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Dark Zenith

The Imperial Alliance disliked intruders. So much so that it had a tendency to annihilate any ship displaying more than a passing interest in the Thalian Zone. The three termoids manning border outpost 167 quickly realised that the X-Bomber had much more than a passing interest in the Thalian Zone. In fact, the crew got the distinct impression its interest lay in getting past them. A volley of laser torpedoes put its desire to do so beyond doubt. Had they still been alive, the termoid crew of outpost 167 would doubtless have been very annoyed to see the X-Bomber enter the Zone.

"Alright," said Shiro. "We're in, but that was the easy part. Pretty soon now every Imperial craft in the Zone is going to be out looking for us, and we still don't know where S'Kirina is located. My guess is, whoever's pulling the strings in the Alliance is going to be receiving reports on our position. Lee, monitor Alliance radio traffic. We need to gather enough directional data from their signals to be able to pin point S'Kirina's location."

The smile on Hercules' face widened. "That mean what I think it means?"

Shiro turned towards him. "Yes, Hercules. It means we have to engage as many Imperials as we can, in as many places in the Zone as we can, so we can get enough data for Lee to work with. It may be a long shot, but the three of us can't hope to capture and interrogate an Alliance soldier alone. I don't think there'll be any 'defectors' this time around."

Lee interrupted. "Well here come our first candidates, boys. I read two Alliance fighter carriers moving on an intercept vector, full quantum speed. Now reading multiple new signatures. They've launched fighters."

"PPA - charge shields and prepare your drones for damage control. Hercules, you're with me on the turrets. Lee, monitor approach and call out course corrections for PPA, but keep scanning for transmissions. Let's do it..."

The confrontation that followed played itself out time and again over the next few days. When it was able, the X-Bomber fought. When it couldn't fight, it ran. When it couldn't run, it hid, until it could fight again. Even with PPA's drones operating at peak efficiency, the battle damage was taking its toll on the battlecruiser. The lieutenants were less battered, but they were mentally exhausted as well as physically bruised.

The crater was deep and laced with heavy metals. Deep enough that the empty Alliance carrier passed overhead without spotting the half buried Bomber. The heavy metals distorted its scanners' readings long enough to let the Bomber's top mounted turret open fire before the sudden power surge from the surface was detected. The blast caught the carrier in its aft propulsion unit, sending it tumbling out of control.

Debris exploded outwards from the planetoid as the Bomber freed itself from its self-made grave. Surrounded by the slow moving cloud of dirt and rock it gained altitude as Barry configured the ship to use its neck lasers and locked onto the Alliance craft. He looked across the cockpit to Lee who was studying his panel intently. A smile slowly broke over the comm expert's face. He looked up from his panel and nodded at Hercules.

The carrier had managed to regain attitude control and was turning to try and engage the Bomber when the twin beams of energy struck it amidships and broke its back. The Bomber switched to standard configuration as the two pieces of the stricken vessel slowly tumbled away from one another before detonating soundlessly. The Bomber blasted through the new debris field and set a new course - a course for S'Kirina. The carrier's final transmission had given them the last piece of the jigsaw.

Shiro considered taking an indirect route to the planet, but he suspected there was no longer time for tactical manoeuvring. He ordered PPA to divert all remaining energy reserves to the engines and take the Bomber to hyperspeed - and beyond, if possible. He hoped that the Imperial craft in the region would be unable to intercept them before they reached S'Kirina, giving them a chance to do whatever needed to be done to remove the Master's support. As the craft surged forwards, one of PPA's drones approached him.

"Lieutenant Hagen, my long range scans have determined that S'Kirina's atmosphere is thin but breathable. My drone will now inject you with a compound which will improve your ability to breathe in the atmosphere," PPA said through the hovering device. Shiro nodded wearily and heard the gentle hiss of the hypospray against his arm. He faded into a fitful sleep in the command chair moments later.

S'Kirina was a dark planet, a nightmarish planet. The Bomber maintained a high orbit as the pilots discussed their next step.

"I'm going down there," said Shiro.

"Alone?!" Lee asked, incredulous. "You can't be serious - what can you do alone?"

"I don't intend to do anything. Whatever's down there is blocking PPA's sensors. We have to know what we're up against - we have to know where to put our firepower. I need you two to stay up here on patrol. If you don't hear from me, or if I don't make it back within ten hours, I want you to throw everything you've got at that place. If the Alliance get here, don't wait for me. Do what you have to do and try and get out."

Lee was about to protest but Hercules cut him off. "Alright, Shiro. You've obviously made up your mind. We'll hold the fort, best we can. But don't play the hero down there man - you won't be helping anyone if you get yourself killed."

Shiro put his hand on Barry's shoulder, nodded, looked over at Lee, and then left the bridge.

"You're just going to let him go?" Lee asked.

"Yeah, I am. He'd have found a way to go down there one way or another without us. He knows what he's doing Lee, I'm sure he," Hercules didn't finish his sentence. He collapsed to the floor without uttering another sound. Lee's face registered shock and pain for a moment before he too collapsed. PPA tried to alert Shiro to their sudden incapacity but found himself unable. He felt... an intrusion. He did what he could to secure his core files as he lost control of his systems, one by one. With those that were left to him he registered the launch of the Bomber's shuttlecraft.

Shiro was on board the shuttlecraft. He appeared to be piloting it himself, but he was not. He was a spectator in his own body. He could do nothing to contact his friends, his ship. As S'Kirina began to fill the forward viewport he began to sense a presence. He was not alone, he... Something was changing. He was aware of it out of the corner of his eye, but could not take his view away from the viewport. Then suddenly he lost vision in his left eye; a sudden stab of pain, and vision returned, but... different. Now he could see... more.

Yes. Soon, you will see much more. Far more than your pathetic human mind could possibly imagine.

What? Who are you? Where are you?

See for yourself.

Shiro felt his head turning. Saw himself reflected in the viewport. If he could have screamed, he would have. His helmet was twisting, distorting, moving as if with a life of its own. And over his left eye, flush with his face, was another face. A smaller face with malevolent, glowing red eyes. A face that spoke.

"The Imperial Heir has gone to great lengths to bring you to him, Shiro Hagen. He knew F Zero One would call upon you, cause you to seek him out. You were so very predictable, so easily played. Once within S'Kirina's sphere of influence your fate was sealed - for the Heir could then call upon me to play my part. See, now. He awaits our arrival."

Shiro's head turned back to face the forward viewpoint. As the shuttle broke out form the upper atmosphere Shiro's new parasitic symbiote enlarged a pinprick kilometres away on the planet's surface. A fierce blue light swept around a strange, yet all too familiar figure on a throne of stone. The Heir's fingers were embedded in the arms of the throne, his mouth opened in a scream of triumph and power as the mystical energy of S'Kirina danced ever higher around him.

Last updated 14 December 2013

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