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FTL travel has existed for a little over one hundred years, allowing exploration and conquest of planets and systems within three hundred parsecs of earth. The Federation of Aligned Worlds has replaced the failed United Nations but lacks the power to govern. Reminiscent of the old six sisters who ran mass media two centuries earlier, six conglomerates effectively control space. The new conglomerates are deadlier and much larger. Over one thousand planets, moons or asteroids had been colonized, mostly for commercial purposes. Mixed among these are a few religious groups who somehow managed to get transplanted and form havens for those of a like mind.
Commercial interests vie to do business following the standard adage that money knows no sovereign boundaries. Each conglomerate strives to be independent, each must provide its own security and all have professional Marine, and Naval forces. Those interested in conquest have standing armies. The cost of space travel and colonization is so high collaboration is the order of the day. Security alliances, like commercial associations do make for strange bedfellows.
And then there are the renegades and pirates. They rule by terror and no one is immune.
The problem of FTL communication remains unsolved. Messages travel no faster than the fastest space ship.
White Mining Corporation (WMC), one of the first companies to venture into deep space, claimed planet, Saragosa Prime, in the Vega region on the edge of the Galon Sector. It fell to the grandson of the founder to make good on promises to give Saragosa Prime political freedom.
Winner White IV has a reputation for keeping his word. Once he decides to dosomething, time is the only factor in doubt. He matured in the cunning world of a fighter test pilot and Navy SEALs. However, being the new head of smallest of the Big Six conglomerates, he's found little peer support and even less respect.
Winner White tried to sort out his emotions. Fired as CEO of White Mining but still head of the Navy, Marines and Security, he cleared the perimeter guard post and stopped at the spaceport terminal. Standing under the curved canopied entrance half a dozen people waited for his arrival. As Commander-in-Chief, (SCIC) and heir apparent, he still carried one hell of a lot of clout.
"Mr. White, I am Fenn Ashcroft, Captain of the Galactic Star. I serve at your pleasure."
Winner nodded, returned the salute and extended his hand. "Captain, we should have met sooner. I owe you an apology."
Ashcroft smiled. "Sir, may I present my Executive Officer, Commander Clayton Davenport."
"XO," Winner said, returning the salute and again extending his hand. Thirty minutes later, he boarded the shuttle for Galactic Star--once a cruiser but now recommissioned as a passenger liner.
Winner waited for the all clear to enter the shuttle. He had read the performance data on Galactic Star that Ashcroft earlier sent him. Half out loud he said, "Registration: Galactic Star; fleet name: Galactic Star; Id number three-eight-two; empty weight/mass, one million, one hundred fifty-five thousand ton-mass; Width, three hundred meters; length, one thousand meters; height (excluding externals) two hundred seventy meters."
Ashcroft looked impressed. "Guess you weren't too busy in the executive suite to learn about the pride of our fleet."
"What about armament and hyper drive?" asked Winner.
Ashcroft nodded. "Sixteen energy canons; Twenty-four torpedo tubes; Thirty eight short range photon turrets and forty fighters; rated speed high end of Eta band; Th. possible"
"Does the Th mean what I think it does?" Winner asked.
"Probably." The captain smiled. "If you're thinking theta band. The ship's structured to that speed."
Winner was impressed with Ashcroft's recitation. But then, a good captain should know every asset he has available.
"However," Ashcroft continued, "the touring passengers will not see or know of any of this. All of the tourist facilities and areas are unquestionably civilian, even to the dress code for the crew that serves them. But, once into the crew only area, Galactic Star is still a warship."
Winner smiled. Even the banks didn't know Star had remained battle capable. He'd made every effort to keep the true nature of the ship quiet. It seemed to have worked to perfection.
Winner changed into his full dress whites. He'd been through enough of these sideboards to last a lifetime but this one was different. The passengers expected to see the full pomp of the CIC boarding. Most didn't know he'd been relieved as CEO and probably could care less.
Three months later, Winner hunched down in the alley next to a mountain of rotting garbage. Destruction littered the streets with the gaps between buildings almost impenetrable. What had been the magnificent skyline was now laid waste, burning and smoldering, a victim of space bombardment.
His fists clenched at the foul nauseating sweet smell of death that mingled with the sulfur-tainted air. On the run for two days, tired, sleepless, wet, hungry, thirsty and dirty, his aching, bloody body cried for relief. But his body's suffering was only a small part of the pain. He had betrayed the trust of the people of Saragosa Prime.
Zed Bartok's forces occupied the planet, all due to Winner's failure to prepare for such an eventuality. Most of the commercial buildings, once the proud Saragosa City, lay in ruin or abandoned. Bartok's soldiers and mercenaries patrolled the streets, hunting for the few who dared resist.
Winner told himself he had to survive. Under Bartok's rule, Saragosa would never gain the independence Winner had promised the citizens. Certainly none of the other conglomerates cared whether Saragosa remained free or fell captive to corporate interests. Survival, however, would be a challenge. Winner had to get his hands on a weapon. So far, the smallest enemy group he'd seen was a six-man squad.
Cautiously, he maneuvered a large trash filled box in front of a hollowed out area and made his hideout. Night was already descending. The air reeked with the stench of three days of death and destruction. It stifled other odors and clung to him like a greasy film. Fumes rose from the putrid debris, mocked his mind and made worse the haunted days on the run. He wanted to vomit but he'd not eaten. If he didn't get food and water soon, starvation and dehydration would do what his enemies hadn't. He needed sleep. Constant running and hiding left little time for finding food or a safe place to rest.
Slowly, the sun crept lower. Winner, exhaustion almost complete, needed to get out of the city and to find friends. Nothing else mattered if he didn't get some distance from those who wanted him dead.
After three days of killing and destroying, Bartok's drunken soldiers looted the city.
Winner crouched in his hideout, ready to flee or fight although both would bring the same end. He couldn't believe that his decision to grant democracy and an elected government to Saragosa Prime had prompted the invasion. Bartok was a renegade businessman who had earned the reputation of taking what he wanted. Saragosa's entry into the deep space protein market threatened Bartok's corner on that business. That was probably all the reason the bastard needed, but the bankers and the other conglomerates probably looked away because they feared the example of an independent planet.
Bartok's field commanders ordered daily public executions. Resistance of even the most remote kind meant quick death. Every soldier or mercenary was judge, jury and executioner. The cities, highways, mines and processing plants were firmly in the hands of Zed Bartok's troops.
Winner wondered if Bartok had enough force on the ground to take the mountains and wooded foothills that stretched from the outskirts of Saragosa City to just short of the mines, three thousand kilometers away. He'd have to make his way to the hills in the north and find out.
He jolted awake, pushing his matted black hair from his face. "Damn."
As tired as he was, sleep was no longer an option. He reached for his wrist searching in vain for his chronometer, and then cautiously stood to see what had awakened him.
Nothing moved in the darkness.
Maybe the disturbance was his sub-conscious mind trying to keep him alive--a lesson his conscious mind needed to learn in a hurry. He was as close to dying as he'd ever been. As a Marine and test pilot, he'd faced death for seconds at a time. Now, though, it was his constant companion.
Being one of the wealthiest men in the universe didn't help him a bit right now and did nothing to sweeten the foul smell that permeated the air.
Finally, the sound came again--a soldier's boot squeaking.
Then the sharp command of the guard standing in the shadows shed by the corner streetlight pierced the quiet night, "Get you ass over here."
He watched from behind the pile of trash.
At the alley entry, not twenty meters away, a beggar faced his interrogator. Lighted by the soldier's flashlight and a dim street lamp, Winner thought he recognized the slender outline of the young scientist, Phalen Derka, whom he'd met shortly after his arrival on the planet. His dark lithe slender body, anything but fragile, reflected Indian genes. His name was the product of an Irish mother and Indian father. Disguised as a crippled beggar, the man dragged a lame leg, asked for a handout and offered a twisted hand that looked more like a claw.
"Get away from me you spastic bastard. And get your crippled ass off the street. If I see you again, I'll put you out of your damned misery." Using the butt of his laser rifle, the heavier, taller, body armored clad soldier shoved the beggar.
Winner watched as Derka hobbled aside and the guard went on his way. Could he get Derka's attention without giving himself away?
The young man gathered his ragged clothes about him and turned up the alley. Winner's pulse quickened as the scientist pushed toward him, past the mounds of trash.
His whisper brought the young man to a halt.
Doing nothing to show alarm, the would-be beggar scrounged in the trash. "Who is it? Where are you?"
"Over here. To your left." Winner stayed covered, waiting to see if their actions attracted unwanted attention.
He watched until the young man was almost next to him. Satisfied they were alone, he stood.
In an excited whisper Derka said, "Mr. White! Finally! We've been looking for you."
Winner felt a momentary sense of relief. At least there was some organized resistance on Saragosa.
The young man continued. "Quickly, follow me. We must get out of the city."
In one stride, Derka shed his assumed physical defects and started a slow run down the alley toward the street, Winner close behind. As they moved down the passage, Derka pulled night-vision goggles from the backpack that moments before, had been a part of his hunchback disguise.
Each street crossing offered to expose them. Phalen halted at every intersection and cautiously inspected the area, often waited out passing squads of drunken soldiers and mercenaries.
Exhausted as he was, Winner found the strength to keep pace with the young man through the darkened narrow passages. In less than an hour, they reached the outskirts of the city.
The terrain changed to hills, trees, narrow arroyos and rocky slopes as Derka sought out hidden paths. Winner labored to match his young advocate's strong pace.
They climbed the foothills for over an hour and then rested in the crags.
Derka gestured at the low shrubs that provided what cover was available. "Looks like some of the terraforming the company did over the last hundred years is paying off."
Winner nodded. He was thankful that effort, never meant to provide sanctuary for fleeing citizens, now gave him shelter and maybe saved the lives of people, including his.
Derka soon had them on their feet and moving, hour after hour.
Just as it seemed they'd never stop, he abruptly halted, stood silent among the boulders and waited until their breathing slowed. No breeze passed through the trees, but the cool night air made the exertion tolerable. The faint glow from Luna I lighted Derka's face--another hour would pass before Luna II would break the horizon. He placed a finger over his lips and listened intently.
No sounds betrayed the silence. Saragosa was home only to a few imported animals--those brought from Earth over the years. Only a cross between the Texas Longhorn and range Buffalo had proven capable of withstanding the rigors and diet offered by the planet's native flora.
Peering through his night goggles, Derka surveyed the surrounding area. Satisfied they had gone undiscovered, he motioned Winner to follow and a few minutes later stepped between two rock outcrops. The collapsed boulders created a tunnel opening into a hidden natural passageway. Over one hundred meters into the hill, it opened into a large dank, musty smelly cavern. In the dim light of electric lights strung overhead and above on a ridge that ran the circumference, Derka faced a small group and announced, "I found him."