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A/N I have nothing to say! Enojoyo the chapter-o. yeah! Now to go finish writing some hot Rory/??? action...*snicker* Oh wait, if you haven't gone and read my short story 'Brown Paper Bag' I encourage you not to. There, I said it.

Also, I'm not sure what Kat did to the colours of this release. Please don't hate me. She is after all, an arts student. We must be tolerant... So enjoy, or go blind, either way I love you all! -db-

Broken Pegasus Wings 4

Crumbling Expectations

Written and Edited by Dio Beckstead
Edited by Hi_college_guy and TalonRider

Special thanks to the ever wonderful, exceptionally lovely, and ever so talented (did I mention humble? I'm humble too! They gave me a humble badge once. Alas, they took it away after I wore it too much...) Katrina, who made this page and gets to write whatever she wants on it when Dio isn't looking!


They had given Death, wings.

There they were, laid out in two rows of three evenly spaced fighters. Wraiths. The matte black machines were but shadows from Titus' vantage point high on the spiralling stairs--they were eerily void of reflections compared to the glassy white plasteele floor beneath.


Fitting, Titus thought to himself as he scampered down flight after flight of stairs, his boots clattering loudly on the thick metal grating. The name fits them very well!! He was so excited he almost missed the last couple of stairs and tumbled the rest of the way down. He caught his balance just before ploughing full tilt into one of the many techs scampering around the cavernous hangar. Some were hauling equipment with a purpose, while other small figures were clumped and gesticulating at some of the grounded fighters, deep in discussion. He could hear Dia still several flights above yell a warning, and Archangel's booming laughter. Titus ignored them both.

The hangar was on the northern most part of Seelakk Rom's estates, it had taken them more than fifteen minutes to arrive, even after they had appropriated a small compact hoverunit from one of the guards they had run into--a small flat-bedded cargo hauler with room for four in the small drivers cabin.

Dia had only glared at him when he jumped in ahead of her and slid into the pilot's couch. Were women BORN with that look? It was satisfying to make her squeak as he skidded around corners as fast as the white-knuckled guard could spit curses out of his mouth, which was an impressive talent in itself. The paling Adonian might even give Jeckt a run for his money. Archangel and the rest of the pilots Captain Baker had brought along had met them at the hangar. They must have heard about what had happened inside, because Titus was met with flat stares that were neutral at best, and a hostile sneer and some snarky comments about Titus' bed-preferences from the thick-shouldered Lieutenant. The big armsman, Garel from the Pegasus, was nowhere to be found. Titus couldn't help but dread their meeting again when the Sergeant found out that he had wriggled out of his beloved Captain's trap.

The hangar itself was curious. It was a low hanging dome that was dug deep into the permacrete foundation that the entire estate seemed to sit on. The only visible parts of the hidden hangar from above ground were a pair of thick sliding doors that could be retracted when the snubs within were being launched. Inside was a lattice of supports and stairs around the edges of what Titus thought looked like a giant pit. At the entrance, looking down, the six fighter-units were small in comparison and looked lonely parked in the middle of the cavern, their only company being a couple fuel trucks, and the small group of techs puttering about in their midst.

Titus almost missed the tech, a small skittish looking Gnart, his face reminding Titus strongly of a bug with his large compound eyes and fierce looking mandibles, short as he was. Titus had never actually met one before, and the Gnart emitted a high-pitched squeak when Titus grabbed one of its many hands, sticky bristles and all, and shook it vigorously.

"Are you the head honcho here? Wow! Do these things look deadly or what!" Titus said, dropping the confused tech's hand absently and moving over to gape at the seventh wraith he had missed from his high vantage point. It was white in imitation of the floor beneath it, or grey like the dome above, depending on what angle you looked at it--and Titus tried to look at it from every angle possiblea...until his head spun from moving it back and forth too quickly. The Gnart skritched across the floor in his wake as Titus approached it cautiously. "Wow! This is that new chameleon technology I've been reading about isn't it? Frecking eh! I read the specs but this is nothing like how I imagined it."

When Titus leaped up and caught the underside of the sweeping wing and levered himself up, the Gnart seemed to regain its composure, and clicked his mandibles, audibly annoyeda...not that Titus noticed anything amiss. "What are you doing?" the tech said in the clipped tones of the translator he wore around his neck, overlaying the clicks and whistles of his normal speech. "Get down from there immediately, human."

Titus moved to the front of the wing, staring longingly into the cockpit. He couldn't make anything out in the darkened interior, and he had a hard time figuring out if it was the ceramic canopy or the glare from the industrial fluorescent lights that made it impossible to see inside. He ran his hands around the angular canopy, but couldn't find the lever to jack open the top. Frowning he hooked his legs on the wing and swung upside down, nearly colliding with the very startled Gnart who was standing off to one side underneath.

"Hey, where's the cockpit latch? I wanna see inside but I can't find it! Where's it hidden? The outside is so smooth it almost looks as if the entire armour was quantum-laser carved."

The Gnart clicked its mandibles again, a burst of static issuing from the translator. "You must be Titus."

The clatter of boots on the hangar floor announced the arrival of the rest of the Pegasus pilots. "Titus? What are you? A monkey? Get down from there before you break your neck." Dia snapped, she and archangel were foremost of the pilots to reach the bottom, and marched over to join him and the annoyed tech.

Titus spared them a grin before he caught sight of a small shiny transmitter that did not look like standard issue grease monkey paraphernalia, clipped to the distraught tech's upper coverall pocket. Before the Gnart could back away Titus grabbed it and swung back up, gaining his feet on the wing and depressing the appropriate switch. With a small beep and hiss of compressed air, the canopy jetted open smartly, nearly knocking him off his feet.

"Wow! Hey this is awesome!" Titus stared around the comparatively roomy cockpit, his cheeks getting sore from the huge grin he knew was sitting there. The seat looked more like a lounge chair than the standard narrow and unyielding fare of other fighters Titus had flown.

"Will you get down from there--human?!" The Gnart--Titus hadn't asked his name, did Gnarts even have names?--had backed up so he could wave his long arms at Titus frenetically. When Titus' blonde hair disappeared from view as he slid happily into the cockpit and into the chair that seemed to mold to his every contour, the Gnart turned his ire on the gathering pilots in exasperation. "He'll wreck all my delicate adjustments! Can't you control him?"

Dia's voice matched the Gnart's, as it floated into the cockpit. "Have you ever tried to house-train a fanged, smart-assed teenager who thinks he's the Almighty's gift to the human race?"

A thin, reedy voice joined Dia's commiseration; Titus thought it might belong to Jeckle. "We forgot his leash back on our ship," he said apologetically.

"I've got a ration bar if you think we can use it as bait," Rio added. "Think he'd fall for the box and the stick trick."

"The trick only works if the food you're using tastes and smells good. This is a ration bar we're talking about. It barely qualifies as food" Dia sounded faintly amused at the notion.

"Hey cool, it's got omni-directional ion thrusters! And WHOA! These things have more kick than some snubs' star drives! Holy freck!" he said, pulling up the tech specs on the glossy main screen integrated into the flashy H.U.D. system. "The Gee force must be hell on a planet." He peaked over the edge of the cockpit and nearly banged his head on the raised canopy in his exuberance, "What's the rating on the Gee-dampener? Did they link it directly into the generator? Oh, hey! This thing could power a small city!" Titus whistled, duly impressed with the quark generator specs that were scrolling across the screen. He had still figured these were still in the experimental stages. Apparently, he had been wrong. That piece alone must be worth at least the price of a small corvette, maybe even a strike-cruiser.

"Titus, I realize I no longer have authority over you"- Dia started to say, and Titus couldn't help thinking, damn right you don't. "But would you at least try to act like a pilot so we can get formalities over with? You'll have plenty of time to-"

"-giggle like a little girl-"Archangel supplied helpfully. Which of course was followed by Weasel's own oily voice, "-trying on a new dress."

Dia paused, and he was sure she was frowning over at the burly pilot and his echo, "-enthuse, over the wraith latera...but we really need to hurry."

Titus sighed, and clicked off the electronics before he got out of the cockpit. "Alright, alright! Don't get your panties in such a twist. Stop treating me like some frecking kid." He had reverted to his normal speech patterns that he used with Jeckt and company almost without realizing it. When the other female pilot, Rio, started laughing at his crassness, Titus felt his cheeks heat as he slipped down the lowered end of the wings.

"Sorry," he mumbled, trying to ignore the withering glare Dia was giving him. Rio had to go lean on a small diagnostic unit so she didn't fall over as she shook with silent laughter. It wasn't that funny! Women.

"Don't be," Rio said, avoiding looking anywhere near her commander, "although the very idea of Dia wearing panties in the first placea..."

"'Bitch in training' has a point," Archangel was nudging Weasel with his beefy arm, "I would'a thought her to be more of a boxers type myself."

Rio calmed in an instant, she wrapped one of her fingers into her short curly hair and gave a sharp tug. "Asshole."

"Well then, it's a good thing you don't try and think too often." Dia turned to Jeckle and said with no small amount of sarcasm, "Next time, make sure you don't forget the leash. The wrench monkey causes problems even when he's not trying to be smart. And bring a taser," she said wryly, jerking a thumb over at Archangel, "to deal with him."

Titus flushed, but he focused his attention on the Gnart, whose jagged mandibles were starting to drip with a slimy liquid of some sort. Titus got the impression the Gnart was slobbering. Why he was slobbering was a matter not to be taken lightly. A tremor passed through the insectoid's body as it considered Titus with those brilliant multi-faceted eyes.

"Oh right, I was supposed to give this to you." Titus said quickly, darting up to give the shorter tech the data-pad Rom had given him and then jumping back just as quickly--there were nasty stories surrounding the Gnart race after all, Titus didn't want to tempt him overtly or the Gnart may well decide that a juicy succulent piece of Titus was exactly what it needed to calm down. Archangel and the wiry pilot found that something to laugh about, Titus tried to ignore them.

Who cared what these jerks thought about him, it wasn't as if he was ever going to see them again after they got the freck off his planet!

The other Gnarts had gathered behind the first one, it was difficult to tell them apart. The Gnart Titus had handed the datapad too was only identifiable by the gold patch sewn onto the chest--thorax? Of his coveralls. He made strange clicking noises while the translation device that hung from his neck assaulted the gathered human ears with a mixture of static and white noise.

After a moment where he conferred with the other techs, he assigned two of his techs to each pilot to get them familiarized with how the wraiths operated. He himself came over and grabbed a suddenly skittish Titus by the arm to haul him over to the white Wraith. The illusion of transparency made it hard to focus his eyes on it unless he was right up against it.

"The Adonian favours you." His whistles were translated. Titus was having a hard time figuring out whether it was supposed to be sarcasm or fact. The translation unit did not translate Gnart emotions very wella...if they even had any. The thick ichor dripping onto the floor was making him very nervous though, he tried to keep his hands at his sides and on the balls of his feet, so he could run at a moments notice. As if sensing his distress, the Gnart's bristled hand was wrapped securely around his forearm.

"He made me a deal I couldn't turn-down." Titus replied, shrugging, then scowled as thoughts of kissing the strange Adonian surfaced again. He shook his head in an effort to clear his mind. "I thought Rom was only handing over six Wraiths to Cap'n Baker, what's the seventh here for?"

The Gnart bobbed its entire body, and turned waving one of his hands at the white Wraith, which was shimmering slightly. "A gift."

"To who?"

"You." When Titus just stood and gaped stupidly, he was treated to another what he thought was an annoyed click and a burst of static. "You humans are so easily startled. The honourable Seelakk Rom has decided to gift you this fighter for your personal use, free of charge."

"No, he wouldn't. I thought he was joking!" Titus mumbled, for some reason he couldn't tear his eyes off the magnificently carved space-craft. It was more organic looking than a machine, clean lines and curves for its sides and wings, it was difficult to tell where the guns and missiles were mounted. Taking in all this, Titus got a sense of anticipation when he looked at it, of readiness and eagerness. The Wraith was a vehicle that cried out to be piloted. Buta...Rom him one? Just like that? "I'm just a tech, a frecking ordinary tech."

The Gnart shook as a giant burst of static made Titus clap his hands over his ears. "I'm sure you are." The Gnart obviously didn't believe him. It began explaining in precise technical terms, all of the Wraith's features, and its improvements over many other modern fighters in high circulation in both the Alliance military, and the Imperiate navy.

Some of the components, like the quark generator, Titus was almost passably familiar with, but there were several `black boxes' of which Titus had never even heard of, including a spatial time-point generator, which was used when the small fighter created and enlarged a micro wormhole suitable for long-distance travelling. A snub with the capability of creating a micro-wormhole connecting itself to millions of the small veins that stretched across the galaxy? The revelation made this funny feeling spread from his stomach all the way to his toes. If the small Tech hadn't cuffed him behind his head, Titus might have kept staring at it all day, wondering if this was all some sort of weird dream. Surea...he had read about the giant versions of the device aboard military capital ships buta...this wasa...

"Originally created by Septra Systems in the corporate sector, the Imperiate's special forces purchased the first seven off the production lines for a reported value of seventy billion equivalent credits. These are the first seven, this one," he said, pointing at Titus' snub, "was the very first, the prototype, and explains its somewhat odd custom load-out. Its price was not reported, but its planning and development was reportedly in the hundred billions."

Titus ran a hand over the smooth, cold metal of the wing that managed to look organic in some ways, "You mean, they aren't all equipped with the chameleon technology?"

"Correct, this one is also equipped with the only spatial generator. Also to note, is its quark generator has the highest output of all seven ships; to make them more affordable I'm told, the others units were given smaller versions of the same generator." The Gnart clambered up the other side of the Wraith, using the portable rolling stair unit that was sitting around so he could lean over into the cockpit. Titus joined him by hopping up on the opposite wing. The Gnart then proceeded to elaborate, with no small amount of pride, every change he had made to the custom factory model, up to and including the remounting of the pilot's couch on more durable ceramic rails, as opposed to the prone to jam, metallic isomer ones that had been popular before the Tri-World Crisis and the emergence of the snubfighter as a critical tactical weapon. The more he listened, the more impressed Titus was. Not just with the Wraith--which threatened to send his brain into overload--but with the small tech; he really knew what he was talking about. The Gnart definitely wouldn't have been out of place on a team like Jeckt's.

Titus could barely contain the butterflies in his stomach and ended up tuning out much of the rest of the rundown while gazing longingly at the polished controls. The entire inside of the cockpit was dark blacks with red trim. The HUD system and tactical analysis screen where shades of contrasting whites and blues, and it was easy on Titus' eyes. With the lonely exception of the chair, every exposed surface gleamed under the harsh lights, and his hands were itching incessantly with the desire to run his hands over it all, and grab the odd looking control stick and throttle pair. He couldn't wait till he could fly it!! Ignoring the babbling tech, Titus leaned over and tried to see what the pedals looked like, but he was interrupted when the Gnart absently caught him with several of his many arms and shoved him out again without even breaking a syllable.

Not put off in the least, Titus interrupted when a question came to mind, "Those controls, they look smaller than the standard ones." He reached inside to grab the strange curvy control stick and got swatted by one of the Gnart's many arms for his troubles. That STUNG! It was like getting hit with a whip--it reminded him of his days in Kimmel's office, getting strapped for greasing the floor in front of a particularly hated Flight Mechanics professional's office. It was a fair trade, the asshole got taken down a notch with a concussion, and Titus' had a sore ass for a week. The cheering as he limped down the hallways on the other hand, was sweeter still.

"Custom fitted for the test pilot I presume, now if you'll follow me down to the engine manifolda..." Titus followed the Gnart with his eyes as he quickly dismounted and gestured that Titus follow to the rear of the snub. Titus rubbed the spreading red mark on his hand: If that hadn't been an evasion, Titus vowed he would bite off his tongue. There was also a second seat set back inside the snub that he had wanted to ask about. Unlike a co-pilot's controls, there was only one panel with a sharp looking needle sticking up in a threatening manner on its armrest. Titus jumped down and met the tech at the rear of the fighter.

"As you may have noticed, the omni-directional ion thrusters can double as a secondary drive if the T-Grave drives enter catastrophic failurea..."

Titus eyed the twin engines carefully, set on the underside of fuselage. With the chameleon system active they were hard to see except for the telltale smouldering red glow that would intensify several hundred times when he activated the engines. "If they have a catastrophic failure how big will the explosion be?"

The Gnart was laughing, it was a high-pitched squealing that made Titus' head want to explode. "Big, Human. Very big. They put in a hard cut-off valve so that the power-overload problem was partially solved. It still goes supercritical 50% of the time in my simulations thougha...if I had a little more time-"

"Are they always active like that?" Titus interrupted, thinking the engines looked alive even with the plane powered-down like it was now.

While the Gnart began a technical rundown that wouldn't have sounded out of place from the thick wading explanations found in a technical manual, Titus was running his hands over the backside of his snub. His fingers found a shallow groove almost undetectable on the smooth surface; he traced it around what felt like a small access port on the tail of the fighter. "What's this?"

"Ah! Don't touch that!" he said, much more animated than what the metallic voice expressed. One of his sticky hands grabbed him by the collar of his flight-suit and dragged him back. "It's a storage compartment designed to hold survival utilities in the rare chance of a crash landing in hostile territory. Once you release the seals it's nearly impossible to get closed again. One of the few flaws in the craft."

Again, the Gnart seemed far too agitated than was warranted by the question. Titus raised an eyebrow while he readjusted the collar of his commandeered flight-suit, but let the Gnart get away with the flimsy explanation. Titus would have plenty of time to do a little of his own investigation back at the spaceport. There was probably a tracking device in the storage area. No doubt Rom was interested in where the Pegasus was actually berthed in the Eight Stars Spaceport. The Spaceport forbade flyovers, and the security grounds extended over the forested hills of the surrounding terrain. Titus was fairly sure he and his tech team were some of the only ones to know what had actually landed at their port.

The Adonian had been all too willing to help Titus out of his jam. What sort of `comrade' was the wily Adonian really? Just how far did Kari Baker actually trust the man? Titus couldn't help the questions he had been asking himself ever since his last encounter with the two powerful figures had gone slightly awry. He certainly didn't feel like trusting Kari any more than he had too. From how angry she had gotten, she must have been planning something. Giving Titus the fightera...was this some sort of slight the Adonian was forcing upon Captain Baker. His common sense was telling him, yes. The best thing would be to just return the fighter, or sell it off as soon as he could. Like I could EVER do that! Titus thought to himself. Thinking about Rom and Kari was giving him a headache. He just kept running around in circles.

"No matter," he muttered to himself, as the officer pilots were regrouping from their respective tours, "In another week or two the repairs will be done, and this whole stupid episode in my life will be over." And good riddance!

There was an argument brewing by the looks of it. Archangel was looming over a tech, his nostrils were flaring as he bullied the small Gnart tech with sharp words, Titus only tuned into the last of the one-sided argument.

"What do you mean, I need to get his frecking permission? These fighters belong to the Pegasus, not the little girly shrimp over there" he said, pointing an accusing finger over in Titus' direction.

Titus joined the group just as the Gnart responded, "No, look, it says right here." He waved a datapad in front of Archangel, who swatted the small grey pad with flashing green writing on it out of the tech's hands. The pad hit the ground with a clatter, and slid under the nearest Wraith and out of sight. Archangel shoved the tech out of the way and turned his fearsome sneer on the redheaded flight commander.

"Is this bug telling the truth?" Archangel asked quietly, fury lighting his eyes. "That the Adonian made a side deal with Titus, and now the frecking monkey owns the lot of them?"

"Hey, if you've got something to say to me, then say it." Titus planted himself in front of Archangel, and straightened to his full height, which still left Titus a head and a half shorter than the burly lieutenant. "I hate it when people talk over me when I'm: Right. Here."

Archangel's lips tightened. He reached down slowly, making Titus' entire body tense in anticipation of the blow that would surely come, but instead he flicked the open collar of Titus' shiny flight suit and stared with contempt--noting the lack of the lieutenant bars that he displayed on his own matte black suit proudly. "So you bartered away something that wasn't yours in the first place for a couple of ships? Nice work rookie. What are you planning for your next act? Sell the rights to your ass?"

"I never had any intention of showing off a pirate's colours in the first place." Titus shoved the hand away and smiled coolly, "and if you ask nicely, I just might let you hitch a ride back to the ship. Maybe."

Dia pushed her way between them, before Archangel blew a gasket--she was forewarned by the way his face reddened. "Okay, you two can go back to comparing dicks once we're all safe and sound back on the Pegasus."

"I'm not-" Archangel started in anger.

"What is it with everyone today? Do you think I speak just to hear the sound of my own voice?" Dia said, shaking her head with exasperation. "That's an order Lieutenant, not a frecking suggestion."

The doctor was shaking with barely constrained laughter. He was forced to push his glasses back up when they started sliding down his generous nose. "Say, Rio? I put ten creds on the kid."

"Two to one odds? I'd rather bet on Titus than the asshole." She replied, staring flatly at Archangel. No love lost between those two.

"I'll see your bet, Jeckle. Twenty creds" Weasel nodded as he strutted over to join them, glancing nervously at Archangel as if to say, `see! I'm on your sidea...justa...from over here.'

Dia rounded on the three pilots who had stuck their heads together and were exchanging credit vouchers enthusiastically. "And you three! Stop encouraging them! No-one is frecking going to fight until we get back to the ship in one piece."

"Hear that rook? I'm gonna flatten that look off your face. No woman's gonna look twice at you ever again, pretty boy." Archangel had his finger an inch from Titus' nose. His finger looked thick enough to be someone's wrist! Titus growled as he shoved it out of his face and shrugged.

"I wonder if it's going to rain. That would really suck for your walk home wouldn't it big guy? Maybe you can wag that ass of yours enough so one of the guards feels guilty enough to lend you an umbrella just to get your ugly face out of his sight."

The gentle hiss of sliding doors caught Titus' attention. Captain Baker and Seelakk Rom, escorted by a trio of scantly clad but solidly built Adonians, stepped onto the hangar floor--just as Archangel had opened his mouth. He paused and shut it quickly when he got a good sight of the Captain's face.

"The old hidden elevator trick huh Captain!" Jeckle was frowning very seriously as he spoke, "They made us walk down! I wish to lodge a formal complaint."

Kari was resplendent in the dress she wore. Her hair was slightly askew now, giving her a slightly frazzled looking expression. "Against exercise? Or the fact that you five missed the big sign for the elevator next to the entrance?"

"Someone was a little excited to get down to the hangar floor." Rio said, winking at Titus, while the rest of the pilot's turned to glower at him.

"Uma...right. Not like I made you guys follow me or anything." Titus tried to ignore the heat that rose to his cheeks as he turned to face the last two people on the planet that he wanted to see, not to mention talk with at this moment.

The look on Rom's face as he glided over to Titus, and the prominent bulge displayed in his tight pants, told him the feeling wasn't mutual. "Titus! It's been so long!" The Adonian pouted as he looked Titus up and down slowly, his appreciation lighting up his now pink-tinted eyes. "Lovely justa...stunning Titus. Something about you in a flight suit drives me wild! Can I touch your stomach? I admit I have this desperate desire to run my hands up and down-"

"Keep your filthy hands to yourself, lizard." Archangel growled, just as Rio opened her mouth, a stubborn light in her eyes. Her face paled, no doubt concerned that she shared the same opinion as the `asshole'.

"I do most days," The Adonian giggled as his gaze was roving around Titus' crotch area, his breath becoming shallower. "But he makes it so hard on my self restraint. What am I to do?"

Titus jumped at the sound of a knife being drawn. Dia flashed the wicked looking grooved weapon she had produced from somewhere in her pilot suit. The Adonian didn't even blink as he waved off his guards with a flick of his wrist when they started to move forwards.

"Now Dia, darling, I know how they do things on your world. But do try and remember you're in the company of civilized beings, alright?" The Adonian said smoothly, his voice relaxed and neutral. Dia flinched as if he had struck her. The knife disappeared again when she got a sharp look from her Captain to drive the point home.

Smart. Pull a weapon on the host with the big burly bodyguards loaded down with weapons. Titus was suddenly curious just what kind of place Dia's homeworld was. From the way Dia reacted to most situations, it was no doubt a highly exciting and dangerous place. And the way she was always sticking up for him was almost creepy; although in retrospect, not nearly as creepy as the Adonian was turning out to be. At least he had never crawled into bed to snugglea...yet. Given the opportunity, Titus was certain the Adonian wouldn't have hesitated.

Rom was pawing Titus' shoulders, straightening his collar. Titus fought down the urge to take a step backwards, conscious of Kari's eyes weighing him in silence. He caught himself--what the hell did he care what Baker thought?

"There!" Rom said, critically looking his prize up and down. "Oh, I wish you could stay longer, buta...perhaps we'll meet again soon, yes? I would like that!" He winked. Titus shivered, more from the urge to punch the Adonian than fear.

He tried to crane his head to look past the moony-eyed Rom at Captain Baker. His voice trembled as he spoke, "So, uma...we're ready to go right? I mean, the ships are all fuelled up. We're one pilot short though."

For the first time, Kari seemed to realize that indeed, there were seven Wraiths sitting on the hangar floor, instead of the promised six. Her head whipped around to stick Rom with a look that would have had anyone else jumping out of their skin. Rom for his part, became suddenly fascinated in the state of his nails. "I promised you six wraiths Kari. I always keep my promises. I just happened to have an extra sitting around in my stock areaa..."

Kari marched over and grabbed his shoulder. She swung him around violently and stepped threateningly into the taller man. "You're playing tag with live wires Seelakk. Don't start getting cute." She whispered low enough that Titus was sure he was the only one to hear it, he had to strain his ears as it was.

"Ah, yes. Well darling at least I'm nota...oh what was that age old adage you human are so enamoured with?" He lowered his head a fraction of an inch, his eyes blazing red, "Right. I remember now. `Playing with fire'. Humans do love their fire, don't they Captain? You can't expect to play with fire Kari and not expect to get burned every once in a long while." He drew up again and turned back to Titus. His icy voice warmed until it simmered, "Ah, Titus. The universe is a complicated place is it not? Every move you make, every action you take, someone somewhere has a better one to counter it, no matter how clever or devious you try to be." The Adonian shrugged playfully and gestured to one of the men behind him, who spoke rapidly into a small wrist transmitter.

"We should be going. Flight commander, get them loaded up. Titus? Let's go. Now." Kari Baker snapped. Titus frowned over at her, but the woman was too occupied with the Adonian to pay any mind to the fact that she was talking about his fighters herea...and she had no right to order him to do anything anymore. He wasn't willing to really argue the point though.

"Ah, one moment Kari. I have one last parting gift for our younga...friend here." He met her eyes, and for a short time the Captain tensed. It took a long moment after Rom focused back on Titus before she unwound herself. She muttered something under her breath before turning back to Dia, who was already issuing orders.

"Get Brice down here. He can fly the sixth bloody Wraith. We'll have to take the southern route to avoid the traffic sensor grid--maintain your altitude under 1,000 feeta...where the hell did Garel get up to?"

Rom wrapped his arms around Titus, cutting off the sound of Dia's voice as he pressed Titus into his chest. When Titus tensed, Rom just giggled and stroked his hair fondly. "Titus, if it's one thing I regret in this whole escapade, is that I can't keep you. I would take good care of you, you know. Better than Kari Baker would anyways." He sounded almost sad, when Titus looked up, his eyes had turned a misty blue.

"Freck, this is really embarrassing, you know that?" Titus managed. He could feel the Adonian's higher body temperature radiating through the thin layer of silk. He could almost hear the Adonian's heart as it beat its rapid tempo in concert with Rom's excitement.

"Embarassing?" Rom said the word as if he hadn't a clue as to its meaning. "Well, then let me embarrass you one final time before I say good-bye. I have something for you Titus, my love."

When he drew back and stepped to the side, Titus nearly keeled over. It seemed as if all the bustling activity as the pilots and techs got ready for lift off stopped dead. The clank of a las-wrench as it hit the floor echoed shrilly in the yawning.

Titus took a moment to recognize Freelaj, the Adonian who had first greeted them back at the entrance. He was flanked by two more armoured security guards toting two heavy assault repeaters, and for good reason. In his arms, on the familiar cushion of royal blue, lay the silver circlet and that shimmering jewel that stole the very breath from his lungs.

In the midst of all the machinery: all harsh angles and blinking lights; the jewel on the circlet was the sun beside a tac-light, they were incomparable. The only machines that weren't overtly out of place were the graceful and deadly lines of the wraiths. Their skin was the only metal present in the hangar that didn't reflect the radiant glow of the sky-blue gem that seemed to liquefy as Titus watched, impossible to count its host of facets. The Wraiths kept themselves aloof, as if knowing their own worth, full of pride and power.

Titus broke from his reverie as Freelaj stopped just in front of Titus, and lowered the pillow, to present his package to the young pilot. Titus opened his mouth, but found that he had nothing to say. Nothing.

"Does it displease you?" Rom made him jump as his sultry voice whispered into his ear. Rom bent and gently plucked it from its resting place. He stared into the jewel's hypnotic chorus of light and cocked his head as if listening to a song that no organic ears would ever hear. He turned and grinned impishly at Titus. "Well?"

"Wa...well, what!?" Titus said, his voice caught in his throat. "I can't take that."

"Actually, it would be very easy for you to take it, here I'll show you." But when Rom made a move to put it around Titus' forehead, Titus stumbled backwards in his haste to get away from the jewel. This was excessively creepy for his tastes.

"Rom! Just what do you think you're doing!" Kari made a beeline for the Adonian, the only member of the Pegasus crew who seemed unfazed by the crown, the armed guards moved to block her. Levelling their heavy weapons at her chest to stop her in her tracks. "I don't know where you found that bloody thing, but it does not belong with Titus."

Seelakk Rom had eyes only for the young man in front of him. He brought the crown up to inspect it, his gaze caught by the jewel. "The `Crown of Thorns', they called it. Did you know that Titus? It's a very particular piece of nano-metal that is actually integrated into the jewel itself. Starstone they call it, their making is long lost, a talent that disappeared along with its makers."

"Rom, you don't know what you're doing!" Titus was interested to perceive a note of uncertainty that carried in her voice. Captain Kari Baker was unsettled. Titus eyed Rom warily. Anything that made her nervous had to have some significance to her schemes. Titus mentally thanked Brice for his lessons in psychology. Good or bad, Titus wasn't sure yet.

"Did you know Titus, that when I purchased it, the original owners had no idea just what it was they were selling me." He smiled at the memory. "Even I find it hard now to imagine it as I found it. A hideous grey jewel set in a valuable looking piece of nano-metal. It was awful to look at. I felt sick to my stomach every single time I so much as glanced at it."

"Don't do this Rom" Kari said sharply, eyeing the deadly weapons with caution.

"Then you shouldn't have pressed me!" Rom yelled suddenly, the air ringing with the accusation. "You flaunted your trinket before me, as if to mock how blind I had been. What I had sitting on my doorstep this entire time, and I never saw. Oh, I know Baker. You've crossed me for the last time." The Adonian barked a laugh, "Irony, that's what this is. Dramatic, irony. After all, I'm supposed to be the one doing the double-crossing aren't I? But you forced my hand, knowing what it would be, but I do so hate to be predictable. After all, it's the predictable ones who always die first, isn't that so? So what am I supposed to do? Let you walk away, like you won? You haven't won anything yet."

"It's not like that Adonian! You're misunderstanding, Rom, dammit! Listen to me!"

When Rom took a step forwards this time Titus found himself backing up into a wall of flesh. Titus tried to whirl, but Freelaj grabbed his arms, holding Titus in place no matter how much Titus struggled. How had the other Adonian managed to get behind him so fast? He settled for shifting uncomfortably under his vice-like grip. Titus eyes started to ache from staring at the jewel. It was so bright it made his eyes start to water.

"I'm through listening Kari Baker. But have no fear, I always keep my word. I promised you I wouldn't steal him from you, and unlike you I always keep my word--even though I didn't know just what exactly I was promising at the time. It suits my purposes for the moment, so you can have him, but I think I'll mark him as mine if it's all the same to you."

"Justa...just what the HELL are you talking about" Titus yelled. They were speaking over him now, as if he weren't even present in the room. Titus wasn't sure exactly wasn't going on, but he didn't like this at all. Rom was somehow using him against Kari, in some power play he was making. Titus shook with frustration no matter how he rolled the Adonian's words over in his mind. They just didn't make any sense standing alone. There were pieces missing. Pieces to this bloody puzzle he had become embroiled in scattered somewhere off the playing field. And that was just damn UNFAIR!

Rom was so close, Titus could feel the Adonian's cold rage now, which seemed to melt slightly as he regarded Titus thoughtfully, his blue tongue nimbly darting over his sharp incisor teeth, a look of intense concentration in his eyes. "Truthfully Titus, the gem started glowing on the eve of the gala. Curious isn't it? I'll let your clever mind waffle over that for a while."

"I'm not stupid you know, I can see what you're doing."

Rom reached up and grabbed Titus' cheeks, hard between his long fingers, squishing his cheeks together. Titus growled in protest.

"Yes Titus, I'm using you. I know you're not as stupid as your blonde hair and cute little nose suggest, darling. But if you don't stop reminding me of how naïve you are, I shall get angry." His eyes were a swirling cloud of red and yellows, an emotion Titus couldn't quite figure out. His gaze bore into Titus, weighing. After what felt like an eternity, Rom released his chin and smiled, ruffling Titus' hair for his trouble as if nothing had happened. He leaned over and planted a delicate kiss on his forehead and leaned over to speak into Titus' ear. The scent of Rom, his unusual musk pervaded the air around him, until all he could smell was his sickly sweet aura.

"No matter where you go, no matter what you do, you will forever remember this moment, Titus. This is your day." He giggled softly, and planted another kiss on Titus' forehead. "All hail the prince" he said so softly, Titus wasn't even sure he had heard correctly. Then the Adonian raised the circlet up to Titus' forehead and lifted up his bangs up and out of the way with one hand, and clicked the glittering masterpiece just under his hairline.

Titus gasped as the cold metal made contact with his skin, and what felt like a jolt of electricity passed through his head, making his vision spin like it did after a particularly dangerous high speed manoeuvre. The metal didn't quite reach entirely around his head, instead, the nano-metal felt alive as it tightened uncomfortably for a moment, before settling snugly. Rom brushed Titus' hair over the circlet before he stepped back with a satisfied smirk reserved for the enraged Captain of the Pegasus.

"I'll kill you myself Rom, I swear it. You don't know what you've just done."

"On the contrary, Baker. I know exactly what I've done. Now, I wonder what you'll do? Ah, life is so very exciting!" Rom bowed once more, including all the assembled pilots in the gesture. "Always a pleasure. I do hope we meet again." One last wistful look over his shoulder, told Titus exactly who the Adonian was really aiming that comment at. The look was more of an oath than anything, and the man looked so confident, then he was gone: back into the elevator that whisked him away.

A wave of dizziness suddenly swept Titus' senses. The room seemed to brighten as the jewel on his forehead blazed as brightly as any supernova. Titus screwed his eyes shut with one last look at Kari and Dia as they rushed over to catch him before he fell, both cursing loudly.

Titus felt his knees hit the floor just as the two women reached him. Jeckle's voice joined them. One of his fingers was prying open an eye, ignoring Titus' protests. Vaguely he could hear the man speaking, but what he said didn't seem to make any sense. "It's started interfacing with his neural pathways already, I need to get him back on board the Pegasus immediately. I can't help him here."

"I'm finea..." Titus mumbled. Trying to push away from the arms that were supporting him. He didn't want any help! He was just fine.

"Will it pass?" That was Dia. She sounded anxious, and uncertain. Foolish. He was fine! What is it with these people? Titus kept asking himself.

"This wasn't meant to be put on the head of a human! It will kill him if I don't get it off him right now-"

"I said, I'm fine!' Titus repeated in a louder voice, his eyes springing open. He was resting in Dia's arms on the floor, the Captain and Jeckle were crouched beside, both with frowns while the other pilots looked on. Titus blinked rapidly, his eyes still watering as if he had stared up into the sun for too long. He pushed himself up out of Dia's arms. "Geez, it's just some stupid trinket-" His hands paused to run over the foreign object, the light seemed to be gone, or it was dim enough now that he couldn't see it. The gem felt warm against his skin, almost as if it had adopted his body temperature. He reached up to remove it but his fingers couldn't seem to find a grip on it, and it hung fast.

Three faces peered at him with wide-eyes, a strange look on each of their faces. Jeckle was blinking fast and rubbing his eyes, shaking his head and mumbling to himself. Dia was still, her hand reached up to touch his face, but she recoiled, wincing, her eyes glued to his forehead. And Captain Kari Baker was stock still, her eyes locked on his own. It was as if she were staring at a wild animal, unsure of which way he would jump. Would be bring out his claws, or collapse in her warm embrace seeking shelter.

Titus decided on the next best thing. He rose, shaking slightly, and the three other followed suit. "Ia...We need to get out of here. I cana...I can get this off later. For nowa...I need to get home." His voice soured, "I've had enough of these stupid games!"

Dia opened her mouth to protest, but Baker cut her off. "Load up. And for the last time, get Bryce down here." She looked over at Titus, then shifted her gaze to the white Wraith, waiting for him. "I'll ride with Titus, the rest of you can follow when you find Bryce."

"Like hell I'll let you fly alone. It'd be safer if we went in pairs" Dia corrected firmly, and nodded without hesitation to the burly lieutenant hovering nearby, "Archangel, you're flying escort. You're navigator and lead."

The sharp salute Archangel snapped her seemed distinctly out of character for the tough Lieutenant. He was eyeing Titus in a manner that made him all too uncomfortable. "Yes, ma'am."

"Are you alright to fly Titus?"

"When I say I'm fine, I'm fine! Freck, how many times do I have to say it?"

Dia rolled her eyes at him before she turned to confront a nearby tech. This day just needed to end. Preferably before Jeckt got his hands on him and skinned him alive. With the sharp pain that lurked behind his eyes, any sort of lecture would be the death of him.

"Archangel to Monkey, you're pushing the ceiling. Get back into formation."

Titus scowled out at the blurry shape of the Black Wraith plodding ahead of his own fighter. His vision still hadn't quite recovered completely, and the unfamiliar weight on his forehead was a constant reminder of the why he had a headache.

Navigating the coastal cliffs of the southern shores was boring. It was a wide detour to take, but it ensured that the fighters wouldn't be detected as they returned to the Eight-Stars Spaceport and the Pegasus. Archangel was keeping their speed to the bare minimum required to achieve lift. Titus' could feel the Wraith shivering beneath him as it struggled to stay aloft, urging him to open the throttle and let it outrun the wind that buffeted them from offshore, constantly threatening to throw them against the sheer cliff faces.

Titus flicked his comm. to the encrypted channel they were using. "Titus to Arch-bagel, could you repeat last? I seem to be stuck in a time-vortex, everything seems to be moving in slow-motion. I could swear a shorebird just passed me smirking to itself. Over."

"Lead to Monkey, get back into formation. This isn't a joyride. Over." Archangel's tight voice crackled in his ears after a pause where Titus imagined the burly man grinding his teeth, aware that the Captain was listening in to this conversation. Titus had been baiting him ever since they had left the hangar.

"I copy, Bagel-lead." Titus paused dramatically, then squeezed his voice and tried to make it as piercing as possible, "Bagel-lead, I am declaring an emergency! I don't think I can hold it any longer. I really need to pee. Please advise immediately."

"FIND A FRECKING CUP!" Archangel roared into the communications channel. Titus winced at the loud roar in his ears.

"And Kimmel put up with ten years of this?" Kari had regained her calm serenity during the flight. She was largely silent if a little tense, and when Titus turned around to eye her, she pretended to lounge in the co-pilot seat, relaxed to a fault, the corner's of her lips curling upwards as she gazed out at the rolling turquoise ocean. The beginnings of the sun was just starting to catch the tops of the white-caps that stretched to the horizon. The wrinkles of worry on her forehead had smoothed themselves sometime during the flight. That made Titus more than a little wary.

"This is nothing." Titus said and shrugged, turning back to narrow his eyes at the fighter he was tailing, "This is just the beginning. This guy is an amateur compared to Bryce."

"Should I ask him about it when we get back to the Pegasus?"

"Who, Bryce? You can if you want. Although I bet he won't tell you anything."

Kari sounded amused when she replied, "And why is that?"

Titus adjusted the yaw of the Wraith with a twitch of his wrist, determined to stick to Archangel's tail like a bloodsucking parasite. The Wraith seemed to follow his thoughts more than anything, it responded softly when he wanted and was a masterpiece to fly. Titus itched to try some high-speed manoeuvres in the atmosphere, to figure out more about how it handled. He settled twenty feet off of the Lieutenant's stern.

"It's still a touchy subject."

"Archangel to Monkey, are you trying to kill us both!? Request you put some space between us immediately." Titus smirked and nudged the throttle a bit, pushing his wraith into the other ship's slipstream. The vibrations stopped almost immediately.

"So? He picked you out of the year to pull pranks on, huh? What was the final score?" Kari seemed to be struggling to keep her laughter under control, it was quite the change from the furious commander not an hour past although she had almost a nervous edge to her mirth. Titus had forgotten that she had attended the academy herself, no doubt knowing about the war between Bryce and select pranksters. The thought was only secondary to Titus' musings. He couldn't stop thinking about Rom's words.

He called me a Prince.

"One hundred and twenty three to ninety eight." Titus replied, not quite forcing his voice to sound gleeful. "I set a new record. Although Bryce contests the score--claims I never made it past one-hundred. Said since I was there a lot longer than the other pilots, that technically I cheated to get such a high score" Titus admitted. He flicked on his communications channel again to broadcast when he was only a couple feet off of Archangel's tail and matched his speed.

"Titus to lead, my view screen is malfunctioning! Repeat! All I see is this ugly black plodding ass spewing blood out of its holes. Please advise!" Well, the way the engines glowed like that made that statement almost accurate.

"Dammit Monkey-shit. Back the freck off before you kill us both!" Archangel sounded frantic.

"Titusa...I know you're a good pilot but even my nerves can only take so mucha..." Kari had leaned forwards, her posture tense as she stared at the sight of the Wraith that filled up the front view-screen, her eyes following the flashing alarms of the proximity sensors with what Titus thought of as curious-horror.

Titus let the Wraith be pulled along, ignoring the Captain's request, for the moment.

"I don't like it. Not one bit" he said instead.

"The Wraith?" Kari Baker's voice was surprised.

"No, not that." Titus struggled to put words to his feelings. He was sick of not knowing what was going on. But the people around him were shut tight with vacuum seals! "I don't like how I have no idea what's going on anymore!" Titus fingers found the metallic bump on his forehead, and he ran his gloved hand along it until it seemed to disappear beneath his skin. "What is this thing anyways?"

She had been dreading this question. Titus heard her sigh and sink back into the rear co-pilot's couch. She let the silence creep on; when she spoke her voice sounded tired, worn out. "Do you trust me Titus?"

Titus snorted. "Why should I trust you?"

"Because I'm trying to look out for you, Titus. I know you don't believe me, but I am."

"By forcing me to come to a gun-dealer's mansion so I could get pawed all night?" Titus was incredulous. "Or was it so you could get your bloody wraiths?" He shook his head to try and clear his vision, which seemed to fog as his thoughts turned to his conscription. "Well, they're mine on paper you know. Rom gave `em to me. Not that that matters one bit to you, does it? I mean, you're a pirate aren't you? You steal things for a living."

A soft chuckle from behind him was quickly smothered as Titus whipped his head around. "What's so funny!?"

Kari shrugged, "I find it incredible how one so young and innocent, who knows nothing of the universe he's living in, thinks he knows everything."

"What's that supposed to mean? Is that just a clever way of telling me you think I'm stupid?"

"Actually it's a clever way of telling you you're ignorant."

"That's not my fault! No-one tells me anything!"

"Maybe you just don't ask the right questions."

Titus slammed his fist into the canopy. The sharp jolt was sweet relief to the frustration building up inside him. Titus let the silence breathe while he thought.

"Fine. Tell me why you brought me to the gala. All the reasons this time."

"All the reasons?" Kari's voice was amused. "Try narrowing it down a little. That might take months for you to understand. Even if I explained it to you, it would be like teaching a caveman how to write. He'd learn the symbols, but get lost in context."

"The way you twist words makes you sound like a politician, not a pirate." Titus said.

"That, Titus, was most likely your first exceptional observation of the day!" Kari said softly. "One man's pirate is another's freedom-fighter. It's all in who writes the news, now isn't it, Titus? Being a student of Kimmel's, I'm sure you know how propaganda works."

Titus snarled at her, furious at how dumb she was making him feel. "Of course I know how it works! You-"

"No, you. You are a victim as well Titus. You believed from the moment you saw my ship no doubt, that I was a pirate."

"Well, are you?"

Kari's sigh seemed to dim the interior of the cockpit, no matter how bright the rising sun was. "Would you even believe me if I told you I wasn't?"

Titus didn't even need to think. "No."

"Right. Exactly. And here comes the conundrum of trust. It all comes down to who you trust. Who do you trust Titus? Certainly not me, correct? So why bother asking me questions at all, if all I speak are lies? For that matter, why bother asking anyone anywhere a question. There is no such thing as certainty in an answer."

She was twisting words again, in a very familiar manner. She sounded like a female version of Kimmel. Titus was ready for this argument. "But if I ask enough questions, I'm bound to get the truth eventually, won't I?"

Kari laughed, "And there it is! The Essence of curiosity boiled down to the bones. So, care to ask a question of me again?"

"Why did you come to Dahlah Minor. There must be other better suited planets for repairs."

"I needed Rom's help."

"And that's why you needed me? To help convince the Adonian to help? If that's true, your stupid plan backfired!"

Kari was silent. But was the silence a refutation in itself, or a sign of guilt? Titus' headache began to worsen. He gave up that line of questions. His fingers touched his forehead again, exploring the strange nano-metal circlet. "Forget it. What is this thing anyways, and why did you not want the Adonian put it on?"

"That, you'll have to find out for yourself."

"He called me a Prince." Titus chuckled, "If I never see that freak again, it'll still be too soon." He tugged on the metal briefly, but if there was any space between his skin and the metal, he couldn't find it. "Thisa...umma...comes off right?"

"I know very little of the Crown of Thorns, Titus. You'll have to see Doctor Aphilibelle when we return to the Pegasus." Titus could feel her hands clutch his headrest abruptly, "But besides that Titus, if you get any closer to Archangel, I might throw up."

"Are youa...are you scared of flying Captain Baker?" Titus couldn't stop the impish grin that teased his face. This time there was no doubt the uncomfortable silence was a grudging admission. Kari Baker was human after all. The discovery startled him.

Titus shrugged and cranked back the throttle, dancing behind his wing-mate and then swooping below before settling back into formation again to stave off boredom. It was hard to get a sense for how the Wraith handled in the atmosphere at this low speed, but Titus had nothing better to do, other than think, but his head hurt too much. So far, he was more than impressed. For a space-superiority fighter, she handled reasonably smoothly in the atmosphere. The wings swung forward specifically for planetary manoeuvres: She was too heavy to ever truly be considered a grav-fighter, and she was sluggish at low speeds, but Titus had the feeling when the omni-directional thrusters kicked in at high speeds, she'd handle a lot smoother.

Kari swore loudly as Titus attempted a barrel roll that ended with him pulling up to decrease his speed as the wind caught the underside of the Wraith's wingspread, and he glided for a while with the throttle cranked down, losing altitude a little faster than Titus expected. Ok, so it was really heavy. It was a space fighter after all.

"Hmma...that gives me an idea." Titus mumbled to himself. The thought of making Kari Baker lose her supper in the cockpit was suddenly an attractive prospect. He goosed the throttle to pull up directly beneath archangel, and using the omni-thrusters, arced sideways and up until they were upside down parallel to Archangel's cockpit. The restraints dug into his chest as gravity protested--he had turned off the gee-dampener to feel the thrill of atmospheric flight. He waved jauntily when Archangel looked up and gave him the finger.

Somehow Kari had found a headset back there, she keyed into the encrypted channel, her voice had a strained edge to it. "Archangel, I'm declaring an emergency. Speed the freck up before I hurl all over the cockpit. That's an order!"

Titus grinned and slid stately back into formation.


"Pegasus control, this is Archangel, do you copy? Repeat, Pegasus control, do you copy? This is Archangel onboard Wraith Three, requesting tactical update." Archangel's lazy drawl crackled over the cockpit speakers. Something was wrong. According to Titus' calculations, they were well within communications range of the Eight Stars Spaceport, but so far, there was nothing but static on the other end.

A click indicated Kari had keyed into the comm. channel. "What do you think Archangel? Blanket jamming field from a C.P.V.?"

"Either that or they've gotten a hold on the planet's satellite network, that's unlikely though, we'll switch to active radar when we get closer and light up the area. If it's ground troops, they probably don't have any air support."

Titus eyed the readouts in front of him again that he had called up the instant their communications channel began to get fuzzy. They had switched to direct L.O.S. laser communications when the static started to interfere too heavily with the carrier waves of the Wraith's high-powered transmitters. Titus was fairly sure they could have easily jumped up the signals the Wraiths produced to cut through the interference, but that would have been like them setting off a couple of radioactive charges in the stratosphere to let whoever was operating the jamming field know where they were coming from. Kimmel had always taught back at the academy that surprise was half the battle--the rest was training and guts.

"That frecking Adonian made his move already." Archangel's voice crackled over the cockpit speakers.

Kari leaned forwards as Titus closed on Archangel's Wraith into a tight support position, slightly above and behind. "Titus? E.T.A.?"

The holographic three-dimensional terrain map he had called up emitted a small blue pinprick of light for their current location. He made a quick mental calculation. "Maybe, another two minutes until visual contact with the southern perimeter fence." Titus gritted his teeth as the urge to snap at her nearly overwhelmed him. But thoughts of Jeckt and the rest of his makeshift family kept draining his rage just when he was ready to explode. They had to be alright! Whatever frecking plot Titus and the other techs had been embroiled in would end, TONIGHT! Jeckt knew how to handle himself in a fistfight--so long as he kept his head down and didn't find himself on the wrong end of a plasma rifle he would be finea...they would all be fine! Fernald was an ex-Alliance marine, and Titus knew about the heavy repeater he kept in his closet. If they could just hold ona...

"Alright rookie, this is how we're going to do it," Archangel said quietly into the comm.. "I'll come in high, a couple klicks ahead of you, draw whatever anti-air fire they have. Mop-up whatever I miss and return to the Pegasus. She'll be the fallback position for our marines, and likely the most secure place to be in the Spaceport. The Captain's safety is your priority. Understood?"

Titus couldn't stop himself. He jammed his index finger down onto the comm.. button. "Messagea...received. But let's get one thing straight here. I couldn't give a Thisoar's ASS, what your priorities are. My priorities are the safety of my team!"

The Captain cut in, "Be rational Titus. Your tech team is likely sitting safe and sound inside my ship. You saw the land armour the Pegasus could deploy, she won't get overrun anytime soon. I have a feeling this is only an attack to attempt to delay us while a larger force gathers."

Titus shoved the control stick sideways, causing the Wraith to dance up onto its port wing and lost altitude rapidly, until he levelled it off only fifty feet above tree level. The uneven tips of the thick needle-green foliage flashed by in a blur beneath. "No offence Captain, but you can't order me to do-"


Something cold and hard was suddenly pressed against his neck through the fabric of his flight suit. "Titus. I've let you have a fairly free rein so far, but I need to get back to the Pegasus one way or another. If that means I have to kill you here and now, I will. This is not a game. If there is a Command Patrol Vehicle in the area, it means that the Pegasus has been found out. Who is rich enough to buy a C.P.V.? Think Titus! Not too many people. So that leaves us with three likely candidates: Rom, the Alliance, or the Imperiate. The last two don't have forces of Dalah Minor, so wake up!"

Titus straightened his back and got a fleeting look at the glint of the small dart-shooter pressed against the neck of his flight-suit. He swore loudly, "Are you serious? You're pointing a gun at me? Who the freck is going to fly this thing if you shoot me?"

"I'll manage," Baker said dryly.

"Everything all right over there Captain?" Archangel's voice, muffled as it was, had a worried tenseness to it.

"Fine Lieutenant, just fine."

"Yeah, just frecking fine, thanks for asking." Titus grunted into the transmitter, the gun still pressed to his neck. "Transmitting attack vector now, suggest you pull to 200 feet and follow that line in. The hill will give you some cover for your first pass. Increase speed to 115 ISS. I've marked probable C.P.V. locations on your map that would maximize the blanket jamming field."

There was a long pause, where Titus imagined the big man was flicking through Titus' attack run data. "Receipt acknowledged. Commencing attack run. Weapons are free. Try to keep up if you can Rookie, I'll show you how a real pro does it."

Weapons free. Titus had never liked that word. Every time he heard it his stomach wound up in knots, the small snack he had had at the Adonian's threatened to rear itself in half-digested glory. Titus flicked open the switch that would send power roaring into the Wraith's complement of Storm cannons. Deadly things, their high rate of turnover fire made them ideal for ground strafing.

"Its stupid. It doesn't make sensea...why would Rom give us Wraiths then attack the Pegasus with ground forcesa...unlessa..." Unlessa...

Titus hadn't realized he had been shaking. The pressure at his neck lessened slightly. "Pull it together Titus. You're trembling."

"You're not the one squeezing the trigger," Titus managed through a retch. He slowed the Wraith down and allowed Archangel some head as the black Wraith increased its speed and made it's turn further up into the mainland. The giant Dorcas Steele fence that surrounded the grounds leading to the Spaceport flashed past underneath. Titus was so close he felt like he could simply put out an arm and touch them. Kari's gasp was ever so satisfying.

The crackle of the comm interrupted Titus' fun. "My computer is picking up weapons fire near dock one--wait hold on. I'm getting readings of three small hover units, sending you coordinates. One pass, I'll take the two to the north, see if you can pick up the third, I won't be able to hit it on my run."

Titus frowned as he looked over the data. There were maybe two hundred men on either side involved in a firefight, the attackers were supported by three single-laser hover units: Generic attack vehicles mass-produced by arms manufacturers. They had the Pegasus' marines trapped in two of the massive hangars. The ceiling of one was half melted away from the hover units' assault. It wouldn't last much longer.

Titus took a deep breath. "Ia...I copy."

Thisa...this had to be done! They were attacking his home! The one place Titus was sure was safe. The place he had escaped to when he couldn't cut it as a merc. pilot. THEY HAD NO RIGHT! Hea...they had never done anything to these men! Theya...THEY SHOULDN'T BE HERE!

Archangel dipped behind some hills now that they had the locations of the mobile armour units to protect his sensor profile. Titus veered off the opposite way instinctually. They would cut across Dock One's tarmac without the hover units ever even knowing what had hit them. Two directions, two high speed passes, six Storm cannons ripping metal to molten shreds. It was hard not to think about what he was about to do. He was about to kill men. Men he didn't even know, who he had nothing against save they had attacked his frecking home!

Kari must have been reading his mind. "If you don't kill them, they'd do worse to my men down there--to Jeckt, or Reginald, even you if they could get their hands on you."

Yea, like I'm going to take advice from YOU! Did this woman never learn her lesson? Titus was plenty capable of justifying his own actions, he didn't need a big-headed Captain telling him what to do.

Before he was aware of what he was doing, Titus had killed his engines and used the powerful thrusters at his disposal to tilt his nose downwards, exposing the three barrels to a glimpse of the ground.


The weapons were screaming as they fired, a sound that you would never hear in space. A flood of unsteady yellow balls of pulsing light crashed into the reinforced duracrete foundation of the pad. Where they made contact the balls of light exploded in a strange ghostly burst of blue electricity, They dug into the foundation, sending deadly chunks of duracrete scything through the air. Too late Titus noticed that the attacking ground troops were using the heavily armoured hover units, their silver-grey armour glinted with rays of the early morning sun, as cover. It was fratricide to a stomach churning extent.

Storm cannon and hoverunit met. There was never any competition as to who would triumph. Titus held the trigger, his stomach giving a great heave as his guns found the startled unit, dimly aware of Archangel's identical criss-crossing attack run on the other two bunched hover units on the other side of the pad produced nearly a mirror result.

"May God have mercy on their souls." Kari Baker said softly, she had her face pressed to the side of the canopy, watching the giant armoured unit as it slumped, flames bursting out of gaping holes as the infantry tried to scatter. It was too late for that. The giant fireball shook the air, and Titus had to fight the stick as air currents rushed to aid the trio of giant fireballs in their final requiem to the dead.

Titus levelled off and turned towards landing pad number five, but not before a red light started blinked beside his HUD, and a sharp alarm buzzed the cockpit. "SHIT! Hold on!" Titus yelled, kicking the engines back on. The surge of the T-Grave drives pushed him into the padding of his seat. Titus heard a loud thump and a groan of protest from behind him. "Frecking missile lock." He rolled and looped upwards, "Oh no you don't!"

Titus flipped the switch for the chameleon system. There was no inward change, but the light abruptly blinked off as Titus finished his loop, and regained his bearing towards the hidden Pegasus. Monitors mimicked the now opaque canopy, showing Titus a nearly uninterrupted electronic view of what he'd normally see.

"Archangel this is Titus. I just got lit up by your moronic C.P.V. Feeding you the coordinates now." Titus craned his neck, fighting the nausea that kept trying to sweep away his senses. It was hard to see hidden as it was in the trees--the sprawling crawler had landed just beneath the top of the ridge Archangel had passed over, it's solitary missile turret vainly searching the sky for targets. If he had wanted to escape quietly, he should have waited until he was airborne to activate his turret, the idiot! It was a death sentence! By the telltale heat waves rolling up through the trees, they were trying to get into the air as soon as they could. Titus wasn't sure why they even bothered. A C.P.V. without air support was a sitting duck. Archangel was already on his attack run. They would never make it.

"Roger, I see it." He sounded rather disgruntled that Titus had spotted it first. "You're cleared to the Pegasus. Get the hell outta here Rookie. Leave the rest to the big boys."

A new voice crackled over the comm. "This is Wraith One and Two, coming in hot. Wraith Zero vanished off our radar. Is he down?" Titus craned his neck sideways, after a quick glance at his own radar screen and the two fast moving blips. In the distance two other black specs were just clearing the ravine, they were burning it by the long red trails visible even at this distance.

"No, Monkey is hiding under his chameleon system" Archangel said, just as Titus watched as the burly lieutenant's storm cannons started barking again. In the distance, trees and brush evaporated under the highly explosive plasma. Another fireball mushroomed into the sky, silently this time. Titus shuddered and turned back to his controls.

The cold weight of the needle gun was gone. A soft and warm hand replaced it. If Kari hadn't been squeezing his neck at the time, Titus wasn't sure he would have been able to tell the distance. "Nice shooting Titus. A lot of men owe you their lives."

Nice shooting. Yea, right. If what he had done was so great, why did it feel like someone was trying to turn his stomach inside out?

* * *

Titus had barely settled the Wraith on the tarmac before Captain Baker was already squeezing through the still opening cockpit, and sliding down the wing. A group of ten red and black clad marines, led by a familiar face met her.


Sergeant Garel snapped a salute while his men took up defensive positions around the Wraith. "After your flyby we have control of four of the docks. Mopping up operations in progress at docks seven and nine."

Titus slid down the wing, but didn't even earn a cursory glance from the barrel-like man. A small comm. was already in Kari's hand as she strode off. Titus fell in behind the guards, anxiously looking around.

"Marcus, have you sent out the recall signal?" The Captain was barking into the comm. at the X.O.

"Got it out before the jamming field went out. They're ten minutes inbound" the small raspy voice on the other end relayed. The Captain nodded to herself. "What the hell happened over there? This wasn't part of the plan!"

"We're moving to plan Beta. How soon can we lift?"

"Unknown! I can't get a hold of Briggs. Last I knew all was vacuum-sealed on the hull. Most of the turrets are in and we're still waiting for many of the internal systems to check out, but the scanners are down. It's a mess up here. I'm looking at a diagnostic panel that's missing its outer housing. The rest of the systems up here are about equally dysfunctional. If I had pilots I could send out a C.A.P. and get some recon, but other than that we might as well ready some white flares for all the combat systems that work."

"Use the Wraiths in the meantime. I'm on my way Marcus. Baker out." The Captain clicked off the small transmitter and shoved it into her breast pocket. She turned without slowing and motioned Titus to step inside her ring of plasteele. "Find out what can be done to get us in the air as soon as possible, we probably don't have much time."

Titus could only gape at her. "You must be joking! The internal systems weren't scheduled until the final week. They're a mess! I don't even know is Reg managed to get your new generators in yet. It's not ready!"

Kari thrust another transmitter into Titus' hands and shoved him towards the aft of the ship where a cluster of techs were working under the watchful eyes of a loose ring of armoured men. "Well, then I guess you have a lot of work to do. Don't let me keep you!"

Titus could only gape as Kari Baker's back vanished up the ramp and the security doors hissed closed behind her. Then he was running as fast as he could towards the distant techs, who were swarming the port nacelle.

"Who's in charge here?" Titus shouted as he ran up.

"Titus?" Jeckt's familiar voice barked out of the gloom.

Dread suddenly filled Titus. His feet slowed and stopped as he turned to face several men who detached themselves from the group.

Fernald was toting his heavy repeater over one shoulder, and his face was curled into a savage sneer. Jeckt spoke first.

"Just where the hell have you been Titus!?"

Titus shook his head, "Forget that! We are in serious trouble! Captain Baker wants to lift as soon as technically possible! She's been compromised by Seelakk Rom!"

"Is THAT where you were? Off gallivanting with the Pirate!?" Fernald's voice rang through the air above the noise of screaming welders and clanking spanners.

"Ia...I wasn't gallivanting. You don't even know what that means!" Titus said angrily to the ex-marine. "Besides, that's not the point! We need to get things done asap or else we're gonna be in a whole heap of trouble. And I'm not talking a couple of hover units, I'm talking something bigger! That was only a force to delay the Pegasus' lift-offa..." Titus voice trailed off, and his forehead scrunched. "Ora...that's what Captain Baker told me."

Fernald opened his mouth, but Jeckt silenced him with a jerk of his arm. The grizzled tech had thunder in his eyes. He looked like he wanted to tear out his grizzled beard. "No, she's right. If the Adonian is involveda...we're all in danger." He said, his voice heavy with anger. "I'm not gonna ask you why you're in a flight suit Titus. I'm not gonna ask you what happened. But you will tell me, just not now."

"Not nowa..." Titus agreed. His already queasy stomach gave another lurch. His longish hair seemed to hide the circlet well enough in the semi-darkness, he just made a silent wish that Jeckt wouldn't notice it until he could see the Pegasus' doctor to remove it. "Can it be done?"

Jeckt sighed and pushed Fernald towards the nacelle team. "Fernald, oversee the last of the repairs there, I've gotta go find Reg. Bloody old geezer got his comm. shorted out by a rogue E.M. field."

Titus fell into step with Jeckt as they hurried towards one of the Pegasus' many entry ramps. Several of the marines who had been listening intently to a comm. transmission, detached themselves from the defensive ring and fell into flanking positions behind Titus. Jeckt didn't seem to notice, but Titus did. It made him wonder.

The corridors leading to the main engineering section and the engine room were a disaster area. The metallic decking hadn't been replaced here yet, the panels were still scorched with dark carbon scoring from blown conduits. The conduits at least had already been replaced, they looked out of place--shiny silver wires and conduits amidst scorched wall panelling.

They heard main engineering long before they entered the huge double sliding doors. A cacophony of sound, shouting voices and the hum of machinery as techs dressed in both the spaceport's colours and the Pegasus' black overalls scurried around the room.

They found Reg and Lieutenant Briggs hunched over a console. When Reg's pitted face caught sight of them, he waved them over.

"Jeckt, Titus, come take a look at this."

Jeckt leaned over the console. From his vantage point Titus noted it was part of the Pegasus' sensor logs. The screen was blank aside from the normal blips of satellite's passing overhead.

"Reg, I don't have time for gamesa..." Jeckt warned.

"No games Jeckt, wait for it, watch grid 9-4-2-1, by the moon." Titus' sharp eyes almost missed it. A blip appeared for a fraction of a second, roughly one eighth the size of the small moon. It vanished off the screen so quickly he almost believed he imagined it.

"What the frack is that?" Titus wondered aloud.

"A ship?" Jeckt repeated absently, scratching at the growth on his chin.

Briggs' fingers moved like lightning over his console. He pulled up a graph with the sensor data. "That's what we thought as well, that why I went ahead and calculated the mass of the object. It's interesting, see? I took the data from the satellite network and cross-referenced it with our sensor data to give a frame of objectivity-"

Titus rolled his eyes as Reg waved impatiently with one of his gnarled hands. "What he means to say is, by our calculations the ship can only be either an Alliance or Imperiate class Battlecruiser. I hacked into the planetary network. The closest ship that fits the mass output recorded is the Alliance Battlecruiser `Syphillys'."

Jeckt swore loudly.

Titus started at the name. It sounded familiar for some reason. "Out of curiosity, who commands the Syphillys?" Titus inquired when no-one spoke.

Reg grunted as his fingers danced over the keyboard. He leaned into his screen and squinted as he read the data he brought up. "A Senior General Grolm. Why? What's it to yeah Titus?"

Titus swore softly, his lips compressed. General Grolm. The same general who swore vengeance against the Pegasus. Suddenly the reason Rom sent his own troops to delay the Pegasus' lift-off became clear. He had sold them out to the highest bidder.

Titus realized all three older men were just staring at him with wide eyes. Titus froze, his hand in the middle of wiping sweat from his forehead, his fingers resting lightly on the slim neurometal circlet. He let his hand drop quickly.

"Briggsa...BRIGGS! Let the Captain know what you found. Some E.M. field is interfering with communications. She needs to speak with you anyways." Briggs blinked and pointed at Titus' forehead a dumb expression on his suddenly slack features. Titus gave him a shove, "NOW Briggs."

Jeckt and Reg were exchanging glances and shaking their heads grimly. They were suddenly looking anywhere but at Titus, which only made him all the more uncomfortable.

"Well Reg?" Jeckt finally managed hoarsely. "What's the chance we can launch the Pegasus?"

"Launch!?" Reg seemed to regain his vigour as his brain shifted gears. "What have you been drinking Jeckt? About the only thing that's space worthy is her hull! Her systems are a mess. We're having trouble integrating this newfangled generator with all the old systems. It's all jury-rigged until we can sort through the systems one by one. She's just not ready, she needs at least another week on the pad!"

"Isn't there anything we can do?" Jeckt muttered.

Titus grabbed Reg's shoulder excitedly. "You're thinking too big. Pegasus doesn't need to leave the planet. I've got an idea."

Jeckt frowned, his face wary. "This isn't like your idea to supercharge one of our old skimmer's engine's is it? Remember how that turned out?"

Titus shook his head and grinned. "No, no! This is a better idea." He slid into the seat and started up the console Briggs had vacated. "Here's what I was thinkinga..."

Katrina's Corner

Yes, it was bound to happen. I have hijacked Dio's corner!

I have an important message for all of you today. It's about snails. Yes, I said snails. Oh sure, they're slimy, icky, they carry their homes on their backs, and their genitals on their faces. But, really! Did you know that when snails mate, the male often shoots the female with a deadly calcium dart? I say, as a member of the female species myself, I was not only shocked, but appalled at such crass behavior. Oh, granted. I have often wanted to stab my various gentlemen companions after a poor lay, but really, that's just too much. And what, may I ask, are the snail police up too during all this time? If they're as slow as the ambulance service around here it's no wonder the little buggers get away with a lay and stab! And they have the gall to call them 'love darts'? LOVE DARTS!? Perhaps I should go to the local hardware store and purchase a 'love hammer', or a 'love exact-o knife'. Yes darling, I'm cutting off your ruddy balls out of love. Honestly, I can't possibly understand why you're snivelling like that.

I ask you, what is this world coming to?

Sincerely yours,

Katrina - a concerned female snail activist

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