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Umm...This will be my second story release, but not a priority. I just thought I'd let you know before you started reading. An idea for a sci-fi world has been playing around in my mind for ages...I figured I should finally get some of it written down before I got too busy! My priority is still and will always be Grey-Eyed Justice, another story here on Nifty. If you liked this sure to check it out!


Broken Pegasus Wings

The Horse that flew

A short blonde haired boy sat in the middle of one of the rundown spaceport's many hangars. In his hands was an old conductor coil--a mass of round metal with a tangle of wires coming out from all sides--and a small but sharp laser pen knife, which he wielded with painstaking skill. It hummed in the cavernous building as he stripped each and every wire, cleaning the connectors and organizing them with various colour coded elastic bands as he went.

He was interrupted from his work by a deep rumbling noise. It started as a low hum and slowly built intensity until his tools scattered around on the floor and rattled against the smooth black plasteele floor, making him look around in confusion. Several of the other techs, greasy and beefy wrench monkeys in soiled overalls had abandoned the small sub-light shuttle that was being serviced in one corner and wandered to the hangar doors; which were open at the moment. They pointed to something beyond the doors, jabbering excitedly to each other.

"Titus!" One of the techs, Jeckt called to him excitedly, motioning with his wrench that he should join them. "C'mon runt, it's not everyday we get to see a living legend!" Curious now, Titus abandoned his project, depositing it gently on the square of non-static cloth beside him before he hurried over to the hangar doors.

The sun was setting in the distance, and the horizon looked to Titus as though it had caught fire--spreading through the cumulous clouds very much like the napalm canister that had fallen off the orbital fighter last week when it had chewed through a large chunk of the nearby forest. The rumbling was much louder outside, it shook Titus to his teeth--which he clenched to keep from biting his tongue. A blast of wind greeted him as he turned to face the monster setting down on pad number five.

"Good fucking god," one of the techs shouted, "What a lump of shit! I thought they'd all been retired years ago!"

"They DID retire them." Jeckt clapped the tech on the shoulder, yelling loudly to be heard over the manoeuvring jets, which were firing almost continuously as the behemoth set down. He had to clutch his faded blue cap to keep it from sailing off. "Five years ago they were! All retired from the service I mean. It was right after they came out with the mark VIII."

"Then what the hell is this one doing still around?"

"What? You mean you haven't heard of her?" Jeckt had turned to the tech and was staring with disbelief. He pointed up, motioning with an arm, "See that there white winged horse on her belly? Mythical horse that is, called a Pegasus. She's bloody famous! Don't tell me you've never heard of her?!" Jeckt's excited voice held a note of sheer disbelief; Titus for one had never heard of her, he had to lean into the wind in order not to topple, his ears strained to make out the rest of their conversation.

"You mean she's that Pegasus?" the tech yelled back disbelievingly, his voice nearly lost in the loud whine of turbines.

Titus stared up at the ship with unashamed awe, questions forming in his mind as he watched. The small spaceport he worked at rarely saw any ships larger than sub-light shuttles or mid-range private yachts--the most exciting had been when a couple bounty hunters had stopped by, their corvettes had been heavily armed and painted in bright colours...but this...this Pegasus was no corvette, but a ship of the line--a full blown star cruiser. It was something he had only read about in books. Why it had chosen to set down at this garbage heap of a spaceport was beyond Titus. Its bulk was much more suited for a space dry-dock than a joyride down to a land port like this one.

The Pegasus' sleek body was undercut by twin support pylons, which jutted out cleanly in curvy lines from its sides, anchoring the two faster than Light Drive Modules securely; from its nose, the tip of the anti-proton phase cannon peaked out with a menacing air and its spine bristled with mobile ion and plasma cannons and air batteries. Scattered between all the weaponry were small doors Titus could only guess were missile tubes. Titus found the sight of it intimidating and thrilling all at the same time. Bloody brilliant.

As they watched from their hidden vantage point, the pylons shifted, they migrated up the side of the ship, pulling the nacelles out from underneath as its massive landing struts deployed with a great hiss of compressed air.

"Wish I had my video-cam," Titus heard Jeckt say mournfully to no one in particular as the great bird hung sedately in the air before settling like a feather onto the superheated landing pad. The ground gave one last stubborn shudder before firming beneath the spaceport once again. The noise decreased slightly as the massive engine turbines began their cool-down sequence.

Titus tugged on Jeckt's sleeve until he looked over. "What do you mean that Pegasus? I've never heard of her." He asked stubbornly.

Jeckt laughed loudly, "Right...I suppose you wouldn't have heard of her--before your time she was." He paused and turned back to watch the ship with the look of what Titus imagined was similar to that a boy who had just been given the greatest toy in the world. "A long time ago she belonged to the Imperiate. One of their most famous front-line ships ever to see action. She was at the battles of Ganton-Moor and the Tri-World Crisis when those nukes nearly wiped out sixty million souls. Then one day, she simply disappeared she did!" Jeckt shrugged, "Nobody knows what happened really, but when she was next spotted her Imperiate colours had been scrubbed, and she had been dressed in the black you see now. She had gone pirate."

"A pirate ship..." Titus breathed to himself quietly. He turned away and ran back inside.

"Whoa wait a minute--" Jeckt said as he mimicked Titus' quick steps back through the thick blast doors. He watched the energetic sixteen year old settle back on the floor, pick up the old converter coil and furiously started stripping wires again. "What the hell has gotten into yeh?" Jeckt asked. "Don't want to watch the ship? This is a once in a lifetime--"

Titus didn't even look up, so engrossed he was with the conductor coil. "All the other teams are all working on projects, right?"

Jeckt glared at him for a moment before he shrugged, "Well...uh...yea I s'pose" his gruff voice came back.

"So...that explains pretty much why I'm sitting here and not outside."

Dawning came slowly to the older man, but he caught on quick enough. He was running back to the hangar doors shouting as he went. "BACK TO WORK YOU LOUTS. WE DO THIS AND WE DO IT RIGHT. NOW!!" Titus smiled to himself and prayed silently that they would finish the shuttle quickly. There was a bigger and better project that was suddenly up for grabs.

*      *      *

Titus had to walk quickly in order to keep up with the excited strides of his repair team. There were eight members in total walking briskly across paved landing pad five. Each of them could take a ship apart and put it back together in record time, they were the best of the worst so to speak. That was expected of course, the `Eight Stars' spaceport was by no means well known on Dalah Minor, but it got business sometimes other spaceports never got--mostly because it had an underground reputation for secrecy as well as good techs--something many of the other high density cement blocks that claimed to be spaceports could never do.

"We certainly lucked out, didn't we Jeckt?" Horus, a great fat man puffed as he struggled to lug a giant diagnostic device and keep up the pace. Jeckt only grunted, something was obviously grating on his mind. He suddenly stopped and Titus nearly ran into him; he had been looking up unabashedly at the Pegasus at the time.

"Whats wrong?" Titus heard himself say.

Jeckt looked around the other techs for a moment and seemed to reach some sort of decision. "Well...I've been thinking some..."

"Oh shit, not one of these speeches again" one of the techs said loudly. The others laughed, dropping their gear where they stood. When Jeckt got a good wind there really was no stopping him.

"Shut up! All of yahs." Jeckt scowled, but only for a moment. In fact, he looked rather embarrassed. "Well me and the guys have been talking some Titus--about the haggling."

Titus frowned, `the haggling' was a spaceport tradition. The spaceport had no set fees; it was the techs themselves who negotiated prices with the pilots. Each tech team was responsible to keep an easy twenty percent price profit over parts used. Titus knew that it was pretty easy to make that--the kicker was that anything over that margin the techs kept as their wages.

"Doesn't see where you're going with this Jeckt..."

"Yea hurry up and tell the kid, my legs are killing me." Horus complained loudly, shooting a wink at Titus when he thought Jeckt wasn't looking.

"I'm getting there, so shut up!" Jeckt muttered before he continued rather awkwardly. "Er...right. Well ever since we pulled together and sent you to that fancy school--right? We figure it's high time you put all them smarts to good use." Jeckt said, scratching the back of his head in distraction.

Titus tried not to blush and failed. When he had been little, they had found Titus--a dirty blonde haired rat--scavenging for food around the spaceport's caf. Orphans on Dalah minor didn't stay free for long--they were pressed into the planet's most profitable trade--slaves. The techs had caught him, fed him, cleaned him up, and sent him packing to a mercenary school. Titus had been six at the time--the youngest by far at the school where he learned the ins and outs of mechanics, math, piloting--and many other trades. Titus had set his new friends back almost two years wages, but surprisingly the techs didn't begrudge him for it. If he couldn't have real parents, at least he still had eight fathers to look after him.

"What...what exactly do you mean: `put my smarts to good use?'" Titus asked cautiously. This wasn't like Jeckt at all.

"We think it'd be better if you handle the numbers this time around." Jeckt said gruffly. "You've got a better head for numbers than me, and we all know it. Besides...we all think it'll be right funny when those gruff idiots try and match wits with a fourteen year old." Jeckt grinned, and underneath his oil stained brow his brown eyes were twinkling.

Titus tried to take a breath and choked. Traditionally the team leader always did the be given that job was...well damned unusual. He was so stunned in fact he didn't even bother to rise to Jeckt's jib. Jeckt knew perfectly well that he was sixteen and not fourteen. He just looked a little younger than he actually was.

Fernald was slapping Titus on the back like he always did, the other techs were smiling or chuckling to themselves. They all thought it was one grand joke. "Doesn't know what to say, bless him. Haw haw haw." Fernald's laugh filled his ears. "Well, c'mon lads, this job ain't gonna get done without us." When everyone had turned he bent and grabbed Titus by the shirt, a predatory look suddenly in his eyes. "You screw this up...and you won't be walking for a week you little shit-head." Titus just smiled back and slipped away--suddenly at ease. At least that was still business as usual.

Up close the Pegasus was even more impressive. Jeckt whistled in awe when he caught sight of what looked like a multitude of dents on the hull; they ranged from small rock-like indentations, to huge caves of twisted and fractured metals and ceramics. Several of the visible ion cannons looked as though they had been scooped out by a blunt knife. It was hard to tell the extent of the damage to the ship since the black hull hid much of the carbon scoring normally visible on other less radically painted ships. Old Reg, a twisted shrivelled man was smacking his lips loudly, probably imagining how much this was going to cost. Reg didn't look it, but he was the team's electronics expert. He claimed he could make a toaster into an E.M.P. bomb with just a las-cutter, a battery and some chewing gum--Titus believed him. He was that good. All of the team was. Jeckt had a very low tolerance for laziness and sloppy work.

Titus was struggling to remember current black market prices for the cannons when the cargo bay ramp started to descend with the hiss of decompressed air. Jeckt made his way to stand beside him. He was staring about the ship with a gleeful expression.

"We're going to need the cranes and the grav-lifts for this job. And you might as well factor in hiring more teams into our price. I doubt we can handle this large a job ourselves." That was common practice, when a big job came in one team got the call to negotiate, and hired other teams as needed.

"I know," Titus said ignoring Jeckt, "We're also going to need a whole truckload of armour plating--some of those look like they've never been properly repaired. I suppose they're the new liquid metal polymer ceramic ones that are impossible to find..." Titus nodded in what he hoped was a reasurring manner to Jeckt, who still had that pained look on his face. Titus scowled up at the tall tech. "I'm not going to screw this up Jeckt, put your fears to rest" he said soothingly.

Jeckt shrugged almost apologetically. "I would'a broken you in on something easier know I ain't so good with numbers. Something this big..." Jeckt shook his head, "I would'a messed something up."

A great mammoth of a man was descending the ramp, flanking him were two heavily armed men. Their red, highly refined plasteele armour glinted in the dusk sunlight as they made their way out to the circle of techs, their automatic rifles hung loosely on their shoulders but Titus sensed that was just for show. To Titus' sharp eyes it looked as though they were ready to mow down the entire tech team in milliseconds, they didn't walk so much as glide--a sure sign of professional killers. Titus was imagining muscles taut in anticipation and he had to shake his head to clear his thoughts. Their leader wore no visible armour and appeared to be unarmed. He was dressed in a plain black uniform with a blue trim whose collar he wore loose so it didn't strangle his tree trunk of a neck. Beneath his mop of brown hair and broad forehead two darkly intelligent eyes picked Jeckt out as the leader immediately.

"You the one I'm gonna negotiate with?" he spoke to Jeckt, one of his fierce eyebrows raised questioning. He was obviously familiar with how the spaceport was run, and his voice surprised Titus. It was deep in timbre but it was unexpectedly soft and gentle for such a hard looking man. Titus took a liking to him immediately--even though the man could probably squish his head like an overripe tucat without even straining himself.

The techs were suddenly trying to hide grins and looked away awkwardly. The big man waited patiently while Jeckt cleared his throat. "Actually I'd like to introduce our negotiator." Titus felt his hand propel him forward so he stood beneath the giant of a man. "This is Titus, our official rep. Whatever he says, goes."

Ready for ridicule, laugher, or even disbelief the giant surprised him. He nodded briskly and looked Titus up and down. "Very well, we shall conduct the negotiations aboard our ship. If you'll come with me...?" The giant turned, beckoning that Titus should follow him towards the ship with one of his large hands. Titus glanced up questioningly at Jeckt. Titus was about to object to negotiating on the ship--it would leave him at a certain disadvantage being in their territory, but Jeckt shook his head quickly, indicating Titus should follow the man.

After a small confused pause, Titus shrugged and let himself be led towards the ship, the guards took up positions flanking him and Titus had the impression of being more of a prisoner than a negotiator. As soon as they were up the ramp and out of sight of the other techs Titus was roughly grabbed and shoved up against a large crate.

Protesting Titus was silenced when the cold muzzle of a High Velocity pistol pressed against his neck. "Shut up," the guard ordered. Titus heard a beeping of some sort and a tingle ran through his body. After a moment there was a grunt and he was released. Titus fell to the floor, suddenly dizzy. He rubbed his neck and glared up at the guards who appeared to be floating, Titus shook his head as he tried to clear his vision, which just made the world spin all that much more.

"He's clean Sir. No weapons or bugs." Titus heard one of the two guards report dimly. The large man, who had been standing back nodded and smiled down at Titus. He offered his hand which Titus accepted uncertainly.

"Sorry `bout that. Can never be too careful of course. Didn't want you blowing up the ship or nothing. Hope you understand." Titus clambered to his feet unsteadily; the giant laid a hand on his back steadying him. "The effects of the scanner will pass momentarily. We needed to bioscan you as well...nasty weapons those--they can hide inside a person's blood or marrow...nasty stuff."

"Right," Titus gritted his teeth and was very determined not to say anything that was currently on his mind. This was probably standard aboard a pirate ship like the Pegasus. That was going to cost them though. "I should've given you my resume before I boarded. Under the heading `I'm only sixteen' you'll also find `deadly assassin' written in blood, right beneath mechanic."

The big man laughed and pulled Titus close to his body to steady him before he fell over--he had been teetering unsteadily. He dragged Titus over to one of the lifts. "I like you," he said, still chuckling. "Titus right? Well I'm Garel. Sergeant of Arms aboard the Pegasus, but we're not big on formality around here." He grinned broadly, showing off crooked teeth of which several were missing and released Titus. Titus staggered to one side of the metal lift as the doors closed.

"You mean to tell me you're not the Captain?" Titus asked in disbelief, he had been sure that this man was the Pegasus' Captain. He certainly looked like what a Pirate Captain should look like. When Titus said as much the man just gave him an odd look as he punched in a series of commands into the lift's command console.

"Freck no. Couldn't run a ship like this for the life of me. You'll meet her soon enough."

Titus, still slightly dizzy, was rapidly regaining his senses as well as a certain outrage at his treatment so it took a moment to digest Garel's words.

"Hold on just a moment. She?" The Captain was a woman? Pirate Captain was a woman? The corner of Garel's mouth was twitching with amusement.

"Yup. A bitch of a whore. But don't tell her I said that," he winked then looked up at the numbers rapidly spinning by on the counter overhead. "Word of advice. Don't do anything to piss her off or you'll find yourself flayed in the brig. Be respectful, but don't try and grovel. She hates when people beg."

Titus' knees were suddenly wobbly, and it wasn't because of the scanner, whose effects had finally passed. "Even for their lives?" Titus managed through a suddenly dry throat.

Garel's grin turned sour, "Especially for their lives."

* * *

Titus had not realised how difficult it was to actually get to the bridge, but as he thought about it more it made a sort of twisted sense. If you could access the bridge easily, so could any boarders. So Titus was forced to walk beside Garel, following him into the bowels of the ship. They walked down corridors that were once gleaming, now scorched by fires long put out, overhead panels were often missing, exposing wires and machinery underneath. Titus took in all of it, whistling quietly under his breath.

"What did you do? Put the ship through a meat grinder?" Titus asked quietly as the guards of yet another security station saluted the large man, they gave Titus curious glances then returned to duty.

"Haven't been back in this part of space for quite a while...ain't had time for proper repairs and such...but I'm sure the Captain will tell you all about it. I don't think I should say anything more than that I'm afraid." He said, smiling apologetically.

Titus frowned and closed his mouth. This was looking more and more like a job that was going to require all ten teams of techs at the small spaceport. Titus suddenly felt like sweating. That meant he was not only negotiating for his team, but for all the teams. No pressure...

They walked in silence for a while, their boots clattering off loose deck plating--no doubt yet another thing to replace...After another thirty or so steps Titus changed his tactics, he made notes of what didn't need to be fixed. It was much less work that way.

"I've seen that patch you wear before...can't for the life of me remember where though." Garel said as they approached an imposing set of thick black blast doors flanked by two more red-uniformed soldiers.

"What, this?" Titus asked, fingering the small badge on one of his overall straps. It had a small picture of a bloody sword surrounded by a decorative crest with green highlights. "Just a memento from the academy."

Garel snapped his fingers and nodded to himself. Realising he had done so he smiled sheepishly--something that looked very stupid on such an imposing man. "Sorry, just remembered where I saw another just like it..." Garel trailed off as they reached the doors, and before Titus could inquire where the big man had seen it they were being escorted through.

The bridge was a chaotic mess of activity. Uniformed men with all sorts of colour trimmed uniforms walked briskly about moving from consol to consol. A man stood in the centre of it all, checking datapads and papers alike as they were shown to him. When Garel stepped onto the deck, the man looked up and scowled. Unlike Garel, Titus took an immediate dislike to this man. He was balding, and grey hairs crept about his head. A great scar tore up the side of his face, causing the left side of his mouth to be stuck in a permanent scowl. He had a dark look about him as if a giant cloud hung about him; it made Titus shiver. If this was the Captain Titus decided he would make a run for it.

"What took you so long?" the man snapped.

"Oh you know me Marcus, had to stop for tea in the mess. Then I had to shower and clean my toe-nails." Garel replied non-chalantly. Marcus just scowled all that much more. Titus had the strange urge to turn around and run again.

"Captain's waiting," he said turning back to his papers and motioning to a door behind him. Garel was chuckling as he led Titus to the door.

"Thats our X.O.: Executive Officer Marcus Brine. He may not look it but he has a great sense of humour."

"You're right...he doesn't look it."

Garel sobered, his hand hesitated on the door's control panel, then he shrugged and pushed the button. With a surprising quickness the door whooshed open. "Spaceport representative here to see you Captain." He said loudly, then he lowered his voice gravely, "Well...good luck Titus, I hope we'll meet again" Titus didn't miss the twinkle in his eye as he said it. Firming his resolve, Titus stepped through the small opening. Behind him he heard the door smartly close.

The room he had stepped into was so unlike the rest of the sterile ship that it was as if Titus had stepped into a different dimension. The room was wood-paneled and carpeted; brown and green. Titus gazed with interest at all the relics hanging on the walls. They were covered with all sorts of strange devices, all of them ancient, as well as small models of all sorts of spacecraft. Titus thought he recognized several designs, but he couldn't be sure without a closer inspection. There was a great polished wood desk to his left, it was stacked with plastic film charts and datapads, but the chair behind it was empty.

"Have a seat," a voice called from his right. His attention was drawn to a woman who was standing with her back to him, she was behind several plush couches at a small cabinet from which she was pouring something into two glasses. "I wasn't sure what you drank so I'll surprise you..." she trailed off as she turned to face Titus, who blushed under her sudden scrutiny.

She was perhaps the most beautiful person Titus had ever laid eyes on. Her black hair--gleaming under the harsh artificial lights--was tied up neatly behind her head, and two green eyes flickered with surprise as she looked him up and down. Her all black uniform did nothing to hide her gentle curves and robust figure. The Captain masked her surprise quickly, replaced by cold anger. She stormed over to the door and slammed on the pad, making the door jump open. She nearly ran into Garel, who was standing protectively outside.

The Captain grabbed his arm and dragged him back inside, she pointed at Titus, who was in no small part confused, and yelled, "What is the meaning of that?" her voice was shrill as the door slid closed, blocking surprised faces from the bridge who were trying to see what all the commotion was about. She pointed accusingly at Titus.

Garel was grinning again. "That there is the negotiator" he said firmly. "But surely he could've told you that?"

The Captain blinked at Garel for a moment then turned back to face Titus. Her hands settled dangerously on her hips as she surveyed him closely. "You are? They sent a kid to do business with me?" She asked, turning back to skewer Garel with flashing eyes "And you let them? What do I look like? A bloody babysitter?"

Enough was enough. Titus opened his mouth, but Garel caught his eyes and shook his head, he was still grinning. "He's been at Kimmel's academy from the looks of him...I'm sure Kimmel would be angry if he heard you treated one of his student's like this."

Kimmel? Garel and the Captain knew Master Kimmel, the head of the school Titus had been sent to early in his life? The Captain appeared thinly pacified by this news, she grunted. "Bloody Kimmel...alright fine, get out Garel." Garel saluted and winked at Titus again before he sauntered out of the room. "And have Lieutenant Briggs join us in ten minutes" she shouted at his back. She turned to Titus and eyed him cautiously, then motioned grudgingly at the couch.

Titus sank gratefully into the soft leather, which wrapped around his body almost protectively. The Captain had walked over to the cabinet; she eyed the small glasses she had been pouring with distain. From the cabinet she pulled a much larger glass and filled it up with a brown-yellow liquid from which a vile sort of smoke rose.

"You...know Master Kimmel?" Titus asked hesitantly once he found his voice. She clambered over the back of the other couch, careful not to spill her drink and sank into it with a sigh.

"He's still alive is he?" When Titus nodded she snorted into her drink with displeasure, "that's a shame. I had high hopes he'd have croaked by now."

Her voice had been filled with so much venom that Titus flinched, " don't like him then?"

"Like him?" she said, swirling her drink absently, "I detest him and at the same time I have the greatest respect for him."

Titus tried to ponder that for a moment before he gave up, confused. The Captain was eyeing him carefully, as if waiting to pounce on any sort of mistake. Titus silently cursed Jeckt--so this was why the man didn't mind if Titus did the negotiating.

Seeing he wasn't going to answer she broke the silence. "Your name's Titus?"

"Yes ma'am." Titus said, thankful that the topic had changed.

"No last name?" she asked absently, but Titus was suddenly very aware how her knuckles had gone white around her glass. What did that mean?

"No ma'am...never knew my parents. First thing I remember is Kimmel's'am. Tech's here at the station pulled some strings and sent me off to his academy."

Her grip relaxed slightly and she settled herself into the couch again, she didn't look relieved exactly but Titus was sure there had been some sort of tension--what did she possibly have to fear from him? "So...Kimmel let a little six year old into his academy? You certainly sound like you've been there...Bryce must've had a fit."

In spite of his surroundings Titus laughed, the Captain was testing him. "Like you wouldn't believe ma'am. He had me cleaning toilets and memorizing my math tables at the same time. I think he expected me to never learn anything since I was so young, either that or he was preparing me to be the world's smartest janitor."

"But you obviously did learn something since you're here, negotiating with me." The Captain blinked, "Christ, I've forgotten to introduce myself haven't I? Captain Kari Baker" she said, "and no matter what Kimmel taught you I want you to drop the `ma'am'. Even then it's only used by my commissioned officers in battle, and since we're neither in battle nor are you an officer..." She trailed off and motioned around her office, "This is a vacation of such for us. The three R's they call it: Repairs, refits and relaxation. But you didn't come here to talk to me about that did you?" She paused, her eyes bore into Titus' own.

"I don't mind..."

Kari interrupted again, she switched topics faster than Titus could follow. "Before we get down to business I'm more than a little long did you stay at the academy?"

Titus shrugged, "Graduated officially last year from his management courses. Graduated from his engineering course when I was twelve, and his piloting school when I was fourteen." Titus had to mentally force himself not to say ma'am after every sentence. That was going to be a hard habit to knock. Kimmel had trained him too well.

Captain Baker fixed him with a predatory glare. "Hold on. Do you mean to tell me that you have your wings? I was under the impression you had just gone for mechanic schooling."

Titus shrugged, it wasn't that big of a deal. "Yes ma'am...uhhh--"

"Kari is fine Titus."

"Kari then," the name came awkwardly to his lips, "I flew for Kimmel's squad for a couple missions. Logged maybe two hundred hours."

Kari let out a low whistle, "What in the tri systems are you doing being a bloody mechanic then?" Titus felt himself bristle at that jibe. All his friends happened to be mechanics--he was a mechanic. Of course she would know that, she was baiting him.

Titus raised his eyebrows, "Personally, I like fixing things rather than blowing them apart. Kimmel realised that quick enough, he said I'd never make a good pilot and I wasn't" he finished lamely, shrugging off the whole experience.

"I didn't mean to offend," she said unnecessarily after studying him some more, she took a deep draught from her glass. Titus was surprised to see she had emptied it while he had been talking. "Got nothing against mechanics and techs. This ship wouldn't bloody well run without them would it? Speaking of which, we might as well get down to business." Kari replaced her glass on the short coffee table and picked up two datapads and tossed him one. Titus skimmed through it quickly, it was the repair manifest--by the looks of it, it even included missing dinnerware from the galley. This would make his job much easier.

"Normally I'd just rent space in the nearest hole I could find, but it just so happens that out of forty odd mechanics and tech engineers that were aboard the Pegasus, only fifteen are left. That leaves me in a bit of a quandary if you see what I mean. I need all of that repaired, replaced and refitted in a month. Can you do it?"

"A month? Surely you're joking." Titus scrolled down to the weapons section. "Twenty five state of the art remote Ion Cannons? Ten automated hyper-projectile batteries? Five mark XI shield generators? Those things aren't even on the black market yet! This stuff alone will take a month to get. Not to mention millions--no--billions of credits."

Kari frowned at him, "You've misunderstood, I'm not asking you to procure anything: Too risky. My own agents have been working around the clock, more than sixty percent of what you mentioned has already been purchased. I just want you to install them."

Titus felt surprise flash across his features. "Well...if it's just that then we might be able to do it in a month. I have eight people in my team and another sixty to a hundred on standby at the `port. If it's a rush job and you're willing to pay, we can do it. We'll have to shunt all our other customers though and this is something that needs to be cleared by management...might be expensive."

Kari's face remained carefully neutral, "How much?"

Titus had been ready for that one, but for show he scanned the datapad and did some more mental calculations, double checking his original estimate. "Assuming four weeks of labour--and the parts you expect us to provide--my first estimate would be twenty million creds, and that's on the generous side assuming nothing goes wrong--which it no doubt will." Kari's face seemed to brighten significantly.

She rose and walked to her desk where she grabbed a pen and paper from a stack and scribbled something. She folded it carefully and passed it to him. "I was going to offer less if you mis-quoted for the job--but you're either a good judge of character or just too bloody honest for your own good."

Titus took the paper into his hands and tentatively unfolded it. He stared at the nine black figures scribbled on the paper for a moment before he re-folded it and placed it carefully in his pocket. "And you ma'am, are either stupid, or you've dealt with grease monkeys before."

The Captain chuckled at that before her face grew grim "Those extra zeros are for one thing. I expect no word to leak out that the Pegasus is here. If it does, you all die...its fairly simple no?" Her smile was more of a promise, a dark one; one Titus was sure she would follow through on.

Dread curling unpleasantly in his stomach, Titus tapped his pocket reassuring himself that he still had the paper in his pocket, "I didn't know you thought so low of us...we follow the creed like any self respecting businessmen would...I don't think you'll need to worry about that. And as to secrecy...may I make a suggestion?"

*      *      *

Titus motioned frantically to gain the crane operator's notice. "To the left, LEFT I SAID. IT NEEDS TO BE COVERED COMPLETELY." Titus was yelling over the din of shouting figures.

Overnight landing pad number five had been transformed into something an outsider might consider to be a circus. Men and cranes swarmed around the four hundred yard vessel, pulling battered and scarred armour plates off in batches, trucks swarmed into the compound with loads of shiny new plates, which would look ridiculous on the all black vessel. Work teams travelled together along its equator, planning which plates to remove, how, and by whom.

"Brilliant idea lad" a voice said in his ear. Titus signalled the crane operator to stop as men rushed up to secure the giant plastic flaps to the bottom of the Pegasus. He turned to face Lieutenant Briggs, the chief engineer of the Pegasus. He had a mole like face, small eyes and a snout like nose, and his face was almost always red. He pushed his goggles up on top of his head when they slipped down over his eyes. "I never would have thought to put up a radiation tent around her belly. Brilliant!" his eyes were full of enthusiasm as he walked beside Titus.

It was rather genius, Titus agreed with the man. The radiation tent was usually erected for old ships with nuclear generators aboard. They had the nasty habit of constantly leaking photons. Didn't matter much in space, but on the ground it was a real biohazard. The Pegasus of course had no such generator, but to anyone looking from the sky it would look as though the Pegasus was indeed one of the oldest models of the Lindlar attack class ships. The tent also served another purpose, it hid the giant white decal on its belly, the giant Pegasus itself.

"How much longer until you can detail a team to help with installing the new generators?" Briggs asked as they walked through the organized cacophony.

"I think Jeckt already sent Reg down to inspect the old ones. He said he'd be in contact shortly. Ah! Speak of the devil..." As if on cue the radio clipped to Titus' belt crackled loudly.

"Titus? Reg here, just finished looking at the generators. I'm going to need five men. Young'uns preferably, lots of manual liftin' tuh do, can't do it myself and their isn't enough room fer an anti-grav sled. And while I've got your ear, send someone official along with `em, there's a nasty coil of wires I'm not gonna friggen lay one finger on until they bloody well figure out how to shut them off."

Briggs grinned and turned to his own communicator.

"Right Reg, personnel on the way. I'm sending Orb's team to you, mostly Rooks. Don't chew them out too badly."

"I heard that" came Orb's voice over the walkie-talkie. "I'm on my way anyways. Reg, you owe me a beer." Reg swore loudly into the transmitter and told Orb with detailed instructions exactly where he could put that beer. Orb was the running joke of Jeckt's team. A thin pleasant man, he looked more like a scholar than a tech. As such, he was joked about more than even Titus was.

Briggs was looking rather taken aback. "Rather unpleasant lot aren't they?" he said to Titus. Titus shrugged and kept walking towards the ship, "Its mostly joking around. Orb happens to owe Reg somewhere around six hundred creds--he's always trying to get him to drop the tab. Reg won't though because he can never hold onto money...always inventing useless garbage whose only function appears to be to add carbon scoring to our hangar floors when they blow up."

Briggs' steps paused, he was sweating in the afternoon heat. He raised his hand to shield his eyes as he peered up critically at the fifty odd men scurrying about the cruiser's top midsection. "Good lord, what are they doing?"

Titus restrained a sigh with impatience. Ever since he had come back with that scrap of paper, Jeckt had assigned him as the official liaison between the Pegasus' crew and the Eight Stars' work teams. Pretty much everything went through him now before work started, which basically meant he had to baby-sit Briggs and his flaming stupid questions. For all the rough and gritty pirate stereotypes Titus had grown up with in stories...this Briggs was the anti-thesis of them all. "We talked about that yesterday when Jeckt came up with the work schedule. Remember? They're pulling up the old cannons--those happen to need shape charges to blow them out of their moorings. They managed to become fused with the armour plating from your last battle."

Briggs was nodding distractedly. Titus wondered if he had even been listening; a brilliant man--lacking pretty much every social skill ever imagined. Captain Baker had confided in him that Briggs was only filling in as Chief Engineer. The former owner of the title having been killed in battle several weeks ago. Titus thought the men completely unsuited for any sort of command position--he was the sort who was better at taking orders than giving them.

"Titus, where the freck are you?" an angry voice crackled over his radio. "The Captain is expecting you and Briggs in her office now, and the bloody X.O. is taking it out on ME! On top of that, the mind-dead crew using shape charges is setting off alarms all over the place--do something about it!" an angry voice snarled over the radio. Titus gritted his teeth at Fernald's hostile tone. He had been the only person who had not gotten drunk in last nights celebration. In fact he had been shooting lasers at Titus with his eyes all day whenever they passed. If Titus was uncomfortable with his new job, Fernald appeared to hate him for it. He was on the bridge helping to replace burned out consoles and refitting them with state of the art stuff. Titus had given him the task more or less so he wouldn't feel the man's eyes on his back all the time.

"On my way" he said wearily, Briggs was still staring up watching the tiny explosions with interest. "C'mon lieutenant" he said, grabbing the man's wiry arm, "Her Majesty wants her hourly report."


It had taken them a week, but the work crews had finally adapted to the odd work schedule the Captain and Titus had worked out. At first the various work bosses had just been assigned tasks and set to complete them as fast as they could, but after several men collapsed due to exhaustion Jeckt had stepped in and insisted the Captain come up with something more feasible--this wasn't a slave camp after all--or it shouldn't be at any rate.

At least now everyone was getting regular sleep, even if it was only for a couple hours at a time. Titus didn't seem to have the luxury. He couldn't even remember how long it had been since he had last slept, there was always someone yammering into the radio for him--whether it was Briggs or the Captain or Jeckt telling him to relay more orders--Titus just seemed to never have time.

The radio was blaring in his ear right now as he walked in circles around the Pegasus. He had been going to check in on the bridge but he had gotten himself lost. He rubbed his eyes wearily and was about to answer the radio when a huge hand laid itself on his shoulder, detaching the radio from its clip and firmly shut it off.

"You need sleep" Garel's deep booming voice was concerned and far too loud in the cramped corridor.

Titus looked up at him blinking quickly to clear his vision, behind him stood two marines in their polished red armour. "Come to arrest me for lack of sleep?" Titus asked, and for some reason he found the concept very amusing, he laughed. A pair of strong arms was scooping him up--Titus didn't even have the strength to resist, Garel was much too strong for that. Then they were walking, and Titus was still laughing--didn't have the strength to remember why though.

Titus closed his eyes for only a moment, but when he opened them he found himself on a bunk, Garel was pulling a blanket up over him. Well...maybe a little wouldn't hurt.

"Sleep," Garel commanded before he left, "those idiots can do without you for a good eight hours." Then the door shut behind him and darkness claimed Titus.

It was dark when he woke and there was something very wrong. Titus was still curled up in the bunk, safe beneath its warm covers...but it just so happened that his pillow had suddenly sprouted two arms and was currently engaged in clutching him gently to itself. A pillow couldn't do that of course, so that meant that his pillow wasn't a pillow exactly, rather it was two lumps of very warm flesh.

His sleep riddled brain finally connected the dots. Titus' eyes flew open in surprise, only to find himself lying sideways, his face pressed into a pair of lace covered breasts. In any other circumstance Titus would have been happy to wake up to such a sight--except he was fairly sure he had gone to sleep alone.

His face felt like it was burning. As quietly as possible Titus squirmed out of the embrace, replacing the cover where he left. The woman, his captor, mumbled something sleepily before her amply endowed chest rose and fell steadily again in deep sleep. He had to squint in the poor light, and he couldn't quite make out the woman's face, all he was sure of was that she had red hair. What was even more off was that there was a second bunk in the room--untouched and impeccably made.

Why the freck didn't she use that one? Titus asked himself, then decided women were too difficult to understand. Perhaps she had been as tired as he, and had no real control over what she was doing.


He glanced down at his rumpled overalls with a grimace. There wasn't anything he could do about those now. He found his radio on the small table in the centre of the room quickly enough and stepped outside, glad that the door opened and shut quietly. He turned it on with a sense of foreboding.

"Can't see where the bloody thing goes, someone get some spotlights its too dark to see back here."

"Gord? Who the hell is in charge here? I've got six cannons on deck here and no place to put them."

"Dunno, Jeckt was on a moment ago, but I can't reach him any more."

Titus sighed and took a deep breath. "Conlin? Gord? Are all the upper turrets set and connected already? If they are you can move on down to the dorsal turrets. I think Fernald said he'd be over there organizing that."

There was a moment of surprised silence then, "Bloody hell, its nice to hear your voice again kid. Where the freck have you been? Jeckt was going crazy trying to find you...was sure you'd been kidnapped or something."

"Would you believe I was stuck in the arms of a large breasted red-head?" From the sound of the laughter on the other end, Titus didn't think so. "Anyways," he checked his datapad, skimming through the new list of things completed. "Dorsal turrets are next on the agenda, so go ahead and OK the heaver lifters."

"Right-o. If I see Jeckt I'll let him know you're up and about again."

Titus tried his best to answer as many questions as he could as he hurried down the curving corridors towards the bridge. He had been in the Pegasus so much over the past week it was second nature to navigate the twisting hallways and cross corridors now.

The bridge was nearly empty when he arrived. The X.O. looked up when he entered and instead of scowling nodded grudgingly. Now that was a surprise, Titus wondered when that had started. "The Captain?" Titus prompted delicately.

The X.O. resumed his study of the computer screen, his fingers a blur as he typed. "In her ready room, you can go on in, she's expecting you." Titus wondered exactly how the woman could be expecting to see him until he entered the office, a small hand-held radio sat on her desk that was tuned into the same frequency Titus had been using.

Her hair was slightly frazzled and there was a slight humming coming from an open panel in the ceiling overhead. Titus felt his own hair prickle as he sat down in the high backed wood chair offered. When he eyed it suspiciously the Captain shrugged. "Been asking to have that fixed all day, blew out all of a sudden this morning."

"Morning? What time is it?"

"Late afternoon. Garel told me he'd forced you to get some sleep. He also told me you were walking around the ship half-asleep. Said you tried to fight off him and two marines...but you obviously lost."

Titus blushed, "I don't remember that part..." he mumbled, vowing to have a row at Garel at the earliest chance he got. The Captain was grinning as she typed into a datapad and scribbled something on a piece of loose paper.

"We have a problem" she said finally.

"We do?" trying to glean from her face whether it was something he had done to upset her.

"A parts problem actually," the Captain said, thrusting the data pad away from herself with disgust. "Bloody Adonians and their bloody traditions. Ever heard of Seelakk Rom?"

The name rang warning bells off in every corner of his brain. "You're dealing with him? Do you have a death wish? He'd double cross his own mother if he could make a penny."

The Captain frowned at his tone, "The Adonian and I are old...comrades. He has agreed to supply me with the five shield generators I require. On top of that, he's even throwing in a half squadron of wraiths for `old friends'."

Titus felt some thing stir in his belly, "Did you say Wraiths?"

The Captain caught his mood like a bloodhound, she suddenly became withdrawn, "The Adonian wants me to visit his mansion on Eastbrook Island tonight for a gala celebration. In fact, he refuses to give me anything until I do. This places me in a rather...difficult situation. I have six planes to fly, and only five active combat pilots currently available."

Titus tried to calm his nerves but it was obviously too late, she knew she had him hooked. Titus blurted the only thing that came to mind. "But...I know for a fact you have two squadrons of Wyvern attack star-fighters in your bays. You're telling me that all your pilots are incapacitated and you want me to fly one in their stead?"

"My pilots are all away on leave. They had it rough for six months and they needed a break--they're off enjoying the town so to speak. Only the officers stayed aboard." She let the words sink in for a moment, "So you'll do it? It would mean a great deal to me if you did."

Titus screwed up his mouth as he thought. Sure, he'd give his left leg to fly a wraith but...what would Jeckt think? Surely there was no harm just chauffeuring one back to the Pegasus. After a moment more Titus hastily agreed he would do it as a favour. Titus knew he wasn't fooling anyone. A Wraith: the most advanced snubfighter ever to be created. How the Adonian had managed to get his hands on six of the beasts was beyond him. They weren't even in active service yet in the Imperiate...and they bloody built the machines. And here he had a chance to fly one of them? Titus wouldn't miss it for the world.

Thinking he was dismissed Titus rose as if to leave. But the Captain hadn't finished. "Of course, you'll have to attend the formal dinner and party first. I'll have to see if the ship's tailor has finished up your uniform."

"U...uniform?" Titus managed through clenched teeth. TRICKED.

"What? Oh the uniform? I can't very well bring a mechanic to this party." The Captain lounged back considering Titus' frown, "The Adonian is inviting many important people from the underworld. No, I won't be bringing Titus. I will be bringing Lieutenant Titus, my newest combat ace. It will make for a good story. Sign this please." She pushed the leaf of papers towards him as well as the pen.

Titus sank slowly back into the high backed chair and read. "What...? This is a bloody contract. I'm not joining your crew."

"Yes you are. You will if you want to fly that bloody Wraith. Oh, don't give me that look; it doesn't suit your face at all Titus. I'm commissioning you as a lieutenant this evening and discharging you on the morrow. I can't very well have some vagabond piloting one of the most powerful assault fighters ever built. While you're in that fighter, you'll follow my orders because I am your Captain, I give you my word once the fighter is safe and sound I'll decommission you. My word Titus."

"The word of a pirate?" Titus asked scornfully.

"The word of the Captain of the Pegasus."

Titus shrugged and took the pen into hand, he paused in indecision. Why did this feel so if he was betraying Jeckt in some small way? It wasn't as if he was abandoning the was just for one night. Surely they'd understand. Titus put the man out of his mind and firmed his resolve. He would never again in his life get a chance to fly such a fighter, so what if he would be a lieutenant for one night...surely no one would care.

Titus scribbled his name over the black line. I can always claim insanity.

*      *      *

The executive officer of the Pegasus, Marcus Brine stepped through the door into the Captain's ready room several minutes after Titus had been dismissed. He noted she had that smirk on her face she usually reserved for some major triumph. She rose when he entered and made her way to the liquor cabinet, "What's your poison Marcus? You look beat."

Marcus made his way over to one of the luxurious couches and flopped down. "I could do with a strong scotch if you please. I think if I type any more my fingers will fall off--well more than have already," he said mournfully, staring at his heavily scarred and pitted left hand, which was missing a pinkie finger: A present from a blown plasma coil back when he had still been a marine.

A few minutes later the Captain was sitting across from him, both silent as they enjoyed their respective drinks. Marcus eyed her brownish yellow drink with a heavy eye and wondered for the hundredth time what exactly was in it. He had never had the courage to ask her. The Captain was studying him, he noted. She looked so pleased with herself it was curdling the scotch on his tongue. Abruptly she straightened and pushed a folder of papers towards his end of the small coffee table.

Intrigued Marcus set down his drink and picked up the file, and read. After a moment he looked up over the file, "What is this some sort of joke?"

"Keep reading Marcus."

Marcus' good eye darted over the page. It was a file about that strange boy--Titus. A file he didn't even know existed. "'Kimmel the butcher' gave you Titus' file?" he asked, disbelief dripping from his incredulous tone.

The Captain smiled mysteriously, not revealing anything. She sat back and stared up at the ceiling. "Titus, born 3948, mechanic, pilot, and ace."

Marcus stared at the figures beneath Titus' flight training and his subsequent missions with Kimmel's squadrons until his eye watered. He shook his head slowly as the Captain continued her recital, "passed piloting exam with a score of 9857, the highest by far of his class. His flight examiner left a small it for me."

Marcus blinked and squinted at the small almost illegible scrawl. "If this kid ever gets shot down, I'll gnaw off my arm." He looked up at the Captain's grim smile. "Bryce always did have a strange sense of humour."

"It goes on of course," The Captain said, returning her attention to the ceiling. "Top marks for manoeuvres, navigation, and marksmanship. I think Bryce left another note for Kimmel there, something about shooting ants."

"Could shoot a bloody ant at ten thousand miles in a fierce rainstorm" Marcus read. "Bryce obviously thought very highly of him."

The Captain nodded absently, "That's what I thought too...It gets really interesting when you see the sorts of missions he flew. Kimmel never made him fly one assault mission...not one. Read it off for me."

Marcus flipped the page and whistled to himself. "Escorting the freighter Delanor to Geidi prime, five kills. Aerospace patrol around Rakhnal XII, six kills." His eyes skimmed down the short list. "All told four missions: combat patrols and escort duty only--eighteen kills. That's...unheard of for a rookie."

"Keep reading, you missed the most interesting part. There's a footnote at the bottom, in Kimmel's hand."

"Where?" Marcus scanned the page, there was a section that was crumpled, as if it had been scrunched in rage, or with great frustration; it was barely legible in the corner. "Oh here...hmm. It says: `Pilot is a coward; appears to fire only in self defence, or in the defence of another. Lacks the bloodlust. Pilot will be released--unusable'."

"Still think I'm crazy for commissioning him Marcus?" She rose slowly and paced the length of the room. Her smooth face set in deep concentration. "I've been thinking about him, Titus I mean. As soon as I read this file I decided I would give him the opportunity to fly. I don't really give a rat's arse what Kimmel thought of him. I don't think he's a coward."

Marcus eyed the figures again, numbers did not lie. If this file was accurate, assuming it was, then Titus had more kills than all of the Pegasus' rookies...combined...and they'd logged countless more hours than Titus. The Captain was continuing. "Kimmel just had the wrong idea...he's not `unusable', he just needs the proper motivation to fight. Right now he's sopped in guilt--about that bloody mechanic friend of his...what's his name again?"

Marcus scanned his memory quickly, "Jeckt."

"Right...that Jeckt fellow and a couple others. He feels he owes them for sending him off to that damn school in the first place."

"It is rather common among rookie pilots surely? Kimmel must've tried to cure him of it somehow?" he said picking up the file and scanning through the rest of the pages. It was very brief after his piloting record--a summary of all the other courses he completed at the academy--he'd taken pretty much everything the academy had to offer.

"He did, it's somewhere in there. Titus is one stubborn kid though--Kimmel used some more colourful expletives. He went about it all wrong though. He tried to force Titus into killing someone innocent. But from what I gather from talking with Titus, if you push one way he'll go the other just on principle. He's like a dart plant that always points into the wind. Kimmel failed because he's just as stubborn as Titus is."

Marcus set the file back down, he tapped the burn on the left side of his face thoughtfully, the skin was still rough and tender to the touch. "I'm not familiar with that plant."

"It's a tall...fernlike plant with a most unusual characteristic. Where every other plant in its natural habitat bends with the wind, the dart plant actually bends into the wind. Something about water collection if I remember correctly."

Marcus grunted, "But you managed to conscript him easily enough--that would seem to argue against your little theory."

She swirled her drink, absently sucking in some of the fumes which swirled around her nose. "Oh, not at all. He knew it was a trap and he didn't care. I offered him something that will never come around again, Titus couldn't care less what I'm planning. Besides," she said as the corners of her lips twitched upwards, "I gave him my word, and I will keep it. He only wanted the chance to fly his dream machine. That's enough for him, and it's enough for me."

"Surely you jest. If what this file says is true," he said tapping the file with his index finger, "he's worth more than his own weight in starsilver. It's like winning the lottery, one in a billion. You've got the winning ticket and you're just going to give it up to some...pauper?" Marcus realized his voice had risen, he coughed awkwardly aware that he would be chastised for it, but the Captain didn't seem to notice.

"Then...we'll just have to make sure he doesn't want to leave by his own accord." The Captain stopped her pacing at her desk, from a drawer she withdrew a small square of paper. She turned and walked over to Marcus. "Did you know I nearly had a heart attack when he first came into this room. I think Garel suspected something the instant he saw that Titus wore Kimmel's badge. Kimmel doesn't let just anyone into his academy after all. Kimmel knew...or suspected something at the very least. Here, take a look at this photo." she said showing Marcus her trump card.

Marcus stared at the worn photograph in confusion...then it clicked. There was a man smiling beside a strange woman Marcus had never seen before. They were both standing beside one of the old X-J-9113 starfighters--the first of their kind. Something tickled his memory as he stared into the man's faded grey eyes and his gentle smile. A memory from a long time couldn't be...could it? "You don't mean...? You think he's his son? But...that would make Titus..."

The Captain flashed Marcus with one of her rarer smiles, pure glee. She loved to win. "Right, the boy is no natural, he's a pure blooded descendant. The chances of us running into him...I shudder when I think of the odds."

"But the `Glory' was lost with all hands. No-one survived. Are you sure this isn't just some sort of freak look-a-like?"

The Captain just smiled. Marcus pitied Titus...Lieutenant Titus, he mentally corrected. He would have to get used to calling the boy that. Marcus could only imagine what sort of trouble he would cause in the ranks--who had ever heard of a sixteen year old lieutenant? And a descendant on top of it! What would Flight Commander Dia think of all this?

From the look of infectious glee on Kari's face she didn't care at all. She had her sights on the prize--that was all that mattered. It was Marcus who would have to sort out the mess left in her wake. "And Marcus...I needn't remind you that all this is top-secret. Not a word alright? To anyone. Especially Titus."          

Marcus took a long drink.

*      *      *

Titus was staring at his unhappy reflection in the mirror. He tugged at the high collar of the red and black uniform and frowned when it didn't budge. Titus stared into his own grey eyes, drinking in his reflection. He had never owned a pair of clothes as nice as this uniform. He had always figured overalls were the only clothes he ever needed. But this uniform...the body of it was a deep maroon, black buttons dotted his front, and black fabric covered his shoulders as well, white trim topped it off outlining the collage. To match, he wore black trousers with shiny black and red trim boots. It was all well and good Titus supposed, as he shifted uncomfortably; but why did nice clothing have to be so damn itchy? He also couldn't help but think what Jeckt would say if he saw what Titus looked like now...probably wouldn't even recognize me. If all went well none of the techs would ever know this had ever happened. Titus could only pray that nothing would go wrong.

A chime sounded at the door before it opened smartly. A balding man in a white bridge uniform stepped inside and jackknifed his arm into a salute. Caught off guard, Titus tried to salute back--he realised too late he had used his left hand and blushed furiously--the officer deemed not to notice.

"Sir, crewman Williams reporting. I'm here to escort you to the car at your convenience."

Titus turned back to the mirror and stared at his messy dirty blonde hair with disapproval...not like anything short of shaving it would do any good though. He took the time to make sure his face was no longer flushed with embarrassment--he had to remind himself this was only for tonight. Jeckt would never have to know. "Lead on Williams, and uh...could you drop that `Sir' business?"

"Yes Sir!"

A black hover limousine had landed near the foot of the cargo ramp and several armoured hover jeeps past that. A group of techs had gathered not far off, but they were hanging well back from the ring of red plasteele armour that surrounded the vehicles. Titus kept his head down cursing under his breath...if Jeckt was with them it would be all over. But no shouts of alarm came, no one protested, Titus didn't even think the men could recognise him at this distance. As he passed the perimeter the sergeant in charge saluted, this time Titus was prepared and managed to fake a good one in return, breathing a sigh of relief as he did. Garel, resplendent in his polished red armour was waiting for him by the limo. He grinned and saluted briskly, making a groan escape Titus' lips.

"Not you too?"

Garel chuckled and let his arm drop, "Most of us onboard have to salute a flight lieutenant...better get used to it Sir."

Titus stopped near the door to the limo and scrunched his brow, "Doesn't make any're all flaming mad y'know? I got saluted by a major earlier...must've been three times my age...why should he have to salute a lieutenant?"

Garel shrugged and opened the door, he motioned Titus inside, "I'll have to explain it to you someday...a flight lieutenant ranks higher than a normal major. Flight commander is second only to the Executive officer in fact."

"Bonkers, every one of you" Titus repeated glumly. "It's a wonder why people don't go around saluting everyone just so they don't get confused" he continued, only partially joking.

"What's the hold up Garel? Lets move." A brisk voice issued from the inside of the limousine. Titus jumped at the sharp tone of the executive officer and hastily boarded. He had to blink rapidly in the dim light before his eyes could adjust. Garel followed suit and soon the hover-limo was soaring through the air with its armed escort at its heels.

Titus sank into the nearest leather seat gratefully and stared at the company inside. Captain Baker was smiling at him, obviously very pleased with herself for some reason.

"That uniform certainly suits you Lieutenant," she eyed it appreciatively for a moment before turning to the other eight people in the limo. "Most of you probably know Titus by now...I'm sure he's been all over the ship and you must have bumped into him at some point or another. Titus has agreed to help us pilot one of the Wraiths back--so enjoy looking at him in uniform while you can" Titus swore he saw her wink at the two female pilots present but it was impossible to be sure in the dim light. "It's back to greasy coveralls tomorrow."

Titus squirmed uncomfortably under the gaze of the five pilots: three men and two women. The men dismissed him out of hand, but the women were grinning. They whispered something which Titus couldn't quite catch and all five of them broke out laughing. Marcus' face could have been carved out of lead for all the expression he was showing, and Garel was grinning stupidly of course...enjoying Titus' discomfort.

"You know Sergeant Garel and my Executive officer," the Captain continued, the corner's of her own mouth upturned with amusement. "In order from left to right: This here is Flight officer Duran Baldez, callsign `weasel'--he's from Altarez IV--and no matter what he tells you...make sure you never let him to cook for you..." she trailed off grimacing.

Baldez smirked broadly, he had an oily look to him and was thin and wiry with long spindly arms and legs. Titus wondered how he had ever fit into a Wyvern cockpit. "Not my fault yall don't like to eat Cats and Dogs."

"Most normal people don't" a voice said matter-of-factly.

The Captain motioned to the dark haired, bespectacled officer who had just spoken, "And that intelligent fellow there is our communications expert, Flight officer Herbert Grennville--callsign `Jeckle'."

The man saluted crisply, "Dr. Jeckle actually...pleasure Sir." Titus smiled back, something about Herbert reminded him strongly of a younger version of Reg--although much less bitter--and a doctor on top of it!

"Intelligent looking you mean," the blonde haired female pilot corrected. She smiled and saluted Titus, "and I'm flight officer Cassidy Wallburton: callsign `Rio'. The burly, angry looking fellow on my right is flight lieutenant Christopher Rawlins: callsign `archangel'."

The man she indicated was easily as large as Garel. He was bald and he wore a displeased scowl on his broad face. Titus gaped and wondered how the man had ever fit into a snubfighter cockpit. Archangel ignored Titus as best he could, instead he stared accusingly at the Captain.

"Don't see why we need him...could'a called someone competent back instead" he growled in a deep gravely voice.

"That's enough. One more word and you're on clean-up duty for a month Rawlins." The last pilot to speak was staring daggers at the Flight Lieutenant who scowled back mutinously. After a moment of tense silence he snorted derisively and broke the staring match.

The Captain was shaking her head, "and this is Flight Commander Dia," she said, indicating the red-headed pilot who had spoken last. "She'll be your direct commanding officer for the night and also your Wingmate...Is something wrong Titus?"

Titus' was staring at the Flight Commander, recognition dawning. He closed his jaw with effort. Dia blinked innocently back, she seemed not to recognize him at all. Remembering himself in time Titus saluted, " Nothing...sorry, Ma'am." Dia swiped at her forehead lazily in return. She was the one...the redhead he had woken up beside this morning. His cheeks burned all of a sudden. Titus was suddenly glad it was so dim inside the limo. He prayed silently in his head that she wouldn't recognize him.

There was a slight lurch as the hoverlimo slowed, the Captain pushed a button on the small console beside her seat. "E.T.A. Murf?"

"We're just passing the first security checkpoint now," the comm. line crackled as he spoke, "maybe ten minutes from here."

" hurry." She clicked off the intercom. She addressed herself to the other occupants this time. "Well, time for a quick briefing, Marcus?"

The Executive Officer cleared his throat, he conferred quickly with the small glowing datapad he held in his good right hand. "As you all know by now, Seelakk Rom has refused to furnish arms to the Pegasus unless we pick up the fighters personally and attend his gala event. Our invitation is only extended to three people however," Titus brightened considerably...there was no way he'd be chosen to go over these senior officers. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. "After some consideration we decided that aside from the Captain herself, the other two would be Flight Commander Dia and...Lieutenant Titus for obvious reasons."

Titus blinked uncertainly, "Me? Obvious reasons? You must be joking...everyone else here is way more qualified than I am."

Marcus shook his head, "Very obvious."

The communications expert, Jeckle, cleared his throat, "If I may?" Marcus nodded his assent. Jeckle turned his spectacles towards Titus and assumed a lecturing tone, "Adonian males are...shall we say...colourful individuals. At the very least a normal Adonian male has as much appreciation for the female form as they do for...male counter-parts." Titus didn't like the turn this conversation had taken one bit.

"I take it this...Seelakk is no ordinary Adonian?"

"'ve hit it on the nose. Seelakk Rom is perhaps the most...colourful...Adonian I have ever met. His preferences extend mostly to male counterparts...mostly boys actually. It's said that he has a private harem for himself and select guests."

Titus turned an accusing glare towards Captain Baker, "You're not suggesting...that...I...because I won't. Bloody stop this damn car if you are thinking something like that."

Garel was shaking with laughter in the seat next to him. The Captain smiled, "Oh, of course not. I'd never allow something like that to happen. You're just eye candy...the Adonian might be a little overly friendly...but he won't risk my ill-will." Titus must not have appeared convinced because the Captain rolled her eyes, "Relax will you? Having you along will make this transaction go a thousand times smoother. You'll be fine."

"Should we tell him about the servants then? What about the traditional Adonian greeting?" Garel managed through his laughter between gasps for air.

"GAREL!" the Captain snapped angrily.

"What?" Titus said anxiously. "What about the servants? What greeting?"

It was Archangel who explained, his voice dripping with loathing as he explained exactly what Titus should expect. By the time the hoverlimo stopped Titus didn't believe he had one drop of blood left in his face and was feeling slightly faint The Captain couldn't decided who to scowl at and compromised by scowling at both Archangel and Garel.

"Listen, Titus you'll be fine. It's not like anything serious will come of it" the Captain snapped, finally losing her patience. "Now compose yourself, this party is famous, on the strip leading up to the Adonian's mansion will be hundreds of photographers from all over the system. Just a warning."

"I don't think I can take any more warnings," Titus said weakly, he caught archangel smirking at him so he straightened and took a deep breath. His dislike for the burly lieutenant momentarily overwhelmed his fear.

"Yea no worries." Dia said, winking at Titus, "I'll be there to protect you."

Photographers, career criminals, powerful system leaders, half-naked servants, and a horny Adonian weapons dealer; this was going to be the strangest evening of his life.

Strange Love

The grounds were so busy Titus immediately feared he had stumbled on a riot. There was a long roped walkway lined with red carpet that led up the grounds to the immense double doors and behind the barriers were grassy slopes and a treed terrace that was lined with all sorts of humans and aliens, all flashing bulbs and shouting questions. Kari and Dia seemed to be used to such treatment, they smiled politely and continued on their way.

Titus, for his part, stared up with undisguised awe at the Adonian's, castle was more like it. The grounds were enclosed by a towering fifty foot Dorcas Steele fence, above that Titus thought he heard the hum and crackle of a security field. The Mansion itself could have fit at least three star cruisers in its expansive belly, and that wasn't even including the towering turrets of other buildings that Titus could see obscured by the haze of other security fields in the distance.

"C'mon for the cameras" Dia slipped her arm under his own to keep him walking. She spoke only loud enough for his ears, which Titus was thankful. He brought his eyes back down to the ground and had to blink quickly in order to see anything...those flashes were really starting to get annoying.

"That's Kari Baker...A picture! Get some pictures damnit!"

"Crew from the Pegasus! Kari? Kari Baker? A moment of your time I'm here for the Galactic Times..."

"Who is that red-head.? She looks familiar," another voice was shouting.

"Look at her uniform you dick, she's a pilot."

Titus let the wave of voices wash over him. Dia was smiling broadly, she waved at the man who had asked after her and blew a kiss sparking even more flashes from the crowd. As they marched the reporters grew thicker, as did the questions.

"Captain Baker? What really happened at the battle of Jakin Due? Why did you desert the Imperiate Navy? Is it true you've engaged the Imperiate in several battles? Is this truly piracy, or an act of insurrection?" The Captain just kept smiling. When she refused to answer they moved onto Dia.

"Flight Commander? Flight Commander Dia? A moment of your time?" one shouted hopefully.

"Is it true that the Pegasus is being repaired somewhere on this planet? The Imperiate has claimed they destroyed your ship."

Kari stopped at that comment, she scanned the crowd and moved closer to the side. Dia followed, dragging a reluctant Titus behind her.

"Ah, I wondered if you'd be here Delanor." The woman she addressed was squat and fat, she held a tiny recorder out in front of her and jabbed it in the Captain's face.

"Well? Is it true?" she repeated acidly. Other reporters surged at them, all trying to get their recorders near enough to record her voice and it looked for a moment that the squat woman would be crushed.

"If that were true, do you think we'd be here still? Come now Delanor, I would have expected better questions from you. You don't usually fall for their thin rhetoric and pointless propaganda." Kari reprimanded sharply. The reporter scowled then her glance slid to Titus, who was trying not to cringe.

"Who's the boy Baker? Your son? Or is this a new business venture for you? I wasn't aware the Pegasus is being converted into a day-care centre."

All the vid recorders suddenly turned in his direction. Titus suddenly felt very small, and rather faint, he was well aware this would be all over the planet's holo-nets tomorrow morning...he just hoped Jeckt and the rest didn't catch it. Stupid, stupid stupid stupid...

Baker smiled politely and motioned that Dia and Titus should continue on ahead. "What? Tell you and spoil the mystery? That wouldn't make much of a story would it?"

"C'mon give us something!" the reporters were clamouring in a hundred voices.

Kari held up her hand imperiously as Titus hurried away, this time towing a reluctant Dia who seemed to find all the attention amusing.. "Come now, all I can tell you is what you see: he's a flight Lieutenant aboard the Pegasus."

"So it's true that the Pegasus suffered heavy losses over Salas IV? Is he one of the replacement pilots?"

"Losses?" Kari's voice tinkled with laughter as Titus marched ahead, her voice dropping off. "Pilots are the one thing we didn't lose in that battle. Now if you'll excuse me..."

Kari caught up with her two pilots rather quickly, harried by hundreds of voices all clamouring to be heard. She smiled grimly at Titus who was trying to avoid her eyes. Dia's grip tightened on his arm, she bent slightly to whisper into his ear, "Welcome to the life of a very famous pirate."

Titus groaned and could only think of one thing...Jeckt was going to have a fit when he heard about all this. No...not a fit...Titus at that moment in time as his boots reluctantly tramped up the carpet, was certain he was going to be killed.

At the foot of the shallow, broad stone steps, they were greeted by a tall gangly humanoid in a white tuxedo. He bowed deeply then motioned they should follow him. Titus had never felt such relief as when he left the rowdy crowd behind. Inside the giant wooden doors the sounds from outside were blocked off completely. An Adonian waited just inside, he wore bright lurid colours...all mixed and matched with white lace. He looked almost identical to any human, except his skin was slightly blue in tint, and when he smiled, two rows of sharp pointy teeth lined his dark blue gums.

"Ahhhhh..." he said sighing happily, "I have the pleasure of greeting the mossst honourable Captain Kari Baker on the behalf of my most wisssse and wonderful master. Pleassse...may this house sshelter and protect you." Kari and Dia were smiling politely back as the strange Adonian bowed deeply, something beeped on the man's lace coloured collar. "Ahhh...It appears that your underling carries a weapon?" he said turning to Dia and raising one of his slickly trimmed and greased eyebrows.

Dia scowled back and clutched Titus' arm all the more aggressively. "You want to try and remove it Adonian?" she growled.

", no! Not from a warrior princess such as yourself...if you are trusted by Kari Baker then my master will have no problemsss. I musst remind you however that fighting among guestsss is-ssstrictly prohibited, and would result in the...forfeiture of certain...assetsss." His long tongue darted to his lips, wetting them anxiously. When Dia nodded he bowed again, his eyes slid to Titus next and widened. For a moment he looked about to say something then thought better of it and reluctantly turned his eyes back to the Captain, his cheeks had a dark blue glow to them and Titus thought he knew why. Dirty Adonians.

"Yess...well please follow me."

He led them through several gilded hallways to a set of gold trim double doors. There were no guards that Titus could pick out, but the back of his neck was if he were being watched by a multitude of eyes. Captain Baker spoke quickly and quietly to the Adonian when they arrived and he bowed again, glancing at Dia and Titus. Then he slipped through a crack in the great doors and into the hum of excited conversations inside. Through the crack he was banging some sort of gong to gain the attention of the sprawl of impeccably dressed figures.

Kari turned back to Titus. "Now, you will not speak to anyone unless you are engaged in conversation first, be polite, smile, and tell them nothing of importance, especially about the Pegasus."

Titus felt a twinge of anger heat his face, "Oh right, cause I was planning on walking up to the nearest warlord and asking him about the weather." Kari frowned back at him and Dia was clenching his arm warningly. Titus snapped his mouth shut.


"All right, all right! I'm sorry. I'll keep my mouth shut; you can count on me. Dumb blonde mode on."

Through the doors the Adonian was finally winding down his introduction, "And now, the most glorious and powerful Seelakk Rom iss proud to introduce a sspecial guest this evening." He bowed low and motioned to the doors, which on cue swung smoothly open. "I present the Warlord Kari Baker, Captain of the Pegasssuss." A scattering of gasps could be clearly heard from inside. Kari smirked and stepped inside, disappearing from view. Titus tried to follow but Dia was restraining him gently.

"Not yet...we haven't been introduced."

"You mean we get introduced as well?" Titus asked, his voice faint. Stupid stupid!

"Presenting also along with Captain Baker is Flight Commander Dia, better known as the `black swallow'. With her is Flight Lieutenant Titus, ace." Dia started walking forwards, Titus didn't remember moving his legs, but abruptly he was standing at the top of the stairs, facing the giant marble hall which was filled with curious faces--all staring up at them.

"Come on, don't look like you've seen a ghost, smile." Dia was whispering to him as she helped him down the stairs. His legs didn't quite seem to be working right, they were all stiff...Titus felt his face flush. Another Adonian, flanked by the one who had introduced them earlier was on hand to greet the trio when they reached the bottom of the steps.

He beamed at Captain Baker and hugged her delicately, kissing her gently on either cheek. "I am delighted to see you well Kari, I hope I haven't imposed on you too much?" Titus couldn't help staring, the Adonian looked very similar to the first one, but there was no doubt that this was Seelakk Rom. He wore a thin pink silk shirt which defined his muscles beneath, his pants were tight and left nothing to anyone's imagination--as was evidence from the slight flush on all the women's faces who had turned to stare at him.

"Of course you've imposed on us...but then we're imposing on you as well so we'll call it is good to see you Rom." Kari was smiling, as she clutched his arms in a very friendly manner. Rom's attention diverted, "Flight Commander...always a pleasure" it was as if some chemical had flash frozen his voice, for it had lost all its warmth as he addressed the Flight Commander. Dia's arm again tightened on his own.

"The feeling" Dia managed, her eyes neatly avoiding his own. Seelakk didn't seem to mind too much, his nearly all blue eyes found Titus and lit up spectacularly.

"And this!? Rom grabbed Kari's arm for support, "Who is this? Have you been holding out on your old friend all these years? Come now darling, introduce us." His free thin arm waved excitedly.

Kari winked sideways at Titus, "My pleasure Rom, this is Flight Lieutenant Titus" she said nodding, "and this Titus, is Seelakk Rom, my close friend and comrade in arms for many years."

"Ah but he's...beautiful!" Seelakk cried, drawing unwanted attention from nearby guests who were eavesdropping. Rom slid over to Titus who tried to cower behind Dia's figure, but Rom snatched his free arm. "Most beautiful is he not Freelaj?" The other Adonian was nodding enthusiastically from the side. "I am indeed pleased to make your acquaintance Titus, friend of Kari Baker." Titus tried not to shudder as Rom brought Titus' hand up to his blue lips and kissed it, leaving an unpleasant wetness on his skin. Relief flooded through Titus, Rom had not done the formal greeting Archangel had talked about...a weight lifted from his already tired shoulders.

Titus quickly withdrew his hand before the Adonian got any more ideas and bowed awkwardly. "T...thank-you Sir. I am pleased as well." Titus thought furiously for a moment, trying to remember a proper Adonian greeting that would express his polite disinterest in Seelakk, but his mind seemed to have shut down for the night.

The Adonian was too fast, with a blur of his hand he had snatched up Titus' free arm again. He sighed as he gazed wistfully down at the young man, bringing his scantly clad body closer to the young lieutenant. "He's not for sale I suppose? Couldn't part with him as a favour to an old friend?"

Dia pulled Titus towards her protectively, nearly wrenching his arm from Seelakk's grasp. "He's not for sale Adonian. Better to drive a garbage scow than work in your employ."

From the corner of Titus' eye the Captain looked as though she might burst if she held in her laughter much longer, she shook in silent mirth. The Adonian had not noticed, he eyed Dia for a moment before he sidled even closer to Titus. "Oh but of course! I had forgotten where you come from. Your men, you keep them very docile on Gabernas don't you? Like children perhaps? You are thinking this one is suitable for your bed?" Dia's face had gone all red, Titus couldn't tell if she was angry or embarrassed. Both of Titus' arms were starting to throb from this indecent tug of war in which he seemed to be the rope that was quickly fraying. Dia released Titus suddenly, staring daggers at Seelakk's unperturbed blue eyes.

"I'm looking out for a subordinate that's all." She said simply, shrugging. The Captain had obviously composed herself, although it looked as though she had been forced to bite her lip in the process.

"I suppose business will have to wait until after pleasantries Rom?" she said finally, rubbing her slightly swollen lower lip tenderly. The Adonian deemed to just wave his hand airily, his eyes had fastened back onto Titus. He threw his arm around Titus' shoulders and smiled happily.

"Ah yes, of" he motioned briskly at the other Adonian, "Freelaj, show them around, you have no ears but for them. This one I think...he will come with me, yes? I must make my rounds and I must admit they will be more pleasurable in the right sort of company."

Freelaj in turn looked rather angry, though Titus knew not why. He turned and bowed to the two women, "This way please." Dia looked about to protest but Kari silenced her with a gentle touch, her eyes glittered under the extravagant chandelier lights mischievously.

"All right. But no funny business Rom." She said, a smile on her rose coloured lips. When Titus tried to catch her eye, the captain carefully avoided it. "At least...if you have to do anything you better make damn sure I don't find out about it."  Was that a wink? Damn the woman.

The Adonian's eyes glinted in reply, his long blue arm tightening around Titus' shoulders protectively, "Who? Me? Never."

As soon as Seelakk whisked Titus away, his shoulders clutched tightly in his grasp, some sort of tense standoff between the other guests and the trio--now reduced to a duo--ended. The Pegasus officers were lost in a swirl of fancy clothing--long stylish dresses of all sorts of bright and often eye-straining material dragged a curtain that separated Titus from his refuge.

As they breezed through the crowd, it seemed that everyone was trying to catch Rom's brilliant eyes--but even at his own party, filled with people he had apparently invited himself, he nodded and smiled but rarely approached and made conversation. Titus realised very quickly it was one thing to be invited to Seelakk's residence and attend his party, but quite another to be approached by the wily Adonian in person. Titus supposed he should feel honoured. Instead, he tried not to feel revolted at the slim alien's close proximity to his own body.

"Ahh! Marquess of Limberry! Darrrling, how are you? It has been much too long. This is Titus, my companion for the evening. Oh, I do like the sound of that." He said gleefully, nodding to Titus before turning back to the Marquess, "But Darling, how I've missed cashing your checks ever so much...ha ha!"

A trim woman flanked by a trio of unarmed black clad soldiers shot a frosty smile Seelakk's way as she glided to a stop well outside arms reach. From the corner of his eye Titus took notice of several guards in the Adonian's colours. Rom wasn't leaving anything to chance it seemed.

"You've got some nerve sending me an invitation Adonian. I should have you shot for those faulty goods you sent me." Her voice was waspish and full of scorn. Her hands were clenched at her sides in what Titus imagined was a mixture of humiliation and frustration.

The Adonian's smile just got bigger, but for some reason as more of Seelakk's teeth were bared, Titus' blood felt like it was turning to ice. "As pleasant as always beautiful! I heard you defeated that little insurrection of yours...what was it again? Farmers? Trash workers? Terrible affair--it's a wonder how such ordinary peasants got it into their heads to pick up guns and march against the rightful government. Horrible! Outrageous! I couldn't sleep for weeks!"

The Marquess turned and sneered to Titus, "Yes, it was a horrible affair. Seeing as how he was the one supplying guns to me and the rebels. I should watch your arm if I were you Titus, in a moment he'll have one of his lackey's cut it off...only to sell it back to you in the hospital for some outrageous sum all the while with a smile on those disgusting purple lips of his claiming he's the best friend you could ever have."

Seelakk turned to Titus and pouted, "Beware Titus, the Marquess can be quite petty sometimes. A profit is a profit, is it not?"

Titus thought for a moment before replying. "Well I suppose, I mean it's not like you started the revolt did you?" Titus replied hesitantly, not wanting to offend his host. He was an arms merchant after all. It followed that he wouldn't pick and choose who he sold weapons too.

The Marquess' face turned red and she spited the Adonian with a glare more suited to a laser beam, "Already found a new lap-dog have you? Oh, I bet you planned that too! Disgusting creature." She sniffed and stormed away, her black clad retinue walking hurriedly on her trail in order to keep up.

Seelakk giggled gleefully. "Oh my! But that was very well played!" A small Communicator was suddenly in his hand, he spoke rapidly into it. "Did you get it? Her face, at the very end?" He listened to an inaudible reply, then "Yes, the one where she looked constipated, yes...good, excellent! Add it to my collection won't you?" He clicked off the small cylinder and started walking, still towing a rather surprised Titus, humming happily.

"You mean you did start it?" Titus tried to keep his voice from reaching incredulous--he managed to keep it bordered somewhere around surprised indignation.

The Adonian clucked his sharp teeth together briskly, "Fan the flames darling, that's the correct term. I don't create anything--just a few small nudges here and there. And stop wrinkling your brow! You'll ruin that perfect forehead of yours and spoil my evening." To illustrate the point Rom brushed his free hand across Titus' forehead, using it as another excuse to press his body close to the youth's. Titus squirmed uncomfortably until the Adonian's attention was diverted.

"Ah! General Grolm!" Seelakk cried as he spotted his next victim, he zeroed in on a portly general in a Federation uniform. The man was talking animatedly with two other uniformed officers in his retinue. While they navigated through the press, Seelakk bent so he could whisper into Titus' ear--although the Adonian managed to make it sound more like a seductive purr rather than simple information.

"Grolm, that's the fat man in the blue and white uniform. Too fat I'd say...but I hear his son is a real killer. Notice how he has his back turned to the southwest--there's a bunch of black uniforms, identical to those grunts with the Marquess...see them?"

On the far side of the room past the noisy crowd that had collected around Captain Baker but before the empty dance floor, were about eight men ringing another four or five--it was hard for Titus to make them out in the press--gold fringed black uniforms. Titus felt his brow wrinkle again much to the Adonian's distress, who seemed to think he could smooth them out with a touch from his hand.

"What's the League of Seven doing here? I thought they were banned from Federation space." Titus blurted before he remembered who exactly had him by the shoulders. To Titus' relief, the Adonian grinned, showing off his front row of small, gleaming canines.

"Why, what better way to add some spice to the party than to invite blood enemies." Seelakk sighed suddenly and paused, his purple eyes seemed to stare unseeing off into the crowd. "Ah, but you should have been here last year. The shoot-out was such a nice after dinner touch before desert." Regaining his senses, the Adonian giggled and pulled Titus along again.

"A shoot-out?" Titus asked, a touch of disbelief inflicting his voice. "No wait, let me guess. You promised exclusively to each side that they would be the only ones with weapons, right?" Titus snorted. In turn the Adonian glanced down at him, his greased eyebrows rising slightly.

"An exorbitant fee actually--and for the record sweet cheeks, I never promised anything. But my, my! Good looks and brains. Darling I might jump you right here and now. We'd put on such a show--oh don't look at me like that I was only joking!" He paused in thought for a moment, then added absently "Well...a bit anyways."

Kick his shins, then when he bends over put an elbow into his throat and run. Was what Titus wanted to do, but their arrival in front of the portly general delayed Titus' plan indefinitely.

"Ahh, Grolm I am ever so happy you could make it!" Rom had planted Titus in front of him--half-shield, half support--as the Adonian draped his arms protectively around Titus' shoulders. "May I present Titus, my ravishing companion for the evening."

The general took one glance at Titus then rounded on the Adonian. "Seelakk," he said grumpily with a grudging nod of his head, "always a pleasure." While his words said one thing, Titus distinctly got the impression the large general was plotting exactly how to kill the clever arms dealer. Don't think too hard just get him on the ground and sit on him. The man was that big. The thought made Titus grin.

"And how is...what's his name doing? The young attractive brunette that was with you earlier this evening?" Seelakk's voice was edged with concern, as if the disappearance of one of his more `attractive' guests could spell disaster for his social life for the next hundred or so years.

"You mean my son, Keller?" The general's voice was flat, he refrained from scowling though. "You keep your dirty paws off of him Adonian. Keep your nasty habits confined to those who..." he scowled at Titus, his eyes lingering on the Pegasus wings decorating his shoulders, "...enjoy them."

Seelakk giggled suddenly, which only increased Titus' annoyance. His grin disappeared, "You fat old bastard, take that back!" Titus found himself saying almost automatically. The General went livid, his face turned a sick colour of red.

"W...what did you just call me? Do you know who I am, son?"

"I'm not your son!" Titus said harshly, "nor am I anyone's plaything," he said, turning to glare at the Adonian--who just shrugged non-committed, giggling delicately as if the whole affair was beneath him. "Pompous a--"

"Now now, what all this commotion over here?" a familiar voice interrupted. Titus went rigid under the Adonian's half-embrace, who had somehow managed to press his body up against him--a large bulge pressed uncomfortably into his lower back.

Titus was left witless as his old teacher from the academy, dressed in the grey and blue colours of an instructor, joined the small group. Bryce Destrier had not changed one bit since Titus had last seen him at graduation last year. His gaunt face and hollow looking eyes made him appear underfed and grouchy--while the half-circle of grey-silver hair that was losing the battle to baldness gave him a slightly more distinguished look.

"Old man Bryce!" Titus said reflexively, which only made the man frown.

"Still have no manners I see. You haven't changed a bit you little rat" he said with a wink that looked awkward on his hawkish features.

"Ahhh, Captain Destrier. How...lovely of you to make it!" The Adonian's drawl left no doubt the old man was an acquaintance of only mild importance. "I see Kimmel sent you again this year in his place," he said, pouting his purple lips. "How frustrating."

Bryce smiled grimly and raised an eyebrow as he looked at the love-stricken Adonian. "And you haven't changed either Rom...still like them young I see. Although I wouldn't try anything with Titus--he has some powerful friends here tonight I hear." Bryce took a long look at Titus shaking his head slightly, "Although, how he managed to get them is a story I'd sure like to hear..."

"You know me..." Rom said and Titus felt the Adonian's breath tickle his left ear as he lowered both his head and his voice. "I never make promises I don't intend to keep."

Titus didn't really absorb what the Adonian said after that, his attention wandered back to the portly general, whose uniformed retinue had gathered about the red-faced--and apparently furious man.

"You!" The general yelled loudly, although in the din it was more like a raised voice that only barely managed to interrupt the weapon dealer's conversation, "You have the gall to insult an Imperiate Officer to his face? ROM! I demand satisfaction!"

"From me?" Rom straightened and his purple eyes flashed icily. "Tread carefully General. I am fast losing patience with your dense sense of honour."

"From the boy! The whelp is an honourless pirate. How dare he insult one of noble birth such as myself!" Murmurs of agreement from his loyal retinue threatened to make Titus roll his eyes with contempt.

"Interesting..." Bryce looked to be more annoyed than threatened by the whole affair. He looked at Titus with an unasked question.

"I am not apologizing to `his bulkiness' over there if that's what you're thinking Bryce." Titus whispered harshly. Bryce only nodded as if confirming the decision, as hint of a smile played on his thin lips before it vanished.

The Adonian suddenly grinned and clutched Titus tighter, "Ahh, excellent! I was fretting that this party would be a drag! A competition then! The loser must apologize to the winner and...hmm...we need some bigger stakes here."

The general leered happily at Titus, from his ample waist he detached a jewel encrusted las-sword--a weapon only carried by rich nobles--and tossed it casually to the Adonian. "My sword should be enough for my part."

The Adonian's eyes widened, he turned to the fast gathering crowd of observers and held up the sword--several oohs and awwws followed. He then looked down at Titus, releasing the boy from his clutches at long last. His grin sent chills down Titus' spine. "An extravagant gift indeed! One worthy of a King's ransom. For the boy's part I offer this!" He turned and motioned to one of his guards. Perhaps thirty seconds later, a red Adonian carrying a blue velvet pillow came trotting through the crowd. On the pillow lay a small silver circlet, with a sparkling blue jewel set in its centre. Titus felt his mouth drop open in surprise--it was a sort of jewel he had never seen before, but it must be worth millions. It was small and clear with only a hint of blue...but it was more like the jewel radiated light, it shimmered and danced and rays of light played off it like it might a lapping pool of water in the afternoon sun.

"Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the `Crown of Thorns'! Long thought to be lost during the pillage of planet Gorthanos. A relic from the days of the ancients." Rom spoke loudly to the crowd. Mouths dropped in surprise and Titus thought the general might start drooling at any moment. "Well general? What do you say?"

Grolm snapped his mouth shut, a sly smile replacing his surprise. His hand moved up to stroke his chins thoughtfully. "Of course...yes...that should do nicely. Now the matter of the contest?"

"Space combat duel." Rom said without hesitation. His arm slithered back over to rest on Titus' shoulders. "He is a pilot after all."

Titus' stomach sunk through the floor. "I can't...possibly...I mean...what if I lose?" Titus whispered urgently to the Adonian. Rom showed Titus his full array of teeth, a triumphant grin that set Titus' skin crawling.

"You could always work it off" he said, his arms drawing Titus tightly to his frame.

The general was conferring with his retinue again, one of the uniformed men slid off into the crowd. The general turned back to the Adonian and nodded, a gleam visible beneath the rolls of fat on his face. "Very well, I accept your terms with the condition that I name my son as my pilot representative."

"Agreed!" Seelakk said loudly and released Titus. He rotated slowly, raising his arms in supplication to the gathered crowd. "Now ladies and gentlemen, we will be treating you, my honoured guests, as witnesses to this duel. But let it never be said that you can't join the fun! All bets will be taken by agents located near the simulator pods in the sixth subbasement! Don't miss out on this rare event! Betting closes in one hour, all bets are FINAL."

"Rom!" Titus was hissing urgently once the Adonian had finished his spiel. Seelakk just grabbed his arm and dragged him towards the nearest elevator. The crowd was pressing and Rom's guards moved in to cordon off his private elevator from the excited crowd.

"Don't worry Titus, it's all in good fun. This will really get the party started. I'm sure you'll win of course...but if you don't and I lose that wonderful jewel well..." The Adonian's hand tightened, "I'll just have to replace it with another equally rare and beautiful gem."

Dio's Corner

You'd think I'd learn my lesson about big releases... sheeeeeeesh! Well, I hope I tickled your interest enough to look forward to more. I wrote this entire sketch in one sitting, six hours straight, 18,000 words. I even forgot to eat, when I did stop I went to my fridge and made myself a sandwich and promptly put the margarine in my microwave ...yay! (Oh come on, I'm sure you've all done something that stupid.)

The good news is I had a lot of fun writing! The bad news is I need more margarine and I'm still drinking cold coffee. OK, so just to clear the air I'll be writing more of this on and off, but I'm not taking time away from G.E.J. so don't send me angry e-mails! (Although I would encourage you to go read Grey-Eyed Justice [gay/fantasy])

Comments, feedback, loveletters *_* are of course always appreciated! If you have some critisizing to do, I'd love to hear it as long as its constructive and it doesn't revolve around the fact that I can't spell. And as always, keep pictures of yourself semi-nude in thongs out of my inbox--I know its hard but bear with me. If you'd like to flame me, please do, I'm getting a nice little collection already from G.E.J. Didn't you know, they're like trading cards, collect all fifty in the set!

I'm also looking for someone to help me edit (read: editor), so I can release faster and get more detailed feedback. If you think you can work with me and you find my writing interesting, please contact me. Those who can't write an e-mail with proper sentences need not apply! Thanks!

Dio -