When last we left our intrepid heroes, they had elected to “go meddle” in the affairs of the space station in which they were currently trapped; a sudden embargo arising from disputes between the Hydra Fleet (Zenithian Hegemony) and Jevghena Colony Security (The Legion) clamped down on all non-essential travel. It began, as meddling often does, in the local bar. Well, bar is perhaps the wrong word; Platform Nakshatra was a small station, with a fraction of the traffic seen by the mighty Coriolis. This bar, known simply as “The Bar”, was more like a an airport kiosk with cheap plastic furniture. It would be unfair to call it a place of ill-repute. It lacked repute of any kind at all. Into this softly lit den arrived Blue Beetle’s engineer Fattah, and science officer Pol. It was quite busy, relatively speaking; A merchant lay passed out on his spreadsheets, five off-duty Legion soldiers were gathered round a table, drinking hard liquor in that way grim men of war often do, which is to say silently and constantly. And a holy man sat next to a younger, panicked man, attempting to give him solace and wisdom about his impending marriage.
While Fattah decided the best course of action was to ingratiate himself with the soldiers through the time-honoured practice of buying them a round of drinks, Pol immediately wandered up to the holy man and his charge, deciding to inject his own wisdoms into the rather dry conversation. “Ah, don’t worry too much about it buddy, there’s always divorce if it doesn’t work out!” This approach… did not go down particularly well with the preacher man (although it did raise a smile from the panicked groom-to-be, who truth be told was merely a little overwhelmed with the amount of planning he and his partner were doing for the celebration). He stiffly agreed that while, yes, divorce was legally and scripturally an option wedded couples could pursue, it was important to remember that marriage itself was a very serious institution, not to be entered into frivolously. Pol responded with a decidedly atheist argument about how the Icons were probably pretty chill about the whole thing, to which the preacher, now quite red of face, spluttered with rage that he had never before encountered such *disrespect* for the teachings of the Icons, and other such appalled indignities.
The young man, watching this in awe, suddenly laughed heartily once the holy man had left. “I’ve… I’ve never seen him so angry before, and he’s ALWAYS angry about something. I needed some levity today, thank you, friend.”
Pol waved for a couple of drinks to be brought over. “Oh, don’t worry about it. Think of it as a wedding present, you looked like you needed some cheering up.”
Fattah, meanwhile, now found himself sitting in the circle of soldiers, being appraised in a “I don’t know you, but you DID buy me a drink, so let’s see how this shakes out” manner. Not being able to recall any toasts specific to The Legion, he decided to play it safe and raise his glass simply “to The Legion!”, which went down well enough. Slightly relaxed, they began to talk. They mentioned how there was a fight brewing for months between the Hegemony and Legion, that there were multiple chances to avoid bloodshed, but stubbornness had kept winning out. “It could be 2, maybe 3 weeks before delegates arrive to mediate the dispute. Meanwhile, we’re stuck here in orbit with a bunch of toff-nosed Hegemony fools who’d run away if you showed them a real gun”
“Probably run towards it, not knowing what it was!” quipped Fattah, to much approval from the disgruntled grunts.
“Hah, yeah. Ugh, it’s a stupid mess. You ever been at a wedding where there were two guests that HAD to be invited, but you make sure they’re seated at opposite ends of the room? It’s a lot like that right now. Tense.”
“Anything an independent trader might be able to help with?” asked Fattah, deciding now was the time to press for details.
“Hmph. Couldn’t rightly say. I know there’s still traffic between here and the colony, so the higher ups must have agreed on something, but we’re definitely not the people to ask, we just point guns and shoot. You wanna talk to them, really.”
Pol and his new friend had settled into their fresh drinks by now. He had learned the man’s name was Shareef, that he was having the same stress that so many couples endure when planning a wedding, and that he was a Legion soldier currently on leave after a bullet to the leg rendered him unfit for duty. While he was enjoying the relative peace, he did admit that paid leave was nothing like an-duty wages, and times were a little tight. Pol again offered to help: “Look man, I know how it is. Tell you what: I’m not going anywhere while this lockdown is on, so if I can help clear anything off your to-do list over the next couple of days, just let me know. I’d be happy to help get you on your way to that honeymoon in your near future!” Shareef was quite beside himself at this offer.
“Very kind of you, sir! Let me think on it, and I might call you later?” They exchanged details, Shareef finished his drink, and limped home in a far better mood than when his day had begun.
Dav and Ash Drum had elected to stay with the Blue Beetle. Ash was idly monitoring radio chatter, Dav inspecting the ship to ensure there were no more surprises like the one which almost killed them on the portal jump. Ash’s tabula rang out. It was a call from Pol.
“Ash, my friend! You know how you’re a genius with information and computers?”
“… what do you want?” asked Ash, voice heavy with suspicion.
“Well, I met a fellow in the bar. He’s getting married soon! I hope that goes well for him, he’s a nice lad-“
“How many drinks have you had?” interrupted Ash, no less suspicious but now also slightly worried.
“Not enough. Not nearly enough. But where was I? Oh yes, the lad getting married. So I offered to give him a hand with his workload, and long story short, he gave me a whole bunch of confidential reports that need rubber stamping and I thought, you’re brilliant at writing programs and scripts to automate things, you could get this done in a couple of hours!”
“Great! I’ll send the files on over with a list of what boxes need ticking brilliant thanks bye!”
There was silence, but for the muffled sounds of the docking ring outside.
“I’m going to hide his damn pillow.”
Ash needed only minutes to write a script to automate the process of completing some 300 official Legion reports between Jevghena Colony and Platform Nakshatra. She spent several hours, however, devising a way to scan each report for interesting keywords or repeated phrases, aggregate the data and analyse the whole for useful, or valuable information that could fetch a nice price with the right collecter. By the time she had her scan running, Pol had returned, loudly exclaimed that Dav was going to be upset about his pillow being missing, and was sleeping off his adventures in the bar.
His peace was short-lived, of course. Presently, the Blue Beetle was visited by an official and his bodyguard of Legion soldiers. “Ahem. The crew of the Blue Beetle, yes? I apologise for interrupting but you see, there has been… a complaint. Some allegations of blasphemy, in fact.”
Ash was shocked. “What? They’re just boobs! I’m not even flashing them, they’re all in my shirt!”
“Ahem, I’m sure they are. No, the incident to which I refer concerns certain utterances made by crew members in the local cantina, and-“
“POL! WAKE UP! WHAT DID YOU DO?”
“asdfgl” said Pol, waking slowly. Ash forced a cup of strong coffee into his hands, to better explain himself. The official seemed nonplussed, as if this happened every other day for him.
“Indeed, according to the complaint, one or more individuals who crew the ship named Blue Beetle insulted the Icons, and a priest of the Icons. Now I’m sure it wasn’t a serious as the complainant makes out, but nevertheless, the station must be seen to take all complaints of such concerning nature seriously, and so I must request that the crew accompany me-“
“What’s your name?” asked Pol.
“Kadife, sir, and now if-“
“Is this how you saw yourself as a kid, Kadife? Ticking boxes, filling forms for the Man?”
“Actually it is, I thoroughly enjoy the intricacies of bureaucracy.”
There was a stunned silence, which Pol broke by saying “Well I think we should follow him, I don’t know how to respond to that, he’s got me.”
Dav sighed. His day had been going so well. “Look, Mr. Kadife, this is all his doing, why do we have to be dragged into it?”
“I’m afraid my orders were quite specific, sir. Legion envoy Majid Nahas requested the whole crew. Please, I’m sure it is just a formality, a ticked box, a form filed, nothing exciting” his eyes flickered over to Pol for the briefest moment. It was like seeing Pol being slowly flayed with a rose-scented razor blade.
A collective sigh. “Pol, after this we are going to have to have a serious talk about insulting holy men. Fine, lead on Kadife.”
Majid Nahas was an imposing man, over six feet tall and every inch of him a Legion veteran. Muscular, his shaved head displaying the Legion’s skull tattoo proudly, his right eye and left arm replaced with intimidating cybernetic prosthetics chosen more for their value in combat than any ergonomic or aesthetic concerns. He shuffled some papers with his organic hand when the crew entered his office in the station’s administrative section.
“Now. The Blue Beetle’s crew, yes? Brother Ravi here claims-“
The apoplectic man shot to his feet, pointing at Pol. “That’s him! That’s the man who slandered the Icons to my face! To my FACE!”
Pol waved at him.
“Yes, yes, calm down please. And you, Pol, do you dispute this?”
“All I did was say there’s nothing wrong with divorce. Honestly, if the Icons are so mad at me they could have sent a better envoy than shorty here…”
Brother Ravi, at this stage, was beginning to choke on his own rage.
Majid pre-emptively held up his bionic hand in a call for silence, which was quite effective given its large size and battle scarred exterior.
“Enough, gentlemen. Brother Ravi, I shall deal with this, have no fear. That will be all, thank you.”
“Thank you, brother Ravi, that will be all.” Majid had a very commanding tone when he wanted. He may as well have yelled “you are DISMISSED!” while drop-kicking the priest out of an airlock. The furious man slunk away. The door closed, and Majid sighed.
“I never liked him,” he began. “A real fire-and-brimstone zealot. He regularly denounces the use of cybernetics in the Legion, but he has never required life-saving surgery on the battlefield.”
Before any of the crew could say something, he spoke up again. “Nevertheless, he is technically correct, and an example must be made. I trust a small fine, say, 50 birr, will suffice?”
“If the money goes somewhere that’ll annoy him, I’ll double it,” said Pol.
“Hmph.” That was the closest thing to a laugh Majid appeared capable of. “He does have a particular dislike of the Legion’s widow and orphan fund, given they provide cybernetics to wounded family members.”
“Perfect”, Pol smiled widely. Majiid tapped a few commands into his tabula.
“Done. Thank you.”
“Thank YOU, sir,” said Ash. “While we’re here, do you have any idea when this lockdown is going to end?”
Majid gave them an appraising look. It lasted a while. “That depends. It might be in two or three weeks, when we expect diplomats from both Factions to arrive…”
He tapped the console on his desk. The doors audibly locked shut, and Ash saw the signal reception of her tablet die.
“… or it could be as soon as tomorrow, if you’re willing to do me a small favour.”
The crew’s ears picked up. Now, THIS sounded like some top quality meddling!
“As I’m sure you’re aware, hostilities have erupted between the Hydra Fleet and The Legion. Violence on this station has been limited to fist fights, but in Jevghena Colony there is already a bodycount. While outright fighting has ceased for the moment, there are no guarantees of peace until the diplomats arrive.” His bionic arm twitched, clearly feeding off his agitation.
I have a younger brother in Jevghena. Honourable discharge, like myself, but the circumstances were less than celebratory. He has a rare neurological condition, which cost him the use of his legs. The best minds in the Third Horizon tell me his condition is such that prosthetic replacements will not work, something about degraded nerve clusters. The Legion would not replace limbs that weren’t damaged in battle, in any case. Part of the reason I took this position was so I could look out for him.”
Majid’s mouth twitched. A proto-smile, maybe? He sat back, clearly not used to being this open, yet so clandestine.
“These hostilities have been brewing for months. Omar and I have had many discussions about what to do if… when they came to a head. He is headstrong, but he’s not a fool. We both agreed that in the event of things getting out of control, he would move to our uncle’s home aboard Coriolis station. Unfortunately, the lockdown happened quicker than we anticipated, and military personnel from either faction, even retired like I am, don’t get to travel anywhere right now. But your appearance presents a solution.”
“You have no affiliations that matter to this conflict. An independent trader would be of use to either Faction. I can arrange for your ship to have clearance to land at Jevghena, and, by pulling some strings while you’re away, I can pressure my opposite number in the Hegemony to grant you clearance to leave the Caph system. If you collect Omar and bring him safely to Coriolis, I will clear the path for you. And yes, I can provide some compensation. 5,000 birr, and on top of that…”
Now Majid did smile. It wasn’t a pleasant sight.
“Since I retired from The Legion, I developed a little hobby of keeping tabs on ex-Legion members, particularly deserters. I understand that your ship had a close call making the jump here from Kua, yes? An attack on your stasis chamber?”
Ash leaned forward. Oh, she was VERY interested in having a word with the people who nearly killed her.
“Once my brother is safe, I will tell you who was responsible. I will send you their entire military files, in fact. The Legion takes a very dim view of deserters, and you’ll find that the names I give you all have a pretty little bounty associated with them. Off official records, of course. Your discretion is very much appreciated in such matters.”
Down to the surface of Quidar, down to Jevghena colony in the northern hemisphere. The journey took 4 hours from high orbit. During this, the crew messaged Omar Nahas on the surface, agreeing on certain greeting phrases to make sure they knew who was who. Ash’s datamining algorithm also completed its analysis. With certain keywords and coded phrases scattered across dozens of reports, someone in the Legion had managed to conceal a smuggling operation! The algorithm determined the location of a dead drop within Jevghena’s space port and administrative buildings. The sun was rising as they landed at the space port, alongside the central colony administration in a rugged valley surrounded by grassy plains, it was looking like a beautiful, if extremely hot, morning.
First up, they decided to investigate this dead drop Ash’s snooping had uncovered. It lay within a maintenance area that saw little in the way of traffic when the colony was running smoothly, and the rather unsubtle crew of the Blue Beetle had little trouble infiltrating unseen. They emerged with a large carrying container, hermetically sealed, the contents of which they could only guess at but which they were sure would fetch a tidy price with the right buyer. Then, on to locating Omar Nahas. His tabula signature pointed to one of the outlying farms on the plains beyond the valley. Temperatures were already approaching 30 C., and were due to climb as high as 50, so they elected to borrow a pair of sealed ATVs to keep the heat off them. Within half an hour they were clear of the valley and another 30 minutes took them to Omar’s small goat farm.
Omar was in a similar 4-wheeled pod to the crew, doing his morning inspections of the fences and his animals, accompanied by two men wrapped in many layers to ward off the growing heat. The crew radioed him. “This is the crew of the Blue Beetle, how is Abigail doing?”
Abigail the goat, they had decided, would be their mutually agreed greeting.
“Hello! She’s fine, thank you for asking. These men will be looking after the farm while I’m gone, I was just showing them around. Shall we be off?”
With one ATV (carrying Dav and Pol) in front of Omar and one (Fattah and Ash) behind, they turned back toward the space port. Whether from pure luck, the will of the Icons, or razor-sharp perceptive skill, the occupants of the rear pod noticed a reflection of the receding farm and its new minders. They saw the men remove large hand guns from the folds of their apparel, and take careful aim at Omar’s ATV. They raised the alarm. An assassination attempt!
Dav, ever the quick-thinking pilot on or off the ground, sprang into action. “Omar, break right and follow me, now!” before executing a magnificent powerslide that wound between two boulders and led to somewhat rougher terrain, where the constant bumps would throw the aim of the two would-be assassins. Omar swiftly followed suit, proving almost as skilled a pilot as Dav. The first shot sailed wide. The second hit Fattah’s pod, smashing a glass panel and letting the baking heat fill the cockpit, but otherwise not harming the vehicle. Fattah messaged their employer as he drove. “Blue Beetle here, we have your brother but there are hostiles after us. Any backup you can send would be appreciated!” Ash leaned out and fired a shot from her Vulcan Cricket pistol. A miniature explosive rocket slammed into the shoulder of one man, wounding but not downing him. Their radio crackled in response. “This is Majid. Make for the eastern gates, I will double the guards there to provide covering fire.”
“Yes! Thank you! Everyone, eastern gates, we’ll be safe as soon as we’re within rifle range!”
Pol, being a wealthy upper-class dilettante before joining the crew as a penniless medic, had rather more personal wealth than the rest of the crew to spend on preparing for a life travelling the stars. While his friends armed themselves with the relatively affordable Vulcan Cricket (a common weapon that fired tiny rockets), he had treated himself to a top of the line hunting rifle that used magnetic field manipulation to launch tiny metal slugs at hypersonic speeds. His shot hit the second assassin’s leg with such force that a full third of the limb simply disappeared in an explosion of bone and blood, severing the leg and leaving the shocked man to swiftly bleed out on the ground. Such was the force of the explosion that a nearby goat, showered in gore, fell over in shock.
But the assassins were not finished. Taking careful aim again, the remaining killer fired again, this time hitting Omar’s ATV and causing something to spark and smoke. Omar’s vehicle started to slow, the damaged engine unable to keep pace with Dav’s ATV. Ash contacted Omar. “We’ll draw level with you, get you on to our pod, hold steady now!”
The two vehicles drew level. The cockpit on Omar’s ATV slid open, revealing a handsome, if understandably anxious, young man. The cradle that held him extended out, and Ash leaned out as far as she dared, ready to catch him.
Dav, watching carefully on his rear view mirrors, suddenly cried out in alarm. Three men on grav-cycles were approaching from another direction, weapons in hand! Somehow they had masked their sensor presence, and the lack of wheels left no dust trail to announce them. Thinking fast, he spun the ATV around…
… as the lead rider fired his gun at Omar’s vehicle. Something critical in the engine lurched, and the ATV flipped violently, hurling Omar forward into the air…
… Dav slammed down hard on the accelerator, and swung open the cockpit. This was going to be unpleasant for Omar, but better to live and complain about broken bones than blasted to pieces by hostile strangers.
It is unknown precisely what went through Omar’s mind as he was launched into the air. Perhaps as he sailed upwards, he cursed the crew of the Blue Beetle, his attackers, even his brother. Perhaps he surrendered himself to the mercy of the Icons as his flight reached its peak and the fall began. Nobody knows, he refuses to talk about that day, when he flew straight into the curvature of Dav’s raised cockpit like a ball into a basket, landing with little ceremony and at least one broken leg on Pol.
The riders, furious at being cheated of their prize, gunned their throttles and zipped towards the remaining ATVs. Fattah, a moment of inspiration flashing in his mind, shouted “take control for me!” to Ash, and began to tear into the electronics systems of the ATV. He recalled how vehicles like these ran on powerful fusion batteries, and that many of the electronic systems could be hardwired straight to the power source, overcharging them. Ash, struggling to drive while not in the driver seat, awkwardly fired off another round. The Icons smiled on her, and the remaining assassin on foot crumpled. There were only the three riders remaining.
“Go big or go home”, mumbled Dav. Sealing the cockpit once more, he launched the ATV straight towards the lead rider. His grav-cycle, while extremely fast, was not very big. Its rider was not blessed as Dav was with great knowledge of physics. When the two vehicles collided head on, the ATV didn’t even slow as it crushed both rider and ride under the wheels.
“What in blazes are you doing?” Ash screamed at Fattah. Her somewhat wobbly driving made their vehicle a surprisingly hard target to hit, the remaining riders’ shots sailing wide. Fattah did not explain, only clambered onto the roof of the ATV, calling on her to take full control and drive straight at one of the riders. As Ash turned to face their oncoming threats, Fattah, flicked his hastily constructed switch, the immense power of the ATV’s fusion battery bypassing the normal distributor circuits and flowing right to the microwave sensor emitter array one the roof, which he aimed at the nearest rider. Ash, now in the driver’s seat, was briefly annoyed as the electronic sensors fizzled and went dark. She might have complained, but the sight of a man on a grav-cycle being explosively vaporised led her to conclude that she could let it slide this time at least.
The remaining rider broke off, jinking side-to-side to throw off Pol’s aim, before coming around for another run. The inspiration of the Icons was not done with Fattah this day, as he remembered that he was in possession of a considerable length of “hyper-rope”, a very strong monomolecular carrying cable which required special gloves to handle without slicing your hands off. Ash pulled up next to the wreckage of Omar’s ATV, and Fattah jumped out, drawing a taut line of hyper-rope between his ATV and Omar’s.
Their pursuers defeated, the crew made their way to the space port, with Omar battered and nursing two broken legs but happy to be alive. Having lost his ATV, the crew made a quick stop at the colony administration to secure a wheelchair for Omar. Majid was true to his word, and no sooner had they reached Platform Nakshatra again than they were granted permission by the Hydra Fleet to leave the system. When they rose from their cryo pods in the Kua system once more, there was a message from Majid waiting for them on the ship’s logs.
“You have my most sincere gratitude, friends. My brother would be captured or dead now, but for you. Our uncle will provide him with a safe home on Coriolis, at least until it is safe for him to return to Jevghena. I have transferred 5,000 birr to your account as we agreed.”
“Now, as to the matter of those who tried to sabotage your cryo chamber. All available dossiers are attached. They are ex-Legion, as I suggested. Their leader is Ariana Remora, once a Lieutenant. She chafed at what she called the “red tape” of the Legion, which is to say she disliked the rules by which we operate, for example our rules on avoiding civilian casualties. My sources tell me that she has a band of at least four confirmed ex-Legionaries, and recently aligned her group with the criminal organisation known as the Syndicate. From what I can gather, it would seem that your last job for Melem Gesurra prevented Remora from completing a Syndicate-backed operation, and she has taken it personally.”
As they read through the files, a shock hit the crew almost simultaneously, as they beheld their attackers.
These rough, scarred men and women were the very same people who had tried to steal their first job with Adzem Kembouri! Majid’s message continued.
“I am confident that video footage from Coriolis will confirm what I have told you. I am sorry to bring you news of having made an enemy, but for what it is worth, you have made a friend in me. If I can help you against these honourless dogs, it will be my pleasure to do so. Again, thank you, and may the Icons light your way.”
And so the crew sailed through the dark between the stars, home to Coriolis, an uneasy feeling settling upon them. They had, however unwittingly, however minor, upset the schemes of a powerful organisation, and the sabotage of their ship was only a taste of things to come. There would surely be further attempts on their lives.