Darkness Falls
An ArcElite universe story by Jason Togneri
Based on an original idea by Christian Pinder

Part One: 3110

"The gateway at Raxxla swings open. The Thargoids are winning the war. Darkness falls over the Elite universe."

     ~ extract from Historica Galactica (eighteenth edition), circa 3280

     The Elite Bar. An infamous place, half in dream, in legend. The last known club in the universe where money couldn't buy you a place. The reality is somewhat closer. Sweep down, in your mind's eye, and see the scattering of small vessels clustered in a space a short distance from the Bar itself. Swing round, and see a small rectangular building. It has been here for generations; for infinity maybe. It is not very big, nor does it need to be. Not many survive long enough to make it here.
     Sneak in through a crack in the battered oak door, and you will see a crowded room, with men, women and asexual creatures of all kinds clustered round the bar, the tables, and the small fire. The smell of Brown - an indescribable mix of what tastes like alcohol and starship fuel - washes over you as you try to breathe. The occupants don't seem to mind. After all, they're Elite, the top percentile of a top percentile, and they're scared of nothing. Except maybe Brown.
     Because this is the Elite Bar.
     And it's about to be destroyed.

     Orrin Methusla banked his ship round in a hurry. The other ship had vanished, although it was on the scanner, but it was twisting and turning and staying well clear of his screens. He swore as a second ship came at him from a distance - a Krait - and blasted at it with his lasers. But as he did so, his attacker - a pirate in a souped-up Cobra Mk III - swung down and fired a missile. Orrin lunged for the ECM button but by the time he had taken out the missile, the pirate had swept past and vanished for good into hyperspace.
     Orrin scowled. This was one of the latest breed of super-pirates, a clan of seasoned veterans which, if allowed to go unchallenged, would soon begin to threaten the monopoly that the Elite Federation of Pilots had on talented commanders. Absently he fingered his gold Elite badge, and selected his own hyperspace destination.
     The marauder was one of the higher members of this pirate clan, an experienced combateer named Shor Kassak. He was an old adversary to those in the Elite Federation of Pilots, and more specifically to Orrin. Several times in the past Orrin had come to battle with the pirate, and each time the other had come at him with two other ships, battled for a time and then - as if toying with him - hyperspaced out at the last minute. Teasing him, damn it. And the man was good.
     Trying not to think about having to report another failure, Orrin swung his Fer-De-Lance in a wide arc, hit the hyperspace button and vanished.

     Orrin landed his Fer-De-Lance at one of his favourite starports, Crioal Port orbiting the small green-red-blue planet of Anle. Once in he found he had a message in his HoloDirect account; apparently somebody had known of his travel plans.
     "Orrin!" the pre-recorded message bellowed at him. It was Spencer, a fellow pilot, once an active member of the Elite Federation of Pilots and now retired and doing a short trading run from the rich industrial Anle, to low-tech agricultural world Teanrebe, making good profits both ways.
     "Well, I heard you were in the area," the voice continued, the face on the screen wrinkling up as it grinned out at him, "and I thought we might go out for a drink! You'll have to fill me in on everything that's-" the screen beeped and the face looked up in surprise. "Damn, run out of cred-"
     The screen went blank.
     Typical Spencer, thought Orrin. What a guy. Never organised at anything, it was a wonder he ever reached Elite and even more so a wonder how he was still going, at his age. Nobody actually knew his age, but he was pretty damn old, especially in these circles. Ah well.
     Orrin strolled down the exit ramp, past a group of Groigan packers who were overseeing the removal of his massed cargo. As he walked by, he heard the soft strains of a love ballad emerging from the group. He rolled his eyes. It was common for lovesick Groigans to become cargo packers on distant stations when something in their relationship had gone wrong. Why they couldn't just face it and get on with it, nobody knew. Silly little buggers.
     The inside of the station was a lot less tidy, and a lot more crowded, than the docking bays. A number of traders had set up stalls inside the corridors leading to the central complex, and a bustling crowd was moving from stall to stall. The sounds of a hundred voices bartering and conversing rose into the air, along with the heat and smell of bodies packed together. Orrin felt a sudden movement and swung round to find a small feline child - kitten? - trying to get into his jacket pocket. He aimed a swift kick at it but it vanished into the crowd before he had a chance.
     Eventually he found his way to his favourite bar, the Cargo Scoop - as good a name as any for a place that seemed to sweep up all the human debris that came into the station, he mused - and strode to the bar, where he knew he would find Spencer.
     Lo and behold, there sat Spencer, drink in hand, and a glass of the famous Anle Nasty Brandy sat waiting for Orrin. How he did that, Orrin was at a loss. The man must have a hundred surveillance systems set up all over the place. Must remember to ask him sometime.
     "Hey, did I tell you?" shouted Spencer in greeting. "We won the inter-system cup again!"
     Spencer was a player of zero-gee cricket, famous on the planet Tianve, about half a light-year distant. The old man had gotten into the games some years back, and frequently sacrificed the cost of 0.4 light-years of fuel to go and play on their team. He had progressed well and the famous Tianve Terrors had evidently won their fifth cup in a row.
     Orrin laughed. "Well done Spencer, well done!" he congratulated the older man. "You'll be top of the league the way you're headed!"
     Spencer turned away in mock embarrassment. "Aw, don't go talking like that, young Orrin... I'm just an old man having a little fun. Now tell me, what news from home?" He was talking in a casual manner, but Orrin knew there were a lot of uneasy events taking place just now, hidden from the galaxy at large, but that those back 'home' - the hidden planet of Raxxla - were party to.
     His expression darkening just slightly, Orrin answered, "They're not getting any better. Uncle Carl thinks a storm's coming, and it's a big one this time. My brothers are waiting around to see which way it goes, but if lightning strikes, they're ready to do something." It sounded like a harmless conversation, but both men knew otherwise. 'Uncle Carl' was the GalCop, the Galactic Police Force, and the 'brothers' were the rest of the Elite pilots. The storm... well, the storm was the bad rumours coming back from intergalactic space, where the Galactic Navy were engaged with the fearsome Thargoids War Fleet.
     "There's been an awful lot of security forces coming in here recently. Know anything about that?" asked Spencer. "It's just that what with the rumours I've been hearing, it sounds like there's a big storm on the way. Security's tight, and the military's been moving around a lot. Don't let the cowshed burn down."
     Orrin looked as if he were about to say something to that, when a message came over the intercom, quoting his ship ID. "Commander Methusla, Commander Orrin Methusla, please report to the docking bays at once. This is a priority message. Thank you," ran the message. "Damn," said Orrin. "Sorry, Spencer, I have to go..."
     The two men shook hands, and Orrin quickly downed a mouthful from his glass. "That's okay," said Spencer. "I know you have to. Tell you what, drop by the next time you're passing, keep in touch." He grinned, and Orrin returned the grin.
     "You too, old man, you too," said Orrin, and left.

     By the time he reached his ship, Orrin was taken aback to find his bay deserted. A single figure stood near the massive vessel, shaded in darkness. As he stepped cautiously closer, Orrin could make out the glint of a silver badge on the lapel of his dark suit. A cop.
     "Who are you?" he called. "And why the hell are you at my ship?"
     "Good evening, Commander Methusla," greeted the cop, stepping forward out of the shadows. He wasn't anyone Orrin recognised. "My name is Commander Mitchell. I'm attached to the GalCop's Interstellar Navy Research Arm. I wondered if we might have a word."
     Orrin regarded the man with a mixture of suspicion and disgust. There were nasty stories of what those in the INRA were prone to doing; doubtless, a lot of it was anti-authoritarian propaganda - after all, it was largely in anarchies and dictatorships that they went about their work - but still, Orrin had never met one before, and it was best to be suspicious of strangers.
     "Regarding what," he asked, flatly.
     "Something of interest to your brothers. They've not just to watch for lightning. They've to make sure the barn doesn't burn down while they're too busy playing cards. There's a new player on the scene, and he's playing something a damn sight more frightening than Riedquatan Poker."
     Orrin's curiosity level shot up several yards. He raised his eyebrows. "Oh?" he said, casually. "You know my brothers?"
     "I should do," the man replied. "I'm Cousin Tim." The man laughed at how odd that sounded. "I bring news from Uncle Carl."
     Orrin's brow wrinkled. That was the code of the Elite Federation of Pilots. This man couldn't possibly know about it, not unless there was a major leak - not likely, not since the days of Zartid - or unless he was who he claimed to be. Still suspicious, however, Orrin said "Alright. Come aboard. But be warned to leave your weapons behind."
     Mitchell held up his arms, palms outward, to demonstrate defencelessness. Orrin patted him down just to make sure, then he released the ramp of the cruiser and the two men ascended into the bridge. Orrin motioned for Mitchell to sit, and the other man did so. "What's this all about?" he asked.
     The cop glanced about him nervously until Orrin assured him that the ship was completely safe from spy devices. Nobody was going to eavesdrop on his ship. The cop seemed satisfied by this and unbuttoned his coat slowly.
     "We received a message three days ago," he began as he did so. "It was from one of our frontier scouts. Apparently there has been a massive witchspace buildup of Thargoid vessels, in greater numbers and size than we have seen outside of the interstellar war zones." His movements were twitchy and distracted, as if he were some sort of bird rather than a man. "We dispatched a squad of Vipers to investigate. They never returned." Orrin nodded. He had fought a couple of witchspace battles himself, and knew they were vicious fighters.
     Mitchell continued. "Then we got word from our scout about a pirate clan working in league with the Thargoids, giving them intelligence and support in exchange for Thargoid weapons and technology. We also-" he paused, and looked around him, then lowered his voice. "We also believe they have been recruiting a number of Elite ranked pilots, enough so to be a match for the GalCop and maybe, if they're not stopped, a threat to the Elite Federation itself."
     "So you think somebody's out to get us?" asked Orrin.
     "No," replied the cop. "Well, yes and no. There's more to it than that. The buildup of force in witchspace, the parallel buildup of this pirate clan - there's something not quite right. There are fears for the integrity of the Co-operative, fears of a massive Thargoid strike against one of the main galaxies."
     "So where do we come in?"
     "We just want you to be on standby to help. There's enough of them left in interstellar space to make it a risk to recall the Navy. But we're just worried that they'll move on inhabited systems next, and if so we'd need everything we could call to hand."
     Orrin considered for a moment. "I'll see what I can do, and I think they'll go for it, but you know I can't promise anything. They're a secretive bunch by nature and will want to keep it that way. But I'll give it a try, you can rest assured."
     "Then that's all I ask." He handed a computer pad to Orrin. "This is the frequency I can be contacted on, any time of day or night. With what's been going on recently, none of us at the INRA have been getting much sleep anyway." He shook Orrin's hand, his thin wrists and long, thin fingers slightly cold to the touch. "Good day, Commander, and thank you."

     The following day, Orrin had crossed space to the planet of Birerea - unlisted on the GalCo-op's planetary guide and seemingly uninhabited by all but for one small town - and landed in a large green field. He stepped out of his Fer-De-Lance and breathed in the air of home.
     In the distance sat a rather small hut, known informally as the Elite Bar and not known formally at all. On a small table outside it he found Asha Kirran and Joshua Ai. Asha was the unofficial leader of the group, a short, stocky, dark-skinned man with a sharp, logical mind and a slow manner of speaking and moving that was deceptive of the intellect and skill lying hidden underneath. The other man, Joshua, was much younger, barely in his late twenties, and brash and confident. Nevertheless he had made it to Elite already and had a knack for spotting weaknesses in his enemies.
     "Orrin!" Asha shouted to him. He sipped gently on his Brown. "Come and join us! It's good to see you here. Young Josh was just telling me of this Shor Kassak, who's been harassing you recently. Don't tell me one measly pirate is getting the better of you?" He laughed, his deep voice rumbling into the distance.
     Orrin strode up to their table and sat at an empty seat. "Josh, Asha, how are you both doing?" he greeted. Then he turned to Asha and his face became serious. "I had an encounter with a GalCop on the way here, man by the name of Mitchell. He warned me of a buildup of Thargoids in witchspace. Told me it could well have something to do with this increase in skilled pirating recently." He paused, waiting for a reaction. "He was with INRA."
     Asha's expression darkened immediately. "INRA?" He spat the word. "What do they want with us?"
     "Nothing, at least not just now, or so he says. But apparently something's on its way and it's bigger than the INRA think they can cope with. They want us standing by to help if we can. It's either to do with clearing the Thargoids or clearing the pirates." His thoughts flickered briefly to Shor Kassak. "And I must say, the idea has a certain appeal to it."
     "I've been hearing things about the Thargoids recently," interjected Joshua. "I've heard tell of their warships emerging out of witch-space near military bases, quickly bringing their ten missiles to bear on ground targets, then just as quickly disappearing back. Any retaliation was quickly subdued, with four powerful Thargoid Lasers capable of firing in all directions, giving it a total sphere of protection. The survivors say there's nothing like it on our side."
     Asha turned to face him. "Hmm. Maybe. But I still don't see why they want us involved."
     "Well, I for one can think of a reason or two," said Orrin. "That guy's good enough, he could well be one of ours. Except you'd know. He's not one of ours, is he?" Asha turned back to Orrin.
     "No," answered Asha. "But... I think I know who he might belong to. I have some people to contact. Meet me back here later tonight." He stood and walked away.

     That evening, they sat inside the Bar, at the end of one of the long wooden tables. At the table were Josh, Orrin, and another pilot, Alexia Hudson. Josh stood up to get another round of Brown, leaving Orrin and Alexia sitting alone.
     Orrin shuffled nervously. There had been some chemistry between them in the past, but Alex had always been fiery and short-tempered, and Orrin's frequent missions away had grated on her nerves. They had had a rather big argument one time, and ended up flying off in separate directions. They had not seen one another again for most of a year after that for one reason or another. This was only the third time they had met since returning to Birerea and the Elite Bar, and neither was entirely sure of where they stood with the other.
     "So..." Alex hid her face behind her hands, while Orrin tried to make small talk.
     "Where did you go, that time, anyway?"
     "Eight months ago. Where did you go after we had last, ah, talked to each other? I always wondered. I was on the Beor-Arazaes trading run, doing a little brotherhood work on the side; you know how it is. But all the time I thought about you, you know. I always wondered where you had shot off to."
     "It's funny actually. I went straight to Qudira, took my anger out on some of the pirates there. Then I just drifted for a while, system to system, and eventually I found my way back here."
     There was a moment's silence, as they looked awkwardly at one another then looked away again. Orrin pondered the nature of his relationship to Alex. They had been in love with each other at one point, long ago. There had been talk of marriage, of children. Of course, as was the way of things, it had fallen apart, but they still had feelings for each other... or at least, Orrin did. That was where the confusion lay. Alex had vanished on a hunting trip while Orrin had fled the opposite way, to trade. They had seen little of each other in the intervening time; however, Orrin had never let go of the hope that Alex might, one day, come back to him.
     The stopped again, flustered. "Look, we're just two grown adults," began Orrin, when Alex interrupted him.
     "Orrin... I- you know we once talked about children..." Alex started to say, but trailed off as Joshua returned. The pair looked away from each other again. "Later," she said, softly. Joshua, oblivious, distributed the glasses of thick dark ale. He looked from one to the other, unsure of what had passed in his absence, then sat down.
     "Anyone know what time Asha's going to join us?" he asked, simply.
     A familiar voice cut through the noise of the Bar.
     "Right about now, Josh, right about now." Asha laughed. "Getting a little impatient? Ah, the impetuousness of youth." Joshua, the youngest of the Elite-ranked pilots among those on Birerea, was quite the opposite of Asha and frequently the butt of the older man's well-intentioned humour. Josh had the good grace to blush. Asha sat down at the table and gestured for them to gather closer. The Elite Bar was protected by sophisticated anti-bugging devices, and in an unregistered system, but still, it was just habit to speak of certain matters with hushed voices and huddled groups.
     "There have been rumours for a while - not those of the pirates and the Thargoid buildup, much older rumours, rumours of a planet called Raxxla and a breakaway sect of the top Elite pilots." Several heads nodded in agreement with Asha's words; they were all familiar with the tales. "Those rumours, I am given to believe, aren't rumours. They are truths. There is a hidden world, like our own, yet so much more. The world of Raxxla was an ancient world, home to an ancient technology." There were a number of indrawn breaths. Asha continued.
     "Back, way back toward the dawn of the Elite Federation of Pilots, a group of Elite fighters found this planet. There they based themselves, there they brought up generations more pilots to their own standard, pilots to equal our own. But these men weren't peaceful men. They were twisted, evil men, men with thoughts of power and domination. And on Raxxla's northern pole, they found the Gateway."
     Joshua was openly gaping by this point, and Alex and Orrin sat back in their chairs, faces reflecting the disbelief they held. Orrin opened his mouth to say something, but Asha held up a hand to stop him.
     "The Gateway," he continued, "is a device of great power. A massive generator was built on the opposite pole to power the Gateway. Both were of a unique alien design, predating the humans, more ancient even than the Thargoids, who were a spacefaring race far into our own history. Those evil men held onto the Gateway and exploited it, using its power to traverse the universe, working from galaxy to galaxy, using what they found and taking without recompense."
     "Up until very recently, Raxxla existed in myth alone. But rumour has it that these men made a bargain with the Thargoids - by what means we don't know - to let them use the Gateway in return for protection from attacks. We can only assume that they have already sealed this bargain and are supplying information to the Thargoids. We know these matters are connected, but the details escape us."
     Those gathered round the table were openly gaping. "The war is acting as a catalyst for technological development, with an arms race between the humans and Thargoids. But it's worse than that. The Thargoids are winning."

     The conversation had rather trailed off after that, the mood of the night dampened. Eventually the members of the little meeting had gone their own ways; Asha to talk to some other pilots, Joshua on some private errand, and Orrin and Alex to go out on a stroll. They had talked over what Asha had told them, about Raxxla and Gateways and Elites and pirates and Thargoids - and eventually the night lightened to day. Orrin made a decision to return to Anle to find out what Spencer might have heard in the meantime. Alex offered to tag along, and Orrin took her up on the offer.
     "What were you going to tell me before?" asked Orrin, suddenly. He stopped and turned to face Alex, but she refused to meet his gaze. Instead she began walking again, slowly. Orrin trailed along. "Alex?"
     "Orrin... nothing, Orrin. This is neither the time or the place. I... we'll have to sort this out when you get back." She looked now at him. "We need to sit down somewhere quiet and really have a long, long talk about... about everything." She didn't want to tell him that she had had a daughter in the Qudira system, that Asha and some others knew, and that she had been too scared to tell him. This isn't the right time, she told herself. But she knew in her heart that there would never be a right time, that too much had past. She knew also that he loved her, but this just wasn't the right time...

     Six hours later, Orrin and Alex had arrived in the Anle system, the Fer-De-Lance flying alongside Alex's deep sea-green Asp Mk II, and they oriented toward the system's main planet. Suddenly a fleet of Vipers swooped down on them, in a crisp military formation, before breaking off and encircling the newcomers.
     "Unidentified vessels, please identify yourselves," came a crackly voice through the intercom, a female pilot. Orrin's brow creased.
     "Viper patrol, this is Commander Orrin Methusla and Commander Alexia Hudson, we were heading to the station on a matter of private business. What is this about?"
     "Commanders, sorry for the inconvenience, but we have to ask you to leave the system immediately."
     "We have to ask you to leave the system immediately. Do not attempt to approach the station, or you will be destroyed immediately, unless you have necessary security clearance. I assume, since you are ignorant of our presence here, that you do not have clearance." It was not phrased as a question.
     "We have no clearance," replied Orrin. Yet. "Why is the system locked down?"
     "I'm afraid I cannot tell you that if you lack appropriate clearance, Commander."
     Orrin sighed, and signalled Alex to hyperspace out. As soon as they were into witchspace, they headed for Celabile, Zaatxe, Edreor, Inines, Malama... the same story every time. They eventually hyperspaced into the anarchic system of Qudira, where Alex had been until only a short time before. This time they weren't challenged. But they were at every system in between? Why was that?
     It was several hours later on board the station on Qudira that the answer came to him. Qudira Station - unnamed and unimportant apart from the ancient Zartid Museum - was a horrible place, rusty and poorly-maintained, and seemed to be held together through stubbornness more than anything else. He and Alex sat in a seedy bar near the docking bays, drinking some anonymous and rather foul local beer. They had been discussing the strange times they lived in, the events that were unfolding around them, and the more recent mystery of planets suddenly being off-limits.
     "Tech levels!" he said to Alex, who looked up and blinked.
     "What?" she demanded.
     "It's the damn tech levels... anything higher than tech level seven is an advanced nuclear society - the military have taken them all over! That's why we got in here, to Qudira! This is only tech level one, a dirt scraping, nothing to bother about. Damn. I wonder what they're doing."
     Alex looked at him, her head to one side. "Hmm, you could be right. But don't get carried away. Where's the nearest low-tech planet to here?"
     "That would be Soinuste, it's on the top end of the low tech worlds... six I think... it's about three and a half light years from here. If we get stopped there, we'll know you were wrong." She nodded, reflecting on the situation. "You could have something though, there's some thread tying this all together... we just have to figure out what it is..."
     They sat there in dejected silence for a moment.
     "To hell with this," said Alex, suddenly. Orrin looked across at her. "Let's go to Soinuste."

     An hour later they exited hyperspace, pointing away from the planet. Almost instantly, a squad of Vipers appeared, gleaming military ships, coming at full speed toward them. Orrin sighed, annoyed that he was wrong, and hailed the lead Viper.
     "Surrender or be destroyed," came a voice over the intercom as Orrin was about to speak.
     "What? We are not outlaws - we are free traders, and we mean no trouble to you." As he spoke, he transmitted the status files of himself and Alex. The Vipers had not slowed and were about to reach firing range. Surely they wouldn't fire on two innocent traders unprovoked?
     And they didn't. The squad leader, instead, replied tersely over the intercom.
     "Then you'd better get yourselves out of this system straight away, Commanders - and don't try to go on, everyone else is leaving too. You'll only get yourselves killed."
     "What on Lave's going on?" asked Alex. She was quickly answered by the appearance on the scanner of seven... eight... nine... twelve... fifteen green clubs, a ragged band that was closing fast. The Vipers turned immediately and began to fire, leaving the bewildered Orrin and Alex behind them. It quickly became clear that the newcomers were pirates, and that the police were badly outnumbered.
     Craft began to split off into pairs and threes and fours, lost in their private dogfights. Orrin watched two of the Vipers disintegrate under the pirates' guns, and thrust his Fer-De-Lance forward. "Alex!" he shouted over the comm. "On my wing!" There was no way he was going to run while the cops got slaughtered. No wonder they were behaving edgy.
     And then there was no time to wonder, as two of the pirates broke off toward them, an Adder and a Gecko, guns blazing. A missile was fired but ECM from elsewhere in the battle took it out instantly, pure coincidence but lucky nonetheless. Orrin destroyed the Adder and the Gecko swept past, anxious to catch them unawares. Laser fire raked across his shields, and the two ships spiralled after each other, drifting from the battle.
     Alex, meanwhile, had plunged into the centre. A pirate Mamba appeared to be the group's commander, the IR reading its pilot as simply 'DF Rocannon', and it was shooting down one of the surviving Vipers. She fired wildly at it and let loose a missile, but the Mamba was saved by the appearance of a pirate Fer-De-Lance - the IR query returned a blank, indicating that the ship was either unregistered or had been somehow wiped from the records - and, flanking it, a battered Cobra Mk III. Shor Kassak again. The Fer-De-Lance turned on her, ponderously, and began firing. She could barely dent its shields, and the weight of fire was beginning to tell. She heard the energy banks grinding as the forward shields collapsed.
     Spinning her Asp, she dived under the Fer-De-Lance and up behind it, planning to take advantage of the ship's larger turn circle, to catch it from behind. But she had reckoned without the Cobra, and it sped after her, firing as it went. The two agile ships circled one another, neither able to gain any ground. All around them the battle raged. Four of the police ships had gone, but they had managed to reduce the number of pirates from fifteen to a slightly more manageable seven. Four against seven.
     Orrin had rejoined the battle, having dispatched the Gecko, and immediately spied somebody he recognised. A Viper was sparring with two Kraits, the second Viper with a Fer-De-Lance and a Mamba, and two Adders were rushing toward him. He took the first one out on the initial run, and rammed the second, to save time. He had recognised both of the ships locked in a death struggle.
     Alex and Shor Kassak.

     Mitchell sat in his office. A report was on his screen, and he was dejectedly studying it. The reports were just getting worse and worse. It seemed the pirates were unstoppable, but where they had come from, nobody knew.
     He was just finishing the report when an aide rushed into his office, breathless and panicked.
     "Commander Mitchell," the man panted, coming to a halt. "I think you ought to see this," he said, pressing a computer disk into Mitchell's hand. The cop put the disk into the drive of his computer, and opened up the content. A brief image played, then an intelligence report scrolled up. Mitchell sat upright in his chair.

     "Kassak! I know that's you. Leave her alone and fight with me, man to man. I knew you'd be in this somewhere, I just knew it!"
     Orrin had taken out a Krait in passing, leaving the Viper pilot to finish the second Krait and join his companion, and sped toward the fighters. Alex, who had been following the communication, broke off and headed to aid the Vipers. Surrounded by space, the two ships faced each other, neither firing, neither moving.
     "Mr Orrin," came the pirate's voice over the intercom, his strange accent broadened by the speakers. "Listen, Mr Orrin, there are some things you don't know. I have information that could be of use to you."
     Orrin fired his lasers and the Cobra peeled off.
     "What do you have that could possibly be of use to me?" he growled. "Apart from your death."
     The Cobra circled his ship lazily, as if unafraid of Orrin's lasers. The intercom crackled uncertainly, then Shor Kassak's voice returned.
     "What's the missing link, Eliter? What is it you're missing? What connects the pirates, the Thargoids, and... Raxxla?"
     "What are you talking about?"
     "They know where Raxxla is," came the voice, insidious and full of promise of untold secrets. "The Thargoids. They know where it is. They know about the Gateway, about all of it. They're building in force, they're ready to head there. And once they control that, once they have that power, do you think you'll be safe? You and your friends on Birerea?"
     Orrin gritted his teeth. "How the hell do you know about all that?" he asked, angry now.
     "They know everything, Mr Orrin."
     "And why the hell are you telling me this?" Another volley of shots grazed Shor Kassak's shields.
     "Because I wish to join you. I'm Elite too, you know, Commander. There are lots of us, lots of us not part of your little clique. But they found somewhere to go. They made an alliance, an evil alliance, and they are not of this galaxy any more. They are twisted, mad men, and truth be told... I'm frightened. Frightened. More frightened of what they can do than anything you could possibly do to me, Mr Orrin."
     Why the hell should I believe you, thought Orrin, and said as much. Why should I even trust you?
     "Nothing is quite as it seems anymore, Commander. Look around you. Look at the scanner."
     Orrin glanced at his scanner. There were six spikes left on the radar. Quickly he spun his Fer-De-Lance, and looked over at the main battle. Of the pirates, only the other Fer-De-Lance, the Mamba, and Adder and Shor Kassak were left. Of the defenders, Alex and the last remaining Viper. Even as he watched, the Viper disintegrated in an incandescent, sparkling ball of superheated plasma and hull fragments. Alex was firing wildly at the Mamba, but the Fer-De-Lance had crept up behind her.
     Grabbing at the intercom button, Orrin started to shout a warning.
     He was too late.
     The Fer-De-Lance sped up suddenly, right behind Alex's Asp, and loosed a barrage of missiles. Alex reacted quickly enough to ECM the first but the next two slammed into her shields. Then the Fer-De-Lance simply ploughed through her ship as a hot knife through butter, a glowing ball briefly visible as the Asp's failing shields tried to save it, and then a flash as the hull collapsed and the Fer-De-Lance tore free.
     Orrin was only aware of the spinning alloys and his own scream in his ears. Angrily, he sped toward the Fer-De-Lance, only to be interrupted by the Mamba. The Adder had meanwhile flown out of range, to confront a four-strong infantry police who had picked up their colleagues' distress calls and flown to help. They blasted the Adder to pieces, and the Fer-De-Lance and the Mamba vanished suddenly into hyperspace. Orrin's eyes swept the radar for Alex's escape pod, and found nothing on the screen. No!
     Not nothing. A single spike of green stood there, on the radar, motionless. Shor Kassak. Dimly aware of a message from the new Vipers, Orrin seemed outside himself as he ordered them to stand down, and tore toward Shor Kassak's ship, and opened fire. This time the pirate didn't move, didn't react.
     "... told you, I have information I can share. I want to join your side. I can tell you where to find your friend's killer. He is a man called Vara..." Shor Kassak was pleading over the intercom, the sounds of alarm klaxons and exploding systems in the background. His shields were failing and his ship was on the point of exploding. The two craft hung in space, the four Vipers mute onlookers, as Orrin's lasers overheated and he stopped firing.
     "Give me... one... good... reason," growled Orrin, dangerously. His finger hovered over the fire button; he knew that the other man's shattered shields would no longer be able to protect him. There was a moment of silence, and Shor Kassak's accented voice cut once more through the space between them.
     "I know where they're going next. You can get there ahead of them, ambush them. But I know more, so much more, that could save your life when you try. But I have to be alive to tell you."
     Orrin eased his finger away from the trigger, the anger simmering just below his skin. The temptation was there, it was so strong... a tear began to form at the corner of his eye but he brushed it angrily away. The two ships faced one another for a moment across the blackness.
     "Alright," he said finally. "But you make one mistake, just one, and you're mincemeat."
     The Vipers moved off to whatever destination they had originally intended, and the pirate and his captor vanished into hyperspace.

     It was on the space station orbiting Atbevete that things began to make sense. On entering the system, they had met Asha with a squad of Vipers who had escorted then to the station. Asha had offered no explanation, and Orrin had pressed for none. Shor Kassak, sensibly, had made no noise whatsoever. The whole trip had passed in eerie silence.
     As they entered the bar - Orrin having first locked Shor Kassak into his cargo bay - Asha pointed to where Joshua Ai and a handful of other pilots were gathered at a series of tables, concealed within the smoky shadows away from the bar's entrance. He left Orrin at the bar ordering an Atbevetian Reouan gargle blaster, and went to sit with the others. Orrin joined them a moment later.
     "What's going on?" asked Orrin, as he sat down. He could see the worry lines etched into their faces, the tension in their bodies and their hard expressions. Something had happened in his and Alex' absence... damn it, his absence. Alex was... "What's happened?" he asked again.
     "It's gone," said Joshua. Orrin looked at him.
     "What's gone?" he asked.
     "Everything. Birerea, the Bar, the outbuildings, it's all gone. It's all dust."
     "What do you mean, it's all gone? The Bar? It can't be gone!"
     Asha took his arm. "There was a raid, Orrin. Nobody could see it coming. It shouldn't have come, we were hidden. But somebody knew where we were, and... it was the Thargoids, Orrin. A dozen warships, in the middle of the night. There was nothing we could do. They came out of nowhere, past the sensors, and flattened everything."
     He began to recount the raid on Birerea. They had been sitting around after a hard week's trading, or bounty-hunting, or any one of the various assorted trades the Eliters indulged in to while away the time or earn a modest credit. Then, without warning, the ground had begun to explode around then, just as a panicked call came in from a pilot in orbit. Thargoids and assorted pirates had popped out of hyperspace beside the planet, training their powerful Thargoid lasers on the compound. Missiles burned through the atmosphere to smash into landed ships, as the pilots scrambled to take off. About half of those present survived, most of whom had stayed with Asha. There was no point in fighting. All the buildings on Birerea were flattened, their forces destroyed or scattered. The fight was lost before it had started.
     Orrin started. Thargoids? It seemed like everyone knew what was going on, except him. "What's going on, Asha? Somebody has to start talking to me. Why would Thargoids attack Birerea? What's all the secrecy, why are all the high-tech planets locked down?"
     Asha glanced round at the other members of the group. Another pilot, Arlo Geison, spoke up. "I've got a contact in the INRA, quite a well-placed one. I believe you know him - goes by the name of Mitchell." At a gesture, a figure leaned forward out of the shadows and nodded at Orrin.
     "Mitchell... damn it, anyone, what the hell's going on?" Orrin was beginning to get frustrated.
     Mitchell looked round him in a conspiratorial manner. "The Research Arm have taken all the high-tech level worlds for our research, Orrin. There's been a movement against the low-tech planets, those with less of a police force, and if the Thargoids consolidate a presence in real space, they'll be able to take all the advanced systems too." He paused. "Riedquat's gone. It was the last to fall, just a few hours ago." There was a muttering around the table; evidently this was news to the rest of the Elite pilots.
     The edgy GalCop sipped from his glass, then continued. "We had to move to take the most important systems, the most advanced, before the Thargoids tried. They've had help, god knows, from a pirate clan headed by a man called Vara. Nobody knows where this man is, but the only thing we know for sure is that he's in league with the bugs and he has quite a force behind him."
     Vara? The name rang a bell in Orrin's head. He frowned, and shook his head. Probably he had heard it on a news broadcast or over one of the military channels. "So what are we supposed to do?" he asked.
     Asha stretched, and said "We are offering our services to the GalCops, Orrin. The bulk of the navy is still out in interstellar space, and the police are full to the brim dealing with this Vara and his pirates. There's just not enough ships to go round. INRA have given Mitchell and his boys a few squadrons, but that's by far not enough. We've got some damn good pilots, and we can't just sit around doing anything while everything we know and love is smashed into dust!" He had gotten angry toward the end, and slammed his fist onto the table. Arlo muttered something, and Mitchell watched Asha carefully.
     Joshua turned to Orrin. "Hey... where's Alex?" he asked, quietly. He could see the anger and sadness in the other's eyes. Orrin felt his eyes dampen but wouldn't allow himself to cry.
     "She... one of the pirates got her. Rammed her, when her shields were low... she didn't have a chance..." He stopped, sipped his drink. The group had gone quiet.
     "Do you know who did it?" asked Asha.
     Orrin shrugged. "Not the actual one, but I've got one of the bastards locked in my cargo hold..." he stopped suddenly, and turned to Mitchell. "Did you say that pirate's name was Vara?" he asked, his eyes narrowing. "Because, unless I'm very much mistaken, our friend in the hold is a close acquaintance of his. I finally caught the elusive Shor Kassak."
     He smiled a humourless smile, and his eyes were hard.

     Shor Kassak paced up and down in the cargo bay, wondering how long he was going to be locked in it. Not that it was the worst place he'd ever stayed a night, but some of the cargo canisters were damaged from the fight and there was a strange smell emanating from somewhere.
     He paced for a while after docking, sure that Orrin would come charging down to - do whatever he was going to do. Then he sat down, when Orrin failed to materialise, and eventually began to slumber. But the smell had been growing in that time, and he had awakened, stretched, and began pacing once more, probing the corners of the hold and the various one-tonne cargo canisters in idle curiosity, sure that he had been simply forgotten.
     But now he heard noises on the other side of the wall, transmitted by vibration through hull plates and into the cargo bay. They were muffled and vague, and there were other sounds mingled in. It sounded like a small group. Shor Kassak shifted cautiously and waited.
     He didn't have to wait long. Slowly, ponderously, the cargo ramp at the rear of the Fer-De-Lance began to grate open, and he shielded his eyes against the light flooding in through the cracks. When at last the ramp had completed its short journey to the floor of the bay, Shor Kassak could make out a group of figures, spread out along the base of the ramp, a line of dark silhouettes against the brightness of the cargo bay lights.
     As his eyes began to adjust to the light, two of the figures marched forward, Orrin Methusla and another man that Shor Kassak did not recognise. Orrin barked an order at the trapped pirate, and he walked down the ramp into the bright lights. He was ringed by angry, suspicious faces.
     "Shor Kassak?" said the man who had accompanied Orrin up the ramp. It wasn't really a question. Shor Kassak turned to face him. The stranger was of indeterminate age, of medium build, and with a nervous disposition that nonetheless let show a sharp mind and experienced stance. "You know we should just shoot you on the spot for your crimes?"
     The pirate stood still a moment, assessing the situation, and the men around him. Finally he spoke. "Yes," he replied bluntly. "I am that man, and I admit to those crimes. Our friend here," he indicated Orrin, "has been after me for some time now. But things have changed. That's why I let myself be captured. You need me, you need the information I hold. There's a lot out there that you don't know of."
     "You mean Thargoids," said the stranger bluntly. Orrin shot him a sharp look, but he ignored it. "Yes, we know all about a Thargoid pact with the pirates. Frankly," he spat, "I don't think you're an awful lot of use to us."
     "Maybe, maybe not. But just maybe I know some things you don't. How do I know you have the power or the resources to give me anything in return-" The breath was knocked from him as the stranger knocked him to the ground with a punch to the stomach and a kick to the back of the legs.
     "Don't speak to soon, mister. You're defenceless against us. Maybe we can't give you everything... maybe we won't give you anything... but maybe we're in charge of whether you live or die, and how much pain you feel inbetween. How's that to think about?"
     "Alright, Mitchell," interjected Orrin, taking a small step toward the stranger. Mitchell backed away, the light dimming in his eyes, the nervous disposition returning to the cop's features. Orrin turned to Shor Kassak. "We went over the flight logs in my ship. You said something about a man called Vara. The pirate who-" he paused, just briefly "-who killed Alex. You said you knew where he was, how he could be found."
     Shor Kassak glanced round, his eyes resting briefly on each member of the group. There were about a dozen men, he could see now, standing in a rough ring at the base of the ramp. He paused his glance at the faces to stare at one man, with a worn, tired-looking face and slightly greying hair. Although the man was standing slightly apart from the rest, it was obvious that he commanded their respect; he was either the group's leader, or held some sort of power and admiration in the eyes of the others. For his part, Asha Kirran watched the pirate with suspicion, but aware nonetheless that this was a resourceful man who knew what he was doing, and could be a valuable ally - or a dangerous enemy.
     Shor Kassak looked up at Orrin, and rose slowly to his feet. "I think we ought to first settle some sort of terms..." he began.
     "You're in no position to argue terms," interjected Mitchell, and was himself cut off as Asha stepped forward. Shor Kassak's guess had been right about the man.
     "Wait, just a moment, Commander Mitchell." His cool grey eyes found the pirate's. "I think we might be able to compromise with our friend here. Shor Kassak, what do you say if we, in return for information on this man Vara, his clan, and their relationship with the Thargoids, were to offer to you freedom and a ship?"
     Orrin began to object loudly, but Asha silenced him with a look. The old pilot was up to something. Mitchell muttered darkly behind Shor Kassak, and the other men sneaked questioning glances at one another. Shor Kassak knew that this shrewd man was up to something, but what, he didn't know. Maybe the offer was genuine, maybe he could turn it to his advantage. He thought for a moment before replying.
     "A ship to where?"
     Asha chuckled quietly. "You know, I think that if we'd met under better circumstances, I would have been happy to have a drink with you. There's a nice little bar I know..." he frowned. "Used to know. Anyway. I think we want to put you somewhere a little better smelling than young Orrin's cargo hold. Don't try anything silly, there'll be a few armed guards hanging around. And the rest of us will deliberate what's to become of you." He snapped his fingers and Arlo Geison stepped up, two others trailing. The four marched away, and the remainder headed back to the bar.

     The meeting was fairly short. Orrin argued that Shor Kassak was a simple murderer and pirate, and more than that, a turncoat and a traitor. Mitchell argued that security had to be tight to stop his strike force being destroyed in a preemptive strike, and they may as well kill the pirate now. Most of the others kept silent, or added quiet comments to the debate.
     Asha waited until the others had had their say, then told them of his plan. He told them of how he would grant Shor Kassak a Cobra, similar to his old ship, and remove the hyperdrive. He would then transport them all on a Navy cruiser - organised by Mitchell - to whatever coordinates that he supplied. Of course, he added against their objections, they would send scouts ahead first, but a lot of what the pirate told them could be confirmed by Mitchell's contacts in GalCop and the INRA. Several members of the group scowled at this news; they hadn't known of Mitchell's connection to the shady and mysterious research arm of the Navy.
     The meeting dispersed, and the pilots trailed off to their various private activities. Orrin remained behind with Asha and Mitchell.
     "It's worse than is known," Mitchell confided to the pair. "At least a dozen anarchies and low-tech planets have fallen - among them, Riedquat, Isdibe, Isatre and Veis. The key high-tech planets have been reinforced as much as we could. All that remains is a war of attrition and to see if the bulk of the Navy can catch the Thargoid invaders before they overrun the GalCops."
     Asha swore, and Mitchell looked across at him. A frown creased the old spacer's face, and he said, "So what've we to do?"
     "That's the difficult bit," answered Mitchell. "There's two main problems that INRA just don't have the resources to deal with on top of everything else... which is why we need your help. We think we know the location of Raxxla and the Gateway-" there were indrawn breaths from Asha and Orrin "-and we have a couple of leads on Vara and this pirate clan. Thanks to you, Orrin, for catching Shor Kassak. If his information pans out, we may actually stand a chance of surviving this."
     Orrin frowned, remembering Alexia Hudson. Then he shook his head quickly and changed the topic. "What I want to know," he interjected, "is how in the name of hell we're supposed to take Raxxla? I mean, if it's as well defended as you say - a whole corps of rich Elite pilots in alliance with the most powerful pirate clan in history and with the Thargoids to boot - what the hell chance do we stand?"
     "We have a little surprise held in store," said Mitchell. "The INRA, that is. We've kept a couple of squads of modified ships in reserve..."
     Asha perked up a little. "What sort of modified ships?"
     "Ahhh, I'm afraid that's part of the surprise," said Mitchell, in a conspiratorial whisper. "But I can tell you that they were originally designed to upstage the Cobra Mk IV..." And with that, he left. Asha and Orrin looked at each other in astonishment.

     Arlo Geison looked to his companions, Joshua Ai and a couple of the other pilots.
     "I don't like it," he said. "Nobody said anything about INRA and mysterious alien technology on a mythical planet. I don't trust this guy Mitchell. And I don't see why we have to have a pirate around. Frankly, I think Asha's lost it."
     There was a murmur around the group.
     "That can't be right," countered Joshua. "I mean, it may seem odd, but there's a lot going on right now that's odd, isn't there. And remember what happened on Birerea..." He trailed off.
     "Hmm, maybe. But I think Asha's scared, of what I don't know, and I think he's turning to this Mitchell for an easy way out. He's gotten himself into something over his depth, and he's scared."
     "Scared of what?" asked one of the others.
     "Scared of losing everything I hold dear," came a voice from the door. Arlo spun in shock, and Joshua stammered the sentence he had been about to say. Asha stood there, Orrin behind one shoulder. "Scared of losing my planet, my home, my friends, my loved ones." At this last he glanced briefly to Orrin, who nodded slightly.
     "There's a lot going on right now, and a lot of us are going to be very scared before it's over. It's easy to be brave when the sun's shining and life is good." He paused for a moment. "But when darkness falls only the best survive."
     Arlo stared at the old leader defiantly. "Maybe so. But what about this Mitchell? What do you know of him, of of this Research Arm of his? Why, they're about as substantial and as downright scary as some mystery group of pilots on some fantastical Raxxla!"
     Again, some muttering from the group.
     "You're right," said Asha. Arlo stared at him. "You're right. I don't know so much about him. But I do know a little more than the rest of you. And I'm confident when I say that I know enough that there's a very serious threat to us all, to this galaxy, and to other galaxies, and that we have to put aside our doubts and fears and work with Mitchell and whatever he's got, or all of this is for naught." He swept his arm in a gesture encompassing the room and those in it.
     "I'm not convinced," said Arlo quietly, but as Orrin stepped forward to answer on Asha's behalf, he added, "But I trust you, and for that - and that alone - I'm going to go with you on this one. But just don't expect me to make any special sacrifices on Mitchell's behalf."
     Asha nodded and held the other's gaze, then slowly lifted his arm up, extending his hand toward Arlo. "Are you with me?" he asked. Arlo nodded, and took the hand in a tight grip.
     "After all, you're one of the Elite," continued Asha, jovially. "And Elite commanders do today what others won't, so that tomorrow they can do what others can't."

     Shor Kassak was screaming. The Thargoid was gaining on him, and off to one side stood Orrin and Vara, arm in arm, laughing, laughing, and the great bulk of Alexia Hudson's blocky green Asp was descending from the sky to crush him...
     Waking up in a cold sweat, the pirate shuddered and waited for the images of the dream to fade from behind his eyes. Nothing was going right, and here he was, trapped in this cramped room, locked and guarded, while his enemies debated his fate. He was surprised they hadn't chosen to execute him earlier, but then again, they must have believed his promises of information. Maybe they were just planning to torture it out of him first.
     The sound of mechanical bolts grinding pulled him out of his sombre meditation. Finally, something was going to happen. It had been - how long? Hours, days? There was no way to tell. He had been brought one meal in the time since he was brought here, and there was nothing except artificial light in the ceiling to tell the time from, and of course it never went off. He had slept fitfully, and woken several times from nightmares. He hoped they would stop, but of course they never did.
     "Alright, murderer. Out you come." A rough voice, an anonymous pilot. Hands grabbing him. Bright lights, then a corridor. And he was back among all his old friends. There was Orrin Methusla, glaring balefully at him from the back of the crowd. The old leader of the group was near the front, with that nervous-looking Cop standing beside him. Various others stood gathered round. To one side stood a closed door, apparently leading to the docking bays. Maybe they simply meant to space him.
     "Shor Kassak," intoned their leader. "We have a proposition for you."
     Shor Kassak grimaced.
     "Through that door," the man indicated the airlock, "lies the docking bay. Inside that docking bay is a Cobra, similar to the one you lost. With two minor adjustments - it has no hyperdrive, and its guns are locked to a friend-or-foe system. Which means you can fire at your old friends Vara and Rocannon, but not at us. And if your information pans out, and you survive long enough, we'll fit you with a drive and some fuel and let you go free. How does that sound?"
     "All that, in exchange for some information? And you'll just let me go, just like that?"
     "Well, not quite." Asha Kirran grinned broadly. "First, you have to come with us, and help us with a little task. Hence the lasers. It's just this one trip you have to help on; we're going for a picnic to a little planet out in the back of beyond. You might have heard of it. It's called Raxxla."
     Shor Kassak's eyes widened in shock.
     "Ah, I see you've heard of it. Now I suggest you start talking, and you might have half a chance to live."
     And so he did. He told them of Vara and Rocannon joining forces into a single clan, of how the pirates had chanced on the evil men on Raxxla, and how they had been a bridge of contact between those twisted Elite pilots and the Thargoid forces. How some greedy, aggressive Thargoids had stirred up their kin, with tales of the evil of humanity. Examples were provided, courtesy of Vara, of how the Galactic Co-operative was corrupt and evil, and the existence of a shady Research Arm dedicated to extinguishing every last Thargoid from the face of the galaxy. How these Elite pilots had demonstrated the Gateway, and promised access to he Thargoids in return for an unholy alliance. How they had used the Thargoid fear of extinction to whip them up into a frenzy of war and destruction against the settled humans, and profited in every way they could from the mutual destruction of the two massive forces.
     All during his narrative, Asha listened impassively. Mitchell was openly angry, while Orrin's mouth hung open in disbelief, Joshua Ai likewise. It was an incredible story, and when Shor Kassak had finished telling it, Mitchell confirmed that most, if not all, of the details were accurate, and added that there were some interesting tales in it that even his friends at INRA were unaware of.
     They led the ex-pirate through to the docking bays, where he was presented with his new ship, a battered and revamped ex-trader.
     While Shor Kassak was looking over his new possession, Orrin turned again to Mitchell. "So when do we leave for Raxxla?" he asked.
     The secretive Cop turned to him.

     Asha chased after Orrin. "Listen Orrin, I've something to tell you. It was something I promised never to, and I promised it to Alex. But she's... well, she's gone now, and I guess you have a right to know. It's all in here," he said as he pushed a disk into Orrin's hand. "I can't say more just now, I have to get to the command deck and coordinate things. But promise me you'll read that, and you'll understand."
     "Asha, what-" Orrin began, in confusion.
     "Just promise me you'll read it," said Asha as he hurried away. Orrin was left standing in the corridor. Slowly, he studied the unmarked disk, then put it in his flightsuit, turned, and walked away.

     The metal asteroid towed Shor Kassak into hyperspace. It was in fact an area command ship for INRA, a modified Anaconda trader nicknamed the metal asteroid due to its handling; but as if to make up for this, it had a personal escort of ten Sidewinders dedicated to protecting it from attack. At each stop along their route, the convoy grew in size, joined but a number of naval Vipers and Asp Mk IIs and a scattering of other military sidewinders, and a few of Asha Kirran's fellow Elite pilots in Cobras and Asps trailed in from further afield.
     At one point Orrin spotted what he thought was a Constrictor - possibly one of the Navy's rumoured remote fighters. Of course the Constrictor had been a rumour for decades since the original prototype had been stolen and destroyed, but there was still that lingering doubt that maybe the Navy really did have ships like that somewhere, after all.
     After most of a day's travelling, Mitchell turned up with his special INRA squadron. The ships were converted Racers, built as Mitchell had claimed by Quatton Industries to upstage the almost-but-never-completed Cobra Mk IV. Their distinctive Venn-Roffey lasers glinted in the faint starlight, and the hardpoints for the new Mongoose multi-warhead missile could be seen against the hull, huddled between conventional missiles. Definitely a squadron to be wary of.
     A call came through on the fleet-wide speakers giving the coordinates of their final jump destination. It was, unsurprisingly, not on the galactic charts. Then again, mused Orrin, neither had Birerea been. And look what had happened there... he briefly reflected on all the places they had visited while collecting ships, and wondered what would happen to them if they lost. The commune on Anerbe, famed for its vacuum karate teams, or the famous ancient mountains on Diquxe. He wondered how much had already been lost. The intelligent squirrels on Riedquat, the deadly tree ants of Isdibi. And then the countdown for Raxxla began.
     And then they jumped.

     Their coming had been suspected, but not known; nevertheless, had the INRA fleet jumped into an ambush, the effect would have been basically the same. Ships, which had been gently orbiting Raxxla, came from every direction; a mix of Thargoids of various shapes and sizes, and pirate ships of Vara's clan of every class and age, and then a few of the Elite pilots from Raxxla themselves in the space around their home.
     The naval Vipers went in first, flying in close formation to protect their older Faulcon shields from the intense military laser fire, while Mitchell's Racers could be seen darting in and out, firing here and there and causing a nuisance. All over, the hulking Anacondas sought to stay clear of conflict, relying almost totally on their Sidewinders to protect them.
     Asha led his pilots away from the fray toward the planet of Raxxla itself. The plan was simple; the INRA forces would attempt to distract Raxxla's defenders long enough for Asha's pilots to get to Raxxla and disable the generator, and if possible destroy the Gateway itself. A massive energy spike had been detected in hyperspace, indicating that the Gateway had been activated, and that the Thargoids and their allies were planning to expand into whatever galaxy had been next selected. Time was of the essence.
     Mitchell's group had vanished into the melee; Shor Kassak had gone with them. Vara and Rocannon were rumoured to be present too, and that would be too good a chance to pass up. Orrin had wanted to track them down himself, but Asha had expressly forbidden it. Now he flew silently behind Asha, Arlo Geison to one side and Joshua Ai off to the other. The rest were clustered close behind.
     A flying wedge formed of military Vipers and Asps ploughed ahead of Asha's group, blasting at anything in their path. They were basically cannon fodder to allow the Elite pilots to pass unhindered; nonetheless, they were being picked off at an impressive rate and the band of pilots following them were constantly harassed by smaller enemy ships.
     Then, suddenly, a call cut across Orrin's board. It was Shor Kassak.
     "I've got him... I've got the bastard... Orrin, Orrin, come here, it's Vara himself!" It was too much for Orrin, and against Asha's protestations, he swung away from the group and past the wreckage of an INRA Racer, toward the source of the transmissions.
     Indeed, Shor Kassak had been correct. An ugly confrontation was underway between the ex-pirate and clan leader, and as soon as Orrin's Fer-De-Lance arrived on the scene, he was recognised. Rocannon's Mamba swung toward him, the agile racing ship outmanoeuvring the heavier vessel, and began firing. Orrin fired a missile at Rocannon, and the pirate, having no ECM of his own, fired one back, forcing Orrin to ECM both. Then in the heat of battle Rocannon made a fatal mistake.
     The Mamba had been recalled from combat service due to a major flaw in its shield systems. The faulty first batch of Radder Fluxloc shields were fine for racing, but they emit a wave of radiation which, although largely harmless, causes missiles to confuse source with target. That was why they were used almost exclusively by pirates; they were cheap and they were illegal.
     The missile sped in a leisurely loop back toward Rocannon.
     The pirate realised his mistake and swept close to Orrin's ship, where he locked and fired a second; this Orrin simply ignored, his ship being large enough to be able to take an impact. There was no way in hell he was going to ECM both missiles this time. Poetic justice came eventually.
     Even as his ship shuddered from the impact of Rocannon's missile, he watched in savage satisfaction as the Mamba's hullplates tore apart under the fury of his own missile. Poetic justice indeed. As the cloud of wreckage from the Mamba dispersed, Orrin realised he had again lost track of Shor Kassak and Vara.
     Instead he saw the Thargoid Transporter. It was the centre of attention, attracting Vipers, Racers and Asha's group. The massive vessel was said to hold hundreds of Thargons which, if released, would wreak untold damage on the attacking forces and could potentially halt the attack on Raxxla. Orrin fired up his engines and moved to join his comrades, falling in behind Asha and Joshua.
     The Transporter began to open then, and Thargons swarmed out as soon as there was enough room. Joshua shouted something incomprehensible, and banked his Asp round to face the monstrosity, then hit full burn toward it. Thargons splattered off his shields, and he fired his missiles at the top of the rising door as he rushed toward it.
     Then the incredible happened. As the remote fighters of the enemy force shot out, the small green Asp shot in, and vanished into the ship's interior. Then there were a few small explosions - evidently the last of Joshua's missiles hitting the interior of the craft - then a single, larger explosion as his Asp went to hyperspace. Inside the Transporter.
     The remains of Joshua's ship tore through the skin of the Thargoid vessel, and a series of violent explosions ripped across it, and it tipped suddenly toward Raxxla. Its accompanying Thargons fell silent and began to drift harmlessly into one another. Then the inevitable happened.
     The ship plunged through the atmosphere of Raxxla and there was a faint orange glow as its massive hull heated up to tremendous temperatures. Then there was a timeless moment, followed by a bright orange plume when it hit the ground and disintegrated. Orrin knew that if he were to go land, he would find a rather impressive crater in the ground, as a sort of lasting memento to the young man's brave sacrifice.
     Asha had evidently had the same thought, because he shouted over the intercom, quickly, with an ironic chuckle, "That's what we call digging your own grave." Then the moment was gone, and the battle resumed.

     "Get to the generator," came the order through the intercom. "No other objective matters now; if we lose the generator, we lose the battle either way. It's all down to you guys."
     Asha and Arlo had fallen in together, the two Cobras flanked by the remainder of Mitchell's squadron. Orrin trailed in his Fer-De-Lance, still wary of the attackers, and Shor Kassak had resumed his position off on one flank, firing at passing pirates.
     "What happened to Vara?" asked Orrin over the radio.
     "No idea," answered Shor Kassak. "One moment he was there, the next gone. You've no need to worry, since I told you he was here, he wants me as dead as the rest of you. Probably more, in fact."
     "If you see him again, the bastard's mine," sent Orrin. He was beginning to develop a grudging admiration for the ex-pirate, although he would never admit it if pressed. But Shor Kassak was true to his word, and was helping the pilots reach their goal. Maybe, if they both survived, he might give the man a second chance.

     Raxxla was a pleasant enough world; it had a fairly thin atmosphere, although still dense enough to support outdoor life. It had a varied and interesting ecosystem, and no habitation to mar its natural perfection save for the small outpost, the headquarters of the group of users, of twisted, evil Elite breakaways who had found an ancient technology on the planet.
     The technology itself was a mystery; an ancient device of tremendous power, housed in geostationary orbit over Raxxla's north pole, powered by an equally massive generator orbiting the planet's south pole. Its design, operation and original use remained a mystery. But the man who discovered Raxxla had managed to get it working and discovered that it served as a portal to other galaxies, other universes. It was postulated by some of them that this was how life had first arrived here, and by others as an explanation for the Thargoids. But the idea grew in their diseased minds to use the Gateway for their own ends, to exploit other times and places, to build enormous power and resources, and then to manipulate their way into politics and business, to gain total power.
     Then things became complicated. The men hadn't anticipated the arrival of the Thargoids. They financed Vara and his ilk instead to provide a private army, with thoughts of defending their discovery. Then they found that they could manipulate even the Thargoids, and were instrumental in beginning the long war between the two races. They made a pact with the insectoid aliens not to attack, in exchange for access to the Gateway. Their was a brief fear among the Elite men that the Thargoids would turn on them as they had the other humans, but they hadn't.
     Things moved on, as they were engineered to; war broke out and the men's power increased. Then their base was discovered, the location of Raxxla was discovered, the Gateway was discovered. An offensive was coming, and they had to pull every resource they could to get Thargoids and pirates to defend the Gateway. But things weren't ready in time; the bulk of their Thargoid defenders were still halfway here. They needed to delay the attackers. Just a little more time... just a little more.

     Orrin's ship shuddered and reeled at an angle before the artificial gravity took over and returned the cockpit to normal. The big man was bleeding from a gash on the upper arm where he had hit the edge of a console. Pirates were swarming around the small group of ships, and every now and then a Thargoid would pop into existence and hurtle toward them, powerful lasers cutting through space and ships alike.
     "Port side! Port side!" a voice cried from the radio. "Get somebody to close that gap, there's a- oh my god!" The voice vanished. Orrin frowned, and turned to pursue a Cobra. Firing quickly, he watched the ship disintegrate under the force of his lasers.
     Then he saw his own reflection. A Fer-De-Lance just like his was hurtling toward him, firing wildly. Shor Kassak shouted wildly, "Vara! It's him again!" before his ship was broadsided by a Sidewinder and he veered off away from Orrin.
     The two ships faced one another across space. The IR check ran automatically; again, a blank screen faced Orrin. It really is you, you bastard, he thought. A thin film of red seemed to cloud Orrin's vision. One single thought repeated in his head as he tried to keep the enemy vessel in his sights. Alex!
     Vara suddenly loosed a barrage of missiles, timing them so that as soon as Orrin ECMed the first, the second was launched. That way, even if none of the missiles hit Orrin's ship, he was draining his shields and energy banks by overusing his ECM device. Incensed, Orrin raced full speed toward Vara, but the other pulled away. The two ships were too equally matched.
     For long minutes the two ships circled one another, each trying to find an opening, firing occasional shots into the shields of the other. Orrin was out of missiles, and so, it seemed, was Vara. They were trapped in a stalemate, of which there was no way out.
     Then suddenly the blur of Shor Kassak's Cobra cut through their small, tense patch of space, and he loosed a missile at Vara. The other's ship twitched in recognition, possibly of the other's fighting style, and suddenly Orrin heard Shor Kassak's voice over the intercom.
     "Well, well, Vara. We meet again." The other side of the conversation was on a private wavelength, and Orrin could only make out the ex-pirate's part of it. "Traitor? To you maybe. But you're a traitor to the whole human race. You sold us out, Vara. You sold us all out."
     The Cobra warily orbited the slower-turning Fer-De-Lance, but despite being slower, Vara's ParaVee helix shields were much stronger, and the Cobra's shots were glancing off and inflicting little real damage. Suddenly Orrin saw his chance. He touched his engines up to full speed as the combatants drifted nearer to him, and Vara realised suddenly what was happening. So did Shor Kassak. Firing wildly, Shor Kassak risked his own life to damage Vara's shields. Orrin did likewise, still accelerating.
     Too late, Vara turned his ship. Too late, he saw Orrin bearing down on him. Too late, he remembered Orrin's ship, his companion's Asp, the way he had sliced through it as a hot knife through butter. Too late he realised Orrin was about to bestow the same fate upon him.
     The two Fer-De-Lances met in a shudder, hull plates grinding together, shields sparking off one another and cancelling out as the huge voltages involved took their toll on identical sets of shield generators. But Vara's now-weakened shields were able to take less punishment than Orrin's, and with a bright flash and an electrical discharge across his hull, the shields failed. Orrin ploughed through the defenceless vessel, shattering it. Then Vara's remaining Quirium fuel ignited, and all three ships vanished in a bright ball of flame.

     Moments later, the ball was gone. Asha was shouting worriedly over the intercom, rallying the remainder of his pilots and Mitchell's forces around him. A pair of scorched, battered ships fell in behind him.
     "Thanks," said Orrin, shaking his head in wonder as he did so. "You saved my life out there, thanks."
     The ex-pirate chuckled over the crackling line. "No problem," he replied. "I'm sure you would have done the same for me any time."
     Orrin thought for a moment before speaking. "You know," he said, "Four days ago I would have gunned you down on the spot. But now I'm glad you're here, and I'm thanking you for saving me. It's a strange world, isn't it? So believe me when I say, I really would have done the same for you."
     Shor Kassak never had a chance to reply, as a clutch of defenders, mostly pirates, ran at them, firing. "To me!" yelled Shor Kassak over the radio, and a small group of ships broke off to attack the approaching pirates. Orrin turned to join them, when Asha's voice came through.
     "With me, Orrin. Stay with me. We're going for the Gateway."

     As they came very close to Raxxla, the small group of fighters to survive split into two groups. Asha headed off a squad to destroy the generator, and Orrin took a second squad to the Gateway itself. Mitchell had attached himself to Asha, while Arlo Geison had stayed with Orrin. There were only two or three other ships with them; the numbers of enemy far outnumbered them.
     A Thargoid Warship appeared then, suddenly, and waves of Thargons began to converge on their position. The two trailing ships exploded as the Thargons reached them, and Orrin could see a large number trailing Asha's group toward the generator. There was no time left.

     The Gateway stood active. Orrin screamed as he and Arlo sped toward it, firing. There was no way in hell they were going to let the Thargoids get that, to terrorise other worlds and other galaxies. If that happened, they could become invincible. The firing increased around them, as more Thargoid warships appeared out of nowhere. The whine of shield generators, the screech of tortured metal, the tinny smell of something overheating, burning.
     The Fer-De-Lance and the Cobras streaked toward the opening that was the Gateway. There was a bright flash and Arlo's ship spun away toward Raxxla, clearly disabled and out of control. Orrin swore, and Asha shouted over the intercom, "I've got the generator! You go through the gate!"
     "What? Through?" Orrin shouted back. "No, Asha, we have to destroy it! I can't go through - what would that accomplish?"
     "For once in your damn life, listen to me," came Asha's tense voice. "Somebody's got to find whoever's on the other side, warn them that this thing's here and what the Thargoids can do! There's other high-tech planets here that can fight on, but somebody's got to warn those on the other side of the Gateway!"
     "Asha..." Orrin's face drained of colour. "I..."
     Orrin lined up his Fer-De-Lance with the shimmering portal of the Gateway, hit full speed, and switched to rear view. On the other side of the planet, he saw Asha and Mitchell spiral away toward the generator housing, a stream of Thargons in tow, both ships firing wildly. Then the energies of the Gateway began to cloud his cameras, and he saw Asha's Cobra plunge into the generator, followed a second later by Mitchell's Racer, and a plume rose from the planet, vaporising the ships, the generator and all the Thargons.
     The Gateway spat him out on the other side then imploded violently, before twisting and vanishing into nothingness.

     He glowered back at the empty void of space where the Gateway had been. He would find a way back, he vowed silently to himself. One day he would return. One day he would destroy the Thargoids, avenge the death of Alexia. Of Asha, Joshua, Spencer, Mitchell. Even of Shor Kassak. One day.
     His hand rested on his leg, and he felt a shape in a pocket of his flightsuit. Asha's disk. Slowly, he removed the disk, placed it in the drive, and sat back in shock at what Alex began to tell him.

This story (if you can call it that) is © Jason Togneri 2002. ArcElite is © Warren Burch and Clive Gringras, and Elite is © Ian Bell and David Braben. If you've got a problem with that, or liked the story, please email the author because I'm desperate for emails. Thank you. Last update: 26-04-2002 22:25. Word count = 13460.