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Out of the Smoke, Into the Caldera
Stories » Out of the Smoke, Into the Caldera
"Well, lookie here. Aren't you a pretty little bitch?"

The breath was knocked out of her as Echo was shoved roughly to the floor, unable to catch herself with her hands bound behind her back. With a low growl, she picked herself back up to her knees. She couldn't see who had addressed her. She had been taken from her cell only moments earlier, blindfolded and restrained for transport. The occasional prod of a rifle butt, or a push from the clawed hands of an unseen guard guided her down the old, creaking corridors of whatever dilapidated ship or station she was on now. It was impossible to tell which, with how little info she had gleaned since her capture.

The painted dog had done her best to memorize the route from her cell to... wherever it was they had just taken her. Anything that might help her escape. But the situation was looking bleak. Her captors were smart enough to immediately separate the crew, isolating them from any means of mutual support. Three days alone in a cell, a prisoner of charted space's most dreaded pirate fleet. With no idea the fate of her friends, whom she was responsible for. And nothing to think about except what the savages might do to her at any moment. It was enough to drive anyone mad with fear.

But she held her resolve. If eight years of military training and combat experience hadn't prepared her for this scenario, then she wasn't sure what could. There had to be some way out. Some way to rescue her friends. Her captors were pirates, not professionals. At some point, they would slip up. And when they did, she would strike.

The blindfold was roughly yanked from her face. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the lighting. Two hazy figures stood to either side, just on the edge of her vision, and as they came into focus, she saw they were guards, armed and armored. That meant at least three to contend with, counting whoever had pulled off the blindfold behind her. Assessing the situation as quickly as she could, she shifted her attention to her surroundings.

Echo's eyes flicked left to right as she surveyed the room. She was on some sort of bridge or command deck. Consoles lined the walls, technical readouts sprawled across their screens. A series of segmented, trapezoidal windows lined the far wall, their sharp angles enclosing the room like the jaws of a steel beast. Beyond the windows, out in the vacuum of space, Echo could see the dark outline of a station ring mimicking a horizon. So it was a station after all. But pirates, in full control of a station this large? Something didn't add up.

Near the segmented windows, with a commanding view of the station, was a raised platform adorned with a single chair. In it sat a feminine figure with an imposing air. Her fur was a deep, beautiful orange, complimented by bits of white and creamy brown. And if there was any doubt as to who had captured her, the figure put that to rest. She dressed the part of a pirate to a T. She wore what might have once been a standard-issue IMC armor kit, but was so cobbled together from spare parts and marked with jolly roger graffiti, it was barely recognizable. It added to her fearsome appearance, and from her position in the command chair, she towered over the painted dog kneeling before her. She glared down at Echo with an evil gleam in her eyes.

"So you're the one who made away with my ship." An accusatory growl escaped from the figure in the chair. Echo narrowed her eyes, unsure who this might be. "The black mark on my reputation. The only one to escape my grasp." The painted dog eyed her up more carefully. She clearly thought she was someone of importance. She sat with a relaxed posture, one leg crossed over the other, unafraid and filled with confidence that nothing could strike out at her in what was her domain. She held a pistol, a revolver, in hand, lazily waving it about in the air as she spoke. It was the same make and model as Echo's own side arm. Hell, for all she knew, it might even be Echo's. The pirates had undoubtedly stripped anything of value from the Pungwe by now.

"You have no idea how happy I am to finally have you." A wicked grin broke out across the pirates face. "To have you at my mercy after all the trouble you've caused." She flicked open the cartridge of the weapon in her hand, pulling out a round as if to inspect. It glinted sharply in the light streaming through the viewport. "How does it feel? To know that your life depends on my whim?" Placing the round back within the cartridge, she snapped it back in to place with a punctuating click.

Echo's chest pounded, and blood rushed to her ears, making it difficult to sense the rest of the room around her. A cold chill shuddered down her spine. But she swallowed down the fear, and chose to press the situation instead. "Where's the rest of my crew?" she demanded of the pirate before her.

"Ha! So bold in the face of death." The pirate placed the revolver haphazardly on the armrest of her chair before standing. She was tall. Very tall. "No need to worry. They're fine and unharmed, all cozy in their cells just as you were." She took a few steps close to the prisoner.

"If you've hurt them, I swear I'll..." There was a sharp jab from behind from something hard. It hurt like hell. Apparently the guards didn't like that.

"Such concern for your crew. An admirable trait in a starship captain, to be sure." The pirate wore a smug grin on her face. "Cassandra wasn't lying when she said you were a goody two-shoes."

At the mention of Cassandra, Echo frowned. So she really was involved with the pirates. She had hoped, prayed even, that it somehow wasn't true. That she was somehow still working with the IMC. Or that she had been tangled up accidentally. That there was still some unseen variable she would uncover that would make sense of this mess. But with all that happened so far, it was undeniable. And to hear it aloud, in person. Echo had to face the facts. How could the sweet young girl she knew from childhood be in league with scum like this? And how could she betray her in the process, no less?

"But I'm getting ahead of myself, I think." Echo was shaken from her thoughts as the pirate spoke. "I haven't even introduced myself." The pirate turned her back to retrieve the handgun from her chair. She whirled back around to face her captive audience and struck a pose straight out of a movie poster, one hand on her hips, the other pointing the pistol up in the air. "I..." she gave the briefest of dramatic pauses. "Am Ira Caldera. Pirate Queen of the Spectre Fleet."

It was no wonder she was so full of herself. Caldera, a woman of maned wolf descent, was the Empire's most wanted criminal, and the master mind behind the increase in pirate activity over the past decade. Not all pirates flew her flag, but she was responsible for uniting a sizable portion of them. Every member of her fleet was marked with the same iconic emblem, and they struck with ruthless efficiency, even challenging smaller ISC patrols.

"And you, my dear," the maned wolf continued. "Have found yourself on the wrong side of the most powerful woman in charted space." Echo's eyes flicked over the gun again. She had missed her chance to make a grab for it. Damn. She shouldn't have let the thought of Cassandra distract her. "I have poured too many resources into acquiring that ship of yours. Do you have any idea how valuable it is?"

She had some idea, of course. The Pungwe had more than proven it's worth. But in a hostage situation, she thought it best to divulge as little as possible. There was no guarantee just what Caldera knew.

When the tied up dog didn't answer, Caldera continued. "That derelict you picked up wasn't just some salvage heap." A note of condescension touched her voice. "It's a military-grade, golden-age destroyer. A Fenrir class, top of the line. Demilitarized, unfortunately, but still. That can be fixed. The things I could do with a ship like that in my fleet." The wolfess' eyes glazed over for a moment, apparently lost in a fanciful daydream of death and destruction.

Her gaze snapped back to Echo. "But I'm sure you knew this already. You look like a smart girl, Captain Rawley. If you hadn't known this going in, you must have figured it out by now, given all the trouble you gave my accomplices." That wicked, fanged smile returned to her face yet again. "Speaking of my accomplices. There's someone here who'd like to have a word with you." She nodded toward the back of the room.

Echo slowly turned to look behind her, afraid that any sudden movement would earn her another jab to the ribs. It was awkward without her hands to keep her balance, but she managed. The back of the room was darker, and it took her a second to make out just who Caldera was referring to. As her eyes adjusted, she could make out three more guards. And there was no mistaking the jackal who stood front and center. It was Cassandra.

A scowl graced the ex-marine's face. "Miss me?" she said with a sneer.

"Cassandra," Echo began. She wasn't sure what to say. Her mind was now awash with a confusing mix of emotions. They had been such great friends once, practically sisters in all but blood. Then Echo had left for the ISC. She had tried reconnecting back in the squadron, but... Cassandra had been cold and distant. She made it clear she had no interest in being friends again. She had changed too. Rougher around the edges, more bellicose. Despite her diminutive size, she had earned a reputation with the marines for being someone you didn't fuck around with.

"Cassandra, they're pirates. How? How are you working with them?" Echo still didn't want to accept that the jackal truly had gone rogue. She was grasping at straws, hoping beyond hope that her childhood friend would give her some sort of explanation.

The smaller canid looming above her gave her no such salvation. "You have no idea what I've been through, do you? Maybe you'd be here yourself if you had." Cassandra shifted her weight from one leg to the other, clearly aggravated. "The IMC doesn't fuck around, Alex. Unlike you panzies in your ships. They taught me how to stand up for myself. Protect myself."

"But pirates? They kill people, Cassandra," Echo pleaded.

"Ya? So do we. Or did you not realize that?"

"Innocent people!"

"Nobody's innocent, Alex. Preach your high and mighty morals all you want, but it doesn't make a difference." The jackal set her hands on her hips. "There's only one thing that matters in the end. Strength. Pass all the laws you want, and see how much good they do you when somebody stronger comes along who doesn't like them. The galaxy belongs to those who can take it.

"And the Empire isn't strong anymore, Alex. We're barely a sliver of what we used to be before the Decimation, and we're getting weaker every year. The gods damn Empire can't even protect it's own fucking people anymore." She snarled that last remark with viscous anger.

"So when the Spekkies came to me with an offer? An offer that would put me in a stronger position? I took it." Cassandra crossed her arms with a note of finality, as if satisfied she had proven her point.

Echo visibly winced at her words. She didn't know who the jackal before her was anymore. This wasn't the small jackal girl she had grown up with. This wasn't her childhood friend, dancing and laughing together in Mrs. Sheliak's dance class. This wasn't the scared little sister she had protected from gangsters roaming the corridors of Cowleston Platform. This wasn't Cassandra.

Caldera interrupted the reunion, stepping around Echo to sidle up next to the jackaless. "As pleasant as this has been, there is business to attend to. Your ship is mine now. I've kept you around while we check it out and run a systems check, but it seems to be all clear.

"And as I said, I've waited a long time to have you in my grasp. You've made a fool of me and my fleet for far too long, and I'm going to enjoy making you pay." The lips of her muzzle lifted into a snarl, baring her fangs. "But, as our newest member of Spectre fleet, and the one responsible for hunting you down, I think your friend here should get the honors."

She presented Cassandra the pistol grip first. "Kill her."

Echo's heart stopped dead in her chest. Even the stoic marine was taken aback for a moment at the abruptness of the command. "I... what?" Cassandra stuttered.

The maned wolf's entire demeanor changed. Where she once commanded the situation with the social grace of a sleazy politician, she now filled the room with terror. An audible growl permeated the room, and the snarl which graced her visage flaunted a maw full of razor sharp teeth. The gleaming white fangs evoked images of wild predators ripping their prey apart limb from limb. And her towering figure, bulked up by her armor, made it clear she could do just that to anyone who opposed her. Weapon in hand or not.

"Kill. Her." The pirate queen wasn't happy at having to repeat herself. She narrowed her eyes. "Unless you'd prefer I drop you off at the nearest IMC prison, you're a member of Spectre Fleet now. You do as I say. Now. Kill. Her." Echo's eyes flicked between the two women. She saw the jackal's ears pinned back against her head, a moment of hesitation. "Or are you too weak?" Caldera hissed the words with vile hatred.

The expression on Cassandra's face hardened, and she took the proffered sidearm. She lifted the weapon, slowly raising it level with the painted dog's head. Echo's entire body tensed as time seemed to slow to a crawl. She stared down the barrel of the handheld railgun, it's sleek, gray finish uncaring of the death which it would bring. Her muscles coiled, ready to spring into action. She had to act. The time was now.

Then she saw the barrel quiver. A slight tremble, just barely perceptible to all but the most heightened of senses. A crack in the armor of the battle-hardened marine. Echo couldn't begin to imagine what was going through her head. What brought her to this moment, to this decision. And suddenly, the painted dog's head was flooded once again with memories of her childhood.

Their weekly outing for milkshakes at Jack's Diner. The time she had punched a bully in the face for calling Cassandra short. Their dance lessons learning how to bellydance together, and the stern disapproval of her father when he found out. Playing hex ball in the Sierra Park courts. Running around in the maintenance corridors to dodge nighttime security patrols in their more rebellious years.

The tension left her body as any thought of action left her mind. No. She had to know. She might meet her end today, but she had to know. It was hard to pull all her thoughts together into words, but Echo finally found her voice. A single syllable escaped her lips. A barely audible question whispered through the air like a leaf on the wind. "Why?"

"Why?" the jackal repeated. If the tough marine had looked angry before, now she seemed to be downright irate. Her whole body tensed, as if about to leap on the helpless prisoner, and a fire ignited in her eyes. "Why? Because of you!" she shouted with fury. She shoved the pistol closer to the dog's face.

"You have no idea what I've been through! Back on Cowleston, you started hanging around with those... thugs. You said they would protect us. I knew they were no good, but you wouldn't fucking listen to me!" She was screaming and snarling at this point, fueled by pure emotion. "It might have worked at first, but I was right in the end! They started harassing us, and even you couldn't fend them off after that!" Her voice leveled into an accusation. "And then you had to get it in that stupid head of yours to fly off and join the Star Corps. You left me behind for something bigger and better. You left me behind with those fucking bastards!"

Tears welled up in Cassandra's eyes, and her voice cracked as she began to sob. "You have no idea what they did to me after you left! You left me behind." Her rage faltered momentarily as tears flowed freely down her cheeks. The jackal's gun arm wavered for a moment, but she steadied herself. "That was the day I learned morality is meaningless. That was the day I learned only the strong survive. So that's what I became." The waterfall of emotion was not enough to put out the fire in her eyes, and the jackal leveled the pistol once again. "They said it was because of you. It was all because of you. You. Left. Me. Behind." She pulled the trigger.

There was a click. And then nothing.

The nothingness stretched into eternity.

And then the silence was broken by a slow, piercing clap. "Very good, Cassandra. You pulled through after all." The Pirate Queen's voice sliced through the air, cutting the tension in the room. Tears streamed down the face of the jackal, pattering to the floor. Echo let out a long, slow breathe, not realizing she had been holding it. She was still alive, as far as she could tell.

"A dead battery it seems." Echo could hear the malicious smile on her face without have to turn to look. "I wasn't going to let you out of this that easy. I have plans for you, dear Captain."

With a quiet gasp, Cassandra released her grip on the pistol, and it clattered to the floor with a loud clang. She paused for a moment, as realization struck her. The Pirate Queen of Spectre Fleet had a sick sense of humor, it seemed, and it was too much for the jackal. She turned tail and ran out the door, retreating to somewhere within the station's depths. The guards nearest her moved to stop her, but a raised hand from Caldera stopped them. "Let her be, for now."

Echo, however, was filled with rage at the pirate's brazen manipulation. She leaped to her feet, not caring that she was still bound, and rushed the maned wolf. "You fucking bitch!" she snarled.

She made it about two steps before the guards intercepted her. One of them grabbed her in his arms and slammed her into the floor. Without her hands for balance, she impacted hard. Her skull made a dull thud on the solid metal floor of the space station, and stars clouded her quickly narrowing vision. The pain was intense, but she managed to just barely cling to consciousness.

As her vision returned, she saw the feral visage of the pirate hovering over her. She blinked in an effort to clear the pain away, and the face slowly resolved into focus. It grew larger as she leaned down, bringing herself closer to the fallen dog.

"Can you understand me?"

Echo nodded. The blow had hurt, but she was conscious enough to still have her faculties.

"Good. Because you're going to want to pay close attention," the maned wolf said. "It would bring me great joy to gut you here and now. And no doubt a lesser pirate would have, without a second thought. But I didn't earn my place as queen by acting on base impulse. You have to be able to recognize and seize an opportunity when you see one out here in the black. And you, Captain, are an opportunity."

"I want that ship for my fleet. I will have that ship for my fleet. But a ship is no good without a captain to command her. And a ship of that caliber needs a captain to match." Caldera smiled. A soft, genuine smile, or at least the closest thing the villainous pirate could approximate. "I run the most powerful organization outside the Empire, with a fleet to match. And yet somehow. Somehow. You managed to escape me. Not just once, but repeatedly. You and your crew must be one hell of a resourceful team to pull that off. I want you to join Spectre Fleet."

Echo wondered if the blow to her head had been worse than she realized. There was no way she had heard that correctly. She waited a moment to see if the pirate would say anything more. When she didn't continue, she figured she was expected to answer.

The painted dog spat in her face. Or at least tried to. From her position on the floor, the glob of saliva didn't have enough energy to reach it's intended target. Artificial gravity reached out and pulled it straight back down, where it splattered across the captain's cheek. She did her best to ignore it. "What makes you think I'd want to join a cabal of murderers and bandits? I'd rather be dead."

"Would you rather your crew be dead?" The orange-furred canine let the threat hang for a second. It gave Echo pause. Stripped of her office, with her career in shambles, her loyalty to her crew was all she had left. In the ISC, the hardest decision a commander could ever have to make was to send a man to his death. To order troops into battle against insurmountable odds, when the mission required it. But sometimes, the situation could require that. The commander knew that. And his troops knew that. It's what they signed up for.

But that was a past life now. And not all her crew were military, ready to make that sacrifice. They were a ragtag posse of friends, bound together through circumstance. None of them had asked for this. But it's what they had, and there was no going back for any of them. On the run from the law, chased by pirates, they were now tied together, their survival dependent upon layers of interdependency and mutual support. They were a pack. They were her pack.

Before Echo could respond, Caldera continued. "I'm not expecting you to accept my offer. At least not yet. That will come with time." The maned wolf grinned. "I'm working towards a larger goal, Captain Rawley. We may be pirates now, but that's only because we're forced to live in the shadow of the Empire." Echo could since a villainous monologue approaching. "There are hundreds of independent stations out there, operating beyond the reach of the Empire after the war. Dozens of freshly colonized planets that have lost contact with society. With the right leadership, and sufficient force, we can bring them into our fold. Not as freshly looted plunder, but as allies. We wouldn't just be raiders anymore, barely making it by until we can steal our next meal. We can set up our own infrastructure and logistics. Build our own society, to rival the Empire!"

The painted dog interrupted with a snarl. "You're killing innocent people out there on the tradeways. You're a fool if you think piracy is a path to building a better society."

"Do you think the Empire is any better?" the maned wolf growled at her with a barely contained fury. "We do what we have to in order to survive. The only alternative is death." Her voice raised in volume as she continued. "The Empire certainly isn't afraid to spill a little blood in the name of order and unity. Why shouldn't we?"

"Because the Empire..."

Caldera leaned in closer and slammed her hands down on either side of the prone prisoner. Her muzzle was now only inches from Echo's face as she snarled. "Your Empire..." she spat the word out with vile hatred. "killed my family in cold blood. Destroyed my home. Torched the entire fucking station. For all I know, everyone I ever loved, is dead."

She pulled back and composed herself. "That's why I'm here, Captain. To bring down the tyranny of the Empire. To build a new society. My crews are savages, the lot of them, but it's because they've known nothing else. They're no different than your IMC marines. Just look at what's become of Cassandra." Echo winced as the jab hit her in the heart. "But I'm playing the long game here, Captain. I'm molding this pitiful collection of barbaric drifters into what will one day be a free state. And that's why I need people like you."

She grabbed Echo by the collar and hoisted her back up onto her feet. The splotched canine took a second to find her balance, head still reeling from the blow she took earlier. Caldera made a show of brushing the dirt off her captive's shoulder. "That's why I'm letting you go."

Echo narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "You're letting me go?" she asked with a hint of mockery. "Just like that, no strings attached, out of the goodness of your little pirate heart?"

That stupid, evil grin appeared on her face again. "I didn't become Queen through sheer, dumb luck. I have my reasons. Suffice it to say, I think you'll find your way back here on your own, in due time." She signaled to one of the guards, who came up behind Echo and undid her binders. As soon as they were off, the painted dog brought them in front her her, rubbing her wrists where the cuffs had dug into them.

"And I know about your troubles with the ISC since the heist. You'll never be able to return. They won't stop looking for you." The crazy wolfess seemed to have a lot of information on her. Though Echo supposed isn't wasn't much of a leap to assume she was in deep water with the ISC after what had happened.

"If you can breach into the 29th Fleet's intelligence servers, you should be able to erase your records. It won't stop them coming after you, of course. But it should at least stop the alerts from monitoring devices looking for a profile match when you dock at a station." Once again, the painted dog was extremely suspicious. Why would she be giving unsolicited advice?

"And while you're there..." There it was. "The ISC has been working to track down potential colonies outside the empire. Lots of people went out into the stars on their own during the golden age. And knowledge of their whereabouts was forgotten after the war. 29th Fleet has been building a list of potential sites. I want it. Think of it as a repayment," Caldera said. "For sparing your life."

Echo scoffed. "I am not running a net job for you as a 'thank you.' Kidnapping me, nearly blowing my brains out, and then deciding to let me go isn't what I'd call a 'favor.'"

She dismissed the argument with a wave of her hand, as though such a thing were an everyday occurrence. For her, it might well be. "Consider it a standing offer, if you change your mind." The maned wolf spoke with the unbothered confidence of a businessman closing a deal. The bipolar shifts in demeanor were off-putting, one moment a fearsome pirate, the next a savvy politician. But she seemed to know how to put both faces to good use. "If nothing else, I want you to have the list. I'm sure the idea of exploring uncharted space for lost colonies is quite appealing, now that you've no where else to go. Consider yourself my official ambassador. You're sure to make a better impression on the locals than my own crews."

The idea did hold some appeal, Echo had to admit. Space completely outside the Empire's sphere of influence might be her only remaining option, if they really did exist. And if Caldera was really going to let her go, then there was no reason she had to lay the ground work for the pirate, as she was requesting. She could just... go off and do as she pleased.

"Don't think you'll be getting away from here yakl-free, though," the pirate continued. "I'll be sending a couple of my lackey's along with you as part of your crew. A gift, so to speak. They'll be loyal to you, as far as their crew duties are concerned. But they'll keep me up to date on your exploits through space."

Echo glared at her. "And what's stopping me from jetting them out the airlock as soon as I'm out of here?"

"Nothing!" the pirate beamed back at her. "That's your prerogative, as Captain. But I'm sure you wouldn't do that to your best buddy Cassandra." The tall canid grinned.

Echo's eyes widened, and her heart began to beat a little faster. A swarm of emotions threatened to overtake her again. If her relationship with her childhood friend had been complex before, now it was an n-dimensional quantum wave function, ready to collapse into any number of possibilities. She... wasn't sure how she felt about the jackal. How she was supposed to feel. How does one react to a long-lost friend that almost murdered you?

"She's proven quite a capable and loyal asset so far. And the two of you clearly have some outstanding issues to settle, so she's the natural choice. I'll just have to make sure she's up for the job after today, and there's a few other matters to settle with your ship. In mean time, I'll have you escorted back to your temporary quarters."

And with that, she signaled towards the guards. One of them approached the captive captain, placing a hand on her shoulder as if to guide her. She thought about resisting, but reconsidered. With her restraints removed, it seemed Caldera's offer was genuine. And her chances of making it out through force were slim.

With one last glare at her nemesis, Echo turned to follow her armed escort. The pirate queen simply smiled back at her. The painted dog was guided out of the command deck and into the hallway beyond. Just before the doors slid shut behind her, she her head the maned wolf call out one last time. "Remember, Captain Rawley. I want that list. And I'll make sure you're well rewarded if you bring it to me." Echo didn't respond as she walked despondently down the station corridor.
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