting if it’s planned right, and jacking up ambush spots isn’t as easy either. Daffodil also has one hyperspace point so both parties can keep an eye out for invasions. So far this thing looks damn solid. The other members of the meeting agree with collective nods.
   “Security on our side will be handled by Siona and her crew. Leto as backup.”
   “Baby has to be primed for flying. We’ll be going straight to Nazareth to handle the takeover there.”
   “Of course. Mutemba has inserted some of his subordinates within the more stable planets and systems in the Cardinal’s operation. Meanwhile, Salvatore will coordinate with Sunderland to take over the crumbling parts of the Cardinal’s operation. We will focus on the Paladins first. Destroy them from within just like they planned with the Syndicate. We will balance our offensive strikes with internal strife caused by Mutemba and his people. This transition needs to be seamless, so we can’t go in guns blazing. If the Syndicate catches a whiff of this, they will burrow and wall themselves off from anything that even has the slightest stink of the Cardinal on it. Nazareth is their head of operations. When the others have crumbled, Sunderland can insert himself as the new head of the Cardinal’s operation, and no one within the Syndicate will be the wiser.”
   “Question.” Sunderland even raises his hand like he’s at school. Farideh lets out a deep sigh. “Do I have to wear the robe?” That one actually garners him a chuckle or two. Even Siona’s tempted.
   “Now this all sounds simple and clean, but we won’t know *** until we have boots on the ground. The main thing is that we keep our deal. The Authority will wait to convict the Cardinal after we have taken over his operation. Sunderland will then step in as the legitimate head. So,” Farideh addresses Sunderland directly, mean-mugging him all the way, “you’ll have to work on your angle alone. The Syndicate needs to embrace you, or this is all over. You gave your word that this will not blow back on Trafalgar. So you better do it right, because, Sunderland, I don’t want to be *** over either. Once Sunderland is in, we can retreat. The deal is done, and all parties have fulfilled their end of the agreement. However, the Galaxy wasn’t built on trust. It wasn’t built on mutual respect either, but on contingency plans, safeguards, and assurances that *** over one another isn’t beneficial. That’s why we’re lucky to have both of you here.” Farideh gestures towards Sunderland, and then Siona, leaving her with a prickling chill down her spine. “Before I even start, let me make it abundantly clear that if anyone interrupts me you’re going to the Tombs, and I’ll just vent the Carindal and let this all go to ***.” An even colder chill down Siona’s spine festers. “You two will exchange override codes for your skiffs.” And now Siona’s completely cold, from the inside out. “If any party bails on the deal, the override codes get sent to the ones *** over.”
   “Like hell we will,” Sunderland vents through gritted teeth.
   “I agree,” Siona concurs, to her own amazement.
   “Fight it all you want, but there is nothing else to wager, nothing else to give. I sure as the *** skies won’t wager my most precious possession. So we will compromise. We put both of your skiffs on the table.”
   “Never going to happen,” Sunderland snarls out and Siona silently agrees.
   “Fine then. We go to war, and both of you can spend all that time in the Tombs. When someone comes to get you after it’s over, you better hope it’s Trafalgar forces and not the Authority.”
Siona’s *** boiling. With override codes a person can initiate a full control transfer. While she doubts Farideh would ever let Sunderland have her Cain, the mere fact that the codes are out there would gnaw on her every day. That feeling that at some point she wouldn’t be in control of her skiff. That Siona would lose all she has built.
   “Who would be in charge of the codes?” Siona’s actually glad Sunderland is taking point.
   “The Leto.”
   All hell breaks loose like a hyperspace storm. Siona is out of her chair before she knows it, and Sunderland is almost off the wall. Farideh motions to Mutemba and Salvatore who hold each of them down. The Leto still unmoving, just looking at them both, silent and still, taunting them even harder than if talked at all. Both Siona and Sunderland are back in their places, fuming from the ears.
   “Now that we’re all back to being sane on the matter. Leto, I believe you to be more than just a hired hand. You’re also a man of principle. That I’m certain of. Even though you fly with Sunderland, I believe you will be impartial in this decision. If either of us breaks the deal, you will hand the override codes to the wounded party. Do I have your word?”
   “As the Grand-Master of War, I swear on my name.”
   “***,” Siona flares up.
   “Good enough for me,” Farideh gives her the cold shoulder with a flare.
   “Not good enough for me. What’s to stop him from just handing the codes over to Sunderland once this is over?”
   “After we have each done our parts the codes will be returned. Leto, you assure me of that?”
   “I do,” the Leto assures everyone, as stoic as ever.
   “***,” Siona can’t help it, putting her Cain on the line is too much.
   “Your objections are noted, as are yours, Sunderland. I can tell you right now they don’t mean ***. We go on. We do this, and we do this well. While we’re by no means allies, all of you know full well that this can’t work if any one link cracks. So get your heads out of your asses and let’s go *** up someone else so we don’t end up getting ***. Shall we?”
The talks go on deep into the night. Defense positions, attack patterns, information pathways, subterfuge lines, offensive takeovers, number of troops deployed, assault routes, trade embargoes, false information leaks, personnel changes; all that in the name of the bigger picture. That bigger picture that lets them all get out of this unscathed, and better than they were before. Farideh always tells Siona that there’s a fine line between insanity and genius, and Siona can’t tell which is which the longer the talks go on.
   The only thing she can think about, and the only thing she sees Sunderland has in the back of his head too, is that their skiffs might end up in the hands of the person they hate. That part is genius. Siona admits to herself. The rest sounds like *** insanity.
   Isn’t that what it means being a MOS. Taking insanity and making it *** work.
   Siona knows that this plan better work, insanity or not, or it’s all their asses on the line.
[close]

Chapter 37: INSANITY
Spoiler
“WE COULD JUST TAKE both the skiffs and bolt it. Be off-planet and leave this entire mess behind,” Sunderland blurts out while pacing about the room. His incessant rambling has become somewhat of a staple for the past couple of days, while the details of the operation came to the final stages. The meeting is set for tomorrow, and everything is going according to plan. Which is why Leto has trouble fathoming Sunderland’s apprehension. “You have the override codes. I take my Baby, and you can have that ***’s Cain.”
   “I do hope you are aware of the multitude of reasons why that would not work.”
   “No, no, you see.” Sunderland starts gesticulating even more, pointing fingers, waving about like a man on fire. “Ninety percent of the time there isn’t a thing in the Galaxy that would stop that *** from getting her Cain back. She’d be on us like grav sickness. But if we bail now, Trafalgar will have more dicks up their ass than a Malakhaar hooker on the day the miners come in. Farideh won’t be able to spare her most valuable asset, and the *** would stay hardlocked in the sector. All we have to do is make it to the hangars. By now the troops all know us, so I’m sure we could sweet talk our way in.”
   “That would necessitate that I use the override codes for my own gain, which I will not,” Leto makes sure Sunderland recognizes his earnest standpoint.
   “Why? Because you gave your word. *** me dead, will you get over yourself.”
   “For a person I heard uttering the phrase and what is a man without his word, you do expect others to go back on theirs often enough.”
   “Don’t lecture me on hypocrisy. I mastered that a long time ago. No word in the entire *** Galaxy means anything. A word is only as good as the bounty it brings in. Do you even have the slightest idea how many credits we could rake in by selling the Cain? Not only an original MOS design, but one from Siona of the Skies. We could finance our own enterprise, and do this our way. While the Authority is busy with Trafalgar, and while the Syndicate is busy dealing with the Cardinal fallout, we use that capital to finance our own information pipeline. Cut the Syndicate straight out the business, clean, quick, and we don’t owe anyone ***.”
   “What is it that frightens you so?” Leto has to get to the bottom of this before Sunderland is left alone with Farideh and the Superior. He did extremely well before the plan had finally come to fruition, and Leto noticed he even reveled in it. Leto remembers a time when he felt the pang of dismay before an operation. The lingering doubt festering until it was like a black mist coiling around his thoughts. The possibility of defeat far outweighing that of success. His mind a blank canvas for all the murky potential of loss.
   “My gut,” Sunderland blurts out like that is supposed to mean something. Leto gives him the look which requests elaboration, since he has no interest in indulging the man for too long. “I get this gut feeling before a run. It’s telling me this *** is going to fly skyward faster than a fried flux capacitor. My gut’s never been wrong.”
   “That’s not the only thing, is it?”
Sunderland takes a deep breath, calms down, and finally takes a seat before Leto has to make him. His scuttling about can be tiring. “Do you understand that when this is done we, well I, will be running the Syndicate. Sure enough I’ll have you, but this is the Syndicate we’re talking about. One of the biggest crime organizations in the Known Galaxy. We did well with Warhorse’s little band of *** misfits. But this is a whole other level. Even this plan, this *** plan has too many moving parts. We’re balancing plates on our dicks here, Leto.”
   “Demir, it was you who concocted this *** plan in the first place.”
   “That’s how I know it’s ***. Do you really think I’m capable of pulling this off? I fly, Leto. That’s what I do. I don’t *** run criminal enterprises that span the *** Galaxy.”
Leto knows this frustration all too well. The day the Tarsians were annihilated, and the AIs were barreling down. All his careful planning, all his effort and all his will, just out the hatch. Since Leto knows this feeling all too well, he also knows exactly what to do.
   “Demir, if there is anything I believe you are capable of, it is adapting. I don’t know anyone better at it than you. So, let me just say this - shut up and do your *** part.”

***

   “You know I don’t like being on the sidelines,” Siona’s been nagging her for days now. Farideh can barely get her thoughts straight with all her whining.
   “Tell me, are you better with a gun or with your skiff?”
   “That’s a stupid question.”
   “Stupid *** begets stupid ***. Now, I want you to *** realize that the future of Trafalgar rests on this deal. If I thought I needed you next to me with a gun, you would be next to me with a gun. But the Cain on standby is a show of force. And the Cain needs its *** pilot. So, for the love of the skies, will you stop whining? I’m starting to miss Sunderland.” Farideh massages her temples.
   “That’s low. What if he *** us over?”
   “And how exactly will he do that, alone in that room with me and the Superior? Unarmed and without backup. Is he going to order his Leto to cut through our defense and the Authority’s. Alone. Swipe the Superior from under our noses and hold him for ransom. His Leto’s a delusional *** who’s in it for the long run, but he’s not that good. Sunderland will do his part, and we will do ours. We all fry if this goes bad.”
   “That’s exactly what I’m worried about - it going bad.” The undertone of genuine concern puts Farideh off guard. Siona isn’t used to dealing with too many moving parts. You point her in the right direction and she will decimate her way through. But this, all this scheming and planning, Farideh knows she’s out of her element.
   “The meeting’s tomorrow. We went over all the specifics to the point where my brain is devoid of anything else. I know the *** coordinates of every ship we’ll have out there, and all the numbers of every force we have stationed on each planet. My head is just numbers and names, Siona. I got this. Now, please, do whatever you need to in order to calm down. Give your gut a rest, and trust me.”
   “I always do, Farideh. I don’t trust anyone else, that’s the problem.”
   Siona sighs, gives a weary smile, and makes her way out of Farideh’s office. She finally has time to mull through all the numbers, the names, and all the moving parts over and over again until she falls asleep in her chair.

***

   Leto connects his comms to the rest of the Trafalgar fleet. The agreement is that all parties enter the meeting flying light. Baby and Cain make up the spearhead, and the rest fly backup. Six to a MOS skiff, dispersed formation. They all have their grav plates set to accommodate the shifting asteroid field. Transponders are on just to make sure the count is accurate, but the Trafalgar skiffs keep out of sight. Fourteen skiffs to a party. On one side are fourteen Authority skiffs, pristine and well-kept, armed and ready. On the other side the ragtag band of miscellaneous parts grafted together by people who live and breathe for their craft. Leto knows which side would win, he can see it all in his mind. And he is glad to be on the winning one.
   Farideh, Sunderland, the Cardinal, and the nukes are all loaded onto the mothballed freighter that is using minimal power just for shields against the asteroids. That is the meeting location. Everyone inside will have their comms cut off as soon as the meeting starts. That is also part of the deal. No outside intrusions. When everything is over, Farideh will turn off the frequency jammer.
   The Authority has their skiffs in circle formation around the perimeter of the hyperspace jump point, making sure no reinforcements can ambush them. All the while Farideh has her people patrolling hyperspace and nearby sectors to make sure no reinforcements can ambush them. It is all a game of being where you think the enemy is going to be, and making sure the enemy does not know where you are. The mistrust is as palpable as the sweat bubbling between Leto’s palms and the control wheel. It has been so long since he piloted a skiff like this. Sunderland knows his craft, that much is beyond a doubt. Leto could cut through all of them in this skiff, and if it comes to that he will not let Sunderland die. His life is paramount, and the rest can go to hell.
   Leto recognizes the potential for betrayal more and more with every passing day. The singular goals of people across the Galaxy savagely pulling fate in their own direction, with complete abandon and disregard. He wishes he could hear the meeting. He wishes he could alleviate the sweat making his hands slick and the grip of the wheel wet.
   Leto wishes this could all just be easier.
   But most of all he wishes someone would just *** believe him.

***

   The Superior stands before them, and probably despite his own better judgment, he is alone. Quite a short man, stocky even, with amazingly short arms and no neck to speak of. His bald head shimmers under the artificial light inside the freighter. His bushy mustache twitches with every suspicious move of his lips, as he walks about the central cargo space, eyeing everything with a degree of mistrust. Like at any moment armed forces are going to crawl out the vents, jump from hidden compartments underneath the floorboards. Knives in the dark, blasters on standby, and nothing inside the space but the last good deal gone wrong. The Superior’s eyes may be full of doubt, but behind their pale blue glaze lies the shimmer of a discerning man. Someone who knows how to judge a situation.
   “Satisfied with the premises, Superior?” Farideh asks to stop him from pacing about the place and making her skysick.
   “Oh, I know neither of you are stupid. The only reason I am here is because I know that you are not stupid,” the Superior has a languid tone in his impeccable Common fit for the pre-C royal courts. “Quite to the contrary, it is rare that such industrious and crafty people, each in their own craft, assemble like this. And I hate to be the last one invited to these kinds of gatherings. I quite like being the first in the room. So, to be completely honest, I’ve had worse company in bigger dumps than this. I’m just waiting for my men to confirm that all the scans are clean and we can proceed.” The Superior tends to his comms for a brief moment. “And there it is. You are free to cut the comms, Ms. Farideh.”
   Farideh nods, cuts all comms to the outside, and the meeting can officially start. It almost feels like parliament. Like they’re taking turns having the floor. All that’s missing is some token they carry to know who can talk ,and who can shut the *** up.
   “Since the cliffnotes brought you all the way out here, I believe the full deal will be worth your time. If I’m known for anything, it’s for not wasting a good meeting.”
   “Indeed. While I would relish the thought of hunting you down like the vermin you are, my innate pragmatism always gets the better of me. However, Trafalgar is much farther away than any Syndicate turf. And if there’s anything I hate more than miscreant pirates, it’s organized crime under my *** nose. That’s why I put up with the Cardinal for so long, but I have to say the shackles suit him much better than my patronage.” Farideh tries her best to notice any contempt in the Superior’s voice. Any sign of his expressed hate, but there is none. That makes him all the more dangerous. He doesn’t hate pirates or crime because of any emotion, but because they interfere with his pragmatic view of a perfect Galaxy. Crime must be eliminated not because he believes it to be wrong, but because it offsets the balance of his system. The savagery with which he would approach Trafalgar’s extermination would be devastating. Given any chance to eradicate any crime, and the Superior would cut through it like a viroblade. Politics, treaties, and public opinion keep him shackled, but Farideh has seen Superior Auburn in action when given the chance. That’s the main reason she’s even here.
   Sunderland stands pensive and riveted to the floor, next to the shackled and gagged Cardinal on his knees. The last thing they need is his prattle. Never let your bargaining chips speak. Farideh holds the briefcase with the most advanced model of nukes they could procure, no larger than water bottles. When linked to a detonation harness, the nuclear yield is the stuff of legend. Even to this day, thousands of years of advancement later, and nuclear power is still used. Only now, instead of providing power, it's only value lies within the capacity for mass atrocities.
   “I have here six nuclear warheads,” and Farideh shows the Superior the briefcase with a flourish. “That way you can pin Melkior on him. But not before we insert Demir Sunderland into the Syndicate fold and he takes over the Cardinal’s operation.”
   “I can get behind pinning Melkior on someone, Ms. Farideh. My first choice would be Trafalgar, but I’m aware you know that already. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. So, do tell me why I should pin such a heinous crime on one of my operatives, and let someone like Demir-***-Sunderland run the Syndicate? The Cardinal has proven to be valuable.” The Superior shrugs. “I don’t see any reason for changing operatives this late in the game. Do you?”
   “I do,” Sunderland steps in. “The Cardinal wants his own turf after he’s done with the Syndicate. His own little slice of the Galaxy to build his EN *** commune. How long do you think he’ll be satiated by that, and let alone what’s to stop him from harnessing the power he has once he takes over the Syndicate? Now, I believe you promised him Trafalgar. He gets rid of the Syndicate, and in the process when you get rid of Trafalgar he gets to keep it. Amazing play, but the fact that the Cardinal would still be here has to leave a sour taste in your mouth.”
   “It does, so tell me how you would propose to clean it.”
   “I already have my hooks in the Cardinal’s flock. Give the people a taste of luxury, and they’ll want to keep it. I can take over his Syndicate operation without them even noticing. I can work my way through the ranks and bring the entire operation down, and it wouldn’t even require your generous armament stipend. That would let the Authority keep its hands clean of the matter. I would make sure the Syndicate goes down. That’s first. Second, I don’t want any sector for myself, any haven, any part of the Galaxy. What I want is to be deleted from the Authority mainframe. I want my clean slate.”
   The Superior cocks his head at a weird angle, and bobs up and down, like he’s thinking, but not quite. Closed eyes and all. “And what do you want, Ms. Farideh?”
   “Trafalgar will aid in the takeover of the Syndicate operation. We will also provide you with an opportunity to go after the Church of Man. The Cardinal has contacts there, and once Sunderland takes over his operation those contacts will be ours. We will initiate arms trade with the COM to justify not only a blockade, but an all-out assault on their sector. The Authority will be rid of the Syndicate and the COM, and all I ask for in return is that you abstain from blockades or assaults on Trafalgar. We can still hunt each other out in the open. I don’t expect you to turn a blind eye to my business. But I don’t want a war. Trafalgar gets passed by when all this *** goes down.”
   Superior Auburn puts his chin in his hand, muses to himself with a little chuckle here and there. “I must say, in all my years as the Superior I have rarely had someone suck my *** and lick my *** to the extent that both of you are doing. I don’t know if this is because you sincerely hate the Cardinal and the COM, and want to ruin them, or you are really afraid of me. Both, maybe?” The Superior’s menacing grin finally betrays his bestial nature.
   “The Authority has lost a lot of cred in the Galaxy after Melkior. We know you need a win. You’re like a hungry whorbeast, Superior. It’s only smart not to get in your way when you’re ravenous. I’ll do anything for my people, and I believe Sunderland will do anything to save his ass.”
   “Oh, I love my ass.”
   “There is only one thing left.” There always is. Farideh thinks to herself while the Superior puts his hands behind his back and paces closer to them. “How do we ensure your compliance with the deal?”
   “It’s not our compliance I’m worried about, Superior, but yours. Considering you have the most to gain, I have taken precautions to make sure your end of the deal is held up. I’m recording all of this. The Superior of the Authority meeting with two of the Galaxy’s most known criminals. That will undoubtedly cause some problems for you down the line. No matter if the deal is made or not. Just you being here plants the seed of doubt. And I know how much you love your position.”
   “Almost as much as I love my ass,” Sunderland cuts in with a childish jibe, but at least it’s on point. The Superior takes more time to think.
   “True. I wouldn’t have expected less from the Pirate Queen. I was just trying to bake my cake and eat it too.” Superior Auburn looks them both in the eyes. “You have a deal. Just delete that recording as a show of good faith.” His outstretched hand beckons their own.
   A shake of hands and the deal is made. It’s all going according to *** plan.
   The ship rocks violently, sending everyone inside tumbling around like cargo. As soon as they’re on their feet it rocks again.
   “What the *** is going on?” Sunderland blares. “This isn’t an asteroid crash.”
   “Turn off the comms jammer,” Superior Auburn orders like Farideh’s one of his lackeys.
   “Everyone just keep calm,” she tells them all while going insane on the inside herself. The ship rocks again, even worse now. Emergency protocols are engaged. Everything turns dark and is awash with flaring red a moment later. “***,” Farideh curses at no one and everything in particular. She turns off the jammer. “Siona, what’s going on?”
   “Farideh, it’s a mess. We need to get out of here.” Farideh can hear the clatter and boom of combat noise in the background.
   “What happened? Siona, what’s going on?” On the other side the Superior is conversing with his own men.
   “They came out of nowhere. Farideh, they didn’t use the point. They came up right behind us, they blew through hyperspace. Farideh, this is ***. We need to get out.”
   Farideh tries desperately to wrap her head around everything, but it’s not working. She can see the Superior doused over with concern, and Sunderland on his private little chat with his Leto going crazy next to the Cardinal who just sits there, shackled and gagged. The Cardinal’s eyes are more telling than his open mouth would be. He’s telling her - you will pay.
   “There’s a *** cruiser in the system. Is this your *** doing, Farideh?” The Superior pulls her out of her own inner hell.
   “How the *** would I push a *** cruiser through? You have the point locked down!”
   “My men tell me they didn’t use the *** point. What the *** is going on here?”
   All of their comms break down at the same moment. Radio silence. Not a peep, except for the alarm inside the freighter.
   Then the message comes through the comms, distorted at first, wild a bit later, and then a spine-chilling cold demand.
   “We want the Cardinal.”

***

   Time and space distort at first, congeal into themselves, fall apart like a mirror, crack and hum as they bend around each other, and finally break open and implode. A blinding flash erupts, and a second later, when Leto squints his eyes open, a cruiser of unknown design is right there. Right there inside the sector they so meticulously fenced off, guarded and patrolled. The hyperspoince point far in the distance, and the cruiser close enough for Leto to smell the exhaust fumes. Authority patrol still at the jump point. No one the wiser.
   At least not until the cruiser starts firing.
   Pulse blasts shoot from the forward cannons and dissipate against the freighter’s shield. Leto recognizes a warning shot, and then the following consecutive warning shots while the comms are turned on and the chatter starts. Leto mutes the rest and focuses on Sunderland.
   “Tell me the Authority didn’t *** us?” Not so much a question as much as a premonition. But Leto can’t confirm it.
   “It is a cruiser of unknown design. Considering it is firing on the freighter with the Superior inside I highly doubt it is an Authority prototype.” The cruiser itself is slick, angular, with a sharp nose, clean lines, barely exposed upper deck, unmanned turrets that protrude from the hull, small and hard to hit, probably a proximity shield that’s hard to puncture and even harder to dissipate from the outside. With the firepower he has available it is unlikely he could break through the shield with any ease. Leto judges the only weak spot to be the rear thrusters, which are wide and tough. The entire cruiser looks like a spearhead. It is undoubtedly quick, agile even for its size, and Leto can’t help but wonder if it is carrying smaller crafts and manned skiffs. He has to take everything into consideration if he is to engage. Judging by the continued fire on the freighter, he might just have to, and soon.
   “How did it *** get past the patrols?”
   “It didn’t come in through the point. It burst through hyperspace and came up behind us. Demir, I have heard of this. This is pre-C technology, highly volatile and dangerous.” Leto swallows his own words, the images of his fellow Immortals assembled to hear the words of their peer Hephestus.
   The comms are then cut off, just like Leto’s recollections.
   “We want the Cardinal,” a half-human-half-mechanical voice beckons them all. “Usher him into the escape pod, and we will leave the freighter intact. Once he is on board you will be given access to the hyperspace jump point. Resist, and you will be slaughtered. We are the Sons of Hephestus, and such is our decree.”
   Leto feels a surge of anger like he hasn’t felt since the days he piloted his ship against the Khromnian uprising, since he flew to the Outer Reaches, since he quelled Magnolia-Tarsia dispute, and let alone since he faced the AIs.
   Leto III, Grand-Master of War, punches in the override codes for Baby, and engages the weapons system. He flies straight for the cruiser.

***

   Siona can’t really believe her eyes. Not just that the *** cruiser comes out of nowhere. Then the fact that she can’t explain *** to Farideh before the comms are cut off. Next thing is the voice - skies be damned, that mechanical voice - that tells them they want the *** Cardinal. And now, above all that ***, the *** that tops it all off, the Leto is hightailing it into the *** cruiser. All of her people are cut off. There’s no way to issue orders, to assume formations, or to formulate a plan. Farideh is alone, while Farideh and those *** bastards are inside that drifting coffin. The *** in the cruiser want the Cardinal, and Siona would bet her Cain on the fact that Farideh will not hand him over lightly. The entire situation is ***, and Siona is struck dumb, stuck in place like a statue. Neither she nor her Cain are moving, and she’s just watching the cruiser shoot at the mothballed freighter.
   But above all that, above everything else, she’s stuck watching the Leto bolt it into the *** cruiser like a maniac.
   Siona shakes it off, plunges the overdrive capacitor into the control panel, and engages all weapons systems. She starts the proximity comm protocol, and if she can pinpoint any frequency close by she can open a private channel. Choppy transmission, wavey voice reconstruction, and it hurts her ears worse than an ESP burst. But she has someone she wants to talk to.
   Siona bolts it into the *** cruiser.

***

   “We give them the Cardinal, and they’ll blow us to the Outer Reaches. You know that as well as I do,” Farideh tries to take control of the situation. Superior Auburn on one side wants to hand the Cardinal over as quickly as possible, and be out of this system and behind his cushy desk. On the other side is Demir-***-Sunderland who wants our forces to combine and form a protective barrier between the freighter and the cruiser; without comms no less. And then there’s Farideh, who just wants to *** wait for a second and start negotiations. “They won’t blow the freighter with the Cardinal here. We give that away and we lose our only bargaining chip.”
   “Didn’t you hear them?” The Superior states the obvious, clearly afraid since he’s not in control.
   “Everyone heard them, Superior. That’s not the issue. The issue is that I don’t believe them.”
   “Who even are these ***? Sons of Hephestus, what is it with the *** names already,” Sunderland asks a valid question, and murmurs the second part mostly to himself. Farideh takes a look at the Cardinal, his eyes still speaking of payment that will be made.
   “I have no *** clue. That’s the issue here. We can’t properly assess the danger, since we have no idea what the danger actually is.” And that’s where the Superior’s fear lies - the unknown. “They burst in here without using the point and with a full *** cruiser, no less. I say we give into their demands, and hope they honor their word.”
   “Give into their demands, and *** hope they honor their *** word!” Farideh is all but at the edge of her composure.
   “Let’s all take a step back and maybe we ask the person who obviously knows more than we do. How about we ungag the Cardinal?” Sunderland’s idea puts Farideh back on track, just like a cold shower.
   Farideh begrudgingly removes the Cardinal’s gag, half expecting him to curse her until the skies fall down, half hoping he would tell them everything because if there’s anything the Cardinal loves in this Universe, it’s himself. “Give me a good reason and this won’t go back in your mouth,” she lets the old man know just where he stands.
   “I believe you should listen to the Superior,” the Cardinal’s voice booms over the muffled sound of the alarm. It’s wasting what little power it has to function, and soon the only noise left will be that of the barrage from the cruiser, and the damned flickering red light.
   “Of course you would believe that. You would also promise us these Sons of Hephestus won’t shoot us down once we hand you over. What is man without his word, after all?” Farideh refrains from kicking the Cardinal in the teeth.
   “You played your hands, all of you. The cards are on the table, and my hand is better than yours. You see…” The Cardinal stands up, his hands still shackled in front of him, so he has to awkwardly push himself and grind up the wall he’s leaned on. “My flock have known I would be leaving them for a while now. Inserting yourself into my operation is only worth the credits you are ready to dish out, and not your armed forces. You will find all my bases empty, and me people all about, like a good flock, a free flock. Some will follow in my footsteps, and others won’t. I have given them free will. All the operatives you have at the ready will get you only as much as my people are ready to give. As soon as I disappear, the Syndicate will know, and my flock will be free to do as they see fit. Stay, leave, be beholden to the Church, beholden to Earth, or let yourself loose upon the Galaxy. Since the Authority has so kindly supplied the Sons of Hephestus with arms, they are finally ready to come out of the shadows.” Superior Auburn turns white as a rag. “Oh yes, I funneled all that nice gear you shelled out for my operation straight to them through the Syndicate, playing both sides. While I have to admit that your little double-cross and the putrid existence of Demir Sunderland have put a wrench in my original plan to nuke you all into oblivion once we made contact with the COM, I am still on track.” The Cardinal lifts his shackled hands. The cuffs light up red, and then green before they fall to the ground. “Do all you want with the Syndicate, but even after I’m gone they will still find a way to flourish. Such is the nature of roaches. The Authority will be blamed for all the carnage the Sons will wreak across the Galaxy, once the arms are traced back to their owners. Trafalgar will still be the number one suspect in the Melkior incident. And Demir Sunderland will still be without a single ally in all the *** Galaxy. So you can take my word for it - I won’t kill you. I have no reason to, or need for it. You have played your hand, and you have lost.”
   Farideh is choking, like she’s been vented. The Superior is dazed, his soul shattered from his complete lack of control over the situation. It’s all vacuum, more vast, lonely, and darker than space. Farideh wishes the skies would fall down.
   She also wishes Sunderland would *** stop looking out the port window and do his best to grasp the situation and maybe think of a way out. “I think we still have two cards to play, Cardinal. Better yet, they’re being played right now.” Sunderland smiles while gazing out the window with a glint in his eye, like he’s watching himself being saved. “While you were prattling on about how we lost, you didn’t take time to look out the window.”

***

   Leto throttles Baby up the curves of the port side of the cruiser. Turrets pup up one after the other while he rides the frequency of the shield all the way to the stern, engages the uranium-coated front turrets, and blasts at the massive thrusters. Shields hold up, and his assault is just an inconvenience. The slick cruiser engages side thrusters to outmaneuver him, and the stern slides away, the entire ship rolls starboard side and the turrets can engage him again. Leto punches the throttle, pumps up the grav and sucks Baby on top of the shield, almost clawing his way as close to the ship as possible. Grav waves and electricity arks spark in between the skiff and the cruiser. Turrets have to disengage before they hit each other.
   That’s when Leto has a chance to fight back. When a turret flips its cannons up and starts to disengage Leto douses them with shells. He rips through the turrets. But Baby is having trouble maintaining momentum this close to the shield. Leto’s losing thrust, and he has to disengage before he gets caught between the crossfire he can’t dodge at such a low speed.
   Bottom thrusters burst Baby away from the shield-slide and Leto is off careening up the port side and to the upper deck. Main cannons are already on him as soon as he’s in view. Unlike the turrets, which have to pop out the shields, cannons have independent shield units for their own defense.
   The main cannons lock on. Rockets come at Baby from all directions. Leto brushes off three and nosedives as close to the cruiser as possible to offset their targeting. He threads his way in between the cannons, linking his slides with twists and jukes, but there are still rockets on him. Leto bounces off a quick barrel-roll and careens upwards into a summersault. Baby can take the grav, and he can too, but the rockets can’t and he gets rid of two. Still more on him.
   Leto has to do a one-eighty, duck between them and hopefully lose them in the next set of rockets that are being loaded. Cause them all to burst into each other, get jammed, or just fly off into the nothingness of the skies without a target or motive.
   The alarm of the lock-on still blaring, Leto doubles the side-thrusters and prepares to slide into the one-eighty. Explosions behind Leto catch him off guard, but that welcome kind of being off guard.
   The Cain bursts in between the rocket barrage, douses the locked-on pursuit with shells, and then dips low to hammer and pelt the cannons with grenades. Leto’s comms flare up, static bustling and growing into a voice.
   “Come on, come on, skies be damned,” Leto can make out the gruff cursing of Siona.
   “Siona, I have you on proximity.”
   “Finally.”
   “We need to stall the cruiser while Farideh and Demir make it out of there.”
   “What if they let the Cardinal go and stay inside the freighter?”
   “We both know that is never going to happen.”
   “True enough. Are you ready for a real MOS run, Leto?” Siona of the Skies says that with a tone of challenge in her voice.
   Leto can almost feel the smirk on Siona’s Face. “Are you?”

***

   “Why is it that everywhere you show up, everything turns to *** ***?” The Cardinal snarls, spittle cascading in front of him like rain.
   “You wouldn’t believe how often I’ve asked myself that.” Sunderland even chuckles.
   “No matter. This will be your grave either way.”
   First she sees the Cardinal. Then Farideh just sees the flaps of his robe. Then nothing. A sickly crack, wicked and lean, just like a vase breaking but less pompous, less drastic, punctures the silent space. Farideh then sees the Superior on the floor, and the place where his head used to be is now a mash of pulp, brain matter, and boney gore. The Cardinal is standing over him. Remnants of the Superior on his robe.
   “Run,” she tells Sunderland in a grim hush, and pulls him along. “To the bridge. Now!” The hush turns into an order.
   Both of them are out of the hangar with the Cardinal at their heels. Farideh closes the door and overrides the safety. They’ll find a *** way to crack it, just like the cuffs. But it should buy them enough time. Siona and Leto should buy them a way out. All they need to do is stay alive until then. Or face the problem head on. Farideh isn’t sure about much any more.
   Farideh and Demir make their way down the corridor through the crew quarters, then take the right through the mess, and finally to the elevator that leads to the bridge. Doors close and the safeties engage behind them. The way blocked all the way to the elevator that brings them up to the bridge. Farideh is on the console as soon as they’re up. There’s no way that will hold. She thinks to herself, deadly aware of the fact of what she has to do. “I can initiate the evac protocols and enable the escape pods. Siona and Leto are keeping the cruiser busy. The Authority is retreating. Even without comms they have a life beacon on the Superior. No use waiting around for a dead body.” Farideh fingers the underside of the main console, all the while keeping her eyes on the main deck window. What I have to do. In the distance it looks like two mosquitos wildly darting about a warthog that is desperately trying to squash them. Her fingers finally find what she is looking for. Farideh takes out the blaster. “Sunderland, you go ahead. I need to chat with the Cardinal.” She sets the blaster to shred, and cocks the first load.
   “Are you insane? You saw what he did to the Superior. He’s stimmed up on something, or he has enhancements up the ass. Modded to the teeth. How did your scanners not pick that up?” Sunderland’s twitching around, like a frightened gooblerat. All the while Siona and the Leto are taking on a full-blown cruiser outside. Seems like pilots are only brave in their ships.
   “We don’t even know how those Sons-of-whatever made it here without using the jump point. You think I know how the Cardinal’s mods didn’t get picked up by my scanners? Don’t be stupid, Sunderland. Just go.”
   “He’s going to kill you.” A pang of genuine concern in his voice.
   “He might, but I have the element of surprise. I need to see his face before I leave.”
   “Then pride is going to get you killed.”
   “Just go already. Take the emergency stairs. The Cardinal will be coming up the elevator.” Sunderland nods respectfully, what he thinks might be the last time, and then he’s out of sight and down the stairs.
   Farideh clips the blaster to the small of her back, turns away from the window, and waits for the Cardinal. Her heart starts pumping as hard as a rave in the Trafalgar entertainment district. She blinks sweat from her eyes, and traces her fingers over the hilt of the blaster one more time before the elevator comes up.
   “I didn’t expect to find you here, Ms. Farideh.” The Cardinal enters the bridge, cutting a more imposing figure than usual. His eyes wilder and wider, with a reddish hue that matches the blood splatter on his gown. His shoulders seem broader, and his pace is like the boom of a drum. Each step forward an announcement of violence. “Wouldn’t you consider that, shall we say, unwise?” His voice sounds like extruding gravel, like every word he says hurts. Farideh knows she doesn’t have the time or the means to act this out with any drama or pomp. She takes out the blaster, sets it to full charge, and points it at the Cardinal’s head. The older man stops in his tracks. “Are you certain I won’t dodge the shot?” he asks her through a vicious grin.
   “It’s a shrapnel-blaster set to full. Something will land, and I’m quick enough to reload for the rest to land too. I’m certain of that.” The nozzle of the blaster doesn’t even twitch, despite the burn in Farideh’s arm. She can keep this up all day, and she’s not lying when she says that something will land. The Cardinal wouldn’t be the first person she’s shot. He’s not the only one to walk his path over the bodies of the damned.
   “Well then, do it. What are you waiting for?” The Cardinal takes one step closer, outstretches his arms, and beckons the shot. “Are you afraid, Ms. Farideh? Oh yes, you are.” His snarl becomes feral, pointed and precise. Malice seeping in between his teeth. “You’re still that little girl in the brothel. Living every day in fear that they might look past your horse face and your manly body, and see you for what you are - meat. That your *** is still a ***, and *** can be sold. Put a sack over your head, put a dress over those broad shoulders, small hips and tiny legs. Cover everything up and just sell you because you’re nothing but meat. And so you live now as you did back then - in fear. Constant fear that one day what you are, who you are, will not be enough and you will get sold. *** by the world, *** by the men you so utterly despise. That is why you own, that is why you take, and that is why you’re afraid. Because you’re still that little girl just doing her best to protect the only thing that they still haven’t taken - your *** ***. So *** shoot me. Shoot another man who is here to take from you. You have the upper hand now. You said so much yourself. Now *** shoot me.”
   Farideh’s heart beats slower, her breath is steady, her arm still taut and her aim true. She puts down the gun, and places it on the control panel.
   Without a word Farideh passes the Cardinal and takes the elevator down.
   She makes her way to the escape pods, and finds all of them still docked. “What the ***?”
   Something smashes against her head and Farideh tumbles down in a daze, writhing on the floor, the world all in blacks and blues. “I’ll take that,” she hears. Once her vision comes to she sees Sunderland standing over her. He has the case with the nukes in his hand. All this time Farideh didn’t even notice that she was carrying them, never letting go, like a warmongrel with a prize. “I couldn’t very well ask you for this, but I do need it.”
   “Sunderland, what the *** are you doing?” Farideh can barely focus on the words from the ache in her head. She feels the ship jolt, but she’s not sure it’s not just her stifling legs.
   “Looks like the Cardinal turned off the shield. The freighter will be harpooned to the cruiser soon. I’ve been keeping an eye out on the battle outside, and I have to admit Leto and Siona are doing an amazing job.” The airlock of Farideh’s escape pod closes. “Better get out quick, before they harpoon you in too. Thanks for the nukes.”
   Sunderland disappears and Farideh is left alone in the escape pod. She can hear the neighboring pod initiating launch, and the MOS is off the ship. With the ache still in her head, and her vision slightly blurred, Farideh starts her own launch sequence.
   I’ve been *** enough for one day.

***

   “Siona, we need a front and follow,” Leto gives the command.
   “What’s the target?”
   “You be the front, and I will follow. I need you to blast open a rift in the shield and do a one-eighty from the tip of the ship to the thrusters. Stick close to me, and on my command open another rift. Got it?”
   “You’re a crazy man, Leto. But I like it. I got you. Bow to stern, full rip.”
   Leto takes the low path in between the cannons so Siona can get into a good position to aim her rockets. She does well by flying out of range of the lock-on, so the canons will focus on Leto. He has to dip and weave his way through both plasma turrets and the canons, since the cruiser engaged all defenses because both MOS skiffs were presumably driving the gunners insane. Leto cuts his way in between them, gets some shots off just to tickle the defenses, but saves most of his ammo for the final assault. He can see Siona on his radar, a blip in the radar sphere, and how she moves out and in quickly enough that he can cut his way to the bow.
   The Cain lets two rockets loose inside the gunner turrets’ blind spot, and Leto is on it like grav sickness. Baby ducks between the barrage and moves under the shield, Leto cranks the grav and sets it to mitigation. He’s like a scarab in between skin and flesh, tearing his way down the underbelly of the cruiser. Leto threads Baby in between the popping turrets that can’t aim for him under the shield, and the cruiser command won’t risk lowering the shield lest they open themselves up to the full force of the Trafalgar skiff fleet. Siona has trained her men well enough to know when not to interfere, and when to take their chance. Grav pressure and metal against shield creak and crack all around him while he keeps Baby tightly in between the two. A twitch or two and he’ll crash.
   Leto can see Siona taking on her role as the forward, and then he knows he can let loose. He turns Baby upside-down, opens the hatch, and lets loose the only clip of bombs and rockets Baby has on board. Explosions erupt in his wake, at point-blank range. Thrusters are on full blast, and only fire and debris cut a swath as Leto makes his way to the stern thrusters. He slides the skiff to a full halt, angles the nose upwards, and empties the rest of the uranium-coated shells straight into the thrusters.
   “Now,” he calls out to Siona, and she launches her rockets again. The shield breaks and Leto’s out. The cruiser loses air, and tumbles before emergency thrusters stabilize it.
   Leto’s proximity comms glitch out. He can hear a voice, almost like it’s a distant apparition in the static. “Leto, Leto,” he can make out. “Escape, es… cape… es…” Leto checks the radar but finds nothing. Siona is still running loops around the cruiser, but Leto can see it changing course, moving ever so slightly instead of keeping the position secure. “Le… Le… Escape…” He hears over the comms. Leto sets the radar to infra and there it is. A dot in the distance, blinking. One person.
   An escape pod.
   Leto turns Baby around, disengages from combat, and heads to pick up Demir in the escape pod. Behind him the cruiser shifts and lowers the offensive turrets, and engages full defensive maneuvers. Another blinking light on the radar shows another pod. In the rear-view monitor Leto can see the cruiser making way towards the freighter, cannons and turrets lowered, harpoons out. Siona and her men are cutting their own swath towards the other pod.
   Leto harpoons Demir’s pod and bolts it for the jump point. They are out and in hyperspace before the Trafalgar forces. Leto turns the transponder off, and opens his comms to a familiar frequency, saved in Baby’s memory.
   Once he gets a bead on her skiff Leto sends Siona her override codes.
   “Demir, where do we go from here?”
   “Just take us somewhere where I can get out of this *** pod. And Leto, one more thing,” a pause, “I *** told you so.”
   Leto sets course for the nearest uninhabited nebula. Farther than that, how and where, he has no idea. He only hopes Demir might have one or two, besides his gut this time.
[close]

Chapter 38: AROUND THE WAY
Spoiler
THEY LANDED ON THE SWAMP planet of Anudorah a day after the Sons of Hephestus put all their hard work to the pyre. Leto had been wracking his brain in the hold of Demir’s skiff. No matter how much he mulled over every angle, Leto always came back to the same main question - is Hephestus alive? Is there another Immortal out there in the Galaxy? Is she truly behind this insanity?
   Leto had time to think and reminisce while in the hold. The image of that first gathering of the Reign, when Hephestus proposed her wild machinations. Human-machine hybridity, instead of AI. Trans-humanism to the point where mods, grafts, enhancements and stims would become a matter of the past. Instead we would expand synchronicity, and achieve complete fusion with the machine. We could survive hyperspace jumps without the gates. We could work tirelessly. War would be a thing of the past. AI would never overshadow us, as Hephestus always claimed it would. To an artificial intelligence, when advanced enough, the chaos of mankind is a threat to existence itself, perfect as it envisions it. Those were her predictions, which wnet widely disregarded. What was most important about her proposal was that we would all be immortal, if her grad design was put forward. Leto expected the Reign to not just scoff at the idea, but to strip Hephestus of her title. They did the former, but she escaped the latter and went into exile. The Reign never went after her, despite her negligence to appear before the council at repeat instances. It was too much of a hassle for them to find her system and strip her of her title, than it was to just let her be insane somewhere far from them. The Reign had already become complacent then, and AI research was in full swing. If she is truly fostering the Sons, then the Galaxy is in much worse shape than Leto had originally feared.
   When Demir had docked his skiff and Leto was waking about again, following the MOS around a hovel-township deep in the swamp, he still had little to say and much to think about.
   “We need to go see Fromaroundtheway,” Demir tells him. “She’ll give us safe haven for some good info. But getting to her damned hovel is such a hassle.” The words pass through Leto. “I mean, she’s a high-ranking information dealer. She could make the trip easier. You know she also sits on a major Quyah deposit?” Leto grumbles something in return. “Yeah, the land has been in her family for eons, before they even discovered that Quyah can be used in metallurgy. She lets companies mine on her property and in return she also gets info from the miners. They come from all over the Galaxy to mine the stuff here. It’s amazingly toxic, and the pay’s legendary. When the miners leave they earn their keep, maybe get another contract sooner rather than later, if they pass on some info to Aroundtheway. Miners see some ***, I tell you. Aroundtheway expands on that info, trades it along, and her route stays grassroots. No miner would ever rat on her. But still, she could make the trip to that damned hovel a bit easier.” Demir turns around and does his best to grab Leto by the shoulders. “Are you even here?”
   “I apologize, Demir.”
   “Don’t apologize, just be here. It’s a setback, trust me. I have some ideas.”
   At first Leto hoped to hear the word idea coming from Demir. Then he remembers that it was his ideas that got them to this junction of culminating failure in the first place. “Pardon my lack of excitement for your ideas as of recently.”
   Demir whistles. “Good one. Granted, granted. But you want to know the upside to that colossal failure?” he asks through an almost childlike smile.
   “Pardon me, if I fail to see any silver lining in this situation.”
   “That’s because you’re used to winning.” Demir’s jubilar tone feels almost off-putting to Leto. It honestly makes him want to smack the MOS. A quick upside swing to get him back on track. “From failure sometimes the best new ideas come to fruition.” Demir turns around and continues his way through the messy thoroughfare, going someplace he didn’t tell Leto about. So all he can do is follow.
   “You won’t disclose this inspired idea?”
   “No,” Demir just brushes him off.
   They make their way in between huddled masses of miners getting up for a shift, or coming back from one, covered in grime to the bones. Demir leads them to a small harbor with hovecrafts. He approaches one of the pilots with a level of familiarity. “We got the skinny for Aroundtheway. Righteous dibs. Make it worth her timings.” The level of patois Demir can switch to in his Common sometimes astounds Leto.
   The pilot nods through a concentrated frown. “Well tidings you brought so far. Aroundtheway appreciate you. I ring in the call, see what she say.” The pilot turns away and tends to his call.
   “I’ve known Fromaroundtheway for years. We’re on good terms. Probably one of the few I have in the *** Galaxy. She’ll do me a solid. And the info we sell her will give us a chance to start from here.”
   “Aroundtheway will be seeing you.” The pilot motions to Demir. “But only you,” and he shows Leto to stop.
   “We both go, or skinny go too.”
   The pilot murmurs something into his chin. “She say you better make it worth her hearing.”
   “Solid as usual.”
   They are then ushered into the hovercraft. The cockpit glass comes down, and it is a full open view panel. The pilot takes his seat at the back of the craft, operating an ancient back-burner design. Once the grav kicks in they are above the swamp, and lightly cruising through the muck and tree marrow percolating in the waters. No one speaks a word during the trip. Demir still deep in his self-satisfied inner machinations. Leto tries to take in the scenery, but it is not one worth taking in. Everything in shades of brown and dead. The pilot sticks to piloting, thankfully not trying to be friendly when it is not required.
   In silence they arrive at a run-down hovel deep in the woods of the swamp, in a cul-de-sac of sorts. From the hovel extends a short pier. The pilot wishes them a fruitful meeting in his colorful patois, and is off into the swamp again. Demir shows Leto the way down the pier and through a moldy, ragged piece of cloth hanging over what should be a door.
   “Demir, my boy, let me look at you.” A woman of formidable size embraces Demir in her massive arms. “You haven’t been eating right. I can tell. I could snap you like a twig.” And she most assuredly could. “And who’s this?” The woman looks Leto over with a discerning look hidden behind her plump eyelids and gorged sacks under her eyes. “Top class Leto, I must say. Looks like you have taste in other things besides those dreadful MOS skiffs. Sit outside, and I’ll be right there with some stew. Go on.” The woman waves them out through another rag and they sit down at a small table on the terrace overlooking the vast stretches of cut-down swamp. In the distance machinery dots the horizon like insects. Cockpits mounted to long, stinger-like legs that move with spider-like precision over the carcass of the land. Driving their stingers into the soil, extracting the precious Quyah and siphoning it through tendrils that course all the way to the mining station in the farthest murky distance. In the silence of the terrace the scene is almost serene in its own way.
   “The stew is good. I can vouch for that.” Leto continues immersing himself in a view that entrances him unlike the rest of the swamp. Disregarding Demir in this time of tranquility. “You know why they call her Fromaroundtheway?” Demir continues. “Of course you don’t. Well, when she started peddling info, if anyone would ask her where she got it from, she’d say from around the way. The nickname stuck.”
   Leto gets pulled out of his scenic meditation. “And that is all? The entire story.”
   “Stories don’t have to be long, to be good. All that matters is the point.” Leto becomes more concerned with Demir the more this wild demeanor of his persists. He wouldn’t judge the MOS mad, but he also finds it quite difficult to discern his complete state of mind as of yet.
   Fromaroundtheway walks out of her hovel two large bowls or steaming stew. Luscious smells and vapors coil their way upwards. “Here you go. Dig in, boys.”
   Demir unabashedly starts wolfing his stew down. Leto takes his in carefully, seeing as Demir isn’t known for his culinary palette. To his astonishment the stew is spectacular, and Leto soon joins Demir in bestial devouring. Fromaroundtheway takes a chair and sits down at their table. Demir sighs delightfully once he’s done, and Leto sets his bowl aside with a bit more tact.
   “Now that you’re both fed, I’m going to be needing that skinny. What’s my trade for it?” Fromaroundtheway keeps her warm, motherly tone of voice even when conducting business.
   “We need safe haven here, and access to your comm-center.”
   Fromaroundtheway nods to herself. “Not too big of an ask. Sure, just make it worth my while.”
   “Superior Auburn is dead. You get it first. Authority won’t be announcing yet, and the only other people who know won’t be acting on it quick. Exclusive skinny.”
   “That confirmed?”
   “Saw him die myself.”
   Fromaroundtheway chuckles. “Who did him in? And who’s the other party that knows?”
   “Some new force. Can’t tell you a lot about them, but keep your ears and eyes out for the Sons of Hephestus. They ambushed a meeting between the Superior, Farideh the Free, and me. Won’t tell you anything about the meeting though. Lips sealed on the why.”
   “Anything on who leads these Sons of Hephestus? What’s their deal? Who or what do they hate?” Fromaroundtheway makes a chilling point that Leto finds hard to come to terms with. That seemingly everything, or at least too much, in the Galaxy now operates in spite of something, and not for something. Division, strife, hatred and evil-minded competition are the norm.
   “I don’t know if he leads them, but they seem to be running circles for the Cardinal now. He’s blown, switched from that EN *** to something far more dangerous. He did the Superior in. Still don’t know what they want, or who they hate. That’s why you and yours have to hop on that.”
   “So the Cardinal finally popped his lid.” Fromaroundtheway harrumphs almost like a hiccup.
   “I believe he’s more dangerous than ever,” Leto chimes in despite his initial intent to keep that silent. His contemplation seeps out of its own will.
   “He’s always been dangerous. That coming from you, I’ll be sure to keep an even closer eye on him now. Well,” and Fromaroundtheway smacks her thighs, stands up and stretches her back. “You got yourselves a place to stay. Demir, you know the way. Pick out your rooms and the comms are yours. I have some work to do.”
   Demir thanks her and ushers Leto into the hovel, shows him to a small trap door and opens it. They go down a ladder and make it to an underground facility that reminds Leto heavily of an army bunker. A large corridor stretches into the gray distance, and at the end is a large double-door. On either side of the corridor small open entranceways are interspersed with closed doors. Leto knows the open ones to be common areas, or kitchens, and the shut doors are private rooms.
   “Pick a room. Just put in a code and it’ll pop out a keycard for you. I’ll be in the comm-center if you need me.”
   Leto picks a random room, and lets Demir go about the business he seems so eager to start. He can have his ideas, and Leto can have his meditation. All he might need now is a bit of peace and quiet.
[close]

Chapter 39: WINTER ***
Spoiler
THERE HAVE BEEN FAR TOO many meetings in the past months, let alone the week. And here they are again. Siona, Mutemba, Salvatore, and Farideh. Again in her office. Again looking at the sphincter of lady luck open wide and *** all over them.
   Mutemba has his own ideas about taking over the Syndicate for ourselves. With the operatives he has in place, and Salvatore’s forces, it’s an actual possibility. Although they would lose a lot of traction without Sunderland’s connections. Farideh has no idea what that thorn in her side is going to do with those nukes. So she’s not too keen on betting anything concrete on a play involving Demir-***-Sunderland. Siona, on the other hand, wants to kill them all. Send her and her pack out to start tearing through everything and everyone until they get a bead on the Sons. While her brutal ways may be an option Farideh avoids most often, in this case she has a straight fancy for the idea.
   Neither play is the best one, though.
   “We shut Trafalgar down tighter than a winter ***. And the suggestion box is closed on that. I want all our contracts cut, we take the financial loss. All our resources we pool into fleet production. Mutemba, you keep working on info. I want everything on the Sons, preferably in real-time. Their movements, targets, manifestos; I want to smell the Cardinal in this room twenty-four-seven. Salvatore, you secure the sector. Regular patrols throughout the sector, a total reach-around. Same as with the info, twenty-four-seven.”
   “Ms. Farideh,” Mutemba cuts her off cautiously, apologetically. “That will burn through our finances. Without our contracts or any trade, we have no way of reinforcing our capital, let alone the spending.”
   “You’re completely right. We will burn through our entire capital. Every last credit of it.” Mutemba sits quietly aghast, while Salvatore has his worry-face on, and Siona on the far side just waiting to hear her part in this. She’s the only one who doesn’t even get paid. “While we’re reinforcing our navy, and keeping an eye out for the Sons, Siona will be leading her pack to scavenge.” Siona’s face lights up. “The Sons won’t keep a low profile, that’s certain. They’ll probably take credit for icing the Superior. The way they just came into that pile of asteroids. Not through the jump point. Anything harvested off of them will be worth a hefty sum on the black market. We stockpile. The info gets us their routes and targets, and Siona will be there waiting with her pack. A scrap of sheet from their ships, and I want it. The cog in the mechanism of their turrets, and I want it. Anything and everything that flies off their ships, and I want it. We monopolize the entire trade on the Sons. Any competition, MOS or otherwise, we wipe it out. Better ships for the pack, better ships for the defenses. Better flyboys from the academy. The best train the new best. And when the Galaxy starts getting that itch for the Sons’ tech, we swoop in. Stock the capital with some investment potential, ally ourselves with the winning parties, and resume business with ramped up prices. High risk, high reward. Now, this is the one and only time I will take any suggestions.” Farideh looks around the room. Approving faces let her know. “Good. Now see yourselves out. I need time alone.”
   Mutemba and Salvatore make their way out, but Siona stays behind.
   “What is it, Siona?” Farideh immediately starts with the motherly tone, clearly irked and fresh out of capacity for any more banter.
   “Nothing, everything’s good. But there is one thing I think you should know.” Siona pauses.
   “Fine, fine, I can take it.”
   “That Leto,” and another pause. “No other way to say it. He’s either some kind of experiment or something. Some kind of tech *** I don’t understand. A way to try and replicate the original Leto. Or he’s the real *** Leto.” Another pause.
   “Spill it out, woman. Use your words and stop grumbling. It doesn’t suit you. We’ve seen enough crazy *** in the past week to justify any batshit idea you might have. Spill it out.” Farideh has had enough of everything up to her eyeballs. Hearing Siona out in all honesty is surprisingly exactly what she needs. A good dose of something insane, just like how she feels right now.
   “I’ve never seen someone fly like that. It’s not even his skiff. He worked that Sunderland rig like it was custom. I could barely keep up with him. Now, I haven’t lost my edge.” She has to save face. “But either I have to start training, and bring my numbers up, or that Leto is somehow the genuine *** article. He’s no protege, we would’ve heard about that. They don’t just fall out the sky without a MOS hearing about some stiff new competition. I’m telling you Farideh, there’s something up with that Leto.”
   Farideh takes a deep breath and exhales as loudly as she can. It feels like a soothing exercise. Like she just blew out her demons. “I know. Or at least I suspect the same thing. I’ve had my eye on him since he first strolled in here. He was way too confident. Even when we talked in the Tombs. Or in the car. I could never quite place it, why he worried me so much. He’s just too much Leto. He’s too perfect for the role. I thought it was grand delusion at first, or something similar. Probably some kind of military job. Maybe deep hypnosis. But now that you can vouch for his flight capabilities, I’m starting to think we might have a *** Galaxy-wide bomb on our hands.”
   “He sent me my override codes back as soon as he entered hyperspace. Didn’t keep them even a second longer than the contract lasted.”
   “We know he’s honorable. Can’t say that about a lot of people in the Galaxy. We’re on good terms with both Sunderland and the Leto. I can forgive the *** for clocking me over the head. Hell, I can even appreciate it as a move. Either the Cardinal disposes of me and he bolts. Or I come out and he takes the nukes. Keep an eye out for Sunderland doing MOS runs. Get in touch if he pops up. We might have an ally there.”
   Siona leans on her thighs, blows a hefty sigh, and stands up. “Glad to know I’m not the only one who’s insane. Have a good night, boss.” She leaves the office and Farideh is alone again.
   This is the time she keeps for herself. This is the time when she is one hundred percent in control. Of her own thoughts, of her empire, of her sanity. She also has time to think about what she’s going to do to the Cardinal once she gets a hold of him. Once she breaks him in open combat, on the battlefield, and not on some freighter in the middle of nowhere.
[close]

Chapter 40: MANIFEST
Spoiler
“THE SONS ARE ON A rampage. They have this full manifesto out. Something about the merging of man and machine.” Demir finally starts telling Leto what he knows after weeks of walling himself off in the comm-center. “Auburn’s been replaced by Svyla Torkk, the ***-Queen herself. She’s been gunning for that job for decades. And she’s tougher and meaner than Auburn. Torkk already declared the Sons terrorist organization number one. Even the COM are in the fight, calling them an act against god, or some ***.” Leto listens to how the Galaxy is going to ***, courtesy of Demir’s expressive delivery. “The Sons, meanwhile, have launched full-scale assaults on every major tech company. Xing-tech, Hanzo, Charkul, Drakk-web chains, and even the Syndicate and PROTECs. They’re jumping all over the Galaxy. Call their tech transverse jumping. No need for jump points, and from what I heard they can fight in hyperspace. A lot of big-tech is going to get screwed.”
   “I never thought I would say this, but can we move along to your plan?”
   “My plan is your plan.”
   “I’m tired, Demir. Tired. Just tell me.”
   “You can’t know what I’m doing, or else you’ll never leave. And you need to go.”
   “Don’t play games with me, I told you I’m not in the mood.”
   “I don’t give a *** about your mood, Leto. We went about this all wrong. We tried to shoehorn you into my world, and we got jack-*** for it. We don’t repeat mistakes. On the ground you’re just another man wearing a better man’s face. You’re not Leto down here, you’re a Leto. But out there, in the skies, you’re the Leto. You need to fly. And you need to take this.” Demir hands Leto the case with the nukes. “Six nukes will give you plenty of capital to build yourself a skiff. Any respectable chop-shops will be just enough for a decent start.”
   “We can’t risk that, Demir. You know that. What if something happens to you?” Leto has to admit he has also grown somewhat fond of Demir. He doesn’t want to see the man hurt. Leto did drag him into this, and continues to do so. Still the MOS is here, undeterred by failure.
   “Once we part ways I’ll set up a data dump. I’ll put it where we first met. Emergency signal connected to my heart. Also a regular daily update. Pulse from Beby. Hell, even an escape protocol for Baby if something happens to me. You don’t receive any of those, or well, you do receive any of those, and you’ll know where to find the coordinates to your sector. In the meantime, I have buyers for the nukes lined up, and a selection of chop-shops. Leto, you need to know that I’ve never been so clearheaded in my *** life. You need to get out there and start flying. Start the legend. But most importantly you need some backing. You need to contract your service, finance the initial push, and then the legend will tell itself. Tell me it’s not a good idea.” Demir outstretches his arms, and looks Lto square in the eyes.
   Leto then knows.
   “Who do you have in mind as a benefactor?” Leto gives in. He sees it in Demir’s eyes - he is certain this will work.
   “Just the right people,” Demir tells him.
[close]

Chapter 41: SYNDICATE
Spoiler
IT DOESN’T OCCUR THAT often that you get to see New Hiroshima from the penthouse of the Saotomi Headquarters. The entire place is decorated with an eastern EN twist, all in reds and golds and silvers. Sharp and deadly, minimalistic and precise. Deals being conducted in the dark tell tales from within the walls. The top floor to see the top man in the Syndicate - Hayao Fukusawa. The youngest leader of the Syndicate ever, and the most brazen. The main reason why he took on the Cardinal’s people in the first place. He’s been expanding for years now, and it’s not going as smoothly as he thought it would. And when things don’t go smoothly you’re more inclined to have a meeting with Demir Sunderland.
   Demir’s surrounded on four sides with a member of Fukusawa’s personal bodyguards. The peak of the Syndicate faithfull. Already seated in one of the most comfortable chairs Demir’s ass has ever graced, he doesn't find it hard to adjust to the sight of New Hiroshima stretching to the end of the horizon. Big guys with their huge windows overlooking what they feel is theirs. The entire far wall is just glass, adjusting to the natural sunlight coming from outside, always the perfect hue to keep the view of the city as bright as possible. The desk between Demir and Fukusawa is massive in scale, polished to perfection, and entirely as big and polished as the Syndicate leader’s ego.
   “I know you’re enjoying the view, but that’s not why you’re here, Mr. Sunderland.” Fukusawa has a silky tone of voice, hushed and grim.
   “Yeah, but it’s a good view. A man could easily get lost in it.”
   “I know, I see it every day. Now, on to the matter of the moles in my organization you so vehemently suggested I should know about.” Not one to mince words or waste time. That’s how you make it up the Syndicate ladder.
   “There’s a ton of them. I mean so many, it’s hard to even count. Now, a lot of them are former Cardinal people, obviously. Getting rid of those would be tricky for anyone. But the problem with those people who came into the organization already aligned with someone else,” and Demir pauses, “is that it spreads dissent among your men. Letting something like that happen right under your nose.” A whistle, long one too. “That’s not easy to wipe away.” Two of the bodyguards on Fukusawa’s side move in closer. “What I came here to tell you is that your men have decided to accept that times are changing. The reign of the family tradition is over. It’s time to branch out. And in order to do that, well,” and Demir shrugs, “some of the ballast needs to be vented.” The two bodyguards grab Fukusawa by the shoulders.
   “You wouldn’t dare,” he blurts out and looks from side to side, like a trapped animal. “You wouldn’t dare,” he says again to hammer the point home.
   “Oh, I dare,” then Demir hammers the point home.
[close]

Chapter 42: TECH
Spoiler
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER JAIL CELL. When having visited more than one, even if it is just the one, they all start looking the same. Blinding white or black, depending on the mood of the jailors, with a force-field in either blue, green, or red, covering the entrance. A space to sit and sleep, and a space to *** and ***. The only space with any walls between Leto and the surveillance is the shower. There is still so much as human rights in the Galaxy he finds himself trapped in.
Leto always finds solace in meditation. The blankness, the emptiness of the void he can conjure in his own mind soothes him. It is a balance in all things. Everything and nothing. There Leto can just fly, unencumbered and unhindered.
   It is also about the same feeling the first and second time around when a person with a higher position in this new Galaxy strolls down to the prison cells and decides to talk to you. Leto remembers Demir, and his mantra that becomes a lot more palatable in these types of situations. Something about the tables and the turning thereof. When the powerful come to see someone more powerful, despite the circumstances they find themselves in physically.
   “Before you have to admit anything, or state your surprise, or even make an observation, don’t even bother. Straight to the point, please Mr. Xing. I hope you appreciate that as much as I do.”
   The man so tall it is almost alien, lanky and swaying gracefully, languid yet quick, looks straight into Leto without a minimal shift in expression. His soft face a waxen mask, caught perpetually in thought almost, always thinking far ahead of everyone else. Every new CEO of Xing-Tech is Xing. Currently holding that throne is Xing XVI. It is a tradition of theirs to modify their physical being. Since the days before the C, they were at the top of tech. Pioneers in the field of AI. Responsible for the exile of Hephestus. A company that overshadowed an Immortal. Every Xing is bred and groomed for the position. They are made to recognize, adapt, and conquer.
   Xing approaches the force-field. “Your enhancements, mods, grafts, even the stims and nano-myte machinery. It is all so old. We have much never, and much more promising models of the same tech. Yet the brightest stars often fizzle the fastest,” and the lank Xing puts some pomp in his movements. It is a dance, a very subtle dance. “The biggest issue with better and faster tech is that the sync factor suffers. And you, sir, have a sync factor of a hundred percent. That is odd, and I want to know why. And if you cannot offer the why, I want to know what you can offer.”
   “I will offer you the Sons of Hephestus on a silver platter. Sponsor my skiff, my tech, my operation, and I will be wherever they are. I will destroy them until they regret ever coming out of the shadows. I will stalk them, report routes to you so you can manage your shipments safely. I will gather more men, more skiffs, a small but lethal squad. I will not stop until they are obliterated. What I offer you, Mr. Xing, is the Grand-Master of War. At your service.”
   “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity,” Xing says.
[close]

12
Told you.
Four of a kind - chapters 32, 33, 34, and 35. They are of a kind because they are all filler. All filler, no killer. Charles Dickens would be so proud of me. But I have to confess writing in this periodic style does give me room for some experimentation. These chapters don't necessarily serve to advance the narrative much, but they give some character insight. Ol' Dicky did much of the same since he wrote monthly or weekly. It's almost like writing a TV series, except it's ***. Now I don't know if I will keep up the pace, since I might have to put my attention elsewhere, but one can dream. I really love writing the story. Well, you never know. But since I am, after all, a lazy ***, we might never know.
Thank you all for reading!

Chapter 32: SWEET AND SOUR
Spoiler
DEMIR HAS TO CONFESS that the suite isn’t even half-bad. In actuality it would have ranked among the better ones Demir had visited in his years roaming the Galaxy. That one suite on Venus, however, will always remain the pinnacle experience. I was luckier back then. Demir reminisces. He got the job from a powerful law connection of his, and it had to be done quickly. Hard job, easy pay, like most of the ones that fell in Demir’s lap back then. Unnamed big cheese got wind that his illicitly-acquired money shipment was going to get jacked by a competitor. Big cheese set a trap but the money needed to stay on board for the competition to bite. Demir was tasked with retrieving the money before the Authority arrived. Big cheese would call it in as stolen and cash the insurance, on top of his own money he would bank. As a bonus Demir got an all expenses paid stay at the Royal Falls premium suite for a whole month. A suite molded in gold and all shades of red. And by all expenses paid they really meant it too. Demir was given the choice of any meal on the menu, at any time of the day. Drinks on tap, any time of the day. Girls, any time of the day. Only thing he had to dish out the credits for himself were the drugs. But on Venus that’s about as easy as taking a *** in the morning. Venus is all about entertainment, and money. If there’s a place in the Galaxy where they go hand in hand more than Venus you can *** me dead.
The suite on Trafalgar had that gruff, minimalistic, and utilitarian feeling to it. Fully decked out in sharp angles, black-and-white future-perfect designs against white backdrops. Lounge area indented into the floor, a good series of five steps down, walled off on three sides with real-feel temperature plates. Good L-shaped sofa, black faux-leather, with a circular white table in the middle. Other small chairs interspersed throughout the entire living room area. Sleeping area with a king-sized bed hidden behind insulated faux-wood plating. Kitchenette and food dispenser alcoved next to the lounge area, next to it a table, chrome and glass. Quick-and-easy integrated washing system in the all-white bathroom. It was sterile in all the ways it needed to be in order for the person inside to forget that they were on Trafalgar, the pirate capital of the Known Galaxy.
   Another luxury that is clearly missing is the one that allows Demir his preferred amount of alcoholic beverage intake. He isn’t here for luxury, but having Leto cut his alcohol consumption to a minimum during their time together makes the sensation of being apart all the more palpable, and the possibility of getting drunk all the more enticing. To Demir drinking or drugs aren’t so much of a bodily high, but a mental stimulus that runs deep into the very core of his mind. The hatred core as Demir calls it. He hates his father first, his family second, and himself third. His DNA makes doubly sure he can withstand anything he throws at himself with almost no damage whatsoever, and that syphons much of the charm away from his addictions, if he can even call them that. Took Demir all about two days to kick the zazz, and all but one to kick the booze. Only thing that remains is a tingle in the back of his mind, the little ardwreck that whispers to him - why not try to kill yourself today? To him everything is about freedom. Freedom from his past, from his today, from his tomorrow, and from himself. Even Leto monitoring him closely, keeping him sober, keeping him in top condition, can’t squelch that tingling voice. Demir’s body can take the booze and drugs, but Demir’s mind is all that matters. And Leto trusts that least of all.
   For the week Demir had been trapped in the room the only comings and goings were by the room service. Luxury meals delivered at the allotted time. Same person doing the delivery, to the point where Demir was certain they were not so much a bellhop as someone who had to make sure Demir wasn’t up to no good. A beautiful trans person that basked in their androgyny. Flaunted it around like a service paycheck at a bar after a month-long haul from the Rim to the Core. Deadly quick, so much so that even Demir couldn’t see as their hands moved, and he was getting used to seeing quick combat movements even outside his Baby. The angles of their face were all so symmetrical, their hair so immaculate, and their posture so sure, that Demir even felt a tingle where he most liked whenever they came to bring him his meal.
   No word from Farideh during the week either. Comm silence with little updates coming in the form of messages Demir received via his neural link. Farideh was waiting for the Cardinal’s troops to get antsy and careless. It made sense, perfect sense even, and Demir would have done the same. It also made sense to keep him and Leto separated, perfect sense even. Keeping them locked in until Farideh needed them, also made perfect sense.
   None of that sense, that perfect sense, made things any better for Demir, who was slowly having to admit to himself that he had cabin fever. Being in his Baby for months on end, if need be, was one thing. He was flying, moving through space and time. On ground, in a room, he was just moving in a pile of sludge, his feet trudging through his waning sanity. There was no return IP for Farideh, so the coms were one-sided. He asked the bellhop to deliver a message to Farideh many times, and they would decline with a courteous smile. No word from Leto either, since their comm links were cut off.
   On the eighth day Demir ate less and slept more. On the ninth he ate more and slept less. And on the tenth day he ate nothing and slept all day. His mind had gone blank after revisiting the plan every second of every day, weighing the options and possibilities against each other, working the minutiae of every detail of every second that was about to come one day when he would finally be let free. The days were worse than prison, and he spent his fair share in those. In prison you know what to expect. It’s not one-third as nice as his room, and it’s the luxury that becomes a problem over time. Beat Demir Sunderland and he will rise. Stick Demir Sunderland in a room and feed him and he will become soft. And being a soft MOS is what gets you killed first.
   On the eleventh day the bellhop came with the meals at their allotted time and Demir rejected them. In the evening the door of his room opens again, and a new figure enters.
   A woman of striking beauty sways her way to the lounge area where Demir is splayed over the sofa, languid in his suffering.
   “Mr. Sunderland,” she wakes him. Her plump, firm lips parting like red waves.
   “One and only, I hope.”
   “Ms. Farideh sent me.” Her voice is sultry in that professional manner Demir knows all too well. She is either a hostess that will milk him for the evening, get him wasted and then drop him back into his cage where he can nurse the morning hangover a day later and jack off to the thought of her. Or she is a pro, a real pro, who will milk him for real after a couple of drinks. She isn’t armed unless a part of her perfect body is weaponized. There is no hiding anything in the black dress that clings to her skin like wet fabric. Her curves call to him, the soft touch of her legs, the parting of her thighs, and the warm moan from her lips. Her soft face, edged with plump cheeks and reddish hues, is all he can feel in his ***, and his *** is all he can feel in his head.
   “To do what, exactly?” Demir musters the question, in his mind sifting through the fantasies of her answer.
   “I am to escort you on a night out. Ms. Farideh will spare no expenses,” the woman says with a pep in her voice, and a jiggle in her breasts.
   “I can’t drink without anything to eat.”
   “Dinner will be served in the hotel restaurant. We can attend as soon as you are ready, sir.”
   Demir pulls himself out and off the sofa, brushing the hunger from his eyes. He’s alert, much more than he would like to be. The words Ms. Farideh will spare no expenses bringing him back from the brink. Farideh must have either seen Demir on the hotel feed, which he highly doubts she would waste her precious time on. Or she received word from the bellhop. Those are the two most likely explanations. Farideh just wants one of the puzzle pieces to not break apart before the final step. It makes sense, perfect even. But just like that lingering little voice at the back of Demir’s mind, he has another one telling him that the Queen of Pirates might be up to something more devious. Demir pulls his brain out of his *** and his *** out of his brain, and goes to shower and dress.
   In the bathroom Demir gets ready, but also takes a shaving strip, one of those small ones meant for mustaches, along in his pocket. The exquisite beauty is waiting for him in the kitchen, helping herself to a coffee. “May I ask your name? Since we will be dining and drinking together, I think it is only appropriate.” Demir acts cordial.
   “Misha,” she answers after a sip of coffee so warm it makes her lips look even redder and plump.
   “Very well Misha, let us dine.” Demir offers her his arm and she coils hers around so they can make their way to the elevator.
   The corridor to the elevator is narrow and pristine just like the rooms. Only six doors to choose from, and Demir has to choose since he has no idea which one is bespoke to Leto. They didn’t arrive in tandem. Another security measure Farideh insisted on. Demir slowls his step and takes in the doors, straining to find a hint of which could have Leto behind it. His mind races, and Demir remembers that dinner time had come and gone before Misha came to his room. Demir focuses on the doorknobs, the silver sheen of each glinting under the sharp light. One of them, in the middle of the corridor, has the sheen tainted by sweat and fat.
   Demir steps on his shoelace. “Excuse me.” He lets Misha’s arm fall and tends to his untied shoelace. “I still must be somewhat woozy.” Demir leans against the wall close to the door he believes to be Leto’s. All the while keeping out of sight of the cameras and under the cover of his own back Demir glues the see-through strip to the door and jamb. If the door is opened the strip will flop.
   Demir ties his shoelace and they make their way down to the restaurant.
   The rest of the hotel mimics Demir’s room in aesthetic and detail both. Utilitarian comfort for the brazen and the bold, for pirates and misfits of all walks of life. Demir and Misha are ushered to their secluded table at the far end of the restaurant, near the windows overlooking the cityscape, with its dark foreboding lines and jaunty holodeck lights.
   Demir orders the faux-lamb steak and grilled potatoes with seasonal vegetable salad, coarse mustard dressing, faux-olive oil, and a side of pickled radish. A tour de force of hangover food, and not on the cheap either. Along with that Demir has white wine, Misha has red. She orders a small fish platter with a seasonal salad, no dressing.
   Once the food is there they eat slowly and speak softly about all things not related to the task at hand. Misha inquires with a degree of professionally-feigned interest about Demir’s life, his family, and generally all the things he hates the most. He indulges her with his professionally-feigned love of his previous life, and digs into his food with all the gusto he has in him. While not answering her stupid basic questions about the things he hates the most, Demir probed Misha for any info on the proceedings.
   “My Leto will not be joining us during the evening?”
   “I am not a liberty to say, honestly. I wasn’t given that information.”
   “You could send a message through your neural link, could you not? It’s just that I always feel better with a bodyguard by my side. Sadly I must be growing old considering I used to wander alone. His company soothes my frazzled nerves.”
   They both continue eating under the umbrella of the festering silence.
   “It seems your Leto is content with his meditation, while Ms. Farideh suggested you might need a break,” Misha lets Demir know through a coy smile.
   The unnerving correctness of Misha’s answer lets Demir know all he needs. She is in contact with Farideh, or at least she forwarded his question. Farideh wants Demir out of the picture for the evening. That much is certain, but not for his mental wellbeing. That snide remark about the break came directly from Farideh, and it was just that right amount of snide to keep Demir in his place. Just let the night ride and be back in the cage by morning. The Demir from maybe a year or two ago might have fallen for that. The Demir sitting across from Misha begs to differ.
   “That is indeed true. I need a break. Thank Ms. Farideh for that.” Demir suggests he is bowing down and accepting the pity parade. “Before we continue I have to visit the restroom. My stomach is a bit fussy. Excuse me.”
   Demir ducks out of sight to the bathroom, jettisons that plan and rushes to the elevator in complete disregard of all the cameras following him. He takes the elevator to the suites and checks the strip. It’s dangling from the door. Demir takes a good look at the camera in the corridor, gives it his most stern look of anger, the type of look that vows for revenge. Just to let them know that he’s onto whatever little scheme the Queen has in mind. Demir makes his way back to the restaurant.
   “Will we be leaving soon?” Misha asks him in complete disregard of the fact that he knows she’s been informed about his little trip to the top floor.
   “I would prefer we stay at the hotel bar. I find myself not feeling up for a stroll around town.”
[close]

Chapter 33: FACADE
Spoiler
FARIDEH MADE SURE the Leto was picked up after Demir had already left, but that sly little gorghast was onto them after he feasted on her tab. Some little grifter trick he pulled off under the nose of her cameras. Not even too shabby. She admits. By that time the Leto was already deep into a conversation. Farideh didn’t want to skip any of the pleasantries. It is always of the utmost importance to make interrogations feel like they aren’t. Farideh started by presenting her city. Beaming and booming about the terraforming, the oxygen dome, the living quarters, pleasure district, banking center, the opulent dark streets that gave way to a flourishing community. She basked in the lights of her city, while Leto regarded it with the empty vastness of his analytical stare.
   Receiving no response from the Leto, Farideh continues her story about Trafalgar. Loosening the tension visibly rising and swelling like fog.
   “So, considering I haven’t found you in our files, how do you find Trafalgar your first time around?” Farideh asks after she is done propagating her own empire.
   “I mean no disrespect, Ms. Farideh.” Something always said when you mean exactly that. “I have only seen Trafalgar from the safety of this vehicle, and only your words can account for the actuality. I haven’t experienced anything, or seen much. There are planets and cities like this all across the Galaxy. The only difference is that Trafalgar is run by pirates, and fueled by criminal enterprise.”
   Farideh senses that pang of contempt in the Leto’s highbrow army-infused Common. “You disagree?”
   “I have no stakes in this matter. It is not my place to agree or disagree.”
   “Yet you work for one of the most known MOS pilots in the entire Galaxy. A criminal, in more ways than one. Now on a warpath to running his own criminal empire. The obvious contempt you have for criminal enterprise is nothing if not hypocritical. I would have thought better of someone wearing the facade of Leto III.” Farideh pokes and prods, waiting for the reaction.
   “I wear no facade, I am Leto III.”
   The magnitude of the delusion hits Farideh at first, but then she focuses on the fact that he dodged the answer quite nimbly. “I have to say, out of the many Letos I have met over the years you must be one of, if not the most, dedicated.”
   “My dedication is solely to mankind.”
   The Leto flaunts his delusions not like a facade, but like a wall. He mingles through the questions and provides answers that will put Farideh solely back to square one. A veritable castle she has to break down first in order to get to the meat of things. “How did you come to meet Demir Sunderland?”
   “By chance.”
   “Please, spare me the *** at least.” Cut through. “A man with your considerable skills, mods, and obvious experience does nothing by chance. It seems to me like you have just as much an agenda here as Sunderland.”
   “What concern is that of yours?”
   “I hate receiving questions as answers.”
   “That is none of my concern.”
   The Leto obviously knows how to push buttons, in general, not just Farideh’s. She’s aware of her control issues, and to her own dismay so is the Leto. Disobedience, insubordination, coy banter, even spite towards her, are not things Farideh takes lightly. And the Leto is abusing that fact to its fullest potential. “Why is it that you were the one to talk to me about Sunderland’s plan? If it even is Sundeland’s plan.”
   “Mr. Sunderland is acutely aware of his image across the Galaxy. A thrill seeker, a miscreant, drunk, addict, a person living day-to-day. Plans, schemes and grandiose takeovers are not known to be part of his repertoire. Hearing such things from me shelters him from the possible mockery such proclamations might entail.” The Leto’s matter-of-fact tone betrays little to nothing. His focus on the facts shields him just as much as his delusion.
   “So you are his mouthpiece?”
   “When need be.”
   “Now that is something I believe even less than you being Leto III.”
   “What you believe is also none of my concern.”
   The stone walls keep rising instead of falling. Farideh is getting nowhere by being polite. “You know I can have you killed at any point. Considering you’re not vital to the plan Sunderland can just get another Leto to be his mouthpiece.”
   The Leto doesn’t even grace her with an answer, instead just blankly staring out the car window. His massive shoulders leaned against the vehicle frame, his dark eyes in the distance, blank as if he isn’t even thinking at all. “Do these questions lead you anywhere, Ms. Farideh?”
   “They lead me where I want them to lead me.” Two walls, two castles, just bashing against each other until one cracks.
   “And where is that?”
   “I see you’re asking the questions now.”
   The Leto turns to her, gazes into her eyes with his black pearls, not a miniscule trace of any kind of emotion, just blank and staring at her like an abyss. “I am,” he tells her.
   “What if I decline to answer?”
   “I will continue to sit in silence and look at this city and try to match it with the marvelous words you told me about it, all the while experiencing nothing, and you will be led nowhere.”
   “Were you in the army?” Farideh doesn’t let up.
   “That is also none of your concern.”
   “Well, you see, it is.” Farideh leans in, removes some of the distance between her and the Leto. “You don’t see me as your superior, which is why you either act insubordinate, or dodge my questions with facts that are so obvious that we end up back at square nothing. You purposefully lead me nowhere, which is something that is integrated into standard army training even before the C. I did my homework, I’ve been doing my homework, Leto, since before you took that face. You’re running me around in circles in hopes that my anger will overtake me and the conversation ends there. But I can tell you right now, that’s not going to work. Now, I know, I feel, that you have a much larger stake in this than you lead on. We are both here because I want to know who exactly I’m getting into bed with. But what concerns me above all else is that I know you are way in over your head here. So, one last time, lest we make this a formal interrogation, what is your role here?”
   The Leto leans in heavily, weighing himself against his knees, his massive shoulders bulking like a tide, washing over Farideh. “I am a bodyguard, a mouthpiece, a tool, a paid hand. My agenda is getting paid, leaving, and forging ahead. I have no ties to Sunderland or his plan, I am just honorable enough to fulfill my contract.”
   “And I don’t believe that for one second.”
        “What you believe is none of my concern.”
        “Who are you exactly?”
        “I am Leto III, the Grand-Master of War.”
        Farideh scoffs at that answer. She knows well enough she won’t get anything more out of the man at the moment, but she knows a bit more now than she did before. A confirmation that he is more than just a pawn. His resilience, his facade, his unwillingness to even contemplate answering her questions in of itself speaks volumes about his intent in the long run. He’s just as much a player as Sunderland himself, or me for that matter. He’s dangerous, deadly, and I’ll have to keep an eye out. Over the years Farideh has come to know people to their core. Since she worked in the brothels, since she was but a child, she had to know people in order to survive. To move them around like pieces on a chess board, the most ancient game in the Known Galaxy. Eons may have passed, but the game stays the same, and she stays on top by always being one step ahead. By telling her nothing, the Leto told her just enough. Confirmed just enough.
        Farideh puts the message through to her driver to go back to the hotel. On the way there she and the Leto sit in silence. Farideh escorts the Leto to the foyer of the hotel.
In the foyer a senselessly drunk Demir Sunderland lays thrown over a settee like a sack of ***. Dishevelled, strewn about, wild hair dangling from all angles, crusted spit in his ten-day beard, looking more emaciated than when he first came to Trafalgar. Misha at his side.
        As soon as Sunderland sees the Leto he jolts up like he’s being electrocuted, shot with adrenaline. He runs up to the Leto, three steps forward and one back, swaying like a sea in the wind, a ship lost. With a degree of comedy he jumps up high enough to clock the massive man in the chin with a punch that surprisingly resonates meatily across the foyer. “We’ll trawlk tomorrer,” he slurs out.
        The Leto bows like he’s in the pre-C army, and retreats to the elevator. The only thing staring down Farideh now is Sunderland with his bloodshot eyes. He moves in close, the stink of booze on him. The waft of his body shedding toxins slick and sour with the punch of alcohol. “That was just for the people to see. For the image to stay intact. Just so you know, your little escort can’t get me drunk for ***. Leto is mine, and I’m in charge here. As of tomorrow we are free to roam, no more lockdown, no more meals served in our rooms, no more surveillance. What I say to my Leto stays between me and him. I’m not here as a prisoner, I’m here as a partner. You speak to me, and me only. If the Leto speaks it’s because I told him to. Now, I gave you the courtesy of revealing my position and my plan, and I expect you to respond in kind. Your deviant need to control everything may work for Trafalgar, but it doesn't work for me. Cross me again and I will be off-planet so you can handle this shitshow on your own. I know full well who you are, I never forget that, but you don’t seem to be aware that I’m Demir-***-Sunderland. You’ll say it’s impossible for me to get off-planet, but you know full well I’ll at least find a way to make it *** hard for you to stop me. We may not be equals here, but I demand some respect. If you have any questions you can put them through with Misha,” Sunderland snarls, “and next time pay her to *** me at least.”
        Sunderland does his mock-drunken stagger away and to the elevator, leaving Misha behind aghast and Farideh riveted to the floor. Farideh knows she’s done for the night. She has all she needs.
[close]

Chapter 34: GHOST OF THE LIVING
Spoiler
“MS. FARIDEH, MR. MUTEMBA is on his way up. You requested notification,” her secretary lets Farideh know, like the good employee she is. Farideh’s word is canon on Trafalgar. Mutemba, formerly known as Mutemba Ginzego before he cut ties with his family due to internal political strife, is her main investigator and Drakkweb surfer. While still Mutemba Ginzego he was his father’s head of secret service, and as Mutemba he puts that knowledge to good use. Farideh requested a quick sweep on the Leto. Under the radar, quick and easy, as to raise no red flags and get no eyes on them before the operation unfolds.
   The door to her office opens with a bare sound, and Mutemba enters. The man is striking by being exquisitely unremarkable, uncannily so. Average height, average build, slight belly, plain marble face almost to the point where he might be the archetype for the populace of New Johannesburg, and the desert planet Kurrekesh in general. Short cropped hair, three-day-shadow, simple business garb, and a soothing voice. If Mutemba came into a bar, murdered the barkeep and walked out, no one would remember him. Mutemba first came into her service when he needed shielding from his father, who was approaching the last leg of his life. Mutemba supported his younger brother taking over the throne since his older brother had more tyrannical aspirations than Mutemba was comfortable endorsing. When Mutemba’s vote went sideways he jumped to Trafalgar. Now that his older brother runs Kurrekesh, Mutemba is free to go about his own business, as long as it doesn’t interfere with his brother’s. Bad blood is bad for business. Farideh and Mutemba had grown quite fond of each other over the years, and the investigator decided to stay on Trafalgar and work for Farideh exclusively.
   “What have you got for me?” Farideh cuts to the chase before Mutemba is even in his seat.
   “This Leto is making you ansty.” There’s a hint of that New-JoBurg accent in Mutemba’s Common. He sits down with the grace and precision of an ancient EN *** court magister.
   “Then you know not to keep me waiting.”
   “I cannot keep you waiting for something that will never come.”
   “Do you really think now is the time for riddles?” It feels to Farideh like she’s being pulled around, clamped by her limbs and then pulled in all directions by MOS skiffs. Her mind feels even worse. Hundreds of strings tied to one part of one thought, tied together to larger thoughts, each pulling in their own direction.
   “It’s not a riddle, Ms. Farideh. I found nothing.”
   Farideh’s heart is in her throat, and her mind in her ass along with all the *** she’s been keeping in both. First a basic sweep finds nothing, then the Leto gives her nothing, and now her best investigator finds nothing. “There’s no such thing as nothing in the Known Galaxy. We have his DNA on file. I want to know where he went, where he was carded, where he was seen, where he drank, where and who he ***, how he started doing protection work, who he affiliated with before, where does he come from, and most of all - where the *** is he going. We have his DNA, so *** nothing does not *** exist!” she booms and the office rattles.
   “I must admit myself that I haven’t seen something like this in ages. There are skilled assassins and information traders across the Galaxy that have no profile, but they aren’t nomads. Stay in one place and you can secure your anonymity. During his time with Sunderland, at least, the Leto had moved about the Galaxy. We presume he moved before. I can be sure of one thing, and that’s that the Leto was never carded,” Mutemba offers his candid explanation to Farideh’s own fury, his lovely voice not helping it subside one bit.
   Whenever you land on a planet the local Authority will card your entrance, and get your DNA into their system. Faking the test or even slipping in with fake papers or invitations is possible, but expensive. There are other ways to get on-planet without anyone noticing, and those ways are undoubtedly familiar to someone like Sunderland. But the Leto isn’t new, he’s not some pup fresh out the kennel. Everyone leaves a *** trail. This just shows her that the Leto is good, exceptional even.
   “Was he incarcerated during that time? Didn’t get carded because he was dormant?”
   “Possible, but highly unlikely. I checked with my contacts in the main prison directory, and there were no signs of his DNA signature. That means he could have been in a dark-site, political asylum, or level 9.” Those were the types of prisons only reserved for the most dangerous individuals across the Known Galaxy. All traces of their incarceration are wiped, and they never see the outside of their cells.
   “The Leto is certainly army stock. That much is clear. Could he be a swap? Or an operative?”
   “I have to work the swap angle. From what I can tell no major army figures have disappeared or been discharged in recent years. The army lets the Authority do the heavy lifting. It’s peaceful for those ***. The Leto is most certainly not an operative.”
   Farideh first had the swap idea when she discerned the Leto’s army background. Maybe he was a bigshot from a corporate, private, or government army. Disgraced and discharged he took the Leto facade and is now working his way back in, or even working up a revenge plan. Men and their revenge plans. *** me and I’ll *** you back mentality, animal instincts, all bad for business. The Leto would work through the Syndicate and Authority to earn his stripes, or *** over his former employers. A long shot, just as long as him being an operative going deep undercover. A long shot, but nonetheless plausible. Which is why having nothing on him hurts even more than knowing the truth. “What about any previous employers? Pending contracts?” Mutemba shakes his head, that worried and apologetic look on his face.
   Farideh leans into her chair, becoming almost one with it. Like seeping into a safe haven where the entire Galaxy can go *** off. “I see him Mutemba. Can’t really explain it, but I see him. The Leto coming back like a nightmare, one day in the future. It’s like he’s haunting me right now, in living flesh. I see him. We won’t see the last of him, and I want to know why. Why the *** is Leto III, the Grand-Master of *** War, dead for ages now, haunting my *** life.”
   “The contacts Sunderland and the Leto have given us have all panned out. I have my men on them and the operation is progressing at a steady pace.” Mutemba is trying to pull Farideh out of her dark corner. “I don’t see Sunderland or the Leto hindering the operation in any way. Quite to the contrary, I believe they would be the first to mourn its failure. While I cannot neglect the enigma that is the Leto, I know the only way you’ll ever find out more about him is if he tells you that himself. I would wager that hasn’t worked out so far.”
Farideh shakes her head. “How do I get this out of my head, Mutemba?”
   “You don’t. Just live with it.”
   “And if I can’t?”
   “People come and go, Ms. Farideh. Plans come to fruition or fail miserably. But there will always be more people and more plans around the corner. Don’t forget this feeling, but live with it.”
   “I would wager you have someone living haunting you too?”
   Mutemba chuckles. “The most obvious one. My brother. Every day I think, will this be the one where he decides I am a threat rather than a willing non-participant in his reign on Kurrekesh?” He shrugs. “I ask myself that every morning, and then I go to work.”
“That’s the difference. You know who he is, where he is, and what he can do. I know nothing. Even *** worse than having a ghost at my heels. Ghosts have stories left behind.”
“Do you want me to continue the line of inquiry, Ms. Farideh? We will risk alerting some parties, but it can be done.” Mutemba said his piece, and it’s back to business.
“No. I’ll live with it, and keep a blaster under my pillow.”
Mutemba nods and heads out the office, leaving Farideh to her haunted existence. Just her and Leto III, Grand-Master of War, all alone again.
[close]

Chapter 35: GHOSTS OF THE DEAD
Spoiler
“I DON’T BELIEVE WE ever sat down for a meal like this before?” Demir observes in between bites of his now-usual faux-steak. He didn’t want to mess around with anything they would call traditional cuisine on Trafalgar. “It’s good to be out and about again. Can’t say I miss that room all too much.” Leto grumbles to himself and Demir recognizes that as his usual disgruntled acquiescence to the same notion. Unlike Demir, Leto is made to withstand anything, and they could have left him in that room for years; he would come out just the same as he entered.
   “Can we trust Mutemba?” Leto asks, cautious as always.
   “If you mean can we trust him to have our backs - no. If you mean can we trust him to do the job well - of course. He’s a top operative, skilled investigator, and one hell of a secret service agent.” Demir knows Mutemba from way back when, while the man was still in the employ of his father. Even then he was a formidable operative, considering the political constraints shackling him. Now, as a free agent in the employ of the most ruthless pirate in the Known Galaxy, Demir has no concerns he will do the job more than aptly.
   Leto scoffs. “It’s those kinds of people that will thrust a knife in your back first opportunity they get,” and Leto proceeds to eat his abundant faux-fish meal without even looking at Demir.
   “I can’t help but figure that little jibe comes from experience. I also can’t help but notice that the more time we spend together the more I find out which people you dislike, and no one so far even entertains the notion of having your limited affection.”
   “This is not the Galaxy I know. This is a shadow of what it once was.”
   “And you expected everything to stay so peachy and preachy like it did before the C? You didn’t even expect to be alive and now you’re *** on everything and everyone around you just because it’s not better than it was before.” Demir’s turn to sigh, only he does it loud enough which he knows will annoy Leto enough to look him in the eyes. “You’re fighting it, and you’re doing a *** job too.” Demir also lets out a sly smile.
        Leto doesn’t give him the time of day and just goes back to his meal.
        “Demir, what do you mean by fighting it?” Demir does his best, and also at the same time worst, impression of Leto’s booming voice. “Do you mean the fact that I am holding on to the past to such an extent that it clouds my judgement to the point where you have to set me straight every time? Is my hate which permeates my every choice, my disdain for the underbelly of society, or is it just my coddled *** upbringing during a time which I believe to be much better than your own that colors my mood? Tell me Demir, what do you think?”
        “I think you are being childish, as usual.”
        “And I think I’m *** right. Ever since you met with Farideh you’ve been hiding behind that army facade, veneer of professionalism, and it’s all crumbling. Did she get to you?” A much more friendly tone in Demir’s voice. “Or is it that you didn’t get to her that’s the problem? The fact that you’re nothing weighing on you, suffocating you. The fact that the truth buries you more than lying. The fact that you have to dwell down here instead of in your ivory tower.”
        “If there’s anyone who knows about ivory towers it must be you, Demir Sunderland.And there it is, that little spite nugget I manage to bring out. The more he writhes the more I corrupt him. “The decadence of your early years must have been the envy of the entire Galaxy. What was it that made you decide to take up the mantle of a MOS? From what I could gather it was in direct spite of your father. A spoiled child then, and a spoiled child now. So don’t you dare presume to know what drives me, what brought me here, and how my life unfolded before I was ordained. This line of questioning is over,” Leto booms and returns his attention back to his meal.
        Not by a long shot. “True enough, the records of your life before you became Grand-Master of War had been wiped to preserve your image as an Immortal. If I was a gambling man, which I am, I would put my money on the fact that you grew up dead poor, or at least not nearly as rich as me. Mommy or daddy or both made you enter the army in order to pay for the bills they couldn’t afford themselves. You lived in either a slum, project housing, or middle-class instant pods they had back in the day. That would be the height of luxury I could see you in. That superior DNA got you far, and sure as the skies flow, no one knew how the *** you got that. So you decided to prove yourself over and over again, just to show everyone that it’s not your DNA that drives you, but you who drives your DNA. People think it’s that easy, like we’re being pulled around by the biological strings of our bodies, but you set out to prove them wrong.” Leto just keeps eating his meal, undeterred, until it’s finished. “Skies know you did, trying to prove all of them wrong. Now it’s one of the few things that you hold dear to your heart, that you proved them all wrong, and the more you show that to people the less they believe you. Must be grating, mustn’t it?”
        “Does all this psychological insight come from your years of study, or just that famous gut of yours which has landed you in more trouble over the years than even your *** ***?”
        Demir chuckles. Hearing Leto III utter the words *** *** in his massive voice that fills a room more than his body does is something to behold. The fact that Demir brought it out makes it all the more fun for him. “Not even my gut’s good enough for this. It’s my silver spoon upbringing that gives me all this psychological insight. Because, Leto, your cold demeanor, stoic facade, and even that little hint of malice behind your eyes, is nothing if not a reflection of my father. I know people like you, which is one more thing that doesn’t make you special. The reason why I know you want to show people that you’re more than just your DNA is because I’m doing the same. Now, given your years of life and insight, you must have deduced that yourself. Just as I’ve deduced that about you. That makes you even less special. You’re just like me, Leto. A hint of my father there, of course. Are you sure we’re not somehow related? The Reign didn’t splice your DNA around just to see what sticks.” Demir feigns open-mouthed realization. “Am I your son? Please tell me I am, so I can ditch my old man.”
        “Demir, is there a point to all this?” The eyes of Leto III wash over Demir like a cold shower after a night of hard drinking.
        “And there we are. You reverting the point back to the person throwing said point across the table at you. Instead of you recognizing the point you invalidate it by having the person in front of you reaffirm it, thereby putting it forward as their point and not yours to realize yourself.” Leto’s frown, stark and stern like a disappointed father, tells Demir more than words. Demir takes a deep breath. “The point to all this, Leto, is that we cannot work together if we don’t know the person we’re working with. We have a lot to do, and it won’t be easy. You know that full well.”
        “Ms. Farideh said much the same.”
        “But you’re not working with her, you’re working with me. We’re at a point now where we can’t turn back even if we wanted to. Like you’d ever want that, but still.” Leto, still somewhat begrudgingly, acknowledges the point. “We’re also at the point where we can fake being a complete unit, but faking won’t get us farther than this. That’s why I need to know who you are.”
A poignant pause breathes a steadfast stupor between them.
        “I was raised on Earth, actually. My parents were middle-class workers at an armament factory on Mars. They came home during the weekends, and I spent the rest of the time alone. We weren’t well-off by any stretch of the imagination, but we weren’t starving either. When my father suffered mod sickness we could no longer pay living expenses and I entered the academy on the fast track in order to earn money quickly. As I advanced up the ranks my parents and I grew apart steadily, since I have,” and Leto pauses, “had no siblings. When I became Grand-Mster of War the ties that bound me and my family were severed completely. During my years in the academy I scoured the database for any information as to how I came to have such advanced DNA. The only conclusion I ever came to was that it was absolute dumb luck of cosmic proportions. Dumb luck didn’t get me where I am, hard work and good use of it did. The reason I’m here is because I don’t want to see everything we built as a species crumble under the ambition of fools.”
        “You believe in the pre-C centralized government. So, after we finally put an end to the AIs you would install a new government with yourself in charge. Is that it?” With the conversation finally getting somewhere Demir actually feels delighted to talk shop.
        “I am not leadership material. I am war potential. There’s no place for me on a throne or in government. All I want is for humanity to realize its potential once more. No more petty squabbling, trivial skirmishes, and the pursuit of personal gain. If we align all mankind against the AIs, in a different way than we did the first time around, we can actually make a difference. We can finally win.” The enthusiasm in Leto’s voice comes as a welcome surprise. The boom therein warmer, the husk lighter, and a tang of hope shining through the cracks.
        “I must admit that makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. But let me tell you exactly what’s going to happen after the AIs are gone.” The shine now gone, Leto listens from behind his stark walls. “Everyone and their dead grandmother is going to take credit for getting rid of them. Any and all alliances forged until then will be shattered, and every party will start fighting for both the glory and the scraps. First thing they’ll fight over will be your cloning station. Imagine, immortality right in front of their noses. Even if we trash the thing they’ll still fight over the scraps, the mere potential of cloning will be a siren song for any would-be ruler of the newly-freed Known Galaxy.” Leto’s frown turns even more sour. Maybe because of Demir’s interpretation of the future, or because he just shat on Leto’s affectionate confession. “The problem with that whole idea of being better and doing better is that there is no better. Pre-C everything was kept tightly under control. The Reign barely let the people breathe. Everything was done in the name of mankind’s perseverance and persistence through the Galaxy, and even beyond. But this, this Known Galaxy, now and in the future - this is the truth. This is who we are, Leto. You suffer from a savior complex, probably because you did it once before. But there's no saving us, because we’re right where we’re supposed to be. Save us all you want, but don’t expect anything better from mankind.”
        “Is this truly what you believe?” Leto cuts in immediately, even though Demir thought he would take a pause and let the tension fester.
        “It’s what I know.”
        “Then why even fight for mankind? Why are you even here?”
        Something about tables and the turning thereof which always drives me insane. “Why don’t you just make me tell you coordinates to the cloaked sector and be done with me? Maybe even kill me yourself, and go your own way. Fashion your own revolution. Work towards the betterment of mankind. Instead you sift through the dregs of mankind you so obviously despise. Heading headlong into a criminal enterprise that will span entire planets and sectors. Against your own nature, better judgement, and even moral code.”
        “I don’t know what the AIs are syphoning from me when I die. If they punch through to my memories, despite my trained memory retention and deletion protocols, they might find something about you and my knowledge of the sector. They might come at mankind harder, decide to push forward earlier. It’s my wager that they are syphoning psychological data to counteract our maneuvers on a conscious and subconscious level. To literally build themselves up to be more human than humans, and to crush us on every turn. But if they dig deeper and they become aware of our enterprise, then we might just be doomed before we even started.”
        “And there it is again.”
        “Please, Demir, no more.”
        “No, there’s always more. There’s your problem. You’re trying to defeat the most logical entities in the Known Galaxy through logic. You know what’s the downfall for a perfect, pristine, glass table? A rock. It was mankind that beat the AIs in the first place. Making yourself more like them, Leto, is setting us all up for failure. Embrace the chaos, embrace the now, and embrace mankind as it is. That is the only way we will succeed. Wild and free. Uncompromising and stupid beyond belief. Savage in our greed, malicious in our perseverance, and above all else, dangerous when we’re pushed into a corner.” Demir takes the opportunity or a theatrical pause, and enjoys it thoroughly. Tables and the turning thereof. Tables and turning. “Don’t expect better from us. Use what we have, and we will win.”
[close]

13
Putting the cards on the table. My head's been in another project so this is a four-chapter drop. Chapters 28, 29, 30, and 31. This is all I have written so far. I know where I'm going to take the narrative next and notes are laid out. Since I'm done with my main project I will probably have time to devote to the story, so might not be too long for the next batch of chapters. But never forget that I am, after all, a lazy ***.
Cheers and thanks for reading!


Chapter 28:OPPORTUNITIES
Spoiler
FARIDEH INSTRUCTS THE welcoming to be none too welcoming to Demir Sunderland and his unexpected escort. Sunderland is known to slip out of situations that far outweigh his potential. Sheer luck seems to follow that biological miscreant like an impressionable teenager. Sometimes she’s right there, but sometimes she’s giving him the cold shoulder. You never know which, so you always have to be on your toes. That’s why his escort is as cold as it ever is for a person of his caliber. He knows he’s not the most welcome on Trafalgar, and it’s best to assure him of that.
        Farideh’s plugged into the live feed playing directly on her retinal. Siona on her settee seems none too interested considering her silent but ever so aggressive rivalry with Demir Sunderland. A rivalry that is perpetuated by the entire Known Galaxy, but by neither of them. They just hate each other by proxy.
        However, the live feed shows Farideh something very interesting – the Leto. The man is molded after the original to the highest possible standard. He’s the spitting image of the Grand-Master. Exceptional quality in visual execution to the extent where Farideh has to wonder what’s under the hood. If he’s equipped with enhancements that could mimic the long-gone Grand-Master’s combat capabilities he could pose a serious threat. Farideh hopes that’s not the case, because Demir wouldn't be coming to Trafalgar if his financial situation was not as perilous as it seems. But she’s done a lot of that lately, hoping, and she despises it. Farideh wants the facts.
        “Before you let them into the office, apprehend the Leto,” Farideh orders the escort over internal comms. Time for some facts.
The escort shovels Demir and the Leto into the elevator outside the hangars, pushes them through the corridors leading to her office, and then puts their journey to a sudden stop in front of the door.
One of the armed guards grabs the Leto by the arm and starts an arm lock. Over the feed is seems almost like murky water turbulence when the escort is pivoted off the floor and thrown into the opposite wall. Two other guards have their weapons on the Leto’s head in a heartbeat. He’s under their scopes in less and their blasters are on the floor in just a bit longer.
        “Stop! Where I go, he goes,” Demir shouts to calm the situation down. Raised voices in a tense situation may be human instinct, but those are wrong just as many times as they are right.
        The entire escort battalion has their weapons pointed squarely at the Leto who just stands there calm and collected. His savage calculating eyes darting from one assailant to the other. His muscles tensing and loosening.
Farideh has seen enough. “Let them both through,” she orders the escort battalion.
“You’re both cleared to enter,” they let Demir and the Leto know, but they only stand down reluctantly a second later. Once the two are through the door they move to pick up their downed squadmates.
        Demir Sunderland strolls in with misplaced confidence and the Leto with the expected cold and calculated demeanor. The Leto had already scouted Siona on the settee before his foot was properly through the door. Sunderland, on the other hand, barely noticed or at least pretended not to.
        “Mr. Sunderland and escort, please, have a seat.” Two integrated seats jump out the floor and Sunderland plops down like it’s his usual spot at a local bar. The Leto, quite the opposite, remains standing. “I presume your escort prefers to stay intimidating. Fine by me.”
   “So that show out there was to test his combat capabilities?” Surprisingly astute for the legendary drunk, but then again Farideh is not fool either.
   “Of course. You don’t exactly have a reputation for keeping company. One must always assess the situation.”
   “I can assure you that my Leto is of the highest quality,” Sunderland gives his smug answer through a self-satisfied smirk.
   “That begs the question of how you pay him, considering that even the skies know you don’t show up in Trafalgar flush, but rather broke.”
   The smirk is gone but Sunderland doesn’t retreat. “The quality of my services means I am only a step away from flush, and the Leto from being paid. That’s why he sticks around.”
   Farideh needs to pressure him ever so slightly so that he knows his place before they continue. “You seem to have taken a liking to having a Leto as a bodyguard lately?”
   “You mean Melkior?” He’s better than she expected. Usually his business dealings in Trafalgar are relegated to the station or the local bars. Never directly with Farideh. So he knows the situation is a special case, and he expects something. Farideh nods so he continues, “yes I had one of similar quality there, but sadly he proved inadequate and our contract had to be terminated. I have found that a good Leto at one’s side opens a lot of doors.”
   “So you were on Melkior before it got glassed?”
   “How else would you know about my proclivities for Leto bodyguards. Your eyes are on Melkior just like the rest of the Galaxy. But we’re not here to discuss that, we’re here to...”
   “No, Mr. Sunderland,” Farideh cuts him off. “We’re here to discuss exactly that.” Farideh snaps her finger and three battalions swarm the office. Nozzle of every blaster pointed on the Leto. “I’m not interested in your services, Mr. Sunderland. However, you will provide, nonetheless.”
   “Is there a reason for all this, Farideh? I came here in good faith.” Sunderland keeps his cool. The Leto even more so.
   “This is a matter of compliance, Mr. Sunderland.”
   “If the pay is right I can guarantee all the compliance you need.”
   “Your payment is yet to be considered.”
   “Well, if you let me know what you need we can take credits into consideration.” The smug smirk back with a vengeance.
   “We had a chat with the Cardinal just a while ago. He had much to say, and even more to offer. So I would consider my position a bit more if I were you, Mr. Sunderland.”
   And the smirk is gone.
[close]

Chapter 29: CHANCES
Spoiler
THE TOMBS HAVEN’T seen Farideh in a while. When you’re on top the requirement for visiting the bottom falls quite low on the priorities list. Only when there’s a very special visitor being detained there does she actually have to muddy her boots. They’re keeping Sunderland and the Leto in separate cells, just in case. While they are being fed well and looked after they are still none too pleased about the accommodation. Considering the tumultuous relationship Sunderland has with luck, Farideh isn’t taking any chances. Both the MOS and his Leto are so far keeping their objections to themselves.
   Farideh and Siona approach Sundeland’s cell. The containment field sparks in blues and greens in front of her, and behind it the MOS is just sitting on the latrine with his pants on and his head in his hands.
   “I don’t believe that’s how you take a ***, Mr. Sunderland,” Farideh pulls his head out of his hands.
   “I think best on the can, regardless of anything coming out.”
   Farideh takes a second to glance over at the adjacent cell where the Leto is sitting on the floor in a meditating pose and his eyes closed. “Maybe you could tell me a bit about those thoughts?”
   “Just struggling a bit with the fact that I misjudged the situation so royally. I’ve had my fair share of fuckups, but not seeing that the Authority is going to pin Melkior on you must be one of my best.” Say what you will about Sunderland, he’s an idiot but he’s not stupid. Somehow, he *** isn’t. “What did the Cardinal offer you?”
   “You and someone to pin Melkior on.”
   “That’s a good deal, and now that you have me you can *** him over for the rest. What did he ask for?”
   “Safe haven on Trafalgar.”
   Sunderlands turn wild. “Don’t let him anywhere near your planet if you know what’s *** good for you.”
   “I know what’s good for me and my people, Mr. Sunderland. However, he will be arriving soon to complete the deal. Before he does, I want to know what are you willing to offer in exchange for your freedom.” Siona scoffs, and Farideh gives her a stern look.
   “That depends on what you need. Spill and I’ll call it straight.”
   “The Cardinal told us Melkior was glassed by Warhorse and an anonymous supplier, and that you were tasked by the Authority to find the nukes before they blew. Instead you and Cardinal bailed. That true?”
   “Sure. We first took over Warhorse’s operation in order to find the nukes but got nowhere.”
   Farideh feels a tingle. “Took over his operation?”
   “The Leto can be very persuasive. We found jack *** and I went to the Cardinal for help. He shot the idea of finding the nukes down quick, and gave me the option to bail with him or take my chances on-planet with the nukes. I like being alive, so I made the only sensible conclusion. Decided to take my chances elsewhere.” Sunderland’s voice is pensive, even regretful to an extent.
   “The Cardinal has connections with the Church of Man, and offered you as a witness when we pin Melkior on them. The Authority still has you in their database as an asset since the investigation hasn’t concluded yet. They will be inclined to believe you, despite your reputation, if we give them a good enough reason to blame the COM.”
   “How about I do you one better and pile the Cardinal in with the COM so the Authority gets rid of both your problems at the same time.” That actually makes Siona chuckle in the devious way she does sometimes.
   “And what do you want in return?”
   “What makes you think I want more than my freedom?”
   “Men like you always want more. Take chances whenever they can.”
   Sunderland smiles warmly. “Don’t we all. Pay me, and pay me well. I need funds, and considering your plan has little chance of success without me I consider that fair. But there is one condition I have.” His stern expression waxen across his face.
   “And that is?”
   “Don’t give the Cardinal what he’s asking for.”
[close]

Chapter 30: TERMS
Spoiler
THE CARDINAL AND HIS contingent are inbound. Farideh and the full force of her security are awaiting them on the landing bay. They agreed for the Cardinal and his armed forces to land on the main bay while the rest of his flock are escorted to their temporary quarters from the loading docks.
   The dropship falls into landing course against the vast darkness of the skies. Farideh’s forces are all cool, calm, and collected. Safeties off, eyes locked on target, stims in their systems just in case, tech up and running. If the Cardinal smells something is off there’s no telling what kind of damage his paladins might do. Farideh wants to keep that possibility at a minimum.
   As the dropship lands in a whirl of grav and metal she feels the tingle at the nape of her neck.  The possibility of combat never excited her. Siona describes that tingle like needles being poked through your hands, and the itch to hold something deadly and use it. Hers is a cautious tingle, like the back of her mind giving way to the images of slaughter. A rush from back to front. Farideh closes the floodgates and lets reality sink in when the dropship doors open and the Cardinal is escorted to the bay by his armed forces. His paladins, when Farideh sees them in the flesh, are even more imposing than the images and video feeds she received from her intelligence assets. However, they are outnumbered, outgunned, and in many cases even out-teched.
   The Cardinal prances down to the bay like a parade is being held in his honor just down on the streets of Trafalgar. His paladins don’t have their weapons out, but on their faces the realization that Farideh’s people have their primed is nothing is not palpable. On the other hand, the Cardinal’s expression of sheer delight is unshaken.
   “What a marvelous greeting, Ms. Farideh,” the Cardinal starts booming.
   Farideh can’t tell if it’s just the madness taking over. Sunderland has made his stance on the man very clear, his words resonating in her head right now. What is madness? And what is sheer unabashed chaos? She might never know. “Well, only the best for our esteemed guests.”
   “Guests! Don’t be so frugal with your welcome, we are soon to be brothers and sisters, after all.” His grin sets her off, in a manner she has only so far seen in Siona.
   “In the Tombs! All of them!” Farideh shouts so loud the order barely registers for a millisecond because no one is used to her raising her voice. A calm demeanor makes for a much better leader than a hot head. Farideh leaves the latter to Siona.
   Her security rushes in and around the Cardinal’s men. Blasters pointed so close to their vital organs that if they even sneeze they’re dead. None of them is stupid enough to even try anything. The Cardinal, again in his defiance, keeps his smile.
   “Ms. Farideh, I believe this was not part of our agreement.”
   “The terms have changed. We’ll talk in the Tombs, where you belong.”
   Without objection the Cardinal and his men are escorted to the Tombs. The rest of his flock is set up in an encampment in the jungle. Everything and everyone is being monitored. All communication is cut off, trackers on each of his flock, from elders to children. Nothing goes out, and no chance of anything coming in. The Cardinal is swiped thoroughly and his men as well. Dry as the wells on the desert planet of Arkanis where tech is a legend. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in or out.
   For the second time in a very short while Farideh makes the trek to the Tombs. She hasn’t seen them this full in ages. Ever, really.
   The Cardinal sits on his cell bench with his hands on his thighs, like he’s awaiting someone’s communion. The man is clearly used to people coming to him, and while Farideh has to admit she still does come to him, at least he’s the one behind the containment field.
   “So the terms have indeed changed,” The Cardinal booms out, all the while looking at nothing in particular, just into the distance, as if through Farideh standing there physically in front of him. The move of a madman, fur sure, or someone with little or nothing to lose, also plausible. Farideh has to weigh it out.
   “I regret to inform you that half your deal has fallen through, Cardinal,” Farideh retorts with just that little nugget of self-satisfaction in her tone.
   “No, you don’t. You relish it. Now half the deal either means you found another way to the COM, or as serendipitous as the Universe is, Demir Sunderland is on-planet as we speak.”
   “He’s in his cell right next to yours. Scoffing and puffing his bruised ego. His Leto is in the neighboring one too.” Farideh lets out a coy little smile. Serendipitous as the Universe is.
   “My, my, Mr. Sunderland!” the Cardinal shouts so Sunderland can hear him from the neighboring cell. Farideh purposefully didn’t turn on the sound suppression so that all three of her prisoners could hear the conversation. They can fight it out amongst themselves when Farideh puts the cards on the table and they have to fend over the scraps she gives them. “Another Leto so quickly. If my mind weren’t rid of such thoughts I’d say you have some nefarious intentions with your bodyguards.”
   “Low!” Sunderland blurts out from his cell, discernibly agitated tone. “Even for you, Cardinal. You have much more pressing matters, so I would suggest focusing on your host instead of me.”
   “True.” Then the Cardinal smiles at Farideh. That winning smile of his, the charm oozing out like brake fluid. “I only wanted to check if he was truly here. Only someone as insecure as Demir Sunderland would even grace that jibe with an answer.”
   “True,” Farideh back into the fold. “Now you see that your proposition is halved, and thus your reward is halved. I am willing to offer substantial payment, or a possibility of investing in the Trafalgar pipeline. But you and your flock staying on-planet is off the table.”
   “Then this will be a short conversation. No.” Farideh is riveted into place there and then. She wants to ask why, how, and all the other questions, but she can’t seem to find the words. “The security of my flock is of utmost importance to me. That is the only thing I truly desire. Without that the deal is void. Hence my answer to your proposal is - no.”
   Farideh wants to scream, bring her torturers in and make the Cardinal bend in front of her until he’s a bloody heap or flesh and bones giving away all his secrets. However, in that tingle at the back of her head, the one that lets her know when she’s wrong even when the rest of her mind is flared up, she knows that the Cardinal is not a man you can break.
   “Ms. Farideh,” a deep voice from the third cell down pulls her out of her inner rage. The Leto calls to her. “May I have a word, if you please?”
       Farideh moves away from the Cardinal and his smile, goes to the Leto’s cell. “I’m listening.”
       “Much obliged. Before we start, could I ask you to turn on the sound dampeners for the Cardinal’s cell. He has no business in this exchange.” The Leto’s army patois in his common show’s Farideh the man has taken to his role. Admirable, at least.
        “Bold of you to assume this will be an exchange.”
        “Then humor me, if you will. You have nothing to lose but a couple of minutes of extra energy spent on the field, and maybe the Cardinal sweats for those minutes of silence as an added bonus.” Now that lets her know the Leto is smart, deceptively so. One would take a man devoted to mimicking a dead historical figure as nothing if not quite on the side of lackluster in terms of intelligence, but in the case of this Leto, Farideh would be wrong in deducing that. He appeals to her in just the right amount of self-preserving need and tickles her spite bone just the right way to make sure she cuts the Cardinal’s sound, which she does with a flourish so the Leto can see they are alone with Sunderland. The Leto nods cordially and stands up from his meditative pose to reveal his striking figure. Very devoted to the role.
   “As you can imagine, I am a very busy woman, so make this quick,” Farideh lets the man cut from a marble mountain straight from Earth know. Ever so slightly a bead of sweat at the small of her back welting up.
   “How many people has the Cardinal brought to Trafalgar?”
   “I don’t hear a proposition there,” another cold one from Farideh to put the man in his place. The calm in his posture almost defiant in the face of her authority.
   “By your tone I would say about three to four hundred people. His armed forces and the people he considers his closest followers. Am I correct in my estimate?” Farideh gives him nothing. “I’ll take that as a yes. The second question that beckons an answer would be the planet from which he arrived. Judging by the time it took him to get here I’d say it was from Tristram B.” The Leto betrays no hint of supremacy or malice, just the cool confidence of someone in control, and it’s driving Farideh insane. She has had her fair fill of confident men, of the haters, the takers, the liars, the vultures, and the bottom-feeding scum. Farideh gives the Leto nothing.
   “Continue with a proposition or this conversation is over.” Nothing.
   “We can’t have a proposition without the facts, now can we?” Not even a smirk from the Leto, nothing one would come to expect from a person who holds himself in such high regard as to devote his life to mimicking the greatest hero in the Known Galaxy. “The Cardinal is playing you, Ms. Farideh.” A much more common tone in common now. “Tristram B is the Cardinal’s smallest base of operation.”
   Raised eyebrow from Farideh. “And you know this how?”
   “While the Cardinal may have ushered his people off Melkior it was Mr. Sunderland who provided them with that option in the first place. People like those who follow the Cardinal are inclined to have an open mind towards those they deem worthy of being their savior. Over the past months we have kept discreetly in touch with many of his wandering flock. After Melkior the Cardinal had divvied up his organization into factions each run by one of twelve of his most trusted Paladins. While the Cardinal himself made his way closer to Trafalgar, his agents are moving through Syndicate territory and closer to the Core Worlds. Last we heard they were heading for Homer.”
   “We would have picked up on that,” Farideh roars.
   “Not without contacts in his inner circle. His Paladins have eschewed their, as you like to call it, EN *** facade, for a more direct approach. The Cardinal is aiming to take down either the Syndicate, or another rival faction, and he placed himself close to Trafalgar so you would pick up on it. He wants your system, Ms. Farideh. If you let him stay he will devise a way to get it.”
   Now Farideh is rightly furious. “Who are you to speak of me or my system!” she roars. “Even if we let the Cardinal stay on-planet, what makes you think he would have even the slightest chance to enact his plan? What makes you think I haven’t anticipated as much already? Who do you take yourself for? Sunderland!” Farideh turns to the cell where the MOS sits eerily silent. “Since when do you let someone else do the talking?”
   “I have found over the past months that in situations such as these it’s best to leave the sweet talking up to Leto,” Demir replies in much the same cool manner as the Leto. Both infuriating.
   “Well I can tell you he’s doing a lot of talking, but it sure isn’t sweet.”
   “Ms. Farideh,” the Leto cuts in again.
   “Don’t you Ms. Farideh me! I am Farideh the Free, free because I lead Trafalgar by example. Do you have any inkling as to who I am?” Rage overflows to the point where Farideh has to simmer down, take a breath and relax.
   “I know who you are, Farideh the Free. But I also know who and what the Cardinal is. While I may not know why he wants your system, I do know that he does, and that’s dangerous in of itself. He’s in deep with the Authority. His organization is as much his animal as it is theirs. For decades he was seemingly stuck on Melkior, content with what he had there, but once let loose he showed his true nature. You are not one to stray from dangerous men, and let me make it abundantly clear, the Cardinal is one of the most dangerous men in the Known Galaxy.”
   “Prattle, prattle, and yet nothing of a proposition to be found.”
   “Give the Cardinal over to the Authority,” the Leto blurts out like that makes any kind of sense after what he just said a minute ago.
   “And why would the Authority want something they already have?”
“Simple, you make them a better deal.”
And finally, there it is, a grin from the Leto.
[close]


Chapter 31: BETTER DEAL
Spoiler
“YOU LET THEM GO?” Soina shouts at Farideh as both a question and taunt, like she has the right to ask for her justification. Like Siona had been running Trafalgar for decades and not Farideh, so what she does always falls under the MOS’ scrutiny and not her own better judgement. “Meanwhile he’s rotting in a cell and we’re just begging for retaliation. Not to mention that jakkel bait and his pet mouthpiece are our allies now!” Siona’s unabated fury continues, and Farideh has had quite about enough of it for one groggy morning after an unslept night.
        “Now you listen to me, and you listen to me well.” Motherly tone, stern, disappointed, just that offshoot kilter of anger in the undertone to make doubly sure Siona get’s the *** point. “If you believe my decisions haphazard in any way you’re not only out of line but out of your *** mind.” Hint of swearing to bring her closer to the level Siona thoroughly understands. “I run Trafalgar, and I make the hard choices, not you, not anyone else but me. If I believe letting the Cardinal’s flock go and leaving him in chains is our best option, then it very well *** is. Sunderland and the Leto are assets, so we treat them as such until they aren’t. If we start hamfistedly eliminating assets then we can just bend over and let the Authority do their dirty work.”
        “And me?” And there we are. This galaxy-wide *** contest between Siona of the Skies and Demir Sunderland. The one that makes them both feel less worth than they are unless it can be proven that they are better than the other. The senseless waste of everyone’s mindspace and especially theirs. No easy way to rip this bandaid off.
        “What do you know about running a criminal organization?”
        “Enough,” Siona answers defiantly through a snarl. As if her answer to this question means the difference between her staying and getting vented.
        “Nothing, Siona. Nothing.” Siona’s frown and underlying snarl are persistent. “Sunderland, on the other hand, has graced every criminal organization from the Core Worlds to the farthest backwaters of the Outer Rims. And his Leto is so far into his delusion that he’s even more dangerous when applied correctly. Military tactics, assault strategies, contingency plans. Those two can handle the logistics. You are Trafalgar’s very own.” Give her the compliment she deserves. “I’d never send you out for something like that. No, you’re the force that makes Trafalgar feared. So take your *** seat, and let the runts do the heavy lifting.”
        “I like heavy lifting,” and she pulls her knotted arms taut by instinct.
        “There always is and always will be enough of that. Now, we have a meeting to attend.”
Farideh heads out her office with Siona reluctantly behind her, their armed contingent escorts them to the conference room where Sunderland and the Leto are already deep into the logistics.
        “Ms. Farideh,” the Leto addresses her with a cordial nod in tow. Sunderland next to him just nods like they’re at a bar, and if the skies know anything it’s that he’s seen more of those and even criminal organizations. “Ms. Siona,” and the Leto gives the MOS a slightly less respectful greeting. Farideh then notices the hint of rivalry in his expression, stance, and even bearing once they both come closer. He’s so far gone he thinks he can take her on. Priceless. Farideh makes a mental note to keep the Leto under closer observation. Depending on how far gone into his role he is there might come a time when he needs to be disposed of.
        Farideh and Siona sit across from them at the table, two leaders to each side. “How’s that better deal going?” Farideh starts the discussion off.
        “Smooth as the Maudlin Trail,” Sunderland blurts out through a thick smile. Farideh can feel Siona’s snarl nipping at her ear from the suffocating tension between them. Sunderland holds the record for that trail.
        “If you two are going to be measuring your dicks, Leto and I will complete this deal, and you can both cool off in the Tombs next to the Cardinal. Is that understood?” Farideh sees Siona nod compliently in her periphery, and Sunderland does the same. “Very well, let us continue then.”
        “We have isolated the twelve factions and their locations,” Sunderland continues. “They have stretched out from Tristram B where the Cardinal had set up, heading to the Core Worlds by way of Syndicate turf.” Farideh recognizes each blip on the galaxy map hologram. A neat line, like a star chart constellation, with the two heads on Tristram B and Volkrum, the closest planet to the Homer moon in the Jupiter system.
        “How has the Syndicate not noticed this?” To Farideh’s surprise Siona poses the question. She’s in the zone, like when she’s flying. Playing for keeps. It brings a sly smile to Farideh’s face.
        “They have,” the Leto now, “but the Cardinal’s people have shed their religious aesthetic. They’re operating as couriers, information brokers, and small-time peddlers. Their goal, from what we can tell, is to integrate themselves into the Syndicate operation in order to dismantle it from the inside.”
        “The Syndicate is one of the biggest drakkweb operators. I highly doubt the Cardinal’s organization could dismantle them even from within.” Farideh needs to know more, and know it better, before she commits to anything.
        “That would be true, but we have to factor in that the Cardinal has Authority support. Our sources have confirmed weapons-grade Authority assistance.” They’re peddling Authority weapons to get into the Syndicate framework. *** pests have their hooks deep on this one. “The Cardinal’s men are able to rise through the ranks quickly by selling the weapons and even turning in info on each other. One group dissipates and merges with another. Then that gets integrated into the Syndicate and multiplies by adding new Cardinal people not yet in the fold. It’s like a bacteria.”
        “It’s *** genius, is what it is.” Farideh can only gawk at the map. “They aren’t taking over, they’re infesting the Syndicate. And when they centralize around the Cardinal’s return they kill the entire Syndicate framework by *** exploding it. Flood it from within. It’s genius.”
        “He would have done the same to us if we let him stay on-planet?” Siona asks with that pang of concern in her voice, as well as admittance that she was, to her own surprise and dismay, wrong.
        “Sure. We think he would have invaded Trafalgar with his assembled forces after taking care of the Syndicate. He’d jump you from both sides. He’d be in deep with the Authority so he could either hand them Trafalgar, and run the Syndicate operation to their liking, or just demolish the Syndicate and have his own little EN *** retreat right here.” Even Sunderland sounds displeased at the ideas. Not even his system, his planet, or his people, but his resentment for the Cardinal runs deep. Farideh can see that, and in many cases that rage is justification enough for her trust in a man. They are like hounds. Sunderland is bruised, and he won’t let that stand. Good for us. But the Leto to Sunderland’s side still remains an enigma. That he has his own agenda is obvious. How it overlaps with Sudnerland’s had yet to be seen. There are strings being pulled here but Farideh can’t see them yet.
        “What is our better deal then, gentlemen?” Farideh needs more to be sure in her decision, at least for now.
        “Since the Cardinal was kind enough to offer up the COM to you, we could do the same for the Authority.” That’s a good start for Sunderland. “First we offer the Authority the Cardinal-COM nuke deal. Him on a silver platter on the hook for that and a concrete line to the COM for the Authority.”
        Farideh can see Siona agree to the move, and the Leto as silent and deadly as ever just encapsulated there like in stone. “Surely that isn’t all?” She gives them a nudge, there’s no time for suspenseful pauses, or Sunderlands known theatrics if she lets him.
        “No, we need to give them what the Cardinal promised them on top. We need to dismantle the Syndicate in exchange for Trafalgar. The COM and the Syndicate are more than enough.”
        “I would agree with that.” Even a hearted nod from Siona. “Now please elaborate on how we do that so I can think about whether or not I throw you back in the Tombs.” Farideh just lets them both know that this is still a pitch, and not a deal.
        “Over the course of months we have been in contact with people from the Cardinal’s organization. One thing the Cardinal didn’t factor into his plans was that his flock got a taste of the better life. When they left a dead rock like Melkior they were set free, so a lot of them kept in touch and are looking to make that better life, shall we say, permanent.” Madmen. Farideh thinks as she feels her eyes widen. “If the Cardinal were to be removed Leto and I could pull off the coup with the help of some of your forces. The Cardinal’s pipelines would continue undisturbed, but all that info, the raw data he’s been syphoning, that would go to us.”
        “We would not be included in this exchange?”
        “After your forces help us take over the Cardinal’s operation the debt has been paid. Trafalgar is off the Authority’s radar. Leto and I run the Cardinal pipeline. We are the go-between for the Authority and that sting operation. The Authority gets the Syndicate and the Cardinal off the table, as well as a clear line to the COM. Trafalgar gets to conduct business even better than before, now in the Authority’s good graces.”
        “Now this is all well and clear, and I must admit very to-the-point. But you are missing one more, and I can’t stress this enough, crucial, piece of information here - what do you get out of this?” Farideh made that abundantly clear because she wasn’t going to play footsie around that basic *** question around all day long.
        “We will coordinate with the Authority, get in their good graces too. We will hand over the Syndicate. And that will buy us some time.” Sunderland looks over to the Leto, and in a moment of synergy they nod very subtly. It’s almost like army patois. “We will share this information here regardless of whether or not you choose to back us on this plan. As a show of good faith.” Farideh gives them both the same kind of nod to make it official. “All the info we syphon, all the data and connections we get from the Syndicate we will keep. We disappear after the Syndicate is finished.”
        “Roaches like you never disappear,” Siona sneers.
        “She does have a point, Mr. Sunderland. With all that bounty from the Syndicate I would have to wonder what is your long-term goal here. Because to me it sounds like we will most assuredly meet again.”
        “If we do, I can guarantee you that we will always have nothing but respect for Trafalgar. You help us with this, and *** it, in my book we still owe you a bit. But don’t push your luck. We do this together, and we both get something we can work on. After the Cardinal, the Syndicate, and the Authority are all in their places, we go our separate ways, both better than we were before.”
       Frideh takes a deep breath. She switches on her holoprojector and calls her secretary. “Yes, ma’am.”
       “Please arrange for two of our best suites to be reserved for our new guests,” Farideh tells her.
       “Of course. How long will they be staying?”
       “As of yet, indefinitely.”
       “Of course, ma’am.”
       Farideh cuts off the feed.
[close]

14
Back by popular demand, I hope. Three chapters this time, 25, 26, and 27. I figured I might as well triple down since the less I have written the more I'm going to write when the supply starts dwindling. Push myself into a corner and get *** done, because I am, after all, a lazy ***. Thank you all for reading!

Chapter 25: POSSIBILITIES
Spoiler
DESPITE HIS AGE, the Cardinal’s striking figure lets Farideh know she has to stay on her toes. She might have the upper hand, the funds, the offers, the possibilities, but the Cardinal isn’t going to give up much without the proper enticing. Before he even came in Siona let Farideh know that he was absolutely insane, rambling about Earth, about sticking around until the next end of mankind. But she also said that he is frighteningly lucid, and that’s the most dangerous combination. She can see as much all the while he sits in front of her desk. The Cardinal’s robe neatly tucked around his legs, draping over them, and his calm demeanor giving way to only slight twitches as he gazes about her office.
   “Anything to drink, Cardinal?” Farideh starts off light, and eases him into the business conversation.
   “No need for pleasantries, Ms. Farideh. We both know why I’m here, and I do plan on keeping my promise to come back before evening mass. So let’s get started, shall we?” The Cardinal’s piercing blue eyes lodge firmly on Farideh.
   “By all means, let’s do so. I’ve brought you here...”
   The Cardinal raises his hand, stops her mid-sentence. “I am quite the astute man, despite my reputation. I know why I am here, I know what you want, and I know what I want.” Farideh frowns. She hates losing the upper hand, or having someone stop her mid-***-sentence so they can make a mockery of her. “Now, Ms. Farideh, don’t be offended. I’m just old and tired. So I want to move this along. Let me start with what I want.” As men always do. Always themselves first. “I would like to operate on Trafalgar. For your business to absorb mine, and for me to bring Earth to your people.” Magnanimously the Cardinal outstretches his inviting arms, like he’s embracing his flock. Well not my *** flock.
   “And why, for the love of the skies, would I let you do that?” Farideh lets out through a snarl almost.
   “Because I will offer you two things. One is all the info on what happened to Melkior. And two is a way to get the Authority off your back before they have the opportunity to pin it on you.” Now Farideh knows she’s lost the upper hand. Not because he knows their predicament, but because she knows he’s deduced that all on his own. Farideh’s ship doesn’t leak, and Siona sure as *** didn’t tell him. “Again, Ms. Farideh, no reason to worry, your cards are still better than mine. I have no aspirations for power any longer. This isn’t some ploy to take over your business. But I’m a man who hedges his bets carefully, and I’m not on the Authority’s good side either. Putting my strength behind you is my safest bet, so the safe haven of Trafalgar is what I want in return for the info and the plan.”
   “I’ll only agree to that after I hear both.”
   “Well, that would put me at a gross disadvantage, wouldn't it? You hear everything I have to say and then space me.” The Cardinal sighs loudly. “Fine, because the plan will not work without me, of that I can assure you. I hand over the info and the plan in exchange for safe haven in Trafalgar. Do we have a deal?”
   “Don’t try to wordplay me into submission, Cardinal. I offer you nothing before you’ve spilled.” The snarl just won’t go away.
   “I’ve never been able to stand up to strong women. So be it. Let’s start with Melkior. The nukes were placed by Warhorse, a so-called revolutionary. But he wasn’t the mastermind, only the front. We weren’t able to find his supplier, the suspected mastermind, before deciding to bail. There’s no possible way to trace them back to anyone.”
   “We, being who exactly?”
   “The Authority tasked a third party to find them, and said third party came to me for support. The supplier was a ghost. And trust me when I say we did everything to stop the nukes from glassing the city.”
   If Farideh has ever been good at anything it’s discerning lies. Small twitches in the eyebrows, the eyes darting, the lips flicking and nostrils flaring. The Cardinal is giving her only some of the truth, and now she has to find out how much. “You’re not giving me much here, Cardinal. Third parties, ghosts, doing everything. Some of that is, and let me use slang you’ll understand, grabba ***.”
   “The Authority caught Demir Sunderland, I’m sure you know of him, in a scuffle and used him to find the nukes. With the help of a Leto III he must have infiltrated and taken over Warhorse’s operation, but they weren’t able to find the supplier. When he came to me I took it as a sign and bailed immediately. Demir and I saw eye to eye on the matter, and Melkior fell because of our selfishness. How about that?” Unfazed by the truth, the Cardinal’s words seem more menacing than his lies. He’s given up on much of his humanity, that much is evident. The line between madness and sanity blurred to the point where he is just a vessel for the tumult.
   “Better. I take it Demir Sunderland didn’t stick around after Melkior?”
   “Of course he didn’t. Sadly he had to ditch the Leto because we had no time to retrieve him before leaving. But he took his skiff and flew to the skies.” At the end of the office, lounging on her favorite settee Siona just scoffs at the mention of her most hated MOS. The comparisons drive her insane.
   “And you didn’t engage in trying to find the supplier? Just Sunderland and the Leto?”
   “Yes.”
   “How legit do you think their findings were?”
   “Completely. The Authority was holding his skiff for ransom, and the nukes were the payment. They weren’t able to crack the system, or the supplier’s identity, and believe me they tried. I took that as an opportunity to spread my wings again.”
   “Not much spreading down on Tristram B, I’d say,” Siona chimes in from her settee.
   “Indeed. Which is why I’d prefer the hospitality of Trafalgar. The Authority will use Melkior to pin a large scale operation on you. I don’t have to tell you that. They have no way of finding the supplier either. Or else they would have never tasked someone as, shall we say loose, as Demir Sunderland to track them down in the first place. Which might be a good opportunity for me to offer up my plan on how to pin this mess sectors away from Trafalgar.” Farideh calms down a bit, the truth leveling her anger, and motions for the Cardinal to continue. “The Church of Man.” And right there she’s back to being furious. The Cardinal raises his hands. “Before you start, may I ask for the opportunity to elaborate.” The Cardinal waits for her anger to subside. “Thank you. Now, I know your relationship with COM has been a turbulent one. They have stolen much of your own cargo over the years, and you have vehemently abstained from supplying their jihadist efforts.”
   Vehemently doesn’t even cut it. The Church of Man believes the Collapse was caused by our overindulgence in technology. They are hunkered down in a three-planet sector they call Heaven, where they all deny enhancements, die of old age at the ripe time of *** fifty, breed uncontrollably, and only use ships when they want to bomb her best clients. Xing-Tech is their favorite, but they don’t really discriminate in terms of grudges. The only reason why the Authority still hasn’t done them over is because they police their sector almost as viciously as the Tarsyans did theirs. It would be a declaration of war, and the Authority has better things to do. Like using their time to get rid of Trafalgar. The COM makes money by peddling real produce across the galaxy. Everything they make and sell is grown from the soil, which is one of the highest grossing commodities across the Known Galaxy. And everything they sell they spend the money on ships that are designed to wreck anyone’s ***. None of them expect to come back. Tech is a means to an end, and only that. You use tech out of your own free will, and they want you gone. Farideh doesn’t really see how they could ever be an option for anything except orbital nuking.
   “I have connections to the COM,” the Cardinal continues. “I also have good ties with the Authority. They know of my escape from Melkior, but have had little interest in pursuing me or my operation. They have bigger operations in their sight.” Farideh wants to tell him to *** off, but that’s bad for business. “I can arrange a supply drop for the COM, complete with nukes, that will be intercepted by the Authority. Enough probable cause for them to link the COM to Melkior. The only thing we will need to really make it stick is the sworn testimony by one Demir Sunderland that there was a COM presence on-planet. He’s in the Authority database as an asset, and I am fairly certain they are looking for him. We get to him first, supply the nukes to the COM, and Trafalgar is free to continue business. Even expand when the Authority has their backs turned.” The Cardinal leans back into the chair, self-satisfied and self-righteous.
   “This is all fine, Cardinal. I can’t say I don’t believe you, but I also can’t say I like it. It goes against much of what I believe in, but just like you I can recognize opportunity when I see it. I will allow you safe haven on Trafalgar,” and Siona in the background almost bursts at the seams. Farideh calms her down with a discerning nod. “However, since you were the last person to be in contact with Mr. Sunderland, how exactly do you propose we come into contact with him? Considering he’s dodging the Authority a lot harder than he usually does, I don’t suppose you have a direct line to the man, do you?”
   “As a matter of fact, I do. We didn’t exactly exchange comm links, but I have a tracker on his transponder. My men placed it discreetly on his skiff as he was going off-planet. As soon as I turn it on he will become aware of it. The window for catching him will be narrow, but I suspect that Siona of the Skies can handle that.”
   At that point Siona really bursts and she’s out the settee in no time, her clawed hands aiming for the Cardinal’s throat. To Farideh surprise and Siona’s surprise both the Cardinal is out of his seat in less of the instant it took Siona to rush him, and he has her in an arm lock in a heartbeat. “History is a mighty thing, ladies. Everyone carries much of it, some things we can’t really get rid of. But I would say that in many cases history is bad for business. Now, Ms. Farideh, will you please calm down Ms. Siona here.” Siona writhes under the stress on her arm. “I have an evening mass to get back to, and prepare our pilgrimage to Trafalgar.”
   Farideh can see it in Siona’s eyes, the Cardinal is a dead man. If not now then at some point in the future. Hopefully in the near future. For the sake of Trafalgar Siona loosens up and the arm lock is lifted.
   “Good,” the Cardinal says nonchalantly. “I believe someone else will be escorting me back to Tristram B. But, please, make it swift.”
   “Evening mass,” Farideh just blurts out.
   “Indeed.”
[close]

Chapter 26: RECKONING
Spoiler
SIONA IS OUTRAGED. More than just being furious. Farideh is too. The Cardinal may have given them everything, but he also played them. And he did so hard. He gave them everything and forced their hand so hard there was nothing either of them could do. Now the future of Trafalgar is beholden to that maniac. That is unless Farideh can think of something, and that seems highly unlikely.
   “Here we are, stuck between a point and nova because of that ***!” And the outrage from Siona continues.
   “You think I don’t know that. Now calm down and let me think.”
   “There’s nothing to think about. That’s the *** problem.”
   “What? You think I can’t figure out another way?” Now Siona’s outrage has turned into Farideh’s own. Worse than the Cardinal holding them hostage is the fact that she doesn’t believe in her.
   “Not as fast as we need it. And you know that as much as I do. He’s *** right.” Siona leans against her thighs. “I never thought I’d have to come close to those bastards.”
   And that hurts more than her outrage. Her pain. Siona had been one of them, long ago. They used her as a breeding mare, until they found out she couldn’t have children. Then they trained her to work the ships and she’d get regular missions on the orbital station. They only send people there that can’t be of use on-planet. So they can prove themselves. Siona made her escape when a man took her from the station. Later he became her father. She never looked back since. Could barely confess to her life before she was adopted. The COM starts young, and she would have forgotten every bit were it not for the fact that she doesn’t want to. Keeps her striving, keeps her angry. Almost as angry as her father’s death. Take your pick.
   “I’m sorry, Siona.”
   “No need. It’ll just take me some time to process the fact that we’re *** them over. They’ll get what they deserve. But that ***, the Cardinal, he has to go.”
   “There’s a hole in his plan.” Siona’s eyes widen. “After he turns on the transponder tracker what’s to stop us from executing him and every last one of his followers once they’re on Trafalgar?” And then Siona’s eyes go back to being cautious.
   “He’s crazy, but he isn’t stupid. There’s no way he wouldn’t expect us to do that. He wants on-planet for a reason and I can’t make out why. Sure, he gives us Sunderland, and what’s to stop us from venting him and his ilk. Hell, I’d expect that and I’m not half as smart.”
   The truth strikes deep, and Farideh has to reckon with it. “There’s no way we get anything out of him before he’s safe on Trafalgar. He’ll give us Sunderland at that point, and his COM connections later once he’s integrated. He knows we can kick him off as soon as he spills, but he’s banking on something. No other way he’d take the chance that we *** him over at any point. He’s got something more, and he’s sure it’s either enough for him to stay, or something worse.”
   “Something that could kick us out.” Siona swears into her chin. “But there’s a chance. There’s something we can do right now.”
   “Evening mass. His people know that if he isn’t back by that time they’ll dump the tracker and we’re *** just for the hell of it. Either the Cardinal gets something out of this or he will burn us just to burn us. He’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain. We got nothing.” Farideh’s slum patois creeps into her common. Back-alley gangster inflections and whorehouse smooth talk. Only person she can talk freely with is Siona. It keeps her humble, keeps her grounded, keeps her from forgetting.
   “Exactly,” Siona jumps in. “He’s on a light freighter heading back to Tristram B. We can’t cut him off in HS or before he lands. But if I take the MOS squad we can dock on-planet and ambush him during evening mass. We press the Cardinal until he delivers, then get rid of him once and for all.” Siona’s cold and violently calculated manner sometimes masks the fact that the same nature is all she knows. As calculated as it may sound, the chances for failure are cumbersome. That’s what makes her the best MOS pilot in the Known Galaxy. That delicate balance of knowing the odds and completely disregarding them.
   “There isn’t a way to press that man into telling us anything he doesn’t want to. The Cardinal will never spill. Ambush him all you want, threaten him with executing his flock, or grievous bodily harm. He’ll scoff at you until you bend and kill him. He’d die with a smile.” Sad truth again. Someday the truth might not be as sad. How I long for those times.
   “Then we don’t press him. We press his goons. Sure enough he doesn’t have the tracker on him. We could fleece him for that the moment he mentioned it. It’s bound to be on-planet. I can intercept them in the next fifteen minutes. Farideh, think, we can do this. After that window there’s no way we won’t collide with the Cardinal landing. I can jump in with my squad and push the goons until that tracker is ours.”
   “How many losses? How many of our people dead? The Cardinal didn’t take his entire flock with him from Melkior. Only the best of the best, and they are just as good, if not in some cases better than our people. We’d need more than your squad, and even then I won’t risk you for a *** tracker. Now you think. We get that, we draw out Sunderland, then what? The COM, no matter how much we both hate them, is one of the best options we have for getting out of this mess. If the Cardinal doesn’t facilitate that deal then our connection to them is,” and Siona shudders before Farideh’s words are even out, “you.” Then Siona retreats into herself for a brief second. “Look, we need to play this out. We need to work this with the Cardinal. Once he’s on Trafalgar we can keep a close eye on him. Sure, he knows that we will, but he doesn’t know the full capacity of our people. We play and avoid being played. It’s our only shot for now.”
   “I don’t like it one bit, none of it,” Siona snarls.
   “And I do?”
   “Ms. Farideh,” her secretary chimes in through external comms.
   “I said no interruptions.”
   “This is something I believe you will want to hear.”
   “I hope for your sake I do.”
   “We’ve received an incoming docking request.”
   “You interrupt me for a *** docking request,” Farideh’s about ready to snap her secretary’s beautiful scrawny neck.
   “It was initiated by one Demir Sunderland. If approved he’ll be on-planet in one hour.”
   Siona bursts into a raucous laugh and Farideh gives the approval before joining in.
[close]

Chapter 27: ALLIES
Spoiler
“WE NEED ALLIES,” Leto tells Demir like it’s the easiest thing in the Galaxy. Just ask and you shall receive. No sweat. I mean, what other options are there. It’s just the matter of the *** AI War all over again against your willingness to accept that it’s coming. After failing miserably on Melkior, Leto is back on his ***. Back to preaching revolution. Demir’s having none of it.
   “We can’t get any *** allies, and you know that just as well as I do. What we need is capital, what we need are credits, cash, money. We can barely afford to sleep in this dump and Baby is almost out of fuel. We need a good job to get back on track and then maybe, just maybe we can think of a way to get in with some like-minded people.”
   “Every second we waste the AI fleet is getting stronger,” Leto still on it like a damn dog. His maul firmly set and teeth clenched around his demented idea. No matter how many times Demir reminds the Grand-Master of his position in the new order of the Galaxy the man just bounces back after a misstep no matter how small. While Demir can understand that reminding a man as imposing and staggeringly superior as Leto III that he’s at the bottom of the food chain might be grating, he’s also *** sick of having to babysit his temper tantrums.
   “And we get *** closer to being completely broke. You know full well that without gas we can’t go anywhere we need to. What, you want to start a revolution on a Syndicate platform? Sure, let’s just ask the bosses if they’d be up for spending all their hard-earned illegal cash on supplying the real Leto III, returned from the dead, with an armada to tackle the AI fleet, also returned from the dead.”
   Leto scoffs and returns to the cot in his corner of the room. Demir had to make sure the Authority wouldn’t be able to snatch them. They pegged Demir as an asset in their system and when Melkior got glassed they’ve expanded the search for him. He’s sure of that. They’ll be on him like grav sickness until they find someone to pin the disaster on. And they’ll be pinning it on someone for sure. The Syndicate has a tight rein on Yuijin station. It’s their turf. But they’re also the most likely to get pegged by the Authority. The Syndicate expanded rapidly in the past couple of years, and their minor internal squabbles got quashed so they’re an organized force now. Authority could say they glassed Melkior to cash in on the open trade contracts for black-market tech. With enough force they could dispose of the entire Syndicate. All they need is probable cause, and the Syndicate is small enough that they can do a complete eradication. Any other faction might require more manpower, more ships, their entire army even. In Demir’s eyes factions like Trafalgar or Xing-Tech, even COM, the Tarsyan Loyalists, maybe Crown Royal, or any other major player is safe for now.
   All Demir and Leto need now is money. If they work smart they can lump in with a good faction and wait for this to blow over. Pile the money high and start recruiting as soon as the Authority is done with their vendetta. Five to six months, tops.
   “How far can we go with what we have?” Leto cuts through the tension.
   “Six sectors maximum.”
   “Anything close?”
   “Nowhere we can keep under the Authority’s radar for too long. The Cardinal’s gone underground and we didn’t exactly exchange comm links so we can’t bet on him. Plus, he can’t pay us the kind of cash we need, and he’s still probably in the Authority’s pocket.” The Cardinal may have ditched the Authority on Melkior, but there’s no way that twisted *** isn’t still fleecing them from some shithole in the Galaxy. “We need to go as close to the edge of my burnout drive as possible. Far-off jobs for a good payday. There’s one place where both of those things apply.”
   Leto awaits his answer. “Well,” then he breaks the silence because Demir obviously isn’t complying.
   “Trafalgar. The pirate sector.”
   “You want us to work with pirates.Queue the outrage.
   “Every *** faction, every person, every mother and child in the Known Galaxy is scum. Remember that, Leto. Sift through the scum and you just might find what you’re looking for. So take your higher ground and shove it up your ass. I might hate working for that Siona ***, but they’ll pay us well and if there’s any sector safe from the Authority it’s Trafalgar.”
   Leto processes the info with a stern expression permanently embossed on his face. “How soon do you want to be off-station?”
   “Tomorrow. But we need more info first. We need to present them with something. I say we push our contacts some more, and then we head for Trafalgar. It’s a three day flight. No stops.”
   Leto III nods somewhat reluctantly, but every day and in every way he’s accepting the fact that he’s scum too.
[close]

15
A double bill straight from the twisted asylum gallery. I was struggling a bit to see where I'd take the story after I put a couple of chapters together. Now that I have a good grasp and have cemented the narrative, I'll keep posting as the scribbles become worthy of your eyes. Here are Chapters 23 and 24. It won't be 3 chapters since I'm trying to keep up with the pace of the posts, and it's starting to get to me because I am, after all, a lazy ***.
Either way - welcome to Trafalgar!
Thank you for reading.

Chapter 23: TRAFALGAR
Spoiler
THE AUTHORITY HAS more than just their eyes on Trafalgar now. Farideh’s informants told her they’re planning a blockade. Not just outgoing ships either. A full-scale clot around her entire system. Nothing comes in and nothing gets out. Stupid *** are scrambling to blame what happened on Melkior on anyone they can, and she’s their meal ticket. Authority has been gunning for her system for years now, and something as stupid as glassing a backwater rock like Melkior is all they need to justify the blockade. Xing-Tech is about all she has lined up in terms of allies. They still love her efficient way of getting them the tech they need, with little to no questions asked. Every other faction or system in the Known Galaxy couldn’t care less if her off-brand band of pirates were to disappear. So the Authority can just dump Melkior in her lap and starve her people to death with no repercussions.
   What Farideh needs is a scapegoat, or an ally. She has to pin this mess on someone before the Authority mobilizes, actually gets their asses out of the paperwork and does some real policing for a change. First they’ll start targeting her ships even harder than before, and the first nuke they find they’ll somehow trace it back to the models on Melkior. Skies be damned, they don’t even have to find a nuke on her ships when they can just place one and call it a day. Hunting season for pirates is open again. All her bargaining and treaties of non-aggression get vented quicker than a mutiny.
   Trafalgar has been a beacon of hope in reuniting the Outer Rims with the Core Worlds. Sure, her pirates are still pirates, but they’re doing it for the good of the Galaxy. At least that’s what the people higher up who line their pockets with the change her smuggling brings in got the politicians to believe. All it takes is a signature and you’re golden. No matter how much we advance that’s still all you need in the end. She still hasn’t gotten an official seal of removal for the treaties, so Farideh has some time to maybe sort through the mess. She has feelers out, and she’s put a halt to all major arms deals for the time being. Trafalgar’s clients are none too pleased about that, but for the substantial cut in price Farideh promised them once they are back online they’ll gladly keep it in their pants for a while longer. Those treaties get vented, the Authority blockades them, and the dicks will come out and they’ll all bend her over the table.
   “Ms. Farideh,” the voice of her secretary over the internal comms pulls her out of the trance. “Siona is here to see you.”
   “Let her in.”
   Siona of the Skies saunters into Farideh’s office with all her usual bravado. Her long black braid flowing behind her all the way to her knees. A sign of her might in the Pits, her prowess in the dogfights. She vowed to cut it if she ever lost. The skies know her, and no blade has touched her hair since her first dogfight. Siona has her genuine leather pilots jacket on. All black with a red stripes on the sides, cut-off sleeves to show her knotted arms. Despite her small stature she cuts a mean figure just as well as she cuts through the skies. A light smile on her face bodes of good news.
   “I caught wind of survivors from Melkior, and you won’t believe who it is,” Siona lets Farideh know before even sitting down. Excited like a forest mouse their jakkels scurry away in the jungles.
   “I’m in no mood for a guessing game, Siona. So spill it,” Farideh cuts her off quick.
   “My, my, in no mood for fun I see. Fine. The Cardinal got off-planet before it got glassed. Rumor is he’s setting up somewhere on Tristram B.”
   Another shithole where they’ll suck up his EN ***. But at least it’s close. “I want him here ASAP.”
   Arched brow from Siona. “You know that’s not going to be easy. He’s not exactly famous for doing something for nothing. We can just call him. Cut our losses.”
   “No. I need to look him in the eyes when I ask him about what happened on Melkior. He wants the Authority off his tail as much as we do. Once we know what happened there we can take our chances with the blame game. No flying blind.”
   “Who do you want me to send? What do we offer?”
   “You, and we offer him access to our pipeline along with a stable investment strategy for his endeavors.”
   Siona sighs. “That’s a lot. Sure he’s worth it?”
   “Not in a million *** years, but his info is. The skies know he’s not giving that away for cheap. Like you said, we need to make it worth his while. I’ll authorize your takeoff immediately, and send word to the Cardinal that we need to talk.”
   “And what if he isn’t convinced?” A menacing grin from Siona, the one that just pops up when she’s feeling up for a fight. Hunters need prey from time to time, but this isn’t the time for Siona’s appetite to go overboard.
   “Make sure he is, but keep it civil. You’re going in alone as a sign of good faith.”
   Siona nods. “Fine by me.” No it isn’t, but not now, Siona. I’ll have something for you later. “I’ll get Cain juiced and be off-planet ASAP. Call you once the deal is done.” She turns around and heads for the exit.
   “Civil, Siona. Civil.”
   Farideh’s general, right-hand-woman, a legend of the skies, just gives her a wave like Farideh’s her mother and Siona’s promising to get back by her curfew. That woman will be the death of me one day.
   The situation isn’t flying shitwards yet, but that all depends on what the Cardinal has to say. He’d never glass Melkior himself. However, that begs the question as to how he was the only one to get his people off-planet. Something *** up happened on that shithole, and Farideh is fairly certain no answer she gets is going to be a good one.
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Chapter 24: CARDINAL
Spoiler
TRISTRAM B is as much of a shithole as any other in the Known Galaxy. Siona has seen her fair share of those. At some point they all congeal into a mass of waste and human detritus. Sure, each shithole is special in its own kind of way, but to Siona they all just reek of home. She hates her home.
   One thing is for certain, on Tristram B the people are primed to gobble up the Cardinal’s EN gibberish. He’s already got his ringed claws sunk deep into the fabric of the populace. Disguising money laundering and drug smuggling as missionary work. Siona can’t fault him for using his pomp, and has to admit begrudgingly that the man, despite his visible madness, reeks of genius. The Cardinal is using his connections off-planet to supply drugs and arm his forces, all the while pushing the competition off the market by appealing to the Authority as a missionary. He’s quenching all rumors about his stay on Melkior, and has them all eating up the idea that he moved on ages before it got glassed. Siona believes the Cardinal will be set up completely within a month, three tops. She also believes that after he’s done with Tristram B he’ll shift his focus to someplace with more opportunity.
   As soon as Siona sees the Cardinal she knows he didn’t escape from Melkior, but rather that he was freed. That place made him content, and now he’s tasted possibility. In many corners of the Galaxy possibility is the hardest drug. The Cardinal won’t be licking his wounds for long.
   “Siona of the Skies, your reputation precedes you. It’s an honor.” The Cardinal’s voice booms among the improvised EN church beams.
   “It always is.” Siona’s retort garners her a couple of sideways glances from the Cardinal’s guards. Cardinal, on the other hand, gives her a smile.
   “I wasn’t expecting a call from Trafalgar any time soon. So you can imagine my surprise when Farideh the Free herself told me she had a proposal. And not just that, but that she is sending her top officer, no less. Now that you have my time, let's not waste it. Please, Ms. Siona, get straight to the point.”
   “A personal interview with Farideh on Trafalgar. In exchange we will offer you substantial investment opportunities and equipment contracts.”
   The half-crazy-half-genius man frowns in contemplation. The arch of his brow stooping ever lower as he mulls over the possibilities. One hell of a drug, that’s for sure.
   “Deal,” the Cardinal booms almost out of nowhere. “We can go immediately. I believe your skiff is fitted for two, isn’t it?” His guards are caught off guard, one of the few times in their career Siona would say, but she’s no better off either. “What’s with all the long faces? I said I wasn’t fond of wasting time. So, let’s be on our way. I can be back home by evening mass.” The Cardinal waves his guards away and motions for Siona to lead.
   Siona takes point and leads the Cardinal through Tristram city proper, still not quite sure how much of a genius and how insane the man really is. But sure enough they make it to the docks without a fuss. Watchful eyes of the Cardinal’s scouts on them at all times, in case something falls to ***. He takes the passenger seat and Siona is off-planet in her Cain in no time. Considering how quickly this went Siona actually does think the Cardinal can make it back by evening mass.
   Cain gets the off-planet approval and Siona unleashes him on the skies. For such a chatty man the Cardinal sits idly and devastatingly silent in the co-pilot seat. Siona’s Cain is one of the few MOS skiffs that even has one. She never wanted or needed a co-pilot, but the seat does come in handy when she’s ferrying live cargo. Aside from the Cardinal those tended to include bounties, so the seat comes equipped with shackles. Lucky for the older man she doesn’t need them this time.
   They make it to the hyperspace jump point.
   “You good with HS, Cardinal?”
   “I have been around for a long time, young lady. I’m wired for everything the Galaxy can throw my way. The grav shielding will be enough.”
   Siona coughs. “Have it your way, just let me know if you need any juice while we’re in.”
   “I won’t.”
   Siona takes the hint and initiates the jump. To the untrained, non-juiced, barely enhanced part of the Galaxy populace a hyperspace jump is like getting skinned by gravity. It pulls and tears at you. Grav shielding absorbs the initial impact, but then the steady stream comes flooding in. Warp of time and space, like you’re being drowned over and over again, slowly. Every part of your body gets crushed into itself like an imploding grav nova. Your muscles tense around your bones, choke out your veins, and your blood curdles, stops moving. For just that second it takes to drop into HS your entire body stops under the crushing weight of space.
   Hypespace itself is something surreal. Before the C the gates kept travel to a minimum. Basically what they did was launch you through HS at such high velocity the travel times were quartered. Now you have to spend days on end in hyperspace only to get as far as a couple of weeks. Ships burn three times as much fuel, and the more time you spend in the harder it gets. The weight never stops crushing, time never stops congealing into a mass of darkness. HS radars make sure you’re on the right track to where you need to go. There’s nothing to see except storms in the distance, sparks of time and matter colliding violently. Get caught in one and you can kiss the skies goodbye.
   Siona is always more drawn to the visceral and physical sensation of speed. Fighting in the Dog Pits, her Cain rushing through the skies and tearing everything in their path. Hyperspace just makes her woozy and bored.
   “So, can I get a little spoiler action on that info you’re going to give Farideh once we hit Trafalgar?” Siona starts just to kick the nothingness out for a bit.
   “I am not a man inclined to repeat himself. Sadly my answer is no. Plus,” the Cardinal lets a malicious little grin slip, “where’s the fun in spoilers?”
   Siona turns Cain’s autopilot on. She rarely gets the chance to, or really wants to, but there isn’t much for her to do in hyperspace. “Considering the EN *** you plaster as a facade over your criminal empire I’d think you would be much more inclined to repeat yourself,” she prods at the Cardinal with her own malicious grin.
   “Touche. I have to admit, you caught me there. Some things are harder to shake than others. People like to call it Earth Nostalgia now. Like reminding ourselves where we come from is somehow a detriment to our future.”
   Siona has to scoff at all that Earth talk. “That’s exactly why we call it Earth Nostalgia. It’s an abandoned jungle biome, a rock we left behind as soon as we could get away. It’s only worth is nostalgia, and nostalgia can get you killed.” Siona knows that all too well. Like that time she went home and almost got cornered by the local warlord who still held a massive grudge.
   “Earth was beautiful.” The Cardinal averts his longing eyes to nowhere in particular, like looking after a lost love somewhere in deep space.
   Siona scoffs loudly. “Sure, a lot of planets were before the C. A lot of planets were before we came along. Beauty is useless.”
   “Oh, a utilitarian, I see.”
   “Don’t gas me with your high-brow vocabulary, Cardinal. I know *** when I see it.”
   “I can promise you, young lady, had you seen Earth your tune would be quite different. Instead of spreading or trying to maintain order after the Collapse we should have centralized and established a coherent government on Earth once again. Now we’re just destined to struggle on our own.” The Cardinal’s tone turns roughly sour.
   “Is that why you decided to run a crime syndicate you sell through your EN ***?” Siona’s not letting up.
   “Oh, this is a strong downturn from what I used to be, but I know the power of Earth. I was the Pope there, after all.” Siona has no idea what that means. “The only reason my congregation grows along with my business is because I have the magic of Earth in me. I stopped believing in God a long time ago, but the planet still flows through my veins.”
   “I don’t really know how we got here, but I don’t think I have much to add to this conversation.” Siona’s getting bored of it more than the HS washout.
   “You can always call it EN *** and move on,” the Cardinal lets slip through a smile that feels sincere, and the longing still palpable.
   “Why are you telling me this?”
   “Because I think I have to admit to myself that I’m tired. I’m old, young lady. My position on Earth assured me a life that far outlasts many in the Known Galaxy. I’ve seen a lot, but I am adamant about sticking around until the end, whichever it may be. I’ve outlived one end, now it’s time to see what comes next.”
   “And you plan on causing as much trouble as possible along the way?”
   Cardinal’s grin turns much more ferocious. “Exactly. So, you see, you couldn’t have picked a better time to contact me. All this, couldn’t have happened at a better time. The possibilities are endless, Siona of the Skies.”
   Shivers run down Siona’s spine. Not the kind she gets when flying, fighting, diving into HS or out of incoming fire, not the kind that tickles while leading raids or firing weapons, not the kind of sensation while *** or drinking or taking drugs of any kind, but the kind of chill that she only gets when she’s helpless.
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