Chapter 1

It was mid-morning, on the planet Lava, and they looked each other through the vidscreen, pretending to be comfortable. The middle-aged men's contact reduced to Instant Community video calls from separate living rooms, even though they lived in the same section of the city.

"Falco, I am a retired military pilot, not a merchant," Lan Peak tried to joke.

"Well, as a bankrupt freighter captain," Falco took a breath, "I am not touching the Fillmore again."

"Just pay the pad rental and docking fees until the bank recovers your old ship," Lan responded.

"Look, I am sorry you co-signed the ship lease with your son. I told you my lawyer said if I spend a credit on that ship or its care, it unravels my bankruptcy protection. I can't take that risk," Falco told him.

Falco examined his dead sister's husband. He was a handsome man of the size and shape which had, three years before, commanded a picture in a feature article on wing-suit athletes; a popular extreme sport on a planet with extreme weather. Lan wore a black, hi-performance skinsuit that ex-military men favored and a pair of red sweat pants.

"Give Raf Ram my best. My sister would be proud of him. Starting a new hauling business with friends and real assets; it's a real leg up on how I started," Falco said. "Sorry, Lan. He shouldn't have bought a new ship without working his way out of the Fillmore with the bank. I can't fix his impulsiveness for you."

Curious, Lan tapped his wrist controller and the screen zoomed in on his brother-in-law's face. Falco's bloodshot, alcoholic eyes disappeared a moment later. The wall-size video display blinked back to a lush jungle picture of Lan Peak's birth world, Emerald Sky. The gentle splash of water on rocks played out of the VidScreen's speakers.

An hour before, Raf had talked with his father, announcing his purchase of a medium class freighter with trust fund money. When Raf was born, Cass's mother had set aside money for her grandson; part of the money went to Raf's college expenses and the rest was released on his twenty-fifth birthday. The magic birthday was last week and Raf bought the spaceship the same day with his buddies.

"Instant Community, connect with Raf Ram," Lan stated to the VidScreen.

"Calling Raf Ram," the apartment computer announced. After a moment, the computer continued, "Connection Confirmed."

"Hi, Dad," a chipper Raf Ram answered.

"He didn't go for it, Raf," Lan said.

"You predicted he wouldn't, Dad," Raf responded, looking away at someone off screen.

"Son, putting all your capital into the new freighter without consulting me was stupid," Lan said, firmly.

"With Uncle Falco's bankruptcy, I thought the whole lease with the bank would go away," Raf answered defensively, crossing his arms.

"If you had of talked to me. I would've told you the contract was enforceable against us," Lan said, visibly turning red in the face.

"Dad, all of my money is now tied up in the new freighter and the business," Raf snapped. "What can I do now? Nothing!"

Off-screen, Raf's wife said, "He is baiting you, honey. It is the start of another lecture. Instant Community, disconnect."

Lan's video display unit returned to its home state with jungle sounds and the lush jungle picture. The frustrated father kicked the empty air.

"Another conversation I screwed up with my son and his immature wife," Lan said. "What a day."

Lan drifted to the window of his small apartment, looking out from the eighty-second floor as another wispy cloud flew by. He felt embarrassed at asking his brother-in-law to take over the cost of the landing pad, but Lan was desperately short of funds to cover the monthly ship lease. So what could he do? Lan thought. He picked up his lucky charm and twirled it, a combat knife his wife had given him when he was still in the military. On the butt of the knife, in a small bubble, was the planet Lava in an elliptic orbit around the sun. Around the bubble was engraved, "I love you."

The view of the city unfolded before his eyes with a gap in the cloud. In the distance, Lan could see the business district towers over the otherwise barren landscape. The inert, black lava rock had been a stunning landscape when Lan first moved to the planet. Since his wife's death, the harsh land only reminded him of his loss. Lan dropped the knife back on the side table. He draped his red sweatshirt over his shoulder and strode out of the apartment door with purpose and a destination in mind. He ignored his hunger.

That afternoon, after wandering around the city's only domed forest park, Lan slipped into an underground warren. The tight tunnel twisted and turned under the business district towers. No respectable business type would ever set foot in the crowded corridors beneath Lava. Only the poor occupied this space—or someone taking the shortest distance between two spots without paying for a taxi above ground. It was too hot to go outside this time of day, so taking the warren was the fastest route to Lan's lawyer's office. The thick smell of human odor and stale air wasn't pleasant, but Lan was a veteran of the warrens since going on his military pension. His rent-controlled apartment kept his expenses down, along with access to inexpensive goods at the BX on the base, near the edge of town. Retired military personnel, like Lan, could get their necessities at the space port's exchange.

The crowd's sentiment towards him grew increasingly negative as Lan navigated the end of a concrete warren that led up into a tower. A horde of homeless beggars collected at each tower entrance; they looked half-aware and half-dead. The squeaky shoes of two private security guards played on the marble floor, which was the unspoken dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. The guardians of the business class looked him over and nodded their acceptance for entry into polite society. Their unseen partner, hidden in a recess of the wall, slurped a coffee. Lan smelled the rare aroma as he pushed the revolving door, sealing the underworld behind him.

When the door rotated open, a blast of fresh air blew Lan's unruly, long bangs into his eyes. The sudden pain made his eyes water as he stepped into the cavernous main lobby. He inadvertently bumped into a woman who, in her exasperation and amusement, mumbled something about his warren smell. The woman clearly thought Lan had sacrificed his social life and standing by exiting the underground. A collective giggle and chatter of women receded past Lan as he got his bearing in the vast building. There seemed to be more women in the crowd than his last visit to his attorney. Perhaps it was his loneliness and the upcoming anniversary of his wife's terrible tragedy that sparked his awareness of the female form.

The blend of a white marble floor and black metal beams that supported the massive building were stark contrasts to the colorful VidScreens screaming for the attention of the masses. Above every corridor, which led to a bank of elevators, a visual display of active data pulsed. Lan saw food prices had been declining, raw industrial commodity prices were stabilizing, unit labor costs (ULC) had increased. In a moment, the pilot was splashed with more data, but his disinterest tuned the market conditions out. He caught a FastNews discussion about Emerald Sky's debt problems and the negotiation hold-outs. He laughed, fully aware of his membership in a group the press labeled the "Vulture Fund."

Lan moved with the flow of people and hustled to a less-popular elevator bank that served only one particular floor. Calling the elevator, he'd no sooner touched the button than the door slid open. Stepping inside, Lan felt surprise when a man followed him; of all the floors in the tower, relatively few people traveled to the offices of Interstellar Legal Services, the only non-profit in the entire building. The pilot looked at the large, muscular man for a moment. The stranger had big fleshy ears and a thick neck. His dark black eyes were sharp and intense. They seemed to bore into Lan's soul.

Lan looked away and pushed the button for his floor. The man didn't move while the shiny metal doors slid closed. Feeling watched, Lan nervously glanced at the stranger who was watching him. Suddenly the man poked the pilot in the chest with a metal rod.

"Emerald Sky requires you to change your position. You will take the deal," the brute said in a menacing voice.

Shocked at the confrontation, Lan breathed loudly. There was only one door out of the elevator and the man blocked it. Not that it mattered; the elevator shook twice as it changed tracks, moving to its destination. Lan's bad feelings jumped up a notch with the buzzing sound of the enforcer rod's discharge.

The brute blinked and looked down at his stun weapon. Old, but not forgotten reflexes surged in Lan, who struck the stranger in the throat with an open-handed strike followed by an elbow to the brute's chin. For most opponents, the combination would have dropped an assailant. The brute shook his head like an elephant ready to trumpet his displeasure. Realizing the problem, Lan grabbed the stranger's ears with both hands and thrust his knee into the man's groin. The brute bent over and Lan karate chopped the back of the man's neck, crippling him.

The elevator announced, "Interstellar Legal Services, your passport to managing off-world risk."

The metal door slid open. Lan picked the stun device off the floor, unzipped his red sweatshirt and slipped the Enforcer Rod into a concealed pocket. The brute blinked up at him.

Lan pointed at his black skinsuit under the sweatshirt before he said, "It's a military version with ARC thermal performance. Bar bouncers hate these things, but they save wingsuit athletes every day." He walked onto the floor and looked back at the thug. "I decline your government's offer. I want my money back in its entirety."

The open elevator door closed, as Lan zipped up his garment. A young woman with a wide open mouth and pale-moon white skin stood at her desk, she clearly saw the man laid out on the elevator floor. Lan didn't stop has he walked by the familiar secretary.

"Call security for trash pick-up. Also, as a tenant of the building, I expect you to access the Instant Community video camera in the elevator and lock it down as client confidential for an on-going investigation," Lan commanded.

She yelled to him as he opened the glass doors into the legal organization, "You know that only holds the video for 48 hours before it's released to FastNews. The elevator is public space."

Lan knew the privacy laws on Lava better than most. The death of his wife went out live and Raf Ram saw it. Nothing was private anymore. Kids flew Go-Drones with cameras peeking into government buildings and rent-controlled apartments, filming residents—a totally legal operation if you paid for your drone license. A FastNews drone had filmed Lan's wife's last moments as an unexpected lava flow burnt through her derailed train car. The replay was on Worst Final Moments, an entertainment drama show, distributed to all the planets in the region. Raf Ram had never looked at his father the same after the broadcast.

The grief from the memory encumbered Lan less each year, but his strained relationship with his son always pointed back to Lan's lack of action that day.

The glass-walled waiting room of the legal organization was not ornate or boiling over with rich décor. A few comfortable couches, side tables, tasteful rugs with an abundance of light fixtures surrounded Lan as he waited for his lawyer, Earnest Locke. The wait was much longer than the pilot expected.

He needed good news about the pending bond default negotiations. Until now, money hadn't been a real concern for Lan; low budget living was fine with him. Raf Ram had been paying the lease payment on the light freighter, while working it with his friends. A youthful, rash decision changed everything for the retired father. Now his son was effectively saddling him with the debt and moving the crew to the new ship too.

Earnest Locke entered the room through a secure door, his smile filled the man's elderly face. Sylvia, his young paralegal, followed him, her eyes surveyed the room and the hallway with the elevator. She moved like a predator, her green eyes taking in everything. The non-profit was less pretentious than its for-profit peers, but it was stocked with many gifted associates and interns. Sylvia was a recent addition.

"Come on in, Lan," Earnest said, waving him into a conference room.

The pilot followed the bushy-haired, old man who had a kindly soul. They circled the mammoth conference table and exited through a hidden door into the heart of the organization's working area.

Lan had never seen this area before, a circular room with a set of cubicles facing a central, raised, podium-workstation. All the cubicles looked like pilot stations on a starship, muted VidScreens with an attractive command chair at the center filled out each cube. All the chairs held young people. A few stations had a clear-table to cover part of the workspace; most of the stations had retracted the tables. When their client entered the area, most of the lawyers stopped working and watched Lan. Setting his jaw and tempering down his unease, Lan put on his game face. Earnest had made Lan the public face of the legal battle with Emerald Sky, his frequent exposure to sports news had broadened the appeal of the story.

"This is one of our project areas, Lan. At present, we call this one, Vulture, since the popular press is painting us with a black hat," Earnest said with a laugh.

Lan stood awkwardly next to Earnest on the central workstation-platform. Sylvia rested against the far wall, maintaining her serious look as Earnest gave a brief testimonial about Lan. It wasn't that the staff didn't know about Lan; it was more or less a preamble for Earnest to introduce his subject. The lawyer added a compassionate speech about helping poor widows collect money from Emerald Sky, which was trying to renegotiate the term of the planet's debt payment. The sovereign bond was due at the end of the month and this organization represented the hold outs, commonly called the vultures. The associate lawyers listened intently to Earnest, since he was the organization's founder.

Earnest continued, "Lan was just assaulted in our elevator. Sylvia and I reviewed the video stream of the attack. Mr. Peak was unharmed and the assailant was disarmed by our client. Building security was not as fortunate, three guards were sent to the hospital and the villain escaped."

The mugger's escape surprised Lan. The man was a true professional. "I made a mistake gloating over him," Lan thought.

"Considering the media frenzy around Emerald Sky I expect this incident to make the news," the old lawyer announced.

No surprise there, Lan thought.

"What will not make the news this week is that half of our clients accepted Emerald Sky's modified offer of 15% of the principal payment with no accumulated interest," Earnest said, turning around in a complete circle with his hands out.

The collective gasp from the associate lawyers ended as their leader completed his turn.

The founder said coolly, "None of those clients will tell us why, after all these years of fighting, they gave up, but now you can see they were approached as Mr. Peak was. Emerald is playing dirty. They must be more politically unstable and desperate than is commonly known."

"And I thought my day couldn't get any worse," Lan whispered, his hope for a quick pay out dashed.

Conesavanh Aralast walked into a small warehouse of Rollin Industries, a munitions manufacturer where he'd been employed since he was eighteen. He'd worked his way up from draftsman to factory engineer until he was noticed by the company founder. His meticulous focus, brainy thoughtfulness, and candid nature took him far. His friends called him Cone; others called him CEO Aralast. When the company founder decided to go into politics, Cone was selected as the next generation leader of the medium-sized manufacturer.

Cone was an avid wingsuit enthusiast, taught and tempered for the sport by his best friend, Lan Peak. The extreme sport of flying the human body through the air used a special jump suit called a wingsuit, which added surface area around the body to increase lift. A wingsuit flight typically ends when the chest repulsor is activated, so a wingsuit is flown from a reasonable altitude; normally a wingsuit drop-ship deployed an entire club of athletes at once. A repulsor is form of particle beam technology created by circular particle accelerators that can smash atoms together to generate heavier elements. Back when he was a lowly factory engineer, Cone took lessons on how to navigate the extreme winds of Lava from Lan. No one skydives on Lava, they wingsuit; and anyone-who-was-anyone got instruction from Broken Wing Lan Peak. His nickname was hung on the pilot from commanding and surviving a controlled, crash landing in his military days.

Since that certification course, the two men did everything together: bars, wingsuiting, tinkering with tools in garage workshops. Once Cone became CEO, the two men moved their tools and projects into this under-utilized company warehouse, which had better lighting, improved environmental controls, more space, and it was free. Over the last year, they spent almost every Saturday working on Lan's pet project, trying to get it ready for the annual Aerospace-Concepts trade show on the space station above Lava. The trade show moved around the Solon Protectorate, and this year it was Lava's turn to host the prestigious event. Lan could never afford to pursue the show outside of Lava's solar system. Cone's access to the Rollin Industries hangar on the orbital, and the availability of the company's private orbital-shuttle was a perk of his job. All these factors put Lan into the running to make some real money—if his concept caught the eye of the right buyers.

The attack on Lan did make a FastNews program two days after his visit to Earnest Locke. The elevator had no audio and the camera angle was from the back of the large thug. So the report didn't mention Emerald Sky's involvement, rather it was played up as an underworld resident attack. The outraged commentator wondered how such a low life could get into a tower elevator. Lan had hoped his friend would have missed the segment. Unfortunately, Lan was a familiar figure around Rollin Industries and someone pointed out the replay to Cone. The pilot had to spill the tale to his CEO friend, which pissed him off. He had just wanted to forget about it.

The two of them unlocked their workspace cage and talked, tools in hand, until the evening. Cone was smart enough not to bring up the sore subject again until they were ready to depart the warehouse.

"The Supreme Thruster is wired now, Lan," Cone said. "When people see it attached to this long, yellow tube they are going to scratch their heads. I love it." Cone's enthusiasm for their project never waned.

"It's your access to black silicon circuits that make this prototype possible," Lan responded.

"This surplus warehouse is full of junk, Lan. If we make this rescue drone work, my company will thank me and pay you for your patent," Cone responded. "This skunk works project is in the finest tradition of Rollin Industries, using surplus parts and free labor. We will make the stock holders happy, the chairman of the board is going to pat you on the back, and then we will give you a nice big deposit of Empire Credits. A contract for these drones could be a huge product line addition for us.

"You still need to name this craft, however."

"I need that money," Lan admitted honestly. "I'll come up with a name soon."

Cone shrugged. "You know I can help with the lease payment, Broken Wing."

Lan wagged a finger in front of his friend's face. "That's not how I navigate life. I have always found a way to lift my own ship." The money problem darkened his mood and face.

Lifting his hands, Cone answered, "Perhaps your 500,000 par Emerald bond will pay off in full. That would cover you for the rest of the year with the bank."

Before they continued the discussion, they stepped out of the secure cage and locked it. Even though company security remained in the building, they always locked up their private tools.

Stepping out into the cool night, Lan finally responded, "My attorney believes Emerald Sky will be desperate to settle the negotiation soon. With a few people holding out for full payment, they would be crazy to default and lose their credit rating. I am sure they will come around. The bond's maturity is finally upon them."

The CEO set his jaw, amazed how upbeat his friend was after the attack on him. It gnawed at him that Broken Wing wouldn't accept his money to smooth out the financial struggle.

Lan raised his eyebrows, surprised his friend was still politely pushing him.

Cone smiled and changed the subject as they walked to their ride a few feet away. "Are you set to defend your title tomorrow on Mount Ayer? The whole wingsuit community is cheering for your team. That Atwood team has dropped off Ayer all week getting ready to take the grudge trophy back to their planet."

Normally not one to boast, Lan said, "Cone, they don't have a chance this year. All that noble blue-blood isn't going to mean a thing on our mountain."

Lava was the center of the universe for wingsuit athletes, its harsh winds and foreboding landscape gave the biggest thrills and greatest adrenalin rushes. Lava's home team hadn't lost a championship since Lan had become team captain six years ago. The competition was always on FastNews; everyone knew the team captain and everyone knew about his horrible loss. After winning his first team trophy, in a room full of camera drones, a reporter actually asked him how he felt about his wife's lava flow death. The sight of the reporter's broken nose and the blood splatter stain was the talk of the planet's wingsuit enthusiasts for a month. FastNews loved the rating spike and didn't want bad publicity by causing Broken Wing trouble over the fist, so he wasn't charged. Needless to say, Fastnews reporters didn't inquire about her anymore.

Cone dropped Lan off at the pilot's residential tower, and then darted off to get ready for a late night meeting with his Search and Rescue contact. It never hurt to take a purchasing agent out for drinks.

In the morning, a rare thunderstorm caught the Atwood team. They had been slow to get off the mountain, which was a problem since, unlike with drop ships, the route to safety was crowded with other adrenalin junkies converging on the same descent path. The official practice time didn't start until noon, so there were no event guides to help them. A heavy, warm rain turned the loose rocky path's surface into a treacherous trail. Locals knew better than climbing Mount Ayer in the morning, this time of year, when the weather was the most unpredictable. The surrounding terrain was a mixture of razor-sharp volcanic rock and loose black pebbles. The off-world team made it back to the Lower Saddle Rest Stop after the storm blew off the unforgiving, gray mountain. Lower Saddle Rest Stop was a private pavilion, gift shop and restaurant combination that served mountain walkers and wingsuit athletes. Backlit clouds and eery rays of light swept over the dangerous ridge.

Lan saw the FastNews report of the body of a dead mountain walker sprawled out in a crevice, not far from safety at Lower Saddle, the steep slopes surrounding the pass with its winding service road. Another ten feet and the dead man would have been safe. The news drones circled the body from every angle; it was the start of another wonderful FastNews day.

The bloody face of the victim was unrecognizable; surprisingly he was missing an eye. A slow pan of a drone's camera over the man was interrupted by the arrival of a recovery team, flying their repulsor bikes. The FastNews commentator shifted to talking about how search and rescue teams operated on the mountain. It wouldn't be until later that authorities would determine the young man wasn't a mountain walker but a murdered jump security member.

By noon, practice jumps were sanctioned and the embarrassed Atwood team drove off the lip of the mountain, one after another. Lan sniffed the air, taking in the distant scent of sulfur from the warm mountain breeze. The bright sun illuminated the landscape; brownish-green plants dotted the mountain-side, but they all were short and dry-looking. No one called Lava a very habitable planet; yet, massive, terra-forming plants produced relatively clear air. There were a few native plants and boring bugs, but no native animals on what people, in this region of space, called the Rock. If you wanted to insult a man from Lava, you'd call him a "Rocker." Not being a native of the planet, Lan just laughed at off-world drunks in the bar when they called him the demeaning term.

The FastNews coverage was always good for the annual competition; they knew most of the local population thought it was crazy to jump off a cliff. It was rare for a highly skilled Base-jumper to fail to keep a team member in sight during radical turns, but collisions could happen. Such collisions normally ruined a wing, forcing one or both members to shed their other wing, making for a spectacularly scary few moments. If the height permitted, the jumper's chest repulsor would offer just enough thrust to float the athlete to a safe landing. A FastNews drone was never far from such accidents and the entire world loved to watch such crashes. However, at the amateur champion level such accidents were unlikely.

An attractive couple of women, acting as departure guides, asked Lan for his autograph on their vidpad. They took a picture with him and he signed the pad with his finger. A FastNews drone broadcast the scene as each young woman kissed him on the cheek, giggling and stepping away from the old athlete. He clicked the heels of his lucky boots. It was his signature move. A sign of respect, Lan had said years ago. The women loved it. He unconsciously tapped the combat knife on his thigh, an old comfort for an old soldier, a lucky charm from his wife.

Even old athlete heroes get polite kisses he thought, feeling pleased for just a moment. It was the extent of his female companionship, a reminder of what he lost with his wife's death. He tried to ignore the tinge of regret for not kissing the two fans on the lips. It no longer felt like he was cheating when those thoughts slid into his consciousness.

From the look-out at the rest stop, Lan saw an orbital shuttle engage its backup thrusters as it glided to the landing zone at the base of the mountain. The familiar markings on the ship wasn't lost on Lan. The precision and lightness of the machines landing spoke of Cone's skill. His friend was a natural pilot but Cone always joked that it was Lan who was the all-weather pilot. The CEO wasn't known for taking his shuttle out during the big blows, which were more common during the close pass of the moon, once every 36 days.

After Cone landed the corporate shuttle, he danced around people in the crowd to make his way to the VIP review stand. Since his business supported the charitable event with money and volunteers, he received certain perks—like the best seat near the drop zone. He found one of the many repulsor security bikes used to taxi guests to the landing site and caught a ride. Unlike military quality bikes, civilian bikes were limited in power to follow terrain features, much like hovercraft. Each bike was rated to carry up to six passengers. Cone noticed each security bike driver was armed with a Striker, which was the military version of the Enforcer Rod that bar bouncers used. The Striker is a side arm, which essentially fires a bolt of lighting, creating an electric charge through a stream of plasma. A non-lethal weapon, but effective in crowd-control situations when stunning a target was preferable to killing.

Cone arrived at the VIP area pretty quickly. He could see people in skinsuits with the colors of their regions: Eastern Empire, Core Empire, Solon Protectorate, and various non-aligned planets or border worlds. The woman who checked him in provided a pair of binoculars. Of course, almost everyone just watched the jumps on the giant VidScreen across the field. FastNews drones would capture the best images of the teams. The binoculars were, more or less, just the trappings of the guests in the VIP area, calling attention to their status. Not that the optics didn't work, it just required effort to use them. Unlike the other VIPs, Cone enjoyed using the binoculars.

Cone settled into his seat. He lowered his optics and let the binos hang from the strap while surveying the drop zone. It was a large open area, well groomed, surrounded by security tape that marked the outer boundary of a qualifying landing site. Given the ideal weather conditions and the abilities of these jumpers, the event coordinators allowed the spectators access to the field, up to the marked circular boundary. Inside the taped-off area, five small-landing targets surrounded one large bullseye. The object of the Base-jump was to land on the circular target. The closer to the center of the circles the better, sensors were laced in the ground to pinpoint the exact placement of each team member's landing.

An experienced team should be able to hit the field target with no trouble. Normally, the difference between first and five places was mere seconds; the repulsor time usage was measured as a team total. Those seconds measured who would be champion of the jump. Athletes controlled their own repulsors.

Adjusting his field glasses, Cone watched as a team landed in the target zone. The entire Base-jump took a little over 3 minutes, giving jumpers a speedy descent and a thrill that was unequaled. His eyes flickered as he put the Atwood jumpers into focus. It was always a challenge to keep a jumper framed in the binoculars but it built an intensity in his body. Cone could feel his memories feed the excitement of the view, reliving his past jumps through these competitors. He knew the jumpers would stop any radical maneuvers by the time they reached 6,000 feet. By that time they would have moved around the mountain and lined up their glide path to the target.

This off-world team's colors were mostly black with a yellow panel between their legs. The high-angle glide whipped the jumper's fabric about, their heads aimed at Cone, black helmets gleaming from the sun's reflection. The teamed flared, almost at the same time, the simmering air around their chests, the immediate sign of their repulsor activation. Although they spread their arms and legs wide to provide air resistance, it was now for show and not required. The repulsor was doing all the work, the energy exchange giving lift and life. Two of the five members hit the out ring of the target. The Atwood team captain hit just off the bulleye's center, the rest of the team successfully hit around him. A very competitive landing but not perfect.

The official scorer's clock noted the Atwood team's combined burn time, placing them as the ones to beat with the best overall time. He watched the reply on the large Vidscreen. Everyone ignored the scent of the afternoon air that carried a faint hint of rotten eggs from a distant volcanic vent.

Cone felt confident Lan's team would add another victory to their noteworthy record. He felt sad that Lan's son didn't take an interest in his father's accomplishments. Cone had sent him tickets for the VIP stand but the seat remained empty. For Broken Wing's jump, Cone would watch the FastNews drone feed, giving him great close-ups of his best friend. The news commentators began talking about Lava's home team advantage, Cone tuned the talking heads out and focused on the drone feeds.

Lan's team could see deep lines materialize around Broken Wing's blue eyes. The lines were both attributed to his age and a life-map of his burdens. The two women on the team felt the lines revealed his inner strength, but they were too shy to mention such a thing to their muscular, blonde idol. Both women had narrow faces with high cheekbones, giving them a natural beauty. Lan had never given a thought to his teammates' well-proportioned measurements; all he felt was the kind of feelings a man has for a sister: respect and acceptance. Lan wasn't blind to their attractiveness. It was over the many years of his grieving that his feelings for the two women had formed, binding his heart as a brother; Mary and Comay weren't objects of desire for him.

Beyond his attractive frame and charismatic ways, Lan's quiet command made him an effective team leader. He was a steady force. The two men on the team were equally as muscular and attractive as their team leader, certainly younger and more flexible than Broken Wing too. Yet the men didn't have Broken Wing's level of experience or his commanding presence. They looked to him and his strong character with deference and admiration. Like other men in their mid-twenties, they studied their team leader and compared him to other older men, finding personal satisfaction with being identified as Broken Wing's team member.

The five team mates would jump off the sheer 8,000-foot cliff at the same time. A strong air current usually pushed the jumpers away from the cliff, a primary reason this site was so popular. A smooth deployment of the wingsuit off a cliff jump was generally considered the most complicated part of flying a wingsuit.

In the cliff competition the effective use of radical maneuvers was the real skill that put high-performance fliers above their peers. The team members had to adjust their positions quickly to gain the ideal flight path to the target area that was around the other side of the mountain. They used the incredible cross wind from the Lower Saddle Pass to slow them enough to ensure an ideal landing. Points were award for both the pinpoint accuracy of the landing, team style, and the combined length of time the jumper team used their chest repulsors to soften their descent. Old timers, like Lan, used both an emergency chute and boot repulsors as their backup devices. Most of the younger generation fliers used four smaller repulsors for emergencies, which were fitted to the arms and legs; they hurt like hell to use, but style seemed to rule their choice. It wasn't often championship level athletes used emergency devices.

A Jumper Federation announcer broadcast through the building's speakers, "Team Lava to the ready landing."

The locals in the pavilion whistled and called out encouragements to the team as the jumpers exited the facility. Outside, the cold and thin air blasted the team as they entered a low-wall compound filled with team stalls. A dozen wooden stalls lined the walls full of supplies and equipment for the competitors. The team support members readied their equipment for the big event. Dozens of men and women in specially heated skinsuits with oxygen masks worked around the stalls. The front of the stalls were roped off to keep non-team members out. Lan's equipment fitter lifted the emergency parachute up and helped him rig it. The other team members ribbed him about the outdated equipment as they quickly slipped their back-up equipment on. He ignored them, it was all apart of their preflight routine, a way for them to burn off nervous energy.

Lan's gear took longer to fit, which meant he was last to clamp on his chest repulsor. The device used particle beam technology to project concussive energy in a tight focus blast. This projected energy would slow a jumper's descent, allowing the wingsuit to glide on the strong winds. It wasn't exactly flying since the device wasn't rated to lift; it could only resist gravity and offer the wearer a controlled landing. Glancing over at the team, Lan thought how mentally tough and experienced they were. Some of them actually had military experience. He shrugged his shoulders, knowing wind conditions on any given drop off the mountain could steal the margin of error needed for a winning jump. Other Base-jumpers would sympathize with the injustice of a foul wind, but the judges would rule on times and hit locations. Lan reminded himself that this team had put thousands of hours into preparing and practicing for this event.

Mary and Comay, the two female team mates, grabbed Lan's hand breaking him out of his thoughts, gently prodded him to move to the repulsor bike that would take them up the mountain. He laughed, moving with them, finally giving them a hug before they straddled the long rescue bike.

"Well, perhaps I need a shot of oxygen to put my mind back on track," Lan said. He plugged his suit into one of the bike's oxygen ports, fitting his jump mask over his mouth. "Mic test," Lan announced.

The team had already plugged into the bike and they all called back, "Affirmative."

Members of the rescue team were set to the jump team's frequency, too. The repulsor bike's driver formally asked, "Team Leader, is your team ready to leave?"

Lan looked over his team a moment before answering, "We're ready. Take us to the cliff."

The five oversized repulsors on the bike lifted the team, and a gentle forward motion propelled them out of the restricted ready area. The driver expertly pushed them through the crowd of well-wishers and away from the pavilion. The crowd expressed some nervous excitement as the mountain's reigning champions left to defend their title. In years past, a drunken crowd had stampeded a rescue bike while escorting a jump team. These days alcohol wasn't allowed in the pavilion.

With the first spurt of speed from the bike, a rush of cool, fresh air flowed over the team. Lan closed his eyes and let the crisp air wash over him. He breathed in the refreshing oxygen, replenishing his body. Mountain walkers and jumpers often didn't use oxygen to aid them at this height, but in a competition such as this it would be foolish not to maintain a clear mind. Altitude sickness—also known as acute mountain sickness—is a pathological effect of high altitude on humans, caused by acute exposure to low pressure of oxygen at high altitude. It commonly occurs above 8,000 feet. It is hard to determine if a team member will be affected by altitude sickness, as there are no specific factors that correlate with a susceptibility to altitude sickness. The rate of ascent, the amount of physical activity at high altitude, as well as individual susceptibility are contributing factors to the onset and severity of high-altitude illness. Altitude sickness usually occurs following a rapid ascent, so jump teams prudently take preventive measures by ascending slowly. The check-in process at the pavilion includes filling out a questionnaire that asks about symptoms including headache, fatigue, stomach illness, dizziness. Even a jump team member that hasn't had issue in the past could be affected by the low oxygen.

Opening up his eyes again, Lan noticed the chill of the air and hunched against the driver to block the breeze. He stomped his jump boot, forcing blood into his toes. Lan touched the communicator-switch at his throat that linked him both to the search and rescue team and to his jump team.

"Why don't you get your boss to buy the new enclosed repulsor bikes? We could crank up the cabin heat," Lan said.

Laughter filled the channel. Suggesting a bike with a canopy was an old joke between Base jumpers and the free spirited bikers. There was a battle for attention on the channel as his teammates and the biker crews argued the merits of a protective glass surrounding the repulsor riders. Voices waged the war for prominence on the matter until they reached the cliff. The wind's frigid touch faded as the anticipation of the jump filled the team's minds. The departure platform was perched atop rugged boulders. The local wingsuit jumpers called it Boulder's Gate. There was no gate; jumpers just had a quirky sense of humor.

The team unloaded from the bike and they began making little adjustments to their personal equipment. Once they completed their personal checks the team members turned and looked at Broken Wing.

Lan glanced around and settled his eyes on Mary.

"Weather, what is your call?" Lan asked.

"Near ideal conditions, Broken Wing," Mary responded. She blinked rapidly. A nervous tic the team didn't tease her about. It was just a way her body handled stress.

Mary, already tense, stiffened even more. Only twenty-two years old, she was the youngest member of the team. She was extremely quiet, a heavy-worlder with great strength and intelligence, and was well liked by the team members.

Momentarily Lan felt guilty for putting Mary on the spot, but the formal question was part of their last pre-jump sequence. Lan, as team leader, had final say in calling the Base jump, but he ran his team with dual controls. It was a process that encouraged thinking, not just following orders. This routine was part of what made his team special. They were very disciplined. Of course, the Base jump officials made weather determinations for the competition, but Lan never surrendered control of his team's safety.

Broken wing gave a thumbs-up to the official who stepped next to him.

"Standby sequence," the official announced, his high-pitched voice echoing from various speakers on the mountain.

The team climbed a few stairs and stood upon the short platform, taking a brief view of the beautiful vista below. The members adjusted their goggles, the fabric of their red suits, their helmets, and their red gloves. Lan looked at each member; they all had their thumbs up. A pair of FastNews drones buzzed around the platform annoyingly close. Lan crossed a thin red line, and his team moved as one behind him crossing the start line too. The official time clock began. They leaned over and pushed off.

Around the mountain, at the landing zone and over the FastNews channel, spectators and a lone assassin could hear an announcement, "Computer timer engaged," injected by a faux male voice.

Lan leaned left aiming away from the first rock obstacle. Once he passed the buttress, Lan chanced a look around. Mary and Comay were positioned on his flanks. Both men were slightly behind the women. The team shifted right to follow the mountain's western aspect, which falls down to a deep valley and the landing zone. Lan felt the thrill of the growing speed as they rushed over the jagged rocks. The glide path passed a small area with climbing routes, a small cliff with needle-shaped boulders. Sometimes they'd see a climbing team on it. After the crag, Lan required the team to test the repulsors with a three-second burn, a safety precaution most teams didn't exercise. The team synchronized their timing, using an altitude tone warning that sounded in their open-faced helmets.

Lan squeezed the built-in controller in his glove. A flash filled his vision and an odd vibration knocked Lan off his glide path's equilibrium. With another sharp vibration of the repulsor, a burst of black dust filled the air obscuring Lan from the FastNews camera's view, shocking spectators.

It had been many years since anyone had seen a repulsor failure.

A dramatic yank on the emergency parachute chord deployed his silk chute. The expected bounce and lift didn't happen. Lan's head snapped up. The material had many slashes. Not rips. Cleanly cut openings in the silk laughed at him. "Sabotage!" He thought. The chute release buckle was jammed too. Lan paused in his struggle with the parachute buckle. The ripped canopy made an annoying noise above him, instead of the desired flutter he'd get if it were in one piece. His face blanched as the cold wind infused his skin with pinpricks of freezing numbness.

Thinking, Lan closed his eyes. Usually the wind's sound filled him with excitement, feeding his need to feel the hard edge of danger. But today, each ding of the altimeter alert-tone announced his upcoming demise. Lan willed his muscles to relax and bleed off the tension. Absently he watched a cloudbank along the distant horizon. He took deep breaths and exhaled, trying to clear his mind. Lan opened his eyes. Instinctively, he flipped a leather cover, pulling out his lucky knife and began cutting. It took longer than he liked, but his combat knife finally cut the shroud lines, freeing Lan from his damaged parachute. Broken Wing replaced the knife and snapped it shut in its sheath.

Not since his military crash-landing had Lan felt dread. A cold sweat itched his palms and his stomach swirled. A flash of regret flared in him at the loss of his wife. Old sad feelings accompanied the thought. Further sadness about not being able to fix his relationship with his son, blinked in and out of Lan's mind before a rising resolve swept the sadness aside. In the next few minutes he would be dead, if he didn't focus and replace his fear with options. Broken Wing's mind cleared.

"Circle the Wagons around the team leader," Broken Wing announced over the channel. He heard each team member's confirmation.





Their emergency drill routine kicked in. Lan had identified the target and called his team mates into preassigned positions. The team members tilted their shoulders and bodies toward Lan, firing a three second burst from their palm repulsors, propelling them forward in calculated glide paths to grab him.

After Mary caught Lan's right forearm and hooked the palm of her other hand around a small strap on Lan's suit, she squeezed her hand in a death grip. Mary's eyes searched Broken Wing's eyes with worry. Both men hit Lan too hard, delivering unintended punches to his thighs. The impacts made Lan's eyes water. Fortunately, the men clasped their assigned hand straps. Comay was the last person to arrive. With well-timed elegance, she took a firm hold on Lan's left forearm, quickly finding the emergency strap above his elbow. Each teammate released the secondary hold freeing a hand.

The wind buffeted the star formation.

Mary called out, "Wagon's hitched. Align to target."

After a moment, Comay shouted, "Dammit! Lean more to the right, Broken Wing."

Mary announced, "Ten second firing. Three, two, one."

The spinning formation reduced the rate of the free fall as the repulsors expelled energy. The team's alignment slowly changed as their glide path shifted to put their faces on target. The free fall over the rough terrain pushed the team to the limits of their concentration. Air streamed over each jumper's wing. With one hand hanging on Broken Wing's strap, every minor course correction had to be perfect; the risk of nature pushing a jumper away from Lan was a real concern because it could break their tenuous connection. Each jumper's outstretched limbs looked like a scene of total surrender to the elements.

They raced over a mountain stream with small scrub bushes. At the last major mountain outcrop, Lan could see a bridge over the stream. A traffic control team had their security bike off to the side of the road. A man's arm pointed to them as they sped overhead. The low altitude and fast speed gave the jumpers a surreal view of the gray rock valley from the corners of their eyes. Lan saw the bus parking lot and the supply tents ahead. As they continue to drop, the landing site came into clear focus. The throngs of people no long looked like ants; rather they looked like stick people.

Mary called another repulsor firing, "Ten second firing. Three, two, one."

The team's speed dropped. Their angle of attack steepened towards the bulls-eye target. The annoying FastNews drones multiplied all of sudden. Another three drones appeared below the jumpers, giving viewers wonderful views of each team member's face. Every detail of the repulsor firings, Lan's broken unit, and even the hand-hold positions could be seen. Whatever the outcome, this was going to be an historic drop with great ratings. The commentators were going wild at the high drama and the sight of star formation being used for a landing rescue.

They raced over the recovery zone where teams ended up after their drops. It was a secure place to store their equipment and strip off their gear. The logistics teams of all the competitors got a quick glimpse of the Lava team as they shot across their vision like race bikes. Lan ignored the scene below with the target zone so close. He never envisioned landing like this, so dependent on the hands of his jumpers and their repulsors. Even now, if they let go he'd be a smear on the rocky landscape. Lan considered the point he'd order the last firing. However, it wasn't his decision. With Mary and Comay locked onto his arms he couldn't touch the communicator's switch. This was the co-captain's call. Mary's first non-practice landing as team leader.

"Terminal firing. Three, two, one," Mary commanded.

Lan thought her grip tightened, if that was possible. All four teammates fired their chest repulsors. The team crossed above the crowd control tape on the landing field, still moving too fast. The glide path was perfect for the target. A sea of human flesh spat across their vision, staring up at them.

As if reading his mind, Mary said, "Lan, don't you dare try using your boot thrusters!" Her voice quivered under the strain. "Team! Exterior palm thruster. Exterior palm thruster."

Four palm thrusters from the hands not hanging on to Lan, burst added energy. Particle streams pointed at the bullseye, adding the needed emergency energy to slow their momentum. At the last possible moment, the jumpers released Lan and disengaged the repulsors. They still hit hard. Broken Wing's leg buckled and he went to one knee. The younger team members absorbed the shock of the speedy landing, their knees bending but not collapsing.

Lan heard the computer's faux male voice announcing, "Jump clock terminated."

Though his ankle cried out from hitting the earth at an awkward angle, Lan chuckled. All the troubles that had plagued him since his last call to his son poured out of his soul. Tears, streamed from his eyes as his rolling laughter surprised his teammates. Hands steadied Lan. A wave of questions filled his ears. His mind was overcome with emotion and relief.

"He must be in shock," a strange voice on the VidScreen announced. It was a talking head speaking to sidekick in a newsroom.

His head down, a sigh escaped Lan's lips as he realized the two FastNews drones were recording every facial expression and word, he lifted his head and stood straight. He laughed. He laughed again. His face tilted up and a near maniacal laughter poured out of Broken Wing, as he surveyed his team. Lan peered around seeing a rushing crowd, taking in the scene before being swamped by hugs from his jump team. Mary and Comay were crying, their words almost indecipherable. He realized they wanted him to say something. They all threw their helmets down.

Broken Wing smiled at his team, looking distinctly proud of them. "Well, that was a win in my book!"

The men gave him a grunt of approval, grabbing his arms to support him. Lan limped. They turned Lan to face the Judge's stand. Around the officiating table three judges argued. The crowd swarmed the team in a frenzy. The jumpers were crushed in the melee. Everyone wanted a piece of them. An eternity passed before security built a circle around Lan's team. More and more security arrived, allowing the Lava team to move towards the recovery zone. The wailing sound of a rescue ambulance parted the crowd at the entrance to the secure zone.

The side ramps to the ambulance were down and four women in red uniforms exited the vehicle and rushed to Lan. A crowd of dignitaries stood in front of the recovery area but they were smart enough not to interrupt the ambulance crew, while FastNews drones circled above the Lava team.

Muscling Lan's teammates aside the medics latched onto Broken Wing and pulled him into the ambulance to look him over. The medics fired off several questions about his condition. He felt paralyzed by their sudden invasion of his personal space. They were beautiful women. Lan's eyes lingered on the lead medic's blonde hair that was pulled back in a low knot. It reminded him of his wife.

After treating his knee and shooting him up with a pain-killer, they let him go, once they were satisfied with his health—along with his refusal of a ride to the hospital. "How long would it be until the authorities realize that an external threat is hunting down members of its populaceous?" Lan thought, looking out into the crowd.

Stepping off the ramp with the damaged chest repulsor in his hand, the crowd of VIPs clapped enthusiastically. Lan caught a quip from a commentator on the large VidScreen, "They came rushing down the mountain to create a text-book rescue formation around Broken Wing."

Forgetting the FastNews drone around him, Lan said, "Text-book formation, my ass. That's a team Lava original."

Mary, Comay and the guys swarmed Lan. They had been talking to some security women. The large VidScreen cut to the Lava team outside the ambulance, then replayed Broken Wing's comments. He groaned to himself. "Live streaming reality at its best."

"Isn't this embarrassing," Lan muttered, surveying his teammates. They looked at him, the shock of the near disaster fading from their eyes. Mary put her hand on Broken Wing's shoulder and kissed him.

"I'm never going to complain about rescue practices ever again. Oh, and we won!" Mary said, with joy in her eyes. Beaming, she had achieved something no other competitive team leader ever had. Team Lava won on style points because of the star formation's perfect execution. The team had lost points on Comay's outer ring landing, but Lava's combined repulsor time score was good enough to win with the addition of ten style points―the maximum possible. Lan noticed Comay's arm was in a sling. His eye brows lifted at her, asking the unspoken question of what happened.

Comay responded, "The palm repulsor dislocated my wrist and the rowdy crowd exacerbated it," she shrugged. Being former military, scrapes were all too familiar. Palm repulsors are almost never fired by jumpers. It was common knowledge that using palm repulsors were something you would always remember once you experienced it.

A security police official interrupted the reunion. The regional commander said, "Well, your high voltage personality seemed to affect your equipment."

Lan didn't find the man funny. The bulky man reflectively reached out and held up the destroyed chest repulsor, looking at it.

"Micro charges," the commander announced, after a minute. "Someone tried to kill you. I can see the tell-tale signs of explosive pitting on the inside of the repulsor."

A cacophony of voices lifted around Lan and the police official. The man took Lan by the arm, leading him towards a security vehicle.

"You need to be in protective custody. The coroner pronounced the dead man on the mountain a homicide. He wasn't a mountain walker. He was a night watchman," the police officer said.

Stunned, Lan let the man guide him to a police air cruiser. In the background the FastNews channel broadcast the pronouncement.

Once the FastNews drones were shut out of sight by the closing of the cruiser door, the police commander went from being affable to demanding. The man's whole demeanor changed to that of a more professional investigator. The police officer put the damaged chest repulsor in the evidence locker and quizzed Lan about his routine, from the time he left his apartment to the landing on the target. A crewman recorded the debriefing.

Once the interview was over they took Lan into the city and to the security center, which was a tower that housed the police, military, and civil leadership for the region. Broken Wing had visited the building many times while still in active service; therefore, it wasn't intimidating to enter the fortified tower. Lan always thought it was a mistake to have all the regional leadership housed in one tower, but those in power seemed to prefer keeping themselves in close proximity to others of similar station and power. They gave Lan a disposable personal data assistant to play games, access the news or otherwise kill time; not surprisingly, the PDA was blocked from making calls in or out of the building.

The blatant murder attempt on Lan's life, combined with the murder of the man on the mountain during one of the biggest sports events of the year put the news into a feeding frenzy. Lan watched the police commander's daily news updates from the luxury suite of the fortified tower for three days. He would have been bored if it weren't for a stream of VIPs that seemed to enjoy their access to the sports star. Other investigators interviewed Lan but they didn't offer any insights into their investigation.

However, the novelty of the luxury accommodations quickly became an irritant to Broken Wing when he found out the commander had ordered a communications ban on him. Lan was cut off from his friends, family and the press. Also, he wasn't allowed to leave the residential floor of the building. A two-man protective detail was stationed at his door. Broken Wing began to think his isolation was more about controlling the bad press story than accounting for his need to move on with his life. The politicians were using their access to Lan as platforms to gain news time. They pushed their own agendas on the news shows, dropping bits of information about his good health and well-appointed temporary residence.

On the morning of the fourth day in the tower, Lan forced his eyes closed as the bright morning sun peeked through his window.

"Should have closed the blinds last night," he said to the empty room.

Looking at the clock he realized half the morning was gone. "I must have been exhausted. It's hard wondering if they will send another hit-man after me."

Casting aside those thoughts Lan Peak clicked on the VidScreen, which was set to FastNews. Unknown to him over the last three days the government of Emerald Sky and Lava were working out the diplomatic firestorm that erupted due to the attempted murder. Unsurprisingly, the half-truths leaked to FastNews had the effect of causing the resignation of the chief of security of Lava as a sacrificial lamb to calm the public.

The power brokers in Lava didn't want any events to create unrest or dissatisfaction among the populaceous. An unhappy workforce might cause a reduction in the production of Black Silicon, known as BS1. As a rare element compounded into glass, it was used in creating circuitry in the most advanced computers throughout the Empire. Black Silicon was the real source of wealth in Lava. Less BS1 equaled less money.

"Shit," Lan said, as he looked up from his pillow for the first time. Across the bottom of the muted screen ran a news flash, "Emerald Sky announces a rogue element within their information services confessed to organizing the assassination of Broken Wing."

"Those damn news hounds! Only my friends get to call me Broken Wing," Lan shouted at the screen.

Lan clenched his jaws against being an inconvenient political pawn. He spoke to the young men watching over him. Broken Wing sent a message to the police commander through his guards, asking for his release from the tower. Within a few minutes he received an answer. "No, they need him for further interviews; it is for his protection."

The guards stayed at their post while Lan took his daily walks around the huge residential floor. An added guard was at each elevator to protect the regular building residents. This was the most secure tower in the city. Security screening was tight. The first layer of protection was for the lower office floors, citizens and clerks enter the lower floors each day for work and business. The upper floors of the tower were accessed from a second bank of elevators on the tenth floor through another guard station or by the secure hangar bay on top of the tower. The hangar was busy with official traffic and military contractors taking care of running the region.

On Lan's second lap around the three-sided residential building, he realized that one side of the floor plan didn't have an elevator or a guard. More importantly this corridor had an emergency exit. "Good old stairs. No one in their right mind uses stairs in such a tall building." He stopped at an apartment door as a sharp-jawed, old man was punching in his security code to open his residence.

"Excuse me, sir?" Lan asked. " I left my PDA at work. Can I make a call to my lunch date to let them know I'm delayed?"

The old man's smile broadened when he realized who was asking for a favor. "Sure. But it will cost you a photo with me for my grandchild. Your noise dive made a real impression on her."

"That jump made an impression on my ankle, too." Lan laughed. "That's a fair price for a call to my buddy."

Lan shook his hurt foot dramatically. The old man laughed and said, "I have a lot of joint pain myself. Come on in Mr. Peak."

The apartment was much smaller than Lan's but nicely decorated. After a quick photo at the VidScreen the sharp-jawed man grinned and pointed to his desk, which had a phone-screen. Lan sat down at the desk as the elderly man went to the refresher for relief. Broken Wing found himself thinking how to get back at Emerald Sky for their intrusion into his life. He concluded that rats don't like light exposing them for what they are, ill-bred narcissists. Lan called his best friend for a ride and lunch.

Disconnecting from the old man's VidScreen, the console reset to its default page, which opened with a FastNews screen. A commentator behind a desk told the audience, "We've been highlighting a host of examples of stock rotation that already took place today due to the mystery and scandal surrounding Emerald Sky's upcoming bond payment. We are likely to see this event continue to influence the investment backdrop for years to come..." Lan closed the window disinterested in talking heads. The old man returned and Lan bid him goodbye, and then continued with his slow laps around the floor of the building.

When Lan thought Cone had enough time to shuttle over to the security tower, he bolted up the exit stairway to the residents' restaurant floor, three levels above him. He promptly found the men's restroom and waited in a stall until Cone arrived. Time was short before Lan's handlers would get worried and search for him. For once luck favored Lan. Two minutes later, Conesavanh Aralast, the CEO of Rollin Industries, handed Lan a corporate cap, briefcase and jacket. Together they took the security, express elevator to the hangar. Not a single guard gave Lan a second look.

The excitement of escaping his government handlers pulsed hot in Lan's veins as Cone lifted the shuttle out of the busy tower's hangar. The two friends grinned as Cone's corporate shuttle banked away from the security tower, working its way into commercial traffic as they headed out of the city. The pyramid style towers of the planet's elite disappeared behind them, ahead the more common oval-shaped commercial towers marked the edge of the city.

"Just beyond the edge of the city limits is a place with pretty good food," Cone said, not taking his eye off the traffic pattern. "Oh, there is a full moon during the upcoming conference."

"Oh, don't start that nonsense about superstitious happenings and bad luck because of a full moon. People of Lava are so full of shit with their full moon nonsense," Lan said, his mouth tight in amusement.

"Just saying..."

"Oh, can it. Take me to your food shack," Lan interjected. "You sound like my wife sometimes, Cone. Regional trade shows aren't part of the lunar cycle. The planners would laugh at those superstitions. It doesn't mean anything to me or our plans for the Mosquito."

"Mosquito. I like it. My company attorney will work on filing copyright protection for the name tomorrow," Cone said, formally.

"Don't go all proper on me, Cone. Sorry about insulting your full moon thing," Lan barked, squeezing his best friend's shoulder.

Cone just grinned. They landed on a local shuttle pad outside of the restaurant.

"There is something reassuring about being around you, buddy, when things go crazy. You know things are going to work out. The military lost a good flight instructor, Lan."

They unstrapped their safety harnesses and moved towards the rear exit ramp. Lan whispered over his shoulder, "Don't go all soft on me, Cone."

They laughed at their old joke. Neither men were soft.

The building stood alone, along a busy truck route to the River Oil Refinery that was further down the road. The unlikely structure looked like it was made out of a starship hull. An armored doorway clearly was made out of HullArmor, one of the toughest materials known to man. The rest of the building looked like it was made out of typical ceramic components seen on a freighter's transshipment modular-container. In other words, the restaurant didn't look fancy, but it had character. With a name like Wolverine's Delight, Lan only hoped the food was as good as his best friend seemed to suggest.

After they each had a glass of wine in their hand, Cone glanced at Lan with a curled lip that put Lan at ease. The place wasn't busy, so the service was prompt.

"A toast to the luckiest man I know," Cone announced loudly to the nearly empty restaurant.

Lan half-grinned back, lifting his wine glass. "To a great friend."

The barman realized who was in the Wolverine's Delight and slipped into the backroom to make a call. He knew the owner would slip him a few extra credits for the publicity. When the bartender returned he made sure the establishment's staff put out their finest service. A few words to the cook and wait staff were quickly traded. By the time their meal was over the two men had consumed two entire bottles of wine. Lan wasn't much of a drinker, so the alcohol made him a bit bold with the hostess who kept sweeping her eyes over them while she walked by the table.

"Fine service and a fine view!" Lan blurted out. The young lady blushed and winked, swaying her hips with a sexy strut. The blonde looked about his son's age, a thin face, long neck and a bubble butt. Lan enjoyed the female form and his near death experience had altered his reluctance to tell a woman he liked her. Like a flood-gate releasing a torrent of pressure from a reservoir, Lan's passions came alive. With his tongue half out of his mouth, Broken Wing looked at Cone.

"The beast rises. World watch out," Cone said, lifting his empty wine glass, laughing at Lan. "Waiter. Check please."

Cone sighed, sat his knife and fork down, pushing dessert aside. After dealing with the check the men slipped out of the quiet restaurant. The hostess was nowhere to be seen. Outside, three FastNews drones buzzed around the building. Mary Leonard, a popular news anchor, was waiting for them by the entrance sign. The men recognized her flaming-red hair, which flowed down the front of her chest to her waist. The woman was famous for celebrity interviews and a certain naughty video that had been hacked off her PDA. Both men stopped outside the armored door, looking at each other briefly. They laughed. Both men had once talked about what they'd do if they ever got to meet the attractive woman.

The drones all shifted to meet the men, no longer guarding the other building exits.

"We aren't in the best shape. It won't go well for us if we are rude to her, Lan."

Lan shrugged and responded, "It would have been fun to hear answer to the video question."

"Be nice," Cone snapped, as he tried to clear the alcohol fog from his mind.

She was between them and their shuttle. On the shuttle was a fast acting stimulant that would have counteracted the pleasant poison in their system. Cone was a CEO of a respectable munitions company he tried to put a brave face on the meeting with the journalist and drones. Lan might enjoy the attention of the news on his team, but he didn't see himself as that important or interesting otherwise. Cone really hoped Lan behaved.

"You are a hard man to find, Mr. Peak."

"Ah, I have recently had the hospitality of our security forces," Lan muttered.

"My sources tell me you left the security center in an unorthodox way. Any comment?" The pretty reporter asked.

"The Wolverine's Delight doesn't deliver; so, I had to depart the care of our police."

The woman smirked but didn't follow up on what she knew. Her favorite security contact had been fired today; he had spilled the entire story of Lan's extended detention and his disappearance. The contact was the building's watch commander; he had disappointed powerful men and she planned on capitalizing on this unexpected interview opportunity with Lan. She recognized both men were drunk and moved in for a story, hoping loose lips would offer something juicy.

Cone tried to intervene. "Give us a minute to spruce up in our shuttle and we will be happy to chat with you, Mary."

Not even acknowledging the CEO, Mary asked Lan, "Congratulations on your team's mountain jumping trophy. Lava is proud of you and your team."

"Our team worked hard to defend our title," Lan responded. A canned statement he often used, not needing his foggy brain to supply an original thought. A drone hung off the attractive newswoman's shoulder getting close ups.

"'Circle the Wagons' is a popular expression now. The Jumping Federation is selling a tee-shirt with your team in their star formation and those words printed around it. Comment?"

"I'll have to talk to my attorney about getting royalties."

The news anchor actually laughed out loud. She had been given the tee-shirt by the Federation's Chairman. It was her new favorite nightshirt. But the softball question was just a prelude to her real subject of interest and any needed follow-up questions. She'd never interviewed either man before. They had a certain charm together she liked.

"The lead detective has announced your chest repulsor was sabotaged by an advanced micro-charge. A military grade munition. Why do you think this happened to you in a sports event?"

Lan's face contorted, the smile on his face disappeared. Cone put his hand on Lan's arm trying to get his attention. Lan stood straight and his eyes burned. Mary couldn't remember ever seeing such intense eyes before. She instinctively knew this was going to be good.

Lan exhaled a rush of words. "Apparently, the debt Emerald Sky owes me is a problem. I am the most visible owner of their planetary-sovereign bonds, which are due soon. I won't renegotiate and agree to their hideous terms. If I am dead than I become the poster child of what happens to an ex-patriot that defies them. Hundreds of elderly pensioners will get the message and drop out of the 'Vulture Fund.' Problem solved. They get to continue unhealthy financial policies and screw loyal bond-holders. I am retired. My wife's inheritance went into that bond. She trusted me to make right financial decision for our family. That trust won't be violated, it's all I have left of her! This was no rogue conspiracy. This is Emerald Sky political policy. It's a corrupt regime and our government doesn't care. You can imagine what I think of Lava's political acumen."

The waves of rage rolled off Broken Wing and right through the camera. Mary was very pleased, her contract was up and it was time to talk of a higher salary with the management of FastNews. This type of exclusive was fantastic for ratings. She didn't doubt her producer would want a follow up interview, once there was a response from Lava's government and a representative from Emerald Sky. The political commentary panels on FastNews would have a bone to gnaw on for two weeks.

"Thank you, Mr. Peak. This is Mary Leonard of FastNews. You see it here first!"

The drones twisted and disappeared. The audience had very short attention spans but the replay value was high. This was about all she could get in before the network broke for a commercial. Mary moved close to Lan and touched his hand. "I am sorry about your wife. I can see the hurt. She must have been a fine woman. I believe what you said."

The anchor spun on her high heels and briskly walked to a news van tucked around the side of the building. Cone and Lan walked to the shuttle not saying a word to each other. There was no need. In the shuttle Cone applied the anti-alcohol medicine, and then he flew Lan to the corporate residence. Lan didn't want to lose the effects of the wine. He didn't take the offered medication.

Lan muttered under his breath, "Hope the security guys leave me alone."

Cone didn't answer his friend but his mind quickly thought, "They'd be crazy to take you in after that passionate interview. Everyone would think they are trying to silence you."

Lan fought to stay awake in the shuttle. The strain of the last few days put his exhausted body out. His mind quickly followed. At Cone's residence a couple of security guards helped get the famous jumper to bed; he never woke up as they half-carried him into a private bedroom. The entertainment news ran the anchor's story repeatedly, and Lan's comments filled the airwaves well into the night on various late night shows. A left-wing leaning host ranted about political corruption and the lack of security on Lava, using the assassination attempt on Broken Wing as his focal point of discussion. By morning political pollsters would note a rapid decline in the approval rating of Lava's chief executive, being viewed as having a poor foreign policy and a lack of interest in crime.

Lan woke up after dawn, an eerie light floating through his bedroom window. Streams of dust particles were cast in dull red. The decorative stained-glass view reminded him he was at Cone's place. He felt curiously refreshed and at ease despite the recent near-death experience. He couldn't remember getting into bed nor did Lan remember any dreams during his rest. Normally these days Lan would awake with perspiration wetting his body. A few weeks ago, his doctor had explained that his body was experiencing hormone changes due to his age. It was nothing to worry about. Today he didn't have a soaked tee-shirt and he was pleased to get up dry. Lan found the shower and got ready for the day.

After breakfast with Cone, the lease payments and docking fees were at the top of Lan's mind. His bank account wouldn't cover the amount due over the remaining term of the lease. Lan had worked with his son on occasion, running a short route with the freighter, which he didn't mind. He enjoyed getting out and feeling useful again. It wasn't like his team jumped everyday. However, his son's business just changed to bulk oil delivery and the light freighter was useless for that narrow service. He had to come up with a way to make money with the old freighter on his own.

Lan checked in with his lawyer, hoping for good news. Sylvia took the call, after a little small talk she shared that the negotiations had suddenly moved forward. Her large eyes seemed to get bigger as her brows stretched with her taunt facial muscles.

"The spokesman for Lava's Chief Executive Office called us yesterday announcing they were throwing the weight of their office behind us in the bond negotiations. Not long after that call the legal counsel for Emerald contacted us with a tentative offer. An offer that agrees to pay the full, face value of the bond, spread out in equal payments over five years. Mr. Locke believes it's the best deal possible given the debtor's weak financial position. We are contacting all of the remaining members of the Vulture Fund to get a consensus. Thus far most of our clients are agreeing to the terms and recommendation of our legal team.

"Before you say anything, hear me out. Emerald Sky is aware of your co-signing a lease of a ship with your son. They are aware of your son's new venture too. Because of your high visibility at the moment, they want their problem with you to go away. Emerald wants to be able to say these terms are reasonable and announce your acceptance to the agreement with the deal. For your agreement, they will convert the lease payment to services rendered under a delivery contract. You fly loads of Black Silicon they finance with your freighter once a month until the end of the lease period. The lease payment is your fee, which frees you up to fly the ship the rest of the month on other contracts. This must be part of behind the scenes discussions with Lava's CEO, because our office received a call from the Lava's Export Bank asking if we had any light freighter contacts that would be interested in an exclusive contract for Black Silicon deliveries to the space station, which comes with free landing rights.

"The powers-that-be are offering you a good income for the term of the lease to accept this offer. You get to fly and solve a number of personal issues, including honoring your wife with good stewardship of her family's money."

Lan didn't trust his emotions. He felt played by these governments. Yet the terms were clear, attractive, and with obvious guile. They knew his hot buttons and were pressing them. Lan could imagine the pressure both governments felt from the bad press.

Not hearing an immediate reply, Sylvia said, "You have three days to respond. I expect the Vulture Fund to accept the terms. You gave our clients this opportunity. I hope you take advantage of the added benefits that you can seize."

Afraid of a rash response the paralegal disconnected.

For the rest of the day Lan lost himself in working on the Mosquito in the workshop. Working with his hands helped Lan clear his mind and drain his emotions. He liked the thought of creating something useful with the purpose of saving lives. To this day, Lan wondered if he'd broken city flight rules and taken his old skybike to the train wreck, if his wife would be alive. He trusted the city's rescue team to get her out and they hadn't come through for his family. Lan had told Raf Ram to trust the system and they'd see her shortly.

Cone's arrival broke Lan's thoughts. They joked around while putting the finishing touches on the prototype. By dinner time they put their tools away and moved the Mosquito into Cone's shuttle for delivery to the trade show in the morning. Lan kept the news about the offer to himself, still not sure which way to go. Cone had a board meeting to get ready for so he didn't notice his friend's distracted behavior, his own mind on the corporate agenda. Cone apologized for his meeting and left Lan alone at the elevator to the residential floor.

Feeling tired but not hungry, Lan decided to call his son and get his thoughts on the deal. "Honestly, I am calling him because I am lonely and want to talk to my family."

The call got the answering machine. Lan buried his face in his hands and cried. "I need a companion,"

was his last lament before falling asleep on top of his bed.

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