Friday, October 06, 2006

Yon Lonesome Road: Chapter 2

They were gathered in the lounge again, the whole crew, listening intently as the message repeated itself.

“This is the HMS Ob… ash landed on the fourth planet, Darkon system… calling any Imperial vessels within range. We have many in… nd require assist… Any Imp… ease resp… This is the HMS Ob…”

“Oz, can’t you clean it up a little?” Glenn asked, leaning forward. “There’s barely anything to hear there.”

“I am cleaning it up, Mate,” Ozymandias replied tartly. “When I started, you would not have heard anything over the static. It is not just interference, it is deterioration. Captain, this signal is old, old indeed.”

Hawke frowned at that. “Old? How old could we be talking, here? A hundred, two hundred years? When was the last time the Empire was out this way?”

“It is Imperial all right, Captain, but I don’t think it is Second Empire.”

Ozymandias paused and let it sink in before smugly finishing. “I do believe it is First.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then everyone began to speak at once.

“That’s impossible! How could a First Empire distress beacon still be broadcasting a thousand years later?”

“Solar powered, probably; it would put itself into stasis whenever its receptors were covered, until the next sandstorm or earthquake exposed them again. You would be amazed at how long the lifespan of such things can be extended.”

Hawke reached out and snagged the nearest chair, rubbing his beard as he sat. A First Empire ship? Here? The possibility was astounding, the prospects for salvage awe-inspiring, and the risk - assuming they could get off the planet and try to market any of it - terrifying. First Empire technology was rare and valuable, and the intersystem governments of the Second Empire and the Allied Union were quick to stomp on any independent traffickers who tried to peddle it. Standard operating procedure in this sort of situation was to hold back and call the nearest Fleet base; the captain who did so might receive a perfunctory thank you, possibly a small monetary reward if the find was major and the commander in charge generous - but at least he wouldn’t lose his ship, which was the least penalty incurred for plundering a First Empire find.

Of course, SOP only applied when the situation was normal. Stranded as they were, he didn’t see where looting another crashed ship would be of much use, save where it could assist them in getting off this rock. He said as much.

“True enough, Captain,” Ozymandias was quick to agree. “But we will need something to pay back Rigeling when we do get back to Camelot Station, and what better than a hold full of First Empire relics?”

“What do you mean, pay back Rigeling?” Hawke’s eyes narrowed and he straightened in his chair. “What do we owe Rigeling for? We’ve got already got a hold full of his crazy gizmos, Oz, the man’s supposed to be paying us.”

“Ah…” It was Elise who responded, hesitant and blushing beneath her thin fur, and Hawke just knew he wasn’t going to like what came next. “About that, skipper…”

What it came down to, was that Deckard Rigeling’s mysterious mechanisms - whatever it was they were supposed to be, or do - had begun their existence as perfectly ordinary Tanchiwa Industries maneuvering thrusters, the rock solid JR1-31 line as a matter of fact - older than the burned out models currently gracing the Lonesome Road's hull, but replaced easily enough. It would, of course, take some work to get them back to their original function, maybe even some parts would have to be scavenged from Lonesome’s old maneuvering thrusters, but certainly easier than trying to repair the old ones with nothing.

“Didn’t you save our old Flux 95s?” Glenn asked curiously. “I could have swore I saw them on a manifest a few weeks ago.”

Elise made a sour face. “Somebody seems to have misplaced them during one of our cargo operations. They’re not where I left them. Those JR1-31s are pretty much our only option.”

Hawke wouldn’t hear of it.

“No, absolutely not, a thousand times no! This is Deckard Rigeling we’re talking about here, remember? The retired mob boss turned crazy inventor? We double cross him, we’re dead. Worse than dead.”

“C’mon, Cap.” Glenn had to smile. “It’s not like he can do anything worse to use than stranding us on an empty planet to starve to death.” As Hawke scowled at him, Cynthia stepped forward to back her husband up.

“Seriously, John. One way or the other, the man’s not getting his cargo; either we use it to get our asses off this hellhole, or it rots here with us. At least this way, he’s got a chance of getting some of his money back, maybe even a profit.”

“Which is where this other wreck comes in,” Tommy said quietly. “Right? You two want to go poking around a First Empire ship, see what shiny things might come to eye.”

Cynthia and Glenn traded looks, then shrugs.

“Well, yeah. I mean, something like this, coming out of nowhere and all - might say it’s fate, right?”

“Yeah, fate like my ship falling out of the sky.” Hawke spat. “I don’t like this. Our reputation is pretty much all we’ve got out here - never broken a deal, never lost a cargo.”

“Shit happens, Cap.” Glenn said gently. “First thing I learned in the military is how to roll with the punches. Like the lady said, if there’s anything worth picking up on that wreck, might be we can make the man happier than he’d be with his original batch of gewgaws.”

Hawke groaned and put his head in his hands. “Here we are again, stuck between the devil and pitch black space.”

Elise patted his shoulder sympathetically.


“First things first,” Hawke said. “I’m not going to go up to the man they called the Bloody Handed Dealer and tell him we used his stuff for fixits the moment things looked sour for us; might be we can fix the thrusters on our own, maybe an electrical problem. Might be we’re well and truly shafted, and if that’s the case, well, now we’ve got ourselves a back up plan. But the first thing, before we go gallivanting off busting crates or digging up thousand year old pieces of space junk, is getting the Lonesome Road up where we can fix her. Glenn had a good idea earlier, digging down the side of the crater we’re stuck in and using the Rambler, maybe the Wild Cat too, try to tug her back up to solid ground. It’s the best thing I’ve heard yet, so unless someone else has a plan that doesn’t involve closing our eyes and wishing hard as we can, I think we’re going to go with it.” He looked around the lounge, but nobody spoke up. He continued.

“Soon as we get that done, I want Elise, Glenn, and Cynthia to look over the damage, see what repairs we can start. Meanwhile, Kate, Tommy, and I’ll take the Rambler, go check out this crash site. Everyone’s being mighty optimistic about finding our fortunes on that thing, but we’ve got to keep in mind that there might well be nothing left but that stupid beacon. That’s a risk I guess we’re going to have to take, but there’s no point in getting our hopes up here.” He shook his head. “Oz, how far away is that thing, anyway?”

“Fourteen point seven-two miles, Captain, give or take point three miles.” Oz said helpfully. “As close as I can tell, of course.”

Everyone turned to look at the tiny screen where Oz’s avatar blinked back at them with a puzzled expression on his digital face.

“You mean we’re right on top of the damned thing?” Hawke said levelly.

“Why… yes, I suppose you could put it that way. That is probably the only reason we are receiving its transmission at all.” The AI hummed to itself for a moment, then added, “The signal is quite intermittent. I would imagine that the vessel, given how long it has been here, is underground; buried beneath the salt and sand. Of course, given that we have already discovered one sinkhole, it is not inconceivable that they might have fallen afoul of a similar one.”

“Well, that sure livens things up a bit,” Glenn quipped. Hawke rolled his eyes at him, and the first mate shrugged. “Just callin’ ‘em like I see ‘em, skipper. Guess we should bust out the shovels; digging the Lonesome out of this hole is going to keep us occupied enough for the next few days, even if we work in shifts.” He tapped his jaw in thought. “Well… if Elise can get the cargo lifter working again, that might help speed things up.”

“You never did tell me how you managed to bust that leg clean off,” Elise said with a scowl, folding her arms across her chest. Glenn’s most charming smile bounced futilely off her fierce stare. Hawke waved his hand for their attention, and made a settling motion once he had it.

“Time enough for bickering later, folks. Elise, can you fix the lifter or not? Glenn’s right, the exoskeleton will make digging a hell of a lot quicker and easier.”

Elise frowned in thought. “Well… I won’t be able to get it as good as new, not without replacement parts and a full mechanic’s shop. I was waiting for us to hit Camelot before I even tried to patch her back up - that’s some major damage this lunkhead put on her, and no mistake.” She scowled at Glenn again, and Cyn smacked him lightly on the arm. “But I’ll see if I can’t get something temporary put together, since it’s not like we’ll be moving ten ton cargo crates around.”

“Alright, you get to it. As for the rest of us, well, let’s do what the man said; bust out the shovels, get to work.”


It was hard going, and even after Elise managed to get the cargo lifting exoskeleton functioning it still took them the better part of two days, working from dawn ‘till dusk and long after with the help of flood lights. With the Lonesome Rambler pulling, and ship’s maneuvering thrusters and main engines barely humming, they managed to tug her free of her sinkhole and onto higher ground, then deployed the landing skids to slowly push her back to her feet again. When he saw the damage to the bottom of his ship, Hawke had to groan - she hadn’t taken many more holes, but it was easy to tell that the docking thrusters, vitally important for take off and landing, were shot. Elise simply shook her head mutely when she saw them, and Glenn stomped off, cursing - it was obvious that they would need complete replacement, not just the light repairs they’d all been secretly hoping for. It looked, as Hawke overheard Kate muttering to Tommy, like they’d been burned from without, as if some hideously accurate enemy had sniped out their thrusters upon entry. More likely it was just a matter of their heat shields failing, causing them to burn up in re-entry.

The alternative was simply too terrible to contemplate.

With a few choice oaths she’d overheard from Glenn, Elise got to work, moving stiffly but gracefully in the heavy gravity. She preferred a soft suit rather than the armored hardsuits the rest of the crew wore, for they were less restrictive - they were also less protective and had less features, lacking the lights, EVA safety cables, and other sundries the crew took for granted. Before he boarded the Lonesome Rambler, Hawke admonished Glenn and Cynthia to keep a close eye on her.

“Relax, skipper.” Glenn slapped the older man on the shoulder. “You’re going to have enough to worry about as it is. We’ll keep things running smoothly here.”

The crash site was close enough to take the Wild Cat, but Hawke nixed that idea at once. The four-wheeled ATV might prove useful to the repair crew, dragging the heavy crates of machine parts out to where they could work with them, and they’d already discovered one sinkhole the hard way - no need to risk falling into another. The Lonesome Rambler zipped them across the intervening miles in a matter of minutes, and it was with some disappointment at the anticlimactic sight awaiting them that they reached the coordinates Oz had given.

“Well,” Kate said gloomily, looking down at the unmarked stretch of salt and sand below. “We knew the damn thing was probably buried.”

“Great,” Tommy grinned toothily, stretching his hands - both real and gleaming prosthetic - and clenching them into fists. “More digging.”

“The damn thing can’t be that far below the surface, if its solar panels were exposed.” Hawke said bracingly. “It shouldn’t take us long to reach.”

“Be nice if we could just set some explosives, call it a day.” Tommy looked wistfully out the window.

“Yeah, but you always want to use dynamite on everything.” Kate adjusted the controls. “I’m going to bring her down, maybe the dust off will clear some wreckage or something.”

“Well, try to leave us some breathing room, Kate,” Hawke said, leaning over her shoulder to peer at the salt flats below. “We don’t want a repeat of that last fiasco.”

“Teach your grandmother to suck eggs, cap’n,” she muttered, maneuvering the Rambler into a close hover. Sure enough, as they came down they could pick up a glint of reflected light from metal barely protruding from the sand - some sort of mast, most likely, a stable platform for sensors and communications antennae. Much of it had been worn away by the constant wind, which laden with sand and salt had acted like a sandblaster, leaving what remained pitted and dull but remarkably intact. Then again, Hawke thought, without oxygen there was no oxidation, and little worry of the material rusting away - assuming, of course, that it was even subject to rust. The First Empire had reached near-mythical status in the eyes of most modern folk, and it was widely held that their ships were indestructible. Hawke didn’t buy it; he’d been around the galaxy a time or two, and damned if he’d seen anything indestructible in that time. Besides, if th bloody thing was so invulnerable, and First Empire technology so superior, what was it doing buried on a cold, deserted world while his own Lonesome Road was even now being repaired and prepped for escape?

“Not so superior after all, are you?” He murmured to himself.

“Beg your pardon?” Tommy blinked at him. In the dim lights of the shuttle’s cabin, he looked sallow, pale and drawn. His cybernetic arm clicked as he touched each finger to the thumb, pointer first, then repeated the process after reaching the pinky. The golden prosthesis was skeletal, delicate, almost insect like; it gave Hawke a pause every time he saw it, though he did his best to keep his expression plain. Tommy hated the bionic appendage, hated it with a passion that knew no bounds, and yet what use was there for a one-armed gunslinger in the galaxy? Or, for that matter, a one-armed anything? Neural regeneration was a thing for myths and stories, so it was accept the prosthetic - rumor said it was a present from the mysterious Doctor Death, for services rendered in the distant past - or retire.

And anybody who knew Tommy knew that the man wasn’t about to give up so easily, not so long as he still had one good arm left.

“Nothing, Tommy.” Hawke grinned ruefully, stepping over to where his own hard suit hung, waiting. “Just talking to myself.”

“Sign of a failing mind, sir.” Kate said primly, unbuckling herself from the pilot’s chair. Tommy grinned at that before turning away and looking over his suit, checking to make sure it hadn’t developed any abrasions or holes since last he’d worn it, on digging detail. SOP said that as long as they were in an inhospitable atmosphere, they should wear the suits on the shuttle, but Hawke had let SOP slide, just this once - hardsuits grew uncomfortable quickly in close confines, and they’d been wearing them more often than not while digging the ship out, only removing them for a few short hours of sleep. They’d even taking to eating in them, since ration packs could be loaded into the back, automatically pureed and compressed by the suit, then distributed from a feeding tube in the helmet. Hardly the most appetizing way to get one’s daily calories, but then, the bland rations were hardly the most appetizing thing in the galaxy anyway.

There was enough room in the shuttle’s cargo bay for all three of them to get outfitted without bumping into each other, and they took advantage of the space - stretching, each with their own particular ritual before donning the suit. Tommy studied his minutely, methodically, examining each individual component before donning it, making sure that his lights and EVA cord were functioning properly, checking the levels of food and water, making sure that the waste packs had been emptied and cleaned. Hawke did much the same, but quicker - his suit had become like a second skin to him by now, and he could tell when something was wrong with it by now simply by feel.

It was an older model than the others, but that was no surprise - he’d carried it with him from his first ship, his first days in the Fleet as a lieutenant j.g. aboard the battered old cruiser Perilous. The ship had been holed in action against the Swarm, lost atmosphere early on - the crew had spent almost a month in their suits, fighting a running battle across three systems. Perilous had gone to the scrap yards after that battle, and Lieutenant - senior grade now - Hawke had gone on to his next ship, keeping his hard suit with him for luck. The battered suit now seemed more patch than original material, but he kept it as clean as he could, still brightly painted in Union blue and white, though the rank insignia had long since been removed.

Kate’s on the other hand was almost brand new - as ship’s pilot, she seldom had reason to go EVA, and her suit still creaked as she shrugged into it, quick and dirty. She was ready minutes before the other two, antsy and bouncing as she waited impatiently for them to finish their system scans. Her suit was all bright colors, hot pink and red and blue swirled together in crazy, apparently random patterns and slashes across it - she and Elise had taken a couple cans of paint to it a while back, making an artistic statement to the accompaniment of angry girl bands. Hawke thought the bloody thing was an eyesore, but was too diplomatic to say so - after all, it’s not like he had to wear the damn suit.

Not that it would fit him, anyway - Kate was a petite woman, to be polite, barely topping five feet and as sleek as a hunting panther. Her suit had been specially made, and cost her the better part of her several month’s pay, but she’d been adamant on wanting one that fit her properly. It was probably for the best, he admitted; while his own suit had been mundane, just another general issue piece of Union equipment, he’d become far more comfortable with it than he would be with even the newest model. One of the first things they’d taught when he’d gone through the Academy was that, in order to rely on your suit, you had to accept it as a part of yourself; if it didn’t fit properly, than that acceptance was flawed, impossible from the start.

And considering she’d bought it with her own money, it was none of his damn business anyway.

He finished his checks and put his helmet on, feeling the solid clicks as it magnetically locked into place. There were several manual locks as well, and he was always religious about making sure they were secured, as well - looking across the bay, he saw that Tommy had done the same, although Kate left hers alone. He frowned, the expression concealed by his tinted visor; while the magnetic locks were supposed to hold the helmet on even in the unlikely event of a complete power failure, most experienced spacers locked them down anyway, having witnessed far too many ‘unlikely’ events in their time in the black. With a sigh, he realized that Kate’s instincts were still Academy trained, where speed mattered more than accuracy; after all, the drills were only simulated, and if something went wrong with the suit, well, it’s not like they were really in vacuum or anything. He gestured at her to button up, and even behind her visor he could see her eyes roll as she did so. Hawke shook his head, perversely amused; she no doubt thought he was being overcautious, but in the event the extra locks were needed, he’d rather she be around to hear him say “I told you so.”

His suit registered the air as cooler here than it had back at the Lonesome Road, and he marveled at how rapidly conditions varied on Darkon; less than twenty miles from the ship and already she was out of sight, lost somewhere in the salt dunes to the north. He tested his footing carefully as he stepped out of the shuttle; the ground here was more sand than salt, and yielded beneath his feet, making the going slow and treacherous. He stepped to the side to let the others exit the shuttle and bent down, grabbing a fistful of sand in one armored gauntlet; it slithered out of his hand as he stood again, light and powdery rather than the thick, granular stuff he was used to. He dusted his gloves off and looked around. Tommy was observing the area, gun drawn but held loosely, pointed at the ground. Kate had already walked over to the exposed wreckage and kicked at it lightly, clearing more of it.

“Odd,” she said, apparently to herself.

“What is?” Hawke moved closer, studying the wreckage himself. Definitely some sort of antenna, though little enough of it remained, and nothing of any delicacy. If it had held comms or sensors, they were gone now.

She looked up, then gestured downwards. “No sign of solar panels.”

Hawke hissed slightly, not quite tasting the mechanical, recycled air. “Which means there’s more of it open to the air.” He looked around at the broad, featureless plain and snorted. “Somewhere.”

“Should have brought a metal detector,” Tommy said, walking closer to them. His gun was holstered again, Hawke noted with some amusement.

“Do we even have a metal detector?” He asked wryly. Tommy shrugged, the gesture exaggerated by the thick plates on his shoulders.

“I’m sure Elise could have built one.” Tommy kicked at the antenna idly, setting it to vibrating with a dull humming noise. “Guess we spread out?”

“Might as well.” They did so, kicking at the ground, scuffing up sand with great enthusiasm but finding little of note. After a quarter of an hour, Kate stopped in her scuffling and looked at the others, who’d spread out quite a distance by then.

“This is stupid!” she said, raising her voice slightly. Hawke winced and tapped the side of his helmet melodramatically - she lowered her tone, but her temper was still sharp. “There’s got to be a better way of doing this.”

“Like what, Kate?” Tommy snorted. “Knock three times on the antenna and say, ‘open sesame?’”

“It makes more sense than scuffing our toes through the dirt!” She snapped back, bristling in her suit. Hawke sighed and gestured to both of them to settle down.

“We guessed the ship might be pretty well buried, if there’s anything left of it at all. If we have to, we’ll duck back to the Lonesome and grab that load lifter.”

Tommy quirked his lips in a moue of distaste. “I’m getting a little tired of digging, sir. All due respect, but I didn’t go to space to be a groundhog.”

Hawke had to laugh. “Yeah, we have been moving a lot of earth for big, bad spacers. But as was so eloquently pointed out to me not long ago, for us to get back in the black is going to require what some might consider to be an inappropriate use of the cargo entrusted to our care. When we get back to Camelot Station and Mr. Rigeling, it’ll be best to have a replacement cargo in our hold that might satisfy him - or so I’ve heard, anyway.”

“Yeah, well I hadn’t thought it would require this much more digging,” Tommy chuckled ruefully. “I’m getting calluses through my hardsuit, sir, and I didn’t think that was even possible.”

Hawke shook his head, still smiling. “I’m getting a bit worn down myself, but needs must when the devil calls the tune.” The two had been moving their search closer towards each other during the course of their conversation, and now turned back towards the shuttle. “Now that we’ve seen what we’re up against, we might as well head back to the ship, load up the exoskeleton, make a fresh start in the morning on our new career as moles. C’mon, Kate.”

He was halfway to the shuttle before he realized that she wasn’t behind him. He stopped and turned, puzzled. “Kate…?”

“What’s wrong?” Tommy, just ahead of him, stopped as well.

They both stared, flabbergasted, at the empty landscape before them. Their pilot was nowhere to be seen.


Tommy, with his lightning reflexes, was first to react - his gun was drawn before Hawke could take his first step. “Don’t move, captain!”

Hawke froze, looking back over his shoulder in surprise. Gervetti was half-crouched, his gun weaving slowly across the horizon like a hunting snake, tasting the air. He continued in a low voice, “If there’s something under the surface, it probably hunts by vibrations.” He slowly shuffled his feet apart, taking a ready stance.

“It’s probably another one of those goddam sinkholes, Tommy.” Hawke tried to keep his voice low and calm, but he couldn’t keep an edge of impatience and worry out of it. He knew Tommy‘s reputation, though, so he kept his hands in view and was careful not to make any sudden movements - the gunslinger was a dangerous man, and if startled, might have an instinctive reaction that they both would regret deeply. “We haven’t seen any evidence of life of any sort out here, much less anything that hunts by burrowing. Kate could be hurt down there.”

“Kate’s just fine, but she’s mighty happy to hear you boys so concerned.” Her voice was sardonically amused, and they both jerked their heads around in surprise. She was still nowhere in sight, but she continued speaking nonetheless. “Sorry to worry you so, but the fall knocked the wind out of me. Mighty glad you made me button up, skipper, I do believe it might have knocked the magnetics loose.”

“Just good spacer precautions,” Hawke said, recovering his equilibrium. “You’re okay, then? Nothing broken?”

“Just bruised and a bit shook up, but I’m definitely ready to get the hell out of here. It’s darker than a drill instructor’s heart down here, and my light’s not working.” There was a pause. “Okay, now it is - isn’t - is - …yeah, Cap, looks like the fall banged it up good. I’d be better off with some of that light up glitter the club kids paint on themselves.”

“Hang tight, Kate, we’ll have you out of there in a few minutes.” As they’d been talking, he and Tommy had spread out again, searching where they recalled last seeing Kate scuffing the dirt. It took longer than a few minutes, but eventually they did - when Tommy nearly fell in as well.

“Madre del Dio, that’s nasty,” he muttered. “This place is as bad as a minefield.” Hawke hustled over, and the two peered down the hole. Some fifteen feet below, Kate peered back, her helmet barely visible in the faint light filtering from the narrow hole down through a haze of dust and sand.

“Sooner would be nicer, folks.” She said, trying to keep her tone light and bantering. She didn’t want to admit it, but the darkness around her was beginning to seriously creep her out - it was too still, too tense, as though it were waiting for her back to turn before it pounced. She wasn’t sure if she’d fallen into the ship or just on top of it - it certainly felt like deck plating beneath her feet, but internal or external required more information than she had available. Up above, Tommy and John bumped helmets, keeping their plans for her rescue off the radio - and that made her more nervous still, for it was obvious that they were trying to keep her from worrying.

“Alright, Kate,” Hawke said at last, his voice smooth and reassuring. “We’re going to try lowering you a line.”

Kate laughed. She was trying for cool and sarcastic, but it came out as a nervous titter. “Don’t be silly, skipper, those EVA cables are only ten feet long.” From above came the loud crack of a gunshot, magnified in the thin air. A few moments later, a wire descended to dangle tantalizingly just in front of her face, the jagged end covered with a pressure suit patch.

“But two of them together is just about long enough, I think.” Hawke said. She could hear him smile. She started to smile in return, but a sound from behind stopped the expression in its tracks - a low, scraping sound, more felt than heard. She grabbed the cable with one hand and slowly turned, feeling the hairs on the back of her neck rise. It came again, followed by a hollow, metallic thud, as though a giant steel barrel or cask had been gently lifted, then lowered again. The deck plates jumped ever so slightly beneath her feet.

“Captain? I- I think the wreck is shifting. Either that or s-something’s down here.” She heard her voice break, the sound seeming to come from a long ways off, and she was too numb to even hate the weakness in it. “Could you pull me up, now? Please?”

“Grab on tight, Kate, we’ll have you out of there in a sec.” Hawke’s voice was firm and comforting, but she could hear the nervousness in it as well. Could they see something from their vantage point above? Was there something moving, just beyond, in the darkness?

She heard the thump again, followed by the scrape, followed by another thump. It sounded like - oh God -

It sounded like footsteps.

In the darkness, perhaps far down a distant corridor, perhaps a mere handspan away, two red fireflies sprung to life, glowing menacingly in the gloom. They looked like eyes. Kate Marlow, the ace pilot with nerves of steel, who’d calmly flown through more perilous situations and pulled off more death-defying stunts in her two years on the Lonesome Road than most Union pilots did in their entire career, started screaming.

“Pull me up! Pull me up now! For the love of God, John, there’s something down here!” The cable went taut in her hands and as she was lifted off the ground she heard the footsteps drawing nearer, quicker, the red lights in the distance - and they must be distant, for the sound of those heavy treads spoke of something large moving quickly - drawing nearer. Hawke and Tommy grabbed her arms as soon as she was in range, and with the two men heaving, they had her out of the hole almost instantly. She felt like kissing the ground, but there was no time for that. As the two fell back under her weight, the sinkhole jetted white fire and shards of metal - they shimmied back along the ground as the gunfire turned the smooth edges of the pit - probably a hatch of some sort, she realized dimly - into a jagged ruin.

“Tell me again how we get ourselves into these situations!” Hawke yelled at Tommy, scrambling to his feet. The gunslinger didn’t bother to reply; his left-hand pistol already drawn, he darted to the edge of the pit and returned fire, barely stepping out of the way in time to avoid another burst. Hawke fumbled for his own pistol, but the weapon - battered and worn like the rest of his kit, another relic of his Union days - was awkward to use in his hardsuit and seemed too small to make much of a difference anyway. He cursed himself roundly for not bothering to bring a rifle, but there had seemed to be little need for it on this desolate planet - and besides, what kind of trouble were they likely to bump into in a thousand year old starship?

A hand the size of a dinner plate gripped the edge of the hole, and with a shriek of metal a giant form began levering itself out of the wreckage. Tommy was firing again, most of his heavy 12mm rounds ricocheting from the thing’s armor - some sort of robot or war machine, easily ten feet tall, with a head like a grinning skull and a body like a tank. One arm ended in the aforementioned supper-ware appendage, the other terminated in a wicked looking chain gun. The armored body was scarred and faded, but still held the faint vestiges of a coat of black and purple paint; two red ember eyes completed the image of Death come walking.

“What the fuck is that thing?!” Hawke clung hard to his cool, forcing himself to keep moving, picking his shots with care - his bullets might be too light to make a difference against the thing‘s armor, but the eyes might be a different matter, or the joints. Kate was on her feet again, making her best speed for the shuttle, but she’d hurt her leg in her fall and her best speed was little more than a painful crawl. Tommy‘s gun ran dry and he drew his right-hand weapon, juggled them quickly, bringing the loaded weapon to his good arm and the empty to his bionic. He opened fire again while ejecting the empty magazine, keeping up a constant barrage that looked like it was beginning to effect the ancient sentinel. His cybernetic arm was hard at work too, spinning the empty pistol around with two fingers, snagging a fresh magazine from his belt with the free ones, slotting the two together with a click. He underhanded it without looking to Hawke, and the captain barely managed to catch it in his off hand, shocked by the sheer mass of the ugly thing.

And he used to use one of these in each hand? he thought, shocked despite the gravity of the situation. He slapped his own pistol back against its magnetic holster and raised the small cannon with both hands; his first shot went wild as the recoil almost knocked him backwards.

The war machine howled, a horrible grating, electronic squeal, and opened up with its chain gun again. Hawke threw himself down, but several of the rounds took him high in the chest and shoulder, making the polycarbonate plates of his hardsuit ring. The suits were armored normally, and his had been reinforced for combat operations; even so, he knew it couldn’t take another hit. His left arm felt broken, but he muscled the heavy pistol up again and fired, taking a chunk out of the mech’s knee.

Tommy was moving like lightning, keeping up a steady stream of fire as he ducked and darted, graceful and delicate as a dancer. He seemed to know where the bullets would fly before they even left the gun, and maneuvered around them, granting himself just enough space to let them slip by. Even so he’d taken some near misses, and Hawke felt in his bones that the end was near.

And so it was; Tommy mistimed one dodge, perhaps cutting it a little too close, and a flechette round took him full in the chest, hurtling him back with a cry. Hawke ran to cover him, but froze as the machine spun and aimed the cannon directly for him; there was nowhere left to run. He swore he could see triumph in the red flames of its eyes, and the world seemed to shrink around him, concentrating on the cavern-like barrel of the gun pointed at him, the riptide roaring in his ears…

The roar of the shuttle in his ears. Kate’s cry, bloodthirsty and vengeful, was drowned up as she opened up with everything at her disposal. A cargo shuttle, the Lonesome Rambler had never been designed for combat - but Hawke had realized that having a few surprises up their sleeves might just make the difference where it counted. A 20mm chain gun in the nose, a few rocket pods disguised as fuel tanks and tucked under the wings - they might limit the shuttle’s cargo space a bit (and be highly illegal on almost every civilized world, besides), but they certainly gave double-crossers a wicked surprise. Hawke was proud of having never lost a cargo, and he was damned if he’d lose one to treachery.

The chain gun roared, and a silver stream of solid slugs slammed into the war machine, jerking it off balance. Hawke dove for Tommy, covering his supine form as a rocket streaked from the Rambler and detonated dead in the center of the robot’s torso. Its head was blown backwards and off, coming to a stop some hundred feet away - the red eyes continued to glare for almost a minute before finally fading to black. The rest of the body, now with a smoking crater in place of its chest, remained standing for several seconds before keeling backwards with a wail of tortured metal.

“Timber,” Hawke muttered. Dust whipped his helmet as Kate brought the Lonesome Rambler in close, and he looked down at Tommy. His face was pale behind his visor, and air hissed from several punctures in his hardsuit, but he smiled wanly back at the captain.

“Every day’s an adventure, eh captain?”

Hawke just shook his head and laughed, waving at Kate to swing down and pick them up.


Cynthia was acting medic for the Lonesome Road, for though she lacked any formal training she’d accumulated quite a store of practical, make-do medical training patching bounties back together so they’d remain alive long enough for her to collect their rewards. It was pretty rough on the subject, but fortunately both Kate and Tommy’s wounds were minor - a twisted knee on the former, some minor cuts and major bruising on the latter. Tommy was especially lucky, as his suit had shrugged off most of the flechettes, a few its punching through only to fail against the armored vest he wore beneath it. Cynthia elected to keep him on bed rest for the next day for observation, in case the bruises were worse than she thought, and Hawke made it official when Tommy objected - all in all, though, they'd come out ahead of the game.

Still, as soon as he could slip them away without alarming the rest of the crew, he snagged the two people he figured would best be able to explain just what they'd run into. They met on the bridge.

"Beats the holy hell out of me, boss." Glenn said with a sigh. "There's some similar things on Throne, but most of them are relics - you'd have to get a lot closer to the Emperor than I've ever been to see anything still functioning, assuming any of them are. You hear a lot of rumors in Special Ops, of course, but nothing solid - the Emperor is protected by android bodyguards, the Imperial Palace has super-intelligent AIs running things behind the scenes, yadda yadda. Give you my best guess, it's just what it appeared to be; some sort of First Empire sentinel or war machine that decided you were intruding. Hopefully, there aren't any more. Way you were describing that thing, I certainly wouldn't want to bump into one."

Hawke sighed, resting his elbows on the console and bending his head to rub his eyes. "How 'bout you, Oz? Anything in your memory banks that might come in handy?"

"I do not believe so, Captain," Ozymandias said apologetically. "There are of course old stories and legends, but as I am sure you know, real reports and records from the First Empire are few and far between. It is entirely possible that their military might have experimented with android soldiers, or even implemented them on a large scale; their technology was vastly superior to our own, after all. Just because I am not finding anything about robot warriors in the battles of the Fall does not mean much, truly; after all, such soldiers would probably be highly valued, and the entire division of the Emperor's Own disappeared with him during the Fall." Ozymandias paused, and then hesitantly added, "I am sure you have already thought of this, Captain, but the presence of such a guardian on the ship more or less guarantees that it was carrying something of incredible value when it went down. A battle 'droid tough and sturdy enough to survive a thousand years of neglect would not likely be found aboard any run of the mill Imperial ship, after all, anymore than one would find a member of Mister Rho's former unit aboard every Second Empire corvette or destroyer."

"You can say that again," Rho agreed.

"Oh, I believe once was sufficient," Oz said fussily. Hawke held up his free hand to forestall any bickering that might be forthcoming.

"So what you're both saying, is that you have no idea but anything is possible."

"Pretty much," Glenn said with a shrug.

"I am afraid I must concede as well, Captain. There appears to be little that I can add to the subject." Ozymandias' smoothly toned electronic voice was curiously flat, as if weighted down with shame. Hawke shook his head.

"Well, I can't blame you guys for not knowing something I don't know, either. Unfortunately, this just leaves us back at our starting point. We push on with this, we might not be so lucky if we run into another one of those things, and someone could get seriously hurt - probably killed. We were lucky Kate made it back to the Rambler; if she'd been a few steps slower, Tommy and I'd both be the first nutrients this ground's gotten since it formed out of celestial dust. I've got to say, the thought of running into one of those things down in some tight space - in the dark, no less - scares the shit out of me."

"Me too, skip." Glenn straightened up unconsciously. "But the thought of going up to Rigeling without our little mitigating circumstance scares the shit out of me, too."

"We might be able to bargain the location of the ship for a profit," Hawke said speculatively. Glenn shook his head.

"Nah, thought about that skip. Too many rumors already running around, they'd just want to know why we didn't explore the thing ourselves. Can't see too many ex-crime bosses buying tales of giant killer robots, either."

Hawke sighed. "Yeah, you're probably right. The whole thing's fantastic as it is."

"Cap," Glenn asked hesitantly. "Have we discerned what took us out of the sky yet?"

"No," Hawke said. "And that scares the shit out of me. As far as Elise can determine, we just... fell out of the sky. And that shouldn't be possible."

They were silent for a minute, each lost in their own thoughts. Oz was the first to speak again.

"Captain, is it possible that the two occurrences are related?”

“What do you mean?” Hawke looked at him and frowned.

“Our crash and the crashed Imperial ship.”

“Well, if the cause of our crash was some sort of natural phenomenon - like I said in the lounge, maybe some sort of gravity well - then sure, it’s conceivable that the wreck fell afoul of it as well.”

“No, Captain. What if we crashed, not for the same reason that they did, but because they are here? What if we were brought, somehow, to this?”

Hawke and Glenn stared at the monitor for a minute, dumbfounded.

“That’s got to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard a computer say,” Glenn said at last, beginning to scowl. “And I can GIGO with the best of

“Oz, do you think maybe you’re taking this religious thing a little too far?” Hawke offered, wondering if the AI had finally crossed the line into madness.

“It is easy to see the hand of a higher power, or a lower one, in our predicament,” Ozymandias said primly. “I do not believe that to be the case here, however. I hypothesize, rather, that the Empire planted some sort of beacon besides their distress call in their wreck, and that this is responsible for drawing us here - note how close we landed to their crash site. Had we continued to fall, unchecked, I am sure we would have been closer still. Our thrusters, Captain, were burned; and not by an interior malfunction, nor by the friction of our reentry. I believe that something on that Imperial ship shot us down.”

“Then why didn’t it go the extra step and just blow us out of the air?” Glenn argued. “Pinpointing our thrusters is a hell of a lot harder than taking out our main engines, or hell, just put a few rounds into the engine room, trash the power plant. We’d make a real nice bang then.”

“I can not say, Mr. Rho. It is true, the theory has its blank spaces still. But I am working to fill them.”

Hawke made a short, cutting gesture with his hand. “This is a waste of time. Tomorrow morning, we’re going into that wreck, and hopefully we’ll find something worth enough to make this whole miserable adventure worth it. But one way or the other, we’re out of here in two days - relics, cargo, or not.”

“I hope you are correct, Captain.” Oz looked out at them with a grave expression, then his screen went black as he took his leave of them.


They started out the next morning, and this time they were better prepared. Hawke lead the way with his trusty shotgun; one of the few items in his personal kit that hadn't accompanied him throughout his military career, the pump action was designed for hunting the immense mammoths of Inchon, and had been a gift from the crew three Christmases past. It chambered a powerful .400 magnum round, and featured state of the art inertial dampeners in the butt to keep the recoil from taking its user's arm off at the shoulder whenever it was fired. Glenn followed close behind, an Imperial submachinegun held close to his body. Both weapons had lights attached to the barrel, the narrow beams illuminating the darkness as they made their way through the blackness of the corridor. Drifts of sand loomed ghostlike out of the darkness, and here and there wires protruded from the ceiling, forming tangles like jungle vines that sought to tangle the unwary. There were hatches to either side of them, but Oz had managed to dig up the schematics for the typical Imperial ship of the line, and they knew their path well - the map appeared as ghostly lines on their helmet's heads up display, directing them to the main cargo holds. They crept along as quietly as they could, not daring to breathe above a whisper, their radios dead silent. Far above, in the Lonesome Rambler, Cynthia and Kate listened to the slight clicks they gave as they passed each checkpoint, keeping their own quiet lest they miss one; back on the Lonesome Road, Elise, Tommy, and Oz clustered on the bridge, waiting and worrying.

They hadn't encountered another of the robotic dreadnoughts yet, but everyone was dreading it, and none moreso than Glenn and Hawke. Their apprehension mounted with each corner, with every section cleared, with every deck descended or ascended without contact with their mysterious enemy. Neither dared believe that there had only been one; they knew their luck wasn't that good, and down here, in the depths of a dead ship, neither possessed much in the way of optimism.

The crew, and Tommy especially, had had words about the fallibilities in having both the captain and the first mate embarking on such a dangerous task, but Hawke had brooked no arguments. He wasn't about to hang back while anyone else on his crew braved the lurking dangers, and Glenn was probably the most combat hardened of the group, with experience in dealing with robots and walkers of all sorts, thanks to his Imperial training. Besides his SMG, the lanky man carried several detpacks around his waist and on his back, and sweated nervously at the thought of what one electrical shock could do to him.

He hadn't complained though, realizing the logic behind the captain's decision. He kept his eyes peeled and his mouth shut, and they covered ground steadily. The ship was huge, larger than any he'd been on; a dreadnought, perhaps, or even a superdreadnought, large as some orbital stations. It seemed to run on for miles at times, though he knew that was only fear and adrenaline stretching the seconds into minutes, the minutes into hours. It was always this way, on a mission, and he fought to slip into that cold place where all was pure reaction, pure instinct, without the risk of external concerns interfering. He had to keep reminding himself not to think about Cynthia, not far away as the crow flew but worlds away as far as he was concerned. You couldn't think about things outside the mission, not if you hoped to keep breathing; letting your mind get distracted was a quick trip home in a body bag, when you missed the glint from the sniper's scope, or the crack of a twig that meant the guerillas were closing in behind you, or the slight shifting of movement in the corridor up ahead-

Reality hit like a body blow. "Captain, get down!" He cried, throwing himself to the deck. Hawke was down a second later, and it wasn't a second too soon as the mech's chain gun opened up with a hideous shrieking sound.

The tight confines of the corridor made the fighting difficult for both sides. The mech was limited by its enormous size, but it was able to dominate the battle, forcing the two explorers under cover to avoid the wild sprays of flechette rounds. Glenn gritted his teeth in frustration; there was simply no way he could get close enough to plant one of the demolition charges onto it, and its armor shrugged off his bullets like rain. The captain's shotgun was a different matter, punching holes through the thing's plates like paper, but the weapon was heavy and awkward to use with any accuracy, especially while shooting on the run.

"Doesn't that thing ever run out of ammo?" Hawke snarled in frustration. They'd taken up defensive positions on opposite sides of the hall, both crouched behind the corner - the sentinel was perhaps twenty feet down the hall, wide open but keeping them pinned down. "We've got to take this thing out soon, Rho, before it calls its friends in to play."

Glenn gritted his teeth and ducked out into the hall. The robot targeted him immediately, and several rounds creased his armor as he rolled across the corridor and came to rest next to Hawke's feet - and the satchel charge he'd hurled continued its arc across the hall, connecting with the mech's left knee - and detonating. The blast turned the leg into splinters, and it teetered for a moment before going over with a clang that shook the deck. The gun, unfortunately, continued firing.

"Risky. Smooth, but risky." Hawke said calmly, looking down at him as he thumbed new shells into the shotgun. "Think I can take it from here, though." He leaned into the hall and fired twice - the relentless machinegun abruptly ceased. "Kate, Cynthia, do you copy? We're intact and proceeding to the objective." He leaned over and helped Glenn to his feet.

"Roger that, Captain." Kate said. He smiled a little to hear the relief in her voice, and peered out into the corridor. The mech was spitting sparks and smoke, and half its skull-like head was gone.

"Nice shooting, skip." Glenn said with admiration. Hawke shrugged.

"Well, once it was down, the rest was easy." He ejected the empty shell as they passed it, a weak substitute for spitting on the corpse. "It shouldn't be too far now."

"Funny thing, cap, every time someone says something like that, things go wrong somehow." Glenn said weakly, rubbing one of the deep groove gouged into his hardsuit and shouldered his submachinegun.

"Come too far to turn back now, Glenn." Hawke said simply. "Only way out now is through." They moved on into the darkness, watchful and wary. Both knew that the easy part lay behind them; ahead, whatever waited, would be far more difficult.


On the Rambler, Cynthia and Kate waited, hearts pounding. The interference was too great for cameras; even the intermittent radio contact they received was subject to heavy static, no surprise given the distance and amount of metal between them. They had tried to make small talk early in their vigil, but found it difficult; there was little to discuss, other than the peril their shipmates might be in, and voicing their fears merely seemed to make them that much more real. They'd lapsed once more into a tense silence, broken only by the crackling of the radio, the sole, tenuous contact linking them with the explorers and the Lonesome Road. Cynthia had brought her rifle with her, the absolute latest and best piece of military equipment the Empire could field, so new that only the Emperor's Own was carrying them; she busied herself taking it apart and putting it back together again, checking every moving piece and oiling it twice, working the action until Kate thought the incessant clicking would drive her insane. She didn't bother to object; Cyn had to work her nerves out, and it was best she kept herself busy. Kate had run the Rambler through as many system checks and tests as she could justify without actually putting the shuttle out of service and beginning a complete overhaul; she was as sure as she could be that it would perform when needed. The engines were heated and ready to burn, veritably straining at the leash whenever her fingers lingered too long on the throttle; the rocked pods and chaingun were loaded, and she was confident that she'd be able to out fly and out fight anything that dared show its face. Its ugly, skeletal face...

She shuddered involuntarily, and hated herself for it. It wasn't something she was willing to talk about, not to Elise or Tommy, certainly not to the Captain. Not even to Cynthia, who often served as the unofficial confessor to the crew, a sympathetic ear when one was trapped out in the depths of space and there was no handy bartender to turn to. She hadn't slept last night, laying curled away on her bunk with her eyes wide open and a desk lamp on to keep away the concealing darkness. The noises kept her up, the usual hum and vibration that was like the heartbeat of a starship, the reassuring sounds that meant the ship was still alive and working properly; and when she'd finally given in and fetched a pair of earplugs, the silence had kept her up, too. She kept seeing movement out of the corner of her eye, and even though she knew nothing would be there she couldn't help but whip her head around to follow it, muscles tensing automatically to spring or flee. She had been frightened, and frightened badly; and for all that she had destroyed the monster that had scared her, she was still afraid. It hadn't quite been a full twenty four hours since they'd stumbled across the wrecked spaceship and its metal guardians, but she knew, deep down, that she would remain afraid for a long, long time.

And she hated it, loathed it, as she hated any enemy she couldn't dogfight into submission, or any problem that couldn't be solved with a quick wit and some skillful flying. She knew her tight focus was a weakness, but in the end, what else did she have? The Union had abandoned her; her parents had gone and died on her; the one thing she truly excelled in, truly loved, was flying. Without that, well, there wasn't much of a point to anything, now was there?

She snuck a glance at Cynthia, trying her best to look like she wasn't looking. How much harder did this waiting have to be for her? Sure, the older woman was probably used to it; stakeouts, waiting for a bounty to show, and even after she'd retired from that life she'd been roaming with the Lonesome Road for almost four years. She had certainly been in situations like this before, right? So how did she take it? How could she stand the oppressive silence, the tension, waiting for what might very well be her husband's last words? How did she handle being so helpless?

"You get used to it," Cynthia said abruptly, snapping a fresh magazine into her rifle and turning to look at Kate. The pilot blushed, shamefaced to realize that her train of thought had been so obvious. "You get used to it, you keep yourself busy, and you wait for your chance to help. And remember to pray, darlin'. There may not be anyone listening, but it'll make you feel a lot better."

Silence fell around them again like a shroud, and Kate found that it really did make her feel a bit better, after all.


Tommy scratched at his bandages and shifted uneasily. Waiting on the Lonesome's bridge was no easier than waiting in the Rambler's cockpit was, for all that he'd rather be that much closer to the wreck; hell, he'd rather be leading the way, and he'd kept no secrets where that was concerned. He'd taken a lot worse before, and if he'd had both his guns, well, that metal monstrosity wouldn't have stood a chance...

He flexed his cybernetic arm absently, watching the golden fingers twitch in response. They looked spidery, gleaming in the faint light from the console, and he twitched his lips in a moue of disgust without even realizing it. Glenn had asked him once why he didn't get them covered with synthflesh or something similar if he hated them so much, and he didn't really have an answer for him. Maybe it was just that, as much as he hated being reminded of the grievous injury he'd suffered, he hated forgetting even worse.

He clenched that golden hand into a fist, the metal sliding across itself with a steely hiss. One of these days...

Well. Vengeance was a personal matter, and here he was on company time. But damned if there was anything for him to do... He'd offered his guns to the captain, virtually pleaded with the man to take them. They'd proven themselves before, after all. Hawke had turned him down with a cocky smile.

"Thank you kindly, but I think I'll stick with this ol' girl," he'd said, patting the rifle's stock. "Seeing as how you folks were so generous as to provide me with such a fine piece of equipment and all." He wanted to hit the man, scream at him to take the guns, but he'd managed to hang onto his cool. Wasn't there some unwritten rule for soldiers that told them to take every advantage, use every weapon that they could?

Not that he knew, of course. He'd never been a soldier, save in the street definition of the word; by the time he'd reached his majority, he'd had a criminal record long enough to keep him from serving in anything but an Imperial Penitent Battalion, and honorable suicide wasn't his stock in trade. He'd kept from adding anything more to his record, but the law hadn't forgotten about him; far from it, as a matter of fact. He'd blazed a trail from one side of the galaxy to the other, laid down a reputation to be proud of, and done it all in a mere handful of years.

A handful... He clenched the golden hand again, and snarled silently, without even realizing it. He'd made Gervetti a name to fear, won the nickname "Two-Guns" the hard way, and here he was; on a tramp freighter in the middle of nowhere, standing around with his thumb up his ass while other people did the fighting. How the mighty fell!

With some effort, he found his focus, calmed himself before he could make an unseemly outburst. Ranting and raving would go a long way to kicking his reputation as a smooth, cool gunfighter in the trash, and he'd taken enough steps along that road already. He forced himself to settle down, drew his pistol and checked the magazine again; he'd lost track of how many times he'd already checked, reminding himself that it was loaded and ready even though he could feel the difference, so familiar was he with his weapons. The right hand gun waited in its holster, and his cybernetic hand caressed the butt absently as he thought about it. These guns had cost him a lot - probably too much, truth be told - literally and metaphorically both. He'd practiced his fast draw until his arms ached with the weight of them, until his fingers bled from cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger again and again. He'd fired tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of rounds over the years, scamming ammunition from wherever he could beg, borrow, or steal it when he was starting out, buying only the finest when he was flush and set in his career. He'd focused his whole life on the way of the gun, not for the reasons so many others did - revenge, power, money - but simply to be the best. He'd been the best, dammit, and even if a psychotic crime boss with a meat cleaver and a distaste for losing had put an end to that part of his life, they couldn't take that away from him.

He exhaled and looked at Elise. She was prowling, stalking back and forth across the bridge like a caged tiger, tail twitching impatiently. She was as eager as the rest of them to be off this rock, he was sure, and he wouldn't be surprised if she was wrestling with the same feelings of frustration and helplessness that he was. He was tempted to retire to the aft gun turret, the little bubble that had become something of a fortress of solitude for him, but knew he wouldn't be able to stay away long anyway. Sooner or later, he'd be back, listening eagerly to the silence of the radio, hoping that if he strained hard enough, he'd hear Hawke and Glenn saying they were all right, that they'd found a full cargo hold and they were all rich beyond their wildest dreams.

He wasn't sure what he'd do with the money, but it would be nice to be rich again. He received a generous commission - by independent standards, anyway - but the missions lately had been weak and pickings slim. There was no danger of starving, but living on ration packs could drive a man to the brink of insanity pretty quickly, and he was starting to miss the feeling of security that came from not having to live from payday to payday, scraping by and making do. Tommy had to admit, to himself at least, that he was a fussy man, and the one thing that bothered him most about shipping on the Lonesome Road was that everything was very much 'make do.'

But it was a living, and a free one at that; far from the Core, far from the places he'd known and loved, and far from the men that might still be looking for him.

He drew his pistol, checked the magazine again. It was, despite all expectation, still loaded. The radio was still quiet, its silent vigil broken only by occasional bursts of static. Elise prowled, and Ozymandias hummed, some low, forgotten melody that caught at the back of your mind and lingered, peeking forth at the most inopportune times. Tommy grinned humorlessly to himself; the neurotic AI probably didn't even realize that he was doing it.

He closed his eyes and exhaled in a not quite sigh. Calm, cool, collected. That was how you won the game; that was how you stayed alive. The waiting was the hard part, sure, but he knew, deep inside, that there ordeal was far from over, and even when they'd shaken the dust of Darkon off their boots and turned their backs on this miserable sector, there would still be a long road ahead. He smiled, hardly aware he was doing so, and his cybernetic fingers twitched on the butt of his pistol.

He wouldn't ever admit it, not even to himself, but a part of him was looking forward to what lay ahead.


The silence was getting to Hawke.

The cargo bay lay ahead, its great metal doors shut securely, inert from the lack of power and as immobile as twin mountains. They'd reached this point after what seemed like years of travel, though his suit's chronometer informed him it had been less than two hours since they'd entered that same narrow hatch Kate had fallen through, several decks up and far forward of their current position.

It probably would have taken them less than ten minutes to reach this spot, Hawke reflected, if only the ship's systems were online, and part of him wondered just how bad the damage could be. Was it simply a matter of the fuel running out, after so many years buried under the sands? Or had it been far worse, with the power plant or even most of the rear half of the ship gone in some cataclysmic explosion? For the most part, there had been little destruction on their way here, the majority of their delays caused by sealed blast doors and out of service lifts that had forced them to trace a long, laborious root through maintenance crawlways and up and down narrow ladders. What lay behind those sealed doors, though, was a mystery - for all he knew, that part of the ship they'd traced their path through was all that was left, and behind those giant cargo doors was nothing more than a gaping hole opening on packed earth.

Getting the cargo out was going to be a stone cold bitch - perhaps they'd simply blast their way through one of the cargo bay doors, then dig their way out. Perhaps they'd just take the best of what they found and leave the rest for a better outfitted expedition later.

The destruction, to what extent he'd seen it, worried him. Almost all of it seemed to originate within the ship; carbon scoring along the passageways, sections where bulkhead and overhead plates were melted and had dripped over the deck, exposing wires, doors blasted free of their hinges. It didn't look like crash damage; it looked like combat damage, and though he knew any bodies that may have been laying about had probably decayed and disintegrated long since, he worried at the continuing lack of the metal guardians. Other than the one he and Glenn had terminated half an hour ago, there had been no sign of others - even though the noise of their firefight had probably echoed throughout the ship. He knew instinctively that there were more than two of them on the ship; they had some purpose, after all, and two more guardians on an Imperial ship that had no doubt once been crewed with hundreds, even thousands, of marines and sailors was more or less useless. Besides, he was sure he'd heard others, moving somewhere in the darkness below as they'd descended the last service ladder to reach their current deck; for all he knew, they could be waiting ahead of them.

Most likely, though, they'd taken up stations in engineering and on the bridge, the usual places boarders might try to reach. Not this time, pals, he thought with a grim humor. No hijackers here, just your run of the mill looters.

The thought had almost, but not quite, ceased to make him feel ill when he dwelled on it.

The path looked clear, and he nodded to Glenn. They moved as quickly as they could and still keep up at least the pretense of stealth, every nerve tense as they approached the cargo doors. Bodies braced for bullets that failed to come, they found themselves before the doors.

"You've still got the det cord?" he asked Glenn inanely. Of course the man still had it; what else would he have done with it on the way down?

"Sure thing, skipper." Glenn tugged the tube of plastic explosive out of one of his belt pouches and stepped forward. The squeezable, shapeable explosive was invaluable for salvage work, allowing one to cut a new entryway through a hole practically anywhere in a matter of minutes, even seconds, depending on the thickness and quality of the material. Looking up at the doors, Hawke leaned his guess towards minutes.

As Glenn carefully squeezed the plastique along a section big enough to provide sufficient entrance to them both, Hawke attempted to contact the ship. Static and echoes were his only answer; with a sigh, he turned back to the door. They were too far down, with too much metal between them.

He hoped that was the reason, at any rate.

Glenn had just about finished, and was laying a slightly larger patch that would serve as an adhesive for the detonator. Hawke looked around the corridor impatiently, half-expecting a battalion of the metal sentinels to suddenly charge from the darkness; whenever things started going this smoothly, he grew nervous. Experience had taught him to always keep an eye out for the inevitable trap, and there was a tension in the air that told him the other shoe was suspended, waiting to drop.

Glenn finished with the explosive and set the detonator into the waiting patch, pushed the arming button and stepped back. Despite the name, it was more of a controlled burn than an explosive; the detonator ran electricity through the plastic, and it heated to a temperature of thousands of degrees, burning its way through metal and plastic without pause.

That was the plan, at any rate.

They both stared, dumbfounded, as the det cord burned out on the surface of the doors without leaving so much as a scar in the metal. Glenn, with hundreds of hours of demolitions experience both before and after his stint in Imperial Special Forces, was especially shocked, and he kept glaring at the tube in his hand as though it had personally wronged him.

"Glenn," Hawke struggled to keep his voice tightly under control. "What the hell was that?"

"I- I don't know, John. I've never seen anything like that before."

"Well, is that stuff past its sell-by date or what?" Hawke could feel himself losing control, and fought to reign in his temper before it gave way to the growing panic and stress. A wrecked space ship, several hundred feet below ground on a desolate planet and haunted by kill-hungry metal robots was hardly the place to lose one's cool.

"I don't think this stuff even has a sell-by date," Glenn protested, missing the irony in Hawke's voice. "I've used det cord on everything from tin cans to battleship armor, and I've never seen anything just shrug it off like that. There should have been some burn-through, dammit!" Glenn tossed the empty tube away with a muffled curse and began rummaging in his pouch again. "I think I've got some more in here, somewhere..."

"No," Hawke said, closing his eyes. "I don't think it'll do any good, and there's no point in wasting it. We're going to need a good salvage job to make up for this fiasco." He clenched his fists. "Dammit! I knew this was going too smoothly. To come this far!" He cut the thought off with an oath and punched the wall. "Damn it a-"

They both froze as the doors rumbled and slowly slid open, creaking slightly with disuse as they ran along tracks dusty and stiff with age. Hawke alternated his incredulous stare between the doors and his fist, still resting on the control panel.

"That's... that's not possible," he said at last, his voice barely more than a whisper. "There's no power. How in the hell...?"

"Well, I'll be god damned," Glenn said in wonder. "Maybe it's some sort of fail safe? If the power fails, the doors unlock? Or maybe there's some residual power left in the system?"

Hawke shook his head in wonder, almost afraid to pull his fist back lest the doors close again. "I've never heard of such a thing, but... well, it is a First Empire ship..." And miracles and wonders were supposedly a way of life in the First Empire, after all. Gingerly, he pulled his fist back - the control panel had weathered his punch as it might have the footfalls of a fly, and the doors showed no signs of closing. He slid his foot forward and stepped across the threshold. Nothing.

"Huh." He turned and looked at Glenn, starting to smile. "Well... maybe things go smoothly occasionally, after all."

Glenn flinched, waiting for the inevitable explosion. When none was forthcoming, he ventured so far as to smile back. "Well... maybe so."

They entered the cargo bay, their suit lights doing little against the oppressive shroud of darkness. Glenn looked at the door controls with entrance. "You know, boss, it's possible that the cargo bay has its own generators or power plant; something that might not have been drained with the rest of the ship's batteries. It would make sense, if they stored anything that needed extra charging, like vehicles or ships. Maybe the lights still work?"

"Worth a try," Hawke said affably, still shining his light around to no effect. "It's darker than an ImpSec officer's heart in here. No offense."

"None taken," Glenn, former Imperial Security, said with a grin. "Looks like... here we go." He flipped a switch. "Let there be light."

With a protesting whine, there was. The cargo bay was huge; they could have parked the Lonesome Road in it with room to spare. Hooks and racks hung from the overhead, providing extra storage space where containers, fighters, or shuttles could be suspended, out of the way of the busy deck. Mysterious slots and alcoves in the walls hinted at their purposes without revealing, and the deck was huge... and bare.

With the exception of a half dozen of the skull-headed metal warriors, turning to face the two explorers, the cargo bay was completely and utterly deserted.

"Ah, hell." Hawke said.

"Not so smooth after all," Glenn said mournfully.


Glenn ducked left and Hawke ducked right, barely managing to dodge the massed salvo of gunfire. The mechs spun to face them, joints squealing in protest as they moved for the first time in untold ages; one jammed and fell to one knee as it tried to force the frozen limb into motion. They were in worse condition than the two faced before, and that fact alone saved the two freebooters as they sprinted hell for leather across the empty cargo bay, zigzagging to avoid the increasingly accurate fire. Hawke spied a set of stairs leading to the observation room/flight tower on the far side of the bay, and with a cry he directed Glenn towards it. Glenn threw one of his detpacks almost at random, the explosive forcing the mechs to cease fire for a moment as they dealt with the shards of shrapnel sped their way and the clinging smoke that blocked their sight, and then there was time only for running.

Hawke kept up a litany of curses as he ran, raining imprecations down on everything from the fortune that landed them on this lousy planet to whatever long dead genius had locked a half-dozen killer 'droids in an empty cargo bay - not to mention the captain of this thrice cursed wreck, for shipping out with an empty bay to begin with. Hawke had been sure they'd find, if nothing else, some Imperial fighters or shuttles they could restore, or perhaps a cache of energy weapons - handheld blasters were some of the most precious things in known space, for the technology required to miniaturize energy coils for infantry use had long been lost, and the smallest a beam weapon was nowadays was crew-served and vehicle-mounted. As he slowed in his single-minded ranting, he heard Glenn laughing beside him.

"What the hell's so goddam funny?" He demanded, irate.

"Well, cap, when you think about it, we really are lucky." Hawke knew the younger man could have easily outrun him, but he was obviously pacing himself to stay close to the captain - turning to fire bursts at the mechs that slowly pursued, their heavy tromp like a metronome of doom. "I mean, they could have rocket launchers - or particle beam emitters - or plasma ejectors - instead they've got those inaccurate chain g-AH!"

Glenn went down in a heap as a surprisingly accurate burst caught him full in the chest, tumbling him like a rag doll. Hawke went to one knee and grabbed an arm, heaving him up and over his shoulder as he ran. He staggered under the weight, but kept on as best he could, relieved to hear the other man's heavy breathing and slight groans of pain.

"You all right?" He asked, trying not to pant. The run was getting to him, and the ladder looked no nearer.

"Oh... never better." Glenn said between gritted teeth. Hawke stumbled forward as the younger man lifted his arm and sprayed the enemy with his SMG again, the recoil an unexpected - and unpleasant - surprise. "I can't feel my left leg, and I wish I couldn't feel my chest - now I know why you told Tommy to stay behind. Those things have a hell of a kick, eh?"

"So they tell me," Hawke said, and kept determinedly placing one foot in front of the other. "You know, it would be nice to have a pleasant little jaunt into a wrecked space ship without my crew getting shot down around me."

"Terribly sorry, sir." Glenn ejected the spent magazine to the deck with a tinny clatter and loaded another one, resuming his covering fire. It didn't seem to do much good, but the sentinels were showing more caution now, a curious hesitancy to rush in and engage that the last two they'd faced had displayed... which was, when one thought about it, a fairly worrying thought. Glenn said conversationally between bursts, "Cap, you know you're never going to make those stairs. Not toting me around like this. I think you'd better just leave me behind."

Hawke fought a strangled burst of laughter. "Yeah, right. Your wife would kill me if I left you down here, Glenn. Just shut up and try to keep those things off our backs for a few more minutes, eh?" He jinked sharply, barely sliding around another burst that skipped metal shards off the deck. Several skidded off his hardsuit, and he winced at the impact but doggedly kept running.

"I think those things are going to kill us both if you don't, boss." Glenn bounced a burst off one's faceplate, jerking its head back - as it hesitated, another ran into it, and both went down in a heap to the chorus of shrieking metal. "And I don't think we have a few more minutes." He tossed his machinegun aside. "I'm empty, boss. Pass me your shotgun, and beat heels for the stairs - I'll hold them off of you as long as I can."

"Just shut up, Glenn, we're almost there." And surely enough, they were - he took the stairs almost two at a time, his hardsuit's servos whining in protest at the stress. Behind him, he could hear the robot's heavy tread - closer now, they'd apparently gotten over their fear. He turned, brought his shotgun to bear, and fired one-handed from the hip - the closest mech half-spun as the shell shattered its shoulder, and the others ducked to the side. Bullets sparked and clanged from the rail as he hurdled the steps, and he hit the door at the top with his free shoulder one step ahead of a wild, massed salvo of gunfire that chewed the doorjamb up, shattered the window above them as they hurled themselves to the floor. Stale air hissed around them as he hit the deck; Glenn was knocked free and rolled, coming to rest with his head almost resting on the knee of a corpse.

"Well," he said when he'd gotten his breath back. "That's just lovely."

The room was about ten feet square, crowded with monitors and controls; the far wall was being rapidly chewed to scrap as the mechs below kept up a withering fire. Hawke had collided with a chair when he ran in and now lay, tangled in it, on the deck. He groaned softly as he pushed himself to a crouching position, careful to keep his head down and out of the line of fire.

"Huh. Remarkably well preserved fellow," He said after a moment of staring. The man might have died a moment ago, rather than a millennia; he sat on the floor with his back to the far wall, head resting on his chest. His clothes were odd, certainly no military uniform Hawke had ever seen, not even in the archives of the First Empire - a long brown coat over some kind of tunic, the curious twisting symbol on the chest hard to make out in the faint light. There was a pistol in a holster on his hip, and a sword lay bare across his knees.

With a start, Hawke realized that his helmet light had gone out; careful probing revealed it to be shattered, though whether from the fall or a ricochet, he had no idea.

"Wonder what killed him," Glenn pulled himself to a vaguely upright position next to the corpse and poked at the gouges in his hardsuit. "I don't seen any marks on him."

"Probably died when the air went off," Hawke scrambled in his pouch until he found a flashlight. It was dead, too, and he tossed it out the window with a curse. A burst from below tore it apart long before it hit the deck.

"They're getting more accurate," Glenn commented quietly. He leaned over and drew the dead man's pistol from its holster, looking at it with naked curiosity. "Huh. Nothing I've seen before." It was a snub-nosed, ugly thing, a far cry from the sleek and graceful energy weapons they'd both seen in museums. He sighted out the window and pulled the trigger, receiving nothing more than a faint click for his trouble. "And here I was hoping we had a miracle weapon, something to make those ugly bastards below turn tail and scarper." He looked over the pistol again, then tossed it to Hawke. The older man caught it one handed, glanced at it, and tossed it away.

"Might be worth some money, if we get out of here." He said dismissively. "But I don't see it helping us now, unless someone left a spare ammunition clip up here."

"We can always check John Doe here." Glenn jerked a thumb at him.

"Nah, anyone who carries a sword to a gunfight can't be relied on to bring extra ammo." Hawke smiled wanly, leaning back against one of the consoles. The hail of gunfire had stopped, but they could still hear the monotonous tread of the heavy mechs down below, and now and then a shriek of metal as one unstuck a frozen joint or tore at the stairs leading to their hidden prey. "Ugly looking piece of metal, too."

The sword was perhaps a meter long, plain and unadorned; its blade of some dark, oily looking metal, its hilt a dull and unpolished silver. The cross guard was a simple 'T', and only the pommel - bearing the same symbol, it looked like, as that on the man's tunic - showed signs of ornamentation. "Doesn't look like it's got a uniform purpose. Maybe it's some ritual thing?"

Glenn shrugged. "Eh, beats me. Marines and nobles are the only guys I've ever seen bothering with those things." He flicked the blade with his finger; it made a heavy thud, rather than the steely chime he'd expected. "Nice coat, at least." Brown leather or suede by the look of it, and though obviously well worn it had been kept in good condition. They spared a moment to wonder how much a First Empire leather coat would be worth, then had to wonder how they'd be able to prove its origins, anyway.

"Assuming he's from the Empire, anyway." Hawke said, voicing the doubts they both felt. "Not like there's anything to prove he didn't come later, like us."

"Got pinned up here, like us." Glenn continued.

"And starved to death."

"Or asphyxiated."

"Mighty odd, cruising a wreck without at least a soft suit, though."

"Maybe he had friends. Hooked the ship up, pumped some atmo into it, took off when the robots attacked. They might be planning on coming back, for that matter."

"Lucky for us if they do. Probably have enough firepower to deal with those tin soldiers out there."

"Hope they don't see us as claim jumpers, that's the case." Glenn shrugged, stretched, winced as he pulled on his bruised torso muscles. "God Almighty, that smarts."

"You're lucky your suit absorbed most of it," Hawke said tartly, loading a fresh shell into his shotgun and pumping it. "Be smarting a hell of a lot more if those had gone through."

"Did enough," Glenn said mournfully. "I'm not venting air, but it's a near thing." They tried the radio again, failed to make contact, and settled back to wait.

Hawke's chronometer was as cracked as his light. "Got the time?"

Glenn shook his head, only half visible in the dim light. "Nope. Never bothered with the stupid things; always figured they're more trouble than they're worth."

They sat in silence for a few minutes more, the Hawke asked, "Is it getting darker in here?"

"Seems that way," Glenn said after a pause to check. "Guess the batteries are finally running out."

"Well... shit." Hawke rubbed at his face plate vainly. "This shit just gets better and better, hey?"

Gunfire sprayed the office again, forcing them to lay prone on the floor with shards of glass and metal raining around them. "Those guys just don't give up," Glenn spat. "Pass me your shotgun, I'll see if I can't get them to lay off for a little while." Hawke slid the gun over, and Glenn pushed himself to an upright position, then a crouch, testing his hurt leg gingerly.

"How's the leg?"

"I'm starting to get some feeling back in it. Seems to still work." Glenn sat up and fired in the same smooth motion, then ducked back down as fire sprayed the room again. "Think I nicked one."

"Well, great. Keep that up, we'll have them whittled down in no time." Hawke rolled his eyes and hunched down again as another wave of fire rocked the room. "They're going to turn this place into Eidelweiss cheese long before then, of course."

"Not a hell of a lot else we can do, boss, unless you feel like picking up that pig sticker there." Glenn gestured at the corpse's sword with the shotgun as he tried peeking over the edge again. He was down again with glass raining around his ears in a second as they finished demolishing the front window. "Yeesh. I think I ticked them off."

Hawke shook his head and picked up the sword in jest. "Yeah, I'll just charge on down and... and..." His eyes went vacant.

"Boss?" Glenn glanced over at him. "You okay?"

Hawke stood up, ignoring the renewed chatter of the guns, passing the sword back and forth between his hands, getting a feel for its balance. Glenn stared at him, flabbergasted. "Good Lord, John, what the hell are you doing? Get down!"

Hawke looked at him and smiled, the thin, flat grimace of a killer, barely seen in the shadows of his helmet. And then he was gone, leaping through the window as though they were centimeters above the ground, rather than seven meters up. Glenn stared at the empty window for a moment, then pushed himself back to his feet and rushed to the window. Far down below, a mere blur in the fading light, Hawke moved. The war machines were close, no more than ten meters from the base of the tower, and he covered the ground in a few quick steps, the sword moving in short, deadly arcs around him - light glimmered off the ugly blade as he drew it back, then brought it forward, shearing through one robot's leg as though the heavy mech were made of little more than paper. He pivoted and cut off another's hand as it swung to crush him; the dumb creature stared at the stump for a second, then raised its gun arm. That, too, went spinning away with a slash of the sword, and Hawke was upon the 'droid with a volley of lightning thrusts. It went down in a heap with an electronic squeal like a dying pig, spitting sparks. Glenn shook his head in absolute disbelief - in all his years of war, he'd never seen anything like it.

He brought the shotgun up and fired, pumped and fired again, trying to provide support for the captain while the man simply went berserk down below. He couldn't hope to explain the apparently suicidal rage that gripped the man, much less the awe-inspiring power the sword manifested - lightning was crackling off the blade now, as though it were absorbing power from the 'droids it cut down. Another fired, nearly point-blank, far too close to dodge; and Hawke didn't even bother to try, bringing the blade up and around instead. Sparks rained off of it, and when the gun shut down to keep from overheating, he was still standing, having parried every shot. Glenn dropped his gun in astonishment.

"This can't be real," he muttered. He couldn't pinch himself through the hard suit, but the pain of his bruises and twisted leg were convincing enough. It was bizarre - insane, even - but if it wasn't real, then he was being gripped by amazingly intense hallucinations, and the only thing he could do was play along. He grabbed the shotgun and fired as he raised it to his shoulder, catching a mech in the side of the head before it could grab Hawke from behind. Hawke spun and sliced it in half, turned again and launched himself, cat-like, at another. Glenn could barely follow his movements in the half-dark, so quick and sudden were they; before he knew it, the fight was over, and Hawke stood, panting, in the center of a loose circle of broken machines. The sword dangled loosely from his fingers, seemingly on the edge of falling, the point not quite scraping the deck.

His body on automatic pilot, Glenn pumped the shotgun. And Hawke turned and looked over his shoulder at him. Even from this distance, even in the gloom and through the visor, Glenn could see his eyes shining like those of a wild beast; it reminded him of coming face to face with a hunting tiger, once, while on a mission in a jungle world. There was the same taut sense of anticipation and dread as before it sprang.

He jerked back from the window, his hurt leg failing under his weight and pitching him to the floor. He scuttled backwards like a crab, bringing the shotgun to bear as footsteps rang loud and clear on the stairs outside. Hawke appeared in the door, the sword still low by his side, but that feeling of dread still gripped Glenn and he raised the gun as the captain stepped into the room. They paused, staring at each other for a tense moment.

"I'm getting real tired of my crew pointing guns at me," Hawke said at last.

"Just stay back, and we won't have a problem." Glenn said through gritted teeth. "Whatever the hell you are." Hawke lowered his head, as though in thought; then before Glenn could even blink, the sword came up again and Hawke was upon him.

He slapped the shotgun aside almost casually with the flat of the blade, knocking it out of Glenn's hands and skittering across the floor. The sword whipped around again and buried itself in the bulkhead next to his head, Hawke sliding forward until his elbow was braced against Glenn's neck.

"Whatever the hell I am, Glenn," he said, cool as ice. "I'm still your captain." He let go of the sword and stood up, offering Glenn his hand and helping the younger man to his feet. "And your friend." He turned around and walked over to the corner where the shotgun had slid. Glenn slipped his hand around the hilt of the sword and gave it a few surreptitious tugs; unsurprisingly, it refused to budge.

"I hope you don't mind me saying so, skipper," Glenn said cautiously. "But that was the freakiest thing I've ever seen, bar none."

Hawke picked up the shotgun and cradled it in his arms for a moment. "Yeah," he said at last. "Me too." He tossed the gun at Glenn, who caught it reflexively. "You'd better hang onto this. I can't guarantee there won't be more of those things on the way out of here."

"You taking that... thing?" Glenn asked, stepping away from the sword as the captain approached.

"Don't think I have much of a choice," Hawke said, pulling it out of the wall as easily as he might have drawn it from its scabbard. He spun it twice around his hand, eyeing it with a curious expression of mixed affection and distaste. "And I don't think its former wielder will mind-" He broke off, staring at the corner in surprise. Glenn turned, and barely bit back a cry of shock himself.

Where the near perfectly preserved corpse had sat, there was now little more than a skeleton, the tattered rags of its clothes peeling from its bones. Only the brown coat was still intact, draping the skeleton like a shroud.

"This mess just gets creepier and creepier," Hawke said softly. Glenn could only nod mutely, not trusting his voice after this latest in a series of shocks. Something caught his attention, and he approached the skeleton cautiously, prodding the coat aside with the shotgun barrel; the whole skeleton collapsed in on itself, the bones disintegrating to powder as they hit the ground. "Captain, he was leaning on something." He edged the coat aside, revealing a peculiar metal casket the size of an ammunition canister. "What the hell do you suppose this is?"

"Guess that's our treasure," Hawke said resignedly. "Though I have to admit, I'm getting a mite weary of all the twists and turns our little adventure has taken." He edged around Glenn and lifted the case, weighing it in his gloved hands. "Not too heavy." He shook it gently. "Sounds empty, too." He tucked it under one arm like a football, balancing the flat of the sword on his shoulder. "Well, we can poke around some more or we can get the hell out of Dodge." He tapped the sword's hilt idly with a forefinger as he spoke. "I don't trust my luck with this thing again, though, and I imagine you're running a little short on detpacks."

"True enough," Glenn said warily, rummaging in his belt pouches. "Two, no, three left. And a couple more tubes of detcord."

"We might need those on the way back." Hawke paused momentarily as he surveyed the ship's schematics on his head's up display. "And I'm not seeing anything else that looks like a cargo hold or a flight deck. Let's call it a night, Glenn; we've almost gotten our heads handed to us twice, now, and I don't want to push our luck further than we already have." He spun the sword in his hand again, looking for somewhere to hang or carry it, then shrugged resignedly. "Maybe I can get Tommy to rig up some sort of harness," he muttered distractedly.

"You're planning on keeping that thing, boss?" Glenn finished buttoning his pouches and gave the sword a suspicious glance as he moved to Hawke's side. "After we get back to the ship, I mean?"

"Well..." Hawke trailed off, looking at the sword as if wondering how it found itself in his hand, and then shrugging. "Yeah. For the present. I mean, it's been pretty handy and all." Glenn opened his mouth to object, then shut it, casting a glance back at the crumbled corpse as he did so. Didn't prove so handy to him, now did it, he thought as he walked over to the door, wise enough not to voice his opinion aloud. The cargo bay remained empty, save for the shattered remains of the war machines, several still sparking and smoldering. He fought the urge to give one two shots in the head when it suddenly started shuddering and jerking, gouts of unknown fluid spraying from the grievous slashes in its torso and extremities. It shook like a fever victim for a good thirty seconds as they made their way down the broken ladder across the bay, then lapsed into stillness with a sense of finality. Glenn kept the gun moving, keeping the hulks covered in case any more of them rediscovered some faint vestige of life, but Hawke ignored them all, moving with a spring in his step and a distracted air, as though his mind were a million miles away.

"Hey," he said when they were about halfway across the bay. "Here's your gun." He stopped and toed idly at a lump of metal that no longer even vaguely resembled a submachinegun, the weapon twisted and flattened. "I think one of them stepped on it." He kicked it hard, sending it skittering back the way they'd come until it ricocheted off one of the dead mechs with a clattering sound, and resumed his half-trot towards the door. Glenn lagged behind, limping slightly with his hurt leg. He started to call for the captain to wait, then bit it back with a muffled half-curse. He didn't know what had come over Hawke since he'd found the curious sword, and thinking about it - and how easily the man had dispatched a half-dozen killer war machines - send shivers of fear up and down his spine. He was hurt, tired, and scared, and damn if he was going to go hurrying after him like a lost puppy.

Somewhere in the gloom behind them, one of the mechs started jittering again, sending an electronic squeal like the wailing of a damned soul echoing through the darkness.

On second thought... Glenn redoubled his pace, hurrying after Hawke.

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