Episode 3: Time to Run The contrast to S-Level would have been astonishing to a visitor on the station. On E-Level, instead of an omnipresent cacophony of voices all trying to speak over each other, there was pleasant music. Meters of space separated the different shoppers, some of whom were already doing their best to avoid me, and the shops were easily a hundred square meters in size. I quickly consulted my piece of scrap paper to gain my bearings on the shop location. The action apparently startled a woman closer to me, so much so that she gasped before moving quickly into a store that advertised jewelry sales. I don’t miss coming to this level that much. I thought to myself as I hurried toward the shop. I turned the corner and sighed in relief. The blinking sign proclaimed to me that I had found “Windsor Space Systems”, my shop of last resort. I could see through the plexiglass doors that there was indeed an older gentleman standing behind the counter, but he appeared to be in a heated argument with a person inside of the store. s**t. The tell-tale shark’s eye tattoos adorned this man’s temples. Another Crimson Shark. I scanned the hallways, looking for security personnel, but there were none in sight. I turned back to look into the store and saw the pirate grasping the man, who I assumed was Mr. Ho, by the shirt. I have to help somehow, I thought to myself as I reached inside my coat to wrap my hand around the grip of the hold-out pistol. The door alarm made a ding as I entered the store. “Mr. Ho!” I smiled like an idiot and strolled right up to the counter, pulling my piece of paper out of my pocket and placing it on the counter with a confident smack. “Kenneth says hello! I am here to pick up the consignment discussed and deliver it to M-Level.” The old owner’s eyes darted from me to the Crimson Shark, and then back again. “I’m sorry, but the old man here is finishing a business transaction with me.” The Shark said, his voice cold as ice. He was easily five centimeters taller than I, with hair roughly the same color as Layla’s, but this man’s face bore scarring that showed he didn’t seem to care about going to get dermal regeneration after being sliced by a knife. “You’d better back off, little man, before you regret interfering with me.” I felt my stomach knot as he confirmed what I already feared. The man stuck out just as much as I did at this level. He must have been dispatched by his compatriots to scour the station and acquire as many of the parts as possible, even if that meant intimidation, theft, or worse. With security being pulled down to the lower levels to deal with the abundance of undesirables currently on the station, it wasn’t surprising this guy had slipped through. “I already told you, I don’t sell to your kind!” The old man said. The level of venom in his voice surprised me. “I haven’t in forty years, and I am not about to start now!” Something in the old man’s demeanor held a level of danger that I could see, but the pirate obviously couldn’t. Something inside me clicked, and I turned toward the pirate, angling the barrel of the still hidden hold-out upward. “I’ve already alerted security. You have less than ten minutes until they show up.” I bluffed, hoping that Mr. Ho had actually set off his alarm. The man sneered at me, “Then that’s just enough time for this old man here to send all of the X655s, as well as a few spare Kroenig weapons to my hold before I put you both on the deck.” He pulled out a large, kinetic pistol from his jacket, training it first on my face, and then pointing it at Mr. Ho. The arrogance and murder in his eyes made my blood run cold. I stepped backward, and hoped the angle was correct as my hands shook. “Now now, man, you don’t need to do-“ I felt my hand recoil and saw the pirate’s eyes flare in surprise as the round from my hold-out impacted into his right abdomen. Reflexively, his hand jerked, firing off a round that shattered the glass behind Mr. Ho’s head. I looked down as I struggled to pull my hold-out from my pocket. “Wrong move, moron.” I looked up to see the barrel of the kinetic pistol pointed at my face. The look of murder in the Shark’s eyes told me I was about to breathe my last. BOOM! I flinched as the loud report of a gun filled the shop. The pirate’s eyes turned glassy, and a large circle of crimson expanded from his chest as the shotgun round fired by Mr. Ho shredded his chest cavity. The hulking pirate slid to the floor and my vision began to go red as I realized that I’d been holding my breath. I gasped as I inhaled and turned toward the old man, my mouth opening to speak my gratitude for his actions. The still hot-looking shotgun barrel was now leveled at my chest. I slowly raised my hands, hold-out pistol in my right hand. I made eye contact with the man who looked as if he could’ve been the cousin or uncle of my friend in S-level. “What the hell were you thinking!?” The voice could’ve been my father’s if it hadn’t been so accented. The fire in the older man’s eyes belied his age, but his bloodlust began to abate as reason caught up with reaction. The shotgun lowered and the older man visibly slumped as the shotgun clattered onto the countertop. “Son, I don’t know who you are, but you probably just saved my life…at the expense of your own.” I looked at the man quizzically, then followed his gaze toward the Crimson Shark’s left eye. There was an implant that I recognized and I felt my heart jump into my throat. “An ArcCorp viz-rec.” Mr. Ho nodded. ArcCorp, among other things, had a cybernetics line that was considered second to none, and the viz-rec was a replacement eye for those who either had lost an eye due to an unfortunate accident…or had elected to have the implant installed. Not only did it supply multi-spectral vision, but it also recorded, stored, and uploaded all that its operator had seen, whether they were alive or dead. I raised my hand over my face and turned the dead man’s head toward the wall. Too little, too late. A small voice said to me as I realized that the past minutes' recording had most certainly been uploaded to a database for viewing by his compatriots. I was a man living on borrowed time. Mr. Ho’s eyes met my own. “You’re the boy that Kenneth sent me, yes?” I nodded as I stared at his outstretched hand. I shuddered and handed him the scrap of paper that Kenneth had given me down on S-level. The scribbling were all in an ideographic language that I couldn’t recognize, but Mr. Ho appeared to be able to decipher the scribbles. He looked at me intensely. “Mr. Saaler, I need your hangar location. Now.” I was still operating on autopilot as I reached into my pocket to hand him my identification information. As I went to hand him my information I stopped myself and looked at him quizzically. He sighed, “Mr. Saaler, you have saved my life. That…thing was meaning to clean out my stocks and put a bullet in my head. I triggered the security alert more than ten minutes before you arrived, yet no one is here, so what does that tell you?” No one is coming... I thought to myself. The Crimson Sharks must have bought off the security guards or hacked the feeds alerting security. “I appreciate what you’ve done, son. Now I intend to return the favor.” I watched as he keyed my information into his terminal and my mouth gaped as I saw him not only dispatch droids to my hangar to install an X655, but also to install a few other upgrades to the Hermit Crab. “But why-?” He turned to me, intensely looking into my eyes. “Mr. Saaler, you have most likely been recorded killing a Crimson Shark. While I fired the kill shot, the Crimson Sharks will only have seen your face at the end of his gun.” My mind replayed the entire sequence of events. He kept looking at me… “Even if they came after me, son, I don’t care. I’ve been here for forty years, and once we’re done here I’ll be putting a call into the station’s Head of Security to get their ass down here and explain why I wasn’t assisted. You, on the other hand, are a marked man.” I felt myself go pale as what he was telling me set in. I have to leave this station. I’m a dead man if I don’t. I looked at his screen, which showed my hangar. I watched in amazement as a swarm of maintenance and installation droids began going to work on the Hermit Crab. “By the time you get to your hangar, your ship should be ready to go. X755 installed, as well as some upgrades to your power core and weapons. Think of it as a ‘thank you’ for saving my life, son…and as a debt repayment to our mutual friend down in S-Level.” I didn’t know what to say as I made eye contact with the old man. His eyes looked intense, but sad. “Why?” I felt myself croak out the question. He looked at me and smiled. “You’re young and have a long time left in the ‘verse. I’m old, and while I trust my ties to the station security group will keep me safe, I don’t really care anymore if I cannot repay my debts to those who have helped me…” his eyes bored into me “…and helped my grandchild.” My eyes widened as I realized what he meant. Sze-Yan… “Now, get to your hangar, but use the service lifts. Here’s a keycard I give to my supply staff, use that to get to L-Level. By the time you get there, your ship should be ready.” I took the keycard. “Mr. Ho, thank you.” The old man smiled sadly. “Don’t thank me yet, boy. I have Kenneth, his wife, and Sze-Yan headed to your hangar. The Crimson Sharks will likely trace your activities back to them. I need you to get them to safety.” My eyes widened as I realized what the old man was asking of me. “I…I can’t guarantee…” He raised his hand. “I let my daughter and son-in-law leave their child here. I never cared for her. Only asked my friend to help her.” The man’s eyes began to tear up. “I don’t know what happened to my child, but my grandchild must live. I can stay alive here due to my contacts, but if they find my grandchild…” My brain still struggled to comprehend what the man was asking of me, but a resolve settled into my soul. “I’ll do what I can.” Mr. Ho’s smile of gratitude was the last thing I saw as I tore down the corridor, nearly knocking over several patrons as I made my way to the service lifts. Once I hit the service lift I keyed up my personal communicator with my ship. “Protocol Sixty-Two, Gamma-Echo-Omicron.” I lowered my wrist and pressed my back to the wall as I began to formulate the next hours’ activities. I just hope Akerien gets the message, I thought. The protocol interfaced my ship with the communications array in the station in order to send a message to my brother in the Imperium Fleet. Hope he gets it in time... Welcome to L-Level Service Corridor. The computerized voice obviously had no idea the level of urgency I felt as its annoyingly pleasant tones signaled the arrival at the deck that held my hangar. I pulled the hold-out pistol from my now shredded pocket and gripped it tightly as the doors opened, half expecting a welcoming committee of fire from Crimson Sharks. The saucer-eyes and slack-jaw of a waiting service technician told me, as I rushed past, that I was safe. For now. I rushed to bay 27-Gamma, the Aeroview-style hangar that had been my home for the past years. Not anymore. I keyed in my identity information and set the comms to forward any incoming communications for me to my Mobiglass. As I entered into my hangar I stared in awe at the transformation that was enveloping my old ship. Dozens of maintenance and installation droids were swarming over her hull. My jaw dropped as I recognized a new power-core being lowered from the top of the hull and onto the appropriate section of her hull. I shook my head in wonder as I rushed to the small quarters/office I kept in the hangar. I grabbed my Mobiglass from the charging station and powered it up, checking first to see if I had any incoming communications from my brother. Nothing, but there’s something from Kenneth. An audio file played back. “Mr. S. I don’t know what’s going on, but Mr. Ho contacted me and told me to get Sze-Yan and Mei-Woh to your hangar. We are on our way with our bags packed.” The fear in my friend’s voice made my stomach knot as I turned toward the locker next to my desk. Keying in the combination, I opened the door and began to remove my energy rifle and kinetic shotgun from their storage areas. I strapped the rifle to my back, then loaded the shotgun, pocketing additional rounds. I knew that Mr. Ho’s droids were moving fast, but was not confident that they would be finished installing everything before the Crimson Sharks tracked down my location. A sudden thought crossed my mind and I keyed my Mobiglass to alert me if any lifts from any levels approached L-Level with more than three persons on board. “Tee-Es, how is she looking?” I asked my personal TS-43 maintenance droid who trundled up to me as I walked out of my quarters. “Mr. Saaler, these droids from Mr. Ho appear to be doing quite a spectacular job. I expect the upgrades to your drive systems, maneuvering systems, power core, and weapons will be completed within the next hour.” I stopped in my tracks. One hour. “Let me know if we have any visitors…actually, make sure that station security gets an alert if we have any unwelcome visitors. I am going to go make sure these droids treat the Hermit Crab right.” The TS-214 droid warbled a short acknowledgement and moved off as I jogged to my Aurora-class ship and opened the side airlock. I sidestepped a small droid that was stringing wiring along the small corridor inside the ship and dropped my bag next to the pilot’s chair. I turned and looked at the back of the ship. I had removed the bunk weeks before and installed small seats in hopes I could ferry passengers on short hops from New Hong Kong Station to the nearby planets in the Kellog system. I guess this is fortuitous. I thought to myself as I looked at the status readouts on the ship. I jumped out of the ship and ran toward the status read-out table, and I shook my head in amazement as I saw the readouts for the X755 control system come online, while at the same time the readouts for the new Size-2 power core from ArcCorp showed as installed. I stepped out of the ship and walked toward the front to inspect the new guns being installed on the Hermit Crab. I whistled in amazement as the Omnisky-3 cannons were connected by the installation droids at a speed that defied visual tracking. We may make the time yet. “Mr. S!” I heard shouted over the din of the droids. I turned and saw Kenneth, his wife, and little Sze-Yan rushing into the hangar. Adjusting the grip I had on the kinetic shotgun I ran toward my old friend. We've gotta get out of this. Episode 4: Grief and New Beginnings “Kenneth, get your wife and girl on board! We need to leave as soon as these droids are finished.” The elderly couple looked harried. Kenneth and his wife had large bags in each hand, while little Sze-Yan had a small rucksack on her back. The little girl’s green eyes stared in awe at the busily moving droids, then grew to impossible sizes as she saw me coming toward them, gun in hand. “Ah-bah!” She shouted in fear and grabbed onto Kenneth’s leg, nearly causing the man to stumble. Kenneth’s eyes locked with mine, and I saw his eyes harden in determination. He pushed Sze-Yan toward her mother and motioned for them to board the ship before stepping in front of me. “Mr. Saaler, please tell me what is going on.” I was momentarily taken aback by his use of my name, but managed to stumble out a brief explanation of what had happened at Mr. Ho’s shop and what Mr. Ho had said to me. Kenneth’s eyes began to glisten. “I didn’t know, Mr. S. I didn’t know Sze-Yan was Mr. Ho’s granddaughter. I guess I should have, though…he always sent little gifts for the girl.” I opened my mouth reply when my Mobiglass lit up, showing an alert and Tee-Es’s robotic voice came over the intercom. “Mr. Saaler, I am detecting two lifts currently showing their destination as this level. Both contain five humanoids, and scanners indicate weapons on their persons. ETA, five minutes.” My gut turned to ice as I talked to the air. “How much time ‘til installation is complete?” Kenneth and I made eye contact as the droid’s answer sunk in. “Ten minutes at the minimum.” Kenneth grabbed the shotgun from my hands. “Mr. Saaler. Jacen. Please take care of Mei-Woh and Sze-Yan…take care of my wife and daughter…and give me the damn shells you have left.” I felt my eyes mist as I dug in my pockets for the reloads I had pulled from my weapon locker. “Kenneth-I’m sure if Tee-Es rigs the lock…” The old man turned toward me, fire in his eyes. “Get my family to safety, take care of Sze-Yan. I can’t fly that ship, and you won’t make it if I don’t make them slow down.” I nodded, unable to speak as I felt my throat choke. I reached out and embraced the man who had been my friend for years. “I…they will be okay.” I promised as he pressed his forehead to mine. His cheeks glistened with tears as he turned and ran toward the hangar door. I keyed up my Mobiglass, “Tee-Ess, put the hangar door on lockdown. Alert station security if you haven’t already.” I pulled myself up the ladder and into the Hermit Crab. “Already done, sir, but no response. Good luck.” Sze-Yan’s face greeted me as I clambered into the ship. “Where is papa?!” I made eye contact with Kenneth’s wife, an entire conversation happening between us in nano-seconds before she ran her hand through her graying hair. “Sze-Yan…Emily.” The girl turned to her adopted mother, and my heart tore as I realized what she was about to say. “Wo ai ni. I love you, little daughter.” The little girl looked confused. “Mr. Saaler is going to take you somewhere safe, but I need to stay with papa.” Mei-Woh then held out her hands, eyes on the energy rifle strapped to my back. I silently snapped the clip on my chest and handed the weapon to her. “I’m not leaving without you if I can help it.” I whispered as she laid her hand on my shoulder and nodded. Sze-Yan looked horrified as the only mother she ever knew kissed her forehead and clambered out of the ship, running to join her husband near the hangar door. “Ah-mah!!”, little Emily cried and struggled as I strapped her into one of the jump-seats and sealed the hatch. I keyed open my comms to Tee-Es. “Give me visual feed on the hallway and entrance, and let me know as soon as we’re ready to go.” I did my best to drown out the cries of the little girl strapped into the seat behind me as I watched the team of ten people, all sporting Crimson Sharks markings, trying to force open the hangar door. I craned my neck to check the progress of the droids finishing the installation of the maneuvering thrusters on the exterior of the Hermit Crab. Almost finished. Suddenly, I felt the vibration of an explosion rock the ship and my eyes darted to the monitors. I saw the pirates moving through the door as smoke from a grenade wafted into the corridor. “NO!” I screamed as I shifted my attention to the internal hangar feed and saw Mei-Woh lurch back, a circle burnt into her right-chest. I could feel Kenneth’s rage as he saw his wife fall back, and the old man moved forward, firing the shotgun as he moved, his mouth open in a scream I could not hear. A Crimson Shark’s head disintegrated into a mist as it took a full blast from the gun, and I felt myself cheering on my old friend as he rushed toward the Crimson Sharks who were beginning to fall back under the surprise response. “Sir, all upgrades completed and installed, it is recommended you run a calibration test befor-.” I switched off the audio feed from Tee-Es as I pulled on my helmet and powered up the Hermit Crab. The new Omnisky readouts glowed ready as I spun the ship around to face the hangar entrance. I silently willed Kenneth to fall back toward his wife as I visually aimed the guns at the doorway and fired a blast of hull-vaporizing energy at the Crimson Sharks who were still trying to push into the hangar. Not today, old friend! I maneuvered the Hermit Crab toward Kenneth’s position and put full power to the starboard shields before setting the ship down between Kenneth and incoming fire. I remotely popped the port hatch and screamed for Kenneth to get into the ship. The old man dropped the shotgun, grabbing his wife’s body and pulled her into the ship. I punched the hatch lock and lifted the ship off in enough time to pump another burst of laser-fire into the corridor, causing the pirates to fall back again. Putting the newly installed thrusters and control system to good use, I backed away from the corridor as I keyed in my personal clearance codes to open the hangar to space. “Mr. Saaler, we are detecting weapons fire in your hangar, what is goi-“ I keyed the comms and began to scream obscenities at the clearance officer, demanding that they get security to the hangar and requesting assistance from medical personnel. “I’m sorry, Mr. Saaler, but the presence of hostiles in the vicinity of the station currently restricts us from getting assistance to you, or allowing entry and exit.” Great, they’re watching the whole station? Where are our security forces? Where are the security ships? It suddenly hit me; the Crimson Sharks and other pirates had probably paid off the Station Administrator as soon as they’d heard about the new hardware incoming, and had probably secured a “fire sale” rate for a nice little bribe. “I have some nice, new Omniskys to test, and if you don’t give me clearance to leave, I will cut my way out.” I hissed at the flight controller. Relief washed over me as the hangar doors opened to space, and the Hermit Crab passed through the force field and into open space. I did my best to ignore Sze-Yan’s cries for her mother as my scanners lit up with hostile signatures. I held my breath as the signatures coalesced; at least twenty craft with unknown registrations, ranging from Cutlass-class ships, to a few Freelancer-class ships, to other Auroras. My mouth went dry as my scanners identified a Retaliator-class ship that must have been serving as a form of “big-guns” for the pirate fleet. I hugged the side of the station, trying to mask my signature with that of the structure, but it was clear that the Crimson Sharks had been alerted to my exit from the station. “Hey, sugar. Remember me?” My skin crawled as I recognized the voice of the woman called Layla. “You picked a fight with the wrong people, little man, you shouldn’t have stuck your nose in, and now we’re gonna kill you for shooting our boss’s baby brother.” I felt my blood go cold as the realization of what she was saying sunk in. “I hope you’re alone on that boat, because we’re going to flay you-and anyone we find with you-alive.” I looked over my shoulder into my cramped ship. Kenneth was holding his wife, who seemed to be barely holding onto consciousness, as Sze-Yan cried out hysterically for her mother. Kenneth looked at me, pain in his eyes. “Get us out of here, or blow us to hell. I won’t let them hurt Sze-Yan!” He turned back his attention to his wife, taking the small med-kit from the bulkhead and attempting to dress her wounds. I noticed blood on his coat near his back, but I couldn’t tell if it was from him or his wife. Concentrate, Jacen. Get these people out of here. “Strap in, Kenneth, it’s going to get hairy soon.” I scanned the area, looking for my best plan of escape. The station sat in space, independent of large gravitational forces, but close enough to Kellogg’s inner planets that I could quantum jump to safety if I was able to get away from the interference exerted by the station’s native gravitational field. Unfortunately, the pirates had anticipated this and at least four ships were along my exit vector. Looks like the asteroid belt. I pushed the Hermit Crab to full speed and broke away from the station. Incoming missile. The computer calmly informed me. I locked my targeting system onto the missile and watched as the range closed. “Hold on!” I triggered a flare charge and disabled the G-Safe mode as I whipped the Hermit Crab into a climbing spiral, pushing myself to the limit. I quickly kicked off the coupled flight mode and spun the ship to bring the guns to bear on the Freelancer that had fired the missile. The targeting lock glowed red as I fired three volleys into ship. The Freelancer lurched into an out of control spiral as the lasers cut through shield and hull, puncturing the left engine compartment, causing an explosion. I saw the other pirates pull back in surprise at my maneuver. Using their delay I quickly re-oriented the Hermit Crab toward the asteroid belt and pushed on toward the shelter of the rocks. Almost there. I thought to myself as I saw distance opening between my ship and the regrouping pirates. Suddenly, a voice crackled over my comms. “Jacen, if you can hear this, don’t respond, but head toward the following coordinates…” My heart leapt as I recognized my brother’s voice, but as I began to plot the coordinates, I shook my head. That’s too close… The course would put me on a path away from the asteroid belt; on a course that would allow the pursuing pirates to intercept me within a few minutes. Was that really Akieren? I heard a cough from behind me and felt horror as I saw blood coming from the corners of Kenneth’s mouth. My gaze locked onto the bloody area of his back I’d noticed earlier and I could see the tell-tale signs of a bullet wound. He was hit bad, worse than the small med-kit could help stop. My only chance for saving him was to trust my brother had help. I powered the weapons to maximum as I put all available power from the aft shields into the forward screens, and punched the engines to full. The signatures of the pursuing Crimson Sharks became more identifiable and I felt my heart stop as the number of ships climbed from two to more than twenty in the space of a few seconds. My scanners identified the Retaliator, and I desperately called out in my mind. Come on, brother… As the ships closed in, I began to fire at targets from edge of effective range. Got one! I felt elation as one of the approaching Auroras succumbed to my Omnisky lasers and exploded. I kept the ship’s speed at maximum as I de-coupled, slewing the ship to keep the laser cannons firing at the approaching pirates. “BREAK LEFT!” My brother’s voice jarred me and I quickly re-coupled the flight mode, pulling the ship hard to the port side. Suddenly my collision alarms blared as a massive ship blinked into the space scarcely 500 meters away from the Hermit Crab. My jaw dropped as the Idris-class frigate immediately began to open fire on my pursuers, and my scanners lit up with even more signatures as several darkened shapes shot past me. Hornet Ghosts…holy s**t, what have I walked into!? I stared out of my cockpit in awe as at least ten other ships jumped into view along the flanks of the pursuing pirates. Volleys of missiles from what looked like other Freelancers and a couple of Vanguard-class ships arced across space and impacted the surprised pirate fleet. My vision strained to catch sight of the darkened Ghosts as they weaved in and out of the stricken pirate formations and I shouted out a silent cheer as high-velocity rounds shot across space, shredding into the enemy Retaliator. A voice crackled into my ear. “Hermit Crab, this is the Imperium vessel Guardian, we have an open hangar spot for you if you want it.” I was speechless for a moment, but another cough from Kenneth moved me to action. “Acknowledged, Guardian, please be advised I need medical assistance for two severely wounded people!” I received an acknowledgement and swiftly maneuvered toward the ship’s hangar as weapons fire from the frigate and the Hornet Ghosts began to obliterate the pursuing Crimson Sharks. I brought the Hermit Crab in fast, popping the hatch as soon as I touched down. A medical team rushed toward the ship and I jumped out of my seat to help get Kenneth and his wife out to the medical crew. Sze-Yan unfastened her harness and ran next to the hovering medical beds as they moved toward the hangar exit that led to the medical bay. I felt a wave of exhaustion wash over me as a man and a woman wearing uniforms of the Imperium Fleet walked up to me. I raised my hand. “If you both don’t mind, I need to see to my friends.” The two glanced at each other before nodding at two black-clad marines. The two fell in behind me as I wearily made my way toward the medical bay. Time stood still as I waited to hear word on my friends. I did my best to comfort Sze-Yan, holding her until she fell asleep. A few hours later, one of the medical personnel came out and told us that Mei-Woh would survive. “Your friend Kenneth, I’m afraid, didn’t make it…” Sze-Yan’s cries pierced my heart as one of the medical technicians took her in to see her mother. I walked into the operating theater where a blanket was draped over my friend’s body. My hands shook as I pulled the blanket away from the face of my old friend and I couldn’t speak. I’m so sorry… I touched his face as a sense of failure washed over me. “Mr. Saaler?” The voice behind me sounded familiar and I turned to see the face of my rescuer from earlier in the day. “Please come with me, your brother’s just coming in to land.” I nodded and followed Nazerath through the maze of corridors and decks until we arrived at a door labeled “Briefing Room”. “…looks like the last bits jumped out. Kill tally is still being added up, but we’ve hurt them pretty bad.” My brother was speaking with the two officers who had approached me earlier. The center view-screen of the briefing room was playing multiple feeds from the battle. The officers looked up at Nazerath and I as we entered, causing my brother to turn. He rushed to me and I felt myself begin to break down as he grabbed me in a bear-hug. “I’m so glad you made it, brother!” He said as he helped me sit down in the front row of the briefing room. “I failed, Akieren…I failed to save them all.” I felt the presence of the officers as they both stood in front of me. “You did everything you could, Mr. Saaler,” the woman said. “But you have done more than you can imagine. You save thousands of lives.” I looked at my brother questioningly and he tilted his head toward the view-screen. As I watched the screen, the officers took turns describing how Imperium had been running anti-piracy operations against multiple groups in the systems neighboring Kellogg, but had not specifically looked at the areas around New Hong Kong Station. My distress call to my brother had reached the Imperium Operations officers who then traced activity in the sector and noticed that there were a large number of unregistered ships transiting past listening posts set up around the Kellogg System. “We knew that we were going to need to take them out, but we didn’t know how to get them away from the civilian population. That Retaliator they had was reported to be loaded with anti-Capital torpedoes that would have obliterated the station.” So the Station Admins weren’t bought off, they were blackmailed, I thought to myself as what they were telling me began to set in. “Thanks to whatever you did to set them off, you gave us a chance to eliminate a bulk of their forces without letting them use that Retaliator to take out a lot of innocent lives." I stared at the screen in wonder. Nazerath placed his hand on my shoulder. “You did some damn good flying out there, too. Not many pilots I know who could do what you did against those numbers.” I wanted to feel proud, but the death of my friend and the cries of his daughter weighed too heavily on my spirit. “Not good enough.” My brother put his hand on my shoulder. “We’ll make sure they’re taken care of, Jacen.” The female officer handed me a pad. On it was an itinerary detailing transit from an Imperium Fleet controlled station to Terra on board one of Imperium’s Hull-D regular supply ships. There was accommodation and ID information for both Sze-Yan and Mei-Woh, as well as a generous supply of UEC. The order had a green [Approved] symbol to the right. There was a separate berth on the same ship for myself, as well as storage information for the Hermit Crab on the same ship, but unlike the previous entry, a red [Pending] symbol was next to this order. “You are more than welcome to leave, Mr. Saaler. We know you probably feel a responsibility to take care of your friend’s family after what’s happened, but we’d like to offer you a chance to join us.” I looked at my brother intently. “You know, I can’t make a living on Terra. You’re not giving me much of a choice here.” “Jacen, we are doing what we can, and believe me, I would love to do more. But I think you are selling yourself short. You made a huge difference today, you saved lives. I think you could do real good here, not just for yourself, but for a lot of people.” Nazerath nodded in agreement. “The way you flew today, and the way you handled yourself on the station. You’re the kind of person we need in the Fleet. You know that things won’t be safe out here for Ms. Chow and little Emily, but if you join us, I guarantee you that you’re going to be able to do well out here.” “But what can I do? I’m just a hauler.” Nazerath smiled at me. “If the way you fought today shows you as a hauler, I would hate to be on the receiving end of you when you’re really ready to fight.” I allowed myself a little pride as I thought back on the dogfight. I did do pretty damn good, for a hauler. I thought about what was being offered, what it would mean to me, and what it would have meant to my friend. I knew that Kenneth would have wanted to see his adopted daughter grow up, but most of all he would have wanted her to have a good life. Here was a chance for that for her and her mother, and if I could help, I owed it to him to do so. I stood and offered my hand to the officers. My brother took me to the mess hall and sat me down with some of his Squadron mates. They all talked excitedly about the day’s action, and some of them bought me drinks. Nazerath sat across from me and offered me a Terran Bitter. “I thought I was supposed to get you one…” I said, thinking to the morning’s events. “Think of this as a bribe to get you to think about being a Star Viper.” He said, with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “Hey! No recruitment incentives!” One of the other pilots said jokingly before turning to me. “Have you checked your Mobiglass yet?” I looked at my wrist, noticing a blinking notification of message. The pilots all looked at me and smiled as they saw me key open the message. Welcome to the Imperium Fleet member card system. Please carefully read the following information and begin the process of detailing your preferred roles, interests, and missions. I looked around at the other pilots. “Welcome to Imperium, brother.” Akieren said, then looked quizzically over my shoulder. I turned to see little Sze-Yan standing in the mess hall doorway. “Jacen!” I keyed off the Mobiglass as she ran up to me and jumped into my lap. “Momma’s awake and wants to talk to you.” I stood, holding the little girl before turning to the pilots who were all watching me with varying levels of amusement. “I’ll have to join you guys later. I have something important to tell this little girl’s mum.” Little Emily wrapped her arms around my neck and held me tight as I carried her toward the medical bay. “Thank you for saving us, Mr. Jacen. Papa told me to tell you that before they took him away.” I felt tears well up in my eyes. No longer a forgotten one.