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Game Armada Star Citizen Monthly Report: September 2018

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Welcome to September’s monthly report from Cloud Imperium Games. This month we’re adjusting our Monthly Reports to be focused on each specific project.

This project-based approach to our monthly reports stands to provide a more detailed look at the development of both games going forward.

So, pop open a Smoltz and settle in for all the details on Star Citizen from around the Cloud Imperium empire.

For all you fans of the 2nd Fleet, a dedicated Squadron 42 Monthly Report will be released separately in the very near future.

Star Citizen Monthly Report: September 2018



The majority of the AI Team’s focus this month has been on the Alpha 3.3 release. They’ve been working on multithreading the execution of the Tactical Point System, which allows a large number of environmental queries to be processed simultaneously. To achieve this, they focused on making several subsystems safe, such as the Usable Query System, Navigation, and Cover System. The result will give a big boost towards full multithreading of the Subsumption Component execution.

For human combat, they implemented several strategies used during combat activities and completed tasks to remove existing glitches and visual bugs.

They’re making progress on the Usable Builder tool, with the aim to give the designers proper visual feedback when creating objects so that they can immediately see issues or problems. Being able to preview a usable and adjust the position of its use slots, alignment slots, and all the elements associated with it will vastly speed up production.

In addition, they worked on caching entry/exit animations of the usables and the related animations to speed up runtime calls.

For the mission system, they introduced new functionalities, first of which is the ability to provide restrictions on the availability of a mission based on location. They also introduced UI binding variables that easily connect data provided by the mission logic to the user interface so that data can be easily displayed on screen.
They’re currently working on a first pass to simulate incoming and outgoing city traffic so that large cities feel more alive.


The Animation Team has been working on refining the first-person experience, including tweaking weapon movement and recoil values. Work continues on ship sequencing, with the aim of increasing animation asset efficiency, while player actions were added to the bar stool to enable drinking from both standing and seating positions.

The Facial Team developed animations for the bartender and bar patrons off the back of a PCAP shoot. They also partnered with Tech Animation to test a new facial rig and ran the first set of reviews for the Facial Animation Quality benchmark. The goal here is to establish a gold-standard of facial performance on all characters throughout the Persistent Universe.

They also cleaned up the player locomotion sets and fixed bugs in preparation for the Alpha 3.3 release. The team is showing off motion capture at CitizenCon, so have been running tests to ensure everything runs smoothly.


Audio continued to support Alpha 3.3. They’ve also been prototyping new systems to allow the audio experience to scale as the project expands, with the intention to maintain the established quality bar and ensure a constantly immersive experience.

Backend Services

Backend Services has been looking into adding the S3 service, which is used to store and retrieve larger static datasets for various parts of the game.

They also finished up the NoSQL database API (which gives more fluid datasets) and finished the new Entitlement Processor to greatly optimise the processing of platform-purchased items.

As needed, they provided live support for Alpha 3.3 gameplay features to ensure everything is working as it should.

Build Engineering

A while ago, groups were formed to work on parallel branches for 3.3, with variable and control branches set up to investigate the benefits of streaming object container tech for Alpha 3.3 – this work was a success and is now complete.

Validation checks for the animation pipeline have been cemented to ensure assets intended for building and releasing align with internal file-content references. Logic is now in place to identify 3D vector field textures from regular compiled DDS textures. These 3D textures are now being welcomed into our existing asset pipeline. The releasing process received an upgrade, with additional checks put in place to help keep an overview of the final released files for Alpha 3.3.

Character Art

After completing the Odyssey Flightsuit, Virgil TruDef Pro Armor, and Hurston Collection, the team will move onto bug fixing and polishing. This content comes with material variants designed to give Hurston a varied and realistic setting.



The Community Team has already hosted more contests this year than ever before, with September’s MISC Prospector commercial contest spawning some unbelievable videos.


Also this month, Bounty Hunters rallied across the ‘verse to take down criminal scum and shared their victories in a screenshot contest on Twitter. Within 24 hours, the team had received over 500 entries, showcasing that the hunt was most definitely on. More fun contests are just around the corner, so keep an eye on Spectrum for more chances to win.

A community-organized convention, Con42, took place in Germany this month, with a strong attendance from both backers and developers alike. The event included informative panels, a treasure hunt to keep people on their feet, and stories from across the ‘verse.
France’s own fan convention, Pari’Verse, is coming up on the 12th and 13th of October. So, if you’re in the area and looking to connect with other Citizens, make sure you check it out. You can find more info and get tickets on the official Pari’Verse website.

“We can’t wait to celebrate CitizenCon 2948 with you on October 10th. It promises to be a full day of revelry, discourse, and fun. This event has always been about celebrating the current and future developments in Star Citizen, but at the same time also honouring the incredible community that continues to evolve around the game. We’ll see you in Austin!”

This year, Star Citizen orgs had the opportunity to apply for a booth at the event, where they can celebrate their own unique history and recruit the next generation of aces to join their ranks. Furthermore, CitizenCon ticketholders had the chance to create a unique in-game emote by recording themselves and submitting their best ideas. The four winners will direct a live motion capture shoot in front of an audience at the event.

The team also updated the CitizenCon website with the latest details, including a breakdown of what to expect throughout the day.


Design added new behaviors to give NPCs and Mission Givers an extra layer of ability and are currently retroactively applying them to Miles Eckhart and Ruto. They have also been diligently working towards getting Recco Battaglia and Clovus Darneely fleshed out and fully-functional for the upcoming release.

Tuning for the Economy continues, with new minable resources and updated inventories at the new outpost and truck stop locations.

The home stretch is in sight for believable bartenders and patrons in the PU, with work being done to ensure they both offer an experience that you might have at your own local establishment. They’re currently polishing their everyday behaviors, including cleaning glasses, carrying drinks to tables, and telling the player they’re busy when in the middle of an action.

Finally, the team had a clean-up and bug-fixing push to ensure that, when the players get their hand on the next build, it’s as bug-free as it can be.


This year, the team has been able to accomplish much more internally due to recent tool and process improvements. The build system has been running 24 hours a day, churning out more independent build branches than ever before. At the same time, they’re now able to publish and maintain several times more branch targets than before. They also added a few more engineers, which has paid dividends across the board.

“We’re super excited to see the results of all our efforts throughout summer pay off as we close in on the last steps for CitizenCon and the game publishing cycle.”


This month’s focus was on the upcoming Alpha 3.3 release along with the ubiquitous Object Container Streaming. Several improvements and bug fixes were made to water volumes so they can be used in ships and on planets as designed. They continued progress on improving planetary terrain soft shadows – a lot of optimizations and tweaks went in to get a natural look at a minimal runtime cost, though additional work is still needed on blending shadow cascades. They continued progress on the physics queue (to move physics from dedicated threads to a job model) and made progress on new soft-body simulation and cloth rendering, adding support for explosions and bullet impact. In addition, they worked on numerous bugs and optimizations tasks.


The Gameplay Team has been working on Asteroid Mining along with implementing Render-to-Texture (RTT) support for in-game shop item previews. On the tech front, the team worked on the new Transit System, which provides easier setup for elevators and supports trains that travel to schedule around larger planetary locations.

Work also continued on ongoing dynamic elements, such as ropes and soft-body simulation. The Core Engine and Network Teams focused on Object Container Streaming.

They also improved the Group System to support multiple chat groups, a feature that paves the way for Spectrum integration along with VoIP and FoIP. They also continued their efforts on scanning/ping gameplay and added support for scan/ping detection of minable rocks inside asteroid fields and other detectable entities, such as derelict ships.

Quantum Travel was improved to include routing in the Star Map. This will allow players to simply select their final destination and have the QT route plotted for them. The vehicle specialists continued to improve turret gameplay as well as support the new ships releasing this quarter.

Engine Tools

The Engine Tools Team worked on general usability improvements and game editor stability with a strong focus on supporting the needs of Alpha 3.3. The team also grew by two Tool Programmers; they’ll focus on improved tool development for Subsumption and internal profiling to gather and analyse global telemetry data. This will make it easier to enhance the general workflows for improving the overall game performance.

Environment Art

The Environment Art Team has been finalizing all the new locations going into Alpha 3.3, including graphics, navigational signs, final prop placements, dressing, optimizations, and bug fixing.

The Organics Team made the final polish on the surface of Hurston and its biomes, which will be the first-time players are able to explore lush vegetation covered biomes. With work on the planet wrapped up, they’re now supporting the Locations Team on closing out Lorville and its surrounding areas. Other than polishing and tweaking the existing areas, work involved making final art for Hurston Central, finalizing artwork on the Transit System and transit routes through the city, as well as creating and embedding the outer city gates into the planet.

Next up is the closing down of any remaining art tasks, then focus can move on to stabilisation and performance optimisations.

Cloudimperiumgames_Navigation_102018.png Cloudimperiumgames_Hurston_102018.png

Gameplay Features

Gameplay Features coordinated with Backend Services to improve the Comms Chat App while in mobiGlas, and in the Visor when mobiGlas has been put away. This includes the ability to create multiple groups and invite players to join them.

“You will be able to chat with fellow players no matter how far away everyone is from each other.”

Voice Over IP is actively being developed to allow you to communicate with any group members using your own voice. Face Over IP is also in the works, allowing you to see the real-time expressions of those around you, adding nuance and emotion to your conversations.


The Graphics Team has been working to make light and particles support multi-threading to enable them to load in the background for Object Container Streaming. It’s almost complete and will remove a stall that testers are currently seeing when they load a new location. When it’s live, players will enjoy seamlessly transition around the whole PU.

The glass shader has also been updated so that interior ship canopies no longer show distracting reflections from the exterior which, in reality, wouldn’t be visible due to the shadowing of the cockpit geometry. As usual before a major release, there have also been a number of visual issues in the new environments that have been investigated and fixed.

Issue Council

The ‘Issue Council v1.1.0’ was deployed to PTU at the start of the month before reaching Live a few weeks later. This version features a new profile section where users can see their own reports, contributions, specs, and bookmarks. Reports now feature Technical Repro and Workaround fields.

The new version received a positive response from backers.

Level Design

While expanding the Stanton system from one to two planets, the question of where to place rest stops to best support refueling came up. After some research, it was decided they would be placed at Lagrange points – naturally occurring pockets of space where two gravitational fields overlap and balance each other out. They’re the ideal place for rest stops, as they allow spacecraft to remain static without the need for additional force.

A couple of new missions have been created that take place in Security Post Kareah: Crusader Security wants the abandoned station cleared of outlaws, and occasionally criminals will want the leaders of competing factions assassinated. Kareah itself has had some big improvements to its layout, with the opening up of new routes and more cover to make firefights in the station more enjoyable.
As well as creating the Scramble Race logic, the team spent time improving the foundations of driving on planets, including headlight brightness, vehicle durability, handling, and obstacle collision. Several new asteroid clusters were added around Grim HEX in which the races and other missions can occur.

A large portion of the month has been spent on Lorville and its surroundings. The team is currently adding trains and trams, setting up schedules, configuring hangars and garages, and adjusting level markups. They’re also working on the signage and general player-guiding throughout the playable areas of the city to make sure the various Points of Interest are easy to find and that visitors don’t get too lost. Progress on the Transit System is substantial and they have the first version of the system in place, allowing the team to efficiently set up elevators as well as adding in trains and trams that run to schedule.

“All of this will help bring the cities to life, even though you might have to run a bit to catch the train or accept waiting for the next one!”

They’ve started looking ahead to the upcoming areas of Stanton – ArcCorp, microTech, and Crusader. However, there’s a large amount of planning and prework that needs to be done before the teams can move onto them full time.



The Lighting Team focused on finalizing content for the upcoming Alpha release. This involved lighting many of the locations in and around Lorville, such as the bar, admin office, and stores. In addition, they’ve also been starting optimization work across all Lorville locations to ensure better framerates while maintaining a high visual quality.

Cloudimperiumgames_Lighting_102018.png Cloudimperiumgames_Station_102018.png

Player Relations

“The Player Relations team is busy preparing for the epic CitizenCon week in Austin, Texas!

In addition to all of the planning and work that goes into running an event in your own city, we’ve been hustling away with the Evocati to test both the ‘No OCS’ and ‘OCS’ branches. Thank you Avocados!

We’d like to point all players to our growing Knowledge Base which now has over 100 articles and seen almost 150,000 visitors since its inception. We will continue to grow this by adding new ‘How To’ articles, patch notes, and live service notifications there as well as on Spectrum.”


Work continued on the utilitarian props for the Lorville landing zone, including infrastructure, furniture used to dress the main routes through the city, and smaller-scale dressing items for shops and bars. A polish pass on some older dressing assets was completed, with visual modelling improvements made to the meshes. Older assets using outdated glass shaders were also converted over to the new version to improve both the performance and visual quality.

The team delivered a set of animated signage, cameras, and interactive dressing props to add life and movement to the city. Finally, the team began work on a new mission set prop that will be going live soon.



The QA Team heavily focused on testing Alpha 3.3. The EU and ATX QA teams have been working closely to run various playthroughs and smoke-test builds for specific features. Alongside this, they worked on various QA Test Requests, one of which will bring significant changes to how the upcoming AI performs in-game. The AI change to Tactical Point System Query (TPSQuery) will allow for increased control over the number of queries that can be executed at the same time. This should reduce the amount of AI characters a player sees standing around doing nothing. They also made a test request for new physics changes that will reduce issues, such as physics collision detection buffers overflowing due to too many objects overlapping, objects getting pulled into random interior grids, objects missing, objects appearing with initial damage, etc. These changes also affect the new transit system.

Testers have been working with the Level Design and Gameplay teams to ensure that the new elevator system and metro rail are functioning properly, as well as setting up test levels to be used by Physics Engineering to investigate any new issues that may arise. They also increased support for the AI Actor Feature Team to now include testers across all studios as opposed to only having support from the UK.

Part of the team was busy testing upcoming features like Asteroid Mining and Rest Stops, new vehicles like the Mustang revamp and Cyclone variants, as well as preparing for CitizenCon.

On the Leadership side, it was business as usual as they coordinated testing priorities for all the new builds. They also continued updating the TestRail software as new features came online along with adding some new QA testers to the team.


The bulk of artwork done this month has been towards supporting Alpha 3.3. Outside of that, the team made strides with the glass shader, fixed bugs in preparation for Alpha 3.3, and finalised the Aegis Hammerhead.

On the design side, support was given in the global push towards Alpha 3.3 along with the groundwork for ships in Alpha 3.4 and beyond. They also spent a fair amount of time working on item balance and reacting to the internal and external feedback on the cannon changes that have just hit Evocati.


Ship Art

The Ship Art Team had to pause for a couple weeks on the 300 series updates to take care of some pilot-fitting issues on a prominent Squadron 42 campaign ship. Now that it’s done, they’re back in full swing on the 300i grey-box.

They also recently completed the long-awaited Constellation Phoenix, finishing the last few LOD tasks, and polished the conference table and piano (not literally). Once the final Phoenix bugs are worked out, they’ll move onto the Banu Defender:

“We’re very excited about this and are already doing the preliminary work to ensure the visuals match everyone’s expectations.”

System Design

The System Design Team was primarily occupied with tasks for the 3.3 release. They made progress on FPS combat AI, with improvements to perception and reaction to stimuli. Cover selection was modified to enable enemies and allies to more intelligently choose when and where to seek cover. They now also give increased vocal feedback, so players understand more clearly what they are thinking and what is happening during encounters. The next step will be to get the same functionality working in multiplayer.

The gameplay features for asteroid mining are complete, with the team now moving on to bug fixing, polishing, crunching numbers, testing, and generally making sure players will have an enjoyable experience.

“Expect new minable elements, more searching through the rubble for golden nuggets, and more time spent using your radar finding the right rocks.”

They also completed work for an upcoming release, with the focus on getting NPC ships to properly take-off, land, and quantum travel so that the universe can be populated with traveling NPCs.

Tech Animation

Tech Animation continued their work on the weapon batch exporter, which will enable the animators to iterate faster over their weapon animations. They also fixed various bugs in the animation tools set and added some new functionality with the goal of improving the way animators work.

Tech Art

The Tech Art Team continued work on the next-gen character cloth and softbody authoring pipeline and toolset. The data interchange format between Maya and the engine has been re-factored to enable various additional global and local ‘per-vertex’ dynamic attributes to be authored, transferred, and stored efficiently. These attributes enable complex dynamic effects such as friction, air lift, drag, and collision softness. They also allow fine-grained control over the various cloth-internal properties such as stretch, compression, and bend stiffness (and even volume preservation in the case of volumetric softbodies) on a per-asset basis as needed. They also added the ability to author so-called collision proxies together with the character animation rigs and meshes in Maya. Since full-on polygon mesh-based collision detection and resolution is still fairly costly to achieve in realtime, simple geometric primitives such as spheres, boxes, ellipsoids, or capsules are used to approximate the objects that cloth and other softbodies are supposed to collide with. For example, in order to let a skirt collide with the (approximated) legs of a character.


Turbulent has been hard at work this month providing support on all fronts in preparation for CitizenCon! Spectrum is now on release v.8.2 this month, with several bug fixes made, including the addition of emojis.

Quill, the new Spectrum editor, is in the QA stage of development. It’s set to replace the old editor and will resolve various bugs linked to Android. Due to the development work for Alpha 3.3, Spectrum progress will be picked up again the following month.
CitizenCon Merchandise is here! Ticket holders can purchase t-shirts and wireless chargers in advance to be picked up at the event. Backers who have purchased a Digital Goodie Pack can purchase t-shirts to be shipped to their address. Turbulent supported the release of the event merchandise on the platform side.

Turbulent undertook the badge printing for CitizenCon, which will display a QR code unique to each ticket holder’s account as well as details such as their name, avatar, and main org. The QR code is linked to our ticket-scanning app made for the event.
After the CitizenCon microsite update last month, the team has been working on building out the Livestream pages. While watching the event, you’ll be able to chat live with other Citizens.

Turbulent also helped with this month’s Pirate Promotion, which included sales of the Aegis Gladius, Aegis Sabre, Aegis Hammerhead, Anvil Super Hornet, and Freelancer MIS.


This month, UI supported the Mission Team by creating a persistent objectives widget on the HUD and crafted the pickup and delivery interactive displays utilizing the new UI authoring tool (which is still in early development). They began building the branding, identity, and fictional advertisements for truck stops and landing locations in the PU.

Vehicle Features

The Vehicle Features Team improved the manned turret experience by:
  • Adding an interface to turn gyro-stabilization on/off.
  • Finalizing the 1:1 input-to-rotation techniques for mouse and joystick, including properly adjusted input options for both.
  • Adding head look smoothing for a less jarring view from within turrets.
  • Programming automated turrets to now use the criminality system to determine whether or not to fire upon you.

Scanning vehicles was also extended to include stats such as vehicle status, owner, pilot, and onboard cargo.
Discovering entities on planets, asteroids, and deep space has been improved by allowing for much greater ping results, more informative blob aesthetics, and separate blob generation based on whether entities are on a planet’s surface or in deep space. Finally, the technique in which mineable rocks are spawned on asteroids and planetary bodies has been made more efficient.

Vehicle Content

The Star Citizen Alpha 3.3 release was the primary focus for the Vehicle Content Team throughout September. Tech Art completed their release prep passes on all of the vehicles going out in the update: the Aegis Hammerhead, RSI Constellation Phoenix, Tumbril Cyclone variants, and the rework of the Consolidated Outland Mustang. Both the Art and System Design teams completed their release prep passes on the Mustangs and Cyclones, while Systems Design also completed their pass on the Phoenix. All teams have been working on polish tasks and bug fixing to get these vehicles into great shape for the backers.

Additionally, the teams were involved in an ongoing process of creating sequenced animations for vehicles, in particular the Cyclone TR and Mustang Beta.
The Art and Systems Design teams also continued to move forward on the Anvil Hawk, which is whitebox complete on the design-side and into the final art stage.

Cloudimperiumgames_CycloneRC_102018.png Cloudimperiumgames_CycloneTR_102018.png


VFX worked on several new biomes surrounding Lorville that are continually being iterated on, which will be included in an upcoming patch. They also continued to fine-tune the multitude of effects seen in and around Lorville, with a particular focus on optimisation. They also finalised VFX for several new vehicles, including the mighty Hammerhead’s interior and exterior damage, and exhaust misfires for the Tumbril Cyclone.



The Weapon Art Team finished production on the new Hurston Dynamics ship weapons.


Web Platform

This month, work focused on supporting the new features that gravitate around the Groups System. The new version is the primary component responsible for orchestrating chat lobbies and voice channels. A new group type made its entry in the system for supporting Instance and Server groups. The team also spent time fixing a few bugs related to the timing of incoming events and improving observability of the service by adding stats and reporters.

A new service called the Group Coordinator entered the network this month. This is in charge of tracking dedicated game servers entering/exiting the pool and creating the proper group resources needed to power a server-wide group, lobby, and voice channel. This service is isolated but uses the current network resources to achieve this automation while still notifying game clients about the changes, which then get replicated to the mobiGlas.

The lobby service work this month focused mainly on hardening and dealing with a few edge cases related to how events are processed. A few major bugs were fixed on how the player identifiers are carried across messages and observability improvements were made to Quality of Service.

Voice service work was completed this month allowing the sharing of voice channels across a fleet of voice servers as well as improving the scalability and reliability of how channels are created. Voice streams carried over the network are now properly attached to the player entities in the game space. Proper audio treatment gets added as players connect and disconnect from channels via the mobiGlas. Additional work was done to address issues identified in face-sync. Observability improvements were made for Quality of Service.

Major infrastructure work was advanced this month in how we store and process the Domain Events submitted to the Event Bus. A new set of clustered resources are now used and the orchestration of our game services containers got a big upgrade by moving to a Kubernetes based orchestrator. This gives Turbulent the ability to scale and easily orchestrate the game service resources. This is the first step in this new direction which we hope will allow for faster deployments and more reliable services all around.



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      “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
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