Cat, Tracks and I arrived at the pits at the same time as Ranger did. We spotted each other as he pushed the borrowed swoop back to its bay and I flashed him a commiseratory smile.
Cat: "That was incredible!" She beamed as we approached.
Ranger: "Clearly not incredible enough." The other responded as the swoop’s owner arrived to check her over.
Tracks burbled in his own way.
Tank: "Tracks is right. Don't be too harsh on yourself." I agreed.
Ranger: "I mean, second place is good and all, but it's not first, is it. I had to win to get us in to see Nix. Sorry guys." The downtrodden Ranger apologised.
Rider: "Don't be sorry!" He snapped, sounding a bit harsh. "You might not have come first, but you beat Tebo! Not many people can claim that! And not only did you beat him - you dropped him in the drink!" The old man laughed as he ran a hand over his bashed-up bike. "Nice going kid. That's got to count for something!"
Tank: "He's not wrong." I smiled as Ranger gave me a look. "Come on. Let's go see them again. See what we can do. Besides, even if they still say no, we've got Tracks!" I smirked, throwing my droid a wink.
They clapped as we approached. Both of them with foul-toothed grins on their faces.
Thug #1: "Not bad. Not bad." He nodded, somewhat complimentary.
Ranger: "So? Do we get in?"
Thug #2: "Not bad... but not first."
Ranger: "Oh come on!" He exclaimed as they began to laugh.
I could tell that Ranger was getting angry now. His usual playful bravado was wearing away and his customary roguish grin had long vanished from his face.
Tank: "Come on." I encouraged him softly, placing a hand on his arm and turning my back on the bouncers and the door I so desperately needed to get through. "We'll find another way."
Ranger stood his ground, glaring at the thugs for a moment more, before conceding and turning to walk away.
Thug #2: "Buuut..." one of the bouncers commented quietly, although deliberately still loud enough for us to hear, to his companion. "He did beat Tebo."
Thug #1: "That's true. That’s true." He agreed. "Hey, racer!" He called and we both turned back to face them again.
After a moment, both guards stepped aside.
Thug #1: "Head on in."
Suspicious that this was a trap, none of us moved right away.
Thug #1: "Nix has never been a fan of Tebo." He explained. "He's expectin' you."
I shared a look with Cat and then made my way to the door.
The room beyond was gloomy. Not dark, but not exactly airy either. The room must have been located on the building's corner, as the room was quarter-circular, with the curved side looking out over the track below. There were no windows, just open space looking out at the dingy city.
The centre of the room featured a large sunken pit filled with couches and chairs that looked like they would have been comfortable about a century ago and in the centre of it all was a large high-back that must have been Nix's chair of choice.
Presently though, it was unoccupied. The room currently hosted a smattering of guests, all dressed in their own versions of finery and there was a tinkling of music playing in the background.
Nix: "Impressive stuff!" Ardon clapped slowly as he approached from where he'd been stood by the viewing wall. His hair was the first thing that I noticed - bright orange and stood on end, it was swept up into an impressive spike. The second thing was his eyes, which were a piercingly bright blue. He was nodding admiringly as he made his way to us, grabbing a glass of liquid from a passing host as he did.
Nix: "Impressive indeed."
Ranger: "Thank you, sir." He acknowledged, clearly unsure how to address the gang Lord.
Nix: "No thanks needed. If anything, I should be the one thanking you. You showed Tebo that he's not unbeatable and that's quite something." He explained. "And I never did like him much." Nix continued in a more hushed tone.
Nix: "Now! Who are your companions?" Nix's gaze swept over Cat, Tracks and myself.
Tank: "Tank Rockwell. This is Cat and Tracks." I responded, gesturing to each in turn.
Nix: "Okay." Nix replied with a tone somewhere between confusion and boredom. It was like he was really wanting to ask, 'Aaaand....?'
Nix: "So I understand that you wanted an audience? Badly enough for you to risk your life in a race."
Ranger: "We're looking for someone." Ranger began. "We're not from around here so thought that, as somebody with influence, you may be able to help us find them."
Nix: "Did you now? Usually, that sort of information costs." He warned with a raised brow. "But, tank dunking Tebo was quite the show!"
Ranger: "I'm glad you enjoyed the show, sir."
Nix: "That I did, now... tell me about your missing person."
Tank: "His name is Darkblade. Or at least, that's the name he goes by these days." I corrected myself. "He's dangerous. A mercenary. Although recently he's vanished and I need to find him."
Nix: "You NEED to find him?" He queried. "Is it a need? Or a want? Are you prepared for whatever will happen when you find him?"
Tank: "I am."
Nix: "Hmmm. Then, tell me more."
Cat: "He wears armour, black. It keeps him alive. A helmet too." She described. "Red highlights and a handprint mark on his helmet."
Nix: "Show me?"
I pulled my datapad out of my satchel and called up the CCTV footage that Aurora had shown me a while ago of Darkblade attacking the Ac'ross gang. I handed it over to Nix who watched the footage with interest.
When it was done, he handed it back to me without a word. Running a hand through his hair as he thought, he summoned one of the servants and made a request.
Nix: "I can't say that I've heard of this Darkblade, I'm afraid, but I shall see what I can dig up." He explained as the servant returned with another datapad. I exhaled more sharply than I had intended to, frustrated. We'd come all this way and gone through all of this just to get here and we were still no closer to finding Darkblade! We're we ever going to catch a break?!
Nix: "So..." he began a minute later. "I cannot find any reports at all of this fellow anywhere in the system."
I sighed and shot Cat a look that said 'Great...'.
Nix: "However..." Nix continued. "There is a report of a man matching your description raiding scientific laboratories and facilities all over System 54."
My heart rate spiked. There was no proof yet that this was Darkblade and he was back in 54, so if it was him, was been wrong to make this trip. But even so, at this point any lead was better than none.
Nix: "Give me a moment."
We all waited patiently in silence while Nix perused the information on his datapad. With every passing second I grew more and more impatient, but finally Nix spun the pad around to face us and asked,
Nix: "Is this your man?"
The screen showed CCTV footage of a lab with red warning lights flashing and steadily being filled with smoke. My heart pounded as I eagerly waited to see who would emerge from the smokescreen. Would it be a random person I'd never seen before? After all, there were plenty of nut-jobs in the galaxy who went around in black armour. Or would it in fact be Darkblade?
All was revealed a few moments later when a familiar figure swept through the smoke and grabbed a scientist by the neck, slamming him down onto a workbench.
Black armour. Helmet. Red markings and a sword sheathed at his side.
Finally, some solid proof of his location.
Tank: "Yeah... That's him." I confirmed.
Nix: "That was taken four days ago on Earth. Synergy labs." He informed us, lowering the datapad and handing it back to the servant.
Cat: "Perfect. Thank you." She put gratefully.
Nix: "You're welcome. Now, unless there is anything else, I must be about my business."
Cat: "No, that's everything. Thank you again."
I nodded in agreement.
Tank: "Yes, thank you."
Nix turned to walk away but then pivoted back to Ranger.
Nix: "And you're welcome back on the track any time. Say the word and I'll have a swoop lined up for you."
Ranger: "Okay!" Ranger grinned. "You got it."
With a final nod, Nix walked off in one direction and Ranger, Cat, Tracks and I turned back to the door.
Ranger: "I will never be doing that again." He muttered under his breath as we left, making me smirk despite the annoyed mood I was now in.
It was frustrating. Knowing now that Darkblade was in fact still back in System 54 and that we had come all this way to System 55 for nothing. How long had we wasted? How much time could we have saved by staying in System 54? Would we have found Darkblade by now? Would it all be over?
There was, of course, no way of knowing. Instead, I just had to put up with the knowledge that once again we were behind on time.
My frustration must have been showing, for as we boarded The Eagle, Tracks whirred reassuringly and patted my back with a metal hand.
Tank: "Yeah. I know buddy." I replied with a small smile.
Ranger: "What did he say?" He called back as he jumped into the pilot's seat.
Tank: "That at least we have a lead." I explained. "A real lead, at that."
This was the first solid lead we'd had on Darkblade's location for ages, I realised. So, despite it being in another system, Tracks was right - it was better than nothing. At least the journey home wouldn't be as cramped as it had been on the way here and thanks to The Eagle's warp drive it wouldn't take forever to get back to 54.
Ranger: "We good?" He called out.
Tank: "Go for it!" I confirmed and Ranger lifted us up and away from Ark'lack. Minutes later and the blue-tinted planetary atmosphere faded into the black of space.
Ranger: "Looks like I'm going on a road trip!" He commented and with that, pushed the warp drive lever.
There was a loud 'BANG' and the ship jolted, still firmly rooted in real space.
Cat: "What was that?" She asked, sounding worried and I started forward to the cockpit.
Ranger: "Hyperdrive is down." He replied, checking the readings.
Ranger: "Looks like the capacitor was damaged... How the hell did that happen?" He was muttering.
Tank: "I bet it was Tebo." I responded. "Or one of his flunkies."
Ranger: "Scrim... sorry folks. We've gotta go back."
Tank: "Seriously?..." I breathed, stressed out and running a hand through my hair.
Ranger: "Either we go back and find somewhere to fix it, or we go to System 54 at sub-warp."
I bit my lip, thinking.
Tank: "Which will be quicker?"
Ranger: "God knows. Getting a new capacitor may take a day it may take a month. And then getting it installed, again, could take anywhere between a week and a month."
Tank: "And travelling at sub-warp?"
Ranger: "About a month. Give or take."
Tank: "Damnit!" I cursed, starting to pace.
Cat: "We need to get home. The longer we're here, the further away Darkblade gets." She advised, placing a calming hand on my arm.
I took a moment to think, before deciding;
Tank: "Okay. Let's go. Sub-warp and a long journey it is. We can find somewhere for you to fix the drive when we get home."
Ranger didn't look pleased but also didn't argue.
Ranger: "You da boss." He remarked and slowly, painfully slowly, we pulled away and headed for the inky darkness of real space.
This was going to be a loooong trip.
The automatic doors slid silently open as Wolfhide strode through into the dojo beyond. The room was a good size. Wooden-panelled walls surrounded a large, open training area. The floor was covered with tatami matting and one wall was dedicated to racks of sparring weapons.
It was a reflection of a much simpler time. However, the famed bounty hunter had no time for such reflections. He was here to find somebody. Somebody whom he very much hoped would become the next member of his new iteration of Beta Squad.
About a week ago, Exon Warner, AKA Download, had been in touch with a new potential candidate; A man by the name of Finch. Wolfhide had paid him a visit, but Finch hadn't been interested. He'd said his time working for murderous organisations was over, however, he had recommended another guy. A man he said was still very much in that area of expertise.
And so now here Wolfhide was, looking around the empty training room, searching for this man.
He'd only been in the room for a few seconds, just enough time to take in his surroundings, when a second door built seamlessly into one of the wooden walls slid open and a lean, muscular man, dressed only in simple white training pants, walked out.
Man: "You make as much noise as a squealing whore." The man commented without even looking up as he finished drying himself on a linen towel.
Wolfhide: "Well, we're not all ninjas." He replied.
Man: "Assassin." He corrected curtly.
Despite the man being of much smaller stature than Wolfhide, he held an aura of speed and tightly-packed power. He was one man Avorax was hoping that he'd never have to fight.
Wolfhide: "Assassin." He bowed his head in apology. "Tip Zhang, the name's..."
Zhang: "Avorax Wolfhide." Zhang interrupted. "I know who you are."
Wolfhide: "Then you know why I'm here?" He queried as Zhang wrapped the towel around one of his wrists and began to pace.
Zhang: "There have been... rumours." He confirmed. "Tell me; how did you come to find me?"
Wolfhide: "A mutual friend: Agent Finch."
Zhang seemed to flinch at the name - it was as if Wolfhide had thrown salt into a wound.
Zhang: "Finch is no friend of mine. Nor has he ever been."
Wolfhide: "Nevertheless it was him who sent me here." The bounty hunter explained, trying not to argue with this tiger of a man, as he paced in a circle around him.
For several long seconds Zhang was quiet. Eventually, Wolfhide grew tired of the game.
Wolfhide: "Look, you know why I'm here - do you want a position or not?"
Zhang: "Why should I work with you? Or more fittingly, FOR you?"
Wolfhide: "It's well-paid." He grinned, confident in his answer, but to his surprise, Zhang responded,
Zhang: "I have money already. More than I need. So I ask again; Why should I work for you?"
His confidence knocked, the bounty hunter reconsidered.
Wolfhide: "Alright; what is it you want most? What would it take to make you a squad member?"
The assassin had his answer prepared and replied instantly, even as he continued to circle.
Zhang: "I want The Core destroyed. I want the chance to take down their leader and wipe them out."
Wolfhide paused for a moment before replying sarcastically,
Wolfhide: "So not much then?"
Zhang: "This is my price, bounty hunter. The Bannerless Few cast me out and ever since, I've been without the means to gain my revenge on them all. Help me and I will help you." Zhang finally came to a stop, his back to the weapons racks.
Wolfhide: "And if I refuse?"
Zhang: "It would be unwise."
Several tense seconds passed as the two men sized each other up, neither speaking nor moving.
Wolfhide: "Alright. You've got yourself a deal." He finally said, breaking the silence and extending an open hand. A second later, Zhang shook it tightly.
Wolfhide: "I'll be in touch."
And he turned to leave.
Zhang: "You didn't answer my earlier question." Zhang pointed out and something in his tone made Wolfhide pause in his tracks. "Why should I work for YOU." he repeated, with the emphasis on a different word now.
Wolfhide: "Because it's my squad." He replied with a slight growl, turning back again. "MY mission."
Zhang was still stood where he had been just moments before, but now two training batons were in his hands, taken in a flash from one of the weapon racks.
Zhang: "That does not mean that there is not a better leader though." He pointed out. "I would be a much better fit."
Wolfhide: "Like hell you would." He snarled and with a roar, launched himself at Zhang.
But this was what Zhang trained for - What he was used to. He simply took a single backwards step into a ready stance and sent several quick, deflecting jabs into Wolfhide's chest and torso. Wolfhide, thrust off-course, skid to a halt and swung clumsily back at the other, but again, Zhang was prepared and knocked every blow aside with a swipe of a baton.
Frustrated, Wolfhide leapt into the air, his wing pack engaging, and he spun himself with one leg out. The kick caught Zhang in the arm and sent one of his batons clattering across the tatami matting. Landing barely a second after he'd jumped, Wolfhide jabbed and caught Tip in the cheek as he recovered from the kick.
Tip staggered back a foot, giving enough space for Wolfhide to dive aside and grab the dropped baton. He had just enough to spin into a defensive crouch before Zhang's baton came crashing down onto his. Zhang swung again, coming in at an angle, attempting to get underneath the other's weapon, but Wolfhide twisted to one side and blocked it again.
Pushing himself back to his feet, he threw repeated blows at the assassin, but Zhang was good. He blocked every single one with ease and at the end of Wolfhide's barrage, knocked his defence aside and struck him multiple times in the chest and neck.
Wolfhide's armour absorbed most of the damage, but he still grunted at the muted hits against his body. He got back into a defensive stance and blocked another couple of quick jabs before taking a swing of his own.
The swing was brutish and Zhang saw it coming a mile off. He grabbed Wolfhide's arm and twisted it back on itself, almost breaking it. Avorax shouted in pain, the baton tumbling from his grasp. Zhang caught it in his free hand, at the same time using his other to crack a baton into the back of Wolfhide's knee.
As he collapsed unwillingly to his knees, Zhang threw the second baton, with the precision of a professional darts player, at the pummel of one of the swords on the weapon racks. The sword, struck at just the right angle, bounced off of its display hooks and was instantly snatched out of midair by the assassin.
Wolfhide's knees had barely touched the ground when Zhang brought the sword to rest gently at his neck.
Zhang: "You are defeated." He hissed proudly.
Wolfhide: " And you are mistaken." He smirked. Zhang looked down and found a blaster in Wolfhide's hand, which he now pressed firmly into the assassin's chest, right over his heart.
Wolfhide: "Let's call it a tie." He grinned, showing yellowed teeth.
Zhang: "You did not best me."
Wolfhide: "Nor you me." He retorted. "So we have two options now. Either we both kill each other OR we agree to let this pass. So what's it gonna be? Do you think you can swing that sword through my neck before I fire me blaster into your heart?"
For a few long seconds both men were silent. Then, finally, Zhang retracted his sword and moments after, Wolfhide relaxed his gun arm.
Wolfhide: "Good choice." He commented as he got to his feet. Zhang's expression was a stony one, clearly unhappy with the turn of events. Nevertheless, he sheathed his sword.
Wolfhide: "You'll need a codename for the squad." He stated. "Snake. That was your Agent name wasn't it?"
Zhang: "Finch always did talk too much." Was the reply. "I failed then and I failed now. I haven't been Snake for years."
Wolfhide: "You'll be him again now."
Zhang: "No." He insisted. "Something new."
Wolfhide took one glance at him as he holstered his pistol and started to walk away.
Wolfhide: "Fine. Whitesnake." He grunted, simply plucking the name from the other man's pants. "The old and the new. The same but different. Same as the Squad." He added as the thought occurred to him.
For a moment Zhang was motionless, running the name through his mind before accepting it and nodding once. Not that Avorax was looking. He was already opening the door.
Wolfhide: "I'll be in touch."
The entrance to the racing stands.
The set for the junk straights.
More racing sets including the broken bridge.
As my series is going to be jumping around though time, I will include a date on each episode and add it to the timeline at the end of each episode so that you can follow it.
Quoting Captain Kenbo
Well System 55 was a bust. I thought they'd explore more but I guess there's no time. Good that Nix was a cooperative guy, I was sure he was gonna make Tank do a favor for him lol
Yeah, I could have done all sorts with it, but I just need to get back on with the main story. Haha. If it didn't take me so long to write and make episodes, I would love to do some more filler-type episodes that explore other things, but I just don't have time.