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“Zaddo Natale.”

The name escaped Beks’ lips in a whisper but had the impact of flooring both Beks and Jodhaa with the ominous implications of the pronouncement. On hearing the name, Beks had understood immediately their dire fate for crossing this criminal’s business. The lengths the crime lord would go to protect his criminal empire were evident. A lethal assassination ... a lethal assassin ...

“Zaddo Natale!” The name reeled through Jodhaa’s mind. She shook her head vehemently in disbelief and horror. “No, no, no.”

The infamous crime lord was a leading and notorious figure within the criminal world. Such was the power and threat that Zaddo Natale wielded that the criminal could stand outside of the Orion Syndicate. He was seen as a near equal with the leaders of the Orion Syndicate. Even the Orion Syndicate who tolerated no competition to their business allowed, no feared, Zaddo Natale to continue his reign of terror and crime. All who had cause to meet or cross the crime lord’s path usually later had cause to suffer and regret it. Despite this, Starfleet and no other authority had ever been able to make any evidence stick or capture theRed Orion. His methods were reputed to be deadly and no witnesses ever lived to testify against him.

The sky suddenly flashed with a searing light and thunder crashed. The lightning struck the lightning arc towers that circled the landing port. It stabbed down with awesome and ferocious angry power. The sky rent apart by the shattering thunder. It felt as if the ground and sky lifted up and then smashed back down, followed by a sudden deluge of rain that lashed down.

The rain pummelled the ground. Water slaked the surface of the ground and smothered everything in a deadened silence obscured by the hammering noise of the rain itself. Their world became a small grimy gloom encircled by the torrent of the downfall.

Beks drew out her weapons and checked them all. Over the roar of the rain, she shouted to Jodhaa, “It’s the name Brous whispered. If he had information on Zaddo Natale then Zaddo would see him dead. We’ve gotten caught up in the middle of it.”

“No. Beks no.”

“Yes. Listen to me. I want you to run for the Étoile. I’ll take out the assassin, you get to the ship and keep going. He may have a back up. There might even be someone on the ship still. You don’t allow yourself to be distracted by whatever you see. The others ... they’ll be dead and there’ll be nothing you can for them. You get to the controls and get out of here.”

Lightning crackled and hit the lightning arcs again.

“Why are you saying this?”

“Because ... just do it Jodhaa. I’ll get on before you power off.”

Beks did not tell her the truth of it. What little was known of Zaddo’s methods was by reputation alone. He was reputedly a barbaric and cruel killer in his own right and employed heinous henchmen to do his horrendous bidding. But there was one name that had garnered its own reputation. That of Zaddo’s assassin, reputed to have been trained by Zaddo himself. That assassin was known only as Talon. Beks knew that Brous’ killing was exactly the M.O. Talon employed.

Jodhaa protested. “Let me take out the assassin. I’m a better shot.” She feared why Beks was sending her on by herself.

Beks voice was level and brokered no argument. “No you’re not.”

That was the truth of the matter but Beks also knew Talon’s reputation and if she went up against him, she would surely die. But if she were to die she would do so only after ensuring Jodhaa lived and escaped. Beks knew that it would take more than that to convince Jodhaa who would make hell if she knew Beks was about to sacrifice herself for her.

Beks grasped Jodhaa’s shoulder and summoned the words to give them both courage for the moment before them. She could feel the eyes of the assassin on them still, waiting for their move. “But you are a better pilot Jodhaa. So you fly us out of here. I’ll shoot us out. Now go!”

The older woman pushed the younger towards the ship. Jodhaa looked back with wide eyes. Beks tried to betray nothing in the look she returned, for Jodhaa had good instincts and would only recognise any fatality in Beks’ eyes. Therefore, Beks gave Jodhaa a kindly smile and prompted her on.

Jodhaa went forwards, creeping low with her weapon out and mentally running through what she had to do. Beks hunkered low in a position behind the cargo crates where she would have a good view and unobstructed target. She would likely only have one shot at this. She had to make it work. Beks double checked her charge and had her secondary weapon ready to back up. Then she steeled herself for the inevitable. She turned and looked towards Jodhaa preparing to run the short distance between the cargo and ship. That instant would incredibly expose Jodhaa, meaning Beks would have to shoot fast and hard.

Her weapon primed, Beks nodded at Jodhaa, giving one last reassuring smile. To herself, Beks declared, I love you girl. And intoned a silent prayer, a last fervent hope for Jodhaa, Please don’t die.

Jodhaa bolted.

Beks jumped to her feet.

A black armour clad figure revealed itself.

The assassin, now a crane over, took aim at Jodhaa but suddenly switched target as Beks trained her Randall Special and Jinku Slingray. The weapons were not useful for precision but for raining down force and firepower on a target. Beks let loose a barrage of shots at the crane gantry.

Lightning and thunder crashed and searing light enveloped the sky.

* * *

Jodhaa was in! The personal door to the cargo ramp had been her entrance hidden away from the assassin. The door shut behind her. Beks could quickly reopen it with a voice activation security pass. Jodhaa didn’t look back for she knew Beks was depending on her to make good their escape.

She could hear the thunder and rain pelting the hull. The storm raged outside and Jodhaa fought the storm that raged within her heart.

Zaddo Natale! Again, Jodhaa could hardly believe she was hearing the name! As an Orion, she had grown up in the fearsome shadow of the Orion Syndicate and certain figures within it struck fear among her childhood friends. One name that struck similar fear but was no part of the Orion Syndicate was that of Zaddo Natale! She cleared her mind of those thoughts. She had to focus on the here and now. Here and now was where she could die.

She raced into the main cargo bay training her Beretta PPP on the upper gangways and the exits, keeping alert to any other attackers. She stopped in the middle of the cargo bay and paused, crouching with her weapon armed and whining with ready power. Save for the charge of the weapon, all was quiet. Too quiet. Far too quiet. Letva and Marro should have been raising holy bloody murder! Rini they would have tried to protect and hidden her away. But there was no sign of them.

She looked towards exit leading towards the cabin berths and itched to race to them. The Va’leh class cabins could become virtual brigs, and indeed the Étoile Cheval by the nature of its work had converted some of the passenger cabins to be exactly that. But the crew berths could become secure vaults, locking down the occupant and keeping any intruders out. That was surely where Rini had to be.

Jodhaa pulled her eyes away from the passageway. She had to go forwards to the cockpit. Beks was depending on her. And the others too - if they were alive. They had to be alive!

Stealthily she crossed the bay. The ship was buffeted by the raging storm and the chains securing the mule clinked and rattled above the cargo bay. She crossed under it, looking upwards carefully for any surprises crossing over the bomb bay doors under it.

Her berretta led the way pointed before her. She trained its muzzle about the copious space occupied by numerous stacked cargo crates and barrels securely stowed by cargo netting and lines.

Her heart hammered in her chest combating with the storm outside pelting the hull creating a continuous drumming within the ship. She edged forwards carefully. ‘I’m being too slow. I need to run.’ But before she could make herself run she saw the hand.

She bolted towards it screaming as she did. “Rini!”

Within seconds, she was at the figure of the slim girl who was her closest friend on the ship. The slim Aenar was a peaceful and gentle being but a wizard at tracking down information and using the comm.nets. She acted as the company’s secretary as well as helping Beks to track down criminal elements, source bounty jobs and sort out the many logistics and legalities involved. A bookworm and a serene soul she was an incongruous element to the crew but all were protective of the blind Aenar. Now she lay in a pool of her own blood; her blind eyes staring into the void of death; a mystified expression frozen on her face.

Jodhaa knew that expression was the last she bore because the Aenar could never understand the penchant of others to do violence. She did not deserve this horrible death. An ugly scorched cut slashed her chest. A weapon of high energy had scythed through her. It registered somewhere in Jodhaa’s memory as some kind of myth or rumour from her childhood stories or memories. She blinked the stray irrelevant thought away. It didn’t matter, for Rini was dead. Jodhaa fought the gorge rising in her throat and wiped her tears and mouth.

In a small voice, as if fearful of disturbing the Aenar’s sleep she whispered and cried with dearest love, “Rini.”

She stared down at the now forever more peaceful body of Rini and keened with grief. She squeezed away the tears as the truth of what Beks had said. It had truly fully registered in the dim and deathly silence of the Étoile’s interior but now the reality confronted her with the horror. Grief stole over Jodhaa. The crew. Her friends. Her family. Murdered. Slain.

“Beks is waiting on you girl. Move it!” She scolded herself but remained rooted to the spot for a further moment. Outside she could make out the roar of the explosion and sighed with happy relief. Beks must have struck the target. “Move it Jodhaa! Move it! Stick to the plan. Move.” Once more, Jodhaa rebuked herself and then ran forwards, straight to the flight deck.

She charged up the steps, her feet clanging on the metal grill. She cared not for stealth. If someone was waiting to strike her, they already knew she was here. She careened through the mess, brushing past laid dishes and a platter of food and they crashed to the deck. Marro had prepared the table and food in readiness for their return from the hunt. As the crockery skittered and smashed, Jodhaa thought of how they would not eat it now and how Marro would not share the meal or any others with them again.

She unlatched the door to the cockpit and faltered, sinking to her knees as grief smashed into her like a tsunami at the sight before her. “Marro! Oh deities, Marro!” Jodhaa crawled across the floor to the Bolian’s bloodied body. His throat bore any ugly wide slash, a gaping hole through which his life force had escaped. His face bore his same kindly expression, a trace of a smile still on his lips. He had not even seen it coming. Small blessing.

Lightning blighted the sight through the cockpit windows. Rain hammered down on the screens.

With trembling hand, she lightly ran her fingers over the contours of his gentle face and closed his eyes. Such kind and gentle, warm hearted eyes that would beam when he told his coarse stories and jokes over the hearty meals he prepared for them.

“Jodhaa! The engines! GO!!!” Beks hoarse roar over the comm. was urgent and panicked.

“Marro.” She started to sob but then stopped. They would grieve later. First, they had to survive. “Yes Boss.”

She got to her shaky feet and even though she wanted nothing more to puke with Marro’s lifeless body in the cockpit with her, she got into the pilot’s seat. She quickly thumbed through the switches bringing the systems up to full power. The engine roared and the super structure vibrated with the high thrust of the engines.

The control panel read ready for the emergency departure. It would be a rough and turbulent take off but the Va’leh class were tough vessels and the Étoile Cheval a seasoned and trusted workhorse had borne them through many a storm. The control panel indicated the nose hatch sealed shut, Beks was aboard; Jodhaa pulled the throttle back, and the engines screamed as she lifted off.

The nose lifted high into the air like the head of a rearing horse as Jodhaa pulled back and pointed the ship towards the stormy sky. Amid the dark of the squall, a fiery glow surrounded the ship of the ship’s variable thrusters firing at full thrust, kicking dirt and smoke violently into the night air. Before her, Jodhaa glimpsed the devastation of the fallen crane and the carnage there before the sight disappeared as the ship reared back.

As the engines took life and Jodhaa took the controls, she felt her fears and grief slip away for an instant. Making contact with the controls, to feel the ship under her control brought control and balance to Jodhaa. She closed her eyes for a moment, sought her inner control and balance. She gripped the controls, flexing her fingers and breathing out. It would seem to an outsider as if she were for those few seconds meditating.

Flying was music to Jodhaa, a song to sing, a dance to dance. Flying was a balance of harmony and timbre, a balance between the notes and the orchestra, pitch and tone, pulse and dynamics. Flying was movement based not on any scientific principles but an art form, a ballet of precision and a rave of instinct, a waltz of control and elegance.

This take off was a thumping cacophony of a heavy metal rock, a clash and a roar of engines as she now burned the engine coils and tore into the sky.

The cockpit door opened Jodhaa turned with tears brimming in her eyes, “Oh Beks...” Her voice suddenly failed her. The figure before her was not Beks! It was a black trimmed and helmeted assassin ...

                                            * * *

Jodhaa had run like a hare. Swift and fast and had not looked back.

Beks fired two rounds into the crane at the target.

The target had fired back. A single shot. But it had hit its target and Beks was propelled backwards.

She hit the ground hard and sloughed through the pools of water. Her weapons flung through the air and splashed along the wet ground.

Beks lay lifeless in the water as the rain pelted her body.

Then with a start, she groaned and rolled onto her side. Her eyes squeezed shut in pain before she opened them to get her bearings. She looked first for her Randall Special and then back towards the crane.

The crane broiled in a fiery storm and pitched downwards, crumpling in on itself, smashing into the heavy cargo containers that toppled and crashed to the ground too. The crane collapsed in a roar of metal girders twisting and crashing as thunder rumbled heavily to drum out the end of its crash.

Beks groped at her neck for air, pulling the button open and gasping. Her hand went to her chest. The scorch mark was deep and smouldering even in the rain. She was thankful for her armour. The high tech piece of equipment, used by the marine elite, was yet another payment in kind from Starfleet. The armour could take the assault of most weapons.

Her chest still felt as if a mule had kicked her. Her ribs bruised, and quite possibly broken, ached and her skin felt as though it had been seared from the heat of the blast. Groaning, she got onto al fours and crawled through the rain to her rifle. She grasped it, then checked its charge.

“Agh!” She got to her feet and stumbled backwards. She struggled over to the cargo bales from where they had taken cover and regained her balance and breath. Looking towards the wreckage of the crane, she hooded her eyes against the lashing rain and building wind. Beks then started forwards with her weapon trained.

She knew her armour vest had saved her life and was top of the range. But the assassin she had seen by the light of the lightning had been garbed in black armour. Talon was supposed to be adorned from head to toe in the toughest, most high spec armour. He wore a blackened helmet that he apparently never removed. It was not known what race he was of, or if he even had a real name. He was a figment of rumour and imagination but the death toll attributed to him attested enough to some truth of the rumours. And so it was that Beks ventured forwards, for she believed not that she had killed him.

She approached the burning hulk of the once towering crane warily and scanned the wreckage for a body. The fall at least would have had to have knocked him out even if his armour protected him from death. Beks saw no body and started looking beyond the debris.

Beks whirled as lightning flashed and thunder crashed. But it was nothing. She continued stumbling through the flames and twisted metal seeking and searching. There was no sign.

Her mind screamed, ‘Get back to the ship!’ but she kept looking for a moment longer before sense kicked in. Beks turned towards the ship seeing the cockpit illuminated and the systems coming on line. The 922 code had worked and surely, by now Jodhaa would be starting the engines.

She jogged towards the ship and then stopped and whipped her head to the right. Too late. Her gun flashed and banged as the kick sent it out of her hand and Beks went sailing through the air too.

Talon landed with one knee to and a steadying hand the ground. His black helmet whipped up to look at Beks’ prostrate form. Even though his features were hidden and there was no tell tale sign of his species, clad in black armour as he was, Talon stood and everything about him spoke of his malevolent abilities and demeanour. He stalked towards Beks and stood before her.

He looked down upon her and his helmet canted to one side, sizing her up quizzically. Beks looked back at him with confusion through narrowed eyes before realising that death stood at her foot.

A distorted computerised voice resonated from the helmet. “You must die.”

Wincing in pain, Beks tried to crawl backwards from him.

“Before you die, die knowing you managed to disarm me before your death.” Then from his hip, he pulled out a bladed discus that glowed and whined with a deadly energy. The rumours were true then! Talon carried his own specialised blade edged with the coursing energy fashioned into a glowing deadly chakram. “But you will still die.”

She stalled him for time. “Why?”

Talon stood before her unmoving and silent, studying her pathetic scramble of a retreat on her back.

“We know nothing of your master. We were bringing Brous in for petty crimes. Nothing more. Let us go. You have no need to eliminate my crew.”

“I already have.”

Anger coursed through Beks and she screamed at him defiantly before halting her scream. She had to control her anger - had to focus. She would not die on the ground like a wounded animal. She was a bounty hunter. She was the hunter not the hunted.

Lying on the ground, her position was feeble. She had to get to her feet. Had to fight back but she would have to judge the right moment to do so. She had to wait.

She waited for the right moment. Patience. He raised his chakram blade, the edge rotated with a pulsing orange energy as he brought it up to scythe down at her. Beks waited. Waited for the moment to strike. “You can go to hell.”

Lightning flashed and thunder roared in the tumultuous night sky.

And Beks lashed out with her boot, jabbing the back of his knee with her boot. It would only serve to unbalance him, but she used that moment to grab his helmet and smack him to the ground. She used this movement to haul herself off the ground too. Then she reached and grabbed his arm to stop his keen blade.

The discus crackled and sizzled in the rain. The heat was palpable to Beks even as she restrained the chakram blade from coming near to her.

Talon twisted and tossed Beks over his back and then wheeled round with the cutting edge. But Beks had expected it and ducked under the sweep of his arm and past him in a forward roll. She rolled twice and picked up her rifle. She twisted round swiftly and fired.

The shot hit him square in the helmet visor and Talon staggered backwards from the hit. The armour absorbed most of the damage but the force still kicked a punch.

Beks fired again. And again. And Talon fell back with each hit. Then he started forward his chakram whipping through the air as he pirouetted and kicked out. Beks had to dive under the arm but his boot kicked her hard in the mouth and she went sprawling. So too went her rifle.

Talon turned and faced her. Beks crawled through the wet towards the rifle that lay before the hulks of precariously perched toppled cargo containers. The chakram hummed with livid energy as he brought it to bear.

Beks looked back and could see him loom large over her.

She grasped the tail of the rifle and in that moment, knew she would not have the time to turn and aim it. In the time it would take, his blade would cut her down. She had one mad gambit to try but if she failed, she had to ensure Jodhaa lived and escaped. She tapped her combadge. She had to get Jodhaa to leave now. “Jodhaa! The engines! GO!!!” So she gambled and pulled the trigger.

The shot blasted into a bale of cargo crates stacked by the fallen and haphazard stack of cargo containers. The cargo bale exploded and the containers groaned and started to tumble anew. Talon looked up enthralled as the containers pitched over and began falling. Lithely he leapt backwards and looked on aghast, surprised and impressed as Beks ran towards the falling masonry and containers.

They collapsed down in a roar and engulfed where she had been running.

As the steel and cargo settled with moaning creaks, Talon picked his way over the twisted containers but spied no sign of Beks. He tapped two fingers to the side of his helmet accessing the intricate interface of his visor to read for any life signs. Satisfied there were none, Talon turned as the rain continued to fall, thrumming on the burnt and warped metal of the containers, and he looked towards the ship powering up.

Then he started towards it...

* * *

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