Fates entwined is the beginning of a much larger story I am writing, titled "The Pilgrimage". The finished book will be roughly 120,000 words, or roughly 450 pages. I have toiled roughly a year on this - going through revisions, changing of characters and backgrounds, refinement, and, at times, complete deletion of the work I began and starting over with a completely blank word document. And I am more than sure that, when I submit the final copy (of my revisions) editors will have their say and force me to revise again.
Author's Note: This story takes place in the year 2304. Earth is uninhabitable, and humanity has populated the other planets and moons in the Solar System. I will write more in the following weeks about the universe this, and following, books will take place in.
So, without further ado, is the introductory story (or first chapter, however you like to look at it) of "The Pilgrimage". Please let me know what you think. Constructive criticism is very welcome.
The door hissed open and she was greeted by the sight of a Sternvolker standing dominantly behind a desk in the center of the room. The centrifuge imparted .5 gravity on its occupants, and a lifetime of living in zero-G made even the light gravity oppressive to the young astrogatress as she strolled in. She tried to look confident and prayed the dye in her hair wouldn’t run.
As Amelia Krueger stepped into the small, rented office, she sized up her would-be employer. He was handsome, if a bit rough around the edges. A shock of blond hair topped a pale face while silver, feline eyes studied her as a hunting cat studies its prey. His jet-black spacer suit was accented with deep crimson in the reinforced shoulders and elbows. The man was clearly fit, his suit betraying a body shaped and sculpted from years of exercise and fighting. Over his shoulders he wore a half cloak in the style many Sternvolke ship captains adopted; his was made of Elysian white tiger fur.
“Henrietta Hahn,” the man stated, using the false name she had provided him.
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
He extended his hand, his hard look never changing for a moment. “I am Peter Drexel, Captain of the Loki. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Amelia took the proffered hand, attempting to give a strong shake to portray herself as confident.
“The pleasure is mine, Herr Kapitän,” she said.
They both took their seats and Peter steeped his fingers in front of his face.
“I was quite impressed by your resume,” he began. “For a lower echelon astrogatress, that is.”
Though her name was falsified, her education and experience she had left pure.
“I worked hard to earn the grades and postings I was given,” she said simply. “I had help from no one.”
Now that was a lie, but she let it roll off her tongue as easily as if it were the God-honest truth. No need to betray her identity by letting the details of her family slip.
Peter nodded. “Excellent. Now you know, even with your records, I can’t pay you very well.”
Amelia just nodded. “I understand. I have to prove myself to you first.”
A harsh laugh barked from the Captain’s throat. “No, actually I’m dirt poor. Got a second-hand ship with a loan. I’ll pay you what I can, with the promise that I’ll reimburse you when I make it big.”
She had no clue what to say. Here was this man, ship and all, and he didn’t have a single cent to his name. It astounded Amelia – and, she had to admit, impressed her a little.
“That is fine,” she replied with a nod. “I accept your terms. What class of ship it?”
“Old-style Voyager-class frigate,” Peter said as he filled out some documentation on his personal data pad.
“Oh,” Amelia chirped. “Such vessels require three astrogators. With whom will I be working with?”
Those predator eyes speared her over the edge of the PDP.
“No one,” he admitted. “You’re the only brain-job that answered the request I put out.”
Amelia was shocked, both at the racial slur and the fact she would be administering a ship alone. She was unused to both.
“W-w-what?” she stammered.
“That’s right,” Peter chuckled, giving her a broad, leonine grin. “You’re in the spotlight, Ms. Hahn. Welcome to the crew of the Loki.”
Peter watched the petite astrogatress retreat from the tiny office he had procured for the duration of the hiring. She was cute, though those light brown eyes and chocolate colored hair made her look very plain-Jane, even as astrogatresses went. But, he admitted to himself as he added her name and details to his crew roster, she was very doable. Maybe, if some voyages got long and lonely…
Reviewing his list, he was almost complete. He had a short technical crew – two personnel where six were required – a hearty, somewhat portly man named Zoryn Revnik, and his pretty little assistant, Maria Bittner. The engineering crew was short, too, with only the chief engineer, Josef Hannover, and his two subordinates. Berget Sondheim was an experienced shuttle pilot, and the promise of adventure seemed to eclipse the lack of money he was paying her. His medical team, a Doctor Hans Nussbaum and his wife and assistant, Rita, were more than happy to have some work, too. And, finally, his cargo master, Felix Warkaiser, was short an assistant. The geezer seemed content regardless. Not that Peter had any cargo yet, anyway.
But things were finally coming together. Everyone told him they wouldn’t, that he would fail before he even started. His friends said he was crazy. His parents were vehemently against this whole thing. But Peter was going to do it. He was going to strike out on his own Pilgrimage – a true test of a Sternvolker’s strength and resilience – and return a legend. He would show them he was worth something. He would show them he wasn’t a screw up, like everyone thought.
“I’ll show all of them,” he growled to himself.
A chime at the door heralded his next appointment.
“Enter!” he called.
And immediately regretted it. A mountain shrugged into the cramped workplace. It stood well over two meters, and every inch of his bulk was pure muscle. His white skin was detailed with numerous winding tattoos of dragons, dire wolves, and god-like ursine, trailing from his bald scalp, past the thick, bark-brown beard, and into the collar of his coyote tan, military-style spacer suit. Beady, intelligent eyes stared at Peter from above.
“I am Balder Faltskog,” the mountain spoke, his voice betraying a strong Scada accent. “I am the Stallari of a five man squad, specializing in general security.”
“Peter Drexel,” Peter introduced himself, attempting to regain his composure. “I am Captain of the Loki.”
Balder nodded, and Peter swore that the centrifuge would shake – it didn’t.
“I saw your ad on the net,” the mercenary explained. “It seemed like the best job we’ve had in a while.”
Peter nodded. “I heard about what happened on Olympus Mons. Bad business having a bent employer. Especially when he’s a high ranking Technocrat.”
“Indeed,” Balder agreed. “Right now my men and I are under scrutiny of the community fleet business bureau. I think it’s more for being caught being associated with a smuggling operation rather than actually being associated with it. We figure an easy job would be good to clear up our name. And if all works out, perhaps we can work together in the future.”
“I agree,” Peter said. “If you’re willing, I’ll accept your offer now and we’ll hash out the details of the contract.”
Balder nodded and extended his hand. “Bargained and done.”
Peter shook and smiled. “To a profitable future.”
Balder stepped through the office door and felt relieved. An immense weight had just been lifted off of his massive shoulders, and the giant Stallari could finally breathe a sigh of relief. He quickly made his way out of the centrifuge and to the micro-hotel in the community ship where he and his men were staying for the time being. Upon entering the hall of living pods – better known as coffins – Balder was immediately greeted by the sight of his men.
“You’re back,” Borge Selvik noted. “Any news, Stallari?”
Borge Selvik had been with Balder the longest, and was his de facto second in command, his Thegn. Though the younger mercenary was nowhere near Balder’s height, he still sported a rock solid build. Long brown hair was pulled into a pony tail at the back of Borge’s head, and deep blue eyes like the oceans of Mars examined everything they saw.
“Excellent news,” Balder replied, waving his PDP in front of his men. “Some easy work for the next six months. The contract is signed and we start in two days.”
“Who’s the employer?” Eyolf “The Wolf” Aune asked. “Can he at least keep his illegal activities quiet?”
Eyolf Aune personified his namesake, his dark brown hair shot through with premature gray, giving his long mane the appearance of wolf’s fur. His hazel eyes shimmered gold in the artificial light of the cramped micro-hotel. His face, tattooed like all of his comrades, sported a long scar down his right cheek and over his mouth, giving the man a permanent sneer. Some said he was a wolf, merely taking human form for the time being. Eyolf did little discourage this theory.
“A ship captain,” Balder said. “Seems like a straight shooter. Although from the way he talks he seems like one of those nuts who are out on the Pilgrimage.”
There was a string of curses.
“Why sign with him then, Stallari?” Ragnar Torfassen inquired. “He’s liable to get us killed.”
Ragnar Torfassen was younger than Borge and Eyolf, but still a solid warrior. To anyone he looked rather plain; brown hair, blue eyes, tanned (unlike many Sternvolke who spent most of their lives holed up on ships), fit. But, beyond the swirling tattoos that decorated his body were dozens of scars, marking him a veteran of numerous actions.
“I made it clear,” Balder began, “that we will not be used for offensive operations. We are strictly security. We use our presence as a deterrent, and we fight only when we are forced to. Nothing crazy.”
Asbjorn Holdremyr shrugged. “Sounds good to me. Do we know where we’re going yet?”
The youngest of Balder’s small command, Balder had hired Asbjorn Holdremyr a year and a half prior, and had been overwhelmingly pleased with the youth’s performance. What he lacked in experience he made up for in motivation and desire to learn. The young man cut his dirty-blond hair relatively short, and his watery blue eyes exuded youthful confidence.
“Don’t know yet,” Balder admitted. “Our employer will tell us in two day’s time.
“Don’t worry, gents. This will be an easy job to get us back on our feet. I’ll make sure you’re all taken care of.”
Eyolf gave his commander a lupine grin. “We know, Stallari. Just make sure this guy does the same.”
Two days later and Peter already had work. The fact that he could market a full crew with security detachment had helped. And what a deal it was. A high ranking astrogator had wanted to meet with him and his security chief (Peter was still not sure how Balder felt about the title) immediately. Both Peter and Balder ensured they were decked out in their finest attire. Peter sported a formal, black suit with a high mandarin collar, polished shoes, and his half-cloak of tiger fur draped over his right shoulder. Balder looked every inch the professional in a light tan collared shirt and pants, tan sports jacket, tie, and pristine suede combat boots.
It wasn’t everyday one was given a personal audience with an astrogator scion.
The man seated across from the two Sternvolke was sickly thin. Emaciated would have been a better word, like the victim of some terrifying holocaust. His pale, bald scalp was dotted with contact nodes, and his eyes were jade green, the low light in the room picking up on flecks in those ominous orbs. But, for all the man’s apparent weakness, he exuded power and confidence. This was Brandt Krueger von Luedeker, a scion of the vaunted von Luedeker Astrogator House. The von Luedeker House held considerable sway in both the politics of the community fleet and the solar system as a whole. Any thoughts of crossing this man died instantly.
“Thank you for meeting on such short notice,” Brandt rasped, his voice hoarse from decades of connectivity. “My family is in deep anguish, Herr Drexel.”
“It is not a problem, your eminence,” Peter replied respectfully. “What seems to be the problem?”
The astrogator leaned forward in his chair, resting his hands on the opulent mahogany desk before him.
“It is my daughter,” Brandt said, tapping a few buttons on the desk’s pristine finish.
Immediately an inlaid screen presented a picture of a stunning young woman, her white-blond hair falling to her shoulders, intense green eyes, a gift from her father’s genetic legacy, staring back at them.
She looked vaguely familiar, though Peter couldn’t put his finger on it.
“Her name is Amelia,” the scion continued. “She is my only daughter. Several days ago she ran away, as idealistic children do at times. From what my agents tell me she fled the community fleet and took a commercial shuttle to the surface to Olympus Mons.”
At the mention of the god-mountain Balder tensed a little. Only Peter seemed to notice as Brandt wheezed on.
“If you choose to take this job, I will provide you with the grid coordinates of where she is most likely located. And, of course, I will pay a substantial sum.”
“How much are we talking about,” Peter asked, attempting not to sound too excited.
The astrogator’s eyes flicked up for a moment, the artificial, computer-part of the man’s brain processing the data. Half a moment later his eyes clicked back, piercing Peter and Balder with their ghastly glance.
“Five hundred thousand,” Brandt said.
“I believe that will be enough,” Peter said, fighting to maintain his composure. “Don’t worry, your eminence. We’ll find your daughter in no time.”
Brandt thanked them, and House von Luedeker guards quickly whisked the two giddy Sternvolke out of the astrogator hold.
Inside and out Peter was rejoicing. This was it, the start to his fortune and fame.
“Easy money,” Peter cackled. “We’ll find this little tart and I will be well on my way to being rich.”
Balder gave his new employer a side-long glance. “I just want to make sure you don’t forget us.”
Peter waved off the big brute.
“I would never forget a promise or a contract, Faltskog. You and your men will be paid handsomely for your work, don’t you worry.”
Balder grunted and nodded.
“I am curious, though,” Balder said. “Why didn’t the scion just send his own men down there? They have to be a thousand times more able than us.”
“Martian governments get skittish when Sternvolke agents start running through their streets,” Peter replied. “Especially Olympus Mons. The Technocrats are jealous of their sovereignty and power. Best to send a small team of hired help so as not to draw attention.”
“Makes sense,” Balder concurred. “So where to first?”
The noble sat alone at his table. The pristine china and glittering cutlery placed perfectly for others, but only he was there, eating his kingly dinner by himself. Though light shined over the table, the rest of the room was dark, reinforcing his solitude. It was a bleak existence Lord Phillip Red Firster lived, or so he thought. At the age of forty he had neither wives nor heirs. Other Olympian Technocrats had married by now, normally to two or three spouses (his friend Lord Eustice Landerson had five wives!). But here he was, the last of the Firster line, not a woman to be seen.
It’s not that he didn’t like women. On the contrary, he loved the opposite sex. But his desire for Olympian women, or even the ladies of Mars itself, was lacking.
Lord Phillip Red Firster desired an astrogatress bride.
He had been addicted to the fantasy since he was an adolescent and a delegation of the Star Folk visited his home. In the retinue of the visiting official were two of the most beautiful fays he had every laid eyes on. They were magnificent. So serene and ephemeral. Each movement so careful yet purposeful. Their sublime beauty mesmerized him.
But no astrogatress would have him. They were all stuck up on their community ships, or aloof of normal human dealings. So there he was, lonely and longing.
He almost missed the telltale swish of the door behind him and the lighter-than-air steps that passed through it.
“I know you’re there, Archibald,” Firster grumbled.
Firster’s head agent stepped into the light and bowed apologetically. “I meant no disrespect, your Lordship. I merely did not want to disturb your meal.”
Firster waved off the House master agent. “No harm done, Archibald. What news do you have for me tonight?”
“Engineerson is planning to push forward with his petition against us over the territorial dispute.”
Firster snorted. “That young jackass needs to learn his place. He’s not as powerful as his mother was. I’ll see the bastard in court over it.”
Archibald nodded and then continued. “The Star Folk community fleet has been in orbit for a week now. Their people are expanding into the different Martian states with their regular enthusiasm.”
Nodding, Firster continued to eat. “Might be good to hire some logistics assets from them. Help move House Firster products.”
“Indeed,” Archibald agreed. “There is a bit of news you may be interested in, my Lord.”
“Oh?” Firster said, cocking an eyebrow, but only half interested. “Well, out with it man.”
“It seems the daughter of a high ranking astrogator has run away and is somewhere on Olympus Mons.”
Firster’s eyes widened, and the House master agent could see the gears in his Lord’s head beginning to work in overdrive.
“That’s terrible,” the middle-aged Technocrat exclaimed.
“The young woman’s father has already hired a man to find her. Some Star Folk captain and his thugs.”
Tapping a finger to his chin, Firster ran through the possibilities. He was planning, and Archibald felt very sorry for anyone involved in his Lord’s plots.
“Follow this captain and his people,” Firster said slowly. “Keep me updated on where they go and what they find. If anyone can find this little lost astrogatress, they can. And we will be poised to take her from them.”
“They will resist.” Archibald stated.
Firster gave his master agent a cruel smile. “And we will deal with them.”
With their first job on Mars instead of half way across the solar system, Peter left most of his crew on the Loki in order to complete maintenance and set up of the well used craft (trusting them not to jump ship and abscond with anything). The vivacious, taught shuttle pilot, Berget Sondheim, transported the rest of the group to the surface – including Amelia.
“Why do you require my assistance, Herr Kapitän?” she asked, a little nervously.
“You’re a brain…er, astrogatress, much like our target, Ms. Hahn. You may have some insight into what she’s thinking or where she may go.”
“And where might that be?” she asked.
The Sternvolker captain shrugged. “Hell if I know. I’m not one of you. Where do your spoiled princesses go to hide when they’re mad at daddy?”
Amelia’s pride was pricked just then, and she almost let it bubble over. But she realized that Peter wasn’t talking about her. Amelia nodded thoughtfully.
“I see your point, Herr Kapitän,” she feigned to agree. “Where were some of the places our target’s father identified?”
Peter lifted his PDP and brought up the mapped locations.
“First stop is the Librarium Maximus Olympus Mons,” Peter stated. “Largest library in the solar system. Her father says she adores books.”
Amelia’s heart shot into her throat. All her life Amelia had dreamed of visiting the immense library. Who would have guessed her clandestine adventures would lead her there? Unknown to Amelia a broad smile had plastered itself on her face.
“It looks like someone else enjoys such places,” Balder quipped, a warm grin on his scarred features.
“Oh, well, yes,” Amelia admitted. “Ever since I was little I have always enjoyed reading and learning. I have always longed to visit the Librarium. I was always too busy with my astrogatress training, though.”
For the briefest of moments, Peter let slip a genuine smile. It was nothing big, nothing gaudy or outlandish. It was just a small grin, but, somehow, it drew Amelia closer to this rogue.
“I’ve actually been there,” Peter admitted, almost whispering it. “When I was ten my father enrolled me there. The fleet was visiting Mars at the time, and he thought it would be good for me to be at a real center of knowledge and learning.”
Amelia’s eyes and mouth widened.
“Your father must have been very caring to give you such an opportunity.”
Peter gave a gruff laugh.
“He’s a stubborn ass,” Peter barked. “When I told him I was going on a Pilgrimage he about disowned me. Told me it was a waste of my life.”
Amelia’s eyes turned downward. “My father is also quite cross with me, Herr Kapitän. He…does not agree with my choices. But it is my life, and I plan to live it as I see fit.”
Peter chuckled a bit. “Strong willed for such a lower class astrogatress.” He smiled another pure, real smile, and Amelia felt her knees turn to jelly (she was glad she was sitting). “It’s sexy.”
She felt the blood rush to her face at the blatant come on and she was at a loss for words.
“Um..” was all she managed.
“Two minutes until landing,” Berget’s throaty voice called.
The seven Sternvolke locked in their five-point crash harnesses and prepared for touchdown. The five mercs rapidly checked their weapons with swift, efficient movements. Each sported a compact sub-machine gun, save for Eyolf, who cradled his combat shotgun as lovingly as a mother cradles her child. The Wolf gave Peter a snarling grin.
“Solid slug, sir,” Eyolf said, hefting his shotgun. “It’ll be too easy to bust open locks and burst chests.”
Peter gave the wily man an equally feral smile.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Peter said. “But, if it does, you’ll be the first I call.”
The shuttle – an older, rugged Raptor model that Peter picked up from a military excess auction – settled down on the landing pad with a light thump and hiss of landing gear. With a huff of hydraulics, the rear hatch lowered and the Sternvolke released their bindings.
“Ms. Sondheim,” Peter said as he exited the craft. “Stay with the shuttle. Keep her warmed up and ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
The lean, fit Berget, her chorded muscles rippling as she moved, gave Peter a smart salute.
“Jawohl, Herr Kapitän.”
A brisk monorail ride from the spaceport brought the seven to the Librarium. It was local morning, the sun just peaking over the horizon, splashing everything with bright yellow light. A cool wind was whipping up the side of the gargantuan, extinct volcano that the Olympians called home, and Peter relished the feel on his face.
“So much better than reprocessed air,” he said.
“Thinking of leaving the fleet, sir?” Balder asked. “Going to go mud-sucker on your fellow Sternvolke?”
“Not quite,” Peter replied. “But the constant travel to planets and moons will brighten my mood considerably. Besides, where’s there’s breathable, natural air, there’s people. And where there’re people, there’s money.”
Peter and his hired retinue scaled the tall steps of the Librarium Maximus Olympus Mons, and slowly entered the vaulted doors. Most structures in the solar system were built with the environment in mind. They would be built using the most energy conserving materials and electrical equipment, and, when needed, could be rapidly disassembled or reconfigured. The Librarium, on the other hand, was a solid, unmoving stone structure meant to last until time itself ended. It’s awesome size dwarfed many of the larger industrial and commercial buildings surrounding it. Within its crenellated interior, the library held millions of books, documents, and records. Anything from one year ago to a millennium prior could be accessed within the massive Librarium.
“Old memories,” Peter whispered.
“Did you say something, sir?” Borge Selvik asked.
“Nothing, trooper,” Peter said. “Just admiring the architecture.”
They entered the mighty construct and were immediately taken aback. The entire building was filled to the brim with old-style parchment books, both paperback and hard cover. Down the long aisles stood dozens of exquisite statues of ancient heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses from every pagan pantheon, historical figures from both ancient Earth and Mars’ past, and mighty Technocrats that had ruled on the god-mountain. Beneath the feet of these great men and women were the data stacks where the library’s vast digital database was stored. Sword tips, books, fingers, or finely sculpted birds held the network transmitters that allowed patrons to access the Librarium’s knowledge wirelessly.
Amelia was dumbstruck. It was more magnificent than she could have ever imagined. Here, in this one place, was more knowledge than she could process in three lifetimes, even with her cybernetic implants. How she longed to ply the library database and just read and process for hours and hours. It was incredible.
“Faltskog,” Peter ordered. “I want you and your men to spread out. Each of you has a picture of the girl we’re looking for. Keep in regular contact with me either via radio or data pad.”
“Aye sir,” Balder acknowledged.
“Ms. Hahn,” Peter said, turning to his astrogatress. “You’re coming with me.”
“Yes, Herr Kapitän.”
As they went their separate ways, Peter brought the picture of his target up on his PDP. He couldn’t place his finger on it, but she looked so very familiar.
“Are you coming, Herr Kapitän?” Henrietta asked.
Peter stared at her a moment…then dismissed the thought. There were too many differences.
“Let’s find this lost little girl,” Peter said.
Lord Firster stared at his thirty centimeter personal data pad. Economic information of the family businesses, and local and international news scrawled across the wafer-thin screen. In the center of the display was his personal mail, and a very promising message was highlighted:
To: Firster, Phillip Red
From: Harrington, Archibald
The subjects have made landfall. Their search has begun, but no sure leads. Will continue to update.
This was it. These Star Folk would lead him to his prize. He could almost feel the warmth of the astrogatress’s body. Firster calmed himself and forced his mind to think. How could he speed up the process? The sooner he found his prize, the sooner he could be rid of these Star Folk scum and bargain with the astrogatress’ family.
“There are just too few of them,” Firster exclaimed as he reviewed the pics that Archibald’s men had captured.
Seven Star Folk to find a lone astrogatress on Olympus Mons. The god-mountain itself, not including outlying territories, boasted a population of two million. It was a lot of work and would take a lot of time.
Time that Firster did not have.
“How will they ever be able to find her by themselves?” he mumbled.
And then it hit him.
In a flash of inspiration he began typing furiously on his PDP.
Peter had been wandering the halls of the Librarium for four hours, and his target was nowhere in sight. He and Henrietta did startle a Technocrat prince and princess in a secluded study area. The young woman scurried out, clothes half off, her face flush from being discovered. The young man hadn’t known what to do.
“Next time,” Peter suggested. “Lock the door.”
“Children,” Henrietta stated. “Always finding ways into trouble.”
Peter chuckled. “Memories.”
“Am I to believe that you, Herr Kapitän, swept unsuspecting ladies off to dark places for some face time?”
“Oh, a few,” Peter admitted. “Though I doubt any of them were unsuspecting. I remember one who was actually the instigator…she was a little wild.”
It was Henrietta’s turn to giggle. “How am I supposed to follow such an uncouth ship captain?”
Peter gave her a feral grin. “C’mon, Ms. Hahn, I’m sure you’ve had your share of wild rendezvous in your time. Astrogators have needs, too.”
“W-what?” Henrietta stammered. “N-no! I would never…I mean…that is…”
She sputtered into a fuming silence.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Peter said slyly.
For a moment it seemed like the astrogatress wouldn’t budge.
“When I was seventeen,” she finally divulged. “He was two years older than me. We made out behind a set of pipes in an access corridor.”
“That is it,” Henrietta said, emphasizing with a chop of her small, alabaster hand. “Nothing more.”
“My my,” Peter said. “Such a wild child. What next? Going to show off a bit of ankle?”
This forced a small smile from the still pouting Henrietta.
Both of them giggled quietly as they rounded the corner of a shelf of books – and ran right into Balder.
“You two seem to be having a good time,” Balder said.
Peter’s face transformed back to an emotionless façade.
“Anything?” he asked his hired muscle.
The giant shook his large, bald cranium.
“Nothing, sir. My men on the other side of the Librarium report the same. Were she here, I think we would have spotted her already.”
Peter nodded acknowledgement.
“Alright, have your people meet us at the entrance. We’ll head to the next suspected location.”
Balder was about to radio Borge and Eyolf when half a dozen men surrounded the five Sternvolke.
“Friends of yours?” Peter asked the powerful Stallari.
“I was about to ask you the same question,” Balder snorted.
Henrietta shook her head vigorously, her eyes wide with fear.
There was a moment of tense anticipation, the Sternvolke awaiting the first move of the Olympians. Peter’s hands slowly drifted to his hip-holstered .45 caliber pistol, and Balder, Ragnar, and Asbjorn held their fingers just short of their weapons’ triggers. Weaponless, Henrietta cowered behind Peter.
“Mr. Drexel,” one of the Martians – a tall, non-descript man – asked.
“Yes?” Peter answered cautiously.
“We mean you no harm,” the man said, showing empty hands. “Our Lord has invited you to his manor. He heard about your search and wishes to assist you.”
Peter wasn’t sure why, but something felt very wrong about all of this.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Lord Phillip Red Firster announced as Peter and his hired team walked into his broad, opulent office in the Firster Manor. “I learned of the disappearance of one of your illustrious people and was moved to lend my aid.”
Though he felt very uncomfortable with everything, Peter nodded respectfully.
“Thank you, your Lordship.”
“Please, no thanks are needed,” Firster reassured the Star Folk captain. “It is my duty as a Technocrat to do the right thing. Please, be seated.”
At a signal from Firster, two servants swept in, quickly and quietly, and served the group tea, crackers, and cold cuts; all beautifully decorated to give it an air of refinement.
“So then,” Firster began as he sipped his tea. “What can you tell me about this young woman?”
“She’s an astrogatress,” Peter said. “Noble born. Her father believes she ran away in a rebellious temper tantrum.”
Firster smiled knowingly. “Such is the way with youth. I remember when I was younger I got angry with my father about one thing or another and took off for a few days myself. I’m sure she’s come to her senses by now and is scared out of her mind.”
Peter’s stone faced expression never warmed.
“Do you have any idea where she is?” Firster continued.
“Her father gave us a few ideas,” Peter let on. “That’s why we were searching the Librarium. Other places were social gatherings, the Astrogator quarter, and Chateau Street.”
Firster’s head shot up. “Chateau Street?”
“I guess she’s an artsy type. Chateau Street is supposed to be a big independent artists’ alcove, isn’t it?”
“It’s also very dangerous,” Firster said darkly.
“Why’s that?” Balder asked. “A bunch of wayward painters and poets can’t be too bad.”
“It’s a major drug trafficking hub,” Firster replied. “Both local law enforcement and Technocrat House Troops get caught up in fire fights there often.”
Peter and Balder shot one another worried looks.
“No one goes there without heavy fire support,” Firster continued. “The artists keep to themselves. The drug runners will shoot you if you even walk funny.”
Eyolf gave the Technocrat Lord an ominous, hungry grin.
“Don’t worry, your Lordship,” The Wolf growled. “We excel in heavy fire support.”
They had agreed to search Chateau Street the next morning, both Peter and his mercenaries along with Firster and his House agents. Why Firster, a high ranking noble in his own right, volunteered to go was beyond Peter’s comprehension, but he wasn’t going to question the extra help. Especially if it meant collecting his paycheck quicker. Peter and his people returned to the space port hotel for the night. Balder and his mercenaries were especially excited to get back, and the Stallari promised his new employer a great show the following morning.
Peter was worn to the bone. His circadian rhythm was set for zulu time, but Olympus Mons followed the Martian time zones, and the two did not marry up. He had been awake for over forty hours, and his body begged for some good sleep. Once he had made contact with Zoryn Revnik and Josef Hannover on the Loki (they hadn’t run off after all), Peter walked to the spacious, sectioned off hotel room he shared with Henrietta. As he entered, Peter stumbled upon his new astrogatress, half naked in the bathroom.
“Oh, Ms. Hahn,” Peter exclaimed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
The words died on his lips as the woman turned her head. Something was suddenly very wrong. Her hair was no longer chocolate brown, instead a shimmering platinum blond. And her eyes, once plain, dull brown, were now intense jade jewels in wide, white orbs.
Peter’s vocal chords failed to work as he realized exactly who Henrietta Hahn really was.
“I can explain,” Amelia ventured as she zipped up her white spacer suit.
“You!” was all he could manage.
“Look, I know you are angry…”
“You are five hundred thousand marks, sitting right there in front of me the whole time!”
Amelia gave the Sternvolker captain a dark look. “Oh, am I? Is that the price my father is paying you to find me.”
“Yes!” Peter exclaimed. “It is!”
“I am a human being,” Amelia shot back. “I am not some paycheck.”
“To me you are.”
The statement was like a slap in the face to Amelia. “Really? That is all I am?”
“How dare you!”
“How dare I?” Peter roared. “I haven’t done anything wrong! How dare you! This little adventure could have been over this morning, and I’d be half a million marks richer.”
Fists clenched, Amelia glared at Peter. “Did you ever stop to think that I did not want to go back?”
“Nope. Never crossed my mind.”
“Well I do not want to!” Amelia practically screamed. “I hate my life. I hate how my father tries to pawn me off to all of the other young men in our Astrogator House. Everything is so political, everyone’s feelings so fake. I want my own life, dammit!
“Does that not mean anything to you?”
Peter was about to return with a snide remark – and stopped. It did mean something to him. Wasn’t everything he was doing – leaving his family, buying a ship, hiring a crew, going off on a Pilgrimage – the same as Amelia leaving her home? They both had something to prove, something they wanted to get away from. For Peter it was more than just his overbearing parents. It was the status quo he lived in. And, as he stood there, studying his astrogatress and target, he realized she felt the same way.
“Yes,” Peter admitted after a moment. “I mean, I don’t understand how you could hate your life. You live in luxury. On community ships where space is at a premium, astrogators and astrogatresses like you live in large suites that could hold three families and want for nothing. Good education, good employment.”
“But it is pointless,” Amelia returned. “Every day I am hand-fed everything. There are no challenges, no meaning to life. Everyone cares only for themselves and their advancement. Even my father does not care for me. I might as well be cattle for his use.”
Peter nodded. “My parents mean well, but they don’t let me live my life. I have dozens of people telling me I’ll fail, that I’ll never amount to anything. They think I should just roll over and die, to follow the heard and live my life according to their rules.”
“Please,” Amelia begged her captain. “Do not turn me in.”
Peter stared at her for a moment, his emotions warring inside.
A knock came at the door of the hotel room.
“Sir?” came the deep, rumbling voice of Balder.
Amelia’s sparkling green eyes begged with Peter.
“Just letting you know that my men and I are ready. We’ll meet you by the storage units tomorrow morning. Is there anything else you need?”
Peter paused, and time dragged on for an eternity for Amelia.
“No,” the Sternvolker Captain finally replied. “We’re good for tonight. See you tomorrow morning.”
The two stared at each other for a long while, ship captain and astrogatress.
“Thank you,” said Amelia, breaking the silence.
“Just don’t make me regret it,” Peter replied.
The next morning – after Amelia had refreshed her disguise – Peter and Amelia made the five minute trek to the space port storage units. It was one hundred Olypmian Gelder a night, or one hundred fifty Sternvolke Marks, to rent a storage unit on the space port grounds. Peter damned the exchange rate as he and Amelia strode towards the block that he had leased for Balder. The immense mercenary and his small command were waiting patiently, the four subordinate warriors lined up in perfect parade formation at parade rest, the Stallari standing proudly before them.
“This had better be good, Faltskog,” Peter warned.
The broad smile never left Balder’s bearded face.
“Trust me, sir,” Balder reassured his employer. “You will be more than pleased. What I’m about to show you will make our search of Chateau Street that much easier.”
Amelia tensed just then. Peter could tell the mercs that their prize was right there, just waiting to be whisked back to her father’s keep. They wouldn’t have to go to any of the trouble or place themselves in unneeded danger.
But Peter remained silent.
Balder spun smartly and nodded to his men. In short order they parted, and the door to the storage unit whined open. The entrance clear, the lights within illuminated.
Peter’s mouth dropped.
“That’s…” he began.
“Five suits of Renegade-pattern power armor,” Balder finished for the dumbstruck captain. “Each a ton of composite armor and weaponry. One fifty-caliber machine gun in the right arm, a flamethrower in the left, and a shoulder-mounted micro-missile launcher. It turns a man into a small armored fighting vehicle.”
“No wonder you asked for so much in your contract,” Peter gasped.
“Trust me, sir, it was money well invested.”
“I should hope so, with suits that are a hundred thousand marks a piece.”
“Our plan,” said Balder, “is to use the suits to scan the surrounding area, and cover you and Henrietta.”
“I’ll have my own body armor,” Peter replied.
“Our armor is just slightly better.”
“Hm, good point.”
Peter gazed at the massive suits of power armor for a moment. Awe filled him. And jealousy - he needed to acquire a suit for himself one of these days.
Peter turned back to the five mercenaries. “Well, Stallari, suit up. We have an astrogatress to find.”
An hour later the seven Sternvolke dropped from the Raptor shuttle in a park a short distance from Chateau Street. People taking leisurely walks and enjoying quiet picnics immediately scattered at the sight of military-grade armor. The sky that day was dreary and gray, the clouds above pregnant with rain.
“Bad omen,” Eyolf commented.
“Everything’s a bad omen to you,” Borge chided.
Lord Firster and his men were at the designated rally point. All of his men wore heavy power armor.
“Quite a sight,” noted Firster as Balder and his team trudged forward. “It’s been some time since I’ve seen the Star Folk ready for war.”
“The same could be said for your soldiers,” Peter said, nodding towards the twelve House Firster troops.
“Older Zeus suits,” Firster explained. “But sturdy designs with the latest upgrades. Each suit is a ton and a half, a sub machine gun in each arm, and those cannons over each shoulder are eighty-millimeter recoilless rifles.”
Peter swallowed hard. “Excellent.”
“We should have no problems with the local drug runners that call Chateau Street home.”
Peter nodded in agreement – but suddenly it wasn’t the drug smugglers he was worried about.
The search began immediately, both Balder’s men and the House Firster soldiers going door by door, street by street, searching for the lost astrogatress. Most residents were used to such searches, and answered questions from the armored troopers as if it was just another day. Some were too stoned, and were less than helpful. At one household, Peter encountered two very pretty young women with too many happy pills and not enough clothing.
“Focus on the mission, sir,” Balder’s voice boomed over the external loudspeaker in his armor, the smile plain in his voice.
“I’m focusing on the money,” Peter replied. “But I know where to come back to when we’re finished.”
Both men chuckled as they thanked the two girls and moved to the next building.
All the while Amelia was visibly tense. As the two groups worked the area, Amelia was linking into the local net, searching for anything about the disappearance of an astrogatress. There was none, obviously, but Peter kept her looking to keep up pretenses. So far, nothing had gone wrong.
And then it started to rain.
It was light at first, just a few patters here and there as the armored troops moved down the broad drag. In moments, though, the sagging cloud cover released a deluge of heavy rain, covering everything in moments.
“Ms. Hahn,” Firster exclaimed as the little astrogatress quickly became drenched. “You really should…”
Then he noticed something very strange. Right before his eyes, Henrietta Hahn’s hair was losing its color, the rain revealing white blond strands hiding under the deep, rich brown. In moments her hair was devoid of color – and Firster was furious.
There was a moment of dead silence, only the chatter of rain obstructing the quiet that had fallen over everyone.
Then everything went to hell.
“That’s her!” Firster exclaimed, his voice cracking as he stabbed a finger towards Amelia. “There is the astrogatress! Get her! Bring her to me!”
The world devolved into a whirlwind of battle. As a House Firster soldier moved to grab Amelia, Peter, shot in front of her and pelted the man’s face plate with a hail of bullets from his sub-machine gun. Three of the soldiers moved to stop Peter, and Balder emitted a wordless bellow of rage, expending a micro missile into their midst. One man was killed instantly, the rocket exploding on his chest armor. The trooper’s two comrades were rocked back, their electronics shaken by the explosion. Borge, Eyolf, Ragnar, and Asbjorn charged forward, loosing a wall of leaden death into the Firster ranks.
But Lord Firster’s men were trained professionals. In moments they had moved to cover their liege lord and were belting eighty millimeter rounds out of their recoilless rifles. The Sternvolke were hard pressed to move out of the way before they were pummeled to mush by the onslaught. With a hail of covering fire, Peter and his newly hired crew members raced through Chateau Street. Recoilless rounds sang over their heads, exploding onto the street and building facades.
“Did you know who she was?” Balder exclaimed, launching another missile in the direction of their erstwhile allies.
“Yes,” Peter admitted over the din, adding his weapon to the fight.
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I thought you’d turn her in.”
“I’m a mercenary,” Balder shot back. “Not a robot.”
“I’ll remember that next time.”
Two miles later Chateau Street ended. Peter had no idea where they were on the god-mountain, only that they needed to escape Firster and his men. Further and further the seven Star Folk ran into the streets and alleys of Olympus Mons, all the while battling for their lives. All around them people were evacuating businesses and homes. An outdoor shopping mall quickly devolved into chaos as hundreds of people dropped their umbrellas and rushed to escape the impacting artillery. The local law enforcement could do little more than protect the panicking citizens, shielding them and directing them to safety. Two police officers, though wearing full body armor, were killed covering the escape of a dozen people.
“They’re gaining on us!” Ragnar exclaimed as he poured dozens of rounds into the oncoming Firster troops.
“Sir, we can’t hold out much longer,” Balder exclaimed, firing from the cover of a building corner.
“Well,” Peter said. “It was nice to work with you while it lasted.”
Balder nodded in his suit. “And you, sir.”
Lord Phillip Firster and the remaining eight men of his retinue were a mere hundred meters distant, and closing fast. Their rate of fire forced the seven Sternvolke into cover, barely giving them room to return fire.
“Kill them!” Firster yelled maniacally. “And bring me the astrogatress alive. She’s mine!”
All seemed lost.
Suddenly, above the din of combat and the torrential rains, came an earth shattering crash, as if their air itself had been cut. Two of Firster’s men were immediately vaporized, the others searching for the source of this unseen attacker.
Then the ground shook.
Windows wobbled at the power of the mini-quakes. Somewhere personal vehicle alarms were triggered. Another crash, and the source of such awesome power came into view.
It was a Colossus. The epitome of Martian military technology, Colossi were bipedal war machines bristling with lasers, cannon, and missiles. The stocky machine strode forward like an armored knight, confident in its superiority. Its boxy arms ended in weapons pods, the muzzles of power guns jutting down the street.
The air was sliced once more, ruby beams of energy stabbing out to spear another Firster trooper.
Around the Colossus’ feet swarmed dozens of armored infantry. These men and women boasted power armor larger again than Firster’s Zeus suits. Titan-pattern power armor, two tons of raw power, loped down the road, the twin missile launchers on their backs bobbing as they ran. The left arm ended in a powerful robotic claw, while the right was extended into the suit’s main weapon: a man-pack laser. Very few in the solar system boasted such compact technology, and only the most powerful Technocrats could field the weapons – and, subsequently, guarded them jealously.
Above the immense ground force hovered a single gun-ship. It was larger than Peter’s little Raptor shuttle, and the swiveling chin-cannons and myriad rocket launchers marked it a powerful craft indeed. It was the single eye superimposed between crossed broadswords that caught Peter’s attention.
“Your family’s here,” Peter said, turning to Amelia.
“I know,” she said, her voice quiet.
The Colossus stopped then, pointing its gun mounts directly at Lord Firster and the four men of his body guard that remained.
“Lord Phillip Red Firster,” a voice boomed from a loud speaker. “This is Lord Horatio Engineerson. You are encroaching on my legal territory, have killed residents under my protection, and you are attempting to harm an astrogatress of one of my entrusted trading partners. Stand down now!”
Firster hurled insults towards the massive machine, but to little effect. His retinue, afraid to die but not wanting to disobey their Technocratic Lord, held their ground to protect him. The Titan-clad troopers inched forward, the barrels of their lasers trained on Firster and his men.
“She’s mine, dammit!” Firster raged. “I was going to have her. Me! I won’t let you take her away!”
“Last warning, Firster,” Engineerson barked over the speaker.
Firster ordered his men to attack. It was the last order he would ever give.
Twin ruby beams bore into where Firster and his men stood. One moment they were there, the next they were no more.
At an unheard command the House troops moved forward, securing the area in order to protect Engineerson’s economic holdings.
“Little Star Folk,” Horatio Engineerson’s voice called in Peter’s ear. “It seems we all have some discussing to do.”
Peter had to admit, Lord Horatio Engineerson’s manor was incredible. Though Peter was sure it was nicer than Firster’s, it also betrayed a sort of simplicity about it. Horatio sat at the head of his corporate meeting table, the polished Olypmian redwood reflecting all present like a mirror. Around Engineerson stood his three beautiful wives, each dressed in very professional, sharp business suits. Peter, Amelia, Balder and the four other mercenaries sat to Horatio’s right.
Scion Brandt Krueger von Luedeker sat to his left.
Peter felt the powerful astrogator stab him with his hateful glare across the table. Next to Brandt was a frail woman of fair complexion and immense beauty – Amelia identified her as Serena Krueger von Luedeker, her mother. Behind the couple stood four, very dangerous looking House von Luedeker body guards.
Peter had explained everything, from his Pilgrimage and hiring of his crew, all the way up to where Engineerson had intervened. All the while the astrogator Scion’s expression darkened further.
“So,” Horatio said after Peter had completed his talk. “Let me get this straight. The damage to my commercial district could have been avoided had you just admitted that Amelia was with you all along?”
Peter paused for a moment, the picture of the two law enforcement officers being killed by a recoilless round. At least the Technocrat hadn’t mentioned loss of life, too.
“Yes,” Peter said finally.
Engineerson studied the young Sternvolker for a long, hard moment, his analytical mind processing everything it observed.
“Well,” the Lord replied. “Though there is some damage, it is repairable. And, while it irks me that it was Firster, I had a legal reason to kill the worthless bastard. I guess I should thank you then, Drexel. With Firster dead, and no heirs of his own, I will take over his territories here on Olympus Mons. My stocks are expected to jump a bit.”
“I’m glad I could help,” Peter said.
“There is the issue of my daughter,” Brandt cut in. “An issue that is not reconciled.”
Amelia, who had been silent the entire time, suddenly spoke up.
“I will not return, father,” the petite astrogatress said forcefully.
“Yes…” Brandt began to hiss.
“No!” Amelia reiterated. “I will not. I am twenty-four, and I can make my own decisions. I am sick of the politics you play and the way you treat me like I am some livestock to be traded. I will not have it. I will stay on with Peter’s crew. And if you do not like it…well…then you can go fry your own circuits.”
Peter was amazed at the power behind Amelia’s voice.
Brandt was not.
“How dare you speak to me in such a way, child!” he roared. “I will disown you! I will cut you off from everything you have ever known!”
“Do it!” Amelia cried back. “At least I will be able to live my life the way I see fit!”
Brandt was about to challenge his daughter, when Serena placed a dainty, alabaster hand on her husband’s arm. It was like a change from night to day as Brandt suddenly calmed down. He took his seat, but it was obvious he was still perturbed.
“Amelia,” Serena whispered. “It is not that we do not want you to be happy. We do. But you are our daughter and we fear for you.”
“I understand,” Amelia replied. “But I must be free to make my own choices and define myself by my accomplishments, not live under your shadows. I want to experience the solar system on my terms. It is not that I want to disrespect or dishonor you. I want to show you the woman I have become. I want you to be proud of me.”
Brandt and Serena looked at one another. The room was quiet for a long moment – Horatio Engineerson was obviously bored with the family talk as he quietly putzed away on his PDP. The silence dragged on for what seemed like an eternity. Then, Brandt nodded at Serena, and she kissed her husband’s cheek.
“Alright, Amelia,” Brandt said, his voice almost caring. “We understand. We will not interfere anymore.”
Amelia smiled. “Thank you, father. I will not disappoint you.”
The meeting was adjurned. Horatio and Brandt shook hands and promised great things in the future between their two noble Houses. As the gathering parted, Brandt waved Peter over.
“Though I would have preferred you tell me of my daughter’s status, Herr Drexel,” Brandt began, “I am indebted to you for fighting to protect her.”
“She’s one of my crew, your eminence,” Peter stated bluntly. “I would never intentionally allow harm to come to her.”
“Let us see that you do not,” Brandt returned. “I am putting a lot of trust in your hands, Herr Drexel. No harm, intentional or otherwise, had better visit Amelia…or I will find you.”
Peter swallowed hard. “Understood, your eminence.”
“That said,” Brandt continued. “You did find my daughter…technically speaking. So, against my better judgment, I have paid you in full for your services.”
Forgetting courtesy (Peter was too worn out to care) he brought up his bank account on his PDP. The figure that presented itself left the ship captain speechless.
“Whoah. That’s a lot more than five hundred thousand.”
“A down payment for taking care of my daughter,” Brandt rasped. “And remembering whom you have to answer to if you do not.”
Amelia, Balder, Borge, Eyolf, Ragnar, and Asbjorn all waited anxiously outside the gates of the Engineerson estate. After what seemed like forever, Peter strode into their midst, confidence plastered on his white features.
“So?” Eyolf asked. “Did we get paid?”
Balder cuffed his subordinate.
“What?” Eyolf exclaimed. “Can’t eat without money.”
“Eyolf’s right,” Peter said. “And yes, we did. Although I think I missed something in there.”
“Astrogator implants allow astrogators and astrogatresses to speak wirelessly,” Amelia explained. “And wordlessly.” She smiled. “How much did my father pay you?”
“Too much,” Peter said, but the silly grin never left his face. “Enough to pay everyone and keep running until Pluto.”
“Sounds good to me,” Borge said. “Will be nice to have some cash in my pocket.”
“Indeed,” Balder agreed. “So, in light of everything that happened…”
“I can safely say we have a crew,” Peter finished. “And an astrogatress to guide us.”
“And a captain to lead us,” Amelia said.
“So where to next?” Balder asked.
Peter looked up into the darkening sky. The rain had stopped, the clouds dissipated. The plethora of reds, oranges, and violets that painted the sky as sunset drew the Martian day to a close was sublime and awe inspiring.
“To wherever the black may take us.”