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Game Armada Monthly Studio Report: January 2018

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Monthly Studio Report: January 2018

Greetings Citizens!

Welcome to the Monthly Studio Report, where we collect updates from our various studios around the world to show you what they’ve been working on this past month. In the rush up to the holidays, the entire company was focused on accomplishing two major tasks: pushing Star Citizen 3.0 to the Live Servers and polishing up work on the Vertical Slice, which featured an hour of gameplay from Squadron 42. Afterwards, everybody broke for some much needed rest before coming back to hit the New Year running. With that said, let’s get to it.

CIG Los Angeles




Hurricane_Greybox_WIP.png The team kept forward momentum on a handful of vehicles throughout the month of January. After the Art Team completed art on the Anvil Terrapin and Tumbril Cyclone, they worked on adjustments with the Tech Design Team who are now implementing the tech set-up. The Consolidated Outland Mustang update is in Greybox with the Art Team, while the Tech Design Team is prepping it for a Whitebox review. The Anvil Hurricane is close to wrapping Greybox on the art side, which will then be passed over to the Tech Design Team for them to work their magic on the Greybox tech set-up. Lastly, the Tech Art Team focused on getting started with their Flight Prep passes on the Anvil Terrapin and MISC Razor.

As far as vehicle features are concerned, they completed another successful sprint in the month of January with a focus on making improvements to game performance by optimizing vehicles and vehicle gameplay. They also made great progress with this endeavor by converting the VehcileWeaponEMP and gimbals to the Item 2.0 versions, and are in the ongoing process with DataBank Component optimizations. They also reduced the time complexity when adding timers which where just removed, and made some components use time sliced updates instead of the entity timer, both of which make UpdateTimers more efficient and improve game performance. Lastly, the team filled out their workload by resolving a large assortment of vehicle tasks and bugs, including implementing some new and improved character animations into ship bunk-beds.


The Narrative Team spent the month looking to the new year and outlining potential needs for the quarterly PU releases. Part of this work included a breakdown of the proposed locations to understand what kind of NPC characters would be needed to not only make the areas feel populated, but also sell the particular story of that locale. In aid of this, they were able to meet with the Directors for a two-day summit in LA to review the characters in 3.0 and examine potential goals for the upcoming releases.


Pirate_legacy_highpoly.jpg January got off to a great start with work completed on the various Legacy armor variants for the Marine and Outlaw characters. They also are working through visual development for different types of armor featured in Squadron 42 for enemies like the Shipjackers and the OMC, as well as Navy armor types. They also made progress on the Hurston and Olisar Clothing Collections, which will debut later this fall.

The new Gameplay Team, consisting of a mix of engineers, tech designers and QA, completed their first sprint in month of January. This sprint focused on the Character Customization. Some highlights of what they completed in January include: the implementation of basic character customization to select different heads, hair and eye color, setting up customization features to be selectable off a grid, and adding interaction highlights to the player character model.


Monthly-Image2.jpg The Tech Content Team, which crosses over into many different global strike teams, continued to crank out improvements to tools, skin character costumes, and provide support on the weapon and ship pipelines. They also worked on tools for the Procedural Team, such as the Procedural City Editor and the Procedural Layout System. The team continued to work on the LiveLink Tool, Character Tool, Max/Maya 2018 upgrade, a skinning GUI, CGA Checker, CIG Tools Installer, Skeleton Alias health checks, and a Motionbuilder version of the Asset Browser.

Skinning continued on the Vanduul head, ship landing gear (such as the Sabre Raven and the Aegis Reclaimer), weapons and character costumes for Hurston and Levski. On the MoCap side, tracking and solving has continued through the vast amount of Player Data.

And as with all teams, the Tech Content Team handled their fair share of bug fixes this month, and they stand ready to tackle whatever ugly bugs come their way in the upcoming month.

CIG Austin




The Design Team identified a few fixes that were needed for the 3.0.1 patch. Beyond that, they fixed a few things that fell off the 3.0 table while the Directors worked on the schedule for Q1. The ATX Designers will soon begin work on the Service Beacon system, Economy updates, and Mission Givers.

With the Service Beacons, the aim is to have “Escort,” “Refueling,” and “Repair” live in the 3.2 patch. Once Service Beacons are implemented, players will be able to request assistance from other players in the system (and eventually NPCs). When Contracts are accepted, both players will need to hold up their end of the bargain or risk a hit to their reputation. Once the contract terms are fulfilled, payment and reputation gains (or losses) will be automatically paid out.

The team is working to fix Economy-related bugs now that 3.0 has provided a first iteration of dynamic pricing, including the identification and fixing of system exploits. There were some properties hard coded into the backend service that the team has exposed to design, enabling them to better predict and tune the economic experience.

Finally, the team found an analytics reporting bug that should be fixed in the 3.0.1 patch, and will give insight into data that will allow finer tuning and balancing throughout the entire game. Data on player transactions, wallet status, deaths, mission completion, and more will enable the team to balance items better, along with player/ship health, improving the overall gameplay experience.


F8_greybox_prog.jpg The Constellation Phoenix went into the Greybox phase (high-poly modeling stage) with the exterior and interior being fleshed out, the geo being refined, tweaks being made to the lighting, and incorporating features like fishtanks, a hot tub, wallscreens and a bar area. The Anvil F8 Lightning has made it through the Whitebox phase, with design ready to take over and start implementing the ship into the game.


The Backend Team has been working on the refactor of the “Diffusion” services. The new architecture implements various patterns that allow the services to be easily scaled, reliable and available. All the current services will be replaced with pools of workers and backing services, that will provide short-term data caching.

The GIM (General Instance Manager) has been broken up into multiple services such as Instance Manager, Matchmaking Service, Lobby Service, and Entitlement Processor. The current Persistence service was also separated into the Item Cache, Account Cache, Player Variables Cache and now has multiple external memory caches, queues and workers. This will help distribute the load when moving player data through the system.

The new system is highly distributed, think of it in terms of a C++ program where you take almost every class and put them into their own process. If any single service fails, there are multiple instances already running to pick up the slack. Given that workers do not hold any state/data, players shouldn’t feel any disruption of game services.


The Ship Animation Team worked on four new vehicles outlined for the 3.1 release: the MISC Razor, the Aegis Reclaimer, the Anvil Terrapin, and the Tumbril Cyclone. Each present their own unique challenges. The Aegis Reclaimer has a very sophisticated landing and VTOL system, requiring unique rigging and technical set up. The team is also in the planning stages of new features and ships to be released throughout 2018, including major updates planned for the cockpit experience across all ship types. In addition, they have been resolving bugs that appeared in the 3.0 release and refining the overall gameplay experience.

PU Animation finished all the initial work supporting the current usables in game. All usables assets related to Squadron 42 have been packaged up and handed off to the UK animations team to finish off. The ATX team is now focused on Mission Givers and NPC Secondary Sub-Activity (SSA) characters. An NPC SSA character is simply an NPC that you can approach and interact with, such as bartenders, shopkeepers, and their ilk.


The DevOps Team spent the month collecting stats from 3.0 live play sessions to help the performance teams with optimizations. They’re also expanding the capacity of the central build system to allow for more work-in-progress streams, which will help the various dev teams in their march toward quarterly releases.

The holidays were busy for ATX QA, as they provided live support and testing for any hotfixes that were needed on 3.0 over the break, but this is the time of year when the team gets a moment to take stock of what went well, what could have gone better, and what steps are needed to improve and adapt going forward. The Austin QA team worked with their international cohorts to line up plans for testing based on the new production schedules, and updated QA documentation. This also marked a full-time return to Game-Dev. The team completed a full system smoke of Game-Dev to evaluate the current state of the branch and began clearing out any backlogged bugs and regression from the 3.0 cycle and holiday season. They’re excited to start spending more time testing new mission debug and development tools. The Squadron 42 QA testers were happy that the community got to see a glimpse of the game just before the holiday season, but new content is pouring in every day from development, keeping them incredibly busy.

As 3.0 has been published, the Player Relations Team has been speeding right along with helping players with knock-on issues. The team was very proud to rotate out during the holidays to get everyone the help they needed, and are excited to continue work on projects such as a proper knowledge base and other mechanisms that enable players help themselves. The 3.0 testing cycle was a long yet amazing journey, and the QA team couldn’t have gotten it done without the stalwart efforts of Evocati and PTU testers. They would like to encourage everyone to continue using the Issue Council, while they turn their focus towards a quick 3.0.1 patch and the much anticipated 3.1 in late March to address fixes and performance issues.

Foundry 42 UK




After the hectic run in to the holidays, this month allowed the team time to do some much needed housekeeping and organization. They spent a lot of effort working on performance optimizations to help improve the player’s experience. There isn’t one magic bullet to resolve this, rather lots of small improvements that will add up to a bigger improvement. Some of that is moving more code over from the old update functions, which run on the main thread, to the batched update model allowing them to use all the threads. Another improvement they made was reducing the work the animation system does by finding all the areas where a character’s skeleton is updated unnecessarily.

The team made progress on object container streaming, which allows large areas of the game like a planet or space station to load in the background as the player approaches it. This will help performance, decrease load times, and reduce the amount of memory required to run the game. One of the major challenges is making all the existing entity components able to initialize in a background thread safely. The process involves taking a lot of legacy code and converting it over, and there’s a lot of legacy components. It also means finally removing all Lua from the game and converting it into C++.

The Engineering Team has also been doing a pass on the usables, and especially how they get set up by the designers/artists/animators. After implementing a large number of them, they’ve targeted several areas where the implementation can be improved and easier to debug when things go wrong. It will also make them more modular. They can even take some of the functionality outside of the usable tech to use in other areas of the game.


This month, the Graphics Team worked through fixes for issues that came to light during the release of 3.0 and the Squadron 42 Vertical Slice. Many of these fixes related to the render-to-texture system, which is heavily used for the UI. These fixes should improve the resolution and anti-aliasing. The other major push was to improve render profiling and video memory tools to assist the Art and Graphics team to help optimize the game. Their main focus has been ensuring they can report a variety of statistics that are specific to each development team, for example, the number of polygons used for characters or the total texture memory used by the prop team. This helps the large and dispersed Art Teams understand how they’re affecting performance and therefore aid in improving it. They also did some optimization work, and made a big improvement to the ‘depth-pass’ algorithm. Now, each frame applies a heuristic to every mesh to determine which will make the best ‘occluders’ that can be rendered first to obscure any other meshes to reduce ‘overdraw’ (the process of re-rendering the same pixel multiple times).

In parallel to the UI fixes and optimization, the team has been doing R&D work on several new shaders, which they’re about to start full production on in February. These new shaders will help unify and simplify the art-workflow across various teams, allow more dynamic shaders that can correctly react to different environmental conditions (dirt, sand, mud), and apply wear/tear consistently between asset types with convincing visuals. These shaders will also enable several new features for the art team that should result in more interesting visuals on large man-made structures and more physically based blending of many materials on natural/organic assets.


January allowed the UI Team time to step back and assess what was achieved at the end of last year. MFD/Visor displays are a feature that needs additional work to bring them to the quality level the game strives for. The UI Visual Team has been set up to work closely with the Graphics Team in order to polish this feature for 3.1.

The team is also heavily focused on the PMA/VMA apps. With the release of the two apps in 3.0, they have been able to gather both internal and external feedback in order to ensure they are heading in the correct direction. A sprint team has been set up with the initial focus on bugfxing the VMA to ensure its functionality before additional features are implemented.


Hammerhead_front_corridor.jpg Razor_01.jpg The Ship team pushed forward on a number of ships that are slated to be in the 3.1 patch including the Reclaimer and Razor as well as ones slated for future releases like the Hammerhead, vicious Vanduul Blade fighter and Origin’s luxurious 600i. Artists worked to lock down the interior and exterior layouts and begin to work out the various materials needed to bring the ships to life. It’s not only new ships on the docket, some of the classics are in the process of being updated to the current ship spec, one of which, the Aegis Avenger, was prominently featured in last year’s Vertical Slice preview.


Vfx_monthly_report_Jan18_b.jpg Vfx_monthly_report_Jan18.jpg The Anvil Terrapin is the first ship of the year to get the VFX treatment, as they prepare it for flight ready status. They’re working on effects for thrusters, damage and a deathmask that’s using some new debris assets.

On the weapons front, the Gemini R97 ballistic shotgun had its VFX first Pass, including muzzle, tracer and impact effects. There’s also been a heavy focus on planning and schedules for the year ahead, and making sure the VFX tasks are aligned with everyone else’s.


Environment.jpg The team continued developing the Utilitarian Hangar Common Elements. Now that they have established a robust set of metrics that will work in many different locations, the hangars went to the Concept team for visual refinement. The shape language and scale reads have matured significantly from the initial kickoff concepts, which means that the hangars are working as enormous, functional and impressive structures much better than expected. The next stage is Greybox, where they will dial in details, materials, and lighting reads.

Elsewhere, the team made significant leaps with the Procedural Layout tool functionality being worked on by our Tech Art Team. The tool has matured to where it’s being used by the whole team to generate many varied and interesting rest stop interior layouts. It’s providing a ‘tailored randomness’ that allows the team to both direct a layout’s flow from an art and design perspective but also introduce enough unpredictability that layouts can be truly varied and different every time. As the team works to build more of the assets needed, the potential variety in layouts only gets more and more diverse.


Following some initial organization and documentation work, the fledgling Gameplay Story team got stuck into a couple of scenes that were chosen to act as a test bed. They enjoyed the technical & animation challenges involved and are looking forward to working more closely with Design to get these scenes working correctly in game. They also started work on scenes that are more critical to Squadron 42’s story and are looking to expand and develop the GP Story team going forward.


Ships: The Audio Department have been supporting the SFX requirements for the Anvil Terrapin and Aegis Reclaimer including thrusters, mechanical elements, ambience and UI.

Outposts / Rest Stops: The Audio Department completed a polish pass on outpost ambiences and SFX to ensure that audio responds to power level. They are currently prototyping audio responding to weather e.g. a storm outside an outpost could cause the structure to bow, bend and rattle. They supported the procedural tech used to build the rest stop stations actioning SFX passes on the rest stop building blocks to ensure any and all configurations meet the minimum quality bar. Future polish passes are planned.

Weapons: The Audio Department has had a big push to improve the audio response of weapons in different planetside locations by fleshing out weapon tails and reflections for both the 1st and 3rd person perspectives.

Music: They are also in the processes of drafting a composition request for a new Star Marine music suite, which will provide unique support for all game modes and dynamically react to gameplay.

Code: The Audio Code Team has been busy on an optimization pass to achieve better overall performance by improving audio bank loading and reducing the Wwise object and zone object count in the audio system. In addition, the team has been working on improvements to our audio dev tech.

Foundry 42 DE




DE_Monthly_Report_VFX_Coil_RnD_Shubin-2. DE_Monthly_Report_VFX_Coil_RnD_Shubin-4. The VFX Team continued their work on the volumetric cosmic storm known as the Coil, depicted in the Squadron 42 Vertical Slice at the end of last year. More R&D went into how to create an interior series of pathways and spaces while keeping in line with the approved concepts and art direction of the overall Coil. They attempted this using a third-party program called Houdini, so a portion of their time was spent on developing, optimizing and integrating the new pipeline since the software is not natively supported in the engine.


Over the past several months, the AI Team has been dividing their time between Squadron 42 and the Star Citizen PU. The Squadron 42 Vertical Slice unveiled the initial integration of FPS combat behaviors that allowed the player to combat several enemy NPCs while in the Gainey Base. To implement these behaviors, the team refactored all the cover movement transitions inside the movement system to include an improved path analysis by the AI, so that the system will be able to anticipate which type of animations should be played further in advance, allowing for a smoother transition from locomotion sets and the ability to call special transitional animations when needed.


While continuing ongoing work for Squadron 42, the Lighting Team entered the new year by training a new team member who will help finalize our legacy lighting conversion process to the new volumetric fog technology and also build new content for the PU. Initially, this will involve building a lighting language for the upcoming Rest Stop station. Since the Rest Stops won’t always be hand-built, the team needs to build processes to automatically place lighting in an environment that feels believable, isn’t too taxing on performance, and bug free.


DE_Monthly_Report_Weapons_kahix.jpg DE_Monthly_Report_Weapons_AMRS_S4-6.png The Weapons Team began the year by examining benchmarks that need to be hit and adjusting production accordingly. Work continued on the Torral Aggregate Kahix Missile Launcher, and needed adjustments made to the Gemini ballistic pistol after it was renamed the LH86. Time was also spent on two Klaus & Werner weapons; the initial rig was set up for the Demeco light energy machine gun and block out completed for the Raiden heavy machine gun. For ship weapons, block out work progressed on a Laser Beam from Trident Attack Systems and Distortion Repeater from Associated Science & Development.


In January, the Cinematics Team went back to work on on several sequences of Squadron 42, including a previs and mockup for an episode of a certain spectrum show that players will be able to catch in the game. Like many of the other departments, they kicked off 2018 by tackling production tasks to outline their goals for the year. Aside from general workflow, they prepped a list of tech requirements and detailed additions to the trackview system that would help incorporate Actor Actions.


The Tech Art team continued developing tools and system to increase developer efficiency and performance. They continued developing the Procedural tools to expedite processes like Procedural Layout and submitted a first release version of the Procedural Layout Editor while also figuring out a way to directly integrate the startup tool directly into the Sandbox interface. There was also a Tech Art review on the Anvil Terrapin which included a Flight Prep pass. Like a majority of the other teams, those first few weeks of the new year provided an opportunity to start outlining plans for future releases. The Tech Art team broke down the ships in the upcoming 3.1 release and continued working through the ship bug backlog.


With the existing memory tracking tools became too costly when recording and processing extended sessions of both the server and client, so the team started working on a new more lightweight memory tracking system that could support the most important features in order to track memory leaks and invalid allocations without generating gigabytes of logs to analyze. This new system has already been used to optimize memory usage on the server for 3.0 and to track leaks. They also implemented Python scripts to analyze the resulting log files as well as compute a difference for two separate log files to see how memory allocation behavior changed over time in various parts of the code base. This allows the team to find leaks as well as trim excessive memory usage.

The team fixed several issues related to how data is collected in the crash database Sentry, so they could see how many different clients are affected by a certain crash. They also fixed an issue that caused bugs to be categorized as GPU crashes incorrectly due to stale files being left on the client when previously submitting a real GPU crash.

One of the team’s newest engineers started working on an ambient occlusion solution which is a more accurate, horizon based SSDO. Previously, the shader only sampled the end of occlusion test rays across the surface hemisphere, but with the rework, it now also takes samples along each ray in order to better detect occlusion in-between, to prevent undersampling. The team’s in the final process of optimizing the shader since the first pass implementation is fairly expensive due to the number of samples required.


To kick off the new year, the System Design Team has been looking at priorities and goals for the upcoming quarterly releases ensuring that they have sprints scheduled to achieve their outlined goals. In addition, there has been a push to start clearing out the backlog of tasks and bugfixes remaining from 3.0. This includes things like fixing the transition between walking and entering a usable animation, missions autocompleting in the editor, and NPCs staring too long at points of interest. They were also able to fix hatches featured in Squadron 42’s Gainey base so that they properly close. While for the mission givers in the PU, the fixed bugs relating to certain lines not triggering after certain player choices.

Currently in progress are several improvements to NPC behaviours and usables, as well as additional tweaks to the Conversation System and a cleanup of the player’s HUD. Something else many players might appreciate is that the team is looking at making sure that airlocks will open automatically when approached from the direction they are currently pressurized for.


Although most mission testing is primarily done out of the UK’s QA department, the DE team tackled their first taste of mission testing with both Eckhart and Ruto. They identified any issues that would hinder accessibility to these two mission givers and the system designers worked with QA to quickly shelf changes for these NPCs, so they could pull the shelved changes down from perforce and test to see how things were working before the changes were checked into a build. Any issues encountered were brought up, identified and addressed, and the process repeated. This approach allowed for a much more efficient iteration time without potentially jeopardizing the build’s integrity for other departments. QA additionally provided feedback on how these two mission givers would function when more than one player is involved.

The QA Team also focused on testing and regression for the most recent 3.0 build, continuing to provide support for Frankfurt development team as needed. The Subsumption Editor continues to be part of their everyday testing, as well as the Lumberyard Editor, and anything related to procedural planet tech.

As the team approached the holiday event last year, the DE QA Team was brought into the S42 testing loop to attend regular review meetings discussing the progress of S42. This ensured that the developers had QA members available to provide support for any specific feature at any time, which made the turnaround time for catching issues relevant to these features quicker. This approach enabled QA to quickly test changes, write up JIRA reports for issues if needed, and send them to the appropriate devs to be fixed until the team eventually got to a build that is in the best possible playable and visual state.





On January 25th, the team unveiled a new section of designed specifically for new players. A considerable change from the the old “About the Game” experience, these pages are rich in media and informative information about the game and utilizes a new ‘three pillars’ navigation concept in the platform that can be leveraged to separate the three brands.

Leading up to the launch, the month was filled with major bug fixes, additional design tweaks and content changes. Turbulent will continue to introduce fixes to the platform, squash any new bugs reported by uses as well as revisit the color and contrast of text across the board while testing more diligently for readability.

The next round of additions to the site will include a more unified shopping experience and a better experience for account management.


Roadmap.png The Roadmap was published along with the introduction of the new Star Citizen site. This new production schedule provides the community with projections for the Persistent Universe’s quarterly release schedule, allowing the backers to see what the status of various features and where they fall in the timeline. Mobile views were introduced this month as well as a new expand / collapse all button. In the last four weeks, developers also created scrolling unique to the release (column), making the Roadmap board easier to use.

Most notably, the Roadmap is directly linked into CIG’s internal production software called JIRA. The number of tasks on a feature card is a direct reflection of the work allocated out to developers. A fetch of new data can be deployed within a few minutes. This new feature not only makes the project’s development more transparent to the community but also vastly reduces the time it would take for CIG producers to prepare the data, all around increasing efficiency.


Spectrum_Custom-Roles.png Spectrum_BlockManagement.png The feature work on custom roles is now complete and has moved on to a bug testing phase with the hope of headlining the next spectrum release. Custom roles are extremely important to the community and give you much more flexibility in managing your organizations.

The feature work on custom emojis is almost complete, with only a few small tasks left. This will allow you to upload your own emoji sheets, giving you and your org the capability to communicate in your own unique way.

Front end work on the block / ignore feature began this month, and there is a solid, well-tested design for how this should work. Going beyond a simple block button, the plan is to create a full block / ignore manager to give users full control over the feature.




Last week saw the launch of the newly redesigned website, which is now organized into three sections providing easier navigation for veterans and rookies alike. The Star Citizen section, with information on the game and its lore, the Squadron 42 section with updates on the development of the cinematic single-player campaign, and the RSI section which hosts not only the community hub and Spectrum, but also the new Roadmap with insight into Star Citizen’s development process. The Roadmap feeds directly from CIG’s internal task managing tool, JIRA, and displays tasks, features and optimizations planned to rollout during the year. With this new level of transparency, the Roadmap should give everyone an idea of where the team wants to go with the next development milestones.

Check it out, if you haven’t already, and let the team know what you think in the feedback thread.

Atv_coil-3rd-Paragraph.jpg On the ATV front, January welcomed the return of Ship Shape, a deep-dive into ship design and development, while also shining a light on the magnificent people involved in the ship design process. Last week’s ATV focused on Squadron 42, taking a detailed look at the mysterious Coil and the challenges the developers overcame to bring this exciting monstrosity into the game. ATV will keep highlighting bits and pieces of the Squadron 42 development without spoiling the truly unique and cinematic storyline, so be in the know and enlist for the official newsletter here.

New to the show portfolio since the beginning of January is the weekly live show “Reverse the Verse” that recaps the events of the week and answering the questions submitted by our community. The stream has so far featured Global Head of Production for Star Citizen and Squadron 42 Erin Roberts, Composer for Squadron 42 Geoff Zanelli, and Game Director Chris Roberts. If you have a question you want to see answered in an upcoming show, head to Spectrum, track down the appropriate thread in the announcement section and let the team know.

5th-Paragraph.jpg While it is still only January, the Community team is knee-deep in planning this year’s event schedule. They can’t disclose a lot yet but … prepare your space suits, Austin! CitizenCon 2948 will be happening in Texas, and it is shaping up to be the biggest CitizenCon so far. Be sure to regularly check the events page for more info and news on where you can meet the team throughout the year!

Lastly, time to shine a light on what’s to come in the near future: Community is in the process of putting together a stellar FanKit which will allow you to share your love for Star Citizen across the internet. The fandom page will become a handy guide and resource for fans of Star Citizen, answering the most frequently asked questions related to fan creations regarding branding rights and permissions.

And with that, see you in the ’verse!



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    • Przez Game Armada
      Welcome to Inside Star Citizen, the triumphant return of our weekly development update show. In this episode we learn about a new particle lighting system, public telemetry, Crusader’s city in the clouds, and upcoming improvements to a classic ship.

      To watch Reverse the Verse LIVE each and every week, tune into
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    • Przez Game Armada
      Writer’s Note: Brothers In Arms: Part Four was published originally in Jump Point 3.8. Read Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.
      A recorded hymn played as they sent Arun “Boomer” Ains­ley into whatever great adventure awaits in the everafter. Gavin set the service in the Rhedd Alert hangar, and the recording sounded terrible. The last somber note rebounded off the room’s hard surfaces and harsh angles.
      He wished they could have had a live band. He would have paid for an orchestra, if one were to be had on the orbit­al station. Even a bugle would have been a better tribute for the man who had brought Dell into his life. For the man who taught him and Walt so much about living a free life.
      Dell’s arm felt small around his waist and Gavin pulled her in close to him, unsure if that was the right thing to do. He turned to kiss her hair and saw Walt’s lean form looming beside them. Walt’s face was fixed in a grim mask.
      Gavin knew his brother well enough to know that Walt was berating himself inside. He didn’t deal well with guilt or re­sponsibility, and Gavin suspected that was a big part of why Walt always ran.
      The gathering started to break up. Pilots and the hangar crew busied themselves with tasks around Rhedd Alert’s battered fleet of fighters. Dell didn’t move, so he stayed there with her. Walt rested a hand on his shoulder.
      “Gavin. Oh gods, Dell. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
      Jazza leaned in and spoke in a low tone, almost a whisper. “Landing gear up in ten, boss. Your rig is on the buggy.” She motioned with her chin to where his ship waited.
      Dell turned into him and squeezed. “Be careful.”
      “I will, babe.”
      “You come home to me, Gavin Rhedd. I’ll kill you myself if you make me run this outfit on my own.”
      He pressed his lips to the top of her head. Held them there.
      “Wait. What?” Walt’s jaw was slack, his eyes wide. “Tell me you aren’t going back out there.”
      Jazza bumped Walt with her shoulder, not so much walking past him as through him. “Damn right we are, Quitter.”
      “You know what? Screw you, Jazz. All right? You used to quit this outfit, like . . . twice a month.”
      “Not like you. Not like some chicken sh—”
      “Jazz,” Gavin said, “go make sure the team is ready to roll, would ya?” With a nod to Gavin and a parting glare at Walt, she moved away into the hangar.
      “Let it be, Walt. We really do need to go. After last time, we can’t risk being late for the pickup.”
      “Screw late!” Walt’s eyes were wide and red-rimmed around the edges. “Why the happy hells are you going at all?”
      “Walt —”
      “Don’t ‘Walt’ me, Gavin. There is a pack of psychopaths out there trying to kill you!”
      “Walt, would you shut up and listen for two seconds? We don’t have a choice, okay? We’ve got everything riding on this job. We’re months behind on this place and extended up to our necks on credit for fuel, parts, and ammo.”
      “They can damn well bill me!”
      “No,” Gavin said, “they can’t. Your shares reverted back to the company when you quit. But I’m legit now. You think we lived life on the run before? Just you watch if I try to run from this.”
      Walt turned to Dell for assistance, “Dell, come on. You gotta make him listen to reason.”
      “Boomer’s shares transferred to me when he died,” Dell said. “We’re in this together.”
      “Okay, boss,” Jazza called. The three of them looked to where she stood with a line of determined crew. “It’s time.”
      Walt watched the big bay doors close as the last of Gavin’s team left the hangar. His fighter and the few remaining ships looked small and awkwardly out of place in the big room. Standing alone next to Dell gave him a great appreci­ation for that awkwardness.
      “I’m so sorry, Dell. If I’d been there —”
      “Don’t,” she stopped him with a word, and then contin­ued with a shake of her blue-tipped hair. “Don’t do that to yourself. I’ve been over the tactical logs. He got beat one-on-one, and then they OK’d him. There was nothing you could have done.”
      “I still feel rotten,” he said. “Like, maybe if I hadn’t left . . . I don’t know.”
      “Gavin blames himself, too. That’s just the way you two are built. But believe me, there was never a soul alive able to keep my dad out of the cockpit. He was flying long before you Rhedd boys tumbled into our lives.”
      That gave him a smile. A genuine smile. It seemed to bright­en Dell’s mood, so he did his best to hang onto it.
      “Come on,” she said. “It’s been a long couple of weeks. Join me for some coffee?”
      He did, and for a time they spoke softly at the tall tables in the hangar’s kitchenette. Dell caught him up on life aboard Vista Landing since he had left. She was clearly exhausted and not simply from a sleepless night and her father’s funeral. Her shoulders sagged, and dark circles under her eyes were the product of weeks of labor and worry. The constant apprehension of the Hornets’ vi­cious attacks had apparently exhausted more than just the pilots. It seemed odd that the attacks felt strangely personal.
      “You know what I can’t figure out?” he mused aloud. Dell looked at him, tired eyes politely expectant. “What the hell are these guys after?”
      She nodded, “Yeah. There’s been a lot of speculating on that question.”
      “Hard to say, isn’t it? Could be political wackos opposed to the research in Haven. Or maybe it’s one of the old gangs that don’t like us going legit. Could be it’s a group of Tevarin lashing out against UEE targets. Who knows?”
      “Naw. If they were Tevarin, we could tell by how they fly.”
      “Then you tell me, if you’re so smart. I mean, you were out there. You fought them.”
      Walt shrugged and took a sip of cooling coffee. Something she said nagged at him. “Hey, you said you had navsat tac­tical logs from the fight, right?”
      “Yeah.” What remained of her energy seemed to drain away with that one word. Walt cursed himself for the insensitive ass that he was. He’d just asked her about re­corded replays of her father’s murder.
      “Dell. Ah, hell . . . I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
      “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve been over and over them already. Really, I don’t mind.”
      They moved to a console and the lights dimmed automat­ically when she pulled up the hangar projection. She se­lected a ship, and oriented the view so that the hologram of Boomer’s Avenger filled the display. No, Walt reminded himself, it wasn’t Boomer’s ship any more. Dell was his heir and — along with his debt — Boomer’s assets now belonged to her.
      Dell bypassed the default display of the structural hard­points and dove into the ship’s systems. Something caught his eye and he stopped her. “Wait, back up.” She did, and Walt stopped the rotating display to look along the under­carriage of the ship. He let out a low whistle.
      “That, Walter Rhedd, is a Tarantula GT-870 Mk3.”
      “I know what it is. But where did you get it?”
      “Remember those pirates that gave us so much trouble in Oberon? I pulled it before we sold the salvage.”
      He certainly did remember, and the bastards had kicked the crap out of two of their ships with their Tarantulas. “How’d you get it mounted on an Avenger?”
      “Hammer therapy,” she said. He gave her a confused look, and she held up one arm, curling it to make a muscle. “I beat the hell out of it until it did what I wanted.”
      “Damn, girl.”
      “Did you want to see the flight recorder?”
      They watched the navsat replays together in silence. It looked like one hell of a fight. Chaotic. Frantic. The Rhedd Alert fighters were hard pressed.
      Jazza had moments of tactical brilliance. As much as she rubbed him the wrong way, Walt had to admit that she made her Cutlass dance steps for which it wasn’t de­signed. Gavin orchestrated a coherent strategy and had committed extra fighters to drive off the attack. Some­thing was wrong, though. Something about the fight didn’t make sense.
      Walt had Dell replay the scene so he could focus on the marauders. It didn’t look like much of a fight at all from that perspective. It looked more like a game and only one team understood how all the pieces moved. The Hornets flew to disrupt, to confuse. They knew Gavin would send a force forward to protect the transport. He’d done it every time they had met.
      “See that?” he said. “They break apart there and get called immediately back into formation. They never leave a flank exposed. Our guys never get a real opening.” He pointed out one of the attacking Hornets. “That one calls the shots.”
      “That’s the one that OK’d Boomer.”
      Reds and greens from the navsat display sparkled in Dell’s eyes. Her voice was emotionless and flat. Walt didn’t want to see her like that, so he focused again on the display.
      The marauder he’d identified as the leader broke from the melee. Gavin gave chase, but from too far behind. Boomer intercepted, was disabled, and his PRB flashed red on the display. The Hornet took a pass at the transport before turning to rejoin its squad. Then it decelerated, pausing before the overkill on Boomer.
      “Why take only one pass at the transport? They’ve hit us, what? Six times? Seven? And once they finally get a shot at the target, they bug out?”
      “You said, ‘us’,” Dell teased. “You back to stay?”
      Walt huffed a small laugh. “We’ll see.”
      “We’ve been lucky,” Dell offered in answer to his question. “So far, we’ve chased them off.”
      “You really believe that? They had this fight won if they wanted it. And how do they keep finding us? It’s like they’ve taken up permanent residence in our damned flight path.”
      That was it. He had it. The revelation must have shown on his face.
      “What?” Dell asked. “What is it?”
      “Back it up to the strafe on the Aquila.”
      Dell did, and they watched it again. He felt like an ass for making her watch the murder of her father over again, but he had to be sure of what he saw.
      And there it was. Strafe. Turn. Pause. A decision to com­mit. An escalating act of brutality. And then they were gone.
      “She’s not after the transport at all. We were her target this whole time.”
      “Wait,” Dell said, “what she? Her who?”
      “Please tell me your ex hasn’t drunk himself out of a job with the Navy.”
      “Barry? Of course not, why?”
      “Because I just figured out who killed your father.”
      Morgan Brock called the meeting to a close and dismissed her admin team. Riebeld caught her eye and lifted one hand off the table — a request for her to stay while the others shuffled out of the conference room.
      Riebeld kept her waiting until they were alone, and then stood to close the door.
      “I take it,” Brock said, “that our Tyrol problem persists despite the escalation?”
      “I got word during the meeting” — he took a seat beside her at the table, voice pitched low — “that they should be making the jump to Nexus soon.”
      “Our discreet pilots? Are they deployed or here at the sta­tion?”
      His answer was slow in coming, his nod reluctant. “They are here.”
      Brock checked the time. Did some mental math. “Disguise the ships. We will leave at 1700 and meet them in Nexus just inside the gate from Min.”
      “Morgan,” Riebeld’s eyes roamed the room, “these guys aren’t taking the hint. I don’t know what losses we have to hand them before they back down, but . . . I don’t know. Part of doing business is losing bids, am I right?” She didn’t disagree and he continued. “Maybe . . . Maybe we ought to write this one off?”
      “A comfortable position to hold in your seat, Riebeld. Your commission is based on the contract value. I barely turned a profit on that job for years. I did it willingly, with the expected reward of windfall profits when traffic to Haven surges.”
      “I get that,” he said. “I really do. But at some point we have to call it a loss and focus on the next thing, right?”
      “Then suppose that we let the Tyrol job go, and Greely and Navy SysCom see what they want to see from bou­tique contractors. I can already imagine anti-establishment politicians pushing for more outsourced work. Hell, they will probably promise contracts to buy votes in their home systems.”
      She watched him squirm. It wasn’t like him to wrestle with his conscience. Frankly, she was disappointed to learn that he’d found one.
      “If Rhedd Alert won’t withdraw willingly,” she said, “then they will have to fail the hard way. Prep the ships, Rie­beld. We have done very well together, you and I. You should know that I won’t back away from what is mine.” He seemed to appreciate her sincerity, but Brock wanted to hear the cocksure salesman say it. “Are we clear?”
      “Yes, ma’am,” Riebeld swallowed and stood. “Perfectly clear.”
      “Any luck?” Walt pulled up Barry’s record in his mobiGlas and hit connect.
      Dell sat at the hangar console trying to reach Gavin and the team. Her brow furrowed in a grimace and she shook her head.
      “Damn. Okay, keep trying.”
      Barry connected. The accountant wore his uniform. He was on duty, wherever he was, and his projected face looked genuinely mournful. “Hey,” he said, “long time no see, man. Listen, I can’t tell you how sad I am about Boomer.”
      “Thanks.” Barry had known Dell and Boomer for most his life. He’d probably been torn between attending the service and allowing the family to grieve in privacy. Regardless, commiseration would have to wait. “We need your help, Barry. Please tell me that you have access to the propos­als for the Tyrol contract.”
      “Of course I do. And who’s we? Are you back with Dell and Gavin?”
      “I am,” he felt Dell’s eyes on him when he said it. “Anyway, we need a favor. I need to know the ship models and con­figurations proposed by the incumbent.”
      “Morgan Brock’s outfit, sure. No can do on the ship data, though. That information is all confidential. Only the price proposals are available for public review, and those only during the protest period.”
      “Come on, Barry. We’re not talking trade secrets here. I could figure this out with a fly-by of their hangar in Kilian. I just don’t have time for that. I need to know what ships those guys fly.”
      Barry breathed out a heavy sigh, “Hold on. But I can’t send you the proposals, okay? You guys are already on thin ice with this contract as is.”
      “Tell me about it. And thanks, I owe you huge for this.”
      Walt waited, throat dry. He scratched at a chipped edge on his worn mobiGlas with a fingernail.
      “All right,” Barry read from something off-screen, “it looks like they’re flying a variety of Hornets. Specifically, F7As. I can send you a list of the proposed hardpoints, and I hap­pen to know that Brock herself flies a Super Hornet.”
      The mobiGlas shook on Walt’s wrist. His face felt hot, and he forced his jaw to relax. “Barry, if you have any pull with the Navy, get some ships to Tyrol. It’s been Brock this whole time. She’s been setting us up to fail. And she’s the bitch that OK’d Boomer.”
      “I’m going, Walt. That’s final.”
      Walt rubbed at his eyes with the flat part of his fingers. How did Gavin ever win an argument her? Forbidding her involvement was a lost cause. Maybe he could reason with her. “Listen. When’s the last time you were even in a cockpit?”
      “I know this ship. I was practically born in these things.”
      “Dell —”
      She threw his helmet at him. He caught it awkwardly, and she had shed her coveralls and was wriggling into her flight suit before he could finish his thought. She stared at him with hard eyes and said, “Suit up if you don’t want to get left behind.”
      Dell was as implacable as gravity. Fine. It was her funeral, and he realized there was no way his brother had ever won an argument with her.
      They finished prepping in silence. Walt pulled the chocks on her Avenger when she climbed up into the cockpit. He gave the hulking muzzle of the Tarantula an appreciative pat. “You have ammo for this bad boy?”
      “I have a little.”
      “Good,” he smiled. “Let’s hope Brock isn’t ready to handle reinforcements.”
      Walt mulled that thought over. It was true that Gavin had split their team in each fight, but Rhedd Alert had never sent in reserves. Each engagement had been a fair and straightforward fight. Brock wasn’t likely to know anything about their resources, however limited, beyond the escort team. That could work to their advantage.
      In fact, “Hey, Dell. Hop out for a tick, will you?”
      “Like hell I will.” The look she shot down at him was pure challenge. “I said I’m going and that’s that.”
      “Oh, no. I’ve already lost that fight. But you and your cannon here got me thinking about those pirates in Oberon. Tell me, did we ever find a buyer for that old Idris hull?”
      “No. It’s buoyed in storage outside the station, why?”
      Dell looked at him skeptically and he grinned. “We’re going to introduce these military-types to
      some ol’ smugglers’ tricks.”
      Gavin held the team at the edge of the jump gate between Min and Nexus. “All right gang, listen up. You know the drill and what might be waiting for us on the other side. Jazza, I want you and Rahul up on point for this jump. I’ll bring Cassiopeia over after you and the rest of the team are in. Anyone not ready to jump?”
      His team was silent as they arranged themselves into position with professional precision. The pilot aboard Cassiopeia sounded the ready and Gavin sent Jazza through. The others were hard on her heels, and Gavin felt the always-peculiar drop through the mouth of the jump gate.
      Light and sound stretched, dragging him across the inter­space. Another drop, a moment’s disorientation, and then Nexus resolved around him.
      Without warning, Mei’s fighter flashed past his forward screen. Incandescent laser fire slashed along the ghost grey and fire-alarm red ship, crippling Mei’s shields and shearing away sections of armored hull. Mei fired back at a trio of maddeningly familiar Hornets in a tight triangular formation.
      Jazza barked orders. “Mei. Rahul. Flank Gavin and get Cassiopeia out of here. Gavin, you copy that? You have the package.”
      He shook his head, willing the post-jump disorientation away. He didn’t remember bringing up his shields, but they flashed on his HUD and his weapon systems were armed.
      “Copy that.” Gavin switched to the transport channel, “Cassiopeia. Let’s get you folks out of here.”
      The crew onboard the UEE transport didn’t need any more encouragement. Gavin accelerated to keep pace with the larger ship as two Rhedd Alert fighters dropped into posi­tion above and below him. Together, they raced toward the jump gate to Tyrol.
      The Hornets wheeled and dropped toward them from one side. Gavin’s HUD lit up with alerts as Jazza sent a pair of rockets dangerously close over his head to blast into one of the attacking ships. Her ship screamed by overhead, but the Hornets stayed in pursuit of the fleeing transport.
      Alarms sounded. They needed more firepower on the Hornets to give Cassiopeia time to get clear. He yelled a course heading, and Cassiopeia dove with Mei and Rahul on either flank.
      Gavin pulled up, turned and fired to pull the attention of the attackers. He spun, taking the brunt of their return fire on his stronger starboard shields.
      The impact shook the Cutlass violently, and his shield integ­rity bar sagged into the red. Gavin turned, took another wild shot with his lasers, and accelerated away from Cassiopeia with the Hornets in close pursuit.
      Navsat data for the jump into Nexus crept onto the edge of Walt’s HUD. Several seconds and thousands of kilometers later, the first of the embattled starships winked onto the display. His brother and the Rhedd Alert team were hard-pressed.
      Walt watched Brock and her crew circle and strike, corralling the Rhedd Alert ships. Gavin tried to lead the attackers away, but Brock wouldn’t bite. By keeping the fight centered on the UEE transport, she essentially held the transport hostage.
      Time to even the odds.
      Jazza tore into one of the Hornets. Walt saw the enemy fighter’s superior shields absorb the impact. He marked that Hornet as his target, preparing to strike before its defenses recharged.
      He killed his primary drive and spun end to end, slash­ing backward through the melee like a blazing comet. His targeting system locked onto the enemy Hornet, and his heavy Broadsword blasted bullets into it.
      Mei’s battered fighter dove through the streaming wreck­age, but the Super Hornet, presumably Brock, waited for her on the other side. A blast from her neutron cannon tore through the Rhedd Alert ship. Mei ejected safely, but their team was down a ship.
      “Gods,” Gavin’s voice was frantic. “Get the hell out of here, Walt. Form up with the transport and get them away from the fight.”
      Walt ignored him. He came around for another pass and triggered his mic to an open-area channel. “The game’s up, Brock.”
      His words cut across the thrust and wheel of close com­bat, and for a moment the fighters on all sides flew in quiet patterns above the fleeing Cassiopeia.
      “You know,” Walt said, “if you wanted us to believe you were after the transport, you should have saved your big guns for Cassiopeia instead of overkilling our friend.”
      “I suppose I should be disappointed that you have found me out,” Brock’s voice was a pinched sneer, and every bit as cold and hard as Gavin had described. “On the other hand, I’m glad you’ve shared this with me. I might have been content disabling the majority of your so-called fleet. Now, it seems that I will have to be more thorough.”
      She fired, he dodged, and the fight was on again in earnest. Walt switched his comms to Rhedd Alert’s squad channel. “Brock was never after Cassiopeia, Gav. She’s been after us.”
      “Maybe I’m a little distracted by all the missiles and the neutron cannon, but I’m failing to see how that is at all relevant right now.”
      “We’re no match for the tech in her ships. If she goes after the transport, they’re toast.” He rolled into position next to Gavin. Together, they nosed down to strafe at a Hornet from above.
      “Great,” Gavin said, “then why did you tip her off?”
      Walt suppressed a wicked grin. “Because,” he said, “she can’t afford to let any of us get away, either.”
      “If you have any brilliant ideas, spit ’em out. I’m all ears.”
      “Run with me.” For all Walt knew, Brock could hear every word they were saying. She would tear them apart if they stayed. He had to get Gavin to follow him. “Run with me, Gavin.”
      “Damn it, Walt! If you came to help, then help. I’ve got a pilot down, and I’m not leaving her here to get OK’d like Boom­er.”
      “This ain’t about doing the easy thing, Gav. Someone I truly admire once told me that this game is all about trust. So ask yourself . . . do you trust me?”
      Gavin growled his name then, dragging out the word in a bitter, internal struggle. The weight of it made Walt’s throat constrict. Despite all of their arguments, Boomer’s death and his own desertion when things got hard — in spite of all of that — his brother still wanted to trust him.
      “Trust me, Gavin.”
      Brock and her wingman swept low, diving to corral Cassiopeia and its escorts. Jazza redirected them with a blazing torrent of laser fire and got rocked by the neutron cannon in return. The shields around her battered Cutlass flashed, dimmed and then failed.
      Walt gritted his teeth. It was now or never.
      “Jazz,” Gavin’s voice sounded hard and sharp, “rally with Cassiopeia and make a break for it.”
      Walt pumped his fist and accelerated back the way he’d come in.
      “Walt,” Gavin sounded angry enough to eat nails, but he followed, “I’m on your six. Let’s go, people! Move like you’ve got a purpose.”
      Walt pulled up a set of coordinate presets and streaked away with Gavin close behind him. The two remaining Hor­nets split, with Brock falling in behind Gavin to give pursuit. Even together he and Gavin didn’t have much chance of getting past her superior shields. Instead, he set a straight course for the waypoint marked at the edge of his display. When incoming fire from Brock drove them off course, he corrected to put them directly back in line with the mark.
      Brock was gaining. Gavin’s icon flashed on his display. She was close enough to hit reliably with her repeaters. As they approached the preset coordinates, Walt spotted a rippling distortion of winking starlight. Correcting his course slightly, he headed straight for it. Gavin and Brock were hard behind him.
      “Come on,” Walt whispered, “stay close.”
      On the squad display, he saw Gavin’s shield integrity dropped yet again. Brock was scoring more frequent hits.
      “A little farther.”
      Walt focused on the rippling of starlight ahead, a dark patch of space that swallowed Nexus’ star. He made a slight course correction and Gavin matched it. Together, they continued their breakneck flight from Brock’s deadly onslaught.
      The small patch of dark space grew as the three ships streaked forward. Walt opened the squad channel on his mic and shouted, “Now!”
      On his HUD, a new ship flared onto the display. It appeared to materialize nearly on top of them as Dell’s Avenger dropped from her hiding place inside the blackened hull of the derelict Idris.
      Walt punched his thrusters. The lift pressed him into his seat as he pushed up and over their trap. He heard Dell shouting over the squad channel, and he turned, straining to see behind him. Bright flashes from Brock’s muzzles accompanied a horrible pounding thunder. Dell had left her mic open and it sounded like the massive gun was threat­ening to tear her ship apart.
      “Heads up, Gav!”
      Dell’s voice hit Gavin like a physical blow.
      He saw his brother climb and suddenly disappear behind an empty, starless expanse. Then Boomer’s Avenger materi­alized from within that blackness, and Gavin knew that his wife was inside the cockpit. She was with him, out in the black where veteran pilots outgunned them.
      His body reacted where his mind could not. He shoved down, hard. Thrusters strained as he instinctively tried to avoid colliding with her. A brilliant pulse like flashes of light­ning accompanied a jarring thunder of sound.
      Gavin forced his battered ship to turn. The Cutlass shud­dered from the stress, and Gavin was pressed into the side of the cockpit as the nose of his ship came around.
      He saw the first heavy round strike Brock. The combined force of the shell and her momentum shredded her for­ward shields. Then round after round tore through the nose of Brock’s ship until the air ignited inside.
      “Dell” — the flaming Hornet tumbled toward his wife like an enormous hatchet — “look out!”
      Brock ejected.
      Dell thrust to one side, but the Hornet chopped into the hull where she had hidden. The explosion sent ships and debris spinning apart in all directions.
      He swept around to intercept her spinning ship. Walt beat him there. Thrusters firing in tightly controlled move­ments, Walt caught her Avenger, slowed it and stopped the spin.
      Gavin rolled to put himself cockpit to cockpit with his wife.
      She sat in stillness at the controls, her head down and turned to one side.
      “Come on, baby. Talk to me.”
      She moved.
      With the slow deliberateness of depressurized space, she rolled her head on her shoulders. When she looked up, their eyes met. Dell gave him a slow smile and a thumbs-up. He swallowed hard, and with one hand pressed to his heart, he shut his eyes silently in thanks.
      Gavin spun his Cutlass and thrust over to where Brock floated nearby, his weapons systems still hot. He paused then, looming above her as she had hesitated over Boomer.
      Her comms were still active. “What now, Rhedd?”
      He remembered her from the meeting with Greely. Tall, lean, and crisp. She seemed small now, drifting not more than a meter away from the battle-scarred nose of his Cutlass.
      “Gavin?” Dell’s voice sounded small after the ruckus of the fight.
      Walt eased into view alongside him. His voice was low and calm, “Easy, buddy. We weren’t raised to OK pilots.”
      “She’s not worth it,” Dell said.
      Brock snarled, “Do it already.”
      He had studied Brock’s reports for months. She had more ships and more pilots than he could ever imagine employing. What drove her to harass them and kill one of his crew for this job?
      “I just want to know why,” he asked. “You’ve got other contracts. You’ve probably made more money than any of us will see in our lives. Why come after us?”
      He held Brock’s eye, the lights from the Cutlass reflecting from her visor.
      “Why?” she repeated. “Look around you, Rhedd. There’s no law in these systems. All that matters here is courage to take what you want, and a willingness to sacrifice to keep it.”
      “You want to talk sacrifice?” he said. “That pilot you killed was family.”
      “You put him in harm’s way,” she said, “not me. What little order exists in these systems is what I brought with me. I carved my success from nothing. You independents are thieves. You’re like rodents, nibbling at the edges of others’ success.”
      “I was a thief,” he said, “and a smuggler. But we’re building our own success, and next time you and I meet with the Navy,” Gavin fired his thrusters just enough to punch Brock with the nose of his ship, “it’ll be in a court­room.”
      She spun and tumbled as she flew, growing smaller and smaller until the PRB on his HUD was all he could see.
      A pair of Retaliators with naval designations were moored outside the Rhedd Alert hangar when Gavin and the crew finally limped back to Vista Landing.
      Crew aboard Cassiopeia had insisted on helping with medical care and recovery after the fight. The team scheduled for pick-up at Haven was similarly adamant that Rhedd Alert take care of their own before continuing. Technically, no one had checked with Navy SysCom.
      Did the Navy fire contractors face to face? For all he knew, they did.
      Gavin saw to the staging of their damaged ships while the others hurried the wounded deeper into Vista Landing. When he’d finished, he exchanged a quick nod with Barry Lidst who stood at ease behind Major Greely.
      “Major,” Gavin held out his hand, “I assume someone would have told me already if I was fired.”
      His hand disappeared in the major’s massive paw. “I sup­pose they would have, at that.”
      “Then to what do we owe the honor?” Dell and Walt joined them, and Gavin made introductions.
      “‘I’ first, then ‘we,’ ” Greely repeated, “I like that, Rhedd. I appreciate a man who accepts consequence personally but insists on sharing accolades with his team. Tell me, son. How’d you get Brock?”
      Gavin nudged his wife. With a roguish grin, Dell pulled her arm from around Gavin’s waist and stepped over to pat the Tarantula on her battered Avenger.
      “Nice shooting, miss.”
      Dell shrugged, “Walt pulled my tags, nav beacon and flight recorder before we left. I was sitting dark inside a decoy when the boys flew her right down the barrel.”
      Barry leaned toward Greely and in a completely audible whisper said, “It might be best if we ignore the illegal parts of that.”
      Greely waved him off. “This is what the ’verse needs. Men and women with the courage to slap their name up on the side of a hangar. A chance for responsible civilians to create good, honest jobs with real pay for locals. That an ex-military contractor tried to muck that up . . .”
      Gavin and the team got a good, close look at what angry looked like on a Navy officer. It was the kind of scowl that left an impression.
      “Anyway,” Greely composed himself, “not a soul in the ’verse would blame you for writing us off as a bit of bad business. I’m here to ask that you stick with it.”
      Gavin was reluctant to bring their financial situation up in front of their one paying client, but they were tapped out. Rhedd Alert didn’t have the cred to buy ammo, much less repair their downed fighters. “Actually, sir. I think we may need to find something a little more lucrative than getting shot up by disgruntled incumbents.”
      “About that,” Greely rested his hand on Gavin’s shoulder. He led him to look out one of the large hangar windows at the Retaliators buoyed outside. “My accountant tells me there may be some room to renegotiate certain parts of the Tyrol contract. But that job won’t be enough to keep your team busy now that Brock’s out of the way.”
      Gavin laughed. “On that point, I most certainly hope you are right.”
      “Well . . . I’ve got more work for an outfit like yours. I hope you’ll accept, because you folks have surely earned it. Tell me, Rhedd, are you familiar with the Oberon system?”
      Behind them, Walt dropped his helmet.
      The End
      Przeczytaj całość
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