The Global Intelligence Agency was a public-supported organization that provided information about the other planets and nations in the solar system. Back before the Great Colonization, the GIA had been considered the most powerful agency in the history of mankind. At this point in time, it had outlived its usefulness and was seen as a glorified interplanetary travel agency at best.
Only at this juncture, it was rumored that the Allied Federation had recommissioned the GIA in this time of national emergency. Despite media assurances to the contrary, most citizens felt that the Interplanetary Council was in turmoil. Rumors of war circulated throughout the Federation as spaceships were being hijacked and destroyed as never before. Piracy was increasing at an alarming rate and it was suspected of being encouraged by foreign governments.
Von Kilgore had been summoned to New System City in Imperia, the center of commerce in Panamerica. Although Serenity was the capitol city of the world, New System City was considered the core of the Federation. It was the first city to have been established when planet Alpha was colonized. Although the Scientific Coalition was helping develop the Quadrant at incredible speed, the City remained well ahead of the field and was considered the best place in the entire solar system.
The magnificence of its architecture and infrastructure never ceased to amaze him. He was bedazzled by its majesty as he took the shuttlecraft from the Space Center to GIA Headquarters located in the downtown area. Its skyscrapers stood an average of nine hundred meters tall, glittering against the blue crystal sky and its eternal rainbow. Unlike most of the countries throughout the solar system, the City enjoyed nine months of constant daylight. Only during the winter solstice did it go into day to night mode.
He took the elevator to the one hundred seventieth level where the executive suite was located. It was magnificently furnished in hypermodern style, its chrome and crystal features never failing to impress. The receptionist did a retina scan before admitting him to the inner office of the Executive Director of the GIA, Keith Morpheus.
The Director was a paunchy man with a beard, his blue-eyed gaze analyzing all he surveyed. Legend had it that he was one of the pioneers of the Agency back in the day, back when the power struggles threatened to plunge the world government into civil war. His cyber skills and diplomatic acumen played a major role in the government’s campaign to unite the global community for the common cause. Only Morpheus’ covert activities were never revealed or recognized. He was awarded the government’s most prestigious honors in secret. Most felt it contributed to his mental and physical decline.
Yet he still was a force to be reckoned with. Although Von stood in awe of no man, he still held Morpheus in high esteem. He sat across the desk from the Director after they shook hands, and Morpheus studied his face briefly before commencing.
“I understand that you turned down our offer to reassume your position as a Federal agent,” Morpheus folded his hands over his stomach, leaning back in his chair.
“Yes sir, I’m rather preoccupied at this particular time,” Von replied. He was a tall, handsome man at two meters tall and ninety kilos. His auburn mane enhanced his steely blue gaze and Cupid bow lips, his pale skin reddened on wind-swept moons and sun-drenched asteroids. “I’ve got a merchandising company on Oryx that’s just starting to earn credits. We’ve established some trade routes with the Betans that are turning a profit.”
“Are you dealing with the Betan government, with licensed traders? Or are you out there playing the black market?”
“I refuse to answer on the grounds it may incriminate me,” Von replied with a straight face before breaking into a smirk. “Come on, Keith. You know the Terranean tax rate is fifty percent, and it costs five million credits to buy a traders’ license. You have to earn a fortune on your first deal just to stay in business. Besides, no one I know is dealing in weapons or illegal chemicals. All anyone is trying to do is make enough to come back to earth and go corporate.”
“I’m not going to beat around the bush,” Morpheus met his gaze. “You’re one of our best agents. Always have been, always will be. We’re on the verge of a System breakdown with the Stone kidnapping crisis. If we don’t recover that girl soon, the Scorpions are going to build outposts along our borders that will lead to a gamma showdown. They’re already deep inside the Terranean and Deltan quadrants. If their position grows any stronger they could build enough leverage to cause an economic depression.”
“No one wants another war, everyone knows that,” Jon insisted. “Mankind can’t survive another one. The entire human race is hanging by a thread. Even the Scorpions aren’t crazy enough to take us down that road.”
“With Vernu Hyte in control, anything’s possible. Intelligence reports indicate he’s appointed Qom Diabolus as his Imperial Star Marshal. If that’s the case, then there’s no doubt they intend to radicalize the entire System. We’re not just dealing with a totalitarian regime any longer. We’re dealing with fanatics.”
“Hyte is a humanist, he’s anti-religion,” Jon pointed out. “I read his profile on Starnet. Why would he throw in with a bunch of religious freaks?”
“Same reason why anyone else would,” Morpheus shook his head. “He doesn’t want to get his head chopped off, or get hit with the Plague, or whatever else those psychos do.”
“So what’s in it for me?”
“Intelligence reports indicate that Sheliya Stone was skyjetting with her friends outside of Eden City off the Paradise coast. State Police found four wrecked skyjets along the shore, only three bodies. Two weeks later there was a message to the Presidential Palace on Starnet. It said Ms. Stone was being held captive until the Federation signed the Non-Aggression Treaty. A satellite scan showed that a Deltan warship was in the area shortly before the abduction occurred. The Deltans are denying any involvement and have placed a five hundred million credit bounty on the kidnappers.”
“That’s a lot of credits,” Von whistled.
“Look, we both know that the Deltans will probably renege on the deal. We’ve got enough leverage to make sure they pay at least half. That’s enough for you to retire on. You could start an asteroid colony or colonize a moon in the Betan Quadrant with that many credits. Plus the Government is offering a two hundred million reward for Ms. Stone’s return. That is payable on demand.”
“So what’s the downside, besides tracking down a Deltan warship?”
“This man,” Morpheus accessed his console and booted up his desktop hologram. “Captain Gravas Drachna, Imperial Starfleet. He fought under Star Marshal Shaver during the Cetan Civil War. He’s a war hero, he’s earned every one of their highest honors. He’s the last of Emperor Scorpius’ Old Guard, all the rest are retired, cashiered or murdered. The Dark Knights have taken over the Imperial Guard, and Drachna’s the last holdout.”
“What’s the Empire got to do with this?”
“Drachna met Ms. Stone at a Presidential banquet a couple of years ago. A diplomatic and military delegation were invited, and observers said it was love at first sight. They’ve met a couple of times since then and exchanged correspondence on a regular basis despite the blackout between nations. When he found out she was kidnapped, he went on the warpath.”
Von studied the image of a tall, muscular man with well-styled black hair, fierce dark eyes and a cruel mouth. He figured Drachna was about his size, give or take a couple of kilos.
“He commandeered an Imperial starship and went out in search of the warship. The Empire denied the rumor, since they claim they only have three starships in accordance with the Non-Proliferation Pact. Nonetheless, we’re getting reports of Deltan warships being destroyed throughout the System over the past month. Drachna’s on their trail and they’re running for their lives.”
“So I have a rogue warship holding the President’s daughter hostage, with seven hundred million credits in bounties on their heads. It’s probably manned by a crack team of Deltan mercenaries, who have an Imperial starship on their tail. And I’m supposed to get them first and collect the prize.”
“If anyone can do it, you can, Von,” Morpheus insisted. “You’re our best agent and you’ve got connections all over the System. The kidnappers can’t stay on the run without fuel and supplies. You trace their credit trail and you’ll find them.”
“Okay,” he was reluctant. “I’ll need a Federal credit line, and I’m taking Zane Ramjet with me.”
“Of course, your right hand man. Where would you be without him?”
About a half hour later, Von met with Zane at the Saturn Tower a couple of blocks from the GIA Tower Building. They met at the Galactica Lounge, an upscale facility that was restricted to Class I and II citizens. It was located on the 140th floor, its glass walls affording them a panoramic view of the cityscape and the shuttlecrafts cruising above the streets at different levels.
They were irked at getting carded but knew that it was about wearing their Class III combat spacesuits. They ordered drinks after being seated at a corner booth and being served by a Deltan waitress.
“I’ll tell you, I’ve got a thing for green-tinted women,” Zane chuckled as he watched their waitress sashay back to the service area.
“I prefer those blue-skinned Cetans myself,” Von nodded, stirring his Chrysalis Crush. “Though they’re getting as scarce as natural wildlife.”
“Say, you boys need a jump?”
They looked up and saw two green-skinned Deltan women scantily clad in tight-fitting spacesuits. They were attractive though rough around the edges. They produced a transactor, and Von swiped his ID stick to make the buy. The women then crawled under the table and hooked their joysticks up to the partners’ jumpsuits. Immediately the sensory experience of carnal ecstasy jolted their nervous system with indescribable force.
“Damn! Damn!” Von managed to gasp as his body began to spasm.
“Hope you enjoyed the ride, gentlemen,” the women detached the joysticks and crawled out from under the table. The experience was such that the partners mentally experienced an hour of unbridled sex with the women in less than a minute.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to finish this,” he reached for his glass as Zane slumped lifelessly in the seat beside him.
“I’m pretty sure it would finish me,” Zane croaked.
“You know, this establishment frowns on that kind of activity,” a tall manager came over. “We’d appreciate it if you reported any such solicitations in future.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll report it now. They damn near killed me.”
“Thanks for your cooperation,” he walked off. “Enjoy your evening.”
“So you coming in on this?” Von asked, giving the manager the finger as he returned to the service area.
“I think I’m gonna pass,” Zane said softly as he stirred his Dandelion Daze. “I’ve got some family problems I got to take care of.”
“Family problems? Are you kidding me?” Von raised his eyebrows.
“I told you I’ve got a sister and other relatives living along the Betan frontier,” Zane explained. He was a swarthy man with a hawkish face and an unruly mop of black hair, standing two meters tall with a wiry frame. “She contacted me and said that they’ve been dealing with border raids for months now. One of my uncles was killed last week. The Empire has been sending troops across the border on a regular basis and the Terraneans aren’t doing anything to stop them.”
The Beta Quadrant was ruled by the Terranean Alliance, heirs of the European Council which collapsed after World War III at the end of the century. They were in a constant state of flux in dealing with shortages and power struggles that kept them in a state of near-anarchy. As a result, their territories were largely ungoverned and overrun by pirate gangs and mercenary armies. The Empire was establishing military outposts in Betan territory though constantly denying their incursions before the Interplanetary Council.
“Look, we can sink two ships with one shot,” Von insisted. “In all likelihood, the kidnappers are hiding out in the Beta Quadrant. They’d be suicidal if they were in the Ceta or Delta Quadrants. And they’re damn sure not in Alpha. We can go in there and help your family relocate. We can do some recon and develop some leads while we’re there.”
“I’ll tell you, Von,” Zane was hesitant. “You and I have been friends for a long time. I’d never ask you to risk your life if it wasn’t necessary. You don’t need to be part of this. The Empire’s coming down hard in the territory. I don’t even know if I’ll make it back. I just can’t stand by and let my family get slaughtered.”
“Hey,” Von grabbed his wrist. “Are we brothers from another mother or what? How many times have you saved my life? There’s no way in Sheol that I let you go alone. We get this done, then we go find Sheliya Stone and go get paid.”
“All right,” he agreed. “I just want you to know that I’m gonna stay there as long as it takes. I’m not leaving the colony without them.”
“You got it, partner,” the men exchanged hand chops. “You wouldn’t be my first mate if you did,”
* * * * *
Over a billion kilometers away, a Deltan warship hovered in the stratosphere above a barren asteroid along the outermost regions of the Beta Quadrant. It had dispatched a squadron of scavenger vessels to the surface in search of provisions. The ship’s command was on edge, not only hoping to find sustenance for its forty-man crew but that they would not be detected by a military patrol unit.
“Have we made any progress with the prisoner yet?” Captain Misch asked as he perused the scanners on the command deck.
“None whatsoever,” his first mate Commander Xamon replied. “She grows more resistant by the day. She demands that we either kill her or release her. We’ve tried everything. Air and sleep deprivation, vitamin diet, drug interrogation, and mild to moderate torture techniques. The more she endures, the more obstinate she gets. She is like her mother, with a head of titanium.”
“Damn her,” he said, switching on a monitor that provided a direct link to her cell. “Citizen Stone. This is Captain Misch.”
“Good morning,” the forlorn girl sat hunched on her cot in the barren room. “Or is it still night time?”
“It is morning. I trust you had your breakfast.”
“Is that what you call it?”
“Trust me, Citizen, the entire crew is on rations at this time.”
“So what kind of Army are you people running?” she demanded, standing up to face the video camera. She was a beautiful woman, standing just under two meters, with an athletic full-bosomed physique. She had long auburn hair, ivory skin, alluring violet eyes and ruby lips. When she was captured she was breathtaking with makeup, but her natural beauty was even more striking. It was as comparing a work of art to an exquisite flower.
“We are quite far from our home base, rest assured. There are many ships on alert searching for us. Yet we are resolved to elude them as long as it takes. All we need you to do is plead with your mother to sign the Non-Aggression Treaty. Once she agrees, we will release you to the Federation and peace will be returned to the System along with you.”
“Never!” she raged. “I’ll never betray my planet! Your people have violated the original agreement time and time again. You and the Empire are trying to control the entire System, and you’ll use military force if necessary. We have a right to defend ourselves, and we’re not going to disarm and leave our nation unprotected.”
“I’m not here to discuss or argue politics with you,” Misch said crisply. “I just wanted to let you know we will be skipping lunch today.”
“You can stick it up your---!” Sheliya yelled before she was cut off.
“This was a terrible mistake, a horrible blunder,” Xamon was forlorn. “We should have waited for the order from the Military Council. Now the entire System is in pursuit of us. We have nowhere to run, no place to hide.”
“We’ve discussed this over a dozen times, I grow tired of it,” Misch was gruff. “It was the best available opportunity. The girl was under constant surveillance by the Secret Service. We could have never captured her had she not chosen to go skyjetting with her friends. It would have looked like an accident had we not shot them down over the seashore. Yet if we had waited and fired when they were at a higher altitude, they would have died from the fall. We would not have had to shoot them as they fled.”
“Then we would have killed her as well,” Xamon moaned. “What are we to do?”
“Do? What can we do?” Misch growled. “Either this bitch makes that video or we all starve to death unless we are destroyed by an enemy ship. If we force her to comply, the Federation ‘s analysts will detect it on the transmission. She has to be a willing participant or the Federation will accuse us of torture. They will sever diplomatic ties with the Republic, and we will be court-martialed and executed.”
The Republic of Delta was a reformed coalition of nations that once comprised the Asian Confederacy of the planet Earth. After the Great Colonization, the Confederacy held a summit conference on Delta and declared itself a Socialist Republic. The Republic was essentially a military dictatorship though its political philosophy was dictated by its corporate leaders. Both factions reluctantly conceded the fact that the military could not run an industrial conglomerate, and vice versa.
As it was from the beginning, the capitalist Federation was the forerunner in technological advancement as scientists and engineers were well compensated and rewarded for their contributions. Their society was complemented by the socialist Alliance, which also compensated entrepreneurs though providing excessive support for dependent colonies that ultimately hindered growth.
Alternately, the totalitarian Deltans forced everyone to work for the State at a set wage and equal benefits. The Empire was just as uncompromising, though more of their budget went to military expense instead of social programs. Religious indoctrination was as the opiate of the masses, and all who resisted were liquidated.
“What of the rumors on Starnet that Captain Drachna is hunting for us with an Imperial starship?” Xamon lowered his voice.
“That is nothing but capitalist propaganda,” Misch dropped back into his defensive rhetoric. “You know that enemies of the State will use every deception to further their agenda. First of all, Drachna is a member of the Old Guard, all of whom have been eliminated by the imperialist regime. He no longer exists. And even if he did, do you believe the Empire would authorize the use of a starship to search for us? If he had gone insane and commandeered a ship according to the reports, what crew would have gone along with him? Upon return every single one of them would be subjected to a slow, grisly death.”
“It’s what’s going to happen to us,” Xamon’s voice trembled.
“Nonsense!” Misch bolted from his seat and walked over to a far corner. “Once that girl makes the video, we will be hailed as national heroes. She cannot hold out forever. She has been in solitary confinement for nearly a month, living on a starvation diet. She has been subjected to constant psychological and physical stress. After coming from her sheltered environment, eventually this will become more than she can endure. Time is on our side, let us remain patient.”
“I worry about you, I worry about us,” Xamon put his arms around the waist of his domestic partner. Though the Republic had set a hardline against homosexuality, they disregarded it in the military due to its exclusion of women. Like ancient Sparta, the Republic saw it as the lesser evil facing troops deployed in outer space for years at a time.
“We will be fine, my dear,” Misch glared around at the deck hands, who busily diverted their attention elsewhere. “We have not come this far to meet with failure and exile. This is our time, our destiny. This girl will be the means for our advancement, our golden opportunity for our future together. Yeoman Chon, let the Commander see what we have in store for our guest.”
The stout woman came forth with a small plastic container. Xamon’s skin crawled as he beheld a tilton in the box. The tilton was a mutated palmetto bug, genetically deformed by radiation exposure. It was six centimeters in length and two centimeters thick, with long hairy legs and the head of a horsefly. The ugly insect was coated with a sticky substance that caused terrible itching, exacerbated by bites from the creature.
“I have a dozen of these insects that I will release in her cell after we extinguish the lights. We will restore the lights once they are crawling all over her. I have never met a female who could stand the touch of an insect. Wouldn’t you agree, Yeoman Chon?”
The heavy-set woman cringed at the thought.
* * * * *
The farming colony on the Herne asteroid had begun to stir just hours earlier. Established over three years ago, it was a haven for Class III citizens with no prospects other than bare survival in the resettlement colonies. Living under government subsidies, they were provided with basic agricultural machinery and a limited budget for trade and commerce. The farmers worked from sunrise to sunset in the artificial atmosphere, laboring to stimulate crop growth from the barren soil.
It was around noon when the workers took their lunch break. They sipped water, doused themselves and rested their bones as their womenfolk came onto the field with soups, stews and bread. It was the high point of the day in most cases. At the end of the day, most of the men were too tired to do anything but return to their homes and sleep until dawn. Yet they shared the dream of turning a profit and one day being able to hire others to carry on the work.
On this day, there was an ominous droning noise coming from the mountainside. At first they thought it was a government supply ship, but knew it was far too early in the month. They watched in unison as transport crafts appeared from the clouds, slowly descending until they landed just outside the fields.
They watched in bewilderment as they saw four-man teams emerging from the transports. They wore black helmets, face masks and cloaks over their combat suits. They carried xaser weapons and bore the insignia of the Dark Knights. It was a black rectangle with a pentagram against a white circle. One man carried a banner which he brought over to the flagpole where the Alliance flag was flown.
“Hail, friends,” the leader of the colony stepped forth. “We are having our midday meal, but we have enough to share. I’m sure you have traveled a distance to get here.”
“We are here under the authority of the Order of the Dark Knights,” a lieutenant came to face him. “Our mission is to confirm your loyalty to the powers that rule over this Solar System.”
“We are loyal citizens of the Beta Quadrant, and have pledged our allegiance to the Terranean Alliance,” the man seemed puzzled.
“And which god do you serve?” the soldier demanded.
“Why, we are Believers,” the man was reverent. “We worship the One True God.”
“Sun worshippers,” he said mockingly, turning to his colleagues. “You have been deceived by your government, tricked into following an ancient belief system that no longer exists. Can’t you see how they have abandoned you, cast you aside in this wasteland where you will work until you die for nothing?”
“Our labor is beginning to yield results,” the man smiled softly. “We have finally come to the point where we have surplus crops to trade at the market. We may not have more than enough, but we do have enough to give to you and your men for your journey.”
“You give to us?” the commando was derisive. “We have ample supplies of meat and dairy products on our ship. It is we who come to give to you. Today we bring freedom, liberation from the weak and useless system that enslaves you.”
“We are free citizens,” the man asserted. “We have come here of our own accord to raise our families and build a future.”
“You are building on barren ground, citizen,” the soldier hissed. “We are sons of Belial, the god of this universe. We now give you the opportunity to declare your allegiance to Belial and turn away from your false idolatry.”
“What is this?” the man was confused. “Religious freedom is one of our basic rights. Perhaps you have reason to stand against the government, but you cannot ask us to deny our God.”
“You are a fool,” the soldier raised his weapon. “Either your head will be lowered to the ground as you bow in reverence before Belial, or it will roll across the dirt as we cut it off your neck.”
“I will not deny my God,” the man was steadfast. “Do as you will, but let my wife and children not see this.”
“They will bear witness to your foolishness before they are given the choice between life and death.”
“Take my hand, O God, I am coming home,” he said as he was forced to his knees by another fighter.
At once there were a series of explosions in the sky, followed by another buzzing noise more shrill and insistent than the first. The multitude watched in astonishment as a swarm of drones descended on the field as a metallic cloud. The commandos were shocked as the drones began firing xaser bursts at them, burning as molten lava upon impact. They tried to fire back but the drones flew directly at them when hit by a xaser beam. The drones exploded against their victims, and soon the field was covered with dead soldiers and wrecked drones.
Eventually a black shuttlecraft came down from the sky, and black-clad soldiers bearing the Scorpion insignia rushed onto the field. They kicked the miniature aircraft out of their path and stepped over the corpses, training their rifles on the terrified colonists. At length they made way for a helmeted man in black, his black cloak swirling in the wind.
“Who else is here?” he demanded. “Are there any Deltan troops here?”
“Deltans?” the leader trembled. “No, kind sir. Only these soldiers. They claimed to be the sons of Belial. They were about to kill us. You saved our lives.”
“Sons of Belial,” the man scoffed. “The offspring of idiots. Are you certain they were not here in pursuit of Deltans?”
“No sir. We have seen no Deltans here.”
“Unfortunately I cannot leave any evidence of our presence behind,” the man said. “You will have to evacuate this asteroid before we destroy it. You have fifteen minutes.”
“Sir, we have no means of escape. Please spare our homes.”
“The Betans will recompense you under their Resettlement Act,” the man replied. “Are those not shuttlecrafts parked nearby?”
“Yes, sir, but where will they take us?”
“I saw a warship hovering above the clouds. Can you fly one?”
“Yes, but they only carry sixty people at most. There are a hundred of us.”
“We will carry the rest to the nearest populated asteroid. From there you can summon assistance. All I demand from you is your solemn oath that you and yours will never admit to having seen us.”
“You have my word,” the man agreed.
“Good,” the man in black nodded. “Lieutenant, escort the people to the shuttlecrafts. Give the order to the crew to stand by for the destruction of this asteroid in fifteen minutes.”
The soldier saluted his superior and proceeded to follow orders.
The colonists watched in awe as Captain Grav Drachna returned to his aircraft and ascended into the clouds.