It was like working with a wild animal. As the creature tames, the trainer is lulled into a sense of confidence. A smug belief sets in that he somehow has control over the beast. The "Demon Project" had suffered its first major setback.
It had been two years since Jake Logan escorted a reformed Demon Pirate to Cassitor Station, with the result that the insanity Cassitor had created returned and destroyed him. A sizeable team from the League of Scientists was dispatched mere weeks later to begin the Demon Pirate Rehabilitation Project, coloquially known as the "Demon Project." Working in the deplorable conditions of the Deep Fringe Array, the League of Scientists set up a base and began monitoring Dusk sector by long range TachBand. The work started slowly - brief messages broadcast to the station. An occasional conversation with a manically confused Demon Pirate. Gradually, though, the paranoia seemed to lift. Someone on that station was listening...
The decision was made to risk an excursion to Dusk sector. As an act of goodwill, the Bora volunteered military escort. Several wings of Maces and Battleaxes escorted the Michelson to Demon station. They docked without incident, and started aggressive drug and psychiatric treatment.
The results were beyond what they had hoped. Well before the Dusk fog dissipated, the Demon Pirates were returning to sanity. They were reclaiming the dreams and goals of a generation before.
It was in the height of this success that Dr. Rebecca DawnHill was found dead.
"Autopsy?" asked Detective Hunter.
"Underway now, sir," replied the Lieutenant. "Although the state the body was discovered in almost guarantees homicide."
"I've read the report, Lieutenant. It takes a sick mind to hack away at a body like that. I'd say we can safely conclude it's homicide. Sexual assault?"
"The autopsy will have to give us the final word, but initial indications are no."
"Cold blooded murder," Hunter mused. "That will be all Lieutenant."
The Lieutenant didn't move, though he blanched under Hunter's gaze.
"Sir... um..." he stammered, "the chief wants you to investigate on site."
Hunter felt his collar grow warm, and if it were possible, even more blood drained from the Lieutenant's face. He quietly bit his tongue.
"Slag, I hate Twilight space," Hunter muttered as he stormed off.
The Twilight fog always made Detective Ace Hunter's skin itch, and he had a constant urge to wave his hand in front of his face to try and clear the fog from his eyes.
"Report," Hunter ordered as he entered the war room. He was met with the blank looks of countless young scientists and a few gray hairs. Suddenly he felt rather awkward and felt his collar warming.
"You... um... must be Detective Hunter," a young scientist offered, extending his hand.
"Uh... yeah," Hunter said, slowly taking the scientist's hand. "Any Star Patrol Operatives 'round here?"
"Um, no sir, Mr. Hunter. They're all at Demon Station."
"Is there anybody who can give me a report?"
"Why, yes, sir. Me."
Hunter looked at him dubiously. "Okay... what's your name, kid?"
"Spencer," the boy said, a little too enthusiastically.
"That your first or last name?" Hunter asked, flat-toned.
"Um... last," Spencer said, his enthusiasm gone. "Dr. Allen Spencer."
"Doctor?" Hunter said before he could catch himself.
"Oh, yeah," Spencer said, his enthusiasm back. "I was youngest to graduate from Neptune's..."
"Gotcha," Hunter broke in. "Top of your class, blah, blah, blah. Been there, kid. It ain't all it's cracked up to be. Why you in the Fringe?"
Spencer looked blank, "I... my specialty was psycho-genetic rehabilitation. The Demon Project was the subject of my Doctoral Thesis, so the chance to work on it... well, you can imagine."
Hunter's stoic face finally broke into a half-grin, remembering his own first assignment with SP. "Yeah, I can imagine. Shouldn't you be giving me that report now?"
"The autopsy report came in just before you arrived," Spencer said as they walked toward a console. "There's not much more than the initial analysis. Body hacked up with an old-style steel blade, no sexual assault, except..."
"There was an unusual amount of Dusk Fog in her lungs."
"What do you mean by 'unusual amount'?"
"Well, the Dusk Fog has unique properties, since it's been artificially enhanced."
"Cassitor," Hunter growled.
"Yeah," Spencer whispered, then continued. "Everybody who lives on Demon Station has some amount the Dusk Fog in their lungs. The Demon Pirates - since they've lived there the longest - have much more than any of the scientists. Dr. Dawnhill had less than any of the pirates, but significantly more than any of the scientists."
"Gimme that console," Hunter ordered, shoving Spencer aside. He sent a message to the autopsy team.
"I don't understand why we're going to the hangar, Detective. I've told you our only pilots are on their way back from Demon Station."
"You said there's some ships docked there, right? This Star Patrol badge ain't a cardboard cut out, Spence," Hunter said, holding out his ID, "You've heard of an SP Enforcer, right?"
"The patrol ships? Sure, but..."
"Everybody starts out on patrol duty flyin' one of those. There's no Star Patrol Operative worth his salt that can't fly, 'cept maybe the old pencil pushers. What'cha got in that hanger."
"Don't know ships, do you?"
"Well, no. I'm more of a," Spencer looked at him and grinned, "bookworm."
Hunter chuckled as they walked through the hangar door.
An aging Piranha that looked like it had seen too much of the fog was all Hunter could find to hotwire. The only decent ships looked like they belonged to the type of mercs Hunter wouldn't want to offend on OR off duty. The Piranha's deterioration put up more of a fight than its defensive systems as Hunter pricked and pried his way to the cockpit. Spencer worked to fit even his sparse frame into the minuscule passenger compartment. It did make a passable take off and the sensors were able to penetrate the nebula and find the TCG gate.
Hunter blinked compulsively at the fog and kept craning his neck toward the viewport. "Who ever said you could see forever in space?" he grumbled.
"I like the fog," Spencer squeaked.
"Yeah, for you reverse-claustrophobics, space is too big, but the fog hems you in some - makes you feel comfortable."
"Personally, I don't like trusting my butt to sensors. They've let me down once too often."
They made the rest of the flight to Dusk sector in silence, except for Spencer's occasional whining as he attempted to shift from one cramped position to another. In the Twilight Gateway sector they passed several of the ships that were returning to the Deep Fringe Array.
"That report..." Hunter broke the silence as they exited the Dusk TCG gate. "You got a clear holo on it. Last time I was at the Fringe Array there was no way that kind of detailed data could get through."
"Yeah," Spencer responded, "The League has been doing some repairs, but you can imagine those take lower priority. How many times have you been out here?"
"Too many. Where do I park this thing?"
"The docking platforms are at the back of the station, relative to us, but you'll want to go to the hangar bay, which should be up on the right."
Inside Demon Station, Spencer led Hunter through deck after deck, the inane layout of the station boggling Hunter's mind.
"How do you know your way around this place?"
"I may be space-phobic, but I did make it all the way to Fringe Array from Sol. You don't think that a little space would keep me from my life's work, do you?" Spencer responded. Hunter couldn't help but grin. The kid was growing a spine.
At last a door slid away before them and they entered what had to be the nerve center of the League of Scientist's operations.
"Oh, look. Another Star Pig," A white-coated lab rat said, his voice oozing sarcasm. "I guess maybe four heads are better than three. I didn't think Star Patrol had jurisdiction in Twilight Space."
Hunter didn't even break his stride. "We don't, but we do have jurisdiction over the League of Scientists." Hunter watched him flush out of the corner of his eye and suppressed a grin as he approached the conference table where the three Star Patrol Operatives were meeting with a handful of gray haired scientists. They all looked up as Hunter approached.
"Report," Hunter ordered, feeling much more comfortable than the last time he'd said that.
"We're not much further than before you came, Detective," answered the SP Lieutenant in charge of the investigation. "We hoped the autopsy would give us a new clue, but there's no new information in the report."
Hunter grunted. "All right. Well, you might as well show me the scene. I don't think we'll be needing you scientists. The gray hairs bowed out as the SP Officers made for the door. Spencer didn't join them and tried to look busy.
"I didn't mean you, kid," Hunter called. "You're with me."
Spencer sheepishly joined them.
As Star Patrol plus Dr. Spencer pounded throught the labrynthine corridors of Demon Station, Hunter started interrogating.
"OK, boys, what's really going on here?"
"Well, Detective," Lieutenant Promontory began, casting a wary eye at Spencer, "we suspect the League is hiding something. Protecting their own, you know..."
"Um, sir..." Spencer said softly.
"You know how long it took before they banished Cassitor," added Operative Jenkins.
"Sir," Spencer said, louder this time.
"Right," continued Promontory, "so our best guess at this point is one of the scientists had it in for her, and those that know it are covering for the murderer."
"I still don't buy a Sol-trained scientist going that ballistic on a co-worker's body," put in Operative Sprauge. "That looks like the work of a sociopath."
"I agree," said Hunter.
"SIR!" Spencer was getting annoyed.
"...besides," Hunter continued, "How closely did you look at that autopsy report? Can anybody explain to me how that much fog got into Dr. DawnHill's lungs?"
"HEY! OLD TIMER!" Spencer was yelling in Hunter's ear at point blank range.
"OW! What the slag do you want, Spence? You're interrupting official police business!"
"If I'm not mistaken, YOU asked me along," Spencer said hotly. "Now if you brilliant police investigators want to shut up with your theories, this stupid Ph.D in Psycho-Genetics may be able to give you an insider's perspective."
Hunter flashed a knowing grin at the other operatives with a look like, "it worked."
"OK, kid. We're all ears, except for the one of mine that you deafened."
"Cute," Spencer growled, but steadily calmed as he told his story. "I'm pretty sure you're right about the League covering something up, but I really don't believe it's one of the scientists." The Star Patrol Operatives shifted uneasily, not quite ready to give up on their pet theory. "From what I gather, overhearing conversations of some of the chief scientists on the Project, there are a significant number of Demon Pirates who haven't been responding well to the treatments. They miss medical exams, don't take their medication, miss counseling appointments... you get the idea. The League has been trying to keep that quiet, though a number of scientists were pushing for complete disclosure of our results to the Tachyon News Service. I haven't heard anything else about that since the murder."
"So you're saying she was killed by some Demon Pirate that hasn't been reformed yet?" Lieutenant Promontory asked dubiously.
"Why would they hide something like that? It releases them from suspicion," mused Sprauge.
"Simple," Spencer said. "Scientists take pride in their work. If a Demon Pirate wasn't reformed, then the glowing reports we've been releasing to TNS would be suspect. It would look like the League failed. Our schedule could be cut short or we could even lose our funding."
The Operatives stood silent for a moment, processing this.
"You said a 'significant number'," Hunter said. "How many we talkin' about?"
"Thirty? Fifty? I don't know," Spencer answered.
"Slag!" Hunter hissed. "Promontory, get one of your men monitoring the hangars. I want to know every ship that so much as farts out a thruster. Spence, any chance you could get me a roster of this rehabilitation project and who's missed what?"
"Sure," said Spencer, grinning.
"Good. Promontory, get your other man doing an inventory of the station. I want to know who and where everybody is. Meanwhile, you better hurry up and show me the site. I'm expecting another report in any minute."
Promontory nodded at his men, who split up, and they were on their way.
The murder site wasn't much to see. Lots of etched carborundum deck plating, blood spatters flung about, and the outline of the body. Any trace clues would have already been gathered up by forensics. Hunter couldn't get a feel for the place.
"Why here?" he wondered aloud.
"Why at all," Promontory answered. "This isn't exactly the work of a respectable citizen, or even anything you could call sane."
Hunter grunted. "Let's head back to geek central. I need to pick up that report."
Several Demon Pirates were in the nerve center when they arrived, and Hunter eyed them suspiciously.
"Here's the roster on pirate attendance," Spencer said, holding out a data pad. "That other report from the follow-up autopsy you requested is also in there. What was that about?"
"Follow up autopsy?" Promontory wanted to know.
"Thanks, Spence," Hunter said, perusing the pad and ignoring Promontory.
"Looks like we've got some more evidence for your theory, Spence. Promontory, let's check in on your man in the hangars."
"What evidence?" Spencer asked as they headed out the door.
"That report I requested back at the Fringe Array? It was an extension of the autopsy. I asked for chemical analysis of her wounds."
"Steel flecks, typical blood elements, and... twilight fog."
"Specifically, fog imbedded in the steel filings. That knife was acquired right here on this station. Promontory, where could someone get hands on an old weapon like that?"
"Here? No idea."
"I think I might know," Spencer piped up.
"Tell me what you can on the way, Spence."
"Whaddya got, Jenkins?" Promontory belted as the trio waltzed into the observation deck.
"Any Demons through here?" Hunter added.
Operative Jenkins swiveled around and looked at Hunter like he was the star attraction at idiot-o-rama. "There's hardly anything but Demons through here, Detective. Of the eight ships that have been through here in the last two hours, only one WASN'T a Demon. Maybe Mr. Ph.D in Psycho-Genetics can help me with my math, but that makes something like 85% of the ships through here Demons."
"Slag!" Hunter blurted. "Anything unusual? Erratic flying, that kind of thing?"
Two idiot-o-rama looks in as many minutes. Hunter almost slugged him for insubordination.
"The Demon Pirates ALL fly crazier than Star Patrol rookies," Jenkins answered.
"Well, since you've become such an expert, keep your butt in that seat and keep an eye out for anything 'unusual'," Hunter oozed as he stormed out.
"Okay, Spence. The knife," Hunter's skin was beginning to itch again.
"Like I told you, there's several places they store that sort of thing. Where do you want to go first?"
"The two kitchens you mentioned seem a bit too obvious, but that might make them easy to rule out, too. Let's hit them and look for anything missing before we pay a visit to this 'knife collector'."
A brief search through the two older-style kitchens on the station turned up nothing unusual, as Hunter had hoped. He admitted to himself that he was being a bit careless, and made a mental note to return to these places if his trails grew cold.
Spencer had also told him about a Demon Pirate who had a fetish for ancient weapons, especially bladed ones. Hunter thought it would be too easy to find a suspect by the end of the day, but he also knew how rarely the obvious suspects panned out.
As luck would have it, the Demon Pirate in question was away. Hunter stepped gingerly into his quarters and was stymied by the vast array of blades adorning the walls. This guy was a collector extrordinaire.
"Shouldn't we have a warrant?" Promontory asked.
"No law out here, Lieutenant. Where are we going to get one? You know a judge that has jurisdiction over Twilight Space?"
"Right. So as highest ranking Operative from the United Sol Government on site, I say we investigate."
"What's this guy's name?" Hunter continued.
"None of the Demon Pirates remember their given names," Spencer answered. "He goes by the handle Phantasm."
"Any idea where he is?"
"OK, let's be quick. Check out as many blades as you can. Look for anything out of place, but don't touch anything."
"I do know how to conduct an investigation, Detective." Promontory sounded annoyed.
"That was for Dr. Spencer's benefit, Lieutenant. Let's get to work."
Phantasm's collection kept them busy for hours, apparently without results. Weary and sore, Hunter straightened from examining several small daggers arranged in a rising-sun pattern, and grunted.
"What time is it? Where does somebody get something to eat on this station?"
"Agreed. I could do with some coffee," Promontory responded. His eyes were red.
"Um... this way," Spencer said, stiffly indicating the door. They followed him out.
None of them said a word for several minutes as they wolfed the food they had scrounged from the nearest kitchen. Hunter was lost in his own thoughts, frustrated that they'd found so little.
"Y'know, the thing I've never understood about Phantasm's collection," Spencer said through a mouthful of food, "Why he liked that one, bland knife the best. I mean, all of his blades have rust or patina or some sign of age on it, but he always kept that one so clean."
Hunter and Promontory had stopped chewing and were staring at Spencer. Hunter felt his collar getting warm.
"What?" Spencer asked nervously.
"I thought I told you to report anything unusual!" Hunter said, keeping his voice even by sheer willpower.
"You said if I SAW anything unusual," Spencer retorted. "I didn't see that blade with his collection today."
Hunter and Promontory looked at each other, then dropped their food and bolted from the table. Spencer trotted along behind them chanting "What? What?"
"You told your man in the hangar, what's his name - Jenkins, to keep an eye out for Phantasm, didn't you Lieutenant?"
"Yes. Jenkins'll notify us as soon as he's sighted."
"Spencer - any way to track a specific pirate? Are they assigned specific ships?"
"Um... no. It's kind of a paradox. Even though the pirates were paranoid about all outsiders, they were very trusting of each other. Almost everything was held more or less communally. No assigned ships. You noticed there were no locks on the doors..."
"Yeah, I did," Hunter responded. "Slag. We need to locate this guy."
They burst into Phantasm's room and began scanning the walls.
"Spencer! Where did Phant-whosit keep that special knife of his?"
"You're having trouble with names today, aren't you Detective?" Spencer observed.
"Yeah. That happens when I get flustered. I also tend to forget my manners, so howsabout you answer the question before I forget to be polite to you."
"Sorry," Spencer stammered. "Right over there, in the center of his collection."
The three went over to a space in the middle of the wall, where a faint stain outlined a space for a knife over two feet long with a blade almost six inches wide. The blade itself was nowhere in sight.
"You call that a knife?" Promontory whistled.
"Yeah - there was a special name for it. Bauer. No. Bowie - that's it. Bowie knife, Spencer said. "One of the other scientists said there was some historical significance to it. There would have to be for someone to like such a plain knife."
"Plain, maybe," Hunter said, "except for its size. You have plastic gloves Promontory? We need to search this place for that knife."
"Here ya go, Detective," Promontory answered, producing three pair.
Several minutes of searching produced nothing. There weren't many places to hide such a large object in such small, spartan quarters, but they dogged on, stepping over each other. Hunter felt his temper rising when Promontory's comm chimed.
"Promontory," he said into the comm.
"Jenkins, sir. A Demon ship broadcasting the handle Phantasm has just docked."
"Trace," Hunter said quietly, nodding toward Promontory's comm.
"Jenkins, put a trace on that ship. See if you can download the flight records, too."
Hunter nodded approvingly. "Okay - let's get this place back together and get scarce."
Phantasm never noticed anything had been disturbed.
They regrouped at the observation deck.
"Anything, Jenkins?" Promontory wanted to know. "What did the flight record show?"
"Um... no. Nothing," Jenkins said without turning around. "Ship's still sitting there, so no info on the trace."
"No surprise there," Hunter said. "What about the flight record?"
"There was none," Jenkins responded.
"What? He erased it already?" Spencer exclaimed.
"No, there was nothing to erase."
Promontory's eyes narrowed. "Want to explain that, Jenkins?"
"The flight recorder was deactivated before he ever took off. Looks like it has been for quite some time. It didn't record anything on his flight at all, but..."
"I didn't think that was possible," Spencer blurted.
"It's against regulation, and pretty dangerous, but it's certainly possible," Hunter answered.
"BUT..." Jenkins broke in, "I did a radiation analysis on the hull. The tachyon emissions indicate the ship went through at least one, possibly two mega-gates."
"So we're talking about two mega-gates or one mega and lots of standards?" Hunter asked.
"The only mega-gate from Twilight is to the Frontier," Spencer observed.
Hunter nodded. "How's your other man doing locating all the Pirates?"
"Let's find out," Promontory answered, and reached for his comm, "Sprauge, report."
"Just a moment, Lieutenant. I'm gathering my notes." The comm spoke of papers shuffling. "OK. Quite a number of Demons have been on and off the station, as well as some of the scientists. Several are missing now."
"That's helpful," Jenkins said sarcastically.
"But I took the liberty of cross-referencing my notes with the list of attendees to therapy Dr. Spencer provided. Those who have missed more than three drug treatments consecutively and two psychotherapy sessions have a much higher incidence of being off the station, and a majority of them are missing now."
Promontory and Hunter exchanged looks.
"What's the profile on a Demon called Phantasm?" Hunter called into the comm.
"Which one?" Sprauge answered.
"What do you mean which one?" Hunter snapped back.
"Most Demons move in groups of two. Is it Phantasm 1 or Phantasm 2?"
"What've you got on both of them?" Hunter answered.
"Nothing yet," Sprauge responded. "I just was hoping you could narrow it down. I'll see what I can find."
"Copy that," Promontory answered and switched off the comm.
"Let's finish lunch," Hunter said. "Then I think it's time we have a chat with Phantasm."
They choked down cold food and cold coffee in silence. After a time, Promontory's comm chimed.
"Sprauge, sir. I have that report on Phantasm."
"Good. Both of them?"
"Well, as it turns out, Phantasm 1 was killed in the attack on Cassitor Station, and was never replaced before the Rehabilitation Project began. So Phantasm 2 is the only one we have to deal with. I verified that he is the one with the blade collection, but there's not much else. He's missed one medication appointment and one therapy appointment. Both his psychological profile and genetic profile show good."
"Looks like we just lost our prime suspect," Promontory said.
Hunter nodded with pursed lips. "Sprauge, give us a comprehensive list of all the Pirates who match your profile. Thanks for your work."
"We should still have that talk with Phantasm."
The interview with Phantasm was disappointing from an investigational standpoint. He turned out to be quite sane and had a solid alibi. Promontory's comm chimed, and as he reached up to turn it off, he glanced at that familiar place on the wall.
The knife was back on the wall.
"Hunter! Look at that!" Promontory blurted. Hunter gazed along Promontory's arm as he extended it, then leapt to his feet when he saw what Promontory was indicating.
"Where the slag did that come from?" Hunter yelped. Startled, Phantasm jumped up and took a step back, tripping over his sofa as he did.
Hunter shot him a look and started reaching for his sidearm. Phantasm rolled and lunged behind a chair, then poked both palms above it as Hunter brought his gun to bear.
"Um... Gentlemen," Phantasm began in a shaky voice, "may I ask what prompted this reaction?"
"Don't get pretentious with me!" Hunter yelled. "Stand up real slow and keep those hands where I can see them!" Phantasm obeyed, and stared into the barrell of Hunter's gun sheepishly.
"Now, let's all play real nice while you tell me where that knife on your wall came from," Hunter continued, a forced evenness to his voice. Phantasm turned to look.
"Don't move!" Hunter bellowed. Phantasm looked back at him, disgusted.
"How am I going to know which knife you're referring to if I can't look?"
"Cute, Phantasm. The big one in the center of the wall. The 'pride of your collection' isn't it? Where did it come from? It wasn't there yesterday."
"Oh, is THAT what this is about?" Phantasm's tone of voice irritated Hunter. "You're quite right. It wasn't here yesterday, though I'd be curious to know how you knew that. It had been stolen from me, and I just retrieved it from the Frontier, where the thief had apparently taken it."
Hunter's eyes narrowed. "Where in the Frontier?"
"Slaver Space, I believe it was called. May I put my hands down now?"
"Uh... yeah." Hunter holstered his sidearm.
"We suspect that was the murder weapon," Promontory explained.
"Ah! I see how that would elicit such a reaction from you, then," Phantasm replied.
"Do you mind if we take it and test it for DNA residue?" Spencer asked.
"Will it be returned to me?" Phantasm asked.
Hunter started to answer, but Spencer broke in, "I'll see to it personally."
"Very well. You are welcome to test it."
Spencer wouldn't even let Hunter touch the knife as they left Phantasm's quarters.
"What do you think that'll give us?" Promontory asked.
"With any luck, we'll get some DNA fragments from the killer"
"...or killers," Spencer added.
"Right. Anyway, hopefully it'll give us something for positive ID. We should check in with your men..." Hunter trailed off. "Promontory, didn't your comm chime?"
"That's right. Promontory switched his comm back on and ordered it to return the last call.
"Jenkins? Promontory. Report."
"'Bout blasted time you called back. Phantasm's ship left almost half an hour ago."
"But we were talking with Phantasm then!" Spencer exclaimed.
"It wasn't broadcasting the callsign Phantasm any more. Now it's... just a second... Spectre 1," Jenkins answered. They quickened their pace in the direction of the Observation Deck.
"What's the trace reporting?" Hunter called?
"He entered the mega-gate to the Frontier several seconds ago. He should be coming out - there. He's out."
They burst into the Observation Deck.
"He's headed for one of the smaller gates." They heard Jenkins from his own voice and through Promontory's comm. Disgusted, the Lieutenant reached up and closed the comm connection.
"Looks like the gate to Slaver Space," Jenkins continued. "Yep. He just entered it. It's a short jump so he should be coming out... now."
They stood there in silence.
Jenkins toyed with the console. "He should have been out a long time ago, sir. He's... he's just vanished."
"Looks like it's time we paid a visit to the Frontier," Hunter said, looking at Spencer.
"I've got to test the blade for DNA."
"You do, don't you? Slag. Guess I'll have to go alone."
"Hunter, we have no jurisdiction in the Frontier," Promontory reminded him.
"Then you take good care of this while I'm a civilian," Hunter said, pinning his badge on Promontory.
Some creative wiring, lots of cursing, and a swift kick to the engine compartment got the Piranha off the hangar floor. Hunter eased it out of the hangar bay and hung in space for a moment while he tried to get the radar to find the TCG gate. Upon finding the gate, he throttled up. One thruster fired before the other, so the ship spun around a few times before Hunter got it pointed in the right direction.
His comm crackled.
"Detec... ter. This ... kins. I'm rea... sh... trailing you."
"Jenkins? Is that you? Say again - I've got a bad conn..."
Hunter didn't finish his statement before the first blast hit him. His Star Patrol drilling kicked in before he had a moment to think, and he drove the stick downward while pounding the afterburner controls. He saw the second volley crackle through the nebula just above him. As he jerked the stick to the side, he reached under the console and jiggled some wires. A nasty spark burned his fingertips, but the radar picked up the hostile ship. It was a Demon, broadcasting the callsign "Spectre 2."
"Oh, great," Hunter thought, "Looks like my perp's buddy has been sittin' out here waiting for me. Well, let's see what this thing can do."
Hunter knew what he was up against. The only ship that could out-fly a Demon was a Star Patrol Enforcer. His clunkety old Piranha didn't come close. If he let this turn into a head-to-head match up, he only had a few minutes left to live.
He jerked the stick several more times and toyed with the afterburner, trying to create a random flight pattern while aiming his nose toward the TCG gate. Then he punched the afterburner and engaged a slide at top speed. As he spun his ship to face the Demon, still coasting toward the gate, he scrolled through his weapons. Glancing up, he saw the Demon closing on him behind a torrent of laser fire. Again, his training kicked in and he transferred all sheilds to front just as the blasts struck. He forced his eyes away from the dropping shield stregth to assess his available weaponry. He had a single laser bank, armed with only a medium laser, and two missle banks. One had Tiger Missles, the other Advanced Blast Torpedoes, but the torps wouldn't come on-line. He selected his laser as primary and the Tigers as second, and answered the Demon's volley as fast as he could pull the trigger. The lasers barely scratched the shields, but the Demon veered off in a wild evasive pattern, trying to outrun the guided missles.
"Hey..." Hunter thought, "I might be on to something."
The Demon began another attack run. Hunter's combat scanner indicated that not a single missle had connected. His shields were down to nothing, so he let loose with two more Tigers before the Demon came in range. Spectre 2 dodged wildly again, even though the missles weren't tracking him. As Hunter hoped, his evasive maneuver brought him closer, and Hunter got a lock. He unloaded the last of his missles and watched time stop as Spectre did his dance, mesmerized by the Demon Pirate's skill. It took him a moment to revist reality when he saw Spectre 2 starting another attack run. Hunter opened fire with the lasers and switched his secondary to torps in hopes that something might fire. An instant later, an explosion rocked the ship. A Blast Torpedo had detonated in its tube. This killed his left maneuvering thruster, and the ship began to spin instead of lining up on the Demon. As he spun in view of Spectre, he saw another rain of laser fire.
Hunter felt strangely calm. His life didn't pass before his eyes. He did have a brief pang of regret over Desiree, but that had been so long ago. The ship seemed to slow as he held tight to his harness, the G-forces pulling it tight against his shoulders. And he waited.
The first blast took the Piranha's hull down to 54%. The second...
...the second blast never came. As per his training, he had kept the slide engaged through the entire battle, and hyperspace flowed around him as he entered the TCG gate just before the second blast hit. In moments, he found himself spinning through the clear space of the Twilight Gateway. He released his slide long enough to transmit his access code to the Frontier Mega Gate, and through a series of creative left turns, he got the Piranha sliding toward the gate.
Hunter kept watching his radar. Demon Pirates rarely ventured beyond their own sector before the Demon Project began, but now they were less predictable. Moments later, Spectre 2 emerged from the Dusk TCG gate, but stopped cold in front of the gate. He turned on Hunter and unleashed every weapon in his arsenal, but Hunter was already out of range. The Demon didn't move. He sat there, weapons trained on Hunter, but unwilling to move away from the Dusk gate. As hyperspace again engulfed him, Hunter knew the Demon wouldn't follow.
Just under an hour later, the Piranha limped into New Vegas Starbase.
Hunter strode confidently past the slot machines of New Vegas, planning to take a loan from the casino by his old trick of flashing his badge and promising the "gratitude of the United Sol Government." Casinoes were generally willing to oblige, as they wanted as little interferance from USG as possible.
He stopped cold by the blackjack table. His pocket was empty. As he sifted through his coat, the realization hit him: He had left his badge with Promontory.
"So much for easy cash," he thought. "I'll have to find another way to get my hands on a decent ship."
"HAW HAW HAW!" Ed of the New Vegas shipyard laughed in Hunter's face. Hunter felt his collar get hot and the veins bulge on his neck, but restrained himself. Ed was twice his size - both ways - and he suspected hitting him would be about as effective as slugging a bed pillow.
"You want HOW MUCH for that old thing? HAW HAW! It looks like there ain't enough working parts on that ship to make finding 'em worth my while."
"OK, OK," Hunter answered. "How about letting me use your TachBand phone for a while in exchange for the ship."
"HAW! You must be pretty desperate there, stranger. Don't want Star Patrol on yer butt?" Suddenly, Ed became serious. "Hey - you didn't drag some Star Patrol lackey out here chasin' you, didya?"
"You sure 'bout that?"
"Believe me, I'm very sure," Hunter said, suppressing a grin. "So can I use your phone or not."
"Uh... yeah. Right in there," Ed said, indicating a small, greasy office. As Hunter let himself in, Ed stood shaking his head at the Piranha.
In Ed's grungy office, Hunter put in a call to Spencer on Demon Station, letting him know that he'd arrived safely in the Frontier. He hoped that message would look less suspicious than contacting Lieutenant Promontory directly. Then, he contacted the carrier, Vigilance.
Hunter had a few friends in the Frontier, among them a group of mercenaries who called themselves the Void Alliance. They were an honorable lot, as mercs go, so people of the Frontier often relied on them for safe transport of goods and escort runs. As such, they were a well funded mercenary alliance with a generous surplus of equipment.
"Vigilance," the tachphone said.
"Vector 7! Good to hear your voice again. It's Hunter."
"Vector 7 has left the VA. Do I know you, Hunter?"
"Um... so who's this?" Hunter asked, the wind sucked from his sails.
"I should be asking you that. My name is Twilight Jack. Who are you?"
"Ace Hunter. I know your name, Jack. Vec and I are old friends. I'm surprised you haven't heard of me. Most of VA knows me."
"Things have changed a lot around here since Vec left," Jack replied. "If you want to get in contact with him..."
"Well, not right away," Hunter broke in. "What I need is a favor..."
Hunter hated waiting.
Twilight Jack had been less than forthcoming. If it had been Vector 7, he'd have a ship by now, but Jack wanted to "check some things out." Hunter didn't like being mistrusted, but then, he couldn't blame Jack. It had been some time since he'd been in contact with the VA, and the Frontier wasn't a place where trust was offered lightly.
As he sat sipping his drink, his mind wandered. They called the Frontier lawless. That wasn't exactly true. It had its own law - dictated by money, mercenaries and pirates. He had no money, and he spent his life arresting pirates. His only hope lay in the mercenaries.
"You Ace Hunter?"
Hunter started and looked around. An early 30-something man with a limp was approaching him.
"The Void Alliance. You him or not?"
Hunter perked up, "Yeah, I'm him. How'd you know it was me?"
"The only people who sit at these tables are broke, but you didn't look depressed enough."
"Ah," Hunter grunted. "You are?"
"Name's FyreHeart. Jack asked me if I knew you. I said, 'yeah.' Then he asked if I knew you well enough to lend you one of my ships. So here I am."
"FyreHeart? Slag! I didn't even recognize you. When did you join the VA?"
"I was one of Vec's last recruits before he left. You're getting a little gray around the gills there, Ace."
"Yeah. Been a long time, Fyre. It's pretty flattering that you'd trust somebody you know so little about with your ship. We only met, what..."
"Twice. But then, I know about your relationship with Star Patrol."
Hunter glanced around nervously. "How?"
"I know you don't like trusting professional mercs with that info, but I wasn't a merc until recently. You told me yourself years ago, and I filed it away in case I needed it someday. If I can't trust you with my ship, I figure SP has a good chance of catching up to you."
"Right, right. So - you got a ship for me?"
"Orion. It's waiting for you in hangar bay 5. Here," FyreHeart tossed Hunter a data crystal. "The security codes are on that. Notify the Vigilance when you're done with it."
"That's it, huh?" Hunter said.
"So what happens to you?"
"Got some business to attend to here at New Vegas, then I gotta pick me up another Cutty from the shipyard."
"I use Cutlasses for training," FyreHeart responded. "So I bang up quite a few of them."
"That's gotta get expensive," Hunter mused.
"Cheaper than SP Academy."
"Guess so. What's this business you've got to take care of."
"Y'know, I could use some help."
Hunter had the resources of a well-paid Star Patrol Officer behind him, so it wasn't hard for him to wave enough credits under FyreHeart's nose to hire him as a wingman. FyreHeart was trusting enough to believe Hunter's promise of payment "when he gets back to base." Within the hour, a stripped-down Cutty was leading a nicely stocked Orion toward the gate to Slaver Space.
As they emerged on the other side of the gate, Hunter's console lit up.
"Jamming!" he yelled into the comm. "Heavy jamming signal! FyreHeart, do you copy?"
He was answered with static. He latted toward the Cutlass, calling into the comm. He was almost on top of FyreHeart's ship before the signal punched through.
"FyreHeart! Can you make out where that jamming signal is coming from? I've never seen one this strong."
The only reply was, "Demons incoming!"
Hunter looked up to see a swarm of Demon ships flooding out of Slaver Station. Lights all over his console came alive. His missle lock warning blinked fanatically and blips on his radar danced impossibly, the effect of impenetrable jamming. He jerked his stick and punched his lateral thrust, using every trick he knew to stay out of the fire. His missles wouldn't lock. In a swarm this thick he was almost guaranteed to hit something, but all the firepower on his ship would barely make a dent in the swarm.
"FyreHeart, this is suicide! Return to base!" Hunter yelled into the comm. He had no idea where FyreHeart was or if he could hear him through the interference. He hit the slide control and spun the ship toward the New Vegas TCG gate, then hit the afterburner. Jerking the stick and latting in random patterns inched him closer to the gate, but he was still taking heavy fire. A shock wave rocked his ship and debris flew past his cockpit. Then another shockwave hit him. He frantically switched all power to the rear shield, zeroed in on the gate, and put everything into the afterburner.
A few seconds later, Hunter opened his eyes to the familiar blue glow of hyperspace. The Orion exited the gate and Hunter pulled up close to New Vegas starbase. He came to a full stop and spun around to watch the gate.
FyreHeart never came through.
Hunter sat out there for over an hour, but his better judgment finally got to him. Despondent, he limped the Orion back into the base for repairs.
He sat in the cockpit for some time as the drones scurried over the hull repairing the ship. He hated losing a wing. FyreHeart was practically a stranger, but he was a friend by association. And he had been so generous. Though years of experience told him not to blame himself, he wondered if he could have investigated a little more. If there was some way he could have been prepared for such a large force...
Hunter shook his head. He needed a drink.
"There 'e is!" Hunter heard a familiar voice. He didn't quite trust Ed, so he spun on his barstool with one hand on his blaster.
"Thanks, Ed." Another familiar voice, deep and resonant. It couldn't be!
"FyreHeart? How th'?" Hunter jumped off his stool.
"Toldya," FyreHeart responded, "I bang up a lot of Cuttys. You think I'd still be in the Fringe if I didn't know how to eject?"
"But the Demons... how did you get back?"
"Hey! You're the guy what sold me that bum Piranha!" Ed cut in.
"I didn't sell it to you, Ed. I just used your Tachphone, remember?"
"Ed, cool it," FyreHeart said. "That Piranha had a decent engine. That's worth your while. Give me a full loadout on that Cutty this time, wouldya? I have a feeling I'm going to need it."
"Yeah, OK," Ed grumbled and trundled off toward the shipyard.
"To answer your question, I used a tether beam on your ship. You towed me back. I thought you'd never give up watching that blasted gate."
"You were that close to me?"
"'course. Who do you think got that Pirate off your tail?"
"Why didn't you contact me?"
"Escape pod's only got a distress beacon. No comm."
"Pirate? That was the first shock wave!" Hunter mused.
"Yeah. And my Cutty was the second. You did hire me as wing, remember?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I did. I've still got to find a way to get into Slaver Space."
"I know. I've already put a call in to the VA."
A covey of nearly every type of ship the Fringe had to offer poured into New Vegas, led by a stately War Hammer broadcasting the callsign "Captain Scarlet."
The Void Storm had arrived.
Scarlet strode confidently through New Vegas StarBase, followed by his loyal squadron. They descended on the bar en masse, and confronted Hunter and FyreHeart.
"Twilight Jack...?" Hunter began.
"He's not here," Scarlet answered.
"Jack's serving as Void Keeper," FyreHeart explained.
"IF this 'swarm' of Demon Pirates is big as it's supposed to be," Scarlet said, casting a questioning eye at Hunter, "we don't want to risk the Keeper on any 'suicide missions'." Scarlet's stogie danced as he spoke.
"It's big, Cap," FyreHeart said. "I was flying wing for Hunter here."
Scarlet looked surprised. "Around 50 Demons in Slaver Space?" he repeated incredulously.
"30 to 50, yeah," FyreHeart answered.
"Baron Hajod's been trying to enslave Demon Pirates for a long time," Heero Yuy offered. Heero was one of VA's best covert ops.
"But he's never been any good at it before," added GhostSword.
Hunter cut in. "The League of Scientists has been rehabilitating the Demon Pirates. These 50 or so weren't doing so hot in the treatment. There's no telling what their state of mind is right now. That could be why Hajod's having better luck, if that's what's happening."
"All right," Scarlet spun on his heel to face his squadron, "Stick close to your wings this time, troops. Everybody had best cover everybody else's butt. These aren't Skavs or Bloods. Demons will give us some trouble. To your ships. Void Storm is going to war!"
Red and silver glinted in the sun as ship after Void Alliance ship streamed out of New Vegas starbase.
"Void Storm Squadron," Hunter said into his comm, "you are authorized to use deadly force on ejected pilots."
"Cap, did I hear him right?" Griffin Moone asked.
"Authorized by whom?" demanded Dark Ice.
"Hunter's Star Patrol," FyreHeart said, "but don't let anybody else know that." He chuckled, then continued. "A live Demon Pirate can just go and get another ship, so I can see why DETECTIVE Hunter is letting us kill 'em. Oh - another thing - there's heavy jamming in Slaver Space. We probably won't be able to use our comms."
"What?" Captain Scarlet called. "OK, troops, form up. Stick to your wings. Last wing alive tows the others out! GO!"
...and the Void Storm dove into Slaver's TCG gate.
Moments after they emerged, the promised swarm of Demon pirates erupted from all sides of Slaver Station.
"Holy...! Troops, try and split them up and engage!" Captain Scarlet yelled. Static was all he heard from his comm. As Scarlet looked up, a Peg shot past alone into the fray.
"Griffin Moone! Get your butt back in formation!" Scarlet screamed into the worthless comm. Six Demons formed up on Griffin, but in doing so they exposed their backs to the rest of the squadron. The Void Storm wasted no time. Missles, Plasma Rockets and Rail Guns lit up space in a blinding assault. When the flash cleared, Griffin had safely ejected and six Demons were out of the fight.
The wings formed up tight and flew headlong into the swarm. Hunter unloaded several volleys of SunSpot missles. Demons scattered in every direction. Wing Zero and Punanni ganged up on Demons one by one, as Heero Yuy hung back and railed them like a sniper. Dark Ice and Captain Scarlet wreaked havoc with quad plasmas from their Hammers, while GhostSword and FyreHeart cut through Demon hulls with rails. Hunter and Raven, long having expended their guided weapons, slammed the Demons with Deimos heavy lasers.
Nothing seemed to matter.
Every Demon that fell was replaced by two more. There were simply too many of them. Captain Scarlet's hull went red. He latted over to Heero so he could get a comm signal through.
"Heero! Rail the ejected pilots and let's get out of here!"
Scarlet engaged a slide and jerked his Hammer around, picking up as many of his squad's tether beams as he could on his way to the gate. He was still under heavy fire. GhostSword and Hunter formed up behind him and cut loose with all they had to keep the Demons off him, but his hull went black. Despondent, Scarlet ejected. GhostSword swooped in and picked up the tether beams, including Scarlet's, and burned toward the gate. Heero and Hunter, the only two left in a ship, engaged slide and spun to face the Demons, blasting away as they slid toward the gate, covering GhostSword's escape. Laser fire rained down on them from every side. Hunter saw his hull go from yellow to red to black in a matter of seconds. He reached for the eject key...
...and mercifully hyperspace again engulfed him. The Orion went spinning wildly out of the TCG gate at New Vegas, and the emergency systems ejected Hunter anyway. Heero bolted through the gate a split second later, heading straight for the Orion. He couldn't pull up in time, so he railed it, and Hunter thanked the stars that he'd ejected.
Back at New Vegas, the Void Storm Squadron assessed the damage. They had gone in with 10 ships and returned with only two. By their best guesses, they had taken down nearly 20 Demon pirates with no loss of life, but there were at least that many left plus the few ejected pilots that survived the mayhem. They could retrieve their backup ships and go at it again, but none of them liked the thought. The odds weren't favorable.
Hunter finally spoke. "I... just want to thank all of you. I know Frontier mercs and Star Patrol have a tenuous relationship, but the VA has really come through for me. I'll do my best to see that you're all paid. You can bow out now, and I won't think less of you."
"Like hell we will!" exclaimed Captain Scarlet.
"This isn't about money any more," said GhostSword. "Those Pirates have invaded our home. The Frontier is ours, and we'll defend it."
"We need a larger force," offered FyreHeart.
"Agreed," said Scarlet. "Put in a call to the rest of VA, and call New Dawn as well." Punnani, the Minister of Peace, jumped up and headed off to a Tachphone.
"Once we take down those Demons, what is Star Patrol going to do about Baron Hajod?" Heero Yuy asked Hunter.
"I don't need to tell you boys that SP has no jurisdiction out here..."
"But you're here," Heero countered.
"As a civilian, yeah. I'm not 'officially' here."
"Ah - 'gray' investigation," FyreHeart said. "Not black or white."
"You could say that. Heero, we've got a lot to prove before I can justify going after Hajod. We need solid evidence that he's the one coercing these Demons and that he's doing so with malicious intent. One of you has a better chance at pulling that off than I do."
"Hajod's base is too well defended," Heero said. "Not even the Devil's Fist will go in there. It'll take an organized assault with the help of Star Patrol to break into Hajod's base and take him down."
"I don't see that happening," said Hunter. Heero pounded the table and walked off to get another drink.
A few hours later, DarkHeyr strode into New Vegas with his Dark Avengers squadron. Even Twilight Jack and RedStorm showed up. The entire Void Alliance was going to conquer or die as a clan.
As the Void Alliance lay their plans, Razor's Kiss arrived. Then Werewolf, followed by Zajj, Hannibal, Scooby, Dethweezul and most of New Dawn. With the firepower of two clans, the air sizzled with excitement.
DarkHeyr took charge, and laid the attack plan...
Early the next morning, an attack force the likes of which the Frontier had never seen blasted out of New Vegas toward Slaver Space.
The irresistible power of the two clans swept through Slaver Space with barely a scratch. The battle was over so quickly that Griffin Moone hadn't gotten his fill of slagging and made Don Quixote runs on the station, focusing for some reason no one could comprehend on the comm towers even after the jamming tower was slagged. When it ended, there were no Demon Pirates left alive and every clanner's hull was still showing green. Several of Baron Hajod's Midges and Barracudas fell with the Demons. All in all, the sector was almost habitable when they were finished with it, except for Baron Hajod's body odor in the Station's ventilation.
New Dawn's pilots began to withdraw, but Heero Yuy cried out, "This is our chance! Let's take Hajod!" and he burned his Cutty toward Hajod's gate.
"Heero!" DarkHeyr called, "Fall back into position!"
"No! This is our chance to rid the Fringe of Baron Hajod!"
"Heero," Captain Scarlet said, "You said yourself Hajod's base is too well defended. Don't kill yourself - we need you."
"Then you'd better cover my butt, Scarlet!" he called back as he plunged into the gate to Hajod's space.
Captain Scarlet shook his head. "OK, Void Storm. We better cover his butt."
"We're right behind you," DarkHeyr said.
"Awww, why not," bawled WereWolf, and fell into formation. Most of New Dawn followed suit.
Hunter's mind was racing. He knew he had no jurisdiction here. Even though Baron Hajod had broken almost every law the United Sol Government had ever placed on the books, USG had no authority in the Frontier. Merc justice was what held sway, but he simply had no grounds on which to step in and arrest him. But all his Star Patrol training told him he couldn't sit back an let a man, no matter how odious, be murdered in cold blood. He would have to betray the few friends he had out here. Unless...
Hunter smiled and plunged into the TCG gate.
Hunter was blinded as he rushed out of the gate. A vicious battle was already raging. Another hoard of Demon pirates and a battle fleet bigger than any private individual should have lit up space in their vain attempt to destroy the two clans.
Heero Yuy and FyreHeart railed the weapons platforms in their Cutlasses as the other clanners battled Hajod's fleet. New Dawn grouped up in a sphere, spinning and roiling as they fought to stay in formation without losing a ship. Countless Barracudas fell trying to break their formation.
Captain Scarlet, Dark Ice, and Punanni led an assault through several tight wings of Midges in their War Hammers. They didn't even bother firing a shot. The Hammers were indestructible against the papery Midges, and the three pilots just plowed through, ramming most of the Midges into debris. As they emerged from the destroyed waves of Midges, the VA pilots behind the three Hammers fanned out into a cone shape, and cut loose on the approaching Demons. With New Dawn keeping the Barracuda's busy the Demons didn't have a prayer.
FyreHeart lined up on the last of the Weapons Platforms, and Heero used the chance to break away and head toward the station. As the power plant on the platform went up in a puff of flame, FyreHeart caught sight of Heero streaking away. He sighed and burned after him.
"Scarlet! Heero's going after the station!"
"Cover him, Fyre!"
"Way ahead of ya, Cap."
Hunter broke out of formation and followed FyreHeart.
The station's gun turrets opened fire on Heero, but he ignored them. FyreHeart railed them at maximum distance, trying to keep Heero from killing himself. Hunter went blazing past FyreHeart and caught up with Heero in the docking bay.
Heero leapt out of his Cutlass and bolted for the airlock. He sealed it off before Hunter made it in.
"Slag! He thinks I'm trying to stop him."
Hunter shifted his weight from one foot to the other and punched the airlock "open" control compulsively. He sifted through his flight suit and pulled out his blaster and then punched "open" again. It finally obeyed. He slipped inside and punched close several times before he caught himself.
As the airlock cycled and the inner door opened, Hunter eased out slowly. The corridor was empty, but Hunter heard the sound of footsteps and followed. As Hunter rushed to catch up with Heero, several dead or dying slaves littered the halls.
Finally, Hunter saw a flight suit rounding the corner.
"Heero! Hold your fire! I have a stun gun!"
As Hunter rounded the corner, he almost bowled Heero over.
"All right, SP. Use your stun gun. Just don't get in my way when we find Hajod."
"Trust me, Heero. I'm on your side."
They took off through the corridor at a run, barely slowing for Hunter to stun the slaves that opposed them. Heero seemed to have a sixth sense about the station, barely hesitating before deciding which way to turn. Hunter began to wonder if Heero had spent time here before.
Shortly, Heero grabbed Hunter and pulled him up short.
"There," he whispered.
Hunter peered around the corner to see a large, heavily guarded door. Though it pained him, he didn't think he'd be able to stun them all. Heero would have to kill someone.
"Heero, I'll go in low. Cover me," he whispered. Hunter crouched down and eased the barrel of his blaster around the corner. He took aim at the largest group, and squeezed off a shot. One slave fell and another dropped his blaster, his hand caught in the beam.
Immediately, a frenzy of activity erupted around the door. Hunter jerked his trigger as fast as his hand would react. Several slaves fell, some of them still crawling from the effects of a partial stun. Hunter jerked back as laser fire from the second group spattered the wall, then spun around the corner again, and opened fire. He burned the back of his hand as he brushed the wall where the lasers had heated the metal plating. Two slaves fell. He jumped, rolled, and came up blasting. Heero then spun around and opened fire, aiming high to try and avoid killing any of the slaves. As they scattered for cover, Hunter stunned the last of them.
Hunter and Heero approached the door, and Heero began fiddling with the lock controls. Suddenly, a laser blast pierced the air behind them. Hunter spun and flattened himself against the wall, bringing his blaster to bear on the place where he heard the sound. As he came around, he saw FyreHeart, blaster in hand, and then looked to see where a slave lay dead, his hand still tight around his blaster.
Hunter lowered his weapon. Heero went back to working on the lock.
"Thanks," he said. "How'd you find us?"
"Just followed the bodies. What's going on?"
"Heero thinks this is the place."
"Y'know, Ace, Heero and I should probably lead the charge so you don't do something Star Patrol might regret."
They stood in silence as painful moments ticked by. Beads of sweat started forming on Heero's brow. FyreHeart stood eerily calm, but Hunter was getting antsy.
"OK, this should do it," Heero whispered.
They flattened themselves against the wall as Heero made the last connection. The doors slid open, and they waited.
FyreHeart switched his blaster to his left hand and pressed close to Heero. Heero did a double take, but bit his tongue. FyreHeart eased his blaster into the open doorway and squeezed off a wild shot. Laser fire exploded in response. The back wall of the corridor hissed in protest to the onslaught, and several slaves rushed out of the door. Hunter stunned them as they exited.
The next few seconds were a blur. Heero dove into the doorway and rolled under a console. FyreHeart spun around low and opened fire. Slaves dove for cover in a panic with crossfire filling the room. Then Hunter spun around and began picking off the slaves. Several fell, and the remainder finally dropped their weapons and cried out a whimpering surrender. Heero emerged from under the console and rounded them up.
Hunter grunted. "Easier than I thought."
"Slaves don't make the most willing guards," FyreHeart responded.
"OK, Heero," Hunter said, "where's your Baron?"
Heero looked angry. He passed the slaves off for FyreHeart to guard and responded, "He should be in here."
They eased toward the front of the room on opposite sides. The view was beautiful. A large picture window - a real window, not a viewscreen - overlooked an arboretum and then beyond that the deep hues of an emission nebula. Hunter tore his eyes from the sight and glanced around, trying to pick out any hiding place.
As Heero stepped down onto the viewing deck, a scream split the air from just behind him. A blob of flesh popped out from under a desk that looked too small to have accomodated it, and a manic-eyed Baron began firing wildly. Heero jumped back and Hunter dove for cover. A laser blast grazed Heero, and he fell over a railing.
Hajod spun toward Hunter's hiding place and glanced about, a look of sheer insanity in his eyes. Hajod took aim, and waited. Hunter tried not to breathe for several tense seconds. Finally, his leg began to cramp, and a twitch inched his foot into Hajod's line of sight. Hajod fired. Hunter winced, rolled and let go a perfect shot at Hajod's shining, bald head.
Hunter limped over to the viewing deck and looked over the rail. Heero had a nasty welt on his head, but he was breathing. Hunter then limped over to Hajod. As he pulled his handcuffs out, Captain Scarlet and most of Void Storm burst into the room.
"I thought you didn't have any jurisdiction in the Frontier," Scarlet said.
"As a Star Patrol Officer, I was trying to save a contractor I had hired who went off on a crusade of his own. While trying to save his life, one Baron Hajod of the Frontier opened fire on me. And assaulting a Star Patrol officer is ALWAYS an offense." Hunter grinned. "At least, that's what my report is going to read."
Scarlet let this sink in for a moment, then threw his head back and laughed.
The Void Alliance and New Dawn returned to New Vegas in triumph. They spent the evening in the bar, drinking and hitting on the willing women that frequented the casino. A steady stream of slave shuttles trickled out of Hajod's territory through the night.
"I still wonder," mused Twilight Jack, "Detective Hunter came out here investigating a murder, right? Why DID the Demons murder that scientist?"
"I think I can finally answer that," Hunter said. "Dr. Spencer called me from Demon station. They managed to uncover some research in Dr. DawnHill's personal files. She was working on a method to rehabilitate the Demon Pirates that hadn't responded to the standard treatment, and apparently Hajod was upset about her 'stealing' his slaves."
"The Frontier won't miss him," Griffin Moone said flatly.
Hunter took a long drag on his cigarette. "Now I just gotta figure out how to get him back to Sol. I've been borrowing ships all this time."
"I've been thinking it's about time I was getting another Cutty. Mine wasn't beat up enough in that fight," FyreHeart quipped.
Hunter nodded and enjoyed the rest of the evening.
The next morning, a scorched Cutlass made its way to Sol space with Baron Hajod in tow.