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Episode 10 Part 8

By:  Wynn

The second Bullet stepped into the conference room, he knew that there was going to be trouble.

     “Ah, welcome once again, my friend!” Vonter smiled at him from the far end of the circular table, motioning with one hand to an empty seat directly across from it. To Bullet, the notion of a round table typically implied a certain sort of equality among those who sat at it; such an effect was ruined by the elaborate, almost throne-like chair Vonter sat at. The rest of the chairs were identical, Bullet noted, except for his: the empty chair was taller than the other, but lacking in decoration. 'I wonder how long he spent thinking about what chairs to use?' Bullet thought wryly, reaching out to pull the seat out from the table.

    As he took his seat, he let his eyes roam past the table's other inhabitants, nearly a dozen pirates in total. He could remember some of them as high-ranking crew members aboard the Fickle Fate, Vonter's most trusted subordinates. Others were less familiar, though it was hard to tell, as many of them had chosen to hide their faces in creative ways (At least, Bullet suspected that was the reasoning behind the long scarves several of them had chosen to wear, since the temperature in the room was quite comfortable.). No doubt they were less than comfortable with speaking with him openly, seeing as how he was a law enforcement official and they were pirates.

    Several of them stood out even amid the group of brigands. Vonter, of course, had an irritatingly-exuberant presence, and his place as lord of these miscreants seemed well earned. To his right sat Rocin Taen, the sullen second-in-command that more often played the role of the Fate's captain than Vonter, considering how often the other man tended to go off gallivanting around the ship. The burly pirate glowered at Bullet through his scratched sunglasses, rubbing his bald head through the bandana he wore, and his unbuttoned shirt revealed a multitude of scars; a more opposed pair than Vonter and Taen, Bullet could hardly imagine.

    Further to Vonter's right was another familiar face: the orange-skinned pirate that had asked the ill-advised question about Nathians and their tails at this morning's breakfast. The neckless hulk sat uncomfortably in his chair, staring down at the tablecloth as he tried to shrink in on himself to keep his bulk from pushing away the pirates on either side. He ignored Bullet's presence until the Guardsman sat down, pivoting slightly to stare at the Nathian curiously.

    The pirates to Vonter's left were likely the captains of other vessels in the fleet, Bullet guessed, considering how many of them had chosen to mask their appearances. Two stood out for not having done so: the first was a tall man several places down from Bullet, his face and limbs painfully thin and his skin almost translucently pale. He stared forward morosely, his expression inconsolably depressed.

    The other captain that had chosen not to veil herself grinned a challenge at Bullet, dark mirth gleaming in her eye. Her white skin was the only thing about her not black or purple: her hair was a dark violet, and those two colors dominated the clothes she wore. She also seemed to have a fondness for studded belts, as she wore several identical ones across her chest, and even the strap that held her eyepatch to her face matched that design. “Black Mari,” she offered in introduction, her grin baring her sharpened teeth.

    “Guardsman Bullet Ruissir,” Bullet replied needlessly, meeting her gaze with an unyielding stare of his own. After a moment she nodded, chuckling roughly; he had won her approval, apparently. Bullet allowed himself to glance once more around the table, shaking his head at the attire the pirates wore.

     “Bandanas, an eye patch... where's the hook hands and peg legs?” Bullet quipped, almost unconsciously.

    “I beg your pardon?”

    “Sorry, a joke from Earth- ah, from the last planet I was on,” Bullet explained, thinking back to the books he had read during his stay on that planet. It had been there that he had managed to challenge the Red Death directly, and had nearly captured her. He still felt guilty that he had spent so much time checking out the local culture, however; perhaps if he had focused more on his hunt...

    “Earth?” At that word, the thick face of orange-skinned pirate seemed to glow, and he turned a spreading smile towards Bullet. “You've been to-”

    “Ah, shall we begin?” Vonter interrupted hastily, ignoring his subordinate's defeated pout. “After all, we have all gathered here for a discussion, a cultural lesson about a planet that many of us know absolutely nothing about. By broadening our knowledge of other worlds, we become more capable of-”

    “'Know your enemy?'” Bullet suggested, trying to cut short Vonter's rambling speech before it could get into full sway.

    “Well, there is that,” Vonter conceded. “But, also, I am genuinely curious about what sort of environment could give rise to such a... devoted society.”

    “He wants to know why you Nathians are all busybodies.” Bloody Mari translated with a smirk. Vonter offered her a bland smile in gratitude, the slightest twitch of his eyebrow conveying his irritation.

    “Very well then,” Bullet surrendered, looking to Vonter. “Where do you want me to start?”

    “Ah, even the basics would help,” Vonter suggested lightly.

    “The basics?” Bullet leaned back in his chair, rubbing his chin. “Well, for the planet itself: Nathia is a fairly standard habitable world, pretty comparable to Gollex,” he offered, mentioning the well-known planet that was often used as a center for the Intergalactic Council, “or Earth, for that matter.” The last he directed towards the orange-skinned pirate, who smiled brightly at the reference. “Two major landmasses, with four habitable regions.” At this, he paused, struggling to think of a way to clarify. “Well, that is to say, four regions that can easily support life, separated by long stretches of semi-arid wasteland. The atmospheric currents on Nathia keep most of the rainfall centered on the four main provinces, so the wastes beyond their boundaries are all but entirely uninhabited.”

   “'All but?'” prompted Vonter.

    “Well...” Bullet paused, shifting in his seat uncomfortably. “Throughout our history, exile into the wastes has been considered equivalent to a death sentence. There are tribes of those who have survived exile that live outside the borders, but no one is allowed to pass back into the main areas after they have been sent outside.”

    “Pleasant,” intoned the thin, doleful man, his deep voice hiding any hint of sarcasm as well as his still-morose expression. Bullet offered him a slight frown, but said nothing in response.

    “Really interestin',” Black Mari stated, not bothering to hide her boredom. “Good to know you coppers are just as rough on your own kind as you are on us.”

    “Or perhaps more harsh, eh?” offered Rocin, but there was a note of grudging respect in his voice at that.

    “Yes, well, beyond the geographic side to things... what of your government?” Vonter prodded.

    “All of Nathian society – the primary governments on Nathia itself, as well as the many colonies we control – owes its loyalty to our monarch, King Artur Ezus Dion D'Nathia.”

   “Fancy name,” murmured one of the masked pirates under his breath, glancing away from the bladed glance Bullet offered him.

   “King Artur has been ruling Nathia for fifteen years now, since his father passed away. Each king chooses his own successor, though it typically goes to one of his sons. During his majesty's rule, our involvement with the Council has increased greatly; before that, our relationship was considerably more... antagonistic. Now, Nathian forces make up the backbone of the Council's police and investigative forces, and we have devoted a great number of capital ships towards their peacekeeping navies.”

   “It sounds like your people are quite industrious,” mused one of Vonter's bridge crew.

   “One of the main regions on Nathia itself is devoted to constructing our spacecraft and weaponry. Before the provinces came together under a single government, the people of Midgard were famous for their naval forces and expertise at sailing, since so much of their region borders the ocean. After we developed the technology to allow us to travel through space, it only made sense for them to transition into developing those ships, as well.” Bullet motioned vaguely towards the hangars belowdecks. “My Silverfang was manufactured there.”

    “Still, doesn't that require a great deal of natural resources?”

    “It does, yes. However, that's the main reason that Nathia colonized so aggressively once we developed spaceflight capability. And, ah...” Bullet scratched his head, blushing slightly. “People say that, since we had the extra space to expand, our population increased considerably after that.” Soft snickers punctuated that remark, and Bullet looked off to the side.

      “Interesting, yes.” Vonter clapped his hands together, his eyes gleaming with a hint of mirth. “So, while we're on the subject of your military...”

    'Ah ha,' Bullet thought, 'that's what he's been wanting.' “What about it?” When Vonter mutely waved for him to continue, Bullet sighed before complying. “Our military is divided into several major branches. The main ones are the Nathian Military Division, the Guardsmen, and the Nathian Black Guard. They each serve different roles: the NMD, for example, not only Nathia's space armada, but they also serve as more standard police forces and guards for government leaders. Guardsmen, like me, are charged with protecting isolated colonies and with handling any sort of armed conflict or crime that occurs within our jurisdiction. In short, we're given bigger guns and better equipment, but we're expected to handle things ourselves when trouble comes up.” He didn't bother to hide the pride in his voice at that.

     “These divisions sound... complicated,” the pirate to Bullet's left commented.

     “It's pretty easy to tell us apart,” Bullet said, motioning towards his uniform. His hand touched the blue stripe that passed down his chest. “All Nathian military forces wear the same uniform, except for the color of the edging. With Guardsmen, it's blue; with the NMD, it's green; with the Nathian Black Guard, it's red.”

     “Bloodstripes...”

    Bullet froze, staring intently across the table at Vonter. “Yes, that's the common name. Have you heard of them?”

    “Oh, I hear things,” Vonter said casually, waving the matter aside. “But, please, continue – the Black Guard, you were saying.”

His unease growing, Bullet nodded. “The NBG are the elites of our military; only students who score extremely highly in their examinations at one of the military academies get offered a chance to apply to that division, and even then getting accepted is extraordinarily rare. The NBG tends to be used as a strike force, if a situation gets particularly out of hand. Like I said, we Guardsmen get big guns, but compared to them...” He shrugged, shaking his head grimly. “Just pray you don't cross them.”

    “Oooh, scary,” Black Mari breathed, but her flippant tone didn't completely convince those at the table around her. Vonter in particular watched Bullet with an unreadable expression, his violet eyes not seeming to blink.

    “You know, I don't get this,” Bullet announced suddenly, wearing his suspicion openly. “What's the point in having me tell you all this, Vonter? Thirty minutes on Nathia.Net would get you all this information and more, so why bring all of your people together just to hear me talk about it?”

    At this, all attention turned towards the flamboyant captain, who smiled broadly in response. “Ah, well, you see-” He paused, glancing down at his side. He drew a palm-sized device from his waistband, glancing at the glowing light it displayed. “You must forgive me; it seems I am needed on the bridge. I'll return in just a moment.” He stood quickly, nodding to Rocin Taen, who also rose from his seat to follow after him.

     “But...! Vonter, now it's your turn to tell me about-!”

     “In a moment, a moment,” Vonter chirped, already almost to the door. “Please, just talk amongst yourselves for a little bit. We shall return in no time at all.” And with that he was gone, the door closing behind him.

    Bullet Ruissir swallowed with difficulty, looking around the table at the ten pirates who all seemed to be staring directly at him. He offered them a weak smile, but his fears failed to subside when they began to exchange conspiratorial glances. One of the pirates in particular seemed to be emboldened by Vonter's absence: Black Mari stood from her seat and walked around the table towards Bullet, stopping just beside him. She rested a hand on the table and leaned on it, grinning down at the Guardsman with her sharpened teeth. “So, dog boy,” she began, wry humor in her voice, “why don't you answer a few more questions for us, hmm? Like, how many guns does that ship of yours have, and how much would we get for selling them?” As he offered her a flat stare in response, Bullet could practically hear the other pirates scheming different ways to exploit this situation.

    'Vonter,' Bullet thought to himself darkly, 'you're going to pay for this.'


 

******


 

    “So, what was all that really about?”

    “Hmm?” Vonter didn't glance towards his subordinate as the pair walked down the passageway, still wearing the same smile he had taken up as he had abandoned Bullet. He led the other man down a random hallway; they only had to waste thirty minutes or so, enough to give the other pirates time to get accustomed to the newest addition to their group.

    “I realize that the main reason that you brought everyone here to listen to that guy is to make them trust him a little more. After all, you say that he'll be supporting us if Donacon's goons come gunning for us again. I saw him fight earlier against the Redclaw, so I know that you're right; having someone like that leading our defensive efforts will go a long way towards keeping us in one piece. Still...” The scarred pirate paused, watching his captain's expression carefully. “Why keep asking him about this stuff? It's not like we're going to be going anywhere near that place, and it's hardly important otherwise.”

    “You're right. Our friend's statement earlier was somewhat conservative,” Vonter explained indirectly, leading Rocin down the halls. “It actually only took me about five minutes online to find out everything that he has told us, at best.”

    “Then why...?”

    “Ah, but such is the art of storytelling, is it not?” Vonter stopped in the middle of the hall, turning to look directly at his second-in-command. “You learn just as much about the person telling the tale as you do about their subject.” When Rocin blinked, confused, Vonter continued walking. “I have discovered quite a bit about our new friend, particularly how he perceives certain facts. Such things may prove invaluable in the time to come...” Vonter paused once more, glancing back towards the other man with melancholy eyes. “Knowledge is power, Rocin, and it's the kind I prefer to have.”

     And he continued on his path, smile held firmly in place.

 

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