POLITICS BY OTHER MEANS – Act III
“Why do you have dig graves to find a woman to love?” -- attributed to Malkav
The jumpgate burst into an explosion of a orange fire, the swirls and twists of hyperspace expelling the commercial transport through it, as the multi-thousand ton craft bolted through the void toward Avalon. Mark Smith kneaded his hands as he watched out the observation port. The little blue ball grew slowly from a speck to a dot in front of him. He was worried; he had a right to be. Internal Security was not a group of people you messed with normally.
Steve Jupedus was convinced otherwise. “Mark, look at it this way. This job will put us out there! If we do this one right, we’ll be rich.”
“We’re already rich, Jupiter.”
“True, but was it ever about the money? Besides, after we pull this off, we’ll have lines of people coming to us for our talent.”
“Yeah, that’s what troubling me. Jupe, why would they come to us for a major hit like this? It’s not like they don’t have the resources. Why not let their friends do it? They could do it for a hell of a lot cheaper.” Mark lit up a cigarette and took a drag off it. “Something’s just not fitting in.”
“Not fitting in?” Steve grunted. “What do you think we do? There’s no club for our kind of work out there. No tally board, no membership fees, no fucking magazine… nothing. This is a job, plain and simple. You and I have done this plenty of times. That’s why they are coming to us. They know we can do it!”
Smith took another drag off the cigarette. “Okay, we’ve come this far, let’s check the joint out and see what it’s like. If it’s too hot, we drop it. Deal?”
“Deal.” Jupedus slapped Mark’s hand and held on; now they were ready.
Once docking at the Archimedes Orbital Station, they took a quick shuttle down to the capital city. From the sky, the place was huge! The central metropolis was surrounded by an infinity of suburbs, stretching to the horizon. Yet in the middle of this magnificent sprawl, there are large burn marks that marred the landscape. It was obvious to the most casual observer that the recent coup attempt had caused more damage than the net-vids let on.
The shuttle landed at the main transfer station and the two assassins went out to scope out the target. The Office of Internal Security made no secret where it was. A rather imposing structure, it was made of gray marble, and a tall hundred-story shaft went straight up, surrounded by several smaller twenty-story buildings of various heights. The security outside of the building was obscene. An entire battalion of powered armor troopers, perfectly visible for everyone to see, surrounded the place. Mark thought he saw the glimmer of chameleon suits up on the upper levels; the place was a modern fortress.
“Wow,” was all Steve could say, making sure not to make any sudden moves.
“Would you qualify this as ‘hot,’ Jupe?”
“Nah, they’re just being cautious. It’s easier to defend than to attack.”
“I see. So how do you think we’re going to get in?”
“Simple. We take the tour.”
The tour was one of those tourist deals put together for gullible citizens of the Federation to check out all the machinery of galactic government. Mark and Steve filed in around the massive lobby with all the other tourists while they waited for the tour to start. Opposite to the glass half of the dome, the massive diamond symbol of InSec was embossed in the ceiling. Underneath it was their motto; First to Know, First to Act, First to Drop, First to Die. All of it was rather overwhelming, but not as much as the lack of things. Decoration, weapon detectors, security personnel, chairs; none of these things were here. All the trappings of being in the most dangerous place in the Federation were not to be seen.
Finally, a beautiful young woman, in a tight-fitting dress uniform in the InSec black and silver, came over to the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Lance Corporal Juliette Prault, and I will be your tour guide this morning. As you may know, Internal Security is responsible for protecting the citizens of the Earth Federation from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Here at our headquarters, the protection of all civilized systems is organized, sending out our agents to all the systems in their defense. If you could follow me, I’ll show you some of the non-restricted parts of the facility.”
As they followed the crowd, Mark noticed something. There were lots of black and silver uniforms running around but seldom did they seem to care about the civilians passing by. He noticed that they walked a certain way. They stepped lightly, confidently, and always seeming to reassess their environment. Then it struck him; there was no building security because even these “office clerks” were trained as killers. The feeling of uneasiness creeped over him.
Meanwhile, the pretty Prault babbled through her speech, “…started as a division of the Tech Infantry, but the demands of the service eventually split it off as its own branch. Currently, we recruit openly from all other branches of the military, as well as employ many civilian personnel. In keeping with our tradition, the head of the service is given the rank of colonel, same as that of any divisional commander.”
Then she stopped in front of a painting. They were the first decorations he had seen since leaving the lobby. It was the last of a series and they both recognized it instantly. The large, well-tailored black man with the shaved head was none other than Rashid King. “Colonel King is the current commandant of Internal Security, following in the grand tradition of those before him, such as,” she passed by other portraits, “Richard Fox, Gregory Stark, Samantha Zither, Pyramus Grey, to name a few.”
Just then, another uniformed guy, this time an Oriental with a lieutenant colonel’s rank came up to the guide and whispered in her ear. Finally, she nodded, and said, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just been informed by Colonel Pax that some high-ranking VIP’s will be entering the building, so I must ask you all to leave with me. We apologize that we weren’t able to complete the tour, but perhaps the next time you visit Avalon…”
They were hurriedly rushed over to the nearest exit, while the lieutenant colonel (obviously one of the highest staff here) awaited the new arrivals. Mark dragged his feet, allowing himself a glimpse of the Grand Council members, before he was shoved through the exit.
“What do you think?”
“I think that was a complete waste of our time.” Steve moaned, taking another drink of his milkshake, relaxing in the glow of the nearby restaurant.
“Jupe, I think I know how to get the target.” Mark answered. Jupedus took another drink and waited for him to continue. “All right, the one thing we did learn about InSec was that they’ve got intense security precautions.”
“Okay, paranoid. It didn’t seem like we’re going to find out where King’s going to be at any given time.”
“Then again, we don’t have to.” Again, Steve just stared at him. “We know who his right-hand man is and we can find him. He’ll be protected so we’ll have to be careful. Weapons are out, they’d be picked up too easily.”
“What are we supposed to use? Use harsh language?”
“Not quite. Remember that job we pulled on Cronos?”
Steve’s eyes flashed. “Oh, hell no! I don’t like messing with that shit.”
“It works so well, though…”
“Jup, do you think we can even make line-of-sight with King?”
Steve grunted. “Probably not.”
“Okay, then we have to take the indirect approach. Ready?”
The biochemist literally jumped when the duo walked in the door. “Wh…wh… what do you want?”
“Relax, doctor,” Mark said, taking the chair next to him, “We’ve got a job for you.”
“What kind of job?”
Steve flanked the doctor on the other side. “We need a designer virus.”
“A designer virus? Why in all that is…”
Mark stopped him. “Let’s say we’ve got a nasty critter that we want to kill off. It’s been making holes on the property.”
“You don’t need a virus for that. There’s plenty of things you could use.”
“How much do you make, doctor?” Jupedus asked. When the doctor didn’t answer, Steve answered for him. “We’re prepared to give you ten thousand credits. Half now, half on delivery.”
The doctor’s eyes lit up. “What do you need?”
Smith slapped down a list in front of him. “How long will it take?”
“Well, I’ve got some projects that I’m in the middle of…”
The doctor stopped stammering. “One day… maybe two.”
“We’ll be back in two days. Have it ready by then.” Mark finished and then they both walked out.
They didn’t get as far as the lift before Jup noticed something. “We’re being followed,” he whispered.
“Who?” Mark answered quietly.
“Two guys… moving towards us.”
Mark’s hand twitched as he reached inside his jacket.
"Assuming we make the jump to the Hadley System in one piece, the most important thing is to make sure Earth Fleet knows who we are." The sergeant said to the captain. It had been a couple of hours since the new crew of the Pao Min Wang made their great escape from Eastern Bloc territory. They had managed to fool the defenses in Pyong and now they were heading comfortably through hyperspace back to the Federation. Exuberance had turned to fatigue quickly as the consulate staff and most of the TI troopers went off to the land of nod in their new sleeping quarters. Their destroyer, the “Cannon Toad King,” had a design interior that was foreign, almost alien, to everyone. Even with labels on everything to tell them what was what, the ship was weird. No one could get over what passed for toilets with these people.
"I wouldn't worry about that. Once we exit hyperspace, we'll wide-band broadcast our identity via distress beacon with our intention's to surrender." The captain replied
"It's my job to worry, Captain."
Captain Bantu turned to him. "You can call me Ezri if you want." He reached into a small compartment and pulled out a strange bottle with Chinese characters printed on the label. The letters were gibberish to the sergeant; its translucent brown contents were unmistakable. "I make it a rule never drink captured contraband with anonymous company." The captain finished as he produced two glasses.
"I'm Alastar, and don't mind if I do." The sergeant took one of the half-filled glasses and drank. Suddenly feeling paranoid, he looked around to see if anyone else was around.
"Relax, I've ordered my crew to get some sleep while I have the conn. Captain's prerogative," he said with a wink.
Alastar finished his drink then motioned his glass for a refill. "It's not vodka, but it's pretty damn good." He said smacking his lips, which now tasted pleasantly like plumbs.
"Al, you mind if I ask you something?"
The captain closed in on Alastar. "Aren't you kinda young to be a sergeant already?"
Alastar chuckled quite unexpectively. "It's a long story. I'll tell it to ya when this is all over."
"Sure", Bantu said, "I'll even buy."
"Damn right you will." The two men laughed and drank till the bottle was empty. The captain then called the crew back for bridge duty and went to get some rest.
"I'm not a young man anymore," Ezri said. "You best get some sleep too."
"I'll sleep when I'm dead." Alastar replied, reverting back into NCO Mode.
"Hopefully, by this time tomorrow, we'll all be having breakfast at Hadley." The captain answered, then departed.
The sergeant left the bridge as well. He needed to, he had a lot of work to, well…he just needed to stay busy for awhile longer. Something told him sleep wouldn't be his friend tonight. The bridge crew filed in and Dimiye filed out. The darkened corridors finally took him to an observation blister. As he watched the swirls of orange twist and blurr in the dizzying dance of hyperspace. The ripples finally relaxed him as he sat down…
…right next to Corporal Tess. Alastar shook his head; in his uneasiness, he hadn’t even noticed her. Although he was a fool not to. She sat there, dressed in the standard service uniform of khaki with black piping, and smiled as the sergeant sat down. Damn, he thought, Dimiye had never seen anyone make that dingy uniform look good… until now.
“Credit for your thoughts, sarge.” Tess whispered, the orange light accenting her lean body as she stretched back.
“Are you sure they’re worth that much?”
“Well, you could always tell me for free.”
Alastar snorted out a laugh. “I was thinking about home.”
“Where’s home exactly?”
“Port Arthur system. Buddha, it’s been years since I’ve been there. My parents worked at a factory in orbit. It was a good life, playing around as a kid. Then one day, everything changed, and I was in boot camp.”
“Don’t know. One second I was at the station, the next I was in the hospital. That’s when I found out I was a werewolf. It scared the shit out of me. I was on a slow boat to Deimos by the end of the week.”
“They never told you?”
“Never.” Alastar leaned back, wishing he had more of that drink. He could feel the demons reaching at the edge of his consciousness. They got harder and harder to fight every second. He closed his eyes against the luminescent glow when he felt a kiss on his lips. Dimiye didn’t bother opening his eyes; accepting the warm feeling inside him.
When he finally did open them, the sergeant looked and saw Tess’ face in front of him. “Better?” she asked.
“Much,” the werewolf growled, and kissed her again. It was much better the second time. After a short eternity, his brain rebelled and he broke off. “Wait a minute, I don’t even know your first name.”
“Of course, you do. It’s Tess.”
“Isn’t that your...”
“In New Tokyo system, family names come first, personal names second. The Fed never could figure that out, so I’ve been Corporal Tess all this time. Frankly, it’s a lot better than my real ‘last’ name.”
“What is it?”
“You’re going to laugh.”
“My own name’s unpronounceable. Try me.”
“Okay, it’s… Reichenspurger.”
Alastar couldn’t help himself; he died laughing. Tess was, at first, annoyed, then finally stopped his mouth with her own.
He woke up to the melodious sounds of the GQ alarm blaring from every direction. Dimiye springed upright in bed, trying to adjust to his surroundings, while the atrocious sound assailed him from all sides. Finally he noticed Tess beside him, doing the exact same thing. His eyes trailed down to her perfect breasts and he smiled. “Good morning,” he managed, shouting over the wail of the siren.
She gave back a coy smile as the blaring disturbance suddenly ceased. “Scramble, damn it!” Captain Bantu shouted over the intercom, “We’ve got trouble and it don’t look good!”
Alastar raised his eyebrows and grabbed his jumpsuit. “Looks like we’ve got work to do.”
Once they got to the bridge, the cold darkness of space had returned to the ship, and the holoproj was showing a blip tracking toward them. “What is it?”
Ezri looked over at the sergeant. “We’ve jumped into the Hadley system. From what I can make out from their bizarre language, we’ve got something big coming this way, and it registers as Bloc.”
“Shit. This is supposed to be a Fed system!” Dimiye tried to calm himself. Were they every going to get a break? “Did you try that recording we got from the Bloc lieutenant? It worked the last time.”
“Well, I was going to…” Bantu muttered, his cheeks heating up, “but then I hit this tree-looking symbol rather than the house-looking symbol. It erased it.”
“Great. Can you fake it?”
“Not really. My Chinese is terrible, like I said. They’re going to know we’re not friends in about a couple minutes.”
“Maybe not. But try it anyway.”
A solitary beep ripped across the bridge and everyone fell silent. Finally Bantu pressed the audio reply button. “Yeh?”
“Ni-shi pong you hai shi di-ren,” the response echoed back.
The captain turned white as he turned to the sergeant. “I have no idea what he saying!”
“Try!” The animal inside Dimiye roared.
“Okay! Give me a second.” Ezri regained his color as he mumbled through the words. “Ni-shi pong you hai… um, ship… identify yourself, over! That’s it!”
“Ni-shi pong you hai shi di-ren,” the voice sounded more insistent.
Bantu sighed and said, “Okay, I can do this,” then pushed the audio reply. “Pao Min Wang, Pyong-choo. Yeh?”
The entire bridge fell silent as they waited for the reply. This time, whoever the voice was, he was pissed. “Ni-shi pong you hai shi di-ren wo-men yiao kai qiang liao!”
The captain cursed. “Shit. That’s not what they wanted.”
Dimiye wasted no time. Running over to the weapons console, he quickly targeted the incoming craft. “Ezri, get us the hell out of here!”
“Helm, bring us back toward the Pyong gate!”
The helm officer quickly did the calculations, then screamed, “We’ll be run down by that ship before we get there!”
“Fuck! All right, project oblique course to Jennifer’s Star! NOW!”
The holoproj suddenly drew a long bended line around the system’s star, close to the planet. “Locked in.”
“Execute, full burn!”
The destroyer vibrated loudly as it fought physics in an attempt to avoid the incoming ship. Even so, the helm officer yelled out, “Sir! We’ll be able to out-run them, but there’s no way we’re going to avoid their weapons range!”
“How long will we be in it?” Alastar asked, sighting up the incoming… cruiser? He couldn’t tell without his suit.
Dimiye said nothing; Bantu barked his orders out, “Power down all extraneous systems, red-line that ion drive!”
The Bloc cruiser got closer and closer, as the reactors kept scaling past the safety level. After a few minutes, the captain bothered to ask again, “Status?”
Helm checked his screen and answered. “We’ve closed the window to two minutes, but they’ve launched their fighters. Once they catch us, they can continue to engage, long after we’ve left that cruiser behind.”
Dimiye didn’t hear Bantu’s answer as they had finally reached weapons range, he checked his target, and fired.
Chemlasers burned like lightning across the void, striking at the cruiser’s primary weapon, shattering it like glass. It was the most Alastar could hope for, with only a moderate knowledge of the ship’s armaments, and with only a few weapons facing with a rear aspect. The cruiser didn’t waste much time in answering. Their own lasers burned toward them, aiming toward the destroyer’s engines. Several had been deflected due to battle damage, but enough of them hit that the rear half of the Pao Min Wang was ripped apart.
The bridge crew was thrown forward in their crash couches. The safety straps burned where they pressed against Dimiye’s skin. Alastar tried to realign the chemlaser for another blast, watching with desperation as the power level built up. “Damage!” Ezri screamed, fighting his own battle with desperation.
Corporal Tess checked her station. “Um… ah… oh, SHIT! I can’t read this garbage!!”
The helm officer answered the question for her. “The power levels in Fusion 2 are dropping. I think they grazed it!”
“What does that mean?” Alastar yelled back.
“It means we’re going to blow up in less than an hour unless we dump that core.” Ezri explained. “But we can’t dump the core if we intend to outrun that cruiser. We’re screwed.”
The sergeant fired the chemlaser again but only managed to graze the front of the cruiser. “How long till it blows?”
The helm officer looked at his readings, “I can only guess, but…”
“Thirty to forty minutes… if we’re lucky.”
“Where does that put us?”
A dot appeared on the holoproj near the planet. “About there.”
“Then we need to jump ship.”
“To the planet?! In case you don’t know, Hadley’s a rock! Barely an atmosphere, small settlement, it probably already belongs to the Bloc!”
“Would you rather surrender?”
There was an uncomfortable silence as another series of shots wracked the ship. “Have we lost Fusion 2?” Bantu asked.
“Negative. I think they were targeting the rear weapons.”
Dimiye checked his screen. Yep, they were all off-line. “Correct. Well?”
The captain didn’t have much choice. “Do it.”
Alastar hit the intercom. “Everyone get suited up. We’re going to abandon ship.” Then he released the safety harness and pointed at Tess. “You’re with me.”
She nodded and followed him into the lift, while the destroyer barely coasted out of the cruiser’s weapons range.
By the time the fighters had caught up with the Pao Min Wang, the platoon had suited up, the wounded were placed in the shuttles, and the diplomatic staff were in environmental suits following after them. The ship rumbled with the bursts of fire that was hitting the decks above. Dimiye hit the intercom, “Are we in range of the planet?”
“Just. Those shuttles don’t have much range.”
“Fine, we’ll launch now. Get the hell out of there and I’ll meet you in the bay.”
“Will do. Out.”
Alastar turned back to the platoon. “All right, get in the third shuttle. The rest of you, launch!”
They didn’t wait for an invitation. As soon as they were loaded, they took off quickly through the force field, and into open space. The third shuttle waited patiently as the sergeant waited for the two stragglers to show. The pounding on the surface increased and circuits began blowing around him. Come on, he thought, move it!
Finally they appeared, running as fast as they could for the shuttle. “About time.” He muttered through the power armor’s amplifiers.
The captain and helm officer were in their e-suits as they reached him. “Sorry, it’s getting hot out there.” Ezri answered.
“Okay, let’s leave this…”
Just then, the floor jolted beneath their feet, dropping all of them to the ground. One of the support beams ripped off its frame and slammed into the helm officer; squashing him, his blood pouring all over the other two. Bantu was beyond shock; frozen stiff.
“COME ON!” Dimiye grabbed him with one arm, then threw Ezri and himself into the shuttle, closing the door behind him. “LAUNCH!”
The shuttle jolted forward and they left their borrowed ship behind. They were all watching it leave through the rear window. Suddenly, Corporal Tess hit her proximity band, “Sir, what about the prisoners?”
“What?!” the sergeant turned, then looked back to the ship in terror. No, his mind panicked, forcing a blur of unfamiliar visual images crossed his eyes. This can’t happen, it screamed, not again! From the inner most rage of his being, his voice howled “NO!!!”
The destroyer’s fusion bottle broke, vaporizing the craft into a ball of light.
It didn’t take long for Hex to reach Maine City. He kept his shuttle carefully under the sensory range of the lazy planetary traffic controllers, made the trip in a few hours. They had gotten decadent on these suburban worlds, he thought, bringing it in carefully in one of the forests outside the town. No one had been here in months, the boy was pretty sure, and even if it was found, there was nothing linking him to it. Everything was going according to plan, minus one thing.
Maine City, for all its placidness, was BIG. Of course, he immediately discounted the outer residential areas. Even the Resistance, with all its resources, wouldn’t buy one of those houses to hide someone in. No, closer to the transfer station; more resources, more exit points.
Hex spent several days watching people’s movements. It didn’t take long to figure out who were the civilians and who had a purpose. The way people walked told a lot about them. Finally, his patience paid off, and he found the man he was looking for. His short blonde hair was cropped close to his head, but the way he moved… this was no military or ex-military guy. He had been trained, probably in some martial art he had never heard of, and had that itch of magic on him. If anyone could have had a big sign over his head that said, “I’m a rebel,” it was this guy.
The boy made sure not to shadow him too closely. Whoever this guy was, he was good, watching for exactly that kind of pattern he knew he was tracing. So he muddled the path; walking in opposite directions, taking side roads, but always keeping a mental lock on his position.
Finally he saw his destination. It was a little Malaysian restaurant on the outer ring of the commercial district. The man unconsciously waved to the two men sitting in front. These were the bodyguards. They looked like they were eating and talking, but their eyes scanned the area like pros. Hex raised his opinion of his target’s guards. He had expected ex-military; these were a lot more dangerous. Even after what was probably weeks of waiting, they were just as cautious as in the beginning. There were many ways he could have gained access to the building, so he took the one they least expected; he went over to a table and checked out the menu.
The tension in the air noticeably heightened the second he sat down. Pretending to ignore them, he could feel the bodyguards boring their eyes into him as he looked over his choices. They were trying to size him up, and after a minute they had already decided who he was. They filed him in their mental awareness as kid, oblivious, no threat. He could see it in their expressions; how they suddenly eased up, how they shifted their view to the outside. Hex was just a boy who had a sudden hankering for Malaysian food.
Of course, one look at the menu made him think twice. Several unpronounceable names, usually garnished with anchovies or some kind of noodle. There were spices but nothing that seemed too appetizing. When the waiter finally made his way over (the boy filed him under bodyguard, obvious, uncertain), Hex ordered one of the tamer choices, Rota bread with chutney sauce, and waited. It was another couple of minutes before he got his drink (the “waiter” didn’t know where anything was) which turned out to be a deep red color.
He sipped at the sickly-sweet beverage and watched the people passing by. After several minutes, the bodyguards were completely fooled. Hex could start juggling the plasma revolver he had as backup and they wouldn’t blink an eye. Perfect. Once the meal had come, he took his time eating it, occasionally taking a look onto the second floor.
There was certainly movement. Assume another five… no, make that eight bodyguards, including Emme Obanye. It was obvious that she was well covered. The real question was why haven’t they moved her? Sure, this was safe, but not as safe as being in a Resistance-controlled system. He banished the thought from his head as he lifted another bite of the cheesy/sugary confection into his mouth. It didn’t matter; it just made his job easier.
Halfway through his meal, he got up and walked over to where the waiter was standing. “Where’s the bathroom?”
The waiter just pointed to a door. Hex smiled to himself as he walked right toward it, waiting for all three bodyguards to turn their backs, then opened the door next to the bathroom; the one going to the stairs. It was closed before anyone had any could check which one he’d entered. The alcove was empty; good. The boy focused himself, practicing those zanshin meditation techniques he had mastered so long ago. Once centered, he shifted his body weight, and took off flying up the steps. Only the slightest creaks were made on the steps; still, that was enough to draw the attention of someone. The sounds of padded footsteps came closer to the stairwell. Hex went flat against the wall, slowly drawing his automatic out from behind his jacket. It was an archaic weapon, the HK MP5SD5, its metal slugs lacking the effectiveness of modern phased plasma weaponry. However, it could fire many rounds in the same time it took a plasma revolver to fire one.
As soon as he saw the armed hand snake out around the corner, Hex grabbed it, bending it in a way muscle and bone were not normally aligned, then reached around and broke the guy’s neck. Once the first kill was made, he wasted no time, swung out in the hallway, and opened fire. The slugthrower’s bolt action made more sound then the shots themselves. The three guards remaining in the hallway dropped as they were hopelessly perforated by tons of bullets. Apart from the drop of the bodies, the only other sound was the casing, dropping like marbles on pavement.
He dropped the automatic and whipped out the plasma revolvers. Moving slowly toward the door, he went prone against the floor, and listened. The guards inside seemed to know something was up, but they made little sound as they scurried around, like rats. Which is what they were. It was doubtful that there was any exit from that room; they were trapped like their mammalian cousins. The boy quickly figured out their relative locations and moved away from the door.
Hex put down one of the revolvers and grabbed another of his goodies. Reaching into his sock, he pulled out a small rectangular object. Licking the back of it, he placed it in the middle of the wall, set the dial on it, gathered his revolver, and walked back over to the stairwell. Ten seconds later, the wall exploded in a violent BOOM! Hex rushed back and walked in with revolvers blazing. Blonde hair got a bolt to the chest, Shaggy found two to the head, and Sideburns got one in the head and the chest. His hand swiveled to get the last one when an invisible hand picked him up and smashed him back into the hallway wall.
The boy felt the pain running up and down his spine. He shook it off; he couldn’t let the monkey brain disturb him now. Hex dropped back to the floor, just as three bolts impacted where he had been a second before. He thrust his hands forward and fired in the direction of the shots. The target screamed and Red went down. The boy put one more in his head and the guard wouldn’t be doing anything any more.
Hex got up, shook the plastcrete from his jacket, and walked into the room. In the corner of the bedroom, shaking in fear, was a middle-aged woman in a jumpsuit, her skin the color of chocolate. Her face he identified quickly; Mary Obanye, the ex-Fed senator. One look at her and he quickly filed her under woman, unarmed, no threat. Putting the revolvers away, he drew a piece of gleaming metal from his back, and aimed it at her. The wakazashi was an elegant weapon, shorter than its brother, the katana. Together, their combination in the diasho was death at its precision, but today he couldn’t bring both. The boy had to be discreet; ancient swords tended to be large and ungainly at best. “Mary?” he asked. She said nothing and Hex heard the sounds of steps coming up the stairs. “Mary, I want you to scream,” he replied to the sounds around him, perfectly calm amidst the slaughter, “scream for me.”
Obanye let out a blood-curdling yell that made the guards’ footsteps speed up. Running back to the hole he’d made, he met them in the narrow hallway. The first one lost his throat, as Hex pushed him into the second one, in which the boy rammed the sword into his heart. He was pulling the wakazashi out when the waiter fired. The bodyguard was unprepared and aimed high. The plasma bolt ripped into Hex’s shoulder. The pain was excruciating as it knocked him down. The monkey brain was winning out again as it tried to knock the boy into unconsciousness. Then the waiter made his mistake. As he moved forward to check him out, Hex raised his sword and drove it hard into chest. The guard dropped, a stunned look painted across his face, and the boy finished him by pulling his weapon out.
The battle was over and Hex could barely bring himself to his knees. Pain receptors fired throughout his whole body. His hand was shaking badly as he reached inside his jacket once more. Pulling out the compressed-air hypodermic, he injected himself quickly in the neck, and relaxed. The medicine felt like cold water running through his veins, eliminating the pain as it went through his body. After a minute, the pain was gone, and he took a moment to assess himself. He was sore, to be sure, and the plasma wound had cauterized itself. He would be all right for a while. Meanwhile, he thought as he got to his knees, he had some unfinished business.
Holding his sword high, Hex smiled as he walked back through the hole. Mary’s expression turned from terror to sheer horror. “Now,” the boy smiled, wiggling the sword, “let’s have some fun.”
The building exploded as he crossed the street and the job was done. The pain was deadened for now but he had to make it back to the shuttle’s medical couch before long. The shot of somjijok would wear off in a couple hours. As he walked down the street, his eye caught movement. Hex went flat against the plastcrete and let his body go cold. Soon enough, he became practically invisible; it was a trick he had learned a long time ago. As he managed to look over toward the burning restaurant, he saw a beautiful young woman, dressed in a black dress with matching long black hair staring into the blaze. Somehow, although the emotional pain was evident, she didn’t cry or scream. She just stood there and turned. The woman looked around and seemed to look straight at him. No, Hex thought, it must just be my imagination. For a moment, though, their eyes locked, before she ran off.
He knew he was invisible but something was wrong about her. Hex waited for several minutes, calm and invisible, as he watched for others. Finally, once the fire flitters arrived to battle the blaze, as the crowd outside gathered, he let the heat flow back into him, he reappeared, and disappeared back into the city.
"Admiral Ostrow is opening fire on the Rebel fleet," interjected the weapons officer.
"Gott in Himmel…"
The Loyalist ships disgorged several hundred fighters, which streaked out towards the insurgent fleet. Over a thousand fighters flew out to meet them. The two swarms interpenetrated, laser fire and railgun rounds flashing out at each other. Dozens, then scores, then hundreds of fighters vanished in blooms of expanding plasma and debris. Lance torpedoes, particle beams, and grav laser rays flashed into the opposing capital ships. Fusion warheads exploded in flashes of actinic light. Atmosphere vented from broken hulls, chaff and laser-blocking dust clouds bloomed in the vacuum of space. Furious energies of jamming signals blacked out the Schaumburg's tactical displays in a blaze of electronic noise. The communications channels were swamped with damage reports and tactical orders. The outnumbered loyalist ships fought bravely, but quantity was on the side of the insurgents.
Captain Von Shrakenberg held his head in his hands. "Must it all come down to this," he asked no one in particular. "This goddamn rebellion. A simple power struggle can't be more important than the lives of the people on Rios. Even Auntie Sarah is human."
"Well, if we didn't act stupidly from time to time, we wouldn't BE human," answered his exec."
"Is that what they call female logic?" asked the captain.
"Oh, definitely," answered Commander Ingolfsson. "Just like that battle is a pissing contest."
"God save us from the evils of men," said the captain with an ironic grin. "Speaking of thinking with one's balls, I have another idea." The bridge crew seemed to sigh, but Erich ignored the feeling, "Alter course. Take us in towards the primary, resume maximum acceleration."
The sensor officer looked worried. "But captain, if we cut inside our present course, the Jurvain will be able to catch us!"
"I realize that, Lieutenant Jerez. But if the Jurvain turn and engage those fleets while they're preoccupied with killing each other, they'll slaughter both forces. The only hope the people of Rios have is that big rebel fleet."
"You can't be serious…"
"I am serious. Now set course for the sun."
"Aye, sir, altering course," answered Lt. Shijumi at the helm. "Vector?"
"Slingshot trajectory around the primary and out towards the New Madrid gate," ordered the captain. "And Commander Ingolfsson, see if you can raise the rebel admiral."
Shijumi made the quick calculations and made the course correction. "Hang on…"
Malachi Spyder knew this was probably the worst time to be doing this, but he had to get a hold of the situation with his platoon pronto. With all that time dealing with the freighter’s crew, he still hadn’t resolved the main problem that was happening with his crew. Finally making his way to the armory, he went through the doors to see Elly Ragdowski strapping herself into her chair. “LT?”
“Elly, I need to talk.”
“Sir, in case you don’t know, we’re in the middle of a battle.”
“It doesn’t matter.” The lieutenant replied, strapping himself in next to her. “Look, this platoon has my name on, and frankly, I’m sickened by it.”
“Sir, they’re just out of Basic…”
“That’s no excuse for sloppy behavior. Now, I want you to take care of this problem. I don’t want to hear about any more fights, no snide remarks, and for God’s sake, don’t let the vac-suckers see it!”
The Polish woman looked like she wanted to respond, but she knew her CO was right. “Yes, sir. I’ll take care of it.”
“All right, now I’ve got to make my rounds. One more thing.”
“Keep an eye on those smug… sailors we picked up from the freighter. I don’t want them to be fooling around on this ship.”
“Fair enough, I’ll try not to trust them farther than I could throw them.”
“You can throw pretty far, sergeant. I’ll try not to hold you to that.” Malachi smiled, “Catch you later.”
The Jurvain fleet, intent on revenge for their lost transports, altered course to follow the Schaumburg in-system towards the hot G2 sun at the center of the Rios System. The separation narrowed while the mighty starships dived sunwards, the Jurvain coming in at an angle to cut inside the Schaumburg. Although the smaller light cruiser could pull a higher acceleration than the Jurvain dreadnoughts, the Jurvain had a shorter distance to travel. However, the Schaumburg had just enough of an acceleration advantage to reach the sun first.
"Slingshot us around, ride as close to the edge of the coronal envelope as you can, Mr. Shijumi." Captain Von Shrakenberg was nervous, his usual Germanic calm failing him. "Try not to burn us up, but a little hull scorching never hurt anyone."
"It'll play hell with our stealth coating, sir."
"It's not like they'll give us a chance to hide again, Mr. Shijumi. Ride that corona."
The light cruiser swept around the sun, practically skipping off the outer edge of the star's coronal envelope of white-hot gas. The Jurvain followed behind, getting closer with every passing minute.
"They're splitting off some Light Cruisers of their own, it looks like 6 of them, Ulsan class. I think they're trying to catch us before we swing behind the sun," reported the sensor officer.
"Can they catch us?"
"Checking…it looks like they'll get off one burst of beam weapons, although I doubt torpedoes will catch us this close to the sun." The particle flux from the enormous star was enough to fry the delicate targeting sensors of most torpedoes.
"Well, we can't let them get into hellbore range," remarked the captain. He hit his intercom. "Bridge to engineering."
The holoproj kicked on. "O'Reilly here," the chief engineer promptly answered.
"Can we push the engines beyond safe operating limits?"
"Not for long, captain. And our particle shielding can't take much more of this."
"We'll survive longer than we will against those cruisers. And we'll have a hell of a story to tell the grandkids."
"Captain,” the Chinese/Irish man raised his eyebrow, “you're not even married."
"What’s your point?"
"Aye, sir. Engines to 110% in 30 seconds."
"That's what I like to hear. Bridge out." The captain cut the intercom and turned back to the main display. "Time to slingshot burn?"
"Revised estimate, 2 minutes 25 seconds."
"Time to Jurvain hellbore range?
"2 minutes, 40 seconds."
"Close, but no cigar." The Captain smiled again. "Eat our dust, auslanders!"
Just then, the ship shook with a terrible fury. Erich’s chair was knocked over and several small explosions rocked the bridge. Von Shrakenberg felt a searing pain in his arm as he got up. The gash in his suit was bleeding, but the breach in the skinsuit was quickly sealed, and he could feel the suits automatic medical systems closing the wound. He would live but the pain was terrible. “Damn, I should keep my mouth shut. Damage?”
“They managed to hit us with a couple chemlasers.” Altair answered. “We’ve lost a couple lifts, Bay 3 is open to space, and we’ve lost power to several crew quarters.”
“Any good news, lieutenant?” Johanna shot back.
“We’re out of their weapon range, ma’am.”
“Danke Gott,” the captain replied, pushing his chair back into position.
Shijumi managed to clear his head as he looked at his screen. “Beginning slingshot run.”
The EFS Schaumburg was swinging around the star at a substantial fraction of the speed of light. Hull plating blistered and scorched as high-energy particles from the blazing fusion furnace of the sun lashed its outer surface. Ablative armor designed to lessen the impact of powerful chemlaser fire flaked away under a hail of protons, electrons, and helium nuclei of the solar wind. The cruiser cut within a few kilometers of the distance at which the hull would melt and break apart. The larger Jurvain fleet, trying to cut inside and bring their weapons to bear, cut it just a smidgen too close. A pair of flanking destroyers broke off, their particle shielding burnt out and their hulls starting to slough off. Then a Heavy Cruiser suddenly spiraled inward, it's navigational scanner fried by the intense radiation of the nearby sun. It careened downward into the gravity well of the massive sun, exploding several minutes later. The remainder of the fleet swung further out, putting distance between themselves and the sun to avoid a similar fate. But in doing so, they also opened the distance between themselves and the fleeing light cruiser.
"Slingshot completed, on course for the New Madrid gate," reported the Schaumburg's helmsman.
"Damage report," ordered the captain.
"We lost the port forward chaff launcher and one of the chin-turret particle phalanxes," Johanna answered. "And we're gonna need to visit spacedock for a new hull coating before we can go into stealth mode again. But we made it!"
"Not quite yet. Status of the Rios System fleet?"
"The Deseret is gone, sir," reported the sensor officer. "It looks like Admiral Ostrow is dead."
"Schizen," cursed the captain. "Anyone else left?"
"Hard to tell at this distance," continued Lt. Jerez. “The Agincourt and the rest of the Fieras Gate picket is just arriving at the battle, but I think the rest of our fleet is down to two Stalingrads and a handful of destroyers. I doubt there are more than 50 loyalist fighters left intact."
"Can you raise anyone over there?"
"Negative, they're still ignoring our hails."
"Well, then. We'll just have to get their attention, won't we?"
"Any ideas on how to do that?"
"Nothing you'd call a sure thing," answered the captain. "How long until we reach the outer edge of the battle zone?"
"Time to Jurvain intercept?"
"Their formation went to crap when they pulled out of the slingshot early. They're forming back up, but I don’t think they're gonna catch us before then," answered the sensor officer.
"Excellent. Lt. Shijumi, take us toward the battle, reduce acceleration to 95%, but don't let the Jurvain get into firing range. Lt. Jerez, find me a reasonably intact hulk on the near edge of the battle zone, something that probably still has its fuel intact. Commander Ingolfsson, keep trying to raise someone over there, anyone at all, on either side."
A chorus of acknowledgements answered his orders.
"Lieutenant Gergenstein, start your particle accelerators running. Charge the particle cannon with gluons."
"You're not thinking what I think you're thinking…" The look of horror on the weapons officer's face was priceless.
"Do you think the Jurvain will expect such a drastic plan," asked the captain.
"After what you've pulled so far, if I was the Jurvain warmaster, I wouldn't be surprised if you suddenly tried to board his flagship with cutlasses."
"Yes, but even he isn't gonna expect a dead warship to suddenly become the biggest bomb in human history."
"Madre de Dios…" Lieutenant Jerez spoke for the entire bridge crew.
After he checked his calculations, Lieutenant Gergenstein called down to his friend. “O’Reilly?”
“Yes, what is it?”
“Look, Chin, I’ve got a real problem here. I need you realign the particle cannon…”
“Can’t this wait? I’ve got a ton of repair crews scrambling between decks. I don’t have time for…”
“Sir, the captain has implemented Tactical Plan Beta Sigma.”
Down in the ion drive reactor, Lt. Commander O’Reilly felt as if his heart stopped. “He said what?”
“The captain wants to activate Beta Sigma.”
“You’re not kidding?” No response. “Damn it, Will…”
“My name’s Herb.”
“First name. Wilhelm sounds better.”
“O’Reilly, the Old Man’s serious. I don’t care if we only came up with it as a joke, make it happen!”
“Shit. I’m on my way.” Xinjao discommed and looked over at the confusion that was the ion drive reactor room. “Chief Tran!”
“You’re in charge here. Keep those repairs moving on schedule. We need them done!”
“Yes, sir, but… where will you be?”
“I’ve been called elsewhere. Am I clear?”
With that, the lieutenant commander made his way towards the front of the ship. He couldn’t believe this. The captain wanted them to actually set off a large nuclear blast at close range? If they were lucky, they might be vaporized. If they weren’t they’d be a floating hulk in space. Only if that crack pilot of theirs managed to get lucky did they stand a chance at surviving this maneuver. Finally, he found his way to the particle cannon area, and saw the group ratings all huddled around the view port. “Petty Fike!”
The gun’s supervisor turned around like he’d been bitten. “Sir!”
“Get this control hatch open. We need to make some alterations quick!”
Fike turned to his charges, yelling out, “Move it, you heard the man!” The ratings ran over to the huge cannon’s control hatch and pried it open.
O’Reilly went over to the mass of circuitry and feeder tubes and took out his handy yellow screwdriver. “Don’t worry, honey, this won’t hurt a bit.”
“Denrock, Amlen… get up!”
The two troopers stood up behind their transparent gates. Lt. Spyder eyed them carefully before looking over at the guard. “All right, open them up.”
The doors opened and PFC Denrock and Private Amlen found their way out of the brig’s cells and moved in front of the lieutenant. Their necks had been collared with control circuits. Taking out the electronic key, he deactivated them and slowly took them off them. “Atten-SHION!”
The soldiers shifted into formation, as it had been bred into them, while Malachi stared at them closer. “All right, troopers, here’s the problem. The ship’s been damaged and we need some help with the repair crews. So as much as I’d like to let you rot, we need the extra hands. You follow me?”
“Good, now report to the sergeant and see where she needs you. If I hear even a hint that you’ve been causing trouble, you’ll be doing outside guard duty on Pluto. Got it?”
“Get out of here.”
The soldiers didn’t waste much time and quickly filed out. The lieutenant followed soon after to see Lieutenant Treschi and his two henchmen were standing outside. Andrea smiled at him and said, “Need some help, lieutenant?”
Spyder just glared at him. “In case you didn’t notice, this ship is falling apart. You might want to help to help the repair teams… sir.”
“Of course, we were just on our way, right boys?”
“I’m cool, daddy-o!”
Malachi wasn’t too impressed. “Good. You mind following me then?”
“Thrasher will. Weaver and I have got to check with the chief engineer.”
The were-rhino seemed almost to be sad about leaving his boss, but he had his orders. If a “fellow trooper” could get in with the other grunts, Andrea thought, maybe he could find a way off the crate before that idiot captain got him killed. The way things were going, it would take Von Shrakenberg long.
Treschi and Weaver began to walk toward the ion drive reactor, walking over the fallen wiring and loose paneling that had ripped off in the fight. Once the other two were out of sight, Andrea motioned for Stewart to follow him, and they ducked down into another side passage, heading toward the center of the ship. Dropping down an emergency ladder, they made their way to the next floor, and checked around. No one was there. Everyone was at battle stations or busy with the repair teams; therefore, no one noticed the two of them going into the Auxillary Control room.
It was dark and empty in the cramped little area. Reinforced with multiple strong bulkheads, this was the safest place on the ship, and only used if both the bridge and engineering were destroyed. When Earth Fleet built a ship, they left nothing to chance. Using his penlight, Treschi made his way over to the communication console, booting it up.
“Hey, boss, what’cha want me to zap?”
Andrea thanked his lucky stars that the TI didn’t bother going through his luggage. Placing a box on his neck, he looked over at Stewart. When he moved his lips, another voice responded, a digitized version of a thousand sampled voices. Anyone tracking his message would never pick up his responses. “Romance this console for me. Narrow beam to the net relay. If it gets hot, fry the connection.”
“I can dig it!” Weaver replied, taking out his cybermodem, and jacking it into the Fleet connection. “All right, baby, let’s get—it—on!” His fingers flew across the console and the screen looked like it exploded. Lines of code and graphics flew every which way until, after only a few seconds, a standard comm screen came up. “Damn, I’m good!”
“Is it scrambled?”
Stewart looked hurt. “Of course! You gotta trust the S-man!”
Andrea sat down and looked at all of it. “Impressive.”
“Not really. Damn Fleet rankings are rather dumb, so they gotta keep the level of their tech at the el ed level. This ain’t rocket science.”
“Oh, no? Remind of that when I think about giving you a raise.”
“All right, while you’re healing, guard the door. If anyone comes, let me know.”
“But boss, you might need…”
Weaver left and Treschi made his
VERY long-distance call. After two minutes of patient waiting, a grizzled old
soldier appeared on the other end. His thick close-cut hair was white and he
had two stars on his collar. “Yes?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“Lieutenant Treschi, sir.”
Arthur’s eyes open with realization. “My God. When we had heard that Ashdown had been taken, I thought…”
“Yes, sir, I’m sure. Anyway, are you cleared to receive?”
“Okay, I’m sending a data transmission to you.” Andrea clicked in the data chip. “This pretty much explains what’s happened since we jumped into Rios System.”
“The transmission will explain, sir. Apart from that, the captain of the EFS Schaumburg has recommissioned me as a 1st Lieutenant. After taking this punishment, I’m expecting something higher than Captain.”
“Hmph,” Arthur smiled, “we’ll see.”
“I must discom. We will be in Avalon in a few days. I hope to see you there. Meanwhile, watch out for InSec, they’ve up-ped the ante against us.”
Clarke nodded and eyes narrowed. “Discom.”
Treschi leaned back in his chair as the screen went blank. So much for that, he thought. Now he had make one more call. Jason Monk and his “Jackals” had to know that their ship was destroyed, but their cargo salvageable. It shouldn’t take long, and while the rest of the crew was busy, he had all the time in the world.
The battle at the New Madrid Gate was not going well for the Loyalist Earth Fleet ships. Outnumbered 4-1, they were being blown out of the sky. But they weren't dying alone. Rebel ships were also being destroyed at a frightful pace. The more experienced Earth Fleet captains were giving as good as they got, and the tac screens were full of the beeps of survival pods and the debris of battle.
Into this chaos of battle screamed the EFS Schaumburg, with the Jurvain fleet in hot pursuit. The smaller Jurvain ships and fighters were rapidly closing the distance, and time was running out for the light cruiser.
"Lieutenant Jerez, please tell me you have found a suitable wreck," implored Captain Von Shrakenberg.
"I think I have a likely candidate, sir," she answered. "It's the EFS Varyag."
"A light carrier," stated the captain. "That should do nicely. Any survivors likely to be on board?"
"Probably." It was rare for everyone to escape a destroyed starship. Someone was surely to be trapped in some inner compartment, one that still held atmosphere, from which it was impossible to escape.
"Schizen." The captain sat silently for almost a full minute. "It was one of ours. Well, if we don't do this, the best they can hope for is to be captured."
"And if we don't," interjected the executive officer, "it will be the Jurvain who capture them."
"And the Jurvain don't take prisoners," finished the captain. He pursed his lips as he hit the intercom. “Commander O’Reilly?”
The response came through a panting breath. “Yes, sir?”
“Have the modifications to the particle cannon been completed?”
“Just now, sir.”
“Very well. Prepare to fire."
O’Reilly and the gun crew cleared the area while the Schaumburg flashed past the drifting hulk that once had been a Foch-class light carrier. The entire front half of the carrier was missing, probably blown off by a burst of grav-laser fire. But the aft portion with the engines and fuel was still mainly intact. As the pursuing Jurvain fleet passed the derelict spacecraft, the Schaumburg rapidly spun around to face aft.
The Schaumburg spit out four lance torpedoes. Instead of tracking on the Jurvain ships, they homed in on the Varyag. Just as the high-yield fusion warheads detonated, vaporizing the destroyed carrier, the Schaumburg fired its twin Particle Cannons. A stream of high-energy gluons lashed into the heart of the fusion blasts. The gluons, which governs the fusion reactions which power thermonuclear bombs and mighty suns, had the same effect as dumping dynamite into a fire.
The hulk that was once the EFS Varyag bloomed with the fire of a supernova. With the fuel tanks of the Varyag containing over 2000 tons of hydrogen, the thermonuclear blast had the effect of over a million megatons. The entire leading edge of the Jurvain fleet vanished in a flood of star-hot plasma. Their six light cruisers evaporated, as well as half the fighter complement of the Jurvain fleet. The slower dreadnoughts at the rear of the formation were merely badly damaged, blinded and stripped of their projections, including a good portion of their weapons mounts.
"All hands, brace for impact!" Captain Von Shrakenberg's knuckles were white on the arm rests of his command chair.
The blast wave of plasma washed over the EFS Schaumburg. Everything aboard the ship shook violently. Altair Jerez was thrown forward before her restraints could hold her, bashing her head against the console. The only thing that saved the ship was the fact that it was already moving away from the explosion at several hundred kilometers a second. The radiation surge still knocked out its main targeting scanner and overloaded most of its electronic systems. The ship spun back around and blasted at right angles to its previous course, and overshot the heart of the battle, passing back out towards the outer system.
"Damage report," ordered Captain Von Shrakenberg.
Commander Ingolfsson gave him the bad news. "We've lost all forward targeting, both chemlasers are knocked out of alignment, we lost another two particle phalanxes, and three lance torpedo launcher tubes are fouled."
"So, we’re blind and toothless," stated the captain. "What’s the good news?"
"We're not a cloud of expanding plasma, a lot of the Jurvain are dead, and the rest are badly damaged."
"I think the Rebels can finish them off now. Can we raise their commander?"
"Negative," answered the sensor officer. "Communications are blanked out from the electromagnetic pulse from the explosion."
"Then we're gonna have to hope they are grateful enough to let us escape."
"Or busy enough with the Jurvain," interjected Lt. Gergenstein.
"Exactly," agreed the Captain. "Mr. Shijumi, plot a course for the Fieras Gate."
"The rebels are turning to engage the Jurvain," reported Lieutenant Jerez, holding her aching head.
"Good," stated a relieved captain Von Shrakenberg. "Now, let's hope this old bucket of bolts can hold together through a hyperspace transit…"
“Course laid in,” the helmsman answered.
END OF ACT III
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved. Do not try ANY of this at home, even if CIA HQ in Langley DOES give tours these days.