Authors: Mack Maloney
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
STARHAWK: THE FOURTH EMPIRE
An Ace Book / published by arrangement with the author
Ace mass-market edition / May 2002
All rights reserved. Copyright © 2002 by Brian Kelleher. Cover design by Jean Pierre Targete.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission. For information address: The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
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PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Also by Mack Maloney
STARHAWK 2: PLANET AMERICA
CHOPPER OPS 2: ZERO RED
CHOPPER OPS 3: SHUTTLE DOWN
For more information visit www.MackMaloney.com
THE MIND RING TRIP
Hunter let go with his punch, catching Joxx right on the jaw. The Solar Guards' high prince fell back into the trench. He looked up at Hunter, absolutely astonished.
"Do you know who I am?" Hunter asked in an angry whisper.
Joxx's eyes went twice as wide as before.
"The Earth Race," he was able to say. "You're the last winner. The
"That's right," Hunter told him. "I'm also the guy who just stole your ship."
Joxx was still reeling from the two blows to his head. Where was he? How did he get here?
"Have you implanted something in my brain?" he cried out at Hunter. "Something to create such a mass hallucination?"
"You're on a mind ring trip," he told Joxx quickly. "What the hell do you think that is wrapped around your head? If you try to take it off, I can guarantee you, your skull will explode."
"By what perversion have you brought me in to something like this!"
"Because you have to see what I have seen," Hunter told him. "So you can learn for yourself just what your relatives back on Earth have done ..."
, MACK MALONEY HAS CREATED A CHAMPION OF JUSTICE WHO WILL PROVE TO HAVE WIDE APPEAL."
Midwest Book Review
For Timmy Gleason
Last Time Here
Xronis Trey, Outer Two Arm
The rundown saloon was called the Last Drop.
It was appropriately named. The bar was the only business left on Xronis Trey, the last of three planets revolving around the last star at the end of the second spiral of the Milky Way. Better known as the Two Arm, this spiral extended farther out than any of the Galaxy's other major arms, its star masses petering out for hundreds of light-years before ending in one last, lonely string of planetary systems. Xronis Trey was at the end of that string.
Moonless and rocky, with no vegetation or water, Xronis Trey had an atmosphere so fragile, stars could be seen in the daytime. The planet's space-engineered atmosphere, installed thousands of years before, had fallen below 69 percent, meaning oxygen masks had to be worn on the surface sometimes. Whenever the thin air blew, a bright yellow dust permeated everything. The color was so vivid that, from a few thousand miles out, the tiny planet almost looked like a dying star.
The Last Drop was operated by a half-dozen antiquated robots. They served the drinks, they collected the money, they cleaned up when the long day was done. The barroom's only patrons—indeed, the only human inhabitants of Xronis Trey—were mercenaries from the dilapidated space-dock base just over the hill. This base was so old, no one actually knew when it had been built. It presently consisted of a control house, a barracks, five rotting space gantries, a power tower, and a deep-space antenna. It was protected by an automated space defense system that was designed to shoot down anything within 10,000 miles of the planet. Or at least, that's how it was supposed to work.
The soldiers occupying the base belonged to a notorious space mercenary outfit called the Bad Moon Knights. This aged order of hired guns had been terrorizing the Five Arm, half a galaxy away, for almost a thousand years. The BMK carried a well-deserved reputation for ruthlessness. Their willingness to take on any job—no matter how small, how dirty, or how bloody—was legendary.
However, this lonely outpost was their only known base outside the fifth spiral. Barely a hundred of their soldiers were stationed on Xronis Trey; most had been pulling duty here for more than three centuries. Many of the troopers were approaching four hundred years in age, making the garrison downright elderly. None of them had seen any real combat for many, many years.
The BMK soldiers on Xronis Trey believed their superiors had forgotten them long ago. Messages from BMK headquarters way over on the Five Arm arrived at a rate of one per decade. These communiques were simply prerecorded speeches urging the men to stay on station and in fighting trim, as one never knew when they'd be called to do battle again. Not that they had any choice. The outpost didn't have any starships of its own, so it wasn't like the soldiers were going anywhere.
Nor did the mercenaries know why they'd been assigned to the far-flung base. The BMK certainly didn't build the isolated outpost; the place was much too old for that. The prevailing theory was that the BMK had taken it over from another merc group hundreds of years before. But there didn't seem to be any sense to that, either. Xronis Trey was literally the last planet at this forgotten edge of the Galaxy. The nearest star system was 250 light-years back down the arm, heading in toward the Ball. After Xronis Trey, there was nothing left but the void. Why would
put a base way out here?
This was the topic of many drunken arguments at the Last Drop saloon. After so many years in isolation, the soldiers had little interest in anything but getting drunk and cavorting with a pack of tired, worn-out holo-girls, some carrying programs nearly as old as the mercenary group itself. The troopers would routinely get juiced on slow-ship wine, the opiate liquor found throughout the Galaxy, and start arguing about whether their assignment was actually part of some extremely top secret operation, a rumor that had existed here for centuries. If tempers began to flare, a kind of slow-motion, arthritic fistfight would break out between conflicting groups. When this happened, the bar's robots—usually drunk on lubricating oil themselves— would call over to the BMK command center, and one of the base's officers would toddle over the hill and restore peace, at least for a little while. Then everyone, including the robots, would go back to drinking again, like nothing had ever happened.
Thus was life on the last rock of the Galaxy.
There was only one kind of meal served at the Last Drop saloon, a concoction called Greasy Bolt Stew. Made up primarily of synthetic greens and beans, its broth was, no surprise, 100 percent slow-ship wine. The stew was available just once a day: at noon when the bare light of Xronis Trey's forty-one-hour day was at its brightest. Cost of a bowl was one aluminum nickel, which many of the troopers stole back from the creaking robots once the meal was done.
This daily ritual had just begun when things changed forever on Xronis Trey. There were about fifty troopers inside the bar; roughly half had taken stew and returned to their tables to eat. Suddenly, their bowls began shaking. Just a bit at first, but then much more noticeably, even to the most inebriated eyes. Then the stew began spilling out onto the tables. The floor began to tremble. Then the walls, the windows, and the ceiling. Wine bottles went crashing to the floor. Chairs collapsed, some with troopers still in them. In seconds, the entire building was shaking violently. Something very loud and moving very fast went over the saloon an instant later.
Instinct drove the troopers out to the dusty street, the robots close behind. This street was an unusually wide thoroughfare, cracked and cratered now, but holding clues that it had served a grander purpose sometime in the distant past. Some troopers dove for cover into the deep holes in its surface. Others simply lay down flat and covered their heads.
The noise hit again.
Ear-splitting, bone-rattling. Heart-stopping ...
"Doomsday!" one trooper cried out. "Hell has finally come to save us!"
Indeed, at that moment, between the mind-numbing roar and the violent quaking, it did seem as if the planet was shaking itself to death.
That's when they finally saw it. At first it appeared as just a streak of white light turning back toward them out on the southern horizon. But this light was moving at such tremendous speed, it screeched over the saloon a second time not a moment later. The stunned soldiers instinctively began sucking on their oxygen masks, a sure sign of panic. Those who dared to look saw what now appeared to be a fully involved ball of fire make an abrupt turn to the west and then go straight up, disappearing into the thin midday clouds.
All became silent again. The soldiers on the street began to help each other to their feet only to discover the fireball was coming back. Same blinding flash, same frightening noise, it roared out of the east this time and turned sharply over the saloon a third time.