The Kestrel hurtled away from the small space station at maximum throttle. The ion drives screamed in protest as Riana leaned on the throttle, trying to coax more out of the straining engines than they seemed wiling to give.

“You’re going to break something, Ree,” Willhelmina commented as she stepped into the cockpit from the staging area. She had dashed into the ship from the wounded station and Riana had cycled the airlock closed and bolted away from the facility as soon as she’d confirmed that Willhelmina was aboard.

Willhelmina had quickly pulled off her weapons and stowed them in the staging area and was now sliding into her seat. Her long, raven hair was pulled into a tight braid that hung to the middle of her back and her bright, green eyes inspected Riana suspiciously. Her athletic form fit the contours of the acceleration seat
perfectly as she pulled the harness closed across her body.

“I want to put as much distance between us and them as I can. There’s been enough death and destruction for the day.” Riana replied with a sour look on her face. Her own dark purple hair was pulled back into a ponytail that dangled down to the small of her back and her normally bright, violet eyes were dark and brooding. Her long, tapered, elven ears were swept back from her head, displaying a level of annoyance that seemed to be increasingly, and disturbingly, normal these days.

Willhelmina continued to watch Riana for a moment, then sighed heavily as she produced a small data crystal from one of her belt pouches. She looked at it for a moment before slipping it into the protective metallic carrying case and snapping the container shut, sealing the thing inside.

“What’s bugging you, Ree?” she asked as she smoothed some errant strands of her long, raven hair out of her face and secured it to the mass behind her head.

“Nothing.” Riana lied, keeping her violet eyes focused on the control panel to try and conceal the deception. But her long, tapered ears splayed out from her head, revealing her distaste for the situation and foiling her attempt at avoiding the conversation.

Willhelmina nodded at her friend. “Right. Nothing.” Her emerald eyes glared at Riana knowingly. Even without her elven ears to betray her emotions, Willhelmina had spent far too many years with her purple-haired friend to be fooled.

“I just keep wondering why we are doing this Kat. We aren’t couriers. We are some kind of special operations death squad or something. Running around and scooping up Xavier’s treasures and laying waste to anyone who gets in the way.”

Willhelmina sighed again as she poked idly at a few controls on the panel in front of her. “Ree this disc contains all of the source code for Kalijor. If anyone was to get hold of this they would be able to use it to figure out how Kalijor works and exploit any weaknesses in the system.”

Riana backed off the throttle a touch and instantly the engines sounded less like they were winding up to an explosion. Jabbing her index finger at the autopilot button, she spun her chair around to face her sister. “I understand that Kat, but it still doesn’t feel right. I mean how many people have to die? Will he ever be satisfied?”

Willhelmina turned to face Riana, folding her arms under her breasts and screwing up her face. “Ree, he may be cold, but he is not evil. He is trying to protect Kalijor, which is something I would think you, of all people, could appreciate.”

“I’m not sure of anything any more Kat. All I really know is that we are buzzing around the solar system at Xavier’s whim, breaking into places we shouldn’t be, to get things he says he has lost. I mean, he looses more stuff than anyone I have ever met before in my life! And why is it that every time we find whatever it is,
it is inevitably surrounded by legions of armed soldiers?”

“This is a cut-throat business Ree. And Solidarity has a corner on the market. They have for over one-hundred years now, and the competition gets tired of playing second fiddle.”

Riana raised an eyebrow at Willhelmina. “How can the Conglomerate allow this sort of activity? Shouldn’t they be protecting Kalijor since it is used as the medium for most electronic meetings and transfers? I would think it would be in their best interests to keep it functioning properly.”

Willhelmina shook her head, relaxing her arms a bit. “No, they don’t care. Even though Solidarity Online is ruling the field, there are others playing the game. The Conglomerate can use any of them just as easily, so they don’t really care who is running it.”

“So they are going to let us kill each other over it regardless,” Riana huffed, folding her own arms across her chest and slumping down into the acceleration seat a bit.

“They have a Darwinist philosophy about it, Ree. The system that is best fit to fill the void will be the one to survive. While some of what we do may be distasteful, it is necessary to keep Kalijor running, and we need to keep Kalijor running in order to keep Ezrina alive and figure out what is going on in there.”

Riana narrowed her eyes as she stared at some point on the wall over Willhelmina’s right shoulder. Her ears drooped down low in disgust at the situation. “Maybe. But I don’t have to like it,” she finally acquiesced as she turned back toward the controls and sat up in her chair.

“Twenty hours to The Tyconderoga. You want to have a bite to eat?” She spun her chair fully around and stood up as she spoke, moving into the staging area and finally setting about stowing her own artillery in the various racks and bins.

“Sure,” Willhelmina said as she unbuckled herself from her seat and moved into the area, squeezing between Riana and the bulkhead, on her way toward the tiny galley. Pulling a compartment open, she peered inside at the rows of foil-wrapped packages stacked up neatly in the various compartments, all labeled nicely so that they were easily identifiable by contents. “So, what’ll it be?”

Riana leaned over, peering past Willhelmina’s shoulder at the myriad of packets as she continued to unbuckle her combat webbing. “Um… Banana and beef,” she said as she straightened up again and stepped out of the combat webbing. She then set about inspecting the various straps and buckles for signs of wear or damage as Willhelmina stared at her incredulously. After a few silent seconds she looked up into her friend’s disbelieving face. “What?”

“I didn’t think anyone actually ate that stuff,” Willhelmina finally said, still staring at Riana oddly.

“I like it,” Riana said dismissively as she stowed her webbing on the hanger and turned back toward the kitchenette in time to receive the small foil packet. Tearing the top of the packet off with her teeth, Riana spit the waste into a receptacle in the wall and squeezed the base of the packet. A candy-bar sized chunk of dehydrated foodstuff slid up out of the packet and she bit off a chunk, chewing it thoughtfully as she stared at the weapon rack.

“Something else on your mind?” Willhelmina asked as she opened her own packet.

“I was thinking about catching the next Resonance show. She’s supposed to be on Earth Station next week,” Riana said around a mouth-full of banana-flavored dehydrated beef.

“You think she’ll actually be there? Or will she be broadcasting there from somewhere else?” Willhelmina eyed her food suspiciously before taking another bite.

“She’ll be there,” Riana said definitively, nodding to her dinner as if to reinforce her hope.

“And the visit wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain Captain would it?” Willhelmina grinned knowingly at her sister.

“Maybe…” Riana cast her gaze on the floor, ears splaying out and flushing red. “We haven’t had a chance to get together in a couple of months now. I miss him.”

“I bet you do!” Willhelmina grinned knowingly.

“It’s not like that Kat.” Riana looked at her sister out the tops of her eyes.

“Well if it isn’t, then it should be.” Willhelmina grinned even wider as she returned to her meal.

On to Chapter 3