A New Empire in the Making
A New Empire in the Making
"Since the death of the Queen, the remnants of the Crown Empire have been in disarray. Although the Slaverlords are no more, there is still a powerful military engine in place, with construction unending. With the Queen's passing, a power vacuum has opened up, with many generals and commanders fighting amongst each other to be the new ruler of the Empire. It is now a very dangerous time for the peoples within the Empire and us on the fringes." Owen N'Gata finished with a sigh.
"Is there any indication of any new leadership becoming promenant?" Doc Hartford asked.
"Unfortunately, yes." Commander Walsh replied. "Our informants tell us that Lazarus Slade is rising to prominence. Because of his previous incidents with the Queen, he appears to have built up some support within the ranks, and now that she's gone ... he's beginning to take a good portion of control."
"He's smart, has leadership, and is bullheaded enough to try it." Owen continued. "Also, and this is why we've brought you back so soon, team. He's apparently recruited at least one of the renegade Supertroopers to help him."
`Oh no' Niko heard Shane's mind react. She put a calming hand on his leg and gave him a reassuring squeeze.
"Ranger Gooseman, if this information is correct, you'll be the one in the most direct conflict with the supertroopers. Also, if the information we've been given is accurate, the trooper is Ryker Killbane."
"Killbane - He would turn against the human race. He's always been unstable, Sir. You know that." Goose replied.
"I know, Gooseman. Killbane's instabiity was due to be corrected, but the Wolf Den incident occured before we could begin to correct it. In any case, if Killbane is the trooper that has been recruited, then you're the only one capable of stopping him." Walsh said.
Niko felt Shane's mind relax, and a brief thought confused her `At least Darkstar and Stingray are still safe'
"We're equipping Ranger-1 with a cryo-stasis chamber. If you do manage to capture Killbane, you can subdue him for return to Earth." N'Gata stated.
"Sir, what IS our mission?" Zachery Foxx asked.
"Go back to the Psychocrypt asteroid field and find out how Lazarus Slade is building up his power base - stop him if possible, but find out as much as you can. We don't have the ships or equipment to fight another battle with the Crown armada at this time. We need to know how far their military is in rebuilding after the destruction of the Psychocrypt. Good luck, team." Walsh finished.
* * *
"Ranger-1 ready for launch." Zach told BETA Flight Command.
"Roger Ranger-1, good hunting." Came the reply, and Zach waited for the launch indicators to flash readiness.
On board the smaller Ranger Interceptor, Gooseman finished his own flight check. "Ranger Interceptor ready for launch."
"Roger Ranger Interceptor, launch when ready." Launch control replied.
The indicators flashed green, and Shane throttled to max thrust. The smaller ship leapt off the pad, magnetically aided by the lauch cradle, shot through the launch tube and into the clear air around BETA. Right beside him, the larger cruiser carrying the other three members of the team followed.
Shane checked the flight systems, then handed control over to Alma (Automated Large Memory Autopilot) The AI which was really in control of the small FTL capable starship.
"Everything looks good." Niko said as she checked the flight controls. Zach nodded as he continued to pilot the cruiser through the rapidly thinning atmosphere into clear space so they could initiate a jump to to the Tortuna system, their first stop.
"Niko, how is Goose?" He asked suddenly.
Taken back slightly, Niko flustered. "What do you mean, Captain?"
"We're going after one of his former comrades, someone who he grew up with, trained with, someone who is as close to family as he's currently got ... do you know what his feelings are on this matter?" Zach glanced sideways for eye contact.
"I-I don't know, Captain. He hasn't mentioned anything about the other supertroopers to me. The subject simply hasn't come up. In any case, we're not really going after Killbane, we're going to try and stop Slade ... aren't we?" She asked.
Zach slowly shook his head. "You know as well as I do that one of Goose's directives to keep him from the cryocrypt was that he hunt down the escaped supertroopers and return them to Earth for internment. He doesn't like it, but has obeyed so far. I'm just concerned that this time, we're going after somebody who was directly involved with him, on a long-term basis, during his growing-up."
On board the interceptor, Shane was also thinking along those lines, but for different reasons.
You're a runt, Gooseman, you'll always be a runt. You're weak, and I'm strong. I've got my abilities, and look at you, you're still not showing any signs of them. You're just a wimp." Killbane told him time and again after his own bio-defences had manifested, but Shane's were lagging. It had taken six months for Shane Gooseman's bio-defences to manifest, and by that time, Ryker Killbane was convinced that he was the king of the Wolf Den.
It had never matterred that Shane could out-fight Ryker in hand-to-hand, or that he was a better marksman. Ryker had always put him down. I not for the support of the other supertroopers, who in their own way acted as a loose-knit family, Shane might have turned out vastly different. He was interrupted from his reverie by Alma's soft voice.
"Ready for Hyperspace, Goose."
Shane nodded. "Ok, let's do it." He punched the tab, and the interceptor leapt into hyperdrive, followed by the cruiser. All that was left was the fading ring of cerenkov radiation that indicated the jump had been initiated.
* * *
Dropping back into normal space, the Interceptor's sensors pinged rapidly as they scanned space around the ship. "Multiple targets, Goose. Inbound and outbound." alma asvised him, but Shane could already see, his better than 20/20 vision already picking out the tiny specks of steel and titanium that were not asteroids amongst the backdrop of the Queen's Graveyard.
"Captain, this area is crawling with ships, get to cover." He said as he dove his ship towards a large lump of rubble.
The larger cruiser followed, but was not as swift as the interceptor, and one of the ships, a Crown picket ship, lumbered out of the main asteroid belt to begin launching an attack on the interloper.
As it moved in, it's main cannon sending blazing beams of light against the cruiser, Shane brought the interceptor around and fired a volley against the exposed belly of the ship. He scored some hits, and the picket ship broke off to pursue him, but could not match his speed or maneuverability. Goose dodged and weaved amongst the asteroids, then thought of an idea. Swooping very close to a rather large rock, so close that Alma's proximity sensors screamed an alarm, he hit full reverse thrust and stopped dead on the other side of it ... to wait.
Soon enough, the picket ship lumbered into view, but being that Goose was within metres of the `roid, he was masked by it against a sensor sweep. He waited for the Picket ship to pass, then locked all weapons onto the engines and fired.
"All clear, Captain." He radioed as he accelerated from the blooming fire of a reactor explosion, all that remained of the Crown picket ship and it's crew.
"Goose," Niko's voice came back over the radio, "We've detected a power source, it looks like another asteroid base. Activate your countermeasures and follow us in. We've got airlock access."
* * *
"I don't like the look of this." Doc commented as he put the CDU away. The airlock had opened without him even needing to use any of his programs, which was highly unusual for any Crown facility.
"I agree, it's too easy. There's a whole mess of ships out there, and only one was despatched to attack us. This smells like another trap, Captain." Goose added.
"You might be right, team. Everybody, be on your guard and be ready for anything." Zach said as they piled into the airlock, which began to cycle.
* * *
"I do hate saying I told you so, Captain, but I told you so!" Doc commented as they were steadily marched along a corridor towards the heart of this asteroidal complex. The team had stepped out of the airlock into a circle of Crown agents, all armed, and all ready for them. They had been disarmed and told that the new Emperor of the Crown Empire wanted an audience. That was where they were going.
A few minutes later, they were ushered into a fairly lavish throne room, all subdued lighting and soft pastel colours, directly opposite what the Queen would have preferred. Out of the shadows stepped Lazarus Slade, with a scepter that looked like something out of a bad Tri-D movie. It was obviously some sort of weapon, along with other things, as it had many crystal nodes, switches and gadgets hanging off it.
"Well, well, well. Captain Zachery Foxx and the Series Five Galaxy Rangers Team, how nice of you to join me. As you can see, there have been some changes around here since our last .. ahem... encounter. I'd like to thank you for getting rid of the Queen, she really was beginning to be such a drag, you know." Slade finished with a toothy smile.
"And you moved in, right Slade?" Goose growled.
"Of course, with a little help from my friends. You do remember Ryker Killbane, Ranger Gooseman?" Slade said as he indicated a opening door.
Killbane stepped through the door. He had been ... changed somehow. He was now more than seven feet tall, and almost half that wide. Bulked up on muscle and sinew, with an even more insane look in his eye than even Shane remembered. "Hey, runt ... how's tricks?" Ryker said, a maniacal grin on his lopsided face.
"What - what happened to him! What have you done!" Shane yelled, leaping forward to grapple Slade. Faster than any of the others could react, Killbane interposed himself between Goose's hurtling form and Slade's silent visage, easily grappling the smaller man and stopping his charge.
"Sorry, runt. Can't let you hurt the man. Not until he's finished telling you what he's gonna do, at least."
"What happened to you, Killbane?" Goose asked him as the other put him down.
"I can explain that better than him, Ranger." Slade interposed. "You see, I offered Killbane a deal - let me experiment on him to enhance his supertrooper abilities, and I would offer salvation to any and all Supertroopers under the banner of the New Crown Empire."
"You experimented on him? He's not some lab animal, he's a living breathing person, Slade, you've turned him into some kind of monster!" Shane cried.
"I never knew you cared, runt." Killbane rumbled. "Actually, I kind of like the new me. I feel ... better. I think clearer, and move faster. You should try it, runt. you might understand afterwards."
"I prefer to be as I am, Killbane. I might have been conceived in a test tube, but at least I haven't been altered almost beyond recognition!"
A sharp crack interrupted them. Slade had slammed the base of his staff on the ground, and lightning flared from it's base. "Enough! Now, Ranger Captain Zachery Fox, you go back to BETA and you tell them that I am in command of the Crown Empire, and I have absolutely no interest in the League of Planets. So if you leave me alone, I will ensure that my forces leave you alone. Have you any idea how much unexplored space is contained within the boundaries of the Crown Empire?"
"A fair amount." Niko said.
"yes, Ranger Niko, a very large amount, more than ten times the volume of the League has only been basically charted, but not properly explored. Add to that the fact that under proper management this Empire will quickly climb back to it's former glory, under my leadership! And also telyour BETA collegues that I offer amnesty to all criminals and outcasts from the League of Planets. I will enforce that amnesty with every ship at my disposal if you launch any form of strike against any world under Crown control. Tortuna ... pitiful world, is now a neutral planet. Both sides may use it equally, but neither side may have a military presence. Even now, the Crown forces are withdrawing from the planet. I have need of them elsewhere."
Slade paused for emphasis, then continued.
"Now get out, go back to BETA and tell them - make sure they understand. I don't want a war, but I will attack you if you attack me. Also, the Supertroopers are mine!"