Table of Contents . . .

 

CHAPTER FIVE :
WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD

 

CICCONFEDFLT Space Station Adirondack; Command Center
Near Callimachius System (Enigma Sector) Jump Point
The Ella System, Vearrier Quadrant, Sol Sector
APR 12 2685/2685.102; 1624 Hours (CST)

The surprise assault had only been going on for a couple of minutes, but the proud Confederation station had already been humbled. Lieutenant Lefferty was no engineer, but that thunderous boom he’d heard a moment ago couldn’t possibly be good.

Another droplet of blood streaked from his ear.

Of course it didn’t sound good, you idiot, it blew out your fucking eardrums.

Lefferty stumbled his way toward the vacant master defense console, spending only a few moments to take a solemn glance at its former occupant, Commander Robinson, lying face down on the deck. It took everything he had to even stay conscious, as the air was thick with smoke, soot, and god knows whatever chemical vapors were being released from the surrounding bulkheads.

It was a Demon-class medium fighter. They’d all been briefed two weeks ago about the craft, how it had taken out the St. Helens and the Mjollnir before blasting its way through ten blockades to slip back into parts unknown.

The patriot-gone-rogue Christopher Blair had demanded that the St. Helens and Mjollnir get out of his way, Lefferty recalled. It was only after their firm refusal that he destroyed them and went on his way.

Today there had been no demands. No threats. The rogue had not even boasted when he crippled the station’s defenses.

Beyond terror now, he and his fellow officers realized the futility of their attempts to work their consoles—they were not responding.

The antimatter core of Adirondack was on the verge of a meltdown.

The hellish ship dived and reared its misshapen nose at the control center.

While the ship started what was likely to be its final attack run, Lefferty remembered something that gave him hope, then clung to that thought. He put it all together in his mind.

God help us, there is a chance...

Star Runner; Cockpit
The Talos System, Vearrier Quadrant, Sol Sector
2209 Hours (CST)

The disorientation of the completed hyperspace jump quickly passed.

The familiar starfield of the distant Sol System stretched out before him. As the fighter turned slightly, the nearby sphere of Talos III came into clear view.

As the rays of the Terran sun—little larger than a bright star from the Talos System—filled the cockpit, Christopher Blair smiled his sardonic smile. His face betrayed no hidden remorse; no dormant feelings of regret. That Christopher Blair had been absolved.

That Christopher Blair was dead.

He had a mission to complete. Meager retribution against those that had wronged the Firekkan Commonwealth was no longer enough. He knew that now. When he had fled the dying Commonwealth into the expanse of the Spinward Unknown Territory, he had found Them, and They had found him. Perhaps They had called to his Pilgrim side, but it did not matter. They had given him his new purpose, his new mission of the highest importance.

They showed him how; They gave him the means.

And They had given him the means, too. His invincible fighter had yet to fail him in battle. It was now his chariot, his tool of vindication; he would ride it to glory unbound.

Blair was beyond all feeling now; he had breached and transcended the useless barriers and inhibitions of his former self. Whatever had held him back before was no more.

There could only be one thing that stood to come between him and the completion of his mission now.

The past.

Centurion 33-X
The Sol System, Terra Quadrant, Sol Sector
2228 Hours (CST)

Major Lance Casey had been taught to be ready for any mission.

The missions against the Nephilim uglies over the last few years had been his trial by fire, and hed passed with flying colors. Literally. Even when the war with the Aliens had escalated into the Aliensí own space, heíd held the line and did his part to bring the Nephilim menace into submission.

But not in his wildest dreams, in his most horrifying nightmares, had he ever imagined he would be asked to participate in the mission laid out before him now.

The mission? The termination of Christopher Blair, by any means necessary.

The mans legend preceded him. He learned from him, respected him, and walked away a damned better pilot for it. Hed heard more than enough about him from his days at the Academy, and every now and then he had to do the hero worship thing to talk to the man during the Nephilim War, but he always had good advice for Lance. Advice, or the seemingly endless number of stories he had to tell him in their regrettably short meetings. Hell, Blair had even designed the Midway, Lances former ship, a ship that served to greenlight the one that had followed that posting, the Cerberus.

In the month since his reappearance, Blair had been waging a crusade against the Confederation and the Kilrathi, Assembly of Clans and Tenth Empire alike. Hed utterly devastated the entire Mshrak Sector and some outlying regions of the Kilrah Sector in the Kuru Caxki Quadrant before setting his sights elsewhere. After punching through the Landreich and Border Worlds, hed gone on to ravage the Vega Sector, which he did with unnerving efficiency. The fall of the Kurasawa System marked the beginning of Blairs death march into Confed territory.  At last report, Lance had heard Blairs deathtoll had reached seventeen million.

The latest Intell report indicated from all observations the Demon fighter Blair flew possessed (in addition to whatever hull or micro-shielding technologies it might have) a new, never-before-seen variety of phase shielding... that ship was the deadliest fighter ever seen, flown by who could very well have been the greatest Space Force pilot ever.

It was a garbled message from the decimated Adirondack Station that warned Confed of the incoming Star Runner. If Blair was passing Adirondack, he meant to enter Sol Sector. And from within Sol Sector, there was little between him and the Confederate Headquarters on Jupiter-1 Station or even Earth itself, if that was his target.

Which meant they could expect him at any moment.

"Lets get this on the road, shall we?" his impatient co-pilot asked.

Lances co-pilot, known to his cliental only as "Brownhair," was a privateer of the distant Gemini Sector. Like Blair, the privateerís reputation also preceded him. When he heard about the reward Confed had put out for the confirmed termination of Blair, the man had enthusiastically volunteered. Confed, of course, wanted to see the mission through firsthand, though if some nameless mook in Gemini wanted to throw himself in the berserkers path, then maybe it would spare them another couple of carriers. Thats why Lance was along for the ride. To tell the truth, the privateer hadnt even given Confed his name, and Lance hadnt exactly thought to bring the matter up. Supposedly he played some role in the Steltek encounter of early 2669, along with a bunch of gun-for-hire missions that basically screwed the Church of Man Retro movement over in Geminiall of which meaning his reputation spoke for itself. Curious, that scar over the privateers eyebrow.

"Yeah, sure."

"Activating cloak." The man gave him a flaccid glance. "This should be interesting."

Their Centurion trembled only slightly as its cloaking device took effect. The ship might not look like much from the outside, but he got the feeling it was the end result of several years of the Privateers hardship.

"Is the particle scanner operational?" Lance asked.

"Up and runniní, pilot."

Lances chest heaved as he sighed. He told himself once more why he was here. Not to go play the star spangled hero for Confed again. He had agreed to the mission because he had to know. He had to see with his own eyes what Christopher Blair had become, and if there was any hope of swaying him from his madness. "Then plot a course for the Talos checkpoint."

"About time."

 

Centurion 33-X
2248 Hours (CST)

The Privateer caught it first.

Outside the cockpit, 900 klicks from the nearby Neptune Station, a dull flash of light shone against the blackness of space at the jump point not far from the gravity well of Neptune itself. Something had entered. Something unscheduled. No ship, however, came from it, and it quickly closed.

No ship, that is, that the naked eye could see.

"Confirmed!" the Privateer bellowed, tapping the HUD monitor of the newly-installed particle scanner. A hostile red dot with a corresponding analysis readout could be seen clear as day. "It’s the—"

"The Star Runner."

"Can I give the signal?"

Lance nodded. "Give it."

Like clockwork, the message was received and acknowledged by Neptune Station and the two megacarriers holding position. No more than thirty seconds later, the station and the carriers gave their anticipated response.

Three seventeen-scale tractor beams, a combined graviton force that could suspend a planet’s orbit, locked on the hull of the Star Runner.

"Ha-ha!" the Privateer jeered. "Got ya, you sick bastard!"

Taking the controls, Lance prepared to proceed with Phase II of the plan. He brought the Centurion up to speed nice and slow, keeping his eyes on the particle scanner and the proximity readings on the Star Runner. "Let me know the second that ship breaks free," he advised the privateer.

"Breaks free? It isn’t going anywhere."

"Just stay alert, all right?"

After a short afterburner burst and a quick drop in speed, they were coming up on the Star Runner. When he was sure enough that there was an insignificant enough margin for error, Lance armed and fired the three "Flashpak" salvo (Confed SpecOps nicknamed the weapon, of course, that after the infamous Black Lance superweapon, but the version the privateerís vessel was equipped with was more of a garden variety of it, toned down and only loosely based on the BLís technical properties... it was a popular merc commodity in 2685) he had on stand-by.

The trio of packs struck the Star Runner’s starboard side, attaching to its bulbous hull without a hitch. A second later there was a white hot flash, then a stream of plasma could be seen creeping across the crippled ship’s invisible exterior.

Then it went silent.

"That’s it then," the Privateer spoke. "Chalk one roasted renegade ísumbitch on the scorecard, pilot."

"Not yet."

If the readout was still accurate, then, though its shields had been vaporized and its hull compromised, the cloaked Star Runner was still operational. Confed anticipated it, and so did Lance.

Time to move on to Phase III.

Flying under 10 KPS with open ramscoops, Lance maneuvered the Centurion under what he was relatively sure was the Star Runner’s underside. Moving in with hair precision, he coaxed the lower retros, raising the Centurion to contact the Star Runner’s hull. Turning slightly, he brought the ship into what looked like perfect alignment.

Lance hit the pre-configured autopilot and rose from his chair. "Let’s do it."

"Now you’re talking." The privateer stood, then offered Lance a pistol-sized plasma caster. "Here."

Lance reached to take it, but the man held it back.

"I just hope, for both our sakes, that you don’t hesitate if you gotta use this on your old pal."

Lance snatched it from the privateer’s grasp and stuffed it under his belt. "I won’t."

Only if I’m sure, he silently added, only if I’m convinced there’s no other way...

 

Star Runner; Missile Bay
2303 Hours (CST)

They hadn’t had as much trouble burning through the Star Runner’s durasteel hull as Lance had expected. Sure, three Flashpaks had superheated through it—that alone being enough to incinerate even the toughest, platolum-alloyed megacarrier’s innards—but Lance had been under the impression the craft was simply invulnerable. Blair had single-handedly taken out five convoys without a scratch. Perhaps Lance owed the man’s flying skill more credit than he gave. Must have been the Pilgrim in him.

There wasn’t enough room to fully stand in the missile bay. Keeping his head low as he moved to Lance’s side, the privateer drew his own plasma caster. He whispered, "Go ahead. You take the lead, I’ll follow."

The inside of the Star Runner was nothing like the layout Confed had supplied on standard Demon-class fighters. But the Star Runner was, he reminded himself, anything but a standard Demon-class fighter. It had been tinkered with, upgraded, altered, even warped to some degree. There were the typical pipes and conduits running along the ceilings, yes, but there were peculiar other things as well. There was nothing metallic about the conglomeration of tubes that made up the floor, walls, and ceiling. They were green-tinted and flesh-like, shining in the near-pitch blackness from what looked like a covering of a mucus liquid. Lance would have described them as very intestine-esque.

And the other articles that made up the missile bay were a far cry from anything dreamed up at Confed R&D. Grotesque organic tumor-like sacs that seemed to produce their own light hung from sporadic locations on the ceiling, pumping in an out as if breathing. A network of partially clear arteries branched and forked from each of the sacs, pumping a blue, viscous fluid to the other sacs and some of the intestinal tubes. Wires and intricately shaped mechanisms were installed into the sacs, merging the organic material with the technology of the ship.

And the smell... The missile bay reeked of rotting corpses and burnt plastic, every smell coming together for a rancid stench that made Lance wish he had brought along filtration masks.

"This place... it’s alive..."

Lance shared the privateer’s sentiment, if only this once.

It was known that Blair had gone on a sojourn of nearly a year after his time in the Firekkan Commonwealth. What was not known was where exactly he had gone during this time. From the looks of it, he had gone farther than the Exploratory Services had ever dared.

Lance beckoned with his plasma caster. "C’mon."

The Privateer close behind, Lance made his way to where the access hatch on a standard Demon should have been. Luckily, the Star Runner’s actual structure hadn’t been changed, and he found his hatch. Digging his fingers into the flesh and intestine covering that were strewn about the whole bay, he took a handhold and pulled a sizable layer of it off. Folding it aside, he grasped the hatch release dial and gave it a hard twist. It was stiff, burdened by corrosion and the series of strong capillaries that had intertwined around it, but it gave way and turned. Kicking the hatch as hard as he could, the organic material that held it in place tore and it fell in.

Stealthily, Lance crawled into the workman’s space and made his way out. He felt his head contact a wall of flesh. Putting his full weight forward, he broke through and wriggled out onto the deck.

The deck wasn’t as organ-ridden as the missile bay, but it had its own share of blood vessels and quasi-technology. There were three places to go from where he now stood. Back the way they came, the core accessway... or the cockpit.

The Privateer popped out of the opening Lance had made in the workman’s space entrance. Gathering himself, he brought his gun back to readiness. "You ready, Junior?" he whispered.

Lance nodded.

"Good. You set the charges on the core." He indicated the core accessway, then nodded at the cockpit. "I’ll take care of our resident berserker."

Lance grabbed the man by the shoulder as he started to walk off. "No," he said. His voice was laden with such authority that the cocky privateer’s nonchalance was stirred. "I’ll deal with Blair. You take out the core."

The Privateer shrugged off Lance’s hand. "Whatever you say, man. Let’s just do this shit."

With that, the Privateer went his way, and Lance went his own.

Every step he took toward the cockpit was a fight. Ten meters became thirty; twenty seconds of walking grew to minutes. Every inch he got closer to what he feared awaited him, he grew more tense. He didn’t know what he’d find, what to expect.

He had to do it. He had to know he could do it. It was what he was still telling himself. To hell with the Confederation’s interests, he owed it to himself and whatever humanity was left in Blair.

He was coming up on it now. He could already hear the hum of the cockpit’s instruments and see dim reflections of the flickering lights.

Then he reached it. He now stood at the open doorframe of the cockpit. His plasma caster in his sweaty palm, Lance leapt inside.

Christopher Blair was sitting in his pilot’s chair with his arms folded over his stomach. He was dressed in the old Firekkan Commonwealth uniform, torn and dirtied beyond reason, giving Lance the impression he hadn’t changed it once in the year he hadn’t been seen. He bore a full, thick beard now, and had greasy hair that was past shoulder-length.

He turned his chair to face Lance without urgency. His face, however, displayed nothing but intensity. His eyes burned with sheer malevolence and crazed ambition.

"Blair..."

"You used to call me sir,’" Blair said. As he spoke, thick, pulsating veins jutted from the man’s forehead, cheeks, and neck. Veins, Lance noticed, that seemed to be pumping the same blue, viscous fluid that was circulating through the ship’s organic fibers. His breathing was heavy and labored, as if something was making it hard to breathe in his lungs. The sight seemed a grotesque blending of human life and the plant kingdom to him.

"That was a long time ago."

"Not so long, I should think, Lieutenant Casey."

"Itís major now," Lance corrected. "But you’ve changed... you’ve done things—"

"I did what was necessary; what was right." The veins pulsated faster. "I stopped explaining myself a long time ago. Don’t ask me to now."

"At least... at least tell me where you have been... what it is you’re trying to accomplish. I... I want to help you."

"Unlikely," Blair seethed. "What is more likely is that you were sent here to assassinate or capture me personally. I must commend the Confederation’s ingenuity in anticipating my arrival in Sol System. In my arrogance I may have underestimated them."

"Please tell me..."

The veins were pulsating furiously now.

"... Sir," Lance added.

Before it looked like Blair would leap from his seat and throttle Lance, the pumping eased. "When I was consumed with humanly grief over what had happened in the Commonwealth incident, I traveled to the furthest reaches of space... and beyond. Beyond the Etruria reaches, beyond unmapped Exploratory Services’ jump points, unexplored sectors, developing civilizations and crumbling empires. I was in unknown territory, but somehow I knew just where to go. It was They who were beckoning me to meet with them. They called to me."

"Who is They’? Pilgrims? Another alien race?"

Blair’s empty, sardonic grin was the only answer to Lance’s question. "They picked me up in my greatest hour of need, gave me what I needed, and made me... infinitely more than the man I was, pathetic fallen war hero no longer. I agreed to the price They ordained for me to pay: a mission. At long last, another purpose."

"You killed people, Blair. Millions of people. Even people you knew, people like—"

"Shut up!" The pumping veins were back to full intensity. "I-I was seeing to my mission of vindication, as They ordained me! My enemies... they were in my way... I had no choice."

Lance sighed, having the answer he sought at last. "Then you really have lost your mind."

Blair’s gaze, previously gathered, returned to its malevolence. "A pity my old friend... what was his name... oh yes, Maniac. A pity my old friend Maniac couldn’t have joined your efforts. With our lifetime rivalry, I would have enjoyed settling it once and for all. But you... Iceman Junior... Frosty, werenít you called? Virtually my hand-picked successor... my replacement. Yes, you will do just fine for now."

Lance nodded at the plasma caster he was still pointing at Blair. "With all due respect, sir, you’re in no place to make threats. Surrender."

"I-I... I..." The pulsating was reaching a boiling point. Sweat flowed freely from his brow and neck. There was a flash of something unexpected on his face. "... I don’t think so." In the blink of an eye Blair’s hand went to his side. He grabbed something, brought his arm back, turned, raised his arm—

Lance fired.

"Lance! Hurry the hell up, we’re on the clock here!"

The shouts of the privateer jarred Lance from his paralyzed state. There was no trace of malevolence or madness in the mans eyes now. All of it had ebbed and vanished, lifted from him like a curse. So innocent he looked in death, so much like the man Lance had known.

As Blairs limp hand fell over the armrests of his chair, Lance saw what he had drawn.

A necklace. Before it slipped from his fingers, the Pilgrim cross attached to it could be seen.

He must have known Id fire... Lance thought, too much in shock to comprehend what had just happened. In that last moment he must have known... he must have chosen... wanted to...

"Get your ass over here, Lance!"

If only there had been another way...

His head hung in shame and emotions he didnt want to deal with right now, he carefully picked up the necklace. He held it for a moment, then clenched it in his fist as he dared give another look at Blair.

"Lance!"

He looked away from the body, unable to bear the sight of the mans face.

If only...

 

Centurion 33-X
2327 Hours (CST)

Lance watched it happen on the aft camera. With the combination of a series of convulsions, a stiff shudder, then an eruption of antimatter, the Star Runner was consumed in a fiery, magnificent explosion. A halo shockwave blossomed out from the blast, shaking their afterburning Centurion as it passed.

The privateer manned the pilot controls, killing the ’burners and preparing to bring the ship into an autopilot course for the Jupiter Confederate HQ Starbase for debriefing. And his reward. No trace of emotion could be seen on the man’s face. Just another contract. A rewarding one, but a contract just the same.

Lance sat in his chair, blankly gazing out the viewports. Looking back at his life beyond the Academy, at the choices he had made, the experiences he had gone through, and the faces of too many lost to the bloodshed he had participated in, he felt as though he understood Blair. Beneath the madness that had arisen from whatever had eaten away at his soul over the years of his lifetime of fighting, Christopher Blair was an honorable man that had been borne into a cruel universe of war, one that could offer him no comfort or solace when it was all said and done.

What he had done wouldnt be given a second thought on file. Self-defense, following orders, duty—they would commend him, maybe even promote him again before sending him back out to Special Operations, the front lines, or wherever else they decided to ship him next. Lance felt only emptiness inside.

Not ever could anything offer a single shred of consolidation for the unthinkable truth that the Heart of the Tiger was gone.

 

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