She hit harder than I thought she would. I knew this wasn’t going to go well, but then, it didn’t start too well either…
I dumped Logan’s crumpled hull into the pad delicately enough for the landing gear to lock. It was ungraceful, to say the least, but when you are gasping for air as your life support fails, style is the least of your concerns. I’d been flying missions for CCP a while now, but this was the first time I’d crash-landed into one of their starports and needed them to save my life. They did their duties, but more out of curiosity than generosity.
I was cleared by the medical officer, and free to leave. The last 24 hours were a blur. I remembered seeing the station, and hitting the landing pad but… my head was still trying to piece everything back together. The smell of molten metal and the terrible grinding sound of a mutilated hull. Logan. I needed my ship. We landed, I remember we landed, and I am still alive, so he must be… somewhere…
The repair bill was acceptable, given the damage, but now I was stuck here for two days. I hoped I’d see some friendly faces but there seemed to be no trace of Dragons here. It was 6:26am. To hell with it, there was one place to find them. I headed to the S&G. At worst, I could get drunk.
“You dirty little prick. Get out of my bar.”
I could see this would be a challenge.
“You’re one of those ‘Dragons’. Fuck off, we don’t need that shit in here, we look after our own.”
“I’ve been out there risking my life for ‘your own’ for three days. The people who pay you, pay me. Just give me a beer.”
“You look like shit, mate. You sure you should be in here? You should fuck off back to Popov and let your little dragon buddies look after you. Thins your blood, this, you know. You could end up killing yourself.”
“Trust me, I would if I could. Give me a fucking beer.”
My conscience sank as I felt a strong push against my shoulder. I was in no fit state for a fight. I could deal with the barman, but I don’t know what would do if I actually got hit. My body tensed as best it could, and I glanced left. I stopped. Everything stopped.
“Chris, stop being an asshole and give him a drink.”
She was amazing. I realised I was staring. I couldn’t stop staring. She glared at me.
“He’s right, you look like shit. Go and sit down, enjoy your drink, then leave. We don’t need you Dragons around here.”
“Sure, I don’t want to cause any trouble. Thanks.”
I awoke in a cabin. Budget, small, enough space to sleep and piss in. My head was ringing, my body felt like it had been dismantled and reassembled in the wrong order. I couldn’t see anything except the bright, pale reflections of the cabin interior. Something hit me in the face. Soft. A towell?
“Hey, lightweight. You need a shower, and I need breakfast. Then we can talk.”
She was still stunning. I was looking at an angel and had no idea why. My memories from the previous day flashed past my eyes. But she was here now, looking like that. We talked, I remember. She was from Shokwa, her family were gone… I was drunk, I think she must have been drunk too….
“Hey there lonely boy, you still alive?”
“Are you trying to be funny? I’ll be done here soon, and out of your bar.”
“I’m not, but I can give it a try. I hear you got your ass kicked, and came limping back here close to death. Pretty lucky guy.”
“A fuck up with the mission brief. What do you know about it?”
“Only what I hear. It’s my bar, I hear most stuff. So, what’s with the Dragons, why are you here?”
“We’re here because we get paid to be here.”
“But CCP? Why? I thought you guys just swept in and destroyed everything in your path?”
“Is that what you think? No… well… we get the job done. Who the hell are you anyway, what’s with all the questions? Your meathead over there wanted to kick the shit out of me when I walked in. ”
“Chris is my brother. He’s a bit defensive.”
“Haha, ok yeah, offensive. We’ve just been through a lot, and honestly, it all went to shit when you Dragons turned up.”
“We’ve been working our asses off to help this system. I very nearly died, for fuck’s sake. What’s going on?”
“The Freedom Party slaughtered hundreds of people in Shokwa when you took it. We saw it coming, and a lot of people fled here. Some didn’t make it out of the conflict. My parents, my little sister, they’re gone now, me and Chris are on our own. So, sorry if you didn’t get a warm welcome.”
“Shit. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. So why are you here, now?”
“We came over here before you arrived, me and Chris. Offered good jobs, good money. Then the Freedom Party started to grow in power, you guys turned up, and now we are scared for our jobs, our lives, everything. We’re living in fear everyday here.”
“But I’ve been running missions to help you. The people in charge, I mean, they asked for help, that’s what we do…”
“Freedom Party bullshit. They’re going to wipe us out. They’ve got people making sure this station, and all the stations, are theirs, and we couldn’t get in their way even if we wanted to. I can’t do this anymore. You Dragons, you’ve ruined this place….”
The neon lights glinted on a tear that would have otherwise gone unnoticed in the dimly-lit bar, as it rolled off her cheek. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. She leaned in to me, and I draped an arm around her, wondering what the hell I was doing here. This isn’t right, it’s not what I signed up for.
“How can you be so cold. Haven’t you ever lost anything…?”
“I lost almost everything. I still can’t seem to shake the last of it.”
“You have family, friends round here?”
She switched from vulnerable female to bar manager in a second. Only a single deep breath indicated her loss of composure.
“Chris, can you get us some beers over here?”
Determined eyes held my gaze.
“I want to know what makes a Dragon tick. Where are you from? What are you really doing here?”
The drinks flowed. This girl could handle her booze like a Dragon, and my judgement was becoming blurred. Intoxicated…
“I wouldn’t say I was ‘from’ anywhere really. I was born in the back of a Cobra MkI, and that was my home for the major part of my childhood. Where I learned to fly. I don’t really know the facts, I’ve never been able to decipher the lies. I know I was born in the Piscium Sector, that’s pretty much it. From what I’m told my parents met in Sol, part of a research project that my father pioneered, and travelled together along the boundaries of civilised space. We travelled, we moved, that was life as far back as I can remember.”
“Where are your parents now?”
“I don’t know for sure. My mother re-married. A military man with the Empire, he gave her a life when she had none. I don’t know where my father is. We moved to Achenar, I studied in Facece, we grew up in the Imperial programme. My brother and I graduated and trained with the Pilot’s Federation, but he never played by the rules. They kicked him out after he killed two cadets, and he went mercenary. The Feds finally caught up with him trading intel to the Empire, and he’s been in The Warren ever since. My sister… well, she’s a nurse. I think she’s at Eranin now. Guess she grew up in a pretty messed up family, so she feels better being able to help people. She can’t handle her own life, but if she can help a handful of people out there then it’s something.”
“Hold on. You’ve got a brother too?”
“Yeah, somewhere. He was at Ross 128 for a long time, the only place that could hold him, they said. I met some guys from Emperor’s Grace a few months back who told me he had escaped, but I don’t know if they were bullshitting me. He could be anywhere now. He used to preach that he was immortal, and well, I’ve known him be the sole survivor of many disasters over the years. Maybe ‘he’ is. If it is really him.”
“What do you mean? Is he your brother or not?”
“When I was young, my father told me that he had brought Shadow back to us. I never knew what he meant. They were attacked by Imperial forces while on a research expedition, their ship was all but destroyed. My mother was pregnant with me at the time, my brother would have been 2 years old. My parents barely survived, I honestly don’t know how I’m here now, and that’s where the truth gets a little blurry…”
“But you said you were born in a Cobra?”
“I was. We survived. The ship got fixed. My father’s research was in bio-tech, he used his discoveries to fix himself, and the rest of us I suppose. The first time we reached a medical facility they told my mother than I shouldn’t, couldn’t, have been born after the injuries she sustained. I don’t know what happened, I can’t remember those times. I remember my sister being born, and I remember my father leaving. I remember how we were outcast from the Federation because my father was declared a traitor, and I remember my last days on Earth. before that… well, I never got a straight answer.”
“That’s one hell of a fucked-up back-story! You’re… not what I expected a merc to be. You make me feel like I’ve lived a sheltered life. Now it’s gone…I… don’t know what I should do…”
She fell silent again for a moment. Her eyes were distant, her confident frame weakened just slightly. She certainly wasn’t the kind of woman you’d mess with but at the same time it felt like the slightest touch would break her.
“Look, I’ll talk to Furieux and the others. There must be something we can do here. Yes, we’re mercenaries, but we’re not murderers. I can get you out of here, somewhere safe, somewhere you can set up a new life. The Dragons will help if I ask… and ply them with enough booze..!”
“That’s sweet. You’re drunk. I want to forget about all this, for now, just for tonight, forget about all this shit going on. When your ship is fixed, you’ll be gone, and I’ll still be here, cleaning up this bar.”
“Hey, I’m not going to just leave as….”
“Ssssh. Shush. Forget. For tonight.”
I detoured via the hangar on my way to the canteen. I needed to see if they’d managed to restore Logan’s core functions and comms. Nearly 24 hours and I’d had no contact with the Dragons. With this knowledge of the Freedom Party’s activities I didn’t want to risk using an unsecure CCP channel to flag up my whereabouts.
There was an engineer fitting the new canopy.
“How’s it going?”
“Surprisingly well, actually. I don’t know what you’ve done to this ship, but once we’d completed the initial repairs it started bringing it’s own systems back online. Never seen that before! Apart from the aesthetics, the cockpit seems to be operational.”
“Mind if I take a look?”
“Sure, go ahead, you’ve got twenty minutes. We’ll need to take some of the core systems offline to fit the new thrusters and FSD.”
The smell of scorched metal and molten synthetics still lingered through the ship’s interior, a haunting reminder of just how close I’d been to death only a day ago. The thought never scared me, but I certainly never wanted to meet my end welded into the mutilated hull of a Vulture. The cockpit purred with life and pulsed with light, illuminating the blackened interior, accentuating the twisted and warped surfaces. He wasn’t joking about the aesthetics. There wasn’t even a pilot’s seat.
“Logan, system status? Do we have comms?”
The ship emitted a deep growl, nothing more. The systems appeared to be online, but there was no response. The new HUD had not yet been installed, so I began unravelling the fused wiring from under the main terminal in the hope of finding a working interface cable.
“Hold on, buddy, we’ll get you back up and running. Can’t believe you managed to get this far all on your own.”
A single, scorched terminal block appeared to be intact. I connected my datapad and began running diagnostics. Modules could wait, I needed to get the pilot interface and comms online.
“Are you nearly finished in there?” came a voice from the ship’s ramp. “We’re going to need to get this drive installed if we’re going to stand a chance of having this thing flight-ready in the next 24 hours.”
“I’m nearly done. Can you check the power coupling on the left thruster? It’s not showing up here.”
That might buy me a few minutes. I couldn’t leave anything they could detect. I ran a quick search on the comms, I needed to speak to the Dragons. I found 4 records, Logan had saved them, but they were encrypted and I there was no way I was going to have the systems ready for an install. A quick hack, maybe I could get something from the messages.
“They’re all hooked up fine, we just need to get the drive in. I’m gonna start shutting her down, you can come back tomorrow morning, she should be good to go.”
I ran the script through the direct command line on the ship’s interface. The ship growled with a surge of power, and the screen returned results.
“I know, buddy. You can kill him later.”
Messages received from Furieux, Wally, Unfazed. I couldn’t make out the details. I ran an old beacon program on the datapad and disconnected.
“Stay quiet,” I whispered. “I’ll be back soon.”
She was just leaving as I got to the canteen.
“Sorry I’m late, I needed to check on the ship…”
“I know. I figured you would. You should shower more, you look good ‘clean’. Smell better too. I’m going to start setting up the bar. Stop by when you’re ready, I figure if you’re going to find another Dragon they’ll probably be there!”
“Um, yeah. You’re probably right. I’ll grab some food and see you there.”
Whymper City was in need of some work. The canteen was industrial, but it was busy, the food looked ok, there were plenty of people, I felt comfortable. I sat away from the crowd, as I always did. I needed to get back to the ship and conduct my own repairs. But maybe there had been a Dragon pass through here, or on a mission for CCP, she was right, the bar was the best place to be.
The station’s orientation threw an incredible glow across the bar. The structure of the station cast shadows across the floor as the viewing windows slowly moved across a perceived horizon. I never ceased to be amazed at these unexpected sights. The shadow of a lumbering man with a cleaning unit ruined the view.
“Anyone here?” I yelled.
“Just those guys, been quiet”, grunted Chris. I was glad I hadn’t pushed my luck the day before, he looked like a giant in silhouette against the orange light.
“Too early for a drink?”
She’d appeared at the bar, the light catching on her face, a slight smile. My brain was attempting logic, but my body moved with desire. I took a seat, and she looked into my eyes.
“So, what’ll it be?”
I scanned the space around me. Nobody here. I almost imagined the Dragons piling in, all high spirits, like we had done so many times before. I could remember their faces, the moments of victory, or of loss. I felt like I had been away from them far too long. Not a day, but weeks. I felt trapped, but I couldn’t understand why. I needed to get Logan online.
“Hey. What’s wrong? Let me fix you something that will help, if you’re still suffering?”
“Sure. Might be too early for a beer.”
The visitors came and went. Not many, but it was an interesting station. She ran the bar, I helped out, I met a colourful mix of people. No Dragons though. I wondered if they knew I was here, or whether they would even look for me if I had gone missing. My thoughts were blurred again, I thought of the ship – maybe too soon to go back there. Maybe a drink or two to pass the time…
“So how did you end up being a ‘Dragon’?”
“I just stumbled upon it. I think.”
“Where were you? It doesn’t sound like something you just stumble into.”
Something stopped me, then it was gone. A flash of something.
“I was searching for my father, that’s why I joined the Federation. I knew they’d have information I could use, that the Empire would never have. He was out there, somewhere, and I wanted to find out the truth. I ended up in Sol, took a mission for the Alliance that may have given me some leads.”
“So the Dragons work for the Alliance?!
“No, they don’t. I just happened to be in a bar at the wrong time, with a guy playing a devious hand of poker, and another trying to sweet talk the barman’s daughter.”
TO BE CONTINUED….