The dropship sat silent and empty on the tarmac of the spaceport in the Zathran Capital. Smalls had entered through the main cargo bay and was riding an elevator to the top of the gantry that ran through the mech bays to the living spaces at the head of the ship. With the fusion power plant offline the behemoth of a ship sat empty, creaking as its metal structure heated or cooled in the Zathran sun. The catwalk swayed a little beneath her feet as she slowly walked its length.
A courier had found her at Rama’s palace and delivered the news of Cotton’s passing. She had dropped the datapad as the news hit her like bomb. There was nothing but grief and a swelling sound like that of an ocean crashing upon the shore. As the sound subsided she realized it had been her own screaming and she had run out of air in her lungs. She felt the urge to scream once more, but a burning in her throat had begun to spread, leaving a deep rage its place; but no tears.
She had not cooled on the VTOL ride to the dropship; her rage and incandescent ball in her gut. Jack, Kade and Mac had greeted her at the ship. Kade was a mess of tears and emotions, Mac a depressed statue; and Jack… well he was something else. Being emperor had changed him. He wasn’t the drunken carefree man she had first met. There was a quiet strength and a strange cunning to him; a force of presence that she had never expected to see. He had reached out to her and placed a hand on her shoulder at their meeting. The burning rage, the demands for vengeance she had thought of and the plans for a terrible death for the man who had killed Cotton seemed to evaporate at Jack’s touch. He had assured her that justice would be served, and she believed him. Everyone thought Jack didn’t have what it takes to be the Emperor. Even she had doubted him. Now, though, the seeds of doubt were planted and they had found fruitful soil. Jack WAS the emperor.
Cotton had left the dropship and ownership of the mercenary command to her in his will. The MRBC had already certified the registration change via Comstar. She was now the Captain of her own unit, licensed and bonded to take any job, anywhere. The enormity of it defied understanding.
The personnel living area was as dead as the rest of the ship. No one had dared enter until she had given her say so. Even the minimal crew of the ship had retreated to hotels. She found the door she was looking for after a short walk. The hatch had been painted white and carried the symbol of the Renegades. Written on a placard was: “Commanding Officer, Cornelius ‘Cotton’ Parks.” Below the placard someone had drawn a stick figure digging a grave with a smile on its face. A bouquet of flowers and bottle of whiskey lay against the foot of the hatch. Taking a deep breath she opened the door and stepped in.
The room still smelled of Cotton; it was the scent of leather and some old Terran cologne named after a hat. She looked around at the few mementos decorating the space, including a holo of her and Cotton in the cockpit of his old mech. She had been a teen then; he had been gushing over her new ability to reach all the cockpit controls and how excited he would be to begin her training. It was the look of a father who loved his daughter. The grief and rage threatened to return and she turned away. That’s when she saw it. Cotton’s cowboy hat. He always had it with him, and had told her it was good luck. It lay on the bed, the brim singed around the edges. Under the hat was a note from Mason Garrilac. She picked the note and hat up with trembling hands.
“Found it in the storage bay behind the cockpit. It’s yours now. -M.G.”
The tears finally came and they continued throughout the day and night until she felt so empty of emotion and that she might fade into death herself.
The next morning she showered and planned her day’s activities. She needed to speak with Kade, Mac and even Mason about what would come next. Striding across the spaceport tarmac she straightened Cotton’s hat on her head to ward against the harsh Zathran sun.