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Episode 8 Part 17

By:  Wynn

“The Guardsman… he’s gone.”

     Silence reigned over the bridge of the Decadence as the ashen-faced crewmen turned to stare at their captain, who in turn watched the monitor in front of him, his eyes tracking the Nathian’s cruiser as it slowly spiraled away from the gunship that had dealt it a fatal blow.  His eyes flicked over to a communications officer, who shook her head dejectedly, and with that confirmation the captain nodded grimly. “Are we prepared to make our jump out of here?” he asked the navigations officer, struggling to keep his warring despair and hope out of his voice.  Though the captain did not, several of the crewmembers cast glances toward the monitors, and the two surviving fighters that were making their hasty escape from the battle, one of which was struggling to dodge the lasers that still tracked it as it limped away.  There would be no time to let them dock with the Decadence; they would be left to the ‘mercy’ of the pirates.

     “If we had only a few more minutes-” the navigation officer suggested, but the stony expression of the captain was enough to cut that comment short.

     “Sir, we’re being hailed by the enemy ship.”

     “Put them on,” the captain ordered, straightening as his expression slipped into a resolute mask.  A moment later, the display shifted to a picture of the gunship’s commander, a lean-faced pirate who wore his crimson hair in short, curled spikes.  The pirate sneered at his opponent, leaning threateningly forward.

     “I am Captain Rani Courose, commander of the Redclaw.  Now that we have those niceties out of the way,” he motioned toward the side, as if striving to include the wreckage of the two fighters his men had already shot down, “I am willing to take your unconditional surrender.  Unconditional,” he said again, his toothy grin spreading wider.

     “I cannot agree to that,” the Decadences captain responded, staring coldly back at the pirate. “I will not yield the safety of our passengers to you.  I am willing to consider surrendering the other cargo we hold, and-”

     “Stop stalling,” Rani Courose snarled. “You will do as I say, or I will blow up half your ship and loot the rest.  You don’t even get to pick which half.”

     “We have already contacted the authorities, and they have assured us they will be arriving in a short time.”

     “The authorities?  Like that Nathian?” Rani laughed darkly, shaking his head. “You’re either lying or stupid.  Either way, it doesn’t matter.  No one can make it here before we turn you into debris, and I doubt any that could even come close would stand a chance against us.  So…” The pirate captain fell back into his seat, tilting his head to the side as he watched his opponent’s reaction closely. “Care to surrender, or are we going to have to go for more… direct… negotiations?”

     “He’s right, captain,” offered a voice from a nearby communications console, as the forgotten intruder on the bridge straightened and stepped towards the Decadences leader. “No authorities will get here in time to save this ship.”  The captain glanced towards the other man as the violet-haired pirate stepped up to the command platform. “But, the authorities aren’t the only ships in the area.  My ships will be here in moments, and then we’ll see who will be the one offering a surrender, hmm?”  Despite himself, the Decadences captain stepped aside to allow the other man a place before the monitor displaying the face of Rani Courose. “In other words, I am now offering you an opportunity to peacefully yield your ship and crew to me, Captain Derek-”

     “Vonter?!” The gunship captain’s exclamation sounded almost like a howl, a vicious mix of incredulity and hilarity. “Youre aboard that scow?  This day just can’t get any better!  Do you have any idea what the price on your head is?  Captain Donacon has offered to promote any captain who captures you, along with a full share of any loot taken by the whole group for the next year.” Rani Courose smiled dangerously, shaking his head in pleased disbelief. “You shouldn’t have left the side of the Red Death, Vonter.  Captain Donacon is going to give her your head, and he isn’t going to stop till he has it.  I guess it’s just my luck that I get to be the one that offers it to him.”

     “Well, since you’re so pleased with your luck, you may want to check your radar, eh?” Vonter pointed towards the screen as if to point beyond the other pirate.  Rani glanced to the side, and Vonter’s sly smile widened as he noticed the paler tint to the gunship captain’s complexion. “I think you will discover that I wasn’t bluffing.  Now…” Following in the example of the other pirate, Vonter leaned closer to the screen with a wide grin. “…care to renegotiate?”

 

******

 

     “Captain, there’s five of them, each heavier than the Redclaw.  We could probably fend off two of them, but with those numbers…”

     Rani Courose scowled at the man who had spoken before making a violent slashing gesture towards his communications officer.  Hurrying to comply, the crewman severed the link to the Decadence, giving the pirates a moment of privacy and silence.  With that accomplished, the commander whirled towards one of his tactical advisors. “Didn’t Commander Krle get into a scrap with them not along ago?  Those ships should be nearly disabled.  Can we take them?”

     “Maybe,” the other pirate conceded, but his expression was wan. “But, if they also contacted nearby Council forces, then they may keep us here long enough for more reinforcements to arrive, and beating Vonter’s ships would wear us down enough for us to be easy prey for any other forces in the area.  Plus, our dorsal shield generator is still offline from the Nathain’s EMP missiles; if they get lucky hits in that area, they could breach the main reactor and destroy us outright-”

     “Enough,” Rani roared, startling the other man. “We’re not going to let a prize that fat get away.  The head of that treacherous worm will make us rich men, but we have to get it first.”

     “Can’t we just blow up the ship he’s on and make our getaway?  Isn’t recorded proof of his death enough?” one of the crew suggested.
     “Hardly,” Rani responded dourly. “Everyone knows how slippery he is; no one will believe that he’s dead until they see the body themselves.  Anyways… I hear Captain Donacon intends to wrap up Vonter’s head in a box and present it to the Red Death himself as some sort of courtship present.” Smirking in response to the dark chuckles spreading across his bridge, Rani shook his head and motioned back towards the cruise ship. “Plus, I’ve heard that there’s a bidding war amongst the rest of the captains for who is offering the higher bonus for getting to kill Vonter, so there will be a nice purse in capturing him alive.  Now, we just have to figure out how-”

     “Sir, Vonter’s ships are approaching!”

     “An open channel this time,” Rani instructed his communications officer. “Let’s let them all know that if they get too close, the cruise ship goes up in flames.  We need to get Vonter on our ship, and I wont let him force our hands.” As the officer scurried to fulfill his commands, Captain Rani Courose allowed himself a moment to relax.  He wouldn’t give up until Vonter was in his hands, not now that the traitor was in their sights.  They would take everything from their enemies, now matter what it took.

     They couldn’t be stopped.  Not now.

 

******

 

     “…we will shoot down the Decadence and not stop firing until nothing is left but rubble.  I repeat, stop advancing now, or face the consequences.”

     Aboard the bridge of the Fickle Fate, the crew turned towards the first mate with inquisitive glances.  The communications officer, however, motioned for the attention of Rocin Taen. “It’s the captain, sir.  He says to obey, for now.”

     Rocin Taen nodded, but couldn’t keep the concern from his face.  He didn’t know how they could get out of this conflict unscathed.  With the gunship between them and the Decadence, Vonter’s ships couldn’t get close enough to protect the cruise ship.  On the other hand, even if the Redclaw turned its attention to them, they would have a hard time destroying it without losing at least one of their own ships, and the fight would leave them crippled, free to be captured by any Council forces that arrived too late to help with the real fight.  At the best, they could try to bluff their way through; at the worst, their arrival would only lead to even more bloodshed.  There wasn’t any way that he could see to get them out of this situation, but maybe…

     “Hey, Rocin… the cap’n’s got a plan for this, right?” asked one of the bridge crew, and several hopeful faces turned towards him.

     “Yeah, sure,” the first mate responded, his lackluster enthusiasm failing to convey the proper reassurance he had been hoping for.  Even his own strong faith in Vonter was being put to the test by this situation; there was little that their captain could do in his current situation aside from talking, and they all knew all too well that diplomacy rarely worked on Donacon’s men.  Plus, there was the grim fact that their captain had shown himself to have a depressing lack of luck when it came to things involving the Red Death.  That was especially a shame for the Nathian who had come to them hunting her… it seemed that he had paid the ultimate price for crossing their path, and even now his cruiser arced slowly away from the ship that had condemned it to silently drift forever.  Rocin knew that if they weren’t careful, they stood a chance of sharing that fate.

     No, at this moment he only held out hope for a miracle.  If something else didn’t intervene, then they all stood to pay with their lives.  Still, for all of the bad luck that Vonter had experienced thus far with those connected to the Red Death, he, and most of his crew, had come out of it alive.  Maybe the same would be true this time, as well.

     Somehow.

 

******

 

     “Error.  Maneuvering thrusters offline.  Error.  Primary thrusters offline.  Error.  Life support systems damaged, power levels dropping.  Error-”

     “I got it the first time,” Bullet Riussir growled, rubbing at the aching side of his head.  He scanned over the flickering diagnostic display on his console, wincing more from what he found there than from the pounding pain in his skull, though it was an admittedly close contest. “Reroute power from the shield generator to the turrets and targeting computers-”

     “Error.  Shield generator offline.  Error.  Dorsal turret control mechanisms offline.  Error.  Ventral turret control mechanisms offline…”

     Bullet sighed, resisting the urge to bury his face in his hands.  He knew that he should consider himself lucky: he had survived the gunship’s barrage, somehow.  However, his present situation failed to foster such gratitude, since he was floating disabled in space, spiraling slowly away from the gunship in a way that would have been stomach-wrenching were it not so slow.  After he had recovered from the missile collisions, a violent series of explosions that had left him blacked out for several moments, he had immediately started his efforts to restore the Silverfang to power and his control.  So far, such attempts had been useless; it seemed his ship had barely survived that final attack intact, and he was having more trouble finding operational systems than ones that weren’t working.

     “Alright, then, tell me what is working!” Bullet demanded of his ship’s AI, glaring at the pirate craft as it drifted once more into vision.  The Silverfangs long pause following that demand washed his anger away with growing concern, only for his ire to return as he received his answer.

     “Sanitation unit online.  Cell locks online.  Missile arming and management systems online.  Communications receiver online-”

     “Great, just great.  The only things that work are the toilet and locks, and the missiles, which I can’t even aim!” Bullet paused. “Wait, the receiver works?  Turn it on!”

     After a recalcitrant pause, the speakers in the console before Bullet crackled to life. “-unarmed, and without any guards.  I repeat, you are to send Derek Vonter over to our ship immediately to discuss the terms of your surrender, unarmed and alone, or we will immediately open fire on the Decadence.  Respond immediately.” The Nathian grimaced as he recognized the voice; it was the captain of the enemy gunship.

     The response, however, was offered in a gravelly, coarse voice that seemed unlikely to belong to one of the cruise ship’s crew. “Like hell!  We know what’ll happen if you get the captain on board; you’re more likely to shoot after you have him than before!  Just try it, and we’ll blow you out of the sky.”
     “Oh?  Such loyalty; I’m impressed, Vonter.  Or haven’t your crew figured out that, once we have you, there’s no more reason for the Red Death to come after them?” His ears twitching, Bullet leaned closer to the console. “He’s the one that betrayed her, so he’s the only one with a price on his head.  Wouldn’t you do better to turn tail and run, rather than risk your necks for a turncoat?”

     ‘Oh.  Well, now.  Vonter worked for that Norian, hmm?’  Bullet sat back in his seat, trying to quash the nagging feelings of betrayal.  He had expected Vonter to lie somehow, but this had caught him off guard.  Still, he could work out things on that end later; now, he had to figure out what he could do for the passengers aboard the Decadence.  And, to that end, what he could do for himself.

     Silence fell upon the open channel as Bullet scratched his head, trying to figure out what he could do.  It seemed likely that both the crews loyal to Vonter and the people aboard the Decadence were in the midst of heated discussions themselves about their own course of action.  If he didn’t miss his guess, Bullet expected that Vonter was already being forced down towards a shuttlecraft to be sent over to the Redclaw, the sacrificial lamb that would allow those he had previously robbed to escape with their lives.  In their eyes, it would be justice; he was only a pirate, after all.

     But it wouldn’t work.  Those aboard Vonter’s ships were likely right: if there was a high enough price on his head, then the pirates might choose to take him and cut their losses, destroying everything between them and their escape.  Vonter had told him before about the violent tendencies of those loyal to the Red Death, but even if Vonter had been lying then Bullet knew first hand how ruthless they could be.  For an instant, the image of the gutted ruins of Colony 96 flashed through Bullet’s mind, and he snarled as he clenched his fists.  He wouldn’t allow that to happen again.

     But… what could he do?  Once more, the Redclaw drifted into view, and he frowned at its largely-unmarred surface.  His attack had hardly crippled it; at best, he had succeeded in knocking out its ventral shield generator, but without anyone nearby to take advantage of that opening-

     “Silverfang, do we have any scanners online?  If so, then get me a readout on the Redclaw, as soon as you can.” Bullet tensed, watching the gunship soar out of view once more.  If he was right, then he might just have a chance to do something to tip things in their favor.  It was a long shot… but, right now, that was all he had.

 

******

 

     “This isn’t going to work, you know?”

     “It doesn’t matter.  We have to take every measure available to us to protect the life of our passengers and crew.  You understand, don’t you?”

     As Vonter stared out the viewport of the shuttle that was carrying him to his end, he still could see the bitter smirk that the captain of the Decadence had worn during their final conversation.  He couldn’t blame the man, of course, and had to admit that, were he in the man’s place, his decision would likely have been the same.  Whatever honor may exist between thieves, there is little such respect between the robber and the robbed.

     Still, the fact that they had sent him to his demise did little to erase the pity that Vonter felt for those aboard the Decadence.  Once he was in their hands, the marauders would have little reason to restrain themselves, and would likely destroy the cruise ship for spite as they fled his ships.  With him on the Redclaw, Vonter’s comrades would be unable to do anything to save him or the cruise ship.  And, unfortunately, Vonter did not yet have a plan to avoid that end.

     “We’re in range of the Redclaw,” the pilot of the shuttle offered Vonter, with a glance that easily conveyed his confused sympathy and hope. “Good luck with the negotations, and remember that-” The man fell silent as a the monitor before him began to beep loudly. “They’re powering up their guns!  They’re going to fire on us!”

     “Don’t worry,” Vonter reassured the man, defeat thick in his voice. “They’re not aiming at us.  They want us alive.  We just get to watch as-”

     Vonter blinked as he saw the twinkling lights fly gracefully towards the underbelly of the gunship.  He counted six of them, like falling stars that had drawn too close, bearing down on the bottom of the Redclaw.  Those looked suspiciously like missiles…

     The six lights became a massive plume of red-white flames and shrapnel ripping out the gut of the gunship, and as Vonter watched another series of missiles followed closely in their tracks, burrowing into the gaping wound left by their predecessors before detonating, carving an ever-deeper furrow into the Redclaw.  Where were they coming from?  The only other ship in the area was… Vonter grinned fiercely, but his enthusiasm died as he heard the pilot’s panicked cry.

     “The Redclaws reactor core is damaged!  It’s going to go critical if it takes another hit-!”

     “Get us out of here!” Vonter shouted, motioning back towards the Decadence. “If it goes, we might still be in the blast radius!”  His eyes widened as he saw the familiar streaks in the ebony space before him.  They were going to go wide, they were going to miss the Redclaw

     Most of them did.  One didn’t.  An instant later, Vonter was flung against his seat restraints as the Redclaw disintegrated into a cloud of flame and shining debris.  He swore he could feel the heat from the explosion, and the light was all around him-

     And then all went to black.

 

******

 

     “My blessings upon you, Guardsman Riussir.  You have proven yourself to be a hero worthy of my eternal favor this day.” Cruluxiam bowed as deeply as his portly figure could manage, punctuating the shower of praise that he had been bestowing upon the bemused Nathian. “Should you ever require my aid, offer unto me a prayer and I shall work to see your needs fulfilled.” Straightening, the self-proclaimed deity beamed at his savior once more, oblivious to Bullet’s stealthy-yet-steady shuffle towards the nearby door. 

     “Don’t worry about it,” Bullet replied with a warm smile. “I was only doing my job.” He locked the expression in place to hide the grimace he felt inside, thinking about the damage his ship had incurred.  He had barely managed to get it back on board the Decadence, and the faulty maneuvering jets had led him to bang up his landing gear, added insult to the Silverfangs multitude of injuries.  His ship would need a long time in the hands of a mechanic crew before it would be ready to fly again, and those were hard to come by considering his… unofficial leave from duty.

      Still, all things considered, he knew he should be grateful that he was alive at all.  In the hour that had passed since the fiery death of the pirate gunship, he and the others had been recovered and brought on board to be given medical attention.  Even now he was on his way to check up on another of the wounded, though the fervent praise of Cruluxiam had momentarily impeded his journey.  He would take care of the other matters later; for now, the relieved faces of the Decadences crew and passengers were enough to distract him from those concerns.

     “I’ll be checking on our friend here, alright?” Bullet asked, noting the way the Diyetian stayed a safe distance from the door that led into the patient’s room.  Taking Cruluxiam’s wan smile and terse nod as confirmation enough, the Guardsman pushed open the door leading into the recovery room and stepped inside, letting the door close firmly behind him.

     The room was small, but looked comfortable enough.  Surprisingly, considering the previously-conflicted opinions on its occupant, it was already all but full of flowers and other such tokens of affection and appreciation.  Sitting in the middle of the bouquet of floral arrangements was the other ‘hero of the day,’ his skin as pale as the sheets around him but his smile wide and cunning.

     “I must say, this is the first time my victims have thought enough to offer me such kind treatment,” Derek Vonter quipped, wincing only slightly as he moved his bandaged arm too abruptly. “Perhaps I should try this whole ‘returning the loot’ scheme more often.” The two men chuckled, and Bullet moved over to a chair near the bed and lowered himself onto it.

     “Yes, they like you so much that they thought to keep you.” Bullet smiled as he watched the dark doubt flit across the pirate’s face, but shook his head to reassure the other man. “I managed to convince them otherwise, though.  It wasn’t hard; I just had to remind them how much trouble you tended to be.”

     “They already needed reminding?  I must try harder,” Vonter commented wryly, leaning back against the bed.  He offered the Nathian a grateful nod, but the intensity in his gaze suggested that talking the captain of the cruise ship into letting him go free was not the only thing that he was appreciative of.  Unwilling to delve into that just yet, however, Vonter chose to change the subject. “So, how did you manage it?  The missiles, I mean.”

     “It was luck,” Bullet admitted freely, shrugging. “Since most of the damage to the Silverfang hit near the engines, the missile arming systems were still online, even though the sensors that would let me aim them weren’t, nor were the engines themselves.  So, I took a chance.” The Nathian reached over and picked up a nearby pitcher of water and poured himself a glass, and glanced towards the other man inquisitively.  Vonter declined with a shake of his head, but smirked mischievously as he pointed towards a bottle of wine amidst the floral jungle around his bed.  As the Guardsman moved to unstopper the container, he continued his explanation. “So, once I realized that the gunship’s shields were still down, I waited till they were distracted with you, and until I was rotating back in their direction.  I aimed as best I could manually, and fired everything I could while I was still in line with their underbelly.  Fortunately, enough hit to destroy them… if that hadn’t worked, we would be in a considerably different situation right now.”

     “Dead, specifically,” Vonter clarified for him.  The pirate accepted the proffered glass of wine and raised it to his lips, tasting it gingerly before beaming approvingly. “Ah, they have good taste,” he mused, indulging in another sip before turning back towards the Nathian. “I once heard that luck is merely a combination of skill and the correct situation in which to use it, but such abstract notions are not the best topic of discussion right now, I yield.  Instead…” Vonter glanced at Bullet over the rim of the glass as he took another deep drink. “A final question.  Why concussive missiles?”

     Bullet sat in silence for a long moment, his smile not wavering even as his demeanor darkened.  It had been a hard choice, and something he had deliberated with himself as he had waited for the Silverfang to align properly with the gunship’s belly. “If I had chosen EMP missiles, I might have managed to disable them enough to capture them, but that would have put the Decadence at risk.  I had only one chance, so I knew that I had to use every bit of force I had available to make certain it would work.” Shrugging in resignation, the Guardsman shifted his gaze to the floor. “They brought it upon themselves, and they wouldn’t have shown any more mercy to us.  I can’t regret it.”

     “A wise choice,” Vonter commented.  Since Bullet’s systems had been disabled, he most likely hadn’t heard the exchanges between his crew and those aboard the gunship.  It was better that the Guardsman didn’t know that those aboard the Redclaw would have had more information on the Red Death’s whereabouts than he; such concerns would only haunt the Nathian needlessly.  Instead, he-

     “And, anyways,” Bullet resumed, interrupting Vonter’s thoughts with an all-but-hidden edge in his voice, “while I would have liked to interrogate them further about their leader, it seems that I have another source of that information on hand.”  The Guardsman leaned closer to the bed with a dangerous gleam in his eyes. “I happen to know the location of a pirate that formerly served the Red Death, and he is going to tell me everything I want to know about her.  Everything.”

     “Perhaps there are some things you don’t want to know,” Vonter replied, concealing his slight shudder.  Noticing the unyielding determination on the Guardsman’s face, however, he nodded in a mixture of weariness and good-natured surrender. “Very well, I’ll tell you about her, at the least in gratitude for saving my life.  But later,” he stated firmly, raising his glass in rebuke. “Such topics are better saved for other settings.  After all, we are on a cruise ship, are we not?”

     “And what setting would you prefer?” Bullet asked, his feigned innocence not hiding the menace in his words. “The nearest Council outpost, perhaps?”

     “Easy, easy!” Vonter complained, shuddering. “I’ve already yielded.  No, I shall take you and your ship onto the Fickle Fate, and there my crew and I will give you all the information we have on the Norian you hunt.  After all, you must realize by now that I did not lie in one thing.” Vonter smiled darkly. “We have a mutual enemy, you and I.”

     After a long moment of consideration, Bullet nodded.  That, at least, he could trust. “And you’ll help me hunt her down, right?”

     “Yes, though I hardly know what to expect when you catch her.”  Laughing outright, Vonter shook his head. “But, perhaps you will surprise me once again when that day comes.  Until then, Guardsman Bullet Riussir…” Vonter extended his glass towards the other man. “…Partners?”

     The two glasses, full of wine and water, clicked together in a toast. “Partners.” And both tipped their glasses to the ceiling, drinking deeply.         

 

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