Hades

Hades has always been a ball of dust with little to recommend it. Colonization was slow. It was difficult to sell an arduous life spent eking out a harsh life on a barren wasteland. There was mineral wealth but little else. The atmosphere was caustic. Cities were built inside of bubbles, and on the edges, vacuum sealed trailers never meant for lifetime habitation.

The population grew, at first, due to proximity. Existing at the far rim of the Olympic Republic, it was a refuge for those seeking a life outside of Olympian rule. When the Federation formed, and the Alliance came into being Hades grew more popular because it existed between the three. It became not only an escape from all three but also the only common ground found between. Though officially a part of the Republic, republic law never seems to last long there.

In time, Hades grew, and as it grew, so did its troubles. Criminals from all three governments and all of the worlds within them built thrones here. From this ball of dust they built empires that spanned star systems. Decades passed, and Hades was cultivated not for its mineral wealth but for its promise of freedom. No one comes here that can't defend themselves, and there is only one real law on Hades—don't shoot first if you can't kill.

None of the governments can lay actual claim to Hades anymore, and Olympus only pretends at having control over it. Military ships stop briefly and never see the planet's surface. Slavers, gangsters, and para-military mercenaries make their homes here, eating away at the rich mineral innards that once held the planet together and coring it to a husk. From their hollow thrones, they run the galaxy's blackest markets without fear of reprisal. In Hades, everyone is safe until they aren't.

Arthur knows this and walks like he knows it. He uses his training to move with authority, meeting people with a hard stare and ask no question. He keeps both the Lady and Chastity at his side, leading them by hands as if he owns them and betraying no fear of what will happen if people find out that he doesn't.

The elevator down is crowded and stinks of heat and perspiration. It takes hours. Holographic displays playelies about the paradise awaiting them on the surface. Chastity sits despondent. The Lady watches the lies absently, her eyes glowing. Arthur ignores the videos and watches the people instead.

The elevator opens to another bazaar very much like the one they had left. A winding labyrinth of stalls greets them. Arthur drags the Lady and Chastity with him, leading them through the narrow allies and carefully avoiding dead ends. They move quietly but with purpose, drawing as little attention as possible. When he can, Arthur stops to gain his bearings, using the elevator column to navigate by. The farther away he gets, the better. There is no escape, but distance makes them more likely to give up the search.

In the military they trained him to fight pragmatically. In the Centurion Program they made him apply that training every day. Even now, years after his military service, Arthur still thinks like a soldier. He assesses each new day carefully and critically, weighing his advantages and finding solutions for his disadvantages simultaneously.

On Hades, they are just another number. Without a proper military to back them, they are left to their own devices and to solve their problems in their own ways. This leaves him with limitless creativity but also means that the enemy can bear down on them with all of their resources. In a war, the crew of Achilles has them outgunned and with Lancelot at their head, they have him outmatched.

Arthur, however, does have one advantage: the Lady. In combat, she is unknown. Though she shows a physical prowess exceeding conventional means, she is worth more to him as a bargaining chip than anything else. Guide technology is in high demand all around the universe and is best kept secret. That is why Canaan was a black site, and that is why Achilles could attack without reprisal. It is also why Arthur needs only to shout to find shelter.

Crime lords on Hades enjoy freedom from the governments in which they were born, but they still vie for government power. Having a politician in their pocket is important to them, because while it pays to be a king on Hades, it pays more to diversify. Being able to ship through settled space without trouble leaves them less likely to being scavenged by competition, and an actual, living, active Guide is worth any politician they can find.

Arthur takes a left turn and then a right. He weaves and ducks, hiding in crowds before trickling away like small rivulets of water parting from the stream. Through the domed horizon he can see dark, solid peaks stabbing at the sky. A roadway leads out into the wastes and to the other cities in the desert. That is where they will find freedom.

The elevator becomes a towering line behind them, changing the heavens to the dusty brown earth below. The farther they go, the thinner the crowds become. The people here are only visiting. People don't come to Hades to live. There are no lives to be made here, only lives to be lost. Arthur keeps his eyes fixed on the horizon, checking his back only when he is about to turn and only to make sure that he isn't being followed.

They enter a parking lot well outside of the bazaar and walk a loose weave between the vehicles, searching each one carefully but never stopping. Arthur remembers being young and believing that a car could stop a bullet. It seems a lifetime ago now with all of the experience he has gained. He entertains no notions of having a firefight here and is instead seeking an escape.

They stop and kneel behind a small, four-door car. Arthur has to pull Chastity down after him. She obeys automatically, her eyes blank and expressionless. The Lady follows quietly and efficiently, nothing ever wasted in such graceful strides. At rest, Arthur rubs the sweat from his face. "Okay, here's the deal: we're in a bind. I can't be certain by who, but I know we're being followed. Could be thugs, could be the crew of that ship trying to hunt us down. Either way, it's five of them, all big and all carrying. Could be just them, but I feel safer operating under the assumption that they'll have backup. We won't win in a fight, so we need…"

"We have to escape," Chastity says. Her eyes are fixed on the vehicle behind him, a truck with a closed bed. Her voice is distant and dry. She looks at him with glassy-eyed disinterest and says, "If you can get this car behind me open, then I can hotwire it."

Arthur pauses. "You can?"

"Most cars have digital interfaces now. Besides, I read about it once in a book."

Arthur's lips purse while his brow knots. "That doesn't inspire much hope, Chastity."

"It's do or die, right? Then, I'll do."

He sighs. "Fine, good, then we'll take care of it. We'll keep them distracted." He looks up at the Lady. "Won't we?"

The Lady nods.

"Good." Arthur sits up on his heels and peeks through the car's windows, staring out the other side and to the distance before ducking down and checking the car's underside. He sees that the thugs are moving between the cars, ducked down so that they are harder to see. They are also spread apart and moving in a pincer to flank. Arthur removes the shawl he stole and knots it around his left fist. "Be quick about it, Chastity."

Chastity gives an absent nod and steps away so that Arthur has room to open the window. He pins his fist to the glass and then gives a quick, hard jab. The window fractures into a wall of small, sharp beads which rain down around his hand. Arthur winces as he withdraws his hand, the glass leaving shallow lacerations across his knuckles.

Using the rag, he clears the broken glass and then unlocks the door for Chastity to slip inside. Then, he turns to the Lady, who remains perfectly still and unblinking. "Let's split up and attack them from behind before they get to Chastity. Do you understand?"

The Lady stares.

Arthur stares back. "I'll just assume that you do." He glances over his shoulder for approaching enemies. "Let's go," he says, and he ducks away and into the cover of another car. When he looks back, the Lady is gone.

He follows a narrow labyrinth before working an uneven circle back around. Periodically, Arthur ducks under the cars to check for the enemy's feet. They follow the pattern he expects them to, walking a wide circle and looking down each row to find them. Chastity, meanwhile, keeps her head down and inside of the car. She will be overlooked at first, but the broken glass will eventually draw attention.

Inside of the car, Chastity is hard at work but keeps her ears open. Her mistake with Lancelot was being unprepared, and she has decided to fix that. She pulls a panel off of the car's interior, prying it open with superficial damage to her fingertips. With blood running, she uses a pocket knife found in the center console to part wires and shave them down.

She hears footsteps outside of the car and goes rigid. Looking up, she spots someone peeking into the car and watches him tense. He gives a gurgle and then collapses, revealing the Lady standing nearby. She leaves him on the ground.

Gunfire sounds and Chastity buries herself back into the work. She doesn't care to see the violence and only just allows herself to listen to it. Tracing the wires back to where they connect to the car, she pairs them off and starts touching them carefully and watching the sparks fly.

A rain of bullets eats at the hood and windshield of the nearby car as the Lady weaves around the gunfire. A bullet grazes the Lady's arm as the Lady closes distant on her enemy. The woman is stopped quickly as the Lady closes distance and knocks her unconscious with a kick to the gut. She is left dead when the Lady throws her into a nearby car, snapping her back in the process.

A third enemy rises and levels a pistol at the Lady. He ends up on the ground with his head bent at an unnatural angle. Arthur approaches after that, his own lips swollen and bruised. He gives the Lady a smile and says, "Well, that was good." The Lady stares back at him blankly before returning to Chastity's side. Arthur wipes his bloody lips and follows. "So, are you about done?"

Chastity peeks out from under the steering wheel. "Yes," she says and another series of sparks follow. Smoke rises from the console, and then the engine hums to life. The dashboard interface flickers on, and Chastity climbs into the driver's seat. "Get in."

"You good to drive?"

"I'm an adult," Chastity says, and Arthur watches her. She isn't, not in his mind, but they don't have the time to argue. He climbs into the back while the Lady moves around to the passenger seat. Once all three are in, Chastity shifts gears and pulls out. Watching the road, she keys in a few buttons and pulls up the GPS. "Where are we going?"

"A hotel outside of town or something like it, anywhere we can hide until we can send out a call for help."

She looks at him through the rearview. "Help from whom?"

"You had to have known, Chastity. We were private on the surface only. The Olympic government knew everything about us and was a major backer."

Chastity gives him a long stare and then picks a hotel at random. "Right." She pulls onto the highway and from there onto the bridge that leads out of town.

-Stargazers part 1-

Achilles pulls from the dock and follows the modified armor Jupiter into atmosphere. Lancelot, in Jupiter' cockpit, flies close to the Styx elevator on the way, nearly scrapping the long tubes of glass as it descends. He makes a sharp dive that nearly finds him in the dirt and pulls up at the last minute, flying close to the city's dome before following the car out of town. When he catches them, he intends to kill Arthur and Chastity. If that isn't enough to sate his anger, he will finish the Lady, too.

-Stargazers part 1-

Chastity speeds down the bridge, passing vehicles where she can and ignoring all ethics and logic. Overhead, Achilles breaks atmosphere with Jupiter leadings its way. They dive down and then drift toward the car, gliding over the parking lot where it had been parked and following it down the highway. Arthur watches from the backseat. Jupiter fires blindly into the domed glass tubing before following them inside

"Chastity, they're gaining."

Chastity glances into the rearview while passing another car. "There's nothing I can do about that."

"Shit! They'll open fire soon." He sits forward. "Zigzag."

"That's too hard to do in traffic," Chastity says, weaving between cars where she can. She keeps the accelerator pressed firmly to the floorboard while the inertia of the car holds her to her seat. Jupiter matches the speed and follows her movements so closely that the armor's thrusters make the car's rattle. It then takes off and lands at the center of the road, crushing a car under its foot as it settles.

Chastity turns hard and flips the car, which bounces across the asphalt. Its window fractures, its roof bends, and it skips along the pavement until it comes to a stop at Jupiter's foot. The armor holds, sending the car spinning and rolling to a stop thirty feet away. Traffic comes to a hard and catastrophic halt as Achilles hovers overhead.

-Stargazers part 1-

Arthur hurts. As he wakes, he finds his right arm bleeding and his head rattled. It takes a moment to blink away the pain and pull the world back into focus. He is on his back, staring upside down at the asphalt and the glittering shards of glass that surround him. The air is dry and hot, the broken tubing of the bridge unable to combat the planet's arid atmosphere. Achilles hovers within view.

Pressing his palms to asphalt and glass, Arthur lifts himself to his knees and then to his feet. He sways as he pulls himself out of the car and uses its broken body for balance. The Jupiter Armor towers over them, its turrets turned down and ready to fire. The Lady stands before it, holding the unconscious Chastity in her arms. Lancelot's voice booms and echoes. "Surrender!"

The Lady's head lifts and stares stoically into the barrel of Jupiter's turrets. Then, calmly and carefully, Chastity is set to rest on the ground while the Lady faces the armor. Arthur holds tight to the car and stumbles around it and toward them. He reaches for them and calls, "Lady. Chastity!" He watches the Lady's eyes glow, and Jupiter's engine cuts.

Jupiter lands heavily upon the bridge. The Lady looked up and watches Achilles launch two more armors. They dance gracefully through the air before slipping into the bridge's cover. As they come close, they Lady's eyes flash again, twice more, and both armors crash into the pylons and pillars below the bridge. The Lady then collapses.

Arthur shoves off of the car and crosses the distance between them. He finds the Lady unharmed but inert, eyes dull and glassy. Chastity breathes shallowly but steadilyy beside them. Above, Achilles lowers itself, cracking the fractured glass below it, displacing some of the shards which stab into the gathered cars that surround them. A stern voice comes over the ship's speakers. "Surrender now. We don't know how you disarmed our machine guns, but we still have explosives and would rather see the Guide destroyed than see you escape with it."

Glaring up at Achilles in empty defiance, Arthur considers his options and the futility of their fight. Centurion or not, he finds that this may be a battle he cannot win. Whatever the Lady had done hobbled them, but it had not stopped them at all and may have in fact only bought him time before he died. He lifts his hands and kneels.

"Smart choice. We will be landing to…"

Achilles explodes. A cloud of dust appears nearby from where the projectile had passed through and hit the dirt. Amidst the chaos a thundering boom is heard. Another ship sails into view, appearing almost out of nowhere but only stealing focus as it approaches. It ss larger than Achilles, a warship, and bares the red sails of the Asgardian Federation, white axe and shield painted sloppily across its hull like a scar.

Arthur ducks and throws himself over Chastity. Large panels of glass, broken off from the tubing, come crashing down around them. Bent rods of steel spear the concrete. Arms of molten steel, burnt and warped by Achilles explosion collapse a distant part of the bridge. Debris crumbles the Jupiter Armor as it is swallowed by the destruction.

Dust kicks up around them and then swirls and thins. The Federation cruiser hovers overhead. Soldiers in red armor jump from open hatches and descend into the risen dust. Their rocket packs clear the air as they land. They surround Arthur with assault rifles drawn. Laser scopes indicate where their weapons are trained. Helmets cover their faces with dark circular lenses cut into them for sight.

A voice booms from the cruiser, shaking the pavement. "Surrender. We can help you, but only if you can show us that you are not a threat. Any sudden movements and you will be put down immediately. This is your one warning."

Grimacing, Arthur remains on his knees. He puts his hands on his head and shouts, "The girls are injured and will need immediate medical attention. I am unarmed."

An officer steps forward and switches out the rifle for a pistol as he approaches. He keeps the pistol on Arthur as he kneels beside Chastity and checks her vitals. He motions for someone else to check on the Lady and then speaks to his commander. "Sir, there are three, two injured. Understood. Will do." He then approaches Arthur and takes him by the wrists. Binding him, he pulls him to standing and says, "We've got stretchers for the other two. Let's get these people to the infirmary."