Arilon

"Not even crumbs today", Lee mumbles to himself. He wonders why he feels crazier now, considering he has taken numerous multi-month flights across the solar system before.

"Probably the cave", he replies, trying his best to put the stale metallic smell out of his mind. Unlike most places, where the smell becomes normal after a while, Lee simply cannot acclimate to the abandoned machine he was hiding in. "Probably the boredom"

Lee made the mistake of crossing the holding corp to all other corps, CCI. He didn't know who was CEO of Cisco Commonwealth Industries, but he assumed that they spoke his name in at least one board meeting. Perhaps it was the opposite, maybe he had been erased completely.

He felt a twinge of remorse as he considered how foolish the mission was at the time. Steal a future-tech CCI military weapon and pawn it. The payout would have been great; he could finally own his own ship outright. But the risk.

The risk was sitting in an abandoned mining rig waiting for the authorities to stop looking for him. The rations ran out a few days ago, but thankfully each bar was a full days' worth of nutrition, so he was able to last quite a bit longer. The air and water recyclers still worked, so truly the only thing keeping him from staying out here indefinitely was the lack of food. "And the boredom" Lee said, before he became conscious he was talking to himself.

He pulled his armpad up and checked the Net. Still down, ever since last week. He didn't think CCI would turn off the entire damn Net over one fugitive, but you could never be sure with CCI. They were wizards when it came to mass media and propaganda.

Lee isn't weak from hunger now, but he knows he will be if he waits any longer. This mining rig won't actually move anymore, nor would it hold air once it left the hole it was abandoned in. Lee would have to remember to return, and replenish the food - this find was one in a million. Or maybe it literally was one of a million abandoned machines. After asteroid mining and orbital factories made material cheap, more and more machines were simply abandoned or discarded, instead of the kind of recycling that someone on Earth has to do. Gravity makes everything from Earth and on Earth expensive, but here on Mars, you could probably escape orbit just using scram jets.

He got out here due to his leg springs, and that's how he'll have to get back. As with shipping, gravity makes travel on Earth complicated too. Crossing over a hundred kilometers on foot would be a grueling task there; here, with a pair of strap on leg prosthetics, he could bounce-run the distance in a few hours, hardly breaking a sweat.

Lee triple-checks his straps, seals, backups, and equipment. He burnt his emergency transponder so CCI couldn't track him, and if he fell and tore his suit, no one would even know. Lee didn't expect to grow old peacefully, but he didn't want to go out suffocating over a silly mistake either.

Once he was satisfied he could make the trek, Lee gaily bounced towards the nearest dome:

Arilon.

The hairs were standing on the back of Lees neck for a long portion of this trip. At first, he assumed he would have to duck and dash behind outcroppings to prevent passing ships from noticing his approach. What he found instead was far more unsettling.

Not a single ship or launch to orbit occurred during the entire trip back to the dome. Not a single rover, surveyor, and maintenance crew flight were outside either. Trams connecting the domes were still going full tilt, but the terrain was silent and foreboding.

While this made approaching a maintenance hatch of the dome infinitely less stressful, but the entire trip felt like walking into an ambush. How could CCI get the entire population of Mars to stay inside the domes? And why?

Plenty of terrorists stole military weapons all the time. Even doomsday weapons were on the news every few weeks - like that cult that invented some kind of super-ebola prion. If they hadn't been stopped, the entire planet of Venus would be inhabitable right now.

It just didn't add up, these energy-based armor-piercing bombs were nothing to laugh at, but they didn't have a very large kill zone, meters, not planets. "So why.." Lee breathed into his suit as he pulled up his arm pad.

The Net wasn't down here, but the polarized plating of the dome wasn't letting much useable EM through either. The PAN of the door mechanism wasn't affected much though, so that's where Lee started to go to work.

Most doors had their own Personal Area Network, so that authorized users didn't need to fiddle around with locks. They also would come with significant security suites to prevent unauthorized use. CCI's control over the market meant that most equipment had built-in backdoors - it made no sense to ask owners to let CCI goons in, when CCI could ply the manufacturers instead.

Even with the thin atmosphere, Lee heard the squelch of the alarms from the inside. His heart stopped for a moment until he was able to make out the tones. De-pressurization warnings, not unauthorized intrusion. Lees audible "Phew" fogged his visor slightly as he entered the airlock.

After a few minutes of automated sanitization and pressurization protocols, Lee could smell the famous stench of the Arilon dome. A little bit like bad breath and broccoli farts, probably due to the mineral concentrations of the source building materials. Every dome had a unique smell, because they were all built from the surrounding rock and dust by polymerizing nano-tech. They weren't nanites in earnest, not like in sci-fis. They weren't robots nor intelligent, more like arrays of universal enzymes. Raw material goes in, ferrocrete and food and whatever else comes out.

What Lee didn't expect was the reception. No one. Not a single worker in the interior of the dome either. Lee had managed to sneak in alright, but the weirdness factor just went up about a thousand.

As Lee paced the endless expanse of tunnels underneath the dome, he looked for signs of the endless work that needed doing down here. He found a few of the automated systems or robotic workers, but not a single technician. If CCI really did lock down the dome this hard, there would be strikes!

"I mean, how would these people even afford to live here?" Lee asked the echoing corridor. It costs about 3 whole credits a year to live in the dome, and without a steady influx of credits, CCI would be deporting loiterers by the thousands'. But no immigration ships were coming or going all day.

Lee ducked into one of the main transport tunnels that were for servicing trams, and found the first human he had seen in weeks. A young woman looked up and mumbled "You shouldn't be here..." before going back to her console.

"Hey, they sent me to fix a Xenon leak," Lee lied, "But I think I got turned around."

Bad move, that got her attention. "No, they shut the fusion flows down." Her console showed a cacophony of flashing red. A lot of systems were down, and plenty more were failing. "Look, I don't have time for this. The service tram can take you back to the hub, and it'll slide back this way in about 5."

Lee opened his pad and tried to look like he was casually browsing his spacebook while he waited. His fake swipes masked a torrent of searching for what had happened. The Net was bad down in the tunnels though, his hacked tools showed a ton of interference coming from all around.

"Hey, what's wrong with the Net?"

"Really dude, not now. You been under a rock or something? The Meteor shower?"

The tram pulled up right before he could interrogate her further. "Sorry" Lee said as he snatched her ID tag and used in on the tram. "Hey!" she could hardly shout before the tram slid away, easily accelerating far faster than any human could run.

The console she was at was company issue, so pulling her tag would lock her out of the system. That bought him about 10 or 15 minutes before she would get security, and they would have this tram locked down. He saw the corridor open around him, and he hit the egress button. The tram slid into the egress lane and pulled into a long line of traffic. Lee was close enough to the platform that he pulled the canopy open and hopped out, while the tram itself squealed in protest. Looking too busy for traffic rules was Lee's favorite way to blend in.

The crowd here was immense. They were all displaced workers, and they all seemed to be trying to get to this particular corporate office. As he swapped tags with an older man, he was almost caught by another worker. "You here for the job too? Was a spacesuit required?" echoes of doubt started rolling through the crowd, most of which had neglected to bring their own equipment.

"Yeah, I think so? I didn't read the contract closely though." Lee said.

"Ahh, yeah they finally opened a contract here a Blue Mazon, but the details were sketchy. CCI is gonna end the gratuity any day now, and.." The worker was interrupted by gunfire.

Hypersonic speakers broke out half a kilometer ahead "The contract is filled. Return to your residences. All loitering will be met with lethal force.", a faceless voice boomed around them.

Unlike the crowd, Lee knew they weren't joking. Lee didn't pay his fees, but he was never caught for loitering either - hence why he was still alive. If a loiterer turned themselves in, they would simply get deported. Get found loitering, and it was really easy to 'spook' a guard and get shot. In this case, hypersonic speakers are far preferable to hypersonic SMGs. Even the tiny pellets those ridiculous guns fire transfer enough force to tear a person apart.

Lee swapped tags with another dozen workers on his way back to the trams, before climbing into one already occupied.

"No.." The older man started to say, before Lee interrupted with "I'll cover the fee, I'm going there too.." As he reached to swipe the tag. Thankfully the owner of the tag didn't appear too dissimilar to Lee, and the worker didn't happen to notice.

The tram ride was pleasant enough; the older man stumbled out toward the waltel he had been staying at. The "vacancy" sign was lit, so Lee followed him silently, and ducked down a different row after he saw the old worker pass. Just in case the guy did get a look at his face, he didn't really want to get noticed twice.

He walked up to one of the vacant pods, and pulled his pad out, probing for one of the many corporate backdoors. This one was simple, instead of telling the door to open, tell it to close - the lock mechanism was binary toggle, and would cycle twice before resetting. Lee swiftly pulled the handle just as he heard the second click and voila, he had a place to stay tonight. The tag dropped onto the foot of the suite just as Lees had passed underneath, and he climbed inside after checking that no one was watching.

()The waltel was the first time he found a useable connection to the Net, and he got to work finding out what was going on.

The media reported that the entire solar system was drifting through a galactic dust storm, and that meteor showers had caused untold damage to everything in space, and any colonial installation that had been unshielded. Domes and trams were safe, but the dust was causing a ton of interference. No one could go outside, nor couldn't fly anything. No word from any of the other colonies, or even from Earth because of the interference.

Except Lee hadn't seen anything more than a few bizarre re-entry streaks. The media had this played up like the literal sky was falling.

This also afforded CCI to mobilize a massive paramilitary police force, to "keep the peace". CCI offered a waiver on all living fees, provided you had been there more than 17 days. Loitering was still a capital offense of course, but at least honest workers weren't going to be put out on the street.

Lee perused a ton of fear campaign articles, encouraging people to turn in their neighbors for being subversive in this time of need. Anyone paying for living must be loiters (the reversal is truly ironic) and they should be called out. Thankfully Lee hadn't paid for anything but a tram ride today, and really it wasn't even his money. The two days' worth of rations he ate, and the two more he stuffed in his pockets were on his marks dime too.

But that would end soon. He forgot to ditch the tag, it now sat quite heavy in his pocket.

"Too late to do anything with" Lee mumbled, since he had been searching with it for the better part of an hour.

He would be tracked, and without a crowd here, it would be difficult to pick up a new tag unnoticed. He needed a destination. He needed to find the next departing ship.

One of his tricks was another corporate backdoor - CCI controlled all job postings, but never put out jobs itself. Holding corps or LLCs usually did the real work based on CCI requisition accounts. He pulled up one of his many old holding corps and polled the requisition accounts.

And no surprise, plenty of money was flowing, mostly to security forces and weapons manufacturing companies. Lee looked, but didn't see anything flowing to space flight or transit accounts.

After a few pensive moments Lee tried one more thing - fuel. Any ship would need the specific blend of fusion fuel that made ion engines happy. Whoever would be flying would need at least a tank or few of the stuff to get anywhere worth going. But no contracts were visible.

In a final desperate attempt, Lee searched for fuel handlers. The regulations concerning the mildly radioactive deuterium and xenon mix required a handler to have almost a dozen certificates, and therefore, would need a specific requistition.

"Gotcha!" Lee cheered, as he found one single account for a handler. Problem is, the money was already spent. The job was taken, and worse, it was being executed now. The location wasn't in the spaceport either, but in the sanitation sub-dome nearby the main Arilon dome. Lee was worried this might be a false positive, only thing that gets shipped there is industrial waste. His suit wasn't heavily lead lined either, so the radioactivity could give him burns, and would most certain fry his equipment.

Chuckling, Lee realized that his concerns were exactly perfect. No one would think to would launch from there, solely because the dangerous factors that would make a covert launch so easy.

The comms system in his suite chimed. No one calls suites directly, and no one would be calling him here.

The waltel was more of a tube than a room, and he could hardly fumble out of his suit earlier. He wasn't going to get it back on quickly, so he grabbed his small pistol and the few electronics he could before he slid out.

"Freeze, CCI!" Two men in dark armor barked.

"Hands up, don't shoot!" Lee replied, remembering the sing-song phrase they would perform in primary school, teaching children how to survive encounters with the police and military.

"Slowly retrieve your tag with your right hand." The approaching officer shouted.

Lee did just that, pulling the tag slowly from the inside of his coat.

The officer took it and placed in into an alcove on his much bulkier pad. Lee counted off slowly "three .. two... one..." and dropped to the ground as the tag exploded, frying the first officers pad and sending the second one diving for cover.

The ripping sounds of the hypersonic SMGs burst through the corridor, tearing into a few of the occupied waltels above Lees head. His pistol was mundane, and has a low capacity clip; 30 rounds would have to do. The second officer had tried to radio for help, but the aluminum and copper wrapped thermite in the fake tag Lee handed them acted as an EMP, frying most of the Net emitters nearby. Lee hoped that the improved shielding around his pad would be enough, because he was going to need it later to get near that ship.'

Lee's pistol barked a few hollow clangs as it fired single shots in the general direction of the officers. Lee didn't really want to kill anyone, but he's not so naive as to think these two didn't sign up for it. The ablative armor barked as Lees' rounds struck the first officer. Lee knew the first few shots will never hit, so he tried to go for grazing shots to trick the armor into burning off more sand.

The second officer took aim from behind cover, and Lee barely ducked around the next row of suites before the SMG shredded the waltels casing. Safety foam spewed from the break, and enough soundproofing was damaged that Lee could hear the occupant shriek in surprise.

Lee waited for the officer to turn the next corner, and fired a few more shots in their direction. He knew the cadence they trained into these thugs, and can hack these people almost as easily as doors: Suspect fires at the officers and takes cover. Officers return fire and advance. One will move directly toward Lee and keep him occupied, the second will try to flank. Rinse and repeat until Lee is captured or dead.

These two seemed to prefer dead.

Lee played along with this after turning down the row of luxury suites. These ones were so large that the occupant could stand upright in more than half of the suite. They also needed the most air conditioning pumped into them.

After a quick burst of fire toward the officers, Lee popped the air circulator and found what he had hoped for: the main air duct was large enough for him to fit. The downward slope gives him vertigo as he looked down. He was thankful that he strapped on the friction gear from his suit.

Lee realized the officer stopped shooting as he tested the gear to find that it still works. He fired blindly around the corner and then shifted to peek around the broken edge of the suite, but before he could do so the two officers both opened fire. Spooked, which exactly is what you don't want in a guard.

If Lee had waited any longer, the tribunal would find the two officers innocent of anything they did. Their armor must have registered the spike in their heart rate, and that evidence alone was a death sentence for Lee. Instead of dwelling on this, Lee slid down the air tunnel.

Lee slid down the air duct at an extremely steep angle for a few moments longer than was safe, to put extra distance between himself and his pursuers. He triggered the friction pad and slowly slid to a halt near a removable joint. Carefully, Lee restarted his pad and waited during the boot sequence. The pad had been damaged, but he hoped the auto recover would finish before the officers had figured out where he went.

They wouldn't be so bold as to follow this way - Lee could have easily slid into an air purifier, which would have macerated his body and "cleaned" him out of the air. Stories of remains found in filters were gruesome to say the least.

The officers would put out a call, and the authorities wouldn't just be investigating a stolen tag anymore, but an all-out manhunt. That would mean plenty of work, and maybe even a reward. With a reward of even a half credit, Lee wouldn't live for another day.

Lee's pad finally sprung to life and he got to work. The nearby access hatch responded well to his commands, letting him know what networks it was connected to and how much access he didn't have. Lee could use this widespread interference to his advantage. He started his own PAN with an identical name to the server that the hatch was interfaced with, and sent a fake tag to the hatch. The hatch connected to the strongest signal it could; Lee's, and then Lee made sure the tag was accepted. It was a simple Net request and a simple reply. The hatch clicked as it unlocked.

Lee slid out into a maintenance corridor, closed the hatch, and ran. Getting to this other dome would be tricky, even for him. Somehow he had to bypass the tram security system and exit Arilon; a feat that was normally difficult was now nearly impossible due to this meteor shower and subsequent lockdown.

Running, even in the domes, was still taxing, especially since Lee had been living low-G for a few years now. The service corridors were short, and the distance between doors wasn't long, but Lee had kept the springs and was using them in his hands. His pad was set to ping anything nearby with a half dozen different "open sesame" scripts, and Lee was able to hit a good stride as doors slid aside in his path.

Lee knew traffic was moving between domes.

Trams full of both people and cargo flowed between them when he was approaching from outside.

"Aha!" Lee said, and clamored to a halt.

He turned back towards the shipyards.

People are predictable; they will break rules to keep well fed.

Lee made sure to always carry some old Earth currency around, and it always came in handy.

The staffer at the shipyard was worried about the lack of work. Lee nodded, looking concerned the whole time.

"Well, it's your lucky day. All I need is an empty tank. I'll fill it on my own, and then it'll need to go to the waste repo dome, here." Lee keyed it up on the company terminal.

"Sound good?" Lee said as he dropped the roll of bills onto the console and walked towards the forklift area.

Lee snagged a forklift, and moved an empty tank away from the worker, and down one of the long aisles of various compounds. He altered the metadata for the tank so that it reflected urgency and the correct destination. Lee still had a small rebreather from his suit, and so he did the quick math: The tram should arrive at the subdome in about 45 minutes, and the rebreather will stop turning the CO2 from the interior of the fuel pod into O2 in about an hour.

"Heh. Plenty of time."

Lee set the forklift to automatically head down to the loading area, drop the tank off, and then return to the corral, hoping that the worker wouldn't notice Lees lack of departure. He climbed inside, set off his scripts and waited.

A heavy thud a few minutes later let Lee know that he had been deposited into the loading area. The tank itself had more than enough room inside; the modular design afforded two areas for the xenon and deuterium to wait for their eventual fusion reaction inside the laser-induced super-heated core. The product of which is magnetically shuffled into the ion engines as reactant for thrust. He had simply popped out the divider and hid it amongst the various other objects shelved nearby.

Hard acceleration threw Lee against the wall of the tank, and if he hadn't left the friction pad on before zoning out, he may have even broken a few bones. This wasn't designed for comfortable travel, and Lee had some significant regrets about this plan as the industrial tram ride threw him around the interior of the tank like an old garment in a high-efficiency dryer.

A finally hollow thud rang in Lee's ears as he was deposited, somewhere. He felt the rumble of nearby forklifts, but at no point did any of them pick up his tank. Another oversight, he never keyed in a storage location upon arrival at his final destination. At the time it seemed clever since he didn't know the layout of this waste repository, nor did he want to cause a collision. A clash would cause him to be either rejected and found outright by the automated system, or worse, actually rammed into another tank, which could easily be toxic, explosive, or radioactive.

An eternity of waiting passed, but his pad said it was only about half an hour, before Lee took the chance and keyed in the container to unseal itself. The reading on the rebreather read black, so meaning the atmosphere inside the tank was becoming toxic on its own. He held his pistol out, hoping he didn't have to use it.

A worker in the distance shouted, no doubt because a suspicious unmarked container just opened on the bay floor, and with the rampant ever-present threat of terrorism, this was exactly the kind of attention Lee didn't want to draw to himself.

Lee kicked out the panel and broke into a run toward the nearest open space he could see. The vertigo hit him immediately, as he realized he was in way over his head; far more than he had originally thought or could have imagined.

The industrial waste repository looked far less like the warehouse he imagined, and far more like its own fully functional shipyard. Enormous machines were busy all over the wide interior of the dome, moving and carrying various items and equipment towards the center of the dome.

Lee was nearly tackled by one of the guards as he sprinted by, but with a crack the guard only caught the butt of Lee's pistol and collapsed to the ground. Without breaking stride, Lee turned towards whatever was at the center of the dome, although he was having some serious doubt that what he was looking at was even a ship.

It's had the general shape of a CCI rail fighter: a long hexagonal armor-plated box, strapped with guns and engines. But the ion engines were way too big, over double the length and far wider diameter than anything that could hold its own magnetic field together. And instead of the typical six or eight pairs of engines, with a few backup scram jets, this had 12 pairs of engines, and three that he could see looked like neither ion nor scram jets.

Hypersonic gunfire ripped over the shouts and alarms as Lee ran, and he ducked behind some machine to catch his breath. A guard came around a corner and ordered Lee to freeze in his place, hovering as she wore something that would have been described as a 'jetpack' fifty years ago. Lee shot toward the wide circular pad on her right, and she fell the remaining five feet with a thud. Two more guards flew in behind her and opened fire as Lee dragged her behind cover.

Dazed, the guard reached for her weapon, but didn't find it, and Lee pulled the straps holding the device. He didn't like being the bad guy, but he held the guards gun to her head and shouted "Hand me the pack or die!"

She reached under her armor and clicked the pack loose. With a smile, she also triggered her ablative armor.

Lee came to after a nearby rip of gunfire tore a chunk of his cover free, and the piece smashed one of his fingers. Looking around he saw his pistol, the guards SMG and the magnetic personal flight apparatus all strewn about. The guard herself was gone, but that was probably for the better. He fired a few shots of the SMG back towards the advancing guards, hoping to get them into the same silly advancement pattern he used earlier, and then pulled the pack towards him by one of the nearest straps.

A few more shots from SMGs bought him enough time to strap himself in - he knew he wasn't going to be able to cover the distance on foot anymore. It could have easily been ten kilometers to that ship.

The right pad was busted, but the left one still responded to the joysticks commands, and with the SMG in one hand and his pistol and the joystick clumsily in the other he pushed the thrust control to maximum.

The ground fell away beneath him as the two guards opened fire. Thankfully, the damage to the machine meant Lee couldn't travel in a straight line if he wanted to, and it made shooting him much harder.

He could see that the ship in the center wasn't complete yet. The typical armor of a rail-fighter was being replaced with something else, far bulkier and high-tech, with heavy power system couplings to boot. Whatever they were building, it didn't even look like it could fly, much less escape the pursuit Lee expected to have to outrun shortly.

A burst of heat washed over him as he noticed something else - this dome was more than a staging area for one ship, it was retrofitting weapons on a number of other craft. One such craft was missing all its engines, and was being held aloft by some sort of plating that was throwing electrical long arcs across every metal object nearby. It also appeared to have a bizarre energy weapon - not a typical rail gun for sure.

Lee felt a strong pull backwards and another thicker wash of heat as the side-mounted weapon fired again. It made no noise as it fired, and only the uncomfortable washes of heat from the weapon let him even know he was being fired at.

The pack wasn't doing well either, even with the requisite magnetic shielding. The strange warmth plus the EM interference only meant one thing; he was being shot at with hard radiation.

Lee knew he had to end the flight soon, and he also had to get out of the reach of that weapon. He juked the thrust back and forth, trying his best to guess what a midflight failure would look like. The next shot missed completely, but he dropped the thrust down to zero anyway, and made it appear like he was falling.

Lee's momentum kept him moving toward the ship, now only a few kilometers away. He pulled the thrust full on and started cruising again, hoping that he dipped low enough to trick the vessel.

A quick glance showed Lee quite the opposite, the ship was tracking his movement precisely. However, it had stopped firing on him.

Counting his blessing before they hatched, he flew as straight as he could for the access port of the clumsy looking ship at the center of the dome. Guards on the ground had been stationed in intervals, expecting to intercept his landing. They apparently did not expect him to fly full throttle into the hatch itself.

At the last moment Lee reversed the throttle, and pushed his legs out toward the bulkhead that was barreling towards him. In another stroke of luck, he slammed into the wall and didn't die, nor break his legs, although the impact hurt something fierce, and made him sick to his stomach for a moment. The jolt reminded him of his injured finger too.

Lee's rebreather was still clipped to his belt, and he quickly slid it over his face. He reached towards the ship's hull-breach alarm, and pulled.

Despite the heavy cabling snaked through the entryway, the reinforced hatch slid closed, crushing and snapping anything in its path. Heavier-than-air chemicals flooded the interior of the vessel, and while wildly toxic and entirely unbreathable, its milky haze would make finding a spaceborne breach in the hull far easier.

He took a few deep breaths, knowing that he still had a long road to go before he was going to get out of here. He couldn't recall seeing any exit ports in this dome, although that may have been behind him during his sprint from the loading dock. The rebreathers status window wasn't black anymore, but it was red. He didn't have a lot of time left on the thing to pull off his neat stunt.

"Freeze!"

Lee did so as the cloudy air hung in from of him and a weapon was pressed into his back.

"What are you doing here?" Came a voice muffled by an emergency mask.

Lee thought for a moment, then answered. "Trying to steal the ship and escape Arilon. I got hungry outside, came in for a few bites, and now I want to leave again."

"What?"

Lee repeated himself, "I'm stealing this weird ship and leaving Arilon."

"No stupid, the second part. You were outside?"

Lee smiled and replied, "Yeah, seemed pretty peaceful out there before I heard about the meteor storm today."

"No way you were out there. All the sats are down and external vids show a shower of rocks destroying everything. No way."

"Yes way. I was outside, and the scenery was calm. Too calm, but calm."

Lee quickly tried to think of some proof, "Check my pad, it'll have my GPS on it."

The guard shifted their grip and a hand reached down towards Lee's right arm. Knowing the guard would be off-balance, Lee spun around fast and shoved them, hoping to gain a few moments of surprise to make it into the next corridor.

"Wait!" Said the woman as the hatch slid shut, sealing Lee in the forward half of the ship. He fumbled for a few moments with the emergency controls, and finally had them believe that there was no breach here. Oxygen cycled into the compartment as Lee tried to reboot his pad.

No luck, the pad was fried. Thankfully the cockpit had plenty of active computer systems. A panel beneath the gunners seat was loose, and it looked like the targeting system was being hot-swapped. Tools lay both inside and out of the panel, the floor, and around a nearby toolbox.

"Huh, guess she was a tech." Lee mumbled to himself, falling into his earlier habits of being alone. He called up the flight computer and tried to set the hull to polarize. No doubt they would start shooting soon, and this setting would prevent any boarders from getting in easily as well. This craft had more than double the systems and UIs though, and it was difficult to locate the right command. "Aha!" Lee said as he activated the hull-polarizing command on the control.

Lee instantly felt vertigo and the bottom of the craft rolled out from the platform. Steady downward pull felt like the craft was falling upward, dragging him along with it. The small transparent viewing port at the front of the craft showed nothing, except a slight drift upward, like the craft was hovering.

Lee pulled up what looked like the sensors to see what was going on around him. The computer identified the other vessel via IFF, as well as a dozen or so smaller contacts buzzing around. The ship reported itself as "Hope of Arilon".

Detailed scans showed the layout of the entire dome, plus partial scans of a significant underground facility as well, hidden under false paneling. The dome was rigged from the outside with massive hydraulics too; the entire structure looked as if it could be opened and closed, defying everything that was 'safe' about dome construction.

"Holy crap!" Lee said, as his words were punctuated by SMG fire on the other side of the cockpit door. The tech was probably trying to get in, and if she was any good, she would do it soon.

The ship rocked hard to one side, the other hovering craft must have fired its weapon again. Sensor spikes did show warnings for hard radiation, along with a number of other readings that Lee didn't have the time to research. With his pad down he couldn't control much, nor easily, and tried to quickly arm whatever weapons this ship had.

A few unknown types of hard mounted turrets were bolted to the exterior, two facing forward, one facing rear. They were on swivel bearings, but the massive clunky apparatus couldn't track a target, and couldn't move much farther than 30 degrees in either direction, nothing like the 360 by 90 rail turrets he was anticipating on this kind of craft. These turrets didn't even have any ascension swivel.

The acute angle was still enough to get the turret pointed at the other craft, which hung in the distance throwing wide electric arcs across its portion of the dome. Lee told the weapon to fire, but nothing appeared to happen. The gauge charged, then depleted.

After a few attempts, the sensors sounded more alarms. The other ship must have been firing again.

Lee looked at the sensors first, and then peeked out the forward porthole with disbelief. Whatever kind of weapon this ship had, it was vastly more powerful than even heavy gunships' rail turrets.

The opposing vessel was simply gone. Most of what was left had fallen to the ground below, with most of its mass burnt away, but not by heat; the sensors reported radioactive decay, like the raw material of the vessel itself had become fissable and then decayed back into other atoms, completely unbound to each other and blown apart by the sudden burst of raw energy.

Behind the vessel, the dome itself had been torn open, chunks of the hydraulics melted away, and a blade of the domes exterior caved partially into the dome. Not a huge break compared to the size of the dome itself, but far more than was required to fly the craft out.

"Oh damn", Lee breathed as the vessel took small arms fire from below.

He paused, grateful that at least some people had found their emergency rebreathers before the domes atmosphere had been sucked out.

Whoever was running this joint must have been thoroughly pissed and a variety of prototyped energy weapons were powering up below. Numerous targeting computers were locking onto Lee's location as he frantically tried to coax the engines to life. The fusion core of the ship wasn't online, so he was running solely off of the ships capacitor.

The upcycle of the fusion core would take far longer than Lee had to wait, and he searched for a way to get the scram jets running. The engineering readouts of this ship were maddening, nothing lined up with his former training or any vessel he had piloted before. Someone threw modularity and standardization out the window when they designed this beast.

Finally something clicked on, and the ship surged forward. The system wasn't a scram jet, but it did seem to act like one. Six points of competing thrust all ignited at once, using a reserve cache of fuel he couldn't identify. He pulled the throttles slowly and the ship swung wide towards the opening in the dome. Emergency measures were already in place, cable netting sliding across the gap, ready to emit safety foam to seal the dome airtight once more.

Once Lee thought he was pointed the right direction, he slid the icon for thrust forward, hoping to make a beautiful and classy exit.

Without so much as a hiccup, the misshapen stolen vessel jumped to life and tore through the opening, far faster than Lee thought it would go. The ship rushed past people and debris being sucked through the breached dome, bucked by turbulence the whole way, but not enough to throw the ship into anything that would cause damage.

The Martian horizon burst forth, and Lee barely had time to increase upward thrust before striking a tram line at full force. As the craft climbed, Lee edged the throttle back towards maximum, watching the land speed meters climb far faster than they normally would have gone. Whatever was going on with the hull plating, it was diffusing a lot of the turbulence Lee had expected to feel at these speeds.

The door behind him slid open and the tech leveled her weapon at Lee. He could see straight down the snub-nosed barrel of the standard issue CCI hypersonic SMG she wielded.

"Freeze!" she shouted.

Lee chuckled, "Hands up, don't shoot!", slowly turning the chair around with his hands up.

"You think this is funny?! What the hell did you do?" She looked toward the porthole and gasped, "You are so fucked. So truly fucked. The General will kill you himself."

"We are free, what's there to worry about? Tell you what, I know someone on Saturn, and they are real good about turning stolen items into clean cash. What do you say we take a load off and enjoy this ride?"

"Are you crazy? We are gonna get killed if you don't land this right now! There's a meteor storm..." She trailed off. Lee looked towards her view. The sensors didn't show much in the way of a meteor storm, although numerous small pieces of debris were getting caught in orbit and were falling to the surface. Neither of them saw anything that would damage the ship.

Sensors were also picking up on the interference; the entire landscape was bathed in a cascade of omnipresent EM.

"Huh." the tech said as Lee leaned forward.

"There should be meteors here, not static... Doesn't mean I'm not going to shoot you... Weird..." the tech said distractedly by the readings.

"What's your name anyways, and what were you doing to this console?" Lee said, thumbing towards the partially disassembled control station.

"None of your damn business. Shut up." She replied, studying the sensors. Comms and IFF both chirped at once.

"Stolen vessel, This is the High Guard. Power down immediately, or we will open fire." Came a stern message in both voice and text format.

"Huh. No video though." Lee said.

"See, we have to stop and turn ourselves in before they open fire and-" The ship jolted hard to one side. Both looked toward the console, and it displayed three rail-fighters on an intercept course. All three were hurling hypersonic tungsten spikes at them too.

"Why aren't we dead?" The tech managed to say before the next round hit. "These rounds should be slicing clean through us."

"I don't know. Give me a hand so we can outrun them."

"No. I don't know the engines very well. I'm just supposed to install the new target system for my-" She stopped mid-sentence, and turned toward Lee.

"I'm Dr. Pekking. You can call me Drea, I suppose. If we survive this, I think I'm going to shoot you anyways. For now, it looks like we are on the same team."

"Hi, I'm Lee. Lee Kern, famous ruffian and vagabond!" Lee joked as he slid the scramjet thrust to maximum.

"The ion engines aren't online yet, and I don't think this ship would have enough thrust to escape orbit anyway. Do you know if the Olympus Mons slingshot is still running?" Lee said.

"No, everything is shut down. They said because of the-"

"Meteor shower, yeah I got it. Don't mean it's true though," Lee interrupted.

"Hey Drea, you ever hear about the hangman's noose?"

"Dude, you seem crazy and all, but you know that's an urban legend."

"No, really, I knew a guy who said he did it. Help me find the limiter and we can cold-fire the engines and get out of here"

"Even if there was a limiter, which is a stupid as shit suggestion, I wouldn't go fucking with it mid-flight. If you wanted to die, there's ways you can do it without taking me with you."

Lee rolled out of the chair and onto the deck plating. "Come on, it's got to be one of these panels."

Lee stalked each panel, opening them one by one and tracing the cabling back out of the cockpit and aft, toward the engine compartment.

"You aren't seriously gonna pull the hangman's noose? This is madness."

"Yeah I am. It'll be fun. I mean, what cool stories are you gonna tell your grandkids?"

"I have plenty of stories, and I won't be having any grandkids if you kill us."

Lee and Drea worked their way towards the near of the ship, Lee pulling a panel and checking the cabling every few meters. After a few more minutes, Lee reached behind another panel and pulled a bundle of loose cables to the side.

"Here, you see it?" Lee gestured toward an otherwise unassuming grey and blue torus encircling the fusion output waveguide.

"That's magnetic shielding, stupid. You pull that off and plasma is gonna come pouring out of the conduit and if we are lucky, only blow a hole in the ship and instantly kill us. Better that then dying a few days later from the radiation poisoning."

"So you think it's magnetic, huh?" Lee pulled out his friction pad, laid down on the deck plating, and set it near the ring. "See, nothing. Besides, since when does magnetic shielding glow blue?"

"How about this, I'm just going to shoot you, and then beg the High Guard for my life. Probably should have done that before I let you open your mouth." Drea leveled her weapon at Lee, and a High Guard shot rocked her against a bulkhead. Lee, already prone, grabbed the ring and pulled.

Lee's hand tore through the ring but found no real purchase, as if it was made of slime or gelatin, instead of metal.

As the ball of goop formed in Lee's hand and started burning him, he reflexively flicked his wrist and sent the strange material back into the panel.

Drea stood back up and shouted, "What the hell did you do?"

"Relax, we are fine. This stuff is weird." Lee looked down and saw the last of the ring melt into the waveguide.

Both of them stared at each other as they felt their weight press down and backwards. Without a word they struggled against the G force back to the cockpit and strapped in, grabbing emergency breathers as they passed them in an alcove.

The ship was producing an incredible amount of thrust, but the consoles themselves couldn't determine how much. The ship was ascending though, and the sensor readings were spewing nonsense.

"Heh. Heh heh." Lee chuckled as Drea tried to protest. Lee called up the interface for the now-online ion engines, and slid that icon to maximum thrust.