TOUCH OF CELESTIAL TEMPER – Act I
“Don’t worry, he’ll kill you… when it serves his good purposes.”
-- Major Samantha Zither (2198), who became head of Internal Security in 2212.
At the end, they were back in the lobby. Just as he followed the other tourists out the door, one of the black and silver blurs walked toward him, "Excuse me, sir?"
"Yes?" Mark felt his heart racing. What went wrong? What gave him away?
"Could you come with me, please? Colonel Pax would like to see you."
Mark walked in with the guard. As they passed off the beaten path, the man led him toward a area where several other black-and-silver agents were waiting for him. With some of the strangest devices he had ever seen, they scanned him for weapons. His shoulder rubbed against his sword to know it was still there. Strangest thing, Smith smiled; when he found the sword with only the word Kuar emblazoned on it, he just thought it was a hunk of antique metal. How wrong could you be?
Smith was taken into an office to see the small oriental man sitting behind his huge desk. "Please don’t be concerned, I only have a couple questions for you."
"All right.” Mark was trying to play cool. No one was just called into the deputy commandant of InSec for “a couple questions.” So he remained calm; hoping he hadn’t given himself away. With any luck, he might still be able to leave this place.
"I have five people dead in the streets of the capital city. You wouldn’t have any idea why, would you?"
"I only know what I saw on the netfeed."
"Really?” In-Seok Pax activated a holoproj screen on his desk. What appeared was a picture of Steve and him, walking through the tour. Not a bad image, Mark thought, although it caught his bad side. “This was taken two days ago. Afterwards, two of our men were killed in a street fight with two members of the Black Fist gang. Then you take the tour again and a local doctor was found dead this morning. Now, why is it that every time you come along, somebody ends up dead?"
"I have no idea what you are talking about. I’ve done nothing wrong." Crap, Smith thought, they already put that much together. If they get one more thing, they’ll do something. It’s about time for plan B to go into effect.
"So, it’s all a… coincidence? You take a tour twice that only a madman takes once. We send two recruits to trail you and then end up dead. Then the doctor you were meeting suddenly ends up dead. And you’re really expecting me to believe you don’t know why it happened?"
"Like I said earlier, I only know what I saw on the netfeed."
Just then, a black-and-silver lieutenant burst into the room. Before the colonel can protest, he goes over to Pax and whispers into his ear. The oriental man cursed under his breath. "Shit, he’s coming now? Does he have to?"
"Yes, sir. He says he’ll only be a moment."
In-Seok looked at Mark and then shifted back to the lieutenant. “See to him.”
The lieutenant, without another word, grabs Smith, picks him up out the chair, and threw him against the wall. Pushing his face into the wall, he couldn’t see a thing, when In-Seok met Colonel King at the door.
They spoke too softly for Smith to catch what they were saying. Finally, after a couple of minutes past by, the lieutenant peeled him off the wall. Mark knew this was his chance, so he acted. "Plan B." he muttered. "Bad move, you shouldn’t have rolled the dice, Pax!"
With ease, Mark pulled the lieutenant close to him. Grabbing his chin, he gave it a hard tug, twisting the neck out of position too quick. In the silence, all they heard was the CRRRCKKK! of the neck breaking, and the lieutenant’s body falling to the ground. Once he dropped, Smith pulled out the sword, hiding in his coat all this time. Emulating the blade, he vanishes in plain sight, taunting the lieutenant colonel in his invisible form. "That should do."
"What are you?"
"You have said enough!"
Mark thrust his sword toward In-Seok, but his hand flashed out, the invisible force knocking the invisible man into the wall. Pax didn’t bother opening his eyes. Smith was confused but proceeded with his attack. The colonel kept throwing all the furniture in the place at him, disrupting his attacks, all the time getting closer to the desk. Finally, after deflecting an expertly thrown letter opener, the oriental reaches inside the desk, pulling out his plasma revolver.
That was his mistake. Smith slashed and cut the colonel’s hand cleanly from his arm. Pax didn’t have time to scream before he pushed his sword into In-Seok’s chest. Mark lifted his body until it split apart into two halves, then wiped the blade to keep it transparent. The door slammed open, one guy on each side, covering the room with their weapons. They had no chance. Another dance around the ruined desk, and their heads came cleanly from their bodies. As soon as the head left the second guard, plasma bolts scarred the door next to him. Picking up the body of his lifeless victim, he uses him as a shield, as the three men firing were shocked. After all, the sight of a headless, floating body is enough to scare anyone shitless. He finished them off quickly. Looking down the corridor, he smiled. “That must be the way to Rashid."
As he passed several InSec men and women running down the hall, Mark was unnoticed as he passed by them in the hallway. The sounds of explosions and rapid gunfire told him that Steve was keeping them busy. Finally, he reached the end of the hall, and the office of the commandant… his target… was there in front of him. Luckily, there was no one guarding the door. Slipping inside the office, Colonel Rashid King looked over a holoproj of the headquarters complex, lights dancing around the outside of it.
Something didn’t feel right. There wasn’t any power armor around him. One would think that the head of the most paranoid unit in the Federation would have bodyguards at all times. Maybe they were camouflaged… like him. He had to hear all the gunfire; it had to be a trap. They were waiting for him to come in, but they weren’t ready for him to be invisible. In the end, he only had one thing he could do; kill King and make a break for it. They’d be on to him real quick so Mark makes his move. Lunging toward his prey Mark jabs his sword into the helpless victim again. Something wasn’t right, though; Rashid didn’t even react. There was no blood flowing out of him. Holy shit, Smith thought, it’s another fucking holoproj!
Those guards reacted too fast. One suit appeared right next to him, throwing his metal augmented arm into Mark's body, the force knocking him through the window. As he landed on the soft turf below, Smith’s chest felt like it was going to explode. Somehow he managed to get to his feet and made his break. Plasma bolts burst around him as he made for the only available cover; the stone bench.
As he was drawing fire from everywhere, Steve appeared out of nowhere, with a company of power-suited troopers on his tail. Ducking under the stone bench, he smiled at Mark, almost expecting to see him there. As he dug through his pack, Jupedus muttered, “We need enough time to slip out of their reach. Let's see… ah, yes. This’ll do."
“The crossbow?” Mark’s eyes widened, but he says nothing else as his friend put some plastic goop on the tips of two metal bolts, and then fired.
“RUN!” Jupedus yelled as the duo rushed out from the bench. The next thing Mark knew, the front pillars of one of the InSec buildings exploded. The company chasing them hit the dirt; the two assassins kept running. Soon enough, they reach the safety of the abandoned buildings they had observed the complex before.
“Meet back at the hotel.” Mark whispered to Steve. His friend nodded, disappearing through the rubble, hoping to find safety in the metropolis.
The holoproj automatically came to life. “This is Avalon System Traffic Control. Please state your identification.”
Staring at the schoolmarm-ish woman before him, he smiled as he said, “This is Captain Erich Von Shrakenberg of the EFS Schaumburg. We request to dock at the Von Eisenstein Military Spaceport."
“Confirmed, captain. You’ve already been cleared. You have a message from Fleet Command. It says that you are to report to Admiral Vorheis’ office as soon as you dock. That is all.”
As the holoproj faded, Erich wondered, why did the CNC of Earth Fleet want to see him?
"Commander Ingolfsson, you have the conn," ordered the captain. "Looks like I need to review my after-action report for debriefing with the boss."
"Aye, captain," replied the exec, but the captain was already striding off the bridge.
Von Shrakenberg strode purposefully through the corridor, past crewmembers still conducting after-battle repairs, as well as more routine maintenance tasks. As he was sidling around one technician resealing a wall panel, he was spotted by one of the "guests" on board the vessel.
"Captain Von Shrakenberg," called Andrea Treschi. "May I have a word with you?"
"I am very busy, M. Treschi," replied the captain, continuing on his way. "And I do not have time for idle chit-chat."
"It's important, Captain."
Von Shrakenberg paused. "You have five minutes." He raised his hand to speak into his comm unit. "Lieutenant Spyder, report to Captain's Quarters."
"There will be no need for that," interjected Treschi. "I promise, no mind games. You have my word."
The captain looked at him for several seconds. "Alright, M. Treschi," he replied. "Lieutenant Spyder, disregard previous message," he spoke again into his comm unit. "Follow me."
The two continued to the Captain's quarters. Once there, the Captain sat behind his desk and folded his hands. "Okay, M. Treschi. Five minutes."
Treschi sat down. "Captain, I realize you think I'm a common criminal, a smuggler."
Von Shrakenberg smiled slightly. "Stipulated."
"In a few minutes, you will receive orders from the Earth Fleet Judge Advocate General's office," he replied. "It will be orders countermanding your, well, *drafting* of myself and my comrades back into service."
"I’m not finished. As soon as we dock, my comrades and I will be allowed to leave your ship. We will not make a fuss over the conscription nor the commandeering of our ship."
"And why should I allow that?"
"Because I can guarantee that your attack of an InSec corvette could be… a moot point."
“We were saving your life.”
“I doesn’t matter what you did to me personally, the men in black have a different opinion about killing one of their own.”
Erich didn’t like how this conversation was going. "What makes you think I couldn’t drop you in the brig and let you rot?”
“For the same reason that InSec found out you caught our freighter. You can’t keep a secret on this ship. Word would get out and then you… would be caught disregarding a direct order.”
"Hmph," snorted Captain Von Shrakenberg. "Okay, M. Treschi. Return to your quarters, and pack your gear. I want you off my ship once we dock."
"Thank you, captain," answered the lieutenant as he rose to leave.
"One more thing, M. Treschi," interrupted the captain before the freighter captain reached the door.
ever meet General Clarke," said the Captain with a razor smile, letting
the man know he knew where his contacts lie, "send him my respects,
one warrior to another."
Andrea was not amused. "I will," he grunted, and walked out the door.
As soon as he left, Erich hit the comm button. “Herbert, you better have something good for me.”
“Yes, sir,” the voice replied from the speaker. “We should have something in a few minutes.”
“Hey, dude… you, uh, wanted to hang?” Stewart Weaver asked, his voice betraying his nervousness.
O’Reilly and Gergenstein glanced up from the console. “Oh, yeah, come on in, have a seat,” the engineer said, motioning to a chair. “Beer?”
“What’s up, daddy-O?” Stewart said as he sat down slowly, still confused but his alarm fading.
“Heard about the bug problem we’re having?” Xinjao asked, taking a swig from the bottle “Surveillance bugs,” Gergenstein clarified, still watching the screen, “Not insects.”
“No dice, man.” Weaver shook his head. The casual attitude of there near-strangers unsettling.
“Really?” Xinjao asked, cocking an eyebrow. “Hmm. Would’ve thought Treschi woulda mentioned it by now. Well, turns out the Schaumburg is riddled with covert surveillance devices. Uses a hologramatic camera to transmits the images to datafiles buried in the ship’s network. They’re everywhere – Treschi even found one in his bunk. Thought it was us, but we were just as surprised as he was. Uh…did you want that beer or not?”
This is pretty funky mojo, Stewart thought to himself, but why were they doggin’ the S-man with this?
“So we figured there must be a spy onboard,” Herbert explained, sipping a mug of coffee as Stewart popped the cap off the bottle, “since the bugs weren’t transmitting off-ship.”
“Until your boss pointed out that they must have been. That’s how InSec found the Fearless in the Rios system so quickly,” O’Reilly cut in. “Which meant the data was getting out somehow. Took us a while to figure that one out, but we did.” The large Asian man absently scratched his balding scalp as a smile spread across his face. His eyes lit up as he explained the strategy for his hunt and described how he went in for the kill. Oh my God, Stewart thought, this man doesn’t get out enough.
“My engineering crew scanned the ship and mapped the location of most of the bugs. They were transmitting to receivers in files all over the ship. Then the data switched frequency and transmitted to a collective file. We had to analyze hundreds of off-ship broadcasts before we figured out how InSec was beaming it off the ship. It was actually a clever little set up.”
“Yeah,” Gergenstein agreed. “An encrypted Trojan Horse broadcast piggybacked onto routine EF communications, using the comm unit in the Auxillary Control Room. No one ever goes there, no one notices any transmissions.” Gergenstein watched Weaver’s reaction closely, and was impressed with Stewart’s self-control – aside from a slight pause in mid-swig, he didn’t respond at all.
“Now what we want to know,” Xinjao continued, “is why InSec is spying on us, what they’re trying to find out, what they know so far, stuff like that.”
Weaver didn’t like this at all. From the tone in their voices, it was clear they were playing with them. He glanced casually toward the door, and wondered if the two TI who escorted him here were still nearby.
“Trouble is,” O’Reilly continued, taking another swig from the bottle, “the end destination on that transmission is undoubtedly an InSec network somewhere. We don’t want to mess with that. Any information we’d want would be under tight security – now, I can probably hide my footprints in a system, maybe poke around a bit, but I’m no hacker.”
“And I’m just the guy who blows shit up.” Herbert smiled. “But I like all this cloak-and-dagger stuff, so I’m along for the ride.”
“Now you…” Xinjao said, pointing. “… you’re a top-notch hacker.”
Stewart opened his mouth to deny it, but O’Reilly cut him off with a wave of the hand. “Oh, come on, no false modesty. The way you sliced through our security systems and opened that comm channel was impressive.”
“Yeah, and that encryption formula that came out like static… that was pretty slick,” Gergenstein agreed, nodding, “We almost didn’t catch it.”
“What do you mean almost? I didn’t catch it!” O’Reilly exclaimed. “I would never have known if I hadn’t been investigating the spy transmissions!” He turned to Stewart. “You see, the InSec transmissions in Auxiliary Control were suddenly interrupted sometime during the Rios battle, then someone set the com relay back to standard EF configuration.”
Weaver felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He knew what was coming.
“So I figured I might be able to catch a glimpse of the InSec spy on board,” Xinjao continued, his voice almost sarcastic. “But ya know what? I found this instead.”
Xinjao’s fingers flew across the keyboard and the holoproj jumped to life. Stewart could clearly see himself and Treschi in the Auxillary Control Room, accessing the comm unit. He went ahead and chugged his beer. It might be the last drink he’d get in a while.
“InSec puts those bugs in the damnest places, don’t they?” O’Reilly said with a grin. The smile on his face covered the fact that they got only half the image. InSec was a little too paranoid; they had set their bug to turn off while the transmitter was functioning. The lieutenant commander had wished he had gotten a look at who Treschi was calling.
“Gotta monitor the relay you’re using for your transmissions, I guess,” Gergenstein agreed.
“Of course, it’s lucky for you that resetting the frequency for your own transmission displaced InSec’s set up,” Xinjao continued. “There’s a good chance they never received this particular image….”
“Yet.” Herbert finished for him.
“Okay, guys, I can see where this is going,” Stewart said gruffly, dropping the 20th century lingo as the seriousness of his predicament set in. “What do you want?”
“Well, it just so happens we could use a first-rate hacker right about now. “ the red-headed chief engineer answered, a smug smile creeping on his face. “Someone who could slice into InSec’s systems and find out why the Schaumburg is being spied on.”
“Have another beer,” Gergenstein offered as he stood up and offered Steward his chair. “We’ve got the computers all warmed up for you. What don’t you show us what those magic fingers can do.”
Slowly, grumpily, Weaver seated himself in the chair and cracked his knuckles. He didn’t like be forced to do anything, even if it did look like it was going to be a lot of fun.
“Shoot me another brewski,” Stewart answered, “and you cyber-dudes are gonna cop some righteous hackin’.”
They got out of the way as he went to work. His fingers fondled the keyboards and the virtual controls like an old lover. The holoproj flickered, but the same standard communication read-out glared there on the screen. As if he could feel their confusion, Weaver smiled. “I’ve turned the dial and ripped off the knob! Fleet terminals always save everything; that’s why they need a memory dump when they get to port. Unless you delete everything, you’re going to leave an infinity of old specification files, which you can reuse if necessary.” His left hand fiddled with the holographic cube, while he punched a few keys on the board. “Now, we let the spy’s transmission’s do the work for us.” The screen went active, punching up a pre-programmed net location, and activating the narrow-beam comm laser. It immediately hit the net relay on the orbital station, and instantly made connection.
The screen bleeped in satisfaction and proceeded to download the files. O’Reilly’s hand went instantly to stop it but Weaver stopped it. “No, if we disrupt the transmission, ICE programs are going to kick on-line, and then this trip is over. However, with this,” another twist of the cube with his hand, “I’ve put the transmission in a loop, so as long as their sysop’s don’t get wise, we can stay in as long as we want.” The transmission screen shrank down into a corner of the screen as Stuart opened a new session into the mainframe.
It was blank except for a glowing cursor blinking. Weaver pulled out a length of electrical cord and plugged one end into the console. “Now, if it gets too hot in there, press this button.” Stewart motioned toward the green key. “That’ll cut the connection. I can’t use my cybermodem with its pull-out program; ICE would detect that and shut down my board. So I gotta straight-jack it. Man, I don’t like this, but I don’t have much choice… do I?”
Herbert nodded. “That’s about right.”
With the other end of the cord, Weaver plugged it into his head. He had an implant that gave him direct access to the net. The holoproj changed; the cursor being replaced by a graphic representation of the net. It was endless space, data cubes hovering in thin air. They floated there in the same way bricks don’t.
In a blirr, O’Reilly and Gergenstein watched as Weaver sped through the unprotected blocks, scanning through thousands of pictures, but he obviously hadn’t found what he was looking for. Out of nowhere, Stewart shouted out, “Paranoid little fucks!” At first, they weren’t sure what he meant, then they saw the search change. The download point was only another point from which to download to (what Xinjao hoped was) the InSec mainframe. The hacker’s image moved around so fast that he didn’t know what he was looking at. Finally it slowed as he activated some batch files and the whole image seemed to stretch. Through a lighted tunnel, the lonely data blocks gave way to a whole screen full of data blocks, appearing as far as the virtual eye could see. In the center of it all, a glowing diamond pulsated with light; the symbol of Internal Security.
Stewart didn’t waste any time. Going through the data block that contained the Schaumberg’s photo album, he couldn’t find anything he was looking for. “I would give my left nut to play around in here forever. Display summaries.”
The picture scroll shifted to another list of documents. As he scrolled through them, they noticed that each of them was referenced by crewmember. They contained hundreds of images; anything that might be of interest to… somebody. After a bit of looking around, Weaver zoomed back away from the data block. “Shit! It’s not here!”
“Looking for something?”
The voice came out of nowhere, Stewart’s view turned around, and a man was standing there. Well, sort of; the man-image was silvery, and scared the hell out of the hacker. Xinjao had his button on the disconnect when it spoke again. “Don’t be frightened. I’m not with them.”
“Really? You’re just running around their site for… what, kicks? Give me a break.”
“Listen, if I wanted to fry your brain, I would have already, so shut up.” The silver image shifted slightly and asked again, “What are you looking for?”
“Um, the background documents for Data Block AR-Zed 618.”
“Oh, one of the ships they monitor.” The image looked around as he mumbled to himself, Waste of time, you ask me. They never ask me. They forgot about me.” Finally he looked back at Weaver. “Let’s see now.” He opened his hands and a flat screen appeared between them. On it, a document appeared, spewing out in big glowing letters:
TO: MAJ MacManus, CO - Intersystem Ops
Initiate Level 4 observation of CMDR Von Shrakenberg, Erich (912832943-2), currently serving on the Graviton Cannon project. Due to connections with the Admiralty, it is assumed that the commander will be eventually slated for flag rank, especially after heading this project. Loyalty to the Federation must be determined before he is given a position that could threaten our control. Broaden scope to include co-workers, relations, whoever comes in constant contact with the commander. You may need to assign an agent for this one. Pick a good one; this Erich may be blind, but he’s no fool.
COL King, INSECOM.
The silver man shimmered all of a sudden and he stared at Stewart. “They’re onto us. Jack out… now!”
O’Reilly wasted no time and hit the green key. The screen faded out and the communication stopped. Weaver slowly pulled the plug out of his head and looked at them. “Did you get what you wanted?”
Gergenstein grunted. “For now.”
As Andrea Treschi looked at the holo display in his quarters aboard the Schaumburg, his blank face betrayed his attempt at not looking surprised. The ship had finally docked with the orbital station. Now he waited for his clearance to leave the ship, expecting to receive some sort of message from General Clarke. Moments earlier, he had received what might have been such a message. It was an official military coded transmission from an unidentified source. The message was very short; one word, Rage.
“Rage? What the fuck does Rage mean?’ Andrea cursed under his breath. He had to be careful. Although he picked up one bug, one never knew how many more were out there. “Computer, run a search. Cross-index the word ‘Rage’ with respect to Avalon.”
A second later, it replied, “There are 762,931 matches, sir.” For some reason, it’s voice sounded nervous, as if the computer could sense Treschi’s anger.
Weaver picked the wrong time to come in the door. Andrea seized on him, “Where the hell have you been?!”
“I don’t care, Stuart! Destroy this message. Make yourself useful!” Turning toward the hulk of meat before him, Treschi snapped. “All right, Rhino, in that animal brain of yours, do you have any idea what this means?!”
Some of Thrasher’s closest associates simply called him by his nickname. For some reason, Thrasher was in his half-human/half crinos form. Treschi suspected the Rhino was thinking about having one last drinking contest with one of the TI he had made friends with before leaving the ship. In his current form, he stood about 2.5 meters tall with a very large nose, and skin that had a grayish tint to it. “Aye dink aye mhay ‘ave ‘n eyedea, bhoss, bhut...”
They both stared at each other dumbfounded, right when the door chimed. The intercom squawked to life. “M. Treschi, this is Commander Ingolfsson. May I come in, please?”
Andrea calmed himself down before replying, “Sure.”
The cute bubbly blonde entered the room in full uniform. She looked a little uneasy and nervous. “Relax, Johanna. What do you have to tell me?”
“Captain Von Shrakenberg wanted me to inform you that he received legal documents from JAG. We have been informed by them that you are no longer in the service of the T.I., Lieu… M. Treschi.”
Treschi smiled. “Not too shocking. Where is my new friend, Wackenberg, right now?”
“You mean Shrakenberg.”
“He’s in a meeting with some of the brass.”
“So… you’re now the senior officer on board, right?”
“Good, then I have to inform you as the acting senior officer that I just received an official transmission from the TI HQ stating that I that you are to release me and my crew. You are to allow me to take a transport to the surface of Avalon,” announced Treschi, “You view it on the holoproj right here. You can see that it is authentic.”
As she looked at the holo display, instead of stating ‘Rage’, to her, it looked like a completely different message, one that looked exactly as Treschi said. At first she couldn’t believe it, but she didn’t see anything wrong with the message. “I was going to show this to one of your officers, but since you are here, it might as well be you.”
“All right, M. Treschi,” she replied, “you are free to leave whenever you’d like.”
“Thanks, Johanna. I hope to bump into you sometime in the future. If you are ever interested in a career outside of the fleet, let me know.” Treschi blazened a smug smile on his face. “Tell Shrakenberg he will hear from my attorney regarding compensation for the Fearless.”
Von Shrakenberg was taking no calls as he silently rode the shuttle down to the surface of Avalon. The capital planet of the Earth Federation spread out below him, a blue-green jewel in space. The shuttle descended through the atmosphere, landing at a military field just outside the capital city itself.
After an aircar ride into the capital, the Captain had to wait less than five minutes before being ushered into the office of the albino mistress of Earth Fleet; Grand Fleet Admiral Kristen Vorheis herself.
"Welcome, captain," stated the white-haired woman who ran all of Earth Fleet. "I heard about that maneuver you pulled in Rios, but I wanted to get the story straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak."
Von Shrakenberg gave a crisp salute and took the offered chair. As he prepared to answer the Admiral, a tall, dark man entered the office. “My apologies, Admiral, but I was… delayed at the office.”
Kristen turned toward Erich. "You know Colonel King, I presume."
"We've never met in person," answered Erich carefully. "But I'm familiar with his reputation." Von Shrakenberg definitely recognized Rashid King, commandant of Internal Security.
"And I am familiar with your reputation," said the Colonel in his silky-smooth voice.
"Good," interjected the Grand Fleet Admiral. "There is no need to worry, captain. This is certainly not any kind of formal inquiry."
"Of course not," answered Erich. "But why is the colonel here?"
Admiral Vorheis sat forward on her chair as King found a chair in the corner. "While your actions in the Battle of Rios are adequately explained by your reports, and we all are grateful for your heroic actions in that engagement, we do have some questions about the reasoning behind those actions, as well as the events immediately prior to the battle."
"Oh," replied Captain Von Shrakenberg, "The matter with the InSec Corvette."
"Yes," said King. "That minor matter."
Admiral Vorheis glared at the colonel for a second before turning back to the captain. "I would like to know how you justified firing on an Earth Fleet vessel and destroying it with all hands."
"It was simple, ma’am," replied Von Shrakenberg frankly. "We stopped a freighter for a routine customs check. The Freighter's ID codes were flagged in our records as belonging to a stolen vessel. We ordered the freighter to heave to and permit us to board their vessel for inspection. They complied willingly. While two squads of my Marines were aboard the ship, conducting their investigation, the Internal Security corvette appeared."
"Then you admit they properly identified themselves," interrupted Colonel King.
"They claimed to be an InSec Corvette, yes," answered Von Shrakenberg. "They also ordered me to cease from the performance of my duties, refused to explain why, then opened fire on an unarmed, civilian freighter that contained 30 civilian crewmen and two squads of my detachment of TI Marines." Erich looked directly at King. "I did what I had to do to protect the men under my command, as well as Federation citizens, in accordance with Earth Fleet General Orders."
"You panicked and destroyed a Federation vessel without cause, killing 20 InSec personnel," Rashid charged.
"Damn straight, I destroyed that ship!" Von Shrakenberg shot back. "All I knew was that they opened fire on an unarmed civilian freighter, and that they were interfering in an official investigation. Both actions constitute treason under Federation Regulations!"
"That will be enough of that," interrupted the Grand Fleet Admiral. "I will have no more such outbursts in my office, Colonel King."
The commandant glared at her for a moment, then calmed immediately down. "I apologize, Admiral. Like your captain here, I am thinking only of protecting the men under *my* command."
"Apology accepted," replied Erich. "And I also apologize for raising my voice, colonel." When King nodded, he continued, "I would like to point out one thing, however."
"And what is that, captain," Kristen inquired darkly.
"The InSec commander ordered me to withdraw in a curious way." He stood up and walked to the wall-mounted comm-net terminal, and inserted a datachip. "I wonder what the admiral makes of this statement?"
The communications record from the Schaumburg's bridge played on the monitor. The face of the late Major Iradne appeared on the left side of the screen. Captain Von Shrakenberg appeared in his command chair on the right half of the screen. Erich’s image spoke. “Major, my orders from Earth Fleet Command are quite specific. I am authorized to inspect any ship suspected of smuggling illegal cargo in the Rios System.”
The InSec major replied. “Captain, those orders were signed by traitors to the Federation. I’m telling you that you are to release that freighter.”
Erich paused the record. "Admiral, as you know, my orders came from Earth Fleet Command, via the normal Chain of Command. That chain ends in this office. Major Iradne of the Internal Security Service called you a traitor."
"That is very interesting, captain," answered the Grand Fleet Admiral. Her red eyes turned to look at King. "Colonel, Earth Fleet is the largest military force that has remained steadfastly loyal to the Grand Council throughout this Civil War. The only people who would call Earth Fleet Command ‘Traitors to the Federation' would be one of the Insurgent parties." Her eyes narrowed. "Specifically Auntie Sarah and her Tech Infantry traitors."
"And it's hardly treason to destroy a ship full of insurgent rebels," answered Von Shrakenberg. "Wouldn't you agree, Colonel King?"
"How dare you…” Colonel King exploded, then calmed down quickly. “You accuse an Internal Security officer of siding with the Rebels? I could have you court-martialed for that!"
"Colonel," interjected Admiral Vorheis, "in a time of war, if an Earth Fleet officer in the course of their duties, performed his orders in good faith, he cannot be court-martialed."
"Internal Security has the authority over matters of loyalty and sole jurisdiction over treason!"
"Then I expect you to investigate just why your major was making such wildly unsupported charges," Kristen retorted. "Now, if you have nothing more to add, I'd like to continue debriefing the Captain on purely military matters."
"Just one second," interjected the colonel. "I still have some questions for the Captain."
Admiral Vorheis paused, visibly turning the matter over in her mind. "You may proceed, Colonel."
"Captain Von Shrakenberg," Rashid asked. "Could you answer two questions for me?"
"I am always happy to assist a Federation official in the performance of their duties," Erich replied.
"First, what became of the crew of that freighter?"
"Them?" replied Von Shrakenberg. "The master of that freighter had valid purchase papers. It appears the database was incorrect about the stolen ID codes. And as we pulled into spacedock, we received orders from the Judge Advocate General's office that we release the crew."
"Those papers were obviously forgeries!"
may have been," replied the captain. "I didn't have facilities on
the Schaumburg to verify them. And since New Madrid has fallen to the
Insurgents, I can't inquire with the local shipping board office there to be
"So why did you release them?"
"Colonel, I was originally intending to tow the damaged freighter into the Rios spacedock and turn them over to the appropriate local civilian authorities. The Jurvain invasion put a slight crimp in that plan." He smiled slightly. "If they are in fact smugglers, they lost their ship and their cargo. They got caught and dragged halfway across the Federation. I doubt any penalty the civilian courts would impose on them will equal the punishment they’ll get from their employers."
"Your second question, colonel," inquired the Admiral.
"You demonstrated ample cunning and bravery in your actions against the Jurvain. Taking out that many ships with only a light cruiser is quite a feat." Rashid King looked squarely into Erich Von Shrakenberg's eyes. "Can you explain why you never fired a shot at the invading TI Insurgent force, and in fact, attempted to persuade Admiral Ostrow to surrender the system to them without a fight?"
Von Shrakenberg returned the gaze without a blink. "Simple. Despite the actions I took, Admiral Ostrow did not possess sufficient forces to defeat either the Jurvain fleet or the Insurgent task force, let alone take on both in combination or series."
"That still doesn’t explain why you didn't engage the Insurgent fleet, especially after your… unorthodox manuever, resulting the destruction of the EFS Varyag."
"And half the Jurvain fleet, colonel. I was halfway across the system when the battle started at the New Madrid Jumpgate, far out of engagement range. I led the Jurvain on a long, looping path around the star, delaying them as long as possible from engaging the two human fleets or attacking Rios itself. If the Jurvain had fallen on those two fleets while they were focused on killing each other, the Jurvain would have destroyed them both and taken the system."
"You can't know that," interjected the Minister.
"With all due respect," stated the Admiral. "We're the fleet officers. Captain Von Shrakenberg is correct in his assessment of the tactical picture at the time."
"You still haven't explained why you tried to talk Admiral Ostrow into surrendering the system to the Rebels," interrupted an angry Rashid King.
"When the Insurgents take a system, we can always take it back, reasonably intact. They lost Epsilon. When the Jurvain take a system, they want it as a Jurvain Colony. There are no human citizens in the Jurvain Commonality; they'd slaughter most of the population, and enslave the rest. There are 790 MILLION Federation citizens in Rios. The TI need them as a tax base too badly to do that." He smiled again. "Besides, once they taste life under Auntie Sarah's heel, they'll be more appreciative of the Grand Council when we take it back."
"Thank you," replied Kristen, giving him a smile that betrayed more from her pale face. "You are dismissed, captain. Return to your ship and expedite the repairs. We'll need you when we return to the offensive."
Captain Von Shrakenberg gave a crisp salute and strode out of the room. Admiral Vorheis turned to Colonel King. "You've read his file." It was not a question.
"Yes, I have," Rashid replied, "He's an idealist. That kind can be dangerous."
"Yes, they can," answered the Admiral, "But he's even more dangerous to the Rebels, the Jurvain, and anyone else we have to fight. We'll need his kind to win this war."
"Provided he doesn’t switch sides."
"He won't.” Kristen checked her deskcomp, avoiding the colonel’s eyes. "I can't let you punish him for that business with the Corvette. But I’ll make a deal with you."
"His ship is going to take months being repaired. I do not plan on letting him sit on his hands, so I'm sending him back to the front in a new ship." Admiral Vorheis looked back at him, giving a thin-lipped smile. "I'll keep in combat until the war ends or he dies trying to end it." She looked coldly at the colonel. "Either way, You win."
“One condition. You’re not going to promote him for this or give him a better ship. That man made a fool out of me, I will ensure that he regrets it.” King’s shoulders shrugged. “Give him a destroyer, one of the Archer-class, maybe.”
"Then that will be most satisfactory," the InSec boss replied. "Most satisfactory indeed."
From a variety of electronic accounts, the former crew of the Fearless was paid and released from duty after they landed on Avalon. Treschi had Stuart get a transport to the Wilke’s Star system, where he went to regain contact with the Fearless Jackals. Eight hours later, Thrasher and Treschi found their way to the corner of Lake and Wabash streets in New Chicago, one of the infinity of suburbs on the planet. It was a dusty, run down area with few people about. On the other side of the intersection stood an old bar, almost ancient, with a flickering neon purple sign hanging in a stained red glass window in front. The place looked closed, but a “We’re Open” sign proudly hung over the door. “Dis ‘ight ‘e da phlace!” Thrasher replied, incomprehensible as ever.
“Let’s check this place out. We lost those shadows on Agatite, so we should be safe.” He looked up to the heavens and buttoned up his trench coat. It started raining.
The two of them crossed the street and entered the bar. Once inside, they weren’t surprised to only see about five people, mostly regulars. Andrea and Thrasher walked over to the far end of the bar and sat down. “Thrasher, this is another dead end. I don’t think…”
Andrea’s mouth stopped as his jaw dropped. From a door behind the bar, an attractive woman entered, wavy black hair framing a very athletic body. He knew this because the black body stocking she was wearing, with the leather vest and shorts taunting all lookers, didn’t leave much to the imagination. However, the curved knife in its scabbard said she meant business. “M. Treschi? Thrasher?”
“I am Danika. I’ve been expecting you. Follow me.”
She opened a doorway behind the bar and started walking down a staircase leading into darkness. Thrasher and Treschi followed her down. After they had gone down over a hundred feet, Thrasher asked, “Ssshheet, hhow fhar ‘own do’s dis sthairkayse goh?”
“We are almost there,” she replied. Finally, a doorway appeared at the bottom. As they came closer to the door, the plastcrete walls started shaking, and the steps vibrated. Andrea knew it instantly; Volkskrieg Overdrive. Thrasher was a big fan of that chromium metal music. Frankly, he was never that impressed with it.
When they got to the bottom of the staircase, Danika opened the door and ducked. Flying towards them was a large body…with no head. All of them ducked in time; the body crashed in the stairs behind them. “This way, gentlemen,” she replied, finally standing up.
They walked through the door and into a very large room about the size of a small gymnasium. On the opposite side of the room was a huge bar that looked like it was on fire. Along the wall were a number of small tables, all of them heavily bolted to the floor, and people laying on the floor. They were either dead or knocked out.
In the middle of the room was a huge pit, at least two hundred people throwing fists and bodies to the side. The so-called music was blasting so loud the ground was shacking. Fists were being thrown. As he watched, Treschi suddenly realized that he was the only human standing in the room. Everyone else were were-creatures. Some of them were in crinos, some in other variations; only a few were still in the human form.
Nervously, he looked at Thrasher. He was still in his homid form that he changed back into on the ship. “Thrasher, did you know about this place?”
The were-rhino smiled, “Ah hhunn-ch.”
“M. Treschi, I’ve been told that you are to sit at that table.” Danika pointed one out. “I’ll be back in a moment with drinks.” They walked over to the table and sat down while she made her way to the bar. They both watched the brawl. One particular combatant along the wall and gained their attention. This guy looked middle-aged, but was just over two meters high, had a knife on his belt, and he had white hair with streaks of black. One of his victims had his head smashed in the concrete wall. Another had lost an arm. Several unconscious bodies were scattered around him that he apparently had defeated.
Thrasher got up and yelled something out. Treschi could barely hear what he said; the music was too loud. The rhino ran full charge towards the guy with the knife. The man did some sort of spin move and dodged him. Then grabbing the rhino’s head with his left hand, he smashed his fist into the face. Not satisfied with that, he punched him six times (at least) into the gut. Finally he picked up the rhino and threw in the general direction of the bar.
As Thrasher started to get up, the man with the knife jumped on him and slammed the back of the rhino’s head against the concrete floor. After the third time, Andrea’s bodyguard was out cold. Kneeling on top of the rhino, the guy started punching him in the face, as the blood splattered in all directions, until Thrasher’s head was completely unrecognizable.
The man with the knife turned his face away from the Rhino and looked right at Andrea. Treschi was stunned and shocked. For the first time he recognized the man with the knife; he was Arthur Clarke.
The general licked the blood from his lips as he came closer. Despite the music, he heard his voice very clearly. “I’ve looked forward to you coming, Treschi.”
Malachi stepped off the shuttle into the orbital station. The mass of military personnel rushed around in a chaotic dance that he couldn’t quite follow. The lieutenant wanted to find a shuttle planet-bound to get on solid ground, but nothing was immediately available. Instead, he went towards the comm booths to make a call. Once he found one, Spyder placed a scrambler on the transmitter box, and made contact with the man he left in charge of his industries. When the other end picked up, Malachi instantly recognized the secretary. It was one of his friends, one of the few he had, Kasandra Hope Johnson.
She opened her mouth to talk, but her voice froze, as she suddenly realized who it was. "Malachi?!" she answered, excited, but in a still quiet voice.
"Yeah, it's me," he replied, as she called Bob Schmidt over.
"Well, you’ve been gone a while! How's the TI been treating you?" Kasandra asked, Bob’s footprints getting closer.
"Okay, I guess. Not much to do where I've been."
"They ought to have you doin' something?"
"Well, I was on the EFS Schaumburg while they looked for smugglers and pirates but… we had to leave."
“So,” Johnson brushed the long blonde hair from her face, "what's wrong with that?"
"It's not what I would call action-packed."
"You never were the sit-down type."
Bob came across the screen and smiled as he saw his employer. Schmidt was a good businessman, creative with his figures, and therefore the perfect man to be in charge of his industries.
The middle-aged man’s smile brightened. "Malachi, good to see you're alive."
"Ha," Malachi uttered softly, "I've been nearly killed three times… behind-the-lines, of course."
"Really?! Well, I'd better give up making jokes about that. So why are you calling?"
Spyder checked that his highly illegal device was still activated. “Is your scrambler on?”
“Just a moment. Hope, would you mind going into the next room?” As the footsteps went off out of earshot, he flicked a switch out of view. The image was blurred for a moment and then righted itself. “Go.”
"I want you to put three million credits into adding armaments to the industry."
"Damn Malachi, skip the point and the blade and just go straight to the hilt, eh?"
"And put the call sign up as Black Viper. Run the ad through this system."
"Slow down! The first time we talk in a long time and you open with this!" Bob was somewhat upset. Typical; he was always too emotional when it came to his personal life. Of course, Spyder’s money was his personal life.
"I planned on talking to you after I got all the business out of the way."
"All right, fine. Go on."
"Actually, that’s all the business I had to discuss. Now we can talk."
"Oh. Well, what are you doing now?"
"Not sure yet, and I won't know for a little while."
"Well then, why don’t you come down and join Hope and I for dinner?" Kasandra always liked her middle name better, so she insisted that everyone called her Hope.
“Sounds good to me. Actually, I'll be down planet-side right after I call the ship. I’ll see ya at your house. You do still live in the same place right?"
“Good I'll be there ASAP."
"Can’t wait to see ya. Bye."
The holoprojection faded away and Malachi pulled off the scrambler from the comm unit. It was a simple thing to then call the ship. When it picked up, he started. "This is Lieutenant Spyder, if anyone needs me I'll be on the Avalon till further notice."
He hung up before he got a response. He didn't care what they had to say. A shuttle headed to the surface was available and he got right in. It would be nice to see some old friends.
Once he got planet-side, he went and picked up some nice clothes (his civvies weren't exactly dinner attire), then made his way to Bob's house.
He was ecstatic to see Malachi. "You're here!"
"Yeah,” the lieutenant replied. Before Bob could smother him, he called out, “Before you hug me, I think I'd better wash up."
"Go right ahead… you know the way, right?"
"Yeah,” Spyder managed a smile, “and thanks."
After a shower, he put on his nicer clothes, combed his hair, and brushed his teeth. When he came out, he looked and felt better than he had in months. Ship showers were fine, but you never got enough pressure, nor much hot water, and government-issue toiletries left a lot to be desired.
"Well, now where to?" He said, as he came down the stairs.
"Believe it or not, Hope volunteered her house tonight."
"She's cooking tonight?" Kasandra cooked the best food he'd ever tasted, and it had been so long since he'd had something other than military goop. A "real" meal; that was all he could hope for.
"She said she'd have it no other way."
"Well, what are we waiting for?!"
It didn’t take long for them to reach Hope’s place. She lived a good sized house out in Wehrenberg, one of the infinity of suburbs surrounding the capital city. The monorail system in the inner suburbs was very effective. Once there, they ate the best meal Malachi had had since he was drafted, at least in his opinion. That was an issue he never had trouble expressing. "Your cooking is still the best I've ever had, Hope." Malachi felt like he'd eaten too much, but he was still glad he did.
"Stop avoiding the question. We've already heard you say that… fifty times!" Hope and Bob were persistent. The ground-bound civilians were desperate for any news, but Spyder knew what they wanted; they wanted TI stories.
"I've told you everything! I don't do much on that ship."
"Fine," Bob sighed, “be cryptic. A little bird tells me he’s hiding something.”
Kasandra smiled back. “I think you’re right.”
"Well then, I'd better be getting back to the ship….”
“Oh, no you don’t.” The woman glared back. “Sit down a second. Now you’ve been devouring my cooking all night. The least you can do is tell us what happened out there in… what was it, Record? Rim?”
“Rios,” the lieutenant corrected.
“That’s right. Tell us what happened in Rios. We’re only getting the headlines back here.”
Spyder sighed. “I told you. When you’re in the TI, they don’t let you fly the ship. All I remember is hearing things explode around me and then picking up the pieces. We survived. I think we won. That’s about it.”
“Come on, I…” she was interrupted by the sound of the comm unit beeping. Hope glared at her guest/employer. “You’re not off the hook yet.” She rushed over to the comm and accepted the call. The two men couldn’t see who she was talking to, but it didn’t take long to look over at Spyder. “It’s for you.”
The lieutenant went over to the comm and saw the glaring face of Elly Ragdowski staring back at him. “Sergeant, how did you…”
“I scammed your address book. Trust me, there’s not that many entries.” She held up a piece of paper. “Do you know about this?”
“This!” Elly downloaded the document to his holoproj. Malachi’s eyes glazed over the document in disbelief.
AUTHORIZED TRANSMISSION -- 04/06/43, 2308 VEGA ZULU – EFS SCHAUMBURG
TO: 2/LT SPYDER, MALACHI; SSGT RAGDOWSKI, ELEANOR
CC: CMDR INGOLFSSON, JOHANNA
FROM: TECHNICAL INFANTRY BUREAU OF PERSONNEL
DUE TO THE NATURE OF THE
REPAIRS ABOARD EFS SCHAUMBURG, CL-85, 2/LT SPYDER (823749209-8) AND SSGT
RAGDOWSKI (282173928-0) ARE REASSIGNED FROM 278-211 (4) MARINE EXPEDITIONARY
UNIT TO 137-122 (3) ADVANCE RECON. REPORT TO THE EFS VISHNU, SC-26, WITHIN TWO
DAYS OF RECEIVING THIS REPORT.
SIGNED: LTC DANIELO MUSTAFA, TI BUPERS
"...before I kill you... like you killed my friends... I want to know why."
The human body is such a fragile thing, Hex thought. As soon as he woke up he knew at least fifty places where one swift blow would kill his assailant. Once his head cleared, there were too many to count. The female was young-- young enough that he wasn't sure if it was proper to call her a girl or a woman. Probably eighteen to early twenties; it was a pity for her to have to die so young... especially with such a pretty face. Hex had never really had much contact with the
opposite sex. In fact, back at the Center…
"Why, damn you!"
Hmmm… screw the past, Hex thought, I've got the present to worry about. Moving too fast for the emotional young lady to react, Hex disarmed her and got her in a choke hold, then put the plasma revolver up against her head and his hand over her mouth without realizing it-- a habit from VR training.
"Now then," he spoke his first words to her," how shall I kill you?"
"Mmmpphh," came her muffled reply.
"Oh, sorry." He took his hand off of her mouth.
"You son of a- mmphh," the hand came back over her mouth.
"None of that now. Can't we carry on a decent conversation? So, what's your name?" He lifted his hand off of her mouth again slowly.
"I'll kill you, you bas-- mmphh!!"
"Right. You'll kill me.... Look, I've got to head home, and my shoulder's kind of sore right now... you've seen me, and you know who I am, so I'm going to have to kill you. Sorry. Any last words?"
"My name is Brigette! Why did you kill my friends?!"
Hex felt guilty... something that had never happened when he killed simulated humans. He couldn't help but feel sorry for Brigette... He thought for a minute. She was disarmed... jittery... emotional... He had the gun, he had control of the situation. He felt so sorry for her, he decided he would let her go.
"See that chair over there?"
"...yes," she groaned.
"Have a seat." He gave her a gentle shove over in the direction of the chair. She complied, nearly cracking under the stress of the situation. "So how did you know Senator Obanye?"
“The black woman. Senator Mary Obanye.”
“Oh… her. I didn’t really get to know her. She only showed up last week.”
“So who were your friends?”
“The cell that was guarding her. The guards you… massacred.” The hate in her voice was deadly.
“You’re part of the Resistance then.”
“That’s right. The only free people left in this universe. So who are you? Fed, Techie, Army, Bloc… Leech?” Brigette stared at him for a second. “No, definitely not leech or ghoul. What’s your story?”
"I'd love to tell you,” the boy said, without even thinking. Finally, his training kicked in again. “I better be leaving now. Tell you what… if you swear to me that you won't tell anyone who I am, that you saw me, or anything else involving me and my shuttle, I won't kill you." Did I just say that, Hex thought? What the hell am I doing? I have to kill her NOW!
Brigette seemed like she had almost forgotten what he had done to her and her friends. Hex was trying to raise his gun up for a shot to the face, but he couldn't bring himself to burn such a pretty thing with a plasma bolt. Instead, his arm sat motionless. His shoulder was really starting to bother him now. The bed had stopped the bleeding, but it hadn't done a whole lot to fix the brunt of the problem-- he still had a big hole in his shoulder.
"Do you swear?"
Brigette sat there for a moment, at first smiling at him, then frowning, then her face twisted with pain and anger for a moment-- quickly went back to a smile. "...Alright, fine. On one condition."
You're in no position to negotiate, Hex thought, but he couldn't bring himself to say it. "What might that be?"
"I want to meet you again later, so I need a way to contact you."
His heart jumped for a moment before he realized what she was doing. "I would have been flattered if you meant that the way I almost wish you did." His body tensed once more as he tried once more to blow her face away, but he couldn't do it. She wants to meet me later so she can kill me. "Tell you what. I'll contact you when I have some free time on my hands." What the hell am I talking about, he thought to himself. I can't leave the Center whenever I feel like it... “You can try to kill me again at a location we'll decide when I contact you."
"What do you mean?" She tried to look as sincere as possible.
"You're a funny girl. Do we have an agreement?" Relunctantly, she nodded her consent. Hex got up and smiled. “I’ll see you later.” Then hit her on the back of the head, knocking her out. The boy didn’t have much time to mess around. Dragging her out of the shuttle, he leaned her up against a tree, far enough from the blast radius of the shuttle’s thrusters.
Hex took one last look at the beautiful woman then rushed back to the shuttle. He wasted no time in powering it up and making a slow ascent over the treeline. Once he reached the Maine City shuttle transfer station, he followed an outgoing shuttle, trailing in its radar shadow. Once it broke out of the atmosphere, the shuttle trailed off through the space trash, finally making its way into open space.
It was a little tricky to be aiming for the digital gate but planning to go around it. It would appease the bored space traffic controllers, but if he screwed it up, the shuttle would ram into the gate. Once he looked like a happy little civilian shuttle long enough, he made the slight course correction that would put him under the gate. With any luck, the jumpgate would open, and he would go… home? Was the Center really home? Hex was so confused about so many things.
He pulled off the switch easily enough and soon he left the comforts of the void behind. The orange swirls and vortex of hyperspace soon enveloped them and sent the shuttle on its previously inserted coordinates. It knew… roughly where to go. However, if the beacon wasn’t there when they arrived, he’d never find the Center.
The pain in the shoulder was killing him. He set the shuttle on autopilot, then went back to the medical couch, strapping himself back in. The painkillers rushed through his system as he slipped back into unconsciousness.
The consul walked out of the priority comm chamber whipping the sweat from his brow. He'd been on the horn with high command for a few hours now. Dimiye had military authority over the mission, but the consul was in overall command. In a situation as FUBAR-ed as this one, following proper procedures was a welcome relief. "They are ready for you, sergeant." The consul said wearily.
Alistar entered the chamber that allowed secure access with fleet command. "Dimiye, Alistar Soldati; Master Sergeant, 1-3-oh-9-4-2-7-5-8-dash-6; G-30 clearance, code name: Vendetta." The sergeant spoke in addition to numerous other identifying features in order to gain access with fleet command. "Go secure."
The screen in front of him chirped for a few moments then displayed a man in his early fifties. Alistar was surprised that he recognized this man. Major General Russell Fargus was known to him not just because of his guile as a warrior, but because he was Garou; one of the highest ranking in the Tech Infantry. In his awe, he was a split second slower than usual in saluting a superior officer.
"Well, sergeant," the General said with a smile on his face, "The consul just spent over three hours telling me a whopper of a tale! He thinks very highly of you, did you know that? To hear him tell it, you devoured half of Khmer, then shat on the rest!"
"I'm sure he exaggerated, sir."
"Actually, I don't think he did. It's a miracle that any of you survived at all. Let alone got the kills and intel you did. We had written off all the diplomatic corps in the Bloc for dead… or worse. How's it feel to be a hero?"
There was that word again; it made Alistar's flesh crawl. "About the intelligence we've gathered," he said changing the subject, "It's pieced together from eight separate sources, but it should be reliable. I'll initiate the transmission now."
"Very good. If it checks out, it'll be Antietam all over again! Lets just hope we make better use of it then McClellan did."
Dimiye didn't get the reference. "Yes, sir. May I ask a question?"
"What are my orders, sir?"
“Well, here’s the situation. The Bloc has us caught in a vise between Epsilon and Hadley. Now with your information, we should be able to send part of the Jennifer’s Star fleet and break half the Bloc’s forces. Then we’ll run them out of this sector.”
Alistar smiled back at Fargus. “Yes, sir.”
“However, your orders are to hold that planet until we arrive. It’s going to take a day to get ready, prep the ships, and come on over. It’s another day and a half through hyperspace… a day even if we red-line the engines… so you’ll need to keep those slant-eyes off your backs for about two days. Think you can do that?”
“All right, that’s about it. Anything else from your end?”
“Well, sir, what about the civilians I’ve got here?”
“Better to keep them there until we arrive. I’d hate for them to get shot down after going through all that.”
“Very well. Now keep yourself alive… we’re going to need officers like you.”
“I’m not an officer, sir.”
“You heard me, sergeant. Discom.”
The comm booth went blank. Alistar felt a little better as he walked out; it was the first glimmer of hope he had received since leaving Khmer. Now if he could only hold onto the planet.
“Captain Jennings, could I have a word with you?”
The LI commander whipped around like a scared rabbit. He relaxed once he saw the sergeant. “Oh, Sergeant Dimiye, you gave me a fright.”
“Do you mind if I have a word with you? In private?”
“Sure,” he looked around the colony’s operations room and waved at the other glorified policemen there, “Zadoks, Lamphier… take five.”
“Thank you, sir,” they echoed before leaving the room.
“Captain, you’ve been very generous to me and my men, and I wanted you to know that I appreciate it.”
“Of course.” Jennings smiled, looking a bit more nervous, as if he knew what was coming.
“Relief is on its way, however, until it arrives, I would like your permission to take over your command.”
The man was positively shocked. Of course, the captain knew that the sergeant technically “out-ranked” him in this situation, so he didn’t have to ask permission. Still, Alistar wanted his help; the last thing he wanted was for him to get in the way. “All right, sergeant,” the captain finally conceded, a sigh escaping his lips, “I’ll serve under you… sir.”
“Thank you. What’s your command consist of?”
“Just under battalion strength. We’ve got a platoon here, there’s another one over in Patience, but the other two are scattered everywhere, anywhere between Faith and Charity. We have lots of smaller settlements, sir.”
“I see. You haven’t thought to vacate them yet?”
“Sergeant… Sir, there’s half a million miners on this planet. We’re packed in the main settlements as is!”
“All right. Well, we need to set up a defense perimeter. To augment your forces, I’m going to divide up my second squad to lead your squads. You’re going to act as platoon sergeant” he laughed inside from the irony “to Corporal Tess, who’ll be in charge of Hope’s inner defenses. My first squad will be free-roaming and will operate outside the colony, disrupting any attack against us. See if you can recruit some of the local miners. If they can get a gun and an e-suit, I want them ready to fight. Send that same message to the other settlements, and if you can move the smaller ones into Patience, do it.”
“Let’s do it.”
The entire armored colony of Hope was buzzing with activity. Barricades were set up, non-combatants were moved into safe locations underground, gun ports were drilled in the outer hull, and makeshift armament was adapted from laser mining equipment. Dimiye’s “militia” had grown from a half-baked idea to a battalion-sized unit. It would give Corporal Tess a fighting chance if they got inside the complex.
The first day passed smoothly like this. Alistar was almost believing the Bloc wouldn’t land any more forces. They had been monitoring the ships’ movements above them. Nothing out of the ordinary. The dim light of this blustery world went completely dark outside. Before the sergeant knew it, it was midnight, and he was sitting alone in the command tower, overlooking the entire complex. The wind seemed to speak to him. Then, all of a sudden, it did, “A long fight still awaits you, my son.”
Polaris; that nagging spirit had been with him since he knew what he was. “What must I do?” Alistar whispered.
“Prepare? I’ve been preparing? What else do you want me to do?!”
“Watch the fire and fear the light.”
Suddenly, a hand appeared on his shoulder. Dimiye almost jumped before he saw who it was. Tess stood behind him, the bangs of her strawberry-blonde hair getting in her face. “It’s late.”
Her chin nuzzled next to his neck. “You need to sleep. You need the rest for tomorrow.”
“I can’t fall asleep. I’ll be all right.”
Tess pressed closer to him. “I bet I can wear you out,” she answered before letting her lips finishing the argument.
Enjoying the sweet warmth next to him, he gave in to her caress.
The light from the door shined into his eyes, waking him up the next morning. Shielding his eyes from the glare, he managed, “Who’s there?”
“Sarge, I’ve got some bad news.” the alto voice shot back. Once his eyes adjusted, he saw the slim form of Corporal Stacy Johannes standing before him.
Tess, beside him on the bed, rolled over, trying to get back to her fleeting sleep. Stacy looked a bit embarrassed, and was that… jealousy? It was too early to be certain. “What is it, corporal?”
“Bloc marines have landed a couple clicks outside Hope and Patience. We better get going.”
“Tell 1st Squad to be suited in ten. I’ll be there.”
Johannes walked out the door, shutting the offending light. Tess kneaded the back of his neck. “Looks like we got a big day ahead.”
“’Fraid so.” Alistar replied, turning over to get another taste of her mouth.
Once she broke off, Tess’ eyes were more than a little concerned. “Take care of yourself, okay?”
“You too.” Dimiye smiled. He reached for his jumpsuit and got dressed. It was time to do his job.
END OF ACT I
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.