Volume I

The ship stood on end as he yanked back on the stick. To the outside observer it looked as though the sleek craft lifted it’s nose up into the air, mere feet above the landing strip, and then as he slammed the throttle forward a column of fire erupted from the wing-mounted engine nacelles and catapulted the craft straight up and out of sight so quickly that witnesses would have said it happened in an instant.

His instrument panel screamed out at him to stop the maneuver, but reeked of hypocrisy as his proximity sensors screamed at him to loose the missile that somehow managed to follow him through the break-neck aerial feat. Yanking the stick to the side and adjusting the thrust vector of the ship’s nacelles, Vin rolled the Neophyte’s Serendipity into a tight barrel roll as it careened at suicidal speeds toward the Martian cliff face. Checking his rear display he smiled against the G-force of the spiral, the missile was an older model fire and forget, which meant it was designed to exactly mimic its target’s movements.

Snapping his eyes forward again he eased the Neophyte out of the roll and onto its side jus tin time to scrape through the narrow crag in the face of the ruddy red cliff. With the twist of a knob on the throttle the nacelles changed direction again and he slammed the throttle forward once more. The ship’s air-frame groaned loudly in protest at the sudden change in direction but he paid it no heed as he readjusted his thrust vector once more and was sucked deeper into the acceleration seat.

The sleek ship catapulted upward out of the crag just feet ahead of the explosion of the missile against the face of the inner cliff wall. Arcing high through the Martian sky he let off the throttle and turned through a graceful pirouette before nosing down again and skimming along the ground back toward the landing strip.

“This is the last time I work with the Turrellie’s.” He said to the empty co-pilot’s seat as he eased the ship down to a gentle landing, sending a cloud of red dust up into the air around it.

Five minutes later he was suited up in his lightly armored pressure suit and checking the clip on his pistol. Finding the magazine full he slapped it into the weapon and slid it home in its low-slung thigh holster, then reached for his ace in the hole. The bolt caster was a relatively compact little weapon, about like the old sawed-off shotguns you saw in those ancient movies. Unlike its look-alike however, this weapon had a single barrel that was nearly as big around as his wrist. Hitting the release, the barrel dropped open at the breech with a solid click and he slid the two-pound, rocket propelled projectile home, and slapped the weapon closed again. Sliding the weapon home in the holster across the small of his back he activated his helmet and stepped into the air lock as it grew up out of his collar and sealed itself around his head with a subtle hiss.

The Neophyte’s air lock cycled closed again behind him as he surveyed the barren Martian landscape. Turning toward the front of the ship he could see the faint lights of the domed city of Hector in the far-off distance. Raising his arms he activated the holographic interface for his personal computer and tapped the control to dim his visor against the barely-filtered light of the far off sun.

“An impressive landing, as usual.” The voice broke harshly across him as it crackled through his comm..

Turning around he saw three suited figures standing behind him, all armed, but at ease. Their suites were newer models, but not armored as well as his was. If it came to blows he would have the advantage in the protection department, but they were all toting cyclic weapons in addition to their regular side arms. They had him trumped in firepower, unless he counted his ace, but that was a last resort.

Activating his line-of-sight comm. he tried to sound friendly. “Axel. Nice to see you alive and well after our last meeting.” He hoped the sarcasm was evident in his voice, the last time they had met like this, Axel had tried to ditch the cargo on him as the law had rolled in on the scene of their exchange.

“Oh, I made out alright. I always have an escape plan at the ready.” The man smirked through the visor of his shiny new pressure suit.

“So I noticed. And just for the record, I am only doing this as a favor to a friend. If I had my way, you’d be sucking exhaust fumes and choking on this crate of yours.”

“Now, Mr. Torres. That’s no way to treat a business partner. Surely you understand that there are no hard feelings over that little incident. Merely business.”

“Business my ass. You tried to feed me to the feds Axel, and you had better believe I took it personally. Now, you want to tell me about that little missile stunt?”

Axel grinned evilly at him through his shiny faceplate. “Just a little test to insure you still have the skills necessary to make delivery. The belt is not easily navigated under the best of circumstances.”

Vin felt his temper rising, he wanted to wipe the smug expression off Axel’s face. Briefly he considered inviting him on board the Neophyte just so they could scrape, but he’d rather be shot dead here and now than have that man on board his ship for any reason. “Don’t tell me my business Axel, the next time you fire a friggin missile at me I am going to shove it down your damn throat. Now where’s this crate? I have a meeting with some important people that I need to get to.”

Axel’s face turned sour instantly, one thing he obviously could not handle was an inference that he might not be important. “Now you listen here Torres…”

“No YOU listen.” Vin cut him off suddenly. “YOU need to get rid of this thing. No one else will touch it because they all know you are a cheating bastard. As it happens I know Lou pretty well and he asked me to pick it up as a personal favor to HIM. Now I could give a ‘tail about whether you live or die, in fact I’d sleep better at night if it were suddenly the latter, but Lou’s a friend of mine so I agreed to haul this for HIM. Not you. So where’s the friggin crate at?”

Axel took half a step forward as if he was going to attack, reflexively Vin’s hand dropped to his belt, ready to draw if he needed to. The other two men standing there suddenly had their machine guns at the ready and Vin opened his hands, palms facing them and away from his weapons. He didn’t want this to turn messy, he just wanted to pick up his fare and get away from here as quickly as he could.

Finally Axel seemed to get hold of himself and stood up straight, making a motion as though he were straightening out his lapels. The action was comical at best in his gleaming pressure suit. “It’s just over here.”

Vin looked past the trio toward the camouflage netting on the ground behind the Neophyte’s Serendipity. Under the reddish-brown net was a collapsible pressure tent and a medium sized, pressurizable metal crate.

“Great, get it on board so I can get the hell off this mud-ball.” He keyed in the security code on his computer and the loading ramp on the Neophyte’s aft hull trundled open, allowing access to the large rear cargo hold.

As the two other men loaded the crate into the Neophyte’s hold and tied it securely to the deck plates and wall, Vin watched their every movement, making sure they didn’t leave anything other than that crate on board. He had checked the tamper seals as they carried the crate past him and it showed no signs of having been opened since it was initially sealed.

“Such interest. You think I would do anything to jeopardize my own business?” Axel asked innocently.

“Axel, I don’t give a fark who is loading cargo onto my ship, they all get the same attention. And seeing as how you have already cut off your nose to spite your face in the ‘business’ world, it doesn’t seem like you really have that much to loose.”

Axel was quiet for a long moment as his men finished securing the crate and exited the ship’s cargo hold. As soon as they were clear, Vin signaled the ship to seal the hold and turned around to face Axel again.

“Alright then. Your box is as good as delivered. I expect this to be the very last time we see one another.”

“Why do you say such hurtful things to me Mr. Torres?” Axel responded in mock hurt.

“Because you tried to kill me, and I don’t like you.” He paused for effect, “at all.”

“All in the line of doing business my friend. Now you understand that this is cargo that is not to fall into the hands of the feds. To do so would destroy your reputation.”

Vin wheeled around on Axel, his finger raised and pointing at the other man accusingly. “Hey Axel. Do you see the big xenon sign on the Neophyte’s hull that says ‘greenhorn runner’?”

Axel looked at him questioningly for a long moment.

“Don’t frig with me Axel. DO you SEE the SIGN?!”

“I see nothing of the sort.” Axel finally responded, sounding a little harried.

“That’s because it ISN’T THERE!” Vin half shouted into the comm..

“Mr. Torres I wasn’t…”

“Shut up Axel. And get clear before I slag the lot of you. With the backwash from my engines.” Vin wheeled around and walked toward the air lock, cycling the door open as he approached it. He didn’t even look behind him to see if the trio was moving. As air cycled into the lock he used his personal computer to fire up the ship’s engines. His helmet was nearly retracted out of sight by the time he passed through the ready room, stowing his weapons quickly as he slipped through into the cockpit and strapped himself into the acceleration seat.

Ten seconds later the Neophyte was airborne and burning straight through the thin Martian atmosphere, headed out into space and away from the dusty orange ground and the two-bit gangsters there.

As the Neophyte’s Serendipity hurtled out of Mar’s local space and toward the far side of the Asteroid belt, Vin took a moment to relax, disengaging the seals on his pressure suit, he slipped the gloves off and set them on the control panel. He was half way through a good, long stretch when an alarm tore through the relative silence of the ship.

In a snap he brushed his gloves aside and punched up the display for the sensors that were in alarm.

“Frig! He shouted as he keyed in a sequence of controls that cycled air into the aft cargo hold. In a flash he was barreling down the hallway toward the hold, yanking his hand gun off the rack as he passed it by and jamming it into his holster as he reached the door.

“Friggin Axel, dumping some crap on me. I swear I am going to hunt him down and see that the feds get to have their way with him.”

The door hissed as it slid aside, permitting him entry into the chilly cargo hold. He slipped a portable scanner out of its charging cradle on the wall and slowly approached the mysterious crate with the device held out in front of him. The device chirped at him as he drew near the crate. Tapping a few controls, the device silenced itself and he inspected the display intently for a moment.

“Yep, no question, that ass has slipped some sort of active fusion power supply into this damn crate. Lou said it was supposed to be inert.”

He was accessing his personal computer, half way through keying up a comm. link to his friend when the portable scanner chirped again. Glancing down at the device his jaw went slack. The scanner was also picking up life signs from within the crate. He raced through a couple of screens on the device and eyed it suspiciously for a moment, there was no mistake, that crate had a person inside and their oxygen was running out.

“Crap!” He shouted at the crate. Pausing only briefly, he lunged forward and started tapping away at the control panel on the crate, trying to force it open. After what seemed like hours he finally gave up, drew his pistol and shot the panel which exploded into a spectacular array of sparks and light, but the seal on the crate remained intact. So he shot it again, then a third time for good measure. Finally the thing seemed to suffer a change of heart and the seal cracked open with a hiss.

Offering the crate a swift kick, the side fell open and the body of a young woman tumbled out onto the deck of the cargo hold.