TOUCH OF CELESTIAL TEMPER – Act III
“What do I see, as my children are in bed, right before I turn out the light? I see soldiers without weapons.”
-- Andrew “Bad Andy” Tremont, commander of the Righteous Army
It took a long time before Andrea Treschi could convince Danika and Kraw to finally leave the ship. With all the military traffic that was passing by, they didn’t feel safe about docking in New Paris, but he insisted. He had meet with someone; find out what was happening with the Fearless Jackals. There was only problem with that; with Danika tailing him every step, all that information would pass back to Clarke. Frankly, there were some things that he didn’t want his employer to know.
However, once off the ship, it didn’t take long to reach a vidphone and call up a contact. From there, someone would be told to meet them at the Yellow Garden for lunch. Since it was about that time planet-side, they made their way to the restaurant. It was one of those commercialized chains that promised gourmet food at reasonable prices. Of course, twenty credits a plate was not what he considered reasonable.
Danika wouldn’t sit still. While Andrea enjoyed his faux Lo Mein with Centaurian garnish, his charge wouldn’t touch her drink. Her head swiveled through the whole meal, looking for enemies which may or may not be there. “Where are they?” she finally blurted out.
“The people we’re supposed to meet? This is a dangerous place. Open-air restaurant; Too many points of attack, not enough exits.”
Treschi put down his chopsticks. “Will you relax? They’ll come when they come… and not one second before.”
“We should be getting to Hadrian.”
“All in good time.”
“We don’t have good time. We hardly have any time. People need me as well, M. Treschi.”
“What exactly do they need you for anyway?” Danika blew his question off. Treschi insisted. “Why are you going to Hadrian?”
“I live there, M. Treschi.”
“My name is Andrea.”
“Andrea? Isn’t that a girl’s name?”
“No, An-dree-ah is a female name, An-dray-ah is a man’s name.”
“Still seems silly to me.”
“Like Danika isn’t?”
“What do you mean by that?!”
“M. Treschi?” another voice broke in. Both of them turned to face the stranger. Treschi recognized him instantly; Cornelius. He had a body that seemed to blot out the sun. His dark skin was only accented by the dark shades he wore.
“Yes? Are you from the firm?” is what Andrea said. From his mind, he spoke silently to the werewolf. I can’t trust this woman, be careful what you say.
“Of course. You called for me, M. Treschi?” Cornelius responded, thinking in his mind, what do you need?
“I need to ask about the status of my investments.” Did you get my message before?
“All right, but I don’t have your portfolio on hand.” Yes, Weaver arrived and told us what happened.
“Could you look it up please?” Good. Now I have another favor to ask of you.
“Just one moment.” Cornelius answered, getting a datapad out of his bag. What is it?
While the werewolf punched buttons, Treschi continued, “I think my futures in maize should do well on Babylon this year.” I’m planning on bargaining with the weapons in Rios to get me into Rebel-held space.
“That’s usually a steady crop.” No problem; they’re a loss to us.
“However, I was thinking about diversifying my portfolio.” I need a way to get back into the Federation afterwards.
“Really?” That might be a problem.
“Anything you might suggest?” Do you have contacts you can use to get permission?
“What were you thinking of liquidating for capital?” Perhaps, but those contacts don’t come cheap.
“I have some assets of my own. Nothing has to be touched.” I can pay whatever you need.
“Have you thought about investing on Eden. I hear there’s some interesting possibilities.” We have connections with the Resistance. They could smuggle you through their space and then sneak you into Avalon.
“I don’t know about Eden. I don’t think it has much future as a colony.” Not with Danika here mothering me. I don’t want her to know too much about our operation.
“Okay, well, there’s always good money to be made in Phoenix.” We have connections in the military on both sides. There are ways to smuggle you over the border.
“Sounds good. Anything specific?” All right, where and how?
“I can send you a full range of options to your account.” I’ll have to arrange something first. I’ll keep in contact through a net address.
“Fair enough. I think that concludes our business.” Fine, I’ll live with that.
Cornelius reached over and shook his hand. “Always a pleasure, M. Treschi.” You know how to contact us. Let us know when you’re ready to cross.
As the darker werewolf walked away, the fairer one next to him was about to have a fit. “That’s what this was all about? You could have called him from the ship!”
“Never trust the phones, you never know who might be listening in.” Andrea murmured before taking his final bite of Lo Mein. “Shall we go? The frontier waits for no man.”
Danika snorted out his disgust and led the way out of the restaurant.
Alistar stood at attention with his battalion onboard the EFS Ariadne for the memorial service. His old platoon disbanded, he'd been given the rank of captain and a command commensurate with it. He was glad when the general ordered a memorial service for his now retired unit. It was a good distraction from the propaganda circus that had been buzzing around the Battle of Hadley and him in particular. General Fargus had come to his quarters personally with his captain’s rank and a medal; the Silver Star now hung on his crisp new uniform along with all the other honorariums he'd accumulated. They were nothing but dead weight to the man now wearing them. He could see the occasional stolen glance in his direction, not so much at him, but at the awards and certifications he wore. You boys can have them, he thought.
"Today, we come to mourn these fine citizens who so gallantly gave their lives in defense of the Federation." The TI cleric spoke. "These patriotic souls who laid down their lives to uphold liberty in the face of tyranny; against enemies from without and within. Let us bow our heads in prayer."
The service went on as the holy man spoke fine words about people who he'd never met and would never have the chance to meet. He listed their names and accomplishments on this mortal coil one by one. Dimiye heard the names one by one and thanked whatever gods who might be listening that he'd been able to get his survivors into the new battalion. No matter what, at least, they would still be with him. There's me, Johannes, Benjamin, Sara Lee, Yeager, & Collins. One out of four, Dimiye pondered, one out of four.
The service concluded, the remains were one by one shot into the forgiving vastness of space for all eternity. Many of the containers were tiny. Boys like Jager would have to be remembered by the shard of blood stained armor that impaled Dimiye's suit weeks ago. What a bloody mess this is; what a bloody lie this has become.
After dismissing his unit, Dimiye went down the length of the gargantuan ship to clear his head. Maybe Ezri and the consul would be at the ship's bar. I would very much enjoy their company right now. But a moment later, the ship's comm ended that notion.
"Captain Dimiye, report to Section 12B immediately." The canned voice demanded.
The huge ship seem to span for miles in any direction. The old Coral Sea class ship seemed to stretch the limits of space. Alistar hadn’t spent his career aboard these rust buckets like many of his fellow troopers. The idea of spending a couple years here didn’t seem like that much of an impossibility. You’d never get done exploring the nooks and crannies of this vast ship.
Which, of course, made finding where he wanted to go the most difficult thing of all. Section 12B was a vast area. However, the little mob that was forming in one corner made its intent obvious; oh God, he thought, not another damn press conference.
Walking over in his dress uniform, wearing enough medals to make him lean to one side, he managed to reach the front, exploding in applause. Dimiye managed to smile, but he was tired of the lies, tired of being diplomatic.
Russell Fargus took the podium first; he was the perfect peacetime general. His smile charmed his way into the hearts of reporters who had been invited aboard the ship. He knew know to handle the media, the fleet, and the freighter captains with unparalleled skill. Although several Fleet personnel outranked him, he was the man chosen by Auntie Sarah… Marshal Dunmeyer, Dimiye corrected, for the job. God, he thought, another lie; they didn’t bother telling us on Hadley that the Federation was ripping itself apart.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to take this opportunity to give you a last chance to see Captain Dimiye today before we go on the offensive. Thanks to his efforts on Hadley, we have that opportunity to finally push the Eastern Bloc back where they belong!”
Another round of applause made Alistar look at his new rank. It shined there almost taunting him with its brilliance. It’s not like he hadn’t earned it, but the way he received it… the Corps couldn’t let the world know that a mere sergeant had managed to hold a planet against a superior force. He became Captain Dimiye the second he stepped onto the Ariadne.
“Now many of you might think that we’ll want to protect this hero from harm. After all, he has been through a lot. However, I have orders directly from Marshal Dunmeyer that we are not to waste any resource, and the captain here is definitely one of our best resources. Therefore, he’s going back into the fight, ready for the advance on Epsilon!”
As the ovation roared through the cargo bay, Alistar could only think someone had set him up. Hadn’t he done enough yet? Apparently not, he decided, dreading the idea of hitting the dirt again. Sure, the idea of hiding behind a desk appealed to him less, but it sounded like they were going to hit on the first wave. Finally, Fargus pushed him up to the podium, feeling more like a target than ever. “In the end, I’m just a soldier. I did my duty and the colony didn’t fall. Many good men and women died to keep Hadley free. I only hope that my life will reflect the trust those brave men and women had in me.”
More applause, more questions, the same repetitive answers; God, Dimiye hated it. Like surgery, it eventually ended, and the crowd of reporters and interested military personnel filed out, leaving Fargus and Dimiye alone in front. Russell was all smiles; although Alistar knew his battle record, he couldn’t help thinking that the officer actually liked it. “Still a bit confused, captain?”
“A bit tired, sir. Plus, I haven’t had a chance to see my new command, thanks to all…” he waved his hands around to indicate the thinning crowd, “…this.”
“Yes, I wanted to speak to you about that,” the general nodded, leading him away through a pressure door. “I’m sorry about what’s happened. You’ve already done more than your fair share. I was going to give you command of one of my staff battalions, but they wouldn’t hear of it. Apparently someone wants you in the field, so I have to obey.”
Passing into the hallway, Alistar’s eyes flashed. “Who?” Was there somebody trying to destroy him? Was that the reason he wasn’t a citizen? Was that what was holding him back in the ranks… until now?
“I don’t know. Maybe Aunt…” the general smiled as he corrected himself, “…the marshal does, but she doesn’t confide in me. All I know is that she instructed me to send you to the front. It’s true, we need good officers, but we need heroes even more.”
Dimiye winced at that word; hero. Every time it was said to him, somebody ended up dead. “Sir, about my battalion…”
“I was getting to that.” Fargus continued. “You’re back to being standard infantry, dropping with the 86th Legion. They’re a good unit, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with your command, but watch out for General Fabin. I don’t doubt he’s a good officer, but he is a world-class asshole.”
“I appreciate the warning, sir.” The newly-minted captain looked around. “Sir, why are we in Medical?”
“Because before your commission becomes official,” he opened another door to his side, “there’s one more thing you have to do.”
They entered the white-washed sterilized room, surgical beds covering the entire area, Alistar’s eyes popped when he recognized the figure standing nearby. “Corporal Johannes? What are you doing here?”
Stacy held up her collar, flashing the insignia of a second lieutenant. “Lieutenant Johannes, sir. I’m your new command platoon leader.”
“Both you and the lieutenant here have perform a little ceremony. Take a seat.” Dimiye and Johannes each sat down on one of the beds. As the medtech came closer, the general explained. “Normally we’d send you back to Avalon for Officer’s Candidate School for training. Being an officer has to do with more than just shooting a pulse rifle.” As the fleet technician prepared two hydraulic needles, Fargus continued. “However, we are not in a position to send you nor do we have the time to waste. So instead, we’re going to inject you with viral learning programs. You’ll get the equivalent of a nine-week course in one shot. Mind you, we prefer to have our candidates do it the hard way, even give them cadet ranks, so we’ll know if they wash out under pressure. Since you’ve been under pressure, I don’t think that’ll be a problem, but this’ll have to do.”
“Lie down,” the medtech whispered and the two new officers obeyed. “Now just relax, you won’t feel a thing.” Pressing the shots against his neck, Alistar soon left the world behind, fading out into unconsciousness.
“What are you doing, cadet?! Stand up, damn it!”
Dimiye was still in the medical bay, but the only people here were himself and this angry captain. “You think you’re special, cadet? You think you can sleep all day? I said, stand up!”
Alistar obeyed out of instinct. Once he got to his feet, the captain stood up. “Welcome to Officer Candidate School. Here we will push your body and your mind until you think you can’t go anymore! Then we will push it some more!” Getting in his face, the officer spat out, “This may be just a program running around in your head, but trust me, anything you do, say, and feel will be very real!” The captain kicked him in the leg. The pain was very real, indeed. ”That was your first lesson, cadet. The pain you feel will be nothing compared to the pain your troops will feel if you mess up.”
“Tell me about it.” Dimiye thought, then realized he said it out loud.
The captain rewarded him with another kick. “That’s another problem you have. If you can’t control your thoughts, they will control you. Well, it seems like we’ve got a winner here. If you somehow make it out of these nine weeks, we might make an officer out of you… but I doubt it!” The officer went over to lean against the medbay wall. “All right, it’s oh-five-thirty. Get a shower, get dressed, and get some grub. PT is at oh-six-hundred. Now move it, maggot!”
The first month passed by smoothly. Physical training wasn’t too difficult, but then came magical and (in his case) gift training, history classes, speech lessons, small and large unit tactics, advanced organization and management techniques; the list seemed to go on and on. In his off-hours, he never stopped studying; while on-duty, he never stopped moving. The more he learned, it seemed, the more he wanted to learn. Always to greet him was the same charming, obnoxious captain; the instructor for every class, the abusively-effective punisher of mistakes, the self-righteous, know-it-all, just plain asshole.
In the tactics class, they not only went through modern strategy and every page of the operations manual, but also reviewed and analyzed historical combat as well. As always, the captain was an effective teacher. “All right, now for a different approach, who did their homework last night?” Everyone raised their hands; at OCS, if you didn’t do your homework, the captain would fry you alive. “All right, let’s see ya prove it. Cadet De Valera, stand up!”
The cute redheaded woman in front of him stood up. “Yes, sir?”
“What is the one lesson Lee forgot during the Battle of Gettysburg?”
“That changes in technology force new tactics.”
“Correct. During Pickett’s Charge, what assumption was Lee making… Cadet Dimiye!”
Alistar stood up, “That Napoleonic tactics were still effective.”
“Really? Why weren’t they correct, cadet? They worked before! Fredricksburg, First Manassas, Sharpsburg…”
“Antietam, sir.” another cadet corrected, only to be rewarded by a kick to the shins.
“I say, Sharpsburg! All of those used Napoleonic tactics, Cadet Dimiye, why did they work then?”
“Because Lee was on the defensive, sir. Guns that were accurate beyond a hundred meters provided a larger killing zone. Lee was attacking at Gettysburg and fell victim to the same trap, sir.”
“Well, it seems that someone was paying attention! Now, let’s analyze his campaign! First…”
As the class went out, all of a sudden, a tiny white star appeared on his desk terminal. Polaris’ voice boomed at him, “Why do you waste your time with this trivia?”
Alistar didn’t reply, afraid that the captain would come along and whack him again. His nagging spirit continued, “Why do you forget all I have taught you?”
“What do you mean?” he whispered.
“You have lost the fire and are embracing the light.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Your destiny is not here, my son. It waits to be born in pain.”
Just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. The captain looked over at him, “Am I boring you, cadet?”
“Then pay attention! Now, Lee was trying to…”
Finally, after nine weeks of hell with his instructor, the cadets were all lined up for inspection. “Well, I guess you did survive after all.” The captain smirked as he yelled. “Who would’ve guessed? Now I have to make you officers. Damn, I hate it when this happens.” After a moment of playful pause, he grunted, “All right, you sissies, there you go.” Suddenly Dimiye looked on his collar and his captain’s rank was back on. “Now go out there and kick some ass!”
“YES, SIR!” the crowd yelled back.
Suddenly he was jolted back into reality. The medtech was checking his vital signs and humming to himself. Finally he looked over at the captain and smiled. “Yep, fifteen minutes on the dot. Did it take?”
Dimiye waited for a moment, scanning his memories, he realized that it was all there. An entire archive of knowledge now at his disposal. “Guess so.”
Johannes awoke beside him to his right, now just as focused and trained as he was. Looking to his left, he saw Peter Benjamin leaning against the wall of the medical bay, proudly wearing the stripes and rockers of a sergeant-major. “Are you ready, boss?”
“Just about.” Alistar got to his feet. “They made you a sergeant-major?”
“Your battalion’s sergeant-major, sir. I guess I don’t have the pull that some people do.”
Stacy grinned, “Some people haven’t been in long enough to make rank, sergeant-major.”
“Just try to forget that when I get reviewed, corp… ma’am.”
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, sergeant-major.” Dimiye shook off the throes of drug-induced sleep.
“Yes, sir.” Benjamin gestured toward the door, “This way.”
Mark and Steve stared at each other in amazement. This little girl worked for the Resistance? "THE Marko Vitek?"
"There's only one I know of. He knows you've had a little trouble lately.” Shannon replied. “We can help."
"How’s that?” Mark shot back. “What makes you think we need any help?"
"Well, let's just say that your last attack wasn’t particularly… spectacular.” The little girl walked over to the window. After glancing outside for a second, she turned back to them. “You rush through their main building, get picked up by the commandant’s right-hand man, then proceed to get blow up half the complex. Even then, with everyone you did kill, you didn’t even touch your target. That’s why you need help, M. Smith.”
“Even so, there’s been nothing in the news about our attack. How did you find out about it?”
“Vitek knows more than you think. In fact, he has been waiting for this opportunity for some time now."
"What do you mean by that?" interrupted Steve.
"That’s not important. We need to focus on the problem that at hand… for instance, what you are planning to do about M. King?"
Mark didn’t buy it. Sure, everyone had heard of the Resistance, but it wasn’t like they had business cards. Anyone could claim to be part of them; for all that they knew, this blonde-eyed cutie was an InSec agent. They certainly weren’t above feeding a little girl growth inhibitors so that she would stay a prepubescent forever. "Before we go any farther, I want to know a few things. For instance, who are you and why you are here?"
"I told you already. My name is Shannon. I was sent by my father to contact you. He believes that you could be the key to bringing down InSec."
"We’re the key? Don’t tell me, your father is Vitek.”
“No, my father works for Vitek. I was simply sent to find you.”
“Why do you want to help us then? I need a real answer here, not some mystical bullshit!"
"Like I said…”
“Yeah… it’s not important.” Steve snorted a laugh.
"Like hell, it’s not important!” Mark shot back, “For all we know, you could be walking us into a trap, or maybe you’re trying to get us to your dirty work for you. We need to know."
Shannon sighed. "Let me put it another way. King is a serious threat to our plans and we need him gone. We were planning to eliminate him ourselves, but then you interfered. The assistant commandant, In-Seok Pax, was working for us. Now that he’s dead, we have no one else to take his place, and Internal Security will find their own replacement now."
"Well, that’s great. Listen, honey, we don’t care about your little games. There’s a bounty on his head and we intend to collect.”
“Do you seriously believe that InSec will just leave you be after you’ve killed you King? They take losing one of their own very seriously. Plus, they know who you are; it won’t take long before they track you down. I hear that some of their interrogators have tortured someone for up to a year.” Shannon gave them a wicked smile. “Of course, you wouldn’t last that long.”
Jupedus had finally had enough of this smug little girl. Whipping out his plasma revolver, he aimed it right at Shannon’s chest. “That’s it. Now you’re going to take us to your father, Vitek, or whoever you report to NOW!”
“No.” she answered.
“No?!” Steve looked at her funny.
“Steve…” Mark warned.
Shannon was unphased by all of it. “Put away your gun. We don’t have time for this.”
“Steve, put away the gun.” Mark ordered.
“Listen, maybe you can’t understand, I can kill you where you stand. You’re the one who’s stupid, girl!”
“My father would never send me into danger.”
“Damn it, Jupiter, put the gun down.” Mark pleaded.
“Then your daddy was real stupid to let you come in here alone.”
“My father knows I can protect myself.”
“NO!” Mark screamed to stop his friend, but it was too late. Steve pulled the trigger and the plasma released into the small girl. The bolt impacted, the energy discharged… but the girl was unaffected. Suddenly, she threw out her hand as it extended out in a long black lash, taking the revolver from Steve’s hand fifteen feet away, all without even moving one foot from where she stood.
Shannon blinked real hard and then handled the gun in her two perfectly normal hands. “Interesting,” she said, pointing the revolver at Steve’s shocked face, “I was told that my people once fought a great war. They used weapons that were beyond my wildest dreams… and still they lost.” She ejected the clip and threw the empty weapon back to Jupedus.
As he caught his breath, Smith tried desperately to get control of the situation. “We are going to need as much info on King as possible. I mean everything."
"We already have that. You see we’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this, but then again, so has King. He’ll be waiting for you; you’re lucky that you’ve made it this far."
"We do this for a living.” Steve answered, trying to recover from the shock of being disarmed. “We prepare for the worst."
"Okay,” Mark continued, “once we can get King into our range, we can take him down, which will help us both. Now we need him to step out of his blockade of men or we don’t have a chance."
"All in good time. For now, you two are still in danger. We need to get you out of here and get you better disguises. If I could find you this easily, the enemy will not be far behind."
"Fine,” Mark agreed, “let’s move."
The three of them left the crummy building and went to a bar close by. Shannon led them through the place to the back and went down into the basement. The underground lair was packed with people; all of them had had a lot of training, Smith could see it in the way they moved. Charts, holoprojections, ammunition, and weaponry cluttered the room. The little girl ignored all that, leading them to a small room off to the side. It was empty; nothing but the gray walls and a few cots to sleep on. The elven figure opened a hatch underneath one of the cots and started climbing down into it. The two assassins followed her down into a darker, but much larger room. “Take a seat,” she finally said, sitting down behind the only desk, “this room is shielded.”
Mark and Steve took the offered chairs and sat down. Throwing her feet on the desk, another holoproj activated, hovering between them with the rotating face of Rashid King, data flowing on either side of his head. She slid a datapad with the information about the commandant across the desk. Smith felt uneasy in this place; something in her voice felt wrong from the instant she started to speak. "You see, we’ve had our eye on M. King for some time. He has personally ordered Internal Security to put more and more pressure on us. The Resistance on Avalon can not continue for much longer under his constant attacks. Now with you…” she paused for a second, “I mean, under the situation, you might be able to help us out."
"I see what you are saying,” Steve answered, “but who in the world told King that we were coming? Sure, they could have figured it out but…”
Mark finished his thought. “Somehow they found out our trail before it got cold.”
“Like some one was keeping tabs on us from the beginning." Jupedus added.
"Maybe you should have known that leaving a ‘trail’ of bodies would get you noticed."
“People die everyday.”
“But when those who die are InSec agents, it doesn’t take long for them to figure out who’s doing it.” Shannon sighed. "We only knew you existed from what Pax told us. He was going to give us some vital information soon about King's whereabouts, but now that’s not going to happen. What we do have is his schedule, his underground passages, and his normal patterns. We’ve discovered that King hates being guarded. Not because he believes in his own strength as much as he doesn’t trust his guards. That is his weakness."
"Get to the point.” Smith snorted, “Do you have any ideas on how to get to him?"
“We’ve been analyzing this information for days. His patterns shift every…” All of a sudden, the girl was interrupted by a muffled BOOM!
Mark and Steve jumped out of their chairs into a fighting stance. The werewolf was scanning the room when he said. “What the hell was that?”
Even Shannon was shocked by the interruption. “Oh, shit. They couldn’t have found us already.”
“Who?” Mark asked, although he already knew the question.
She killed the holoproj and switched to a map of the complex. “It’s a raid!”
The fleet hung motionless in space, clustered around a fueling station in the vast asteroid belts of the New Paris system. The binary star system's complex gravitational fields discouraged planetary formation, but the heavier elements that didn't get swept up into the stars during the system's formation were still floating out there, accreted into two vast and rich asteroid belts. The outer of these two belts was less developed, but the very emptiness of the field made it a perfect place to hide a military task force. The 64 ships of Task Force 23 gathered around the central Star Control Ship and the four Electra-class Assault Dreadnoughts like moths around a flame. At the edge of the formation, a lone battlecruiser and four Archer-class destroyers moved off away from the pack.
"Task Group 23.4 departing," announced Commodore J.J. Adams over the fleet comm.
"Task Force 23 to TG 23.4: Good luck and good hunting," came the reply from Admiral Sanchez on the EFS Vishnu. "Knock 'em down, we'll be on time to crush them."
"You'd better be," Adams growled. "Whatever happens, they're gonna be hopping mad when we're done with ‘em. I'd hate to see those rebel pukes get pissed for no good reason."
"Get out of here! We'll see you in two weeks," came the response. When the tiny task group was a safe distance away from the main body of ships, the four destroyers of Task Group 23.4 nestled in close to the EFS Vanguard, bigger than all four of them put together. The gravitic drive of the battlecruiser revved up, punching a hole in the very fabric of space. The battlecruiser shot into hyperspace as the four destroyers followed behind. As the flotilla went through the orange and black swirl of hyperspace, Commodore Adams turned to the bridge crew of his flagship.
"All right, people," he began. "Grand Fleet Admiral Krissy, in her infinite wisdom, has decided that we make the perfect sacrificial lamb. Well, that’s her job, sending us to die in a blaze of glory. Now it's our job to make sure we don't go down alone. Captain Von Shrakenberg!"
"I heard about that maneuver you pulled in Rios. Hell of a move… now we get to see if lightning can strike twice. Assemble your staff, I want you to see you in the briefing room in an hour. We have a day and a half to New Madrid, and a week in normal space once we get there to figure out how we're gonna make this crazy plan work. Order the other captains to join us by comm for a brainstorm."
"Aye, aye, sir," answered the captain. With a curt nod, Commodore Adams left the bridge.
"All right, people, you heard the boss. Lieutenant Patel, you have the conn. Radovic, inform the other ships of the scheduled conference. Gergenstein, please ask the Chief Engineer to attend the conference, then join us yourself. Commander, come with me."
As the bridge crew went to their tasks, the captain and his exec unstrapped themselves and pulled their way along the handholds down the corridor from the bridge towards the crew quarters. Since the old destroyer lacked internal gravity, it didn't have the fancy turbolifts that more modern ships had. Every corridor was as much up as down, as much left as right. As they passed an engineering access panel, Erich Von Shrakenberg suddenly pulled the exec into the wiring trunk after him.
"What's the deal, skipper?"
The captain got straight to the point. "Commander, have you found any of those cute little devices we had on our last ship?"
"Not yet, sir," he answered. "But I haven't had much of a chance to look."
"Well, don't," replied the captain. "If InSec is gonna bug us, they're gonna bug us. Think for a second. Who knew we found the bugs?"
"Well, you, me, and Herb…I see what you mean."
"Exactly," finished the captain. "Why else would we three be the only ones sent out here?"
"So what should we do?"
"Make damn sure you never, ever say anything that InSec would have a problem with. Now, I doubt they bugged EVERY access compartment, so tell your friend M. Gergenstein what I told you. Don't look for bugs, ignore them if you see them. But watch what you say. Even InSec can't nail us to the wall if we don't do anything wrong."
"But we never did anything wrong, but they still bugged us and sent us out here."
"InSec suspects everybody, that's their job. And they're annoyingly efficient at times. But don't give them ANY excuse."
The lieutenant commander thought for a second. "Understood."
"Good. Now get your datapad, bring your thinking cap, and meet me in the conference room in an hour. We got a lot of work ahead of us."
“I’m sorry, O’Reilly, but I can’t allow it,” Chief Engineer Bertram answered, ice dripping from her voice. “We have no idea what effect the foreign hardware and software would have on the ship’s systems. There’s too much at stake to risk a system failure in the middle of an attack.”
“I understand your concerns, Chief,” Xinjao replied, his legs wandering to the left, “but we DO have nearly two weeks to troubleshoot any problems that would arise. Personally, I feel that the benefits gained from the new targeting sensors would balance out the potential drawbacks.”
“I’m sure you feel that way, O’Reilly,” Bertram continued venomously, “but unfortunately, it’s not your call to make.”
The argument wasn’t going well for O’Reilly. He found it hard to retain any dignity while arguing with the woman when he was so preoccupied with keeping from flipping upside down. Although he was braced against the wall with both arms, his legs continually wanted to go for a tour. Bertram and her crew, on the other hands, were used to zero-G and well practiced at keeping some semblance of a normal posture.
Although the chief petty officer’s motives were petty and selfish, she did have valid arguments to back them up, and held the trump card of knowing the ship much better than Xinjao. By this point in the argument, her engineering crew had had gathered to watch the showdown and take bets. The constant snickering at O’Reilly’s floating form didn’t help matters.
“If it’s system failures you’re worried about, I’d be more than happy to help you.” O’Reilly offered.
“That’s alright, O’Reilly,” Bertram said with a false smile. “I don’t think I’ll need any help running my ship. Especially not from someone without the proper experience with destroyers.”
The subtle insult stung and Xinjao could feel his defenses prickling up against his better judgement. “Bertram, I do…“
“Chief Bertram,” Xinjao corrected himself, sarcasm creeping into his voice. For now, he ignored the fact that Bertram had refused to refer to his rank throughout the entire conversation. “I do have destroyer experience, and I have worked with the crystalline sensor array before.”
“O’Reilly,” Bertram began, “the technical aspects of this ship are not your responsibility. I would appreciate it if you would stop interfering with things you don’t understand.”
Despite his mounting anger, Xinjao had to admire the woman’s ability to find his sensitive areas and strike hard… doubtlessly the result of years of practice at being a first-class bitch. “Well, your responsibility, CHIEF Bertram,” O’Reilly started, his anger getting the better of him, “is to follow the orders given to you by senior officers. Lieutenant Gergenstein is your senior officer, as am I. Now, those sensors WILL be installed with or without your cooperation. Is that understood?”
“I understand… I understand that I’ll have to take this to the Captain… for approval,” she said, a tight, polite smile framing her lips.
O’Reilly wanted nothing more than to lash out and smack her. For a second he floated there and fumed, staring at her through narrowed eyes. He had never had to deal with a person this difficult before. The entire ship was full of difficult people! He quickly glanced around at the engineering crew, fascinated faces watching as if they were witnessing a prize fight match… which, in a way, they were.
Xinjao was unsure what to do - there was no good solution - if he shouted and screamed at her, he was an asshole. If he backed down, he was weak. What could he do?
Run to mother.
“Well, chief, if you need to be convinced by an order from the Captain, then that is exactly what you’ll get. We’ve got a briefing in a few hours. You can voice your complaints to him then.”
He retreated, turning and pulling himself clumsily out of the engine room. The exec ignored the snickers and pretending not to hear the whispered “Commander McChink” jokes.
Commodore Adams looked around the table at the assembled officers, buckled into their seats. The faces of the captains of the other three destroyers and and the battlecruiser appeared as holoprojs in the empty seats. "God, I hate these old zero-g crates," he stated, sipping coffee from a plastic bag through a straw. "You can never brew good coffee without gravity. Damn stuff don't percolate right."
"Sir, with all due respect," interjected Captain Von Shrakenberg. "This ship may be a bucket of bolts, but it's MY ship, and damn it, it's the best old bucket of bolts in the fleet." As he noticed the glare from the commodore, the captain hastily added, "Sir."
The Commodore suddenly laughed loudly. "I like you, Von. You're a cranky old spacedog like me… but don’t think I won’t bust your ass if your get feisty on me, clear?”
“Good. Now, have you got any idea about how the hell we're gonna escape this alive?"
"I think I do," Erich replied. "Commander O'Reilly, we discussed this on the shuttle back from the Vanguard?"
"Yes, sir," answered the exec. "As you all know, we're going to conduct a cee-fractional strike on the orbital defenses of New Madrid." He activated the viewscreen built into the tabletop, and the battle plan graphic from the previous briefing appeared. "We're going to burn past the planet at just over half the speed of light. We will have very little time to acquire our targets and hit them hard, but they will have even less, and we should catch them napping."
"That's the plan…" muttered the chief engineer.
that's the plan," continued O'Reilly, shrugging off the chief’s doubt.
"I propose an additional tactic that will increase our effective
firepower. Among our targets are the four orbital battlestations, and they're
the most likely to see us coming. But those fixed defenses have one weakness…
they can't dodge. Each of the ships in the task group has a single 300mm
fusion cannon. By varying the muzzle velocity, as well as altering the
warhead’s terminal guidance packages, we should be able to fire from far beyond
sensor range. The shells come in as one volley, intersecting the
battlestations' predicted positions a second before they are likely to spot
"You can't do that," protested the captain of the EFS Doyle. "Fusion cannons aren't designed for that kind of range. The shells will self-destruct."
"The shells will be picked up by the micrometeorite detection grid," added the CO of the Vanguard.
Xinjao O'Reilly sighed. Like a professor instructing his class, he answered, "Micro-meteorites don't come in at half the speed of light. They're not going spot them in time to react to the incoming shells.”
"He's right," interjected the captain of the Richardson. "I served on one of the Avalon battlestations as an ensign."
"That’s why we also need to modify the terminal guidance units. Besides, those shells will be coming in at half the speed of light, they’ll mass over 500 kilograms each. They don't need warheads, if one of them so much as nicks one of the battlestations, it's dead."
"Okay, work out the firing program and the modifications to the seeker heads, and we'll carry out that plan," concluded Commodore Adams. "Any other ideas?"
Gergenstein raised his hand. "We have some crystalline targeting sensors on board. I would like permission to alter the Benedict's targeting sensors to make full use of these abilities."
"The standard sensors are just fine," Bertram snorted. "We don't need your voodoo crap to hit a target as big as the Jutland."
"Chief Bertram," replied Von Shrakenberg. "I’ve seen Lieutenant Gergenstein make a passive lock on a target in less than two minutes, with sensors on a Rota-class destroyer that had half its sensors pulled out. We're gonna have less than three minutes to get a lock as is. Any few seconds we can shave off that time could be the difference between life and death. If M. Gergenstein says the new crystalline sensors will help, I think we should listen to him. Am I understood?"
"Yes, captain," she replied, the engineer’s voice cold as ice, "crystal."
"People, the enemy is in New Madrid, not here," reminded the commodore. "We have a mission to complete. It’s suicide, sure, but anything we can do to make it less of one will help."
"Commodore, about this particular suicide mission," began the captain of the EFS Hatcher. "Why are we on it? Half my command staff was transferred at the last minute, and my replacements… well, they’re hardly up to spec. We’ve got a shipload of druggies, hardcases, insubordinate assholes, and general misfit trash. Do the fleet brass hats really want us to succeed, or are we just being sent in to die?"
"Are you questioning your orders, captain?" the commodore replied darkly.
“Yes, sir. I’ve served this fleet with honor all of my life. I don’t want to die because they feel they don’t need us!”
“That could be considered treason, commander,” Adams growled, then after an uneasy silence filled the room, he continued, "but you have a point. "So what if we’re a fleet of misfits? So what? Cortez, Pizzaro… you think they were stable family men? Chennault and the Flying Tigers, you think they were good career officers? They were misfits, too! We're the tough sons-of-bitches who can get things done! So I don't wanna hear any more bellyaching… misfits kick ass!"
Chief Bertram was the first to speak. "If we’re a bunch of misfits, what is Von Shrakenberg doing here? He's supposed to be some honest-to-god war hero. So what did you do to piss somebody off, Captain?"
Von Shrakenberg looked levelly at her. "All I can say is, take my advice. Never, ever, date an admiral's daughter without his permission." O'Reilly grunted as he stifled a laugh.
"Okay, people. I think we have a plan," began the commodore, bringing the conference back to the point. "I want the fusion cannon, the firing solutions, and hell, our garbage dumping capacities ready by the time we jump back into normal space. Any MORE questions?" There were none. “Dismissed."
Hex knew what he needed this time. Going through the Center’s armory, there wasn’t that sense of elation the first time that he’d gone through. Before he went to Maine City, these were highly expensive tools, now they each had a deadly purpose. A greater respect for them, he asked himself, passing his finger over the rows of proximity grenades. Maybe… more of a realization. The amount of equipment dulls technique.
The boy had most of his things on board the shuttle he came on. It was being refueled as he prepared. A few extra clips for his plasma revolvers, a few for his… heh, archaic slug-throwers, and several grenades and explosive charges. He wouldn’t take much this time; if you want to be quiet, he knew, you shouldn’t carry so much weight.
No one was waiting for him at the shuttle. He half-expected Doctor Xaktos, but something must have prevented him. Hex felt more alone now than ever. Now there was no more training; this was life. For him to live, others must die. It wasn’t a terrible philosophy but something was missing. Things didn’t quite make sense; maybe another training session would answer that as well.
The shuttle soon took off into the orange swirl, leaving the ship… the Center… whatever it was behind. The large craft had a fix on several beacons in hyperspace. It didn’t take long for Hex to decide. If you’re going to go to Draco, the fastest route is through Avalon. He hooked the ship’s computers on the beacon and activated the engines. With the autopilot on, it wouldn’t take long to get to Avalon. Hex was still tired from all his travels. The wound still stung, although it was becoming healed. The human body was rather inefficient, the boy decided; it has to practically shut down to fix itself. Someone should have designed a better model.
Soon Hex pulled out the bed and fell on it. In his drowsy state, it didn’t take much to push him into sleep.
Images kept flying through his head and most of them didn’t make sense. Atkins, Xaktos; sometimes the two faces changed positions. Cloning tubes, rest chambers, endless construction teams; the parade of faces passed by without even a banner to identify them. Brigette suddenly appeared out of all of it, walking through the images like an observer. She was holding the hand of younger girl. Hex couldn’t make out who it was. Then, all of a sudden, there was a probing feeling that came over him.
The feeling intensified until the probing because a dark pain inside his mind. Hex kept trying to fight it, but it was way too strong. Finally, when he could take the pain no longer, he woke up screaming.
Looking around the shuttle, nothing was wrong, but luckily the pain was gone. Someone was searching for him. He didn’t know who or why they stopped. Nothing seemed to make any sense. The computer chirped and Hex hit the recall screen. They had reached the Avalon System. About time, he thought, and got into the pilot’s chair. Now he could only hope there wasn’t a digital gate around when he appeared.
He dropped into Avalon space and made his way to the Archimedes Orbital Station. The space traffic controllers didn’t question his destination or where he came from; apparently they had more important things to do then to worry about one little short-range shuttle. It wasn’t difficult to get permission to dock at the Ark, as it was locally known, since the station depended on people who didn’t want to advertise their presence.
Once he docked, Hex made his way into the station, stopping off at one of the restaurants to get something to eat. He was about to bite into what he assumed as a hamburger when someone spoke into his mind. Look up.
He thought he was imagining it at first, and it spoke again, Look up.
Hex finally did look up, staring into the face of a young girl, flanked by three adults who obviously knew about him. Where the hell did they find him?
“Hello, Kiddo. It took us a long time to find you. I wasn’t sure you were even alive.”
Kiddo? That’s what the doctor had called him when he was younger. How did she know that? “Do I know you?” She did look familiar, but for the life of him, he couldn’t say from where.
“Maybe. I’m glad to finally meet you… brother.”
Malachi wasn’t sure when he went to sleep. All he knew was that he needed more and it was already noon. At least, that was what the ship’s chronometer said; in space, it was always night. He woke to the melodious sounds of his beeping comm unit, then once he activate the comm link, was face-to-face with Elly Ragdowski, who looked how he felt. “Where the fuck were you?!" Spyder shouted at her, his platoon sergeant plugging her ears.
"Go easy, sir, I’m still a bit sore from last night.”
The lieutenant was not amused. “Where… were… you?” he repeated.
“I… I stayed on the ship… to say goodbye to the platoon. They insisted on throwing me a farewell party."
"Why?" Even if he wasn’t groggy, it wouldn’t have made sense. The platoon, in his opinion, hated both Elly and him.
"I think it was more an excuse to drink, sir. I think they were happy to see me leave."
"And you joined them, right?"
"Damn it, Elly, do you realize we’ve got another group of half-assed losers to deal with?!"
"Yes sir, I know."
"Sergeant, I need you. You ain't gonna get out of this, no matter how hung-over you are!"
She plugged her ears again. "Sir, I'm sorry. By the way, you were right about the transfer."
"The transfer?" He knew what she was talking about before she could say it. Spyder had lied to her about the reason they were there. He was begging for any chance to leave that ship before Treschi arranged it. Now she knew something, but how could she have confirmed his reasons, when he had lied through his teeth?
"The captain and a few others were leaving as well. I guess they were shipping us out."
"Oh, that." He had gotten lucky. Elly was too hung-over to notice the surprise in his voice. "See I told you. The Fed isn't gonna let us sit on our hands."
"Yeah, I guess not. I'll be over shortly… and ready."
"You better be. Discom." Malachi shut off the comm unit. He quickly made another call to General Prescott. A major picked up on the other line. “137 Legion.”
“Yes, I’m commed to let you know that my platoon sergeant has arrived.”
The major was confused. “And you are?”
“Lieutenant Malachi Spyder, 1st Division, 2nd Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Platoon. My exec that will arrive shortly is Sergeant Eleanor Ragdowski. We transferred from the EFS Schaumberg.”
The staffer wrote it all down eagerly. “Was there anything else?”
“Well, I’d like to know where my platoon is.”
The officer’s eyebrow raised in slight amusement. “You don’t know where your unit is?”
“Well, I only just transferred…”
“All right, just a moment.” The major flipped through his datapad, searching through the org charts. “Your Battalion CO is Captain Jada Kraai. She’ll be able to fill you in. HQ out.”
It didn’t take long to find her. He couldn’t comm her, but her sergeant-major knew exactly where she’d be. Spyder found her in the officer’s exercise room, her fists bashing the hell out of man-sized punching bag. He was almost afraid to get near her, but he managed to walk closer. Once he had intersected her line of sight, she gave a couple hard jabs to the bag before screaming out, “WHAT?!”
She sidekicked the bag with even more force. “Yeah… what?!”
“I’m Lieutenant Spyder, commander of your third platoon?”
Jada lifted up in the air, kicking the bag with both feet, then landing before it slammed into the wall. As soon as she caught the padded projectile, the captain looked over at him. “You’re Malachi Spyder?”
“You’re a lot smaller than I imagined.” Kraai walked over and grabbed her towel. “I read your file. You volunteered for Project Cerberus?”
“Yeah.” he smiled, remembering that year of hell. Max Thames, the same man he had taken a sizable illegal industry from, had never mentioned that he was a senior officer in the Tech Infantry. When he was discovered by the Raptors a year later, Max was waiting for him at boot camp, laughing at him. The major thought he wouldn’t last two days on Deimos; Spyder ended up graduating as a PFC. After a tour aboard the EFS Prince of Wales, he made corporal and squad leader.
Seeing that his rival was on the officer track, Thames suggested that he volunteer for Project Cerberus, an attempt to develop a more effective boot camp. What he didn’t tell Malachi was that in order to develop it, they had to test willing subjects to their limits. They dropped them on several different environments, minimum equipment to survive, and hostile lifeforms attacking them in every direction. Max was certain that he’d either end up dead or permanently injured, either way, leaving him the opportunity to get his business back. Unfortunately for Thames, not only did he survive, but ended up leading the project team at the end. Spyder was immediately slated for OCS, survived the nine-week course, then after his cadet tour, ended up as platoon leader on the Schaumberg. What a disaster that turned out to be, he thought.
The dark-haired sweaty figure of Jada Kraai brought him back to reality. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was in great shape, and her eyes possessed a determination that could burn vampires into dust. “Pretty tough tour, from what I’ve heard.”
“It wasn’t a pleasure cruise, ma’am.”
She finished wiping the sweat from her hair. “So, what did you want?”
“I was trying to find my platoon. Legion command said to talk to you.”
“Ah. I was planning on meeting with them today, to discuss the new personnel changes, but…” she eyed him over a bit more closely, as if she was looking for something, “why don’t you meet them yourself?”
“Where and when?”
“Section 48C at 1600 hours. It’s one of the smaller cargo bays near the front of the ship. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding it. It looks like we’re going to be dropping into New Madrid.”
“New Madrid, ma’am? We haven’t even jumped yet.”
“Of course we did, didn’t you hear the announcement?” Kraai asked.
Spyder shook his head. “What announcement?”
“We went through the digital gate to New Paris. They haven’t said anything official yet, but it’s obvious we’re going to hit the rebels where it hurts!” Jada stared at him, as if waiting for a response. When none was given, she sighed, “You’re dismissed, lieutenant.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” he replied, then left the room.
It was obvious from his look at them that this platoon wasn't as bad as the last. Spyder and Ragdowski entered to the cargo bay where he was told his platoon would meet him. The entire unit immediately fell into attention. Malachi paused in shock. Smiling at Elly, he whispered, “I didn't know TI recruits could do that." Turning his smile to his new unit, he walked to the front of the formation. "The way things look to me, it seems we'll be meeting here quite often. Is that understood?"
"Sir, yes, sir!"
Again, they impressed Malachi. He quickly got control himself. "I'm the new man in charge of this outfit. My name is Lieutenant Spyder. This here is your new platoon sergeant, Sergeant Ragdowski. Now I only ask a few things. One, if you’re expecting trouble, be prepared for it. Two, always expect trouble. Three, if you wanna beat the shit out of each other, make sure no one sees or hears about it. And four, don’t let fights interfere with your job, which is beating the shit out of whoever they send us at. Now, at this point, it’s looking like were being thrown at the rebels…"
"Damn." Someone hadn’t meant to say it out loud, but their mouth betrayed them.
"Somebody have a problem?" Elly shouted out as a woman stood out from her squad.
“What is that problem, private?”
“Ma’am, I'll do as I'm told, but are we sure we're fighting the rebellion?"
Ragdowski looked over at the lieutenant, who nodded his affirmation. "Yes, why?"
"The rebels are grunts, ma’am, just like us. They’re TI."
She was new, Malachi thought, almost too new. This war was bad enough without troopers under his command questioning orders. "You're going to have to get rid of that baggage, private." Spyder said.
"Y-yes, sir.” she filed back into line.
"Anybody else have a problem?" When no one else came forward, he continued. "All right, we’ll have another formation here at 0700 hours. Sergeant?”
Elly went through the ritual. “Who are you?”
“Snakes, sir!” a corporal blurted out.
Another corporal answered. “Spyder’s Snakes!”
“HOO-AH!” the platoon replied.
“Dis-missed!” Ragdowski completed.
They began to fall out of the room, everyone that was except the woman who had come forward. It was only then that he noticed how young she actually was. Once everyone had left, he walked toward her. "How long since you finished boot camp, Private…” he read the name off her fatigues, “…Klawien?"
"This is my first assignment, sir."
"Figures." The poor girl had been stuck with one of the most difficult jobs in the Tech Infantry, and still, she was no older than sixteen. "You've just been made my first priority."
Malachi looked over at Elly. "Sergeant, this is your assignment, starting now. I want you to finish what the drill instructor obviously missed.”
"No problem. That can be fixed."
"Good, and try not to kill her."
The sergeant barked out a laugh. "Whatever. See ya."
As Malachi walked away, he could only hope that that would be enough. They could afford no doubts about what they were doing. Fight or die, kill or be killed; that was the only law of the universe.
END OF ACT III
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.